Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Ethylene Oxide (EtO) is a colorless gas with a slightly sweet odor. It is used in making a variety of products including antifreeze, plastics, detergents, and adhesives. It is also used as a sterilizer for medical equipment and others that cannot be sterilized by steam. Ethylene Oxide can be found in the air surrounding industrial factories including chemical manufacturers and sterilizers.

Exposure to Ethylene Oxide is extremely dangerous. The EPA classifies it as a class 1 human carcinogen; there are no safe breathing levels. EtO is known to cause breast cancer and leukemia, and children are especially susceptible to its effects. The EPA states that EtO significantly contributes to elevated cancer risks in some areas of the US. CHEJ has been working with the Concerned Citizens of Lake County who are fighting cancerous EtO emissions in Lake County, IL (part of suburban Chicago). There are 2 facilities, 3 miles apart, that emit EtO: Vantage Specialty in Gurnee and Medline Industries in Waukegan. Vantage is a chemical production company and Medline is a medical sterilization company. Both are located within ‘light industrial’ business parks. We discovered the companies’ emissions in Fall 2018, via a breaking news Chicago Tribune article regarding 3 EtO emitters in the Chicago area. The third emitter, Sterigenics (Willowbrook, IL) was not in our area and closed in Fall 2019 due to community, media, and legislative pressure (and rumored back-door industrial competitive pressure from Medline).

There are over 150,000 Lake County residents and over 100 schools/daycares within 5 miles of both Vantage and Medline, along with numerous large Gurnee family tourist attractions (Gurnee Mills, Six Flags Great America/Hurricane Harbor, and Great Wolf Lodge waterpark). Medline also has 4 warehouses in our area that are potentially used to off-gas EtO-sterilized products in an unregulated manner. Medline is currently building a 5th Lake County warehouse. Many area doctors tell us they see far more cancer cases in Lake County than in other Chicagoland areas.

Our goal is to end EtO emissions in Lake County’s highly populated, economically and racially diverse area.  There are large apartment complexes approximately 0.25 miles from Medline and an elementary school 2000 feet away from Vantage.  The census tracks near Medline appeared on the most recent NATA map for 90-100% cancer risk. There is no information for areas near
Vantage on the same NATA map due to a ‘coding error,’ however in 2014 Vantage emitted 6,412 lbs of EtO gas, more than either Sterigenics or Medline during that same period. For more information about dioxins, check out our website:

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Creosote is a large mixture of chemicals that is used as a wood preservative in the United States, as well as for roofing, aluminum smelting, and road paving. Houston’s Fifth Ward has been pinpointed as a Cancer Cluster: an area that has a “greater than expected number of cancer cases,” largely due to the community’s exposure to creosote from the Union Pacific railroad site in Houston’s 5th Ward.

Creosote is released into soil and water systems and may take many years to break down. Due to groundwater contamination, creosote can make its way into drinking water systems, putting entire communities at risk for exposure. Creosote may cause irritation of the respiratory tract and can lead to stomach pains and burning of the throat and mouth. The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the EPA have determined that creosote is likely a carcinogen, meaning that exposure to the chemical can likely cause cancer.

CHEJ has been working with the Texas Health and Environment Alliance (THEA) to help the communities of Houston’s 5th Ward further understand the extent of the contamination and what different health investigations can do to propel THEA’s goals of raising awareness of their exposure to creosote. CHEJ and THEA have been hosting informational Zoom town halls about Houston’s 5th Ward Cancer Cluster. You can learn more about Houston’s Cancer Cluster by watching Fault Lines’ mini documentary or by visiting THEA’s Facebook page to learn and listen in on their past and future town hall meetings or learn how to get involved.

To learn more about creosote, click here.

Dioxins are a group of toxic compounds that share similar and distinct chemical structures. They are mainly byproducts of industrial processes, such as waste incineration. In 1979, the EPA banned products containing Polychlorinated Bihphenyls (PCBs), which is a chemical included under the term dioxin. However, dioxins were a major issue before the US began implementing regulations. Since dioxins break down extremely slowly, toxins that were released long ago are still being released into the environment.

Today, most people are exposed to dioxins through consuming animal products that have accumulated dioxins over time. Exposure to these toxins in humans can cause cancer, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, infertility in adults, impairment of the immune system, and skin lesions. The following measures can help decrease your risk to dioxin exposure: removing skin from chicken and fish, trimming visible fat from meats, and checking local fishing advisories when catching your own seafood. Learn more about the health risks and safety measures regarding dioxin here.

The San Jacinto Waste Pits is a Superfund site in Harris County, Texas that is packed with dioxin and other toxic chemicals. Hurricane Harvey hit Harris County in 2017 and led to large damages and erosion throughout the region, causing the San Jacinto Waste Pits site to begin leaking toxic chemicals, such as dioxins into the surrounding communities.

CHEJ has worked with the Texas Health and Environment Alliance (THEA) and the San Jacinto River Coalition in order to help bring awareness to their nearby Superfund sites and the damages that hurricanes have caused. In 2017, THEA and the San Jacinto River Coalition succeeded in bringing attention to the waste pits and the EPA announced plans that they would remove the toxic contents from the pits entirely through a $115 million site remediation by late 2021.

In addition to THEA, residents in Wausau, WI living immediately adjacent to former Wauleco window manufacturing sites who were concerned about dioxin contamination formed Citizens for a Clean Wausau. Recent testing in a park found high levels of dioxin but the state dismissed the results. However, the state had to correct itself when CHEJ’s science director wrote a letter to the group pointing out that the state’s risk assessment failed to include dioxin’s cancer risk. Given dioxin’s high potency as a carcinogen, this was a major oversight. The group continues to fight for more testing. Earlier this year, the leader of the group ran for and won a seat on the city council, giving the group a great inside/outside approach to getting what they want. CHEJ continues to provide technical and organizing support to Wausau’s residents.

Arsenic is a naturally-occurring element found throughout the Earth’s crust. It is usually found combined with other elements creating a powder that is odorless and tasteless and can exist
either in an organic or inorganic form. Inorganic arsenic compounds are highly toxic and for years were used to preserve wood. Copper chromated arsenate (CCA) was used to make “pressure-treated” lumber. Though no longer used for residential uses, CCA is still used in industrial applications. Organic arsenic compounds are used as pesticides, primarily on cotton fields and orchards.

Common ways people are exposed to arsenic include living near hazardous waste sites and industrial facilities that release arsenic air emissions; living near or working in occupations such
as metal smelting, wood treatment, or pesticide applications that use arsenic. Living in areas that have naturally high arsenic levels in rock can also result in exposure. Arsenic cannot be destroyed in the environment, so once it is released by either natural or human activity it can enter the air, soil, and water.

Arsenic is classified as a human carcinogen, meaning exposure to it can cause cancer. Skin, liver, bladder, and lung cancer are the most commonly reported cancer types. There are also non-cancer health effects including circulatory, neurological, and endocrine effects. Arsenic may also cause developmental effects in children.

Residents of a North Birmingham, Alabama neighborhood located next to two coke manufacturing plants know first-hand what it’s like to be exposed to arsenic. For years, the residents there have been suffering from air emissions that contain arsenic, lead and other metals. They have complained of soot inside and outside their homes,
and have been plagued with health problems such as cancer and premature deaths. The residents organized People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC) and raised enough pressure to get EPA and ATSDR’s attention. Only problem was the EPA thought the residents could live with the contamination following some limited cleanup. Now residents are saying enough is enough and they want to be relocated. One way the residents thought they might achieve this is by convincing the state to request that EPA place the 35th Avenue waste site on the federal Superfund list. PANIC and the state-wide group GASP hoped to convince the governor to do this by holding a protest caravan of over 50 cars that went around the city of Birmingham asking people to contact Governor Kay Ivey and ask her to put the 35th Avenue contaminated site on the federal Superfund list. The group is planning a follow-up to Montgomery to help convince the governor.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of man-made chemicals that were used in industrial and commercial settings for their properties as electrical insulators. Their use was banned in 1979 but products containing them may still be in use. Despite this ban, there are several ways PCBs are still released into the environment today: through poorly maintained hazardous waste sites containing PCBs; leaks from electrical equipment; and accidental or deliberate dumping of PCB waste into sites not capable of handling them.

PCB release is a problem because the EPA classifies PCBs as probable human carcinogens, meaning there is a likely association between exposure to PCBs and cancer, including melanoma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, breast cancer and liver cancer. Exposure to PCBs also has non-cancer health effects including immune system suppression, deficits in learning and neurological development, and reproductive system effects such as decreased birth weight and birth defects.

The residents of Minden, WV know about the release of PCBs all too well. The company Shaffer Equipment used PCBs in building electrical substations for the local coal mining industry. In storing and disposing of equipment, they poured PCB-containing liquid onto the ground, stored fluid in waste containers that later leaked, and even sprayed PCB oils on roads to combat dust. The EPA found that Shaffer also dumped contaminated equipment and oil into abandoned mines, and while they removed some contaminated soil and recommended constructing a cap over the site, cleanup was never completed and PCB-contaminated oil is still present there.

The effects have been devastating for the people of Minden – it’s a town of under 300 people, and a local physician has verified over 100 cases of cancer among current and former residents. Recently, residents got the EPA to test for PCB contamination throughout the town, but the community isn’t stopping there. They have a list of demands that includes having their homes bought out; lifetime health monitoring; and a PCB health clinic. CHEJ is working with these residents, helping them with information about PCBs and their fight for a safe and healthy community.

Formaldehyde is a dangerous chemical that affects the respiratory system, lungs, eyes, and skin. It is classified as a carcinogen, hazardous substance, and hazardous waste. According to the American Cancer Society, Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong smelling gas used in making building materials and many common household products. It is well known for its preservative and anti-bacterial properties. It is commonly used in building materials such as particle board, pressed wood, insulation, glues and adhesives and more. It is also found in medicines, cosmetics, and cleaning products. Formaldehyde is even used in some food products as a preservative.

Formaldehyde is a dangerous chemical and is a known human carcinogen. It has been linked to cancer in animal studies. One study in mice showed that “applying a 10% solution of formaldehyde to the skin was linked to quicker development of cancers caused by another chemical”. Formaldehyde is common in certain workplaces and studies of industrial workers show increased risk of leukemia and cancers of the nose and throat. Formaldehyde can also be released from plants producing products that contain the chemical, increasing exposure to surrounding neighborhoods

Since Formaldehyde is commonly found in many products commonly used in the home and workplace, exposure to the public is high. The main way exposure occurs is inhaling the chemical, although the liquid form can also be absorbed through the skin. Because of these routine exposures, formaldehyde is often present in both indoor and outdoor air, though at low levels. Materials containing formaldehyde can release it as a gas or vapor into the air.

There is a section of St. James Parish in Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley”. Cancer Alley is an 85 mile stretch of petrochemical plants and oil refineries along the Mississippi river. Many of these plants release several cancer causing chemicals, including formaldehyde and benzene. People living in this area are 50 times more likely to get cancer than the average American. Rolling Stone calls Cancer Alley the “front line of environmental racism”. The communities surrounding this toxic stretch of plants consist largely of minority and low income neighborhoods, the poorest people in Louisiana live closest to Cancer Alley. New plants are in the process of getting approved and residents are wary of more pollution including an increase in formaldehyde and other cancer causing chemicals.

To learn more about formaldehyde, click here.

To learn more about Cancer Alley, click here.

Radium is a naturally-occurring element found in soil, rocks, and water. Radium is radioactive, meaning its atoms are unstable and will decay over time. This process of radioactive decay produces gamma radiation, which can damage and mutate the cells in our body. This makes exposure to radium through inhalation or ingestion highly dangerous, leading to an increased risk of bone, blood, liver, and breast cancers. Even more concerning, radioactive decay of radium also produces the element radon, another radioactive element which causes lung cancer. The EPA classifies both radium and radon as known human carcinogens.

Radium is present at low levels in the environment, but elevated levels can be released through industrial plants that extract or process fuels such as ores, coal, oil, and gas. Working in these kinds of facilities or being exposed to improperly protected waste from them are common ways people come into contact with radium.

In Ohio, communities are being exposed to radium in new ways. A byproduct of oil and gas production wells is brine, a mixture of injection chemicals, oil, salts, and water from the underground geologic formation. The state Department of Transportation uses this brine on roads as a deicer and dust suppressant in at least 28 counties. This brine can ultimately end up in soil, drinking water, and agricultural products. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) tested samples from 151 gas and oil wells and the vast majority of them contained radium levels far above state legal limits and EPA drinking water standards. This means the brine sprayed on roads likely contains high levels of radium that pose a danger to the surrounding communities.

This brine is filtered and supplemented with an anti-corrosive chemical to create the consumer product AquaSalina for the general public to use on sidewalks and roads. All AquaSalina samples tested by ODNR contained radium levels above federal drinking water limits, and the average amount of radium was 346 times the EPA standard.

Batches of oil or gas brine are not legally required to be tested for radioactivity, and there are no provisions for monitoring radioactivity in the areas where brine is used. This means that even though communities are being exposed to dangerous levels of radium we don’t know the full extent of environmental and health impacts. The best way to keep people safe is to stop using radium-containing brine.