Toxic Tuesdays


Toxic Tuesdays

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


Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be found in some bacteria, fungi, algae, and the seeds of stone fruits. One of the most dangerous cyanide compounds is hydrogen cyanide, a colorless gas that smells like almonds. It is used in industrial processes such as electroplating, metallurgy, metal mining, plastics production, organic chemical production, and photographic developing. Hydrogen cyanide can enter the air surrounding industrial settings where it is used. It can also be produced by combustion engines, tobacco smoke, and the burning of acrylonitrile plastics. (CHEJ has previously written about acrylonitrile here). Because acrylonitrile is used in many consumer plastics, building fires are one of the most common ways people are exposed to hydrogen cyanide.

Breathing hydrogen cyanide for even short amounts of time is incredibly dangerous and can lead to death. When cyanide enters the body it stops cells from being able to produce energy, interfering with many life-sustaining functions of the brain and heart. Early symptoms of cyanide exposure occur within minutes and include headache, dizziness, elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, and vomiting. This can then progress to seizures, decreased heart rate, low blood pressure, coma, heart attack, and death. People who survive exposure can have lifelong neurological impairments. Factory workers who inhaled low levels of hydrogen cyanide over years have reported trouble breathing, chest pain, vomiting, and headaches. Exposure to other cyanide-containing compounds results in the same health effects. Because of the extreme toxicity of cyanide exposure, the use of cyanide-containing compounds and the use of compounds that can produce cyanide when burned should be restricted in order to protect public health.

Learn about more toxics

Backyard Talk News Archive

What is the road ahead for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria?

On Wednesday, September 20, Hurricane Maria made a direct hit to Puerto Rico– virtually destroying most of its infrastructure and plunging Puerto Ricans into a humanitarian crisis. About 97% of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million population is without power, and about half without running water. Let’s not forget that these are American citizens we are talking about.
The Trump Administration’s response has been significantly slower and less effective than the response to Hurricane Harvey and Irma. President Trump tweeted about the situation on Monday, stating that,“Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
His lack of empathy towards a U.S. territory struggling to survive following a disaster is alarming, even for him. Focusing on the massive debt held by Puerto Rico, whose economy is now even more ravaged than it was before, is just cruel but unacceptable.
Gov. Ricardo Rossell of Puerto Rico urged Congress to approve a commensurate aid package. A week after the hurricane, FEMA put out a statement that they have airplanes and ships loaded with meals, water and generators headed to the island.
In addition to the ongoing crisis, the Guajataca Dam in the island’s northwest corner has suffered a “critical infrastructure failure,” which poses immediate flooding threats to about 70,000 people. While the majority of residents in the potential flood zone have evacuated, efforts are being made to evacuate periphery areas.
The path for Puerto Rico ahead is uncertain. Its power grid is almost entirely wiped out, and has proven to lack resilience. Many experts on disaster response urge for the opportunity to be taken to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid from the ground up– a project that would require billions of dollars.
Not to mention, there are 23 Superfund sites on the island that likely have contaminated soil and groundwater. Unexploded bombs, bullets, and projectiles are among the toxic contents of these Superfund sites, specifically on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques which was used by the military as a bomb-test site.
In the southern coastal town of Guayama, a five-story pile of coal ash has been sitting next to a low-income, minority community of 45,000 people. This ash contains heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and chromium. The company responsible is Applied Energy Systems (AES), which was ordered to remove the pile prior to the hurricane but whether this was done is unclear. It is highly likely that this toxic ash has contaminated the surrounding land water sources.
At this point, we must continue to urge the U.S. government to provide ongoing aid to our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico. Be sure to check back with CHEJ on the front of environmental justice for Puerto Ricans following this humanitarian disaster.
Click on the below link to see how you can help the victims of Hurricane Maria:

Backyard Talk

Low Doses Matter

A new video is available that addresses the cumulative impact of exposure to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals on the developing brain. Dr Bruce Lanphear and colleagues from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia have produced an excellent 7 minute video that is sure to educate and provoke discussion.   
This remarkable video, Little Things Matter, explains in easy-to-understand language why exposures to small amounts of toxic chemicals matter, how widespread exposure to brain-damaging toxins, such as lead and mercury, PCBs and flame-retardants, can have severe impacts on the developing brain of children. “There is strong evidence that learning disabilities and lower IQ scores can be attributed to extremely low levels of exposure to toxic metals like lead and mercury, persistent toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), and other toxins including organophosphate (OP) pesticides and compounds used as flame-retardants. These toxins are common in our daily environments,” says Lanphear.
Lanphear who narrates the video states that “We’ve been studying the impact of toxins on children for the past 30 years and reached the inescapable conclusion: little things matter.” He goes on to say that exposure to toxic chemicals can have a life-long impact on children and that extremely low levels of toxins can impact brain development.
The video illustrates how vulnerable children are to exposures to toxic chemicals. It points out that a 5 point decrease in average IQ among U.S. children would result in an additional 3.4 million children who are considered intellectually disabled or mentally retarded. There is a corresponding decrease the number of children who are considered to be intellectually gifted.  
Lanphear and his colleagues offer advice on what steps people can take to reduce their exposures to toxic chemicals including eating fresh or frozen food, avoiding pesticide use in your home and checking for lead hazards. He also suggests contacting your federal representatives and urging them to support legislation that reverses the burden of proof to require companies to prove that a chemical is not toxic before it enters the market, as is the case in the European Union. Lanphear goes to say that the ultimate solution is to reverse how we regulate chemicals. He could not be more right. We can no longer rely on the notion that only exposure to chemicals at high doses matter. This video makes it clear that small doses do matter. Be sure to check out this new video.