News Archive

Millions consuming ‘invisible toxic cocktail’ of cancer-linked chemicals: study

Millions of Americans are unknowingly ingesting water that includes “an invisible toxic cocktail” of cancer-linked chemicals, a new survey of the nation’s tap water has found.
The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2021 Tap Water Database, available to the public as of Wednesday, revealed contamination from toxins like arsenic, lead and “forever chemicals” – perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – in the drinking water of tens of millions of households across all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C.
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Photo credit: The Hill

Backyard Talk

My Personal Experience with the EPA

By: Jose Aguayo, Senior Science Associate

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an often embattled and criticized federal agency – and very much rightly so. Since its inception in late 1970, the EPA has struggled to deliver on its mandate to be good stewards for America’s environment. However, it is my view derived from my personal experience, that the agency’s failings have more to do with its structure and its imposed limitations, than with its people.
One example that is still fresh in everyone’s mind is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The town experienced such a cataclysmic and systematic failure of all the safety checkpoints designed to maintain a safe drinking water system; but the biggest failure of all came from the very top. The EPA failed to “establish clear roles and responsibilities, risk assessment procedures, effective communication and proactive oversight tools,” as their own self-assessment report concluded. This stemmed from the slow and bureaucratic structure of their upper management, who in many instances were political appointees with little to no experience in the field.
Perhaps even more damaging are the handcuffs the EPA works with – financial handcuffs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Superfund program. Once funded by a fairly well-designed and reasonable dedicated tax on polluters, the program now runs on fumes. Since 1995, taxpayer money funds the cleanups, and even this has been cut by almost 50% over the last two decades. The result for the agency is almost nonexistent enforcement power and cleanup activities that get delayed for years. I could probably go on and on citing examples of the way the EPA has proven to be next to useless. But I don’t despise the agency; at least not anymore. I worked there for a little over 3 years as a contractor and, initially, I was very cautious and apprehensive. Having come from an environmental nonprofit background, I saw them as, maybe not the enemy, but certainly as a facilitator for those against me. In many ways that remains true, but the people I met there changed my view of the agency quite drastically.
In my years working as a contractor for the EPA, I saw firsthand how its people work passionately and are fully committed to the agency’s mission. I have seen how toxicologist colleagues meticulously examined chemicals under the revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and approached their review from a precautionary principle standpoint. I saw how occupational safety experts strictly enforced updated chemical safety measures at EPA labs. I saw how sustainability professionals implemented new environmental management systems at nearly all EPA facilities to further reduce the carbon footprint of the agency. All of these personal victories of the dedicated EPA staff I have had the privilege of knowing and working with over the past seem small compared to the agency’s debacles. But they served to paint a different picture in my head. In an ideal world, where funding is not always cut short and management is effective and knowledgeable, the EPA could do some good work. Perhaps more, much more, is needed for it to address all of the environmental challenges we face today. But I am willing to bet that if the drive and dedication of most of the EPA staff were unshackled, the EPA would have a decent chance at doing its job.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Backyard Talk

Water Quality: From Information To Immersive

By: Benjamin Silver, Science and Technology Intern
Imagine suspecting that your drinking water is unsafe, but lacking the tools to verify your assumption. If the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota wants to obtain useful data about their drinking water, they must navigate to an online Water Quality Portal with multiple spreadsheets. Some of these datasets take hours to download and contain millions of samples with confusing, bureaucratic jargon. You might fall asleep on your keyboard before reaching any conclusions about your water…
This case study is a prime example of how disadvantaged communities face challenges in learning about the chemicals in their environment. The disproportionate impact of toxic chemical exposure on low-income, minority Americans is compounded by restricted access to the knowledge to combat the injustice. These Americans inevitably struggle to find useful information, whether from a lack of knowledge about existing water quality data or the digital divide that exists in impoverished communities. Even with comprehensive reports at their disposal, most Americans don’t have the scientific knowledge necessary to interpret the data.
Understanding the chemical composition of one’s surrounding environment is a human rights issue. The CDC estimates that over 60 million Americans drink water with chemicals associated with acute or chronic health conditions. While the EPA has never formally investigated chemically-associated health outcomes on the Yankton Reservation, various hazardous waste dumps along the reservation leach into the Missouri River. Even if the EPA did attest to water safety, government promises garner skepticism amongst a culture that has been consistently deceived by white people.
The importance of access to and control over data on tribal land ignited the Sacred Water Bundle Project. CHEJ and the Braveheart Society, a Sioux non-profit dedicated to preserving traditional cultural practices have collaborated to harness data in the water quality portal to construct an interactive map of the land along the Missouri River, the primary water source of the Yankton tribe. Viewers will be able to click on various sampling locations in the region and learn about various toxins at each location, including pesticides, metals, and inorganic compounds. 
To create the map, we used ArcGIS (an online mapping software) to pull only water quality data in the region of interest and generate coordinate points for each water sample. We then wrote a code that identified desired toxins in each dataset to group them by chemical type. We will use these groups to create the files for the interactive map.
Harnessing innovative data visualization methods will allow marginalized communities to familiarize themselves with their environment. Regardless of water safety, exposure to accessible, immersive data will equip the Sioux to grapple with long-term sustainability questions facing the tribe: What pollution sources threaten future water quality? Can the water support culturally-valuable plants and wildlife for generations to come? Empowering the Sioux with useful tools will better prepare them to fight for environmental justice and be stewards of their land. 
Water quality data doesn’t have to be a jumble of mundane parameters and values. Effective data presentation can allow everyday Americans to become well-versed scientists and leaders in their communities.
Photo Credit: South Dakota State University

Homepage News Archive Water News

‘Forever chemicals’ found in tests of state’s rivers

BOSTON — Tests of surface water found a toxic brew of “forever chemicals” in the state’s major rivers and tributaries, environmental officials said Tuesday.
The tests, conducted last fall by the U.S. Geological Survey, found per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in each of the 27 rivers and brooks sampled for the substances, which have been used to make products from frying pans to firefighting foam.
In many cases, levels exceeded the state’s standard for drinking water of 20 parts per trillion.
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Photo Credit: Ken Gallagher

Homepage News Archive

How people of color are targeted in ‘sacrifice zones’

The Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted how systemic racism disproportionately places danger and harm on low-income and minority populations. One harsh reality of this systemic racism is the existence of “sacrifice zones,” which are communities located near pollution hot spots that have been permanently impaired by intensive and concentrated industrial activity, such as factories, chemical plants, power plants, oil and gas refineries, landfills and factory farms.
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Photo Credit: J. David Ake/AP Photo

Homepage News Archive

Pollution is so bad in this Chicago neighborhood, people are on hunger strike to stop it

Oscar Sanchez’s fight against a scrapyard set to be relocated to his Southeast Chicago neighborhood has taken quite the physical toll. He’s lost about 20 pounds in the past month. He is increasingly unable to sleep, speak, or think clearly. Sometimes it’s so bad he can’t remember what he said even five minutes ago.
Sanchez knows exactly why his mind and body are deteriorating: He is one of more than 100 Chicagoans participating in a hunger strike to force the city to rethink the scrapyard’s proposed location. The metal recycling plant used to be in a wealthy, mostly white neighborhood, but its newly approved site is in a lower-income, predominantly Latino area that’s already carrying a higher environmental burden compared to other parts of the city.
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Photo Credit: Grist/Google Earth
The hunger strike ended on March 7th after over a month of protests and direct actions, but activists vow to continue the fight. Read about their continued fight here.

Homepage News Archive

In call for environmental justice, Biden’s climate agenda reaches into neighborhoods

WASHINGTON — The census tracts span much of Pittsburgh, along with the suburban North Hills and South Hills. They snake along the banks of the regions rivers, encompassing small towns like Connellsville and Kittanning, rural swaths of Indiana County and the woods of the Allegheny National Forest.
State officials have deemed the tracts as environmental justice zones: areas with high poverty rates or high rates of “non-white minorities,” or both, and that often contend with industrial development or pollution issues.
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Photo Credit: Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette