Environmental factors such as air and water quality play a pivotal role in public health, as populations who live in areas with pollution, decaying buildings, and/or an unsafe, contaminated drinking supply are at a high risk of developing a myriad of health problems. How can we become educated about environmental issues to safeguard our own living spaces and also become effective advocates for better regulation of these essential ingredients to our ecosystem?
On this episode of Kentucky Health, host Dr. Wayne Tuckson welcomes a Louisville pediatrician and an attorney who heads an environmental nonprofit to discuss the health risks of environmental pollutants.
Dr. Julia Richerson is a pediatrician practicing in Louisville. Attorney Tom FitzGerald is the director of the Kentucky Resources Council, and has been at that position since 1984.
As a pediatrician, Richerson is focused on children, and she is committed to educating families about the crucial steps they need to take in order to ensure their kids grow up in a healthy household.
“Children are not just little adults,” she says. “They have developing bodies, developing brains, and developing organ systems. And so the impact of environmental toxins on them are even more important. Because even small doses over time can really lead to significant impacts, both short term and long term.”
FitzGerald says that while the medical field in the U.S. operates according to the precautionary principle of “first, do no harm,” that ethos is not present in many environmental regulations.
“In a perverse sort of way, we give due process to the chemicals, and not the public,” FitzGerald says. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot ban chemicals, or certain uses of chemicals, until the agency has sufficient data to justify doing so, he explains. That is a different standard than exists in Europe. “We have flipped the script on that, and unfortunately it has profound human health consequences,” he says.
Toxic Substances in Air, Water, and Soil
FitzGerald says that under the Toxic Substances Control Act, less than 10 substances have been identified and banned from use.
“There are about 70,000 chemicals in the marketplace at any given time,” he says. “We know at which levels the chemicals are safe, for chronic as well as acute effects, for about 2 percent of them. We have partial data on about 14 percent, and we know virtually nothing about the human health consequences of the rest of them, particularly the older chemicals.”
FitzGerald discusses the ban of polychlorinated biphenyl products (PCBs) in the 1970s to show how difficult the process is and how such substances can endure for decades even after their use is prohibited.
“A lot of the products we have used over time serve their function very well,” he says. “PCBs were great to use as an electrical fluid for transformers because they were so indestructible. And now we are realizing – because everyone has a body burden of PCBs in our adipose or fatty tissue – how indestructible they are.”
Lead exposure is another major environmental hazard that has long-term health consequences. Richerson says that the majority of lead exposure in the U.S. comes from lead paint and lead paint dust. Both guests warn that anyone living in a structure that was built before the mid-1970s may be at risk for lead exposure.
The dangers of lead exposure are especially important for families with young children, Richerson says. Children spend a lot more time on the floor and also play outside near window sills with paint. “They’re putting things in their mouths, they’re much more likely to ingest lead than say, a 10-year-old or 15-year-old or 30-year-old,” she explains.
“There really is no excuse anymore” in testing for lead, FitzGerald says. Products such as the locally made LockUpLead (which is sprayed on surfaces and turns red to identify lead, and then neutralizes the lead in place) can help homeowners safeguard their property. He says that prospective homeowners should make sure that any building they are considering buying has had all lead removed. “We shouldn’t have to worry about lead anymore,” he says. “We’re not putting a lot of new lead into the environment. This is old lead.”
The Flint water crisis from earlier this decade illustrated the dangers of using unsafe sources and distribution systems for the public water supply. In that case, a decision by city administrators was made to change Flint’s water system without researching and finding that old lead service pipes were being used in the new delivery.
“We are lucky relative to most communities in this region to have an excellent water company (in Louisville) that does continuous testing,” FitzGerald says. “Not only the source testing, but they also do some random testing to make sure we are drinking water that not only meets but exceeds the federal standards.”
But rural Kentucky is a different story, the guests note. “We know a lot of children (in Kentucky) whose primary source of water is well water,” Richerson says. “And we recommend that it has to be tested at least once a year. Not only do we worry about the groundwater contamination from heavy metals and things like that, but also the bacterial contamination. And again, children are disproportionately affected by that as well, because children drink more water typically than adults do.”
FitzGerald says that around 31 percent of Kentuckians get their water from groundwater. There are standards for the construction of new wells, but “we don’t have an effective way of dealing with the legacy of pollution,” he adds. For example, in recent years environmental disasters involving coal mines in Kentucky, such as the coal slurry spill in Martin County in 2000, have illustrated the need to make major investments in cleaning up impoundment basins.
“We have a number of coal-fired power plants all up and down the major river systems in the commonwealth,” FitzGerald says. “Every one of the ponds that the coal ash went into is contaminating the groundwater. We now have the data that shows that. …And the question is, are we going to spend the money to clean up the sites, or are we going to fence them off and pave them over and pass that cost on to the next generation?”
Tips for Creating a Healthy Home Environment
FitzGerald praises Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services for their education and outreach work about lead and other health hazards such as radon. Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that is formed when uranium breaks down in soil and forms radium, which becomes radon gas and can enter homes through basements, crawl spaces, and cracks in the foundation. FitzGerald says that persons can get a free radon testing kit from the Jefferson Co. Public Health Department (for Louisville residents) or from the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
In addition to radon testing, a high level overall indoor air quality needs to be maintained, Richerson says. “Indoor air quality includes everything that is inside your system of heating and cooling,” she explains. “For a lot of families, that is the garage – you really need to think about the whole house when you think about air quality. I think that’s an important first step. A lot of times we put stuff in the garage and think, ‘Oh, we’re not breathing those fumes,’ but they are in the system.”
One important contributor to indoor air quality that is completely within human control is tobacco exposure, Richerson says. Kids are especially vulnerable to harmful health effects from second- and third-hand smoke, and indoor smoking should be completely eliminated. Children with asthma may require even more intervention. Irritants from household cleaning chemicals, allergens, and mold from water exposure all need to be addressed and removed as soon as possible.
Residue from pesticides existing in food is another danger. “The use of certain classes of pesticides is problematic not only for the consumer but it’s also problematic for those who are exposed routinely to them in the fields,” FitzGerald says. “Fortunately, we are seeing a trend away from the mono-cropping industrial agriculture and back towards more locally-grown, locally-sourced food.” He advises people to shop at farmer’s markets, or to grow their own if possible. “If you’re purchasing and you’re not sure where the source is, wash what you’re going to use.”
As a final piece of advice, FitzGerald says that the EPA has published a guide to home health available on their website.
“The guide goes through mold, goes through drinking water issues, goes through radon, goes through lead, and has some real common-sense suggestions about what to do.”