Posts Tagged ‘pollution’

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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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by Jennifer Witherspoon, DC EcoWomen Executive Board, Vice Chair of Communications

The Dollars and (non) Cents of Single Use Plastic Bags

Whole Foods recently selected DC EcoWomen to be a recipient of donations through its “Nickels for Nonprofits” program. Now through December 17, each time you use your own reusable bag instead of a plastic bag at any of the Whole Foods’ store locations in Montgomery County, MD, 5 cents will be donated to DC EcoWomen. Please be sure to specify at the point of purchase that you want your nickels to be donated to DC EcoWomen!

Why is this important? You’ll be supporting DC EcoWomen and our mission to inspire and empower women to become leaders for the environmental community, plus you’ll also be doing your part to reduce plastic pollution.

Plastic Bags are Suffocating the Planet

According to One Green Planet: Single-use disposable plastic bags are suffocating the planet, with 60,000 plastic bags being consumed in the U.S. every five seconds. Manufacturers produce plastic bags by using non-renewable resources, such as petroleum or natural gas. Plastic bags take huge amounts of energy to manufacture, transport across the country, and recycle. They don’t break down in landfill sites, but over time they release dangerous chemicals. Plastic bags are difficult to recycle, blocking the sorting equipment used by most recycling facilities. They contribute to a widespread, global litter problem.

Plastic trash washed up on the shore in Mexico. © John Schneider (via Flickr)

More Plastics in the Ocean than Fish by 2050

According to the Ocean Conservancy: Trash in the water and on the shore can be mistaken as food by wildlife, or entangle animals with lethal consequences. Plastic also attracts and concentrates other pollutants from surrounding seawater, posing a contamination risk to those species that then eat it. Scientists are studying the impacts of that contamination on fish and shellfish and as well as the possible impact it may have on human health as well.

Plastic bags were only introduced to the American shopper in the 1960s. In a business as usual scenario, researchers from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predict that plastic production will triple in volume from 2014 to 2050, and project that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean (by weight) by 2050.

Bag the Plastic Bag

Fortunately, cities, states and countries have been implementing bag fees since 2002. San Francisco was the first city in America to regulate the use of plastic bags in 2007 and Washington, DC soon followed with its own “Bag Law” – the first in the nation to impose a bag fee. Revenues from DC’s bag fee go to the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund and have been used to implement a variety of watershed educational, trash capture and stream restoration projects throughout the Anacostia Watershed. Though reports have been mixed on DC’s overall success in reducing plastic bag use as well as how the funds are allocated, it seems clear that we can all do our part to reduce plastic waste.

Get Active, Fight Plastic Pollution, Spread the Word!

Let’s get into action to fight plastic pollution! Please join DC EcoWomen in bringing a reusable tote to shop at Whole Foods and ask that your nickel go towards DC EcoWomen. Put an extra tote in your purse or backpack for those unanticipated shopping moments. You can purchase an EcoWomen tote bag for yourself, or to share this holiday season.

The funds from Whole Food’s Nickels for Non-Profits program supports DC EcoWomen in hosting educational events such as our recent EcoHour conversation with Julie Lawson, the co-founder of Trash Free Maryland, who led efforts to pass DC’s “Bag Law.”

We’ll have a flyer available soon so that you can help spread the word in your office or in your community. You can also follow DC EcoWomen on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and re-share our posts with your community. You can post photos of yourself shopping with a reusable bag too! Please tag @WholeFoods and @DCEcoWomen and consider using hash tags such as #BagPlastic #NickelsforDCEcoWomen.

If the plastic bag was introduced to shoppers 40 years ago, let’s ban it in the next 40 years!