Climate change endangers the health of communities living near chemical facilities


As a global phenomenon, climate change is intensifying and increasingly causing extreme weather events. While climate change has been an issue since the early 19th century, it has only wreaked the most terrible havoc on the environment in the past 40 years.

The primary cause of climate change is destructive human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, and overusing modern transportation. Climate change poses a huge threat to the chemical industry, as many facilities are located in low-lying coastal areas such as the US Gulf Coast and are vulnerable to damage from hurricanes and flooding. These natural disasters are becoming more frequent with climate change.

There are approximately 872 chemical facilities at risk of a climate change-triggered hazardous substance leak within 50 miles of the US Gulf Coast. Alarmingly, more than 4,374,000 people live near these chemical plants, making these communities prone to toxic exposure should a natural disaster strike one of the chemical facilities. That’s because most chemical plants in the United States are unprepared to respond to extreme weather events brought on by climate change. More than 3,200 of the 10,420 facilities that must have a risk management plan across the country, including a large number of chemical facilities, are at high risk of releasing hazardous substances into the environment due to natural disasters triggered by global warming.

The health impact of toxic exposure from chemical spills on nearby communities

Unfortunately, people who live near chemical plants already have a lower quality of life than the general population, as these plants often release toxic substances into the air and water due to their activity. Chemicals released by chemical facilities enter the body primarily through the respiratory system.

These chemicals will just cause allergic reactions and some respiratory symptoms at best. Nevertheless, many people whose homes are near a chemical plant struggle with acute or chronic illnesses such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, skin and eye diseases, acute bronchitis, cardiovascular disease and cancer. It is therefore not surprising that exposure to chemicals from leaks of hazardous substances caused by a natural disaster is much more likely to lead to serious health problems and illnesses if the incident is not not dealt with quickly and appropriately.

Here are some of the toxic agents that can leak during a chemical spill in areas inhabited by vulnerable communities and the health impact they can have on people.

PCB exposure linked to multiple cancers

As a group of man-made chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls – PCBs for short – are clear to yellow, oily liquids or solids with no odor or taste. These chemicals are probable human carcinogens, causing melanoma, liver cancer, gallbladder cancer, bile duct cancer, gastrointestinal tract cancer, brain cancer and possibly a breast cancer. Nevertheless, further research is needed to classify PCBs as known human carcinogens.

Even so, the fact that they are toxic chemicals is undeniable and short-term exposure can lead to nose and lung irritation, skin problems such as severe acne and rashes, as well as eye problems. Additionally, exposure to PCBs during pregnancy has been shown to cause neurological and motor control problems, including lower IQ and poor short-term memory, in children.

Heavy metals can wreak havoc on the health of communities

Although not all heavy metals are dangerous, some are highly toxic, including mercury and lead. Exposure can lead to gastrointestinal and kidney dysfunction, nervous system disorders, vascular damage, immune system dysfunction, skin damage, birth defects, and cancers including breast cancer, lung cancer, stomach and bladder.

It should be noted that heavy metals may not accumulate in the body in a high enough concentration to cause a serious health problem. But even when people have only trace amounts of heavy metals in their bodies, they can experience abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Exposure to dioxins, which are extremely harmful to the skin

Interestingly, some dioxins are compounds of PCBs, but they are different chemicals from PCBs. They come from various industrial combustion processes and inhalation is the only route of exposure. Because they persist in the environment, if dioxins are released as a result of a natural disaster caused by climate change, nearby communities will be exposed to these chemicals for a long time. This puts people at high risk for cancer, reproductive problems, immune system damage, and hormonal disruption.

Dioxins can also enter the food supply, so if the community grows various crops near a chemical plant that releases these chemicals, people can suffer from chloracne, a skin condition, and other skin lesions such as rashes and skin discoloration. Finally, exposure to dioxins can cause developmental problems in children, lead to reproductive problems and infertility in adults, and cause miscarriages in women.

What can be done to minimize the problem of toxic exposure caused by climate change among vulnerable communities?

To mitigate the health impact of a potentially hazardous chemical spill caused by climate change, facilities should develop effective, comprehensive and clear emergency response plans to prepare for extreme weather events, which will become inevitably more frequent and more intense.

The Government Accountability Office is urging the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure chemical facilities have a contingency plan to deal with climate change risks and protect nearby communities from chemical disasters. At present, the rules are very lax and most chemical facilities at risk of being hit by a natural disaster triggered by climate change do not have emergency response plans in place.

Rules must be tightened as soon as possible to keep communities and workers safe. Hundreds of chemical disasters occur each year in the United States, clearly illustrating the serious shortcomings of the agency’s Clean Air Act Risk Management Plan rule.

Under the Clean Air Act 1990, the risk management plan rule requires chemical installations to draw up plans which identify the potential effects of a chemical accident, determine preventive measures and propose emergency responses. Although these facilities are responsible for assessing all possible causes of emergencies, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that risks arising from climate change were not taken into account. This leaves chemical facilities with insufficient information on dealing with natural disasters such as hurricanes and sea level rise.

As for communities living near chemical installations likely to release hazardous substances, they should also have an emergency plan. To ensure additional protection in the event of a chemical disaster, people must unite and get the attention of local elected officials.

In some states, local governments may pass their own legislation requiring the chemical industry to comply with stricter regulations. Another preventative measure communities can take is to contact federal emergency response agencies for meetings and exercise dates, which will help people learn about the roles community members can play and their responsibilities during a climate change crisis.

Photo: John Kelly, Getty Images


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