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Deirdre Imus

Deirdre Imus

Posted: November 23, 2009 04:02 PM

People are getting fed up with the broken promises made by bureaucrats who say one thing and do another. They consistently use our children and their "future" as props to advance their agendas on a variety of issues but are equally consistent in doing "too little, too late" when it comes to taking the necessary actions that will actually give those children a healthy future.

Since World War II, millions of tons of dangerous toxic chemicals have been produced and deposited into the air, water and soil throughout the country. Each day, approximately 90,000 more chemicals are released into the environment.

Today, Superfund sites and coal-fired power plants, two major sources of environmental pollution, dot America's landscape from coast-to-coast. As lawmakers struggle to address the unprecedented economic challenges caused by an unregulated financial system "gone wild," the legacy of decades of unregulated environmental policies persist throughout the country, allowing filthy noxious poisons to infiltrate and threaten our society.

It has been thirty years since the horrors of Love Canal, located near Niagara Falls, New York, made the front-page of the New York Times.

Twenty five years after the Hooker Chemical stopped using the Love here as an industrial dump, 82 different compounds, 11 of them suspected carcinogens, have been percolating upward through the soil, their drum containers rotting and leaching their contents into the backyards and basements of 100 homes and a public school built on the banks of the canal.

In 1978, Love Canal became the first man-made site declared a federal disaster area and is regarded as "one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history."

In an article from the EPA Journal (January 1979), Eckardt C. Beck provides a historical lesson on how industrial pollution becomes "ticking time bombs," destroying lives and communities for decades.

The explosion was triggered by a record amount of rainfall. Shortly thereafter, the leaching began ... Corroding waste-disposal drums could be seen breaking up through the ground of backyards. Trees and gardens were turning black and dying. One entire swimming pool had been popped up from its foundation, afloat now on a small sea of chemicals. Puddles of noxious substances were pointed out to me by the residents. Some of these puddles were in their yards, some were in their basements, others yet were on the school grounds. Everywhere the air had a faint, choking smell. Children returned from play with burns on their hands and faces.

And then there were the birth defects.


In my mind, "appalling" does not begin to describe what happened at Love Canal or what is happening all over this country.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated more than 15,000 hazardous waste sites across the country where uncontrolled pollutants are left to permeate adjoining neighborhoods and school playgrounds. Each one of these sites has the potential to become another Love Canal.

Arsenic, lead and mercury are the most frequently detected toxins in landfills and, along with other chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) chromium, and cadmium, provide persistent exposures to anyone living nearby. Some of these chemicals have been found to cause everything from birth defects to cancer.

Approximately 11 million U.S. children reside within one mile of a National Priorities List (NPL) Superfund site where they are uniquely vulnerable to the toxins that surround them. (Browner C. Environmental Health Threats to Children. EPA 175-F-96-001. Washington, DC:U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1996.)

Not surprising, low-income minority families disproportionately live near Superfund sites, which could help explain the bureaucratic complacency.

Studies suggest exposures to benzene, arsenic and PCBs, and trichloroethylene (TCE) found in Superfund landfills are likely suspects for the increase of childhood malignancies. (DeVesa SS, Blot WJ, Stone BJ, Miller BA, Tarove RE, Fraumeni JF Jr. Recent cancer trends in the United States. J Natl Cancer Inst 87:175-182 (1995)

Although mortality rates have improved, there has been a significant increase in childhood leukemia, brain cancer and testicular cancer; brain cancer has increased by 40 percent and testicular cancer in young men (15-29 years) has risen 68 percent.

New Jersey is the home of the most, 114 sites, and some of the most toxic landfills in the country. These sites are rife with harmful contaminates that include heavy metals and a smorgasbord of industrial chemicals.

Although no liability was admitted, court documents revealed 69 Toms River, NJ families whose children were diagnosed with cancer - 15 died - from contaminated water from two Superfund sites were paid more than $13.3 million from Ciba Specialty Chemicals, Union Carbide and United Water Toms River in 2002.

An elevated incidence of childhood leukemia near a Superfund near Woburn, Massachusetts in 1979 became the story behind the book and film A Civil Action.

New Jersey also has the dubious honor as one of the states with the highest autism rate in the country, 1 in 92 children (1 in 60 boys.)

When a group of New Jersey researchers investigated a possible correlation between NJ autism rates in conjunction to identified Superfund sites, their findings were consistent with other studies linking the disorder to environmental pollution.

The residence of 495 ASD patients in New Jersey by zip code and the toxic landfill sites were plotted on a map of Northern New Jersey. The area of highest ASD cases coincides with the highest density of toxic landfill sites while the area with lowest ASD cases has the lowest density of toxic landfill sites. Furthermore, the number of toxic Superfund sites and autism rate across 49 of the 50 states shows a statistically significant correlation (i.e. the number of identified superfund sites correlates with the rate of autism per 1000 residents in 49 of the states (p = 0.015; excluding the state of Oregon).

Researchers at the University of Northern Iowa also found rates of autism that were one and half times higher in Minnesota school districts that were within 20 miles of a Superfund site.

In addition to the toxic exposures leaching from Superfund sites, each year 450 coal-fire power plants release approximately 100 million tons of coal ash and 48 tons of mercury into the atmosphere, multiplying the toxic exposure inflicted on unsuspecting residents.

Air pollution from coal-fired power plants has been linked to asthma, which affects 5 million U.S. children and has doubled since the 1980s. Approximately 150,000 children are hospitalized and 600 children die annually from asthma. It is the primary cause of school absenteeism.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest unregulated source of mercury pollution in the U.S., which once airborne, makes its way into the nation's waterways and eventually into the food supply. Although both the FDA and EPA have issued warnings about eating fish, the EPA has not taken action to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Unregulated mercury pollution has contaminated almost 500,000 miles of rivers and streams resulting in 45 states issuing thousands of fish consumption warnings.

In 2003, government researchers determined 630,000 U.S. newborns had unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, almost twice the previous estimate of 320,000. This analysis suggests 16 percent or one-in-six children born every year could be exposed to mercury levels high enough to put them at risk for a host of learning disorders and motor skill impairment.

A government report released in August found high mercury levels in every fish tested in 291 streams nationwide that exceeded EPA safety guidelines.

This report was followed by a new study that examined over 6,000 American women and found their blood mercury levels had increased significantly from "2 percent in 1999-2000 to 30 percent of women in 2005-2006".

These results suggest that chronic mercury exposure has reached a critical level where inorganic mercury deposition within the human body is accumulating over time. It is logical to assume that the risks of associated neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases will rise as well.

In addition to mercury pollution, recognition of the health effects caused by coal ash, the waste by-product from burning coal for electricity, has health officials concerned as more and more ash makes its way into the ecosystem.

A recent 60 Minutes segment, investigators reported 130 million tons of potentially harmful coal ash is "recycled" annually and used in consumer products like carpeting, and topsoil and is being dumped in wet ponds and golf courses around the country.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dumped up to 1,000 tons of coal ash every day into a wet pond near the plant, slowly amassing a waste-cake 60 feet high. Some of the ingredients, according to the EPA, were arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, cadmium and other toxic metals.

There have been 34 coal ash spills from the 600 coal ash sites around the country.
According to a 2007 EPA risk assessment report, people living near a coal ash depository could have a 1 in 50 chance of developing cancer from arsenic laced drinking water. The report also suggests there is an increased risk of lung, kidney and liver damage cause by toxic metals including lead, cadmium and cobalt, stemming from coal ash pollution, that exceeds safety levels.

Although the health effects are not fully understood, there is enough information about the heavy metals found in coal ash that the EPA is currently considering classifying it as a hazardous waste.

Despite decades of scientific studies confirming how environmental exposures impact human health, it is astonishing that our current environmental laws are failing to provide the adequate regulations the public expects from their government.

For too long, programs aimed at cleaning up Superfund sites and reducing air pollution have been by woeful under-funding and undercut by inadequate regulatory authority.
As a result, millions of American children are exposed to dangerous levels of a variety of contaminates every day. These preventable exposures can lead to costly chronic illness and developmental disorders -- exceeding $55 billion annually -- that can last a lifetime.

Is it any wonder that we have a nation of very sick and disabled children and out-of-control health care costs?

So how do we correct the toxic mess polluters have made of our environment? Can't we do better?

In an ideal world, government would stop pollution before it gets out-of-control. But since it is unrealistic to expect the government to put people first, we need to look at what is possible and demand better.

In 1980, Congress created a multi-billion dollar trust fund that the government could use to cleanup waste sites. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), established a fund supported by a "polluter pays" fee. This fee placed the burden on industry for the cleanup of their contaminated waste sites.

Makes sense right?

Of course, industry doesn't like being responsible or accountable for their bad behavior so in 1995 they used their influence to convince members of Congress to let the "polluter pay" fee expire. As a result, the burden was shifted from industry to American taxpayers.

Earlier this year, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced a new campaign to accelerate Superfund projects in 28 states using $600 million in funding obtained through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Last month, EPA announced their commitment to put controls on and "develop a strategy to reduce harmful emissions" from coal-fired power plants "which threaten the air we all breathe."

Administrator Jackson has also said: "In every action I take, I am acting not just as EPA Administrator but also as a mother. I never lose sight of the fact that protecting children's health is EPA's top priority. That means we take aggressive steps when we see areas where our kids are especially vulnerable."

It appears that with new leadership, the EPA is preparing to do what the public would expect from the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, the EPA needs to set new pollution standards with the understanding that children are uniquely vulnerable to early and repeated environmental pollutants and that persistent as well as cumulative exposures from a variety of sources need to be part of this equation.

Shortly after the Recovery Act Superfund funding was announced Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, introduced legislation that would reauthorize the "polluter pays" tax. In a statement announcing the bill, Rep. Pallone stated:

The American taxpayer should not be paying for the mistakes of corporate polluters. Today, superfund sites all around our nation are ready for cleanup, but the EPA cannot proceed due to a lack of funds...3 years of inaction in Congress" has resulted in the superfund trust fund dwindling from a high of $3.8 billion in 1987 to zero in 2003.

Americans are paying a heavy price for environmental pollution, in terms of lives, healthcare and cleanup costs. Time will tell whether the Congress and the Administration is really serious or if they will allow the special interest saboteurs to prevail yet again.

Corporations need to take economic and social responsibility for their business practices. Environmental pollution is a major health threat with enormous economic consequences.
It is a moral responsibility we simply cannot continue to ignore if we hope to give our children the future they deserve.


GET INVOLVED, MAKE A DIFFERENCE:
Show your support for cleaning up Superfund sites by calling and urging your member of congress to co-sponsor the Superfund Polluter Pays Act (H.R. 832)
See this link for more information.