toxic

Navigating Your Right to Know About Toxic Chemicals

By Sarah Swenson

When I joined EPA six years ago after earning my Master’s degree, I reached a goal I’d had since middle school.  I now worked for the government organization with the most important mission I could think of: protecting human health and the environment. When I started my new job in the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program, it was clear that I’d landed in a unique and important program office at EPA.

TRI should be an important topic for all of us. This program, established by the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, is all about ensuring that people have access to information on industrial use of toxic chemicals. TRI can tell you what chemicals the facility down the street is using, how much is going into the air, water, and land, and what that company is doing to prevent and reduce pollution. And, this information is all in one place!

The program has grown significantly since my arrival.  In 2012, I led a team tasked with redesigning the TRI website. At the time, the site included some useful resources, but lacked logical organization, updated content, and materials tailored to community members. This project was a chance to improve the quality of existing information, create new webpages, and present everything in a clear and understandable way.

Today the website looks very different. The number of resources for concerned citizens and community groups is increasing, as is the amount of content translated into Spanish. Interactive webpages let users explore a TRI facility while learning common TRI terms that will help them understand TRI data. Two tools on the TRI homepage give instant access to facility-level data and factsheets for cities and zip codes, and the “TRI in Action” report gives examples of how the data can be used. A webpage devoted to TRI’s pollution prevention data explains how TRI can help identify which companies are working toward improving their environmental performance.

Although we launched the new TRI website in 2013, we’re still working to make it better, and your comments and suggestions can help! We’re hosting a webinar on June 23 from 12:30-1:30 p.m. EDT to point out some of the newest additions, demonstrate the easiest way to find TRI data for your community, and get your feedback.  We look forward to hearing from you!

About the author: Sarah Swenson is the Communications Coordinator and Web Content Manager for the Toxics Release Inventory 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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Acid rain, toxic leaded gas, and widespread air pollution? Not anymore. Thanks to EPA.

Acid rain. Dangerous DDT. Toxic leaded gas fumes. Rampant air pollution. These environmental challenges once seemed impossible to meet, and they put our nation’s air, water, and land at risk—not to mention our families’ health. The dangers they posed were real, but you probably haven’t heard about them in a while. There’s a good reason for that.

We put smart policies in place to fix them.

So this Earth Day, here’s a reminder of a few of the environmental challenges our nation has conquered with EPA leading the way, and where we’re headed next.

Acid Rain

Caused by air pollution mixing with water vapor in the atmosphere, acid rain was once poisoning our rivers and lakes, killing fish, forests, and wildlife, and even eroding our buildings.

The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act gave EPA the authority to regulate sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, the pollutants causing acid rain, from power plants. The EPA developed the first market-based cap-and-trade pollution reduction program, and guess what—it worked.

Despite the doomsday warnings from some in the power industry that the regulations would cause electricity prices to spike and lead to blackouts, over the last 25 years, acid rain levels are down 60%—while electricity prices have stayed stable, and the lights have stayed on. Thanks to hard work by EPA, states, and industry, our nation has put policies in place to solve the problem over the long haul.

Leaded Gasoline

For decades, leaded gasoline threatened the air our kids breathed. Lead from polluted air was absorbed into their bloodstreams, endangering their brain development and risking consequences like permanent nerve damage, anemia, and mental retardation. So EPA phased out leaded gas. Back in the late 1970s, 88 percent of American children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. By the mid-2000s, that number had dropped to less than 1 percent.

DDT

The bald eagle once faced extinction. The culprit was DDT, a powerful pesticide that made birds’ eggshells too weak for the chicks to survive, and also caused liver cancer and reproductive problems in humans. EPA banned the use of DDT in 1972, and since then, bald eagles have made a huge comeback—they were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007—and our families are safer from harmful chemicals.

Air Pollution

A newspaper headline once called the smog shrouding Los Angeles “a dirty gray blanket flung across the city.” L.A. and many other cities like this one were choked by severe air pollution—leading to asthma, respiratory illness, and certain cancers. But over the last 45 years, we’ve cut air pollution 70 percent, while our nation’s economy has tripled. It goes to show that a strong economy and a safe environment go hand in hand.

Breathing Easier

Every day, EPA works toward cleaner air. One recent study found that thanks to the strides we’ve made in cutting air pollution in just the last 2 decades, children’s lungs in Southern California are 10% bigger and stronger today than they were in children 20 years ago.

Last fall, we built on that success by proposing stricter standards for ozone pollution to protect those most vulnerable—children, the elderly, and those already suffering from respiratory illnesses like asthma. For our kids, that means avoiding up to a million missed school days, thousands of cases of acute bronchitis, and nearly a million asthma attacks. Adults could avoid hundreds of emergency room visits for cardiovascular reasons, up to 180,000 missed work days, and 4 million days where people have to deal with pollution-related symptoms. Every dollar we invest in these standards would return $3 in health benefits.

Looking Ahead

And now, EPA is taking action on another major environmental challenge—climate change. The carbon pollution driving it comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants like smog and soot that can cause asthma and certain cancers, especially for those living in the shadow of polluting industries.

When we finalize our Clean Power Plan this summer, we’ll not only cut carbon pollution from power plants, our nation’s largest source, but we’ll also reduce those other dangerous pollutants and protect our families’ health. When we act, we also help safeguard communities from the impacts of climate change—like more severe droughts, storms, fires, and floods.

Time after time, when science has pointed to health risks, EPA has obeyed the law, followed the science, protected public health, and fortified a strong American economy. We’re doing the same thing today. Our track record proves that when EPA leads the way, there’s no environmental challenge our nation can’t meet.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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From Cutting Edge to Commonplace

By Cynthia Giles

I’ve dedicated my career to working with state, local and tribal partners to enforce environmental laws to protect American communities from pollution. Looking back, we’ve come a long way in how we measure for pollution and take action to curb it. Years ago, accounting for air pollution from refineries, for instance, was unreliable and burdensome. It relied in large part on estimates, often done by the refineries themselves, which often undercounted actual emissions and the risks posed to neighbors. In those days, fully understanding refinery emissions would have required taking air samples one-by-one across many potential sources.

Over the past decade, new technologies and innovative solutions have significantly improved our enforcement and compliance efforts. Through EPA’s Next Generation Compliance strategy, we’re building these tools into settlements with companies, pushing their development and implementation in communities across America.

More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Synthetic female hormones in sewage are toxic to male fish over generations

By Kristen Keteles

I’m a toxicologist at EPA in Denver, Colorado, and I study how pollutants can affect ecological and human health. I work with a team of scientists from academia (Colorado State University, University of Colorado Denver) and U.S. Geological Society to understand the potential effects of hormones and medications that are discharged into the environment. Did you know a very potent synthetic female hormone used in prescription drugs can be found in water and could be harming fish? We’re finding in our study that it can wipe out fish populations over several generations, and it’s the male fish that are most affected. Some studies have found that male fish below waste water treatment plants, and exposed to female hormones, can lose their masculine characteristics and become indistinguishable from females. Our new study found that a potent form of the female hormone estrogen used in prescription drugs not only causes the males to look female, it also appears to be toxic to male fish and these effects may impact future generations of fish.

Where do these hormones and medications come from? All of us. Humans excrete hormones and medications, which often end up in our rivers and streams from sewage. Disposing of medications by flushing can also contribute to pharmaceuticals in the environment. A growing human population, combined with effects of climate change like decreasing precipitation, has resulted in many streams containing higher concentrations of waste water. In fact, some streams in the west are 90% waste water. Not a nice thought if you like to kayak and fish, like I do. The water IS treated, but many hormones and pharmaceuticals are not completely removed by the waste water treatment plants. So, more people and less water equals more hormones and drugs in the water. My team is trying to determine what this means for fish, and ultimately for people, too. Although, currently, EPA does not have water quality standards for these types of chemicals, our study may help determine if such water quality standards are needed.

We looked at effects of exposure to a synthetic estrogen used in prescription drugs to fathead minnows over multiple generations by conducting experiments, both in the laboratory and in outdoor water tanks that mimic natural conditions.

Chemical exposure to female hormones in prescription drugs was found to increase the chances of death in male fish, but not females. And, fish exposed when they were young, but not as adults, were not able to reproduce later on in life. In addition, fish that weren’t even exposed to the prescription drugs, but were born to parents who were exposed, were less likely to reproduce. It could be that synthetic estrogen in prescription drugs, combined with other natural and synthetic hormones in the water, are reducing male fish fertility and could affect fish populations.

This is why it’s important to do what we can to protect fish breeding habitats in unpolluted areas. What are some things that your community can do to protect fish habitat? Read our information on how to dispose of unused medications to reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals that end up in water.

About the author: Kristen Keteles is a toxicologist in the Support Program of the Office of Ecosystems Protection and Remediation in EPA Region 8 in Denver. She has been with EPA for six years.

Fish A is a normal male fathead minnow. Fish C is a normal female fathead minnow. Fish B is a male that was exposed to female hormones in prescription drugs and looks more like a female than a male.

Fish A is a normal male fathead minnow. Fish C is a normal female fathead minnow. Fish B is a male that was exposed to female hormones in prescription drugs and looks more like a female than a male.

 

EPA Fish Team scientists: Al Garcia, Kristen Keteles, Elaine Lai, and Adrian Krawczeniuk.

EPA Fish Team scientists: Al Garcia, Kristen Keteles, Elaine Lai, and Adrian Krawczeniuk.

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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Environmental Issues Know No Boundaries

By Salimatou Pratt

If you’re like me, talking about environmental issues is normal, especially around the dinner table with family and friends. Coming from Conakry, Guinea, and learning about how I may have been exposed to toxicity from local industries while growing up, has intensified my desire to be part of the bigger environmental discussion. Interning in EPA’s Office of Public Engagement has given me a unique perspective on how the agency connects with communities, both nationally and internationally.

When I visited my family in Guinea two years ago, I paid attention to things I hadn’t thought about before, such as lead-based paintpesticides, and contaminants in drinking water.  In my community, these are things that directly affect the homes we live in, the food we eat, and the water we drink. I have seen firsthand how the lack of oversight of these basic needs has taken a devastating toll on people, families and communities. While pursuing my liberal arts degree at The Evergreen State College, I’ve concentrated on environmental studies to learn more about health hazards, both here in the US and in my home country.

I constantly ask myself what I can do to help the most vulnerable people, like children, pregnant moms and seniors. The first step towards addressing these issues is to raise awareness, so I’ve been helping to support the current conversation about EPA’s proposed standards on carbon pollution for existing power plants in the US. It’s exciting to know that everyone in this country has the opportunity to comment on rules like this and that their voices are an important part of the rule making process.

I’m committed to applying my knowledge of public health and lessons learned during my coursework and internship to help educate those around me, especially the most vulnerable in my local community in Guinea.

About the author: Salimatou Pratt is a fall intern with EPA’s Office of Public Engagement and is graduating from The Evergreen State College in Tacoma, Washington. She is planning to further the conversation about the environment in her home town of Conakry, Guinea.

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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Becoming a Mom = New Concerns and Habits

By Jessica Orquina

Life changes often lead to new habits or concerns. I have always been concerned about the environment and prefer to purchase products that are not toxic to me, my family, or the planet. For example, I recycle whenever I’m able and I prefer walking or public transportation over driving. However, I have to admit I didn’t nag others about these things and have opted for convenience over sustainability more than once.

This year, my husband and I are expecting our first child. I’m finding this new chapter in my life is changing my habits and causing me to think more about my impact on the planet.

As an expectant mother, my concern about the safety of the products I buy has almost become an obsession. The decisions I make no longer just affect me, my husband, and our home – they now have an impact on our child. This new perspective has me researching and reading labels more. Since I work for EPA, I’m familiar with our Design for the Environment (DfE) program and always look for cleaning products that have the DfE label. This helps me feel good that I am not exposing my family – including my soon to be born son – to unsafe chemicals.

When buying other products, I think about the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. As Lina wrote in a recent blog, the first one can often be the hardest to tackle, but it’s the most important; there’s a reason for that order. I also live in the city and have limited space, so it’s an important one for me to consider. As I’m getting ready for our new baby, I’ve been overwhelmed with the amount of stuff that advertisements insist I need as an expectant mother. I’ve tried to focus on getting only what both the baby and I will really need. Even still, I have to get rid of some of my old things to make room for the baby and his gear. This is where two other Rs come in: Reuse and Recycle. To make room for the baby, I’ve been giving the things I no longer need to people that can reuse them, or I’ve been donating them. I recycle the rest.

What do you do to help protect our planet for your children?

About the author: Jessica Orquina works in the Office of External Affairs and Environmental Education as the social media lead for the agency. Prior to joining EPA, she served military and commercial airline pilot. She lives, works, and writes in Washington, DC.

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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For A Safe And Healthy Home

By Lina Younes

Are you handy around the house? Are you skilled at using tools and fixing things? Would you consider yourself a do-it-yourselfer? Well, certain home repairs and remodeling activities can harm your health and that of your family if not done properly.

Here are some tips to make those needed repairs while protecting your home environment:

Lead– Do you live in a home built before 1978? It may have lead-based paint. Lead is a toxic metal that adversely affects people’s nervous system and causes behavioral, learning and hearing problems. If you are going to paint your home, you should work safely. Use protective clothing and the right equipment to prevent old lead-based paint chips or lead dust from contaminating the air during the renovation process.

Mold – Do you have leaky faucets or water damage inside your home? Moisture or water accumulation may lead to a problem with mold. In turn, mold spores indoors can cause allergic reactions and other health problems. It’s important to fix any plumbing or water problems as soon as possible. Dry all items completely.

Indoor air quality – Poor ventilation is one of the main culprits of poor indoor air quality. Clean your air filters regularly to ensure good air quality and improve the energy efficiency of your air conditioning and heating system. Not only does that improve your health and the efficiency of your system, but in the long run it saves you money, too.

Pesticides – When it comes to pest control, prevention is key. However, if in spite of your best efforts towards integrated pest management, those unwanted creatures infest your home, what should you do? Use pesticides properly and start by reading the label first.

As you can see, with some simple steps, you can make sure that your home is a healthy place for you and your family. Here is some additional information to help you save energy, save money and make your home greener and healthier.

Do you have any do-it-yourself tips that you would like to share with us? We would love to hear from you.

About the author:  Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual Communications Liaison for EPA. She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

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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Changing the Health of a Community – Beyond Land Cleanup

By Mathy Stanislaus

When I went to Omaha, NE last week, I was excited for Superfund’s big announcement: the delisting of over 1,000 residential parcels from the Omaha Lead Superfund site. This was an important milestone in EPA’s overall site cleanup activities, particularly for the residents whose properties were contaminated with toxic lead from the ASARCO smelter cleaned up.

It was also important to the children of the community – our efforts resulted in measurable health improvements: the percentage of children in eastern Omaha with elevated blood lead levels have been reduced from nearly 33 percent before 1998 to less than two percent today.

By reducing blood lead levels, you change people’s lives. You protect a child for his/her entire life and you change the health of a community. As part of one of the largest cleanup projects – particularly in an urban setting – in the Superfund program with over 40,000 largely lower-income residencies, I was very proud to acknowledge the public health impacts from eliminating lead exposure (significant reduction of blood lead levels in children) and the economic benefits of the cleanup.

I spoke with several people when I made the announcement and two really stood out in my mind. One individual explained that what began as basic outreach on public health resulted in a permanent institution in the community to look at children’s health at a multiple of ways that go beyond the lead cleanup.

I also spoke with the person that fields the calls from residents to deal with their issues on a day-to-day basis. They explained how challenging the work can be but understood how EPA can deal with community concerns regarding cleanups and explain how cleanups are done in a way that is protective but also accommodates their lives.

This isn’t easy work. Nor was the cleanup. It was easy to see how challenging these resident-by-resident cleanups were and I’m proud of the work EPA and contractors have done. This cleanup created hundreds of high-paying seasonal jobs and contributed to the development of a skilled labor force with job training funded through an EPA cooperative agreement with the Omaha Metropolitan Community College. Not only are we contributing to improving children’s health, but we’re transforming the community economically.

About the author: Mathy Stanislaus is assistant administrator for EPA’s Office Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

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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Making Sure Chemicals Around Us are Safe

By Jim Jones, Acting Assistant Administrator, OCSPP

Chemicals are found in most everything we use and consume— from plastics, to medicine, to cleaning products, and flame retardants in our furniture and clothing. They can be essential for our health, our well being, our prosperity and our safety— it’s no understatement to say that the quality of life we enjoy today would be impossible without chemicals. However, our understanding of chemical safety is constantly evolving and there remain significant gaps in our scientific knowledge regarding many chemicals and their potentially negative impacts on our health, and the environment.

While you may be familiar with the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts— you may not be as familiar with the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the environmental statute enacted in 1976 to regulate all chemicals manufactured and used in the U.S. When TSCA was enacted, it grandfathered in, without any evaluation, the 62,000 chemicals in commerce that existed in 1976.

Unlike the laws for drugs and pesticides, TSCA does not have a mandatory program where the EPA must conduct a review to determine the safety of existing chemicals. TSCA is the only major environmental law that has not been modernized. The process of requiring testing through rulemaking chemical-by-chemical has proven burdensome and time consuming.

Compared to 30 years ago, we have a better understanding of how we are exposed to chemicals and the distressing health effects some chemicals can have – especially on children. At the same time, significant gaps exist in our scientific knowledge of many chemicals, including those like flame retardants. Increasingly, studies are highlighting the health risks posed by certain chemicals and recent media coverage has heightened public awareness about the safety of flame retardants.

As part of EPA’s efforts to assess chemical risks, we will begin evaluating 20 flame retardants in 2013 in order to improve our understanding of the potential risks of this class of chemicals, taking action if warranted, and identifying safer substitutes when possible. Over the years, EPA has also taken a number of regulatory and voluntary efforts, including negotiating the voluntary phase-outs of several toxic flame retardants. EPA’s review of and action on flame retardants has spanned over two decades and while these are important steps forward, the long history of EPA’s action on flame retardants is tied in no small part to the shortcomings of TSCA and stands as a clear illustration of the need for TSCA reform.

We have the right to expect that the chemicals found in products that we use every day are safe and provide benefits without hidden harm. It is critical that we close the knowledge gaps and provide this assurance under a reformed, 21st century version of TSCA.

About the author: Jim Jones is the Acting Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. He is responsible for managing the office which implements the nation’s pesticide, toxic chemical, and pollution prevention laws. The office has an annual budget of approximately $260 million and more than 1,300 employees. Jim’s career with EPA spans more than 24 years. From April through November 2011, Jim served as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. He has an M.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a B.A. from the University of Maryland, both in Economics.

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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The EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory National Analysis: Facilities Preventing Pollution

By Kara Koehrn

Our economy produces goods that we depend on in our daily lives, like pharmaceuticals, clothing and cars. Sometimes during the production of those goods, toxic chemicals are released into the environment. But what can be done? Are these inevitable or is there something businesses can do to reduce or even eliminate their releases?

As Americans, we are empowered with information to help answer these questions through EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). I work for TRI, and my coworkers and I are proud to continue a community-right-to-know tradition at EPA in which TRI provides information to the public about toxic chemical releases to air, water and land right on our website. But now we are going further, highlighting examples of how industry is preventing pollution. Here is just a sample:

  • In 2011, many electric utilities installed scrubbers on their stacks which reduced air releases of hazardous air pollutants, including hydrochloric acid and mercury.
  • In the chemical manufacturing industry, some facilities improved their maintenance and production schedules to reduce toxic chemical releases in 2011. One reported reducing ammonia releases to water (a contributor to eutrophication) after instituting better process control and operator training.
  • A facility in the computer and electronics sector reported that in response to a customer’s demand for lead-free services, it used a lead-free product surface finishing line in 2011, and expects to expand this service to other customers.

Facilities report real-world success stories like these to TRI each year, and we are highlighting them in our annual analysis of TRI data, the TRI National Analysis. We publish this report every year, but EPA employees aren’t the only ones who can analyze TRI data. You can use TRI’s new pollution prevention search tool to see which industrial facilities reported the largest reductions and what measures were most effective in achieving these results. Take a look!

I hope you check out the National Analysis and try the new pollution prevention tool to see what toxic chemicals are being released nationwide and what is being done to help clean up your air, water, and land. After all, it’s your right to know.

About the author: Kara Koehrn joined EPA’s Office of Environment Information in Washington, D.C. in 2009 and is the project leader for the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) National Analysis. She has recently sold her car to take full advantage of public transportation in D.C.

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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