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Commitment to Tackling Risks Posed by Toxic Chemicals

Photo credit:  Ivan Bandura/Unsplash

Reshare by EHN Curators

In a recent development highlighting a personal commitment to addressing the perils associated with toxic chemicals, the current administration has intensified efforts to mitigate environmental and health risks.

According to Chris D’Angelo’s coverage in The Huffington Post:

  • The administration has initiated measures to limit hazardous waste and chemical exposures, including restrictions on open burning of waste explosives and the evaluation of cancer-causing chemicals.
  • Despite these efforts, the handling of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, involving the burning of vinyl chloride, has drawn criticism for its potential health and environmental impacts.
  • The EPA’s proposed rule to limit the open burning of waste explosives aims to protect communities but does not directly address the concerns raised by the East Palestine incident.

“Toxic smoke, thick with poison, spreading through the air and into the lungs of our troops. When they came home, many of the fittest and best warriors that we sent to war were not the same — headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer. My son Beau was one of them.”

— President Joe Biden

Hazardous waste and toxic chemicals can wreak havoc on public health and ecosystems. Chemicals that seep into soil and waterways can disrupt habitats, harm wildlife, and contaminate food chains. This not only affects biodiversity but can also compromise the resources people rely on, like clean drinking water and productive agricultural land.

EHN visited residents still picking up the pieces four months after a catastrophic train derailment dumped toxics in East Palestine, Ohio.

Toxic Tuesdays

What Scientists Know and Don’t Know About Exposures to Low Level Mixtures of Toxic Chemicals

Toxic Tuesdays

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

What Scientists Know and Don’t Know About Exposures to Low Level Mixtures of Toxic Chemicals

Not long ago, the Huffington Post ran a story called: A Roll of the Dice: The Unknown Threat of Exposures to Chemical Mixtures, by Chris D’Angelo that talked about the difficulties scientists are having in answering the questions about adverse health effects following the horrific train derailment in East Palestine, OH more than a year ago. It’s an important article for anyone dealing with a toxic chemical exposure issue, especially in a community setting. 

It’s important because it gets to the heart of the science – what scientists know and don’t know about low level multiple chemical exposures to toxic chemicals such as occurred in East Palestine and many other contaminated sites around the country. In most cases, people are exposed to multiple chemicals simultaneously at low concentrations over various periods of time. Rarely are people exposed to just one chemical.

Yet when the government steps in to assess the health risks at these sites, they use the best tool available to them – risk assessments based on peer reviewed published data. The article discusses why this approach is very limited in what it can tell about the risks people face from exposure to multiple chemicals at low concentrations. Risk assessment is limited because virtually all of the published peer reviewed data addresses exposure to only a single chemical at a time and that very little data exists to inform what happens when people are exposed to multiple chemicals at low concentrations. Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told D’Angelo that mixtures are a complex problem that has long frustrated the field of toxicology.

The risk assessment process relies on this limited scientific data because it’s all we have to assess health risks. D’Angelo points this out arguing that data derived from exposure to one chemical at a time bears no relationship to the actual risks people face in the real world such as in East Palestine. He describes it this way: “In communities like East Palestine, Ohio, where residents were exposed to potentially dozens of different chemicals following the fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in February, environmental agencies are often quick to declare the air, water, and soil safe, despite having little grasp of how substances could be interacting to harm human health.”

D’Angelo points out that the “…dangers in East Palestine may not be any one chemical but several working in tandem. And the fields of toxicology and epidemiology remain largely incapable of investigating and understanding that threat.”

But instead of acknowledging what the science actually tells us about exposures to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals, government, in the case of East Palestine, has released disingenuous and misleading statements meant to reassure the public that everything is alright and taking no action to address the adverse health symptoms that the people in East Palestine are continuing to experience including nose bleeds, headaches, skin rashes and breathing difficulties.

If the EPA and other health agencies were honest and truthful with the public, they would tell the people of East Palestine that they really don’t know the true exposure risks, that scientists don’t know very much about what happens to people exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals. While perhaps not reassuring, the truth allows everyone to better understand what’ they are facing.  

The article concludes with a way forward by suggesting that EPA should follow the lead of what the government did to take care of Vietnam Veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange and the soldiers exposed to emissions from the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, among others. In these cases, soldiers do not have to prove that their illnesses were caused by their exposure to toxic chemicals. If they can show that they were exposed, that’s sufficient for them to get health care and other compensation.

Communities like East Palestine shouldn’t be held to a different standard, especially given the many unknowns about the toxic exposures caused by the train derailment. In the absence of a basic understanding of what adverse health effects might result from exposures to the mixtures of toxic chemicals released into the community by the train derailment, the government should take steps to move the people of East Palestine who want to move, provide health care for those who were exposed and establish a medical monitoring program to follow these people.

These steps will begin the long and difficult process of acknowledging what we know and don’t know about exposes to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals and begin to learn what happens to the people exposed in these situations. Read the full article here.

Learn about more toxics

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Impact on Children of the Flint, MI Water Crisis

Photo credit : Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post

By Stephen Lester.

It is well understood how dangerous lead is to everyone especially children who are still growing and thus more susceptible to its toxic effects. Scientists have continued to find adverse effects from exposure to lower and lower levels of lead, leading some people to say that there is no known safe level of exposure to lead, especially for children. This evidence continued to grow this month when researchers from Princeton University, the University of Michigan and from a private research group in Cambridge, MA reported that children exposed to lead during the Flint (MI) lead crisis “suffered significant negative effects” on their academic outcome. They further reported that “we find compelling evidence that the FWC [Flint Water Crisis] reduced student math achievement and increased the rate of social needs classification.” Students (over the age of 5) with low socioeconomic status experienced the largest effects on math achievement, with boys suffering the largest effects on special needs classification.

Numerous studies referenced in this report have documented the adverse health effects of lead on children including increased behavioral problems, decreased executive functioning, decreased academic achievement, decreased brain volume, higher rates of crime offending, decreased social mobility and increased anxiety. This study adds to this knowledge and understanding by providing strong evidence that the relatively short exposure to lead in drinking water – about a year and a half – during the Flint Water Crisis had a significant impact on the educational outcomes of school-aged children in Flint.

The authors also discussed the many ways that a crisis such as the FWC impacts a community  that goes beyond the chemical exposures. Specifically, they discussed persistent psychological distress and trauma referencing the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the DC sniper attacks among others. They made a convincing argument that “one cannot treat these crises as strictly medical phenomena.” It’s much more complex than that.

Lastly, the authors point out that the societal costs of the Flint Water Crisis which have been estimated to range from 50 to 400 million dollars are based on only the effects of lead exposure. They do not take into effect the impact of the psychological distress and trauma that the community goes through. They conclude that “Our results point toward the broad negative effects of the crisis on children and suggest that existing estimates may substantially underestimate the overall societal cost of the crisis.” They expressed hope that understanding the true costs of events such as Flint Water Crisis might help prevent the kind of thinking that led to the Flint crisis in the first place, a decision to switch the source of the city’s drinking water in order to save money – just 5 to 7 million dollars.

1 A. Reuben, M. L. Elliott, W. C. Abraham, J. Broadbent, R. M. Houts, D. Ireland, A. R. Knodt, R. Poulton, S. Ramrakha, A. R. Hariri, A. Caspi, T. E. Moffitt, Association of childhood lead exposure with MRI measurements of structural brain integrity in midlife. JAMA 324, 1970–1979 (2020).

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Unveiling the Impact: Working with Chemically Impacted Communities

By Jordan Martinez.

Since working with the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, I have met and worked with Jami Wallace, President of the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment. I have found working with both Stephen Lester and Jami Wallace rewarding and impactful. As I got to learn about Jami, I also learned more about the tragic derailment and the health and policy issues her and her community have been facing, even a year after the event. I had heard about the EP train derailment in the news when it happened. However, after working with Jami, I’ve quickly realized the gravity of the situation and the prevalence of chemically impacted communities.

My interest in environmental health started from another one of my interests: neuroscience. I’m a student at Tufts University studying biopsychology, and the interactions between the brain and the environment are interesting to me. One week while participating in a journal club, I read a paper on Gulf War Illnesses, which are hypothesized to be caused by chemical exposure to sarin nerve gas on U.S. soldiers during the war. This got me interested in environmental causes of neurological disease. This interest was further fueled by Stephen Lester, after a visit to my university, where he talked about his experience working in Love Canal with Louis Gibbs. It’s a pleasure to now work alongside him.

In my work with Stephen, I create digestible science communication papers for residents in East Palestine, based on scientific research I find online. So far I have written about the environmental and health effects of burning lithium ion electric vehicle batteries, and I am currently writing about the effects of burning semolina, a type of wheat used to make pasta, couscous, and sweet puddings. Lithium batteries and semolina were purported to be in some of the train cars that caught on fire after the derailment, so writing these articles has helped answer questions for the residents of East Palestine about the toxic chemicals involved in their exposure.

For Jami and the residents of East Palestine, I’ve helped gather chemically impacted communities from around the country for the inaugural Chemically Impacted Communities’ Coalition meeting. I did research on chemically impacted communities worldwide, and from my research and reaching out to affected communities, I realized that two things each of these communities had in common was frustration due to a lack of being heard and exhaustion from the work they’ve been doing. After the first successful meeting, Jami, the Unity Council team and I have been working on a mission statement and getting the impacted communities together for a second meeting. However, while Jami seeks the support of other communities, she also fights a battle at home. She’s fighting a battle against corporate greed, which has influenced the government and politics of her area, minimized the real harm done to her community, and acted as a barrier to the work she’s doing for the community. It’s a challenge getting information out to government officials. When President Biden visited 2 weeks ago, even getting a letter out to him proved to be a challenge. But change is being made, even if it is a long process. And Jami and I have learned a lot from each other along the way.

Toxic Tuesdays

Carbon Monoxide

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a toxic gas that is difficult to detect because it has no smell, taste, or color. It can be produced from both natural and human-made sources when carbon fuel – such as gasoline, wood, coal, charcoal, propane, natural gas, or trash – is incompletely burned. The most common source of carbon monoxide in outdoor air is exhaust from gas-powered vehicles. It can also be produced in indoor air through house fires or use of gas-powered appliances such as portable generators, furnaces, water heaters, stoves, and fireplaces. Carbon monoxide is also produced in industrial chemical manufacturing to create a group of plastics called polycarbonates.

When carbon monoxide enters the air it can remain there for several months. Inhaling air contaminated with carbon monoxide interferes with red blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen throughout the body. This can cause difficulty with breathing, headache, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, vision impairment, confusion, and chest pain. In high doses it can cause seizures, coma, and death. Exposure to high doses while pregnant can also cause miscarriage. People with heart or lung diseases are particularly vulnerable to the effects of carbon monoxide exposure. Even once exposure to carbon monoxide has ended, there can be long-term effects on heart and brain function.

Because of the extreme toxicity of carbon monoxide, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for safe levels of carbon monoxide in the air. Despite these standards, studies estimate that 50,000 people in the United States need emergency medical treatment for carbon monoxide exposure each year, and that about 1,000 die from carbon monoxide exposure each year. Carbon monoxide has also been found in many Superfund sites identified by the EPA. These realities indicate that more stringent standards, testing, and regulations may be necessary to keep people safe from carbon monoxide.

Learn about more toxics

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One Billion Additional Dollars for Superfund – It’s Still a Drop in the Bucket

Photo Credit: Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

By Sharon Franklin.

The Superfund program was established in 1980 to clean up sites contaminated sites with hazardous substances.  On February 27, 2023 CBS News reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will attempt to speed the cleanup of 85 ongoing Superfund projects across America by infusing $1 billion of funds into the program. The EPA also identified twenty-five (25) toxic waste sites in 15 and two territories states that will get a funding boost. These one billion dollars represent the third and last installment of the $3.5 billion allocated under the 2021 infrastructure law signed by President Biden.

These sites can be found via the Superfund Enforcement Cleanup Work Map. A few of the long-contaminated sites slated for cleanup are:

  • A former smelting plant in East Helena, Montana.
  • An old textile mill in Greenville, South Carolina.
  • A beach area was blighted nearly 60 years ago by lead battery casings and other toxic material used to build a seawall and jetty in Raritan Bay, Old Bridge, and 2 other sites in New Jersey.
  • Four sites including West Hazleton at the former Valmont Industrial Park in Pennsylvania.
  • Three sites including the Clearlake Oaks Sulphur Bank mercury mine in California.

As many affected communities know first-hand, the Superfund program was not funded for years but has been replenished after Congress included a “polluter pays” tax in the 2021 infrastructure law. “The tax took effect in 2022 and is set to collect up to $23 billion over the next five years,” said New Jersey Democrat Representative, Frank Pallone, who pushed for reinstatement of the tax in the 2021 law.For New Jersey residents, the Superfund Program is very important because New Jersey has more Superfund sites than any other state, and half of its 9.3 million residents live within three miles of a Superfund site. Pallone also said, “Superfund sites threaten public and environmental health across the country,” including New Jersey, “but with today’s announcement, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is continuing to deliver on the promise we made to clean up backlogged sites and give our communities the peace of mind they deserve.”

Pallone’s remarks on Superfund concluded by saying “I really believe that all of our communities across the country deserve to enjoy their towns and use their space without fear of the health risks that come with living near a Superfund site,’‘   Corporate polluters — not taxpayers— should pay to clean up the messes they created.”

As encouraging as this windfall is, we need to recognize that only 85 of the nation’s 1,300 Superfund site would be addressed through this program.