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Environmental connections to public health >>

Toxins in your hood? You have the right to know, again....

Friday, March 13, 2009

Amid all of the negative and downright depressing news about the global economic meltdown, Wall Street swindlers, pirates, middle east violence and the break-up of Bristol Palin and Keith Johnson - I didn't see that comin' - there was some very good news many in the environmental and public health communities have been waiting for.

"Companies will have to provide more detailed disclosure of toxic chemicals they release into the environment under a little-noticed provision in the massive spending bill President Obama signed into law yesterday," Juliet Eilperin reported in the March 12, 2009 edition of the Washington Post.

That provision was authored by New Jersey's senior Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) to reverse a Bush-era regulation that had stripped away important reporting requirements for the chemical industry.

Before Bush and his industry-run Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed the rules, chemical facilities had to disclose to the EPA, and thus to the public, any chemical releases of 500 pounds a year or more. The mountain biker-in-chief thought that was just too much to ask of industry and did away with disclosure requirements for releases of less than 2,000 pounds a year.

If President Brush-Clearer thought at all about families living near chemical plants and the toxins being discharged into their communities, he sure didn't show it.

"The public has a right to know about chemicals in their air and water," Lautenberg said after his provision passed. "The Bush Administration watered down this law and let facilities hide critical data about their toxic chemical emissions. It is time to restore the public's right to know about the release of toxic chemicals in their communities."

Lautenberg is the author of the Toxic Release Inventory program, the public, EPA-hosted database that houses all information related to virtually all toxic chemical releases across the U.S.

Lautenberg's creation became part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, passed in response to the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, in which a Union Carbide pesticide plant released 40 tons of a deadly gas (methyl isocyanate or MIC). The unofficial death toll climbed to as many as 28,000, according to the BBC, and some 50,000 people were left with lifelong disabilities. Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million in compensation.

But Bhopal is the rare and extreme case. Most episodes of chemical pollution are silent, gradual and insidious, and their impact on human health is subtle and elusive. That's why we need to track even small toxic releases as they are occurring.

Or, better yet, prevent them from happening at all.

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