Toxic Tuesdays

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

Ethylene Oxide (EtO) is a colorless gas with a slightly sweet odor. It is used in making a variety of products including antifreeze, plastics, detergents, and adhesives. It is also used as a sterilizer for medical equipment and others that cannot be sterilized by steam. Ethylene Oxide can be found in the air surrounding industrial factories including chemical manufacturers and sterilizers.

Exposure to Ethylene Oxide is extremely dangerous. The EPA classifies it as a class 1 human carcinogen; there are no safe breathing levels. EtO is known to cause breast cancer and leukemia, and children are especially susceptible to its effects. The EPA states that EtO significantly contributes to elevated cancer risks in some areas of the US. CHEJ has been working with the Concerned Citizens of Lake County who are fighting cancerous EtO emissions in Lake County, IL (part of suburban Chicago). There are 2 facilities, 3 miles apart, that emit EtO: Vantage Specialty in Gurnee and Medline Industries in Waukegan. Vantage is a chemical production company and Medline is a medical sterilization company. Both are located within ‘light industrial’ business parks. We discovered the companies’ emissions in Fall 2018, via a breaking news Chicago Tribune article regarding 3 EtO emitters in the Chicago area. The third emitter, Sterigenics (Willowbrook, IL) was not in our area and closed in Fall 2019 due to community, media, and legislative pressure (and rumored back-door industrial competitive pressure from Medline).

There are over 150,000 Lake County residents and over 100 schools/daycares within 5 miles of both Vantage and Medline, along with numerous large Gurnee family tourist attractions (Gurnee Mills, Six Flags Great America/Hurricane Harbor, and Great Wolf Lodge waterpark). Medline also has 4 warehouses in our area that are potentially used to off-gas EtO-sterilized products in an unregulated manner. Medline is currently building a 5th Lake County warehouse. Many area doctors tell us they see far more cancer cases in Lake County than in other Chicagoland areas.

Our goal is to end EtO emissions in Lake County’s highly populated, economically and racially diverse area.  There are large apartment complexes approximately 0.25 miles from Medline and an elementary school 2000 feet away from Vantage.  The census tracks near Medline appeared on the most recent NATA map for 90-100% cancer risk. There is no information for areas near
Vantage on the same NATA map due to a ‘coding error,’ however in 2014 Vantage emitted 6,412 lbs of EtO gas, more than either Sterigenics or Medline during that same period. For more information about dioxins, check out our website:

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Creosote is a large mixture of chemicals that is used as a wood preservative in the United States, as well as for roofing, aluminum smelting, and road paving. Houston’s Fifth Ward has been pinpointed as a Cancer Cluster: an area that has a “greater than expected number of cancer cases,” largely due to the community’s exposure to creosote from the Union Pacific railroad site in Houston’s 5th Ward.

Creosote is released into soil and water systems and may take many years to break down. Due to groundwater contamination, creosote can make its way into drinking water systems, putting entire communities at risk for exposure. Creosote may cause irritation of the respiratory tract and can lead to stomach pains and burning of the throat and mouth. The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the EPA have determined that creosote is likely a carcinogen, meaning that exposure to the chemical can likely cause cancer.

CHEJ has been working with the Texas Health and Environment Alliance (THEA) to help the communities of Houston’s 5th Ward further understand the extent of the contamination and what different health investigations can do to propel THEA’s goals of raising awareness of their exposure to creosote. CHEJ and THEA have been hosting informational Zoom town halls about Houston’s 5th Ward Cancer Cluster. You can learn more about Houston’s Cancer Cluster by watching Fault Lines’ mini documentary or by visiting THEA’s Facebook page to learn and listen in on their past and future town hall meetings or learn how to get involved.

To learn more about creosote, click here.

Dioxins are a group of toxic compounds that share similar and distinct chemical structures. They are mainly byproducts of industrial processes, such as waste incineration. In 1979, the EPA banned products containing Polychlorinated Bihphenyls (PCBs), which is a chemical included under the term dioxin. However, dioxins were a major issue before the US began implementing regulations. Since dioxins break down extremely slowly, toxins that were released long ago are still being released into the environment.

Today, most people are exposed to dioxins through consuming animal products that have accumulated dioxins over time. Exposure to these toxins in humans can cause cancer, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, infertility in adults, impairment of the immune system, and skin lesions. The following measures can help decrease your risk to dioxin exposure: removing skin from chicken and fish, trimming visible fat from meats, and checking local fishing advisories when catching your own seafood. Learn more about the health risks and safety measures regarding dioxin here.

The San Jacinto Waste Pits is a Superfund site in Harris County, Texas that is packed with dioxin and other toxic chemicals. Hurricane Harvey hit Harris County in 2017 and led to large damages and erosion throughout the region, causing the San Jacinto Waste Pits site to begin leaking toxic chemicals, such as dioxins into the surrounding communities.

CHEJ has worked with the Texas Health and Environment Alliance (THEA) and the San Jacinto River Coalition in order to help bring awareness to their nearby Superfund sites and the damages that hurricanes have caused. In 2017, THEA and the San Jacinto River Coalition succeeded in bringing attention to the waste pits and the EPA announced plans that they would remove the toxic contents from the pits entirely through a $115 million site remediation by late 2021.

In addition to THEA, residents in Wausau, WI living immediately adjacent to former Wauleco window manufacturing sites who were concerned about dioxin contamination formed Citizens for a Clean Wausau. Recent testing in a park found high levels of dioxin but the state dismissed the results. However, the state had to correct itself when CHEJ’s science director wrote a letter to the group pointing out that the state’s risk assessment failed to include dioxin’s cancer risk. Given dioxin’s high potency as a carcinogen, this was a major oversight. The group continues to fight for more testing. Earlier this year, the leader of the group ran for and won a seat on the city council, giving the group a great inside/outside approach to getting what they want. CHEJ continues to provide technical and organizing support to Wausau’s residents.

Arsenic is a naturally-occurring element found throughout the Earth’s crust. It is usually found combined with other elements creating a powder that is odorless and tasteless and can exist
either in an organic or inorganic form. Inorganic arsenic compounds are highly toxic and for years were used to preserve wood. Copper chromated arsenate (CCA) was used to make “pressure-treated” lumber. Though no longer used for residential uses, CCA is still used in industrial applications. Organic arsenic compounds are used as pesticides, primarily on cotton fields and orchards.

Common ways people are exposed to arsenic include living near hazardous waste sites and industrial facilities that release arsenic air emissions; living near or working in occupations such
as metal smelting, wood treatment, or pesticide applications that use arsenic. Living in areas that have naturally high arsenic levels in rock can also result in exposure. Arsenic cannot be destroyed in the environment, so once it is released by either natural or human activity it can enter the air, soil, and water.

Arsenic is classified as a human carcinogen, meaning exposure to it can cause cancer. Skin, liver, bladder, and lung cancer are the most commonly reported cancer types. There are also non-cancer health effects including circulatory, neurological, and endocrine effects. Arsenic may also cause developmental effects in children.

Residents of a North Birmingham, Alabama neighborhood located next to two coke manufacturing plants know first-hand what it’s like to be exposed to arsenic. For years, the residents there have been suffering from air emissions that contain arsenic, lead and other metals. They have complained of soot inside and outside their homes,
and have been plagued with health problems such as cancer and premature deaths. The residents organized People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC) and raised enough pressure to get EPA and ATSDR’s attention. Only problem was the EPA thought the residents could live with the contamination following some limited cleanup. Now residents are saying enough is enough and they want to be relocated. One way the residents thought they might achieve this is by convincing the state to request that EPA place the 35th Avenue waste site on the federal Superfund list. PANIC and the state-wide group GASP hoped to convince the governor to do this by holding a protest caravan of over 50 cars that went around the city of Birmingham asking people to contact Governor Kay Ivey and ask her to put the 35th Avenue contaminated site on the federal Superfund list. The group is planning a follow-up to Montgomery to help convince the governor.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of man-made chemicals that were used in industrial and commercial settings for their properties as electrical insulators. Their use was banned in 1979 but products containing them may still be in use. Despite this ban, there are several ways PCBs are still released into the environment today: through poorly maintained hazardous waste sites containing PCBs; leaks from electrical equipment; and accidental or deliberate dumping of PCB waste into sites not capable of handling them.

PCB release is a problem because the EPA classifies PCBs as probable human carcinogens, meaning there is a likely association between exposure to PCBs and cancer, including melanoma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, breast cancer and liver cancer. Exposure to PCBs also has non-cancer health effects including immune system suppression, deficits in learning and neurological development, and reproductive system effects such as decreased birth weight and birth defects.

The residents of Minden, WV know about the release of PCBs all too well. The company Shaffer Equipment used PCBs in building electrical substations for the local coal mining industry. In storing and disposing of equipment, they poured PCB-containing liquid onto the ground, stored fluid in waste containers that later leaked, and even sprayed PCB oils on roads to combat dust. The EPA found that Shaffer also dumped contaminated equipment and oil into abandoned mines, and while they removed some contaminated soil and recommended constructing a cap over the site, cleanup was never completed and PCB-contaminated oil is still present there.

The effects have been devastating for the people of Minden – it’s a town of under 300 people, and a local physician has verified over 100 cases of cancer among current and former residents. Recently, residents got the EPA to test for PCB contamination throughout the town, but the community isn’t stopping there. They have a list of demands that includes having their homes bought out; lifetime health monitoring; and a PCB health clinic. CHEJ is working with these residents, helping them with information about PCBs and their fight for a safe and healthy community.

Formaldehyde is a dangerous chemical that affects the respiratory system, lungs, eyes, and skin. It is classified as a carcinogen, hazardous substance, and hazardous waste. According to the American Cancer Society, Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong smelling gas used in making building materials and many common household products. It is well known for its preservative and anti-bacterial properties. It is commonly used in building materials such as particle board, pressed wood, insulation, glues and adhesives and more. It is also found in medicines, cosmetics, and cleaning products. Formaldehyde is even used in some food products as a preservative.

Formaldehyde is a dangerous chemical and is a known human carcinogen. It has been linked to cancer in animal studies. One study in mice showed that “applying a 10% solution of formaldehyde to the skin was linked to quicker development of cancers caused by another chemical”. Formaldehyde is common in certain workplaces and studies of industrial workers show increased risk of leukemia and cancers of the nose and throat. Formaldehyde can also be released from plants producing products that contain the chemical, increasing exposure to surrounding neighborhoods

Since Formaldehyde is commonly found in many products commonly used in the home and workplace, exposure to the public is high. The main way exposure occurs is inhaling the chemical, although the liquid form can also be absorbed through the skin. Because of these routine exposures, formaldehyde is often present in both indoor and outdoor air, though at low levels. Materials containing formaldehyde can release it as a gas or vapor into the air.

There is a section of St. James Parish in Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley”. Cancer Alley is an 85 mile stretch of petrochemical plants and oil refineries along the Mississippi river. Many of these plants release several cancer causing chemicals, including formaldehyde and benzene. People living in this area are 50 times more likely to get cancer than the average American. Rolling Stone calls Cancer Alley the “front line of environmental racism”. The communities surrounding this toxic stretch of plants consist largely of minority and low income neighborhoods, the poorest people in Louisiana live closest to Cancer Alley. New plants are in the process of getting approved and residents are wary of more pollution including an increase in formaldehyde and other cancer causing chemicals.

To learn more about formaldehyde, click here.

To learn more about Cancer Alley, click here.

Radium is a naturally-occurring element found in soil, rocks, and water. Radium is radioactive, meaning its atoms are unstable and will decay over time. This process of radioactive decay produces gamma radiation, which can damage and mutate the cells in our body. This makes exposure to radium through inhalation or ingestion highly dangerous, leading to an increased risk of bone, blood, liver, and breast cancers. Even more concerning, radioactive decay of radium also produces the element radon, another radioactive element which causes lung cancer. The EPA classifies both radium and radon as known human carcinogens.

Radium is present at low levels in the environment, but elevated levels can be released through industrial plants that extract or process fuels such as ores, coal, oil, and gas. Working in these kinds of facilities or being exposed to improperly protected waste from them are common ways people come into contact with radium.

In Ohio, communities are being exposed to radium in new ways. A byproduct of oil and gas production wells is brine, a mixture of injection chemicals, oil, salts, and water from the underground geologic formation. The state Department of Transportation uses this brine on roads as a deicer and dust suppressant in at least 28 counties. This brine can ultimately end up in soil, drinking water, and agricultural products. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) tested samples from 151 gas and oil wells and the vast majority of them contained radium levels far above state legal limits and EPA drinking water standards. This means the brine sprayed on roads likely contains high levels of radium that pose a danger to the surrounding communities.

This brine is filtered and supplemented with an anti-corrosive chemical to create the consumer product AquaSalina for the general public to use on sidewalks and roads. All AquaSalina samples tested by ODNR contained radium levels above federal drinking water limits, and the average amount of radium was 346 times the EPA standard.

Batches of oil or gas brine are not legally required to be tested for radioactivity, and there are no provisions for monitoring radioactivity in the areas where brine is used. This means that even though communities are being exposed to dangerous levels of radium we don’t know the full extent of environmental and health impacts. The best way to keep people safe is to stop using radium-containing brine.

Lead is a naturally occurring element present in small amounts in the Earth’s crust. It has historically been used in many consumer products including gasoline, paint, plumbing materials, batteries, and cosmetics. This makes lead common all around us, in the air, water, soil, and buildings. Exposure to lead most commonly happens through ingestion or inhalation from lead paint, gas, pipes, or waste from industrial facilities that produce these products.

Lead has been known to be toxic since the 19th century, and it can have adverse effects on most human organs by interfering with the function of enzymes in our cells. In adults, lead exposure can lead to reproductive dysfunction, kidney failure, and cardiovascular problems. However, the most potent and devastating effects of lead are on children because they are more likely to be exposed through play and exploration and because growing bodies absorb more lead. Lead is a neurotoxin, interfering with the growth and development of children’s brains. This can cause hearing and vision loss, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities, which may be irreversible. These effects occur at even low levels of lead exposure, and in extreme cases lead exposure can lead to death in children and adults. Alarmingly, even though the toxic effects of lead are well known, a recent study estimates that 800 million children worldwide are exposed to lead today.

The Flint, Michigan water crisis is one of the most famous examples of toxic chemical exposure in recent memory. In 2014 the city changed the source of its drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River but did not administer corrosion inhibitors. Lead from old pipes leeched into the drinking water and 100,000 residents, including 12,000 children, were likely exposed. In 2015 scientific studies by two groups established that there were elevated lead levels in Flint residents’ blood. As residents and activists complained about symptoms of lead poisoning such as rashes and hair loss, the city then told them to use bottled water, returned to its previous water sourcing system, and publicly claimed that there was no longer any danger. It has been replacing lead pipes since 2016, but many have yet to be replaced. Nonetheless, it is already clear that the children of Flint have suffered irreparable harm. A 2019 study in which 174 children went through rigorous cognitive exams found that 80% of participants require special education assistance for language or learning disorders, as opposed to 15% of Flint children who required this assistance before 2014. The government’s suggestions for keeping safe have caused their own health problems as well: point-of-use water filters recommended for use in people’s homes have now been linked to bacterial infections like Legionnaire’s Disease in the city.

In August 2020, victims in Flint were awarded a $600 million settlement as restitution. It is important to note that Flint is majority Black and has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, illustrating how exposure to toxic chemicals and inaction from government agencies disproportionately affects Black and poor communities. While lawsuits and government responses can mitigate some of the damage, communities must be kept safe by preventing their exposure to toxins. October is Children’s Health Month, and the water crisis in Flint underscores how children are especially vulnerable to toxic exposures. Prioritizing health is essential for allowing future generations to grow and thrive.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of chemicals that have been used since the 1950s in firefighting foams and many consumer products that includes firefighting foams, stain- and water-resistant fabrics, nonstick cookware and food packaging. PFAS chemicals are highly stable, so when they are released, people can be exposed through air, dust, food, and water resulting in widespread exposure.

Many types of PFAS are known to have adverse health effects on humans including increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreased vaccine response in children, increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women, and decreased birth weight. Epidemiologic studies also suggest a link between exposure to certain types of PFAS and increased rates of kidney, prostate, and testicular cancer.

The Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire may have exposed area residents to PFAS in their drinking water for decades. The US Air Force operated this base from 1956-1991, and upon its closure the EPA added it to the National Priorities List, a “list of contaminated sites with known or threatened releases of hazardous substances” because of groundwater and soil contamination. This contamination likely came from PFAS in the chemicals the Air Force used to extinguish fires which seeped into the groundwater and water wells servicing the surrounding community. In 2014, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) measured elevated PFAS levels in these wells and in the blood of people who had been drinking from them. In response, one of these water wells was shut down and the remaining ones were fitted with water treatment systems to remove PFAS contaminants.

ATSDR states that these changes will ensure residents are no longer exposed to PFAS, but it offers little guidance for people who may have been exposed to PFAS in the drinking water before 2014. It provides no information about how residents should monitor their health or how long they may have been exposed to PFAS. PFAS levels in the area water wells are now being periodically monitored and ATSDR and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are conducting a biomonitoring health study of children and adults exposed to PFAS-contaminated water in the area.

Similar PFAS contamination is occurring at sites across the country including in Alaska at several sites near facilities that used PFAS-containing compounds in fire-fighting chemicals. As of 2019, 10 communities in Alaska have PFAS levels in their drinking water that the EPA deems unsafe. Alarmingly, Alaska is rolling back regulations and testing on PFAS in drinking water. State and federal agencies are failing to fully investigate potential sources of PFAS contamination and the effects on the surrounding areas.

Many things are unclear about the PFAS exposure communities around the country, but what is clear is that more must be done: more scientific studies to understand the health effects of PFAS, more transparent recommendations from health agencies to the community, and more precautions to keep people safe from these chemicals.

Click here to learn more about Testing for Pease, a community action group whose mission is to be a reliable resource for education and communication while advocating for a long-term health plan on behalf of those impacted by the PFAS water contamination at the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, NH.

Click here to learn more about PFAS contamination in Alaska.

Camp Lejeune is a US Marine Corps base established in 1942 in Jacksonville, North Carolina. In 1982 the Marine Corps found that drinking water from distribution plants serving the majority of the base was contaminated with volatile organic compounds. This contamination came from leaking storage tanks, poor industrial waste disposal, and a dry cleaning firm. The main contaminants were trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). TCE exposure is known to cause kidney cancer, lymphoma, and cardiac defects, and it is also linked to liver cancer, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease. PCE exposure is known to cause bladder cancer and is linked to lymphoma and renal disease. Exposure to these chemicals may also be linked to infertility, miscarriage, and birth defects. At one of the water treatment plants in Camp Lejeune, TCE levels were 280 times higher than the current acceptable limit set by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). At another plant, PCE levels were 43 times higher than the current acceptable limit. While the most contaminated water wells were subsequently shut down, people living and working at Camp Lejeune were likely exposed to high levels of these toxins for decades. ATSDR estimates that residents were likely exposed to these toxins from 1957 to 1987. Even more concerning, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says, “The exact duration and intensity of the exposure at Camp Lejeune are unknown. The geographic extent of contamination by specific chemicals also is unknown.” This means the number of people exposed at Camp Lejeune and the full extent of their health risks from this contamination are difficult to evaluate.

For years, the grassroots organization The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten has been advocating for those affected by the Camp Lejeune contamination. It provides information about potential health effects and raised questions about the Marine Corps’ official contamination timeline. Most importantly, it keeps the focus of this crisis on the people, spotlighting former service members and families facing devastating illnesses and death because of these toxins. By telling the stories of those affected, The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten makes sure we reckon with the harm that has been done to countless lives.

Through pressure from groups like The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten and US senators, in 2017 the VA created a “presumption of service connection” for eight health conditions associated with exposure to the toxins in the Camp Lejeune water supply. This means that for active duty military and National Guard members who served at the base for at least 30 days from 1953 to 1987 and develop any of these health conditions, the VA will presume that they are caused by the toxins at Camp Lejeune and provide them with disability benefits. The eight health conditions are: adult leukemia, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Parkinson’s disease.

The situation at Camp Lejeune is but one example of contamination at military bases that has affected not just the soldiers on the base and their families, but also civilians who live nearby. The USEPA has listed as many as 130 military sites as candidate Superfund sites with 22 on the Superfund list. While the health benefits provided at Camp Lejeune are a good first step, they don’t do anything to keep service members safe. More needs to be done such as advocating for proactive measures like stricter waste disposal regulations, environmental monitoring, and biomonitoring, to make sure people are protected. It isn’t enough to mitigate the damage from crises like that at Camp Lejeune, we must prevent these crises from happening again.

The holiday season often means more food, family, and shopping. As we look for gifts for our loved ones, we have never had more resources at our disposal to make sure we are making safe, healthy decisions. And even with advances in science and technology, many consumer products are still manufactured with toxic chemicals known to cause serious health problems like cancer, developmental delays, and reproductive defects. These harms are especially concerning when they involve children’s products. Because of the way children play, they are not only exposed to chemicals in their toys through inhalation and absorption, but through ingestion as well. And because of their size, small concentrations of chemicals can have significant effects on children’s bodies, even if those concentrations are deemed safe for adults. These chemicals can have permanent, devastating consequences on children’s developing tissues and organs, For instance, phthalates are a class of chemicals common in many plastic products including toys. Exposure to these chemicals is associated with problems in reproductive development as well as brain development, including ADHD, autistic behaviors, and cognitive impairment.

In some cases, agencies like the Food and Drug Administration have been slow to incorporate new scientific information into their assessments of chemicals. In other cases, agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency have weakened regulations and actions when companies use known toxins in their products. Through this bureaucratic sluggishness and active deregulation, the federal government has failed to ensure that consumer products are only made with safe materials.

Thankfully, there are consumer advocacy groups that investigate the chemicals in common products and educate the public so they can make informed purchasing decisions. For example, the Mind the Store campaign published a retailer report card in 2019 where they rated the overall safety of products from 43 common retailers. It allows people to learn about chemicals that are used in products from retailers in many different sectors including children’s products, apparel, groceries, electronics, beauty products, and furniture. To produce their safety rating for each retailer, Mind the Store used 14 criteria including transparency, oversight, accountability, third-party standards, and continuous improvement over time, and people can see how each retailer fares along each criterion. Similar information on harmful chemicals common in toys is available from the Environmental Working Group and Green America. These consumer guides and educational resources are a powerful way to make informed decisions when buying children’s products.

In response to increased consumer advocacy and awareness about toxins in toys and packaging, many retailers now tout that their products are not made with certain harmful chemicals. While this transparency is a crucial way to keep our kids safe as we buy gifts for the holidays, only federal regulation and oversight can truly ensure that all toys are free of toxic chemicals.

It’s the Christmas season, and because real pine trees can be cumbersome and high maintenance, many families use artificial Christmas trees. While artificial trees seem like an easy and sustainable alternative, the materials they are made out of can pose health risks. Like many consumer products, artificial trees are often made with a type of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC releases gases into the air that can cause dizziness and irritation to the eyes, nose, and lungs.

PVC is often treated with plasticizers to make it flexible, and the most common plasticizers are a class of chemicals call phthalates. Phthalates shed off of the plastic products they’re used in, released as gases into the air and dust onto surfaces. Exposure to phthalates in these forms is associated with diabetes, obesity, and reproductive disorders. It is particularly dangerous for the development of children’s brains and may cause permanent cognitive impairment, autistic behaviors, and ADHD.

PVC is also often treated with lead as a stabilizer. Over time this lead sheds off of the PVC, creating lead dust that can accumulate on the surfaces in your home. Inhalation or ingestion of lead is extremely dangerous. In adults it can lead to cardiovascular, reproductive, and kidney dysfunction. Like phthalates, lead exposure is particularly dangerous for children’s development – it can cause permanent neurological damage including sensory loss, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and anxiety. Because of their small size, even small amounts of toxins that may be innocuous for adults can pose serious risks to children.

How much of a health risk are these PVC trees in the US? A study found that 50 million households use PVC trees and estimated that this means 57,500 children may be exposed to high lead levels because of these trees. Although it may seem like the health risks from artificial Christmas trees is low, because of the potential permanent effects on children’s development, families should avoid using artificial trees made with PVC. Through consumer education and advocacy campaigns, many companies explicitly advertise products as being free of PVCs, and artificial Christmas trees made with alternative materials are widely sold. If you are already using an artificial tree with PVC this year there are some ways to mitigate the risks: limit physical contact with the tree, avoid getting lead dust on presents by putting them some distance away from the tree, and don’t use a household vacuum to try to clean up lead dust as this will cause the lead particles to become airborne.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! We all deserve a safe and healthy holiday season free of toxic chemicals.

Chromium is a metal element found in rock. A common form is called hexavalent chromium, used in manufacturing settings for textile dyeing, wood preservation, and metal plating. Through release and disposal of waste from these facilities, hexavalent chromium can end up in the surrounding water and soil. People can then be exposed to it through drinking contaminated water, breathing in contaminated particles, or skin contact with contaminated materials.

Exposure to hexavalent chromium is known to have many adverse health effects. When ingested, it can cause stomach and intestinal ulcers. When inhaled, it can cause breathing problems, nose ulcers, and asthma. When absorbed on the skin, it can cause skin ulcers and swelling. Hexavalent chromium exposure causes development defects in animals, but little is known about how it might impact children. The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have also determined that hexavalent chromium is known to cause cancer, in particular stomach and lung cancer.

Hexavalent chromium is one of many heavy metal contaminants found at Lane Plating Works, a metal plating factory turned Superfund site in southern Dallas, Texas. For over 90 years, the factory performed manual chromium and cadmium plating processes that involve dipping metal objects in multiple types of highly toxic chemical baths. After being investigated for worker safety violations and filing for bankruptcy, the owner of Lane Plating shut down the facility in 2015 without properly disposing of the plating chemicals. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and EPA removed large volumes of plating wastes from the site, but found that soils, surface water, and groundwater had become contaminated. EPA tested for five heavy metal contaminants and found levels well above safety guidelines, in some cases four orders of magnitude (10,000 times) higher.

EPA testing also confirmed that the chemicals are spreading from the site, contaminating nearby wetlands, surface water, and neighborhoods. Lane Plating is located next to a bus stop on a busy road and there are daycares, schools, churches, and residential neighborhoods within half a mile of the property. Passersby can easily breathe in toxic dust and pick it up on their shoes and clothing. The wetlands and streams near the site lead to outdoor recreation areas and a high school sports field that floods with contaminated water when it rains.

South Dallas is predominantly Black, low-income, and already overburdened. Residents face food deserts, transit deserts, and housing insecurity on top of living near Superfund sites, toxic dumps and other environmental justice issues. Many have had enough of the government’s apathy around Lane Plating. CHEJ is working with a group of community members to bring residents together and demand a swift remediation for the site.

Manganese is a naturally occurring metal found in the environment. It is present in most foods (especially grains and beans), and our bodies need small amounts of it to function. Manganese is also used in manufacturing, most commonly to improve the strength of steel. Manufacturing use and improper disposal can release manganese into the air, water, and soil. Once in the environment manganese does not break down, so people can be exposed to high levels of manganese by breathing contaminated air, drinking contaminated water, or eating foods grown in contaminated soil.

Exposure to high levels of manganese has devastating effects on the nervous system. This includes movement defects, behavioral changes, psychiatric episodes, and death of brain cells. In the long term, symptoms are similar to those of Parkinson’s Disease. While little is known about how manganese exposure affects children, a 2011 study found that high levels of manganese in drinking water was associated with intellectual impairment in children ages 6-13.

For over a decade the residents of East Liverpool, Ohio have been exposed to dangerous levels of manganese from the SH Bell manufacturing plant. In 2010, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) conducted air sampling and found that manganese levels were 30 times higher than the concentration US EPA deems safe. The facility was required to reduce manganese emissions, but in 2012, US EPA air sampling at a local elementary school still found dangerous levels of manganese, raising questions about damage to children. Despite this evidence, residents were still unprotected – according to the US EPA a 2016 evaluation “found that the exposures in this community represent a public health hazard.”

The ongoing manganese exposure has had serious effects on residents’ health. In 2013, the local community advocacy group Save Our County (including former CHEJ board member Alonzo Spencer) partnered with researchers at the University of Cincinnati to determine if air exposure to manganese had an effect on the cognitive function of East Liverpool children from ages 7-9. Published in 2018, the study found that increased manganese in children’s hair was associated with a lower IQ. This means that the failure to clean up the source of manganese exposure, even after multiple state and federal agencies have stated that cleanup should happen, is having real consequences on people’s health. The residents of East Liverpool deserve to live and raise children in a community free of toxic chemicals in the air.

Sulfur dioxide is a gas with a strong odor that is released into the air through coal and oil burning. People can be exposed to sulfur dioxide by inhaling contaminated air. Workers at facilities where it is made as a by-product (such as power plants and fertilizer manufacturing plants) are most at risk, but anyone who lives near areas where sulfur dioxide is made may be in danger too.

Breathing low levels of sulfur dioxide can cause mild symptoms such as fatigue, headache, and nausea. At higher levels, sulfur dioxide causes more serious respiratory effects such as chest tightness and difficulty breathing. It also exacerbates existing respiratory diseases such as asthma. Children may be especially vulnerable to sulfur dioxide because they breathe larger volumes of air relative to their body weight than adults do. Studies have shown that children exposed so sulfur dioxide may develop more respiratory illnesses and make more emergency room visits than other children. They may even develop other respiratory problems as they get older. Children with asthma seem to be particularly sensitive to sulfur dioxide exposure.

The Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill just north of St. Louis, Missouri is a 52 acre site that extends 240 feet below ground and accepted solid waste from 1985 to 2004. In 2010, testing indicated the landfill had an underground fire, with this combustion ultimately releasing gases including sulfur dioxide above ground. Residents in the surrounding area reported strong odors of sulfur dioxide even after gas and odor mitigation systems were put into place in 2013. The fire continued to burn for years, resulting in continued gas and odor emissions despite the mitigation systems.

A 2018 report by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services concluded that residents may have inhaled harmful levels of sulfur dioxide until mitigation and remediation efforts in 2013 when sulfur dioxide levels were more than ten times higher than health-based guidelines. The report also acknowledged that residents may have experienced psychological effects of emissions, noting that offensive odors like sulfur dioxide are known to cause stress, irritability, impaired mood, anxiety, depression, and decreased quality of life.

Despite mitigation and air monitoring efforts, the people who live near the Bridgeton Landfill are still breathing and smelling sulfur dioxide. The grassroots group Just Moms STL works to educate the community and fight for comprehensive cleanup. In particular, they note how children may be especially vulnerable to these chemicals and that there are several schools, daycares, and parks within 3 miles of the landfill. Even more distressing, the landfill is part of a larger landfill area called the West Lake landfill that contains radioactive waste, so uncontrolled underground fires could be catastrophic. Just Moms STL has brought national attention to these sites, forced increased transparency from government agencies, and recently won a $253 million cleanup of the West Lake site. These are exciting successes towards their goal of a secure and permanent solution to keeping their community safe.

1,4-dioxane is a clear liquid used in chemical manufacturing for industrial, consumer, and military purposes. During manufacturing or improper waste disposal 1,4-dioxane can be released into the environment. While it breaks down in air and doesn’t stick to soil, 1,4-dioxane is stable in water and can remain there for a long time. It can even accumulate in fish and plants that live in contaminated water. Eating these contaminated foods and drinking contaminated water are common ways people are exposed to 1,4-dioxane. Bathing in contaminated water can also cause 1,4-dioxane to evaporate into the air and be inhaled. Through its use in the manufacturing process, 1,4-dioxane often ends up being present in trace amounts in consumer products such as detergents, shampoos, and cosmetics. 1,4-dioxane present in these products can be absorbed through the skin.

Exposure to low levels of 1,4-dioxane can cause mild irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, or skin. Regardless of the route of exposure, high levels can cause kidney and liver damage as well as death. While there is little information about if 1,4-dioxane causes cancer in humans, animal studies have found that long-term exposure results in cancer, especially liver cancer. For this reason, the US Department of Health and Human Services believes that 1,4-dioxane likely causes cancer in humans.

In 2002, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told water utilities across the country that 1,4-dioxane was being detected at many superfund sites. Subsequent testing in Arizona determined that it was present in groundwater pumped to the Tucson Airport Remediation Project (TARP) water treatment plant, but it is unclear how long this contamination had been going on. Sampling from wells around the treatment plant found a wide range of 1,4-dioxane levels, with some having concentrations 35 times the EPA’s health advisory level. It wasn’t until 2014 that a treatment facility removing 1,4-dioxane from the water became operational, meaning Tucson residents were at risk for at least 12 years. Community leaders have been fighting for answers: Who was exposed? For how long were they exposed? What will be done to identify and help people who are sick? CHEJ provided organizing and technical assistance to Environmental Justice Task Force in Tucson who organized around this issue. While Tucson Water says the TARP water treatment plant no longer has 1,4-dioxane contamination, in 2018 it was reported that a different class of dangerous chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), were detected in water at this site. This illustrates that our current acceptance of the improper use, disposal, and remediation of harmful chemicals will continually present dangers to residents until people’s health is prioritized.

Naphthalene is a solid chemical that easily evaporates. It is commonly found in coal, mothballs, and the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride. Manufacturing, industrial releases, improper disposal of industrial waste, and consumer use can release naphthalene into the environment. Once released, naphthalene can evaporate into the surrounding air, dissolve in water, and stick to soil. Volatile organic compounds like naphthalene can adhere to particulates and travel with them through the environment. Breathing contaminated air, drinking contaminated water, or touching contaminated soil can expose people to naphthalene.

Naphthalene exposure can cause dizziness, confusion, nausea, and vomiting. It can also kill red blood cells, causing anemia. Studies in animals have shown that breathing naphthalene-contaminated air can cause nose and lung tumors. Because of this, the US Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have both concluded that naphthalene likely causes cancer in humans.

In North Birmingham, Alabama, the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) is fighting to improve air quality and protect residents’ health. Locally, the group People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC) fights to bring residents relief from industrial contamination. Multiple rounds of outdoor air testing in 2019 and 2020 found high levels of naphthalene at several locations in the community. These levels were many times higher than the threshold at which the US Environmental Protection Agency says cleanup and remediation must occur to protect people from cancer. This means that the naphthalene in the North Birmingham air poses a serious risk of causing cancer to the people who breathe it. GASP is fighting for clean air free of chemicals like naphthalene through education and advocacy. CHEJ is working with GASP and PANIC to help them raise awareness and achieve clean air that is safe to breathe.

Methylene chloride (also known as dichloromethane) is a manmade chemical that is a clear liquid with a faintly sweet smell. It is used as an industrial solvent and an ingredient in paint strippers, so it is often used in commercial and do-it-yourself home improvement projects. Methylene chloride dissolves into the air, so the primary way people can be exposed to it is by breathing contaminated air. Because methylene chloride-containing products, like paint strippers, are often used in indoor spaces with little ventilation, people can easily be exposed to high levels of it. Inhaling methylene chloride causes brain dysfunction – confusion, inattentiveness, dizziness, numbness in the extremities, and even death. The World Health Organization, US Department of Health and Human Services, and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) all consider methylene chloride to likely cause cancer. The EPA estimates that 32,000 workers and 1.3 million consumers are exposed to methylene chloride every year.

Because of the dangers of methylene chloride, consumer advocacy groups like Mind the Store spent years fighting against its use. They called on national hardware store chains to stop selling these products and for the EPA to ban use of methylene chloride. In 2019 the EPA finally banned consumer use and sales of methylene chloride-containing products, but continued to allow them to be sold in commercial sales to professionals. While this will surely protect some people from methylene chloride exposure, advocates point out that thousands of construction and home improvement workers remain unprotected by this regulation – they are unlikely to have any input into whether or not their employers buy methylene chloride-containing products, so they are unable to keep themselves safe if they want to keep their jobs. Furthermore, many of these workers are Latinx or Asian Americans who may not be given training or warnings when using methylene chloride in languages they understand. In fact, one of the workers who died from methylene chloride in 2017 and whose death galvanized the EPA to propose regulation was from El Salvador and spoke limited English. When it comes to a chemical as dangerous and deadly as methylene chloride, much more must be done to ban its use and protect the health of workers who don’t have the power to protect themselves.

Pentachlorophenol (PCP) is a manmade chemical that exists as solid crystals or flakes. Since the 1930s, it was used as a pesticide, disinfectant, and wood preservative. In the 1980s, its use became restricted to industrial purposes such as preserving wood on docks, railroads, and utility poles. PCP can enter the air, water, and soil from spills or improper waste disposal at facilities that use it. This can expose people who work at or live near facilities that use PCP. It can also evaporate from treated wood surfaces and enter the air, exposing people to chronic low levels of PCP in indoor and outdoor air.

PCP exposure is known to cause damage to the liver, kidneys, blood, and brain in people who work in facilities that use it. When adults inhale air that contains PCP that has evaporated from treated wood, it can cause fevers and irritation to the skin and eyes. PCP exposure to infants has caused fevers, difficulty breathing, damage to the brain and liver, and even death. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers PCP to be likely to cause cancer.

Residents of L’Anse, Michigan began reporting odors and dust particles coming from the L’Anse Warden Electric Company Power Plant in 2007 and by 2016 had convinced the EPA to hold a public hearing. The company had a state permit allowing it to burn waste for fuel, including railroad ties that had been treated with PCP. As the EPA began investigating, the permit was changed in 2016 to no longer allow burning of PCP-treated wood. Air and soil sampling was done in 2017 by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and CHEJ reviewed the results for the local grassroots community group Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (FOLK). The sampling found that the power plant was emitting several dangerous chemicals including PCP into the surrounding neighborhoods, significantly increasing residents’ risk of developing cancer. PCP may be contributing to this cancer risk, and furthermore, little is known about how PCP and the other chemicals emitted from the power plant may interact with each other to impact human health. Regular monitoring, remediation, and cleanup should be done to protect L’Anse residents from the potential harmful effects of PCP and other chemicals. Unfortunately, despite the data, ATSDR concluded that the power plant emissions were not a threat to residents’ health. When a government agency’s own sampling data and analysis guidelines indicate people’s health is at risk and the agency still does nothing, it is clear we need stronger regulations to force action in order to prioritize health and safety.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a class of chemicals that are formed in the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, or other organic matter. They can enter the air, water and adhere to particles in the soil. People are most likely to be exposed to PAHs by inhaling contaminated air. Workers at facilities that produce tar, asphalt, or incinerate trash are at the most risk; community exposure from vehicle exhaust, wood smoke, asphalt paving, or agricultural burning also occurs. Although less common, people can also be exposed by coming in contact with water contaminated with PAHs from discharges at wastewater treatment plants. The US Department of Health and Human Services classifies PAHs as “reasonably expected” to cause cancer. In animal studies, PAHs cause cancer, reproductive dysfunction, and birth defects.

Asphalt shingles are roofing shingles that use asphalt for waterproofing. Because they’re inexpensive and easy to install they are the most widely used roofing covers in the United States, but the asphalt in them contains PAHs. In Wausau, Wisconsin, asphalt shingles waste has been buried as well as left in open-air piles. The grassroots community group Citizens for a Clean Wausau contacted CHEJ about the potential for these waste piles to leach PAHs into the air and soil, exposing surrounding residents. While much is unknown and the situation is ongoing, PAHs can leach out of asphalt at high temperatures and then be dispersed long distances by wind. This means Wausau residents may be inhaling PAHs, elevating their risk for developing cancer. To assess this possibility and the level of risk that may be posed to residents, measurements of contaminants in the shingles as well as in the surrounding air and dust would be necessary. The best way to ensure there is no risk to the community is to remove these shingles and destroy them safely.

Hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) is a technique that uses pressurized liquid to fracture bedrock in order to the extract the oil or gas inside. The process installs a steel pipe into a well bore and injects fracking fluid into the deep layers of rock. Once the rock is no longer able to absorb this fluid, it cracks. Materials in the fracking fluid keep these cracks open so the oil or gas beneath can flow freely and be collected. Fracking fluid usually consists of water, sand or beads, and a mixture of chemicals. After injection into the rock, some fracking fluid remains underground and some flows back to the surface. This flowback is meant to be collected for disposal.

Many of the chemicals used in fracking fluid are not publicly known. However, some of the ones that are known have harmful effects on human health, including causing cancer. Some of these dangerous chemicals in fracking fluid include: benzene, ethylbenzene, naphthalene, methanol, formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and 1,2-dichloroethane. And with hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons of liquid being used to fracture a single well, these chemicals can be dangerous even if they constitute a small percentage of the fracking fluid. In fact, flowback has been found to have levels of some of these chemicals that far exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s limits for safe water. People can be exposed to these chemicals through contamination of drinking water supplies, physical contact with the flowback waste, or inhaling chemicals after they evaporate into the air from open-air waste pits. A 2010 report summarized health effects from 353 chemicals in fracking fluid, including skin, respiratory, liver, brain, immune, kidney, heart, and blood disorders.

Liveable Arlington is a grassroots organization founded in 2015 to fight fracking and drilling in Arlington, Texas in order to protect their air and water. In particular, they are concerned about the health impacts on children due to wells located close to residences, schools, and day care centers. In 2020 their organizing helped stop the issuance of permits for new gas wells near a local preschool. In 2021 they helped pressure their city council to revise an ordinance to increase the required distance between a drilling zone and day care centers. Liveable Arlington proves that local grassroots efforts can win local fights to keep our communities safe.

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal that can be found in combination with other elements. It can be mined from the earth and also released as a byproduct from industrial facilities that manufacture chemicals. If mercury waste is not disposed of properly, it can enter the air, soil, and water. When mercury enters the water, it can build up in the tissues of fish in a process called bioaccumulation. Then, if people eat these contaminated fish, they can be exposed to high levels of mercury. Throughout the world, eating contaminated fish is the most common way people become exposed to mercury.

Most of the health effects of mercury exposure are related to function of the brain. It can impair vision or hearing, cause mood changes such as irritability, and even induce memory loss. Some of these effects can be permanent, persisting even after the affected person is no longer exposed to mercury. Children are especially sensitive to mercury, and damage to their brains can be particularly devastating because they are still developing. Because mercury can pass from a pregnant person to their fetus, mercury exposure during pregnancy can cause fetal brain damage and mental retardation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that some forms of mercury may cause cancer.

In 1956, residents of Minamata, Japan were falling sick with a mysterious illness that caused convulsions, difficulty walking, difficulty speaking, and blindness. In extreme cases, it lead to paralysis, coma, and death. This illness became known as Minamata disease, and researchers determined that patients were eating local fish that was contaminated with a dangerous metal. They identified the metal as mercury and discovered that a nearby chemical factory was releasing mercury-containing wastewater. After this was determined, the company that owned the factory hid information from government officials and did not install effective wastewater treatment mechanisms. By 2001, over 2,000 people were identified as having Minamata disease and by 2004, the company paid over $86 billion in compensation. Starting in 2010, the United Nations held a convention to address mercury exposure and its effects on human health, called the Minamata Convention. A treaty supporting controls to protect human health from mercury exposure was signed in 2013 by 128 countries including the United States. The Minamata Convention on Mercury now runs an annual conference for treaty signatories to propose new regulations and evaluate the efficacy of existing ones in protecting people from exposure to mercury. Global efforts to reduce mercury use and regulate its disposal will be crucial to ensuring no other communities will have to face toxic mercury exposure like Minamata did.

1,3-butadiene is a gas made from petroleum and is used to manufacture materials like synthetic rubber and plastics. Because it is a gas, 1,3-butadiene can easily leak out of production, storage, or disposal containers and enter the air. People who work in or live near facilities using 1,3-butadiene are most at risk of inhaling it, but even people in heavily polluted cities breathe air with 1,3-butadiene in it. Exposure to 1,3-butadiene can cause cardiovascular, neurological, lung, and blood defects. It is also suspected to cause birth defects and decreased birth weight. The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services, and International Agency for Research on Cancer have all determined that 1,3-butadiene causes cancer. Studies of people who worked in facilities using 1,3-butadiene found that they had increased incidence of blood and immune system cancers compared to the general population.

In November 2019, multiple fires and explosions occurred at a facility manufacturing 1,3-butadiene in Port Neches, Texas. There was a mandatory two-day evacuation of residents within 4 miles of the site, but soon after they were allowed to return, residents received another evacuation order because conditions had not improved. The facility, owned by Texas Petroleum Chemicals Group (TPC Group) had a long history of violating state and federal air emissions regulations. It released more air pollution than allowed by its permits on 6 occasions in 2019 and over 70 times in the last decade. TPC Group was fined for these violations, but these fines were clearly not a deterrent to the corporation breaking the rules and endangering the health of surrounding residents. In fact, in a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency after releasing huge amounts of 1,3-butadiene in the air in 2017, TPC Group was required to monitor 1,3-butadiene levels. That’s how a 2020 report found that in the months leading up to the explosions, the facility started releasing massive amounts of 1,3-butadiene into the air. Because chemicals in the air can travel large distances, we don’t know how many people may have been exposed to his cancer-causing agent because of TPC Group’s disregard for regulations. The current system of monitoring emissions and imposing nominal fines on facilities that exceed them is not working to keep people safe. Tougher regulations, harsher penalties, and revocation of permits must be considered as we fight to protect communities from corporations using harmful chemicals.

Dioxins are a group of chemically related compounds formed as a byproduct of industrial processes such as water treatment, paper manufacturing, and waste incineration. If dioxins are not properly captured and stored, they can be released into the environment. Once released into the air, dioxins can travel thousands of miles. They can also attach to soil particles on the ground and sediment in bodies of water. Because dioxins are slow to decompose, they can persist in the environment for years after being released. One of the reasons this is a problem is because dioxins bioaccumulate in animal tissues, meaning if fish or livestock become exposed to dioxins, they accumulate in the animals. Then, when humans eat these contaminated animal products, we can be exposed to high levels of dioxins. This makes dioxins in food a particularly dangerous and widespread method of dioxin exposure.

Dioxin exposure is associated with a wide variety of health problems including a skin disease called chloracne, liver damage, thyroid dysfunction, diabetes, and immune system dysfunction. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that several types of dioxins cause cancer. It is suspected that dioxins may also cause reproductive damage, birth defects, and miscarriages because it can be passed from a pregnant person to their fetus. Because of their small size and the importance of proper development, dioxin exposure is particularly dangerous for infants and children.

With these serious health effects, dioxin exposure through eating contaminated meat, dairy, and fish is a concern. Washing and cooking food does not remove the dioxins from them. Individuals can protect themselves by eating healthy diets that prioritize vegetables, fruits, and whole grains while decreasing meat consumption. (This is the kind of diet you would eat by following the Food Pyramid). When eating meat, choose products low in fat where animals have been grain or grass fed. If you catch your own seafood, be sure to check local fishing advisories.

While these steps can help keep us safe, the federal government should do more to regulate our food supply and ensure it is free of dioxins. In 2003 the National Academies of Science released a report on dioxins in the food supply and recommended strategies for reducing risk of dioxin exposure through food. These included interrupting the dioxin cycling that occurs in large-scale livestock husbandry, improving coordination between agencies that monitor food for dioxins, and specifically protecting people of childbearing age because of the risk to fetuses and newborns. Implementing these strategies through regulations and public education campaigns would go a long way toward protecting people from dioxin exposure through food.

Asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals that can be found in the environment. The fibers of these minerals are strong, flexible, and heat-resistant, making them useful when spun or woven into sheets. Asbestos was used in building materials, heat-resistant products, and machinery components. When these products break down, asbestos particles enter the air and water. This means people who work in industries such as housing repair or demolition that disturb asbestos-containing materials are at high risk for exposure. People who live near such industries are also at risk.

Breathing high levels of asbestos damages the lungs, and long-term exposure can cause scar tissue. The US Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, and World Health Organization have all determined that asbestos is known to cause cancer. The most common kinds of cancer are lung cancer and mesothelioma, and asbestos exposure may also increase the chances of developing cancer in other organs. Because of this danger, the use of asbestos was banned in the US in 1989, but many products made before that time are still in use.

Asphalt shingles are roofing shingles that use asphalt for waterproofing. Because they’re inexpensive and easy to install they are the most widely used roofing covers in the United States. Asphalt shingles made before the 1980s may contain asbestos; although that seems like a long time ago, many of these old shingles are still around because it is common practice to layer new shingles on top of old ones. This means that asbestos-containing asphalt shingles can be found in communities all over the country.

In Wausau, Wisconsin, asphalt shingles waste has been buried as well as left in open-air piles. The grassroots community group Citizens for a Clean Wausau contacted CHEJ about the potential for old shingles in these waste piles to release asbestos into the air, exposing surrounding residents. If Wausau residents are inhaling asbestos, this could elevate their risk for developing cancer. To assess this possibility and the level of risk that may be posed to residents, measurements of contaminants in the shingles as well as in the surrounding air and dust would be necessary. The best way to ensure there is no risk to the community is to remove these shingles and destroy them safely.

Toluene is one of the most heavily produced chemicals in the US and the world. This chemical is utilized as an industrial solvent in the production of many commonly used materials such as paints, paint thinners, rubber, fingernail polish, lacquers, adhesives, and used extensively in the pharmaceutical industry.

Toluene is a clear, colorless liquid that is found in vapor form at room temperature. A common sign of significant toluene concentration in the air is a sharp and sweet odor. At this concentration in ambient air, toluene can be a fire hazard given the fact that it can become flammable at temperatures above 40°F.

The main route of exposure to toluene is through inhalation. Once inhaled, toluene is easily absorbed by your lungs and dispersed through the body, even crossing the blood-brain barrier due to how easily it dissolves in fats (highly lipophilic). The result is a myriad of central nervous system (CNS) problems including headaches, dizziness, ataxia, drowsiness, euphoria, hallucinations, tremors, seizures, and even coma; as well as respiratory, cardiovascular, and reproductive/developmental effects.

Acute exposure to high levels of toluene (≥500 parts per million) can result in multiple CNS problems within 30-60 minutes of exposure. The respiratory system can develop irritated mucous membranes and liquid accumulation in the lungs, which can lead to respiratory arrest. Finally, even short exposures to elevated levels of toluene can result in irregular heart rhythm, making cardiac arrest much more likely after intense to moderate physical activity.

Prolonged exposure to toluene levels as low as 200ppm can cause chronic CNS problems such as headaches, fatigue, nausea and difficulty sleeping. Chronic irritation of the upper respiratory tract and sore throat have been reported in people exposed to small amounts of toluene for an extended period of time. Pulmonary lesions have been documented in long-term animal studies, so this can be a potential health complication for humans. Finally, although toluene has not been confirmed as a reproductive hazard, it is able to cross the placenta and is accumulated in breast milk, meaning that it can easily reach a developing fetus or newborn.

In developing countries, toluene has become a cause for major concern due to a practice among children and young adults called glue sniffing. Glue sniffing is a form of substance abuse common in many developing countries due to its relatively inexpensive nature. The high and euphoric feelings that it produces are partly due to the ability of toluene to easily enter the central nervous system and create hallucinations and euphoria. A number of studies around the world, including in places such as SingaporeSouth Africa; and India, have documented this practice and have offered insights into how to combat this practice.

Xylene or xylenes (used interchangeably) is a colorless, sweet-smelling chemical occurring naturally in petroleum, coal and wood tar. Xylene occurs in three forms – m-xylene, o-xylene, and p-xylene – and together they are referred to as xylenes. Like toluene, which was the subject of the previous Toxic Tuesday, xylene is an aromatic hydrocarbon that is used widely as a solvent in the printing, rubber, paint and leather industries. It is also commonly found as a solvent in pesticide products.

Xylene, being easily dissolvable in fats, also has similar health effects to toluene. Various central nervous system (CNS) problems are associated with exposure to xylenes in the air at levels as low as 100 parts per million (ppm) including headaches, dizziness, ataxia, drowsiness, excitement and tremors. At slightly more elevated levels (~200ppm), xylene can irritate the lungs, cause shortness of breath, and can cause pulmonary edema, a condition that results in excess buildup of fluid in the lungs. At larger concentrations, xylene may lead to liver and kidney damage and even cause cardiac abnormalities.

Given that xylene is a volatile organic compound (VOC), the main route of exposure is through inhalation. Automobile exhaust is one of the main sources of exposure. Hazardous waste disposal sites are another major route of exposure, given that xylene has been found in significant levels in over half of all Superfund sites. Finally, contaminated drinking water can be another significant route of exposure even if the water is not ingested.

This was the case in the village of Amesville, OH. CHEJ worked with some of the town residents to analyze the testing results of their drinking water supply after the inside of the town’s water storage tank was painted with an epoxy resin coat. Low but noticeable levels of xylene and other VOCs were found in their water supply. Despite being below the threshold of EPA’s federal drinking water standards, the constant exposure to xylene through ingestion, inhalation (e.g., showers), and dermal contact was a cause for concern. The cumulative and synergistic effects of multiple chemical exposures, such as the xylenes and the other VOCs in the case of Amesville, are very poorly understood and oftentimes result in higher incidences of disease even at very low levels of exposure.

Cadmium is a heavy metal found naturally in the earth’s crust. It is usually found as a mineral combined with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, or sulfur. Cadmium is used in many industries and is essential in the production of batteries, certain alloys, coatings, solar cells, plastic stabilizers, and pigments. It is also found in significant quantities in cigarette smoke.


Mining and other similar industrial activities are the main source of cadmium in the environment. Once released, cadmium and cadmium compounds are relatively water soluble and, as a result, are more mobile in most mediums such as soil and water. Furthermore, they are generally more bioavailable and tend to accumulate in plant and animal life. Because of this, the main source of cadmium exposure in non-smokers is their diet. Among smokers, cigarette smoke is the main source of exposure, with numerous studies identifying cadmium blood levels 4-5 times higher than the normal population.

Cadmium is toxic to humans, affecting multiple organs/systems including the kidneys, bones and lungs. Additionally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies cadmium as a Class 1 carcinogen. Cadmium bioaccumulates in the human body, especially in the kidneys. The accumulation of cadmium in the kidneys leads to loss of kidney function due to decreased reabsorption of proteins, glucose, and amino acids. Skeletal damage in both human and animals exposed to high levels of cadmium has been observed, while chronic obstructive airway disease has been documented among workers.

Farm workers and other residents of China’s Hunan province have experienced an epidemic of cadmium poisoning as recently as 2014. Since the early 2000s, smelting plants proliferated in the area, operating with very little government oversight. The result was heavily contaminated rice and other vegetables grown in the area. Locals developed multiple complications, including “itai-itai” disease – a sickness first recognized in Japan in the 1960s. Although some regulations from the Chinese government have limited farming activities in land with high cadmium levels, the health effects in the population remain- yet another example of industry putting profit over a community’s health.