Post-Harvey relief and the Texas mold law

By Elizabeth Glass Geltman JD, LLM, Nicolas Wilhelm, JD, and Abraham Gutman, MA

Hurricane Harvey was called “the most extreme rain event in U.S. history.” In just a few days, the storm dropped 50 inches of rain on Houston. Now that the storm has ended, the response is moving from relief efforts to repair and cleanup efforts to deal with the extensive damage Harvey caused.

Unfortunately, the danger to first responders and volunteers does not end when the floodwaters recede — some of the most significant health concerns come from post-storm environmental perils, including mold. One study following Hurricane Katrina indicated that the concentration of mold in flooded areas was roughly double the concentration in non-flooded areas. After Harvey, Houston should expect to see a significant increase in mold hazards in homes.

Mold produces a fungus called mycotoxin which can make exposure to mold a health hazard. According to a World Health Organization report, people who have been exposed to mold are at risk of developing symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and asthma (in sensitized persons). Moreover, exposure to mold could also lead to chronicconditions, such as chronic rhinosinusitis and chronic fatigue syndrome. The impact of mold is not always seen immediately. Individuals exposed to mold may see negative impacts on their health for years after leaving the moldy space.

Texas is one of 12 states and the District of Columbia that passed laws that regulate the way mold should be assessed, treated, and remediated to protect the public’s health from adverse effects of moldy buildings and homes.

The Texas mold law requires contractors providing mold removal services, or “mold remediation,” to complete an accredited training program and be certified to remove the mold. This certification requirement was designed to both protect the health of mold remediators and to ensure that those doing the removal do so properly so mold is less likely to grow back.

The Texas Department of Health Services, however, released emergency guidelines, allowing out-of-state mold remediation companies and unlicensed companies to apply for a temporary waiver to remediate mold in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Although the number of properties flooded may exceed the number of mold remediators certified by Texas, it remains important for individuals and contractors working to remediate mold take appropriate measures to protect themselves and property inhabitants. The waiver might be needed to increase in emergencies, but mold remains dangerous.

Asbestos Imports Higher than once Thought

WASHINGTON – The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, the largest independent nonprofit asbestos victims’ advocacy group in the United States – along with the Environmental Working Group, a consumer advocacy group that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment – released a statement in response to new data showing asbestos imports nearly doubled in 2016, after years of decline.

Data from the Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that 705 metric tons of raw asbestos were imported last year, compared to 343 metric tons in 2015. The U.S. Geological Survey reported asbestos imports came from Brazil and Russia. The only remaining user of raw asbestos in the U.S. is the chloralkali industry, which uses it to “manufacture semipermeable asbestos diaphragms.”

Much of the surge in imports in 2016 came in the fourth quarter of the year, following the passage of the revamped Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. Lobbyists from the American Chemistry Council, on behalf of the chloralkali industry, are now pushing for an exemption from the new chemical safety law that would allow it to continue to import and use asbestos just as it does today.

The EPA is currently in the process of implementing TSCA, an overhaul that gives the agency broader authority to ban toxic chemicals, and under which asbestos is being evaluated for regulation.

“Opponents of an asbestos ban have long argued that asbestos use is shrinking in the United States, but now we know just the opposite is true,” said Linda Reinstein, president and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. “Each year, asbestos-caused diseases claim the lives of 15,000 Americans. It is shocking that unlike more than 60 nations around the world, the U.S. has not only failed to ban asbestos, but its use is increasing dramatically. The EPA needs to ban asbestos with no exceptions. There is no safe or controlled use of asbestos in mining or manufacturing.”

“The chloralkali industry’s insistence on the continued use of deadly asbestos is reprehensible,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “Meanwhile, we shut our eyes to the communities in Brazil and other asbestos-producing nations, where miners and their families are exposed to this killer.”

“It is incredulous that, in the face of such harrowing facts, the chloralkali industry continues to peddle their ‘safe use’ propaganda to the EPA, the public, and their shareholders,” said Dr. Richard Lemen, former assistant U.S. surgeon general and current co-chair of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s science advisory board. “If the EPA does not put a stop to this environmental and public health disaster now with a complete asbestos ban, more innocent Americans will die preventable deaths due to bureaucratic inaction.”

Consumer Groups File Petition to Ban Lead Acetate in Hair Dyes

Popular men’s cosmetic products are raising concerns over a potentially harmful ingredient. Lead acetate can be found in Grecian Formula and Youthair hair dye products in the U.S. Consumer groups filed a petition to the FDA to crack down on this lead compound, which is a known neurotoxin. For nearly a decade, Europe and Canada have banned the sale of these same products because they contained lead acetate, and those manufacturers offer consumers in those countries a lead-free alternative. So then why are American consumers still able to purchase these products? If the petition is successful, that may change, reports CBS News correspondent Anna Werner. Richard Gandolf didn’t like going gray. So for the past 20 years, the 73-year-old retired civil servant has been using a cream from Youthair that turns his gray hair dark. Grecian Formula is another, familiar from those 1980s TV commercials. “I think the gray’s going. Slowly. Gradually. And no one is noticing,” the ad said.

Something the ads don’t mention, however, is that both of those products contain lead acetate, a lead compound which the CDC lists as a possible carcinogen. The ingredient can be harmful, especially to children. Consumer groups including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) are now asking the FDA to get the lead acetate out. “We want FDA to remove its approval for lead acetate as a color additive in hair dyes,” EDF’s Tom Neltner said. Manufacturers of the products tell consumers to only use the dye on their hair, but not all follow directions.

One 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical Neuromuscular Disease documents the case of one man who used progressive hair dye with lead acetate to color his beard and had “numbness and tingling” in “both feet and hands” for seven months. “He was very surprised that there was lead in his product and he stopped the product the moment he discovered that there was lead in it,” the study’s author, Dr. Wissam Deeb, said. But lead acetate is a much bigger concern for children. Government health authorities warn “do not allow children to touch hair colored with lead-containing dyes” because the compounds “can rub off onto their hands and be transferred to their mouths.”

“When you use it in the real world, it’s going to be lead on the soap dispenser. Lead on the faucet. Lead on the counter and kids will get exposed to it that way,” Neltner said. The company that owns Grecian Formula, Combe, declined an on-camera interview but told us in a statement that the data on hand-to-mouth transmission of lead is “insufficient” and “lead acetate has been used safely as a color additive in ‘progressive’ hair dye products for decades based on extensive scientific studies.” The FDA does currently approve the use of lead acetate in these products. We also reached out to American Industries International, the manufacturer of Youthair products, but did not receive a response. Youthair does offer a lead-free alternative product in the U.S.

Radon Prevention in Your Home

Natural odorless gas can cause lung cancer can be found in homes, offices It’s a well-known fact that smoking can lead to lung cancer. The answer to lung cancer prevention seems simple – just don’t smoke or be around a person while he or she smokes. Another leading cause of lung cancer has nothing to do with cigarette smoke but rather with a natural gas that you can’t see, smell or taste – radon. “There is a background amount when you are outside, but it’s when it gets trapped in a building that it gets to higher levels, or elevated levels, that can then cause the lung cancer,” said Richelle Tolton, the radon coordinator at South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Tolton also adds that radon puts smokers at a higher risk of developing lung cancer.

Why we are at risk? Radon is a radioactive gas that is created when uranium in soil, rock and water naturally decays, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA. The substance can leak into any home, office or school and mainly emits from soil. “It typically moves up through the ground to the air above and into your home through cracks and other holes in the foundation,” states the EPA. Although it’s less likely, radon can infect your water supply. If your water comes from the surface, you are typically safe. That means if you are using a public water system, you should be in the clear, according to SC DHEC.

The real risk comes from using ground water from such sources as private wells. “Most of your risk from radon in water comes from radon released into the air when water is used for showering and other household purposes,” states the EPA. “Research has shown that your risk of lung cancer from breathing radon in air is much larger than your risk of stomach cancer from swallowing water with radon in it.” Those with further concerns about radon in water supplies can call EPA’s Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.

How you can assess the issue The only way to determine if you and your loved ones have a radon problem is to test the radon levels. “Testing is easy and should only take a few minutes of your time,” states the EPA. “Short-term tests offer a quick and cheap way to test for radon … and take from two to 90 days (depending on the device used),” states SC DHEC’s website. “Long-term tests stay in place for more than 90 days. The results from a long-term test give a better picture of your family’s actual radon exposure.” The levels are measured in picocuries per liter, or pCi/L. Regular indoor levels usually sit around 1.3 pCi/L.

If you discover your environment has four or more pCi/L, the EPA recommends hiring a professional to get the level lowered. While there are different methods that can be used, the main one is a soil suction radon reduction system. The system operates by a vent pipe system and fan taking the radon from underneath the building and transporting it outside. No major changes need to be done on your home or business for the system to function, and it’s not the only option available. “The right system depends on the design of your home and other factors,” states the EPA. Tolton adds that if you had radon testing done a few years back and have since amended some of the building’s features then you would need to redo the test. “Those changes could impact how (the radon) is being trapped,” she said. Elevated radon levels are said to affect an estimated one out of every 15 home in the U.S.

How to Make Your Hotel Room Healthier

By Shivani Vora, New York Times News Service

Monday, April 10, 2017 | 2 a.m.

Did you know that your hotel room has the potential to make you sick? “Hotel rooms can be a hotbed for germs, and the lighting and poor circulation in some make for an unhealthy environment,” said Deepak Chopra, a doctor who specializes in alternative medicine and an author who is also on the advisory board of Delos, a wellness real estate firm that is focused on creating healthier indoor environments.  But no matter where you hang your hat for the night, Chopra said it was possible to make your stay healthier.

Here, he offers his advice on how.

Reduce Contact With Germs: Bedspreads are notorious for holding germs, which is why many hotels use duvets with removable covers that are easy to launder. If your property doesn’t have duvets, request upon check-in that your bedspread be laundered. You can also reduce your exposure to germs by using antibacterial wipes to wipe down commonly used objects, such as television remotes, doorknobs and telephones.

Improve Air Circulation: Paint, furniture and cleaning products degrade the quality of the air inside because they are often made with toxic materials such as formaldehyde. And poor indoor air quality can cause headaches and fatigue. If weather permits, Chopra said, opening a window in your hotel room to allow for circulation can improve air quality. Or, choose a hotel that uses nontoxic cleaning products — the property’s reservations desk should be able to tell you if that’s the case.

Use a Dawn Simulating Alarm Clock: While the hotel’s alarm clock will wake you, Chopra said that waking to sudden loud noise was a stressful way to begin your day. He suggested traveling with a dawn-simulating alarm clock, which gradually transitions your room from a dim glow to full brightness and helps you wake up more naturally. “You can buy one of these alarm clocks for less than $30, and they are big in improving sleep quality,” he said.

Maximize Natural Light: Light is the primary driver that aligns the body’s biological clock and sleep-wake cycle, Chopra said. “You want to rely less on artificial lighting and more on natural light, which can help improve your energy, mood and sleep when you travel,” he said. A simple way to get more natural light is to request a hotel room with a window that opens out to a street, rather than another building. Also, keep the curtains in your room open during the day so that natural light can stream in. Come nighttime, unplug the alarm clock and other electronics that emit sleep-disrupting artificial light.

Watch the In-Room Snacks: Those tempting goodies in your room’s minibar can sometimes be loaded with sugar and artificial ingredients. “Eating these processed and sugary foods is hard on digestion and can cause your energy levels to drop,” Chopra said. He advised traveling with healthy snacks such as whole fruits and raw and roasted nuts.

OSHA Delays Silica Standard Enforcement Deadline 3 Months

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced a delay in enforcement of the crystalline silica standard that applies to the construction industry to conduct additional outreach and provide educational materials and guidance for employers.

OSHA has determined that additional guidance is necessary due to the unique nature of the requirements in the construction standard. Originally scheduled to begin June 23, 2017, enforcement will now begin Sept. 23, 2017.

However, despite the standard’s delay, OSHA expects construction employers to continue to take steps either to come into compliance with the new permissible exposure limit, or to implement specific dust controls for certain operations as provided in Table 1 of the standard.

OSHA’s final rule to protect workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica includes these key provisions:

  • Reduces the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift.
  • Requires employers to: use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) to limit worker exposure to the PEL; provide respirators when engineering controls cannot adequately limit exposure; limit worker access to high exposure areas; develop a written exposure control plan, offer medical exams to highly exposed workers, and train workers on silica risks and how to limit exposures.
  • Provides medical exams to monitor highly exposed workers and gives them information about their lung health.
  • Provides flexibility to help employers — especially small businesses — protect workers from silica exposure.

Construction employers should also continue to prepare to implement the standard’s other requirements, including exposure assessment, medical surveillance and employee training.

OSHA estimates 2 million construction workers who drill, cut, crush, or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries, and hydraulic fracturing are affected by the final rule.

See also: OSHA’s Crystalline Silica website for working safely with silica and how to prevent its non-curable health effects.

Why Houseplants Are a Good Idea

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that air in sealed-up houses, schools and offices can have concentrations of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) up to 10 times higher than those outdoors. Poor indoor air can sicken occupants, with chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene causing fatigue, headaches and longer-term health hazards. The cumulative effects of indoor air pollution are not trivial, given that most Americans spend roughly 90 percent of their lives inside. Plants are just one line of defense against “sick building syndrome.” It’s best to start by controlling sources: avoid furnishings that off-gas chemicals; select low- or no-VOC paints and building supplies; and banish toxic cleaning products, scented laundry products and candles, clothes dry-cleaned with tetrachloroethene, and alleged “air fresheners.” Pollutants can remain in household air long after an aerosol can is sprayed or a dryer sheet used. They linger most in houses that are well-insulated and sealed, and lack venting systems to provide an adequate exchange with outside air. Efforts to control sources can improve indoor air, but they won’t entirely eliminate pollution. Even our own bodies generate what scientists none too delicately call bioeffluents. These aren’t the emissions that might follow a big chili dinner but are atmospheric pollutants like acetone naturally generated by metabolic activity. Whether chemical vapors come directly from us or from the stuff that fills our homes, having plants indoors can markedly reduce pollutants’ damaging impact. The plants deliver airborne toxins to soil microbes that break them down. Houseplants also mitigate dry winter air by serving as natural humidifiers. The drier the air, the more moisture they release; talk about accommodating houseguests! According to B.C. Wolverton’s book “How to Grow Fresh Air,” plants even “release phytochemicals that suppress mold spores and bacteria found in the ambient air.” (This beneficial effect can be undermined by operator error, though, as I can attest: Overwatering will turn houseplants into mold factories. Spare yourself this hard-earned lesson and water plants sparingly in winter months.) Many findings in Wolverton’s book trace back to NASA studies done in the early 1980s, when the agency began experimenting with how to maintain healthy air in sealed-chamber settings – an obvious need on space flights. They tested different varieties of plants to identify which were most effective for specific toxins. In terms of tackling pollutants, the plants are remarkably specialized. Palm plants, for example, are exceptionally good at reducing chemicals like xylene and ammonia. The peace lily does poorly with xylene, but is a standout at removing acetone. While the detailed breakout Wolverton provides is interesting, the bottom line appears to be that diverse ecosystems are best – indoors as well as out. Plan on an assortment of plants and keep good air circulation among them if grouped.= Wolverton suggests that people bring plants into the immediate spaces indoors they frequent most – what he terms the “personal breathing zone” of 6 or 8 cubic feet near one’s desk, bed or favorite chair. Concentrating houseplants in these areas can ensure that residents derive the greatest benefits from plants’ ongoing service purifying the air. Houseplants offer a salve for the eyes and lungs throughout the year. But in the depths of mud season, their effect is especially salubrious – for body and soul.

3 Direct Ways to Reduce Indoor Air Pollution

When you think of pollution, your mind may conjure images of car exhaust fumes and toxic factory smoke clouding the sky. But your sanctuary – the indoor space you call home – is two to five times more toxic than your outdoor environment? At least that is what the Environmental Protection Agency reports. Luckily, there are steps you can take to make your home less toxic by taking steps to reduce indoor air pollution. The World Health Organization attributes three percent of the world’s burden of diseases on indoor air pollution. And with 80 percent of all cancers linked to environmental factors rather than genetic ones, it’s ever the more important to consider every aspect of your surroundings and make sure that it isn’t hurting more than it is helping you.

Humans reportedly spend nearly 90 percent of their time indoors and are exposed to a host of toxic materials, from mold, synthetic chemicals in cleaning supplies, carbon monoxide from cooking and heating, tobacco smoke, formaldehyde from pressed wood used for shelving and furniture, and other chemicals in house paint, glue, and insulation. The list goes on and on. And while you may not be able to eliminate your home of all toxins, you can take active steps to significantly decrease the load.

  1. Improve Ventilation – To reduce the concentration of indoor pollutants in your home, it is important to increase the flow of outdoor air coming indoors. Ventilation helps to remove or dilute indoor airborne pollutants coming from indoor sources. Most homes are equipped with heating and cooling systems that don’t allow outdoor air to enter indoors. To remedy this, try keeping a few windows ajar, weather permitting, or install local bathroom and kitchen fans that exhaust outdoors and thus transfer contaminants from the inside of your home, to the outside. Another approach would be to install a mechanical system that brings outdoor air into the home. Indoor air quality can get particularly poor if indoor air is humid, because humid air is ideal for bacteria and other airborne contaminants to thrive. Purchase a dehumidifier and keep it on in whichever room you spend the most time in, or next to your bed while you are asleep, to improve air quality.
  2. Toss the Obvious Culprits –  Take inventory of each room in your house and take notes. What feels wrong? What feels synthetic? Pay extra close attention to the kitchen and bathroom. If you are having trouble identifying the culprits (it’s not always that obvious), hire a professional to test your house for molds and toxins. Replace mainstream harsh cleaning products with eco-friendly varieties. Use toxic free paints, replace carpets where bacteria and mold can bury, and embrace hard-wood floors.
  3. Get an Air Cleaner –  There are plenty of air cleaners to choose from, and it requires a lot of research before you pick the one right for you. Mechanical air filters and electronic air cleaners remove particles form the air by capturing them in their filters. Gas-phase air filters remove gaseous pollutants with the help of sorbent, which adsorbs pollutants. Meanwhile, ultraviolet (UV) germicidal irradiation and photo-catalytic oxidation cleaners use UV light to destroy viruses, bacteria, allergens, molds, and/or gaseous pollutants.

How to Prevent Mold Growth in Your Home

Mold plays an important role in nature. Mold breaks down dead organic matter, including fallen leaves, and speeds up the decomposition process so nutrients can return to the soil as quickly as possible. But mold inside a home can be a formidable foe, triggering allergic reactions and increasing a person’s risk of developing respiratory problems. Mold can even cause damage to a home by attaching itself to wood and breaking down that wood. Because the consequences of mold growth inside a home can be so dire, it’s important that men and women take steps to prevent mold growth in their homes and apartments. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that controlling moisture levels in a home or apartment is the key to controlling mold as well.

  1. Address spills quickly and properly. Many instances of mold infestations can be traced to leaks or spills that were not quickly or properly addressed. The EPA advises that wet or damp materials or areas should be dried within 24 to 48 hours to prevent the growth of mold. Make sure spills are thoroughly cleaned as opposed to a cursory cleanup of only the areas visible to the naked eye. Inspect nearby crevices when spills occur to ensure the area where the spill happened and all surrounding areas vulnerable to mold growth are dry. In addition, fix leaky plumbing fixtures immediately, hiring a professional if necessary.
  2. Inspect the ground surrounding your home. Factors outside a home can sometimes contribute to mold growth within a home. Make sure the ground outside your home slopes away from the foundation. If the ground slopes toward your home, rainwater or runoff from sprinkler systems may direct water into your home, creating conditions favorable to mold growth inside. Gutters and downspouts also should be inspected to ensure they are working optimally. If not, they can contribute to water damage on the roof that can ultimately lead to mold growth.
  3. Monitor indoor humidity. The EPA advises that homeowners keep indoor humidity below 60 percent relative humidity, which can be measured with humidity meters available at many hardware stores. Homeowners who can keep indoor humidity at levels 30 to 50 percent below relative humidity might be even more successful at keeping indoor mold growth at bay.
  4. Dry wet surfaces immediately. Surfaces can become wet even if a home has no leaky fixtures and no spills have occurred. For example, the surfaces of bathroom walls, ceilings and floors get wet when a home’s inhabitants take hot baths or showers. That condensation is natural, but such surfaces are also susceptible to mold growth. Make sure to dry wet surfaces immediately, and keep exhaust fans on or windows open when bathing to decrease the likelihood of mold growth. Mold growth can be detrimental to human beings and their homes. But many mold infestations are easily prevented.

Keeping Your Front-end Loading Washer Free of Mold

SAN ANTONIO (NEWS 4) — An appliance that’s in millions of homes across the country could be a magnet for mold and mildew, and you may not even realize it. It’s a problem more than six million owners of front-loading washing machines sued over. A settlement was reached, and the deadline to join has passed. While manufacturers have taken steps to make the machines less susceptible to mold and mildew, many owners are still finding a black substance along the rubber boot that seals the door shut. “There’s mold growing in my washing machine,” says owner Michael Correa. Other owners notice telltale signs. “I dry it out all the time because the water lays in there,” says owner Irene Voight. “It will start smelling.” “Just musty,” adds owner Anne Higginbotham. Certified repairman Mickey Resendez with San Antonio Appliance Repair Service Company shines a light in the cause. “I think the general public at this point and time has not really caught onto the fact that these machines, a lot of them, do not have venting in the machine built in to alleviate all the moisture inside the machine after the wash load has been done,” he says.

He says the cheapest and most effective solution is probably already in your laundry room: bleach. “Say every three to six months, depending on how much washing you do, we recommend you put a quarter to a half gallon of bleach directly into the machine,” Resendez says. Rather than adding the liquid into the bleach slot, he recommends pouring it directly into the tub. Then, put the washer on a hot setting and let the bleach do its job. “And after that, you should kill all the mold and bacteria from the machine, and thus releasing all the odor from the machine,” Resendez says. When you’re not using the machine, he suggests cracking the door open a few inches to let it air out. Resendez says these extra steps will make sure your washer is squeaky clean.