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This Week in Toxics

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Sierra Crane-Murdoch | Mar 29, 2011 09:20 AM

Despite recent wrangling over the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, agency officials and congressmen are crowding the political aisle this week to agree on one particular thing: pollutants that threaten human health should be regulated, or at the very least, disclosed.

SuperfundTwo weeks after the EPA announced a new set of rules that would limit the amount of toxic pollution emitted for every unit of electricity generated at power plants, a coalition of electric utilities – among them some of the nation’s largest fossil fuel users – released a letter supporting the proposal.  It reads, “We expect compliance with the rule will promote economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, and job creation, all without compromising the reliability of our electric system.”  As Grist blogger David Roberts points out, this move shouldn’t be a surprise.  Since 2000, many utilities, forewarned by the EPA, have anticipated this rule by making infrastructural investments that allow them to comply. It’s the “backward-looking” utilities, says Roberts, that haven’t made the investments and are fighting to block the rule through their congressional allies.

Pinning health problems on specific chemicals like the ones EPA has begun to track is not an easy task, as I pointed out several weeks ago. A report released March 28 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the National Disease Clusters Alliance (NDCA) identified 44 communities in 13 scattered states where disease clusters had developed since 1976, when Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  The report points to places where abnormal numbers of people have had birth defects, cancer, and other diseases, but it doesn’t identify the cause – a pitfall of epidemiological research, which can be costly, time-intensive, and often inconclusive.

But when the data does turn up decisive, it can work wonders – and, apparently, turn bombshell law clerks into Hollywood celebrities.  This week, Erin Brockovich is testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in a hearing to investigate evidence that toxic exposure is linked to spiking disease rates in communities like those identified in yesterday’s report.  It’s not the sort of thing that can be figured out in one sitting, but it seems, at least, that Congress and the EPA are becoming ever more attentive to pollution’s effects on public health.   Last month, the EPA proposed to regulate perchlorate, a toxin found in drinking water that had been linked to developmental problems.  And on March 25, the EPA proposed adding an abandoned Anaconda copper mine in Nevada to the superfund priorities list, after more than 100 residents filed a class-action lawsuit, alleging that waste from the mine had contaminated their water supply.

Even states are feeling the toxic buzz.  In Texas this week, a Republican state representative introduced a bill that would require drilling companies to disclose their fracking chemical lists – and unlike Wyoming’s rules, this set has yet to see a "trade-secret" loophole.  All this good news, though speculative, could be cause for celebration -- or concern, as researchers uncover the penalties of living in a chemically altered world.

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is an HCN intern.

Photo of California superfund site courtesy of Flickr user, Wendell.

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