Toxics & Disasters

Articles from The Next STEP newsletter (Nov/Dec 2017)
(Click to read and forward the original formatted PDF file, plus see other articles in that issue)
The Next STEP is a bi-monthly newsletter educating people about toxics and alternatives. "It's your handy guide to less-toxic living."

Toxics & Disasters

Toxics might not be the first thing we consider when faced with fires, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. Certainly, there are often more urgent matters at the moment of crisis. Still, even afterwards, it’s a much less-common conversation.

But the reality is that enormous amounts of toxics are often released by these events. Materials that had previously been applied broadly and tucked into countless homes, businesses, and industrial sites are suddenly opened, burned, and released into our shared air, water, and land.

The resulting cumulative toxic levels can be much higher than we experience in ordinary life — harming everyone from first responders to people miles away — even hindering emergency responses. Plus these materials can cause life-threatening and lifelong impacts on people, animals, and ecosystems.

This point was made all too real in the North Bay wildfires, which are still burning as we go to press.

As a friend posted on Facebook, while encouraging mask use, “We don’t know what’s in the smoke or the water. That’s the problem. Toxics regulation is based on the premise that we can control exposure and dosage, which I question in regular times. But then we have this huge exposure. To protect ourselves we need to look at the huge one.”

How to Reduce Exposure

1) Protect yourself and others from a disaster’s toxic risks. Evaluate each situation and your needs to determine your approach. Options might include protective gear, avoidance, and more. Consider toxics in both these phases:
• During the event (toxics in smoke, flood water, etc.)
• After the event (safe cleanup, proper waste disposal, etc.)

2) Reduce your overall toxic load. When we have involuntary exposures, it’s even more vital to reduce the voluntary ones. So nurture your body. Eat fresh organic food. Do cleansing activities such as saunas. Support others in doing the same.

3) Act for strong systemic community toxics reduction. It is predictable that toxics will be released during disasters large and small. And, once a disaster strikes, it’s usually too late to prevent release.

So let’s add “reducing disaster harm” to the reasons that it’s smart to proactively and drastically reduce our individual and shared use of toxics.
For instance, you can:

Avoid buying or using toxics in your home, business, community groups, etc. Before buying or using a toxic product, consider its full lifecycle of potential harm. (See my article about this [below].) Ask if all that harm is necessary. Feel better when you find and choose safer options!

Support businesses that avoid using toxics, such as organic farms and producers.

• Take action for better community-level control of toxics, and support the groups and agencies that are encouraging positive change.

We’ve gathered lots of information to help you with these steps, conveniently organized in our STEP Index. We’ve also put this article plus added information at [That's here!]

Thankfully, there are positive actions we can take to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our world. Let’s do that!

~ Patricia Dines

Evaluating the Lifecycle Harm of a Toxic Product

When we consider using a toxic product — in our personal or work lives, or in our communities — it can be easy to focus just on our current goals, the product’s price, and maybe its immediate health risk.

However, in that decision, I encourage us to also consider the product’s full harm during its lifecycle — to the health of humans, animals, and ecosystems far beyond our job site.

These costs aren’t reflected in the product price or label. But they’re still very real, impacting real people, real pocketbooks, and real lives.

In fact, it’s likely that we’re among those being harmed throughout our days by other people’s toxics — such as those released by our current fires and the pesticides sprayed on our local non-organic farms.

I also believe that we’re all paying the cost financially, as part of this country’s staggering health care costs. Studies have shown that notable amounts of illness are caused by toxics. These illness levels can go down as toxic exposures do.

The Five Phases of Harm

Here’s a model I developed to help us understand how toxic products dramatically harm people, animals, and ecosystems throughout their lifecycles. Harm happens during:

I. Production (regular and accidental discharges injuring factory workers and neighbors)
II. Transportation (spills and accidents along the travel route)
III. Application (materials drifting up to hundreds of miles, during and after use)
IV. Storage and Disposal (from improper actions and leakage)
V. Extraordinary Events (such as natural disasters and accidents).

The bottom line is that these toxics commonly spread by leaks, spills, accidents, and drift. It’s a predictable consequence of having them in our communities.

I hope that, by seeing the full price of these products, we can also see the broader benefits of seeking less-toxic alternatives, paying a bit more for them, or adjusting our goals.

I’ve previously explored the reality of these phases, with examples. See Lifecycle costs in the Index.


I've been pleased to see the Press Democrat talking about toxics and the fires.
This online search will get you the most current pieces, so you can find those of interest to you.

Toxic Ashes and Charred Forests Threaten Water After North Bay Fires
The fires that burned wildlands and urban areas in Northern California this month now pose a threat to water quality, humans and wildlife as crews work to contain unstable hillsides and keep toxic debris from entering waterways. [

I invite you to share your links on this topic with me, for possible inclusion in this space. Email me at STEP [at] healthyworld [dot] org.

Information courtesy of:

"Information Empowering Action for a Healthier World"


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