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Let’s Tour America’s Toxic Waste: What’s In Your Neigborhood?


Welcome to toxic America: what a country! Let’s take a toxic tour, shall we? Our excellent tour guides at the National Library of Medicine thoughfully prepared the TOXMAP we see above. The red dots show huge toxic messes known as Superfund sites. The blue dots mark the spot where individual factories release several tons of toxic substances. What’s red and blue and toxic all over? These United States — yay us! Just click on the map, and you’ll know where to find the Superfund and (some of) the massive toxic release sites in your neighborhood.

But wait, there’s more! Not enough toxins in your neighborhood? The good folks at scorecard will help you find out about toxins all over your county. Just punch in your zip code to get a nifty map of county-wide toxic substance release and showing just how the toxic tour opportunities in your county measure up against the rest of the nation. See how much of America’s toxic heritage your county — and the water and air and soil and critters and people there — sucked down. See if your neighborhood is in the top ten percent of America’s contaminated counties (To ensure competitive play, TN residents are ineligible for this month’s competition.)

Once we’re on a first name basis with your neighborhood toxins, the fun’s only begun. The fine folks at PANNA created a toxics database that lets up look up the local deadlies and see precisely what ways they can harm us — or our kids. Not sure what the risks are? You can invite your OB/GYN, pediatician, or family doc to play. "Find the lurking toxins" is a game for the whole community…or at least those who’ve survived.

Of course, in any comparison some of us will be above average, some will be above average. If your neighborhood or county came out with the short end of the toxic waste stick, never fear. You may still be wading through toxic muck, but just not the sort that shows up on the Toxic Release Inventory that makes TOXMAP’s blue dots. In her great book Living Downstream, the poet and biologist Sandra Steingraber gets down to the dirty details about the toxic substances that haven’t made the A list at TRI.

The linchpin of EPCRA (Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act) is the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). As the SEER Program registry is to cancer incidence, TRI is to carcinogens and other toxins. It requires that certain manufacturers report to the government the total amount of each of some 650 toxic chemicals released each year into air, water, and land. the government then makes these data public information. As a pollution disclosure program, TRI has many deficiencies. Its main shortcoming that it relies completely on self-reporting and lacks adequate procedures for checking data quality. In addition, it does not address the presence of carcinogens in consumer products; small companies are exempt from reporting; the compliance rate among industries that are required to file is only about 66 percent; and 654 is a small fraction of the total chemicals they use.

As usual, the corporate moles both political parties scattered through the EPA did their best to help the parties’ megacorp base. The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel’s investigation uncovered:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given the word "limited" a brand new meaning.

To the EPA, that word apparently allows for routine suppression of new information about chemicals – even information about compounds that are known to cause cancer and respiratory problems.

Under the EPA’s own guidelines, the agency can allow confidentiality on its registry of dangerous chemicals only "under very limited circumstances."

Yet Journal Sentinel reporters Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger, who examined more than 2,000 registry filings from the last three years, found that the EPA frequently "sanitized" records.

The agency agreed to keep the name of a chemical a secret in more than half of the cases they examined. In hundreds of other cases, the company filing the report was allowed to blot out its own name and address.

In this way, the registry, which was begun 30 years ago to help the public avoid contact with dangerous chemicals, has been neutered.

The law requires companies to submit information about potential hazards to the EPA, and then the agency has to make that information public. Companies frequently claim that disclosure would violate their trade secrets, which could be a reasonable claim in some cases. But in more than half the cases?

While the Bushie EPA conspired with industry to enroll toxic chemicals in polluter protection programs, other Bushies did their best to raise the amount of toxic waste industry can keep secret from the public, and decrease the frequency of TRI reports.

Under the new EPA plan, TRI reporting would be done once every other year instead of annually. It would also substantially raise the thresholds for amounts of many toxic emissions that have to be reported — from 500 to 5,000 pounds.

Gotta love those Bushies — if you like your family eating toxic waste. The rest of us gotta love the good people at OMBWatch who tried to reverse the Bushies’ December, 2006 attack on TRI

The EPA plans to allow companies to: (1) release ten times the amount of toxics before detailed reporting is required; (2) withhold information on Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxins (PBTs), like lead and mercury; and (3) report every other year, instead of annually.

They failed.

The Toxic Right-to-Know Protection Act refers to identical House and Senate bills in the 110th Congress (2007-2008) that are currently stuck in committee.

Another triumph for big toxic waste. Another chance for industry to secretly dump toxic waste that will poison generations yet unborn…and to do so secretly.

So if your neighborhood and county don’t win out to be the most toxic place in America, don’t depair. Even if you don’t show up near a TRI spot, the toxins still may show up in you. And if you’re pregnant, you can share them with the next generation. Is this a great country, or what?

Although only one study has ever been conducted on environmental contamination in amniotic fluid (and although that study was not very extensive), its results were alarming: Detectable levels of organochlorine compounds were found in one-third of the 30 samples tested. The amniotic fluid, which plays a key role in developing fetal immune systems, was also contaminated with immune-suppressing PCBs. DDT, known to interfere with sex hormone functioning, was found in concentrations equivalent to the fetus’s own sex hormones.

Who knows? Maybe it’s such a great country we can still stop the serial poisoners and their wholly-owned servants in Congress, the White House, and the EPA from laying waste to what remains. Maybe.

I’ll let Sandra Stiengraber have the last word. Bon appetit.

That’s where the precautionary principle comes in. We have to act on good but partial evidence-not absolute proof. As a parent, I do this all the time. In my house, you don’t ride your scooter or your bike without a helmet. If you do, the scooter goes in the barn for a week. I don’t need absolute proof that my child will be harmed. I just need to know that the situation is inherently dangerous, and that is my trigger for action.

I think we need to bring the same approach to pediatric environmental health. If a chemical is inherently toxic and is known to, say, accumulate in mother’s milk or contaminate drinking water or find its way into umbilical cord blood, then it has no place in our economy. We should move immediately to phase it out of use and production and seek non-toxic solutions. This comes out of the same impulse as calling your children out of the pool when you hear thunder in the distance. You don’t need to wait for an electrocution to know that you don’t swim when there’s lightning.

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Kirk Murphy

Kirk Murphy

terrestrial obligate aerobe with endoskeleton (bony) and bilateral symmetry.

chordate, bipedal, warm-blooded, mammalian, placental (origin), opposable thumbs.

not (yet) extinct.

indigenous habitat: California Live Oak.

current habitat: Central California Coast (most northerly aspect).... 'northwest of the new world, east of the sea'

potential habitats: all potential habitats critically endangered (due to global climate change).

ailurophilic - hence allergic rhinitic.