Backyard Talk

Vulnerability to Pollution and Susceptibility to Covid-19

A new screening tool is now available that identifies populations across the country that are most vulnerable to severe complications following exposure to the coronavirus and development of covid-19. This community vulnerability map which was developed by Jvion, a health care data firm, in collaboration with Microsoft. Jvion uses socioeconomic and environmental factors, such as lack of access to transportation, exposure to pollution, unemployment and mortality rates at the census block level to identify communities vulnerable to severe effects of covid-19.
In an article about his new mapping tool in Grist magazine, Jvion is described as using “machine learning to analyze block-level data from the U.S. Census to identify ‘environmental health hazards’ as one key socioeconomic factor that makes a population more vulnerable  to severe covid-19 outcomes, based on the health effects of polluted air, contaminated water and extreme heat. They also factored in how chronic exposure to outdoor respiratory air pollutants such as fine particulate matter can increase the risk of cancer, respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease – preexisting conditions that make exposure to the novel corona virus more severe and fatal.”
This interactive and searchable map differs from others available on the internet in that it identifies the populations that once infected will likely experience severe outcomes ranging from hospitalization to death.
This vulnerability map can be used together with the USEPA’s EJScreen, an Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping tool. The EJScreen uses 11 environmental and health indicators and standard demographic data to identify communities most susceptible to air quality pollution. The EJ screen specifically includes a cancer risk and respiratory hazard index that is provided as a percentile in the state or nationally.
When the vulnerability mapping tool is matched with the EPA’s EJ Screen, the results are astounding. The relationship between a community’s proximity to industrial facilities and the projected risk of severe covid-19 outcomes is very clear and very strong. The areas of high vulnerability identified on the Community Vulnerability map match well with areas with high pollution from industrial facilities identified by the EJScreen, painting an all too familiar picture of communities suffering disproportionately from multiple and cumulative risks.
The preexisting respiratory and other health conditions that African Americans suffer from living in the shadows of industrial facilities in sacrifice zones across the country contribute significantly to their susceptibility to the lethal effects of covid-19. This reality isn’t an accident, but the result of economic and environmental conditions imposed on people of color over the long history of discrimination in this country.
In spite of these obvious disparities and the growing threat that people of color and African Americans in particular face from covid-19, EPA announced this month that it has stopped enforcing regulations that hold corporate polluters accountable for releasing toxic chemicals into the air we breathe. This is another outrage. Sign our petition to demand that the government reverse this disastrous decision.


How vulnerable is your community to Coronavirus? New maps reveal familiar pattern.

The predominantly black and low-income communities living near the back-to-back petrochemical refineries of Louisiana’s “cancer alley” have long suffered compromised immune systems and high rates of disease. Now, the state’s fast-growing COVID-19 outbreak is poised to hit them especially hard. <Read more>

Backyard Talk

The Numbers are OUT: Top polluters paid NO TAXES in 2019!

By Gustavo Andrade, Organizing Director
The numbers are out on the Trump tax cuts, and some of them are staggering: Top polluting companies paid nothing (!) in taxes on billions of dollars of profits last year. According to a new report issued recently by the Institute on Tax and Economic Policy (ITEP, a total of 91 corporations paid ZERO taxes in 2019. 
Here are some notable examples, along with a rounded estimate of their profits in 2018:
You can find the report here: Corporate Tax Avoidance in the First Year of the Trump Tax Law
If you find this new information shocking, well, so do we! At a time when resources to investigate and treat pollution-related illnesses throughout the country are so scarce, the very people responsible aren’t even paying in their fair share. 
These big polluters are just some of the 91 companies who didn’t pay taxes last year. Others mentioned in the report include giants like IBM, Facebook, Eli Lilly and others. Check it out for yourself at:


2019 Report on the 10 Worst Benzene Emitting Facilities

Benzene is a federal regulated chemical that when exposed can cause blood disorders and cancer. A report released by the Environment Integrity Project examined the excessive release of Benzene from 10 facilities within the United States. The worst offending facilities were found in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. All states included one facility with benzene emittance greater than the federal regulations, with the exception of Texas with a total of 6 refineries out of compliance. Read More.

Backyard Talk

Interpreting Testing Results; The Basis for No Cause for Alarm

Not too long ago, a local leader in a community in Nevada asked if I could review a set of water testing data. The sample was taken from a water storage tank that provides drinking water to the town where she lives. The town had painted the inside of the storage tank, but now the water has a strong chemical odor and four volatile chemicals were found in the water sample.
The concentration of all four chemicals in the water was below the federal drinking water standards and as far as the town was concerned, the conversation was over. The water was safe to drink. But is it really? What’s the basis for saying this?
Federal drinking water standards are based on exposure to a single substance in isolation of any other risks and reflect only a limited exposure, typically one day, from a single route of exposure, ingestion. But this is not how people are typically exposed which is to multiple chemicals at the same time. The federal standards do not address the cumulative risks posed by exposure to multiple chemicals over time. Further, these standards fail to address potential synergistic effects which are adverse health effects that are greater than would be predicted or expected based on exposure to individual chemicals alone or in combination.
Consequently, estimating risks posed by exposure to multiple chemicals in drinking water using federal drinking water standards underestimates the true risks people face drinking and using this water on a regular basis. Scientifically, we do not know how much these other factors add to the risks a person faces when drinking water with multiple contaminants. Even though each of the four chemicals in this example were found at concentrations below the federal drinking water standards, this does not mean that there is no risk when consuming or using this water. It does mean that science cannot inform this question.
Yet you hear all time when tests results are interpreted by government agencies that there is no cause for alarm. The standards are used like the proverbial line in the sand. On the one side, people are safe, and on the other, there’s endless debate over what the numbers mean. In truth, it’s not that simple.
In this case, each of the four chemicals found in the water affect the central nervous system and the liver. This means that these organ systems are all targeted simultaneously by each of these four substances. The health impact on the central nervous system (CNS) and the liver resulting from exposure to all four of these substances at the same time is difficult to judge because there is little or no information on exposure to multiple chemicals simultaneously. In addition to these targeted effects on the nervous system and the liver, these chemicals pose other specific health risks whether its skin irritation, the ability of the body to fight infection, or damage to the kidney or the heart. In many cases, some chemicals are considered carcinogens, that is, exposure increases the risk of developing cancer. The EPA’s health goal for exposure to all suspect carcinogens in drinking water is “zero” indicating that any exposure to this substance increases the risk of developing cancer over time. But EPA adjusts the health goal to reflect the realities of setting a drinking water standard at a concentration of “zero.”
In addition, because all these substances are volatile, they will evaporate into the air when a person takes a shower. One study compared the risk posed by taking a 15-minute shower versus normal consumption of drinking water and found that the risk of taking a 15-minute shower was greater than drinking the water ( This risk is not included the federal drinking water standard.
While the concentration of these substances in the water may be below the federal drinking water standards, there is significant uncertainty about the cumulative risks posed by simultaneous exposure to these four volatile chemicals in drinking water, especially over time.
This is just one example of how difficult it is to interpret the results of water testing. This situation is quite common, whether it’s contaminants in drinking water, chemicals in ambient air or contaminants in soil. Interpreting air and soil testing is even more difficult because there are no federal standards that define what levels are acceptable and what are not. Instead, EPA uses guideline values that are not enforceable and subject to political whims.
CHEJ can you interpret the results of any testing results you’re concerned about. Contact us if you have test results you need help interpreting.

Homepage Water News

NC Taxpayer Pay for School’s Water – Not Polluters

Cumberland County is the latest to approve spending millions to provide public drinking water to two schools and an area with well contamination caused by the Chemours chemical company. Read more.

Backyard Talk

What’s Next? Polluted Communities Are Victimized Again.

By Teresa Mills
Today the Trump administration finalized its 49th de-regulatory action since he took office.  What will be the next human and environmental protection to hit the chopping block?
The administration says this move will make less of a burden on chemical plants by getting rid of “unnecessary regulatory burdens.”  The regulation was updated after a fertilizer plant exploded in Texas that killed 15 people, injured 160 and damaged or destroyed 150 buildings.  A crater 93-foot-wide was almost all that was left of the plant site.
In January 2017 under the Obama administration and reacting to the explosion in Texas the Risk Management Plan (RMP) rules were update to protect local communities from chemical disasters.  However, the Trump administration claims that the Obama update was burdensome and that little data showed that the Obama rule did not reduce accident rates.
Under the new Environmental Protection Agency’s risk management program (RMP), chemical plants will be rid of what the chemical industry says are “unnecessary regulatory burdens,” aligning with the wishes of the chemical industry.
The original plan was developed in 1996, with almost 12,500 facilities falling under the RMP.
EPA’s finalized rule Thursday comes two years after the agency tried to suspend the Obama rule, but in March of 2018 a federal judge reinstated the rule.
Of Course the American Petroleum Institute (API) applauded the Trumps administration gutting of the rule.  Welcome to the United States of Petroleum.
While the agency said that from 2007-2016 about 90 percent of the facilities that were required to report, reported no accidents.  Well gee do you think that might have been because they were required to clean up their act.  The rule was working as it should have.  Now however we will have to wait and see if they threw out the baby with the bath water.  I pray that someone will be there to catch that baby. Read more.

Backyard Talk

Superfund Reinvestment Act – Making Polluters Pay for Pollution

By Liz Goodiel, CHEJ Science and Tech Fellow
Take a moment and imagine your dream home. Maybe your dream home is set on a beautiful ocean front with large windows that overlook the rolling waves and the pink summer sunsets. Perhaps your dream home is located in the mountains, surrounded on all sides with towering trees where you can step outside and instantly breathe in the fresh pine. Or maybe your dream home is right where it is now, filled with family, laughter and memories. Wherever your dream home is, you worked hard for it. You managed the home repairs, paid the bills, supported the family, and you made a house a home. 
Now take a moment to imagine that an uninvited visitor came and damaged that home. The house that you worked so hard for is now broken, the windows are shattered, the front lawn is destroyed, and your house now has a gaping hole that you didn’t ask for. What is even more unfair is now that outsider isn’t even going to pay to repair your home. He is going to drive away, with the rubble in his rearview mirror, and leave you to clean it up. This visitor damaged your property, so why isn’t he going to be the one to pay for the repairs? Why has he left you standing there to figure out how to fix what is broken? You’re left with your checkbook in one hand and a hammer in the other, forced to undertake the repairs that will take a lot of time, money and hard work. 
Across the United States, nearly 53 million Americans are overwhelmed by contamination and health concerning pollution in their own communities created by corporations and facilities. To combat this problem, the Superfund program was created in 1980 to manage the cleanup of the most toxic waste sites where the responsible party was not identified or went out of business. Throughout the course of the program’s history, Superfund has received its funding in two different ways. The first is through budget appropriations the Environmental Protection Agency receives yearly based on the federal budget sourced by American tax dollars. The second source of funding was through polluter taxes, also known as the Polluter Pays Fees. Polluter Pays Fees were taxes enforced on companies that produced chemicals, oil, or other hazardous waste. These fees were designed to make polluters monetarily responsible for the cleanup of any damage they created in the process of production.
The Superfund tax fees ended in 1995, relieving polluters of the responsibility to pay for the cleanup of contaminated sites. The sole success of the Superfund program currently relies on the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget which is currently at its smallest in two decades. Polluters are not required to pay for the damage they have created and, in effect, American’s have been forced to compensate for this loss in the form of tax dollars. In the last two decades, American tax dollars have paid for more than $21 billion in Superfund site cleanup. Polluters have torn down the “dream home” and walked away, leaving the residents behind to pay for the mess they didn’t ask for nor create.
In July of 2019, Representative Earl Blumunaer of Oregon proposed the Superfund Reinvestment Act (H.R. 4088) to bring the cleanup burden back to polluters. Sponsors of the bill include Representatives Gerry Connolly (VA), Jerry McNerney (CA), Terri Sewell (AL), Raul Grijalva (AZ), Matt Cartwright (PA) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.). The proposed bill will require polluting companies to pay an excise tax of 0.12 percent on the amount of a company’s modified environmental tax taxable income that exceeds $3,735,000. In other words, for a company that makes over $3,735 million in net income, each additional profit will be taxed at a rate of 0.12 percent. For example, if a company that makes an additional $10,000 over the $3,735 million threshold, its taxable amount will be equivalent to the cost of one cheese pizza ($12.00). If a company does not meet the threshold of $3,735 million, it is not required to pay any additional tax. 
Currently, polluters escape billions of dollars in cleanup costs for damages they created. With Representative Blumenaur’s proposed legislation, the cleanup burden will be transferred from American taxpayers back to the parties responsible for pollution. Polluters are the ones responsible for creating unhealthy hazardous sites, why are they not the ones responsible for cleaning it up?


Report assesses the growth of Houston’s plastics industry

The Environment Integrity Project released a report assessing the impact of Houston’s current plastics industry and the industry’s projected expansion. The report reviewed a total of 90 plants in the area revealing that nearly two-thirds of the facilities do not meet current compliance standards. Further, a total of 48 expansion proposals for plastic producing facilities in Houston are projected to add thousands of more tons of pollutants into the air over the next few years. Read More.

Backyard Talk

Changing the Traditional Understanding of How Chemicals Affect Our Health

The way scientists think about how chemicals cause their toxic effects is changing. Recent scientific research tells us that the traditional notion of how chemicals act is being replaced by a better understanding of the actual features of exposures to environmental chemicals. These features include the timing and vulnerability of exposures, exposures to mixtures, effects at low doses and genetic alterations called epigenetics.
Traditional thinking tells us that how much of a chemical you are exposed to (the dose) determines the effect. This principle assumes that chemicals act by overwhelming the body’s defenses at high doses. We’re learning now that this principle is not always accurate and its place in evaluating risks needs to be reconsidered. What we now know is that some chemicals cause their adverse effects at low exposure levels that are not predicted by classic toxicology.
Recent research has shown that environmental chemicals like dioxin or bisphenol A can alter genetic make-up, dramatically in some cases.  These changes are so powerful that they can alter the genetic material in eggs and sperm and pass along new traits in a single generation, essentially by-passing evolution.
It wasn’t too long ago that scientists believed that the DNA in our cells was set for life, that our genes would be passed on from one generation to the next, and that it would take generations to change our genetic makeup. That’s no longer the case.
This new field – called epigenetics – is perhaps the fastest growing field in toxicology and it’s changing the way we think about chemical exposures and the risks they pose. Epigenetics is the study of changes in DNA expression (the process of converting the instructions in DNA into a final product, such as blue eyes or brown hair) that are independent of the DNA sequence itself.
What researchers are learning is that the “packaging” of the DNA is just as important as a person’s genetic make-up in determining a person’s observable traits, such as blue eyes, or their susceptibility to diseases such as adult on-set diabetes, or to the development of lupus.
The environment is a critical factor in the control of these packaging processes. We may be born with our genes, but epigenetics changes occur because of environmental influences during development and throughout life. These influences include chemicals in the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and they appear to contribute to the development of cancer and other diseases.
Epigenetics may explain certain scientific mysteries, such as why certain people develop diseases and others don’t, or why the person who smoked for 30 years never developed lung cancer. There is still much to learn, but an early lesson to take away from this emerging science is that we need to rethink our traditional ideas of how chemicals affect our health.
For more information see