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Toxic Tuesdays

Trihalomethanes (THMs)

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Trihalomethanes (THMs)

Trihalomethanes (THMs) are a class of chemical compounds which contain three halogen atoms. Common THMs include chloroform, fluoroform, and chlorodifluoromethane. While THMs are used in some industrial processes like refrigeration, people are most likely to be exposed to them through drinking water. Most water utilities use small amounts of chlorine as a disinfectant to keep water supplies clean. While adding chlorine is generally accepted to be an important practice to protect public health, this chlorine can react with organic matter in the water and create THMs. Drinking contaminated water is generally considered to be the most serious route of exposure to THMs, though one study has found that bathing with contaminated water causes even higher exposure. THMs are odorless and flavorless, so people may not know if they have been exposed.

Many types of THMs have adverse health effects upon exposure, and there are four that are known to be particularly harmful to human health:

  1. Chloroform is known to cause lung, liver, and kidney damage, and in high doses can lead to death. In studies of laboratory animals, drinking chloroform-contaminated water caused liver and kidney cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies it as a likely cancer-causing agent in humans. 
  2. Bromoform can cause neurological impairments, unconsciousness, and death. In studies of laboratory animals, drinking bromoform-contaminated water caused liver and kidney cancer. EPA classifies it as a probable cancer-causing agent in humans.
  3. Dibromochloromethane is less well understood, but in studies of laboratory animals, drinking contaminated water caused liver and kidney cancer. EPA classifies it as a possible cancer-causing agent in humans.
  4. Bromodichloromethane is known to cause liver, kidney, and immune system damage. It can also cause reproductive system damage and lead to miscarriage and low birth weight. In studies of laboratory animals, drinking bromodichloromethane-contaminated water caused intestinal, kidney, and liver cancer. EPA classifies it as a probable cancer-causing agent in humans.

Because of the danger of THM exposure, EPA regulates the maximum amount of total THMs allowed in tap water. While this can help keep people safe, regulating the total THMs may not necessarily be effective because each type of THM can cause health effects on their own. Furthermore, little is known about the health effects of simultaneous exposure to multiple THMs. EPA has maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs) for each of the four THMs listed above, but these goals are not enforced by laws or regulations, so they have no power to keep people safe. Because most people get their water from chlorinated municipal water supplies, and because THMs have such serious health effects, more must be done to keep people safe from exposure. This includes more studies to understand the effects of simultaneous exposure to multiple THMs and enforceable standards for individual THMs in drinking water.

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Cyanide

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be found in some bacteria, fungi, algae, and the seeds of stone fruits. One of the most dangerous cyanide compounds is hydrogen cyanide, a colorless gas that smells like almonds. It is used in industrial processes such as electroplating, metallurgy, metal mining, plastics production, organic chemical production, and photographic developing. Hydrogen cyanide can enter the air surrounding industrial settings where it is used. It can also be produced by combustion engines, tobacco smoke, and the burning of acrylonitrile plastics. (CHEJ has previously written about acrylonitrile here). Because acrylonitrile is used in many consumer plastics, building fires are one of the most common ways people are exposed to hydrogen cyanide.

Breathing hydrogen cyanide for even short amounts of time is incredibly dangerous and can lead to death. When cyanide enters the body it stops cells from being able to produce energy, interfering with many life-sustaining functions of the brain and heart. Early symptoms of cyanide exposure occur within minutes and include headache, dizziness, elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, and vomiting. This can then progress to seizures, decreased heart rate, low blood pressure, coma, heart attack, and death. People who survive exposure can have lifelong neurological impairments. Factory workers who inhaled low levels of hydrogen cyanide over years have reported trouble breathing, chest pain, vomiting, and headaches. Exposure to other cyanide-containing compounds results in the same health effects. Because of the extreme toxicity of cyanide exposure, the use of cyanide-containing compounds and the use of compounds that can produce cyanide when burned should be restricted in order to protect public health.

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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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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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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.

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Toxic Tuesdays

Thallium

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Thallium

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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Endometrial Cancer & Pesticides​

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Endometrial Cancer & Pesticides

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 risk factors may be the easiest way of reducing the incidence of endometrial cancer. Pesticides – mixtures of chemicals used in agriculture to protect crop growth – are known to cause certain cancers, but it is unclear if they can cause endometrial cancer. A recent study in Spain found that occupational exposure to pesticides is associated with endometrial cancer.

The study took place from 2017 to 2021, with researchers administering a questionnaire to 180 women with endometrial cancer. To create a control group to compare these women to, researchers also administered the questionnaire to 218 women admitted to hospitals who didn’t have endometrial cancer. The researchers asked about lifetime occupational history, demographic information, tobacco consumption, physical activity, family history of diseases, reproductive factors, and other information.

The researchers systematically coded all respondents’ occupations based on a job exposure matrix (JEM) for Spanish working conditions. A JEM is a list of occupations that provides estimated exposures to a variety of harmful chemicals for each one, respectively. Using a JEM allowed the researchers to estimate respondents’ exposure to pesticides based on their occupations. This was a clever way of creating a history of each person’s occupational exposure to pesticides, whereas collecting their current environmental or biological data would not have been able to capture their accumulated lifetime exposure. The three categories of job titles considered to be exposed to pesticides were: agricultural, poultry, and livestock activities; cleaning staff; and manufacturing and lumber industries. Using the JEM, and estimated occupational exposure to pesticides, the researchers performed statistical tests to determine if occupational exposure was associated with endometrial cancer.

Occupational exposure to pesticides was associated with two times greater odds of developing endometrial cancer than not having occupational exposure. Exposures that happened further in the past were associated with cancer, as were exposures that happened before the age of 32. Surprisingly, increased cumulative exposure was not associated with endometrial cancer. Working in agricultural, poultry, and livestock activities was associated with four times greater odds of developing endometrial cancer. Working as cleaning staff was not associated with endometrial cancer, which could be because the intensity and frequency of exposure in these jobs may be lower.

Cancers like endometrial cancer can be difficult to study because it can take a long time for the disease to develop after someone gets exposed to a cancerous chemical. Once the disease develops, collecting environmental or biological samples from the patient’s time of exposure is not possible. This study got around these limitations by using a job exposure matrix to estimate exposure to pesticides throughout women’s entire working lives. Of course, these exposures are only estimates, their use of personal protective equipment in each job was unknown, and researchers could not know what other potential cancer-causing chemicals respondents may have been exposed to.

Regardless of the limitations, this study is valuable because diseases related to women’s reproductive systems are less studied compared to many other diseases. It is also the first study to show an association between occupational pesticide exposure and endometrial cancer.

New regulations and increased use of personal protective equipment may explain why exposures further in the past were more associated with endometrial cancer. However, the results of this study demonstrate that these improvements may not be enough to keep workers safe when they come into contact with pesticides. Endometrial cancer can now be added to a growing list of diseases associated with pesticides, and more should be done to protect workers and the public from these chemicals.

For more information, CHEJ has previously written about chemicals that have been used in pesticides and herbicides such as atrazinebenzeneethylbenzeneglyphosate, and pentachlorophenol.

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It’s Time to Do Right by the People in East Palestine, OH – and Elsewhere

Photo credit: CNN

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 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 full 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 immediately responded by telling people that everything was alright and 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 from 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 didn’t understand why people were continuing to report so many illnesses while their data told them otherwise. But if EPA did acknowledge 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. Actions like paying for relocations so that they can stop being exposed to the toxic chemicals that are still in the air and getting the health care they need to move on with their lives.

The people in East Palestine deserve better. So do hundreds of other communities across this country where people have similarly been exposed to low levels mixtures of toxic chemicals. It is clear from the situation in East Palestine that very little is known about how people respond to chemical exposures, especially to low level mixtures. This is evident when the EPA and other public health agencies who rely on traditional toxicology and risk assessment are telling the people of East Palestine that everything is safe when it clearly is not.

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. 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. It’s time to do the right thing by the people in East Palestine and by hundreds of communities across the U.S. where people are being exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals. It’s time to acknowledge that the tools we have are not able to answer the questions people raise about their exposure to toxic chemicals and give people the relief they are asking for, whether it’s cleanup, relocation, health care or something else.   

It’s 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 Iran and Afghanistan and other overseas locations; and for the Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina who drank contaminated water. Do the people of East Palestine deserve anything less than the soldiers and first responders who protect this country?

In each of these instances, the government recognized that the science linking exposure and health outcomes was incomplete and instead of requiring proof of cause and effect, they said, “Enough, we will take care of our own.” They moved to a presumptive scientific approach that allowed veterans and first responders to  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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Toxic Tuesdays

How Individual Sensitivity Affects Toxicity

Toxic Tuesdays

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

How Individual Sensitivity Affects Toxicity

We previously addressed individual variability and how it affects a person’s response to toxic chemicals. Another important factor in toxicology is a person’s individual sensitivity to chemicals. How sensitive a person is to chemical exposure helps determine how susceptible or vulnerable they are to toxic chemicals. Several factors determine how sensitive a person is including age, sex, health, genetics, diet, lifestyle, preexisting conditions and previous environmental exposures. While some people are more sensitive to chemical exposures than others, there is no clear definition of what sensitivity is or what it means. This is partially since so little is understood about the human response to toxic chemicals, especially to low level mixtures of chemicals.

Because of this uncertainty, there is no generally accepted definition of sensitivity. Nicholas Ashford and Claudia Miller describe the various meanings of the term. In traditional toxicology, sensitivity has been defined as individuals who require relatively lower doses to induce a particular response. These individuals are considered more sensitive than people who require relatively higher doses to experience the same response. The distribution of this population is described by the classic bell curve where the sensitive and resilient populations are found in the tails of the curve. Most people fall into this response category. In traditional medicine, sensitivity has been defined as individuals who have a significant and rapid immune-mediated response to an allergen or agent. In this population, some individuals, described as chemically sensitive, have a striking immune response to an allergen or agent, while non-allergic individuals do not, even at high doses. Classic allergens include ragweed or bee venom, but also include chemicals such as nickel or toluene diisocyanate (TDI).

In recent years, a growing population of people have expressed an entirely different sensitivity response. These are people who have developed multiple chemical sensitivities. Ashford and Miller found that people who have developed multiple chemical sensitivities may exhibit a third and entirely different type of sensitivity. These authors stated this about people with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS): “Their health problems often (but not always) appear to originate with some acute or traumatic exposure, after which the triggering of symptoms and observed sensitivities occur at very low levels of chemical exposure. The inducing chemical or substances may or may not be the same as the substances that thereafter provoke or ‘trigger’ responses.” Unlike classical toxicological or immune mediated responses, people with MCS sensitivity respond in a two-step process of an initial exposure event followed by a second triggering exposure. Much still needs to be understood about this third wave of sensitivity.  

Another factor that influences a person’s sensitivity is the body’s reserve capacity. Researchers have speculated that a chemical exposure may affect the reserve capacity of the body without causing an immediate adverse effect. However, when there are subsequent exposures, the body becomes unable to compensate for the additional stress and toxicity develops.

The science behind what is known about how people respond to chemical exposures, especially to low level mixtures of chemicals, is highly complex and not well understood. We know that people exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals, like the people in East Palestine, OH, the site of that horrific train derailment and subsequent intentional burn of vinyl chloride, continue to suffer adverse health effects despite reassurances from EPA and public health agencies who are relying on traditional toxicology and risk assessments. Perhaps the people in East Palestine have developed a unique chemical sensitivity much like the third wave described by Ashford and Miller. So as their exposures continue during the ongoing cleanup, their chemical sensitivity and the subsequent adverse health responses are not what would be predicted by traditional toxicology or medical models. 

This is an important consideration to consider in East Palestine because it is clear that we do not understand what is happening to the health of the people there. It’s time to recognize that we cannot rely solely on traditional toxicology to address the questions people have about exposures to low level chemical mixtures.

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Acrylonitrile

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Acrylonitrile

Acrylonitrile is a clear liquid that smells like onions or garlic. It is man-made as it does not naturally occur on Earth. It is used to create other materials, most commonly acrylic fibers in clothing and carpeting. Acrylonitrile can enter the environment from industrial sites that produce it and waste sites where it is disposed of. Because it dissolves easily in water and readily evaporates, it can enter the water, air, and soil. Although acrylonitrile breaks down in water and soil, people can still be exposed to it if they live or work near factories that use it. They can also be exposed to it through acrylonitrile-based plastic products and acrylic fibers. In addition to industrial sources of exposure, acrylonitrile is also found in tobacco smoke and vehicle exhaust.

Inhaling airborne acrylonitrile can cause respiratory, skin, and eye irritation. It can also cause dizziness, headaches, weakness, impaired judgment, and, in extreme cases, convulsions. Exposure of acrylonitrile to the skin can cause burns and blisters, and repeated exposure can cause brain and liver damage. Studies on laboratory animals have also found that inhalation or oral exposure can cause low birth weights and birth defects.

The US Department of Health and Human Services, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have all determined that acrylonitrile probably causes cancer in humans. This is likely to occur through DNA damage. Research has found that people who work at facilities that use acrylonitrile have higher rates of lung cancer than the general population. Acrylonitrile is also one of the chemicals in tobacco smoke that is most associated with respiratory cancers. These findings demonstrate that acrylonitrile is dangerous enough that people need to be protected from it, especially if they live or work near facilities that use or dispose of it.

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