Toxic Tuesdays

Metals & Preterm Births

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Metals & Preterm Births

Over 10% of births worldwide are preterm, meaning delivery occurs earlier than 37 weeks of pregnancy. It is a leading cause of neonatal mortality, and evidence suggests that exposure to heavy metals from the environment could be a risk factor. In the US, a major source of exposure to metals is private well water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards and regulates levels of contaminants in public drinking water, but private well water isn’t regulated. This means private well water – which 13% of the US population receives drinking water from – is vulnerable to contamination. Indeed, studies have found metal contamination in private wells and that people who receive drinking water from private wells have more of these metals in their systems.

A recently published study set out to evaluate if exposure to toxic metals from private well water increased the risk of preterm birth. Because North Carolina (NC) has the largest state population using private well water, the researchers studied live births in NC that occurred from 2003-2015. From birth certificates, they could collect each pregnant person’s address at the time they delivered their babies. The researchers also used the NC-WELL database, which is a database of over 100,000 geocoded well water tests conducted from 1998-2019 from almost all census tracts in North Carolina. These tests include measurements of the concentrations of metals. The NC-WELL database allowed the researchers to assign each pregnant person’s address an estimate of their exposure to private well water and the concentrations of metals measured in that well water. Ultimately, the study included over 1.3 million births. This large sample size allowed the researchers to determine if increased metals in well water was associated with preterm birth.

The study found that people living in census tracts where over 25% of NC-WELL water tests exceeded EPA’s safe standard for cadmium had 11% higher odds of preterm birth than people who did not. People living in census tracts where over 25% of NC-WELL water tests exceeded EPA’s safe standard for lead had 10% higher odds of preterm birth than people who did not. These results indicate that cadmium and lead in private well water were each associated with preterm birth.

The study then modeled how the exposure to mixtures of metals was associated with preterm birth. This is particularly important because few studies assess the risks of multiple chemical exposures, even though it is highly likely people are exposed to more than one chemical at a time. When considering exposure to a mixture of seven metals present in private well water, the researchers found that exposure to the combination of cadmium and lead was associated with preterm birth.

In the US and NC, Black and Native American people have much higher rates of preterm birth than white people. Racial disparities in exposure to toxic chemicals could influence racial disparities in birth outcomes. As the study states plainly, “This is especially pertinent to consider when evaluating private well water-based exposure in NC, as structural environmental racism has led to poor and minority communities being more likely to rely on private well water.” This study found that when considering exposure to a mixture of seven metals present in private well water, the effect on preterm birth was most extreme for Native American people. It was associated with 20% higher odds of preterm birth for Native American people. The researchers say this disproportionate effect of metal exposure on preterm birth reflects the multiple environmental hazards and contaminants disproportionately forced on Native American people over several centuries. They also note that other studies have found that Native American pregnant people have higher levels of toxic metals in their systems than the national average.

This study used publicly available birth information and private well water testing to create a large cohort to study the effects of metals in private well water on preterm birth. The results make clear that private well water needs more regulation in order to ensure the levels of dangerous metals like cadmium and lead do not put people at risk. The results also make clear that not all people bear the same risks of exposure or health effects of exposure. People of color bear a disproportionate burden because they are more likely to receive private well water, which may contribute to disproportionate rates of preterm births.

For more information, CHEJ has previously written about the health effects of leadcadmium, and the importance of considering the health effects of exposure to mixtures of chemicals.

Learn about more toxics

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The Future of Groundwater: A Fleeting Resource

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By Juliet Porter.

Climate scientists have discovered that Americans are using up groundwater faster than ever before in our history. Recently, the New York Times investigated this phenomenon by examining 84,544 monitoring wells, which trends have been examined since 1920. Approximately half of the wells examined have experienced decreasing water levels over the past 40 years as the rate at which water is being pumped out surpasses the water’s rate of replenishing.

In fact, from 2013 to 2023, ten of these wells reached their lowest water level ever recorded, with 2022 being the worst year on record. These statistics prompted the New York Times to further explore this issue by interviewing over 100 groundwater experts in the United States to inquire about the future of groundwater and its environmental justice implications of this crucial diminishing resource.

Drinking water in the United States originates from three major sources: surface water, reservoirs, and groundwater, which derives from aquifers, and recycled water, also known as reused water. Farming is a major source of groundwater usage. Thus, depleting groundwater not only affects public health but the economy as well. Vast, expansive farms and industrial cities are draining groundwater reserves. While groundwater is becoming increasingly unavailable, the rate at which it replenishes cannot keep up with demand. Unfortunately, drained reserves could take hundreds or even thousands of years to fully recover if they ever replenish at all. For this reason, depleting groundwater represents a serious threat that poses irreversible harm to our society. Simultaneously, rivers fed by groundwater are becoming streams, or nonexistent.

Disappearing groundwater has more adverse effects on certain states:

  • Kansas, a state that is a major aquifer that formerly supported 2.6 million acres of land, now is no longer capable of supporting industrial-scale agriculture;
  • New York, (Long Island) where the over-pumping of groundwater represents a threat to the longevity of drinking water wells;
  • Arizona, (Phoenix) which is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, currently there isn’t enough groundwater to build new houses that are reliant on aquifers; and
  • California, Utah, and Texas, also represent an overuse of groundwater and is causing roads to buckle, as foundations and fissures open-up.

Further exacerbating the issue of disappearing groundwater is the fact that there are little to no regulations addressing this topic. The federal government has shown that they have not addressed or played any role concerning this impending crisis. On the state level, there are few and far between rules on groundwater usage, and most of the existing laws are weak. In California, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed in 2014. This Act was intended to implement Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) for each Basin by 2017 and integrate Groundwater Sustainability Plans by 2020 or 2022. However, in March 2023, it was found that the GSAs were falling behind on their sustainability goals. This lack of attention and lack of government intervention has fed the issue of depleting groundwater. This has enabled aquifer draining practices, (i.e. over-relying on groundwater in rapidly growing urban areas like Phoenix, Arizona, and planting water-intensive crops, like alfalfa, in drought prone areas).

At the end of the day, everyone’s environment is threatened because of the depletion of groundwater and the lack of access to safe, clean drinking water. Sadly, this issue affects disadvantaged communities at a higher rate, and resolving this issue will be no easy feat, as irreversible damage has already been done. The future of groundwater is expected to be continuously depleted in the coming years, and this issue will change America’s water systems’ future.

Toxic Tuesdays

Asphalt VOCs

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Asphalt VOCs

Asphalt is made of a compacted “aggregate” mixed with a “binder.” The aggregate takes the wear-and-tear of traffic while providing a nonskid surface. It comes from rock quarries, natural gravel, and/or soil. The binder is a type of cement that holds the aggregate together in place and provides waterproofing. It comes from the distillation of crude oil. To mix it with the aggregate, the binder is heated and thinned with other chemicals distilled from crude oil.

Some of these chemicals used to thin asphalt cement are classified as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemicals that contain carbon and readily evaporate into the air at room temperature. Common examples of VOCs include kerosene, chloroform, benzene, trichloroethylene, and perchloroethylene. Many VOCs are dangerous to human health. Inhaling air contaminated with VOCs can cause nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and loss of coordination. Long-term exposure can cause more serious damage to the brain, liver, and kidneys. Some VOCs are also known to cause cancer in humans. Workers in facilities that make and mix asphalt are at the highest risk for health effects of exposure to VOCs. However, because VOCs diffuse through the air, people who live and work near these facilities could also be at risk.

VOCs aren’t only used in asphalt production; they’re also used in many industrial and commercial products. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that VOCs are emitted by thousands of products. CHEJ has previously written about specific chemicals classified as VOCs: benzeneethylbenzeneformaldehydetrichloroethylene and perchloroethylenetoluene, and xylene.

Learn about more toxics

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Water is the New Black Gold

Photo credit: Robert Ingelhart/Getty Images

By Sharon Franklin.

A recent New York Times series concerning fracking and water by Hiroko Tabuchi and Blacki Migliozziexplores the relationship between hydrofracking and our disappearing water sources.  

Giant new oil and gas wells that require astonishing volumes of water to fracture bedrock are threatening America’s fragile aquifers. An aquifer is a body of porous rock or sediment saturated with groundwater. Groundwater enters an aquifer as precipitation seeps through the soil. It can move through the aquifer and resurface through springs and wells. In Texas, the birthplace of the fracking revolution, increasingly complex oil wells are sweeping across the state into the surrounding United States. These new wells can consume millions of gallons of water that often come from our dwindling aquifers. To satisfy the “fracking thirst,” energy giants are now drilling not just for oil, but for the water they need to operate.

The New York Times series documents this surging water usage by examining an industry database in which energy companies report the chemicals they pump into the ground while fracking. The database includes details on their water usage, revealing the dramatic growth. Critics of fracking say it is an irony that so much water is being diverted to produce fossil fuels, given that the burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change, further straining freshwater resources. 

Nationwide, fracking has used up nearly 1.5 trillion gallons of water since 2011. This is equivalent to the amount of tap water used by the entire state of Texas in a year. Today, the insatiable search for oil and gas has become the latest threat to the country’s endangered aquifers, a critical national resource for industrial farming and cities. These mega-fracking projects, called “monster fracks,” have become the industry norm. They account for almost two out of every three fracking wells in Texas. Peter Knappett, professor of hydrogeology at Texas A&M University, refers to fracking companies as “newcomers, a new sector that burst onto the scene and is heavily reliant on the aquifers [that] could be pumping for several decades from aquifers that are already over-exploited and already experiencing long-term declines.”

There is public resistance emerging in New Mexico where a coalition of tribes and environmental groups are suing the state. They’re claiming that fracking companies are using up precious water resources and the state has failed to protect the interests of residents. Also, in Colorado, residents are fighting a proposed fracking project because they fear it would risk contaminating a reservoir their community depends upon. Oil companies require no permits to drill their own groundwater wells and there is no consistent requirement that groundwater used for fracking be reported or monitored. As droughts have gripped Texas and other Sunbelt states, many communities have instituted water restrictions for residents even as fracking has been allowed to continue unabated.

What is the oil industry saying about fracking?  Holly Hopkins, an Executive at the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry was “focused on meeting the growing demand for affordable, reliable energy while minimizing impacts on the environment” and its’ members were “continuing to develop innovative methods to reuse and recycle” water used for fracking. British Petroleum said it was “executing several pilot projects to recycle water” that would “minimize freshwater usage,” whileChevron added “that water was vital to its operations and that it aimed to use water efficiently and responsibly,” also saying that it used brackish or recycled water for fracking. Southwestern and Ovintiv did not respond to requests for comment.  

Because there is big money to be made in oil, and for those with access to water, it can be easy money to give away water rights. For example, Bruce Frasier, an onion grower who sells groundwater to a local fracking company for 50 cents a barrel, said that “If you’ve got the water to sell, you’re making a fortune”.   A small percentage of oil companies is making strides in reusing that fracking wastewater to drill for more oil and gas. Mr. Martin, a rancher and farmer who heads the Wintergarten Water District, doesn’t fault energy companies because he irrigates his cantaloupe fields using groundwater. However, he still contemplates a future of ever-dwindling aquifers, and somberly notes that “If the water goes away, the whole community will [go] away too.”

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Using Scientific & Technical Information to Win

Photo credit: Milwaukee Area Technical College

By Stephen Lester.

I’m often asked what it is that I do at CHEJ. As a trained scientist, I provide technical assistance to grassroots community groups. People send me their environmental testing data to review. This data spans chemicals found in their drinking water, the air behind their child’s school or spouse’s factory, or the soil in the park where their children play. They ask me to do this primarily because they want to know what the results mean. But they also believe that if they gather enough information – the “right” information – and put it into the hands of the right decision-makers, they will do the right thing.  

So what do you think? True or false? Is information power? Can you solve your environmental problem(s) this way? No, you cannot. By itself, information is not power. It’s not the information but rather what you do with it that makes all the difference in the world. Just gathering data and sharing it no matter how important or impactful will likely not change a bureaucrat’s or a politician’s mind. But if you use the information in a thoughtful and strategic way, whether it’s to educate your community or others, and then to target the bureaucrats and politicians with a set of specific demands, you have a much greater chance to succeed. 

At CHEJ, we work directly with community leaders to help them become knowledgeable and proficient in understanding the technical, health, statistical and scientific aspects of chemical exposures. We also work with community leaders to help them understand how to use technical information to achieve their goals and win what their community needs to resolve. What we do includes reviewing testing data; cleanup plans; technologies for treating/disposing of hazardous waste and household garbage; reviewing plans to build new facilities; defining a community-based testing plan that includes where to test, what to test (soil, air, water), what to look for; evaluating a health study completed by a government agency or other entity; and so much more. CHEJ also has more than 50 guidebooks and fact-packs on a wide range of topics that you can use to focus your group on what it needs to be successful.

So don’t get trapped into believing you can win by gathering information, or become frozen into inaction until you gather a bit more information. What really matters is what you do with the information you have and how it strategically fits into your organizing plan. 

To learn more about CHEJ’s technical assistance services, see our website at

Backyard Monthly

Backyard Monthly – October 2023

October 2023
CHEJ's "All In" - Spotlight of the Month

As the leaves begin to change and the air turns crisper, we welcome the arrival of fall. While this season brings a picturesque transformation of nature, it also brings certain challenges, particularly when it comes to chemical exposure. At CHEJ, our commitment to environmental justice extends to every season, and we want to ensure you and your community stay informed and protected.


Fall presents unique environmental risks due to changes in weather patterns, outdoor activities, and agricultural practices. Here are some important considerations:


1. Pesticides and Herbicides: Fall is a time when farmers often apply pesticides and herbicides to their crops. These chemicals can drift through the air and settle on nearby communities, posing health risks to residents. It’s crucial to stay informed about local agricultural practices and advocate for responsible and safe pesticide use.


2. Indoor Air Quality: As the temperatures drop, we spend more time indoors, where air quality can sometimes be worse than outdoor air. Poor ventilation, the use of certain heating sources, and the release of indoor pollutants from household products can lead to indoor air pollution. Proper ventilation and the use of air purifiers can help mitigate these risks.


3. Mold and Moisture: Fall’s damp weather can lead to increased moisture in homes, creating conditions conducive to mold growth. Mold can release harmful spores that affect indoor air quality and trigger respiratory problems. Regular home maintenance and addressing moisture issues promptly are essential.


4. Chemicals in Yard Care, School Supplies, and Household Cleaners: Several kinds of school supplies, lawn fertilizers, and cleaners may contain hazardous chemicals that can be abrasive or could have potentially dangerous effects on your child’s development. Be mindful of the products you use and their potential environmental and health impacts. Our August Training Call with the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN) provides a helpful insight into what eco-friendly alternatives are available. You can also check out our resources on detoxifying your home and non-toxic cleaning.


As advocates for environmental justice, we encourage you to take steps to protect yourself, your family, and your community during the fall season. This includes staying informed about local environmental issues, advocating for responsible chemical use, and adopting eco-friendly practices in your daily life.

Toxic Tuesday

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[Read more]

Training Calls

In this Training Call, our former community organizer and current director of Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store program, Mike Schade, further illuminates vinyl chloride pollution and how to hold corporations accountable using CHEJ’s past successful tactics…. [Watch now]

Backyard Talk Blogs

By Sharon Franklin. In July 2023, I wrote the blog, “There’s An Ethylene Oxide (EtO) Health Emergency in South Memphis, Tennessee.” In it, I discussed the air pollution created by the Sterilization Services of TN (SELC) in Memphis, Tennesse [Read more]

By Leila Waid. 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[Read more]

By Hunter Marion. 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 [Read more]

By Gregory Kolen II. Did you know that CHEJ offers audio discussions for you to listen to? The Fighting to Win podcast hosted by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) is where you will hear inspiring stories from environmental activist[Read more]

Do you find this information useful? Please consider pitching in and making a contribution to CHEJ. We appreciate your support!

The East Palestine and Ohio train derailments highlighted the widespread issue of vinyl chloride pollution in the US, often linked to corporate negligence. Mike Schade from Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store program elaborated on this issue and the harmful impact of plastic pollution. He detailed how the program is pressing major retailers to curb toxic chemicals and plastics usage, and shared ways individuals can participate in protecting communities from such pollution.

This fall, let’s change the color of our future from the bleak grey of pollution to the vibrant hues of a healthy environment. Join CHEJ in our fight by donating today! Together, we can ensure a safer, cleaner world for ourselves and future generations.