We Live In A Toxic World – Part I: Basic Facts, Figures And Concerns
On The Release Of Toxic Chemicals Into The Environment
Michael Garko, Ph.D.
Host – Let’s Talk Nutrition
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation: Garko, M.G. (2015, February). We live in a toxic world – Part I: Basic facts, figures and concerns on the release of toxic chemicals into the environment. Health and Wellness Monthly. Retrieved (insert month, day, year), from www.letstalknutrition.com.
“Each year, U.S. industry uses billions of pounds of toxic chemicals to produce the nation’s goods and services. The release of these chemicals during transport, storage, use, or disposal as waste can potentially harm human health and the environment” (United States Government Accountability Office, 2007, p. 1). There are approximately 75,000 chemical substances used for manufacturing and industrial purposes on the master inventory list of toxic chemicals published by the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) (see United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2007).
Moreover, based on the most recent (i.e., 2006) available data on toxic chemicals released into the environment reported in the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), 22,880 facilities in the United States disposed of or otherwise discharged 4.25 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment (i.e., land, water & air), while at the same time handling/managing 24.4 billion pounds of chemicals using other waste management activities (recycling, energy recovery, treatment, etc.) (see Untied States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008b).
At the risk of sounding alarmist, it is an understatement to say that we live in a toxic world with the health of Americans being put at greater risk because of the extraordinary amount of toxic chemicals being released into the environment, thereby, contributing to the ever increasing toxic burden within individuals and the potential undermining of their health in terms of disease formation and accelerated aging.
The February, 2015, issue of Health and Wellness Monthly is a reissue of the July, 2008, issue of Healthful Hints and is the first in a series on the toxic world in which we live. While originally published at an earlier date, the information and issues are nevertheless still relevant. The series will focus on the kinds of and extent to which toxic chemicals are being released into the environment (i.e., land, water & air) of the United States and other countries, the nature and extent of the damage being done to the health of the environment and humans and what can be done to counteract the short- and long-term health consequences of a toxic external environment on the internal environment of individuals, among other issues.
In order to establish some context for upcoming articles on this environmentally-based health topic, this month’s issue will focus on the “U.S. EPA Toxics Release Inventory 2006 Public Data Release” (see United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008c). The purpose is to give readers a sense of the level at which recognized toxic chemicals are being released into the environment (at least in the United States) on an annual basis, resulting in a persistent and pernicious contamination of humans and the land, water and air on which they rely for survival. Particular attention will be given to a definition of hazardous and toxic wastes, description of the TRI, types of disposal and other releases, persistent bioaccumulative toxic chemicals, as well as an overview of TRI data for 2006 and the EPA’s waste management hierarchy and the total production-related waste managed in 2006.
Definition of Hazardous and Toxic Wastes
It is important to understand what makes certain chemicals classified as, hazardous waste, generally, and, a toxic waste, specifically. According to the EPA (2008a), “hazardous waste is a waste with properties that make it dangerous or potentially harmful to human health or the environment” (p. 1). Further, “hazardous wastes can be liquids, solids, contained gases, or sludges. They can be the by-products of manufacturing processes or simply discarded commercial products, like cleaning fluids or pesticides” (Untied States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008a, p. 1). The EPA (2008) describes toxic wastes as harmful or fatal when ingested or absorbed (e.g., containing mercury, lead, etc.) (p. 2).
Description of the Toxics Release Inventory
The TRI is the EPA’s database containing detailed information on approximately 650 chemicals and chemical categories, which 22, 880 industrial and other facilities in the United States manage. Industries providing data on the chemicals they release into the environment includeing manufacturing, metal and coal mining, electric utilities, commerical hazardous waste treatment and other industrial sectors (see United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008b).
Types of Disposal and Other Releases
The 22, 880 industrial and other facilities in the United States manage toxic chemicals or otherwise dispose of them in the environment through a range of practices which the EPA says “may ultimately affect the potential for human exposure to the toxic chemicals” (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008b, p. 2). The waste management practices resulting in the release of toxic chemicals into the environment include (1) on-site disposal into surface water, air, land and (2) under ground injection and (3) other waste management processes such as recycling, energy recovery or treatment. Industrial and other facilities also manage toxic chemicals. Facilities also use the waste management practices of (1) off-site disposal into land, (2) underground injection and (3) publicy owned treatment works (for metals) and (4) other waste management processes such as recycling, energy recovery , treatment publicy owned treatment works (for non-metals). For further details of the on-site and off-site waste management practices used by facilites to dispose of or otherwise release toxic chemicals into the environment see the EPA’s Figure 1 found in the Appendix at the end of the PDF version of the newsletter.
The EPA (2008b) warns that “facility releases may include discharges to air, water, and land” (p. 2), while limiting contamination and human exposure by disposing of or otherwise releasing chemical waste in certain ways such as:
- Disposal of harmful materials to Class I Underground Injection wells located in isolated formations beneath the lowermost underground source of drinking water, limits potential for contamination; and
- Disposal to landfills that are designed with liners, covers, leak-detection systems, and groundwater monitoring systems also limits the potential for human exposure to the contents of the landfill (United State Environmental Protection Agency, 2008b, p. 2).
The EPA (2008b) states that “most disposal or other releases are subject to a variety of regulatory requrements designed to limit environmental harm” (p. 3).
Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxic Chemicals
There is a category of toxic chemicals incuded on the EPA’s TRI which are of particular concern for the environment and humans. The chemicals are called persistent bioaccumulative toxic (PBT) chemicals. What makes them especially dangerous is that they not only toxic but also remain in the environment for long periods of time, are not easily destroyed and tend to build-up or otherwise accumulate in body tissue. The PBT chemicals that have found their way onto the EPA’s TRI include dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, lead and lead compounds, mercury and mercury compounds, polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and certain pesticides, among other chemicals (see United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008b).
Overview of TRI Data for 2006
According to the EPA (2008b), of the 4.25 billion pounds of on-site and off-site disposal or other releases of the nearly 650 toxic chemicals in 2006, almost 88% was disposed of or otherwise released into the environment on-site, while 12% transferred off-site for disposal.
In 2006, PBT chemicals amounted to 455 million pounds or 11% of the reported on-site and off-site disposal or other releases. Within the PBT category, lead and lead compounds accounted for 54%, while arsenic and arsenic compuonds for 14% of the total disposal or other releases. The total disposal or other releases of mercury and mercury compounds amounted to 5.1 million pounds, with dioxin and dioxin-like compounds totaling 130,277 grams or 287 pounds (see United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008b).
The TRI data for 2006 showed that there were 179 known or suspected carcinogens disposed of or otherwise released into the environment. These dangerous carcinogenic chemicals accounted for 820 million pounds or 19% of the reported on-site and off-site disposal or other releases. Of the total amount of carcinogenic chemicals disposed of or otherwise released into the environment, lead and lead compounds accounted for 54% and arsenic and arsenic compounds accounted for 14%. Nearly three-quarters of the released carcinogenic compounds (i.e., 72% or 592 million pouinds) were disposed of or otherwise released into the environment by some form of on-site land disposal. The EPA’s TRI data indicate that of the 105 milllion pounds of carcinogenic air emissions, styrene air emissions accounted for 45% of that total in 2006 (see United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008b).
Finally while private industry accounted for the lion’s share of the total amount of on-site and off-site disposal or other releases of nearly 650 toxic chemicals into the environment in 2006, 306 federal facilities accounted for 106 million pounds (see United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008b).
For a further detailed account of what exactly constituted the 4.25 billion pounds of on-site and off-site disposal or other releases of toxic chemicals see the EPA’s Figure 2 found in the Appendix at the end of the PDF version of the newsletter.
Waste Management Hierarchy
The EPA has created a waste management hierarchy to deal with the creation and disposal or other release of toxic chemicals. It recognizes source reduction as the preferred approach to waste management, followed by recyclinlg, energy revocery, treatment and disposal or other releases of toxic chemicals, in that order.
For a model of the EPA’s waste management model and the total production-related waste managed in 2006 using the model see its Figure 3 in the Appendix found at the end of the PDF version of the newsletter.
Although this July, 2008, issue of Healthful Hints focused specifically on the EPA’s TRI for 2006, toxic chemicals are being released into the environment on a scale that puts the short- and long-term health of the environment and humans into jeopardy. The GAO and EPA both acknowledge that the release annually of billions of pounds of toxic chemicals by industry and the government during the transport, storage, use or disposal of these chemicals puts the health of the environment and humans at serious risk, notwithstanding the EPA’s attempt to create regulatory requirements in the disposal or other releases of toxic chemicals to minimize or limit harm.
People need to be mindful that the short- and long-term cumulative effect of exposure to toxic chemicals is more often than out of their awareness and just because they are not symptomatic does not mean they are not being contaminated with chemicals that have in many cases the ability impose grave health consequences upon repeated exposure.
Therefore, the first step in protecting one’s self toxic from chemical exposure is to become informed about the extent to which deleterious chemicals are being released into the environment. It is hoped this month’s newsletter proivded readers with such information.
United States Environmental Protection Agency (2007). What is the TSCA chemical substance inventory? Retrieved June 15, 2008 from http://www.epa.gov/oppt/newchems/pubs/invntory.htm
United States Environmental Protection Agency (2008a). Hazardous waste. Retrieved June 15, 2008 from http://www.epa.gov/osw/hazwaste.htm
United States Environmental Protection Agency (2008b). 2006 Toxics release inventory (TRI) public data release brochure. Retrieved June 15, 2008 from http://www.epa.gov/tri/tridata/tri06/
United States Environmental Protection Agency (2008c). U.S. EPA toxics release inventory 2006 public data release. Retrieved June 15, 2008 from http://www.epa.gov/tri/tridata/tri06/pdr/key_findings_v12a.pdf
United States Government Accountability Office (2007). Toxic chemical releases: EPA actions could reduce environmental information available to many communities. Retrieved June 15, 2008 from http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08128.pdf
Figure 1: Information Collected Under TRI
United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008, p. 1.
United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008, p. 4.
United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008, p. 5.
 This article is a reissue. It was originally published in Healthful Hints, 2008. Nevertheless, the information and issues are still relevant.
The EPA released the 2006 TRI Data on February 21, 2008.