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We’re delighted to welcome journalist Elizabeth Grossman as a new writer for The Pump Handle. Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health,  and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American,  Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post.  Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of  the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold  Nautilus Award for investigative journalism. – The Editors

By Elizabeth Grossman

As the unprecedented offshore oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico unfolds and extraordinary measures are being taken to protect vulnerable coastal and marine environments from the toxic fuel, the question arises: Is the health and safety of responders being protected as well?  Over the past week, I’ve been investigating this question for The Pump Handle, but answers to my questions have not been forthcoming. On May 3, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) head David Michaels visited the Gulf and profile of responder health and safety issues began to rise, but many questions remain unanswered. This is an evolving situation, with conditions changing daily. Information about the incident, while to a certain extent copious, is also being tightly controlled. This is what The Pump Handle has learned to date.

As of May 12th there were approximately 27,500 people involved in what’s officially called the Deepwater Horizon response – some 13,000 civilian and military personnel and an additional 14, 500 volunteers. The effort to date involves more than 500 boats; deployment of nearly 300 miles of protective and absorbent containment boom; and recovery of nearly 5 million gallons of oily water. About half a million gallons of chemical dispersants have been used, most sprayed aerially onto surface water, but nearly 30,000 gallons have also been tested underwater. There are also ongoing controlled burns of oil on the water’s surface. Additional efforts are underway to physically cap the underwater gusher, to plug the well holes, and drill a relief well.  Tar balls are washing ashore, oiled wildlife are being attended to, and affected areas of the Gulf are closed to fishing and shellfish harvesting.

A pressing question is how to ensure the health and safety of response workers – a question being asked with the specters of the Exxon Valdez, World Trade Center, and Hurricane Katrina looming large. Concern is real that in the rush to protect beaches, sensitive wetlands, and wildlife – and to contain the massive oil flow – health and safety of those on the front lines is receiving scant attention.
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by Rena Steinzor, cross-posted from CPR Blog

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was in a tough position on coal ash.  If you are African American and low-income, you have a 30 percent greater chance of living near a big pit of this toxic brew than a white American, so Jackson correctly decided that such an important environmental justice issue should be at the forefront of the Obama Administration’s agenda. But Jackson was also taking on Big Coal, a special interest historically near and dear to swing voters in Ohio and Illinois.  Nevertheless, this sturdy “eco-warrior,” as she was recently dubbed by Rolling Stone, marched forward, right into the basement of the White House and the chilling influence of Cass Sunstein and the economists at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
Jackson’s tough, but as yet secret, regulatory proposal arrived in crisp fall weather, only to be greeted by a tsunami of industry lobbyists, who visited and revisited OIRA.  By the time the spring flowers were out, Jackson was forced to take a pass on getting hard-hitting regulation on a speedy path to implementation.  After the long scuffle with OIRA, she instead announced that EPA was considering two strikingly different alternatives, thereby postponing any definitive action for at least six months and, far more likely, a year or more.  Then, to add insult to injury, she stepped in between angry activists and OIRA, trying in vain to slap lipstick on a not particularly cute pig.

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by Ken Ward Jr., cross-posted from CoalTattoo

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials just finished their phone-in press conference to announce their action regarding regulation of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.

In its press release, EPA describes its action this way:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today is proposing the first-ever national rules to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants.

And it quotes EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson saying:

The time has come for common-sense national protections to ensure the safe disposal of coal ash. We’re proposing strong steps to address the serious risk of groundwater contamination and threats to drinking water and we’re also putting in place stronger safeguards against structural failures of coal ash impoundments. The health and the environment of all communities must be protected.

But after listening to the press conference, and as I read the 563-page document EPA just posted on its Web site,  I have a hard time understanding how this is more than the Obama administration punting on making a decision here.

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A month after the March 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, a small team of public health experts prepared a report identifying the potential health hazards and making strong recommendations for protective action for the cleanup workers.   The team included Eula Bingham, PhD (former OSHA chief), Matt Gillen (now at NIOSH), Mark Catlin (now at SIEU), Don Elisburg, and Jane Seegal.  The team had been assembled at the invitation of the Alaska Commissioner of Labor after concerns were expressed

“about whether the cleanup workers’ health and safety have been adequately protected.  Among other things, workers have been observed with oil-soaked clothing and with oil on their faces and hands.”

The report describes the physical, chemical and work organization hazards encountered by the 4,000 cleanup workers, from toxins in the oil and dispersing agents, long work hours in remote areas, to slippery surfaces and dangerous animals.  Many of the same hazards will be faced by emergency response and cleanup workers in the Gulf Coast tackling the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The team’s 1989 report continued:

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On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I paid $0.05 for a plastic bag in which to place the whole wheat bread and organic fruit purchased at a local big box grocery store in Washington, DC.

Am I doing this right? Read the rest of this entry »

In the Washington Post, David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin contrast the first Earth Day in 1970 — which led to environmental victories for clean air and water — with today’s less promising iteration:

The problems [today] are more slippery: pollutants like greenhouse-gas emissions, which don’t stink or sting the eyes. And current activists, by their own admission, rarely muster the kind of collar-grabbing immediacy that the first Earth Day gave to environmental causes.

With Lisa Jackson now in charge at EPA, we’ve seen some steps toward curbing global climate change. In December, EPA issued an endangerment finding, stating that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare (which means EPA can regulate them). In April, with the Department of Transportation, the agency increased fuel-efficiency requirements and set greenhouse-gas emission standards for cars and light trucks.

While these actions are important, we need a much stronger response to stabilize the climate – and such a response doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. The Copenhagen climate talks were a crushing disappointment, and the better-than-nothing House climate bill is unlikely to survive the endless watering-down process that seems necessary to get anything through the Senate these days.

At least the Senate does seem motivated to do something about the woefully inadequate Toxic Substances Control Act. Last week, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act, and US Representatives Bobby Rush and Henry Waxman released a discussion draft of a similar bill. The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition supports the legislation, but also calls for it to be strengthened in several ways. Here’s their summary of the pros and cons:
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By Joe Uehlein, cross-posted from Common Dreams

The approach of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 provides us an opportunity to reflect on the “long, strange trip” shared by the environmental movement and the labor movement over four decades here on Spaceship Earth. 

A billion people participate in Earth Day events, making it the largest secular civic event in the world.  But when it was founded in 1970, according to Earth Day’s first national coordinator Denis Hayes, “Without the UAW, the first Earth Day would have likely flopped!”

Less than a week after he first announced the idea for Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson presented his proposal to the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO.  Walter Ruther, President of the UAW, enthusiastically donated $2000 to help kick the effort off — to be followed by much more.  Hayes recalls:

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is currently soliciting comments on the definition they will use in measuring green jobs, the industry list of green jobs, or any other aspect of the information provided in the Notice of solicitation of comments published in the Federal Register. I’ve decided this is an excellent opportunity to voice my thoughts to the BLS as well as with our readers.

I encourage you, too, to comment on the Notice; the deadline is April 30, 2010.

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On April 1, 2010, OSHA sponsored a green jobs information session. The purpose of the session was to describe OSHA’s green job efforts and discuss workplace hazards associated with green jobs. A blog post written here provided a less-than-enthusiastic review of the event.

There were a few shining moments, however. One highlight was the presentation given by Don Ellenberger, Environmental Hazard Training Director from The Center for Construction Research and Training (formerly known as The Center to Protect Workers’ Rights (CPWR)), concerning the safety and health outlook for workers. He reminded us that the U.S. Green Building Council’s internationally-recognized green building certification system (aka Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)) verifies that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance in energy savings, water efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, and improved indoor environmental quality.

Despite this altruistic system to improve building occupant health and productivity, Mr. Ellenberger made a strong, clear statement regarding green buildings.

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During National Asbestos Disease Awareness Week (April 1-7), we’ll be cross-posting a piece every day from the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Today’s post has two parts.

Asbestos in Toys and Tools
By Paul Zygielbaum, ADAO Product Testing Project Manager; cross-posted from Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization

United States law and regulation allow commerce in products containing asbestos either as an ingredient or as a contaminant.  The public lacks awareness of where asbestos might be found in our everyday environment.  Inadequate regulation and awareness combine to pose a dangerous potential for undisclosed asbestos content in everyday products on American store shelves. 

From 2007 to 2009, to discover the truth, ADAO sponsored and managed a carefully controlled examination of various household products for asbestos content.  Three independent laboratories analyzed multiple samples of over 250 diverse products commonly used by homemakers and children, including foods, drugs, toiletries, cosmetics, hardware, cleaning products, and children’s toys.  The laboratories identified multiple products as containing asbestos.  The starkest example was a children’s toy fingerprint examination kit, which was subsequently withdrawn from the market following independent confirmation by the states of Connecticut and New York.  The full project reports are available on ADAO’s website.

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