City Council members hear from the public before a major environmental impact ordinance is introduced this year.
City Council members hear from the public before a major environmental impact ordinance is introduced this year.
The United States is failing at a fundamental mission — keeping people alive.
HOUSTON — The Texas department responsible for monitoring air pollution is using different science to analyze risks than the federal government recommends. Health advocates say this leaves people breathing more cancer-causing compounds.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, provides air permit applicants with the option to use an alternative algorithm to simulate air emissions, despite the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s preference for the use of an updated algorithm, which has more advanced meteorological data and is more reliable in complex landscapes, better-predicting air pollution dispersion paths, altering exposure levels and locations, a 2008 study found.A TCEQ spokesperson told Environmental Health News (EHN) that the agency uses the older algorithm for "minor source permitting projects," but uses the newer EPA-preferred model for any permitting project that would trigger federal review.
The latest example of the older modeling being used came in April of 2023, regarding air pollution permitting for concrete batch plants.
While offering this model in permitting some projects, the TCEQ plans to set a target risk level for cancer at 1 in 100,000 — a proposal currently open for public comment. According to the TCEQ, this risk level has been used informally since 1999, but a 2023 vote from all its commissioners would create a standard. Health advocates worry this could result in more cancer cases in Texas due to the older algorithm potentially misrepresenting actual risk.
In Texas, that risk comes from different fronts, but especially from the petrochemical industry. Its footprint there is the largest in not only the United States, but the world. The oil industry is vast and contributes large emissions of carcinogens like benzene, ethylene-oxide, formaldehyde, and butadiene. In fact, Texas recently received funding from the EPA to increase its air monitoring.
Understanding cancer risk is difficult. Federal and state environmental organizations analyze cancer risk levels with a target risk level, or TRL. The TRL estimates how many additional cases of cancer will occur in a population due to long-term exposure to certain pollution(about 70 years) in addition to the original cancer risk for that area. The EPA’s acceptable target risk level is presented as a spectrum —the highest acceptable risk is 1 in 10,000 and the lowest risk is 1 in 1,000,000. This range was created after the EPA studied benzene in 1989, almost 40 years ago. If the TCEQ adopts the current proposal it will not need to evaluate risk level below 1 in 100,000, despite the EPA noting there is still a risk worth considering at 1 in 1,000,000.
Neal Carman, a previous TCEQ air investigator and current clean air program director of the Sierra Club, spoke to EHN about the target risk level. Carman said, “zero is the only safe level of human exposure, any level above [that] and you’re playing a risk game.”
Carman said that the algorithms that calculate air emissions often do not account for “worst case scenarios” like chemical fires, flaring or leaks and that algorithmic simulations can be played over and over to produce favorable outcomes. The TCEQ reviews all simulations before issuing permits, but these simulations are all based in algorithmic theory. In science, a degree of uncertainty is accepted, but Dr. Inyang Uwak, Environmental Epidemiologist at Air Alliance Houston, told EHN this uncertainty increases when the “best science available is not being used.”
“They look at the risk of each individual chemical, without analyzing the cumulative impact of all chemicals from the facility, thereby potentially underestimating exposure of communities close to the plant,” Uwak said.
A TCEQ spokesperson told EHN that using the target risk level of 1 extra case of cancer per 100,000 people “allows for potential cumulative exposure to multiple carcinogens while remaining below the upper end of EPA’s acceptable risk range [of 1 in 10,000].” Cumulative exposure varies across the state. Areas near the Gulf Coast at the center of the petrochemical industry undeniably have higher levels of cumulative exposure. This risk level would be universal across Texas and in its current state would not vary despite varying densities of industry. At the time of publication, the TCEQ did not comment on its choice to continue using the alternative algorithm.
As of now the period for public comments will end October 3, 2023, and can be made here. No formal public hearings have been scheduled for this proposal at this time.
Editor's note: This story was updated to include statements from the TCEQ.
HOUSTON — This has been a summer of extreme heat — and scientists say this heat, coupled with infrequent rain, can supercharge air pollution. As the climate continues to warm, summers will pose a threat to not only our comfort but our lungs.
Climate has always changed, but it’s important to acknowledge that scientists universally agree that the speed of which climate is currently changing is unprecedented. Hearing terms like “global warming” can make climate change more confusing to understand. A large part of climate change is related to heat, but other factors like air pollution and precipitation must be considered.
While Texas summer’s are always hot, Houston Advanced Research Center’s Air Quality research scientist, Ebrahim Eslami, said that the summer of 2023 is different. It’s hotter. This summer the planet experienced the three hottest days ever recorded in the same week, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Cities like Houston are tying the 2011 record-breaking temperature at 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Similarly, Dallas reached 110 degrees.
But temperatures aren’t the only problem. Heat is a form of energy. Energy helps create and facilitate chemical reactions. Ozone, a dominant pollutant for much of the Gulf Coast, does not exist on its own. It’s created by emissions mixing with heat energy. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the petrochemical industry is Houston’s largest contributor of volatile organic compounds to ozone. Traffic emissions create NOXs or nitrogen oxides, which also contribute to ozone emissions. Add heat energy, and ozone pollution is formed. Ultimately, ozone pollution can cause lifelong damage to respiratory systems and worsen conditions like asthma or bronchitis.
Without rain, the heat and emissions can linger in the atmosphere and continuously create ozone pollution. The EPA will not implement new ozone pollution standards until after the 2024 presidential election. Current standards have not been revised since 2015.
The video above provides more information on creating awareness around ozone and actions you can make in your own communities.
At the break of dawn, in the dry and sweltering Arizona summer heat, my masáni, mom, aunts and many cousins round up our grandmother’s herd of sheep.
Even at sunrise, the parched soils release stored heat into our rubber-soled shoes. We’d herd the animals from their corrals in the canyon to our summer camp on Lukachukai Mountain. We’d stop at various steel troughs connected to well water that we’d hand pump full along the way. Under the midday sun, this water was a refuge for the animals and us, as we’d drink and often play in the water. During these herding journeys, I’d learn stories of the land and the interconnectedness between all living things. I was introduced to fundamental tenets of K’é [kinship] and Diné Bizaad [language] to understand myself as Diné and my relation to the land I walked on. Thus, sheep herding was in no way secular – it became a way of being embedded in cultural practice.
In returning to these sites as an adult, I learned that many pumps have dried up. Those still providing water could be unregulated sources of elevated contamination. With growing concerns about more extended drought periods and its associated costs, my family auctioned off the last of their flock this past year – an increasingly common decision shared across the reservation, as many Diné families face similar circumstances of finding and securing water at longer distances. The gradual loss of these once-everyday practices made me appreciate even more the cultural teachings that came with them. I’ve seen how beginning as early as my generation, many Diné youth have limited experiences with our culture and language. Water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, is creating a present and a future in which our children are on track to only hear of sheep herds as a memory. There is a cultural cost to climate change.
Sustaining our Diné identity through our youth is critical, and is a call shared across all Indigenous groups. However, the forces that have tried to exterminate us and our cultures have pulled from different directions. On one hand, Indigenous children have been forcibly removed from their communities –and their cultures – through assimilation policies. The neglect of the federal government toward tribes, especially regarding water access and basic infrastructure, has created living conditions in Native households that ultimately help to justify the removal of our children. This fractures our communities even further and weakens our sovereignty, opening Native land, resources and our children to non-Native interests. With this in mind, to ensure the continuation of our culture and our communities, we need to understand the intricate relationships between culture, language and nature, and promote policies that ensure our children can access a safe, healthy and thriving environment.
A dried up well that the author's family used to use on their herding journey.
Credit: Pearl Goldtooth
"There is a cultural cost to climate change."
Credit: Pearl Goldtooth
U.S. Native nations face an existential threat in retaining our cultural identities and sovereignty since we became nations within a nation. This long-standing genocidal project dates back centuries and has adversely impacted generations. Many of our families are still reconciling its impact through our grandparents' generation, who were among the last to endure U.S.-sanctioned Indian boarding schools managed by Christian missionaries. Beginning in 1819, the federal government enacted the Indian Civilization Act to assimilate Indigenous children by forced removal and placement into boarding schools operated by churches until the 1960s. By 1900, an estimated 20,000 Indigenous children were taken, and by 1925 just under 70,000 were recorded. On May 11, 2022, the U.S. Department of Interior released its Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, which confirmed the experiences and testimonies of survivors decades prior. More than 500 Indigenous child deaths were identified across 408 Indian boarding schools. This sobering announcement came a year after investigators from Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada, discovered more than 600 unmarked graves at a single Indian residential school.
Concurrently, tribes were being relegated to reservations that average to the present-day size of 2.6% of our historical lands. Inside these limited areas, the federal government failed to build infrastructure, such as access to clean drinking water, creating the current situation where it’s estimated that nearly half of the households on reservations do not have clean drinking water or adequate water sanitation. This past and present reality further compounded the narrative that Native children were better off in ‘civilized’ and well-resourced societies.
So it comes as no surprise that even after the closing of Indian boarding schools, thanks to the upheaval from tribes, our children were still being removed from their families and placed into foster care and non-Native adoptive homes. Indigenous children were “overrepresented in foster care at a rate of 2.7 times greater than their proportion in the general population,” found the National Indian Child Welfare Association. This prompted tribal-directed activism that led to the congressional enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978. ICWA ensures to “protect the best interest of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.”.
In spite of the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of ICWA, cases like Brackeen v. Haaland, actualize the existential threat to our sovereignty by threatening to undo protections like ICWA. The court case, supported by Texas, Louisiana, Indiana, Oklahoma and Ohio, claimed that the successful adoption of a Cherokee/Navajo (Diné) child by a white couple was hindered (a total of four months) by the ICWA process. In November 2022, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments that challenged ICWA, asserting that its “classification of ‘Indian child’ is race-based and violates the Equal Protection Clause.” As a Diné trainee in environmental health, I work with census and cohort data that categorizes my community and other tribal citizens alike into a conflated singular racial group that neutralizes our politically distinct identities. I’m frustrated and disappointed that centuries of precedence that affirm our political status as sovereign tribal citizens can be discarded, effaced and ultimately overturned.
Although it might seem unrelated, the current fate of water affairs for U.S. tribal nations is intimately tied to this Supreme Court case. Not a week later, the Supreme Court ruled against the Navajo Nation in a water rights dispute. In building on my colleague’s assessment of Arizona v. Navajo Nation, the common thread to both cases lie in their interpretation of federal responsibility to tribes, tribal citizens and resources on tribal lands. Federal ‘fiduciary’ responsibility can be concerned with the welfare of a Native child, but not with the welfare of their environment. It’s a curated paradox. They can return our children to us, but they return them to unchanged conditions and environmental contamination that may have contributed to their initial removal. Addressing water injustice on Native lands, like the U.S. government's failure to ensure reservations have access to clean drinking water, relies on understanding water justice as tribal sovereignty. A vision that can be endorsed by non-Native researchers, scientists and everyday professionals. Our holistic welfare requires upholding all facets of tribal sovereignty that concern our children, our water and ultimately, our nation-to-nation standing.
The author's family now makes the herding journey with cattle.
Credit: Pearl Goldtooth
"Our children come from powerful and resilient families that span generations of ancestral knowledge."
Credit: Pearl Goldtooth
Since the first recorded treaty on a Gaswendah (Two-Row) wampum belt between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Dutch traders in 1642, nearly 400 treaties have been signed between tribes and the United States. Under the Constitution, these treaties are legally binding contracts that are “the supreme law of the land,” confirming special rights, benefits and conditions for tribes who ‘agreed’ to cede millions of acres of land to the U.S. in exchange for federal protection, recognition, services and reserved, but limited, property rights. Yet the government has failed to comply with these treaties, leading to broken promises.
An example of these broken promises is the water crisis endured by many tribes in the Southwest and Western regions of the U.S., which only until recently saw significant investment and recognition after a decades-long struggle to establish adequate water infrastructure in our communities. President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes a $2.5 billion investment toward the Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund that seeks to “deliver long-promised water resources to Tribes.” Still, in recent cases concerning proposed oil pipeline construction over or near existing community water systems that predominantly serve tribal communities, federal officials fail to recognize and uphold their responsibilities to tribal governments.
Considering all of this – the potential undoing of ICWA and the lack of water infrastructure and its impacts on water quality – we need to stop compartmentalizing the environment, family and culture as separate problems. My childhood experiences between my masáni’s canyon and her summer camp in the mountains have helped me frame environmental justice to encompass non-traditional environmental health issues, such as language and culture, as interconnected features of the environment, because these teachings come paired with cultural practices like sheep herding that rely on adequate water infrastructure. Our communities demand justice and accountability.
Our children come from powerful and resilient families that span generations of ancestral knowledge. Recent developments in federal services with Biden’s administration are not enough if our children are continuing to be removed at rates higher than any other community. We come from survivors of genocide. Now, we demand environments for us, our grandparents and our children to thrive.
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.
Black, Hispanic and low-income children are more exposed to toxics like air pollution and lead — and this disparate exposure is linked to autism, lower IQ scores and worse memory, according to a new scientific review of more than 200 studies.
The review, published today in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that scientists often study how race or income are linked to pollution exposure — and repeatedly find that people of color and lower income families are more exposed — but often fail to examine how race or income level interacts with these exposures. When they do look into these interactions, they find poor kids and children of color are more likely to experience problems with learning, attention and behavior.
“As a result of discriminatory practices and policies, families with low incomes and families of color are currently and historically disproportionately exposed to chemicals without their knowledge or consent where they live, work, play, pray and learn,” co-lead author Devon C. Payne-Sturges, Project TENDR member and associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said in a statement. “Their neighborhoods are more likely to be located near factories, chemical plants, superfund sites, highways and more vehicle traffic, or by agricultural fields where pesticides are applied.”
The researchers — all members of Project TENDR, an alliance of more than 50 leading scientists, health professionals and advocates focused on protecting children from toxics — looked at 218 studies from 1974 to 2022 that examined children’s exposure to brain-harming toxics including lead, particulate matter, organophosphate pesticides, PBDE flame retardants, PCBs and phthalates.
They found that, compared to the general population:
Some of the key downstream impacts:
“We need more stringent environmental standards to address pollution that is disproportionately impacting low-income communities and communities of color,” co- lead author Tanya Khemet Taiwo, Project TENDR member and Bastyr University Midwifery Department assistant professor, said in a statement. “But, it’s just as important that we find a way to improve the unjust systems and social policies that create harmful conditions in the first place.”
The authors call for more studies that follow the downstream impacts of kids’ toxic exposure, more research specifically looking at Indigenous and Asian American children and more action from the federal government in protecting kids’ brains.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency “can act now — not later — to protect families from neurotoxic chemicals by banning phthalates from food contact materials; eliminating lead from residential environments, aviation gas, and children’s foods; ending the use of organophosphate pesticides and setting air pollution standards to protect child brain development,” said Dr. Payne-Sturges, who was a policy specialist at the EPA for 12 years.
See the full study here.