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Natural Resources Defense Council

By Gina Solomon

Used with permission of NRDC – Switchboard

There are so many toxic chemicals and pollutants in our air, water, food and consumer products that it's easy to just focus on one at a time and get stuck in the details of each specific case. But sometimes it's helpful to step back and look at the big picture.The National Academies of Science (NAS) did precisely that nearly three years ago in a landmark report on protecting people from toxic chemicals. The report, entitled Science and Decisions: Advancing Risk Assessment, contained a series of clear recommendations directed at government agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), about how to use science to protect health. Unfortunately, the NAS recommendations have largely been ignored by both the EPA and the FDA. As we approach the third anniversary of the NAS report, it's a good time to look at the four most important recommendations from this impressive panel of scientists. Here's a summary based on their recommendations:

  1. Identify and incorporate variability in human exposure and vulnerability into health assessments, so that all people are better protected.
  2. When information is missing or unreliable, use science-based default assumptions that protect health, rather than waiting for more data, to speed up the chemical assessment and decision-making processes. There should be a clear set of criteria for when to depart from default assumptions.
  3. In assessing the risk of chemicals, incorporate information about the potential impacts of exposure to multiple chemicals. Consider other factors, such as exposure to biological and radiological agents, and social conditions.
  4. Because the population is exposed to multiple chemicals and there is a wide range of susceptibility to chemical exposures, it cannot be presumed that any—even low level—exposures are risk-free. It should be assumed that low levels of exposures are associated with some level of risk, unless there are sufficient data to contradict this assumption.

Since not very many people will want to read the full 424 page NAS report, the committee's recommendations are summarized and interpreted in a new NRDC and SEHN issue paper entitled, Strengthening Toxic Chemical Risk Assessments to Protect Human Health. Incorporating the recommendations of the NAS scientists into current decisions would substantially change the way the EPA and FDA are approaching a host of key issues.

For example:

  • I have previously blogged about hexavalent chromium, the chemical made famous in the movie Erin Brockovich. This widespread drinking water contaminant is known to cause cancer in humans, but one popular industry argument asserts that the substance is detoxified to a non-cancer-causing form of chromium in the acidic environment of the stomach. The industry argument is that the EPA shouldn't regulate hex chrome as a carcinogen because most people can detoxify it. The NAS report urges greater caution—Identify and incorporate variability in human exposure and vulnerability into health assessments, so that all people are better protected. There are at least 20 million prescriptions each year for acid-reducing medications. People on these medications are not able to effectively detoxify cancer-causing chromium in their drinking water. EPA needs to protect these people when it moves forward to assess the risks from hex chrome and ultimately to set a drinking water standard. 
  • After the Gulf oil spill, the FDA assessed seafood safety and concluded that there were no health risks. Their calculations relied on a series of default assumptions that were not consistent with the NAS recommendations. As described more fully in this blog, and this peer-reviewed publication, the FDA adopted unrealistically low assumptions about how much seafood people eat, assumed that the most common contaminant was not a carcinogen even though it is officially designated as such, and assumed that the average consumer weighs 176 pounds, therefore failing to protect many women and all children. These assumptions should be revised to be health-protective. It's hard to justify consumer confidence in Gulf seafood without reasonable default assumptions. 
  • Phthalates are chemicals that interfere with normal male hormones such as testosterone, and they have been linked to genital abnormalities in baby boys. These chemicals are widespread in certain plastics and other consumer products. Until Congress acted, these chemicals were also widespread in toys. My colleague Sarah Janssen discusses the science in her blog on phthalates. Although it's easy to just focus on one chemical at a time, a study of phthalates and pesticides found that in test animals, a mixture of up to 10 chemicals that disrupt male reproductive development by multiple mechanisms resulted in more frequent and severe birth defects than with any of the chemicals individually. This science underscores that EPA needs to heed the recommendation by the NAS to consider the cumulative effects of multiple chemicals and other stressors together as it completes its assessment of phthalates. 
  • Mercury, another important and widespread environmental contaminant, is a particular hazard to people who eat fish. Because it does not cause cancer, the FDA and EPA assume that there is a threshold below which mercury is non-toxic to humans. In fact, this assumption is universal for non-carcinogens, even for chemicals such as mercury that affect the normal functioning of the brain and for which no safe level has been determined, despite numerous large studies in humans. The NAS instead recommended that the scientific assumption should not be so different for neurotoxins and other toxic chemicals than it is for carcinogens; if no safe level is demonstrated in human or laboratory studies, then a safe level should not be assumed.This is yet another reason why the EPA and FDA should not back away from—and should instead strengthen—recommendations that pregnant women and children limit consumption of mercury-containing fish. It's also another reason to applaud recent EPA efforts to reduce or eliminate important sources of mercury pollution such as power plants, as described by my colleague Peter Lehner in his blog. Learn more about mercury at NRDC's guide to Staying Healthy and Fighting Back.

Just this week, the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) stated that she was "scared to death" by the anti-science movement ...spreading, uncontrolled, across the U.S. and the rest of the western world." It is becoming increasingly clear that the anti-science movement is fueled and funded by a small group of major corporate interests and individuals. Read more in this recent expose in the Guardian. The goal of the attack on science is to stop much-needed government regulations on toxic chemicals and other pollutants (such as greenhouse gases) that harm health. One sign of the success of the anti-science movement is that this important NAS science report has been sitting unheeded for nearly three years. It's time for the EPA and FDA to sit up and take notice.

For more information, click here.

Environmental Integrity Project

Three years after the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tn., the U.S. has not yet established standards to curb the threat to public health and waterways posed by unstable or leaking ash ponds at coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, the volume of toxic metals in the ash that power plants dumped in ponds rose 9 percent in 2010, the most recent year for which information is available.

According to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP)—“… the most recent data from the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory show that disposal in these big ponds was higher in 2010 than it has been since 2007, the year before the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) spill.  Yet EPA’s proposal to set standards for safe disposal—which included a plan to close down ash ponds within five years—has gone nowhere.”

In 2010, power plants reported using coal-ash pond dump sites to dispose of wastes containing 113.6 million pounds of toxic metals or metal compounds, a category that includes arsenic, chromium, lead, and other pollutants that are hazardous in small concentrations and difficult to remove from the environment once released. That reflects a 9 percent increase in pond disposal since 2009, and is higher than the total reported in 2008.

In an indication of how power plants vary when it comes to coal-ash dump sites, EIP found that 20 facilities account for more than half (57 million pounds) of the toxic metals contained in power plant waste and disposed of in surface impoundments in 2010. Four of these are in Alabama, three in Georgia, and two in Missouri.  Just ten states accounted for three quarters of total pond disposal in 2010, including (from lowest to highest)—Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Michigan.

“Not only are coal ash impoundment levels rising, rather than dropping, but we are seeing efforts by some in Congress to thwart EPA efforts to protect the health of Americans from toxic coal ash dump sites," said EIP Director Eric Schaeffer. "EPA proposed in June of 2010 to require the closure of surface impoundments within five years. If the agency manages to issue a final rule before the end of 2012, that ban would take effect at the end of 2017, a full nine years after the TVA spill. In view of the hazards these ash ponds present, that seems long enough.”

The concentration of arsenic or other metals in ash or scrubber sludge can vary, based on the source of the coal and the effectiveness of air pollution control devices in removing these contaminants from stack gases. An increase in reported disposal volumes for these metals can mean either a rise in concentration of toxic metals in coal combustion waste, or an increase in the volume of waste containing these metals, or both.

Most surface impoundments are unlined, which means that the toxins in the ash are more likely to seep through the bottom of these ponds and into groundwater or nearby rivers and creeks. The limited amount of monitoring data shows that this is already happening at many sites that have used surface impoundments for ash disposal for decades.

On Dec. 13, 2011, EIP released monitoring data from state files showing that a total of 20 additional coal ash dump sites causing groundwater and soil contamination in 10 states—Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas—have been uncovered around the U.S. Previous EIP reports identified similar contamination at 70 other sites across the country.

The full text of the new EIP analysis is available online by clicking here.

For more information, click here.

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The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in March of 2002 by former EPA enforcement attorneys to advocate for effective enforcement of environmental laws. EIP has three goals—(1) to provide objective analyses of how the failure to enforce or implement environmental laws increases pollution and affects public health; (2) to hold federal and state agencies, as well as individual corporations, accountable for failing to enforce or comply with environmental laws; and (3) to help local communities obtain the protection of environmental laws.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Greenpeace East Asia

By Monica Tan

Earlier this year we were all shocked by the news that a chemical company in southern China's Yunnan province had been illegally dumping toxic cancer-causing waste near the village of Xinglong. The problem was so serious that the Chinese press began calling Xinglong a cancer village. Yunnan Liuliang Chemical Industry had dumped 5,000 tons of the hazardous waste and had another 140,000 tons that would likely have ended up the same way if they had not been discovered. The waste should have been driven to the neighbouring province of Guizhou to a processing plant.

The chemical waste, containing toxic chromium VI, had seeped into the soil, drinking water and crops. And the villagers did not know the real dangers. They were still drinking the water and walking in their fields barefoot.

As soon as we heard about the news, Greenpeace sent a rapid response team to the area to document the problem and raise awareness among the local people. When we tested the water used by the villagers for drinking, the levels of chromium VI were so high the readings went off the scale.

Our work and the resulting media attention then kick-started a clean-up campaign. The local government fenced off the polluted area, surveyed the region for other illegal waste sites, tested for levels of contamination and then made the results public.

There are many other chromium waste dump sites across China, endangering people's lives and polluting the land and water. Following our work in Yunnan, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced a national crackdown on chromium waste sites, with clear timelines. And it's had a positive spill-on effect into other waste issues such as e-waste.

Then in October, local environmental NGO (non-governmental organization), Friends of Nature, filed a public interest law suit against Luliang Chemical for dumping the toxic chromium waste. This is the first time a grassroots Chinese NGO has successfully brought a public interest lawsuit to court.

Ma Tianjie, from Greenpeace in Beijing, was part of the Greenpeace rapid response team that was dispatched to Yunnan to investigate that toxic chromium dump. Here he shares with us his experiences:

The drivers working for the chemical company were lazy and so they dumped the toxic chromium waste in several sites in the hills here. Rain washed the waste into a nearby reservoir killing dozens of cattle and sheep. And the bigger problem is that Liuliang Chemical still has more than 100,000 tons of untreated chromium waste. If there was a bad storm this waste could contaminate the source of the Pearl River and turn it into a toxic soup.

We visited a nearby village, called Xinglong, which because of abnormally high rates of cancer has been dubbed a cancer village by the media. We took some measurements from the mouth of an underground aquifer, which locals call 'the dragon's fountain' and it was hundreds of times over the safe limit for chromium. But still local villagers plant their crops barefoot and put their cattle and sheep out to graze on this contaminated land. They told us crops fail and their livestock die for no reason.

The other members of the emergency response team and I put on rubber boots, gloves and masks, and dug through the chromium waste dump to take suitable samples. We also told the villagers how to protect themselves and urged the local government to take immediate action.

Sadly, this dump in Liuliang County is not the only one. There are similar toxic dump sites all across the country including in Tianjin, Henan and Hunan. They are like toxic time bombs. We hope that we can use this Yunnan example to kick start a big cleanup everywhere. We have taken the first step.

Chromium VI—Fast Facts

  • Heavy metal, highly toxic, commonly used in electroplating or in the manufacture of stainless steel.
  • Included on China's national list of hazardous waste, one of eight substances most harmful to the human body.
  • Difficult to break down, it requires years or even decades to completely clean up.
  • In the U.S., similar contaminated sites are still not completely clean even after 30 years.

For more information, click here.

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