Posts Tagged ‘chemicals’

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By: Kaley Beins

“In order to protect public health from chemical contamination, there needs to be a massive outcry–a choir of voices–by the American people demanding change.” When Lois Gibbs reflected on her 20 years of environmental health activism she wrote this call to action in the context of her activism in Love Canal, NY, the birthplace of EPA Superfund legislation. Now, almost 40 years after the legislation was passed, Americans still face the consequences of toxic exposures from waste sites, industrial pollution, and even consumer products. Movies like Erin Brockovich and Dark Waters dramatize industry contamination of communities, while news stories like the Flint water crisis demonstrate the prevalence of toxic exposures, especially for low income communities and communities of color. 

Yet, legislation to prevent such exposures often dies in committee or, worse, on the lips of the politicians espousing it. While we wait for updated and implemented toxics regulations, we can educate ourselves about environmental health and advocate for policies to prevent, or at least mitigate, toxic exposures. 

One of the trickier parts of being informed is understanding how researchers and government agencies define the exposure levels associated with human health effects. Some evaluations, such as IARC and EPA carcinogenicity classifications, are based on the amount of available data from animal and human studies. However, in my opinion, the most meaningful information on chemical exposures is based on exposure dose, or the amount of a chemical you are exposed to. Unfortunately, these values will vary between agencies, but by knowing how exposure limits are determined, you can better understand how protective (or permissive) environmental policies and guidelines are. 

The largest distinction between set exposure limits in the United States is whether or not they are legally enforceable. Legally enforceable limits are upheld by law and are usually determined by the U.S. EPA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and state agencies. Non-regulatory agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) publish research and guidelines on chemical exposure limits, but these limits are not legally enforceable. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some federal exposure limits and how they’re determined: 

Enforceable: 

  • EPA National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are measures of allowable air pollution for 6 criteria air pollutants as permitted under the Clean Air Act. 
  • EPA Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) is the legal limit for chemicals in drinking water, as enforced by EPA. When determining MRLs, EPA considers the cost and technology required to remove contaminants in addition to the available health data.
  • OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) are levels of exposure allowed for workers over the course of the work day. 

Not enforceable 

  • ATSDR Minimal Risk Levels (MRLs) are levels derived from toxicological studies in humans or animals. 
  • EPA Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) is the limit for chemicals in drinking water below which no human health effects are expected to occur. Not to be confused with MCLs, MCLGs are determined only using health data. They may be slightly lower than MCLs. 
  • NIOSH Recommended Exposure Limits (RELs) are levels of exposure that NIOSH recommends workers do not meet or exceed during the work day. RELS are often used to help determine OSHA PELs.

The differences between these values can inform how you and your community use them. However, many chemicals may not have any exposure limits, either because they are not regulated or because insufficient health data exist. Nevertheless, information about chemical exposure levels and the risks associated with them is crucial in promoting environmental health. The following resources can help you stay informed about environmental health risks in your community:

As you engage with contamination issues in and outside your community, you can use these resources to arm yourself with information, then organize locally, collaborate nationally, engage politically, and stay involved. As Baltimore activist Destiny Watford said in an interview, “I realized it is important to question why people invested in something, why things are the way they are, and what can I do to change things in a way that isn’t superficial but gets to the root of the problem.” 

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Kaley Beins, MPH is an environmental health researcher who works at the intersection of public health and toxicology. During her career she’s worked with nonprofits, local health departments, and federal agencies, and she’s learned the ins and outs of chemical regulation and exposure, as well as how much of that information is available to the public. Kaley is passionate about education and empowerment as an avenue for environmental justice and health equity. 

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Written By EcoWomen Guest Blogger Brenna Mannion

You have met those people. The ones who exclaim, “Mosquitos just don’t bother me!” accompanied by a nonchalant shrug. Well I hate those people. Not that it’s their fault, obviously, but mosquitos and all their winged brethren love to bite me. I grew up in central New York, and once the snow melted, all you wanted to do was be outside. To survive, I spent my formative years basically bathing in traditional insect repellants. But as an adult I realize that just because they reduce the amount of bug bites and itchy discomfort, the chemicals contained in those products are harsh (at best) and dangerous (at worst). You know something? I’m wary of spraying myself with bug repellants containing DEET and all sorts of other chemicals that are so powerful, according to the “OFF!” website they can “harm plastics and acrylics”. Um, if it breaks down heavy plastics, imagine the havoc it wreaks on your epidermis. So, outside of wearing long pants and sleeves in the swampy DC summer heat, what’s a natural gal to do?

The answer lies in essential oils. Bugs do not like the smell of things like eucalyptus, rosemary, and lemongrass. There are two avenues to take advantage of various oils, buy one of the many commercially available “natural bug sprays” or make your own. To save yourself a ton of trial and error, there are basic recipes online that you can use as a starting point and customize them to your liking. Most involve a handful of essential oils, putting them into a small hand held sprayer and mixing them with a carrier liquid. But not water! Another reason to buy that large bottle of vodka this weekend. My favorite combination is eucalyptus and lavender. The trick is lots of reapplication – but that’s not hard when it smells so lovely, instead of the inside of a laboratory. This whole homemade bug spray thing may sound hokey, but it really works. I know from personal experience – as well as a raving testimonial from a male friend who used this method while fishing in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and in Darwin, Australia during the wet season. He said his stuff was just as effective as any pesticide/chemical based spray.

Eucalyptus, cinnamon, and peppermint are all good insect repelling essential oils. If you’re not a DIY-er, there are natural repellants available online and at places like Whole Foods. A couple of good brands to try are California Baby, Herbal Armor, and Bite Blocker. Many of the commercial repellants rely heavily on citronella oil, so if that smell brings back unpleasant memories of backyard barbeques with angry Aunt Betty, then you may want to consider making your own.

Now, with all that being said, if you plan on doing real deep woods hiking, with lots of exposure to ticks that may carry Lyme disease, it might be preferable to wear long sleeves and pants, and carry a backup spray with the powerful, DEET-containing repellents on the edges of your clothes (avoiding direct skin contact). Sometimes Mother Nature just has the upper hand. But for the vast majority of your summer activities, natural repellants will work wonderfully!

If none of this sounds appealing, here are a few more avant-garde ideas. The internet is full of testimonials of people who eat garlic or take vitamin B1 supplements to ward off ‘skeeters. Be mindful though, that your boyfriend may not appreciate you swallowing raw cloves of garlic before going camping in a small tent. Try installing a bat house! If you can get bats to nest near your home or vacation spot, as my friend says “they can hang out and eat all the mosquitos.” Please let us know how that works out. If nothing else, it will be fun around Halloween.