Health Effects of Stress among Those Living Near Asbestos Waste Sites

Since 1900, 15 states have been recorded as commercial asbestos producers. The largest producers were in Arizona, California, North Carolina, and Vermont. Mining decreased substantially in the later half of the twentieth century, and was banned completely in the U.S. in 2002. Between 1900 and 2003, about 30 million tons of asbestos was imported into the U.S. This raw material was shipped throughout the country to be manufactured in factories and consumed by the public. In the 1970s, scientific and medical reports of the hazards of asbestos led to the establishment of hundreds of laws, regulations, and agencies dedicated to control of the substance. Litigation commenced accusing asbestos companies of concealing the truth about fatal health effects of exposure. Finally, in 1980, the EPA promulgated the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, better known as the Superfund Act.

This law, among other actions, provided authority to the Federal government to respond to releases or threatened releases of hazardous chemicals that could endanger public health. Over $1.6 billion was collected to clean up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites, which often include old asbestos mines, manufacturing plants, and depositories. The remedial actions are purely focused on the short and long-term removal actions; nothing in the Superfund requires EPA to consider community stress from designation of a region as a Superfund site.

Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence concerning the psychosocial consequences of living in proximity to hazardous materials at Superfund and other sites. Furthermore, an Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) expert panel report recommended both additional research on the effects of psychosocial stress in communities impacted by toxic waste, and the development of public health intervention strategies to mitigate such stress. These goals clearly have not been achieved, as the literature on the health effects of stress in Superfund communities is sparse, and no such interventions have been developed.

Focus areas for the panel included the pattern of stress acute, chronic, or both that may occur among community members living near hazardous waste sites; the effects of psychological stress on physiological responses to exposure; and whether neurobehavioral disorders caused by chronic low-dose exposure to neurotoxicants, which may manifest as psychological distress, are a public health phenomenon near hazardous waste sites.

Some postulate that the chronic stress documented to occur in some communities near hazardous waste sites could possibly lead to an array of biopsychosocial effects, including physical health effects from chronic stress (possible health outcomes affected by stress include cardiovascular, gastrointestinal disorders, and skin), increases in the prevalence of certain psychological disorders, and social disruption.

Unlike a natural disaster which has a discernible low point and a recovery phase during which life begins to return to “normal” many chronic technological disasters have no discernible starting points, no distinct low points, may last for many years, and may leave behind people at risk for latent health effects. Studies have shown that disasters caused by human failure, including the creation of a hazardous waste site, produce greater stress and health effects than natural disasters.

The first scientific studies of the health effects of stress associated with environmental contamination occurred after the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident. Baum and colleagues found indicators of psychophysiological effects from stress, including elevated levels of psychological distress, perceived threat, subclinical anxiety disorders, and depression in many of the community members they surveyed at TMI.

The study revealed biological signs of chronic stress consisting of increased blood pressure and higher than normal levels of urinary cortisol and norepinephrine metabolites. They also found that the psychophysiological pattern of anxiety, poor concentration, and biological indicators of stress in community members affected remained elevated for 6 years and only returned to normal levels 10 years after the accident. Baum and colleagues then looked for this same chronic stress response in a community located near a leaking hazardous waste site and found similar results.

These findings are supported by observations made by a group of researchers in California who studied the towns affected by the Cantara loop railway spill. They studied the physical, psychological, and psychophysiological reactions of those who had been exposed to a spill of metal sodium. Psychological assessments of the residents showed increased worry, perceived decreases in social support, and biological changes indicative of chronic stress. Testing also showed greater levels of depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms.

The physiological and psychosocial effects of waste sites are clearly long-term and substantial. If you live near a Superfund site and developed serious, debilitating illnesses, contact one of our toxic substances exposure attorneys immediately for a free consultation.

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