Changing EPA Policies May Increase Your Risk of Living in a Toxic Town

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November 08, 2017 | 13,794 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana are suffering from multiple illnesses as Denka Performance Elastomer (formerly DuPont) is spewing chloroprene into the air
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed six sampling canisters in the area to measure chloroprene levels, finding the average amount was 34 times higher than the acceptable level
  • Denka entered into a voluntary agreement to reduce emissions, although the company continues to insist exposure to chloroprene is not hazardous; subsequent sampling revealed the level of chloroprene increased
  • Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is not pushing the issue with Denka, which appears to be in line with the current climate in the EPA under the leadership of Scott Pruitt and the newly installed Nancy Beck

By Dr. Mercola

There are 100 synonyms for chloroprene, the chemical produced in the manufacture of neoprene.1 In liquid form it is less dense than water and in gas form it is heavier than air. The liquid and vapor are highly flammable and toxic if swallowed or inhaled. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report the chemical has cytogenetic properties and may cause DNA damage.2

Chloroprene is the liquid monomer in the production of the polymer neoprene. The product is used mainly in the rubber industry but, as a raw material, is also used in adhesives, molded foam, rubber sheeting and gaskets.3 The product is used to insulate joints and coatings from the environment, which means it is highly resistant to action from temperature change, ozone or adverse weather conditions. The product is not readily biodegradable and has a potential for bio- or geo-accumulation.

These properties have made the chemical highly sought after by manufacturers, and increases the potential the petroleum-based product may have adverse effects on your health and wellness. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Toxicology Program has stated chloroprene is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."4 This is exactly what citizens living in St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana have experienced, where the Denka Performance Elastomer plant is located at the edge of town.

Nearly All Chloroprene Pollution Belches From One Plant in Louisiana

In this small historical town, just west of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, one chemical plant spits out 99 percent of the chloroprene contamination produced in the U.S.5 St. John the Baptist Parish was established in the 1720s and was the second permanent settlement in Louisiana.6 Today, the townspeople are overcome by a list of different illnesses and diseases, including cancer, kidney disease and asthma.

Most of the inhabitants attribute their health concerns to the high levels of pollution from the Denka plant, formerly owned by DuPont. The plant began production along the banks of the Mississippi in 1973.7 In 2016 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned the residents they were living in an area with the highest potential for cancer risk. In fact, the EPA National Air Toxic Assessment (NATA) states:8

"The top five census tracts with the highest NATA-estimated cancer risks nationally are in Louisiana due to Denka (formerly DuPont) chloroprene emissions."

Denka is a Japanese-based company that purchased the plant from DuPont in November 2015,9 after years of pollution had been poisoning citizens of St. John Parish. Although the EPA has identified the area around the plant as having the highest risk of cancer related directly to emissions of chloroprene, Denka has not broken any EPA emission regulations.10

Measured Amounts Far Exceed Limits of Acceptability

Knowing there is a risk from chemical exposure, and regulation of that exposure by the EPA or any other governmental agency, are two different matters. The chemical was reported as "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogen" in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,11 and again in 2010 by the EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS).12

Although the EPA had determined chloroprene was likely carcinogenic to humans,13 there were no legal limits set for emissions from manufacturing plants or through exposure from products. In 2016, a memo set the upper limit of acceptability to reduce cancer risk to an annual average exposure of 0.2 micrograms (mcg) per cubic meter of air.

To determine what the air pollution levels were around the plant, the EPA installed six canisters in the area and collected data every three days between March 1 and March 10, 2016.14 When the levels measured were higher than the regulated amount, the EPA again installed sampling canisters with the plan to monitor over 180 days. That plan was again extended.

What was found were air pollution levels 10 to 100 times the upper limit of acceptability set by the EPA. Sampling canisters were placed outside of an elementary school and high school. The data showed the average concentration between May 2016 and August 2017 was at least 34 times the EPA's recommended levels.15 The analysis prompted Denka to voluntarily enter into an agreement with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) to reduce the level of emissions by 85 percent from their facility.16

Denka Insists There Is No Risk

Although Denka entered into the agreement voluntarily, they continue to insist that chloroprene emissions are not dangerous to the community and have not committed to reducing emissions to any particular level.17 Plant manager Jorge Lavastida disputes the EPA analysis, citing a DuPont study18 that showed cancer rates in employees at chloroprene plants are not higher than those in the community.19 He went on to point out the commitment to reduce emissions will cost the company close to $18 million.20

However, the study Lavastida quotes, funded by the International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers, is not backed by other studies that demonstrate exposure to chloroprene did in fact elevate the risk of a variety of cancers and other health damage.21 Additionally, the high cost in lives and finances to the population living around the plant far outweighs the cost to the company to reduce their contribution to the devastation occurring in St. John the Baptist Parish.

Lavastida insists there is no connection between chloroprene and cancer and added he is optimistic the EPA will revise their level of acceptability soon.22 During an interview with CNN, Lavastida shared one of the projects to reduce emissions was completed, and according to their own sampling, emissions were down by 62 percent in the area. However, data provided by the state to CNN demonstrated that the air quality in the area had actually worsened at five of the six testing sites.

Denka would like to believe chloroprene emissions pumped out of the plant are harmless to the citizens in the surrounding area, but there is ample evidence to the contrary. The state of New Jersey developed a Hazardous Fact Sheet, stating chloroprene:

Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Straddling the Fence

The IRIS numbers are officially risk estimates and the EPA may use them to define legal limits. However, the process takes years under good circumstances and not likely until there is a change in administration policy.

States can also use the numbers to set their own rules, but Chuck Carr Brown, the head of LDEQ, told a reporter for The Intercept the 0.2 mcg level is "just a guidance," and it is aiming at improving leak detection and the installation of technology that should reduce emissions, instead of keeping emissions below the recommended level.23

Brown admits to trying to straddle the fence between the people he's committed to serving and the interests of industry in his community.24

The stated mission of the LDEQ is25 "to provide service to the people of Louisiana through comprehensive environmental protection in order to promote and protect health, safety and welfare while considering sound policies regarding employment and economic development." In a public meeting Brown said many of the concerns about cancer were overblown and told council members:"26

"When you get a monitor that shows a spike, you also get a monitor the same day when the wind is blowing a different way that shows none detected. So all that's to say it’s not like there’s a smoking gun somewhere in St. John Parish."

Brown also points to data from the Louisiana's Tumor Registry that shows there is no higher incidence of cancer in the St. John Parish.27 However, the data he references is not yet able to pinpoint the specific area of St. John the Baptist Parish, and includes a much larger area.

More precise data from the region may be available soon as a new state law will require greater detailed reporting.28 Regardless of Brown's assertions, the CDC cites the top five census tracts with the highest cancer risks nationally are in Louisiana and due to Denka.29

Duck and Run

The sale of the DuPont neoprene factory to Denka is only one of several ways DuPont is divesting assets to protect the company from the rising number of class action lawsuits resulting from communities suffering devastating health effects. The company was founded in 1802 and had left a trail of waste dumped across the country. In the early 1980s, a thorough review of the company's waste sites was ordered.30

More than 30 years later there is greater urgency to find those waste and cleanup sites as the information is central to many class action lawsuits being brought to court. In July 2015, DuPont spun off their division of performance chemicals into a new company, The Chemours Company.31 This essentially meant the financial responsibility for a large portion of the liabilities would be shouldered by Chemours.

However, the fledgling company was loaded with debt from the parent company and not expected to make a recovery.32 Chemours is posting falling annual revenue and gross income,33 but has not yet fallen apart. This works to the advantage of DuPont as lawsuits may not have the ability to recover any awards given by the courts.34

To further complicate matters, DuPont completed their merger with Dow on August 31, 2017,35 after which the companies announced DowDuPont would operate under three separate divisions — agriculture, materials science and specialty products. One year prior to the merger, DuPont filed a brief stating there had been no decision on how the new company would handle the cost of court cases and called the request for documentation "improper and intrusive."36

DuPont's attorneys went on to say plaintiff's accusations that the company may be dodging financial responsibilities is "merely speculative," without denying the allegation or putting to rest the fears of the plaintiffs that despite a potential court ruling in their favor, there would be no money to fill DuPont's obligation.

EPA Policy Shift Downplays Your Health Risk While Favoring Industry

While citizens are struggling against industry giants for legal recognition and financial remuneration for physical pain and suffering after exposure to toxins, the EPA appears to have joined forces with large manufacturers and turned their back on the people they were tasked to protect.

This year, when after years of struggle to prevent the use of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — an ingredient in stain-resistant carpet and nonstick pans from contaminating drinking water — a rule was enacted making it more difficult to track the health consequences of the chemical.37

PFOA has been scientifically linked to immune system disorders,38 kidney and testicular cancers39 and birth defects.40 The rule revision was only one among a dozen ordered by the new deputy head of the EPA, Nancy Beck. Prior to this appointment by the president, Beck served as an executive at the American Chemistry Council, the chemistry industry's leading trade association. According to The New York Times:41

"The EPA's abrupt new direction on legacy chemicals is part of a broad initiative by the Trump administration to change the way the federal government evaluates health and environmental risks associated with hazardous chemicals, making it more aligned with the industry's wishes."

In essence this means the focus of the EPA is shifting from protecting the consumer to protecting the financial interests of industry. Beck's policies appear to line up in tandem with those of Scott Pruitt, the EPA chief, who in March choose not to ban the commercial use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which alters brain structure and cognition in children.42 This move was against the recommendations of the agencies scientists.

The EPA, under the direction of Pruitt, is also pressing their scientists to re-evaluate a plan to ban two other dangerous chemicals that have caused dozens of deaths. Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, who until recently was the agency's top official overseeing pesticides and toxic chemicals, told The New York Times,43 "It was extremely disturbing to me. The industry met with the EPA political appointees. And then I was asked to change the agency's stand."

These changes appear to increase the possibility that Lavastida's optimism the EPA will revise their level of acceptability for chloroprene emission is likely. How many more deaths, birth defects and devastated families are necessary before these chemicals are recognized for the hazards to the future of humanity they are?

How You Can Help

It is difficult to imagine a governmental agency tasked with protecting the citizens of the U.S. would knowingly ignore your exposure to toxic chemicals linked to birth defects, cancers, liver damage and immune disorders. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening. The EPA's focus on chemical exposure is one of "wait and see," as opposed to the European Union's stance of proving the chemical safe first before releasing it for use by consumers.

However, the attitude of "wait and see" if there are any adverse effects from exposure appears to be backsliding further as they are now knowingly allowing widespread use of chemicals that have been scientifically linked to devastating health damage. You can help by expressing your concern to congressmen and congresswomen who serve on committees charged with the oversight of the EPA.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1, 2 PubChem Chloroprene
  • 3 GreenSpec, Chloroprene
  • 4, 11 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Toxicology Program, Chloroprene
  • 5, 13, 15, 18, 20, 22, 24, 28 CNN, October 20, 2017
  • 6 St. John the Baptist Parish, History
  • 7, 9, 10 Fox8, October 31, 2016
  • 8, 12, 29 Environmental Protection Agency, Louisiana
  • 14 Environmental Protection Agency, Action Plan, June 2016
  • 16 Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, January 10, 2017
  • 17, 19, 21, 23 The Intercept, March 24, 2017
  • 25 Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, About LDEQ
  • 26, 27 The New Orlean's Advocate, December 22, 2016
  • 30, 34, 36 The Intercept, June 15, 2016
  • 31 Dupont, July 1, 2015
  • 32 Fortune, May 18, 2016
  • 33 MarketWatch, Chemours, Co.
  • 35 Dow, September 1, 2017
  • 37, 41, 43 New York Times, October 21, 2017
  • 38 National Toxicology Program, Immunotoxicity Associated with Exposure to Perflouorooctanoic Acide (PFOA) or Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS)
  • 39 Environmental Health Perspectives, 2013;121(11-12)
  • 40 Environmental Protection Agency, Groundwater and Drinking Water
  • 42 Columbia University, April 30, 2012