Charles Utley’s inspiring experiences and insights related to Environmental Justice! Utley grew up in Hyde Park, Georgia, a predominantly Black community. Many people worked at Southern Wood Piedmont Co., a company that used creosote and dumped their chemical debris into a stream that bordered Hyde Park. Listen now for more info!
Hilton Kelley, Executive Director and Founder of CIDA, Community In-Power & Development Association, gave up his acting career to pursue environmental justice in his hometown of Port Arthur, TX. Listen now for more info!
Nestled between the slow, muddy waters of the Trinity River and the noisy I-45, sits Joppa, TX. Pronounced “Joppee” by locals, Joppa is a neighborhood located at Dallas proper’s southernmost point. It was founded by freed Black people shortly after the abolition of slavery in the 1870’s. Generations of residents lived relatively isolated from the growing metropolis until the town was annexed by the city of Dallas in 1955.
That annexation saw the gradual introduction of industrialization into the formerly forest-covered community. Pacific-Union built a railway cutting through the middle of the neighborhood. Asphalt plants, gravel mills, and landfills quickly ate up the bountiful, green floodplains of the area commonly called the “Bottoms.” Soon enough, Joppa became surrounded by polluting facilities and the refuse of interstate commerce.
Air pollution is the most prevalent problem affecting folks living in Joppa. Companies like Austin Industries, Martin Marietta, and TAMKO produce high amounts of particulate matter (PM) that consistently clog the lungs of locals. In the spring of 2023, air monitoring sensors in Joppa belonging to SharedAirDFW registered air quality that was double the EPA’s healthy standard of PM pollution!
Local organizations like Downwinders at Risk (a Dallas-based environmental organization and former CHEJ grantee) and Paul Quinn College have also reported that Joppa experiences levels of air pollution exceeding that of the rest of Dallas. Findings even cite that the life expectancy of Joppa residents is 13 years less than those living in the affluent Highland Park neighborhood of central Dallas. In addition to industrial contamination, the area is still recovering from the presence and removal of a giant pile of shingle debris called “Shingle Mountain,” which contributed to long-term water and air contamination in Joppa and the nearby neighborhood, Floral Farms.
To combat this issue, Joppa residents have been steadily gaining media attention and political action through grassroots efforts. For instance, in early 2023 residents sought to block the renewal of Austin Bridge & Road’s 10-year “specific-use” permit and protested the presence of a concrete batch plant that was discovered to be in operation without a permit. Local leaders like Alicia Kendrick have been vocal about the industries harming their homes, families, and friends, especially complaining about the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) lack of enforcement on air quality standards in the area.
A key development in the fight to protect the neighborhood has been the Joppa Environmental Health Project. This is a community-led three-year environmental health study overseen by a research group from Texas A&M University. The project focuses on the effects of PM exposure upon Joppa’s residents. Community members intend to use the findings from this project as leverage against the city council to wrest control of Joppa over from the polluters. Although companies like Austin Industries have been prioritized by Dallas’s city council in the past, Kendrick and others have hope that continued pressure from organizing and research will prevail. They did not have to wait too long for a victory.
In June 2023, the Austin batch plant officially announced its closure and removal from the community. Excited by the victory of her 14-month battle against the company, Kendrick said that she was “determined to see this through, to use this [win] as a first step in giving Joppa residents a neighborhood where the air is safe to breathe.”
September is kicking into high gear, which means the summer season has ended, and fall is just around the corner. While summer is usually known for warm, sunny days that are perfect for vacations, this summer was quite different for many individuals worldwide. Why? Because of the overwhelming heatwaves caused by climate change. According to NASA, new temperature highs were reached this season that the world had never seen before.
This extreme heat reflects on population health and our ability to cope. According to the CDC, between August 20-26 alone, 1,509 out of every 100,000 emergency room visits were due to heat stress in the Midwest. Specifically, the states with the highest heat-related ER visits were Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, and Nebraska. In 2022, a massive heat wave killed over 61,600 individuals in Europe. And a much higher proportion of those deaths were women (more than 35,000 deaths among women compared to 21,600 among men.) This staggering statistic showcases that women are more vulnerable to the effects of heat stress (due to different physiological functions – such as proportionately higher body fat). Thus, addressing heat waves is not only a climate change issue but also a gender equality issue.
How can we address climate change-induced heat in our communities? One excellent resource to use for a variety of climate change work is the EJScreen tool from the EPA. Although this does not focus specifically on heat, it provides a great overview of the US and various climate change issues. The mapping tool offers census-tract data on the most vulnerable populations and neighborhoods projected to be impacted by climate change. If you work in environmental justice, this is a great asset to pinpoint vulnerable populations and allocate resources efficiently. Even if you are not working in a climate-related capacity, this information is still beneficial to have on hand!
Another resource to utilize is the CDC’s Heat and Health Tracker. The agency also has a resource page on how to provide assistance to a wide variety of vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and outdoor workers, during a heat wave.
You can also directly work to protect your communities from heat-induced illness and death by advocating for change at a local level. For example, ask your local government leaders about their emergency plans for heat waves or other climate-induced natural disaster events. And if they do not have any in place, advocate for change! Also, you can educate them about the benefits of Green Infrastructure and how it can make your communities more resilient to natural disasters, such as droughts from a heatwave. The EPA provides a Resource Guide for Green Infrastructure for a wide variety of weather scenarios.
Becoming familiar with these various tools is beneficial because, no matter what work you do in the environmental justice field, climate change will impact you and your communities in some form. One of the best ways to protect your communities is to be as prepared as possible when next summer rolls around!
As background, SELC is a medical equipment sterilizing plant that has been emitting hazardous air pollution since 1976 (permitted to do this since 1985). Ethylene oxide (EtO) is used to clean catheters, syringes, pacemakers, plastic surgical gowns, and other items. On August 24, 2023, the Memphis Community Against Pollution, an environmental watchdog group requested a meeting. This meeting was in response to public concern about the chemical emissions and to petition the Shelby County Health Department for an emergency air pollution order.
Even the EPA understands that the plant’s use of EtO to sterilize medical equipment and materials could lead to cancer and other health risks. While short-term or infrequent exposure to EtO does not appear to pose a health risk, the EPA determined that long-term or lifetime exposure to the colorless and odorless gas could lead to a variety of health problems, including lymphoma and breast cancer. For 30 years, the EPA has regulated EtO emissions; however, in 2016 new scientific information revealed that the chemical is more toxic than previously reported. In April 2023, the EPA proposed limiting the use of EtO after finding a higher than expected cancer risk at facilities that use it for sterilizations.
The EPA claims that it is working with commercial sterilizers to take appropriate steps to reduce emissions. It said that its proposal will reduce EtO by roughly 80% by targeting 86 medical sterilization facilities across the country. The companies will also have to test for the antimicrobial chemical in the air and ensure their pollution controls are working properly. EPA Administrator Michael Regan stated that the “EPA is taking action to ensure communities are informed and engaged in [all] efforts to address ethylene oxide…” The agency further stated that “it is committed to addressing pollution concerns associated with [EtO] ‘in a comprehensive way that ensures facilities can operate safely in communities while also providing sterilized medical supplies.’”
Raul Garcia from Earthjustice argued that “[now] that EPA has new information on precisely where the worst health threats are, the agency must use its full authority to… require fenceline monitoring at these facilities [and] issue a strong new rule.” She also stated that, “No one should get cancer from facilities that are used to sterilize equipment in the treatment of cancer.”
Amanda Garcia, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, recognized that the Sterilization Services of Tennessee closing the Memphis plant is “a major victory for nearby neighborhoods who have been fighting for cleaner air.” She is “pleased that [the community] may soon be able to breathe easier.”
The situation in East Palestine, OH remains very frustrating for many residents. They are trying to make sense of the contrast between what EPA tells them with the many adverse health symptoms they are experiencing firsthand. Many residents continue to suffer from nose bleeds, headaches, skin rashes, thyroid problems and more caused by the horrific derailment and subsequent intentional burning of five tanker cars full of vinyl chloride. A highly toxic chemical known to cause cancer, liver damage, central nervous system and other adverse health effects. EPA continues to tell people that everything is fine and Norfolk Southern, the train operator, is tired of paying for temporary housing which some people have used to move out.
The letter below, reprinted in its entirety, is from an independent scientist who has taken air samples from inside the homes in of some people still living in East Palestine. This will give you some idea what people there are continuing to go through. The letter was addressed to the Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance and Ohio representative Bill Johnson. EPA has refused to respond to these independent test results and continues to ignore pleas for additional testing in homes in East Palestine.
I am a professor at Purdue University evaluating health risks of conditions that impact people and businesses in and around East Palestine, Ohio. I want to share important findings with you. After my June 10-12 investigation in East Palestine, I have serious concerns for the safety of children, adults, and businesses. During this, my sixth field investigation, I discovered, again, that acute chemical exposures are occurring inside some residential and commercial buildings near the derailment site and along the contaminated Sulfur Run. I provide four recommendations below.
There are still acute health threats inside buildings that agencies have yet to eliminate. Several buildings around the derailment site and along Sulfur Run still have the characteristic odor of chemical contamination. I have smelled it firsthand and we have been doing nearby environmental testing. Last week some occupants indicated that they became ill and have been avoiding certain buildings even after airing them out repeatedly. Some occupants have paid for indoor air testing which revealed butyl acrylate exceeding the ATSDR screening level, soot was present, and other chemicals present (e.g., ethylhexyl acrylate, benzene). Other occupants do not have financial ability to pay for indoor air testing, but I can confirm the odor was present. Norfolk Southern contractors did visit some buildings in February using inadequate air testing devices, and in one case, their team left the building because of the unpleasant odor they encountered. Some occupants told me that Norfolk Southern said they will not help them because there is legal action against them. Some building occupants have told me they cannot spend more than 2 to 5 minutes inside their building without experiencing side effects. In February/March, the East Palestine Municipal Building (85 N. Market Street), where town council meets, was contaminated with chemicals from Sulfur Run. Agencies found chemicals entering through unplugged drain pipes beneath the building. This was corrected, but contamination in other residential and commercial buildings remains.
Actions needed are to:
Decontaminate all residential, commercial, and government buildings surrounding the derailment site and along Sulfur Run. This will help maintain anonymity.
Conduct chemical testing inside these buildings for soot and over several weeks for volatile organic compounds (VOC) and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOC).
Inspect and eliminate pathways where chemicals enter buildings from the Sulfur Run culverts that go underneath and alongside buildings (i.e., building pipes, drains, cracked concrete, sumps, etc.).
Evidence shows that this disaster has repeatedly exceeded the scientific and organizational capability of the USEPA and other agencies involved. You may consider recommending:
The assembly and charging of an independent team of public experts to advise decision makers about scientific issues with this disaster. Areas of expertise needed are air quality, water quality, materials, civil engineering, environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, public health, environmental health, epidemiology, groundwater, risk assessment, among others.
In the early 2000s, CHEJ identified PVC or polyvinyl chloride, a common plastic material used in school supplies, as a significant source of health risks for children. PVC contains toxic chemicals that can cause serious health problems, such as cancer and hormone disruption. CHEJ launched the PVC-Free schools campaign, led by Mike Schade, to raise awareness among parents, teachers, and school administrators about the dangers of PVC and to encourage schools to switch to safer alternatives. The program’s approach was a mixture of advocacy and education, aiming to empower communities to take action and create change.
The PVC-Free campaign was successful in building a large grassroots network of parents, teachers, and advocates who shared the vision of a healthier and safer school environment for children. CHEJ provided free resources and training to help schools assess their PVC use and find safer alternatives. Moreover, the program put pressure on major companies to reduce or eliminate their use of PVC in products through consumer campaigns and lobbying.
Because of the success of the PVC-Free schools campaign, many students attend schools that have eliminated PVC materials or products. Additionally, the program has increased public awareness of the risks associated with PVC, prompting people to take safety measures in their homes as well. This created a ripple effect on the industry, encouraging schools’ suppliers to find alternatives to PVC, thereby, reducing the overall demand for PVC.
The PVC-Free schools program is just one of the many initiatives that CHEJ has undertaken to address environmental health and justice issues. One in a long history of advocating for vulnerable communities and neighborhoods affected by environmental pollution and hazards, supporting communities in the fight against toxic chemicals and influencing policies on environmental health regulations.
CHEJ’s PVC-Free safe schools program has effectively raised awareness of the dangers of PVC and paved the way for safer alternatives. The success of this campaign has demonstrated the power of community-led efforts to create change and protect children’s health. As we look forward, it’s essential to continue advocating and educating the public to minimize exposure to toxic chemicals.
2023 has already brought many climate change-related natural disasters. From the wildfires in Canada that covered the U.S. in particulate pollution, to the record-breaking heat waves gripping many parts of the world, this year has shown how our lives will continue to be impacted. It is important to recognize that the climate change events we are experiencing today are already having a profound impact on our health.
The individuals most impacted by these events are those most vulnerable to death or illness. These include individuals with underlying health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, the elderly, and children under five-years-old. All these groups are at an increased risk of adverse health effects from the extreme heat and air pollution because of their impaired physiology. For example, elderly individuals cannot regulate their body temperature efficiently and face higher risk of heat stress. As for poor air quality associated with wildfire smoke, young children are at high risk because they breathe in more air in proportion to their body. When they breathe in PM 2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter), it creates greater damage to their organs.
Other vulnerable groups that have been affected by this year’s climate change-related events include those who have higher levels of exposure to the natural elements. This category includes individuals who work in occupational fields that require a lot of time spent outside, such as agricultural and construction workers, and those who are house-insecure or unhoused. If individuals are forced to be outside during days of extreme heat or air pollution, they are going to be much more vulnerable in experiencing health effects.
Deaths associated with heat waves are also difficult to measure and are prone to underreporting because they are often not properly categorized. For example, if someone died of a heart attack but the underlying cause was heat stress, it might not officially be contributed to the heat wave on the death certificate. As a result, it is hard to quantify what the societal and public health impacts of the current heat waves are going to be or how many excess deaths they will cause. Most likely, the official number is going to be a drastic underestimate. The same is true for air pollution. The effects felt from Canada’s wildfires could be severe and chronic but not easily measured.
What can you do to address climate-induced heat stress and air pollution in your neighborhood? At the local level, it’s important to advocate for what your community can do to increase adaptation technicities and strengthen community resilience against climate change. Examples of an adaptation technique could be fighting to create more green infrastructure, shaded areas, and cooling stations in urban areas. At the larger state and federal level, it is important to vote for politicians who make addressing climate change as part of their campaign, messaging, and actual policy work.
For Rose Sims and Lettie White, residents of South Memphis, Tennessee, despite it being a sunny, spring day in their neighborhood, they make a point to stay inside as much as possible. This is because of the dangerous amounts of a toxic, cancer-causing gas, ethylene oxide (EtO), that is being emitted by the Sterilization Services of Tennessee, a medical equipment sterilization facility. EtO is linked to leukemia, lymphoma, breast cancer, and stomach cancer, and recently EPA announced that the colorless and odorless gas is 60 times more toxic than they previously thought. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) recently reported on this environmental injustice issue.
Earlier this year, EPA officials held a meeting and cautioned that the Sterilization Services of Tennessee facility was creating an “‘elevated’” cancer risk for people living nearby.” At this meeting, scientists presented maps showing what areas face the highest risks, which, unfortunately for Ms. Sims and Ms. White, were where their homes fell. After receiving this information, Ms. White said she“was devastated;” “I used to go outside to plant my garden and to cut my yard. I can’t do that anymore.” Ms. Sims said shewas afraid, frustrated, scared. “Now I go in and out of my house, but as far as cutting yards and just hanging out and enjoying and barbecuingand being with my family, I would never.”In the months since the meeting, Ms. Sims’ frustration and fear has grown while local health officials have refused to act.
How Has Sterilization Services of Tennessee and Shelby County Health Department Responded?
For months, they have ignored calls to reduce the plant’s EtO pollution from the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission, community organizations, and families living nearby. The plant continues to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even though similar facilities in other states have taken voluntary action to reduce ethylene oxide.
What is EPA’s Position on Ethylene OxideProtections?
In April, EPA took a key step toward better regulating EtO emissions in announcing a draft rule that aims to reduce fugitive EtO emissions by 80 percent. This rule would force facilities that releaseEtO to implement already-available technologies to better protect nearby communities. The draft rule was open for public comment until June 27, 2023. One comment to note is from the American Hospital Association (AHA) who offered comments stating, “With device sterilization capabilities already at or near capacity across the country, we strongly encourage the agency to consider employing its traditional three-year implementation timeline to the standards if made final. This will allow these facilities more time to come into compliance prior to enforcement in an effort to help prevent the closure, temporary or permanent, of any of these facilities.”
What is the Community Saying?
KeShaun Pearson from Memphis Community Against Pollution said, “Sterilization Services of Tennessee is continuing this legacy of environmental injustice by ignoring community members’ pleas for relief… And by allowing the Sterilization Services facility to continue pumping toxic gas into the air, the Shelby County Health Department is sending the message that it’s okay to inflict harm on Black communities, because of discriminatory practices like redlining that allowed polluters to take over historic and vibrant Black neighborhoods.”
While the Shelby County Health Department drags its feet, residents like Ms. Sims can’t help but wonder if it is because Mallory Heights is in a predominantly Black neighborhood that is surrounded by polluting industrial facilities. Would the Sterilization Services of Tennessee still be releasing EtO if it was in another part of the county?
SELC and Memphis Community Against Pollution sent a letter to Shelby County Health Department urging the agency to use its emergency powers to force the facility to lower its EtO emissions. However, the health department refused to act, even though “Memphis Muni. Code § 9-12-9(A) states where there is not a generalized condition of air pollution, the Health Officer may issue an emergency order if he ‘finds that emissions from the operation of one or more air contaminant sources is causing imminent danger to human health or safety.’ Id. § 9-12-9. The SELC and the Memphis Community Against Pollution concluded that the Shelby County Health Department not only can act, but must act to protect Memphis families from a health emergency.
As the return to school approaches, parents and children alike are gearing up for a busy shopping season. While it can be fun to get new school supplies, clothes, and accessories, it’s essential to keep health and safety in mind. Unfortunately, many common products sold for school use contain harmful toxins that can jeopardize your family’s well-being. Here are the top 5 toxics to avoid when shopping for back to school items.
Phthalates – These chemicals are commonly found in plastic-based products like backpacks, lunch boxes, and water bottles. While they may help the products last longer, they also interfere with the body’s endocrine system and can cause hormone imbalances. Instead, look for products made with natural or organic materials.
Flame retardants – These chemicals are often added to items such as bedding, carpets, and school uniforms to prevent fire. Unfortunately, they can have serious health risks, including endocrine disruption and developmental problems. To avoid them, look for products labeled as flame-retardant-free.
Lead – Lead can be found in older school supplies such as ink and painted pencils. Be sure to check each item for lead paint or materials. If possible, choose newer products with quality markings and certifications.
Formaldehyde – Commonly used as a preservative and adhesive, formaldehyde can cause respiratory irritation, headaches, and even cancer. It is often used in furniture, clothing, and classroom supplies. To avoid it, look for products labeled as formaldehyde-free or made from natural materials like solid wood and cotton.
Bisphenol A (BPA) – BPA is another chemical commonly found in plastic items like water bottles, lunch boxes, and food containers. It can disrupt the endocrine system and lead to developmental problems in children. Look for BPA-free products made of glass or stainless steel instead.
Keeping your family safe and healthy while shopping for back to school is essential. By avoiding harmful toxins such as phthalates, flame retardants, lead, formaldehyde, and Bisphenol A, you can be more confident in your school supplies purchase. Look for natural, organic, and high-quality products, and always read labels and certifications to ensure you’re getting the safest option. Shop smart and start the new school year off right!
The argument at the heart of the case was whether an 1868 treaty signed between the Navajo Nation and the U.S. government included providing the Diné with direct, reliable access to the Colorado River watershed. The treaty specified that the Nation would be given sufficient resources that allowed for suitable agriculture in their “new, permanent home.” The Diné rightly assumed that this would include infrastructure that accessed the river’s water.
The Navajo Nation has rights to ~700,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River. However, it does not have the infrastructure necessary to access their owed amount of water. This leaves about 40% of all Diné households without water. To put this into perspective, 99.2% of the entire U.S. population has continuous access to potable drinking water, whereas only 48% of the U.S. Indigenous populace has such access. For the 82 gallons of water accessed by the average non-Indigenous U.S. citizen per day, an average Indigenous citizen accesses only 7 gallons. Global warming has also decimated water levels in the Southwest region, particularly exacerbating tribal nations’ already limited water access.
By voiding any responsibility of the U.S. government to build water infrastructure in the Nation in this ruling, the U.S. has once again broken another contract between the Nation. The ruling also perpetuates the centuries-long discrimination that disproportionately exposes Indigenous peoples to environmental contaminants, radiation, extractive and polluting enterprises on tribal lands, and denies them continuous access to health, education, and clean water.
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, although disappointed, “remain[ed] undeterred” and vouched that he will continue fighting to “represent and protect the Navajo people, [their] land, and [their] future.” The Native American Rights Fund also voiced that they “will continue to assert their water rights” despite the Court’s ruling.