Backyard Talk

The 2000s Really Are a New Era

By: Amelia Meyer
At the beginning of the last century, about 95 years ago, women earned the right to vote. That was a milestone that took effort and dedication. Now, not even a hundred years later, on June 26th, 2015 our nation has given homosexuals the right to get married. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 allowing same sex couples to be married in every state. This is an extremely important part of our social history. Within the past decade, America has elected an African American President, has women running for president, legalized marijuana in a few states, and given homosexuals the right to marriage. All of these achievements are remarkable and really shape our society today and what the future has in store for it. It is really important to stop and realize how different our society is from 50 years, 100 years, or even 20 years ago. One significant part of our progress is social media; it has become a spectacular tool for freedom of expression, connectivity, and publicity that really helps movements like gay rights and climate change. Instead of just protests and calling people one by one, justice movements can be achieved through the internet, social media, blogs, cell phones, protests, and even profile pictures.

This past weekend was full of achievements for gay rights and for our society. We are all one nation and everyone deserves to love and be loved. On Friday there were tears of joy and ecstatic embraces not only outside of the Supreme Court, but around the world. President Obama made a speech on Friday and said “Today, we can say in no uncertain terms, that we have made our union a little more perfect.” Progress is very important in our nation and throughout the world. This ruling is not only important for the gay rights campaign, but it is vital for the stability of our society. The future promises change and improvement. Last week the Pope also openly supported the climate change movement combining the ultimate figure of religion and the most important topic of science today. Also today New York banned hydraulic fracking which is another step forward in climate justice.
Our nation reacted wonderfully throughout the weekend – there were parades around the country supporting the fact that “Love Wins.” Just walking around in different towns and cities, restaurants and stores had signs saying things like “Equality Wins.” Justice has been achieved. As our world progresses, it will be very intriguing to see what other forms of justice we can achieve.

Backyard Talk

Chemical Mixtures May Lead to Cancer

A recently published scientific paper came to a striking conclusion – “the cumulative effects of individual (non-carcinogenic) chemicals acting on different pathways, and a variety of related systems, organs, tissues and cells could plausibly conspire to produce carcinogenic synergies.” In other words, exposure to multiple chemicals at low doses, considered individually to be”safe could result in various low dose effects that lead to the formation of cancer. This is a remarkable observation and conclusion. It is also an important advance in the understanding of the risks chemicals pose to society.

Organized by the non-profit Getting to Know Cancer, a group of 350 cancer research scientists came together in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2013 to address the question of continuous multiple chemical exposures and the risks these exposure pose. Referred to as the Halifax Project, this effort merged two very distinct fields – environmental toxicology and the biological mechanisms of cancer – and provided the opportunity for researchers to look at the diversity of environmental factors that contribute to cancer by examining the impact that exposure to very small amounts of chemicals can have on various systems of the body.

A task force of nearly 200 scientists formed at this meeting took on the challenge of assessing whether or not everyday exposures to mixtures of commonly encountered chemicals have a role to play in cancer causation. The researchers began by identifying a number of specific key pathways and mechanisms that are important in the formation of cancer. Then they identified individual (non-carcinogenic) chemicals that are commonly found in the environment that had some potential to disrupt these systems. A total of 85 environmental chemicals were identified.

The authors found that 59% of these chemicals (50/85) had low dose effects “at levels that are deemed relevant given the background levels of exposure that exist in the environment.” They found that only 15% of the chemicals reviewed (13/85) had a dose-response threshold and that the remaining 26% (22/85) could not be categorized due to a lack of dose-response information. The authors concluded that these results help “to validate the idea that chemicals can act disruptively on key cancer-related mechanisms at environmentally relevant levels of exposure.”

This is an incredibly important observation because it challenges the traditional thinking about how cancer forms in the body. It challenges the notion that all cancers share common traits (considered the “hallmarks of cancer”) that govern the transformation of normal cells to cancer cells. The authors also discuss how the results in this paper impact the process of risk assessment which even its most sophisticated model fails to address continuous exposures to mixtures of common chemicals.

The authors point out how surprisingly little is actually known about the combined effects of chemical mixtures on cancer related mechanisms and processes. This effort however seems to be a very positive step forward.

To read the full paper, go to <>.

Backyard Talk

Climate Change is Important, But What About the Rest of Pope Francis’ Message?

By: Rachel Oest

Discussions surrounding Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical, Laudato Si, appear to focus on his discussion of global warming, but it would be a huge mistake to neglect his multiple other points. Global warming, or as he titled it, “climate change” is only part of the first of five major sections dealing with ecological problems. Specifically under reported, is the issue of global inequality. This is the systematic inequalities that exist between countries, allowing for the simultaneous existence of inequalities within counties.
Pope Francis begins by stating he wants “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (paragraph 3). Typically, encyclicals are addressed to bishops and parties of the Church, but Laudato Si calls on everyone, regardless of religion, because we as humans share the responsibility to protect our planet. We inhabit the same land and yet the global market prevails at the expense of the poor and future generations. People have this distorted notion that an increase in profit can solve the world’s problems. But Pope Francis rejects this mind set by noting the true concerns of the income obsessed individuals: increased revenue or the environmental damage they leave behind? Simply put, businesses are not willing to give up thousands of dollars to protect people they don’t know.
Some rely on the idea that new technology will rectify the damage done to the Earth and air. However, technology is created from the interests of certain powerful groups, and products are not neutral in a consumer based world. The encyclical acknowledges the need for developing countries to increase energy production and improve agriculture systems; but, it also recognizes the need for developed countries to help finance innovations in clean energy production. Just because some areas of the world don’t witness first-hand the environmental impact their lifestyles are creating, doesn’t excuse them from the blame. The environmental hardships our world is facing hit the poor first and the hardest by exacerbating their already existing vulnerabilities. This includes the poor’s lack of access to safe drinking water.
Like most people, the Pope claims safe drinking water is a basic and universal human right. However, we see news articles every day about water sources being polluted and groups organizing to fight the corporations that did it. Developed countries are fortunate because they have advanced systems that allow people to get their water from somewhere else if need be. But some developing countries don’t have this luxury. Often poor areas are forced to ingest chemical infused water, sometimes without even realizing it. The encyclical tells us “our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (paragraph 30).
Pope Francis delivered a clear message calling for change. Society needs to reevaluate the way we relate to one another and to the environment in order to create a healthy and safe world. It is important that the public sees Laudato Si as more than a “global-warming encyclical.” It contains a variety of major environmental arguments being hidden behind just a few climate related paragraphs. Climate Change is important, but the problems our world face goes far beyond that.
To read Pope Francis’ Laudato Si please visit:

Backyard Talk

EPA Can Map Environmental Justice Communities – Can They Stop The Poisoning?

Today we know how to identify Environmental Justice communities but what is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doing to relieve their community burdens? A new mapping tool created by the EPA, called EJSCREEN was recently released. This tool is great for academia or researchers but how does it help environmentally impacted communities? Why is generating information, that community already know because they are living with the pollution and associated diseases daily, more important than helping them?

CHEJ, for example, has worked for over thirty years with Save Our County in East Liverpool, Ohio This community in the 1990’s was defined by EPA as an Environmental Justice community, through their evaluation process which is the same as the mapping categories. Yet nothing has changed as a result of this definition.

  • The hazardous waste incinerator, WTI, still operates and remains for most of the time in violation of air and other standards.
  • Other industries continue to pollute with little enforcement.
  • An elementary school was closed due to the air emissions from the WTI Incinerator stack which is almost level to the school windows (incinerator is in the valley) stack peeked over the embankment. The City was force to shoulder the costs of relocating students and staff.
  • In the past several years new wells were drilled for natural gas extraction and infrastructure.
  • The community has the highest number of cancers in their county than other similar counties in the state.

    Nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed in East Liverpool, Ohio as a result of being defined an environmental justice community.

  • No decision to stop new polluting industries from setting up shop.
  • No action on denying permits, when they have been a significant repeat violator of the laws and regulation, when up for renewal permit.
  • No fee data and information when requested under the freedom of information requests.
  • No additional public comment meetings for new or existing permits. Absolute nothing changed in East Liverpool, OH and so many other communities.

    Thank you EPA for providing a tool for academics, for communities to say yes our community qualifies (although they already knew) and for real estate and banking institutions to provide information that will make it more difficult for families in Environmental Justice communities to secure a home improvement loan or sell their property.

    Now can you spend some time and money on reducing the pollution burdens and assisting with the medical professionals for disease related injuries.

  • Categories
    Backyard Talk

    The Environmental Injustice of Electronic Waste

    By Michelle Atkin

    An increasing number of electronic devices continue to escalate the number that are disposed of each year – in 2012 the United States produced 3.4 million tons of electronic waste! Discarded phones, tablets, computers, televisions and even washers, dryers and refrigerators are an enormous problem and only 1 million tons are recycled. Anything disposed of with an electrical component is considered e-waste and the United Nations estimates that 20-50 million tons are produced around the world each year.

    The U.S. disposes of 25 million TVs, 47.5 million computers and 100 million cell phones each year. If we recycled this quantity of cell phones alone, 3500 pounds of copper, 77,200 pounds of silver, 7500 pounds of gold and 3300 pounds of palladium could be salvaged.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s reports show an increase in recycling from 30.6% in 2012 to 40.4% in 2013, potentially in response to their Sustainable Materials Management Electronics Challenge.

    In order to safely process e-waste, it costs a developed nation approximately $2500 per ton; however, some developing countries accept imports for as little as $3 per ton. Unfortunately, they do not have the means to properly handle these materials, yet the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia continue to ship e-waste to vulnerable countries.

    Public health and environmental concerns stem from open-air burning and acid baths used to recover valuable components from electronic equipment. The most greatly impacted population is children (as young as five to 18), sent by their parents to make a couple of dollars by burning the plastic coatings off copper wires for example, often with their bare hands.

    The toxic fumes and dust inhaled during hazardous retrieval and massive plastic scrap yard fires (to reduce volume) contain lead, phthalates and chlorinated dioxins. The poor air quality has a detrimental effect on nearby food markets and deteriorates the water quality of the area rivers, lagoons and even the ocean.

    Jim Puckett reminds us, “Wherever we live, we must realize that when we sweep things out of our lives and throw them away… they don’t ever disappear, as we might like to believe. We must know that ‘away’ is in fact a place… likely to be somewhere where people are impoverished, disenfranchised, powerless and too desperate to be able to resist the poison for the realities of their poverty. ‘Away’ is likely to be a place where people and environments will suffer for our carelessness, our ignorance or indifference.” As a founder of the Basal Action Network non-profit, they focus on confronting the global environmental injustice and economic inefficiency of toxic trade and its devastating impacts.

    To learn more about the problem of e-waste, visit EPA’s web page here. Or to learn what you can do to help, visit Electronics Take Back Coalition.

    Backyard Talk

    Environmental and Public Health Implications of the TPP

    By Dylan Lenzen

    This past week, the House of Representatives failed to approve a measure that would provide President Obama with “fast-track authority” in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and eleven other countries of the pacific-rim including Japan, Vietnam, Australia, Mexico, and Canada among others. The trade agreement has been negotiated in secret for three years, and beyond leaked documents, the American public will likely not be able to view the details of the agreement until after it is approved. While President Obama supports the trade deal, he failed to convince the necessary number of his fellow democrats in order to pass the measure. Many democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have expressed concerns that the deal does not provide adequate protection for American workers. In addition, a number of environmental and consumer-advocacy groups have expressed their opposition to the trade deal for a number of reasons, including threats to the environment and public health.

    Particularly alarming are the rights granted to corporations under the “investor-state dispute settlement system”. As a result, multinational corporations would essentially be given the right to sue governments before international tribunals regarding regulations they believe pose a threat to “expected future profits”. In cases where corporations win, the taxpayers of the losing country would be responsible for providing compensation. This has already been observed under past trade agreements such as NAFTA. An example was described by the Sierra Club, in which Lone Pine Resources, an oil and gas corporation, sued the Canadian government for $250 million after a fracking moratorium was passed by the Quebec National Assembly. According to consumer rights advocacy group, Public Citizen, over $3 billion has been paid out to corporations as a result of disputes under past free-trade agreements, a majority being related to environmental and public health regulation. Public Citizen goes on to state, “the mere threat of a case can put pressure on governments to weaken environment and health policies.” These policies represent important protections for the health of communities all over the world.

    In addition to the threat posed by the investor-state system, others worry that hydraulic fracturing operations in the U.S. will expand due to increased natural gas exports. Currently, all natural gas exports are subject to analysis by the Department of Energy to ensure that exports do not threaten the interests of the American public. Under the TPP, this authority would be lost and all natural gas export permits would be approved, increasing pressure to expand U.S. fracking operations and infrastructure. This increases the environmental health threats already posed by the industry.

    These represent but a small portion of a great number of concerns in regards to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While the capacity of free-trade agreements such as this to promote economic development and job growth is up for debate, it is clear that these agreements pose significant risk to the health of communities and ecosystems around the world.

    To find out more about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, please consider the following resources:

    Backyard Talk

    EPA Takes Baby Steps in Acknowledging Fracking Dangers

    The US EPA released a draft Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources earlier this month. Although still only a draft, the document marks a noticeable shift in how EPA views fracking – from basically denying that fracking posed any risk to drinking water and human health, to acknowledging that, “there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources”. I, for one, cannot believe that EPA had the guts to do this.

    Don’t get me wrong; the draft assessment still makes a weak statement with regards to the real impacts of fracking on drinking water. However, the statement carries major credibility and importance due to the fact that the draft assessment is the most comprehensive review of literature on the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water to date, having examined nearly 1,000 different science and engineering journals, federal and state government reports, nongovernmental organization reports, industry publications, and federal and state datasets.

    Although EPA states that there is no evidence that fracking activities have led to “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States”, they clearly acknowledge that they have the ability to do so at the local level. This is a bit obvious, since we are not experiencing massive water shortages or national pandemics due to fracking (at least not yet), yet it is well documented that millions of people across the nation have experienced water contamination due to fracking activities in their local environments. Therefore, if we take EPA’s statement into perspective, they are effectively saying that fracking can and has affected local drinking water sources across the country.

    This is heresy for industry, and the full wrath of their criticism is sure to fall on EPA in the coming weeks. During the document’s public comment period, the oil and gas industry will move mountains to ensure that EPA’s modest claims attributing fault to fracking for drinking water contamination are removed from the final document.

    As an idealist, I have hope that EPA will withstand the storm and stand up for what the science has revealed. However, in all likelihood, the billions of dollars at the disposal of industry will ensure that EPA softens their already weak stance or retracts it altogether.

    My hope is that environmental organizations and the public at large fight this and tell EPA not to be bullied by corporate interests. Public comments on the draft assessment are open until August 28, so we can all weight in on the fight. EPA is taking baby steps towards finally accepting that fracking has huge inherent dangers to public health and this is among the first of these steps. It falls to us to take EPA’s hand and help it learn to walk.

    Backyard Talk

    Fracking for Environmental Remediation

    Most of us are familiar with hydraulic fracturing as a technique used for oil and natural gas drilling. The process uses a slurry of chemicals and sand to prop open rock fissures, allowing the release of fossil fuels. However, natural gas and oil are not the only constituents trapped in rock layers; these layers can also serve as a reservoir for contaminants. At Superfund sites and other polluted areas, the process of remediation, or cleanup, can be extended and expensive. Hydraulic fracturing has been utilized as an environmental cleanup method, where the same process is used to release trapped contaminants in rock layers. The EPA provides information on the process at

    In fracking for environmental remediation just as in fracking for oil and gas drilling, a slurry of chemicals is pumped into the ground, typically containing a combination of water, sand to prop open fissures, detergent, and nutrients/amendments which stimulate the process of chemical breakdown. According to the EPA, “Environmental fracturing can be used to make primary treatment technologies…more efficient.” By enhancing the access of chemicals for pollution treatment to the rock layers where the pollutants are trapped, fracking has the possibility to decrease treatment times at polluted sites.

    Fracking for fossil fuel extraction – specifically, horizontal drilling which uses a very large volume of chemicals- has been faulted for a number of high-profile instances of water contamination. When the process fails, the stakes are high for communities whose water supplies are in proximity to fracking wells. Through environmental hydraulic fracturing is intended to clean up already-polluted sites, the parallels between this process and fracking for natural gas are difficult to ignore. Is it possible for the process to further spread contamination in instances that pipelines or wells fail? The research is slim on this topic so far, but we do know that even with the best of intentions, remediation processes do not always go as planned. In my next post, I’ll explore the potential for unintended consequences from remediation.

    Backyard Talk

    ATSDR Fails Community Once Again

    In July of 2013, an explosion occurred at the WTI/Heritage Thermal Services (HTS) hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, OH. Incinerator ash that had built up on the inside of the incinerator stack suddenly fell off causing a huge cloud of dust contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic substances to be released from the stack. An estimated 800 to 900 pounds of ash were released into the surrounding community. The plant manager advised residents to wash fruits and vegetables from their gardens and to replace food and water for pets and farm animals. Save Our County, a local group that has been fighting to shut down the incinerator for more than 20 years and other local residents were quite alarmed by what happened and asked whether this latest accident further put their health at risk.

    The state regulating agency’s response was to invite the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to evaluate what risks the residents might have suffered. More than a year later, ATSDR released its report which concluded that the “trace amount of toxic metals in the surface and subsurface soils of the residential area west of the HTS facility affected by the July 2013 ash release are not expected to harm people’s health. The reason for this is that the concentration of these metals found in the soils are below levels of health concern.”

    It’s not clear how ATSDR came to this conclusion when some of the data included in the report clearly show contaminant levels that exceeded levels of health concern. Two (of 13) soil samples, one on-site and one off-site, both downwind, had the highest levels of contaminants of concern (though they never disclosed what these levels were). The arsenic levels found in the surface soil of the surrounding community generally exceeded public health levels of concern, ranging from 14 to 57 parts per million (ppm), averaging 20 ppm. The public health level of concern is 15 ppm.

    There is also data on two wipe samples (of 8) collected by HTS immediately after the accident that were found to contain 3,600 ppm arsenic; 13,000 ppm lead and 8,000 ppm nickel. These samples were collected from areas on-site where trucks at the facility were staged. These are all extraordinarily high and well above public health levels of concern.

    Similarly, two wipe samples collected from the community had arsenic levels at 277 ppm and lead at 819 ppm, both levels well in excess of levels of public health concern. The report refers to a third sample collected from the surface of a black S10 pick-up truck with arsenic at 296 ppm and lead at 1,046 ppm also well above public health levels of concern.

    Despite all of these results that exceeded public health levels of concern, ATSDR concluded that there is no cause for alarm and that the toxic metals released into the community “is not expected” to harm people’s health. It’s like someone at ATSDR wrote the conclusion without ever reading the report or looking at the data.

    The ATSDR report simply ignores the data that exceeds public health levels of concern and draws its conclusions as though these high levels did not exist. How can anyone trust a government agency that operates this way?

    This is what communities across the country have grown to expect from ATSDR – conclusions that are unresponsive to community concerns about potential health risks but protective of industrial pollution. Some things never change.

    Backyard Talk

    Great Pacific Garbage Patch

    By Michelle Atkin

    The world’s largest landfill is actually floating in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. It contains three million tons of plastic, in addition to other marine debris, and is often referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). This drifting ocean litter or gyre is one of five major global garbage patches and was discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, a California volunteer environmentalist and sailor who was so concerned he founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

    The size of this trash cluster is widely debated because it is difficult to measure as it shifts with the currents. While some say it is the size of France, others say it is twice the size of Texas, but it is a problem that is not going away.

    Every year there are 280 million tons of plastic produced around the world, and 63 pounds of plastic packaging for each person ends up in landfills annually while only nine percent of it is recycled in the United States. Unfortunately, because plastic is not biodegradable, all of the fragments of plastic that have ever been produced still exist, excluding the small volume that has been incinerated, which releases toxic chemicals.

    While water bottles and plastic bags contribute to the greatest percentage of plastic litter, a few of the many other items that can be found on the ocean’s floor or surface are buttons, fishing line, toys, cigarette lighters, PVC pipe or fragments, golf tees, gloves and markers. Over time, the sun, wind and waves can break down the plastic into millimeter sized flecks which creates a mess that is impossible to clean up. Scientists have found six times more plastic than plankton in GPGP ocean water samples, and it makes its way into the stomachs of birds, fish, whales and other marine life, which may eventually end up on our plates, along with the Bisphenol A (BPA) and other toxic chemicals found in some plastic.

    The estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer in the world’s oceans kill millions of seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year from ingestion or entanglement. Half of the Earth’s wetlands have been destroyed and beaches like Kamilo Beach in Hawaii consist of more plastic particles than sand particles in the top twelve inches of the beach.

    As stated by National Geographic, “because the GPGP is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up,” but even if a net could collect the trash “the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.”

    The enormity of the ocean and this problem is difficult to grasp because like GPGP reporter Richard Grant wrote, “even if plastic production halted tomorrow, the planet would be dealing with its environmental consequences for thousands of years, and on the bottom of the oceans, where an estimated 70 percent of marine plastic debris ends up, for tens of thousands of years. It may form a layer in the geological record of the planet.”

    Despite the damage that has already been done, the focus should be placed on reducing our footprint in the future. We need to work together and individually by volunteering to clean-up streams, rivers, lakes and beaches, so that we can limit the garbage that makes it into the ocean. We should also support environmental organizations and embrace environmental initiatives, reduce plastic use and recycle.