Posts Tagged ‘public health’

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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. 

An American River

Sep
2020
04

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The Racial History of the Anacostia Is the Racial History of the United States

Photo: Crossing the Anacostia River outside the West Hyattsville Metro

By: Eliza Nellums

In these hazy days of social distance, I like to walk along the trails that follow the Anacostia River through Prince George’s County, Maryland. There I see my neighbors, mostly people of color, cooling off in the water and teaching their kids to fish. 

But the fish in the Anacostia are dangerous to eat and, in some places, just touching the sediment at the bottom of the river is considered a cancer risk – due to “legacy toxins” from industrial development. I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy toxins – of all kinds – lately. 

The Anacostia River is only nine miles long. It flows south from Prince George’s County, through Southeast D.C. – where it gives its name to a neighborhood in Ward 8 – before it empties into the Potomac. From there the water travels into the Chesapeake Bay. 

But along its short length, it contains six different superfund sites.

The river has a rich role in American history. The name “Anacostia” is taken from the native peoples recorded by Captain John Smith. They were pushed from their lands by the 1700s. When the site of the capital city was first being decided, the Anacostia was part of the reason George Washington selected the present-day location of Washington D.C. – because it provided access to the wealthy port towns around Bladensburg. But by 1800, the city’s development had made the river too full of silt to be navigable. The Navy Yard, carved out of its banks, was key to the Union Army’s strategy during the Civil War. By 1892, the Army Corps of Engineers was required to dredge the river and fill the wetlands. Prevented from flowing naturally, the river was considered a source of disease. Barry Farm, a settlement for African-Americans, was established on the banks in 1867. It was eventually cut off from the river by the construction of a freeway in the 1950s.

As Washington D.C. continues to develop, people of color are  pushed up the river into Prince George’s County. At one point, it was among the most affluent majority African American counties in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, industrial development has been pushed upstream at the same time.  As fossil fuel plants in the city proper have been shut down, more have been built or proposed in Prince George’s County. 

As my neighbors pull catfish out of the stream – a District Department of Environment study found that 74 percent of people fishing in the river were eating or sharing the fish they caught – I think about our toxic legacy. 

A river can represent the struggles of the people that live along its banks. And like its nation, the Anacostia River will require a lot more work before we can all be safe in it. 

Eliza Nellums is a writer and a resident of Prince George’s County, Maryland. She is the author of All That’s Bright and Gone, a novel.

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By Sonia Abdulbaki

I recently wrote an article on the DC EcoWomen blog regarding the global concern of water shortage. I quote myself saying, “Luckily for us, water is a luxury available with a turn of a faucet.” Suffice to stay, I stand corrected, and have the account of the 100,000 Flint, Michigan residents to back up my claim.

You also might be wondering, where is Erin Brockovich when you need her? Well, she was right there, raising awareness on several cases of water contamination, including the recent water pollution crisis in Flint. She also brought it to the attention of President Obama, who then declared the issue a state of emergency.

According to MLive, on January 18, 2016 about 100 protesters in Ann Arbor called for the arrest of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder over the state's handling of the lead poisoning of Flint residents. Snyder lives in Ann Arbor.

According to MLive, on January 18, 2016 about 100 protesters in Ann Arbor called for the arrest of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder over the state’s handling of the lead poisoning of Flint residents. Snyder lives in Ann Arbor.

The gist of it

Before the President had a hand in the matter, Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, declared a state of emergency in December 2015. What started two years ago as a pursuit to supply water independent of Detroit to save money transpired into a water pollution crisis.

Lead from the old pipes seeped into the Flint River and citizens knew that if the water looked, smelled and tasted wrong, then something was wrong. Although the move to locally sourced water was planned as a temporary one, its expiration date came earlier than anticipated.

The event was accompanied by longer lasting effects, including the rising lead levels shown in children’s blood tests. Increased levels of lead can result in behavioral changes and negatively influence neurological development. Brockovich pleaded for action, with claims that the legionnaire’s disease was another outcome of the crisis.

Damage control

Once the news was out, the city turned back to Detroit’s water system to put things back on track. Regardless, officials responded slowly. Accountability, as well as the damage that remained, needed to be acknowledged.

Flint’s mayor set out to replace the pipes with a $55 million plan. Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, turned to the National Guard for help in giving Flint citizens clean water. The time it will take to achieve this goal is unknown. President Obama aided with $5 million and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to cover 75% of water related costs.

In the meantime, residents were taking action, obtaining water through filters and bottles and more seriously, filing a class-action lawsuit against political officials. The crisis was reported to have lasted for months, yet lawsuits are claiming that the state knew about the contamination for about one year.

Lawsuits may address accountability but major concerns remain, such as improving infrastructure and the accompanying cost, serious health risks and thorough investigation in order to stop it from happening in the future.

Erin Brockovich, an Eco-woman to be reckoned with

Erin BrockovichYou might remember her from the movie, starring Julia Roberts, as a single mother struggling to find a job, which led her to investigate a case involving the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. She discovered that land in the area was poisoning the residents, contaminated by a deadly toxic waste that the company was illegally dumping. She led her law firm into one of the largest class action lawsuits in the country’s history, one involving a multi-billion dollar corporation.

Yes, real woman, real story.

That was a couple of decades ago, and Brockovich is still on the move. She continues to fight for residents nationwide against toxic environments through her influence. Her voice resonates with the half a million followers on her social media, a platform that brought the Flint crisis to the media and government officials’ attention. Brockovich spoke out for Flint by calling out businesses, councils and the slow government response.

And yet, it is merely one of the hundreds of others in the nation whose water systems also are failing.

Sonia Abdulbaki is a freelance writer and the vice president at Daly Gray Public Relations, a firm specializing in hospitality. Sonia has extensive experience in the field of communications that includes her work at Green America. She is a contributing writer for Business Traveler magazine and MovieswithMae.com.

posted by | on , , , , , | Comments Off on Water Shortages: a Global Concern

By Sonia Abdulbaki

California drought: a dry riverbed in 2009

California drought: a dry riverbed in 2009

Luxury is a concept synonymous with grandeur – at least in the first world. Strip away the layers and we find ourselves human. And being human means food, water, shelter and reproduction are our survival tools. Luckily for us, water is a luxury available with the turn of a faucet. Yet, water shortages are happening across the world, including in major cities.

Scope of Earth’s water distribution problem

Although Earth’s surface is composed of 70% water, only 2.5% is fresh water. According to National Geographic 1% of fresh water is accessible and only 0.007% is available to the almost 7 billion people. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), most freshwater lies in underground aquifers. Other freshwater sources include rainfall, reservoirs, lakes and rivers.

Thus, water is distributed throughout the world unevenly. According to the WBCSD, more than half of fresh water lies in nine countries: the United States, Canada, Colombia, Brazil, Congo, Russia, India, China and Indonesia.

According to National Geographic, around 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. The United Nations estimates that one-fifth of the world’s population live in water-deprived areas and 500 million people will face this problem in the near future. Also, an additional 1.6 billion people experience water scarcity on an economic level.

The Nature Conservancy estimates that more than 3 billion people in major cities might experience annual water shortages lasting at least one month. And they will experience water shortages due in large part to climate change, industrialization, overpopulation, overconsumption, pollution, deforestation and destruction of wetlands.

As a child of first generation Lebanese-American parents, I have visited Lebanon many times. The electricity cut offs, low water pressure, lack of warm or clean water never resonated with me as a major issue that affected the whole world. But it was a taste of the reality that water deprived regions experience.

Mexico City, a sinking capitol

Mexico City, with 22 million residents and 25% of the Mexican population, is an overpopulated city where a small percent of citizens use a majority of the water, and demand exceeds supply. Although the city was built on top of Lake Texcoco during Aztec times, the Spaniards rebuilt the city, draining the water rather than building canals to help with the water flow.

Thus, the city’s infrastructure is unreliable; for example, distribution pipes lose 40% of the water before reaching the city’s homes. Yet Mexico consumes more bottled water than any nation in the world. Population growth is the cause of dried up wells, and the city sinking is into the lake-bed at three inches per year.

A sustainable solution for Beijing?

Water wheel in Lijiang Yunnan, China

Water wheel in Lijiang Yunnan, China

China’s water shortage is predominantly due to drought. According to CBS, Beijing’s Yongding River, along with 27,000 other rivers in the country, ran dry. And although citizens are digging wells near their homes to access ground water, their efforts are not enough.

According to the World Health Organization, around 700 million people in China drink water that does not meet their health standards. In response, the city built canals and tunnels to divert water from the humid south to the dry north, according to The Guardian. This means that many citizens need to relocate. This is not a long-term solution. Additionally, water pollution and poor infrastructure are hard to reconcile without the budget to do so.

Brazil and the economics of water, rich or poor?

Brazil possesses one-eighth of the world’s fresh water due to the Amazon and other great rivers. It is infamously rich in water resources yet it is experiencing its worst drought in a century, according to the New York Times.

Residents of Sao Paulo have started drilling their own wells and taking other measures to reduce water use. The government is executing water cutoffs and warning that the solution may be to flee the country. Experts predict that this is just the beginning of Brazil’s water crisis and will exacerbate problems with already low prices on Brazilian exports that weaken the economy.

Fuel to the conflict in the Middle East and North Africa

SYRIA, ALEPPO. Children fill tanks with water in Aleppo in 2012.

Children fill tanks with water in Aleppo, Syria in 2012.

The Middle East and North African (MENA) region receives a lot of media attention with its current political upheaval. Included in its detrimental state is its water problem.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) listed the water crisis as a contributing factor to the Syrian conflict. An inherently dry region, intense heat waves recently overwhelmed the area. WRI ranks 14 of the 33 water stressed nations to be in the MENA region. According to The Guardian, “analysts urge ending water subsidies for large farms, the raising of energy prices to discourage over-pumping and the use of ‘smart’ irrigation technologies to reduce water loss on farms.”

These are just a few cities and regions that experience regular water shortages. But from Delhi to Johannesburg to California’s dire drought, water is an eminent issue. Governments and citizens need innovation, infrastructure improvement, more efficient water usage, better management and nature-based solutions. The predicted environmental catastrophes threaten global security, forcing governments to take these issues seriously.

Sonia Abdulbaki is a Freelance Writer and Communications Specialist with experience in the environmental and hospitality industries. She is currently the Member Services Assistant at Green America and a contributing writer for Business Traveler magazine, National Wetlands Newsletter and contributing editor for MovieswithMae.com.