FaCT Newsletters

Citizens Research and Organize to Rebuild Their Communities

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Niagara Falls, New York

From 1942 to 1953, the Hooker Chemical Corporation, as well as the city of Niagara Falls and the United States Army, began using a partially dug canal as a chemical waste dump. Hundreds of barrels of toxic chemicals were buried in the enormous canal; ten feet deep, sixty feet wide, and three thousand feet long, near Niagara Falls. At the end of this period, the contents of the canal consisted of around 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals, including at least twelve that are known carcinogens (halogenated organics, chlorobenzenes, and dioxin among them). The canal was then covered and left as finished original land, and housing development was allowed to begin.

As the population increased around the canal area, more land was needed for a new school and more housing. The Love Canal School Board was able to purchase the property where the landfill was located for a dollar. They were warned by Hooker about the chemicals below, but the Board decided to go ahead with construction. In the 1970s, toxic compounds were first observed in the groundwater of the suburb of Love Canal.

In 1978, Lois Gibbs, a homeowner in the area, was concerned with her son’s failing health and attributed it to him attending the 99th Street School, which was located adjacent to the landfill. She started to notice multiple diseases and deaths in her small 800-family community. Gibbs ascribed the widespread health issues to the landfill and polluted groundwater. She then organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association and successfully pushed for the relocation of families living near the dump site. The national publicity of this tragedy led to the passage of the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, better known as Superfund.

I visited Love Canal in 2002. It was a surreal experience to see hundreds of driveways with no homes. The 99th Street School was boarded up with plywood and covered in toxic warning signs. The dump itself is surrounded by barbed wire. White plastic pipes, used for sampling the toxics below, pop out in various locations around the forbidden zone. The area stands as a reminder of what corporations have been allowed to do to local communities.

East Liverpool, Ohio

Another housewife and mother followed in Lois Gibbs’ footsteps. Ohio Valley resident, Terri Swearingen, led local residents in an unsuccessful battle to stop the construction of the Waste Technologies Incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio in the 1990s. Even though the location was less than 2000 feet from a grade school, in a floodplain of the Ohio River, and in an economically depressed neighborhood, the US EPA, Ohio EPA, and then Governor George Voinovich, failed the community and allowed this incinerator to be built. Today, it continues to burn toxic waste, including dioxin contaminated soil from the East Palestine train derailment. The facility, now known as Thermal Heritage, continues to pollute the tri-state area’s air and the Ohio River, the drinking water source for over four million people.

Parkersburg, West Virginia

In the 1980s, Wilbur Tennant, a cattle rancher, sold a piece of his land located along the Ohio River to the chemical giant DuPont. The property contained a stream that flowed into the river close to Parkersburg, West Virginia. The company was supposedly using the property as a landfill for non-toxic substances. Within a few years, Tennant noticed hundreds of his cows were sick and dying, as were other animals living close to the site.

The company had known for over 50 years that its non-stick coating, Teflon, contained a dangerous PFAS chemical (polyfluoroalkyl substances). The company was illegally dumping its toxic waste materials, which were leaching into surface and ground waters. Wilbur, along with attorney Rob Billot, successfully sued the company in 1998. Bilott’s class-action suit, which now applied to 80,000 plaintiffs in six water districts, was settled for $343 million.

There are countless stories like these all over the country. They all have this in common: it took local citizens researching and organizing to trace the source and toxicity of the chemicals that were making their families sick. The regulatory agencies failed to protect human health and the environment.

The Precautionary Principle

European countries abide by the precautionary principle when approving new chemicals for use in their countries. The precautionary principle states that “decision makers adopt precautionary measures when scientific uncertainties about environmental and health impacts of new technologies or products remain.” In other words, before a product or compound is allowed on the market, it must be proven to be safe. In stark contrast, “The US waits for evidence of harm before regulating.” This is why citizens in the US are forced to become their own “watchdogs” rather than relying on regulatory agencies.

Regulatory Failures

Those who work in industry often leave their jobs to work in management positions for the EPA. In addition, EPA workers often get lucrative jobs in industry after helping them navigate around laws and regulations. It is a revolving door with lawyers rather than scientists running the show.

This is evidenced by the late Anne Gorsuch, who was a lawyer, mother of a Supreme Court Judge Gorsuch, and a Reagan appointee. After taking office, she rolled back regulations and slashed EPA budgets. “She resigned less than two years into the job over a scandal involving mismanagement of the Superfund program.”

“According to BlueGreen Alliance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has only been able to set regulatory limits on 16 of the estimated 80,000 chemicals in commerce over the last 40 years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required testing on 200 of the 80,000 chemicals in commerce, but has been restricted in attempts to regulate chemicals in commerce under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).”

The lack of regulations, lack of testing, and ability to enforce regulations are some of the reasons we are now dealing with “forever chemicals” like the PFAS. There are more than 9,000 known polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), 600 of which are currently in use in the United States. Non-stick cookware, cosmetics, dental floss, stain resistant fabrics, and grease resistant food packaging are just a few products that can contain these man-made PFAS compounds.

The chemical lobby has influenced regulations for years. The Toxic Substances Control Act was reported to have been written by the American Chemical Council. Additionally, “reviewing the health and environmental impacts of pesticide products, the EPA often relies on industry-funded studies, with this corporate science rarely being available for public review.”

The only compounds banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act are: PCBs (the contaminant in the Impossible Town documentary), hexavalent chromium (from the Erin Brockovich expose), methylene chloride, asbestos, some metal working fluids, halogenated fluorochloroalkanes (ozone destroyers), and dioxins (found in Agent Orange). It has been over 30 years since the EPA used the TSCA to ban a compound.

There are countless studies being released every day about the health effects of exposures to PFAS. These studies include: cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease. “A June 20, 2018 ProPublica article noted that the CDC report recommends an exposure limit for one PFAS compound that is 10 times lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current limit.”

The Biden administration is currently working on a ban for methylene chloride, a degreaser used in industry.

Proposed Regulations

Recently, new regulations have been proposed for PFAS. The EPA has released a roadmap to address the widespread PFAS contamination in air, soil, and water. Some of the proposals include: considering the lifecycle of PFAS and pathways for exposure, preventing PFAS from entering the environment, holding polluters responsible, ensuring science-based decision making, and prioritizing protection of disadvantaged communities.

The PFAS Strategic Roadmap states, “EPA will invest in scientific research to fill gaps in understanding of PFAS, to identify which additional PFAS may pose human health and ecological risks at which exposure levels, and to develop methods to test, measure, remove, and destroy them.” New limits for water consumption are 4 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFAS and PFOA, and 1 ppt for mixtures of various PFAS compounds. Additionally, seven PFAS compounds have been added to the Toxic Release Inventory. This means companies must track the amounts of PFAS released and report to the EPA.

As a chemist, I never believed in the phrase “better living through chemistry”. Corporations are playing Russian Roulette with these compounds and citizens will be the ones who pay the price for lackadaisical regulations and testing. The new PFAS plan will go into effect on June 25, 2024. Hopefully it will help address the ridiculous contamination of our environment by “forever chemicals”. However, until industry gets out of bed with our regulatory agencies, we will be left with the responsibility of guarding our own health from these toxic substances.

Some good places that have information about toxic compounds include the groups Mamavation and the Environmental Working Group. These two groups do NOT rely on industry testing; instead, they complete their own independent tests on these compounds.

Dr. Randi Pokladnik was born and raised in Ohio. She earned an associate degree in Environmental Engineering, a BA in Chemistry, MA and PhD in Environmental Studies. She is certified in hazardous materials regulations and holds a teaching license in science and math. She worked as a research chemist for National Steel Corporation for 12 years and taught secondary and post-secondary science and math classes for more than 20 years. Her research includes an analysis of organic farming regulations and environmental issues impacting the Appalachian region of Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. She lives near Tappan Lake in an eco- log home that she and her husband built in 2001. Her hobbies include running, gardening, sewing and doing fun things with her granddaughters.


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