Articles Tagged with toxic chemicals

Hundreds of Willowbrook residents filled a standing-room-only meeting last night. They came to hear their government explain whether their health is in danger due to the ethylene oxide pollution that a local company, Sterigenics, has been belching into their neighborhood for the last 30 years.

Ethylene oxide is a nasty carcinogen. But the people of Willowbrook had no idea that such a chemical even existed, let alone that it had been in their neighborhood for decades. Until last week.

Sterigenics has known–probably since the 1980’s–that it was causing ethylene oxide pollution in Willowbrook. So did government, or at least it should have known. Its job was to know. Hard to say what is worse: the government knowing about the ethylene oxide pollution for many years and doing nothing to protect the people of Willowbrook, or the government not knowing anything about the problem until just now.

The Chicago Tribune recently reported on a new federal study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) – released just last week – that highlights a danger to Willowbrook residents who live near Sterigenics International, at 830 Midway Drive and 7775 S. Quincy St., in Willowbrook, IL. According to the report, the people living near this facility face a higher cancer risk from toxic air pollution than much of the rest of the country.

Why? Apparently, Sterigenics uses and stores a toxic gas called “ethylene oxide” to sterilize medical equipment, and has been releasing that cancer causing chemical into the air since at least 1995.

Ethylene oxide has been listed on the federal list of carcinogens as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” since 1985. In 2000, that listing was revised to “known to be a human carcinogen”. Finally, in 2016, the US EPA – after much delay – released a new assessment of the toxic gas that concluded that ethylene oxide was even more dangerous than originally thought.

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If you need another reason why Scott Pruitt should be removed from his position at the EPA, just look at the recent news about some paint strippers that contain a deadly chemical called methylene chloride.

Methylene chloride can kill within minutes and long-term exposure has been linked to liver cancer and lung cancer. Over 60 families have lost loved ones because of this chemical. In the last days of the Obama administration, the EPA proposed banning methylene chloride, but after Scott Pruitt took over at the EPA, the agency reversed course and pulled back from that position. Now apparently, it plans to lightly regulate the chemical instead of banning it.

Meanwhile, unsuspecting consumers are dying after buying and using paint strippers. The solvent in the paint strippers, methylene chloride, can cause heart attacks and turn to carbon monoxide in the body. It is supposed to be used with a respirator and special gloves, but even these precautions did not protect Drew Wynne, a 31 year old from South Carolina who died last October after being overcome by fumes while refinishing a floor. He is not alone. Since 1980 more than 50 accidental deaths have been linked to methylene chloride exposure.

“Does this chemical cause cancer?” is one of the first questions I get from a mom or dad who has just learned that, unbeknownst to them, a toxic chemical from an industrial source has been in their family’s air or water supply for years.

I always caution that, even if the chemical(s) just discovered in their home or neighborhood can cause cancer, it does not mean that they will. In fact, in most contaminated homes and neighborhoods, statistics are on our side: the great majority of residents will not contract cancer as a result of exposure. The important thing is to understand and respect the dangers of these chemicals, and, depending on their toxicity, get your family out of harm’s way…..by, for example, supplying your home with bottled water to avoid, as much as possible, contact with the contaminated groundwater entering the home via your family’s kitchen tap, or installing a “vapor mitigation system” on your house to prevent contaminated gasses from intruding inside where your family will breathe them.

For this reason, it is important to be informed. This link from the American Cancer Society tells us what our most respected health agencies have concluded about the dangers of many chemicals, and specifically whether they are “known” or “suspected” to cause cancer in humans (given significant exposure over a long enough period of time). https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/general-info/known-and-probable-human-carcinogens.html

analysis-218857_1280.jpgThe Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is a federally funded organization which researches the impact on human health of various chemicals. In short, the ATSDR tells us what makes us sick. Below is a summary of what the ATSDR says about how certain dangerous chemicals threaten our health, and where you are most likely to find them. While most of these chemicals are notoriously found near old industrial sites and landfills, this list highlights other places where they are typically found:

(1) Respiratory System: asbestos, radon and benzene (and other chemicals) found in old insulation, old batteries, industrial degreasers, car exhaust and furnace.

(2) Kidney/Bladder: TCE, PCE, mercury, lead, cadmium (and other chemicals) found in old batteries, cigarette smoke, old paint and plumbing, degreasers, paint removers and dry cleaning solutions.

baby-84552_1920.jpgThe world is rushing head-long into ever greater dependence on dangerous man-made chemicals. We now accept these chemicals are a part of our everyday lives-at home, at work, in schools, etc. But, rather than just accept this as an unavoidable reality, we must pause for a moment to consider this chilling thought: these chemicals are frequently more dangerous (often far more dangerous) to children than to adults. Scientists now know that chemical exposures that would not harm adults can in fact cause great, even life-threatening, impact to children. Here’s why:

(1) Children eat far more, and drink far more, than adults do for their body weight. As a result, if there is a dangerous chemical in their food or water, children are disproportionately exposed to the chemical’s harmful effects.

(2) Children’s metabolism pathways are immature. Their young bodies lack the enzymes necessary to break down and remove toxic chemicals. So, the toxins stay in their bodies longer.

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