I hated my high school chemistry class. Ironically, as my college and professional careers rolled along, I realized many environmental issues had chemistry connections. Like it or not, if I was to understand those issues, I had to understand the chemistry. Awareness and apprehension over the spread of toxic chemicals would be one such subject of concern. One of those, the industrial chemical family known as PCBs have found their way back into the headlines. It was used as a fire retardant and an insulator in electrical components, including as ballast in fluorescent lights fixtures. Though it's been illegal to manufacture in the United States since 1979, these long-lived chemicals remain in the environment as well as in durable products (like light ballasts) manufactured in those years.
PCBs are PBT chemicals – persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic. In simpler English, that means they persist for long periods in the environment, accumulate in fat tissue (because they are fat soluble), and are poisonous. If that PBT trifecta wasn't enough, they also cause cancer and disrupt hormonal processes. Many of these man-made chemicals are known by their acronyms because their real chemical names (often like their chemical makeup) are complex. PCB, as a perfect example, stands for polychlorinated biphenyl. Even if the chemistry is a bit overwhelming, we need only look at the compounds, chemicals, products and relatives of PCBs to understand why they present problems.
Fused benzene rings make naphthalene, the active ingredient in toxic moth balls. Biphenyl in coal tar creosote used in railroad tie preservatives is a likely carcinogen. PCBs are also chemically similar to the potent cancer-causing group of chemicals called dioxins that are given off when vinyl is burned. PBB, the PCB cousin used widely at one time as a fire retardant (it has bromine in place of chlorine) is similarly toxic.
PBB came into the headlines the first time in 1973 when bags of PBB fire retardant "Firemaster" were accidentally mixed with the cattle feed supplement "Nutrimaster" and shipped to farmers in southwestern Michigan. The tainted feed ultimately killed 30,000 cows and two million chickens. The state of Washington recently filed suit against Monsanto for long-term environmental damage that PCBs have inflicted upon the state. Governor Jay Ferguson has contended, "Monsanto produced PCBs for years while hiding what they knew about the chemical's harm to human health and the environment." Yet it is not just this contamination that we need to be concerned about. New "unintentional" releases have been confirmed by researchers at Rutgers, the University of Iowa and a Japanese industry association. The new contamination has come from the manufacturing of several paint and ink pigments.
The 1979 Toxic Substances Control Act outlawed PCBs but granted an exemption when they were produced "in controlled manufacturing processes and as unintentional contaminants" such as paint and ink production. More than four decades after the first serious problems with PCBs and its relatives came to light, we remain haunted by this family of chemicals that should have never been manufactured in the first place. As discussions to eliminate many environmental regulations grow at the national level, it is wise to remember the saga of polychlorinated biphenyls.
You can read more about the new PCB problem in Environmental Health Perspectives.
Too often, Americans use (and misuse) toxic products and don't even realize they are doing so. Raising awareness about these products will help us handle them in a safer manner and reduce how much of them we use. While Rachel Carson's legendary book, Silent Spring initially raised concerns about pesticides in the sixties, several notable disasters brought toxic chemicals into the headlines in the seventies and eighties.
One of the most notable Incidents was the poisoning of the Niagara Falls neighborhood, Love Canal. Even here in Blair County, chemical dumps left by the railroad were uncovered at Altoona's Easterly Sewage Treatment Plant and at the Sam Rea Shops in Hollidaysburg. These and other chemical exposures and related health problems prompted the passage of both federal and state laws regulating them. Their manufacturing, use and disposal became stringently regulated and the most toxic were outlawed all together.
Much good has come from these regulations and industry has handled these materials more carefully, while decreasing production of many of them. Less toxic alternatives have been developed in further response to these restrictions and concerns from the public. The move toward VOC-free paint is a perfect example. Despite many positive developments, we should still pay attention to what we do in our own homes, gardens and workplaces. Here is a list of some things to keep in mind when dealing with hazardous materials.
Times Beach, Missouri is a modern day ghost town. Three decades after its dissolution, it still serves as an environmental cautionary tale we would be wise to heed. Most ghost towns of a century ago withered away when the economic reason for their existence faded. Interestingly, many met their demise because the resources that caused the town's growth became exhausted or obsolete. A classic, local example is Glenwhite, west of the Horseshoe Curve.
The Times Beach story was still connected to the environment, but in a much different way. It disappeared because it was poisoned. We will soon mark the 33rd anniversary of the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) official announcement that Times Beach was so badly contaminated with the toxic and carcinogenic dioxin that it was unsafe to live there. A community about the size of Martinsburg, it was a short drive southwest of Saint Louis. It came to be as the result of a promotion by the Saint Louis Times in 1925 and was intended to be a beach community for summer homes along the Meramec River, hence the name Times Beach. But by the 1970s, the newspaper was long gone and the town was a struggling. By 1985, it ceased to exist.
I traveled through Missouri on Interstate 44 in 1983 just nine months after the EPA announcement. When my traveling partners and I unexpectedly passed by the interchange for the community, we saw that the lettering had actually been removed from the exit sign. Only the outline of the words "Times Beach" was still visible. As we drove by, the EPA was in the process of removing everyone from the town. The demise of Times Beach was quite different from places like Love Canal, New York, where toxic chemicals had been dumped in lagoons or landfills. The Missouri town, by contrast, was rendered unlivable by the spreading of dioxin-laced oil along roads and horse farms in the community.
The dioxin, a persistent chlorine-based chemical, had been produced as a by-product of the manufacturing of hexachlorophene, an antibacterial chemical used at the time in toothpaste, soap and disinfectants. It was manufactured by the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company, Inc. (NEPACCO) in nearby Verona. NEPACCO tried to reduce the amount of dioxin in the disinfectant (since it was going into consumer products) but produced a waste with very high levels of dioxin in the process.
The oily by-product originally went to a toxic waste facility in Louisiana for incineration. But since incineration was so expensive, the company looked for other alternatives. A small local waste oil company owned by Russell Bliss eventually ended up with the toxic waste, mixing it with used motor oil. Bliss would ultimately use the concoction as a dust suppressant on several horse farms and later on the roads and roadsides in and around Times Beach. (Ignorance really was Bliss in a strange twist on the old saying.) Times Beach was just one of many hazardous waste nightmares that beset the nation in the seventies and eighties. Ironically, the obscenely expensive cleanups that resulted happened because of shortsighted efforts to save a few bucks.
Historic background for this story came from Robert Hernan's book, This Borrowed Earth.
Train derailments can be especially unsettling events. The ungodly sound, the seemingly uncontrollable chain-reaction of the crash, the magnitude of the damage, make it an extraordinarily horrid and violent occurrence. The possibility of hazardous chemicals release adds a level of anxiety and danger after the initial shock of the crash.
Altoona and many Mainline communities throughout the region live in the shadow of such disaster, but few of us worry much about what could happen. These concerns would seem to be minimized, not only because the risk is with us every day, but because accidents are so rare and emergency responders are prepared for such calamities. Railroads generally have good safety records and the deaths (from both crashes and chemical releases) are much lower than they are for trucks. Yet when an avoidable accident (like the 2012 derailment in Paulsboro, NJ) occurs, we wonder how we could have been so careless.
Last weekend's accident here in Altoona was the first notable train wreck that many younger Altoonans can remember. No one died and property damage beyond the Norfolk Southern right-of-way was relatively minor. No toxic chemicals were released (except for some fuel that was spilled) and the tracks were cleared and repaired in relatively short order. This was a credit to the railroad, emergency responders and the many contractors that stepped up to clean things up afterward. Blair County Emergency Management Director Dan Boyles was especially pleased, observing that responders' collective preparation resulted in a "methodical operation." But we should also be thankful for some good fortune. The end of this story would not have been a happy one had the accident occurred a few minutes sooner or the cars had been pushed a few dozen feet further.
Perhaps more alarmingly, many could have been sickened or killed had the train been carrying hazardous materials. There may be some very disappointed automobile dealers upset over the destruction of the cars and trucks being carried by the train. But there are also some very happy neighbors, grateful that there were cars, rather than chlorine, anhydrous ammonia or crude oil being carried by this train. Some critics across the country have complained that too many railroads have remained secretive about exactly what is carried on specific trains. They are concerned that too much information might enable folks with bad intentions to sabotage trains.
Blair County's Boyle explains that, while emergency responders are aware of the chemicals that can be on a train, they never know the particulars until there is an incident. Only then are railroads required to share that information. It takes time to sort out the proper response to different chemicals and Boyle says this results in "losing precious time" to formulate the best evacuation and containment strategies. While not perfect, the United States rail industry in general and Norfolk Southern in particular have good safety records. Boyle said this accident was an excellent exercise to help prepare us for a more serious incident. It would seem that everyone agrees that we continue to learn things to better handle accidents like these. But Boyle concluded, "There's still room for improvement."
Prescription drugs are intended to bring relief from discomfort or other challenging health problems. Yet they can also be the source of number of environmental, social and criminal trials and tribulations. It was with these problems in mind that the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) initially sponsored semiannual Drug Take Back collections across the US. Like many other places in Pennsylvania, four Blair County police departments now sponsor drug take-backs year-round. These include the following:
Until a few years ago, even health care professionals and poison control centers recommended putting drugs of all kinds down the toilet, rationalizing that getting them out of circulation was the most important consideration. We know now that many drugs persist in water and can be inadvertently passed onto to aquatic life and even humans that eventually drink that water. Yet a 2010 report from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concludes that much is still unknown about how drugs and their ingredients get into water. Is it from flushing the drugs themselves or the flushing after they pass through our bodies? Or is an increase in topically applied cream medications resulting in more being washed down the drain when people bath or shower?
Recent efforts to reduce the generation of waste drugs have focused on source reduction. That is to say, how can we reduce the amount of extra stuff that accumulates in the home? This appears to be caused by two practices: failure of the patient to take the drugs as directed and the dispensing of excessively large quantities by doctors.
Just like so many other aspects of the drug accumulation problem, these issues are also very complicated. There are often times good reasons why drugs are not taken as directed and why doctors prescribe as much as they do. So even though we might (and should) do better as individuals and as a society in decreasing the wasting of drugs, it would seem that there will always be accumulation problems. This emphasizes the importance and worth of convenient drug take-back collections.
Prescription drug abuse and the number of accidental poisonings and overdoses in the United States remain high, and DEA reports that most of those drugs come from family and friends. This free anonymous program is intended to prevent that illegal diversion, misuse, or abuse of those regulated substances.
Vinyl Chloride is nasty stuff. So, when a train carrying the chemical crashes and releases the toxin, people sit up and take notice. Such an accident occurred last Friday in Paulsboro, NJ, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The train originated in Camden, NJ and was bound for Carney's Point, about 30 miles south where DuPont operates a large chemical facility. The bridge over Mantua Creek was owned by Conrail and reportedly had experienced problems prior to the accident. Though the investigation is continuing, it would appear from statements made by the National Safety Transportation Board that signaling errors were also made that led to the fiasco.
Much like the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it would seem that the early evidence points to this being an avoidable accident. This release also shows that shoddy, poorly maintained transportation infrastructure can endanger both the health of the general population and the quality of the environment. While the rail safety part of the story passes on a cautionary tale, it may lull us into forgetting about the bigger picture. Why do we need chemicals like Vinyl Chloride and shouldn't we be extremely careful with them when we do have to ship them?
Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC as it has more commonly been called, is the multi-chained plastic polymer made by stringing together a bunch of vinyl chlorides molecules. Used in a wide variety of plastic products today, it was not produced commercially until B. F. Goodrich began manufacturing it in 1941. The plastic in its pure form is brittle, so a plastisizer must be added to make it more flexible. About 90% of all plastisizer usage is for PVC and the most common of these are chemicals in the phthalate family.
Phthalates have been in the news a great deal in recent years as concerns have risen over their use in children's toys and other products. But PVC's health-related concerns go much further back. High incidences of liver cancer were found in workers in a Goodrich PVC fabrication plant in Louisville, KY forty years ago. Few manufacturing occupations had, to that point in time, been shown to increase cancer risks. This outbreak of a usually rare liver cancer called attention to toxic and dangerous chemicals in the workplace.
More stringent workplace standards for PVC workers have saved many lives over the last three decades but the overall toxicity of the plastic and its by-products still remain a concern. Beyond the phthalates, the burning of PVC brings its own set of problems. Burning vinyl (and other chlorine-containing) products with materials that contain lignin (paper or wood products) produces Dioxin, chemicals that are potent carcinogens and responsible for reproductive and immune system damage. The production of Dioxins appears to be greater when the combustion temperature is lower and filter technologies are absent. Besides the obvious absence of emission controls, burn barrels are notorious for their low combustion temperatures. So while it may not be likely that we eliminate vinyl from our lives entirely, we would be well served to look for alternatives and recycle (rather than burn) those vinyl products we do use.