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There’s An Ethylene Oxide (EtO) Health Emergency in South Memphis, Tennessee

Photo credit: Karen Pulfer Focht/Tennessee Lookout

By Sharon Franklin.

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 Oxide Protections?

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.

Backyard Talk

Environmental Racism & Injustice

Blog by Joy Barua
The color of our skin or where we live shouldn’t determine the outcome of our health. Unfortunately, that is not the case for a large portion of the population both domestically and internationally. Environmental racism and justice are critical issues of modern society, one that often gets overlooked and gets buried by the government.
Various studies in the past have linked exposure to pollution that is often linked with racial segregation. Those living in segregated areas are more like to be exposed to pollutants. A study conducted in 2012 Environmental Inequality in Exposures to Airborne Particulate Matter Components in the United States
found that exposure to particulate matter (PM) is higher amongst those of color than whites. The study looked at exposure to various components in which both Hispanic and Blacks had a higher amount of exposure compared to whites. The study also looked at exposure based on Socioeconomic Status (SES) and the result finds that persons with lower SES were significantly more exposed to higher levels of PM than those with higher SES.
There are many other studies similar to the one mentioned that found both Blacks and Hispanics have a higher amount of exposure compared to whites. However, African Americans have a higher chance of being exposed to pollution from the emissions of factories due to the placement of these facilities in minority neighborhoods.
Credit: Jon Hrusa/EPA
Environmental health is not only about being exposed to toxic components but also about the surroundings of a person’s living and working conditions. Black people are some of the most vulnerable population when it comes to neighborhood and community disparity. This is prominent in South Africa where the living and social conditions for blacks are far more challenging compared to whites as stated by Robert Bullard in his book The Quest for Environmental Justice. In South Africa, whites make more money while paying less tax while black people are making less money while paying higher taxes.
The corrupted political system in South Africa also favors whites more than blacks. As a result, black peoples are almost being pushed out and being forced to live under cruel circumstances such as living near power and sewage plants. As a result, they are exposed to more hazardous substances. Blacks in South Africa also face neighborhood disparity as there are more parks and recreation created for those living in the white neighborhood compared to blacks. Black people in South Africa are also exposed to workplace disparity as they work in some of the most unsafe work conditions under the reconstruction and development program (RDP).
TheScoreWorkingFileV3Page2WEB_img                                       Credit: Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn / The Nation. Shutterstock images
Similar situations are also prevalent here in the states where some African Americans are living without modern sanitation and access to clean water. Flint’s water is a perfect example of that where a town with a majority black population does not still have access to clean water after the city switched its water source to the Flint River. As I mentioned earlier that people of color are more likely to be living near hazardous-waste facilities, but another report states that people of color are exposed to a level of nitrogen dioxide—which emanates from cars and industrial sources as stated in the article Race Best Predicts Whether You Live Near Pollution
While the EPA had acknowledged and made progress on the issue of environmental racism and injustice, the current administration has dismantled much of the work that had been completed. It started with President Trump placing Scott Pruitt as the new EPA administrator leading to the dismantling of previous federal-environmental justice work. Further changes are taking place as those scientists that have been working on and has extensive knowledge of environmental justice are now either being fired or replaced by the current administration as reported by The Atlantic
Thus, burying the issue of Environmental racism and injustice in our country!

Backyard Talk

Sacrifice Zones Illuminate Need for More Comprehensive Public Health Protection

by Summer-Solstice Thomas, CHEJ Science & Tech Intern
On Wednesday July 31st, 2019, the morning air in Baytown, Texas filled with black smoke after an explosion the Exxon Mobil Olefins Plant. Nearby residents described the blast as so powerful that their houses shook and their windows rattled. Residents downwind of the plant were notified of a voluntary shelter-in-place, advising them to stay inside with their windows and doors shut. It was lifted four hours later after air monitoring had found no contaminant concentrations large enough to be “of concern.”
As one of the United State’s largest petrochemical facilities, the Baytown Olefins Plant, is one of three Exxon Mobil plants all around one mile from each other, forming a triangle of chemical processing and refining. The air cancer toxics risk, as reported by the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), for a three mile radius zone with its center equidistant from these three facilities is 62 in a million. This means that if a million people were chronically exposed over a lifetime to the concentrations of air contaminants in this zone, 62 of them would contract cancer as a direct result of such exposure. This high level of cancer risk falls within the 99th percentile for the state of Texas and the 95th-100 percentile nationally, which means that the cancer risk for Baytown, Texas is some of the highest in the entire nation. Meanwhile, the NATA respiratory hazard index for the same zone is 3.3, indicating that the estimated long-term exposure to respiratory irritants is, on average, 3.3 times greater than the corresponding health-based reference concentration. This high level of respiratory hazard is also some of the highest in the nation: it falls within the 97th state percentile and 90-95th national percentile.
Here at CHEJ, we see Baytown as an example of a “sacrifice zone,” a region especially concentrated with intensive industry operations, leading to levels of chemical exposures that threaten the health of the community’s residents. Due to the phenomenon of white flight from metropolitan industrial centers in the 1960s, and the pattern of siting industrial facilities in areas with low property values, sacrifice zones are often communities of color and/or low socioeconomic status. The health burden experienced by these residents living near numerous chemical facilities is often compounded by limited access to healthcare and other wellness resources. Current regulatory policies don’t take into account the clustering pattern common to chemical facilities, leaving such communities disproportionately exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals. 
Other examples of sacrifice zones are Detroit, Michigan, where 48217 has been dubbed “the most toxic zip code in the US,” or St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana where the NATA air toxics cancer risk is 500 in a million, over 15 times the national average. Unsurprisingly, these zones follow not only the pattern of extreme chemical exposure, but of this disparate burden falling on low-income communities of color. 48217 consists of predominately African-American residents, with an 89% minority population. Over half the population living within three miles of the largest facility in the area, a Marathon Petroleum refinery, falls below the poverty line. St. John the Baptist hosts another major Marathon refinery, where 34.1% of the people residing within three miles of the facility live below the poverty line. The parish itself is 63.6% minority. In 2017, this refinery emitted 79 tons, or 158,073lbs, of chemicals identified by the EPA as Hazardous Air Pollutants, defined as “those pollutants that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects.” 
These, and other facilities across America, emit huge amounts of air toxics every day, endangering the communities around them. More comprehensive and effective regulatory legislation is clearly needed to ensure not only that residents of Baytown, Detroit, and St. John the Baptist, but that every American, has clean air to breathe. 
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Marathon Refinery in Detroit / Wikimedia Commons
Marathon Refinery in Detroit / Wikimedia Commons


Cancer Alley Residents Decry ‘Environmental Racism’ in Louisiana

Environmental groups and Louisiana residents of a rural, majority-black area on the Mississippi River filed a records request Monday seeking answers to why St. James Parish officials “basically changed the black district into the petrochemical district.”
Read more.


A Clever New Map Shows Which Chicago Neighborhoods Are Most at Risk From Pollution

The NRDC hopes its new research into municipal pollution can help organizers push for sound, equitable policy.
Read more.

Backyard Talk

Brandywine MD Update

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Credit for this photo is attributed to Earthjustice
Credit for this photo is attributed to Earthjustice

This blog post was written by a former fellow, Katie O’Brien
Last year, I wrote a blog about the environmental racism taking place in Brandywine, MD after the state approved not one, but two gas-fired power plants in the small town. The town of Brandywine is 21 square miles and home to over 6,700 people, 72% of whom are African American. There is already one operating power plant in the town, and the construction of the two proposed plants will result in FIVE total fossil-fuel powered plants within 13 miles of Brandywine. The town sits within Prince George’s County, which is already in violation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s national air quality standards for ozone particulate. The company building one of the power plants, Mattawoman, has already stated that the site, combined with existing pollution, will cause “excessive levels of nitrogen oxide, which is linked to heart disease, asthma, and stroke”. The state of Maryland is home to 13 power plants, all of which are located in disproportionately black communities.
The Brandywine community and effected surrounding towns just recently gained some ground in their fight this June (2016) when a Federal investigation was launched by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate a possible Civil Rights Violation. The complaint was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of community residents, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, and the Brandywine TB Coalition. The power plants have an adverse impact on the majority African American surrounding community. The complaint states that the Maryland Public Service Commission, the Maryland Department of the Environment, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources “failed to assess whether the project would cause disparate impacts or explore alternatives to avoid such impacts”. If the investigation finds that disparate impact is taking place, Maryland agencies can be found in violation of the Civil Rights Act and risk the suspension of millions of dollars in grants to the State. Earthjustice Attorney Neil Gormley, who is leading the case says, “We all know it’s unfair to concentrate industrial pollution sources in particular communities, this decision to launch a federal investigation confirms that it’s also a civil rights issue.” The communities surrounding the proposed power plants have the right to clean air and water, despite what the state thinks.
To learn more visit Earthjustice’s website here or here:
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Backyard Talk

The Movement’s Future: Teaching Our Kids about Environmental Justice

At the beginning of March representatives for CHEJ, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Just Moms STL protested outside EPA Headquarters in DC to draw attention to the radioactive waste fire endangering children near the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri. One of the more memorable parts of the protest occurred when children at the rally took the megaphone and began leading chants. However, as powerful as that moment was, it can be difficult to know how to introduce children to the topics of environmental justice and environmental racism. How soon is too soon to teach them about these topics? How much information should be covered? Where should we begin?
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (part of the NIH) website hosts kid-friendly webpages that can help adults explain complex subjects like environmental justice (EJ). The webpage boils EJ down to a simple, but important definition: “Environmental Justice is a new term that simply means making sure that everyone has a fair chance of living the healthiest life possible.” It explains environmental risks and uses the concept of “fairness” to help kids identify environmental justice issues and contextualize examples in their day-to-day lives.
Online teaching resources include lesson plans to introduce EJ topics in the classroom. One accessible activity from had the facilitator hand out wrapped candy as well as two different colors of cards. After the students eat their candy, everyone with a red card gives their trash to someone with a blue card and that person has to hold onto the trash. This activity is meant to spark a conversation about fairness, privilege, and, depending on the group, environmental racism.
In addition to classroom activities, books and youtube videos can be great conversation starters. A Mighty Girl recommends numerous environmental books about environmental heroesinnovation, and revitalization. Youtube videos can present some intimidating facts, but introduce environmental justice well, and many videos like this one by Kid President show kids that they can make a difference.
Though teaching children about difficult topics like environmental justice and environmental racism can seem challenging, the resources available can make these important conversations easier. They can help us frame these topics in a way that isn’t hopeless, a way that empowers children to truly be the change they wish to see in the world. So let’s embrace the challenge and bring children into these conversations; otherwise we’ll never know what insight they may have. Let’s start cultivating the future leaders of our movement.

Backyard Talk

Which came first, people or pollution? Researchers try to answer important environmental justice question

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Image Credit: Ricardo Levins Morales

Researchers have known for decades that polluting facilities and waste sites are more likely to be located in low-income communities and communities of color, which makes these areas extra vulnerable to the environmental health impacts of pollution. However, we lack a clear understanding of how these disparities come to exist. Do the demographics in areas surrounding hazardous waste sites shift over time, or are polluting facilities placed disproportionately in low-income communities?

Researchers at the University of Michigan recently published two papers that attempt to answer this question. Their first paper is a review of previous studies on environmental injustice. According to Mohai and Saha, the study authors, previous research racial and socioeconomic environmental hazards have lead to contradictory findings. However, they also noted a major gap in the research. Most of the studies have been what they call “snapshot studies,” looking only at hazardous waste facilities and the populations that surround them at a single point in time, rather than looking at demographic change over longer time spans.

They used these longitudinal methods in their second paper, which was unique in a second way. Previous national-level environmental justice studies have used a method of assessment called the ‘unit-hazard coincidence’ approach. This means that demographics are analyzed within geographic units, like a census tract or zip code area, which also contains a hazardous waste site. “Not taken into account by this approach is the precise location of the hazard within the host unit,” Mohai and Saha write. Under this approach, effects on neighboring areas are ignored, which Mohai and Saha believe may lead to underestimating the degree of racial and socioeconomic disparities. Their study used a more precise distance-based method, rather than just looking at effects within arbitrary boundaries.

By analyzing a database of commercial hazardous waste facilities sited between 1966 and 1995, the researchers found strong evidence supporting the ‘disparate-siting’ hypothesis – that polluting facilities are disproportionately placed in low-income communities and communities of color. The researchers concluded that racial discrimination and sociopolitical factors are strongly at play in the siting of hazardous waste facilities. In other words, industries and governments are likely to take advantage of vulnerable areas lacking economic resources and political power, choosing the “path of least resistance” for deciding where our waste goes.

Mohai and Saha recommend more research to strengthen our understanding of these processes. Overall, their work highlights the political and social factors that proliferate patterns of environmental injustices, and asks us to take a closer look at how our government policies and industry practices reinforce racial discrimination.

Read the studies here and here.


Backyard Talk

Super-Polluters Responsible for Most Environmental Health Risks

Environmental justice is a familiar concept to the communities that CHEJ works with, who experience racial and socioeconomic disparities in health as a part of daily life. Among the general public, this concept is not always understood. If there is any positive associated with the tragic water contamination in Flint, MI, it is that environmental injustices may continue to gain more research attention and spotlight in the national media as a result.

Today, EJ research was front-page news. Just a few days ago, researchers with the Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, Maryland, released a study that combined computational science and sociology to investigate the impacts of a class of polluters known as ‘Super Polluters.’ These sources are responsible for disproportionate amounts of air pollution. The study was a huge undertaking, assessing the emissions of 600 chemicals from close to 16,000 facilities, and the results were unsurprising: the highest-polluting facilities were located in low income communities and communities of color.

Though the study demonstrates a known concept within the environmental justice community, it supports past findings with a massive body of data, and demonstrates that the effects of super-polluters on low-income and minority communities are worse than previously thought. As one of the researchers shared on SESYNC’s blog, “If you’re non-white or poor, your community is more likely to be polluted by arsenic, benzene, cadmium, and other dangerous toxins from industrial production…What’s new and surprising is that industry’s worst offenders seem to impact these communities to a greater extent than might already be expected.”

The study also sheds light on who to blame for the situation. According to the study, fewer than 10% of the facilities they assessed were responsible for more than 90% of human health risks from excess pollution. These findings are relevant for policy-making; if a subset of facilities are causing the majority of the harm, it’s possible that targeted emissions-limiting efforts could be more impactful for promoting environmental justice than large-scale regulatory efforts. Placing more emphasis on protecting the most vulnerable communities, it seems, goes hand-in-hand with reducing the most extreme of environmental pollution in the U.S.

The Washington Post reported on the study today, while placing the Flint tragedy in the context of the larger problem of environmental injustice. This study contributes to our growing understanding of environmental injustice, and will hopefully continue to shed a spotlight on vulnerable communities like Flint, MI. As Dr. Sacoby Wilson of the University of Maryland commented to the Post that the Flint situation “is really going to raise attention around environmental justice issues around the country, and also how you have these other environmental justice disasters that are looming out there.”