MedCity Influencers

Climate change is endangering the health of communities living near chemical facilities

Climate change poses a huge threat to the chemical industry, as many facilities are located in low‐lying coastal areas such as the U.S. Gulf Coast, and vulnerable to damage from hurricanes and flooding. These natural disasters are becoming more common with climate change.

A wind torn red warning flag indicating danger on an English beach.

As a global phenomenon, climate change is escalating and causing extreme weather events more and more frequently. While climate change has been a problem since the beginning of the 19th century, it wreaked the most terrible havoc on the environment only within the last 40 years.

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

There are roughly 872 chemical facilities that are susceptible to experiencing a hazardous substance leak triggered by climate change within 50 miles of the U.S. Gulf Coast. Alarmingly, over 4,374,000 people live in close proximity to these chemical plants, which makes these communities prone to toxic exposure in the event of a natural disaster striking one of the chemical facilities. That’s because most chemical plants in the United States are not prepared to respond to extreme weather phenomena brought about by climate change. Over 3,200 of the 10,420 facilities that must have a Risk Management Plan across the nation, including a large number of chemical facilities, are at great risk of releasing dangerous substances into the environment due to natural disasters triggered by the warming climate.

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

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

These chemicals will just cause allergic reactions and some respiratory symptoms in the best-case scenario. Nevertheless, many individuals whose homes are in close proximity to a chemical plant come to struggle with acute or chronic diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, skin and eye diseases, acute bronchitis, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Consequently, it should not be surprising that exposure to chemicals from hazardous substance leaks caused by a natural disaster is significantly more likely to lead to serious health problems and diseases if the incident is not dealt with promptly and appropriately.

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

Exposure to PCBs, associated with multiple cancers

As a group of artificial chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls – PCBs, for short – are oily liquids or solids, clear to yellow, without smell or taste. These chemicals are probable human carcinogens, being able to cause melanoma, liver cancer, gall bladder cancer, biliary tract cancer, gastrointestinal tract cancer, brain cancer and possibly breast cancer. Still, additional research is necessary 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 issues such as severe acne and rashes, and eye problems. Furthermore, exposure to PCBs during pregnancy was found 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

While 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 lesions, birth defects and cancer—including breast, lung, stomach and bladder cancer.

It is noteworthy that heavy metals may not accumulate in the body in such a large concentration as to cause a serious health problem. But even when people have only traces of heavy metals in their bodies, they may experience abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Dioxin exposure, extremely harmful for the skin

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

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

What can be done to minimize the issue 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 must develop effective, thorough and clear emergency response plans to prepare for extreme weather phenomena, which will inevitably become more common and intense.

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

The rules have to be strengthened as soon as possible to keep communities and workers safe. Hundreds of chemical disasters occur every year in the United States, which clearly illustrates the serious gaps in the agency’s Clean Air Act Risk Management Plan rule.

Under the 1990 Clean Air Act, the Risk Management Plan rule makes it mandatory for chemical facilities to develop plans that identify the potential effects of a chemical accident, determine what the prevention steps are, and come up with emergency responses. Even though these facilities are directed to evaluate all possible causes of emergencies, a Government Accountability Office report found that risks stemming from climate change were not being considered. 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 facilities that could release hazardous substances, they should also have a contingency plan. To make sure they benefit from additional protection in the event of a chemical disaster, people should unite and grab the attention of local politicians.

In some states, local governments can pass their own legislation requiring the chemical industry to comply with stricter regulations. Another preventive step 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

Jonathan Sharp is the Claims Manager for the Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm dedicated to assisting people who have suffered adverse health effects as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace. Jonathan Sharp establishes procedures to ensure that best practices, claims management service standards, applicable state laws, and client service requirements are met. He has been engaged in product liability and personal injury matters since the firm's founding in 1990.

This post appears through the MedCity Influencers program. Anyone can publish their perspective on business and innovation in healthcare on MedCity News through MedCity Influencers. Click here to find out how.