The trick about conspiracy theories is they’re built from a kernel of truth. Anti-vaccine theories are a good example—a lack of trust about what our bodies are exposed to helped create fertile soil for anti-vaccine theories to grow. America's federal government has earned its distrust, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) played its part in aiding and creating the space for conspiracy theories to flourish by failing to protect Americans from toxic materials. Recent revelations show that toxic material exposure to Americans—and the world—should be seen as a crisis.
In December 2021, a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that half of the U.S. population has been exposed to high lead levels in early childhood. Research has shown there are no safe levels of lead exposure as a child; your brain and development will be permanently affected by any level of childhood exposure.
Then there are the alarming levels of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, aka forever chemicals) exposure across the American populace, seeping into our soil and water, with over 99% of Americans exposed. But these aren’t the only life- and society-sapping materials Americans are being exposed to at potentially dangerous levels: Others include uranium, pesticides, and a host of carcinogens.
Exposure to toxic materials is one more sweeping national crisis, impacting community health, generations of a family’s health, economics, public safety, food, and more. It is a pile of straw on top of the already bent back of the United States. And our government institutions and politicians are unable or unwilling to protect us.
An effort has been put into removing lead from everyday environments over the past decades, yet now the endeavor has slowed to a crawl. In 1978, lead paint was outlawed, yet today many low-income homes still contain it, and it took until 1996 to ban most leaded gas—except for aviation fuel. Initiatives to replace lead service lines (water lines connected to a place of residence) and lead pipes slowed down as time went on. This Natural Resources Defense Council report displays the amount of work left to replace lead lines; every state has work to do, some more than others.
Beyond lead, regulations of chemical agents might as well be nonexistent, with the EPA playing an active role in this failure. Established by President Richard Nixon in 1970, the EPA has failed to protect Americans from toxic chemicals. In 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed, one of the worst regulatory failures of the U.S. government. This act grandfathered in tens of thousands of chemicals for approved use by the EPA.
Only in 2017 did the EPA start reviewing these chemicals due to the passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. Within the first 180 days, the Act mandated, EPA was required to review the EPA’s list of previously approved substances and compounds at a rate of 10 chemical agents a year. Within 3.5 years of the Act, the EPA was required to reach a rate of 20 reviews a year. There are over 85,000 chemicals in the EPA inventory. At the current rate, it will take more than 4,000 years to review them all.
Dr. Kyla Bennett, director of science policy at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and a former EPA employee, told Daily Kos about how this failure spans across presidential administrations regardless of party. “We have not had an environmental president since maybe Richard Nixon [due to the creation of the EPA under his administration]. And that's pretty sad because he was not an environmentalist.” She added that it could be worse under Democratic presidents because of the perception that when Democrats are in office, the EPA is working on behalf of the American people.
A recent Supreme Court of the United States ruling on the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon mandates puts the EPA at risk of completely gutting its administrative and regulatory power, worsening the state of the ability to regulate industries to protect the environment and people's health.
The lead crisis extends past Flint, Michigan—which is still an ongoing crisis—and the level of dangerous lead exposure nationally is a crisis with lifelong effects. Lead exposure, even a low amount, decreases IQ, increases aggressive and violent behavior (with direct links to gun violence), increases chances of developing ADHD, and increases depression and anxiety. As a person ages, lead exposure increases the chances of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia (specifically Alzheimer’s), kidney disease, and Parkinson’s.
While the Baby Boomer generation was the most exposed to lead, people born from the 1960s to the early 1990s still faced high levels of exposure. Lead lines and paint are in all states and most cities across the United States. Lead aviation fuel is being used nationwide with disproportionate exposure to lower-income communities, which are also more likely to be Black and brown communities and live in closer proximity to an airport. But racial and economic disparities for exposure to toxic materials unsurprisingly go far beyond lead.
Stephen Braunginn (full disclosure: the author's father), a former CEO and president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, Wisconsin, served on a working group called Turning Point: Collaborating for a New Century in Public Health. During the three years of this group, 2001-2004, he focused on building a new model of state and public health statutes to address issues affecting and having a disparate impact on people of color, seniors, and people with disabilities.
“It is very clear that environmental justice is prevalent. You take a look at areas surrounding airports, surrounding areas where there’s manufacturing—take a look at who lives around there. This is an area that gets very little coverage and attention by anybody in politics, by any policy maker, but it does not get raised to the level it must,” Braunginn said. “And if we are going to effectively address this environmental catastrophe, it has to be elevated substantially higher. And the last time it got elevated to that level is when Jesse Jackson ran for president, not even [Barack] Obama.”
He hand-delivered the report from this working group to then-Senator Obama. Findings in the report ended up in the “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents”—this is the same playbook President Donald Trump failed to follow with COVID-19.
PFAS, like lead, is pervasive across America, with an estimated 200 million Americans exposed to PFAS in their drinking water, with perhaps 99% of Americans exposed to PFAS through other means. Daily Kos’ own April Siese, who has been excellently covering PFAS and the scope of contamination, writes: “PFAS are found in all sorts of products, including nonstick cookware and, alarmingly, children’s clothing.” They are everywhere and don’t break down; far too often, regulators don’t look for them as they crop up in the agriculture industry. Siese continues, “PFAS keep showing up in wastewater treatment plants and cropland across the country.”
They are everywhere, including more than half of car seats for babies, and are now found even in the rainwater of Earth's remotest regions like Antarctica. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has consumer guides for people to help navigate this toxic consumer minefield.
Even though there are guides, a person has to know about the dangers of PFAS, know where to look for guides, learn how to find compromised products to avoid, and have the monetary resources to choose a different option. Individualizing protection from a substance that is everywhere is a sure way to prevent the majority from getting the safeguarding they need.
The FDA has been slow to act, but revamped its guidelines on “safe” levels of PFAS to .004 parts per trillion. For context, one part per trillion would be ten drops of PFAS into the Rose Bowl Stadium in California if it were filled with water. The EWG has a map showing the scope of the crisis in water wells, which, though updated in October 2021, is already outdated to new standards.
Like lead, the health effects of PFAS are vast, affecting reproductive health, decreasing fertility, lowering birth rates, increasing early onset puberty and cancer rates, and lowering the immune system’s ability to protect from infections, to name a few.
Bennett says PFAS is a true health crisis, “not just because of the chemical itself, but because it lowers your immune system, and makes you susceptible to all of these other things. And the scariest part of all of this is because it's a forever chemical, that carbon-fluorine bond does not break down. It's one of the strongest bonds known to humans. We can't destroy this stuff. And because the half-life is decades, in some cases … we're dooming another generation of Americans like many generations to these awful impacts.” Going on to compare this generational crisis to climate change, just as if we stop carbon emissions now, the carbon already emitted is still there.
While PFAS and lead may be the most common and well-known, Americans are exposed to a whole host of toxic materials daily. A recent study published by the Lancet Planetary Health journal found uranium in 63% of America's drinking water. While uranium naturally occurs on earth, and there will always be measurable levels, human behavior has increased its levels beyond what normally occurs. Another common toxic material Americans are exposed to is the weed killer Roundup, which also increases cancer rates. Recently Roundup has been found in the urine of 80% of Americans. Other carcinogens and herbicides that cause harm and lifelong health effects are also pervasive.
It is important to be careful not to draw causation conclusions from correlation, but it is hard not to be curious about the increasing rates of Parkinson's (especially in younger adults), cancer, autoimmune disorders, and other chronic illnesses when looking at the breadth of exposure to toxic materials.
Jaime Honkawa, director of external communications of PEER and cofounder of the PFAS Action Group, moved to action because of her personal experiences with these connections. A lifelong friend, a firefighter, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. (He is now in remission. In fact, he was just brought to national attention for being off-duty and running into a fire to save people.) When receiving treatment, he saw an infomercial about a class-action lawsuit for firefighters exposed to PFAS.
Firefighter equipment is doused in PFAS; from 2002-2019, 66% of in-the-line-of-duty deaths by firefighters were due to cancer. In an interview with Daily Kos, Honkawa explained, “When you look at those statistics, we're talking about younger firefighters. It's not older firefighters who are retired already; these are line-of-duty deaths. So we're talking about active firefighters who are getting rare cancers and dying.” She says her entire nuclear family has cancer, a family with no genetic predispositions to cancer. She adds, “I feel like this almost sense of dread of just waiting for that diagnosis.”
Bennett has had her own experiences with cancer, having had a brain tumor, and going through every genetic testing possible and finding nothing. Bennett asked the doctors how this rare tumor could have happened, and they mentioned her environment. She grew up with parents that didn’t allow sugar, she’s a vegetarian, and her house has no known synthetic chemical agents in it. But Bennett lives in New England, which has seen widespread PFAS contamination. She believes that 75%-80% of cancers are due to environmental factors “the stuff we eat, breathe, touch, and drink.”
My own family is a cluster of health crises, with cousins developing rare cancer and chronic illnesses. Then there’s me, my father, his twin brother, and their mother, my grandmother, all developing at least one chorionic disease. Before I was born, my parents, my dad's twin brother, and my grandmother lived in the same farmhouse. During the first few years of my life, we lived in a house near a landfill. My cousins, who developed a rare cancer, lived on military bases in their youth; military bases have high rates of toxic exposure. Those who have family members who have survived cancer, or survived it themselves, understand the mental and physical hell it puts you through. But what is less discussed is how chronic illnesses and degenerative diseases affect a person’s life.
It is easy to think of chronic diseases and illnesses in the abstract, but they upend a person's life. Braunginn, reflecting on his Parkinson's diagnosis (note: we do not know the cause), after his tremors drastically increased, his second neurologist said to try a Parkinson's medication, and if it worked, he has Parkinson's. The following day, after two doses, the tremors got better. “Yes, it slowed down the tremors, tremendously so,” Braunginn says. “Then the reality hit that I had Parkinson's. It just sort of ripped into my soul for a little bit. I wasn't too sure whether to scream or cry. So, I had to let it digest; I had to. I couldn't let it overwhelm me. I have to move on. And the thing is, the medication is allowing me to move on.”
There is no cure for Parkinson's; it is a degenerative brain disorder that worsens as time progresses. Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox are perhaps the most famous people associated with the disorder.
It is estimated that more than 40% of Americans have at least one chronic illness, and now long-COVID, which we still have little understanding of, threatens to drastically increase that percentage. Chronic illnesses decrease your ability to take care of yourself, sustain a livelihood, and enjoy and live life, with Braunginn, almost 68 and diagnosed with Parkinson’s, noting he hopes to have 10-15 more years of quality life. “I went through a grieving process of losing who I was when it became clear I had a chronic illness, knowing my body would never be the same. Your whole world reorients. And now, living during a pandemic with a compromised immune system, going out to eat has a far higher chance of being deadly, or even more life-altering than not.“
American society isn’t equipped to handle people living with chronic illnesses. The care economy is hard-pressed, and the labor of caring for someone with an illness often falls upon family members—typically women—to help with the additional care. Human dignity is often taken away from those with chronic diseases, from people simply believing you’re being selfish when taking time to rest because your body needs it, with others being forced into deep poverty to receive help through Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). (If you earn more than $1,220 a month, you lose disability benefits.)
The human impact and economic effects are intertwined; impact goes beyond the individual when the capacity to manage one's own life decreases. While it can seem that having less earning potential, more debt, and less ability to take jobs with higher physical demands stops at the individual, it doesn’t. This individual economic and ability loss affects families, communities, and our entire society.
The Health Impact Project (a collaboration between Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) released a report in 2017, “10 Policies to Prevent and Respond to Childhood Lead Exposure: An assessment of the risks communities face and key federal, state, and local solutions,” that investigated the economic effect of childhood lead exposure. The savings are astounding, especially when considering the humans behind the numbers. Some key findings (note this is in the context of children being born in 2018 alone):
If in 2018, we removed leaded drinking water service lines, 350,000 children would have been protected from exposure and saved “$2.7 billion in future benefits.”
Lead paint removal from homes of low-income families in 2018 would have prevented 311,000 children from exposure and would have had a future savings of $3.5 billion.
More vigorous enforcement from the EPA on home renovation contractors in 2018 would have prevented 211,000 children born that year, creating future savings of $4.5 billion.
The report goes on to say, “The maximum potential future benefits of preventing all lead exposure for the 2018 birth cohort, such that those children’s blood lead levels could be kept from rising above zero, could reach $84 billion, not including the costs to achieve such total prevention.”
Altarum, a nonprofit research and consulting organization that studies public health, with financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, developed a tool to explore the savings each state would save by investing in lead removal and prevention. For example, the tool calculated for California the total cost of nonintervention for those born in 2019 at $11.1 billion. And calculating the “intervention impact” would protect 181,817 children and save the state $782.4 million. And this is calculated just from those born in 2019. This is another piece of evidence the United States is a broken nation: It would save money by protecting its people, but instead chooses to protect industry.
When we keep these numbers on the cost of lead exposure in mind, the total human scope of toxic material exposure is enormous for limited cohorts of populations. Children exposed to these materials will have a more challenging time learning in schools due to cognitive impairments and behavioral effects ranging from ADHD to increased aggressive behavior, i.e., more fights.
Children of color are already seen as more aggressive and more likely to receive harsher punishments. Racial disparities in lead exposure are a hidden piece of the school-to-prison pipeline. When thinking about adults, we have to place this in the context of interpersonal violence, domestic violence, and no doubt a contributing factor among many in the rise of gun violence.
While the federal government has taken some recent steps, much work is needed. It’s hard not to see this failure in the larger context of the U.S. government's inability to govern on behalf of the American people or how it puts business interests above the public interest. Perhaps seeing it as corruption over failure is a better way to view the poisoned environment.
Bennett and Honkawa talked about how corrupt the regulatory world is, not just including the EPA, which has a revolving door between regulatory agents and the industries they’re supposed to be regulating. Bennett specifically calls out the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which writes firefighting gear regulations. The NFPA and its committees should comprise equal parts manufacturer representatives, researchers, and end-users (firefighters). According to Honkawa, when you look at their composition, “you find out the researchers are working in labs funded by industry, end users are looking to retire and then work for gear manufacturers,” and then you have the manufacturers. It is all controlled by industry. The kicker is, PFAS don’t even have to be in fire gear. Bennett drives this home by saying, “The reason the PFAS is in the gear is because the PFAS industry is sitting on technical teams who write the standards. We appealed to them to take it out, and they said ‘Nah, we like it there.’”
Bennett doesn’t let the EPA off the hook either, revealing how it approves new chemicals with a rubber stamp, saying, “A chemical is considered innocent until it's proven guilty. Whereas in other countries around the world, like Japan and in the EU, a chemical is assumed to be guilty until it's proven innocent.”
Detailing the brief court proceedings, EPA regulators have “90 days to make an assessment as to whether a particular new chemical will present a risk to human health or the environment. ... What happens is that these risk assessors are sitting in front of their computers, they sometimes get nothing more than the name of a chemical and one industry abstract. And from that, they have 90 days to figure out whether this chemical will present an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment,” Bennett continued.
In an ideal world, the EPA would take action on all of these toxins, but we live far from one; not only is the EPA underfunded, but it is also effectively corrupt. Appropriate federal action, at least in the short term, cannot be expected—local and state governments can take action, perhaps enough to move the federal government into action.
Bennett and Honkawa mentioned states like Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Washington have been stepping up. Individuals can get involved by lobbying to ban PFAS and facilitate clean-up. Municipalities could also offer tax credits to residents to purchase in-home water filters. And calling your congressional representative can help move the federal government to act, but creating local pressure and state pressure will push the federal government to do more.
It is hard to look at the scope of this crisis and not see the U.S. government failing to protect its population from harm. The sheer volume of people who are now, or will be, living with a behavior disorder, developmental disorder, degenerative disease, and chronic illness due to toxic exposure is hard to grasp. It causes our communities and connections to fray, both being a cause and symptom of a broken nation.
There is a larger story here, one beyond lead and PFAS contamination centering on the EPA and the federal government itself. It is a public health, economic, and national security imperative the federal government takes action on these issues. Not only will it improve lives and strengthen communities, but it will also help rebuild lost trust in the government.
This story was produced through the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows (DKEF) Program. Read more about DKEF (and meet the author, and other Emerging Fellows) here.