Backyard Talk

Toxic Cloud of Vinyl Chloride

This morning near Philadelphia, PA there was a serious vinyl chloride train derailment, which sent a toxic cloud of vinyl chloride into the community.

View the slideshow of photos to see the vinyl chloride cloud at

According to Breaking News Desk (11/30/12),”a freight train derailed this morning in Paulsboro, Gloucester County, with some of the cars leaking hazardous vinyl chloride into the air and nearby waterways. A railroad bridge over Mantua Creek apparently collapsed, sending a couple of railcars into the the water, and toppling several others.

More than a dozen people at a local marine terminal reportedly had breathing problems, necessitating medical treatment, according to reports. ‘We have a half-mile area evacuated around the bridge,’ said a Coast Guard spokeswoman, who added that no fatalities had been reported. Paulsboro’s three schools were also in lockdown…

Short-term exposure to the hazardous, flammable gas, which has a sickly, sweet smell, can cause dizziness, drowsiness and headaches, according to the EPA. Long-term exposure has been linked to cancer.”

Backyard Talk

NY PTA Passes Resolution to Phase-out PVC in Schools

The New York State Parents Teachers Association (PTA) voted last week at their annual meeting in Saratoga Springs, NY to pass a resolution calling for a phase out of the plastic PVC in schools. The resolution, called “Reducing & Phasing Out the Purchase of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) Plastic in New York Schools,” acknowledged the serious harm posed by PVC throughout its lifecycle, releasing toxic chemicals such as phthalates during use in products such as school supplies and building materials; releasing toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride and ethylene dichloride during manufacture; and generating toxic chemicals such as dioxins during disposal when burned.

The PTA’s resolution recognized that chronic health problems and conditions in children linked to environmental exposures are on the rise, including learning and developmental disorders; that children are uniquely vulnerable to harm from toxic chemicals such as those released by PVC; that PVC materials and products contain toxic additives, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates, that may be released into the indoor environment, posing hazards to human health including asthma and developmental problems and that children are at greatest risk of exposure; that PVC is commonly found in office supplies and building materials used in schools; that safer, cost-effective alternatives to PVC products are readily available for schools; and that the U.S. Green Building Council provides incentives for schools to avoid PVC and phthalates in “green schools.”

The NYS PTA resolution calls for the following actions:

  • Resolved that the New York State Congress of Parents and Teachers, Inc. seek and support legislation that would reduce and phase out the use of PVC products at all New York State school facilities; and be it further
  • Resolved that the New York State PTA urge school districts and the New York State Education Department (NYSED) to develop green procurement policies to reduce and phase out the use and purchase of PVC building materials and office and education supplies in school facilities where safer cost effective alternatives are available; and be it further
  • Resolved that the New York State PTA and its constituent units educate parents and community members about the potential health effects of PVC and work to eliminate PVC products at all PTA-sponsored events; and be it further
  • Resolved that the New York State PTA forward this resolution to the National PTA for its consideration.

This resolution adds to the growing movement for PVC-free schools and follows similar resolutions enacted by the American Public Health Association (APHA), the “oldest and most diverse organization of public health professionals in the world,” last year and by the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union that represents more than 600,000 employees and retirees from New York State schools, colleges, and healthcare facilities, this past summer. The full PTA resolution can be read at the following link:

Backyard Talk

All I want for Christmas is a toxic-free Disney

Last Saturday, I stood outside of Disney’s iconic flagship store in Times Square, calling on them to make our dreams come true, by getting poisonous phthalates and vinyl plastic out of children’s school supplies.

I organized the action with Penelope Jagessar Chaffer, a mother of two young children (who also came along for the fun), and Director of the fantastic new environmental health documentary, Toxic Baby.

With me and Penelope and other concerned NYC residents were the voices and dreams of over 65,000 parents and Disney customers, who had signed petitions calling on the company to do what’s right for our children’s health.  For a glimpse of the action, check out this slideshow of photos:

Hidden Hazards in Disney School Supplies

It all started with our recent report on toxic school supplies, that I researched and authored this past summer.  Our investigation found Disney branded school supplies, like Disney Princess lunchboxes and Spiderman backpacks, loaded with hormone disrupting phthalates, toxic chemicals linked to asthma and early puberty that are getting into our children’s bodies.

The levels of Disney school supplies were off the charts, up to thirty times higher than what’s legal for toys.  We couldn’t believe it!

The report led to massive press coverage across the country and inspired Lori Alper, a mother of three school-aged boys from Bedford, Massachusetts, to launch a petition on calling on Disney to eliminate these harmful chemicals. joined in the campaign and also posted the petition on their site.

Since launching the petition, and together have mobilized over 65,000 parents to call on Disney to make our dreams come true and get these dangerous substances out of our lunchboxes and backpacks once and for all.

Unfortunately, Disney has ignored these protests and calls, so we knew we had to ramp up the pressure.

Dreaming of a toxic-free Disney in Times Square

So last Saturday, braving the cold NYC weather, we bundled up with our box full of petitions to deliver them to Disney’s flagship store in Times Square, NYC.

We passed out flyers to customers walking in and out of the store, as well as tourists that were strolling by.  Many were shocked to discover Disney sells school supplies laced with chemicals that have been linked to asthma, birth defects and ADHD.

We held signs that read, “Disney: Make Our Dreams Come True – Dump Your Toxic Lunchboxes.”  After educating hundreds of tourists and customers, we walked into the store, asked to speak to the store manager, and attempted to deliver our box full of petitions, along with this letter.  The store manager unfortunately refused our petitions, directing us to talk to the corporate headquarters, but that was OK.  We knew our message had been delivered.

As we were delivering our petitions in NYC, hundreds of miles away, Lori Alper and the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow were doing the very same at a Disney store outside of Boston, which you can read about in this great post by Lori.

In conjunction with these actions, we and our allies at also launched a social media campaign calling on Disney to address our concerns.  The response to this has been amazing.  Within only a few days of launching this campaign, it’s been shared by over 1,600 people across the country.

Help us keep up the momentum!

Today is of course “Cyber Monday” –  so join us online in calling on Disney to make our dreams come true – by sharing this graphic with your friends on Facebook and Twitter today:

This holiday season, help us get Disney to clean up our act.

All I want for a Christmas is a toxic-free Disney.

What about you?

Backyard Talk

Great Lakes Are Improving from Legacy Chemicals but Fracking May Change That

Environmental Health News recently reported that,

“The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. The good news is that legacy contaminants are decreasing more quickly than previously reported in three of the Great Lakes, but have stayed virtually the same in two other lakes, according to new research… Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the pesticide DDT and other banned compounds dropped about 50 percent in fish in Lakes Michigan, Ontario and Huron from 1999 through 2009, although there were no significant changes in Lakes Superior and Erie fish, according to the study to be published this month in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

“These are very positive results. The lakes are improving and slowly cleaning themselves up,” said Thomas Holsen, co-director of Clarkston University’s Center for the Environment and co-author of the study . “Even with the decreases, it will be 20 to 30 years until the decades-old contaminants in Great Lakes fish decline to the point that consumption advisories can be eliminated,” Holsen said.”

All good news, except as we clean up the old chemicals like Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the pesticide DDT and other banned compounds they are being replaced by newer ones, such as flame retardants that are building up in fish and wildlife and chemicals we are not yet even looking for from oil and gas development.

Today corporations are beginning hydro-fracturing (fracking) all around the Great Lakes to extract gas. It is against the law to frack under the lakes but there are no laws about fracking near streams, creeks, rivers that empty into the lakes. This is insane. Hundreds of very toxic chemicals are injected under pressure into the ground to fracture the shale formation. Not all of these chemicals are retrieved after the fracking is done. In fact the common gas well leaves behind about 30% of the chemicals, radioactive materials and brine. It’s unbelievable, hundreds of chemicals injected all around our fresh water lakes that both the U.S. and Canada have worked for decades to clean up.

This destructive activity is a prime example of governments’ tunnel vision. Oil and Gas development moves forward, cleanup of the lakes moves forward, air deposited of chemicals from many sources continues – – – it’s like shoveling the sidewalk in a blizzard, it won’t be cleaned until the snow stops falling. There is no sign of the chemical blizzards retreat.

I grew up near the lakes in Buffalo and understand their beauty and value. My sister and brother-in-law were active in advocating the cleanup of the lakes in the 1970’s. Our family vacationed on the lakes. It was exciting back then to hear that a serious effort from both sides of the boarder would advance to make the lakes swimmable, the fish safe enough to eat and so many other promises. Now over 35 years later reports are praising the cleanup of historical chemical deposits while at the same time new chemicals are allowed to enter the lakes without protest.

Fracking is not yet widespread around the great lakes. Yes there are some wells in PA, OH, MI but we can stop widespread fracking that would further contribute chemicals to our beautiful lakes by taking a stand and insisting that regulations are put in place and bans where necessary to protect this amazing gift of nature. It is up you and me to make it happen. For more information about the recent study of the Great Lakes, click here.

Backyard Talk

Using Blood Lead Levels to Set Cleanup Goals

Lead smelter in Kellogg, ID.The creativity of our government regulators never ceases to amaze me. I’ve seen a lot of incredibly stupid and callous decisions in my time, but this one is right up at the top. The US environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 10 and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality somehow thought it was a good idea to use Blood Lead Levels in children to establish a remedial action objective (RAO) at the Bunker Hill Superfund site in Kellogg, ID. According to a recent peer reviewed paper published in the American Journal of Public Health, this decision is codified in EPA’s 1991 Record of Decision for the Bunker Hill site (1).

According to the authors, “the 1991 ROD for the Bunker Hill mine defined the EPA RAOs for child blood lead levels and stipulated the following criteria measures: (1) less than 5% of tested children should have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms per deciliter and (2) less than 1% of tested children should have blood lead levels greater than 15 micrograms per deciliter.” You got that. As long as no more than 5% of the children in Kellogg have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dl) and no more than 1% had levels great than 15 ug/dl, then the site cleanup efforts could be considered “successful” (1).

What was EPA thinking when they decided to use lead levels in children to define the effectiveness of a cleanup? And then, to accept that some children will have blood lead levels that exceed the recommended criteria is unconscionable. Even if this factor was not the sole criterion used to make decisions about the effectiveness of the cleanup, it is still unethical to use the children of Kellogg in this way.

The adverse health outcomes of exposure to lead are well understood. Earlier this year the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) revised its guidelines for lead lowering the blood lead level for protecting children’s health from 10 to 5 ug/dl. At the time CDC’s Advisory Committee for Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention whose recommendations led to this change made it clear that no safe blood lead level in children has been identified.

Lead was mined at the Bunker Hill site for more than 100 years and at one time this was the home of the largest lead smelter in the United States. When the mine shut down in 1981, it left behind a toxic legacy of huge waste piles and residual contamination everywhere. Blood lead testing in children as earlier as 1976 found that 99% of Kellogg children living within 1 mile of the smelter who were tested had blood lead levels greater than 40 ug/dl (2). Today it is much less clear what the blood lead levels are because so few children are tested.

It is an injustice for EPA to treat the residents of Kellogg in this way. The residents In Kellogg have suffered disproportionately not only from lead exposure which continues to this day, but also from social disparities that include unemployment, poverty, and limited educational opportunity. Although there has been substantial cleanup at the site, it remains unclear whether there has been a corresponding improvement in community health and wellbeing. So much more needs to be done. This of course will never be achieved in communities like Kellogg, so long as decision makers think there’s nothing wrong with using the children as canaries in the mine fields.

1. Moodie, SM and Evans, EL. Ethical Issues in Using Children’s Blood Lead levels as a Remedial Action Objective. American J Public Health 2011 101(S1): S156-S160.

2. Landrigan PJ, Baker EL Jr, Feldman RG, et al. Increased lead absorption with anemia and slowed nerve conduction in children near a lead smelter. J Pediatrics 1976 89(6):904-910.

Backyard Talk

It’s The Ground Game That Matters In Politics & Policy

The election is over and the analysis is being done. What worked, what didn’t and how can we learn from this experience? One strategy that everyone agrees worked was President Obama’s ground game; it made a difference.

On election night Donna Brazile a democratic advisor/strategist said that when the Obama campaign staff said they were going to re-energize their base and expand it she didn’t think expanding was necessary. She went on to say that she was wrong. Expanding the base was the right move.

Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what the environmental health and justice movement must do—energize and expand our base. The on-going top down strategy is not working we are not winning. For years the focus and majority of our resources have been placed in the Washington, D.C. environmental efforts rather than building the base . . . and it’s not working. The Climate Change legislation and energy issues, for example failed miserably.

Our movement needs a stronger ground game. We need to take the lessons learn from this past election and begin to build at the base in communities—not for a short term victory but to last over time with a continued effort toward growth. To accomplish this we need to shift resources to create a more balanced approach to change, investing in community groups as well as large D.C. environmental organizations.

Many believed that because of Citizen United that big money will dictate outcomes of issues and/or elections and community organizing is no longer critical to winning. They believe purchasing a full page ads, getting our messages right, investing in lawyers, scientists and so on is the way to win. Again Obama’s campaign demonstrated that all of that ads, message and so on is important but only when directly coupled to an organized, connected and strategic base of community organizations.

The Obama campaign is not the only example of where the ground game mattered. If you look at New York State and the issue around hydro fracturing you’ll see that the governor wanted to move fracking forward. However, due to a massive organizing at the base across the state fracking has been stopped at least temporarily. There were scientists, lawyers and lobbyists involved in that struggle as well, but it was the people at the streets that tipped the scale and forced the governor to rethink his position.

Today we have confirmation of what needs to happen for our issues to move forward—a strong ground game and shifting ample resources to sustain that effort. Large donors and foundations need to rethink their giving decisions and invest more dollars in the base. We need that base to work smarter not harder to energize and expand the reach, goals and breathe of people.

Hurricane Sandy was our most recent wake up call to the enormity of our problems. We can’t afford to move slowly. Today is the day, now is the time for everyone to think about how you can help to build, strengthen, and connect the grassroots efforts for change.

Backyard Talk

Health Effects Associated with Natural Gas Extraction using Hydraulic Fracturing or Fracking

Perhaps the most intense public health issue to hit the east coast in the past five years is the extraction of natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, more commonly referred to as fracking. This process involves mixing more than a million gallons of water, sand and proprietary toxic chemicals and injecting this mixture at very high pressure into horizontally drilled wells as deep as 10,000 feet below the surface. This pressurized mixture causes the rock layer to crack creating fissures or passage ways in the rock. These fissures are held open by the sand particles so that natural gas from the shale can flow back up the well. This technique has proven so effective at reaching previously hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves that it has spurred a boom in natural gas production around the country.

This boom in natural gas production has also spurred a boom in community activism in areas targeted for drilling such as the Marcellus Shale, a layer of sedimentary rock that spans nine states including NY, PA, and OH.  Drilling in these areas has brought controversy and anger to the impacted communities.

People who live next to these drilling sites are reporting a wide range of adverse health effects including respiratory difficulties, skin rashes, digestive disorders, and neurological problems. There are complaints of foul odors, water pollution, incessant noise and 24 hours per day production.

This past week-end I heard first hand about these problems, as CHEJ conducted two training workshops in western PA. The first workshop was in Dubois, in north western PA in Clearfield County. The host group was Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Water & Air (PACWA). They shared a “List of the Harmed,” a report describing 565 people with adverse health and environmental problems related to fracking sites. This is an incredible collection of first hand accounts of the impacts of fracking that covers the entire country.There was more of the same the next day in Butler.

In preparing for a presentation on the health impacts of fracking, I searched the published literature for papers that addressed this issue. I found none, though my search led me to a colleague who is presenting a paper on this very topic at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association this week in San Francisco. She alerted me to a paper in the published literature by Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald, researchers at Cornell University in NY. This paper, “Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health,” published this year in the journal New Solutions, was  the only paper that she had found.

This paper includes 24 case studies that describe animal health effects and some human health effects in 6 states. Owners of livestock were interviewed who had suspected water and air exposures associated with living near natural gas extraction wells. The livestock had suffered a variety of adverse health effects including reproductive, skin, digestive, urological, respiratory and neurological problems, and in some cases sudden death. The owners in many cases experienced health effects as well. These effects included respiratory and neurological problems, skin rashes and digestive problems. These findings are similar to what PACWA reported in their List of the Harmed.

Another excellent summary on the human health risks posed by fracking was prepared by scientists for the Grassroots Environmental Education organization. This paper, “Human Health Risks and Exposure Pathways of Proposed Horizontal Hydrofracking in New York,” was presented at a meeting with state officials in Albany, NY earlier this month.

At this time, there are very little scientific data (one paper) documenting adverse human health effects resulting from the extraction of natural gas using hydrologic fracturing. Meanwhile, grassroots activists are organizing and collecting their own data documenting adverse health effects in people living near natural gas drilling sites. It’s clear that a number of hazardous and toxic chemicals are used in and produced by the fracking process. It’s also clear that a number of very realistic and in some cases documented routes of human exposure exist. But without additional information, including on the proprietary chemicals mixed in with the drilling fluids, the public health risks of natural gas extraction from hydrologic fracturing will be difficult to quantify.