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Toxic Tuesdays

Toluene

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Toluene

Toluene is one of the most heavily produced chemicals in the US and the world. This chemical is utilized as an industrial solvent in the production of many commonly used materials such as paints, paint thinners, rubber, fingernail polish, lacquers, adhesives, and used extensively in the pharmaceutical industry.

Toluene is a clear, colorless liquid that is found in vapor form at room temperature. A common sign of significant toluene concentration in the air is a sharp and sweet odor. At this concentration in ambient air, toluene can be a fire hazard given the fact that it can become flammable at temperatures above 40°F.

The main route of exposure to toluene is through inhalation. Once inhaled, toluene is easily absorbed by your lungs and dispersed through the body, even crossing the blood-brain barrier due to how easily it dissolves in fats (highly lipophilic). The result is a myriad of central nervous system (CNS) problems including headaches, dizziness, ataxia, drowsiness, euphoria, hallucinations, tremors, seizures, and even coma; as well as respiratory, cardiovascular, and reproductive/developmental effects.

Acute exposure to high levels of toluene (≥500 parts per million) can result in multiple CNS problems within 30-60 minutes of exposure. The respiratory system can develop irritated mucous membranes and liquid accumulation in the lungs, which can lead to respiratory arrest. Finally, even short exposures to elevated levels of toluene can result in irregular heart rhythm, making cardiac arrest much more likely after intense to moderate physical activity.

Prolonged exposure to toluene levels as low as 200ppm can cause chronic CNS problems such as headaches, fatigue, nausea and difficulty sleeping. Chronic irritation of the upper respiratory tract and sore throat have been reported in people exposed to small amounts of toluene for an extended period of time. Pulmonary lesions have been documented in long-term animal studies, so this can be a potential health complication for humans. Finally, although toluene has not been confirmed as a reproductive hazard, it is able to cross the placenta and is accumulated in breast milk, meaning that it can easily reach a developing fetus or newborn.

In developing countries, toluene has become a cause for major concern due to a practice among children and young adults called glue sniffing. Glue sniffing is a form of substance abuse common in many developing countries due to its relatively inexpensive nature. The high and euphoric feelings that it produces are partly due to the ability of toluene to easily enter the central nervous system and create hallucinations and euphoria. A number of studies around the world, including in places such as SingaporeSouth Africa; and India, have documented this practice and have offered insights into how to combat this practice.

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Asbestos

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Asbestos

Asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals that can be found in the environment. The fibers of these minerals are strong, flexible, and heat-resistant, making them useful when spun or woven into sheets. Asbestos was used in building materials, heat-resistant products, and machinery components. When these products break down, asbestos particles enter the air and water. This means people who work in industries such as housing repair or demolition that disturb asbestos-containing materials are at high risk for exposure. People who live near such industries are also at risk.

Breathing high levels of asbestos damages the lungs, and long-term exposure can cause scar tissue. The US Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, and World Health Organization have all determined that asbestos is known to cause cancer. The most common kinds of cancer are lung cancer and mesothelioma, and asbestos exposure may also increase the chances of developing cancer in other organs. Because of this danger, the use of asbestos was banned in the US in 1989, but many products made before that time are still in use.

Asphalt shingles are roofing shingles that use asphalt for waterproofing. Because they’re inexpensive and easy to install they are the most widely used roofing covers in the United States. Asphalt shingles made before the 1980s may contain asbestos; although that seems like a long time ago, many of these old shingles are still around because it is common practice to layer new shingles on top of old ones. This means that asbestos-containing asphalt shingles can be found in communities all over the country.

In Wausau, Wisconsin, asphalt shingles waste has been buried as well as left in open-air piles. The grassroots community group Citizens for a Clean Wausau contacted CHEJ about the potential for old shingles in these waste piles to release asbestos into the air, exposing surrounding residents. If Wausau residents are inhaling asbestos, this could elevate their risk for developing cancer. To assess this possibility and the level of risk that may be posed to residents, measurements of contaminants in the shingles as well as in the surrounding air and dust would be necessary. The best way to ensure there is no risk to the community is to remove these shingles and destroy them safely.

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Dioxin in Food

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Dioxin in Food

Dioxins are a group of chemically related compounds formed as a byproduct of industrial processes such as water treatment, paper manufacturing, and waste incineration. If dioxins are not properly captured and stored, they can be released into the environment. Once released into the air, dioxins can travel thousands of miles. They can also attach to soil particles on the ground and sediment in bodies of water. Because dioxins are slow to decompose, they can persist in the environment for years after being released. One of the reasons this is a problem is because dioxins bioaccumulate in animal tissues, meaning if fish or livestock become exposed to dioxins, they accumulate in the animals. Then, when humans eat these contaminated animal products, we can be exposed to high levels of dioxins. This makes dioxins in food a particularly dangerous and widespread method of dioxin exposure.

Dioxin exposure is associated with a wide variety of health problems including a skin disease called chloracne, liver damage, thyroid dysfunction, diabetes, and immune system dysfunction. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that several types of dioxins cause cancer. It is suspected that dioxins may also cause reproductive damage, birth defects, and miscarriages because it can be passed from a pregnant person to their fetus. Because of their small size and the importance of proper development, dioxin exposure is particularly dangerous for infants and children.

With these serious health effects, dioxin exposure through eating contaminated meat, dairy, and fish is a concern. Washing and cooking food does not remove the dioxins from them. Individuals can protect themselves by eating healthy diets that prioritize vegetables, fruits, and whole grains while decreasing meat consumption. (This is the kind of diet you would eat by following the Food Pyramid). When eating meat, choose products low in fat where animals have been grain or grass fed. If you catch your own seafood, be sure to check local fishing advisories.

While these steps can help keep us safe, the federal government should do more to regulate our food supply and ensure it is free of dioxins. In 2003 the National Academies of Science released a report on dioxins in the food supply and recommended strategies for reducing risk of dioxin exposure through food. These included interrupting the dioxin cycling that occurs in large-scale livestock husbandry, improving coordination between agencies that monitor food for dioxins, and specifically protecting people of childbearing age because of the risk to fetuses and newborns. Implementing these strategies through regulations and public education campaigns would go a long way toward protecting people from dioxin exposure through food.

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1,3-butadiene

Toxic Tuesdays

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

1,3-butadiene

1,3-butadiene is a gas made from petroleum and is used to manufacture materials like synthetic rubber and plastics. Because it is a gas, 1,3-butadiene can easily leak out of production, storage, or disposal containers and enter the air. People who work in or live near facilities using 1,3-butadiene are most at risk of inhaling it, but even people in heavily polluted cities breathe air with 1,3-butadiene in it. Exposure to 1,3-butadiene can cause cardiovascular, neurological, lung, and blood defects. It is also suspected to cause birth defects and decreased birth weight. The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services, and International Agency for Research on Cancer have all determined that 1,3-butadiene causes cancer. Studies of people who worked in facilities using 1,3-butadiene found that they had increased incidence of blood and immune system cancers compared to the general population.

In November 2019, multiple fires and explosions occurred at a facility manufacturing 1,3-butadiene in Port Neches, Texas. There was a mandatory two-day evacuation of residents within 4 miles of the site, but soon after they were allowed to return, residents received another evacuation order because conditions had not improved. The facility, owned by Texas Petroleum Chemicals Group (TPC Group) had a long history of violating state and federal air emissions regulations. It released more air pollution than allowed by its permits on 6 occasions in 2019 and over 70 times in the last decade. TPC Group was fined for these violations, but these fines were clearly not a deterrent to the corporation breaking the rules and endangering the health of surrounding residents. In fact, in a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency after releasing huge amounts of 1,3-butadiene in the air in 2017, TPC Group was required to monitor 1,3-butadiene levels. That’s how a 2020 report found that in the months leading up to the explosions, the facility started releasing massive amounts of 1,3-butadiene into the air. Because chemicals in the air can travel large distances, we don’t know how many people may have been exposed to his cancer-causing agent because of TPC Group’s disregard for regulations. The current system of monitoring emissions and imposing nominal fines on facilities that exceed them is not working to keep people safe. Tougher regulations, harsher penalties, and revocation of permits must be considered as we fight to protect communities from corporations using harmful chemicals.

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Mercury

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Mercury

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal that can be found in combination with other elements. It can be mined from the earth and also released as a byproduct from industrial facilities that manufacture chemicals. If mercury waste is not disposed of properly, it can enter the air, soil, and water. When mercury enters the water, it can build up in the tissues of fish in a process called bioaccumulation. Then, if people eat these contaminated fish, they can be exposed to high levels of mercury. Throughout the world, eating contaminated fish is the most common way people become exposed to mercury.

Most of the health effects of mercury exposure are related to function of the brain. It can impair vision or hearing, cause mood changes such as irritability, and even induce memory loss. Some of these effects can be permanent, persisting even after the affected person is no longer exposed to mercury. Children are especially sensitive to mercury, and damage to their brains can be particularly devastating because they are still developing. Because mercury can pass from a pregnant person to their fetus, mercury exposure during pregnancy can cause fetal brain damage and mental retardation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that some forms of mercury may cause cancer.

In 1956, residents of Minamata, Japan were falling sick with a mysterious illness that caused convulsions, difficulty walking, difficulty speaking, and blindness. In extreme cases, it lead to paralysis, coma, and death. This illness became known as Minamata disease, and researchers determined that patients were eating local fish that was contaminated with a dangerous metal. They identified the metal as mercury and discovered that a nearby chemical factory was releasing mercury-containing wastewater. After this was determined, the company that owned the factory hid information from government officials and did not install effective wastewater treatment mechanisms.

By 2001, over 2,000 people were identified as having Minamata disease and by 2004, the company paid over $86 billion in compensation. Starting in 2010, the United Nations held a convention to address mercury exposure and its effects on human health, called the Minamata Convention. A treaty supporting controls to protect human health from mercury exposure was signed in 2013 by 128 countries including the United States. The Minamata Convention on Mercury now runs an annual conference for treaty signatories to propose new regulations and evaluate the efficacy of existing ones in protecting people from exposure to mercury. Global efforts to reduce mercury use and regulate its disposal will be crucial to ensuring no other communities will have to face toxic mercury exposure like Minamata did.

Furthermore, In 2014, the FDA and EPA issued a guideline recommending the appropriate types and amounts of fish to eat when pregnant. A 2016 study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) invalidated this guideline, finding that these measures failed to limit mercury exposure amongst 60 percent of a group of 300 women who followed them. For the women who regularly ate fish, they were 11 times more likely to have been exposed to toxic levels of mercury compared to the women who do not eat fish. Although this finding seems to indicate all pregnant women should avoid eating fish, this is a misdirection since fish contains vitamins like omega-3 fats which promote healthy fetal development. Instead, federal guidelines should be more limited on fish choices and caution against larger fish like tuna, which seem to be the most popular source of mercury exposure.  

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Hydraulic Fracturing

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Hydraulic fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) is a technique that uses pressurized liquid to fracture bedrock in order to the extract the oil or gas inside. The process installs a steel pipe into a well bore and injects fracking fluid into the deep layers of rock. Once the rock is no longer able to absorb this fluid, it cracks. Materials in the fracking fluid keep these cracks open so the oil or gas beneath can flow freely and be collected. Fracking fluid usually consists of water, sand or beads, and a mixture of chemicals. After injection into the rock, some fracking fluid remains underground and some flows back to the surface. This flowback is meant to be collected for disposal.

Many of the chemicals used in fracking fluid are not publicly known. However, some of the ones that are known have harmful effects on human health, including causing cancer. Some of these dangerous chemicals in fracking fluid include: benzene, ethylbenzene, naphthalene, methanol, formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and 1,2-dichloroethane. And with hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons of liquid being used to fracture a single well, these chemicals can be dangerous even if they constitute a small percentage of the fracking fluid. In fact, flowback has been found to have levels of some of these chemicals that far exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s limits for safe water. People can be exposed to these chemicals through contamination of drinking water supplies, physical contact with the flowback waste, or inhaling chemicals after they evaporate into the air from open-air waste pits. A 2010 report summarized health effects from 353 chemicals in fracking fluid, including skin, respiratory, liver, brain, immune, kidney, heart, and blood disorders.

Liveable Arlington is a grassroots organization founded in 2015 to fight fracking and drilling in Arlington, Texas in order to protect their air and water. In particular, they are concerned about the health impacts on children due to wells located close to residences, schools, and day care centers. In 2020 their organizing helped stop the issuance of permits for new gas wells near a local preschool. In 2021 they helped pressure their city council to revise an ordinance to increase the required distance between a drilling zone and day care centers. Liveable Arlington proves that local grassroots efforts can win local fights to keep our communities safe.

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Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a class of chemicals that are formed in the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, or other organic matter. They can enter the air, water and adhere to particles in the soil. People are most likely to be exposed to PAHs by inhaling contaminated air. Workers at facilities that produce tar, asphalt, or incinerate trash are at the most risk; community exposure from vehicle exhaust, wood smoke, asphalt paving, or agricultural burning also occurs. Although less common, people can also be exposed by coming in contact with water contaminated with PAHs from discharges at wastewater treatment plants. The US Department of Health and Human Services classifies PAHs as “reasonably expected” to cause cancer. In animal studies, PAHs cause cancer, reproductive dysfunction, and birth defects.

Asphalt shingles are roofing shingles that use asphalt for waterproofing. Because they’re inexpensive and easy to install they are the most widely used roofing covers in the United States, but the asphalt in them contains PAHs. In Wausau, Wisconsin, asphalt shingles waste has been buried as well as left in open-air piles. The grassroots community group Citizens for a Clean Wausau contacted CHEJ about the potential for these waste piles to leach PAHs into the air and soil, exposing surrounding residents. While much is unknown and the situation is ongoing, PAHs can leach out of asphalt at high temperatures and then be dispersed long distances by wind. This means Wausau residents may be inhaling PAHs, elevating their risk for developing cancer. To assess this possibility and the level of risk that may be posed to residents, measurements of contaminants in the shingles as well as in the surrounding air and dust would be necessary. The best way to ensure there is no risk to the community is to remove these shingles and destroy them safely.

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Pentachlorophenol

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Pentachlorophenol (PCP)

Pentachlorophenol (PCP) is a manmade chemical that exists as solid crystals or flakes. Since the 1930s, it was used as a pesticide, disinfectant, and wood preservative. In the 1980s, its use became restricted to industrial purposes such as preserving wood on docks, railroads, and utility poles. PCP can enter the air, water, and soil from spills or improper waste disposal at facilities that use it. This can expose people who work at or live near facilities that use PCP. It can also evaporate from treated wood surfaces and enter the air, exposing people to chronic low levels of PCP in indoor and outdoor air.

PCP exposure is known to cause damage to the liver, kidneys, blood, and brain in people who work in facilities that use it. When adults inhale air that contains PCP that has evaporated from treated wood, it can cause fevers and irritation to the skin and eyes. PCP exposure to infants has caused fevers, difficulty breathing, damage to the brain and liver, and even death. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers PCP to be likely to cause cancer.

Residents of L’Anse, Michigan began reporting odors and dust particles coming from the L’Anse Warden Electric Company Power Plant in 2007 and by 2016 had convinced the EPA to hold a public hearing. The company had a state permit allowing it to burn waste for fuel, including railroad ties that had been treated with PCP. As the EPA began investigating, the permit was changed in 2016 to no longer allow burning of PCP-treated wood. Air and soil sampling was done in 2017 by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and CHEJ reviewed the results for the local grassroots community group Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (FOLK). The sampling found that the power plant was emitting several dangerous chemicals including PCP into the surrounding neighborhoods, significantly increasing residents’ risk of developing cancer. PCP may be contributing to this cancer risk, and furthermore, little is known about how PCP and the other chemicals emitted from the power plant may interact with each other to impact human health. Regular monitoring, remediation, and cleanup should be done to protect L’Anse residents from the potential harmful effects of PCP and other chemicals. Unfortunately, despite the data, ATSDR concluded that the power plant emissions were not a threat to residents’ health. When a government agency’s own sampling data and analysis guidelines indicate people’s health is at risk and the agency still does nothing, it is clear we need stronger regulations to force action in order to prioritize health and safety.

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Methylene chloride

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Methylene chloride

Methylene chloride (also known as dichloromethane) is a manmade chemical that is a clear liquid with a faintly sweet smell. It is used as an industrial solvent and an ingredient in paint strippers, so it is often used in commercial and do-it-yourself home improvement projects. Methylene chloride dissolves into the air, so the primary way people can be exposed to it is by breathing contaminated air. Because methylene chloride-containing products, like paint strippers, are often used in indoor spaces with little ventilation, people can easily be exposed to high levels of it. Inhaling methylene chloride causes brain dysfunction – confusion, inattentiveness, dizziness, numbness in the extremities, and even death. The World Health Organization, US Department of Health and Human Services, and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) all consider methylene chloride to likely cause cancer. The EPA estimates that 32,000 workers and 1.3 million consumers are exposed to methylene chloride every year.

Because of the dangers of methylene chloride, consumer advocacy groups like Mind the Store spent years fighting against its use. They called on national hardware store chains to stop selling these products and for the EPA to ban use of methylene chloride. In 2019 the EPA finally banned consumer use and sales of methylene chloride-containing products, but continued to allow them to be sold in commercial sales to professionals. While this will surely protect some people from methylene chloride exposure, advocates point out that thousands of construction and home improvement workers remain unprotected by this regulation – they are unlikely to have any input into whether or not their employers buy methylene chloride-containing products, so they are unable to keep themselves safe if they want to keep their jobs. Furthermore, many of these workers are Latinx or Asian Americans who may not be given training or warnings when using methylene chloride in languages they understand. In fact, one of the workers who died from methylene chloride in 2017 and whose death galvanized the EPA to propose regulation was from El Salvador and spoke limited English. When it comes to a chemical as dangerous and deadly as methylene chloride, much more must be done to ban its use and protect the health of workers who don’t have the power to protect themselves.

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Naphthalene

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Naphthalene

Naphthalene is a solid chemical that easily evaporates. It is commonly found in coal, mothballs, and the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride. Manufacturing, industrial releases, improper disposal of industrial waste, and consumer use can release naphthalene into the environment. Once released, naphthalene can evaporate into the surrounding air, dissolve in water, and stick to soil. Volatile organic compounds like naphthalene can adhere to particulates and travel with them through the environment. Breathing contaminated air, drinking contaminated water, or touching contaminated soil can expose people to naphthalene.

Naphthalene exposure can cause dizziness, confusion, nausea, and vomiting. It can also kill red blood cells, causing anemia. Studies in animals have shown that breathing naphthalene-contaminated air can cause nose and lung tumors. Because of this, the US Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have both concluded that naphthalene likely causes cancer in humans.

In North Birmingham, Alabama, the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) is fighting to improve air quality and protect residents’ health. Locally, the group People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC) fights to bring residents relief from industrial contamination. Multiple rounds of outdoor air testing in 2019 and 2020 found high levels of naphthalene at several locations in the community. These levels were many times higher than the threshold at which the US Environmental Protection Agency says cleanup and remediation must occur to protect people from cancer. This means that the naphthalene in the North Birmingham air poses a serious risk of causing cancer to the people who breathe it. GASP is fighting for clean air free of chemicals like naphthalene through education and advocacy. CHEJ is working with GASP and PANIC to help them raise awareness and achieve clean air that is safe to breathe.

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