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As my toddler girls frolic through our community garden picking fresh cherry tomatoes from our plot, I smile at their sense of wonder about growing food.
Their eyes widen and their smiles beam as they admire how the seeds we planted earlier in the season are now full-grown plants. The scent of summer rain is in the air and I’m excited to begin harvesting okra, which I will freeze to make gumbo in the fall. Although gardening was not part of my childhood, I reclaimed the connection to the land to continue that legacy for my family. My maternal great-grandparents in Opelousas, Louisiana, grew sweet potatoes, okra, watermelon and other produce to sell at the French Market in New Orleans. My paternal great-grandparents owned vegetable and dairy farms in Mansfield, Louisiana. Local agriculture was not only a source of food and income, but a means of community, partnership and connection.
While my youngest daughter is chasing butterflies that frequent the marigolds in a neighboring garden plot, my oldest daughter is examining a ladybug on a cucumber vine. “Mom, what do ladybugs eat? Why are ladybugs good for our garden? But how?” This space is a living classroom that can teach us to question the “what?” “why?” and “how?” of partnerships that benefit all of its members.
Community gardening and other types of urban agriculture can be powerful tools to advance food sovereignty, build community connections and educate. As described in Dr. Ashley Gripper’s Agents of Change essay, people of color and grass-root environmental justice organizations have transformed vacant lots and other sites into community gardens and farms that foster spiritual healing, strengthen community-building and combat food apartheid – discriminatory policies and practices that prevent marginalized groups from accessing affordable, sustainable, nutritious, high-quality and culturally connected food.
Unfortunately, the same communities impacted by food apartheid often live in areas where disinvestment, racial segregation and other inequalities result in disproportionally high exposures to harmful chemicals in air, water and soils – which might be used for urban agriculture. Communities of color are more likely to be near hazardous waste sites, highways and other pollution that may result in elevated heavy metal soil concentrations, such as lead. Data show children from racial and ethnic minority groups and children in low-income communities are more likely to have higher blood lead levels. Some garden practices can introduce chemicals into the garden like pesticides, and gardening materials such as landscape fabrics can be a source of microplastics.
I want to be clear: the benefits of gardening in communal settings should not be stifled by potential contaminant risks. Rather, we should look for ways to reduce chemical exposures in gardens. To do that, we need to ensure effective collaborations exist involving every sector interested in community gardens, including education, nutrition, urban planning, research and government.
Community garden in metropolitan Atlanta where author Candis Hunter serves as a member and volunteer.
Credit: Candis Hunter
Urban soils can harbor dangerous chemicals. It could be that current and historical land uses, like industrial activities or agriculture, exposed the soil to toxics and pesticides. Treated wood, burned tires or pollution runoff can leach chemicals into the soil. Chipping paint from older buildings and heavily trafficked roads might create lead soil deposits. People can be exposed to these chemicals by breathing in soil particles, eating tiny bits of soil that may not have been washed off from produce, or eating produce that has absorbed the contaminants (although this is an unlikely source of exposure, depending on factors such as the plant species and soil composition).
Children, however, are at a greater risk, because they often are putting things into their mouths and are more curious than adults. I think about my own toddlers, who enjoy playing in the garden soil and exploring the outdoors with all five senses. It’s scary to think about how even a tiny amount of ingested lead from the soil could damage their growing brains and nervous systems. I also wonder whether gardeners were aware of these chemical risks and what resources could help protect them.
These questions led me to focus on how community gardeners could reduce their exposures to heavy metals in soil for my doctoral thesis. Practices such as heavy-metal soil testing, composting, mulching and hand washing can reduce exposure – something that community gardeners are interested in, according to my results. While testing and hand washing are self explanatory, composting can contain organic matter that makes it more difficult for some plants to absorb contaminants and mulching helps to reduce contaminated soil from being redispersed in the air. However, I identified several barriers gardeners face when trying to protect themselves, like soil testing costs, concerns about property values and the legal implications of soil lead, a lack of training to interpret the results, among others. Although my research focused on individual gardener practices to reduce exposures, I became interested in how these findings could materialize into tools and policies that may be adopted in community gardens.There are existing partnerships that address these barriers. For example, soil screening, health, outreach and partnership (soilSHOP) events provide free lead education and soil lead screening to communities in the U.S. As I dug deeper trying to understand how to make these partnerships work, I started to wonder, just like my curious child looking at the mutually beneficial relationships between ladybugs and cucumber vines, how we can make the diverse partners (gardeners, schools, faith-based communities, neighborhoods, non-profit organizations, government) invested in community gardens work together to advance environmental justice and health equity.
Environmental justice researchers have shown communities of color are impacted by higher heavy metal soil concentrations and a lack of access to affordable, sustainable, nutritious, high-quality and culturally connected food.
A possible answer could be implementation science, which means investigating the ways in which research results can become widespread practices and policies. A research study may show that free lead soil screening is an effective community-engagement tool to identify soil lead in gardens. How does this research finding get incorporated into everyday community garden practices? An implementation science approach would examine what makes that practice sustainable and how we can overcome challenges to adopt that practice? Implementation science can also bridge environmental health disparities research to environmental justice action.
For example, environmental justice researchers have shown communities of color are impacted by higher heavy metal soil concentrations and a lack of access to affordable, sustainable, nutritious, high-quality and culturally connected food. While the traditional approach focuses on understanding what gardening strategies can increase access to food and why they are working, an implementation science lens could push researchers to explore how policies, practices and diverse partnerships can reduce potential soil contaminant exposures. Just as gardens require careful cultivation to nurture the symbiotic partnerships for the plants and other organisms to thrive, so does understanding how different groups engaged in community gardens cultivate partnerships and practices to reduce harmful chemical exposures.
It is possible to ensure gardening spaces are safe, restorative and regenerative, especially for those who are most vulnerable to chemical exposures, such as children. To achieve that, we need to put communities at the forefront. We need to mentor and encourage students to push the boundaries of science, and explore ways to build a symbiotic relationship between research and practice of community gardening, akin to a thriving, interconnected garden.
All children should have the opportunity to play and grow food in soil that is free of toxics. As my daughter exemplified in her garden inquiries, a solution may be asking the why, what, and how.
This essay was produced through the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice fellowship. Agents of Change empowers emerging leaders from historically excluded backgrounds in science and academia to reimagine solutions for a just and healthy planet.
Disclaimer: This essay was written by Dr. Hunter in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Public Health Service, or the United States government.
Oxybenzone, a UV-absorbing chemical that harms coral reefs and may impact the body’s hormonal system, is found in 6% of sunscreens on the market in the U.S. this year, according to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) annual sunscreen trends report.
Use of oxybenzone has declined by more than half since 2022, when it was present in 15% of products.
Sunscreen plays a crucial role in preventing health harms from sun exposure, such as skin cancers, but experts say it’s important to evaluate ingredients to ensure they aren’t creating new health risks. Indications that oxybenzone could affect the body’s hormonal system has led to calls for its removal from sunscreens. In addition, some sunscreens fail to achieve their stated SPF (sun protection factor) rating. Many don’t protect against UVA radiation, a part of the light spectrum that doesn’t cause sunburns but can cause skin cancers. Advocates say the sunscreen market needs reform to provide the safest and most effective products to consumers.
“A lot of people struggle with decisions around sunscreen agents, because it’s like a rock-and-hard-place decision,” Laura Vandenberg, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Environmental Health News (EHN).
EWG’s product guide helps consumers make those decisions by recommending specific sunscreens that pass their standards for safety and efficacy.
Hawaii banned oxybenzone in sunscreens starting in 2021, after studies found that the chemical can bleach and deform coral reefs. A study that year showed that oxybenzone threatened the aquatic ecosystem of the state’s popular Hanauma Bay and is a potential source of coral bleaching observed there in 2015.
In humans, research isn’t conclusive that the chemical poses an immediate health risk, but there are signs that oxybenzone impacts the hormonal system. Scientists have linked oxybenzone exposure to lower testosterone levels in adolescent boys and some changes in pregnancy outcomes.
In 2021 the FDA released a set of proposed regulations that stated oxybenzone is absorbed into the body at higher rates than previously known and that the chemical has been found in human breast milk, urine and blood plasma. “Absorption [of oxybenzone] continues for weeks after application,” EWG senior scientist David Andrews told EHN. The FDA concluded there isn’t enough information available to judge oxybenzone as safe and effective, but it remains approved for use in sunscreens.
The market has phased out oxybenzone due to the health and environmental concerns over the past several years, Emily Spilman, healthy living science program manager at EWG, told EHN, and this year represents a significant drop. EWG evaluated more than 1,700 sunscreens available to U.S. consumers in their report, and just 6% contained the chemical.
Sunscreens containing oxybenzone can bleach and deform coral reefs.
Some sunscreens don’t meet their stated SPF rating, according to both the EWG report and the FDA. SPF measures the amount of UV radiation needed to cause a sunburn. It isn’t related to the amount of time you can spend in the sun without a sunburn, because UV intensity changes throughout the day. One hour in the sun at 9:00am is equivalent to 15 minutes in the sun at 1:00pm, according to the FDA.
High SPF values are a particular concern, and the FDA’s latest proposed regulation from 2021 includes a cap at “60+” due to a lack of evidence that sunscreens with SPF higher than 60 convey better protection from UV radiation. The FDA could finalize that proposed regulation at any time but hasn’t yet, said Andrews.
Moreover, SPF labels principally measure protection from UVB radiation, the part of the light spectrum that causes sunburns. UVA radiation, which has a longer wavelength than UVB, doesn’t cause sunburns but can still lead to wrinkles, skin cancer and impacts on the immune system.
UVA protection is important for everyone, but is particularly relevant for people with darker skin. Anyone who doesn’t sunburn easily may not rely on UVB protection, but would still need UVA protection to prevent long term skin damage from the sun.
The EWG product guide includes a ranking of each sunscreen’s balance of UVA and UVB protection.
“When we’re talking about chemicals that are hazardous in sunscreen, we don’t want to discourage people from being sun safe,” said Vandenberg. She encourages everyone to consult with EWG product guides and pay attention to labels when selecting sunscreens and other products. “It’s really important that we talk about these things without creating fear. The real problem is that most of these chemicals are very poorly studied.”
Sunscreen is just one tool in your summer toolbox, said Spilman. “There are a lot of other important behaviors when it comes to sun safety.” She recommends hats, long sleeve shirts, seeking shade and avoiding time in direct sunlight during peak hours from 10:00am to 4:00pm when possible.
Fracking companies used more than 282 million pounds of hazardous chemicals from 2014 to 2021 with no federal oversight, according to a new study.
The study, published in Environmental Pollution, is the first to examine the “Halliburton Loophole,” which exempts fracking from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The provision, passed by Congress as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, was endorsed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who formerly served as the CEO of Halliburton. The company patented fracking technologies in the 1940s and is still one of the top suppliers of fracking fluids in the world.
The study found that from 2014 through 2021, 62% to 73% of reported fracking jobs each year used at least one chemical that’s categorized as harmful to human health and the environment under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
These chemicals include carcinogens like formaldehyde, arsenic and benzene; possible carcinogens like acrylamide and naphthalene; and ethylene glycol, which can damage the kidneys, nerves and respiratory system.
According to the study, the fracking industry reported using at least 250 million pounds of ethylene glycol, 10 million pounds of naphthalene, 1.8 million pounds of formaldehyde, 4.6 million pounds of acrylamide, 7.5 million pounds of benzene and 590 pounds of arsenic from 2014 to 2021, in addition to more than a dozen other chemicals regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, extracts natural oil and gas from the Earth by drilling deep wells and injecting huge volumes of water and chemicals at high pressure. Previous research has shown that fracking chemicals can wind up in drinking water and impact human health. Only a handful of the toxic chemicals used by the industry are regulated in drinking water, and those that aren’t may not be filtered or monitored by public water utilities. The Environmental Working Group, a public health advocacy nonprofit, estimates that current levels of contamination in drinking water — most of which meet legal standards — could cause 100,000 cancer cases in the U.S.
“Because of the Halliburton Loophole and gaps in reporting, the environmental health and justice impacts of fracking aren’t being properly assessed,” Vivian Underhill, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University, told Environmental Health News (EHN).
Underhill said the quantities of these chemicals are likely an underestimate, since not all states require disclosure of fracking chemicals, and most states requiring disclosure allow companies to keep some chemicals secret if they say the mixtures are proprietary.
During the same time period, fracking companies reported using about 7.2 billion pounds of proprietary chemicals – more than 25 times the total mass of chemicals listed under the Safe Drinking Water Act that they reported. There’s no way to know what proportion of those chemicals are hazardous.
“We saw proprietary chemicals in 77% of disclosures in 2015, and that number was up to 88% in 2021,” said Underhill. “The use of trade secrets is steadily increasing, and that’s definitely concerning.”
The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates both public drinking water contaminants and the injection of toxic chemicals underground.
Other industries that inject hazardous chemicals underground where they could contaminate water supplies, like mining and hazardous waste disposal, are subject to federal regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The fracking industry is exempt from these regulations.
“The oil and gas program under the Safe Drinking Water Act was already weak, but the Halliburton Loophole gouged it even bigger for fracking specifically,” Erik Olson, an attorney, Safe Drinking Water Act expert and senior strategist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told EHN. “Oil and gas wells are basically to be regulated by the states under a much more flexible oversight scheme, and those programs are very weak in many states with a big oil and gas presence.”
Previous research has demonstrated public health harms from this lack of oversight in states like Pennsylvania and Colorado.
The fracking industry agreed to publicly disclose some chemicals it uses in response to public concern about threats to water. But Underhill and Olson say those disclosures aren’t useful because of the trade secrets provision.
“This study shows us that there are a lot of very toxic chemicals being injected underground by this industry,” Olson said. “But it’s hard to say there’s any kind of meaningful disclosure if we still don’t know what most of these chemicals are or how toxic they are.”
Bryan and Ryan Latkanich in front of the fracking infrastructure that was formerly on their Pennsylvania property in the summer of 2019.
Credit: Kristina Marusic for Environmental Health News
In light of their findings, Underhill and her coauthors are urging Congress to repeal the Halliburton Loophole and regulate the fracking industry under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“It was Halliburton’s CEO who first and most strongly lobbied for this loophole, and that company is indeed benefiting most from this exemption today,” said Underhill.
Halliburton did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Olson is also in favor of closing the Halliburton Loophole. “This loophole was a backroom deal folded into legislation with no public debate, and they’ve never justified to the public why it’s needed,” he said. “That’s because it’s not needed. It was just raw political power that enabled them to get it enacted.”
Underhill and her coauthors are also urging Congress to pass a law requiring full disclosure of all chemicals used in fracking, including proprietary chemicals, and housing it in a centralized database with federal oversight.
The American Petroleum Institute, a trade association representing the oil and gas industry, opposes that idea. The organization’s “issue paper” on chemical disclosures for the fracking industry notes that fracking fluid producers have agreed to disclose details about proprietary chemicals to health care professionals, emergency responders and regulatory agency representatives “when it is appropriate.”
The paper acknowledges that trade secrets have caused concern, but concludes, “the compromise of limited disclosure when need is justified is a sound response. Protection of [intellectual property] rights is fundamental to the free market economy in which we all work and thrive.”
Researchers are just starting to figure out the cumulative impacts of the Halliburton Loophole because, until recently, it was difficult to obtain nationwide data on fracking disclosures.
The industry uses a site called FracFocus for public disclosures. While it’s possible to look at chemical disclosures for individual wells through the site, it’s virtually impossible to obtain data in a format that allows for large-scale analysis.
But a new, open-source program called Open-FF is changing that.
“I was trying to get information from FracFocus and I realized it’s not really a database,” Gary Allison, who developed Open-FF, told EHN. “It takes a lot of work to get the data to the point where you can actually use it.”
One issue was that FracFocus uses non-standardized names for companies and chemicals. For example, Allison had to account for more than 80 variations of the word “Halliburton” including misspellings, typos and abbreviations to make it possible to search the database for all chemicals made by the company.
“Before now, it was incredibly hard to download data from FracFocus that allows for systematic analysis or investigation,” Underhill said. “Now this data can finally be used effectively by researchers.”
Allison noted that anyone can use the program — not just scientists and researchers.
“Most people don’t have fluency in chemistry, so it can be really overwhelming to look at these data sheets and make sense of what’s happening,” he said. “I hope to get Open-FF to the point where members of the public can easily log into the site and find out what chemicals are being put into the ground near their homes.”