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Editor’s note: This story is a follow-up to our recent report that found PFAS in a private well near fracking in Pennsylvania.
PITTSBURGH—In June, Colorado became the first state to ban the use of PFAS during oil and gas extraction — and now, in light of recent research finding the potential for widespread contamination, some are calling for a similar ban in Pennsylvania.
Last year it was revealed that PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a group of more than 9,000 chemicals, have been used in oil and gas wells for decades. The chemicals, which are water- and grease-repellent, are sometimes used in fracking fluid to make the chemical mixture more stable and efficient in flushing oil and gas out of the ground at high pressure. PFAS may also be used during initial drilling and other phases of oil and gas extraction — not just fracking.
That’s about to change in Colorado: A new bill restricts PFAS in products like carpets and furniture, fabric treatments, cosmetics, food packaging and children’s products; and bars the use of PFAS in any type of oil and gas extraction, including fracking. The law will take effect on Jan. 1, 2024.
With a separate, related bill, Colorado also became the first state to require oil and gas companies to publicly disclose the complete list of chemicals used “downhole” for all types of wells, and to certify that no PFAS were used during drilling or extraction.
Downhole chemicals include those used during drilling and other phases of operations. Most public disclosure laws in other states focus mainly on chemicals used in fracking wells, and most only require disclosure of chemicals used during extraction, ignoring the chemicals used during drilling or other operations.
“Prior to this legislation, there was a lot of secrecy involved in the chemicals being used downhole in oil and gas production operations,” Ramesh Bhatt, who advocated for the bill’s passage as chair of the conservation committee of the Colorado Sierra Club, told EHN.
Some scientists and health advocates think other states with a heavy oil and gas industry presence, including Pennsylvania, should do the same.
“When you’re talking about chemicals as toxic and persistent as PFAS, it’s extraordinarily risky to allow them in oil and gas extraction,” Dusty Horwitt, an environmental health consultant who testified before Colorado lawmakers considering the drilling disclosure law, told EHN.
Earlier this year, a group of researchers tested Washington County, Pennsylvania, resident Bryan Latkanich’s water for PFAS and detected seven of the chemicals, including several at levels well above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended thresholds. Latkanich formerly had two fracking wells drilled about 400 feet from his home.
Carla Ng, a researcher who studies PFAS at the University of Pittsburgh and conducted the tests that found PFAS in Latkanich’s water, told EHN, “It’s very difficult to control where those chemicals go when drillers are pushing fluid into the Earth’s subsurface. Because of how harmful and persistent PFAS are, they should not be used in cases where their spread cannot be controlled.”
Critical gaps in state laws
A new Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which is expected to create additional demand for fracking wells.
Credit: Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2021
The use of PFAS in oil and gas wells is likely creating an under-appreciated source of PFAS contamination, adding to Americans’ exposure to these harmful chemicals through food, personal care products and drinking water. But lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess how widespread the problem is.
“It’s impossible to know at this point,” said Horwitt, who also consults for the environmental health advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Horwitt was lead author on a report published this month that found that in 16 leading oil- and gas-producing states, manufacturers of the chemical mixtures used in oil and gas extraction are generally not required to disclose complete lists of the substances they use.
The report also found that a number of states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that waive liability for oil and gas companies that don’t disclose complete lists of ingredients to regulators — as they’re required to by law — if they never received complete lists from chemical manufacturers.
Pennsylvania’s law also says chemical manufacturers can’t be held responsible for failing to disclose complete lists of ingredients in these products.
“So they’re all just off the hook,” Horwitt said.
The potential use of PFAS during drilling and other downhole operations is especially troubling, Horwitt said, because operators typically bore straight through groundwater, long before any casing or cement has been added to seal it off.
Further complicating things, some states, including Pennsylvania, have different disclosure requirements for conventional and unconventional wells. Operators of fracking wells have to publicly disclose chemicals used in their wells (minus any “trade secrets”), but for conventional wells, the public can only access that information through requests to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Colorado closes the gaps
\u201cGreat News! I'm thrilled to share that the PFAs Bill HB22-1345 was signed into law today by @GovofCO. Thank you @GovofCO. A Big Thank You to @Cutter4Colorado for her leadership. Also, Thanks to Senate sponsors @PeteLeeColorado @SenadoraJulie #ClimateAction #BanPFAs #ClimateAction\u201d— Madhvi4EcoEthics (@Madhvi4EcoEthics) 1654275012
In recent years, Colorado has enacted some of the most health-protective oil and gas regulations in the country. The two new PFAS bills will further advance those protections.
“We have the most advanced timeline for banning these chemicals,” Josh Kuhn, the water policy manager for Conservation Colorado, one of the organizations that advocated for the legislation, told EHN. “This is a national leading policy.”
“When all of our aquifers are polluted, where will we get our drinking water from?” Chittoor asked. “When our waterways like ponds, lakes, rivers are polluted, where will the fish live? What water will the animals drink? What water will the farmers use to grow our crops?”
Cutter, a Democrat, was moved by Chittoor’s testimony and started working with groups like Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, and Conservation Colorado to craft the PFAS bill.
Many other states have passed bills restricting the use of PFAS in certain products, but none have addressed the use of PFAS by the oil and gas industry.
Kuhn said the effort to include the oil and gas industry in the state’s PFAS ban started after Physicians for Social Responsibility published a report in January 2022 that found PFAS were used in at least 10 Colorado counties. A subsequent analysis by the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) found that Colorado had the most potentially PFAS-contaminated sites of any state, 86% of which were associated with the oil and gas industry.
Mary Bradford, a Republican member of the Colorado state House who cosponsored Colorado’s main PFAS bill, said she was mainly concerned about the health effects of PFAS on children and in consumer products.
“Now that we believe that PFAS is a potential health risk, we could be very surprised about how many products intentionally contain the PFAS compounds,” she said in a statement. Bradford’s district has experienced PFAS contamination of drinking water and well-documented PFAS exposures in people from a nearby military base.
“Chemicals that can harm people’s health are not just a one party issue,” Kuhn said.
While the bill banning PFAS didn’t have unanimous support, Kuhn said, they got more pushback against the consumer products portions of the bill than the oil and gas portion. The advocates and legislators working to get the bill passed talked directly with representatives from the oil and gas industry, which led to provisions that would allow for the use of PFAS in certain parts of oil and gas operations where they’re essential and good alternatives don’t exist — in gaskets and other pieces of equipment, for example.
Advocates like Kuhn and his colleagues also partnered with water utilities, which helped build bipartisan support.
“Water utilities on the receiving end of polluted water face significant challenges when it comes to removing PFAS,” Kuhn said.
Physicians for Social Responsibility’s reports cited evidence that PFAS may be used during the drilling phase for fracking and other types of oil and gas wells, but because no states currently require public disclosure of the chemicals used during drilling (as opposed to chemicals used during extraction), it’s impossible to know how common the practice is.
Colorado has found a solution to that with the separate bill that requires disclosure of downhole chemicals and requires that both operators and chemical manufacturers certify that no PFAS have been used.
“The first bill bans the use of PFAS by the oil and gas industry, and the second bill creates accountability,” Kuhn said.
There are a number of downhole operations, including drilling, that are different from what’s technically called fracking, Bhatt, with the Sierra Club, explained. Those chemicals are overlooked in most state laws.
Initially, the bill required complete disclosure of the ingredients used and their proportions, but after pushback from the industry related to revealing trade secrets, it was amended to require a complete list of individual chemicals used in oil and gas operations, but not their proportions or the exact mixtures used in specific products.
“You have to weigh the importance of protecting trade secrets against the importance of protecting health and the environment,” Bhatt said, “but we think this was a good compromise.”
Representatives from the American Petroleum Institute and the Colorado Oil and Gas Institute responded to the report by Physicians for Social Responsibility on the use of PFAS in oil and gas extraction last year, saying they agreed that PFAS shouldn’t be intentionally used in fracking fluid, and contesting the idea that trade secrets provisions could be hiding extensive PFAS use.
The American Petroleum Institute has also said that PFAS use in oil and gas wells is limited and that the trade group will continue to review available data to protect health and safety.
Possibilities for Pennsylvania
Several advocacy groups, including PennFuture, the Clean Air Council and the Environmental Health Project, have called for action on the issue of potential PFAS contamination from the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania.
Kuhn and Bhatt said they haven’t heard much from lawmakers or advocates in Pennsylvania or other states about crafting similar legislation yet, but that they’d be happy to consult about how they’ve successfully regulated PFAS in Colorado. Kuhn suggested reaching out for resources to Safer States, an environmental health advocacy group that tracks legislation related to chemical safety throughout the states..
Kuhn also cautioned that while the bill was being crafted, advocates and lawmakers were pressured by some chemical industry groups to limit the specific PFAS they were restricting, which they did not do, and emphasized that a comprehensive ban on the chemicals is the most protective option.
“In Colorado,” he said, “no longer will any of these ‘forever chemicals’ be inserted into the ground, potentially threatening water supplies needed by both humans and wildlife.”
Independent scientists have long understood the unacceptable health risks of the pesticide atrazine.
A trove of well-documented research has linked the endocrine-disrupting weedkiller to birth defects, low sperm counts, and fertility problems.
So, it’s not surprising that the herbicide notorious for sticking around on landscapes and waterways long after it’s applied is now banned or being phased out in 44 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.
Yet here in the United States atrazine remains the nation’s second-most used pesticide, with more than 70 million pounds used each year on just three crops: corn, sorghum, and sugarcane.
Industrial-scale, monoculture farmers have become so dependent on this nasty poison that when the Environmental Protection Agency proposed last month to implement reasonable use guidelines based on atrazine levels in a grower’s watershed, Big Ag unleashed a sustained misinformation campaign falsely suggesting using less atrazine would contribute to the global climate crisis.
Although it’s good news that the EPA is taking steps to reduce the well-documented harm atrazine is causing to wildlife, the reality is that the agency’s proposal is very measured and won’t come close to adequately protecting waterways that have already been shown to contain harmful levels of the pesticide.
Baby steps on atrazine
The EPA’s plan proposes to have farmers implement a few management practices from a list of 13 that will conceivably reduce atrazine runoff into nearby rivers, lakes, and streams. These management practices — like cover cropping or putting in a buffer strip between the crop and a water body, and not using atrazine before planting a crop — are only required for the 18% of U.S. watersheds with levels of atrazine that the EPA has found can kill or injure aquatic organisms.
Those baby steps contrast sharply with the dozens of countries around the world that have banned atrazine. The fact that the Big Ag messaging campaign is challenging whether the EPA should take even minimal action on atrazine offers an insightful glimpse into how industrial farm interests constantly work to keep the agency on the defensive — for even its most minor, common-sense actions to protect human health or the environment.
Big Ag's PR campaign
Big Ag interests linked to pesticide-intensive farming practices are fully aware of the growing body of peer-reviewed, independent research on atrazine’s far-reaching harms. Their messaging playbook is all about diversion: Exploit a crisis that people care about and say that government regulation will, in some convoluted way, make that crisis worse.
For atrazine, the crisis selected by Big Ag’s PR firms is the global climate emergency, which Big Ag of course has played no small part in creating. The industrial agriculture messaging campaign falsely suggests that if farmers don’t use atrazine before they plant their crop, then they will be forced to resort to tilling their fields to suppress weeds. Tilling is known to release carbon into the atmosphere.
But the reality is that many of the options available to farmers in the EPA’s plan would actually facilitate the storage of carbon in the ground, such as cover-cropping and maintaining a buffer of constantly vegetated ground between the crop and waterways. In fact, one of the options is to stop tilling, if that’s a practice you currently employ. If anything, the EPA’s plan will have measurable climate benefits.
Atrazine — carbon bomb
And there are additional factual holes in the Big Ag PR campaign that pesticides are somehow essential for “climate smart” agriculture, beginning with the fact that most pesticides are derived from oil and gas feedstocks. Atrazine, for example, is synthesized from isopropylamine, which is derived from isopropanol – a chemical manufactured by Exxon Mobil and one of the first petrochemicals ever produced.
So not only is atrazine derived directly from oil and gas, but fossil fuels are used during the energy-intensive process of producing it. Add on top of that the fuel it takes to distribute 70 million pounds of the chemical across the country and the tens of thousands of tractor passes needed to spray it.
Simply put, atrazine is a carbon bomb.
And, as the EPA knows, atrazine is also a poison bomb that harms human health and wildlife. To that end, it’s good that the EPA is finally taking some nominal steps to reduce the impact of atrazine. But the reality is that industrial agriculture interests continue to be extremely successful in their efforts of thwarting any truly meaningful action to protect human health or the environment from troubling pesticides like atrazine.
And until the EPA untethers itself from the wishes of the pesticide industry, we can never trust that it is following the science and protecting people and wildlife from the most dangerous poisons.
We’ll know exactly when that sea-change occurs. Because one of the first things the EPA will do is to finally ban atrazine, once and for all.
Nathan Donley, Ph.D. is a former cancer researcher who is now the Environmental Health Science Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, where his work focuses on reviewing the risks and regulatory oversight of pesticides.
His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.
US government health agencies need to move quickly to launch broad testing of people exposed to types of toxic chemicals known as PFAS to help evaluate and treat people who may suffer PFAS-related health problems, according to a report issued today.
The report recommends that the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention advise clinicians to offer PFAS blood testing to their patients who are likely to have a history of elevated exposure to the toxins. Those test results should be reported to state public health authorities to improve PFAS exposure surveillance, according to the report, issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, or NASEM.
The testing should be done for people with occupational exposure, as well as those who have lived in communities with documented contamination, and those who have lived where contamination may have occurred — such as near commercial airports, military bases, wastewater treatment plants, farms where sewage sludge may have been used, or landfills or incinerators that have received waste containing PFAS, according to the report.
“Our report shows that we are going to need robust and effective collaboration between local communities, states, and federal agencies in order to respond to the challenge of PFAS exposure,” Ned Calonge, chair of the NASEM committee that authored the report, said in a statement.
'Make PFAS testing available'
“We need to continue to identify communities with elevated PFAS exposure, learn more about specific health impacts, make testing available to patients, and give clinicians more strategies for counseling patients and providing preventive medical care,” Calonge added in the press statement. Calonge is associate professor of family medicine at the University of Colorado, Denver and associate professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health.
NASEM acts as the collective scientific national academy of the United States and its recommendations typically are highly regarded. It was created to provide independent and objective guidance that informs American policy.
The report released today is sponsored by US Department of Health and Human Services.
PFAS, the 'forever chemical'
PFAS is an acronym for a class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS are also often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and bioaccumulate, persisting in the bodies of humans and animals. There are more than 4,000 man-made PFAS compounds used by a variety of industries for such things as electronics manufacturing, oil recovery, paints, fire-fighting foams, cleaning products and non-stick cookware.
People can be exposed through contaminated drinking water, food and air, as well as contact with commercial products made with PFAS. Some PFAS have been linked to cancer, immune deficiencies, thyroid disease, and other health problems.
How PFAS enters the environment
How PFAS enters the environment
Credit: Evich et al., 2022
Last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency identified more than 120,000 locations around the United States where the agency believed people may be exposed types of PFAS. The scope of the list underscored that virtually no part of America appears free from the potential risk of air and water contamination with PFAS.
The Biden Administration has announced a series of steps to try to restrict PFAS from contaminating water, air, land, and food as well as to clean up PFAS pollution and speed up research on other PFAS issues.
Last month, the administration started the process of designating two types of PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – as hazardous substances under the law, which would allow the EPA to deploy recover clean-up costs from companies responsible for contamination and take other steps to address contamination.
NASEM said a large body of scientific literature on PFAS shows there is “sufficient evidence” of association between exposure to PFAS and increased risk of decreased antibody response in adults and children, abnormally high cholesterol in adults and children, decreased infant and fetal growth, and kidney cancer in adults.
The report found there was “limited or suggestive evidence” of increased risk of breast cancer in adults, liver enzyme alterations in adults and children, pregnancy-induced hypertension, increased risk of testicular cancer in adults, thyroid disease and dysfunction in adults, and increased risk of ulcerative colitis in adults.
The NASEM report warned that people with PFAS in their blood above 2 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) but below 20 ng/ml may face the potential for adverse effects, especially “sensitive populations,” such as pregnant women. Clinicians should encourage reduction of PFAS exposure for these patients and prioritize screening for a range of health problems that include hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, breast cancer, signs of kidney and testicular cancer and of ulcerative colitis, according to NASEM.
People found with PFAS in their blood at levels higher than 20 ng/ml potentially face a higher risk, the report states.
The report noted that more information is needed on how PFAS affects children and pregnant women, and recommends the gathering of data to address those groups.
Environmental justice and systemic racism
The report notes that systemic racism and issues of environmental justice could compound the “challenge of responding clinically" to PFAS contamination.
The report notes: “While environmental justice research specific to PFAS contaminants has been limited, place-based factors that may put individuals at greater risk of exposure (siting of chemical companies, refineries, and industrial sites), coupled with insufficient access to environmental screening, information, and adequate health care, have disproportionate impacts on Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities, as well as low-income populations.”
“PFAS contamination did not just randomly occur in rural communities serviced by well water that happened to be near industrial sites. Rather, the locating of certain industrial sites and decisions to dispose of PFAS with limited regard for the surrounding community’s access to safe water are rooted in the relationship and history of these industries and communities.
The disposal of these chemicals did not occur as single events lacking context, but reflected a pattern of decisions made over time. Understanding the historical and social context influencing how and where PFAS are distributed is an essential part of identifying effective mitigation strategies.”
This story was originally published in The New Lede, a journalism project of the Environmental Working Group, and is republished here with permission.
We've been reporting on environmental health for 20 years. But what is environmental health? You've got questions, and we have answers.
What is environmental health?
Environmental health is a branch of public health that monitors the relationship between human health and the environment, examining aspects of both our natural and man-made environment and their effect on human wellbeing.
What is an example of environmental health?
Living near factories or heavy traffic worsens air quality and leads to health impacts on the lungs and heart.
Environmental health is a broad area of study — everything from the climate to the food we eat to the air we breathe plays into environmental health. A few specific examples include:
- Air pollution: Living near factories or heavy traffic worsens air quality and leads to health impacts on the lungs and heart such as asthma and increased risk of heart attacks or stroke.
- Water contamination: Drinking lead-contaminated water can cause IQ loss, behavioral issues, learning disabilities and more. Infants and young children are most at risk.
- Toxic chemicals in consumer products: Phthalates, a class of chemicals that are widely used in consumer products, are known endocrine-disruptors, meaning they hijack your body’s hormones and can cause a wide array of health impacts including increased risk of cancer and fertility issues.
What is the role of environmental health?
The role of environmental health research is to examine areas of the environment that impact our health so that we can make personal and policy changes to keep ourselves safe and improve human health and wellbeing.
Why is environmental health important?
Environmental health impacts every one of us.
We reap the benefits of clean air, clean water, and healthy soil. If our environment is unhealthy, with toxic chemicals saturating our resources and pollution abundant, then our health also suffers.
It is also an important field of study because it looks at the “unseen” influences on your health.
Many individuals may not associate their health problems with air or water quality, or with what clothes they wear, makeup and household goods they use, or food they eat.
That’s because not every example of environmental health problems are obvious: some chemicals, for example, build up slowly over time in your body: a small dose may not seem to bring harm, but repeated small doses can lead to later impacts.
- BPA absorbed through plastic containers, cans, receipts, etc. lingers in the body and the build-up over time increases risk of cancer, diabetes, liver failure, and more.
- PFAS are known as ‘forever chemicals ’— they don’t break down and are widely used, so small exposures are frequent and contribute to immune system and reproductive damages, heightened cholesterol levels, and more.
- Mercury from eating seafood and shellfish can impact neurological development of fetuses in the womb, and populations that regularly consume mercury-heavy seafood have shown mild cognitive impairment.
Also, individual susceptibility can differ: for example, one member of a household can experience illness, asthma, migraines, etc. from chemicals found in their water supply while another member of the same household is just fine, such as the case in a young girl’s reaction to benzene in her water from living near fracking wells.
Certain variables play a role in susceptibility and level of adverse health effects such as age, gender, pregnancy, and underlying health conditions. Studies suggest fetuses, infants and children are much more at risk to experience lifelong health problems from toxic chemical exposure.
Rate, duration, and frequency of exposure to toxic chemicals and other influences from our environment all factor into our health.
Good environmental health = good human health.
What environmental health problems affect our health?
Two women extracting from a well in Senegal.
There are many environmental health issues that affect human health. These include:
Air pollution — nine out of 10 people currently breathe air that exceeds the World Health Organization’s guideline limits for air pollution worldwide. This mainly affects people in low and middle-income countries, but in the United States, people that live in cities, or near refineries or factories, are often affected as well.
Air pollution also ramps up during wildfire season.
Water pollution — as of 2014, every year more people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war. Water is the ‘universal solvent’, meaning it can dissolve more substances than any other liquid on Earth. Thus, it is too easy for toxic chemicals to enter our water supply.
Lack of access to health care — yes, this is an environmental health issue! Having an accessible health care system is part of one’s environment. Difficulty getting health care can further impact one’s health.
Poor infrastructure — from “food deserts” to lack of transportation services, living in an area with poor infrastructure can impact your health.
Climate change — climate change-induced heat waves, increased frequency and severity of large storms, droughts, flooding, etc. have resulted in health problems and even death.
Chemical pollution — chemical pollution can be sneaky: the chemicals in your everyday products, from shampoo to deodorant to your clothing to the food you eat, can directly affect your health. These chemicals are often not on the label or regulated at all.
How can we improve our environmental health?
Educate yourself. Environmental health is a broad topic, so this can seem overwhelming. Start by taking stock of your own personal environment. Look up air pollution monitoring in your area. Get your water tested to see its chemical makeup. Evaluate the products you use in your life — personal products like shampoo and deodorant, household cleaners, air fresheners, the foods that you eat — and see what you’re bringing into your home.
Explore the Environmental Working Group's guides to check your products for toxic chemicals.
We have additional guides to help you learn more about environmental health. Find guides to plastic pollution, environmental justice, glyphosate, BPA, PFAS and more in the Resources tab at the top of our website.
As individuals we have the power to improve some of our environmental health, but there is a pressing need for systemic change and regulation on a policy level.
We’re actively working with scientists to share their research and knowledge with politicians to advocate for science-backed policy change. But we need your help. Contact your representatives to let them know that environmental health is important to you — whether it’s air pollution in your area, contaminated water, plastic pollution, food deserts in your area, or chemicals in consumer products.
Subscribe to Above the Fold, our daily newsletter keeping you up-to-date on environmental health news.
It appears to be of no concern to the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ultraconservative majority how children are collateral damage in its monumental rulings to close the 2021-22 term.
First, the conservatives struck down New York’s requirement for gun owners to prove why they should be allowed to pack heat in public. The ruling ignored, among many practical realities, that bullets are now the top killer of children.
Then, in overturning Roe v. Wade’s constitutional right to an abortion, they not only denied a pregnant person’s right to their own body, but they also ignored the fact that children born to mothers who are denied abortions face a 3-in-4 chance of being raised in poverty.
Now comes the court’s crippling of the most important federal weapon available to avoid catastrophic climate change and its associated killing of tens of thousands of Americans every year with fossil fuel air pollution. The Supreme Court sharply limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to slash carbon pollution from power plants. The justices told EPA that it can set carbon emissions standards based only on interventions at individual power plants. It cannot do what it tried to do under the Obama administration—establish national standards for coal-fired power plants under its Clean Power Plan. That plan would have cut plants’ emissions by shifting to cleaner energy sources.
In siding with coal companies and a posse of Republican attorneys general (not coincidentally, the same ones who generally represent the most gun-happy states rushing to ban abortion), the Supreme Court metaphorically threw children under the tailpipe and into the smokestack.
In a craven denial of climate impacts amid the political influence of oil, gas and coal companies, the court put children in the firing line of fossil fuel pollution and climate change, rather than rescue them from harm’s way.
The Supreme Court is ignoring the science on health
The Supreme Court recently sharply limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to slash carbon pollution from power plants
Credit: Bill Mason/Unsplash
The harms of pollution and a hotter planet were reinforced earlier last month by the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Nine months ago, NEJM and a total of 200 health journals called for “emergency action” on climate change ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. The talks ended with no serious agreements and carbon dioxide levels soaring to new records.
In response, NEJM launched a special series of studies and analysis on climate change and air pollution that is already killing nearly 9 million people a year globally. The leadoff articles in the series included a commentary from Lisa Heinzerling, a Georgetown University environmental law professor, who crafted the victorious brief in the 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision where the Supreme Court said the EPA had the authority to regulate global warming gases. She wrote that a ruling against the EPA could have “dire” consequences for “the control of risks related to public health and the environment.”
Another leadoff article detailed the effect of fossil fuel pollution on children, co-authored by Frederica Perera, director of Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health and Kari Nadeau, director of Stanford University’s Center for Allergy and Asthma Research. They cited United Nations data and reports showing that nearly every child in the world is at risk from at least one climate hazard, and one in three live with at least four overlapping climate and environmental “shocks,” including air pollution, water scarcity, vector-borne diseases and severe heat, storms, and drought.
The data are overwhelming
When it comes to environmental hazards, air pollution is by far the most common, with 90 percent of the world’s 2.2 billion children living with high levels.
Researchers from the University of California San Francisco and the University of Washington last year found that particulate exposure was associated with nearly 6 million premature births and nearly 3 million low birth weight babies around the world in 2019. Even in the highly-resourced United States, particulate pollution triggers 16,000 preterm births a year, according to a 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the United States a Black baby is 50 percent more likely to arrive in a preterm birth than a white or Hispanic baby.
Air pollution, as Perera and Nadeau wrote, is linked in studies to asthma, anxiety, depression, and long-term intellectual disabilities.
“The data are compelling that the toll on children and pregnant women from fossil fuel-driven climate change and air pollution is large and growing,” the researchers wrote.
The data is so compelling, Perera and Nadeau could not detail it all, particularly the extensive studies detailing the harms caused by fine particulate matter.
In a groundbreaking study last year, US and British scientists found that fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) annually kills more people in the United States (350,000) than guns, drug overdoses and vehicular accidents combined. That’s saying a lot since gun and drug deaths are at all-time-record levels and vehicle fatalities last year were at their highest number since 2005.
Many other studies show that reducing PM 2.5 would significantly increase life expectancy and it would certainly help avoid needless child deaths and health care costs. The US and British study found that 69 children in the US under the age of 5 died in 2018 from lower respiratory infections directly caused by breathing in fossil fuel fine particulates.
One study found that pediatric asthma costs the United States $6 billion a year.
Black, Latino and Asian communities would particularly benefit from reduced PM 2.5 given their disproportionate exposure to the emissions of transportation, industry, and construction, even as white consumers disproportionately produce emissions in the consumption of goods and services. A major study last year by researchers from the University of Illinois, the University of Washington, the University of Texas, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Minnesota found the exposures of people of color to be “systemic,” resulting from factors such as racist housing policies that concentrate communities of color next to industry and along transportation corridors.
This is all before factoring in climate change from fossil fuel emissions, which Nadeau and Perera describe as “threat multipliers.” Extreme heat and weather disasters, wildfire smoke, and mosquito and tick-borne diseases are also significant health risks to children, with many of those risks falling disproportionately on youth of color.
“Of particular concern,” Perera and Nadeau wrote, “are the cumulative effects of air pollution and climate change on mental health. Adverse experiences in childhood, such as disasters and displacement, not only raise the short-term risk of mental disorders but also confer a lasting vulnerability to anxiety, depression, and mood disorders in adulthood.”
A dagger against environmental protection
None of those concerns appear to weigh heavily on either Supreme Court or the Republican Party. All throughout the Obama administration, Republicans cut funding for the EPA, forcing staffing to drop from 17,359 in fiscal year 2011 to 14,779 in fiscal year 2016. Then-Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell constantly attacked efforts to control climate change, condemning the Clean Power Plan’s nationwide emissions standards as “a dagger in the heart of the American middle class.”
Representing the coal state of Kentucky and long at the trough of fossil fuel industry campaign contributions, it did not matter to McConnell that the cleaving of coal jobs in Appalachia was due to the market forces of cheaper natural gas and plummeting cost of renewable energy. Nor did it matter that the Obama administration said the CPP would avoid up to 3,600 annual premature deaths and 90,000 asthma attacks in children. In a 2015 letter to the National Governors Association, McConnell urged governors not to cooperate with the Obama administration on the CPP.
In 2016, the high court—already at a 5-4 conservative majority—put the CPP on hold. And McConnell made sure the conservative majority would grow by icing Obama’s last Supreme Court nomination and fast-tracking the final nominations of President Trump, who himself laid siege to the mission of EPA’s scientists and investigators to protect the public from toxic air, water, and soil.
The fruits of McConnell’s labor for the fossil fuel industry came into fruition this week as “his” Supreme Court put a dagger in the heart of the EPA.
By definition, curtailing the powers of the EPA is a direct attack on science and children. In the NEJM series, Perera and Nadeau said the mountain of studies connecting disease in young people to air pollution and climate change is so compelling that, “It is of paramount importance that research findings be rapidly translated into policies to protect and improve children’s and maternal health.” It is of paramount importance as the EPA estimates that there are 6 million children in the United States with asthma who are “especially vulnerable to air pollution.”
The Supreme Court heard none of those pleas for the vulnerable. Instead, when it comes to one of the nation’s biggest current health threats of air pollution and the burgeoning threat of climate change, the court has just made it horribly harder for the federal government to have any policy.
Derrick Z. Jackson is on the advisory board of Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate. He's also a Union of Concerned Scientist Fellow in climate and energy. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.
This post originally ran on The Union of Concerned Scientists blog and is republished here with permission.