Backyard Talk

Families Expose to Toxic Chemicals Lives’ Matter

I am so frustrated and cannot understand how to win equal protection of health for all people.  I’ve been doing this work for over thirty years and observed that unlike food contamination or infectious disease, where health agencies move at the speed of light to keep people safe, when the source is toxic chemicals from a corporation, people are sacrificed.  I’m looking for ideas from those who read this blog.  Just recently we saw the call to action to protect public health  around the cilantro scare.

This week I received requests for help from local leaders CHEJ is working with that related to health studies and public health impacts from chemicals in their environment.

One study around hydro fracking, researchers found that pregnant women living near clusters of fracked wells were more likely to have babies with lower birth weights.  The second study found higher rates of hospitalization for heart conditions, neurological illness, and other conditions among people who live near fracking sites.

Those studies were not enough to stop fracking in the communities. In fact, health authorities said they believe it may not be the fracking at all – it could just be a random clustering of medical problems.

The third study was around a low wealth African American community in Birmingham, Alabama. Adjacent to the community is Walter Coke Facility that manufactures coke, toluene sulfonyl acid, produces pig iron from iron ore and more.

The Federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted a study to determine the health risk to community families based upon exposures to arsenic, lead, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in residential surface soil and homegrown garden produce in the communities collected from November 2012 through January 2015.

ATSDR concluded that:

  • past and current exposure to arsenic found in surface soil of some residential yards could harm people’s health. Children are especially at risk.
  • past and current exposure to lead found in surface soil of some residential yards could harm people’s health. Swallowing this lead‐contaminated soil could cause harmful health effects, especially in children and in the developing fetus of pregnant women.
  • long‐term exposure (i.e., many years) to PAHs found in the surface soil of some residential yards is at a level of concern for lifetime cancer risk.

The agency’s recommendation was for parents to:

  • monitor their children’s behavior while playing outdoors and prevent their children from intentionally or inadvertently eating soil;
  • take measures to reduce exposures to residential soil and to protect themselves, their families, and visitors;
  • have their children tested for blood lead; and
  • for EPA to continue testing for arsenic and lead in the soil and continue with its plans to cleanup additional properties (patch quilt of clean up not community wide as though the wind won’t carry toxic dust from one yard to another) to reduce levels in residential surface soil.

There was no mention of what the polluter should do. No mention of relocating families from the area to safe housing somewhere else. There was no mention of health monitoring or a clinic for people, especially children who are exposed and sick.

What level of human tragedy, suffering and loss of life will it take to stop the poisoning of American people from toxic chemicals?  The ethics behind the two responses of food/infectious disease versus chemical threats to public health is unethical.  Families being exposed to toxic chemicals matter just as much as everyone else. It’s time our health agencies stopped treating them as sacrificial families to protect corporate profits.

Backyard Talk

Neglacting the Marshall Islands

By: Amelia Meyer

In the early 50s the United States Atomic Energy Commission announced the establishment of Pacific Proving Grounds on about 2000 islands in the North pacific, including the Marshall Islands.  They conducted over a hundred nuclear tests there. In the Marshall Islands the United States conducted more Nuclear Testing there than in any other location in the world. This has had a significant impact on their health for the past few decades. There were several serious birth defects and an abundant amount of cancer cases throughout the Marshall Islands. In 1990 the Marshall Islands were paid over seven hundred million dollars to compensate for the radiation health issues. However this is not nearly enough to repay for the lives lost and defects that were caused.

Now the Marshall Islands are suffering significantly again. Climate change and rising carbon dioxide levels have affected many impacts of our world in the past few years. One serious issue is sea level rise. Cities all over the world are suffering from impacts of flooding and sea level rise. Severe weather, warmer ocean temperatures, and the melting of the glaciers have significantly affected sea level rise. A country that is impacted the most currently is the Marshall Islands.

Over the past couple years there have been dozens of floods throughout the Marshall Islands. These stem from stronger storms and a variety of weather events. However it’s mostly from the rise of the sea level surrounding the whole country which is composed of over a thousand Islands and over twenty coral atolls. Around seventy thousand people live in the Marshall Islands but many natives are moving to Arkansas. Why?

Hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the floods and many babies, children, and adults have floated away. The citizens of the Marshall Islands are so terrified of the water that they want to be as land locked as possible. Therefore they have been moving to Arkansas. If they have not moved yet they are planning to. Unfortunately the Marshall Islands will not last long because of Sea Level Rise. It is expected that by 2020 most of the Islands will have sunken under the water. This is also an environmental risk to the Ocean and aquatic ecosystems because of the Nuclear Testing that was done earlier. Overall the Marshall Islands have been neglected and suffered a significant amount due to Climate Change and Nuclear Testing and the country and its residents deserve attention and support from society.

Backyard Talk

Risks & Rewards of Nanoremediation

Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel Prey features a terrifying interpretation of nanotechnology, when swarms of “nanobots” become self-aware and predatory. His book is entirely fictional, but even outside the realm of popular culture, mentions of nanotechnology can stoke our fears about what might happen if science advances beyond our control.

What is nanotechnology? Any technology that works with and manipulates particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in length or width can fall under the nanotech umbrella. Particles of this size are too small to see with the naked eye – they are about the size of a virus or of your DNA. In the real world, predatory nano-swarms don’t top the list of scientists’ concerns. Instead, they are engaged with determining the environmental and health impacts of our increasing use of nanotechnology in medicine, energy generation, communication technology, and even environmental remediation.

In the environmental field, nanotechnology is used to remediate or clean up polluted groundwater, wastewater, soil and sediment. Nanoremediation methods use materials at the nanoscale to reduce pollutant levels at contaminated sites. Nanomaterials have several properties that make them well-suited to this task. They are tiny in size, enabling them to enter very small spaces and travel further and more widely than larger particles. They also have a high surface area relative to their mass, making it easier for them to react with compounds. (Karn et al., 2009).

When nanoparticles interact with toxic compounds, they operate in one of two ways – breaking down the compounds, or immobilizing them. Nanoparticles can cause reactions that transform toxic compounds to less harmful products. They also can bind to the compounds, immobilizing them and preventing them from exerting further harm on the environment. Iron nanoparticles are one of the most commonly used compounds, used to break down or bind and immobilize harmful contaminants (Karn et al., 2009).

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Site remediation with iron nanoparticles. Credit: Lehigh University

According to the EPA, federal, state and local governments, as well as private industry, are expected to spend billions of dollars each year cleaning up hundreds of thousands of contaminated sites over the next three decades. Researchers have concluded that by using nanotechnology in environmental remediation, we have the potential to reduce the cost, time and effort involved with cleaning up contaminated sites (Karn et al, 2009). One major advantage of nanoremediation is its ability to be used as an on-site, or in situ, treatment method. Removing and transporting toxic sediment or soil can involve excessive time and effort, and in situ methods like nanoremediation eliminate this cost.

However, concerns naturally emerge any time we introduce new compounds to the environment. While nanoparticles are designed and used to reduce contaminant toxicity, they may have the potential to generate harmful byproducts, or products that are even more mobile in the environment. While nanomaterials typically stay in or near the site where they are applied, several studies have shown their ability to travel larger distances, carrying with them absorbed contaminants (Karn et al, 2009). Recent research has also investigated the potential for nanoparticles to enter the food chain and bioaccumulate.

Nanoremediation has the potential to revolutionize contaminated site cleanup, but it also carries unknown risks. Balancing these risks and benefits will be critical to the future of environmental management. The good news? We are (probably) safe from predatory nanobots.

Image: National Science Foundation


Backyard Talk

What you need to know about Obama’s energy plan

By: Carmen Mann

The Obama administration recently released a new plan calling for more reductions in America’s carbon emissions from power plants. Obama called it the “single most important step America had ever taken in the fight against global climate change.” The Clean Power Plan seeks to increase required cuts in carbon emissions from the power sector. The goal is to slash emissions by 32% from recorded 2005 levels by the year 2030. It also calls for a national shift toward renewable energy, including solar and wind energy, and to move away from coal-fire power.

This policy has been under the works for years, and has chosen to focus on the energy sector because power plants account for 1/3 of America’s carbon pollution and is the largest source of carbon pollution in the county. The new plan is based on the idea that energy consumption can be reduced through consumer-side efficiency standards. It arguably will also push new technological advances in energy across industries in the future.

The Obama administration also did a good job framing the new plan. Instead of labeling it as a climate solution, which many people have become desensitized to, they made it a national issue and a human issue. The administration argues that the push to renewable and cleaner energy will help national security by making the U.S. less dependent on foreign energy, help to fix the economy, and will improve public health.

The Clean Power Plan leaves the concrete action of cutting emissions up to the states. Each state will be able to put its own plan together for cutting emissions which will be approved by the federal government in late 2016. This acknowledges that not every state is starting from the same place when it comes to emissions and energy, and that each state will most likely have to take its own technological path to reach the 2030 goal. There have been some concerns that giving the states the power to act will bog down any real solution through politicized debates on how the state can best achieve the overall goal.

Many industry groups and states that have relied on coal-based energy have voiced their own concerns and have vowed to challenge the new requirements made by the Clean Energy Plan. They argue that the new regulations will drive up energy prices, putting both affordability and reliability of the energy sector at risk.

Backyard Talk

House Passes GMO Labeling Ban Bill

By: Katie O’Brien

On July 23, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill preventing individual states from requiring labels on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients (GMOs).  This bill bans states like Vermont, which recently passed GMO labeling laws, from labeling grocery items that contain GMOs. Supporters of the bill claim that there is no scientific consensus of the harm GMOs can cause, and therefore felt that the government should step in to regulate. But many studies claim that GMO foods have risks. While the government claims there is no concrete study that proves health harm from GMO ingredients, since they were introduced in 1996; there has been a rise in chronic illnesses, food allergies, reproductive issues and other disorders such as autism. GMOs also increase the use of toxic herbicide, which can harm ecosystems, reducing bio-diversity. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, who are supporters of the bill, 80% of packaged foods contain GMOs, and more than 90% or U.S. corn and soybean crops are grown with genetically modified seeds.

The bill known as The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 creates a standard for the voluntary labeling of foods with GMO ingredients. It also created a certification process for companies that want to label their food GMO free, similar to the method of organic food labeling. Thus making it more difficult for companies who choose not to include GMOs in their product.  The bill also allows the term “natural” to be included on labels of food containing GMOs. Democrats tried to amend the bill to stop the labeling of GMO foods as “natural”, but failed. The bill passed even though many surveys and polls, as in one done by the Mellman Group, states that at least 90% of the country does want to know what’s in the food they buy.

People have a right to know what is in the food they consume. Many groups have formed in opposition to the bill, which was nicknamed DARK, Denying Americans the Right-to-Know Act, because it will keep consumers in the dark. In an increasing world of transparency, the food industry is falling behind. Consumers should have readily available information about the food that they and their families eat. Opposition to the bill hopes that the senate will ultimately defeat the “DARK” act.

Backyard Talk

The End is Coming – Market for Phthalates Continues to Shrink

Last month, the nation’s third largest home improvement chain – Menards – agreed to phase out the use of phthalates in its vinyl flooring by the end of the year. In a statement in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Menards spokesperson Jeff Abbot said, “We are still aware of the phthalate concern and have been working diligently with our vendors to eliminate any flooring products that contain phthalates.” Menards, which follows the lead of Home Depot and Lowes, has roughly 285 stores in 14 states.

This announcement follows a report by the Health Building Network (HBN) that the world’s largest flooring manufacturers, Mohawk and Tarkett, are also phasing out the use of phthalate plasticizers. Rochelle Routman, VP of sustainability for Mohawk, told HBN that it “long ago” phased out the use of ortho-phthalates in all the vinyl floors that it manufacturers, and is working to eliminate them from third party manufactured floors. HBN reported in April that Tarkett, the world’s second largest flooring company, has phased out the intentional addition of phthalates to its flooring.

The decisions by these major retailers and by global manufacturing companies portends an end to the use of phthalates in consumer products. Consumers simply do not want to take risks, especially with their children, that they can avoid.

The August 2015 issue of Consumer Reports makes clear what parents should do if they have vinyl flooring in their home – regularly mop vinyl floors that contain phthalates and wash toddlers’ hands, especially if children crawl on the floors. Consumers Union tested 17 vinyl floors and found small amounts of phthalates on the surface layers – enough however to warrant action by parents. “Although phthalate levels are very low, we recommend that parents of toddlers wet-mop often and wash those little hands after they’ve been crawling on a vinyl floor,” it reports. Frequent cleaning could help remove dust particles which are known to accumulate phthalates commonly used in these floorings.

Phthalates migrate from PVC, can accumulate in people’s bodies, and can cause developmental harm. Some phthalates are carcinogens.

Rather than worry about moping the floor and washing your children’s hands, most parents want nothing to do with vinyl flooring. The risks are too great and the market forces are following this lead.