Report Released on Impacts of Fracking in Appalachian Basin

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, Princeton University and Stanford University released a comprehensive study on the impacts of fracking in the Appalachian Basin. The study focused on premature deaths in relation to air quality, regional climate changes and employment opportunities from industry expansion. Read More. 


Research Tool for Chemical Exposure for Women at Work

The California Breast Cancer Research Program, in partnership with the California Department of Public Health, the Occupational Health Branch and the University of California, San Francisco, has developed a tool to research women’s exposure to chemicals in the workplace. The goal of the research and the basis behind this tool is to provide women with information on industries that have a higher risk of exposure to
chemicals that may cause breast cancer. The tool shows data on over 160 different occupations in California and data on over 1,000 different chemicals. Read More.


Study to determine if living near a chemical plant will cause cancer

Louisiana health officials have plans to initiate a new study to determine how many individuals surrounding the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in St. John Parish have developed cancer. The Denka plant is the only one in the country to release chloroprene, a likely carcinogen to humans. The study will include graduate students going door to door of 1,900 homes in a 2.5 kilometer range to determine who has developed cancer. Read More.


Eighth graders in Raleigh take on PFAS

A group a ten middle school students, from the Exploris School in downtown Raleigh, NC, have taken on the challenge to study the presence of PFAS in water and raise awareness in their community on the substance’s health impacts. The Exploris School and students are working in participation with the Design for Change program, a global nonprofit that encourages students to examine some the worlds most challenging social issues. The students are currently in the brainstorming phase of their project, where they will discuss potential solutions to decrease water testing time to more efficiently identify the presence of PFAS contaminated sources. Read More. 

Backyard Talk

Climate Change: Universal Threat, Unequal Impacts

Last month, the  United States Global Change Research Program, a group made up of the United States EPA and seven other federal agencies, released the largest scientific assessment to date on the impacts of climate change on human health in the United States. The report focused on multiple impacts of climate change, including changes in severe weather events, from dangerous heat waves to hurricanes, and alterations in the spread of toxic algal blooms or waterborne diseases. climate change pic
The report predicts an increase in deaths and illness from temperature changes, effects which will fall most heavily on children, the elderly, and economically disadvantaged groups. Acute reactions from extreme heat and cold are of concern, but research also shows that temperature extremes can also worsen outcomes for a variety of chronic diseases. Climate change will also affect the levels of air pollutants, including ozone and fine particulate matter, while longer pollen seasons may result in adverse outcomes from allergies and asthma episodes. We have already seen an increase in extreme weather events, and these instances are likely to increase, resulting in compromised infrastructure and decreased access to food, water and medical care for vulnerable coastal populations.
Two chapters in the report focus on climate change impacts on the spread of disease. Climate change is likely to alter the transmission of diseases carried by mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, as seasonal temperature and precipitation patterns shift and alter the geographic range of these diseases. Water-related illnesses are also likely to increase, as temperature changes, changes in runoff patterns, and extreme weather events alter the spread of toxic agents.
Climate change is likely to affect food security on the local, regional and global levels, as carbon dioxide levels and rising temperatures alter the safety, nutrition and distribution of food, including reducing protein and essential minerals in some crop species. Increases in rates of foodborne illness and instances of chemical contamination in the food supply are also likely.
Lastly, the report focused on the impacts of climate change on mental health and well-being. They found that groups including children, the elderly, pregnant women, economically disadvantaged populations, the homeless, and first responders to weather-related disasters are most at risk for emotional and mental effects of climate change.
Climate change will affect us all, but the report summarizes several populations of concern that may be especially vulnerable to climate-related impacts. In addition to low-income populations, children, and the elderly, vulnerable populations include communities of color, immigrant groups, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and those with preexisting medical conditions. The authors wrote, “Characterizations of vulnerability should consider how populations of concern experience disproportionate, multiple and complex risks to their health and well-being in response to climate change.” With so many factors to consider, these characterizations of cumulative risk will not be easy to determine.
Though this report focused on impacts within the U.S., the consequences of climate change will fall on populations worldwide. Within our country and around the globe, we have a responsibility to prevent and adapt to as many climate-related changes as possible, because they will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable among us.
Read the Report:
USGCRP, 2016: The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. Crimmins, A., J. Balbus, J.L. Gamble, C.B. Beard, J.E. Bell, D. Dodgen, R.J. Eisen, N. Fann, M.D. Hawkins, S.C. Herring, L. Jantarasami, D.M. Mills, S. Saha, M.C. Sarofim, J. Trtanj, and L. Ziska, Eds. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, 312 pp.

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.