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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.

Learn about more toxics

Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be

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Backyard Talk News Archive

The Meaning of Environmentalism Has Expanded

The year 2021 marks the 40thth anniversary of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.  The Love Canal community’s efforts in 1978 successfully won the relocation of 900 working class families away from a leaking toxic waste dump and awoke a nation to the hazards of toxic chemicals in our environment.  Overcoming powerful resistance from government and a multi-billion dollar company, Occidental Petroleum, this grassroots effort demonstrated how ordinary people can gain power through joining together to win their struggle.  Love Canal sparked a new nationwide social justice movement concerned with links between health problems and the environment.  Hand-in-hand with these concerns are questions about the rights of corporations to increase their profits through decisions that sacrifice the health of innocent families and the environment.
The Meaning of Environmentalism Has Expanded—A New Grassroots Environmental Health Movement
Traditional environmentalism in America has centered, in general, around protecting the natural environment through laws and regulations.  Newer grassroots efforts, however, are as much about protecting public health as the environment.  These efforts value the basic human right to have clean air, water, food and soil along with preserving our nation’s natural resources.  The grassroots leadership believes systemic change comes from the bottom up—people plus organization equals strength—the strength to influence policy and win protection of these basic rights, and the strength to counteract the money and pressure corporations bring to bear on elected representatives to oppose or weaken protective laws.  As a result, the grassroots strategy is to build a stronghold at the local and state levels that can trickle up to influence federal-level representatives and national policies.
Another distinction between the two movements is their contrasting approaches on achieving the same overarching goals of protecting the environment and public health:
Traditional environmentalism is focused on regulations and regulatory controls.  It therefore inevitably winds up debating how many parts per million of chemical X can be in wastewater that is released into a river without killing off downstream fish populations?
Today’s grassroots efforts are focused on prevention.  Grassroots leaders are asking “Why do we allow chemical X in wastewater to be discharged into our rivers when non-toxic alternatives exist?”
Neither approach is right or wrong, or is superior to the other.  The overarching goal of protecting the environment and all living things is the same for both segments of the environmental movement.  When operating on a parallel path, the two approaches together can make significant progress in protecting the environment and public health.
Who Represents the Grassroots Environmental Health Movement Today?
The grassroots environmental movement has a long history of success.  One of its most important achievements has been building a broad and diversified base of support that includes:  Workers, people of color, faith-based organizations, rural and urban families, and indigenous peoples living in today’s society whose lives have been affected by environmental issues.  Parent-teacher organizations, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals working to transform the health care industry’s disposal of potentially harmful substances; people who make their living fishing or depend upon fish as a primary food in their diets and other people from all walks of life.

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Backyard Talk

Public Hearings: Is Anyone Listening?

“A public hearing is an official event on a public issue where the public speaks and the officials don’t listen.”
Activists spends endless hours sitting and testifying in public hearings. Local leaders often have endless patience despite the fact that hearings are generally convened in inconvenient places, at inconvenient times and with the room set up to intimidate. Public hearings chew up a huge amount of time and burn out leaders. They alienate members who have such a lousy time that they never come to another group activity. And often, they have no effect on public policy.
When asked why they go to hearings in light of such bad experiences, here’s what some local leaders said:
We don’t want to miss anything. There could be useful information, though this is not the only place to get it.
It’s a chance to tell our side. Sure, after the “experts” for the agencies and polluters drone on for hours, knowing the news media will leave after the first hour.
Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? The typical public hearing is a gross distortion of democracy. Hearing officers are trained to control public hearings. Your opponents will use public hearings to TEST you. Will you sit there and take it? Can they force you to conform to their rules? As the saying goes, “if you take what they give you, you deserve what you get.”
Do you have to go to public hearings? No, you don’t. If a public hearing ignores your needs, you can boycott it. You can hold a protest outside and denounce it. You can send a speaker inside to say you refuse to acknowledge its legitimacy. And you can organize a mass walk-out. You can even organize your own “People’s Hearing,” one you run and that deals with the truth.
If you do attend, insist they take their rules and throw them out the window. Let the people speak first, even if this means crying mothers speak, instead of the “experts” hearing officials prefer. Insist that officials respond, point by point. Use the hearing to present specific, concrete demands and insist on “yes” or “no” answers on the spot.
If they don’t cave in to your demands to do it your way, pull a mass walk-out. When denied the dignity of meaningful participation, the United Farm Workers would signal members to kneel in prayer and sing hymns.
At one public hearing, Concerned Citizens of White Lake (MI) were shocked when hearing officials turned out the lights when it was the citizens’ turn to speak. At the next public hearing, each member brought a lit flashlight.
At another hearing on contaminated water Concerned Residents of Muskegon (MI) showed up with water jugs. Their “testimony” took the form of queuing up at water fountains to fill their jugs from the city water supply they wanted hooked up to their neighborhood.
At a hearing in Maryland, Lois Gibbs, CHEJ’s founding director, stunned local leaders with a small but powerful tactic. As she testified, she saw that the hearing officials weren’t listening. Lois stopped and stood silent at the microphone. After a long pause, the hearing official saw she wasn’t talking. “Er, ah, Ms. Gibbs, are you through?” “No sir, “Lois replied, “I was simply waiting for you to start listening. When you’re ready, I’ll continue.”
We’ve advised groups who’ve been shut-out, silenced or scorned to physically display their response. Accordingly, groups have shown up wearing gags, ear plugs and in a couple of instances, wearing cardboard cut-outs over their ears bearing the label “B-S Protectors.”
The best way to handle the media black-out that results when community testimony is not given until after the media leaves (and after hours of testimony by the “experts”) is by calling the news media and holding a news conference before the hearing starts so they can get both sides of the story.
What you do with public hearings is up to you. If you let the hearing officials control the agenda and flow of the meeting, they’re assured of prime media coverage. All you’re assured of is the that they won’t be listening to what you and your group has to say. It’s up to you.
Excerpted from Public Hearings: It’s a hearing, but is anyone listening? Chapter 30, CHEJ’s Organizing Handbook.

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Backyard Talk Homepage News Archive

The Day My Life Changed Forever

It was 43 years ago when I travelled to Albany, New York from Love Canal to meet with the NYS Health Department. My goal was to deliver the petition from the Love Canal Parents Movement asking for the state to close the 99th Street Elementary School.  August 2, 1978 was the day my whole world shifted in an unimaginable way.
While knocking on doors in the neighborhood to obtain signatures on the petition, I learned that my neighbors were sick, some had multicolored gunk coming up in the basement and seeping through the cement walls.  Many neighbors shared stories with me about black oil looking substance coming up in the fields located north and south of the 99th Street School and “hot rocks” yellow looking rocks that exploded like firecrackers when the children threw them against hard surfaces.  Women I spoke with were the most impacting, they told stories of innocent children they lost, pregnancies that ended in miscarriage or birth defected infants.
Our goal at the time, was to close the elementary school.  The playground sat on top of the toxic site with the school building located on the perimeter of 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals. I also felt the need to educate the New York State Health Department (NYSHD) about all the other health problems that were occurring in the neighborhood. Three of us travel to Albany, NY to deliver the petitions.  As we walked into the auditorium where the meeting was held, we were shocked to see so many journalists. The room had dozens of cameras and microphones on tripods.
Naively, we thought there would be a private meeting in a small office to talk about what we wanted, why it was important to close the school and take the opportunity to share the health information we uncovered while visiting our neighbors.
It didn’t take long to understand that we were being set up. There were three of us, dozens of media related people and later the health department officials and staff took the elevated stage in front of us.
Heath Commissioner Robert Whalen took the microphone and said:   “. . . the Love Canal Chemical Waste Landfill constitutes an extremely serious threat and danger to health, safety and welfare of those living near it or exposed to the conditions emanating from it.”   He ordered that pregnant women or families with children under the age of two living at 99th and 97th streets (that encircle the landfill) move from their homes as soon as possible.  Stunned and terrified Debbie my neighbor and I stood up and began to yell at Whalen. “What are you saying? My daughter is 2 ½ years of age has she been harmed?” The journalist then began to shout questions.  The chaos, noise, and shock from the news made me feel faint.
When I walked out of that building, my life was changed forever.  The rest of the story is history.
 

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Backyard Talk

Environmental Justice for Overburdened Communities: A View from New Jersey

 Last year, the New Jersey state legislature passed a landmark environmental justice bill that requires the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to identify overburdened communities in the state and to evaluate whether facilities seeking operating permits pose a   disproportionate, cumulative environmental impact on these communities. Facilities located in the same census tract as overburdened communities are subject to this requirement and include facilities that are major sources of air pollution (as defined under the Clean Air Act); resource recovery facilities or incinerators; sludge processing facilities, combustors, or incinerators; sewage treatment plants with capacity over 50 million gallons per day; and certain kinds of landfills.
This important piece of legislation was signed into law by the governor making New Jersey the first state to require a mandatory denial of a permit for new facilities and to impose conditions on renewal and expansion permits for existing facilities based on environmental justice (EJ) concerns alone. A new permit will be denied for facilities “where an [EJ] analysis determines a facility will have a disproportionately negative impact on overburdened communities.”
An overburdened community is defined in this bill as any census block group that fulfills at least one of the following criteria:

  • At least 35% of households qualify as low-income
  • At least 40% of residents identify as minority or as members of a tribal community
  • At least 40% of households have limited English proficiency

A low-income household is one that is at or below twice the poverty threshold (determined annually by the US Census Bureau)
A household with limited English proficiency is one where no adult speaks English “very well,” according to the US Census Bureau.
The bill requires that a company that wants a permit for a new facility, an expansion of a facility, or a permit renewal for an existing facility and if that facility is located partially or completely in an overburdened community, then the company must do the following three things:

  1. Write an environmental justice impact statement that evaluates the unavoidable potential environmental and health impacts associated with the facility and  the environmental and health impacts already affecting the overburdened community.
  1. Provide the environmental justice impact statement to government entities and the Community.
  1. Hold a public hearing no sooner than 60 days after providing the environmental justice impact statement:
    • The public hearing must be publicized in at least two newspapers that serve the community (including one non-English language newspaper).
    • The notice of the public hearing must include: description of the proposed facility, summary of the impact statement, date/time/location of the hearing, address at which community members can submit written comments.
    • The state Department of Environmental Protection will post the impact statement and the information about the public hearing on its website.

At the hearing the company “shall provide clear, accurate and complete information.”
For a full text of the bill, go to: https://legiscan.com/NJ/text/S232/2020

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Backyard Talk

The Rachel Carson Amendment

Our colleague and friend Lou Zeller at the Blue Ridge Environmental League (BREDL) shared an article he wrote a few years back about the great pioneer Rachel Carson who wrote in her epic 1962 classic Silent Spring that “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”
Lou continued. “The public outcry created by Silent Spring led to a ban on DDT from agricultural use in 1972. However, today the industrial use of poisonous substances continues almost unabated, based on regulatory risk assessments and legally acceptable death rates. For example, retail shops are still permitted to dry-clean cloths with perchloroethylene, a carcinogenic solvent, even though non-toxic alternatives are available. Household hand cleaners laced with toxic Triclosan contaminate wastewater and sewage sludge deposited on farm fields as fertilizer. Nuclear power plants routinely spew radioactive Tritium into the air and water. And chemical giant Monsanto sells the weed-killer Roundup to farmers and homeowners—components of which are carcinogenic and known to damage the liver, kidney, brain and lungs. The list goes on.
“How can it be that after the passage of two generations we have let this continue?  Worse, a new natural gas extraction industry—cracking underground rock with high-pressure chemicals and water—exempts itself from the few environmental, public health and safety laws still on the books. It is indeed a strange blight creeping over the land.
“The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution states, ‘No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.’  The Fourteenth Amendment adds that the States may not, ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ Rachel Carson’s Fable for Tomorrow painted a grim picture, but it was meant to prompt action.  In part, she succeeded.  But it remains to us to ensure that the next forty years complete the changes necessary so our legacy to future generations is not a silent spring.  Either the fundamental principles established under the Constitution mean what they say, or Rachel Carson’s admonition should become the 28th Amendment to the Constitution.”
I think Lou is onto something. What do you think?

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Backyard Talk

Residential Segregation and Disproportionate Exposure to Airborne Carcinogens

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis published a paper late last year that found carcinogens present in the air of the St. Louis metropolitan area to be highly concentrated in Black and poor neighborhoods. They found that approximately 14% of the census tracks in the city had elevated cancer risk due to exposure to toxic chemicals in the air and that these air toxic hots spots were independently associated with neighborhoods with high levels of poverty and unemployment, and low levels of education. Census tracks with the highest levels of both racial isolation of Blacks and economic isolation of poverty were more likely to be located in air toxic hot spots than those with low combined racial and economic isolation.
This paper is important because the authors used an innovative geospatial approach developed by other researchers to identify spatial patterns of residential segregation in their study area. This approach captures the degree of segregation at the neighborhood level and identifies patterns of isolation of different metrics, which in this study was black isolation and poverty isolation. This approach differs from tradition methods that looked at the percentage of blacks or poverty in a neighborhood.
The authors used these two segregation measures – Black isolation and poverty isolation – to identify neighborhoods segregated by race and income in the St. Louis metropolitan area and evaluated the risks of exposure to carcinogens in the air in these areas. The cancer risk data came from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment and the census track sociodemographic data came from the American Community Survey. All spatial analyses were conducted using Arc GIS software.
These researchers found that census track levels of poverty, undereducation and unemployment were associated with toxic hot spots, while factors such as per capita income and median household income were inversely associated with toxic hot spots. These findings support other studies that identified disparities in exposures to ambient air emissions of toxic chemicals and that raised questions about whether residential segregation leads to differential exposure to air pollutants.
While the authors discuss a number of possible pathways connecting segregation and health, the relationship between segregation and exposure to air toxics is unclear. They discuss various factors that result in segregation leading to the “cycle of segregation” that includes neighborhoods with low social capital, few community resources and low property values which tends to attract more low income and minority residents and exposures to unhealthy air toxics.
The authors concluded that this study provides strong evidence of the unequal distribution of carcinogenic air toxics in the St Louis metropolitan area and that residential segregation leads to differential exposure to chemicals in the air that cause cancer.

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Remembering the bombing at Hiroshima Japan – 75th Anniversary

Survivors of the world’s first atomic bombing gathered in diminished numbers near an iconic, blasted dome Thursday to mark the attack’s 75th anniversary, many of them urging the world, and their own government, to do more to ban nuclear weapons. Read more.

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News Archive

Toxic Tuesday: Dioxin

By Julie Silverman, CHEJ Communications Intern
Dioxins are a group of toxic compounds that share similar and distinct chemical structures. They are mainly byproducts of industrial processes, such as waste incineration. In 1979, the EPA banned products containing Polychlorinated Bihphenyls (PCBs), which is a chemical included under the term dioxin. However, dioxins were a major issue before the US began implementing regulations. Since dioxins break down extremely slowly, toxins that were released long ago are still being released into the environment.
Today, most people are exposed to dioxins through consuming animal products that have accumulated dioxins over time. Exposure to these toxins in humans can cause cancer, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, infertility in adults, impairment of the immune system, and skin lesions. The following measures can help decrease your risk to dioxin exposure: removing skin from chicken and fish, trimming visible fat from meats, and checking local fishing advisories when catching your own seafood. Learn more about the health risks and safety measures regarding dioxin here.
The San Jacinto Waste Pits is a Superfund site in Harris County, Texas that is packed with dioxin and other toxic chemicals. Hurricane Harvey hit Harris County in 2017 and led to large damages and erosion throughout the region, causing the San Jacinto Waste Pits site to begin leaking toxic chemicals, such as dioxins into the surrounding communities.
CHEJ has worked with the Texas Health and Environment Alliance (THEA) and the San Jacinto River Coalition in order to help bring awareness to their nearby Superfund sites and the damages that hurricanes have caused. In 2017, THEA and the San Jacinto River Coalition succeeded in bringing attention to the waste pits and the EPA announced plans that they would remove the toxic contents from the pits entirely through a $115 million site remediation by late 2021.
In addition to THEA, residents in Wausau, WI living immediately adjacent to former Wauleco window manufacturing sites who were concerned about dioxin contamination formed Citizens for a Clean Wausau. Recent testing in a park found high levels of dioxin but the state dismissed the results. However, the state had to correct itself when CHEJ’s science director wrote a letter to the group pointing out that the state’s risk assessment failed to include dioxin’s cancer risk. Given dioxin’s high potency as a carcinogen, this was a major oversight. The group continues to fight for more testing. Earlier this year, the leader of the group ran for and won a seat on the city council, giving the group a great inside/outside approach to getting what they want. CHEJ continues to provide technical and organizing support to Wausau’s residents.

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Homepage News Archive

Monsanto to Pay D.C. $52 million Toward Chemical Contamination Cleanup in Local Waterways

For over 50 years during the 20th century, Monsanto produced and sold products that contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which have been known to cause severe health problems in humans such as cancer and liver damage and kill wildlife. After many decades of polluting into local waterways and communities, Monsanto will be held accountable by paying the city of D.C. $52 million in order to help clean up chemical contamination that they caused. The majority of the money will go towards cleaning up polluted waterways with high PCB concentrations, specifically in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Read More
Photo by Desmond Hester on Unsplash