Eugene Weekly : Natural Resistance : 4.8.10

Chemical Trespass
Children’s developing lungs are vulnerable

During the first seven days when my younger son, Zeke, then 14 years old, was in a neurological intensive care ward in Slovenia, no one knew whether he would live. He apparently was suffering either from toxic poisoning of the brain or viral encephalitis, but the clinical picture was clear neither to the Slovenian doctors nor, later, to U.S. doctors. Every succeeding day for the first seven days, Zeke was more completely paralyzed, and every other day another CAT scan showed a larger portion of his basal ganglia dead, surrounded by an infected area. He could not speak after the third day. We had been hiking in Kashmir and Ladakh, India for several weeks as part of an extended trip, and had been on our way to a long backpack trip in the Pyrenees when Zeke came down with neurological symptoms while we were briefly camping in the Slovenian Alps. 

At the time, I had been working with Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides for almost seven years, and wrote in my journal that if I lost Zeke, I would take some comfort knowing I was working with a toxics reform organization, trying to prevent other parents from experiencing the same, profound helplessness of watching one’s young child under attack and fading from some toxic agent.

Zeke did start recovering after the seventh day. When, after 23 more days, he was able to stand, we took him home to Eugene, grateful for 30 days of superb, round-the-clock care in Slovenia (which care was free to all Slovenians, by the way).

In early 2010, Oregon Toxics Alliance (OTA) received a call from a teacher’s aide at Fairfield Elementary School in Bethel. She said that foul air was making it difficult for children on the playground to breathe, and suggested J.H. Baxter, about 2,100 feet to the south, might be the source of the bad air.

J.H. Baxter, headquartered in California, operates three wood treatment plants, including the 42-acre Eugene site, where wood preservatives such as creosote (a mixture of toxic chemicals) have been impregnated into telephone poles, wood pilings, and railroad cross-ties since the early 1940s. 

In 2008, the year of their most recent report released under the federal Toxics Release Inventory, J.H. Baxter indicated they released almost 19 tons (37,829 pounds) of ammonia, a respiratory irritant, into the air near Fairfield Elementary. That same year, under the Eugene Toxics Right-to-Know law, they did not report releasing any ammonia into the same air, and only 92 pounds of total toxics into Eugene’s air. 

It’s not yet clear why this non-reporting occurred, but OTA is looking into this and thus it will probably be corrected. (And yes, there are numerous reasons why reporting under Eugene’s law and not just the federal law is important. For instance, strikingly lower pound thresholds for reporting a toxic, public input-output balancing, and regular audits are required by Eugene, but not federal law.)

But the real problem is chemical trespass of toxic substances into children’s developing lungs. Fairfield Elementary school is in the Bethel School District, which reports an asthma rate (13 percent) that is 73 percent higher than the state and national averages of 7.5 percent. A wealth of scientific studies document that air pollution is associated with adverse respiratory outcomes and that chronic, adverse effects on lung development in children can lead to lifelong reductions in lung function.

This all leads, of course, to the never-ending need to implement alternatives to reliance on toxic substances — whether nuclear or chemical; automobile gasoline or weed killer; PVC pipe or toxics-treated telephone pole; cigarette or Gortex.

I haven’t had to watch either of my children struggle to breathe due to asthma, but I’m sure it’s the same helpless feeling I experienced in Slovenia, watching Zeke progressively unable to move, talk, or laugh out loud. So I’m grateful for the folks at Oregon Toxics Alliance: they’re not only watch-dogging Eugene’s toxics reporting law (the best in the nation); they’re watching over your children and grandchildren and their developing lungs. But they can’t do it alone.

Mary O’Brien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah. She is the author of Making Better Environmental Decisions: An Alternative to Risk Assessment.



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