Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#77 - Goals Of Superfund Program Are Not Being Met, New Study Says, 15-May-1988

The Superfund program is in trouble. The massive federal program to
clean up old dump sites is costing billions but is not achieving its
goals, according to Dr. Joel Hirschhorn, project director for a study
of Superfund being conducted by the Office of Technology Assessment
(OTA), an arm of the U.S. Congress.

The OTA "SUPERFUND IMPLEMENTATION STUDY" will be released next month.
Dr. Hirschhorn says the goal of the study is "to understand whether
there is a coherent, efficient, and effective national strategy for
cleaning up contaminated sites." He told Congress, "We have disturbing
information to report.... Large amounts of money are being spent, and
in too many cases little protection of public health and the
environment is being obtained."

Superfund is a federal program to clean up old toxic dump sites. The
program is run by EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). In 1986
Congress set cleanup goals for the program, embodying them in the
Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) which requires
"eliminating contamination from soil and groundwater expeditiously,
effectively, permanently, and without transferring risk from one
community to another."

SARA clearly spelled out that EPA is supposed to use "permanent"
cleanup methods "to the maximum extent practicable." The law clearly
intended to steer EPA away from its usual practice of digging up wastes
at one leaking landfill and burying them in another landfill which
would eventually begin to leak, a practise Dr. Hirschhorn calls "a
shell game." SARA was also clearly intended to prevent the EPA from
relying on "containment" of wastes at existing sites; containment
involves digging deep trenches in the ground around landfills and
filling the trenches with wet clay (so-called "slurry walls").
Containment may also involve placing a clay cap over a landfill, to act
as an umbrella to keep rain out, to reduce the likelihood that toxic
wastes will be carried off-site by water. Obviously "containment"
methods are not permanent remedies for toxic wastes--they simply put
off the day when off-site contamination will occur, thus passing
today's problem on to our children.

Dr. Hirschhorn testified that by 1991 more than $10 billion will have
been spent by the Superfund program. However, in 1987 (latest year for
which data are available) 42% of remedial actions approved by EPA
involved land disposal and containment, not permanent cleanup.
Incineration-a permanent remedy--was approved in 19% of cases. Chemical
solidification and stabilization was approved in 10%; however, as Dr.
Hirschhorn told Congress, chemical solidification and stabilization
"have not been proved to detoxify or destroy hazardous substances."

To request a copy of the forthcoming OTA study, contact Dr. Hirschhorn
at Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress, Washington, DC 20510-
8025; phone (202) 228-6361.

--Peter Montague



A Valley Stream, NY, man has been found guilty in federal court of
"knowing endangerment"--knowingly placing another person in imminent
danger of death or serious bodily injury by illegally disposing of a
hazardous waste. This is the first conviction of an individual for
violating Sec. 3008e, the "knowing endangerment" clause of the federal
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The crime carries a
maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Albert Tumin
of Valley Stream was convicted April 13 in the U.S. District Court in
Brooklyn; no date has been set for sentencing.

Mr. Tumin was convicted of having dumped three 55-gallon drums of ethyl
ether (a highly flammable substance) in a vacant lot located in a
densely-populated residential area of Rockaway, NY. Mr. Tumin had been
under police surveillance from the time he purchased the chemical,
which is sometimes used in the manufacture of illegal drugs. Assistant
District Attorney Roger Marzulla of the federal Department of Justice
(DOJ) said DOJ "expects that this case will have an important deterrent
effect on those who purposefully dump hazardous wastes in a fashion
that endangers innocent people."

For further information contact Public Affairs Office, DOJ, Room 1216,
Ninth St. and Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Wash., DC 20530; phone (202) 633-

--Peter Montague



Four physicians writing in the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY have
reported three clinical studies of patients who developed "recurrent
symptoms that are indistinguishable from panic attacks" as a result of
exposure to organic chemical solvents.

Panic attacks are a medically defined condition involving combinations
of the following symptoms: confusion, disorientation, lightheadedness,
cold sweats, dry mouth, palpitations of the heart, difficulty
breathing, tremors, fatigue, lethargy, muscle cramps, chest tightness,
weakness, and fear of dying. In each of the three reported cases, the
panic attacks first began when the individuals were exposed to solvents
on the job; the solvents involved were such things as methyl ethyl
ketone, toluene, paint thinner and paint fumes.

After the initial attack, these individuals each reported subsequent
attacks brought on by odors of common organic compounds like paints and
gasoline. The subsequent panic attacks occurred with increasing
intensity and became progressively disabling. However, within a few
months in each case the attacks had ceased. The report makes the point
that these panic attacks brought on by exposure to organic solvents
were not dose-related.

These are examples of "ecological illness"--individual responses,
perhaps something like an allergic reaction, to the presence of exotic
synthetic chemicals in the environment. As exposure of the general
public to chemicals increases, more such individual medical problems
must be anticipated.

See Stephen R. Dager and others, "Panic Disorder Precipitated by
Exposure to Organic Solvents in the Work Place," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF
PSYCHIATRY, Vol. 144 (August, 1987), pgs. 1056-1058. Reprints available
from Dr. Dager, ZA-99, Harborview Medical Center, 325 9th Avenue,
Seattle, WA 98104; phone (206) 223-3000.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: solvents; studies; findings; mental health; panic
disorders; occupational safety and health; ecological illness; health;
health statistics; wri; western research institute; groundwater;
lasers; monitoring; sara; studies; findings; epa; joel hirschhorn; ota;
congress; remedial action; trenches; landfilling; incineration;
solidification; toxicity; investigations; trials; ny; enforcement;
illegal dumping; hazardous waste; rcra; albert tumin; ethyl ether;
roger marzulla; doj;