Charles Utley’s inspiring experiences and insights related to Environmental Justice! Utley grew up in Hyde Park, Georgia, a predominantly Black community. Many people worked at Southern Wood Piedmont Co., a company that used creosote and dumped their chemical debris into a stream that bordered Hyde Park. Listen now for more info!
Hilton Kelley, Executive Director and Founder of CIDA, Community In-Power & Development Association, gave up his acting career to pursue environmental justice in his hometown of Port Arthur, TX. Listen now for more info!
How Individual Variability Affects the Toxicity of Chemicals
It’s clear that not everyone responds to the same chemical exposures in the same way. There are many examples of this. The most striking is the person who smoked cigarettes for 30 years and never had breathing problems or developed lung cancer. A major factor in why this happens is “individual variability.”
People process chemicals differently depending on internal factors. There are two major sources of variability in people. The first is variability in the penetration of a chemical to the target organ, referred to as pharmacokinetics. The second factor is the response of the target organ and biological system itself, referred to as pharmacodynamics. Pharmacokinetics is relatively well understood compared to pharmacodynamics.
There are four sources of variability in people: uptake, distribution, metabolism and excretion. Uptake of chemicals through breathing, referred to as respiratory absorption, is mainly influenced by the solubility of the chemical in the blood and its interaction with the respiratory surfaces in the lungs. The solubility of a single chemical in the blood can differ significantly from one person to another. Solubility in the blood can even change in a single person depending on food intake and diet. How much uptake occurs alters the concentration of a chemical in the body which in turn alters its toxicity. Similarly, dermal absorption, or uptake through the skin, depends on the exposed site, the condition of the skin, and the humidity and temperature of the environment. Uptake through the stomach, referred to as gastrointestinal absorption, depends primarily on stomach content.
The distribution of chemicals in the body is also highly variable and depends primarily on body size and composition. Chemicals that are soluble in fat, for example, will be distributed differently in people with different amounts of fat. Distribution is also affected by the degree to which a chemical can bind to molecules, mostly proteins, in the body. The amount of a chemical bound to proteins in a target organ determines how much damage a chemical can cause. Chemicals that are not bound in the body are more easily removed. Chemical binding can be altered if there’s competition for binding sites due to the presence of other chemicals or drugs in the blood system.
Metabolism plays a central role in how the body responds to a chemical and is probably the most important source of pharmacokinetic variability in people. The body has different ways it can interact with or metabolize a chemical. This interaction helps determine the body’s response to chemicals. In some instances, a chemical can become more toxic and in other instances, it can become harmless. Metabolism mainly takes place in the liver but can also occur in the skin and lungs. Metabolism can be altered by several environmental factors. For example, the simultaneous absorption of chemicals in high doses can slow metabolism because of competition for the metabolizing enzyme in the body. Genetic factors also play an important role in metabolizing toxic chemicals. Individual variability in genes results from differences in the DNA sequence of genes (called polymorphisms). These individual differences play an important role in a person’s response to chemicals such as in the development of cancer. Metabolism can also be affected by age and sex, environment, chemical intake, physical activity, protein binding and lifestyle.
Once a chemical has been absorbed, distributed, and metabolized, it will be excreted from the body. The primary way that the body excretes toxic chemicals is through the kidneys. Some excretion may also occur through the lungs, GI track, skin and mammary glands in pregnant women. Renal excretion is influenced by factors such as kidney function, protein binding, urine pH and urine flow, which also varies in individuals. Volatile chemicals, chemicals with a tendency to evaporate, are generally excreted by the lungs. Pulmonary excretion is determined by the same factors that influence pulmonary absorption.
These many sources of variability mean that two people can be exposed to the same concentration of a chemical but absorb, distribute, metabolize and excrete it differently resulting in a different response. This is why scientists and government health officials struggle to explain what will happen to a group of people exposed to the same mixture of chemicals. A person’s response is highly complex and the scientific understanding of how different variables influence toxicity is not well developed. These gaps in our knowledge reflect the many uncertainties in how chemicals produce their toxic effects on the human body.
Nestled between the slow, muddy waters of the Trinity River and the noisy I-45, sits Joppa, TX. Pronounced “Joppee” by locals, Joppa is a neighborhood located at Dallas proper’s southernmost point. It was founded by freed Black people shortly after the abolition of slavery in the 1870’s. Generations of residents lived relatively isolated from the growing metropolis until the town was annexed by the city of Dallas in 1955.
That annexation saw the gradual introduction of industrialization into the formerly forest-covered community. Pacific-Union built a railway cutting through the middle of the neighborhood. Asphalt plants, gravel mills, and landfills quickly ate up the bountiful, green floodplains of the area commonly called the “Bottoms.” Soon enough, Joppa became surrounded by polluting facilities and the refuse of interstate commerce.
Air pollution is the most prevalent problem affecting folks living in Joppa. Companies like Austin Industries, Martin Marietta, and TAMKO produce high amounts of particulate matter (PM) that consistently clog the lungs of locals. In the spring of 2023, air monitoring sensors in Joppa belonging to SharedAirDFW registered air quality that was double the EPA’s healthy standard of PM pollution!
Local organizations like Downwinders at Risk (a Dallas-based environmental organization and former CHEJ grantee) and Paul Quinn College have also reported that Joppa experiences levels of air pollution exceeding that of the rest of Dallas. Findings even cite that the life expectancy of Joppa residents is 13 years less than those living in the affluent Highland Park neighborhood of central Dallas. In addition to industrial contamination, the area is still recovering from the presence and removal of a giant pile of shingle debris called “Shingle Mountain,” which contributed to long-term water and air contamination in Joppa and the nearby neighborhood, Floral Farms.
To combat this issue, Joppa residents have been steadily gaining media attention and political action through grassroots efforts. For instance, in early 2023 residents sought to block the renewal of Austin Bridge & Road’s 10-year “specific-use” permit and protested the presence of a concrete batch plant that was discovered to be in operation without a permit. Local leaders like Alicia Kendrick have been vocal about the industries harming their homes, families, and friends, especially complaining about the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) lack of enforcement on air quality standards in the area.
A key development in the fight to protect the neighborhood has been the Joppa Environmental Health Project. This is a community-led three-year environmental health study overseen by a research group from Texas A&M University. The project focuses on the effects of PM exposure upon Joppa’s residents. Community members intend to use the findings from this project as leverage against the city council to wrest control of Joppa over from the polluters. Although companies like Austin Industries have been prioritized by Dallas’s city council in the past, Kendrick and others have hope that continued pressure from organizing and research will prevail. They did not have to wait too long for a victory.
In June 2023, the Austin batch plant officially announced its closure and removal from the community. Excited by the victory of her 14-month battle against the company, Kendrick said that she was “determined to see this through, to use this [win] as a first step in giving Joppa residents a neighborhood where the air is safe to breathe.”
September is kicking into high gear, which means the summer season has ended, and fall is just around the corner. While summer is usually known for warm, sunny days that are perfect for vacations, this summer was quite different for many individuals worldwide. Why? Because of the overwhelming heatwaves caused by climate change. According to NASA, new temperature highs were reached this season that the world had never seen before.
This extreme heat reflects on population health and our ability to cope. According to the CDC, between August 20-26 alone, 1,509 out of every 100,000 emergency room visits were due to heat stress in the Midwest. Specifically, the states with the highest heat-related ER visits were Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, and Nebraska. In 2022, a massive heat wave killed over 61,600 individuals in Europe. And a much higher proportion of those deaths were women (more than 35,000 deaths among women compared to 21,600 among men.) This staggering statistic showcases that women are more vulnerable to the effects of heat stress (due to different physiological functions – such as proportionately higher body fat). Thus, addressing heat waves is not only a climate change issue but also a gender equality issue.
How can we address climate change-induced heat in our communities? One excellent resource to use for a variety of climate change work is the EJScreen tool from the EPA. Although this does not focus specifically on heat, it provides a great overview of the US and various climate change issues. The mapping tool offers census-tract data on the most vulnerable populations and neighborhoods projected to be impacted by climate change. If you work in environmental justice, this is a great asset to pinpoint vulnerable populations and allocate resources efficiently. Even if you are not working in a climate-related capacity, this information is still beneficial to have on hand!
Another resource to utilize is the CDC’s Heat and Health Tracker. The agency also has a resource page on how to provide assistance to a wide variety of vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and outdoor workers, during a heat wave.
You can also directly work to protect your communities from heat-induced illness and death by advocating for change at a local level. For example, ask your local government leaders about their emergency plans for heat waves or other climate-induced natural disaster events. And if they do not have any in place, advocate for change! Also, you can educate them about the benefits of Green Infrastructure and how it can make your communities more resilient to natural disasters, such as droughts from a heatwave. The EPA provides a Resource Guide for Green Infrastructure for a wide variety of weather scenarios.
Becoming familiar with these various tools is beneficial because, no matter what work you do in the environmental justice field, climate change will impact you and your communities in some form. One of the best ways to protect your communities is to be as prepared as possible when next summer rolls around!
Particulate matter (PM) is a mixture of chemicals, dust, and liquid droplets that can be emitted into the air from automobiles, power plants, construction sites, smokestacks, and fires. When people breathe contaminated air, this PM gets lodged into people’s lungs and bloodstream. This worsens pre-existing lung diseases and can even cause lung disease, heart disease, and lung cancer. PM is categorized based on the size of particles it contains. PM with particles that are up to 10 micrometers in diameter are designated PM10. PM with particles that are smaller – up to 2.5 micrometers in diameter – are designated PM2.5.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 90% of the worldwide population is exposed to PM above the recommended levels, and that air pollution results in more than seven million premature deaths worldwide each year. As with most pollutants, not all populations are exposed to air pollution like PM equally. In the US, Black, Native American, and Latinx communities bear a disproportionate amount of the health and economic burden from PM. For instance, a recent study estimated that Latinx people experience 63% more exposure to air pollution than they are responsible for creating.
In addition to impacts on the lungs and heart, there is evidence that when pregnant people are exposed to PM, there can be dire impacts on the fetus. Studies have found prenatal air pollution exposure impacts cognitive development in school-aged children. However, little is known about effects earlier in development. A new study has found that prenatal exposure to PM, especially during the last half of pregnancy, is associated with cognitive and motor development impairments at two years of age.
The study recruited 161 Latina mothers and their infants from Southern California. It used each mother’s household address and pregnancy dates to conduct mathematical modeling to estimate their exposure to PM while pregnant. Then, when infants were two years old, the researchers conducted clinical assessments to measure their cognitive and motor abilities. The study found that higher PM10 exposure was associated with lower motor abilities. Using mathematical modeling, they determined that higher exposure to either type of PM during mid/late pregnancy (anywhere from the final 1-5 months before birth) was associated with lower cognitive and motor abilities.
As with any observational study, there are limitations to this study. With a relatively small sample size, it is possible that there are developmental effects of prenatal PM exposure that could not be conclusively determined in this study. The study also used location and timing information to estimate mothers’ PM exposure during pregnancy, but did not directly measure this PM exposure. Furthermore, it is unclear if the cognitive and motor deficits seen here will impact infants as they grow up.
Despite the limitations, the findings of this study are valuable. Importantly, Latinx populations are disproportionately exposed to air pollution like PM, but scientific studies rarely focus on them. Conducting a study of exclusively Latinx mothers and infants is crucial to understanding the consequences of racial inequities in exposure to pollution. While the cognitive and motor effects observed in this study may seem small, they make clear that human exposure to PM is dangerous to health and development, and that these dangers of exposure begin before birth.
As background, SELC is a medical equipment sterilizing plant that has been emitting hazardous air pollution since 1976 (permitted to do this since 1985). Ethylene oxide (EtO) is used to clean catheters, syringes, pacemakers, plastic surgical gowns, and other items. On August 24, 2023, the Memphis Community Against Pollution, an environmental watchdog group requested a meeting. This meeting was in response to public concern about the chemical emissions and to petition the Shelby County Health Department for an emergency air pollution order.
Even the EPA understands that the plant’s use of EtO to sterilize medical equipment and materials could lead to cancer and other health risks. While short-term or infrequent exposure to EtO does not appear to pose a health risk, the EPA determined that long-term or lifetime exposure to the colorless and odorless gas could lead to a variety of health problems, including lymphoma and breast cancer. For 30 years, the EPA has regulated EtO emissions; however, in 2016 new scientific information revealed that the chemical is more toxic than previously reported. In April 2023, the EPA proposed limiting the use of EtO after finding a higher than expected cancer risk at facilities that use it for sterilizations.
The EPA claims that it is working with commercial sterilizers to take appropriate steps to reduce emissions. It said that its proposal will reduce EtO by roughly 80% by targeting 86 medical sterilization facilities across the country. The companies will also have to test for the antimicrobial chemical in the air and ensure their pollution controls are working properly. EPA Administrator Michael Regan stated that the “EPA is taking action to ensure communities are informed and engaged in [all] efforts to address ethylene oxide…” The agency further stated that “it is committed to addressing pollution concerns associated with [EtO] ‘in a comprehensive way that ensures facilities can operate safely in communities while also providing sterilized medical supplies.’”
Raul Garcia from Earthjustice argued that “[now] that EPA has new information on precisely where the worst health threats are, the agency must use its full authority to… require fenceline monitoring at these facilities [and] issue a strong new rule.” She also stated that, “No one should get cancer from facilities that are used to sterilize equipment in the treatment of cancer.”
Amanda Garcia, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, recognized that the Sterilization Services of Tennessee closing the Memphis plant is “a major victory for nearby neighborhoods who have been fighting for cleaner air.” She is “pleased that [the community] may soon be able to breathe easier.”
As the summer begins to wind down and we approach a new school year, CHEJ continues to strive for safer, healthier environments for our children to learn and grow in. We recently hosted a free video training call in collaboration with our associates at the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN). The focus of this call was to raise awareness on the potential environmental hazards our children could be returning to in their schools this year.
In this important discussion, we delved into the unique vulnerability of children to environmental hazards, outlined common school hazards, and shared a wealth of educational and advocacy resources aimed at improving school environmental health. A standout resource presented during the call was CEHN’s Eco-Healthy Child Care® program, a vital initiative for promoting safer, healthier learning environments.
CHEJ is launching a short survey that should take no more than five-to-ten minutes to complete. We want to hear from you, our dear friends, about your experience with our organization. How are we doing? What are we doing well and how can we improve?
This will be an opportunity for you to provide us with your valuable insight and help us create an even more amazing community of environmental justice fighters! We want to support you on your mission to save your community, and thus we need your feedback on how we can do that even more effectively. We look forward to hearing from you!
Petition to Declare East Palestine a Major Disaster
On July 3rd, Gov. Mike Dewine of Ohio sent a request for a disaster declaration in East Palestine to President Biden. The Unity Council of East Palestine, with help from OnlyOne, is petitioning Pres. Biden to approve of this request.
Please sign this petition to show solidarity for a community reeling from ecological destruction, and to hold Norfolk Southern and the federal government accountable.
Selenium is a mineral found in most rocks and soil across the globe. It can be extracted and processed from rock for commercial and manufacturing uses. About half of the processed selenium in the world is used in glass production… [Read more]
Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) is a compound in a group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs like BaP are formed in the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, or other organic matter. Once formed, they can enter the air… [Read more]
Ethylbenzene is a colorless flammable liquid that comes from coal tar and petroleum. It is primarily used to synthesize chemicals that are used in plastics. Ethylbenzene can also be used in fuels and injection fluid, which is used to release natural gas… [Read more]
By Stephen Lester. East Palestine, OH: A Scientist Speaks Out The situation in East Palestine, OH remains very frustrating for many residents. They are trying to make sense of the contrast between what EPA tells them with the many adverse… [Read more]
By Gregory Kolen. In the early 2000s, CHEJ identified PVC or polyvinyl chloride, a common plastic material used in school supplies, as a significant source of health risks for children. PVC contains toxic chemicals that can cause serious health… [Read more]
Do you find this information useful? Please consider pitching in and making a contribution to CHEJ. We appreciate your support!
As we look forward to the month of September, let’s not forget the significance of Labor Day and its connections to the environmental justice movement. Yesterday, we celebrated Labor Day as reminder of the collective strength of workers who fought for fair working conditions, the same unity we now channel towards environmental justice.
Your generous donations enable us to continually fight for a world where both people and the planet are not exploited for profit. In the spirit of all that Labor Day represents, consider a contribution to CHEJ to support our relentless pursuit of environmental justice. Together, we can ensure a healthier, safer future for all. Thank you for being a part of this movement!