Backyard Talk

Autism and Environmental Chemicals

CHEJ has been talking about the dangers of PCB’s in school lighting fixtures and how the chemical can affect children’s health. Last month, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that autism spectrum disorder now affects 1 of every 88 American children — a 23% increase from 2006 and a 78% increase from 2002. CDC also reported that ADHD now affects 14% of American children.

As these disorders continue to affect more children across the U.S., researchers are asking what is causing these dramatic increases. Some of the explanation is greater awareness and more accurate diagnosis. But clearly, there is more to the story than simply genetics, as the increases are far too rapid to be of purely genetic origin.

The National Academy of Sciences reports that 3% of all neurobehavioral disorders in children are caused by toxic exposures in the environment and that another 25% are caused by interactions between environmental factors and genetics. But the precise environmental causes are not yet known.

To guide a research strategy to discover potentially preventable environmental causes, a list of ten chemicals found in consumer products that are suspected to contribute to autism and learning disabilities.

This list was published today in Environmental Health Perspectives in an editorial written by Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, director of the CEHC, Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and Dr. Luca Lambertini, also of the CEHC.

The top ten chemicals are:
1. Lead
2. Methylmercury
3. PCBs
4. Organophosphate pesticides
5. Organochlorine pesticides
6. Endocrine disruptors
7. Automotive exhaust
8. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
9. Brominated flame retardants
10. Perfluorinated compounds

The editorial was published alongside four other papers — each suggesting a link between toxic chemicals and autism.

There are things we can do as parents as concerned taxpayer and citizens. First, is to remove chemicals in areas that children frequent. As you may know CHEJ’s Children Environmental Health Program has been working on identifying and the removal PCBs in school lighting fixtures as well as removing other environmental chemicals from children environment such as emissions near schools.

As a humane society we cannot allow this devastating neurological problem to continue to rise in our children. It is time to speak up and out about environmental chemicals and children’s health. It is time to ask our health authorities to explore where children may be being exposed and eliminate that source of exposure. This is especially true in the case of PCBs and school lighting(schools built before 1980 and had no retrofitting) since this is a win win situation. The school district can remove exposure and save money on the energy efficiency of new lighting fixture.

Our children are our future. Let’s protect them . . . our future depends on their leadership.

Backyard Talk

No More Fukushimas

Beyond Nuclear and the NYS Alliance for a Green Economy are challenging the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to shut down the dangerous FitzPatrick reactor in upstate New York, which has the same design as the tragic Fukushima reactor in Japan. 

Yesterday, the groups gave presentations to NRC’s Petition Review Board urging them to shut down the reactor, located in Oswego, NY, north of Syracuse. The FitzPatrick Fukushima-design GE Mark I Boiling Water Reactor’s design is unprepared for managing a severe accident. The groups outlined the serious risks of the design in a formal petition signed by dozens of organizational leaders.  For more information, contact

Backyard Talk

(Yet) Another PVC Plant Explosion and Fire

An explosion and raging fire at the Westlake PVC plant rocked Geismar, Louisiana a few weeks ago, sending a billowing cloud of toxic vinyl
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Photo of Westlake PVC chemical plant after it exploded and caught on fire, releasing vinyl chloride and other toxic pollutants into the community.

chloride and hydrochloric acid through the community.  The accident forced area residents and plant workers to shelter in place for several hours, shut roads, and even led to the closure of a 45-mile section of the Mississippi River.

The accident took place just one week before the Vinyl Institute was in NYC arguing PVC was perfectly safe. For some reason, they forgot to mention in their testimony that one of their plants had just exploded.

Westlake Vinyls makes 550 million pounds of vinyl chloride monomer and 60 million pounds of PVC a year.  The company reports this is used to make PVC pipe, pipe fittings, vinyl sidings, bottles, flexible and rigid film and sheeting used for packaging, credit cards and wall coverings.

Check out this local TV news report (and see another at the bottom) on the accident:

A Toxic Cocktail of Chlorinated Chemicals

We’ll likely never know exactly what was in that cloud of smoke released into the community, but according to report filed by Westlake Vinyls, the company estimated they released a toxic cocktail of:

  • 2,645 pounds of hydrochloric acid;
  • 632 pounds of chlorine;
  • 239 pounds of vinyl chloride monomer;
  • 29 pounds of 1,2-dichloroethane;
  • 11 pounds of 1,1,2-Trichloroethane;
  • 1 pound of 1,1,2,2-Tetrachloroethane; and a number of other chemicals.

According to a local newspaper:

Even after the fire was out, a large white cloud could be seen still billowing from the plant.”

According to Westlake own reports to the EPA, its plant puts 589,558 people at risk due to the bulk use and storage of chlorine. An accident involving this chemical could potentially impact an area up to 25.00 miles downwind of the plant.

A History of Environmental Injustice

Low income and communities of color live downwind of the Westlake PVC plant.  According to census data, 52.83% of people living within 3 miles of the facility are people of color.  445 people that live within 3 miles of the plant are below the poverty level.

This isn’t first time the plant has had an accident in recent years. On July 8 2010, over 900 pounds of vinyl chloride as well as other chemicals were released during another accident.

A number of other significant incidents and violations that have taken place at this location over the past twenty years, particularly when it was owned operated by Borden Chemicals and Plastics.  This has been well documented in the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice report, From plantations to plants: Report of the Emergency National Commission of Environmental and Economic Justice in St. James Parish, Louisiana, which found:

“In March 1998, Borden Chemicals and Plastics and the federal government reached a settlement under which Borden would pay a $3.6 million penalty and clean up groundwater pollution at its plant in Geismar. The fine was described by a U.S. Attorney as “the largest ever for hazardous-waste law violations in Louisiana.” The settlement ended a case in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claimed Borden failed to investigate and clean up contamination at its site, failed to report toxic spills, and ran an incinerator without the proper license. Borden said in a news release that the penalty is “less than 1 percent of the $800 million judgment sought by the government.”

On December 24, 1997, a 500,000-gallon storage tank at Borden Chemicals & Plastics in Ascension Parish, Louisiana blew off its top “with a detonation heard for miles around, forcing the closure of Louisiana Route 1 and the voluntary evacuation of some neighbors.” Over a year before (August 22, 1996), equipment failure during the restart of Borden’s facility caused 8,000 pounds of “hazardous materials” to be released.”

In addition, Borden was charged in 1994 with shipping over 300, 000 pounds of hazardous waste to South Africa without notifying the US EPA, as required by law.

The Borden-Westlake-Formosa-Explosion Connection

The Westlake plant that exploded used to be operated by Borden.  Borden also used to operate a chemical plant in Illiopolis, IL which was later taken over by Formosa Plastics.  Interestingly, there was also a major chemical explosion and fire at this plant in Illiopolis a few years ago, which acclaimed author Sandra Steingraber has written about.

This explosion sent a plume of toxic smoke for miles around surrounding communities. Five workers were killed, four towns were evacuated, several highways closed, a no-fly zone declared, and three hundred firefighters from twenty-seven surrounding communities battled the flames for three days.

Did the Westlake Plant Release Deadly Dioxin?

Perhaps even more importantly, we’re very concerned that the fire and explosion sent a plume of toxic dioxin into communities and waterbodies downwind and downstream.  Given that large quantities of highly toxic chlorinated chemicals burned for numerous hours, under uncontrolled conditions, you can bet dioxins and furans were released.

The question is – will EPA and the state DEQ launch an investigation?

Will they sample communities downwind for dioxin contamination?

As we ponder that, here’s another video on the accident:


Backyard Talk

Phasing PVC Out of NYC Purchasing: Lessons in Persistence

“Section 7 – Dioxin Reduction. Product: Paper Products. Standard: Process-chlorine free”

Proposed Environmentally Preferable Purchasing rule, Mayor’s office of the City of New York, Feb. 27, 2012

“Environmental, Public Health, Labor Groups Call on Bloomberg Administration to Phase Out Toxic PVC Plastic, a Major Source of Dioxin.”

CHEJ Press Release after March 29, 2012, public hearing

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NYC City Hall
Photo Credit:

When we read the standard above, we knew that we had a lot of work ahead of us. To the public, the standard would seem like a positive environmental step, eliminating the purchase of chlorinated paper that produces toxic chemicals when burned. To CHEJ and our allies, it meant that more than seven years of work to phase polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic out of NYC purchasing was in danger of being thrown under the bus. So once again, on March 29th, we rallied the troops, this time for a public hearing before the Bloomberg Administration.

Greening the Big Apple

NYC agencies spend billions of dollars a year on goods, construction and services, which can have a huge impact on the environment.  In 2005, CHEJ worked closely with members of the NYC City Council to help pass the “Environmentally Preferable Purchasing” (EPP) laws, which set standards for energy and water efficiency, “green” cleaning products, and recycled content in goods and construction materials bought by City agencies. Importantly, the laws also addressed hazardous substances associated with products purchased by the City, including a requirement that:

“By January 1, 2008, the director shall promulgate rules to reduce the City’s purchase or lease of materials whose combustion may lead to the formation of dioxin or dioxin-like compounds.”

This was a huge victory.

Dioxins, some of the most toxic chemicals on the planet, are associated with birth defects, developmental disorders, and cancer. They’re formed primarily when materials like PVC plastic containing chlorine are burned.

Chlorine, PVC and Dioxin – the Connection

As one of the largest sources of dioxin in the world, PVC consumes about 40% of all the chlorine produced worldwide. The plastic itself, which is found in many products purchased by City agencies, including flooring, siding, office supplies, carpeting, and electronics, contains and releases chemicals associated with asthma, learning disabilities, and other chronic diseases on the rise. When PVC burns in building fires it turns into hydrochloric acid, and has been linked to respiratory problems and cancer risks for first responders. The City Council legislators who drafted the dioxin provisions of the EPP laws did so with the intention of phasing PVC products out of City purchasing, as documented in the voting report discussing the legislation.

NYC: A Huge Opportunity

By January 1st, 2008, the City had missed their deadline for producing the dioxin-reduction rules.

In response to the missed deadline, we wrote letters to the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services (MOCS) signed by over 20 diverse organizations and experts, calling for the dioxin rules to be released, and for green purchasing provisions to address PVC.  We called, emailed, and met with officials; more recently we gave testimony at a City Council oversight hearing. We made clear that safer and cost effective PVC-free alternatives are readily available on the market, and that companies such as Google, Apple, Target, Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft all have policies to reduce or phase out the purchase of PVC.

Over four years late, in February of 2012, MOCS finally issued the draft rules, and announced a 30-day public comment period, culminating in a public hearing on March 29, 2012. We at CHEJ read the dioxin provision with great disappointment:

“Section 7 – Dioxin Reduction. Product: Paper Products. Standard: Process-chlorine free.

MOCS was trying to meet the dioxin requirements solely by reducing the chlorine content of their paper products, ignoring PVC entirely.

On the positive side, while the proposed purchasing regulations did not address PVC, we learned that the City has already begun to make progress in reducing NYC’s purchase of PVC products. The City is working with Staples, NYC’s sole office supply vendor, to identify and purchase PVC-free office supplies. It has issued bids for a large new citywide carpeting contract that requires all carpeting to be completely PVC-free. And City purchasers are already selecting computers off of State contracts that have PVC-free requirements.

These are positive steps, and they should be codified in the proposed regulations. Including PVC in the rules themselves would not only meet the documented intent of the law, it would also ensure that future mayoral administrations will be bound by the same rules, and make NYC a national leader in safe, green purchasing.

Firefighters, Teachers, Doctors Speak Out

During the 30-day public comment period and at the March 29th hearing, CHEJ and more than 35 organizations and experts submitted testimony, including environmental health and justice groups, experts in children’s health and brain development, teachers and firefighters unions, and green businesspeople and architects. 100 citizen activists signed a letter, and City Councilman Robert Jackson sent a letter of support. Below are some key quotations from the hearing, and you can find more in the press release.

Captain Alexander Hagan, President of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA), said, “Fire Officers take an oath to ‘protect the lives and property of the citizens of New York City’ and there is an ongoing interest to the public if laws regarding the purchasing and use of PVC products by the City are not being complied with. PVC is among the most serious dangers to humans and the environment when it is burned. … From a fire perspective, we urge compliance of the City to ensure an environmentally friendly purchasing process.”

Stephen Boese, Executive Director of the Learning Disabilities Association of New York State, said, “As advocates for persons with learning disabilities and related impairments, the Learning Disabilities Association of New York State supports initiatives that prevent disability. We therefore urge that the City of New York assure that its purchasing policies exclude products with harmful plastics like PVC that release dioxin, wherever feasible, and protect the health and well-being of City workers, those in the care of City programs, and all other City residents.”

Also check out these great stories from the Village Voice and WNYC.

Looking to the Future

If we succeed in getting PVC-reduction written into the rules, they will be among the first, if not the first, binding PVC-specific city-level purchasing regulations in the country, impacting the largest city in the United States, which spends approximately $17 billion annually on goods and services.

Let’s hope Mayor Bloomberg recognizes this opportunity to lead the country into a safer, greener future.


Contact Daniel at DGradess at a domain called chej dot org


Backyard Talk

EPA Caving To The Chemical Industry-Election Year Posturing?

I can’t help but wonder if President Obama is posturing for re-elections trying to appease the all powerful oil, gas and chemical industries. It’s been over two years since the USEPA released their preliminary clean up goals for dioxin. These are clean up goals or levels that can be left in soil, and were based upon scientific studies that looked at non cancer effects. Health effects like birth defects, learning disabilities, miscarriages and more.

After EPA published the clean up goals they went to the Office of Budget and Management (OMB) where they sat for nearly two years. I had the opportunity to meet with OMB staff working on the dioxin goals and walked away angry and frustrated. I rename the agency the Office of Mannequin Bodies because no one would say anything–literally.

Today, EPA announced that they have withdrawn the clean up goals from OMB and will essentially abandoning them. This means that every state will use the scientific report, released in February of non-cancer dioxin effects to set their own guideline. Unbelievable, since today EPA has the scientific report (released in February) to support their proposed clean up goals. What this means is in each state the corporations will come to the table ready to play Monty Hall’s “Let’s Make A Deal!

So states with big corporations ruling the governance will deal a whole lot different than those with stricter regulations and public support. Some sites could be cleaned up to protective levels, and others well . . . who knows.

In the simplest format of Let’s Make A Deal, a trader is given a prize of medium value (such as a television set or in this case a almost good clean up), and the host offers them the opportunity to trade for another prize. But a poorer state with little money and political influence could get “Zonked” an unwanted booby prizes, which could be anything, fake money, fake trips or something outlandish like a fake clean up.

Communities deserve equal protection from dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals on the planet. We know the chemical industry has invested significant resources lobbying against EPA’s proposed cleanup levels. Is EPA caving into the chemical industry during an election year? What is going on here? All of a sudden EPA has withdrawn them from OMB review, without any public notice or participation.

We call on EPA Administrator Jackson to move swiftly to finalize and release final dioxin cleanup guidelines once and for all, especially now that the non-cancer health assessment is complete. Infants and young children are already being exposed to dioxin levels higher than what EPA considers acceptable.

Backyard Talk

Coal Ash Poisons Water

Eleven environmental groups are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force it to better regulate toxic coal ash.  

Using EPA’s own data, the groups highlighted how coal ash has polluted groundwater at at 29 coal ash dump sites in 16 states. Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the groups on April 5th.  They noted that EPA has not updated coal ash disposal regulations in more than 30 years despite evidence of “leaking waste ponds, poisoned groundwater supplies and threats to public health.”

Coal ash is produced mainly by coal-fired power plants and contains a mixture of toxic chemicals and compounds, including arsenic, lead, hexavalent chromium, manganese, mercury, selenium and cadmium.

For more information, contact

Backyard Talk

Local Group Calls for Shutdown of Old Mission Repository

Kellogg, ID: Lead issues have long plagued entire communities as a result of mining, smelting or other production of lead products. One of the worst locations for lead contamination is in the Coeur d’Alene mining district (CDA), Idaho. The Bunker Hill mine was one of the richest lead producing mines in the US. There are hundreds of mines in Shoshone County, Idaho, most are inactive at this time but several that are still mining; this is one of the richest heavy metal mining areas in the world, and has produced billions in mining production.

Bunker Hill is also a Superfund Site, which is a site where toxic wastes have been dumped and the EPA has designated them to be cleaned up. According to the EPA, the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane River Basin contains “significant measurable risks currently exist to humans”. Because of over 100 years of mining impacting the  area, lead contamination in surface water “as much as 90 times exceeds” EPA standards. 300,000 citizens live within a 1,500 square mile area beginning at the Montana border and extending into Washington State, with over 166 miles of CDA River corridor, downstream water bodies, fill areas, adjacent floodplains and tributaries that are contaminated and “the most heavily impacted areas are devoid of aquatic life.”

As a result of the contamination, children in this area have blood lead levels above the national CDC standards.  “One of every four children tested outside the 21 sq. mile “box” is found to have an elevated blood levels and are now lead poisoned. Numerous children in the Bunker Hill site are also still being tested a routine began in about 1974 and are found with elevated lead levels.

EPA planned to address the huge area contaminated with lead by creating a repository. In 2008, the Cataldo Mission, a national historic landmark located in Old Mission State Park became a temporary dumping ground (repository) for tons of lead contaminated soil. The Silver Valley Community Resource Center (SVCRC), a local group, led protests against remediation citing that the repository sits on a flood plain that flood annually, no assurance that regular flooding will not contaminate ground water and wells, and no assurance that toxic run off from the flooding will not reach the N. Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River through seepage or flow continuing to contaminate area.

SVCRC continues to address the failure of the repository and hold EPA accountable for remediation actions. SVCRC wrote a letter to EPA, signed by thousands of citizens, local and national groups opposing the repository and a call to have a permanent clean-up plan. For approximately a year, SVCRC, Sierra Club and Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) have pursued requests from EPA and IDEQ staff to provide the scientific data supporting their allegation, “that the water is cleaner after it goes through the (Mission) repository”. To date the agencies have not been able to provide the data to back up this statement.

Recently it was learned from FOIA materials sent by the Dept. of Transportation that the repository is nestled between the Yellowstone petroleum gas line and a natural gas line that has been in place in the area for the past 50 years. Affected citizens are asking the question as to why the pipelines were never made public at any time while the Mission Repository was proposed and developed. The Yellowstone pipeline and the natural gas lines have been in the Mission Repository for five decades. They are accidents waiting to happen with all the heavy equipment that is in operation at the site throughout the year and all the traffic and population that travels Interstate 90 a stone throw from Exit 39 where the 20 acre repository is located.

“Drop in gas pressure, lack of response by EPA to affected community members, CD’A tribal sacred grounds being desecrated, a major wetland being destroyed, National Historic Preservation laws being broken, millions of tons of pollution continuing to be deposited downstream to the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Rivers, this is not emotional attachment to the Old Mission, this is about EPA’s destruction to the environment and human health risks. EPA needs to move to have this repository shut down, immediately”, said Shane Stancik, lifelong Silver Valley resident, lead poisoned child and SVCRC board member.

SVCRC is continuing its grassroots work to shut down the repository and assist EPA in refocusing its cleanup priorities to protect the environment and human health specific to blood lead testing and intervention.

“Furthermore, the use of child blood lead levels used as a remedial action objective cannot capture the broader dimensions of health and well-being that should be taken into account in remediation efforts. To this end, it should be argued that remediation efforts should not only focus on harm reduction but also contribute to efforts to ameliorate environmental and social injustices. Securing a health future for the residents of the contaminated mine sites, such as Kellogg, requires more than just reducing child blood lead levels; it requires attention to the complex set of factors underlying the pattern of systematic disadvantages that compromise the health and well-being of a post-production, mining community”, Ethical Issues in Using Children’s Blood Lead Levels as a Remedial Action Objective, Moodie, Evans, 2011.

For additional information to learn about the issues of the Bunker Hill/CD’A Basin Superfund site and get involved to address problems with the Mission Repository, contact SVCRC at or call 208-784-8891.

Backyard Talk

Early Puberty in Girls – Is There a Connection to Plastics?

Yesterday, the NY Times Magazine ran a fascinating yet disturbing story about a growing trend – young girls going through puberty, way before their time. In the story, the Times explores how early puberty is effecting girls and their families across the country, and what parents, doctors and scientists are doing to address this troubling issue.

Here at CHEJ, we’re particularly interested in the question of whether there is a link between early puberty in girls and exposure to toxic chemicals. The Times Magazine explores this and found:

“In addition, animal studies show that the exposure to some environmental chemicals can cause bodies to mature early. Of particular concern are endocrine-disrupters, like “xeno-estrogens” or estrogen mimics. These compounds behave like steroid hormones and can alter puberty timing.”

The Falling Age of Puberty

A few years ago, ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber authored a noteworthy report for the Breast Cancer Fund, The Falling Age of Puberty, What We Know, What We Need to Know. The report, the first comprehensive review of the literature on the timing of puberty, found:

“Girls today get their first periods, on average, a few months earlier than did girls 40 year ago, but they get their breasts one to two years earlier. Over the course of a few decades, the childhoods of U.S. girls have been significantly shortened.

What does this mean for girls today and their health in the future? We know that early puberty is a known risk factor for breast cancer and other mental and physical health problems. We need to better understand what’s causing early puberty so that we can protect the health of our children now and as they age.”

The role that endocrine disrupting chemicals like dioxin and phthalates may play is very complex. The Advocates Guide to the report, notes that:

“We know that endocrine-disrupting chemicals are a possible cause of early puberty but we also know that exposure to these chemicals in utero or early in life can also lead to low birth weight and obesity, which are themselves possible causes of early puberty.”

The report is a must read for anyone concerned about this pressing public health and social issue.

Early Puberty and Phthalates – Is there a Connection?

While the NY Times story discusses some of the science examining exposure to BPA, not much attention is paid to another endocrine disrupting class of chemicals – phthalates, which have also been linked to early puberty in girls. Over 90% of all phthalates are used in PVC plastic products, like those found in our nation’s schools. Studies have found young girls face some of the highest phthalate exposures.

A landmark study published by researchers from Puerto Rico found:

“Premature breast development (thelarche) is the growth of mammary tissue in girls younger than 8 years of age without other manifestations of puberty. Puerto Rico has the highest known incidence of premature thelarche ever reported. In the last two decades since this serious public health anomaly has been observed, no explanation for this phenomenon has been found. Some organic pollutants, including pesticides and some plasticizers, can disrupt normal sexual development in wildlife, and many of these have been widely used in Puerto Rico… The phthalates that we identified have been classified as endocrine disruptors. This study suggests a possible association between plasticizers with known estrogenic and antiandrogenic activity and the cause of premature breast development in a human female population.”

Another study published in 2009 also found a link between early breast development and phthalate exposure among girls in Taiwan.

While these studies did not find causation, they certainly raise a whole lot of questions about the role phthalates may possibly play in early puberty among girls today.

Other studies have found a link between phthalate exposure and obesity, which is a prime suspect in the early puberty mystery. Dioxins and organotins, both of which are also released by PVC plastics, have also been linked to obesity.

We’ll be sure to be following this issue and the science around it in the months and years to come.

What do you think about this issue, and whether chemicals released by plastics may possibly be a cause?