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Toxic Tuesdays

Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP)

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP)

Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) is a compound in a group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs like BaP are formed in the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, or other organic matter. Once formed, they can enter the air, water and soil. The most common way people are exposed to PAHs is by inhaling contaminated air. Vehicle exhaust, wood smoke, asphalt paving and agricultural burning can expose people to PAHs like BaP.

Exposure to BaP for even short periods of time can affect blood cells, leading to anemia and immune system defects. Exposure for long periods of time can affect function of the reproductive system. In studies of laboratory animals, prenatal exposure to BaP impaired learning and memory of offspring.

The most widely known effect of BaP exposure is cancer, and links between BaP and cancer have been known since the 1970s. BaP is one of many components of tobacco smoke that can cause lung cancer. BaP is dangerous because the body converts it into other compounds that can permanently change our cells’ DNA. This can cause cells to function improperly leading to cell death, abnormal cell growth, tissue damage and/or cancer.

CHEJ has previously written about PAHs here.

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

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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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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A Pandemic of Pollution

The death toll due to Covid-19 passed the 90,000 mark in the United States this week. This is a truly staggering if not sobering number that raises many questions about how we as a nation respond to this incredible loss of life. These are not just numbers, but people – someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, friend, lover, child… The daily news boils this down to statistics. Numbers of new cases and deaths are reported each day before the newscaster moves on to the next story. Are we normalizing this staggering loss of life? Even worse, are we accepting it?
Yet I look at the leadership of this country and I don’t see people who empathize with those who have lost someone to this deadly virus. I don’t see people who are taking steps to minimize the impact of this insidious virus.
There is still much that we don’t know about Covid-19 and its effects on people, but it is becoming quite clear that low income residents and people of color are disproportionately impacted by exposure to the coronavirus. It’s also become clear that underlying health conditions, such as respiratory problems like asthma and COPD; diabetes, high blood pressure, immune diseases like lupus multiple sclerosis make people more vulnerable to covid-19, not just among the elderly, but among people of color and others with these diseases.
Why then is the USEPA doing all that it can to dismantle (repeal or weaken) regulations that protect people’s health. A report released today by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee describes how specific actions taken by EPA to weaken or repeal air pollution rules and regulations will “harm public health and potentially add to COVID-19 risks.”
The report specifically points to seven rules that were initially designed to remove greenhouse gas, soot, mercury and other pollution from the air that the agency has targeted and proposed or finalized actions since March 1st that “will result in increased air pollution and could cause tens of thousands of premature deaths. EPA has, in short, unleashed a pandemic of pollution in the middle of an actual pandemic, the respiratory effects of which may be amplified by pollution exposure.”
The committee is clear that the agency should reverse its deregulating efforts and strengthened rather than weaken the country’s air pollution laws and regulations, and take steps to address the Covid-19 specific risks posed by air pollution. In the committee’s words:
“EPA should re-focus its enforcement, compliance and monitoring activities in a manner that prioritizes the early detection of high exposure to air pollutants in communities that have both historically experienced such exposures and those at greatest risk of adverse outcomes from COVID-19.”
This and other recommendations made by the Senate Committee offer hope that we will not accept 90,000 deaths and counting as the cost of doing business in the United States. There are steps we can take to reduce and minimize the impacts of Covid-19.
Read the full report here.

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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.

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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>

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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 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0048969785903493?via%3Dihub). 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.

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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
https://www.healthandenvironment.org/environmental-health/social-context/gene-environment-interactions

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Is EPA Stifling Science on Chemical Toxicity Reports?

This is the question that journalist Jim Daley raised recently in an article published in Scientific American. According to the article, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is substantially changing the program that evaluates the toxicity of chemicals by shifting staff and program emphasis from the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) to duties related to implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Daley writes that “Former EPA officials contend that the shake-up takes chemical assessments out of the hands of career scientists, potentially to the detriment of public health.”
As evidence of this shift, Daley writes that that the agency has reduced the number of its ongoing chemical toxicity assessments from twenty to three.
The IRIS Program began in 1985 to support EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment by identifying and characterizing the health hazards of chemicals found in the environment. The IRIS program has become the most respected scientific program in the agency. Its health assessments are the backbone of EPA risk analysis work and is the preferred source of toxicity information used by EPA to determine public health risks. It is also an important source of toxicity information used by state and local health agencies, other federal agencies, and international health organizations.
The TSCA program on the other has a much narrower focus which is primarily on reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures, according to EPA’s website. Certain substances are not covered by TSCA including food, drugs, cosmetics and pesticides. While the 2016 amendment to TSCA greatly improved this regulation, it did not address its narrow focus. This shift began with the leadership of Andrew Wheeler who took over for a beleaguered Scott Pruitt as administrator of EPA in July 2018.
One EPA official who declined to be identified was quoted in the Daley article saying that IRIS and TSCA are “very different” in their approaches to evaluating the public health risks posed by exposure to chemicals. “One could make the argument that this is political interference, in that high-level people are saying which methodology we should be using to assess the safety of a chemical. “And the policy’s pretty clear that they’re not supposed to do that.”
Bernard Goldstein, Professor Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, who served as EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development (ORD) from 1983 to 1985, summed it up this way in the Daley article, “I really see this as part of a restructuring of EPA in such a way that science will have very little to do with what EPA is basing its regulation on, and that we will end up with much weaker regulations in terms of protecting public health. “It’s troubling, in large part because it’s very consistent with an overall approach – a very astute approach – to take out the inconvenient facts.”  Also cited in the same article was a comment by Thomas Burke from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a former EPA lead scientist adviser and Deputy Administrator of ORD from 2015 to 2017, “’any  reduction’ of the number of IRIS chemical assessments ‘is a loss for public health and, unfortunately, puts populations who are exposed at risk.’”
Read the full article here.

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First Responders, Health Professionals Question EPA’s Decision to Hide Fracking Chemicals

This month, representatives of a group of first responders, health professionals and scientists questioned EPA’s decision to withhold the secret identities of 41 chemicals used for oil and natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing that the EPA’s own regulators identified as posing health risks. <Read more>.