Chapter 28 – Toxic Pollution

Can anyone believe it is possible
to lay down such a barrage of poisons
on the surface of the earth
without making it unfit for all life?
Rachel Carson 
Silent Spring, 1962 

Toxic pollution is a depressing subject but it is a subject that must be addressed in our search for the ideal home. We can avoid fouling our own nest, but first we must avoid making our nest in a foul place.

The grim news is that pollution exists in every state, probably in nearly every county. The good news is that there are still places where we can live on clean soil, breathe clean air, drink safe water. If we become aware of how to live properly we can keep it that way. If we are discerning in our product purchases, we can help clean up the rest of the world.

Most contamination is in the form of chemicals. The U.S. chemical industry is a huge, capital-intensive business, a major player in the U.S. economy. It has changed the source of consumer products from wood and iron and cotton and wool to petroleum products. It has made possible pipe that won’t rust, shirts that won’t wrinkle, shoes that help athletes jump. Its technology is high science, transforming crude oil into molded dashboards and designer sunglasses. It has caused artificial to become accepted as natural. And we are killing our children and ourselves with its by-products.

It is impossible to maintain a safe human environment in the presence of the large numbers of toxic chemicals now in common production and use. There are laws governing the production, transport, use and disposal of chemicals, products of chemicals and chemical wastes. They are inadequate. We know this because of the sickness and death these materials and their use are causing. Our most basic requirements for life—air, water, food—are poisoning us.

It is uncomfortable to admit, but each of us is responsible for toxic pollution. We all buy products whose production and disposal create pollution. We all buy, use and dispose of poisonous products. Household cleaning items, painkillers and cosmetics are leading sources of accidental poisonings in the home. Our carpet, our furniture and our vehicles emit toxic fumes. Not only do chemicals permeate our food, our clothing, our homes, our cars, they are our food, our clothing, our homes, our cars. Chemical consumption and exposure are major causes of high rates of cancer.

Tragically, our children suffer most from toxic contamination. In TOXIC NATION Fred Setterberg and Lonny Shavelson report: “Beyond the paradoxical attractions of toxic dumps, kids come into greater contact with dangerous chemicals simply because they eat more than adults in proportion to their body weight—including more pesticide residues from fresh vegetables, fruits, and juices. The EPA classifies as possible carcinogens over 65 percent of the 560 million pounds of herbicides and fungicides sprayed annually on U.S. crops. The average child consumes four times the amount of these suspect chemicals than an adult.”

Setterberg and Shavelson quote Dr. Herbert Needleman, “the nation’s foremost researcher on childhood lead exposures. ‘We’re twenty years behind on the study of pesticides. . . . There is no question that pesticides impair children’s brain functions as insidiously as lead. I will tell you without fear of contradiction that exposing children to excessive levels of pesticides is impairing their health, eroding their mental abilities, and shortening their lives.’”

DDT is bioaccumulative, that is, it is retained within the body of the consuming organism and is concentrated with each ensuing level of the food chain. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, warned of the danger from DDT. Its use was banned in the U.S. in 1972. End of story? Hardly. American chemical companies still produce and export DDT to other countries, knowing full well that food products produced there using the poison will be exported—to American grocery shelves. Profit at any price. Laws are not enough; greed is too strong. We need to stop rewarding these companies by buying their products.

Pesticides and herbicides are designed to kill food crop pests. Arsenic is part of their recipes. Like lead and mercury it accumulates in the body. Like the wife who fed her husband small quantities of arsenic until enough accumulated to kill him, our chemically treated foods are slowly filling us with lethal residue.

The resistance to elimination of chemical sources of toxic poisoning reminds me of how information presented 30 years ago about the link between cigarettes and lung cancer was dismissed as “inconclusive” by smokers and tobacco companies. The former continue to die of lung cancer. In spite of billion-dollar legal settlements, the latter continue to put profit above life, aiming seductive advertising at susceptible young people, providing cigarettes to those who will not or cannot quit smoking. It is not a stretch to consider that tobacco companies modi operandi is: Give us dollars; give them death.

Air pollution. . . the thoughts of Plato and Machiavelli . . . don’t seem
quite enough armor for a world beset with splitting the atoms,
urban guerrillas, nineteen varieties of psychotherapists,
amplified guitars, napalm, computers, astronauts,
and an atmosphere polluted simultaneously
with auto exhaust and TV commercials.
John Fischer 

Air pollution is caused by emissions from power plants, solid waste incinerators, factories, vehicles. The six major types of air pollutants are carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, particulates, sulfur dioxide and photochemical oxidants. Air pollution on a regional scale is in large part the result of city and industrial air pollution that has spread out to encompass areas of many thousands of square miles. Meteorological conditions and landforms influence air pollution concentrations at any given place.

Even natural areas far downwind from pollution sources are affected. Jim Robbins wrote about the Grand Canyon in Last Refuge: “Air pollution from coal-fired power plants and places like Los Angeles gets caught up in prevailing winds and makes its way to the Grand Canyon, where, because of temperature differences, it often sinks and stubbornly sits. ‘The canyon,’ says Carl Bowman, an air quality specialist for the Park Service, ‘is a catch basin for pollution.’ He has a picture on his office wall of the canyon filled to the rim during a haze episode.”

Acid rain

Acid rain is created when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides combine with atmospheric moisture to form rain, snow or hail containing sulfur and nitric acids. Coal burning produces carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. In 1980 in the United States, more than 60 percent of the man-made sulfur dioxide emissions was attributed to coal-fired electrical generation plants. Antipollution regulations have caused sulfur dioxide emissions to decrease substantially, but acid rain has diminished only slightly, because the incidence of acid-neutralizing substances has also dropped.

Acid rain raises the acidity (lowers the pH level) of surface water to a level that kills freshwater aquatic life and marine life in coastal waters. It kills trees and other vegetation. It damages croplands, erodes structures, and contaminates drinking water. In the beautiful bayou country of Louisiana, air pollution and acid rain have killed the Spanish moss on many of the giant oak trees. Jim Robbins relates that: “. . . ozone and acid precipitation show up in high levels in Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Ozone has contributed to the death of Jeffrey pine trees in Sequoia and has caused visible damage to ponderosa pines.”

The major factors controlling transport and dispersion are the character and movements of meteorological systems. Winds can carry pollutants thousands of miles from their source. Greatest acid rain damage in the U.S. exists in streams, lakes and forests of the Northeast but also exists in forests of the South and Midwest.

Pollutants move both with strong air movements—storm centers that gather them quickly—and with weak, slow-moving high pressure systems that allow sufficient time for thorough mixing to take place. The major storm track map from chapter 9 is duplicated here so you may easily compare storm patterns with acid rain incidence.

Radiation pollution

Radiation pollution is any form of ionizing or nonionizing radiation resulting from human activities. The best-known radiation is from the detonation of nuclear devices and the controlled release of energy by nuclear power plants. Other sources of radiation include spent-fuel reprocessing plants, by-products of mining operations, and experimental research laboratories. The 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl in the former U.S.S.R. clearly illuminated radiation danger.

The environmental effects of exposure to high-level ionizing radiation have been extensively documented through postwar studies on Japanese survivors of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings. Some forms of cancer show up immediately, but latent maladies of radiation poisoning have been recorded from 10 to 30 years after exposure. The effects of exposure to low-level radiation are not yet agreed upon by scientists, many of whom are dependent upon grants from large companies.

Radioactive wastes cannot be disposed of in the same manner as chemicals. They must be stored in heavily shielded containers in areas remote from living things. The “safest” of current storage sites are allegedly impervious deep caves and abandoned salt mines. Some radioactive wastes have half-lives of thousands of years and no storage method has been found that is certainly safe.

Water pollution

In the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway area, water quality is an oxymoron. The Great Lakes are polluted by toxic chemicals called organochlorines from agricultural pesticides and industrial wastes. Fish from the Great Lakes are so full of chemicals and heavy metals that states have banned them for human consumption. Beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River are dying from eating fish and eels full of toxic substances. PCBs were almost completely banned in 1979, yet in 1993 dead belugas still showed such high concentrations of PCBs that their corpses could be classified as hazardous waste.

The Mississippi River Delta region is one of the most polluted areas in the world. The Mississippi drains 41 percent of the contiguous 48 states. A legacy of chemical agriculture and industry, the river is a gruesome brew of over 100 toxic chemicals, increasingly worse downstream. There is a 6,000-square-mile area at its mouth called the “dead zone”—so distinct that it shows up on photographs from outer space.

The huge San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys of California are intensively farmed using chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Setterberg and Shavelson state in Toxic Nation: The Fight to Save Our Communities from Chemical Contamination that “. . . potentially cancer-causing chemicals had already seeped into almost one-third of the [California] state’s drinking water wells at levels deemed safe” (My emphasis).

Thus far, agribusiness lawyering and lobbying power has evaded responsibility for numerous cases of childhood cancer in these areas. As Gregg Easterbrook, author of A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, noted in his review of Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action, “in any contest between personal injury lawyers and corporations, the corporate side holds what is by far the most important advantage, namely the funds with which to finance a stall defense” (The New York Times Book Review, 9-10-95).

Thermal (heat) pollution

Thermal pollution is the discharge of waste heat into cooling water and subsequently into nearby waterways. The major sources of thermal pollution are fossil-fuel and nuclear power facilities and cooling operations associated with industrial manufacturing, such as steel foundries, other primary-metal manufacturers and chemical and petrochemical producers. An estimated 90 percent of all water consumption, excluding agricultural uses, is for cooling or energy dissipation.

The discharge of heated water into a waterway often causes major fish kills near the discharge source. The increased temperature accelerates chemical-biological processes and decreases the ability of the water to hold dissolved oxygen. Thermal changes affect the aquatic system by limiting or changing the type of fish and other water life able to live in the waters.

Land pollution and destructionWhen an agribusinessman hires an expensive crop duster to spray for alfalfa weevils,
he may increase this year’s alfalfa production.
He may also kill his neighbor’s bees and his own earthworms and beneficial insects.
He may pollute well-water downslope from his fields.
If he is not very careful, he will do all these things.
Donald McCaig 
An American Homeplace

Land pollution and destruction is the contamination and degradation of the land surface through misuse of the soil by poor agricultural practices, mineral exploitation, industrial waste dumping and indiscriminate disposal of urban wastes.

Soil erosion—primarily a result of poor agricultural practices—removes rich topsoil developed over many years through natural processes and strips the land of valuable nutrients. Strip mining for minerals and coal ruins thousands of acres of land each year, subjecting the area to widespread erosion and pollution. Clear-cutting hillside forests destroys the soil’s water-holding ability; sediment loads in adjacent streams may increase as much as 500 to 1,000 times.


Radon occurs more from natural conditions than from man-made conditions, but you need to be aware of it, know how to avoid it and know how to deal with it if it enters your home. Radon is the second most prevalent cause of lung cancer; the EPA estimates that radon causes about 14,000 deaths per year. It is an invisible, odorless gas naturally produced from decaying radium, which comes from uranium, which is found in about 150 minerals. Among these are granite, phosphate and shale. In Radon: The Invisible Threat, Michael LaFavore notes that: “. . . large deposits of uranium ore, pure enough to mine for atomic fuel, are located in parts of western Colorado, eastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, Wyoming, Texas, and western Canada.”

Uranium mine tailings emit huge quantities of radon. Heavy rains leach radioactive particles out of mine tailings and contaminate groundwater. Before radon was publicly recognized as a health threat, tailings were used to make concrete products and even as landfill under and around new homes. In The Menace of Atomic Energy, Ralph Nader and John Abbotts report that as many as 3,300 homes were built on radioactive tailings in Grand Junction, Colorado. At least one school was built of masonry composed of tailings.

Most U.S. areas have “safe” low levels of radon. While the presence or absence of certain minerals indicates greater possibility, homeowners should satisfy themselves as to safety by having a radon test performed. Uranium concentrations can be very narrow—the absence or presence of radon in one home may not be repeated in a neighboring home. How a house is built can increase its risk. If high levels of radon are found, corrective work can be performed but it may be costly if excavation work is needed to place vent pipes.

In addition to the resources listed at the end of this chapter, state health departments often have radon contact agencies. These agencies and the regional offices of the EPA (see Resources) are good sources of general information about the health risks of radon, radon measurements in your home and correction of radon problems.

I drew the radon map based on a color radioactivity map in The Geology of Radon published by the U.S. Department of the Interior (see ordering information at end of chapter). The following numbered comments are also those of the Department. Note that #10 and #16 are areas of low radon potential. 
1. Great Salt Lake: Water absorbs gamma rays so it shows as no data area on the map. 
2. Nebraska Sand Hills: Wind has separated the lighter quartz sand from the clay and heavier minerals that usually contain uranium. 
3. The Black Hills: A core of granites and metamorphic rocks high in radioactivity is surrounded by less radioactive sedimentary rocks and gives a distinctive pattern. 
4. Pleistocene glacial deposits: The area has low surface radioactivity, but uranium occurs just below the surface. Thus it has a high radon potential. 
5. Deposits of glacial Lake Agassiz: Clay and silt from a prehistoric glacial lake have higher radioactivity than glacial drift surrounding it. 
6. Ohio Shale: Uranium-bearing black shale with a narrow outcrop zone was scooped up and spread over a large area in west-central Ohio by glaciers. 
7. Reading Prong: Uranium-rich metamorphic rocks and numerous fault zones produce high radon in indoor air and in ground water. 
8. Appalachian Mountains: Granites contain elevated uranium, particularly in fault zones. Black shales and soils above limestone also contain moderate to high levels of uranium. 
9. Chattanooga and New Albany Shales: Uranium-bearing black shales in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana have a distinctive outcrop pattern clearly defined by radioactivity. 
10. Outer Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plain: This area of unconsolidated sands, silts, and clays has one of the lowest radon potentials in the United States. 
11. Phosphatic rocks, Florida: These rocks are high in phosphate and associated uranium. 
12. Inner Gulf Coastal Plain: This area of the Inner Coastal Plain has sands containing glauconite, a mineral high in uranium. 
13. Rocky Mountains: Granites and metamorphic rocks in these ranges contain more uranium than sedimentary rocks to the east, resulting in high radon in indoor air and in ground water. 
14. Basin and Range: Granitic and volcanic rocks in the ranges, alternating with basins filled with alluvium shed from the ranges, give this area a generally high radioactivity. 
15. Sierra Nevada: Granites containing high uranium, particularly in east-central California, show as red areas [on the USDI map]. 
16. Northwest Pacific Coastal Mountains and Columbia Plateau: This area of volcanic basalts is low in uranium.

Sewage, oil and mining pollution

Most cities have sewage problems because sewage volume and ingredients exceed the capabilities of treatment facilities. Untreated and partially treated sewage from municipal systems and rural septic tanks put significant quantities of nutrients, suspended solids, dissolved solids, oil and heavy metals into waterways. More than 13,000 oil spills occur in the U.S. yearly. Thousands of environmentally untested chemicals are routinely discharged into waterways. An estimated 400 to 500 new compounds are marketed each year. In addition, strip mining for coal releases acid wastes that poison the surrounding waterways.

Beware of western mining towns inundated and surrounded by toxic mine tailings. In Last Refuge, Jim Robbins reports that: “All but a small part of the city of Butte is a Superfund site, and around town there are three million cubic yards of old mine tailings, rocks, dirt, soil and other mining detritus, filled with high levels of such toxic elements as arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. . . . The six-thousand-acre site where the Anaconda smelter separated the [gold] metal from the ore for ninety-six years is number forty-eight on the national Superfund list. . . There are 185 million cubic yards of poisoned tailings here . . . Arsenic is also widely scattered across the countryside near Anaconda. . . . one rancher twelve miles downwind lost a thousand cattle, eight hundred sheep and twenty horses to arsenic poisoning in a single year. . . . High levels of arsenic have been found in children in the area.

“Butte is not the only place where miners have been replaced with toxic-waste remediation workers. Toxic-waste sites can be found near any number of western mining towns, waiting like huge, festering wounds, to be treated. Bunker Hill in the Silver Valley of northern Idaho. The Yak Tunnel on the headwaters of the Arkansas River near Leadville, Colorado. . . . The copper wastes near Miami and Globe, Arizona, east of Phoenix. Telluride, Colorado. The Bingham Canyon Mine, near Salt Lake City. It’s estimated that twelve thousand miles of American rivers and streams have been polluted by mining.”

Solid waste

U.S. municipal wastes—the solid wastes from households and businesses sent to local landfills and other waste-disposal facilities—measure about two billion tons per year. Additional solid wastes amass from mining, industrial production and agriculture. Although municipal wastes are the most obvious, the accumulations of the other types of waste are far greater, in many instances are more difficult to dispose of and present greater environmental hazards.

The most common and convenient method of disposing of municipal solid wastes is in the sanitary landfill. Sanitary landfills work reasonably well for domestic waste cleared of hazardous materials. But industrial wastes are often commingled with domestic wastes, leading to groundwater contamination from toxic chemicals. Space for landfills is running out and all landfills eventually leak, so a saner system must be embraced.

Toxic industrial wastes, although often in liquid form, are generally treated the same as solid wastes. Hazardous waste disposal sites are often simply clay-lined ponds. No one has solved the problems of leakage and overflow from rain. Perimeter shallow wells are promoted as adequate for testing for leakage and pumping contaminated water from the ground but to where can we pump if the cesspool is full? William T. Cahill was one of the first to phrase the obvious: “We now understand that we can no longer throw our wastes away—because there is no ‘away.’”


Incineration is touted as an efficient method for disposing of solid wastes by those who hope for a simple solution. Incinerators use solid wastes as fuel, burning refuse and using the heat to make steam for electricity generation. Wastes must be burned at very high temperatures and incinerator exhausts must be equipped with sophisticated scrubbers and other devices for removing dioxins and other toxic pollutants. There are serious flaws with incineration: incinerator ash contains concentrations of heavy metals, becoming a hazardous waste itself, scrubbers sometimes fail, and incinerators discourage the use of recycling and other waste reduction methods. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May 1994 that municipal garbage-to-energy plants must treat the resultant ash as hazardous waste. Let’s hear it for the Supremes.

Toxic pollution—just how widespread is it?

In Toxic Nation, Setterberg and Shavelson offer compelling vignettes from all over the country. Here is a sampling:

“In Pilcher, Oklahoma, abandoned copper, lead, and zinc mines overflowed during heavy rains, bubbling up from ‘a 10 billion gallon vat of subterranean poison’ . . . The extruded acid water burned grasslands, scalded horses’ hooves, and ate through a five-gallon metal bucket. ‘Fish had open sores,’ recalled one Pilcher resident, ‘like somebody took a knife and cut a chunk out of them.’ 
“In Toone, Tennessee, several farming families spent four years in what seemed to be chronic depression, until they discovered chloroform in their drinking water. 
“In Brookhurst, Wyoming, residents abandoned their chemically contaminated homes, turning the neighborhood into a ghost town and leaving their houses marked with anti-toxics graffiti. 
“In Oxnard, California, Linda Paxton moved away from her two-story duplex after learning that it had been built upon a field of underground liquid toxic waste pools; she painted one side of her abandoned home with a huge skull-and-crossbones, announcing: Oxnard’s Love Canal. Our Home Toxic Dump. 
[Love Canal refers to a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, where homes were built on land poisoned by toxic waste disposal. After a huge fight, the government bought most of the homes.] 
“In Pompano Beach, Florida, tiny white particles of vinyl chloride descended from the skies like snow . . . This extremely powerful carcinogen was being pumped into the air from a nearby polyvinyl chloride pipe factory. A health study organized by the local residents found high incidences of liver, heart, and kidney disease and cancer. 
“In Pearland, Texas, the chances of contracting cancer are calculated as being the highest in the nation—with industrial pollution factored as a leading cause. 
“In Springfield, Vermont, the residents of a mobile home park didn’t realize they were sitting on a vast wasteland of arsenic, benzene, cyanide, and lead—what the regional EPA administrator called ‘a chemical time bomb’—until ‘there were people in white suits and rubber gloves and rubber boots walking around’ testing the soil.”

In The Truth About Where You Live, Benjamin A. Goldman tells of the 400 Ponca City, Oklahoma, families who were successful with a class-action suit against Conoco Oil Company, which had poisoned the community’s groundwater. The company paid $23 million to buy the homes so the residents could start new lives elsewhere.

It may be impossible to locate far enough downwind to avoid all chemical drift. In “Troubled Waters Run Deep” in the 1993 National Geographic Special Water, Michael Parfit wrote: “At Lake Laberge, way up in the Yukon Territory, a study of fish flesh turned up a variety of chemicals, including the insecticide toxaphene, which has been widely used in Russia. It probably blew east, and rain raked it in.”

Don’t even consider buying property near agribusiness operations. Setterberg and Shavelson reported the heart-wrenching stories of parents losing children to various cancers, from California’s San Joaquin Valley to Yellow Creek, Kentucky, to New York. Interminable bureaucratic jungles, chemical company personnel and agribusiness owners thwart efforts to end the horror of children born with no hands or feet or with impaired mental ability. In many places, even though tests of well water show contamination from various chemicals, current allowed concentrations preclude decisive action.

Recent media reports show that even so-called clean industries are creating health hazards. High rates of miscarriages and low-birthweight babies have become evident in California’s Silicon Valley. Suspected are water supplies fouled by the solvents used to clean computer chips.Our ideals, laws, and customs
should be based on the proposition
that each generation in turn becomes the custodian
rather than the absolute owner of our resources
—and each generation has the obligation
to pass this inheritance on
to the future.
Alden Whitman 

Part of the solution to pollution—recycling

Recycling is practical for much municipal and some industrial waste materials, and a small but growing proportion of wastes is being recycled. When wastes are mixed, recycling becomes far more difficult and costly. New processes for sorting ferrous and nonferrous metals, paper, glass and plastics have been developed, and many communities with recycling programs now require refuse separation. Crucial issues in recycling are devising better processing methods, inventing new products for the recycled materials and finding new markets for those products.

Composting is increasingly used to treat some agricultural wastes, as well as such municipal wastes as leaves and brush. Composting systems can produce usable soil conditioners, or humus, within a few months.

Although the movement toward recycling and energy production from wastes may help contend with waste-disposal loads, it is not expected to reduce them so long as our high-consumption, throwaway society continues to generate increasing quantities of discarded material. The most sane plans for managing the solid-waste dilemma are to reduce consumption, eliminate waste, make all containers recyclable and require all producers to take back their used products and recycle them into new ones. The solution to pollution can begin with more responsible consumer buying practices. Each of us must be part of that solution.

Final thoughts

Even with increased EPA regulation, new pesticides and hundreds of other new compounds are marketed each year. Many are not intended to enter the environment, but through waste and accidents most eventually do. The EPA attempts to ensure safe management of an estimated 303 million tons of hazardous waste produced annually in the U.S. The agency has compiled an inventory of 32,000 sites that may contain hazardous wastes.

Prediction: Americans will increasingly turn to organically grown produce. Chemical-farming areas will be shunned by informed moderns turning to rural life. Eventually, such land will only be used for food exports to other, hungrier nations. Even farmers are turning against the throw-poison-at-it mentality. Angry cotton farmers in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas are saying no to the government recommended aerial spraying of malathion to eradicate the boll weevil. The farmers say the spraying has also killed beneficial insects which, in turn, caused the outbreak of the beet armyworm, another cotton enemy that has now caused one of the worst harvests of this century. “This thing isn’t a boll-weevil eradication program,” said one leader of the recall drive. “It’s a cotton-farmer eradication program” (The New York Times, 1-28-96).

Land without chemical contamination is still available. Most subsistence farmers were too poor to use the expensive products of the chemical companies so their old homesteads often make good home sites. Land far removed from industrial and agribusiness areas is available in many parts of the country.

Organic certification programs require soil tests to prove the absence of chemical poisoning. If ground has been subjected to chemical products it may take decades before it is clean of chemical residue. Uncontaminated land is becoming increasingly more valuable and more jealously protected.

Check with local planners to see if incinerators, landfills or hazardous waste sites exist or are being considered for the area. Determine local attitudes toward recycling. Someone at the local recycling center may know the answers or will direct you to someone who does.


The 1984 Union Carbide chemical leak disaster in Bhopal, India which killed more than 2,500 nearby residents, and the much less serious chemical release in West Virginia shortly thereafter prompted Congress to pass the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. A brochure is available which explains the Act, including how to get information on chemical releases in any community. To order Chemicals In Your Community: A Guide To The Emergency Planning And Community Right-To-Know Act, call the EPA Right-To-Know Hotline: 800-535-0202. An information specialist will direct you to a state agency that can give you information about toxic conditions in specific locations.

EPA Hazardous Waste, Superfund Hotline: 800-424-9346. Provides information and interpretation of federal hazardous waste regulations. Will provide referrals regarding other hazardous waste matters.

EPA Pesticide Hotline: 800-858-7378. Provides information on health hazards, cleanup and disposal of pesticides. Will refer callers to human and animal poison control centers in their states if necessary.

EPA Drinking Water Hotline: 800-426-4791

EPA Radon Hotline: 800-SOS-RADON for free radon information, including a copy of Reducing Radon Risks which includes state radon contact phone numbers.

The Geology of Radon includes a radioactivity map and is available free from:
U.S. Geological Survey
Branch of Distribution
P.O. Box 25286
Denver, CO 80225

A different radon map produced by the U.S. Geological Survey may be viewed at

The National Priorities List (Superfund sites) is available from the EPA. As of April 1995, there were a total of 1,227 Superfund sites nationwide; as of 9-4-97, 1,347 sites.
Environmental Protection Agency
Public Information Center, 3404
401 M Street SW
Washington, DC 20460


1436 U Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
202-462-1177;v Fax: 202-462-4507
Large number of environmental publications available. Ask for catalog.

Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes
P.O. Box 6806, 119 Rowell Court
Falls Church, VA 22040
For most people, a crisis center, helpful in dealing with community environmental problems. Source of plain-language publications.

Environmental Research Foundation
P.O. Box 5036
Annapolis, MD 21403-7036
Fax: 410-263-8944
Publishes weekly newsletter Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News (named after Rachel Carson), provides free rapid-response information service for grass-roots environmental activists, maintains on-line computerized database. Ask for the publications list.

• Ford, Norman. The 50 Healthiest Places to Live and Retire in the United States. Bedford, MA: Mills & Sanderson, 1991.
• Goldman, Benjamin A. The Truth About Where You Live: An atlas for action on toxins and mortality. New York: Times Books/Random House, 1991. Contains many maps showing unhealthful counties.
• LaFavore, Michael. Radon: The Invisible Threat. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1987.
• Robbins, Jim. The Last Refuge. New York: Morrow, 1993.
• Setterberg, Fred and Lonny Shavelson. Toxic Nation: The Fight to Save Our Communities from Chemical Contamination. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993.It is impossible to divorce the question of what we do
from the question of where we are—or, rather, where we think we are.
That no sane creature befouls its own nest is accepted as generally true.
What we conceive to be our nest, and where we think it is,
are therefore questions of the greatest importance.
Wendell Berry 

Go back to Chapter 27 – Places and conditions to avoid.
Go on to Chapter 29 – Finding your ideal area.
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