Backyard Talk
Steve

It’s Time to Move Beyond Risk Assessment

By Stephen Lester : May 20, 2015 2:33 pm

Risk assessment is the standard method for evaluating exposure to toxic chemicals, despite the fact that it’s nearly impossible to do a risk assessment that is objective and accurate. There are just too many hard-to-measure factors affecting the chance that any one chemical will harm us and if so, how and to what extent, and too many ways for personal bias to change the results. For example, there’s been a long argument about whether arsenic causes cancer. We do know that it’s poisonous. It probably does cause cancer, but many people seem to be immune. So we’re not sure how many cases might occur, and what amount of arsenic might cause cancer. Also, it doesn’t seem to cause cancer in animals, so there’s no way to put the information together. When there are information gaps, the only thing we can do is build-in an extra safely factor, by making the “allowable” level a certain amount less than what we think the “safe” level is. But is that really the answer?

The public wants greater protection from exposure to toxic chemicals than provided by the traditional quantitative risk assessment approach which has many limitations and uncertainties. Instead, support has grown for use of a precautionary approach that promotes (1) preventive action, (2) democratic and transparent decision-making with the broadest possible public participation, and (3) a shifting of the questions being asked (e.g., instead of asking what level of risk is acceptable, asking how much risk can be avoided; what is the need; why is it needed; who benefits and who is harmed; and what are the alternatives?) as well as the presumptions used in decision-making (e.g., shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of potentially harmful activities, and placing public health above other considerations).

In its 2009 report, Science and Decisions, the National Resource Council (NRC) of the National Academies acknowledged that risk assessment is “at a crossroads” facing “a number of substantial challenges”, that “its credibility is being challenged”, and that the “regulatory risk assessment process is bogged down”.  The report made a number of recommendations that focused on improving the methodology of risk assessments (e.g., thorough evaluation of uncertainties and variability, unified dose-response approach to cancer and non-cancer endpoints, broadening the assessment of cumulative and interacting health risks and stressors), and improving the relevance or utility of risk assessments for decision-making (e.g., involving all stakeholders at the earliest stage of the planning, design and scoping of the risk assessment, and increasing the transparency of the assessment methods and process).

The NRC recommended two major shifts: (1) “that risk assessment should be viewed as a method for evaluating the relative merits of various options for managing risk”, with the risk management questions being “clearly posed, through careful evaluation of the options available to manage environmental problems at hand,” casting light on “a wider range of decision options than has traditionally been the case”; and (2) aligning closely the technical analysis with the problem at hand so that the risk assessment will be relevant to the needs of the decision-makers and stakeholders who are addressing the problem (e.g., a “one size fits all” approach to risk assessment will not be appropriate for such very different problems as regulating a chemical and deciding on a site remediation approach).

These recommendations are now more than 5 years old, and there’s little evidence that government is adopting these recommendations. Doing so should improve the ability to interpret hazards, contamination levels and population exposures, dose-response relationships, and cumulative risks (exposures from multiple pathways, complex mixtures, multiple stressors, and factors affecting vulnerability), as well as the evaluation of a wide range of alternative options (e.g., inherently safer technologies, alternative ways to achieve the same goal, etc.). It could also provide a way to integrate the risk assessment tool within a broader precautionary approach that seeks to reduce or avoid exposures to toxic chemicals, which the public is actively calling for. It’s time to stop accepting risk assessment as the best we can do to evaluate risks and adopt more a holistic approach to protecting public health and the environment.


Leave a response »


Sharon H.

Technical Difficulties: The Long Road toward Superfund Site Remediation

By Sharon H. : May 18, 2015 11:12 pm

Toxic environmental pollution is unfortunately widespread. If you follow Backyard Talk, by now you have probably heard the story of the West Lake Landfill near St. Louis, Missouri, a dumping ground for nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project toward which an underground fire is slowly creeping. Just last week a contingent from Just Moms St. Louis spoke at a D.C. press conference about the health challenges they and their children have faced while living near this polluted site. The following video shows footage from the press conference and the subsequent march: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpSchIhnYdE.

One commenter on this video asked me whether homeowners could potentially avoid a situation like this through diligent research into the history of where they plan to live. Shouldn’t it be relatively easy to identify whether a site near your home is on the National Priorities List? The story of this site illuminates some common complications that arise during the process of identifying a toxic area and moving toward eventual remediation. It is exceedingly difficult for environmental scientists, let alone community members, to identify pollutants and quantify risks. This post summarizes just a few of the factors that make this process so complex.

Just Moms St. Louis demonstrate outside EPA Headquarters

Many polluted sites go unrecorded and undetected. When you think of contaminated sites, what comes to mind? We might expect the ground under a former gas station to be loaded with organic contaminants, or predict pollution downstream from a factory. However, not all sites have a clear usage history with easily predictable exposures. This is especially true in the case of places like the West Lake Landfill where waste has been illegally dumped. Radioactive waste was illegally discarded in 1973, but wasn’t uncovered until 1977.

It’s a long road from detection to Superfund designation… The West Lake Landfill was discovered to be contaminated in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the site wound up on the National Priorities List, which designates it as a Superfund Site. How does a site end up on the NPL? There are several different mechanisms that the EPA uses to list sites on the NPL, all of which require extensive characterization of the hazards that are present, and of potential routes for human exposure. At the end of the day, not every polluted site ends up on the Superfund list – leaving still more undocumented but polluted areas. During these interim years, the West Lake Landfill was still polluted – it just wasn’t listed.

…And it’s an even longer road to remediation. Once the West Lake Landfill was placed on the National Priorities List, it was another 18 years until a cleanup plan was ultimately developed. The process of developing a remediation plan involves countless scientific studies, and meetings with PRPs (Potentially Responsible Parties) who are tasked with devising a cleanup strategy that makes sense for the site. During this time, communities are placed in limbo. They live in a documented toxic area, making it difficult to sell their homes, and while cleanup is planned or underway, their potential exposure to toxic compounds continues.

Even then, the unexpected can happen. Much of the current concern surrounding the West Lake site stems from the presence of a smoldering underground fire in an adjacent landfill, which is slowly making its way toward the radioactive waste. It took well over a decade for the EPA to reach a decision on what to do with the West Lake site, and now that this new factor has been introduced, the risks at the site have changed considerably. Any remediation will now have to account for the fire, and underground fires are notoriously difficult to stop.

It is difficult enough for environmental scientists and managers to detect environmental pollution, to determine the urgency of remediation activities, to decide on a plan, and to revise that plan if the unexpected occurs. It is nearly impossible for potential homeowners to keep abreast of the slow-moving yet unpredictable process of listing and remediating a Superfund Site.

Comments are closed


Lois

EPA Laws & Regulations Really Don’t Matter

By Lois : May 15, 2015 4:07 pm

How can ordinary people win justice from an agency that seems to care little about their own laws and regulations? Take for example the recent report that the hazardous waste incinerator (WTI) in East Liverpool, OH. It stands tall next to the Ohio River and has released toxic substances above allowable limits 195 times over 175 days. This is not new for this facility. In fact CHEJ years ago went all the way to the Supreme Court in the state of Ohio to have the incinerators permit revoked. At that time the incinerator was only within compliance (legal limits) two quarters over a number of years.

The area surrounding the incinerator was defined as an Environmental Justice community, by the Environmental Protection Agency. As such the community should have seen tighter enforcement, more access to information and new polluting industries proposed would be weighed against the already high pollution in the area before allowed to be built.

None of that happen. In fact, a freedom of information request was made on several occasion for information because no one would provide the information through a simple request. Those freedom of information requests were able to be fulfilled but not without the low wealth community paying about $1,500. EPA refused to waive the fee for compiling the information. Fracking and injections wells were welcome in the area and operating today with little regard to the existing community toxic burden.

When CHEJ fought in court for the renewal permit to be revoked the local group Save Our County, filled the court room with local people. Three judges sat in the front of the room and listened to arguments from both sides. The community argument was clear, the company is breaking the law and have been for years and no one will do anything about it except collecting on a small number of fines and penalties. To WTI those fines are predictable and just the cost of doing business. The community is suffering from a multitude of adverse health impacts.

Ohio has this regulatory system that allows innocent people to be poisoned. The court ruled against the community when CHEJ helped them to appeal the permit. The judge said he had nothing to hang his hat on and said he understands why his court room is full of unhappy people. The judge said that because according to Ohio regulations, if a company is out of compliance – but has a plan to come into compliance – than they are considered in compliance.

What if that was the rule for everyday people and laws. For example, if you were found to be driving while drunk (DUI), but have a plan to go to alcohol anonymous, then you are not considered in violation of the law – worst you can continue to drive while under the influence, possibly killing innocent people—just like WTI.

EPA and the state of Ohio among other states need to right this wrong. It is the innocent victims that suffer the diseases and taxpayers who are burdened with the cost of those diseases and destruction of the environment and all living things.

Comments are closed


Steve

Formaldehyde: A Case Study in EPA’s Failure to Protect Public Health and the Environment

By Stephen Lester : May 11, 2015 5:28 pm

According to its website, the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to “protect public health and the environment.” When the agency tries to do its job, it often runs into opposition led by special interests, private lobbyists, corporate apologists, and congressional representatives, all of whom have their own agenda, which has nothing to do with public health or the environment and everything to do with the millions (if not billions) of dollars made annually from their products.

The agency’s effort to regulate formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen that is commonly used in building materials found in most homes, is a classic case study in corporate influence and control of the agency’s work.

EPA began its process to regulate formaldehyde in compressed wood products in 2008, seven years ago. Its proposed rules, released for public comment on June, 2013, did not seek to ban formaldehyde, but rather to set exposure limits and establish testing standards for products sold in the U.S. Learn more about the EPA’s proposed rules for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products.

Three times over the next two years, EPA reopened its public comment period to allow more public comment, most recently in May 2014. EPA has yet to release its final regulations with the latest timeline estimated to be sometime in the fall.

A story in the New York Times chronicled the delays in the agency’s efforts to regulate formaldehyde, a substance with clear public health risks. The article described the influence of the big furniture companies on Washington who in turn pressured EPA. It told of the actions of special interest such as the American Chemistry Council who challenged the agency’s determination that formaldehyde is a carcinogen. And it described the role of the White House Office of Management and Budget in evaluating the costs and benefits of the proposed regulation.

What gets lost in the hyperbole and grandstanding over costs and jobs is the fact that formaldehyde is a nasty chemical that is a known human carcinogen, that affects the central nervous system and that can damage the respiratory system, causing difficulty in breathing including asthma as well as eye, nose, and throat irritation. At best this proposed regulation will attempt to define an “acceptable” level of formaldehyde vapors coming off pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; permanent-press fabrics; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials.

This is EPA’s version of protecting public health and the environment, agreeing with corporate interests after a tortured “public” process to a risk assessment that defines “acceptable” levels of risk that the public has to endure while the companies continue to earn their profits. The general public that has to live with formaldehyde fumes coming off wood products is not likely to see it this way. They might prefer that the agency try to figure out how much risk it can avoid, rather than how much is “acceptable.” But then if the EPA did that, then the influence imposed by the companies who make billions every year selling formaldehyde products might not be so critical.

Leave a response »


jaguayo

What Can We Learn From Pepsi Removing Aspartame?

By Jose Aguayo : May 8, 2015 3:02 pm

A few weeks ago, Pepsi Co. announced that it would remove aspartame from its diet product lineup and replace it with sucralose. Previously, other companies followed similar decisions to phase out ingredients from their product lineups. General Mills announced that it would phase out the preservative butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) from their cereals, Kraft Inc. announced the removal of artificial dyes and preservatives form their Mac & Cheese products, and Chipotle stated that it would remove all genetically modified foods (GMO) from it’s products.

The question for all this now becomes, why? Why are these huge corporations going through the trouble of removing these ingredients?

Could it be that they figured out they are dangerous? Nope. In the case of Pepsi, although aspartame has been linked to cancer, developmental problems and nervous system effects, the overwhelming majority of the literature has found no significant association between its consumption and any detrimental health effects. In the case of Kraft, the artificial dyes being phased out have been linked to hyperactivity disorders in children, but again these studies have been inconclusive. So, clearly, these corporations did not make the changes out of the goodness of their hearts and out of concern for their customers’ health.

Take Pepsi for example. It’s clear that safety is not the reason for their switch, as most of the literature found that no health effects can be directly attributed to aspartame. The answer may be more simplistic. The declining sales of diet Pepsi products and the poor public perception of aspartame, reported by Beverage Digest, seem less like mere coincidence and more like cause and effect. Pepsi, in all likelihood, made the switch because consumers demanded it.

All this highlights the power that people have over companies. Now, if you ask these companies they will fervently tell you that making these changes was their plan all along. However, it’s easy to see that the threat of losing consumers drove their actions.

So, what does all this mean? What can we learn from Pepsi removing aspartame? I’d sum it up like this: the people hold power. Not just with food companies, but with ANY company. People who are informed act, and their actions matter to corporations. Because although they have the power of money, you have the power of the masses.  That’s why CHEJ’s new Leadership Training Academy is going to be invaluable to people from all over the country in the coming years. The ability for young emerging leaders in the environmental justice field to pushing for corporate change will be crucial. With Lois leading the academy, the new generation of leaders can be sure to learn from the best.

Comments are closed


« Previous Page 1, 2, 3 ... 100, Next »