Toxic Tuesdays

Acknowledging the Limits to Assessing Low Dose Mixtures of Toxic Chemicals​

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Acknowledging the Limits to Assessing Low Dose Mixtures of Toxic Chemicals

Approximately 1 year ago a Norfolk Southern train carrying more than 150 cars, many of which containing toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, OH. Thirty-eight of the train cars derailed and a decision was made by Norfolk Southern to burn the contents of 5 tanker cars containing vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals. This unleashed a huge black cloud of particulates that enveloped the surrounding neighborhoods and farms in both OH and PA.

Immediately after the burn, people in East Palestine began reporting adverse health symptoms including, headaches, nose bleeds, skin rashes, central nervous symptoms, thyroid problems and more. These and other adverse health problems have continued to plague the residents of this rural midwestern town.

EPA responded immediately by telling people that everything was alright, that there was no cause for alarm. EPA’s testing found no levels of “concern.” But the people in East Palestine could not accept this narrative because they knew things were not right. They knew the health effects they were suffering were real. They knew that EPA was not telling them the truth.

If EPA were honest with the people at East Palestine, they would have told them that they don’t understand why people are continuing to report so many illnesses while their data tells them that there should not be any adverse health problems in the community.

But if EPA did that, if they acknowledged how little is known about the link between adverse health effects and exposures to mixtures of chemicals, the people of East Palestine would demand action in the face of these uncertainties. Action like paying for people to relocate from the area so that they can stop being exposed to the toxic chemicals which are still in the air, getting the health care they need and moving on with lives.

It is clear from the situation in East Palestine that very little is known about how people respond to exposures to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals. It’s time to acknowledge that the scientific understanding does not exist to explain what is happening to the health of the people in East Palestine or other communities exposed to toxic chemicals. It’s time to recognize that we cannot rely on traditional toxicology to answer the questions people have about their exposures to low level chemical mixtures.

In an editorial about evaluating low dose exposures, Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, described the traditional approach to evaluating health risks as “antiquated” and said that it needs to be replaced by a “better understanding of the actual characteristics of modern environmental chemicals.” Birnbaum went on to say that “It is time to start the conversation between environmental health scientists, toxicologists, and risk assessors to determine how our understanding of low doses effects and non-monotonic dose responses influence the way risk assessments are performed for chemicals with endocrine disrupting activities.”

It’s time to acknowledge that the tools we have are not able to answer the questions people ask about their exposures to toxic chemicals and give people the relief they are asking or, whether it’s cleanup, relocation, health care or something else.   

This is exactly what the government did for the Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange; for the atomic bomb victims exposed to radiation fallout; for the 9/11 first responders in New York City; for the soldiers exposed to burn-pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan; and for the marines and their families at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina who drank contaminated water.

In each of these instances, the government recognized that the science linking exposure and health outcomes was impossible to assess and instead of requiring proof of cause and effect, they said, enough, we need to take care of our own and moved to a presumptive scientific approach that allowed veterans and first responders to get health care and other compensation. We should do the same for the people of East Palestine and in hundreds of other communities that have been exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals.

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Planetary Health and Environmental Justice

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By Leila Waid.

Planetary health is a term used to define how human activity impacts the environment and, in turn, how those environmental changes impact human health. Utilizing a planetary health framework is essential for environmental health organizing because it uses a holistic approach to understanding the world and our place within it. The Planetary Health approach showcases that protecting our environment is not something we should do because it is simply the right thing, but we need to do it for our preservation and well-being. 

The air we breathe is littered with pollution from fossil-fuel industries. Even antibiotic resistance, a major emerging public health threat, has connections to air pollution. For example, a study found that PM2.5 (particulates in the air smaller than a strand of hair) contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Shockingly, the study found that “the magnitude of the contribution of PM2.5 to aggregate antibiotic resistance is greater than that of antibiotic use.”

Our waterways are full of plastics and PFAS, a group of forever chemicals that bioaccumulate in the body. The fish we consume are saturated with methylmercury due to humanmade activity, such as coal mining that dumps excess mercury into the waterways. And we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the environment, which causes warming and a disbalance in our delicate climate system. Interestingly, even the knowledge that we are driving the deterioration of the natural world causes stress and other mental health issues – a phenomenon coined “eco-anxiety.” On the other hand, being in nature does wonders for our mental health, such as decreasing anxiety and depression. 

So, what can be done? How can we keep our quality of life, with all our modern conveniences, while understanding that profound changes must be made to preserve the ecological world and our health? Two public health experts, Tong and Bambrick, weigh in on this issue in a peer-reviewed article, in which they provide four suggestions.

According to Tong and Bambrick, we first need to address the root cause of climate change globally and utilize different approaches based on regional and national contexts. Second, we must address environmental justice at all levels, from international to hyper-local. Third, we must understand that the entire world is interconnected, and we live in a “global village.” Our air and waterways do not have national boundaries, and the air pollution on one side of the world can eventually reach your backyard. Nowhere was this more apparent than the summer of 2023 on the east coast of the U.S. when the Canadian wildfire plume traveled south and made the air unbearably smoggy. The fourth, and final, suggestion states that we must take collective action at an international level. After all, these are not issues that one individual or country can tackle. Instead, we need to reimagine our way of life that is focused on being connected to our environment, respecting our limited natural resources, and protecting human health.

Planetary health lays out the vicious cycle that modern humans face. We have built our way of life not in tandem with the natural world but in its exclusion. And as a result, we face the health consequences of those choices. 

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Tech Triumphs: Online Innovations and Progress in Addressing the East Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment

By Gregory Kolen II.

In the face of unexpected challenges, the integration of technology has proven to be a game-changer, offering swift and effective solutions. The recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, underscores how online technology has played a crucial role in managing and addressing the aftermath of the incident. Let’s explore the various ways in which digital advancements have contributed to progress and resilience in the wake of the East Palestine train derailment.

  1. Real-Time Communication and Coordination:

Online technology has facilitated instant communication and coordination among various stakeholders involved in the response efforts. Emergency services, local authorities, and community organizations have utilized digital platforms to share crucial information, coordinate rescue operations, and update the public in real-time. Social media, in particular, has become a powerful tool for disseminating urgent information and connecting people in times of crisis.

  1. Crowdsourced Assistance and Information:

Online platforms have enabled the community to come together and offer support. Crowdsourcing initiatives, facilitated through social media and dedicated websites, have allowed individuals to share information about the incident, report on-ground situations, and coordinate volunteer efforts. This collective collaboration has proven instrumental in addressing immediate needs and providing aid to those affected by the train derailment.

  1. Mapping and Geospatial Technologies:

Digital mapping technologies and geospatial tools have been crucial in assessing the extent of the damage and planning effective response strategies. Satellite imagery, geographic information systems (GIS), and mapping applications have allowed authorities to visualize the impacted areas, identify potential risks, and allocate resources strategically. This precision in mapping has optimized the efficiency of rescue and recovery operations.

  1. Virtual Emergency Response Teams:

The rise of virtual emergency response teams has transformed the traditional approach to disaster management. Online platforms facilitate the creation of virtual teams comprising experts from diverse geographical locations who can collaborate remotely. These teams contribute their expertise in areas such as logistics, engineering, and environmental impact assessment, offering a comprehensive and well-coordinated response to the train derailment.

  1. Public Awareness and Safety Campaigns:

Online technology has played a pivotal role in disseminating public safety information. Emergency alerts, safety guidelines, and evacuation procedures have been efficiently communicated through various online channels, ensuring that residents stay informed and take necessary precautions. Social media campaigns and digital outreach efforts have contributed to raising awareness about the incident and the ongoing response efforts.

The East Palestine, Ohio train derailment serves as a testament to the transformative power of online technology in times of crisis. From real-time communication to crowdsourced assistance and innovative mapping solutions, digital advancements have significantly contributed to progress in addressing the aftermath of the incident. As technology continues to evolve, its role in enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of emergency response efforts is likely to become even more pronounced, offering hope for a more resilient and connected future.

Toxic Tuesdays

Glyphosate Risks

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Glyphosate Risks

Glyphosate is a chemical found in weed killer products like RoundUpTM used on farms and home lawns. Because of its effectiveness, glyphosate has become the most widely used herbicide in the world. People who work with these products and people who live near farms where they are used can get exposed to glyphosate through the air. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that glyphosate exposure probably causes blood cancers. 81% of American adults and children have detectable concentrations of glyphosate in their urine. While much is still unknown about the potential health risks of glyphosate exposure, two recently published studies illuminate how big a concern it may be for both workers and the public.

One study aimed at assessing the potential cancer risk posed to farmers who work with glyphosate-containing herbicides. The study used data from the Agricultural Health Study (AHS), which collected biological samples from private and commercial pesticide applicators in Iowa and North Carolina from 1993-1997. The study analyzed AHS participants who were male, above the age of 50, had no blood disorders, and had not been diagnosed with cancer, which created a sample of 1,681 people. The researchers analyzed the DNA of these participants to look for the loss of large portions of DNA in the Y chromosome. Significant loss of DNA portions can have a massive effect on how the body’s cells function and have been linked to increased risk for cancer. Losses of large portions of DNA in the Y chromosome have been specifically linked to blood cancers like those that may be caused by glyphosate exposure.

In the study, 21% of participants had lost large portions of the DNA in their Y chromosome in some of their cells. Statistical analysis found that using glyphosate-containing pesticides for either a longer period or with more intensity were both associated with more DNA loss in the Y chromosome. While these findings do not prove that occupational exposure to glyphosate causes cancer, they provide important biological evidence that glyphosate exposure can cause the kinds of largescale changes in DNA that are associated with cancer. It is the first study of agricultural workers to show this association between glyphosate and DNA loss.

A second study sought the extent of glyphosate exposure among people who live near farms where glyphosate is used. Some studies have shown that glyphosate exposure during pregnancy is associated with reduced fetal growth and pre-term birth. Thus, this study focused on measuring glyphosate levels of pregnant people in Idaho who live near farms that use glyphosate. The study included 40 participants in Idaho who were in their first trimester of pregnancy in 2021. Researchers collected weekly urine samples from participants until delivery. Half of participants lived near farms (less than 0.5 kilometers from a farm) and half lived far from farms (more than 0.5 kilometers from a farm). About two-thirds of both groups had detectable concentrations of glyphosate in their urine.

For participants living near farms, the frequency and concentration of glyphosate detection in urine increased significantly during the pesticide spray season (from May to August) compared to the non-spray season. This change did not occur in participants living far from farms, indicating that increased exposure to glyphosate was likely a result of pesticide spraying. While these findings do not directly track the health effects on pregnant participants or their infants, it is important biological evidence that agricultural use of glyphosate exposes nearby residents. It is the first study to demonstrate that residential proximity to farms using glyphosate is associated with increased glyphosate in the body.

These two studies demonstrate that glyphosate may pose risks to both workers and the public. CHEJ has previously written about the uses and health risks of glyphosate here.

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Backyard Monthly – January 2024

January 2024
CHEJ's "All In" - Spotlight of the Month

Welcome to this year’s first edition of our monthly digest at the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice in this exciting new year! As we step into 2024, our optimism is fueled by the incredible strides made by you. All of the inspiring stories, highlights of progress, and ongoing efforts by individuals and organizations at the forefront.

Our collective efforts continue to bridge gaps and amplify voices, ensuring that marginalized communities disproportionately affected by environmental issues are heard and empowered. Through education, advocacy, and innovative solutions, we’re building a more inclusive and resilient world.

Thank you for being part of our community, and let’s embark on this new year as we navigate the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, unified in our commitment to healthier, more equitable communities for all.

Toxic Tuesday

Endometrial cancer is an increasingly common form of cancer in developed countries. There are both genetic and environmental risk factors associated with the development of endometrial cancer, and changing the environmental… [Read more]

Backyard Talk Blogs

By Stephen Lester. By Stephen Lester. Nearly 10 months ago, a Norfolk Southern train with more than 150 cars, many of which contained toxic chemicals, derailed in East Palestine, OH. Thirty-eight of the train cars derailed and a decision[Read more]

The EJ Minute Podcast

COP 28, Indigenous Concerns over Clean Energy Infrastructure in New York, Cleveland’s Expanded Access to Recreational Water and Green Spaces[Listen Now]

Discussing attendance at the United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, more commonly referred to as COP28[Listen Now]

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

Your contributions play a pivotal role in fueling our initiatives, enabling us to amplify voices, drive impactful change, and advocate for policies that prioritize both environmental well-being and social equity. 

Click here to make a donation today and be a catalyst for positive transformation. Your support, no matter the size, directly contributes to our ability to create meaningful, lasting change. With your generosity, we can expand our reach, empower communities, and work towards a future where everyone can thrive in a clean and just environment.

Thank you for being an integral part of our community. Here’s to a year filled with progress, impact, and collective success in creating a brighter, more equitable future.

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Food Insecurity and Food Justice Advocacy in America

Image credit: USDA, Economic Resource Service

By Juliet Porter.

Food justice refers to the holistic, structural perception of the food system which views access to healthy food as a human right and simultaneously addresses obstacles in the way of the right. Directly stemming from the concept of environmental justice, food justice emphasizes the importance of putting disadvantaged and minority groups at the center of the debate.

Various factors contribute to one’s ability to access healthy, fresh foods, many of which are uncontrollable. For example, BIPOC individuals and those in a lower socioeconomic bracket are more likely to reside in food deserts. A food desert refers to a geographical area where residents’ access to affordable, fresh, and healthy food options is severely limited or non-existent due to a lack of grocery stores within a convenient travel distance of one’s home. Lack of personal vehicles and unreliable public transportation exacerbates the issue of food deserts. For instance, according to a report by the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture prepared for Congress, 2.3 million people, or 2.2% of all US households live more than one mile away from their closest supermarket and also don’t own a car.

Food deserts are the most prevalent in black and brown communities as well as low-income areas, where car ownership is low. Studies have proven that wealthy neighborhoods have as many three times more supermarkets as low income ones do and white neighborhoods have roughly four times the amount of supermarkets as black neighborhoods while grocery stores in black neighborhoods tend to be smaller, offering a selection with minimal variety.

Living in a food desert and being prone to food insecurity is directly correlated with poor health as researchers have established a strong correlation between food insecurity and increased rates of diabetes. In fact, the highest rates of escalation of diabetes have been identified among Native American youth as well as African Americans and Latinos of all age groups. These groups tend to be those that are the most likely to live in food deserts. Those living in food deserts experience food insecurity. It’s estimated that food insecurity is the most prominent in rural communities. While 63% of communities in the U.S. are characterized as rural, these areas are overrepresented in the food insecurity scene with them making up 87% of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity. Data from the US Census Bureau found that approximately 27 million Americans experience food insecurity as of July 2023. Some sources, such as Feeding
America, estimate that this number is even higher, sitting around 34 million Americans.

Image credit: National Public Radio

The food justice scene is rapidly growing as public awareness continues to be raised and more media attention is devoted to the topic largely due to the work of community activists. Earlier this year, in January 2023, Democratic lawmakers discussed eliminating food deserts as a
mechanism to reduce the prevalence of diseases, like diabetes, affecting African Americans. Representative Robin Kelley, a Democrat from Illinois, emphasized how reducing food deserts is likely one of the most effective methods in curbing diet-related illnesses. As the epidemic of food insecurity becomes more publicized, it’s likely that there will be more legislative wins within the upcoming years.

Toxic Tuesdays


Toxic Tuesdays

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


Thallium is a metal found in the Earth’s crust and can be obtained by smelting metal compounds. Today, most thallium is used in the production of electronics, especially semiconductors. It is also used for medical imaging and in the production of glass. Thallium contamination of the surrounding environment most commonly results from the smelting process, but it can also happen during transport or improper disposal. Once in the environment, it remains in the air, water, and soil without breaking down. It can enter the food chain because it is absorbed by plants and builds up in fish.

Eating food contaminated with thallium is the most likely way people in the United States would be exposed to it. Ingesting high levels of thallium over a short period of time can lead to symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and hair loss. It can impair function of the brain, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, and even lead to death. Little is known about the health effects of ingesting low levels of thallium over a long period of time. People who work in facilities that use thallium or live near waste sites containing thallium can also be exposed by breathing contaminated air or touching contaminated material. Workers exposed to thallium over many years have had nervous system impairments, including numbness in the extremities. Studies on laboratory animals have shown that exposure to high levels of thallium can cause reproductive and developmental defects, but it is not known if this also occurs in people.

Historically, thallium was a common ingredient in rat poisons and insecticides sold in the United States. Recognizing that it is highly toxic, the government banned its use in these consumer products in 1972. In fact, thallium is considered so dangerous that it is no longer produced in the United States. Many other countries also ban or restrict the production of thallium. While these are positive developments to keep people safe, at lease 210 Superfund sites are known to contain thallium, meaning it still poses a danger to people’s health today.

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