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Climate Change Worsens Toxic Exposures

Flooded neighborhood
Photo credit: AP/ Jason Dearen

By Leila Waid.

Climate change is one of the leading environmental challenges facing our world today. This will wreak havoc on all aspects of society and in some instances it already has from increasing droughts and wildfires to stronger storms and hurricanes. But one consequence of climate change that gets overlooked is its effects on toxic waste sites.   

Toxic waste sites are those where the waste disposed is dangerous to human health. Waste is defined as being hazardous when it “may leach hazardous concentrations of toxic substances into the environment when disposed.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies such hazardous locations as a Superfund site. Currently, there are 1,336 active Superfund sites – meaning there is still toxic waste present at the site. There are also 38 proposed locations that could become a Superfund site.

These Superfund sites can be found in almost every state, excluding only North Dakota. The Northeast region of the country has the highest concentration of waste sites – with New Jersey coming in at number 1 with a total of 115 sites. On the West Coast, California has the most at 96 sites.

How can climate change impact all these different waste sites? One example is that flooding and heavy rain can free debris from coal operations that would then contaminate the groundwater in surrounding areas. That contamination can then further spread through storm surges or rising sea levels. After that has happened it becomes more difficult to track and clean the toxins.

Wildfires are another concern for toxic waste sites. For example, California has a Superfund site with extremely high levels of asbestos. A “worst-case” scenario for this site includes a scenario where the wildfire smoke carries off the asbestos to hundreds of miles away –  impacting thousands of people in the vicinity who might inhale the toxin-contaminated smoke. 

What can you do to act on this issue today? Contact your representative and let them know you support bill H.R. 1444, titled Preparing Superfund for Climate Change Act of 2023. The bill would require that clean-up efforts consider the impacts of climate change when deciding the proper clean-up techniques.

Toxic Tuesdays


Toxic Tuesdays

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


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.

Learn about more toxics

Toxic Tuesdays


Toxic Tuesdays

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


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.

Learn about more toxics

Homepage News Archive

Biden to place environmental justice at center of sweeping climate plan

President Biden made tackling America’s persistent racial and economic disparities a central part of his plan to combat climate change Wednesday, prioritizing environmental justice for the first time in a generation.

As part of an unprecedented push to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and create new jobs as the United States shifts toward cleaner energy, Biden directed agencies across the federal government to invest in low-income and minority communities that have traditionally borne the brunt of pollution.

“Lifting up these communities makes us all stronger as a nation and increases the health of everybody,” Biden said.

Biden signed an executive order establishing a White House interagency council on environmental justice, create an office of health and climate equity at the Health and Human Services Department, and form a separate environmental justice office at the Justice Department. The order also directs the government to spend 40 percent of its sustainability investments on disadvantaged communities.

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Photo Credit: David J. Phillip/AP

Homepage News Archive

In Georgia, 16 Superfund Sites Are Threatened by Extreme Weather Linked to Climate Change

From a distance, the inland marsh a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean in Brunswick, Georgia, looks like a broad, green mat broken by silvery threads of meandering rivers and creeks. There’s cordgrass four feet tall, and sea daisies that add a splash of starburst color.

The marsh is home to shrimp, blue crab and sea trout, and it’s the nesting site of Great Egrets. Bottlenose dolphins inhabit the nearby Turtle/Brunswick River Estuary in Glynn County.

But looks can be deceiving.

Beneath the bucolic green expanse, the water and sediment contain toxic mercury and PCBs from the now closed LCP Chemical plant, which produced chlorine gas, hydrogen gas, hydrochloric acid and other caustic chemicals from 1955 to 1994, at what has since been declared a Superfund hazardous waste site, managed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The shrimp, crab and sea trout are tainted by the contaminants, putting local residents who still fish in the waters at risk for cancer, liver and kidney damage, according to a federal health assessment of the site.
Back in 2010, a researcher found “extremely high concentrations” of persistent organochlorine contaminants (POCs) in the local bottlenose dolphin population, with LCP Chemical and other nearby Superfund sites considered potential sources of the contamination.
With climate change a leading issue in Georgia’s two closely watched Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, the effects of a warming planet directly threaten LCP Chemical and 15 other Superfund sites in the state. They could be potentially affected by intensified hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise or wildfires.
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Photo Credit: NOAA

Homepage News Archive

U.S. formally exits Paris climate change pact amid election uncertainty

BERLIN — The United States on Wednesday formally left the Paris Agreement, a global pact forged five years ago to avert the threat of catastrophic climate change.

The move, long threatened by President Donald Trump and triggered by his administration a year ago, further isolates the U.S in the world but has no immediate impact on international efforts to curb global warming.

Some 189 countries remain committed to the 2015 Paris accord, which aims to keep the increase in average temperatures worldwide “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), ideally no more than 1.5C (2.7 F), compared to pre-industrial levels. A further six countries have signed, but not ratified the pact.

Scientists say that any rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius could have a devastating impact on large parts of the world, raising sea levels, stoking tropical storms and worsening droughts and floods.

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Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowksi / AFP via Getty Images

Homepage News Archive

‘Crossroads of the climate crisis’: swing state Arizona grapples with deadly heat

Even now, Ivan Moore can’t think why his father didn’t didn’t tell anyone that the air conditioning in their house was busted. “I honestly don’t know what was going through his mind,” he said.

That week three years ago, temperatures in Phoenix, Arizona were forecasted to top 115F (46C). Moore, his wife and two children went to the mountains for a camping trip, and his dad Gene, stayed behind. A few days later, Gene died.

The air conditioning had been blowing hot air. “He’d opened a window but it was too hot,” Moore said. “My dad’s heart basically gave out on him.”

Phoenix – America’s hottest city – is getting hotter and hotter, and Moore’s father is one of the hundreds of Arizonans who have succumbed to the desert heat in recent years.

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Photo Credit: Caitlin O’Hara/The Guardian

Backyard Talk

Incarcerated Workers Among Hardest Hit By Wildfires

By: Shaina Smith, Community Organizing Intern
Massive wildfires fuelled by climate change have damaged millions of acres across California, Oregon, and Washington over the past few weeks. Some parts of California have an AQI of over 700. Air Quality Index (AQI) measures air pollution on a scale of 0-500. Any level above 200 is “unhealthy” to “hazardous”.
As residents evacuate areas threatened by the fires, let’s consider those who stayed behind. You might be surprised to learn that California uses prison labor, disproportionately people of color, to battle their wildfires. In fact, incarcerated workers make up to 80% of California fire personnel, including juveniles. The state pays incarcerated workers only 1 dollar an hour (or less if they owe restitution) to fight wildfires. 
With this perspective, prison doesn’t appear to be about justice or rehabilitation, instead about exploiting labor for profit. As exemplified by a question asked by a former corrections officer at one California inmate fire camp: “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season?” 
Historically, once released from prison, California abandons their former inmate firefighters, preventing them from being hired as professionals. However, now that covid shutdowns have left no other option, California has passed a bill making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to become firefighters. 
Inmate firefighters work up to 48 hour shifts with 50 pound backpacks. The state does not provide goggles or respirators. It’s no wonder then that incarcerated workers are more than 4 times as likely to sustain an injury than a professional firefighter working on the same fire.
The smoke from these wildfires contains air pollution particles called PM 2.5. PM 2.5 exposure leads to worse coronavirus outcomes. These particles are so small that they enter the bloodstream through the lungs, and cannot be broken down by the immune system.
People residing in low income and minority communities are already disproportionately exposed to PM 2.5 from industry polluters, and are therefore more likely to have an underlying health condition. Underlying conditions exacerbate the dangerous health risks of smoke, specifically heart attacks
Immediate symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure include shortness of breath, coughing, sore throat, and eye irritation. Years following wildfire smoke exposure, lung capacity among residents decreased.
Wildfire smoke is linked to an increased rate of emergency doctors visits for respiratory and cardiovascular issues such as heart attack or stroke– specifically for adults over 65. Black people who live in areas where the poverty rate is above 15% were particularly affected
As this latest challenge demonstrates, climate change imposes the heaviest burdens on people of color. The evil of capitalism and racism in the United States is intrinsically linked even to crises in nature, such as wildfires and coronavirus.
Photo credit: Newsweek

Homepage News Archive

Polluters Are Winning Big on COVID-19 Recovery Efforts

Polluting industries, such as coal power plants, mining, and oil and gas corporations are receiving financial and regulatory relief across the globe, but specifically in the US, as governments aim to provide relief during the pandemic. These moves threaten progress that has made to combat polluters over the years and puts the globe at risk for rapid deterioration caused by climate change. Read More
Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash

Backyard Talk News Archive

Biden Releases Environmental Plan in Bid for Progressive Vote

By Paolo Padova, Science Intern
Last week the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, released his climate and energy plan. Biden’s plan puts an emphasis on environmental justice and its intersection with racial inequality. The plan commits to creating a new Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Department of Justice to hold contaminating corporations accountable. Building on the EPA’s EJSCREEN tool, Biden will “create a data-driven Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to identify communities threatened by the cumulative impacts of the multiple stresses of climate change, economic and racial inequality, and multi-source environmental pollution.” The plan includes several aggressive targets such as achieving an emissions-free power sector by 2035. Biden also set a goal for disadvantaged communities to receive 40 percent of all clean energy and infrastructure benefits he was proposing.
The plan is clearly an attempt to appeal to younger and more progressive voters who have, thus far, been a challenge for Biden. Many progressives have been uneasy about a Biden presidency because of his refusal to adopt a range of progressive priorities such as medicare for all, defunding the police, and the legalization of marijuana. His record on issues like criminal justice has drawn significant criticism from the left. Some view a Biden presidency as “harm reduction” while others are even less optimistic. Nonetheless, the appeal seems to be working, at least with some. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, a prominent environmentalist called the plan “visionary.” In response to the plan Sunrise Movement executive director, Varshini Prakash said “It’s no secret that we’ve been critical of Vice President Biden’s plans and commitments in the past. Today, he’s responded to many of those criticisms.” This progressive shift in Biden’s environmental policy is a direct result of the progressive voters who have conditioned their vote on policy concessions from the former vice-president.
Biden’s plan also makes several references to Native American communities. Elizabeth Kronk Warner, the dean of the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah and a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said she was pleasantly surprised by Mr. Biden’s plan.
On the other hand, some have been critical of the fact that the plan does not include the use of a carbon tax, which many see as the most effective and socially equitable way to decrease carbon emissions. This may be a result of an effort to altogether avoid the word ‘tax’ out of fear of alienating moderate voters. Trump’s allies have been quick to attack the plan, depicting it as a threat to jobs in the energy sector and some have attempted to link the plan with the significantly more progressive Green New Deal. According to Trump, Biden’s “agenda is the most extreme platform of any major party nominee, by far, in American history.” While Biden’s plan is less progressive than the Green New Deal and Biden has not fully endorsed the Green New Deal, his plan does follow a similar strategy of emphasizing how aggressive climate action could create jobs. Specifically, the plan presents itself as a response to the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19. Biden foresees one million new jobs will be created making electric vehicles and charging stations and perhaps millions more union jobs could come from building greener infrastructure.
Photo Credit: Matt Slocum/AP