October 30, 2014 · 6 Cheshvan

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Background & Major Environmental Health Threats
Environmental health and human health are inextricably linked. Whether discussing chemical exposure, children’s health or toxic waste, the environmental choices we make invariably affect our ability to live healthy lives.

Environmental health and human health are inextricably linked; the way we treat our environment will invariably affect our own well-being and our ability to live in harmony with the earth around us. The following are common environmental health issues.

Chemical Exposure
Currently more than 82,000 chemicals are registered for use in the United States. For the 62,000 chemicals grandfathered in for use under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, little is known about the health effects, particularly for vulnerable populations such as children, workers in the chemical industry, low-income communities, and communities of color. According to a 2005 GAO report, in the last thirty years the Environmental Protection Agency has used its authority to test only 200 chemicals and only five classes of chemicals have been banned.

In the last several decades, health effects from chemical exposures have been noted in wildlife and humans. Exposures to environmental toxicants are now known to cause permanent damage to a child's nervous system. Other toxicants are being implicated in adverse health effects to children and adults. While exposure to some environmental hazards has decreased because of new regulations and standards, children and adults continue to be exposed to toxicants in the air, water, and food.

Of particular concern are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), bisphenol A (BPA), and Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic chemicals (PBTs). VOCs are often found in cleaning products, dust and mites, and radon, and can contribute to poor indoor air quality. Additionally, the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), which is used in many food and beverage containers, is a cause for concern. Studies from American and British researchers link the chemical to behavioral changes in infants and children, negative effects on the prostate and brain, and enzyme and hormone abnormalities. PBTs are especially worrisome because they transfer easily through air and water and because they are absorbed at relatively high rates.

Children’s Health
Children are particularly vulnerable to the environmental health threats we face.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the environmental health threats we face. If growth and development are hampered, the chances of a healthy adulthood are dramatically decreased. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), this is because:

  • Children's systems are not fully developed and may be more susceptible to toxicant hazards that can be detrimental to brain development and increase the  likelihood of developing cancer and other diseases later in life;
  • Pound for pound, children eat more food, drink more water, and breathe more air than adults;

These special vulnerabilities are not accounted for in our current regulatory system. Very young children who sit and crawl on the floor and are more likely to put objects in their mouths are at increased risk for exposure to the toxins that accumulate in carpets, floorboards, and soil. Children of families living in poverty are also more likely to be exposed to environmental risk factors such as poor air quality, industrial and hazardous waste sites, and consumer products. Parents are often unaware that their children may be exposed to highly toxic pesticides or cleaning products at home and school or to toxics in consumer products such as toys and personal care products used primarily by children.For more on children's health and environmental hazards, see this GAO Report on the inadequacy of EPA efforts to address children's health issues. For more information on the latest update to the GAO report, click here.

Lead Poisoning
After repeated exposure, lead can be absorbed by the body and can cause IQ deficiencies, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention spans, hyperactivity, antisocial behavior, kidney damage, and, at very high levels, seizures, coma, and death. Approximately 310,000 U.S. children aged 1-5 years have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.

Some 24 million U.S. homes (built before 1978, when lead paint was banned) contain lead paint, with five to 15 million of these homes identified as being “very hazardous.”  The best way to prevent lead poisoning is to prevent exposure; homes built before 1978 should be screened, prior to sale or rental, for deteriorating lead-based paint, and, if needed, made lead-safe.

Asthma Triggers
Nearly nine million American children suffer from asthma.  Asthma has surpassed the common cold and flu as the leading cause of school absenteeism.  Asthma can be aggravated by exposure to pollutant "triggers" such as certain components of vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions, tobacco smoke, pollen and allergens from animals and insects.  Often, urban environments have high levels of outdoor pollution and poor housing conditions, which frequently are associated with increased levels of indoor pollution.  More than 25 percent of the nation's children live in areas that do not meet national air quality standards. Certain cleaning products, pesticides, and other chemicals can also act as asthma triggers.

Superfund & Toxic Chemicals

In thousands of communities across the U.S., millions of gallons of highly toxic chemicals including lead, arsenic, and mercury have been dumped in the midst of unsuspecting neighborhoods. Hazardous waste sites, called "brownfields" or "Superfund sites," are much more likely to occur in underprivileged communities (such as in the inner city) than in the suburbs, where the (more wealthy, usually better organized) community can organize more easily to protect itself. These sites poison the land, contaminate the groundwater and drinking water, and potentially cause cancer, birth defects, nerve and liver damage, and other health effects. The worst of these are called Superfund sites, named after the 1980 law to clean up the nation's worst toxic dumps.

Common Superfund chemicals include lead, benzene, mercury, and arsenic. These chemicals are associated with brain damage, cancer, immune and reproductive system damages and other serious health consequences. 

Consider:

  • More than 40,000 hazardous waste sites are scattered across the nation: 1,200 of the worst sites are listed as Superfund sites, and the EPA estimates that between 1,200 and 1,700 additional sites should be added to this priority list.
  • One in four Americans lives within four miles of an existing Superfund site.
  • 50% of the U.S. population relies on groundwater for its drinking water. Groundwater contamination is a problem at over 85% of Superfund sites.

In 1980, in response to disasters like the toxic contamination of neighborhoods at Love Canal, NY, the Superfund law was passed. The central principle of the law is that the polluters responsible for creating the waste sites should pay to clean up the sites. In cases where the polluter cannot pay or could not be identified, the law established a pool of money, from a tax on chemical and oil companies, to fund the clean up of abandoned toxic waste sites. The law set strict clean up standards to ensure that hazardous waste sites were cleaned up fully to protect communities. Superfund also required reporting on toxic chemical emissions, the first national Right to Know program.



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