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Who Decides How Toxic is Toxic?

By Stephen Lester.

Years ago, when I first got involved in toxics work, I thought that determining the toxicity of a chemical was based on the evidence, the scientific evidence on exposure and health outcomes, primarily in people. Now I know better.

Take for example, the case of asbestos. Earlier this year, the USEPA banned asbestos use in the United States. This was not an immediate ban, but one in which the industry has 5 years to phase out its reliance on asbestos.

Despite mounds of evidence collected over decades on the dangers of asbestos, this toxic mineral has continued to be used in the US in brake lining, sheet gaskets and in the production of chlorine. This asbestos is mostly  imported, as asbestos was last mined in the US in 2002. Think about that. How is it possible that a known human carcinogen linked to more than 40,000 deaths a year is still legally being used in this country?

It was more than 40 years ago that scientific consensus concluded that asbestos was a highly carcinogenic substance, that ship workers had higher rates of a very rare form of lung cancer called mesothelioma and that it was caused by exposure to asbestos.

EPA tried in 1989 to ban asbestos, but its regulation was overturned by a federal judge who allowed asbestos use to continue and for companies to import it. There was also the Ban Asbestos in America Act introduced in the early 2000s that would have banned importing manufacturing and distributing asbestos, but it was never voted on by Congress.   

How does a chemical as toxic as asbestos stay on the market despite clear evidence of its toxicity and impact on people? The answer is the political power and influence of the companies that stand to benefit from its use in products such as brake lining, sheet gaskets and in the production of chlorine. The biggest users of asbestos have made arguments for decades that have prevented EPA from taking action to restrict the uses of asbestos. For example, the American Chemistry Council who represents the chlorine industry has argued it “would make it difficult for water utilities to buy chlorine, threatening the safety of the nation’s drinking water.”

These companies challenge the agency at every step of the regulatory process with legal and scientific questions and political fights. An article in the Washington Post last year quoted Bob Sussman, former EPA deputy administrator during the Clinton Administration, saying “Industry’s game plan has been to attack EPA for overreaching even while working to assure that EPA accomplishes far less than the public and many in Congress expected.” It’s a strategy calculated to make a struggling agency even weaker and more paralyzed by making every decision  contentious and contested.”

The scientific evidence in isolation can evaluate the toxicity of a chemical. But it’s the political and economic factors that drive decisions on how well people are protected from exposure to toxic chemicals, not the science. Toxic chemicals are not restricted or controlled, they are managed. In large part this is because the scientific evidence linking exposure to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals is very limited and incomplete. So, in the absence of clear evidence, the government and the politicians cannot rely on the science to answer the questions people have about whether their health problems are caused by the chemicals they were exposed to. 

This situation is not likely to change any time soon. People will continue to be exposed to toxic chemicals whether it’s asbestos, lead, trichloroethylene or any of hundreds of other toxic chemicals. Corporate America has enormous control over EPA, FDA and other government agencies that regulate toxic chemicals. Don’t expect these agencies to protect you, even when they want to. It’s what the companies want that dictates what happens. It’s the companies that decide whether a chemical is toxic in a community setting or even in a workplace. It’s the companies that decide how much a chemical or a mixture of chemicals that you can be exposed to. It’s the companies that decide, not the scientists and not the people who were exposed.    

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The Power of Brand Storytelling in Environmental Justice Nonprofits

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

By Gregory Kolen II.

In the realm of environmental justice, where the intersection of social equity and environmental protection is paramount, effective communication is key. For nonprofits working within this space, brand storytelling is not just a marketing tool; it’s a powerful instrument for change. It shapes public perception, galvanizes support, and ultimately drives the mission forward. Here, we delve into the importance of brand storytelling for environmental justice nonprofits and highlight some exemplary cases.

The Essence of Brand Storytelling

At its core, brand storytelling is about crafting and conveying a narrative that resonates with your audience on an emotional level. For environmental justice nonprofits, this involves articulating the interconnectedness of environmental issues with social inequities, and the human stories that underscore these realities. It transforms abstract concepts into tangible experiences, fostering empathy and motivating action.

Building Trust and Credibility

Nonprofits often rely heavily on public support, whether through donations, volunteer work, or advocacy. A compelling brand story helps build trust and credibility, which are crucial for sustaining this support. By consistently sharing stories of their impact, struggles, and victories, organizations can cultivate a loyal and engaged community.

For instance, The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has effectively used storytelling to highlight the plight of communities affected by climate change. Their campaigns often feature personal stories of individuals from vulnerable regions, creating a relatable and urgent narrative that underscores the necessity of their work.

Engaging Diverse Audiences

Environmental justice issues often disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Effective storytelling can bridge gaps, engaging diverse audiences who might otherwise feel disconnected from environmental causes. By amplifying the voices of those directly impacted, nonprofits can foster a more inclusive dialogue.

WE ACT for Environmental Justice, based in Harlem, New York, exemplifies this approach. Through their storytelling efforts, they highlight the health and environmental challenges faced by their community, while also celebrating local leaders and activists. This not only educates a broader audience but also empowers the community by giving them a platform.

Driving Advocacy and Action

Storytelling is a catalyst for advocacy. It has the power to transform passive observers into active participants. When people connect emotionally with a story, they are more likely to take action—be it signing a petition, attending a rally, or donating to a cause., a global grassroots movement to combat climate change, leverages storytelling to mobilize people worldwide. Their campaigns often focus on personal stories of those affected by fossil fuel projects, making the issue more relatable and urgent. This has been instrumental in their success in driving global action against climate change.

Inspiring Hope and Empowerment

Amid the often daunting challenges of environmental justice, storytelling can also inspire hope and empowerment. By sharing success stories and highlighting positive changes, nonprofits can foster a sense of possibility and motivate continued efforts.

The Sierra Club, one of the oldest and largest environmental organizations in the United States, uses storytelling to highlight their victories in environmental protection and justice. By showcasing the tangible impacts of their campaigns, they inspire their supporters and attract new allies to their cause.

Crafting an Effective Brand Story

For environmental justice nonprofits looking to harness the power of storytelling, consider these key elements:

  1. Authenticity: Ensure your stories are genuine and reflect the true experiences of the communities you serve.
  2. Relatability: Highlight personal stories that your audience can connect with on an emotional level.
  3. Clarity: Clearly articulate the link between environmental issues and social justice.
  4. Visuals: Use compelling visuals to complement your narrative and enhance engagement.
  5. Call to Action: Encourage your audience to take specific actions to support your cause.


In the fight for environmental justice, the power of a well-told story cannot be overstated. It humanizes complex issues, builds trust, engages diverse audiences, drives action, and inspires hope. For nonprofits dedicated to this cause, mastering the art of brand storytelling is not just beneficial—it’s essential for making a lasting impact. By continually refining and sharing their narratives, these organizations can foster a more just and sustainable world for all.

Toxic Tuesdays

Lead in Public Housing

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Lead in Public Housing

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that has been used in many household products like paint and plumbing materials. This makes people most likely to be exposed to lead in their own homes, through ingesting or inhaling contaminated paint, dust, or water. Lead exposure affects all organs but is particularly damaging to the brain, causing defects in learning and memory. Children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure because of their growing brains, and exposure can cause defects in brain development, behavioral problems, and irreversible learning disabilities. Even though it’s been known for over two hundred years that lead is toxic, it is estimated that 800 million children worldwide are exposed to lead today. (CHEJ has previously written about the health effects of lead exposure here.)

A new study has found that access to federal housing assistance is associated with lower blood lead levels (BLLs), demonstrating how housing access influences health. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has three main housing assistance programs that help 5 million low-income households access affordable, high-quality housing:

  1. The public housing program provides subsidized housing units at a specific site that is owned by the local public housing authority.
  2. The multifamily income-restricted housing program provides subsidized housing units at a specific site that is owned by a private entity.
  3. Tenant-based housing choice vouchers (HCVs) provides subsidies for tenants to use towards finding housing in the private market.

The study authors linked HUD administrative records to data from an existing survey that measured people’s health including their BLLs. This allowed the authors to connect people’s BLLs to whether or not they were enrolled in a HUD housing program. To determine if access to HUD housing programs was associated with lower BLLs, the authors compared those who were enrolled in a HUD program to those who were not enrolled but would become enrolled within the next 2 years. This ensured that the groups being compared were similar in their socio-economic status and eligibility for HUD housing assistance. Overall, the study sample included over four thousand people.

The authors found that when controlling for demographic factors like race, ethnicity, sex, age, partnership status, and households size, average BLL was 11.4% lower for people enrolled in HUD housing programs compared to people who were not enrolled at the time. The effect was biggest for people enrolled in public housing programs. The effect was smallest for people enrolled in the HCV program. The authors hypothesize that this protective effect of HUD housing assistance is because HUD has stricter compliance and enforcement of federal lead-paint laws – such as the Lead-Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, and the Lead-Safe Housing Rule – in their public-owned housing units compared to housing units that are privately owned. Because the HCV program has recipients find housing on the private market, this may explain why there was little effect on BLLs for people enrolled in HCV. The authors also note that as housing construction has slowed in the past few decades, affordable housing options on the private market tend to be older construction that are more likely to contain lead-based paint and pipes. HUD’s required inspections, maintenance, abatement, and clearance activities seem to be effective at decreasing people’s exposure to lead. This is consistent with previous studies that have found other positive health outcomes associated with public housing.

The authors found that the association between HUD housing program enrollment and lower BLLs was strongest for non-Hispanic white people. The association was much lower for Black and Mexican American people. While the study cannot explain why this is, the authors offer several explanations rooted in historical and ongoing racism:

“Black households continue to face significant barriers to high-quality housing and high-opportunity neighborhoods that may have fewer lead hazards because of legacies of racist housing policies and urban planning practices in the United States. These practices include redlining, zoning and land use restrictions, gerrymandering of school and census boundaries, predatory lending, and urban renewal initiatives in Black and Brown neighborhoods that displaced families and built highways, airports, and other large pollution-emitting sources in their neighborhoods through eminent domain.”

Overall, this study indicates that housing through HUD programs protects against lead exposure. This is likely a success story of regulations that require inspection, abatement, and removal of lead in public housing; it suggests that requiring units on the private housing market to adhere to these same regulations could have a significant impact on lead exposure in the United States. Because lead is one of the worst toxic chemicals with the potential to do lifelong damage to children, public policy efforts that reduce lead exposure should be a priority. The fact that the lead protective effect of HUD programs is less substantial for nonwhite people demonstrates how systemic racism impacts housing and health. This study shows that housing justice and environmental justice are deeply intertwined: access to high-quality housing is crucial for health and safety. The study also shows that neither housing justice nor environmental justice can be achieved without racial justice.

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The Support of Mothers

As we reflect on this past Mother’s Day, we at the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) are reminded of the profound impact that mothers have on the environmental justice movement. Throughout history, mothers have stood at the forefront of the fight for healthier communities, advocating for clean air, safe water, and toxic-free environments for their children. Their unwavering commitment and passion have driven significant changes, inspiring us all to continue the work towards a more just and sustainable world. At CHEJ, we honor these incredible women and their tireless efforts to protect the health and well-being of future generations.

Today, we ask for your support to help us continue this vital work. By becoming a recurring donor, you can join us in empowering communities, advocating for stronger environmental policies, and holding polluters accountable. Your sustained contributions will enable us to provide the necessary resources and support to those on the front lines of the environmental justice movement. Together, we can amplify the voices of mothers and families who are fighting for a safer and healthier future. Your monthly gift will make a significant difference in our ability to respond swiftly to emerging threats and to sustain long-term campaigns for environmental justice.

Your commitment to recurring giving ensures that CHEJ can maintain a steady and reliable foundation to continue our mission. Please consider setting up a monthly donation today. Every dollar you contribute helps us protect vulnerable communities and advance the cause of environmental justice. With your ongoing support, we can create a legacy of health, safety, and justice for all. Thank you for standing with us and honoring the mothers who inspire this crucial work.

Toxic Tuesdays

Dealing with Uncertainty When Evaluating Toxicity​

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Dealing with Uncertainty When Evaluating Toxicity

In a recent issue, we discussed the many challenges in evaluating the adverse health effects that result from exposure to a mixture of toxic chemicals. Despite this, scientists still estimate and assess risks by attempting to compensate for these uncertainties.

This is done by assigning an uncertainty factor (UF) to the different uncertainties. How well these uncertainty factors fill in the gap in what we do not know is a matter of controversy and opinion. Especially when you acknowledge that we only have good toxicity information on about 1% of the more than 80,000 chemicals that are in use.

Consider just a few of the uncertainties. The first step in assessing risks is to determine what substances a person was exposed to, at what concentration and for how long. Rarely is this information ever available, so assumptions need to be made to estimate this critical information. Sometimes, there is limited air, soil or water data. This data is often collected for a different purpose, such as to evaluate the need for remediation as opposed to evaluating public health risks. There are also uncertainties in how the samples were collected, the accuracies of and precision of the analytical measurements and the thoroughness of the sampling (were the samples taken at the right places, analyzed for the right substances and at relevant concentrations). At times, modeling is used to estimate how much of a chemical a person was exposed to (usually after making assumptions about even what kind of chemicals a person was exposed to), how long they were exposed and at what concentration.

The next step is to evaluate the toxicity information available on the chemical in question. This would include information from animal studies, clinical trials and epidemiological studies involving people. Since most of the data that exists is from animal studies, this step already creates enormous uncertainties. These uncertainties include extrapolating results in animals to people; the variability in response among people; the sensitivity in response among people; estimating acute or short-term responses in people when the only data you have is from chronic or long-term exposure, and vice versa. These examples just touch the surface of the many uncertainties in our understanding of how chemicals affect a person’s health. 

Another factor that comes into play is the health status of the individual who was exposed. People who are generally healthy and without pre-existing conditions respond differently to toxic chemicals than people with prior exposures, poor immune or nutritional status, or pre-existing health problems.

To address these many uncertainties, scientists have developed what were originally called safety factors, but now are referred to simply as uncertainty factors (UF). These uncertainty factors can range from 1 to 10 and often are multiplied together to yield a composite uncertainty factor that can be as high as 100 (10 x 10). These UFs are included in the estimate of the risks a person or group of people face.

Scientists give an UF to each specific uncertainty trying to compensate for the uncertainty. Doing this requires making many assumptions about areas of knowledge that very little is known about. These assumptions are made by “scientific experts” who very quickly become convinced that they “know” the health risks that a person or a group of people face. Of course, they do not really know. Instead, what they have is an opinion based on multiple assumptions, typically for a single substance.

What compounds this process is that the people who make these risk assessment estimates are scientific experts, and do not include the people who have to bear the risks of the chemical exposures. That’s not right! The people who bear the risks need to be involved in the risk assessment and health evaluation process because of the many uncertainties that exist in estimating exposures and in extrapolating what little data exist to evaluate adverse health effects resulting from exposures to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals.

For more about uncertainties when evaluating the adverse effects from chemical exposures, see Environmental Decisions in the Face of Uncertainty, by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, 2013.

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Air Pollution: The Silent Killer

Photo credit: Freepik

By Leila Waid.

Air pollution poses a major risk to human health and is the fourth leading cause of death globally. Although air pollution regulations, such as the Clean Air Act, have drastically reduced the number of deaths and illnesses in the United States, there is still an unacceptably large number of deaths from air pollution. For example, two in five Americans live in areas that are above the threshold for safe air pollution exposure, as set by the EPA. 

Air pollution refers to particles, gases, and contaminants not found in pure air. They include dangerous material that is introduced into the atmosphere, usually through human activity, such as burning fossil fuel. The five air pollutants of highest concern – and those monitored under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards – are tropospheric ozone (ground-level ozone or the “bad” ozone), particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and lead. Of the six pollutants, particulate matter is one of the biggest threats to health. Particular matter is divided into two categories: PM10 and PM2.5. PM10 are particles less than 10 micrometers in size, and PM2.5 are those less than 2.5 micrometers. 

The World Health Organization has set the limit for PM2.5 at 5ug/m3 (microgrammes per cubic meter). Only 0.001 percent of the world meets this threshold. And in the U.S., the majority of Americans are exposed to much higher levels than that standard. Even more alarmingly, some researchers argue that there is no safe level of exposure to PM2.5. Various peer-reviewed studies, such as this epigenetic study, found that even exposure below the strict WHO standard can still cause adverse health effects. 

PM2.5 is a major environmental health concern because it is ubiquitous in the environment, causing dangerous levels of exposure for most of the world, and the microscopic and irregular shape of these particulates leads to them evading the body’s defense systems. Compared to PM10, PM2.5 is much more likely to enter the bloodstream. In general, the structure of our lungs – particularly the bronchioles and the alveoli – does a great job of expelling the foreign particles we inhale. However, PM2.5 can evade these defense mechanisms and cause havoc on our bodies and health. 

What are the health effects of PM2.5? The Health Effects Institute estimates that, globally, 40% of all Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) deaths and 20% of all diabetes deaths are associated with exposure to PM2.5. And in the U.S., it is estimated that PM2.5 attributed to 47,800 deaths in 2019. 

Air pollution is a silent killer. With the criteria pollutants, such as PM2.5, being invisible to the human eye, we don’t take this threat as seriously as we should. We utilize an out-of-sight, out-of-mind philosophy with air pollution, and most of us take for granted how vital clean air is to our health and well-being. Every day, we breathe in harmful chemicals from fossil fuel combustion and then don’t even realize the detrimental health effects of those actions. The adverse health effects of air pollution can appear as cancer, heart disease, respiratory issues, or a myriad of other medical diagnoses without the affected individual ever realizing the outsize role that air pollution played in that health outcome. 

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Tennessee EJ Groups are Suing FERC

Photo credit: John Partipilo

By Franklin Sharon.

On May 1, 2024, Anita Wadhwani of Tennessee Lookout reported that Tennessee environmental groups have filed a suit against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) over its approval of a pipeline that will wind through mostly poor and Black Middle Tennessee communities. This pipeline will supply methane gas to a new Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) powerplant near Clarksville.

What Are the Groups Asking For?  The Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices are asking the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to set aside a January order approving the 32-mile pipeline through Dickson, Houston and Stewart Counties. Below is a proposed system map of the Kinder Morgan pipeline that runs through these three Tennessee counties.

Represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), these environmental groups say the construction and ultimate operations of the pipeline poses a host of avoidable risks to the communities and natural resources that lie in its path. These groups have criticized federal regulators for caving to pressure from the Tennessee Valley Authority and the company building the pipeline, Tennessee Gas Pipeline.

According to an analysis by FERC, The proposed pipeline’s route goes through eleven (11) communities, seven (7) of which are disproportionately in poor or Black communities and three (3) of which have minority populations of 50% or more. Additionally, the pipeline would cut through dozens of streams that feed into the popular Harpeth River.

Other concerns raised by environmental groups centers on the danger of pipes leaking methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a key contributor to climate warming. The groups also issued a warning, that the costs which TVA is incurring to complete this project will ultimately be borne by consumers in the form of higher energy costs. 

Why is This Pipeline So Controversial?  The pipeline project is intended to supply natural gas to a new TVA plant in Cumberland City, which is approximately 20 miles southwest of Clarksville.  This plant is one of eight gas-powered plants that TVA has announced and is drawing criticism from environmental groups for its continued reliance on climate-damaging fossil fuels instead of investments in renewable energy.

Why Is This Important?  Spencer Gall, SELC attorney, said “FERC’s decision to greenlight this project ignored the harm the pipeline and gas plant would inflict on Middle Tennessee and beyond,”

“FERC is supposed to safeguard the public interest, not rubberstamp unnecessary pipeline projects that will harm our communities, hurt the climate, and contribute to higher power bills”.

Backyard Monthly

Backyard Monthly – May 2024

May 2024
CHEJ's "All In" - Spotlight of the Month
Poisoned Ground: The Tragedy at Love Canal

The “American Experience” documentary “Poisoned Ground: The Tragedy at Love Canal” premiered on April 22 on PBS. It chronicles the story of Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where residents discovered their homes were built on a toxic chemical waste dump, leading to health crises. The documentary highlights how ordinary women fought for their families’ safety, challenged those in power, and galvanized a grassroots movement that led to the landmark Superfund Bill. The Love Canal tragedy began with industrial waste dumping in the late 1940s and escalated in the 1970s with widespread health issues. Residents, led by activist Lois Gibbs, pushed for government action, eventually leading to federal emergency declarations and the passage of the Superfund Bill, marking Love Canal as the first Superfund site for cleanup. Filmmaker Jamila Ephron emphasizes the ongoing challenges faced by marginalized communities affected by toxic waste contamination.

Announcing CHEJ's Small Grants Program - Round 2

The Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) is offering grants to grassroots groups addressing environmental health challenges in their communities. Prioritizing impact at local, state, and regional levels, the program supports initiatives focused on combating toxic chemicals and hazardous substances. Designed to reach underserved communities, especially those of color and low wealth, the grants aim to empower groups through leadership development, capacity building, and education. Learn more and apply now!

Note: Our grant applications have changed! Please refer to our newly updated “Guidelines” before submitting your application. Also, pay attention to what Tier your organization falls under as each application is different according to Tier.

Environmental Prize Highlights Work to Keep Fossil Fuels at Bay
Around the world, grass-roots organizers and Indigenous communities are taking proposed coal, oil and gas projects to court — and winning… [Read more]

Toxic Tuesday

1,4-dichlorobenzene (1,4-DCB) – also known as p-dichlorobenzene (p-DCB) – is a colorless solid chemical that readily evaporates into the air. 1,4-DCB does not occur in nature, and it is often produced for use in deodorants or disinfe… [Read more]

Barium is a silver-colored metal which is found in the earth in compounds with other elements. Many barium compounds have industrial uses: barium sulfate is used as a drilling lubricant by the oil and gas industries to facilitate drilling…. [Read more]

Training Calls

Activists fighting landfills across the country joined CHEJ to discuss their most crucial strategies and insights they have developed during their activism. We were joined by activists from Bristol, VA, Brighton, MO, Harrison, OH, Atlanta, GA, Seneca, NY, and more as they shared key stories, strategies and actions….. [Watch now]

Backyard Talk Blogs

By Stephen Lester. Earlier month, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized drinking water standards for a group of substances known as Forever Chemicals. These chemicals include PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, [Read more]

By Jordan Martinez. As an intern at the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, I have written several papers on the effects of different chemicals on the environment and on human health. The purpose of these articles is to provide [Read more]

By Leila Waid. Environmental justice is in a constant legal battle that, depending on the court’s philosophy, sometimes sees wins for public health safety and but other times faces significant setbacks. March saw a major regression for plastic[Read more]

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

Forty-three years ago, CHEJ embarked on a mission to support communities facing environmental health risks. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, CHEJ has fostered diverse state and national coalitions, uniting environmental justice, health, labor, and faith-based groups across America. Through technical assistance, trainings, small grants, and coalition-building efforts, CHEJ has empowered these communities, bringing environmental justice initiatives to the forefront.

By nurturing these grassroots efforts, we create lasting, tangible benefits for communities nationwide. Your support ensures that CHEJ can continue prioritizing “health effects organizing,” shaping a healthier environment for generations to come. Join us in commemorating 43 years of legacy by making a $43 donation today.