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We’re All Vulnerable to Climate Change

Photo credit: AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus

By Leila Waid.

2023 has already brought many climate change-related natural disasters. From the wildfires in Canada that covered the U.S. in particulate pollution, to the record-breaking heat waves gripping many parts of the world, this year has shown how our lives will continue to be impacted. It is important to recognize that the climate change events we are experiencing today are already having a profound impact on our health.

The individuals most impacted by these events are those most vulnerable to death or illness. These include individuals with underlying health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, the elderly, and children under five-years-old. All these groups are at an increased risk of adverse health effects from the extreme heat and air pollution because of their impaired physiology. For example, elderly individuals cannot regulate their body temperature efficiently and face higher risk of heat stress. As for poor air quality associated with wildfire smoke, young children are at high risk because they breathe in more air in proportion to their body. When they breathe in PM 2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter), it creates greater damage to their organs.

Other vulnerable groups that have been affected by this year’s climate change-related events include those who have higher levels of exposure to the natural elements. This category includes individuals who work in occupational fields that require a lot of time spent outside, such as agricultural and construction workers, and those who are house-insecure or unhoused. If individuals are forced to be outside during days of extreme heat or air pollution, they are going to be much more vulnerable in experiencing health effects.

Deaths associated with heat waves are also difficult to measure and are prone to underreporting because they are often not properly categorized. For example, if someone died of a heart attack but the underlying cause was heat stress, it might not officially be contributed to the heat wave on the death certificate. As a result, it is hard to quantify what the societal and public health impacts of the current heat waves are going to be or how many excess deaths they will cause. Most likely, the official number is going to be a drastic underestimate. The same is true for air pollution. The effects felt from Canada’s wildfires could be severe and chronic but not easily measured.

What can you do to address climate-induced heat stress and air pollution in your neighborhood? At the local level, it’s important to advocate for what your community can do to increase adaptation technicities and strengthen community resilience against climate change. Examples of an adaptation technique could be fighting to create more green infrastructure, shaded areas, and cooling stations in urban areas. At the larger state and federal level, it is important to vote for politicians who make addressing climate change as part of their campaign, messaging, and actual policy work.

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There’s An Ethylene Oxide (EtO) Health Emergency in South Memphis, Tennessee

Photo credit: Karen Pulfer Focht/Tennessee Lookout

By Sharon Franklin.

For Rose Sims and Lettie White, residents of South Memphis, Tennessee, despite it being a sunny, spring day in their neighborhood, they make a point to stay inside as much as possible. This is because of the dangerous amounts of a toxic, cancer-causing gas, ethylene oxide (EtO), that is being emitted by the Sterilization Services of Tennessee, a medical equipment sterilization facility. EtO is linked to leukemia, lymphoma, breast cancer, and stomach cancer, and recently EPA announced that the colorless and odorless gas is 60 times more toxic than they previously thought. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) recently reported on this environmental injustice issue.

Earlier this year, EPA officials held a meeting and cautioned that the Sterilization Services of Tennessee facility was creating an “‘elevated’” cancer risk for people living nearby.” At this meeting, scientists presented maps showing what areas face the highest risks, which, unfortunately for Ms. Sims and Ms. White, were where their homes fell. After receiving this information, Ms. White said she“was devastated;” “I used to go outside to plant my garden and to cut my yard. I can’t do that anymore.”  Ms. Sims said shewas afraid, frustrated, scared. “Now I go in and out of my house, but as far as cutting yards and just hanging out and enjoying and barbecuingand being with my family, I would never.”In the months since the meeting, Ms. Sims’ frustration and fear has grown while local health officials have refused to act.

How Has Sterilization Services of Tennessee and Shelby County Health Department Responded? 

For months, they have ignored calls to reduce the plant’s EtO pollution from the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission, community organizations, and families living nearby. The plant continues to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even though similar facilities in other states have taken voluntary action to reduce ethylene oxide. 

What is EPA’s Position on Ethylene Oxide Protections?

In April, EPA took a key step toward better regulating EtO emissions in announcing a draft rule that aims to reduce fugitive EtO emissions by 80 percent. This rule would force facilities that releaseEtO to implement already-available technologies to better protect nearby communities. The draft rule was open for public comment until June 27, 2023. One comment to note is from the American Hospital Association (AHA) who offered comments stating, “With device sterilization capabilities already at or near capacity across the country, we strongly encourage the agency to consider employing its traditional three-year implementation timeline to the standards if made final. This will allow these facilities more time to come into compliance prior to enforcement in an effort to help prevent the closure, temporary or permanent, of any of these facilities.

What is the Community Saying?

KeShaun Pearson from Memphis Community Against Pollution said, “Sterilization Services of Tennessee is continuing this legacy of environmental injustice by ignoring community members’ pleas for relief… And by allowing the Sterilization Services facility to continue pumping toxic gas into the air, the Shelby County Health Department is sending the message that it’s okay to inflict harm on Black communities, because of discriminatory practices like redlining that allowed polluters to take over historic and vibrant Black neighborhoods.”

While the Shelby County Health Department drags its feet, residents like Ms. Sims can’t help but wonder if it is because Mallory Heights is in a predominantly Black neighborhood that is surrounded by polluting industrial facilities. Would the Sterilization Services of Tennessee still be releasing EtO if it was in another part of the county?   

SELC and Memphis Community Against Pollution sent a letter to Shelby County Health Department urging the agency to use its emergency powers to force the facility to lower its EtO emissions. However, the health department refused to act, even though “Memphis Muni. Code § 9-12-9(A) states where there is not a generalized condition of air pollution, the Health Officer may issue an emergency order if he ‘finds that emissions from the operation of one or more air contaminant sources is causing imminent danger to human health or safety.’ Id. § 9-12-9. The SELC and the Memphis Community Against Pollution concluded that the Shelby County Health Department not only can act, but must act to protect Memphis families from a health emergency.

Toxic Tuesdays

Exposures to Chemical Mixtures Matter​

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Exposures to Chemical Mixtures Matter

Considering cumulative exposures to low levels mixtures of chemicals is an enormous challenge when evaluating the toxicity of chemicals. Neither the EPA nor ATSDR have guidance on how to evaluate exposure to multiple chemicals simultaneously, or cumulatively over time. The EPA does have its Risk-based Screening Levels (RSLs) that provide some guidance on risk estimates, but these values only consider chemicals in isolation, or when exposed to one chemical at a time. This limitation has begun to be recognized as a fundamental weakness in the way research is done on the toxicity of chemicals. Testing one chemical at a time is not sufficient nor appropriate for evaluating public health risks when people are exposed to multiple chemicals at the same time, or cumulatively over time.  

This limitation was highlighted when a group of 350 cancer research scientists came together in Halifax, Nova Scotia to address the question of continuous multiple chemical exposures and the risks these exposures 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.

These scientists looked at whether 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 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 as even its most sophisticated model fails to address continuous exposures to mixtures of common chemicals. 

The authors concluded that “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. It also highlights how surprisingly little is actually known about the combined effects of chemical mixtures whether on cancer related mechanisms and processes or on adverse effects in general.  

Learn about more toxics

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Keep Your Family Safe: Top 5 Toxics to Avoid When Going Back to School Shopping

School supplies on blackboard background

By Gregory Kolen II.

As the return to school approaches, parents and children alike are gearing up for a busy shopping season. While it can be fun to get new school supplies, clothes, and accessories, it’s essential to keep health and safety in mind. Unfortunately, many common products sold for school use contain harmful toxins that can jeopardize your family’s well-being. Here are the top 5 toxics to avoid when shopping for back to school items.

  1. Phthalates – These chemicals are commonly found in plastic-based products like backpacks, lunch boxes, and water bottles. While they may help the products last longer, they also interfere with the body’s endocrine system and can cause hormone imbalances. Instead, look for products made with natural or organic materials.
  2. Flame retardants – These chemicals are often added to items such as bedding, carpets, and school uniforms to prevent fire. Unfortunately, they can have serious health risks, including endocrine disruption and developmental problems. To avoid them, look for products labeled as flame-retardant-free.
  3. Lead – Lead can be found in older school supplies such as ink and painted pencils. Be sure to check each item for lead paint or materials. If possible, choose newer products with quality markings and certifications.
  4. Formaldehyde – Commonly used as a preservative and adhesive, formaldehyde can cause respiratory irritation, headaches, and even cancer. It is often used in furniture, clothing, and classroom supplies. To avoid it, look for products labeled as formaldehyde-free or made from natural materials like solid wood and cotton.
  5. Bisphenol A (BPA) – BPA is another chemical commonly found in plastic items like water bottles, lunch boxes, and food containers. It can disrupt the endocrine system and lead to developmental problems in children. Look for BPA-free products made of glass or stainless steel instead.

Keeping your family safe and healthy while shopping for back to school is essential. By avoiding harmful toxins such as phthalates, flame retardants, lead, formaldehyde, and Bisphenol A, you can be more confident in your school supplies purchase. Look for natural, organic, and high-quality products, and always read labels and certifications to ensure you’re getting the safest option. Shop smart and start the new school year off right!

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SCOTUS Restricts Water Rights for Navajo Nation

Photo credit: Leah Hogsten \ The Salt Lake Tribune

By Hunter Marion

On June 22nd, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arizona v. Navajo Nation (2023) that the United States was not responsible for securing access to clean, fresh water for the Diné people. This is yet another blatant attack on citizens’ rights to clean water, such as what happened in Sackett v. EPA (2023), and another harmful decision in a string of highly controversial rulings this last month.

The argument at the heart of the case was whether an 1868 treaty signed between the Navajo Nation and the U.S. government included providing the Diné with direct, reliable access to the Colorado River watershed. The treaty specified that the Nation would be given sufficient resources that allowed for suitable agriculture in their “new, permanent home.” The Diné rightly assumed that this would include infrastructure that accessed the river’s water.

The Navajo Nation has rights to ~700,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River. However, it does not have the infrastructure necessary to access their owed amount of water. This leaves about 40% of all Diné households without water. To put this into perspective, 99.2% of the entire U.S. population has continuous access to potable drinking water, whereas only 48% of the U.S. Indigenous populace has such access. For the 82 gallons of water accessed by the average non-Indigenous U.S. citizen per day, an average Indigenous citizen accesses only 7 gallons. Global warming has also decimated water levels in the Southwest region, particularly exacerbating tribal nations’ already limited water access.

By voiding any responsibility of the U.S. government to build water infrastructure in the Nation in this ruling, the U.S. has once again broken another contract between the Nation. The ruling also perpetuates the centuries-long discrimination that disproportionately exposes Indigenous peoples to environmental contaminants, radiation, extractive and polluting enterprises on tribal lands, and denies them continuous access to health,  education, and clean water.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, although disappointed, “remain[ed] undeterred” and vouched that he will continue fighting to “represent and protect the Navajo people, [their] land, and [their] future.” The Native American Rights Fund also voiced that they “will continue to assert their water rights” despite the Court’s ruling.