Preventing Toxic Chemical Harm with Center for Health, Environment & Justice’s Mike Schade

November 15, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited and honored to have on with us today Mike Schade. He’s the Market Campaign Coordinator for the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. Welcome to Green is Good, Mike Schade. MIKE SCHADE: Thanks so much for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we get into what your important organization does and what you do there, Mike, share a little bit about yourself, something so our listeners can get to know you a little bit. MIKE SCHADE: Yeah, great. I live in New York City, particularly Brooklyn, and I’ve been living here in the city actually for the past about eight years now. I grew up in Long Island, and I’ve been working on environmental health and justice issues in New York State for about a dozen years. I used to work for another organization up in Buffalo, so I have been doing work to promote a healthier environment here in New York state for the past dozen years or so. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What does your great Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, which will call for short CHEJ, what do they do and what are they all about? MIKE SCHADE: Well, CHJ is a national environmental health organization. We’ve been around for over 30 years, and we work to prevent harm from toxic chemicals, hazards in our homes, schools, and communities. We work a lot with communities, families that are often directly affected by industrial chemical plants and facilities, chemical incinerators. We also do a lot of work to get hazardous chemicals of concern, such as BPA and vinyl plastic, out of consumer products like children’s toys and baby products so kind of a traditional environmental organization. We really work at the intersection of environment and public health and really work to prevent harm from chemicals that are linked to serious diseases, diseases like asthma, cancer, learning and environmental disabilities, and so on. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This is really exceptional and important work, really exceptional. For our listeners out there who want to see what Mike is up to and see it online, it’s www.chej.org. I’m on the site right now. It is fascinating. It is tons of ways to connect and to learn more. Talk a little bit about the founding. Lois Gibbs founded your organization. Who is Lois Gibbs? Why is she important with regards to the founding of CHEJ? MIKE SCHADE: Yeah, absolutely. For those that may not know, Lois Gibbs is our Founder and she lived in a community back in the late 1970s called Love Canal, which is up in Niagara Falls, New York and this is a community where there was a canal, literally a canal that was eventually filled with 20,000 tons of toxic waste, barrels of chemicals of waste from The Manhattan Project, chemicals from Hooker Chemical, and eventually, that property was sold to the City of Niagara Falls for a dollar actually and Lois was a person that eventually moved into that community. The City of Niagara Falls built homes adjacent to and on top of the canal and they also built a school so many people were getting sick that lived there so Lois, as a mom, she was a 27-year-old housewife at the time. Her children were getting sick. She organized her neighbors into a community group to pressure the government to close down the school, to clean up the canal, and to relocate over 800 families and it was really the first time in the history of this country that a community has been relocated due to an environmental problem and it really helped awaken the nation to the dangers of chemicals in our environment and communities and it actually led to the creation of the Federal Superfund Program, which is a program that cleans up the nation’s most polluted waste sites, so she founded our organization to help other Love Canal like communities around the country that are dealing with environmental hazards because at Love Canal, there weren’t really any major national groups that were helping them out so she saw there was a real void, there was a real vacuum, so CHJ was founded by Lois to empower communities across the country that are concerned about toxics issues. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, Mike, I assume 30 years later, the work is more important and actually bigger than ever before. MIKE SCHADE: Oh, absolutely. JOHN SHEGERIAN: In terms of the communities that you’re helping now besides Love Canal, it’s probably the greatest need ever at this point. MIKE SCHADE: Absolutely. Since Love Canal, CHJ has assisted over 11,000 communities across the country. We’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of groups to clean up toxic waste dumps, to prevent the siting of landfills and industrial facilities near schools and we’ve done a lot of great work to get toxic chemicals, like phthalates, out of children’s toys, so we’ve been incredibly successful but at the same time, there’s a lot of work to be done, especially given the growing scientific evidence that has found connections between our exposure to chemicals and chronic diseases on the rise, such as cancer and asthma. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Of course, and you mentioned plastics. Can we talk a little bit about the PVC and plastics issue and why do you refer to and does your organization refer to vinyl plastic as ‘the poison plastic’? MIKE SCHADE: Yeah, so one of the projects we work on is a national campaign to phase out polyvinyl chloride, PVC, also known as vinyl plastic, and unfortunately, from production to use to disposal, vinyl is actually the most toxic plastic on the planet. It’s hazardous to manufacturers so when it’s made, it uses extremely hazardous chemicals, including chlorine gas, vinyl chloride, which is a known carcinogen, mercury. It releases dioxins so it’s really hazardous to the manufacturer. It’s a big issue of environmental justice in communities as well as workers where the plastic is made. Secondly, it’s not just toxic to make but it’s also hazardous to use. Vinyl can expose consumers to hazardous chemicals such as phthalate and finally, there’s no safe way to dispose of vinyl. When we burn it in incinerators, when it gets burned in accidental fires, it releases dioxins chemicals that are widely considered to be some of the most toxic chemicals on the planet. In fact, there’s an international treaty that has been signed by 170 nations across the globe that are working to phase out sources of dioxins so from production to use to disposal, vinyl is unfortunately, nothing short of an environmental nightmare. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m sorry to be ignorant even asking this question, but are vinyl pipes the same thing as PVC that we hear about all the time? MIKE SCHADE: Yeah, that’s right. Vinyl pipes are the same thing as PVC so the white pipe that you may have in your home. That’s the same exact thing. Yeah, so vinyl is actually common in a lot of building materials in our homes and schools, products like flooring, for example, vinyl flooring. It’s also often found in carpeting. It’s also found in a lot of consumer products that we purchase, electronics products, office supplies like three ring binders, school supplies, so unfortunately, it is prevalent in all sorts of products that we bring into our homes and unfortunately, as I mentioned, this is an extremely hazardous plastic, not the sort of product that we want to be bringing into our homes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, you mentioned dioxin with regards to vinyl, and I’m 50 years old, so I grew up in the Vietnam era. Wasn’t dioxin the same chemical that was part of Agent Orange during Vietnam? MIKE SCHADE: That’s right so during the Vietnam War, the American government sprayed tens and tens of thousands of gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam. This was a defoliant and unfortunately, it was contaminated with this chemical called dioxin and dioxin has since been linked to all sorts of health problems. It’s considered to be a known human carcinogen. It is linked to developmental problems. It is linked to reproductive problems including endometriosis, decreased fertility, birth defects, the list goes on and on and on and so we learned about the dangers of dioxin in Vietnam and dioxin is formed when vinyl plastic products are made and also when they’re disposed of, when they’re burned in accidental landfill fires or when we throw out our garbage. When our garbage is sent to an incinerator, dioxins are released so because vinyl is a chlorinated plastic, when it heats, when it burns, it releases dioxins and as I said before, dioxins are considered to be some of the most dangerous chemicals in the planet and eventually they get into our food supply and our bodies and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the levels of dioxin that infants and young children are being exposed to are actually much higher than safety levels so because of the production and disposal of vinyl, we’re being exposed to this fundamentally toxic chemical that is building up in our food supplies and our bodies as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, typically though, if you’re holding a plastic product, it’s inert and safe if you’re just holding it in your hand? It’s during the disposal and of course, many inappropriate disposal methodologies is when the disasters really happen and therefore ,then it pollutes the ecosystem, which then of course, makes it back into our animals, our plants, our ground, our water, and back into us. MIKE SCHADE: Well, that’s true but it’s also hazardous to us as consumers as well so it’s not just hazardous to make and dispose of. It also poses hazards to consumers so just to give an example, if you’ve ever opened a vinyl shower curtain in your home, it has a strong plastic chemical odor. That’s actually the smell of toxic chemicals that you’re breathing in. We did a study and we found that one new vinyl shower curtain can release over 100 VOCs into indoor air. Some of the chemicals are asthmagens that are linked to asthma. Some are linked to cancer and developmental problems so that new shower curtain smell is actually the smell of toxic chemicals that you’re breathing in so think about all of the different vinyl plastic products that you have in your home. Unfortunately, these products contribute to indoor air quality problems, which of course, indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air. Additionally, there’s a lot of additives that are often in the plastic that are used to soften it or strengthen it such as lead and sallite and when these additives are in the plastic, they’re not bound to it. They can escape from it. They’re released into the air. When we touch vinyl plastic products, we can be exposed to these additives, the phthalates and the lead and phthalates, for example, are like dioxin, are hazardous. They’re hazardous at very low levels of exposure. They’re linked to asthma, which of course, is the number one chronic illness affecting children today. They’re linked to reproductive health problems including early puberty in girls, which is a risk factor for breast cancer. They’re linked to ADHD. The list goes on and on so it’s not just hazardous to make but it also poses a risk to us as consumers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, you’ve got our attention. You’ve educated us. I love it and this is such an important issue. I want our listeners if you have a chance, go to Mike’s website, www.chej.org because now I want to talk about solutions. We’ve got about four minutes left, Michael, and on your website, I’m on it right now and it’s great. Lots of great information. Lots of hope though because on your website, it says that large companies like Apple, HP, Target, Walmart are reducing the use of PVC and phthalates to create more sustainable products. Is this hopeful and is this a trend that you’re continuing to drive at your great organization? MIKE SCHADE: Oh yeah, absolutely. Thankfully, there are plenty of safer and cost effective alternatives so it’s not all doom and gloom and in fact, as you mentioned, some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies around the world have taken steps to reduce and phase out the use of this plastic, from big retailers like Target and Walmart to automobile manufacturers like Volkswagen and Honda to electronics firms like Apple and HP and Dell to even hospitals so there’s a huge market movement away from this plastic. There are plenty of safer and cost effective alternatives that are available and we think if large companies like Walmart can do it, we’re calling on other major businesses to do it as well, like Disney, for example. We’re working on a project to encourage Disney to go green and phase out the use of these hazardous chemicals as Disney is actually the world’s largest licenser of consumer products so we think that they have both the power and the responsibility to sell products that are safe for kids so we’re hoping that Disney will join these other market leaders. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mike, we’re down to two minutes or so. I want you to also share what you’re doing for the next generation. You’ve launched a green schools campaign. Talk a little bit about that and the importance of that. MIKE SCHADE: Given that we know that children are of course vulnerable to chemical exposure, their bodies are developing their brains are developing. They’re very vulnerable to these chemicals and unfortunately, vinyl plastic and phthalates are widespread in products and schools so we’ve started a campaign to encourage school districts across the country to adopt new green purchasing and green building practices to reduce the use of these hazardous chemicals and products. As I mentioned, there are plenty of safer and affordable alternatives that can go a long way in creating healthier indoor environments for children and at the same time, saving schools money so for example, instead of using vinyl flooring in schools, schools can use linoleum, which is a bio material. It’s made from linseed oil, a renewable resource and actually is even cheaper than vinyl in the long run because it lasts longer and isn’t as expensive to maintain so we’re encouraging schools across the country to go green to eliminate these harmful chemicals and actually, we’re focusing right now on a campaign in New York City because New York City of course, is the largest city in America. It’s also the largest school district in America and we’re hoping that New York City can really lead the nation in creating healthier school environments for our children and other school stakeholders. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, that’s so great, Mike, and we’re so thankful you came on today and I want our listeners to get more involved and get more educated because this is such an important topic and you can protect your families, both in business and in your home, from these harmful plastic products. You can go to Mike Schade’s great website and the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice website. It’s www.chej.org. Mike Schade, you are an inspiring health and environmental justice leader and truly living proof that green is good.