Chemical plants should monitor emissions, EPA says

Chemical plants across the U.S. may soon be required to step up air pollution protections under new a rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Announced April 6, the rule would strengthen regulations for facilities that make synthetic organic chemicals and polymers such as neoprene, a rubber substitute. The EPA estimates that the changes would reduce 6,000 tons annually of toxic emissions that are linked to lymphoma, leukemia and other cancers.

Chemical plants would be required to monitor emissions of six pollutants — benzene, 1,3-butadiene, chloroprene, ethylene dichloride, ethylene oxide and vinyl chloride — at their facility fence lines. If new limits set by the EPA are exceeded, the sites would be required to find the sources of elevated emissions and make repairs.

Most of the nearly 200 facilities affected by the proposed rule are located in the eastern and central U.S. About 9.3 million people live within six miles of synthetic organic chemical plants, the EPA said.

Health care workers overwhelmed by workloads

Unrealistic work demands are contributing to high rates of burnout for U.S. health care professionals.

A study published March 23 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found high rates of burnout and overload among nurses, clinical staff, doctors and other health care professionals, with many saying they intend to leave their jobs.

Investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital analyzed 2020 survey data from more than 43,000 health professionals, finding that many were struggling with heavy demands on productivity and efficiency. Nurses were most likely to report they were burned out and planned to quit, with work overload the strongest influencer. While the survey was taken during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, accounting for some of the stress, burnout was a problem for health workers even before the outbreak, researchers noted.

Although jobs such as airline pilots have restrictions on workloads to prevent exhaustion, similar measures in the health work force are “haphazard,” according to the study’s authors. They called for a standardized approach to measuring and limiting workload.

Alabama discriminates on sanitation funding, complaint says

Communities of color in Alabama that are in dire need of sanitation upgrades are being impeded from receiving state funding, endangering both their health and the environment, according to a civil rights complaint filed in March.

The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and the Natural Resources Defense Council asserted in the complaint that burdensome state policies prevent communities from accessing Alabama’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, disproportionately harming Black residents. For example, the state’s project ranking system doesn’t consider financial need, outreach to disadvantaged communities is inadequate and homeowners aren’t eligible to receive funds, the complaint said.

In some parts of Alabama, residents who lack access to sanitation systems are forced to use pipes that discharge raw sewage directly into their yards or other outdoor areas. State laws threaten residents with fines and other punishments if they can’t afford permitted sanitation systems, said the complainants, who are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Washington state heat wave deaths higher than thought

Washington state’s record heat wave in 2021 played a role in more deaths than officially reported, and the increase could be a sign of things to come.

Beginning June 25, 2021, extreme heat contributed to almost 160 deaths across the state over three weeks, according to an April 6 study in the American Journal of Public Health. The tally includes indirect heat-related deaths such as drownings, vehicle crashes, violence and self-harm. The Washington State Department of Health officially recorded 100 heat-related deaths during the heat wave.

During the wave’s first week, there were more than 400 heat-related visits to emergency departments in Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, a rate almost 70 times higher than the same period in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 700 heat-related deaths usually occur annually in the U.S.

Researchers noted that with a warming increase of 2 degrees Celsius, similar heat waves could occur every five to 10 years. To help prevent injuries and deaths during periods of high heat, officials should increase swimming safety warnings, offer mental health services and budget more funding for cooling centers, the study’s authors recommended.

Black mothers, pregnant women more likely to live in vulnerable areas

Black mothers are more likely than white moms to live in communities with conditions that threaten their health, influencing birth outcomes.

Authors of a recent study in The Lancet Regional Health–Americas used a vulnerability index to assess factors that influence maternal health, such as socioeconomic determinants, physical environments and health care access. They found that women who gave birth in counties with high vulnerability factors were more likely to die, give birth preterm or have a low birthweight baby.

Across the U.S., black women of reproductive age have higher exposure to harmful conditions for physical health, mental health and substance misuse than their white peers. Counties with a higher-than-average percentage of Black residents scored higher in vulnerability than those with a higher-than-average proportion of white residents.

Maternal death rates in the U.S. have been on the rise, reaching their highest levels in more than 50 years in 2021, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Black women are more than twice as likely to die from maternal-related causes as white women.

The Watch is compiled by Michele Late, who has more than two decades of experience as a public-health journalist.