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Toxic Tuesdays

Polyvinyl Chloride

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Polyvinyl Chloride

Polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as “PVC” or “vinyl,” is the second largest commodity plastic in production in the world today, with an estimated 48.8 million tons produced worldwide in 2018. PVC is used in a wide range of products including pipes and tubing, school materials, product packaging, children’s toys, and several building materials.

PVC can safely be considered the worst plastic for our health and environment, as it releases dangerous chemicals that can cause cancer and other serious health effects from manufacture to disposal. The first problematic chemicals that can leach out of PVC products is phthalates. These are a group of industrial chemicals that are added to PVC to promote plasticity and flexibility. Because they are not chemically bound to PVC, these chemicals can leach out due to heat, pressure or simply time. Once they are out in the environment, they can enter our bodies and cause adverse health conditions such as hormone disruption, birth defects, infertility and asthma. Lead is another chemical that is commonly found in PVC. Lead exposure is especially dangerous for growing children, who can suffer from nervous system development problems and learning disabilities.

Aside from direct exposure to PVC, the manufacturing and disposal process of PVC can release harmful chemicals called dioxins. Dioxins are formed and released when PVC is burned (during disposal) or manufactured under high heat and pressure. They are a highly toxic group of chemicals that build up in the food chain, cause cancer and can harm the immune and reproductive systems. Their toxicity is of such concern that they have been targeted for global phase out by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

As mentioned previously, exposure to PVC through everyday consumer products can be significant. Children’s toys can be substantially bad offenders, although CHEJ’s PVC campaign of the late 2000s made a difference in removing a lot of PVC from the toy market. Other items that remain problematic are children’s backpacks, shower curtains, rain boots, raincoats, vinyl flooring and roofing, plastic food containers, and pet toys.

CHEJ helped develop a resolution from the American Public Health Association (APHA) – a policy statement that has the full backing of the organization – back in 2011. CHEJ was instrumental in convincing the APHA to endorse reducing PVC in facilities with vulnerable populations such as nursing homes and hospitals. This was a monumental statement from the premier public health organization in the country about the dangers of PVC.

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Hydrogen Sulfide

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Hydrogen Sulfide

Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas that has a strong rotten egg odor. It is produced naturally by the decaying process of organic matter and can also be released from crude petroleum, natural gas, and volcanic eruptions. Hydrogen sulfide is a very common gas that is generated in large farms and food processing plants, sewage treatment facilities, and landfills.

Since it is such a common compound found in large industrial operations, the health effects  of acute exposure to hydrogen sulfide are rather well defined. At high concentrations, at or above the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health’s (NIOSH) Reference Exposure Level (REL) of 10 parts per million, exposure to hydrogen sulfide may cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory system.  At higher concentrations, it can cause apnea, convulsions,  dizziness, weakness, insomnia, and even death.

However, long-term chronic effects of exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide are just now gaining some attention. A study published in 2015 looked at the effects of low-level exposure to hydrogen sulfide among Iranian workers from a natural gas processing plant and found elevated numbers of altered hemoglobin in the blood of those exposed. This can lead to a condition known as methemoglobinemia, which causes developmental delays and intellectual disabilities – symptoms that are even more detrimental in children. Other health effects have been documented, but the association to long-term exposure is less well defined. These include problems with the retina, respiratory problems, and neurological effects.

These findings become significant because a large number of industrial facilities in the US produce hydrogen sulfide around residential areas. Landfills are perhaps the locations where hydrogen sulfide emissions are most common. A group in Bristol VA that is working with CHEJ is suffering from constant hydrogen sulfide (among other chemicals) odors from a landfill that leave the community with headaches and other health problems. CHEJ continues to work with the community to close the landfill.

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Atrazine

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Atrazine

Atrazine is one of the most common herbicides used in the United States, with over 70 million pounds applied to crops each year. Used mostly in large scale agriculture of crops such as corn, sugarcane, and pineapples, atrazine is the most widely detected herbicide in drinking water. Figures vary, but a conservative estimate puts measurable levels of atrazine in the drinking water of nearly 30 million Americans in 28 states. With so many people exposed to this compound, it is worth examining any potential effects it may have on people.

Atrazine seems to have three ways of harming human health. Firstly, research suggests it alters the levels of key hormones animals. In male frogs, for example, atrazine has been observed to trigger the development of female sex characteristics. In a more recent study, abnormalities in the male reproductive organs of marsupials exposed to atrazine have been documented. Secondly, atrazine seems to have detrimental reproductive effects. There are significant associations between exposure to the herbicide and effects such as increased risk of miscarriage, reduced fertility, low birth weight, and increased chance of birth defects. Finally, there is evidence that atrazine could have carcinogenic effects. Animal studies have found a strong connection between atrazine and breast cancer. More research is required to see if this connection holds in exposed human populations.

Atrazine levels in drinking water are capped at 3 micrograms per liter (µg/L) by the EPA. This Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) as it is termed, however, is not based on health protective data, but on feasibility considerations for public water treatment systems. The state of California has developed entirely health-based protective values that are much smaller – 0.15 µg/L. This value should be the benchmark for drinking water systems, especially those in the Midwest where seasonal spikes of atrazine of more than 6 times the MCL have been recorded.

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Wildfires

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Wildfires

With news of the massive wildfire outside California’s Yosemite Park covering over 18,000 acres of land in June 2022, we wanted to talk about the problems associated with forest fires and pollution. Wildfires are destructive in their own right but are not what one would typically consider a source of pollution. Fires serve many natural purposes – they clear dead organic materials from forests and return valuable nutrients to the soil for instance. But when they reach large proportions and burn uncontrollably, they can release a number of air pollutants that decrease air quality and can cause significant health problems in nearby communities.

A number of air pollutants can be released from wildfires. Heavy metals like lead, zinc, and manganese have been found in elevated levels in the air and in the soil after wildfires, especially in areas that contained man-made buildings and other structures. Nitrogen oxides, a widespread air pollutant that has national air quality standards for indoor air, can be released in significant quantities during a forest fire. These chemicals can cause several respiratory problems such as increased inflammation of the airways, cough and wheezing, and reduced lung function.

Perhaps the most serious health threats from forest fire pollution comes in the form of particulate matter pollution. Particulate matter is a mix of very tiny solid and liquid particles suspended in air. These particles range in size but can be so small that they can enter a person’s lungs and remain lodged deep inside them. The health effects associated with this form of pollution are similar to those of nitrogen oxides. Short term effects such as eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation; coughing; sneezing; runny nose; and shortness of breath are common. In the long-term, severe effects like chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease have been observed.

The drought currently being experienced by California and much of the continental US is fueling fires like the one outside Yosemite, and we can only expect more in the future. Climate change driven by human activity is creating these drought conditions and in turn making wildfires like this one much more common occurrences. The pollution created by these fires in turn will affect those that cannot afford to move to avoid it, who more often than not are low-income and minority communities. We need to be conscious that the emission of greenhouse gasses by industry is not just a problem that will affect us and our children in the future, but is something that is killing people now.

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Flooding

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Flooding

Massive flooding in the state of Kentucky in late July 2022 claimed the lives of 38 people – yet another example of extreme weather events driven by the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. We touched upon this broad issue in a previous Toxic Tuesday about the wildfires that scorched the state of California not long ago. This edition will analyze the problem of massive flooding from the perspective of toxics.

The flooding in Kentucky on its own has had devastating consequences in the region – personal property was lost or damaged, access to clean water was scarce, and poor sanitary conditions lead to a rise in diseases in the affected population. However, another major problem to the region’s health was not talked about much or even quantified; the problem of potential leaks, spills, or accidental releases of chemicals from facilities that handle or house these chemicals.

CHEJ tried to quantify this problem in the eastern part of Kentucky. This effort, lead by our intern Hunter Marion, utilized EPA’s EJ Screen database to look at the 17 counties in eastern Kentucky that were hit the hardest. Within these counties, we wanted to determine if there was an unusually large number of chemical facilities that could be susceptible to flooding, and how close they were to the population centers. We defined these facilities as:

  • Facilities that are required by law to have Risk Management Plans (RMPs) to guard against chemical leaks or spills due to extreme weather events
  • Hazardous waste facilities (including hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities)
  • Underground storage tank facilities
  • Wastewater discharge facilities

Our analysis could not yield a definite number of chemical facilities or their exact distance from the populated areas. However, we were able to use the EJ screen to place each of the 17 affected counties into a percentile of the overall US population with regards to proximity to chemical facilities. This will become clearer with an example.

In the chart above, the population of Bell County (far right) is in the 84th percentile in terms of proximity to an RMP facility. This means that, on average, a person living in Bell County is closer to an RMP facility than 84% of the US population. To put it in another way, only 16% of the US population live closer to an RMP facility than a resident of Bell County, on average.

Similar conclusions can be drawn from the following charts:

We can see across the board that a few counties continuously rank high among proximity to chemical facilities as we have defined them. Bell County is the largest offender with its average resident being closer to hazardous waste facilities than 79% of the rest of the US, closer to underground storage tanks than 64% of the rest of the US, and closer to wastewater discharging facilities than 98% of the US. Clay, Knott, and Harlan counties follow closely.

These relatively high numbers mean that residents in eastern Kentucky where flooding was at its most damaging are comparatively closer to facilities that can spill, leak, or accidentally release dangerous chemicals than the average person in the US. This should alert authorities to do something, given that the area is prone to flooding.

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The Role of Science and Information in Addressing Questions about Chemical Exposures

Toxic Tuesdays

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

The Role of Science and Information in Addressing Questions about Chemical Exposures

It’s common to think that in science and technical information lies the answer to the many questions people ask about exposures to toxic chemicals. At CHEJ, we have not found this to be the case. While science and technical information is very important, by itself it cannot answer most of the questions people raise about exposure to toxic chemicals. People want answers and they want action to address the contamination in their community. Science and technical information can play a vital role in helping to achieve community goals, but identifying this role and learning how to use scientific and technical information is critical to the success of a local group. 

Many assume that if you hire the best scientists and engineers and make solid technical arguments, the government will do the right thing. It rarely works that way. It’s not because people who work for government don’t care, it’s just that the science is not there for government to justify acting. This is primarily because of the lack of scientific knowledge and understanding of how exposures to toxic chemicals lead to health outcomes in people. Scientists know little about the adverse health effects resulting from exposure to combinations of chemicals at low levels. As a result, when politicians and bureaucrats look for answers, the scientists usually don’t have them. 

At first glance, this may not make sense. We know so much about many toxic chemicals, like lead and dioxins, for example. But when it comes right down to it, we know very little about what happens to people when they are exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals, even those that include lead and dioxins.

We can estimate risks and talk about the hazards associated with exposure, but we just don’t know much about the mechanisms of how chemicals damage the human body, especially in low level mixtures over long periods of time. This is because in most cases, there is very little information about what a person is exposed to, the concentration they are exposed to, and for how long. A person’s health conditions and prior exposures to toxic chemicals also play a role. In addition, there is no way to distinguish or fingerprint an exposure with a health outcome. 

Most scientists are reluctant to discuss how little is known about the link between health outcomes and exposures. Instead, the tendency is to discuss the “risks” of exposure which eventually leads to a debate over what’s an “acceptable” risk. This process hides the fact that scientists don’t know what happens to people who are exposed to low levels of a mixture of toxic chemicals. 

Because of this lack of scientific clarity, bureaucrats and politicians use “science” cloaked in uncertainty, not facts, to justify decisions which are based on the political and economic pressures they face. It is naïve to think that science and the many uncertainties resulting from exposures to toxic chemicals can serve as anything but a tool used by politicians and corporations to do what they want. 

In the face of these uncertainties, government sees as its main role and primary responsibility to maintain control of a situation and to assure the public that everything is fine, whether it is or not. The government cannot afford to say what it really knows about a situation, which often, is very little. If they did that, then the public would demand action that they could not scientifically justify taking. 

Despite these realities, there is a critically important role for science and information to play in addressing exposures to toxic chemicals. This role is to document the exposures and risks posed by these exposures and to support the arguments of activists and people exposed to toxic chemicals. The role of science and technical information is to be part of a larger strategic plan to help the community and the individuals who have been exposed to toxic chemicals achieve their goal, whether it’s to be relocated, or to achieve cleanup of a contaminated site. It’s important to recognize what science and technical information can tell you and what it can’t. 

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Benzene

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Benzene

Benzene is a colorless chemical with a sweet odor that is flammable and presents itself in liquid form at normal temperatures and pressures. It is part of a family of chemicals commonly referred to as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mainly because they evaporate quickly when exposed to air. Although benzene can be formed and emitted from natural processes, exposure to it comes mostly from human activities.

Benzene is among the 20 most widely used chemicals in the United States. It is used as an industrial chemical in the production of a myriad of products including plastics, resins, synthetic fibers, rubber lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. Benzene is also naturally found in crude oil and is a major part of gasoline.

The health effects of benzene include irritation of the body parts in contact with the chemical, immune problems, nervous system conditions, and even certain cancers. Acute symptoms of relatively short-term exposure to benzene include skin, eye, and respiratory tract irritation. Prolonged exposures to even low concentrations of benzene can result in central nervous system depression and arrhythmias, as well as trigger anemia and even compromise the immune system. Finally, it has been long established that benzene exposure can cause many forms of leukemia. The International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) has classified it as carcinogenic to humans (IARC group 1) since 1979.

Human exposure to benzene in the environment usually takes the form of gasoline fumes, automobile exhaust, emissions from certain factories, and off gassing from some commonly used products. Areas that routinely experience heavy traffic can suffer from dangerous levels of benzene in the air. Benzene can also off gas from certain paints and glues and become concentrated in an indoor environment. Additionally, cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke can account for significant benzene exposure. Finally, industries such as oil and gas can contribute to local benzene pollution greatly.

This is the case of the community in Greeley, Colorado where a fracking well pad was in operation just 1000 feet away from the 4th– 8th grade campus of the Bella Romero Academy. Kids and teachers were being exposed to levels of benzene (emanating from the fracking operations) almost seven times higher than the lifetime safe exposure level for benzene developed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Colorado 350, a local nonprofit working on the issue, reached out to CHEJ for help in analyzing a report by Barrett Engineering on the measured levels of benzene in the school. With our help, Colorado 350 is now asking the city to reinstate air monitors and shut down the fracking operation if benzene levels do not drop below safe levels.

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Interpreting Health Risks

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Interpreting Health Risks

Community leaders are constantly asking government officials and scientists to explain the risks of being exposed to toxic chemicals. The answers they get are typically all over the place. Often people hear that you don’t have to worry, that the risks from living near a toxic contamination problem is no different than smoking cigarettes, eating a peanut butter sandwich, or living in an urban area. Government and industry further argue that it has never been proven that the health of the people at Love Canal was damaged by the chemicals leaking from the landfill, that the dangers of dioxin are overstated, and that people become “hysterical” just because they have been exposed to toxic chemicals.

No question people are upset. But they’re not upset because they can’t understand complicated risk assessments or detailed toxicity information. They are upset because government and industry trivialize their concerns, because they can’t get good information on the toxicity of chemicals, and no one will give them an honest answer about potential health effects caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.

There is no question that toxic chemicals can cause adverse health effects. What’s not so clear is how chemicals cause adverse health effects in people. Part of the reason for this is that for most chemicals, there is not enough information on what happens to people when they are exposed while eating contaminated food, drinking polluted water, or breathing toxic air. A classic 1984 National Academy of Sciences report found that we had good information on only 8% of over 65,000 chemicals in use. Not much has changed since then.

While most of the information on toxicity of chemicals comes from animal studies, the workers who manufacture toxic chemicals are the greatest source of information on the toxicity of chemicals. From their experience, we found that dusty air causes lung cancer, benzene causes leukemia, radioactive paint, bone cancer, vinyl chloride, liver cancer, and certain pesticides, muscle weakness and paralysis.

In the community, an association between health problems and exposure has been harder to “prove”, but still many examples exist, especially among children who are highly susceptible to toxic chemicals. At Love Canal, children who were born and raised next to the canal had higher rates of birth defects; in Tucson, AZ, children whose parents drank water contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) were born with 2-1/2 times more heart defects than normal; and in Santa Clara County, CA, state health researchers found an “unequivocal excess” of miscarriages and birth defects in a San Jose neighborhood where trichloroethane (TCA) and other toxic chemicals were found in the drinking water.

Despite these and other findings, scientists still find it extremely difficult to tell exactly what health effects will occur following exposure to toxic chemicals. There are a number of reasons for this. First, many factors determine what happens when a person is exposed to chemicals, including how an individual body responds to exposure (this varies widely from person to person), how long exposures occur, how many chemicals you’re exposed to and their toxicity. Without knowing these variables, it’s difficult to predict what will happen when a person is exposed (in most instances, most of these factors are unknown).

A second factor is that many symptoms or diseases are not specific to a particular chemical. In most instances, there can be many causes of the symptoms that people are having. And since few physicians have any experience with exposures to toxic chemicals, rarely do they look at chemicals as a possible explanation. For example, many physicians will diagnose a person who is fatigued, moody and without appetite as “depressed”, likely to have a problem at home or at work. Seldom is exposure to toxic chemicals considered, even if it’s raised by the patient.

Another problem is determining what the “normal” rate of illness or disease is in a community. Scientists simply can’t decide amongst themselves what is normal, in large part because of the many uncertainties we’ve already discussed.

As a result, interpretation of the risks posed by exposures to toxic chemicals is largely a matter of opinion, not fact. Government and industry may criticize people for being “hysterical” or emotional when trying to explain health risks. But without clear information and explanations, people are pretty much out in the cold. Scientists need to be more honest about what is known and what’s not known about low level exposures to mixtures of chemicals. Once people have this information, they may not be fully satisfied, but at least they have a good sense of what’s known and what’s not. Then people are in a better position to decide what action they need to take.

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Radon

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Radon

Radon is a colorless, tasteless and odorless gas that is radioactive and can cause cancer. It forms naturally when radioactive elements like uranium, thorium, or radium break down. This element can then move around in the environment by migrating as a gas or by dissolving in moving groundwater.

The main health concern surrounding radon is lung cancer. In the United States, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Surgeon General’s office estimate that radon is responsible for more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the country. This risk is greatly increased among people who smoke.

Radon can affect your health by entering the body as a gas or in one of its multiple “progeny” forms. These progenies are other radioactive elements that form when radon decays and gives off radiation. Although they are solid, these progenies can still move around because they attach to dust particles that are easily carried around in air. As a result, the main route of exposure to radon and its progenies is through inhalation of contaminated air. The main source of exposure is people’s homes, especially poorly ventilated basements. Once breathed in, radon and its progeny particles can deposit in your lungs and impart a significant dose of radiation to the lung tissue.

Radioactive dust particles similar to those formed from radon decay are a concern for the people of Rostraver Township who live around the Westmorland landfill in Pennsylvania. Although mostly a solid waste landfill, Westmoreland also accepts certain hazardous wastes including fracking waste that in many instances is radioactive. This radioactive waste, when dissolved in the landfill’s leachate (water inside the landfill with waste dissolved in it), is planned on being treated by a new and unproved system that essentially boils leachate. The result is the formation of dust particles that can contain radioactive elements attached to them. CHEJ has helped the group working with the local community, Protect PT, with this and several other issues surrounding the proposed leachate treatment system.

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Bisphenol A (BPA)

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Bisphenol A (BPA)

BPA stands for Bisphenol A and is a man-made chemical produced in large quantities for use primarily in the production of polycarbonate plastics. It is found in a large number of everyday products such as eyewear, water bottles, and epoxy resins that coat some metal food cans, bottle tops, and water supply pipes.

BPA is a concerning chemical because it is one of those compounds that is in almost everything we use or come in contact with. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 2003 and 2004 found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of people sampled six years and older.

While air, dust, and water are possible sources of exposure, BPA in food and beverages is the main source of exposure for most people. BPA has been observed to leach into food from the internal epoxy resin coatings of canned foods. Other items that contain BPA which come in contact with food or drinking water such as polycarbonate eating utensils, food storage containers, and water bottles can also contaminate food with BPA.

Although research into the effects of BPA in humans is not conclusive, there is mounting evidence for classifying BPA as an endocrine-disrupting compound (EDC). EDCs affect human health by disrupt hormones during key developmental stages of growth. For this reason, they can cause many different adverse health outcomes including damage to sperm quality, reduced fertility, abnormalities in sex organs, early puberty, reduced immune function, and certain cancers. BPA, specifically, seems to mirror the hormone estrogen, and studies in animals have shown decreased levels of testosterone, atrophy of male genitalia, and fertility problems.

The National Resources Defense Council put together a few tips on how to avoid BPA products here. Given the uncertainty and potential severity of BPA’s health effects, it is a good idea to be proactive and avoid unnecessary exposures to it.

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