chemicals

Rep. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, delayed the U.S. EPA's health assessment on arsenic.
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Arsenic occurs naturally, and Michigan is one of a handful of states with unusually high arsenic concentrations in groundwater.

Arsenic was also used in insecticides for many years and it's still being used in some weed killers.

David Heath is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, and he investigated why a health assessment on arsenic from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been delayed.

Why does this health assessment matter?

Heath said when the EPA first wants to determine how dangerous a toxic chemical is, they first do the science. These assessments can take a long time and the arsenic assessment has been going on for more than a decade.

"It's not until they have done the science to figure out exactly how dangerous a chemical is that they can really take action on it," Heath said. "So it really does come down to 'this is how they protect your health.'"

A single member of Congress, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, was able to intentionally delay the EPA's health assessment for years.

FDA

All this week, we’ve been talking about the potential for elevated levels of arsenic in groundwater in Michigan.

The upshot of our reports:

  1. Arsenic levels in Michigan’s groundwater can be high.
  2. Arsenic is bad for you.
  3. Scientists are finding health effects at lower exposure levels.
  4. If you’re on a well, test it for arsenic.
  5. If the levels are high, you should consider doing something about it.

This one chart published by the Center for Public Integrity shows you why (the blue bar is arsenic):

user kahle / MorgueFile.com

The main law that regulates chemicals in products we use every day is called the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Pretty much everyone says this law is outdated - including the chemical industry and environmental groups.

Rebecca Meuninck is the Environmental Health Campaign Director with the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor.

“TSCA or the Toxic Substances Control Act, was passed in 1976 and it’s never been reformed and unfortunately it’s sort of been broken from the start," she says. “This is a bill that didn’t actually have enough teeth for the EPA to ban asbestos for example. We have many thousands of chemicals; up to 80,000 have been approved at one point or another for use in consumer products or in the marketplace. Unfortunately there’s a lot of data EPA doesn’t have and that companies actually aren’t required to give EPA.”

ADRIAN, Mich. (AP) - Police in southern Michigan say crews are responding to a chemical release and people nearby are being asked to stay in their homes as a precaution.

No injuries were reported Friday morning in Adrian, about 60 miles southwest of Detroit. Police say there's no immediate threat to the public.

Police say in a statement that a barrel containing 30 to 35 gallons of nitric acid was letting off gas after reacting with a small amount of sodium hydroxide.

Roads nearby are closed and the fire department is asking residents and others within one-tenth of a mile of the area to stay where they are. Police say that could last until 1 p.m.

The Lenawee County hazardous materials team is on the scene along with the county's emergency management office.

Photo by Shawn Allee

The Dow Chemical Company is the second-largest producer of toxic chemical waste in the nation. That’s according to a new report by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The report shows that Dow produced more than 600 million pounds of toxic chemical waste in the reporting year 2010.

Ben Morlock is a spokesperson for Dow.

Morlock says 97% of that toxic chemical waste was treated, recycled or reused.

“We have on-site wastewater treatment plants, we have air pollution control equipment that incinerates contaminants so they’re not released into the air, we have equipment used in our manufacturing processes that captures chemicals and recycles them back into the process for reuse.”

He says the rest of that waste – the remaining three percent – was disposed of in accordance with the company’s state and federal permits.

“It is safe to say that most of that three percent is handled through land disposal, so for instance, it might go to a licensed secured landfill that is equipped to properly handle certain types of waste. So, I can tell you we audit the facilities we use for disposal and we make sure our waste is being handled properly if it leaves the site.”

He says Dow’s ranking on the EPA list reflects the size of the company. Dow is the nation’s largest chemical manufacturer.

The EPA’s report analyzes data from the Toxics Release Inventory. Industries in certain sectors are required by federal law to report their toxic chemical releases each year. This includes chemical manufacturers, metal mining, electric power companies and hazardous waste treatment.

Researchers at Indiana University have discovered two new kinds of flame retardant chemicals showing up in the air around the Great Lakes. These chemicals are added to polyurethane foam to help keep furniture and baby products from catching on fire.

They’re replacing other flame retardants called PBDEs that have been linked to neurological and developmental defects, and fertility and reproductive problems.

These newer chemicals are called brominated benzylates and brominated phthalates.

Ron Hites is an author of the study. His team found the chemicals in air samples from six sites around the Great Lakes... from Chicago to the remote Eagle Harbor in the Upper Peninsula. But he says it’s not clear yet what this might mean.

“We have very limited toxicology and virtually no information on ecological effects.”

Hites says one study suggests these chemicals can cause DNA damage in fish.

He says the concentrations of the chemicals in the atmosphere appear to be doubling every year or two in the Great Lakes region.

So how do you know if a product has flame retardants in it?

Experts say there's no way to know just by looking at a couch or car seat or baby changing pad whether it has flame retardant chemicals in it, but they say generally, if it has polyurethane foam and a label indicating it meets CA TB 117 (a California flammability standard that companies often meet by adding flame retardant chemicals), there's a very high probability the product contains flame retardants.

In a publication from the National Institutes of Health, Heather Stapleton, PhD says:

"I don't think we know much at all about the potential human health effects from exposure to these chemicals. What we do know is that infants are likely receiving more exposure to these chemicals than adults. Therefore, more research is warranted to determine if this exposure is leading to any adverse health effects."

The American Chemistry Council stands by the use of flame retardants.

But some scientists say these chemicals pose unnecessary risks.  The Green Science Policy Institute says many types of halogenated flame retardant chemicals are "persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic." The group has put out some guidelines for consumers.

You can learn more from The Environment Report's five part series on flame retardants.

 

Source: Toniht at Wikimedia Commons

Phthalates are a class of chemicals that have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system. They’re used in all kinds of consumer products including flooring, cars and cosmetics.

A new study published today finds a significant link between pregnant women’s exposure to phthalates and negative impacts on their children’s development.

Robin Whyatt is a professor in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and she’s the lead author of the study. She and her team have an ongoing study of more than 700 mothers and their children that began in 1998.

For this particular study, they looked at about half of those mother-child pairs. They measured phthalate levels in the mothers’ urine and compared those levels to several developmental tests on their children, who are now three years old.

“As levels in the mothers' urine went up, the child’s motor development went down significantly.”

She says the types of phthalates they studied appear to affect the babies’ brain development while they’re still in utero.

“Three of the phthalates were significantly associated with behavioral disorders, or behavioral problems: anxious, depressed behaviors, emotionally reactive behaviors, withdrawn behavior.”

Whyatt says they controlled for a long list of factors. They looked at tobacco smoke, lead, pesticides, and other toxic substances.

“We controlled for race and ethnicity, gestational age. We looked at marital status, we looked at a number of different indicators of poverty and also how much hardship a woman was going through.”

And she says still, there was a significant link between the mothers’ phthalate levels and their children’s development.

“Our findings are concerning because saw a two to three fold increase in the odds that the child would have motor delays and or behavioral problems.”

But she says more research is needed. And parents should keep in mind that any individual child’s risk is low.

Flame retardant chemicals help keep foam and plastics from catching on fire. They’re called PBDEs. That stands for polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

They’re in our couches, our office chairs and the padding under our carpet.

The problem is... they don’t stay put. Scientists have known for a while that the chemicals leach out of products and get into our bodies. Americans have the highest levels of anyone in the world.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies are suggesting links to problems with brain development, changes to thyroid systems, and fertility problems.

Photo courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant

New research finds that fish in the Great Lakes are contaminated with a chemical used in aircraft hydraulic fluids.

Researcher Amila DeSilva works for Environment Canada, which is like the EPA in the U.S.

She says there have been studies on a number of perflourinated chemicals. They’re used to make textiles, upholstery, paper, and many other things. Studies have shown these types of chemicals can have toxic effects in humans. But not much is known about a chemical called perfluoroethylcyclohexanesulfonate - or PFECHS for short.

DeSilva says no one has really studied whether it's toxic.

She wanted to see if PFECHS was in the environment, so she and her colleagues sampled water and fish in the Great Lakes, specifically lake trout and walleye:

“We were really, really surprised to find it in fish. Because, just based on the structure and our chemical intuition we thought, ‘okay, it would be more likely to be in water than in fish’ so when we found it in fish, when you find anything in fish, it’s a whole other ballgame because humans consume fish.”

DeSilva says other perflourinated acids are endocrine disruptors. That means they create hormone imbalances in humans, and they have other toxic effects. She says once these chemicals are released into the environment they don’t degrade, they just build up. That’s why use of some chemicals in this class is highly restricted in the U.S. and Canada.

Photo by Suzy Vuljevic

Many art supplies contain lead, arsenic, asbestos and other potentially dangerous compounds.  The Environment Report's Tanya Ott profiles a Michigan artist who spends 8-12 hours a day working with spray paint.

Most of the time Larry Stephens paints outside. But in winter, he can’t. So he paints indoors, wearing a respirator or a dust mask. It’s not enough.

“You know within a couple of hours I’ll start getting dizzy. You’ll end up coughing up paint the next morning. You’ll go to blow your nose and it’ll be green and red and yellow and whatever colors you’re using that day.”

Experts say there are no large scale health studies of people who use art supplies.

But Dr. Steven Marcus – who is New Jersey’s poison control chief – says lead, arsenic and cadmium are found in some paint pigments. Stone carving can release asbestos into the air and cause lung disease. And some glues and cements contain chemicals that can cause neurological damage – including a condition called “wrist drop,” where sufferers actually lose strength in their hands.  

“And for an artist, that’s their bread and butter. They lose strength in their hands and they can’t be an artist.”