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Pollution in 5 Extraordinary Women

Pollution in 5 Extraordinary Women

The Chemical Body Burden of Environmental Justice Leaders
Friday, May 1, 2009

Authors — EWG research team: Senior researchers Anila Jacob, MD, MPH; Sonya Lunder, MPH; Sean Gray, MS; EWG Vice President for Research Jane Houlihan, MSCE; with Elaine Shannon, EWG Editor-in-chief

An unprecedented two-year study commissioned by the Environmental Working Group and conducted by four independent research laboratories in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands has documented up to 481 toxic chemicals in the blood of five minority women leaders in the environmental justice movement.

The women leaders, from New Orleans, Green Bay, Corpus Christi and Oakland, have spent years deeply engaged in battles to rid their communities of air and water pollution from local manufacturing plants, hazardous waste dumps, oil refineries and conventional agriculture.

Who's in the Study — 5 Environmental Justice Leaders in 4 States


Beverly Wright
New Orleans, LA
Works to protect citizens from pollution in "Cancer Alley"

Jennifer Hill-Kelley
Green Bay, WI
Protects natural resources for Oneida Nation

Suzie Canales
Corpus Christi, TX
Defends her community from oil refinery pollution

Jean Salone
Corpus Christi, TX
Helped expose local polluters violating the Clean Air Act

Vivian Chang
Oakland, CA
Leads environmental justice efforts for Asian Americans

75 chemicals tested

The study, sponsored by EWG in conjunction with Rachel's Network, a nationwide organization of women environmental leaders, tested the five women last year for 75 chemical contaminants.

Testing was targeted toward compounds that are heavily used in everyday consumer products but that have escaped effective regulation under the antiquated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The results underscore the widespread and systemic failure of current law to protect the public from chemicals, many of which persist in the environment for decades or far longer, that are associated in animal studies with cancer, reproductive problems and behavioral effects.

All of the women were contaminated with flame retardants, Teflon chemicals, synthetic fragrances, the plastics ingredient bisphenol A and the rocket fuel component perchlorate.

Conclusion

Though they live thousands of miles apart, come from distinctive cultural traditions and confront different environmental hazards outside their homes, the women's differences are only skin deep.

Their body burdens of environmental pollutants, a mix of industrial chemicals, synthetic cosmetics ingredients and chemicals used to treat consumer products, are strikingly similar - and roughly equivalent to the body burdens of other Americans surveyed by governmental and independent research organizations.

Every woman:

  • Tested positive for 35 to 60 percent of the 75 chemicals on the search list.
  • Had a high body burden of at least one controversial chemical whose lack of regulation and widespread presence in American life is fueling debate over reform of the nation's toxic chemical policies.

The laboratory analyses, which offer a snapshot of the toxic body burdens of women on the front lines of the environmental health and environmental justice movements, set the stage for larger, population-scale research projects that could determine how exposure to chemicals in water, food and consumer products may vary across minority populations; what other industrial compounds may also be present in Americans' bodies; and any health risks those pollutants may pose, alone or in combination.

Even now, the findings could well mark a turning point in the increasingly heated debate unfolding in Washington over the reform of the nation's 33-year-old chemical safety law that, in a recent shift, even the chemical and plastics industries concede must be modernized.

As researchers have mapped more and more of the "human toxome" over the past decade, steadily expanding the list of pollutants found in people, the techniques of human biomonitoring have been embraced by scientists, public health experts and key Congressional and legislative leaders as the logical foundation for revolutionary changes in the way government scientists test and regulate industrial chemicals.

For instance, the principal chemical reform proposal on Capitol Hill would prioritize safety assessments of tens of thousands of hazardous substances currently in commerce by focusing first on those that show up in people. Production or uses of toxic chemicals found in umbilical cord blood would be phased out unless rigorous, expedited testing showed them to be safe for developing infants.


Environmental Justice Leaders


Beverly Wright, Ph.D.

 

A sociology professor and New Orleans native, joined the environmental justice movement after a visit to "Cancer Alley," as many residents call the Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor, an 85-mile stretch of oil refineries and petrochemical plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

 

In her forthcoming book, Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina, with Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and author of the ground-breaking 2000 book Dumping in Dixie, Dr. Wright recalls that whites had fled the area, but poor African Americans remained behind, living in the shadow of the petrochemical plants. She blames "a pattern of discrimination and exclusion based on a culture of segregation and racism that allowed these polluting facilities and local government to respond to the needs of white citizens while ignoring the needs of black citizens."

To redress the balance, Wright helped found New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) in 1992.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated her own neighborhood, Dr. Wright wrote In the Wake of the Storm, published in 2006. Her book, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty was published in 2007.

Test highlights:

  • Tested positive for 36 to 391 of 75 chemicals.
  • Perfluorchemicals (PFCs) - 87th percentile. Higher than all but 13 percent of Americans tested2 for perfluorochemicals (PFCS), used in non-stick coatings such as Teflon, water and stain-resistant textiles coatings such as Goretex and Stainmaster and grease-resistant food packaging.
  • Mercury - 87th percentile. Higher than all but 13 percent of Americans tested3 for mercury, a potent neurotoxin especially dangerous to the developing fetus and infants.
  • Also found - Bisphenol A (BPA), a plastics chemical and synthetic estrogen found to disrupt the endocrine system; perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient and common tap water and food contaminant; lead, a neurotoxic heavy metal found in older homes and tap water; polycyclic musks, synthetic fragrances associated with hormone disruption in animal studies; polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), flame retardants found in foam furniture, computers, and televisions.

Jennifer Hill-Kelley

 

Policy analyst at the 65,000-acre Oneida Nation near Green Bay, Wisconsin,and a senior fellow with the non-profit Environmental Leadership Program, signs her emails wahnislateni ne yohantsya^teni -- every day is earth day.

 

She has spent 12 years overseeing cleanup of the reservation's fishing streams and ground waters and working to restore the tribe's traditional fishery. That mission says Hill-Kelley, is"near to my heart" because back in 1822, the Oneida people moved to the area around sparkling Duck Creek near Lake Michigan's Green Bay.

Today, Duck Creek, which bisects the reservation, is polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), industrial chemicals that local paper mills dumped by the ton into nearby Fox River and the bay itself. In 1977, the U.S. government banned the manufacture of PCBs, by that time classified as known human carcinogens, but the waters in and around Green Bay remain contaminated by PCBs and other toxins such as mercury, dioxins and the pesticide DDT.

"The fishing tradition is integral to our culture," says Hill-Kelley, "We want to be able to fish again on the reservation."

Some tribe members defy the no-fishing warnings, but Hill-Kelley, a former environmental laboratory technician, says she"realized very early that fish were a source of chemical contamination for myself and my daughter. I love to eat fish but limit myself and my family to occasional meals of fresh wild Alaskan salmon (store bought, of course) or Lake Michigan salmon. I don't eat tuna at all."

While the PCB cleanup grinds along, Hill-Kelley works with state and federal authorities and local farmers to reduce agricultural runoff and control sedimentation from urbanization.

Oneida's work is paying off. Today, Oneida Nation's streams are clearer, wetlands have been restored, and birds, trout and other wildlife are returning.

Test highlights:

  • Tested positive for 37 to 401 of 75 chemicals chemicals.
  • Bisphenol A (BPA) - 81st percentile. Higher than all but 19 percent of Americans tested4.
  • Mercury - 68th percentile. Higher than all but 32 percent of Americans tested3.
  • Polycyclic musks - 91st percentile. Higher than all but 9 percent of Americans tested5.
  • Also found - Perchlorate, lead, perfluorochemicals (PFCS), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

Suzie Canales

 

Returned home to Corpus Christi to spend time with her sister, Diana Bazan, as she was dying of cancer at the age of 42.

 

At Diane's funeral, Ms. Canales was struck by the number of family friends who confided that they, or family members, were waging their own battles with cancer. She began to wonder if her sister's cancer, her other two sisters' hysterectomies and other diseases in the community might have something to do with the old dump in the predominately Hispanic neighborhood where she had grown up. Ms. Canales' health was fine - but was that because, as a Navy wife, she had been away from the neighborhood for two decades?

Canales and other family members founded Citizens for Environmental Justice and began investigating the dump and, eventually, all of Corpus Christi. Because of its key role in the energy industry - it is home to six oil refineries, several chemical plants and a network of related oil and gas businesses -- Corpus holds coveted slot on Forbes Magazine's list of 20 best U.S. cities for jobs.

But Canales has become convinced that this prosperity has come at a human price.

"We found lots of clusters of cancer around the city," she says. Her organization instigated a study that found the city's birth defect rate to be 84 percent higher than in other parts of Texas.

Two of the Corpus Christi children born with birth defects were Canales' own grandsons.

Canales and her organization have engaged in a long-running battle to prevent the Citgo Petroleum Corp. from expanding its refining operations in Corpus Christi. So far, they have held the giant oil company at bay. The organization is currently in a legal battle with Flint Hills refinery over an air permit that would increase emissions into the surrounding community.

Ms. Canales is the recipient of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Award for Outstanding Achievements in Environmental Justice.

Test highlights:

  • Tested positive for 26 to 291 of 75 chemicals.
  • Bisphenol A - 85th percentile. Higher than all but 15 percent of Americans tested.4
  • Polycyclic musks - 86th percentile. Higher than all but 14 percent of people tested5.
  • Also found - Perchlorate, lead, perfluorochemicals (PFCS), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), mercury.

Jean Salone

 

Moved into Corpus Christi's Hillcrest neighborhood in 1962. It was a comfortable, largely African American working class community with spacious houses and big yards. She hardly noticed the Citgo oil refinery across the chain link fence from Hillcrest.

 

Until 2001, when Salone says she was awakened by a strong chemical stench. When the smell didn't subside, she joined Citizens for Environmental Justice. Salone chaired a biomonitoring study, with the Texas A&M School of Rural Public Health, that found that Hillcrest residents had elevated blood and urine concentrations of benzene, a chemical associated with oil drilling and refining and listed by the U.S. government as a known human carcinogen. Of special concern, the study found, were high levels of volatile organic compounds, chemicals generated by the petrochemical industry, in the urine of neighborhood children.

Salone wondered if her own bout with breast cancer might have been triggered by refinery emissions. Given the current state of medical science, there was no certain answer.

Even so, Salone was determined to take action.

In 2006, Citgo was indicted in federal court for criminal violations of the federal Clean Air Act. Salone became a key witness for the U.S. Justice Department.

In July 2007, the company was found guilty of two counts of operating open equipment without emissions controls required by law, the first time a U.S. oil refiner had been convicted in a federal criminal trial for Clean Air Act violations. (In 2001, Koch Petroleum Group, operator of another refinery near the Hillcrest neighborhood, had pleaded guilty to covering up environmental violations by disconnecting a device that controlled benzene emissions. It was ordered to pay $20 million in fines and support for environmental projects.

Salone was disappointed that Citgo was acquitted on two other counts of emitting benzene.

"They should have been convicted on all the charges," says Salone. "But it was great to let the refineries know that they weren't above the law."

Test highlights:

  • Tested positive for for 40 to 451 of 75 chemicals chemicals.
  • Bisphenol A - 77th percentile. Higher than all but 23 percent of Americans tested4.
  • Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) - 80th percentile. Higher than all but 20 percent of Americans tested2.
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) - 89th percentile. Higher than all but 11 percent of Americans tested2.
  • Also found - Perchlorate, lead, mercury, polycyclic musks.

Vivian Chang

 

Chang has spent a dozen years as a community organizer specializing in environmental justice issues, until recently as executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), based in Oakland, California.

 

Her work, she says, is her way of honoring her grandmother, a onetime garment worker in Taiwan who immigrated to California in 1965. "I know what it took for my grandmother and parents to put food on the table," she says. Chang's parents earned professional degrees. Chang earned a Masters degree in urban planning from the University of California-Los Angeles

Like other immigrants starting at the bottom of the economic ladder, Chang says Asians struggle with low-paying jobs, dilapidated housing in polluted neighborhoods - and more. "Distinct to Asians," she says, "is their isolation and invisibility to the regulatory agencies. Many lack the ability to pick up the phone to report something because nobody speaks their language. They may not know their rights."

Her first major success: organizing the large Laotian community in Richmond, California, to confront environmental problems caused by the local Chevron oil refinery.

"We're one of the richest nations in the world," says Chang. "There's no reason why people can't have decent housing that's not contaminated with lead paint or built on top of a Superfund site, no reason why people can't have clean drinking water."

Test highlights:

  • Tested positive for for 40 to 451 of 75 chemicals chemicals.
  • Mercury - 91st percentile. Higher than all but 9 percent of Americans tested3.
  • Polycyclic musks - 84th percentile. Higher than all but 16 percent of people tested5.
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) - 86th percentile. Higher than all but 14 percent of Americans tested2.
  • Also found - Perchlorate, bisphenol A (BPA), lead, perfluorochemicals (PFCS).

Notes
1 Numbers are expressed as a range because several PBDEs are tested in groups of 2,3, or 4 chemicals; a positive result may mean one, some, or all of the chemicals are present. The minimum and maximum number of possible positive results are provided in the range.
2 Perfluorchemicals (PFCs) results are compared to a national biomonitoring survey in which U.S. Centers for Disease Control tested 3,959 Americans.
3 Mercury results are compared to a national biomonitoring survey in which U.S. Centers for Disease Control tested 8,373 Americans.
4 Bisphenol A results are compared to a national biomonitoring survey in which U.S. Centers for Disease Control tested 2,612 Americans.
5 Polycyclic musk results are compared with an EWG biomonitoring survey in which 42 Americans were tested. CDC has not tested Americans for synthetic musks

References

CDC. 2009. National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Available online at: http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/

EWG. 2009 Human Toxome Project. Available online at: http://www.ewg.org/sites/humantoxome/

Key Issues, Toxics, Health Concerns: