Of the more than 80,000 chemicals currently used in the United States, most haven't been adequately tested for their effects on human health.
These chemicals lurk in everyday items: furniture, cosmetics, household cleaners, toys, even food. NRDC is pushing Congress to reform outdated chemical-safety laws and close loopholes exploited by the chemical industry. We use the legal process to pressure the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and state governments to act on the latest science and take the lead on restricting dangerous chemicals.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today took action against a bulk storage facility over emissions of the neurotoxin manganese in close proximity to neighborhoods and schools on Chicago’s Southeast Side. The EPA issued a notice of violation to S. H.
WASHINGTON – The Food and Drug Administration's ban of triclosan in some antiseptic wash products will afford consumers significantly greater health protections, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
After 40 Years, Will GE Get a Pass for Polluting the Housatonic River?
Under the Trump administration, the decades-long battle to get the company to clean up its PCB mess looks more uncertain than ever.
The Housatonic River is a favorite of New England fly-fishers, kayakers, and hikers. Flowing through the rolling hills of Berkshire County, Massachusetts, the river makes an idyllic backdrop to the region’s famous fall foliage. It meanders under covered bridges and through Connecticut, eventually emptying into the Long Island Sound.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that behind the scenes of that serene, beautiful natural world is a severely polluted system,” says Lauren Gaherty, a senior planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
The “WARNING” signs dotting the river’s banks in Berkshire County hint at the less-than-tranquil reality teeming below the surface: “HOUSATONIC RIVER FISH & WATERFOWL CONTAMINATED WITH PCBs. DO NOT EAT.”
First synthesized in the late 19th century, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are pervasive chemicals once used in hundreds of industrial applications, from plasticizing paint to insulating electrical equipment. General Electric was a major user of PCBs, including at its riverside plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, from the 1930s until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the production of the chemicals in the late 1970s. By then, GE had already discharged an estimated 600,000 pounds of PCBs into the Housatonic.
And this was wasn’t GE’s only instance of PCB contamination in a northeastern river. The company also dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, triggering a high-profile legal battle that NRDC has been involved with since the 1970s—and is still fighting today.
There’s good reason to fight so long and hard on the contamination. PCBs—all 200-plus types of them—are, to varying degrees, toxic to people and wildlife. “PCBs are just thoroughly horrible,” says Dan Raichel, an NRDC staff attorney. Multiple studies have proved the chemicals cause cancer in animals, and the EPA classifies them as probable human carcinogens. PCBs can also do significant harm to the immune and endocrine systems, affect reproduction, impair neurological development, elevate blood pressure, and cause skin rashes that can last for years. “It pretty much runs the gamut in terms of illness-causing,” Raichel says.
Now, nearly 40 years later, Berkshire communities, state governments, and environmental groups are still pushing GE to clean up its mess—a responsibility it has been avoiding. Decades may seem like a long time for contaminants to linger in a moving body of water. But PCBs were deliberately designed to persist under conditions that would cause other molecules to break down. “And persist,” Raichel says, “is exactly what they do in the environment.”
Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault
PCBs bind to soil, sediment, and the fatty tissues of animals. From there they work their way up the food chain, starting with the small invertebrates that find their food in the riverbed and eventually accumulating in the bigger fish and waterbirds that eat them. People living near the former GE plant in Pittsfield can be exposed to PCBs when they come into direct contact with contaminated soil or river sediment, consume contaminated fish, or even eat crops grown in the Housatonic floodplain.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health warns against eating fish, frogs, turtles, or ducks from the river, and though the Housatonic is a popular recreational fishing destination, it’s strictly catch and release. “It’s a lost resource to people in Berkshire County,” Gaherty says. The state of Connecticut, too, regularly releases advisories on eating Housatonic fish.
But even if you’ve never supped from this river—or live nowhere near it—you almost certainly have PCBs in your body. Yes, you. To add to the list of their nightmarish qualities, certain PCBs can volatilize, or evaporate into the air, where they can be inhaled or spread by weather systems and fall back down to the ground in rain or snow. Wind and ocean currents have facilitated their long-distance travel around the world—not even denizens of the poles or the bottom of the Marianas Trench have escaped the reach of PCBs.
In short: Once PCBs enter the environment, it’s not easy to get them out.
GE, a $260 billion company, has used its considerable resources to argue that it shouldn’t get them out. “GE has been digging its heels in the whole way,” says Dennis Regan, the Berkshire director for the Housatonic Valley Association’s Water Protection division. And the company’s reasoning has shifted over the years. Originally, GE contradicted the prevailing science by claiming there was no evidence that PCBs are harmful to human health. As pressure from the EPA and affected towns grew, GE changed tactics, arguing that disturbing the river sediment in a cleanup effort would make the contamination worse.
In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice, EPA, and GE managed to finalize a consent decree requiring GE to clean its PCBs from the Housatonic. Since then, the company has dredged the first two miles downstream of the Pittsfield plant, along with some other properties nearby, including an elementary school playground.
Slight progress is still progress, but 125 miles of contaminated river still remain. The EPA unveiled a $613 million plan last October that would span 13 years and require GE to dredge another 10 miles.
“These environmental battles can take a long time,” says Sarah Chasis, a senior attorney at NRDC who worked on the Hudson case against GE 40 years ago. And with only a partial cleanup effort for that river completed, the PCB levels in its fish are still not safe for human consumption. “It’s always an uphill fight to get companies to take responsibility for their pollution and to make real headway,” Chasis says.
And sure enough, GE is again pushing back against the EPA’s Housatonic plan. “This is their M.O.,” Gaherty says. “Delay and fight, delay and fight—they’re just hoping to wear everybody down so they can get away with a lesser cleanup.”
The latest point of contention is where the PCBs should go once removed from the river. Under the EPA’s plan, GE must take the contaminated soil out of state to a licensed toxic waste facility. GE, one of the richest companies in the world, argues that doing so would be too expensive and recently took its complaints to the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board, an independent panel of judges sometimes referred to as the agency’s “Supreme Court.” GE’s preferred solution is to create a local PCB dump in the towns of Lee and Lenox or Great Barrington, something the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee—which represents the six most affected towns—is not happy about.
Complicating things further is Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator under President Trump. Because Pruitt has a history of siding with industry over public health, the future of the fight for the Housatonic’s remediation now looks more uncertain than ever.
Shortly before the Environmental Appeals Board hearing in June, the EPA circulated a memo saying it wanted to reopen negotiations with GE over the case. “Looks like Massachusetts is about to become Exhibit A in the Trump administration’s efforts to go easy on polluters,” Matt Pawa, an environmental lawyer representing the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee, told the Boston Globe at the time.
On Friday, California’s Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) made big promises to address the risk from the pesticide chlorpyrifos—found to threaten children’s health, especially in agricultural communities—but delivered little in the way of real protections. The state claimed to be announcing “health protections” but the reality is communities are unlikely to see improvements before January 2019, at the earliest. And, instead of showing California’s leadership in science and innovation, the state’s “updated” risk assessment ignores the findings from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2016 risk assessment—instead relying on data from back in 2014.
This means that state will allow way more contamination in California’s communities than the level US EPA determined is dangerous to children. US EPA’s 2016 assessment said that regularly breathing levels of chlorpyrifos higher than 2.1 ng/m3 was dangerous for pregnant women and no use of chlorpyrifos should be allowed that would result in these elevated exposures. The Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) wants to allow thousands of times more chlorpyrifos in the air—saying only levels above 61,500 ng/m3 are risky.
Chlorpyrifos (say “klor-PEER-a-foss”) damages the developing brains of children and has been shown to significantly increase the risk of learning disabilities. Yet the Trump administration refuses to finalize a ban that has been recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own scientists. With the federal EPA making decisions that benefit chemical companies over children, California’s agricultural communities and farmworkers have been looking to Governor Brown to step-in and deliver the protections denied them by the new administration.
It’s especially critical here because California is the nation’s biggest user of chlorpyrifos (using on average a little more than 1 million pounds per year) leading to contaminated air, water, food and homes—putting the health of pregnant women, children, and farmworkers at risk. Unfortunately, California’s announcement falls far short of what’s necessary to protect people’s health. For one, despite having the authority to stop the drift of this pesticide into homes and schools, CalEPA is not setting mandatory restrictions which will get chlorpyrifos out of the fields for good.
Instead the promised “interim mitigation measures”, which are to be released next month, are actually “recommendations”—not requirements. That means there’s nothing legally changing whether or how chlorpyrifos is used in the fields—and the current, dangerous practice of applying it right next to homes and schools can continue. It will be left up to each County Agricultural Commissioner to voluntarily decide whether or not to follow any of the state’s new recommendations. That means we can expect patchwork improvements, at best, and there’s the distinct possibility that communities that need it most will get nothing.
Thankfully, Friday’s announcement includes additional scientific review outside the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR)—which is refusing to address the science that ties low-levels of exposure to chlorpyrifos to permanent damage to the developing brain. Based on this science, US EPA found that chlorpyrifos was contaminating the air in California’s communities and poisoning the food supply. In Friday’s memo, DPR erroneously states that USEPA’s assessment was a “draft” and not finalized. This is just one of a long list of DPR’s errors that the Scientific Review Panel (SRP) must correct to get California back on track. However, for communities with unsafe air, the estimated completion date of the SRP review (which is optimistic) of December next year (2018) is a long time to wait.
CalEPA’s announcement shows that, at long last, California is paying attention (finally!) to residents concerned about this toxic pesticide—but they’ve responded with a false promise of protections for communities that pay a steep price for the fruits, vegetables and nuts Americans eat nationwide. “Recommendations” are not enough when the science supports a ban. CalEPA must make good on the promise of health protections by: (1) setting clear deadlines to keep the scientific review process on track, (2) protecting the most vulnerable—the risk assessment must evaluate risk to the developing brain, (3) providing near term relief to every community through mandatory restrictions and (4) banning chlorpyrifos from California’s fields.
California must do better than this. The health of its children depend on it.
PA recently finalized two rules on how to assess chemicals that cater to the chemical industry at the expense of safeguarding public health. The rules establish a framework for EPA to evaluate whether a chemical poses an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment and how to prioritize which chemicals to evaluate. These “framework rules” govern how EPA protects us from toxic chemicals used in commercial and consumer products and industrial processes throughout the United States.
We oppose the rules because they give EPA nearly unlimited discretion to decide which uses of a chemical it considers to determine whether the chemical poses an unreasonable health risk. TSCA requires EPA to consider a chemical’s “conditions of use,” including all “intended, known, and reasonably foreseeable uses.” But these rules allow EPA to pick and choose which uses to consider. So EPA can exclude sources of exposure to a chemical that affect the overall risk the chemical poses.
Such an incomplete analysis is likely to be wrong and could lead EPA to conclude that a chemical does not pose an unreasonable risk when it actually does. Because of the new law’s “preemption” provisions, EPA will not only fail to limit potentially dangerous exposures to the chemical, but it will largely prevent state and local governments from restricting exposures to the chemical as well. EPA could end up allowing dangerous uses of chemicals that put people at risk for learning disabilities, reproductive disorders, and cancer, among other ills.
Take lead as an example. Lead is indisputably harmful to the brain. Children exposed to lead early in life can suffer from learning and behavioral disabilities and developmental delays. Lead exposure can also increase a person’s risk of high blood pressure and kidney disease. Although lead was not one of the first 10 chemicals EPA selected to evaluate under TSCA, it is a good candidate to be in the next batch of 20 “high priority” chemicals that EPA must begin evaluating by the end of 2019.
When EPA evaluates lead’s health risks under the new rules, it could ignore some uses and sources of exposure, such as lead paint in older homes and apartments, lead in drinking water pipes, or lead in contaminated soil where children play. As a result, it could underestimate the health risks and allow lead to be used in a product or material that is unsafe.
Those exclusions could be particularly dangerous to people most exposed to a chemical or most affected by exposure to it. The law requires EPA to protect these vulnerable populations. But if EPA doesn’t consider all of a chemical’s uses, susceptible populations such as pregnant women, children, workers, elders, and people with chronic diseases will not get the protection Congress mandated. How can EPA identify and protect the most exposed populations when it excludes significant sources of exposure? The draft rules that the Obama administration proposed required EPA to consider all of a chemical’s uses. The Trump EPA has done a 180-degree turn on this fundamental question, giving chemical manufacturers such as Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil exactly what they want. Even worse, the new head of EPA’s toxics office, Nancy Beck, joined EPA straight out of her previous job as a top executive with the chemical manufacturers’ trade association.
NRDC and other public health and environmental groups, as well as the American people, won’t tolerate the chemical industry calling the shots at the expense of our health and safety. Our lawsuit is one way we’re making sure that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and his chemical-industry cronies don’t destroy our best chance to make TSCA work since it was enacted 40 years ago. Given the current leadership at EPA, we have our work cut out for us.
Luckily, we are not alone. Health and environmental groups in other parts of the country, including Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, Earthjustice, the Learning Disabilities Association of America, Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, and the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, are also challenging these rules. At stake is nothing less than how (and whether) EPA will protect the public from toxic chemicals in the years, and possibly decades, to come.
I was honored to participate in a panel discussion of the manganese issue on the station’s live "Chicago Tonight" show earlier this week. It was a good overview of the issue and concerns held by both the neighbors in the area and City officials—as well as an opportunity for the public to hear from the lawyer representing the Pittsburgh-based company handling manganese in close proximity to the community, S.H. Bell.
In follow up coverage, WTTW has noted that the City of Chicago has begun to analyze swabs of brown dust taken from facades of nearby homes—I mistakenly said "yellow" in the broadcast—to determine if they show the neurotoxin manganese present beyond the company's fence line. (As I noted on the show, EPA took wipe samples in 2014, noting that the highest level of manganese was found in the sample taken in “direct proximity to the S.H. Bell facility.” EPA also has photos from 2014 of homes in the area with brown dust on their siding.)
While we do not have a full accounting of the impact that other manganese operations around the City may be having on Chicagoans, it is abundantly clear that the neighbors' concerns about this facility are well-founded:
The facility is located across the street from residential neighborhoods, with nearly 10,000 children living within a one-mile radius, and neighbors report concerns with dust from the facility showing up on their homes;
The company’s Ohio facility was the subject of enforcement actions as early as 2008, yet S.H. Bell delayed beginning to enhance controls at its facility near the dense, residential Chicago neighborhood until 2014, when U.S. EPA issued it a Notice of Violation for dust problems;
Starting in 2014, the company then resisted installing fenceline monitors for another two plus years, finally agreeing after EPA sued the company in federal court;
Monitored levels of manganese at the Chicago site publicly released to date are double the levels recently measured at other nearby industrial sites and not far below the federal screening levels, even with the company on its best behavior given the public scrutiny;
The company even now will continue to conduct some operations like loading and unloading of manganese from barges in the open air, relying on a mobile spray truck (which the City last summer found far away from its target during an inspection) to control potential dust;
Nor is the company agreeing to employ all available measures to ensure that trucks don’t track manganese out into the community; and
New research is underway on both children and adults that should help better characterize the threats to health from manganese exposures in community settings like the Southeast Side of Chicago.
That is why we support the community’s call for every effort to be made to eliminate this threat from their midst, through complete removal of the substance at S.H. Bell. The City should also be looking at whether similar situations of manganese dust in very close proximity to homes and schools exist elsewhere in Chicago, and consider whether broader action needs to be taken as experts raise concerns.
Moreover, the City needs to be taking clear and aggressive steps to address the cumulative impacts of pollution on the industrialized Southeast Side and in similarly burdened Chicago communities.
The Public Health Department's commitment is essential to addressing the manganese dust in the area, but the Department has very little ability to impact the key processes needed to really bring change: the zoning and land use permitting processes that govern which industrial facilities end up where in our city. Citizens need to be front and center with real power to impact the zoning and permitting processes, as well as other land use decisions, that allow and indeed encourage concentration of dirty operations that threaten communities’ air, water, and health.
Studies have shown that writing down goals increases the chance that they are achieved.[i] That is why NRDC’s Facilities and Administration Team has distilled our sustainability efforts into 13 written goals. What we aim to achieve in the next 4 years, when it comes to reducing the planetary impact of our operations, is articulated over 20 pages and in a detailed project list. It is with this second formal manifestation of NRDC’s Sustainable Operations Plan that we are deepening our organization’s relationship with the planet and the humans that inhabit it.
NRDC has a strong history of leading commercial sustainability in the built environment with our offices. We were recognized 30 years ago for the uniquely sustainable renovation of our New York office. Since then, we’ve pursued the highest level of green building certification we can get our hands on. Five years ago, our first formal Sustainable Operations Plan was released. Since then, despite growth in both headcount and square footage of office space, we decreased our offices’ building emissions by an impressive 42% because we recorded and acted upon goals. Key projects include comprehensive heating and cooling efficiency measures in New York (our largest office), target setting using the input of our subject matter expert staff and holding ourselves accountable by reporting on them via the Global Reporting Initiative with the most comprehensive “A” level of disclosure. Per the first plan, we installed a real-time monitoring system called Noveda, to measure and track our energy and water use. We implemented an additional process by which to measure our daily waste streams. As a result of having powerful data at our fingertips, we noticed where we were wasting resources unnecessarily and took corrective measures. An added perk: monetary savings.
The proven success of our first plan was energizing. Based on the results, the next iteration of the plan was created. The current 5 year Sustainable Operations Plan naturally builds on the previous one by redefining the boundaries. We re-framed our overall objective in a fundamentally different way. We see the opportunity for any office building to act in harmony with nature rather than squandering its resources. Sustainability strategies often aim primarily at reducing negative impact, our footprint. Now, we aren’t stopping at being less bad. We are asking: How do we increase the positive impacts of operating an office? How do we cause good beyond our walls? We are calling that our handprint. Our program staff’s handprint is visible through the policies they shape, the scientific discoveries they share and the protection of our natural habitat. The Facilities and Administration Team’s handprint is to uphold NRDC’s mission through our day-to-day work, both directly through our actions and by setting an example for others to follow.
A sustainability plan isn’t unique these days. Companies all over the world recognize that overhead costs go down and risk is mitigated when they observe their operations with a conservation lens. However, the typical scope needs to be re-imagined to have more measurable impacts beyond reducing a footprint to zero. Why should we be satisfied with zero when we can create positive results? You, too can create a powerful, positive, regenerative sustainability plan and reap the benefits. What is your environmental impact? How can you operate your business while having a net benefit to the planet?
At NRDC, we see our offices as both physical spaces and change agents. We seek ways in which our daily operations can have a positive handprint on the world. Check out our Sustainable Operations Plan on our website to learn how. Join us in creating your own. Let’s high five to that!
Thankfully, senators are stepping in where Donald Trump’s EPA has fallen down.
Later today, Senate leaders will stand up for children by introducing a bill to ban a pesticide that is currently found at unsafe levels in our food and water, one that is seriously jeopardizing the health of agricultural communities.
Chlorpyrifos (say “klor-PEER-a-foss”) damages the developing brains of children and has been shown to significantly increase the risk of learning disabilities. Yet the Trump administration refuses to finalize a ban that has been recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own scientists.
The bill going before the Senate today is critically needed, since the EPA’s stalling has meant that millions of pounds of this poisonous chemical continue to be sprayed on food crops that children love—apples, oranges, strawberries, and many others—contaminating our food supply and drifting from fields into our homes and schools. Toxic residues are routinely found on fruits and vegetables; they’ve even been found under the peels of oranges and other citrus fruit and in the flesh of melons under their rinds. Scientific analysis conducted by the EPA has concluded that the amount of this chemical ingested by young children could exceed safety levels by 140 times.
All of this has justifiably alarmed pediatricians and policymakers. Ultimately it has led the American Academy of Pediatrics to call for a ban on chlorpyrifos, and spurred attorneys general in seven states to formally object to the EPA’s refusal to take necessary action toward getting this pesticide out of the fields and off our plates for good.
In fact, scientists, pediatricians, and advocates for children and the environment have been sounding the alarm on chlorpyrifos for decades. In 2000, an overwhelming acknowledgment of the risks that it posed to children resulted in a ban on indoor uses. (It had been a popular choice to kill cockroaches and ants.) But the chemical industry fought back hard and was able to retain the lucrative agricultural market—even though it meant poisoning farmworkers, contaminating the air and water, and leaving toxic residues on our food.
As a result, this chemical is now ubiquitous in the bodies of Americans. Multiple studies have shown that its presence is directly linked to eating conventional, nonorganic produce, the kind that’s typically grown with the aid of pesticides. When children consume only an organic diet, chlorpyrifos levels in their bodies plummet. At the same time, children growing up in agricultural communities—many of them with parents who work in the fields—display much higher levels. Studies have tied this increased exposure to increased risk of IQ point loss and developmental delays.
Fast-forward 16 years, through multiple rounds of legal wrangling and three separate reviews of the science by independent scientific advisors. Last November, we finally saw the EPA take chlorpyrifos seriously, with the release of a health assessment finding that the levels of exposure from food, water, and air greatly exceeded the levels shown in scientific studies to increase the risk of learning disabilities. Acting on these findings, the agency concluded that it could not meet the legal standard for allowing this pesticide to be used on food, and it summarily proposed a ban—which was later rejected by Scott Pruitt, the new EPA administrator named by President Trump. Although the EPA under Pruitt has refused to pursue the recommended ban on chlorpyrifos, the agency has put forward no new science or analysis—absolutely none—showing that this pesticide can be used safely.
Here’s why that’s significant. Because we know that they’re so harmful, pesticides aren’t allowed, under federal law, to be used on food crops if the EPA can’t show that they can be used safely. And given the science, it’s clear that chlorpyrifos can’t meet this requirement. This discrepancy is the basis for ongoing legal action by a consortium of organizations—including NRDC, Pesticide Action Network, and several farmworker groups represented by Earthjustice—as well as six states, to hold the EPA accountable.
Legal proceedings on pesticides can drag on for years before any changes are felt in the fields, a fact that provides little comfort to the members of those communities who must live with toxic spraying, day in and day out. One analysis conducted in California, the state that leads the nation in chlorpyrifos use, found that more than 300 schools and 150,000 children—disproportionately Latino—are at risk from toxic drift off nearby fields. These communities can’t afford to wait for the courts. Federal and state bans are urgently needed.
The Senate bill being introduced today finally cuts through the excuses that have been coming from an administration—and an EPA administrator—with a track record of caring more about chemical-company profits than children’s health. This bill would stand up for children’s right to a safe food supply and an environment that allows them to thrive and succeed. By banning chlorpyrifos, Congress will stand with the American people and lead the way to safer food and farms for future generations.