Backyard Talk

A Mother's Story About Fracking

This is a first hand description by Jodi from PA who was recently dosed with toxic chemical inside of her home that were released from a nearby well pad and gas line. She now has skin rashes on her face, neck and chest. She is nauseous and extremely tired.

Backyard Talk

Teachers and Students That Inspire

I was invited by a science teacher Kendall Jensen to visit with her students at Roosevelt High School during my travel to assist the Portland, Oregon community group Neighbors for Clean Air. I have visited classrooms often throughout my work at CHEJ. However, this school, its teachers and the students truly inspired me in a way that I left more energized than when I came.

To understand why, you need to understand the environment. The school built in 1921 houses over 680 students. The students come from a low wealth area with 84% of the students receiving free or reduced lunch program, making it Oregon’s poorest high school. A few of the students live in the shelters and are homeless.

Moreover, the school is the most diverse in the state with the student population consisting of 31% Latino, 30% white, 23% African American, 9% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 4% Native American. In a school population where there are so many negative impacts working against students’ ability to succeed, I walked into a room full of students gathered together to take steps to improve themselves and their environment.

Ms. Kendall Jensen a science teacher at the high school has inspired and motivated the students to explore the environmental problems in the community. As I walked into the classroom where we were having lunch and conversation with students about Love Canal and the work that the neighborhood group, Neighbors for Clean Air, was working on the room was full of energy from eager students. No one was getting extra credit; no one was getting any benefit other than the opportunity to learn more about their neighborhood’s air problems.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also share that this was one of the first beautiful spring days in Portland with the temperature in the 70’s, sunny and clear. Yet students motivated by Kendall and their own curiosity came to learn instead of joining their friends for lunch on this beautiful day. Students listened and learned not just about the local toxic air pollution problems but about taking leadership becoming their own advocates and standing up for what they think is right. This High School is in the direct line of toxic air pollution. It is one of Portland’s schools that rank in the top 5% of all US schools with the most dangerous outdoor air quality in the country.

As a mother of four and someone who has spent time with extraordinary teachers like Kendall, it is clear that when students fail it is not because of a failed teacher. Sometime, especially in schools like Roosevelt High School where students face challenges everyday to survive, it the added toxic environment that directly affects their ability to learn and to pass standardized tests. We know with a level of scientific confidence that toxic chemicals in the environment are directly connected to children’s’ ability to concentrate and learn. Children facing daily toxic lifestyles as it is being referred to now – meaning single family households, poverty, drug influences, poor diet and so on – is exasperated by exposures to real toxic chemicals. Clearly the students in that classroom want to learn, want to succeed and want to take control of their futures. They and the school’s teachers need help; they need a healthy environment, with clean air for their students to succeed. Clean air is something that teachers do not have the ability to change on their own. It is the responsibility of the government to give students a chance by both providing the tools and the healthy environment to make success possible. If the students at this school fail it is more likely the fault of the lack of a healthy environment and not the teachers.

Backyard Talk

Environmental Health: A Social Movement Whose Time Has Come

Guest Blog by Kate Davies

In 1965, when I was 8 years old, my mother was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was given less than a year to live. By some miracle she survived, only to be diagnosed with breast cancer some 20 years later. She survived this too, but in 1995 she developed a rare T cell lymphoma. She died in 2007, after fighting these three different types of cancer for over forty years.

My mother’s illnesses influenced me profoundly. As a child, I wanted to become a doctor so I could make her better, but as the physicians failed to cure her, I became more interested in how cancer could be prevented. To find out more, I decided to study biochemistry. After completing a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate, I became convinced that toxic chemicals and radiation played a role in this life-threatening disease. This realization led me to join the environmental health movement.

I suspect that most people join this social movement because, like me, they know someone with an environmentally-related disease or because they live in a community affected by pollution.  This shouldn’t be a surprise.  Social activism is often a result of direct, personal experience.  Although scientific and economic information is important, living with or witnessing an environmental health problem firsthand can inspire activism in a way that facts and figures alone don’t.

The leaders of the U.S. environmental health movement are well aware of this. For the past 35 years, they have intentionally drawn attention to the health effects of toxic chemicals and other environmental hazards. By highlighting the effects of pollution on living, breathing people, they are putting a human face on the issues. Whether it’s a cancer survivor talking about how she copes with daily life or a mom talking about her child’s learning disabilities, the stories of real people dealing with real illnesses make environmental issues much more tangible and immediate.

This is the environmental health movement’s unique strategy. Unlike most environmentalists, who emphasize the natural world, the environmental health movement shines a spotlight on human health and well-being. This may sound like a subtle difference, but it affects how issues are framed and communicated to the public.  More importantly, it makes a huge difference in how the public understands them.

Shining a spotlight on human health has made the environmental health movement successful.  Working mostly at the state and local levels, activists have organized countless communities to protest abandoned toxic waste dumps, oppose new hazardous facilities, raise awareness about local disease clusters and draw attention to environmental injustice. The movement has also won numerous legislative victories. Over 900 toxics policies were proposed or enacted in the U.S. between 1990 and 2009, and between 2003 and 2011, 18 states passed 71 chemical safety laws..

The environmental health movement was born in 1978, just two years before I joined it. As supporters of CHEJ will know, in that year, Lois Gibbs first raised the alarm about the health effects of toxic chemicals leaking from an abandoned waste dump in Love Canal, New York. Organizing her neighbors to demand action, she fought the government and won.

Since then, the environmental health movement has spread across the U.S. and around the globe. Today, about 10,000 environmental health organizations and people are listed on WISER, a worldwide social networking website for sustainability. Almost 4,500 members in about 80 countries and all 50 states form the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. There are now environmental health groups in every major city and state in the U.S.

But despite its success and widespread public support, very little has been written about this social movement. There are many books on the environmental movement, the environmental justice movement and the science of environmental health, but only a handful on the environmental health movement.

My new book, The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement, is an attempt to remedy this situation and give it the recognition it so richly deserves.  In the book, I describe the historical and cultural origins of the U.S. environmental health movement and analyze the organizations and strategies that comprise it today. By examining what has made this movement successful, the book provides insights into what social movements can do to advance positive social change.

Those of us who are part of the environmental health movement do this work because we are called to do it. For us, there is simply no other choice. As the poet Adrienne Rich wrote:

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”

Kate Davies, MA, DPhil, is the author of a new book called The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement. She is core faculty in the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University Seattle and clinical associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. She has been active on environmental health for 35 years in the U.S., Canada and other countries.

Backyard Talk

Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining

Earlier this week, CHEJ released a report on the Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal (MTR) Mining. This report reviewed the most significant studies on the human health impacts of MTR mining. The health studies described in this report provide strong evidence that MTR mining has impacted the residents in the surrounding communities and that further research is needed to better understand the relationship between adverse health effects and MTR mining.

The studies reviewed in this report show that MTR areas have higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease-related mortality, overall mortality, and birth defects, and that the residents of these areas report lower health-related quality of life than residents of any other part of Appalachia.

As part of this report, we commissioned a group of medical and scientific experts called the National Commission on Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining and asked them to review this report. Commission members included Dr. Jerome Paulson, Professor of Pediatrics & Public Health, George Washington University; Dr. Steven B. Wing, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill; and Dr. Daniel Wartenberg, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology and Statistics, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, New Jersey.

The Commission strongly supported the findings in the report and developed recommendations to improve our understanding of the interactions between MTR mining and human health. The main recommendation called for “an immediate moratorium on MTR mining until such time as health studies have been conducted that provide a clearer understanding of the associations between adverse health impacts, notably adverse reproductive outcomes, and MTR mining.  In addition, during the moratorium period, appropriate safeguards including remediation and engineering controls should be implemented to mitigate air and water pollution related to MTR mining activities.”

The actions called for by the Commission are in line with recent government initiatives to protect the health of Appalachian communities. In February 2013, Congressional Representatives re-introduced the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE Act, HR 526. If passed this bill would require the Department of Health and Human Services to lead a federal investigation of the reported links between MTR mining and human health impacts. Until such an investigation is conducted, the ACHE Act would require a moratorium on all new MTR permits, as well as on any expansion of existing permits. The ACHE Act would address the primary recommendation of the Commission which is to place an immediate moratorium on MTR mining until such time as health studies have been conducted that provide a clearer understanding of the associations between adverse health impacts and MTR mining

To read the report including the commission’s statement and recommendations, click here.


Backyard Talk

National Commission on the Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining Releases Recommendations Calls for a Moratorium

Today the National Commission on the Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining, a group of independent physicians and scientists, released recommendations for actions necessary to ensure the health and safety of the residents of Appalachia who are impacted by mountaintop removal mining. The Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) commissioned the scientists to review a report prepared by CHEJ that analyzed the existing body of peer-reviewed, scientific studies on the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining on human health. That review led to the recommendations released today. The review and the Commission’s statement are available online

Backyard Talk

Touring with Lois Gibbs

If you haven’t read the story “From homemaker to hell-raiser in Love Canal”, you should. And to make it easier here’s the link.
In the story I loved what Luella Kenny, another Love Canal activist had to say about Lois. “She was like a hurricane and we just kept going.” This reminded me of the Toxic Tour that Lois and I took around Ohio a couple of years ago. We traveled to all corners of the state, covering over 900 miles in just 4 days. I think of Lois as having the energy of the Energizer Bunny. With every community we visited it was like someone put new batteries in her and off she went. She is a tireless fighter for what is right.
The writer of “From homemaker to hell-raiser in Love Canal” described the Center for Health, Environment & Justice office as “being squired in a third-floor corner office in a nondescript building in Fairfax County, Va., a few miles from Washington, D.C. A tiny gray sign hangs outside the door, betraying no sense of the history inside.” While all true, those inside find no need of fancy offices in expensive buildings. It is more important to fight for what is right for the environment and the grassroots community groups we work with. The CHEJ extended family is a very close group of individuals. We celebrate together, we are sad together, we have disagreements with each other, and we hug each other. The CHEJ family includes all the community groups that we have ever worked with. Boy what a family reunion that would be if we ever all got together.
I won’t start naming names because I know I would leave someone out but, to all of you out there that are the Lois Gibbs of your community I say thank you for doing what you have done or are doing. If we haven’t heard from you for a while, give us a call to let us know how you are doing.

Backyard Talk

A.D.H.D. Seen in 11% of U.S. Children as Diagnoses Rise

Nearly one in five high school age boys in the United States and 11 percent of school-age children over all have received a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to new data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These rates reflect a marked rise over the last decade and could fuel growing concern among many doctors that the A.D.H.D. diagnosis and its medication are overused in American children.

The figures showed that an estimated 6.4 million children ages 4 through 17 had received an A.D.H.D. diagnosis at some point in their lives, a 16 percent increase since 2007 and a 41 percent rise in the past decade. About two-thirds of those with a current diagnosis receive prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall, which can drastically improve the lives of those with A.D.H.D. but can also lead to addiction, anxiety and occasionally psychosis. Read More.

Backyard Talk

The latest news on the poison plastic: what every parent needs to know

The bad news on vinyl, the poison plastic, and phthalates keeps on mounting.

The more I learn, the more I wonder, why are we still allowing this hazardous plastic in our schools and homes?

Here are some of the most recent developments that every parent needs to know.

First responders file lawsuit over vinyl chloride disaster

In response to the December vinyl chloride disaster, which sent over a cloud of over 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the air (originally destined for OxyVinyls in NJ), a group of first responders have filed a lawsuit over this toxic exposure.  NBC Philadelphia reports:

“A class action lawsuit was filed today relating to the Paulsboro, New Jersey train derailment and chemical spill that forced hundreds of people from their homes and left dozens sick last year.

The plaintiffs include more than 100 first responders, young children, and property owners who allege they sustained injuries and damages after the hazardous chemical spill… First responders claim that Conrail representatives advised them throughout the day that they did not need breathing masks or other personal protective equipment, despite high readings of vinyl chloride in the air. The suit states they later underwent extensive medical testing that showed high levels of vinyl chloride in their urine.”

Vinyl chloride is the basic building block of PVC, used to make vinyl flooring in our nation’s schools, hospitals and homes.  You can’t make this plastic without this cancer-causing chemical.

The latest science: vinyl chemicals toxic to our health

As families and first responders have been suing over vinyl chloride epxousre, more scientific studies have been published showing that vinyl chemicals are harmful to our health.  Some notable studies in recent months include:

  • Research funded by the US Department of Defense found phthalates, used to make vinyl flooring soft and flexible, may contribute to disease even generations after exposure. They report that, Observations demonstrate that a mixture of plastic derived compounds, BPA and phthalates, can promote epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of adult onset disease. “
  • Only a few weeks after I blogged on new studies linking vinyl chemicals to asthma and obesity, researchers in China found a link between phthalates and obesity in school children.
  • Researchers in Ireland found potentially hazardous nanomaterials leach from PVC food packaging into food: “An exposure assessment revealed that human exposure to silver (assuming a worst case scenario that all silver is in its most harmful nanoform), is likely to be below current migration limits for conventional migrants and a provisional toxicity limit; however it is acknowledged there is still considerable uncertainty about the potential harmful effects of particles at the nanoscale.”

Policies to protect our kids from poisonous chemicals

On the policy front, the big news is the reintroduction of the Safe Chemicals Act by Senators Lautenberg and Gillibrand (honored to have her as my Senator here in NY, thank you very much 🙂 ), which will go a long way in protecting American families from unnecessary toxic chemicals like phthalates.  Yesterday, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a news release announcing their endorsement of these common sense health safeguards.

As chemical policy reform continues to be debated here in the US, at the international level, Denmark has just unveiled a comprehensive new strategy to address phthalates in consumer products.

As part of the strategy, the Danish EPA will commence evaluation of the information available about the most common phthalates. And this may very well lead to new bans or other measures if necessary, the Minister for the Environment pledges.”

Pressure mounting to eliminate vinyl and phthalates nationwide

Meanwhile, the market movement away from vinyl and phthalates continues.  For instance, EPEAT has recently announced new standards for printers and imaging equipment, which rewards PVC avoidance in electronics – which should have a huge impact on the electronics sector.

Just yesterday, the San Francisco Travel Association announced that all new street banners around the convention center will be completely free of PVC, due to the hazards PVC poses from production to use to disposal.

“San Francisco has always been a city of firsts when it comes to sustainability and now that extends to our city’s street banners. I’m pleased to see the San Francisco Travel Association embrace our city’s goals of zero waste and toxics reduction by eliminating the use of PVC, a harmful and non-recyclable material, and up-cycling the banners as well,” said Melanie Nutter, director San Francisco Department of the Environment.

Last and certainly not least, CHEJ and our friends at the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families campaign have launched a new Mind the Store campaign to urge the nation’s top ten retailers to eliminate the hazardous 100 chemicals, which includes phthalates, vinyl chloride, and a number of other chemicals unique to this poison plastic.  Many retailers, such as Target, have already taken steps to phase out PVC, but much more is still needed. Read all about what bloggers are saying about the new campaign, who traveled to stores nationwide urging them to get these nasty chemicals out of their products.


Phew, that’s a lot to report on!

Anything important I missed?  Would love to hear other new developments!

Till next time.  Your humble plastics crusader, Mike.

Backyard Talk

Radioactive Guinea Pigs

“This is a public health policy only Dr. Strangelove could embrace,” said Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) Executive Director Jeff Ruch,  This week, the White House approved a radical radiation cleanup rollback that will threaten people near radioactive accidents. Cancer deaths are expected to skyrocket after radiological accidents with the harmful new “cleanup” standard.

“The White House has given final approval for dramatically raising permissible radioactive levels in drinking water and soil following “radiological incidents,” such as nuclear power-plant accidents and dirty bombs. The final version, slated for Federal Register publication is a win for the nuclear industry which seeks what its proponents call a “new normal” for radiation exposure among the U.S population, according Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

 Issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, the radiation guides (called Protective Action Guides or PAGs) allow cleanup many times more lax than anything EPA has ever before accepted. These guides govern evacuations, shelter-in-place orders, food restrictions and other actions following a wide range of “radiological emergencies.” The Obama administration blocked a version of these PAGs from going into effect during its first days in office. The version given approval late last Friday is substantially similar to those proposed under Bush but duck some of the most controversial aspects:

 In soil, the PAGs allow long-term public exposure to radiation in amounts as high as 2,000 millirems. This would, in effect, increase a longstanding 1 in 10,000 person cancer rate to a rate of 1 in 23 persons exposed over a 30-year period;  In water, the PAGs punt on an exact new standard and EPA “continues to seek input on this.” But the thrust of the PAGs is to give on-site authorities much greater “flexibility” in setting aside established limits; and resolves an internal fight inside EPA between nuclear versus public health specialists in favor of the former. The PAGs are the product of Gina McCarthy, the assistant administrator for air and radiation whose nomination to serve as EPA Administrator is taken up this week by the Senate.

Despite the years-long internal fight, this is the first public official display of these guides. This takes place as Japan grapples with these same issues in the two years following its Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“This is a public health policy only Dr. Strangelove could embrace. If this typifies the environmental leadership we can expect from Ms. McCarthy, then EPA is in for a long, dirty slog,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the EPA package lacks a cogent rationale, is largely impenetrable and hinges on a series of euphemistic “weasel words.” “No compelling justification is offered for increasing the cancer deaths of Americans innocently exposed to corporate miscalculations several hundred-fold.”

 Reportedly, the PAGs had been approved last fall but their publication was held until after the presidential election. The rationale for timing their release right before McCarthy’s confirmation hearing is unclear. Since the PAGs guide agency decision-making and do not formally set standards or repeal statutory requirements, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act and Superfund, they will go into full effect following a short public comment period. Nonetheless, the PAGs will likely determine what actions take place on the ground in the days, weeks, months and, in some cases, years following a radiological emergency. “

 For more information, go to

Backyard Talk

Celebrating 20 Years of Environmental Justice at EPA

I had the good fortunate to attend a reception celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the establishment of the USEPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) last week in Washington, D.C. This event celebrated the accomplishments of the Environmental Justice movement and recognized the work of many of the pioneers in the movement over the past 20 years. Lisa Garcia, Associate Assistant Administrator for EPA’s OEJ opened the evening’s events that included presentations by Charles Lee, former director of the OEJ and Vernice Miller-Travis, long time environmental justice advocate. Charles Lee looked back at the significance of his seminar report Toxic Waste and Race in the United States published in 1987. Key recommendations in this report included urging the EPA to establish an Office of Hazardous  Wastes and Racial and Ethnic Affairs which became the Office of Environmental Justice in 1992; urging the President to issue an Executive Order on Environmental Justice mandating federal agencies to consider the impact of current policies and regulations on racial and ethnic communities which Bill Clinton did in 1994; and further urging EPA to establish a National Advisory Council on Racial and Ethnic Concerns which became the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council in 1993. Vernice Miller-Travis spoke of other seminal reports and moments in the Environmental Justice Movement including the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and the formation of the Principles of Environmental Justice.

Environmental Justice Pioneer Awards were given to former EPA Administrator Lisa Perez Jackson and to Dr. Clarice Gaylord, the first director of the EPA Office of Environmental Justice. Also honored was Dr. Mildred McClain for her spirit and lifelong commitment to Environmental Justice. The most moving moment of the evening came when past heroes and sheroes (their word) of the Environmental Justice movement were recognized and honored. The individual images of sixteen leaders who had passed away in recent years were shown on a large screen in a moving video tribute. Virtually every one of these individuals were people I and others at CHEJ had known and worked with before. By the time the video tribute was over, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. It was very moving.

The newly appointed director of the Office of Environmental Justice, Matthew Tejada was also introduced that night. Matt was the former director of the  Air Alliance Houston. Music and refreshments were served to close out the evening as several hundred environmental justice activists and supporters shared memories and hopes for the futures. The theme for the evening seemed to be that much has been accomplished but much more still needs to be done, like all struggles for justice.

EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice has launched a 20th Anniversary Video Series that features government officials, non-profit leaders, academics and students who share inspiring and educational stories about the lessons they have learned while working on environmental justice. Click here to view the full list of blog posts and videos in this series.