Backyard Talk
Steve

Flint, MI: A Clear Case of Environmental Injustice

By Stephen Lester : March 28, 2016 6:37 pm

An independent panel appointed last October by Michigan Governor Rick Synder to investigate why things went so wrong in Flint released its findings last week. The Flint Water Advisory Task Force report blasted the state’s handling of the crisis and painted a picture of “government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice.”

While there was plenty of blame to go around, the five member panel singled out the state-appointed emergency managers who were trying to save money, the state departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services for their role in handling Flint’s water issues, and Snyder and his staff for their lack of oversight. According to the report, “Neither the governor nor the governor’s office took steps to reverse poor decisions by MDEQ and state-appointed emergency managers until October 2015, in spite of mounting problems and suggestions to do so by senior staff members in the governor’s office, in part because of continued reassurances from MDEQ that the water was safe.”

The report also concluded that, “The facts of the Flint water crisis lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice.” The New York Times reported that the panel’s report “put a spotlight on a long-running civil rights issue: whether minorities and the poor are treated differently when it comes to environmental matters, relegating them to some of the most dangerous places in the country: flood prone areas of New Orleans that were devastated after Hurricane Katrina; highly polluted parts of Detroit and the Bronx; and ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, where residents who live near factories suffer disproportionately from disease.”

According to the Times story, the report concluded that “Flint residents, who are majority black or African-American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities.”

The Task Force also singled out the activism of local residents and credited the “critical role played by engaged Flint citizens, by individuals both inside and outside of government who had the expertise and willingness to question and challenge government leadership,” along with “members of a free press who used the tools that enable investigative journalism.”

The Task Force report does a good job of unpacking the numerous failures especially at the state level that led to the crisis in Flint and how things got so out of control. But what underlies everything is the patented disregard for the people who live in this predominately African American city. The case for environmental injustice was never so clear.

Read the full 116-page report of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force and its 44 recommendations here

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Teresa

Floored by Health Authorities Decision

By Teresa Mills : March 23, 2016 5:06 pm

Around every corner there are threats to our health and safety.  The CDC found cancer risks from laminated flooring imported from China could reach 30 in 100,000, but didn’t think it important enough to suggest people remove the flooring.  REALLY!  How is 30 people out of 100,000 getting cancer from the flooring not considered assault with a deadly weapon?  The weapon being the flooring and the deadly being cancer.

I include the CDC/ATSDR statement to show just how inept our government health agencies have become.

On February 10, 2016, CDC/ATSDR released a report entitled Possible Health Implications from Exposure to Formaldehyde Emitted from Laminate Flooring Samples Tested by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. On February 12, CDC/ATSDR was notified that a private individual who reviewed the report suspected that a conversion error might have been made. CDC/ATSDR staff reviewed the report and discovered that an incorrect value for ceiling height was used in the indoor air model.  As a result, the health risks were calculated using airborne concentration estimates about 3 times lower than they should have been. Neither CDC/ATSDR nor the report’s peer or partner reviewers or reviewers noticed the error.

Change in conclusion for short-term health effects

After correcting the measurement error in the model, CDC/ATSDR revised the report’s conclusion about possible health effects from exposure to formaldehyde. In the report that used an incorrect value for ceiling height, we concluded that exposure to the low end of the modeled levels of formaldehyde in the CPSC-tested laminate flooring could cause increased irritation and breathing problems for children, older adults, and people with asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). In the updated report, which used the correct value for ceiling height, we concluded that irritation and breathing problems could occur in everyone exposed to formaldehyde in the laminate flooring, not just sensitive groups and people with pre-existing health conditions.

Change in conclusion for long-term health effects

We also increased the estimated lifetime cancer risk from breathing the highest levels of formaldehyde from the affected flooring all day, every day for 2 years. The lifetime cancer risk increased from the previous estimate of 2 to 9 extra cases for every 100,000 people to between 6 and 30 extra cases per 100,000 people. To put these numbers into perspective, the American Cancer Society estimates that up to 50,000 of every 100,000 people may develop cancer from all causes over their lifetimes.

Our recommendations remain the same.

Although the conclusions in the report have been revised, CDC/ATSDR recommendations to protect health have not; we continue to recommend that people with the affected laminate flooring:

  • Reduce exposure -  We provide information on how residents can reduce exposure to sources of formaldehyde in their homes
  • See a doctor for ongoing health symptoms – We recommend that residents who have followed the steps to reduce formaldehyde in their homes and still have ongoing health symptoms (breathing problems or irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat) only in their homes, should see a doctor to find out what is causing the symptoms.
  • Consider professional air testing if irritation continues.

What happened to the acceptable cancer risk of 1 in a million?

As you can see the agency tried to justify their inaction by saying that the American Cancer Society estimates that up to 50,000 of every 100,000 people may develop cancer in their lifetime.  That number  may be higher than that if people are also exposed to this flooring.  This outrageous cancer estimate proves that we need to remove these cancer threats as they are found and not just suggest that people see a doctor for ongoing symptoms

So lets see now, if you have contaminated tomatoes, onions or other food related disease the health agencies are all over it.  They tell consumers to not buy or wash thoroughly the vegetable or food product of concern.  However, when you have a consumer product that can affect everyone exposed to it there is no immediate health alert or no product recall what so ever.  WHAT!

Why do tomatoes get more attention, investigation and result in consumer warning to be careful than toxic chemicals in the environment that is literally killing children?  Young children are sick and dying across the country and our politicians don’t seem to care.

Will we ever stop the poisoning of our children, our water, our soil, our plant?  I fear not because we are not a problem veggie.  We all deserve to be protected, just like the government protects a tomato.

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Sharon H.

New Research: The Hidden Costs of Air Pollution

By Sharon H. : March 17, 2016 11:28 am

Exposure to air pollution is linked to a variety of physical health issues, including short-term infections and irritation, and long-term issues like bronchitis and asthma. New research at Columbia University suggests that there may be even more insidious effects of air pollution on unborn children, particularly on their ability to regulate emotions and behavior.

The new study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, was the first to look at early-life exposure to PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and study its impacts on childhood behavior. PAHs are widespread air pollutants, and are commonly emitted by vehicles, coal plants, industrial manufacturing facilities, and waste incinerators. Due to disparate siting of such facilities in low-income and minority communities, children from these communities are more vulnerable to the impacts of PAHs, which range from cancer to a variety of behavioral issues.

The recent study measured the levels of particular ‘biomarkers’ – compounds that are produced in the body as a result of PAH exposure – in the blood of mothers from New York City. They found that children of mothers with high exposure to PAHs had significantly worse scores on a test that measures behavior and emotional regulation in children. Essentially, PAH exposure may be a predictor of a variety of mental health problems in children and young adults. One study author was quoted in the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health press release:

“This study indicates that prenatal exposure to air pollution…may underlie the development of [childhood psychiatric problems] such as ADHD, OCD, substance use disorders, and eating disorders.”

The study particularly focused on women from low-income and minority communities, who are at greater risk of exposure to PAHs. Based on the study, increased exposure to PAHs faced by environmental justice communities may leave the next generation susceptible to not only physical health risks, but also behavioral and emotional issues.

To read more about research at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, visit their webpage.

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CHEJ Intern

Climate Justice in Houston, TX

By CHEJ Intern : March 15, 2016 12:23 am

By Dylan Lenzen

With 2015 marking the hottest year in the historical record, the threat of climate change continues to grow. Not only will the United States and other countries have to move rapidly to try and mitigate climate by eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions produced by our society, but they must also make sure that cities, communities, and individuals throughout the world are protected from the likely effects of the warming that we have already created. Incredibly powerful storms, like hurricane Katrina, are just one type of environmental disaster that we might expect to grow in both frequency and intensity in the future. Without adequate protections, cities and communities in the United States could suffer incredible harm, with potentially billions of dollars in damages from single storms. Much of that harm is likely to be experienced by economically impoverished and minority communities throughout America.

An example of the potential threat that a future of intense storms provides, can be found in Houston, Texas. In a story co-published by Pro-Publica and the Texas Tribune, the authors describe the incredible risks that superstorms pose for the city, even following warnings like Hurricane Ike that many hoped would inspire future safeguards for its citizens. Despite the $30 billion in damages the storm caused in 2008, the city has failed to implement any meaningful protections that have been proposed, such as an “Ike Dike,” that would involve massive floodgates at the start of Galveston Bay to block future storm surges. At the same time, scientists predict that a future perfect storm, with even greater strength than Ike, will occur and is only a matter of time before is realized. In fact, the likelihood that it could occur in any given year is “much higher than your chance of dying in a car crash or in a firearm assault, and 2,400 times as high as your chance of being struck my lightning.

When a perfect storm hits Houston in the future, the greatest damage is likely to result from the Houston Ship Channel, which is lined by one of the world’s highest concentration of oil, gases, and chemicals. A future storm with enough strength to disrupt this region could have major effects to the American economy that depends on these resources. But even more troubling is the potential environmental disaster that could result from a powerful storm. Over 3,400 industrial storage tanks are spread throughout the region, containing oil, gas, and unknown chemicals that scientists say could cause an environmental disaster on par with the BP oil spill. And as the state senator representing much of this industrial region, Sylvia Garcia, states, “My district is working-class, Latino, and [has] many people in poverty. Even if we told them to move to safe harbor, they don’t have the car or the way to get there.” So clearly, as is the case in many other environmental disasters or hazards, the burden is overwhelmingly felt by minority and low-income communities.

In conclusion, not only do we need to hold our leaders accountable for mitigating climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to make sure that they are establishing the right safeguards and building new infrastructure that will keep Americans safe from the dangers that climate change poses, especially the most vulnerable communities.

Find out more about hurricane risk in Houston

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Sharon H.

Which came first, people or pollution? Researchers try to answer important environmental justice question

By Sharon H. : March 9, 2016 12:06 pm


Image Credit: Ricardo Levins Morales


Researchers have known for decades that polluting facilities and waste sites are more likely to be located in low-income communities and communities of color, which makes these areas extra vulnerable to the environmental health impacts of pollution. However, we lack a clear understanding of how these disparities come to exist. Do the demographics in areas surrounding hazardous waste sites shift over time, or are polluting facilities placed disproportionately in low-income communities?


Researchers at the University of Michigan recently published two papers that attempt to answer this question. Their first paper is a review of previous studies on environmental injustice. According to Mohai and Saha, the study authors, previous research racial and socioeconomic environmental hazards have lead to contradictory findings. However, they also noted a major gap in the research. Most of the studies have been what they call “snapshot studies,” looking only at hazardous waste facilities and the populations that surround them at a single point in time, rather than looking at demographic change over longer time spans.

They used these longitudinal methods in their second paper, which was unique in a second way. Previous national-level environmental justice studies have used a method of assessment called the ‘unit-hazard coincidence’ approach. This means that demographics are analyzed within geographic units, like a census tract or zip code area, which also contains a hazardous waste site. “Not taken into account by this approach is the precise location of the hazard within the host unit,” Mohai and Saha write. Under this approach, effects on neighboring areas are ignored, which Mohai and Saha believe may lead to underestimating the degree of racial and socioeconomic disparities. Their study used a more precise distance-based method, rather than just looking at effects within arbitrary boundaries.

By analyzing a database of commercial hazardous waste facilities sited between 1966 and 1995, the researchers found strong evidence supporting the ‘disparate-siting’ hypothesis – that polluting facilities are disproportionately placed in low-income communities and communities of color. The researchers concluded that racial discrimination and sociopolitical factors are strongly at play in the siting of hazardous waste facilities. In other words, industries and governments are likely to take advantage of vulnerable areas lacking economic resources and political power, choosing the “path of least resistance” for deciding where our waste goes.

Mohai and Saha recommend more research to strengthen our understanding of these processes. Overall, their work highlights the political and social factors that proliferate patterns of environmental injustices, and asks us to take a closer look at how our government policies and industry practices reinforce racial discrimination.

Read the studies here and here.

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