environmental health


Battery Recycler to Test Soil for Dangerous Metals; Neighbors Skeptical

Regulators say arsenic leaking from the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon endangered as many as 110,000 people living nearby. (Photo/Chris Richards)

Regulators say arsenic leaking from the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon endangered as many as 110,000 people living nearby. Results of tests for lead and other toxins should be available in December. (Photo/Chris Richard)


By Chris Richard

State-ordered testing of soil for lead and other toxins around a battery recycling plant in Vernon, just east of downtown Los Angeles, is underway. The plant, Exide Technologies, already has been accused of endangering the lives of 110,000 people who live nearby.

But neighborhood residents and community leaders say they’re skeptical that the test results will force Exide’s factory to close before it can do any more harm.

“I think it’s great that they’re testing, and I’d say that it’s long overdue,” said Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood about a mile from the plant. He says that members of his congregation have long been worried about emissions from the plant.

“But this is all pretty superficial. It doesn’t get to the real question, which is, at what point do you wait for them to go into more violations before you shut them down?”

California regulation ensures the safe treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous waste, and requires that factories such as battery recyclers satisfy rigorous environmental reviews before obtaining a permit. But Exide has never met that standard.

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How Hospitals Can Be More Green

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

By Ryder Diaz

Kaiser Permanente wants to know what’s lurking in their hospitals’ mattresses. Mattresses are often treated with brominated flame retardants. And these chemicals usually don’t stay put. They leak into the air or cling to specks of dust and enter our bodies.

“Flame retardants can be quite toxic. They accumulate in the environment and in our fat cells,” said Kathy Gerwig, vice president and environmental stewardship officer at Kaiser.

Certain beds may contain vinyl or other plastics that when produced or destroyed can release toxins into the environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing the safety of these chemicals, which have been linked to increased cancer risk and other health issues.

Gerwig’s team is trying to figure out what’s in their stock. If they prove to be harmful, swapping out hospital beds is bound to be a big undertaking. “We have a lot of mattress,” she said. But if necessary, it’s a task Gerwig would embrace.

Kaiser hospitals are among more than 100 private and public hospitals in California that are moving toward more sustainable practices for their facilities, said Laura Wenger, executive director of Practice Greenhealth. Continue reading

Wife’s Illness Spurs Mexican Immigrant to Environmental Activism

Eduardo Guevara became involved in environmental activism after his wife was hospitalized twice for asthma. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Eduardo Guevara became involved in environmental activism after his wife was hospitalized twice for asthma. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Editor’s Note: The unincorporated community of Mecca in Riverside County has a host of environmental concerns, from well water with naturally-occurring arsenic to toxic dump sites. When people talk about environmental justice here, Eduardo Guevara is always cited as a leader in the community. But Guevara says that five years ago, after moving here from Mexicali, Mexico, he wasn’t involved in any kind of activism. After his wife was hospitalized twice for asthma, Guevarra learned that their environment might be contributing to his wife’s health problems. As part of our series “What’s Your Story?” we hear from Guevara about how he, his wife and his son started attending community meetings to get some answers.

Since no one had the [the answers as to why my wife got sick], I  started to try to get them for, not only for me, but for her, and for my son.

I started being the guy that sometimes asked the questions nobody wanted to ask. They saw me and they were like, “Oh my god, this guy again.”
And then we went to a meeting, where the Air Quality Management District was at the panel, and out of nowhere the kid is like, “You know what? I saw a kid reading a letter. I’m going to write one, and then I’m going to read it.” You know, my son.

And he took the letter, went to the microphone, read it aloud. He said, “Hi, I’m Eduardo Guevara. I think that the government has to do something about the toxic things that they throw in Mecca. I am worried for my mom because she had asthma and because of those smells she could get asthma again. Thank you.” Continue reading

Richmond Refinery Fire: 8 Health Questions Answered

Monday night's Chevron Refinery fire as seen from the Berkeley Hills. (Daniel Parks: Flickr)

Monday night's Chevron Refinery fire as seen from the Berkeley Hills. (Daniel Parks: Flickr)

Contra Costa Health Services has posted a succinct “Frequently Asked Questions Related to the Chevron Fire on August 6, 2012.” [PDF] It’s good information — cleaning fruits, vegetables, avoiding groundwater, health impact, etc.

I republish it here, in its entirety:

1. What are the health impacts from the refinery fire?

Smoke can cause throat and eye irritation, though it generally is not serious
if the exposure is limited. These symptoms should resolve on their own after a few days for most people. Exposure to smoke can be more serious for people with pre-existing lung disease, such as asthma, and they may experience wheezing or have trouble breathing. As of August 8, more than 1,700 people have gone to the emergency room with nose, throat or eye irritation or respiratory issues, although none have been hospitalized.

2. What chemicals were released into the air and how dangerous are they? Continue reading

California Heats Up and That Means Health Risks

Map from the National Weather Service shows the areas of 'excessive heat' alerts in California.

Map from the National Weather Service shows the areas of 'excessive heat' alerts in California.

The rest of the nation has sweltered this summer, but California has escaped extreme heat — until now. The National Weather Service may not have high-end graphics, but its map tells the story. The San Joaquin Valley, starting south of Modesto, is colored a brownish-red and that means excessive heat warning. Temperatures are expected to exceed 100 degrees every day until Tuesday. The bright pink areas indicate a heat “watch” (click here if you don’t know the difference). This kind of heat is not just a weather story, it’s a significant health and environment story too.

High heat is hazardous to people, pets and livestock. San Joaquin County Public Health Services warns people to drink plenty of water, stay cool in an air-conditioned room and wear loose-fitting clothing. And, please, do not leave children, seniors or pets in a parked car for any period of time, even with windows cracked. The interior of the car can heat up very fast — to deadly levels — within minutes.

Those at highest risk for heat stress are children under age 4, adults with disabilities, anyone with a chronic illness and the elderly. Continue reading

Chevron Refinery Fire: Health Impact

Smoke from the Chevron refinery fire blanketed Richmond and surrounding communities Monday night. (Jeremy Brooks: Flickr

Smoke from the Chevron refinery fire blanketed Richmond and surrounding communities Monday night. (Jeremy Brooks: Flickr)

Since Monday’s fire erupted just after 6pm, more than 600 people have been treated in emergency departments at Kaiser in Richmond and Doctors Medical Center in nearby San Pablo for symptoms caused by the Chevron refinery fire.

One of them was Point Richmond resident Cheri Edwards. “The smoke was kind of like an oily smell, it was an oily smell, and I have asthma really bad. And right now I’m at the bus stop trying to go to Kaiser because I have been having respiratory problems.”

Besides breathing problems, people also reported symptoms including sore throats and watery eyes. These symptoms are consistent with exposure to “a full toxic soup of hundreds, probably thousands, of combustion products and byproducts,” Greg Karras, senior scientist with the advocacy group Communities for a Better Environment, told a Forum audience Tuesday morning. Continue reading

Candy is Bad for Kids … Because It Might Be Laced with Lead

Yes, a candy named "Toxic Waste" was recalled. (Image: California Department of Public Health)

By Lyssa Rome

Just like that, the number of children at risk for lead poisoning jumped five-fold yesterday as the Centers for Disease Control announced that it cut its threshold for lead poisoning diagnosis in half. The new diagnosis will occur at five micrograms per deciliter of blood. The former threshold was 10.

Health advocates have worked to alert the public to the risks of lead in paint, toys and even jewelry. But lead can also be found in – of all things tempting to children – candy. Candy with high levels of lead may not taste unusual. In fact, some kinds of lead even taste sweet.

Lead is a major environmental health risk. It affects almost every system in the body, including the brain and other organs, but the symptoms aren’t always obvious. For children, exposure to even minute quantities of lead can cause long-term developmental problems, including lower IQ, and the damage may not be reversible.

“It is not entirely clear where the lead in many of the products is coming from.”
California’s Department of Public Health began testing candy for lead in 2007 and has done 5,700 tests since. Over the years, it has issued warnings [PDF] not to eat 188 different sweets.

Most of those candies are imported, mainly from four countries: Mexico, Malaysia, China and India. That’s where the candies come from, but what about the lead itself? Continue reading

Doctors Expect Climate Change to Worsen Lung Diseases

In some parts of California air quality is already a big issue.

Farming in the Central Valley contributes to the poor air quality there. (Photo: Getty Images)

As if there wasn’t already enough to worry about, now doctors are predicting that climate change will harm people’s respiratory health. The American Thoracic Society is so concerned it filed a report with two goals. The Society not only wants to raise awareness with doctors so they can take preventive measures with their patients but also is enticing researchers to take on the question for further study. They found that climate change has a direct impact on air quality. A hotter climate, wildfires, more pollen in the air and rates of airborne diseases are worsening respiratory health worldwide.

Climate change will likely affect different places in different ways, but in California it could mean hotter summers and more wildfires. The itchy eyes and sneeze-inducing allergies that plague many people during pollen season could also hang around longer if weather patterns continue to change. All of that is bad for asthmatics, children and the elderly, but also for poor people – as it turns out.

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Can Air Pollution Contribute to Dementia, Too?

By Susanne Rust, California Watch

(Mark H. Anbinder: Flickr)

(Mark H. Anbinder: Flickr)

It’s well established that dirty, sooty air is no good for your lungs and probably not great for your skin. But new research indicates it can damage your brain, too.

A study in the journal of the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that air pollution accelerates cognitive decline in women.

And with a new federal report showing Southern Californians are at the highest risk of death due to air pollution, this study adds to the growing body of grim evidence showing air pollution and healthy bodies don’t mix.

“We keep learning about more adverse effects (from pollution) than we thought possible,” said Jean Ospital, health effects officer with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, who was not involved with the current research.

“I’m not sure I find these results surprising,” he said, “but I’m also not sure I would have expected them if you’d asked me 10 years ago.” Continue reading