Air Pollution

Deep Impact

By Gelena Constantine

Learning about environmental justice is much more than participating in meetings or sending e-mails. To fully understand what communities are experiencing first-hand, you have to experience it. That’s why I embarked on a learning opportunity with EPA’s Region 3 Philadelphia Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Environmental Justice (OECEJ) last summer to learn how the elements of environmental justice, science, and technology coalesce in communities.

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mountains of unprocessed material

My first day consisted of the typical introductions. I met with Regional personnel who discussed a composting facility which EPA was concerned may have been the source of certain odors in the neighborhood. Additionally, I was informed that the facility had been found out of compliance by the state environmental agency and had been issued an order and was fined by the state.

When I drove by the facility with other EPA personnel, the stench was definitely apparent from a distance, and I could see its proximity to the community. There were mountains of material that also included more plastic bags than I could count. We were followed and approached by a worker from another company in a Untitled-2pick-up truck. He inquired about our actions, and once we shared that we were from EPA and what had been reported, he proceeded to share his unfortunate experiences with the foul smell. According to him, “…depending on the wind direction, some days you’d be knocked off your feet.” It was interesting to see that it wasn’t just the residents that were being affected, but the neighboring workers were as well.

I thought that a compost center would be a positive addition to the industrial park it was located in and the local neighborhoods, but it turned out to be much more complex than that. I’d learned that the compost wasn’t being processed within an appropriate amount of time, partly because of the sheer amount, in addition to insufficient staffing.  The company was eventually fined by the state and they hired additional workers.

Residences in close proximity to the composting plant

Residences in close proximity to the composting plant

Next, I visited the office of The Clean Air Council, an EPA EJ grantee that works with communities in the same area. They have interviewed residents about their concerns with the compost plant to help enable the community to find a solution for this problem. When I followed up with the grantee several months later about their work with the composting facility, they shared that none of the residents wanted to speak against the company in court, and they were trying to figure out a way around that challenge. They were afraid of being victimized economically, as many of the residents are employees of the neighboring companies, or just fear in general fear of speaking out.

The community expressed the problem and worked to collaborate and communicate with federal and state government to fix it.  However, the momentum and power of holding the facility accountable and deter them from future mistakes were somewhat impeded because of fear.

My visit was extremely illuminating. There are many laws and technologies in place to assist in environmental justice efforts, but implementation and enforcement is not always clear-cut as one might think. My experiences helped cultivate a better understanding of what I’ve spent the last two and a half years of my professional career assisting the Agency and many other partners doing: Positively impacting human health and general well-being, people’s livelihood, their history and future.  It is gratifying to know that we are making a difference, and doing what we can for those whose voices sometimes go unheard.  Although not all problems can be solved completely, they can and must be addressed somehow.

For those who haven’t had a chance – especially those of us at EPA— I would highly encourage at least one visit to a community with real environmental justice issues. I’m confident it will be as enlightening and an invaluable experience for you as it was for me!

A relative newcomer to the EJ Community, Gelena Constantine works as an EJ Coordinator in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.  She has worked with several NEJAC workgroups and EPA committees on EJ. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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How EPA Research Supports Taking Action on Climate Change

By Lek Kadeli

As my EPA colleagues and I prepare to join millions of people from across the nation and around the globe to celebrate the environment on April 22, it’s a good time to remember how much we’ve accomplished together since the first Earth Day in 1970.

Forty-four years ago, it wasn’t hard to find direct evidence that our environment was in trouble. Examples of air pollution could be seen at the end of every tailpipe, and in the thick, soot-laden plumes of black smoke flowing from industrial smokestacks and local incinerators. Litter and pollution-choked streams were the norm, and disposing of raw sewage and effluent directly into waterways was standard practice. A major mid-western river famously ignited, sparking both awareness and action.
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Helping to Protect the Communities of Port Arthur, Texas

A view of the Flint Hills facility at night

A view of the Flint Hills facility at night

By Cynthia Giles

Pollution can affect us all, but communities in Port Arthur, Texas, a major hub for America’s energy and chemical facilities, are especially overburdened. Anyone who lives close to chemical plants knows all too well that breathing in dangerous air pollution can cause a variety of health impacts, including asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses. It can also be a barrier to economic opportunity and middle class security, often gaps that affect low income and disadvantaged communities.

Advances in pollution controls and information technology used in our enforcement cases can stem these impacts and help those who need it most.

This week’s settlement with Flint Hills Resources of Port Arthur, a major chemical company, is the most recent example. The agreement requires the company to significantly reduce emissions, be transparent about pollution issues, and conduct projects to improve the local environment.

Flint Hills worked with EPA to develop and will implement state-of-the-art technology to reduce pollution from industrial flares. Improper flaring can send hundreds of tons of hazardous pollutants into the air. EPA wants companies to flare less, and when they do flare, to fully burn the harmful chemicals found in the waste gas. In addition, the company will take steps to reduce “fugitive” emissions, which refers to pollution that can leak from valves, pumps, and other equipment, by monitoring more frequently, installing “low emission” valves, and other measures.

A fence-line air monitor

For the past several years, Flint Hills has operated a system to monitor the ambient levels of the hazardous air pollutants benzene and 1,3 butadiene at the boundaries of the facility, also known as the “fence line.” As part of this settlement, they are now taking a step further by agreeing to make this data available online to the public every week. In addition, twice a year, the company will post a report that summarizes the data collected, plus any required corrective actions for pollution above threshold levels. This information will provide critical information to the community on the state of environmental conditions where they live.

Flint Hills has also agreed to spend $2 million dollars on diesel retrofits for vehicles owned by the City of Port Arthur, a project that will reduce pollution over the next 15 years. It will also spend $350,000 on technologies to reduce energy demand in low income homes.

Once fully implemented, EPA estimates that the settlement will reduce harmful emissions of benzene and other hazardous air pollutants by an estimated 1,880 tons per year, and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 69,000 tons per year. I know that this settlement won’t fix all of the problems in Port Arthur, but it’s an important step to clean the air and to ensure companies operate responsibly in overburdened communities.

About the author: Cynthia Giles is the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, where she leads EPA’s efforts to enforce our nation’s environmental laws and advance environmental justice. Giles has more than 30 years of service in the public, private and non-profit sectors. She received a BA from Cornell University, a JD from the University of California at Berkeley and an MPA from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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EPA Study Shows Poverty Is a Risk Factor for Heart Disease

Cross posted from Science category.

By Ann Brown

In 2008, lightning started a peat bog wildfire in eastern North Carolina. Dry peat is an organic material that makes a perfect fuel for fire. For weeks the fire smoldered, blanketing communities in 44 rural counties with toxic air pollutants that exceeded EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards at times. As a result, many people went to the emergency department with congestive heart failure, asthma and other health problems from smoke exposure as documented in an EPA study.

Untitled-1The wildfire provided a unique opportunity for researchers to evaluate the reasons behind the heart and respiratory problems caused from smoke exposure. They were interested in whether there are community characteristics than can be used to identify residents whose health might be at risk from wildfires or other sources of air pollution. What exactly did the communities along the Coastal Plain of North Carolina have in common?

Researchers analyzed daily rates of visits to the emergency departments during the fire event and community health factors such as access and quality of clinical care, health behaviors, socioeconomic factors and the characteristics of the physical environment. The findings, published in Environmental Health, indicate low socio-economic status alone can be used to determine if a community is at risk for congestive heart failure or other health problems observed. Low socio-economic status is a term used to describe a group of factors such as low income, inadequate education and safety concerns.

While the knowledge that people in poverty are at greater health risk from air pollution is not new, this study provides scientific evidence that a community’s socio-economic status can be used to identify those at greatest risk from air pollution. This is good news for the public health community and others interested in reaching people with heart or lung diseases who may be at risk of air pollution. This study and others being conducted across the country by epidemiologists are helping to find ways to address health problems in communities.

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Are Your Genes Making You Susceptible to Air Pollution?

 

Healthy Heart graphic identifier

By Ann Brown

Smoking, high-fat diets and a couch potato lifestyle are risk factors for heart disease.  Kicking the habit, changing your diet and exercising are ways to reduce those risks and enhance quality of life.

But there may be a risk factor for heart disease that is more complicated to address: our genes. Our genetic makeup that we inherit from our parents may contribute to the development of heart disease, but our genes may also play a role in how our cardiovascular system responds to air pollution.  

We all have the same set of genes, but there are subtle differences in the makeup of those genes that vary from one person to another.  These individual variations are called polymorphisms and have been shown to make some people more susceptible to things like breast cancer or diabetes. 

Research has shown that high levels of air pollution, particularly fine particles emitted by cars, trucks, factories and wildfires, can trigger heart attacks and worsen heart symptoms in people who have heart disease. But are some people with heart disease more responsive to high levels of air pollution than others because of their genes?  

EPA researchers and collaborators are investigating the contributions genes may have in the way individuals respond to air pollution exposure. The study is made possible by tapping into a unique database of genetic and clinical information called CATHGEN, developed by Duke University Medical Center. The database contains health information from nearly 10,000 volunteers, most who have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. 

The database is providing an opportunity for EPA and other environmental health researchers to ask whether specific genetic variations make people more susceptible to the damaging effects of air pollution on the heart. While people cannot change their genetic make-up, it is hoped that the knowledge gained from this research can one day be used by health care providers to educate their patients with heart disease. Heart patients don’t have to wait for more research to take action, however.

EPA recommends people who are more sensitive to air pollution, such as those with heart disease, take steps to reduce their exposure during times when pollution levels are higher. You can check current and forecasted air quality conditions at www.airnow.gov.

Learn more at: epa.gov/healthyheart

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Let’s Talk About Air Pollution and Heart Disease

Reposted from “It’s Our Environment

Please Note: Due to the developing winter storm, we have rescheduled the Twitter chat with EPA research cardiologist Dr. Wayne Casio until Thursday, February 20 at 2:30 pm. Follow #HealthyHeart or @EPAlive. The following blog was updated from the original to reflect that change.

By Ann Brown

February is American Heart Month, and it’s a good time to remember matters of the heart. Did you know that air pollution can trigger heart attacks and strokes, and worsen heart conditions? With one in three Americans having heart disease, there’s a good possibility that you know people with problems. Learn what we know about the effects of air pollution and help protect them.

Join our live twitter chat on Thursday, February 20th at 2:30 PM ET to learn more about the threats of air pollution to the heart and ways to protect yours. Follow @EPAlive and the #HealthyHeart hashtag to join the conversation. We’ll share information about air pollution and heart disease so that you and your loved ones can take action to protect yourselves. During the chat, we’ll also tweet in Spanish on @EPAespanol using the hashtag #corazonsano.

Dr. Wayne Cascio, a cardiologist who researches these issues at EPA, will be available during the chat to discuss:

  • what we know about air pollution and its connection to heart disease and stroke,
  • how to reduce your risk, and
  • how science is helping us better understand how air pollution can harm the heart.

Feel free to post your questions now in the comment section below, or tweet them when you join us for the chat on February 20. We’ll answer as many questions as we can during the chat. Also, read more about the connection between air pollution and heart disease on our healthy heart website.

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program in Research Triangle Park, NC, which is the hub for EPA’s research to protect public health and the environment from outdoor air pollution.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Let’s Talk About Air Pollution and Heart Disease

Editor’s note: Due to a major ice and snow storm on the east coast on February 12th and 13th, we’re rescheduling our #HealthyHeart Twitter chat to Thursday, February 20th at 2:30 PM ET. Join us then to talk about air pollution and heart health. Follow @EPAlive and the #HealthyHeart hashtag on Twitter to ask questions and participate. For Spanish, follow @EPAespanol and #corazonsano.

By Ann Brown

February is American Heart Month, and it’s a good time to remember matters of the heart. Did you know that air pollution can trigger heart attacks and strokes, and worsen heart conditions? With one in three Americans having heart disease, there’s a good possibility that you know people with problems. Learn what we know about the effects of air pollution and help protect them.

Join our live twitter chat on Thursday, February 13th at 1:30 PM ET to learn more about the threats of air pollution to the heart and ways to protect yours. Follow @EPAlive and the #HealthyHeart hashtag to join the conversation. We’ll share information about air pollution and heart disease so that you and your loved ones can take action to protect yourselves. During the chat, we’ll also tweet in Spanish on @EPAespanol using the hashtag #corazonsano.

Dr. Wayne Cascio, a cardiologist who researches these issues at EPA, will be available during the chat to discuss:

  • what we know about air pollution and its connection to heart disease and stroke,
  • how to reduce your risk, and
  • how science is helping us better understand how air pollution can harm the heart.

Feel free to post your questions now in the comment section below, or tweet them when you join us for the chat on February 13. We’ll answer as many questions as we can during the chat. Also, read more about the connection between air pollution and heart disease on our healthy heart website.

 

 

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program in Research Triangle Park, NC, which is the hub for EPA’s research to protect public health and the environment from outdoor air pollution.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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It Doesn’t Take a Fireman to Spot a Fire: Fighting Pollution with Citizen Science

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Shameika Jackson. Velma White and Ronesha Johnson are active reporters
to the map from Shreveport, LA.

By Molly Brackin

We have a saying at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB); “it doesn’t take a fireman to spot a fire.” Likewise, you don’t need to be a scientist to know something is wrong when you spot a black smoking flare that lasts an hour or you smell foul chemicals in the air. Since 2000, the Bucket Brigade has worked with communities and thousands of residents throughout Louisiana that neighbor oil refineries and chemical plants. Our mission is to support our communities’ use of grassroots action to create informed, sustainable neighborhoods free from industrial pollution.  To accomplish this, the Bucket Brigade model is to equip communities most impacted by pollution with easy-to-use tools that monitor their environment, inform residents, and can be used to improve industry accountability.

Untitled-1In early 2010 LABB introduced the iWitness Pollution Map to help Louisiana residents track pollution and associated health effects in their communities. Today there are over 11,000 reports of possible petrochemical pollution on the map.  The iWitness Pollution Map is an open-source online map that allows anyone with a phone to document and share their experience with pollution via voicemail, text, email or by using the online form.  Visitors of the map are able to see reports in real-time, identify possible pollution hotspots by viewing the geographic location of the reports, and sign up to get alerts.The map helps to validate a community’s experience with petrochemical pollution, but more importantly the map monitors incidents of the industry’s potential pollution impacts on the local community.

In a system that allows industry to self-report their emissions and accidents, citizens are extremely important watchdogs. There were over 1,200 citizen reports of pollution from the 17 oil refineries and two associated chemical plants in Louisiana in 2013 alone. Using the iWitness Pollution Map, citizens have reported smells, flaring events, roaring sounds coming from the facilities, and health effects among other things:

 “It’s extremely stinky outside right now, very chemically smelling.  I don’t know exactly what type of smell it is, but is very chemical and it seems to be coming from the plant off Scenic Highway.  I guess it is around 6pm in the evening.  It’s raining and no feel of anything but just definitely very smelly, very unnatural.  It’s thick outside.”– January 13th, 2013, Baton Rouge, LA

 “…That plant over there, that flare is going just like a train.   It been doing it all night long.  And I can hear it all on my porch on Broadway now.”-July 28th, 2013, Shreveport, LA 

“When I had gotten off of work at 2:30am there was a weird smell in the air. At 10am the smell woke me up it was all outside & inside my home, which brought on a migraine & nausea! I don’t know what the chemical is or if it’s even safe for us to be in our home right now. We live on the Westbank in Algiers. If someone could give us some information on this that would be fantastic. The news & fire departments are saying it’s a mystery & others say it’s coming from the Chalmette refinery.”– April 3, 2013, Algiers (New Orleans), LA

A mural painted by community members in Baton Rouge reads: “Standard Heights: Clean Air is Our Right!”

A mural painted by residents in Baton Rouge reads: “Standard Heights: Clean Air is Our Right!”

From consistent citizen reporting to the iWitness Pollution Map, the results of the data we have gathered provides crucial statements of real life everyday experiences from residents, which counter the claims of some local industries that their chemical releases have resulted in “no offsite impact.”  LABB triangulates the reports to the map with other available information (i.e. air monitoring data, facility self reports) and shares the analysis with impacted communities, federal and state enforcement officials, first responders and the media.

Some communities in Louisiana are overburdened by industrial pollution on a daily basis, but if no one reports it, it’s as if nothing ever happened.  Thanks to these innovative tools, communities impacted by pollution have a visible, public platform to get their experiences documented and their voices heard!

Molly Brackin is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, where she serves as the Monitoring & Evaluation Associate. She holds a Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of New Orleans, where she specialized in hazard mitigation and disaster planning.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Indoors, Radon Stands Out

By Henry Slack

For the past twenty years, I’ve helped EPA fix indoor air pollution problems. Mold, odors, air cleaners, sick buildings, you name it – I’ve helped people learn how to manage these problems in their homes. The key thing I’ve learned: the most insidious indoor air pollutant is radon.

Radon is hidden and dangerous. We can’t see or smell it. The only way to know it’s around is to test for it. Did you know that radon in homes first drew concern as a public health threat after a worker at a nuclear power plant started setting off the plant’s radiation alarms? His home’s radon level was so high, he was carrying radiation into the plant. Yet he had no clue his home was radioactive before the testing started. The old proverb “out of sight, out of mind” holds true.

Radon causes lung cancer, second only to smoking as the leading cause. It leads to an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths a year. Some of my relatives have had cancer; it’s serious. The good news, however, is that radon-induced lung cancer (like smoking) can be prevented. Testing your home and taking corrective actions to reduce high levels is easy, cheap, and local resources are available to help.

EPA has been talking about the dangers of radon for decades. Lately, the group Cancer Survivors Against Radon (CanSAR) has joined the effort to raise awareness and help people take action to reduce their risk. Members share their personal stories about how high the radon levels were in their home, how they or a loved one battled against the disease, and how they want others to test for radon. Their goal: no one else having to watch someone they care about get sick and die of lung cancer.
 
Radon deaths are completely preventable. Please test your home, and fix it if you have a problem. Thank you.

About the author: Henry Slack from EPA’s Atlanta regional office has taught and helped people in the southeast with indoor air problems for more than 20 years.  His study of chemistry (B.S.) and mechanical engineering (M.S.) give him a strong background in the field, and he is active with the U.S. Green Building Council and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).     

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Pollution by Design: Reducing Pollution Through Organizing


By Penny Newman

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Heavy rains cause overflow from toxic waste pits to run through a local Glen Avon school

Thirty five years ago, I joined a rag tag group of moms who gathered together to decide how we were going to stop the exposures from the Stringfellow Acid Pits, a permitted Class 1 toxic dump site that accepted chemical wastes from throughout California.  This was in response to an incident where the State of California, during a heavy rain period, released over one million gallons of liquid toxic waste into our community in order to relieve pressure on a the dam that was holding back 34 million gallons of hazardous waste. They did this without informing us, flooding our streets, and inundating our homes and school.  Our children splashed in the puddles, made beards and became snow men in the frothy mounds of gray toxic foam.

Untitled-23When we realized what had happened, we decided we’d had enough.  Concerned Neighbors in Action (CNA) formed to stop it. By 1980 we began to hear rumors of places like Love Canal and Times Beach, where communities were experiencing similar problems.  Putting our heads and hearts together we launched into a decade long battle to make the system respond to the health crisis that we, and other communities, were facing.  Our efforts changed laws, developed legal precedent and created new institutions.

In 1993, after stopping the exposures and winning a personal injury lawsuit with a $114 million settlement, CNA became the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) to broaden our work and bring focus to the underlying factors of polluted communities.  We learned that these situations don’t just appear by accident. They are the result of a system that seeks the lowest costs, which can lead to high polluting industries locating their operations in poorer communities and communities of color.  This is why CCAEJ has developed a mission of “bringing people together to improve our social and natural environment,” as recognition that the social environment—economic, political, education— determine the fate of our community’s environment and our living conditions.

If we do not have the power to influence decisions in those systems, they will be used to advance other interests.   It is not by accident that our small rural community ended up with the Stringfellow Acid Pits – it was a decision made by powerful interests taking advantage of the system.   The goal was to find cheap places to dump their poisonous wastes in a place that is out of sight—commonly called “remote disposal.” While we knew this by instinct, our feelings were confirmed when we uncovered a report commissioned by the State of California and written by a consulting firm.  It profiled the communities that would be the easiest to site polluting facilities.  In the summary they write, “all socioeconomic groupings tend to resent the nearby siting of major facilities, but the middle and upper socioeconomic strata possess better resources to effectuate their opposition.” 

Untitled-24In other words, pick the most vulnerable communities.  Understanding that poor communities and communities of color are targeted for pollution is an important factor in how to attack the problems. That’s why CCAEJ works specifically in Inland Valley communities like Riverside and San Bernardino in Southern California; which face some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country today.  Building power for these forgotten communities through leadership development, trainings, and actions; forcing the public and politicians to see the issues so they can’t be ignored or hidden; and flexing our political power is the true pathway to environmental justice.

Penny Newman is executive director and founder of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), which serves Riverside and San Bernardino counties. She began her fight for environmental justice with the battle of the Stringfellow Acid Pits, California’s worst toxic waste site. This 25-year battle of a small town against the pollution from the Stringfellow site is recounted in her book, “Remembering Stringfellow.” Ms. Newman has received numerous awards during her 27 years as an environmental activist, including Jurupa’s “Citizen of the Year.” Newman has also appeared on numerous television shows such as the “Remembering Your Spirit” segment of the Oprah Winfrey show. She was the subject of an HBO documentary, “Toxic Time Bomb.”

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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