Corporate facilities around the United States routinely release toxic chemicals including heavy metals into the surrounding land, air, and water – sometimes without the knowledge of neighboring people.

Historic industrial communities are rife with hazardous pollution and sadly, Connecticut has hundreds of potential and known hazardous waste sites that need to be cleaned up, some of the worst air quality in the country, and rivers and lakes that are contaminated with industrial toxins and poisonous mercury.

The rates of asthma and cancer are among the highest in the country, and both can be attributed to environmental factors.

Connecticut, like the rest of the country, suffers from economic inequality and these impoverished metropolitan areas are frequently the most heavily polluted. Despite grave risks to public health and the environment, we have a chance to safeguard and improve Connecticut’s quality of life but the local decision and policy makers need to intervene even when the state bureaucracy is inert.

How do heavy metals end up contaminating the environment?

Toxic metals, particularly “heavy metals,” are individual metals or metal complexes that have a detrimental effect on people’s health over time and have the potential to become a substantial health problem. Heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead are naturally found in the environment however, heavy metal contamination may occur during any industrial process but is particularly prevalent during pesticide and fertilizer manufacturing,  mining, smelting, oil exploration and extraction, wood treatment, vehicular emissions, sewage sludge application to agricultural soils and so on.

Unfortunately, the strong industrial setting present in Connecticut throughout the years has definitely taken a toll on the quality of communities’ lives, especially the more vulnerable ones that are more likely to be living close to hazardous sites and the environment.

For example, nuclear power plants create significant amounts of hazardous, radioactive waste that is difficult to securely store for an extended period of time as well as fossil fuel power plants which through their processes can contribute to a variety of environmental problems, including acid rain, which has rendered hundreds of lakes uninhabitable, soot and smog pollution, that can contribute to asthma and respiratory problems, and mercury contamination, a neurotoxin that has now been detected in all of our waterways.

Asphalt batching plants are a substantial source of harmful air pollution in Connecticut, including particulate matter and other pollutants. Asphalt is a by-product of the petroleum refining process and is frequently used for paving and roofing. Asphalt manufacturing produces bitumen fumes and other harmful substances that have been related to a number of health problems, including respiratory tract irritation, asthma, emphysema, and cancer.

Connecticut currently operates 40 asphalt batching plants. And the same can be said about incinerators that are known to discharge sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, lead, particulate matter, dioxins, and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. Connecticut operates nine incinerators: five big municipal waste combustors, one small municipal waste combustor, one commercial/industrial waste combustor, one boiler/industrial furnace, and one medical waste combustor.

Hazardous waste sites are areas where hazardous materials have been released and additional investigation or cleanup is required. In Connecticut, there are thousands of potential or recognized hazardous waste sites awaiting remediation. Over 110,000 inhabitants of Connecticut live within a mile of the state’s 15 federal Superfund sites. Around 74,000 individuals have been exposed to toxins from the site, the majority through their drinking water.

These exposures are frequently connected with volatile organic chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic.

According to recent data, in 2020, Clean Harbors of Connecticut, a hazardous waste firm, released roughly 390,000 pounds of poisons into the Connecticut ecosystem. Nearly 128,000 pounds were discharged by UniMetal Surface Finishing. Dichloromethane (which accounted for 10% of the toxins released that year) and toluene are two of the chemicals discharged into the state’s air that year (8 percent ).

How is the extent of contamination affecting Connecticut communities

One of the principal issues with toxic exposure is that it disproportionately affects inhabitants. Regardless of state, it is most likely that minority communities are the ones living close to hazardous sites, therefore being more susceptible to developing serious health issues due to exposure to toxic agents such as heavy metals.

Heavy metals can enter the human body by food, water, or air, or through skin absorption upon contact. Continuous exposure to heavy metals has been linked to health issues such as digestive issues, skin conditions, headaches, allergies, deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, memory loss and worst of all, various types of cancer.

Cancer is the biggest cause of death among individuals under the age of 85 in the United States, as well as the leading cause of death among children. Scientific evidence linking the environment and occupational exposures to cancer continues to accumulate. Numerous studies have established a relationship between arsenic, asbestos, pesticides, vinyl chloride, chlorination byproducts, metalworking fluids, benzene, and other solvents, petrochemicals, and combustion products, ionizing radiation, and a variety of different forms of cancer.

Connecticut has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation. Each year, 18,000 new cancer cases are identified in Connecticut, and 7,000 individuals die of cancer. Lung, colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers account for more than half of all new cancer cases and deaths.

What can be done

Connecticut has been a national pioneer in establishing precedent-setting rules that limit exposure to harmful substances and in advocating for comprehensive federal change. In 2009, it passed the country’s largest ban on Bisphenol A, which included recyclable containers, baby bottles, and infant formula containers. The state legislators have also passed laws that:

  • prohibit the use of cadmium in children’s jewelry
  • prohibit the use of any hazardous substance in children’s products that have been designated as a prohibited hazardous substance under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act and requires the labeling of any lead-containing products that children may come into contact with.
  • require makers of mercury thermostats to implement a collecting strategy and properly dispose of them.

Recently, state leaders have pushed for more comprehensive reforms and are currently working to establish a framework in the state that will require the Department of Public Health to identify chemicals that are potentially harmful to an unborn child and young children and make recommendations for action. However, as toxic exposure and particularly heavy metals, exposure is such a pressing issue, more action needs to be taken urgently.

Both the EPA and legislators need to take urgent steps toward the complete elimination of persistently toxic chemicals, assure appropriate hazardous waste cleanup, develop a waste management strategy that maximizes waste reduction, and eliminate pesticide exposure.

The EPA and the state must create more aggressive timeframes to guarantee that these sites are cleaned up completely while protecting human health and the environment. Contaminated places may remain unclean for years, if not decades. The state must guarantee that adequate resources and monitoring are in place to ensure effective cleanups.

Jonathan Sharp is the CFO of Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm that helps vulnerable communities struggling with illnesses caused by environmental toxic exposure.

Jonathan Sharp

Jonathan Sharp is the CFO of Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm that helps vulnerable communities struggling with illnesses caused by environmental toxic exposure.