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Family members embrace at the burned remains of their home after the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Vacaville, California on August 23, 2020. Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

By Jamie Smith Hopkins

Disasters are stressful. Our warming world keeps adding fuel to the fires — and floods and hurricanes, among other calamities. What can be done about the trauma that follows?

By Jamie Smith Hopkins

Disasters are stressful. Our warming world keeps adding fuel to the fires — and floods and hurricanes, among other calamities. What can be done about the trauma that follows?

The Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations and our partners in newsrooms around the country have been reporting on this for months. We’ve learned a lot by asking experts: people who’ve lived through disasters and the professionals who study this or provide hands-on help. More than 230 shared their experiences in our detailed survey, and we interviewed dozens of additional people.

Some takeaways:

Be aware. It might seem simplistic, but you’re one step ahead if you know that surviving a disaster and dealing with the long aftermath can be hard on mental health. Keep an eye out for symptoms, not just obvious ones like constant worrying or feeling short-tempered, but also trouble sleeping (or oversleeping), overeating (or lack of appetite) and heavy drinking. Remember that kids can feel the impact, too, and that might show up as acting out or trouble in school.

You might notice effects right away. Or they might take a while to surface. Either way, it’s normal — and it can linger. Hilton Kelley, whose community of Port Arthur, Texas, was heavily affected by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, sums it up: “It will be years before we get out of this.”

Seek support. Most people who took our survey didn’t get mental-health services after their disaster experience. Some couldn’t afford therapy or other assistance. Some thought they didn’t need it, though the emotional challenges a portion of them reported made us wonder if support could have made the hard times more bearable. Some free avenues to try:

  • The Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program. States with a qualifying major disaster can tap a federal grant to offer emotional support to residents, usually available for up to a year. You can talk to a counselor by phone or potentially a video-conferencing platform (and pre-COVID, you could meet in person). Counselors won’t keep case files on you, and you can access the help multiple times while the program is running. Counselors will try to connect you with local mental-health services if you want more assistance and might also refer you to other sorts of help, such as disaster aid. Most states are running this program amid the pandemic, but you can call the Federal Emergency Management Agency (800-621-FEMA) to find out how to access it.
  • The federal Disaster Distress Helpline. It’s available round the clock for calls (800-985-5990) and texts (instructions here) in English and Spanish. Counselors offer coping advice and can make referrals to other services.
  • General mental-health helplines. Those include ones run by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and local affiliates, the Crisis Text Line and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  • Your community. Family, friends, your pastor or other religious leaders, your child’s school counselor, neighbors, co-workers — support can come from a variety of places. Other disaster survivors, for instance: They know what you’re going through in a way that no one else can.

Our investigation found that many survivors never hear about or receive help from the federal crisis counseling program, the country’s main response to the mental-health consequences of disasters. As extreme weather worsens, that puts more pressure on other forms of assistance.

“We don’t have enough mental-health providers in all of the country to manage huge, large-scale disasters — nor will people use them,” said Dr. Joshua C. Morganstein, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. “That is why communities and organizations become so important.”

Offer help. Some disaster survivors found solace as they assisted others, one way to get some control back in a situation primed to make people feel powerless.

“It helped me to keep my sanity,” said Kelley, a restauranteur whose family’s post-disaster efforts included cooking gumbo for people in the community.

Solemi Hernandez, a Florida resident whose employer shuttered after Hurricane Irma in 2017 and who searched for weeks for a new job, saw personal benefits from volunteer work. “Losing myself in service to others … is a way I became stable and not as depressed,” she said.

Take action. Identifying a problem that caused or worsened the disaster’s impacts — and then pressing for fixes — is a key way some survivors bolstered their wellbeing.

Hernandez, a regional coordinator for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, presses for action on global warming, a force multiplier for disasters. Her advice to survivors: “Use that trauma. Turn that trauma and that suffering into being politically active.”

Kathleen Sullivan, who lives west of Chicago, doggedly advocated for stormwater-control measures in her city’s flood-prone neighborhoods, including hers. Twice her house flooded; two more times she had close calls. It took years, but showing up at city council meetings, organizing with other residents and not letting elected officials ignore the problem got results. It was also a powerful coping mechanism.

“We met all these awesome people we wouldn’t have met,” said Sullivan, who linked up with Higher Ground, a national flood-survivor group. “And we can sleep now — mostly — when it rains.”

Kevin McKinney’s neighborhood in Richwood, Texas, south of Houston, weathered Hurricane Harvey. The devastating flood, he said, came four days later. He and hundreds of other neighbors organized, then sued a nearby city whose floodwater diversion efforts, they allege, damaged their homes. That complaint is pending.

“I didn’t know which way to turn, I didn’t know which way to go. Then you know what? I got it together, and then I got mad,” he said. “Not only did I get mad, but 500 other people around here got mad.”

As disasters hit with more frequency, communities also face questions about how to organize help in the aftermath. Areas with fewer resources need more support to recover. But too often, studies show, they get less of it instead. Dr. Octavio N. Martinez Jr., executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health in Texas, wants to see that change.

“We ought to have a disaster response strategic plan designed to prioritize the ZIP codes that we know are going to end up suffering the most and are going to have the most difficulty in recuperating,” he said.

Prepare for next time. Almost all the survivors we surveyed were concerned more disasters will hit their community. We heard from a lot of people in regions struck by multiple wildfires, floods or hurricanes in the last decade, and some cope with that anxiety by getting prepared.

Kelley built a berm around his house to reduce flood risks. R.L. Miller, whose California community in Ventura County was burned by the Woolsey Fire in 2018, is diligent about clearing brush on her property.

Others are thinking of leaving — or they’ve already left. A handful of survey respondents said they moved out of their community at least in part to try to avoid another big hurricane, flood or fire.

Whether to stay or go is a fraught decision. It’s one that more and more Americans will be forced to confront as climate change worsens — further increasing inequality. Dr. Irwin Redlener with Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness urges communities to get ahead of this.

“We have to prepare for more dramatic changes,” he said. “Many places that may be habitable right now may become uninhabitable. … We’re just at the beginning of the most serious consequences of unabated climate change.”

Hernandez, who lives in Naples, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, sees her climate action as one form of long-term prep work. Hurricane Irma, a wildfire in her county in May, local flooding from heavy rain, the increasingly unbearable temperatures in the summer: These are warnings of a future she wants to avert.

“I never thought about moving. I love this place,” Hernandez said. “We can do something to save it.”

This story originally appeared in The Center for Public Integrity and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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By Jamie Smith Hopkins

Home-improvement giant Lowe's is phasing out paint-removal products with methylene chloride, responding to petitions in the wake of deaths caused by the chemical.

By Jamie Smith Hopkins

Home-improvement giant Lowe’s is phasing out paint-removal products with methylene chloride, responding to petitions in the wake of deaths caused by the chemical.

The company’s decision, announced Tuesday, will get the products off store shelves by the end of this year. As their fumes build up in bathrooms, basements and other enclosed areas, they can kill: A Center for Public Integrity investigation in 2015 found that more than 50 people died since 1980 using methylene chloride—often in paint strippers—for work or personal projects.

Since last year, at least four people have been found dead midway through projects in which they used such paint removers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had been slow-walking a would-be ban, proposed shortly before President Donald Trump’s inauguration. But earlier this month, the agency said it would push forward with a rule targeting the chemical, a turnaround after officials there came under pressure from members of Congress and survivors of recent victims.

Lowe’s has faced pressure as well. Relatives of Drew Wynne, 31, who died in October while removing paint from a walk-in refrigerator at his South Carolina coffee business, joined with consumer and environmental groups to press the company to stop selling paint-stripper brands with methylene chloride. Wynne purchased his product from Lowe’s, they said. The groups said more than 200,000 people signed petitions asking the company to take action.

Lowe’s, which already sells some paint removers without methylene chloride, said it is working with suppliers to get more alternatives on the shelves.

“We care deeply about the health and safety of our customers, and great progress is being made in the development of safer and more effective alternatives,” Mike McDermott, Lowe’s chief customer officer, said in a prepared statement.

Lowe’s said it also plans to stop selling paint removers with another chemical, N-Methylpyrrolidone, that has been linked to miscarriages and other harms to unborn children.

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an advocacy group that asked Lowe’s more than a year ago to take both types of paint strippers off the shelves, said in a statement that the retailer is the first “to take action on this critical consumer and worker safety issue.” The group urged other companies to follow suit.

“When facing federal inaction on vital issues facing the American public—some of which are matters of life or death—retailers have a responsibility and an opportunity to do right by their customers,” Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families’ Mike Schade said in a statement.

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By Jamie Smith Hopkins

It might be surprising to learn that simply removing paint could be fatal, but the key ingredient in many paint-stripping products has felled dozens of people engaged in this run-of-the-mill task. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to largely ban paint strippers containing the chemical methylene chloride so they would no longer sit on store shelves, widely available for anyone to buy.

By Jamie Smith Hopkins

It might be surprising to learn that simply removing paint could be fatal, but the key ingredient in many paint-stripping products has felled dozens of people engaged in this run-of-the-mill task. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to largely ban paint strippers containing the chemical methylene chloride so they would no longer sit on store shelves, widely available for anyone to buy.

What’s happened since should be no shock to close observers of the Trump administration’s pattern of regulatory rollbacks. The EPA, after hearing from both Americans in support of a ban and companies opposed to it, pushed back its timeline for finishing the rule to an unspecified date, saying it needed more time to weigh the issue.

Consumer advocates fear the proposed rule has been effectively shelved, even as people continue to die while using methylene chloride paint strippers on bathtubs and other items—including at least three last year.

“There literally are bodies stacking up,” said Erik Olson, who directs the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. If the EPA won’t act on a chemical that’s undisputedly killing people, he said, “what are they going to act on?”

The NRDC is among the advocacy groups that plan to intensify their efforts to get these products off shelves another way—by ratcheting up pressure on home-improvement retailers such as Lowe’s and the Home Depot to stop selling them. Lowe’s said in an email to the Center for Public Integrity that it is working with suppliers on alternatives and is “committed” to nearly doubling the number of methylene chloride-free paint strippers it sells by the end of the year, to seven total.

A doctor who serves as a Maryland legislator, meanwhile, wants his state to institute the ban the EPA hasn’t finalized. And California regulators are working on a proposed rule that would require manufacturers to look for safer alternatives to methylene chloride in paint strippers. (Some such options already are on the market but don’t sell well, manufacturers say, because they don’t work as quickly.)

Even if these efforts bear fruit, they represent a patchwork approach that Congress seemed intent on avoiding when it amended the Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016. That legislation gave the EPA clear authority to ban chemicals presenting an “unreasonable risk” to health or the environment.

Often, chemical harms are hard to grasp because they’re not immediate. But methylene chloride, which research suggests carries risks of cancer and other long-term health problems, can also kill on the spot. It’s been linked to more than 50 deaths in the U.S. since 1980, a 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation found—among them a few consumers and a wide variety of workers on the job. Teenagers. A mother of four. A 62-year-old man. An Iraq War veteran.

Using the product in enclosed areas, where fumes build up, puts people at risk of asphyxiation because methylene chloride is an anesthetic at high doses—knocking victims out and stopping them from breathing. Because it turns into carbon monoxide in the body, it can also trigger heart attacks in smokers and people with certain health conditions.

“It’s too toxic to use indoors,” said Dr. Robert Harrison, an occupational medicine physician at the University of California, San Francisco.

Over the decades, methylene chloride—also called dichloromethane—has struck down people removing paint or other coatings in bathrooms, tanks, basements, even in a church baptismal pool. The public appears mostly unaware of the danger. Clerks in hardware stores didn’t seem to know, a California agency found in a 2013 survey. But experts linked the chemical to deaths as far back as the 1940s. Criticism that the EPA hadn’t done something began in the 1970s, in the agency’s early years.

The European Union pulled methylene chloride paint strippers from general use in 2011. When the EPA proposed a rule in mid-January 2017, it wanted to ban sales to consumers and most other users.

The proposal was years in the making. It came over the sustained objections of paint-stripper manufacturers and their trade groups, which argued that job losses would follow. In 2016, after the EPA’s work on its proposed rule was well underway, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance petitioned the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to strengthen the products’ warning labels—then argued last year that this obviated the need for sales restrictions on the “most efficient and cost-effective paint remover products.”

“We certainly recognize that some people have been harmed when using methylene chloride without the appropriate safeguards, and we are committed to being a part of the solution,” Faye Graul, executive director of the alliance, said at a recent legislative hearing in Maryland.

The group, speaking on behalf of methylene chloride manufacturers and users, also said in comments on EPA’s proposed rule that the agency failed “to take into account the documented greater flammability risk posed by alternative products.”

Benzyl alcohol, recommended by some state agencies as a safer option for paint stripping, poses what the National Fire Protection Association calls a “fairly insignificant” fire hazard. The EPA noted in its proposal that methylene chloride is often mixed with flammable solvents in paint strippers on the market.

The EPA also considered whether better instructions would be enough to render methylene chloride safe. But dozens of studies “found that consumers and professionals do not consistently pay attention to labels for hazardous substances,” the agency said in its proposed rule, adding that proper safety precautions for methylene chloride are too complex for most users to successfully carry out.

In December, however, while trumpeting its deregulatory efforts, the EPA changed the categorization of its would-be ban from “Proposed Rule” to “Long-term Action.” The agency said in an emailed statement last week that officials “felt that more time was needed to consider how best to analyze and address any risks from these chemicals.”

In fact, the EPA has done that already—as part of its original proposal. Asked for an estimate on how long additional work on the rule would take and whether the agency still intended to finalize the proposal, the EPA did not respond.

Maryland Delegate Clarence Lam, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health physician with a specialty in public and occupational health, saw the EPA’s handling of this chemical as a call to action. In February the Democrat sponsored a bill to ban methylene chloride paint strippers in his state. The legislation isn’t going anywhere this legislative session, but he’s hopeful about its chances next year.

“I didn’t think further risk assessments needed to be done,” Lam said. “This chemical probably should have been banned long ago.”

Industry representatives testifying against his bill argued that a ban would be premature because the EPA is on the job. They pointed not to the languishing proposed restrictions but to a separate toxics review the agency is undertaking. Methylene chloride is one of the targeted chemicals.

But relying on that effort to get action on paint strippers could delay restrictions for years because it’s an opportunity for the agency to retrace all the steps it already completed, said Liz Hitchcock, who heads Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a group that works to get toxic substances out of products.

“In the absence of EPA taking action, we are urging—and definitely increasing our efforts to persuade—the largest home-improvement retailers to take action on their own,” she said, and get “these dangerous products off their store shelves.”

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Center for Public Integrity.

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