Toxic Tuesdays

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


Arsenic is a naturally-occurring element found throughout the Earth’s crust. It is usually found combined with other elements creating a powder that is odorless and tasteless and can exist
either in an organic or inorganic form. Inorganic arsenic compounds are highly toxic and for years were used to preserve wood. Copper chromated arsenate (CCA) was used to make “pressure-treated” lumber. Though no longer used for residential uses, CCA is still used in industrial applications. Organic arsenic compounds are used as pesticides, primarily on cotton fields and orchards.

Common ways people are exposed to arsenic include living near hazardous waste sites and industrial facilities that release arsenic air emissions; living near or working in occupations such
as metal smelting, wood treatment, or pesticide applications that use arsenic. Living in areas that have naturally high arsenic levels in rock can also result in exposure. Arsenic cannot be destroyed in the environment, so once it is released by either natural or human activity it can enter the air, soil, and water.

Arsenic is classified as a human carcinogen, meaning exposure to it can cause cancer. Skin, liver, bladder, and lung cancer are the most commonly reported cancer types. There are also non-cancer health effects including circulatory, neurological, and endocrine effects. Arsenic may also cause developmental effects in children.

Residents of a North Birmingham, Alabama neighborhood located next to two coke manufacturing plants know first-hand what it’s like to be exposed to arsenic. For years, the residents there have been suffering from air emissions that contain arsenic, lead and other metals. They have complained of soot inside and outside their homes,
and have been plagued with health problems such as cancer and premature deaths. The residents organized People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC) and raised enough pressure to get EPA and ATSDR’s attention. Only problem was the EPA thought the residents could live with the contamination following some limited cleanup. Now residents are saying enough is enough and they want to be relocated. One way the residents thought they might achieve this is by convincing the state to request that EPA place the 35th Avenue waste site on the federal Superfund list. PANIC and the state-wide group GASP hoped to convince the governor to do this by holding a protest caravan of over 50 cars that went around the city of Birmingham asking people to contact Governor Kay Ivey and ask her to put the 35th Avenue contaminated site on the federal Superfund list. The group is planning a follow-up to Montgomery to help convince the governor.

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