Tag Archives: toxins

EPA changes would improve public access to data

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

A recent OMB Watch story covers the EPA’s latest attempt to leverage the Toxic Substances Control Act to make it easier for the public to access chemical data and harder for manufacturers to hide health and safety related information behind the “trade secrets” label.

Fire and emergency response personnel practice techniques for hazardous materials containment and removal.

Fire and emergency response personnel practice techniques for hazardous materials containment and removal. (CDC photo)

The key is the expansion of the Inventory Update Reporting rule, which requires companies to report toxic substances over a certain weight threshold. According to OMB Watch, the Bush administration bumped this threshold from 10,000 to 25,000 pounds, and decreased reporting frequency from every four years to every five years.

The proposed rule lowers or eliminates thresholds for reporting and increases reporting frequency, moves that should provide the public with more information on more chemicals. The amount of a chemical manufactured at a facility in any given year fluctuates widely. … EPA’s proposed rule would require a manufacturer to submit information on a chemical if the volume exceeds the 25,000-pound threshold for any year since the previous submission. The agency is also proposing to return the reporting frequency to every four years rather than every five. Additionally, EPA is proposing requiring all reporters to submit data on the processing and use of the chemicals. The current program requires such reporting only for chemicals manufactured or imported over 300,000 pounds.

The manufacturers would use EPA-provided software to report their chemical inventory – currently, most manufacturers submit paper reports. The paper reports take years to process and the data-entry process introduces extra error into the system.

Another proposed change would require reporting of a number of valuable pieces of information, such as yearly production volumes, more specific chemical names and numbers to ensure the correct chemical substances are identified, and the approximate number of workers exposed to the chemicals.

Furthermore, manufacturers currently can label just about anything as “confidential business information,” the new rules would place annual limits on the practice and require manufacturers to justify any such designations.

The Society of Environmental Journalists wrote about the issue back in March and included a link to a report [PDF] from the EPA’s Inspector General, as well as other coverage.

Group’s tours highlight pollution in West Oakland

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

California Watch’s Ali Winston writes that to increase awareness of both legacy and ongoing sources of toxins in their venerable neighborhood, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project is offering “toxic tours” of the area’s most polluted locations.

oaklandCrane unloading shipping containers in West Oakland. Photo by oso via Flickr.

The tour focuses on the neighborhood’s industrial legacy and includes West Oakland’s own federal Superfund site, where a chemical company “left a deposit of cancer-causing vinyl chloride in the soil and groundwater” as well as the largest recycling smelter west of the Mississippi and the docks where lines of cargo ships and big rigs sit idling every weekday as they wait for containers to be loaded and unloaded.

Related

In their series “Shortened Lives,” Suzanne Bohan and Sandy Kleffman profiled people from different (though nearby) ZIP codes, finding wide disparities in their expected life spans, based on where they live, their social status and the toll of chronic stress. The series explains the effect these disparities have on health care costs, as well as how they are caused and how they might be addressed. Bohan and Kleffman wrote about the project in a piece for AHCJ members and we have included additional resources for those interested in exploring disparities in health care in their own communities.

Advocates urge clear ingredient lists for cleansers

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Writing for the Associated Press, Jennifer Peltz covers a push by environmental advocates for clearer labeling that lists the ingredients of household cleansers. The article was spurred by a recent attempt by advocacy groups to get a court to use a 1971 New York law to force cleanser manufacturers into disclosing ingredients. Peltz also looks into the industry’s voluntary disclosure efforts (a trade group has linked to companies’ ingredient lists here) and various efforts to require full disclosure nationwide.

cleansers
Photo by rubberglovelover
via Flickr.

For its part, Peltz says industry representatives say “that the legal case is unwarranted, and that fears about health risks are misinformed.” Consumer advocates reply that current voluntary disclosures can be too vague, and that only government regulation will enable the sort of full disclosure necessary to ensure consumer safety.

If advocates win the New York case, cleanser contents would then have to be disclosed to the state. Other regulation efforts are significantly more ambitious.

The case comes amid growing concerns about potential toxins lurking in consumer goods, from the heavy metal cadmium in jewelry to the chemical bisphenol A in baby bottles. While lawyers argued the cleaning-products case in New York, a Senate subcommittee in Washington held a hearing to examine current science on the public’s exposure to toxic chemicals.

Some studies have linked cleaning product components to asthma, antibiotic resistance, hormone changes and other health problems. The industry’s major trade group, the Soap and Detergent Association, assails the research as flawed, says the products are safe if used correctly and notes that cleaning can itself help stop the spread of disease.

Federal environmental laws don’t require most household cleaning products to list their ingredients, though there are congressional proposals to change that. The Consumer Product Safety Commission requires hazard warning labels on some cleansers, and the National Institutes of Health offer some health and safety information for hundreds of cleaning products, drawn from data gathered for industrial use.

Related HHS product database

The National Institutes of Health maintains a database of health and safety information related to household products. It includes detailed information on ingredients and potential safety hazards, among other things.

Toxicologists: Media gets chemical risks wrong

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Writing for STATS, a research organization affiliated with George Mason University, Robert Lichter reports on a study of “how experts view the risks of common chemicals” that says “the media are overstating risk,” according to toxicologists.

Based on the survey responses of about 1,000 industry and academic toxicologists, the study was conducted by STATS, The Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University, and the Society of Toxicology.

According to the survey, toxicologists say the news media overstates risk. Among the media, TV networks get the worst rap, the print media does slightly better and public broadcasting is seen as doing the best “with ‘only’ two out of three toxicologists describing PBS and NPR as overstating chemical risk.”

Also among the survey’s findings:

  • Toxicologists “tend to downplay the dangers to human health” from chemicals and only a minority of them find cosmetics (one in four) or food additives (one in three) to be particularly risky. The majority saw more risk in pesticides and endocrine disruptors.
  • Almost all say the amount of a toxin matters more than its mere presence, and deny that organic/natural products are inherently safer.
  • Most agree that the regulatory system’s doing a good job, but that the media and regulators aren’t doing enough to accurately communicate with the public on these issues.
  • In a sidebar titled “The Internet – a sober corrective to unruly journalists?” Trevor Butterworth reveals that toxicologists viewed WebMD and Wikipedia as far more accurate than mainstream media like The New York Times.

Mercury may lurk in high fructose corn syrup

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In the Columbia Daily Tribune, dietitian and columnist Melinda Hemmelgarn discusses a 2005 study recently published in Environmental Health in which researchers found detectable levels of mercury in nine out of 20 samples of high fructose corn syrup.

Hemmelgarn says the neurotoxin get into high fructose corn syrup when “processors use mercury-grade caustic soda to separate corn starch from the corn kernel.” Most processing plants now use mercury-free technologies, she said, but consumers have no way to distinguish between syrup made with mercury and syrup made without it.

Renee Dufault, who directed the 2005 study, said her findings were ignored by the FDA and, until this January, unpublished by scientific journals. According to Dufault, the Corn Refiners Association called the study outdated, saying that they haven’t used mercury in syrup production for years.

Dufault responds by pointing to a 2008 small-scale regional study conducted by the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy that tested 55 consumer products containing significant amounts of high fructose corn syrup and found mercury in almost a third of them.

Related resources:

Last-minute rules would affect health care

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

ProPublica, which is tracking last-minute rulemaking by the Bush Administration, reports on one rule that would make it more difficult for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to regulate toxins.

Fire and emergency response personnel practice techniques for hazardous materials containment and removal.

Fire and emergency response personnel practice techniques for hazardous materials containment and removal. Photo: Jim Gathany/CDC

ProPublica, which also links to coverage in The Washington Post and The New York Times, says “OSHA has issued just one significant health standard” in the past eight years – and that it did that under court order.

Another rule the administration is pushing forward is would require federally funded health care facilities to allow employees to refuse to provide services at odds with their moral or religious beliefs, such as abortion.

David G. Savage of the Los Angeles Times reports that “For more than 30 years, federal law has dictated that doctors and nurses may refuse to perform abortions. The new rule would go further by making clear that healthcare workers also may refuse to provide information or advice to patients who might want an abortion.”

Savage writes that the rule, as written, could extend to other procedures, including prescribing birth control or providing artificial inseminination. A lawyer for the National Women’s Law Center said the law also could affect decisions about end-of-life care.