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TOXIC SUBSTANCES: An Ever Increasing Public Health Threat

Aug 1, 2003 Last month’s Newsletter dealt exclusively with the epidemic of toxic mold. As promised, this month we will address a number of other toxic substances which either occur naturally or are present in the environment (or in everyday products) as a result of negligence, or intentional conduct and which pose serious health threats to adults and children alike.

Mercury: Mercury is a heavy metal which is poisonous to humans and animals.

    * In March 2003, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) was accused of continuing to allow leakage of mercury at some of its facilities. In a letter to United States District Court Judge Charles Brieant, the Department of Justice called for immediate action claiming that the DEP was in violation of the terms of a probation set in 2001 when it was found guilty of dumping mercury into reservoirs. The United States Attorney claimed that the DEP had broken its probation by: (1) allowing toxins to leak from containers at DEP facilities in violation of federal environmental laws; (2) failing to set up an appropriate oversight program to ensure the safety of New York City’s drinking water; and (3) failing to obtain proper State permits with respect to a drilling project. Fines and other punitive measures could be sought in order to compel the City to comply with the terms of its probation. Regardless of the outcome of the legal battle between the Federal Government and the City’s DEP, it is clear that the public has been put at risk by the toxic leakage in general and the release of mercury in particular.
    * Two studies in the November 2002 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine presented contradictory findings about possible heart-related dangers from eating mercury-laden fish. Past research, however, has shown that mercury found in fish can have harmful effects on the developing brain of a child or fetus. Thus, pregnant women are strongly cautioned to avoid eating the type of large, deep-sea predatory fish which are most prone to contain high concentrations of mercury. These include swordfish, albacore tuna, shark, and bluefish. Other recent studies dealt with the long term effects of mercury exposure on the hearts of middle-aged and elderly men. While one study found that men who had suffered a heart attack had higher levels of mercury, the other found no correlation between mercury level in the body and the risk of developing heart disease.
    * In April of 2002, researchers at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in Scotland conducted a study of 180 dentists and concluded that dentists are more likely to suffer memory and kidney problems as a result of long term exposure to the mercury used in tooth fillings. The test group had up to four times the normal level of mercury in their urine and nail samples. While fillings can emit vapors that are harmful to both dentists and their patients, the dentist is more likely to experience health-related complications such as Alzheimer’s disease since they are subjected to ongoing exposure to the mercury. Dental associations, however, claim that the mercury in fillings is safe when it is mixed with other metals.
    * If you believe that you have been exposed to significant amounts of mercury, you should ask your doctor to perform either a heavy metal blood test or hair test to determine the level of mercury in your body. Some symptoms of an elevated mercury level are hair loss, tiredness, and short-term memory loss. In most cases, the effects of an elevated mercury level are reversible within a few months after the source of the mercury is eliminated.


    * Beryllium: In September of 2001, Public Citizen (a consumer advocate group) and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union (PACE) filed a petition with the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration (OSHA) seeking to reduce the acceptable federal exposure of beryllium, a light, corrosion-free metal used to strengthen and preserve copper alloys, from 2 micrograms per cubic meter to 0.2 micrograms. These groups claimed that the current federal limit is unsatisfactory as workers are at risk of developing chronic beryllium disease, a lung condition characterized by weakness, fatigue and heart failure caused by an allergic reaction to beryllium. According to PACE, the current exposure rates are outdated and need to be changed as workers were shown to develop allergic reactions at exposure levels of just 15% of the current standard. Beryllium can be found in products such as sporting goods, dental equipment, and airline parts.
    * ANVIL: In January of 2001, workers who sprayed a pesticide called ANVIL to kill mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus filed a complaint with OSHA claiming that improper training and prolonged exposure to the chemical made them sick. The men’s symptoms included dizziness, difficulty in breathing, headaches, diarrhea, joint pain, and shakiness. The workers claimed they were not adequately protected from the pesticide as the label for ANVIL states that the product is “harmful if absorbed through the skin; avoid contact with eyes or clothing.”
    * Silica: In April of 2001, a jury found a manufacturer of sandblasting sand liable in the death of a 66 year-old man who had been diagnosed with severe emphysema and silicosis caused by his exposure to silica while working for a sandblasting company that used products manufactured by U.S. Silica. U.S. Silica argued unsuccessfully that the heath hazards associated with silica exposure were common knowledge in the industry and that it was the employer’s responsibility to inform and protect his/her workers.
    * Asbestos: An extremely dangerous (naturally occurring) substance which was once hailed as a natural insulation, fireproofing, automotive brake lining, and otherwise useful material. Exposure to inhaled asbestos fibers is now recognized as the cause of a number of serious respiratory problems including asbestosis, emphysema, and the deadly disease, mesothelioma. Asbestos has been the subject of massive litigation and billions of dollars in damage claims. If you believe that you or a loved one has suffered an injury as the result of exposure to asbestos, you should contact an attorney immediately. Parker & Waichman has been deeply involved with the ongoing asbestos litigation, and we are available to discuss any concerns you may have on this subject.
    * Arsenic: A naturally occurring element that is found throughout the environment. It is usually combined with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur to form inorganic compounds. When combined with hydrogen and carbon, arsenic forms organic compounds.

      Although most people are aware of pure arsenic when it is intentionally used as a poison, it is when inorganic arsenic compounds are used to preserve wood and organic arsenic compounds are used as pesticides (particularly on cotton plants) that arsenic can present a serious health threat.

      In 2001, several articles were written regarding the dangers of arsenic-treated wood used for decks, patio furniture, benches, and playground equipment. About 80% of outdoor lumber is treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) composed of copper and arsenic used to repel insects, kill molds and fungi and retard rot, and chromium used to stabilize the two other chemicals. While the chemicals can stay in the wood for 10 years or more, they can also slowly leach out of the wood and become dangerous to both children and adults. In the environment, arsenic cannot be destroyed; it can only change its form. Arsenic in the air settles to the ground on its own or is washed to the ground by rain. Many arsenic compounds are water soluble.

      Ninety-eight percent of outdoor wood sold in the U.S. is treated with CCA and in Florida alone; nearly 30,000 tons of arsenic is believed to be at large. Children are particularly vulnerable to CCA poisoning as they are more likely to play on floorboards or playground equipment and then put their hands in their mouths. Arsenic has been linked to birth defects in animals exposed to inorganic arsenic. Adults, especially workers and do-it-your-selfers are also at risk as the inhalation or ingestion of the sawdust can be harmful. Other sources of arsenic exposure are smoke from burning (treated) wood, eating or drinking contaminated food or water, hazardous waste dumps, living in areas with high natural levels of arsenic in rocks.

      Prolonged exposure to CCA can lead to nerve damage, dizziness, numbness, and an increased risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer. The World Health Organization (“WHO”), the Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”) and the EPA have all determined that inorganic arsenic is a human carcinogen. Arsenic can give you sore throats and irritated lungs. It may cause nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, and “pins and needles” sensation in the hands and feet. Arsenic may cause small corns or warts on the palms, soles and torso. In sufficient quantities, arsenic will cause death.

      Consumers should remember to ask retailers if the wood they are purchasing is arsenic-treated as the warnings provided by suppliers may be discarded with the packing material before the wood is sold.
          o A report issued by the National Academy of Sciences in September of 2001 showed that the Environmental Protection Agency had completely underestimated the cancer risks of arsenic in drinking water. The reports claimed that cancer risks are high even for seemingly low levels of arsenic in tap water. The current standard of 50 parts per billion of arsenic in drinking water, which was established in 1942, is no longer acceptable as the risk of bladder and lung cancer is high even at just 3 ppb. The report also addressed other serious arsenic-related health effects such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

      There are tests to determine the exact level of arsenic in the blood, hair, urine, and finger nails. The urine test is used to detect recent exposure while the hair and nail tests are used to measure long term exposure and past exposure (6-12 months before).


    * A study conducted in Toronto in October of 2001 found that children whose mothers worked with organic solvents on a regular basis during pregnancy were more likely to experience vision problems such as color blindness. These organic solvents are found in paints, degreasing solutions, and adhesives and are used in chemical and plastics production as well as dry cleaning. Solvent-exposed children had poorer visual acuity, which measures a person’s ability to identify shapes and figures, as well as problems with red-green and blue-yellow color discrimination.
    * Another Canadian study found that men who are exposed to organic solvents at work may have lowered sperm counts. Men at a single fertility clinic were tested and it was discovered that those with moderate exposure to organic solvents were twice as likely to have lower sperm counts and those with high exposure were nearly four times more likely to have decreased counts.


Vinyl: A Greenpeace report published in June of 2001 examined the hazardous effects of exposure to chemicals found in vinyl plastic childcare products and home furnishings. When Greenpeace analyzed vinyl mattress pads, vinyl flooring and other items, they found a range of additives such as phthalates, organotins, lead, cadmium and bisphenol A. These chemicals are known to be responsible for adverse heath effects such as liver cancer, kidney damage, and various nervous and respiratory problems. Some of the name brands that were tested include Gerber, Carter’s, Graco, Armstrong and Mannington.

Lead (airborne): Most candle wicks are made from cotton but those that need extra support require a metal core. Despite a warning issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC), candles with lead-core wicks (as opposed to zinc or tin wicks) are still being manufactured today. These candles release concentrations of lead into the air that range from nine to 33 times higher than the acceptable federal limit. Lead is particularly harmful to children and can cause damage to the central nervous system, reproductive system, and kidneys. Even low levels of lead can lead to decreased intelligence, impaired neurobehavioral development, decreased stature and growth, and impaired hearing acuity. In order to be sure that your candles are lead free, avoid candles with metal cores of any kind as it is difficult for the average consumer to determine if the metal wick is lead or some other non-harmful metal.

Lead Paint: A source of continuing danger to children under the age of six is the existence of lead paint in older (built before 1978), poorly maintained buildings, or in buildings that have undergone renovations. The problem is most prevalent in poorer neighborhoods where there is a greater likelihood that painting has not been done recently or where paint has been allowed to fall into disrepair. In these situations, paint tends to peel, chip, or flake. Young children are prone to swallowing these small pieces of paint. Even if the paint is not flaking or peeling, small children will chew on window sills and other painted surfaces when teething and ingest paint chips in the process.

If you suspect that your child has been exposed to lead paint or airborne lead, a blood test should be done to obtain an accurate lead level. Recent studies have indicated that severe, irreversible neurological damage may occur at lower levels than previously believed. It must be emphasized that medical science has only been able to develop treatments that may stop the progression of lead poisoning. Treatment does not prevent or reverse the signs and symptoms of lead-induced neurotoxicity. To be sure, lead poisoning in children causes devastating and permanent neurological damages. Thus, the best solution to the problem is total lead abatement in any living quarters where young children are expected to take up residence.

Parker & Waichman are in the forefront of legal efforts to obtain compensation for children who have suffered the catastrophic consequences of lead poisoning. Please contact us at for a free case evaluation if you believe your child has suffered an injury as a result of being exposed to lead paint.


In April of 2001 a committee of the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine discovered that children of veterans of the Vietnam War may have an increased risk of a form of leukemia due to their fathers’ exposure to Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide used as a defoliant during the war. The chemical may cause acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML, in children. Of the several studies that were conducted, one found that childhood development of AML was more likely in the offspring of men who use pesticides and herbicides in their work. The report also confirmed that herbicide exposure may also be responsible for the development of soft-tissue cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and chloracne in veterans. Additional studies, however, are needed in order to prove that there is a link between Agent Orange and birth defects.


U.S. health officials claimed that a plastic softener used in some medical bags and tubes could be harmful to people. So far, however, there have not been any reports of negative effects. The chemical known as DEHP, which is used to soften products made of polyvinyl chloride, can become harmful if it leaches out of medical tubing and bags. New tests have shown that DEHP is harmful to animals, particularly on testicle development and sperm production in young animals. While no studies have concluded that humans are at risk, the negative effect of DEHP on people has not been completely ruled out and must be considered as a potential risk.


A study which appeared in the April 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology showed that the UV exposure received from a tanning bed may be just as harmful to the skin as outdoor sun exposure therefore creating the same risk of developing skin cancer. More than one million (1,000,000) people in the Unites States visit tanning salons in an average day despite knowing that there is an increased incidence of melanoma in those who visit indoor tanning salons. Salon bulbs actually provide enough UVB and UVA radiation and both types of ultraviolet light, whether from the sun or tanning light, cause many types of skin damage that can lead to skin cancer. Salon-goers should view the tanning salon as the equivalent to spending the same amount of time at the beach on a sunny day.


Environmentalists are concerned that children who ride to school on diesel-powered buses may be exposed to as much as four times more toxic exhaust than those who travel to school in passenger cars. It is estimated that these children might have an increased risk for developing cancer. While most modern buses are equipped with engines which emit less exhaust, keeping windows open in the bus or seating children closer to the front of the bus could minimize the potential risk.


Researchers in Canada suggest that the byproducts of Teflon, the anti-stick, heat-resistant coating, can release potentially harmful chemicals which are linked to the destruction of the ozone layer and global warming.


New findings have indicated that women exposed to high levels of the pesticide DDT are more likely to have a premature baby or a baby that is considered small for its gestational age. DDT use can also increase infant mortality. Pregnant women should avoid prolonged or consistent exposure to DDT at all times.

In addition, pesticides present a serious problem in areas when the runoff from rain or flooding causes the residue to contaminate sources of drinking water (aquifers, reservoirs, and wells) or habitats used by edible fish and shell fish. Detergents from laundries (home and commercial), car washes, building cleanings, and other sources which are disposed of in public sewer systems also add to the contamination of our water supply. Certain studies also suggest that the stronger detergents (pH of 11 or more) may also present a risk of dermatitis, asthma, and conjunctivitis to those coming in direct contact with them or with clothing that has been laundered in them.


1,4-Butanediol is an industrial solvent, which along with another industrial solvent known as (gamma)-hydroxybutyrate, have been found to be extremely dangerous when ingested. Unfortunately, the fact that these solvents are converted to gamma-hydroxybutyrate, a drug of abuse with depressant effects on the central nervous system, has caused people to intentionally ingest the compounds in the form of a dietary supplement. The effects of these compounds, when ingested, can be quite severe. They include vomiting, urinary and fecal incontinence, agitation, combativeness, respiratory depression, decreased consciousness, and death. The compounds can be addictive. There is simply no reason to ingest these solvents in any form.


Aging or poorly maintained coal-burning power plants are responsible for the emission of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides which, in turn, cause significant levels of air pollution and acid rain. On August 7th, a federal judge in Ohio ruled that a utility company in that state had violated the Clean Air Act when it failed to install better pollution control devices in its coal-burning power plant. The case was brought by the Environmental Protection Agency along with the states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut which suffer from the effects of the air pollution caused by the toxic emissions from power plants in the Ohio Valley. Other cases brought against a number of other power companies operating over 48 plants have been settled.

If you or a member of your family has suffered an injury as a result of being exposed to a toxic substance through the negligence or intentional act of a third-party, you should contact an attorney familiar with toxic tort litigation. Parker & Waichman is proud of its record in this area and would be glad to evaluate any potential claim that you might have.You may contact Parker & Waichman by calling 1-800-YOURLAWYER or visiting
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