Category: Regulation

A major federal response to occupational extreme heat is here at last

Constructions workers in warm climates are often exposed to dangerous heat. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

by Lynée Turek-Hankins and Katharine Mach (University of Miami)

The summer of 2021 was devilishly hot across much of the U.S. Just five minutes in an attic guest room with no air conditioning could be enough to leave a person drenched in sweat and lightheaded, as one of us discovered during a heat wave in Washington state. It’s the kind of heat where it’s impossible to move, to think, to do anything.

In parts of the U.S., people work in heat and then go home to heat all summer long. Research shows that chronic heat exposure is a growing threat to health and productivity, yet it’s often overlooked by employers.

A new federal initiative to combat unhealthy heat exposure for vulnerable populations, including workers, could finally provide some relief. By bringing multiple agencies together to solve the problem of heat, the Biden administration has the opportunity to help workers avoid dangerous acute and chronic heat exposure at work and at home.

But the plan has some important gaps and ambiguities that, as infrastructure and policy researchers, we believe should be addressed to keep people safe.

A worker in a reflective vest holds a
A construction worker guides traffic on a humid, 100-degree day in Washington, D.C. Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Image

Who’s at risk

Heat is not a health and safety issue if you’re sitting in a well-constructed, air-conditioned building. But people who work primarily outside, whether in agriculture, construction or mining, in military training or on a utility or wildfire crew, may have limited access to a cool environment on hot days, and that can raise their risks.

Heat indoors can also be a threat to workers, such as cooks in a steamy kitchen or factory workers on an assembly line without adequate airflow. Personal protective equipment and clothing like hazmat suits can also intensify the impact of excessive heat.

When heat combines with other hazards, like humidity, particulate matter or ozone in the air, the health risks increase. Even if none of the hazards on its own is considered “extreme,” combined they may pose a threat. At many points in the day, a worker may face a large cumulative burden of environmental hazards that add up, with few options for adequately dealing with them.

Workers who are exposed to excess heat on the job are more likely than average Americans to be low-income, to be immigrants, to have chronic health problems, to lack health insurance or to live in poor-quality housing without air conditioning. That suggests they may also lack a cool environment at home and may be at higher risk.

A sweating cook carries as plate past rows of ovens. The photo is shot with the cook slightly blurred, capturing the frenetic pace of the kitchen
Indoor workplaces like kitchens and factories can expose workers to high heat for many hours at a time. Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

How the body responds to heat

Cool night temperatures are important for the body to recover from daytime heat exposure. Research has shown that hot nights can reduce the body’s capacity to rehydrate and negatively affect sleep, potentially leading to more workplace injuries the following day.

A severe heat episode may also permanently harm internal organs. One study linked hospitalization from acute heat illness to an increased risk of early death later in life.

People have different thresholds for heat exposure. Preexisting health conditions, such as those affecting the heart or lungs, can increase the likelihood that extreme heat will harm the person’s health.

Whether a person is acclimatized, meaning they have adjusted to the heat, is also important. One hundred degrees Fahrenheit in Seattle (38 Celsius) is different from 100 F in Las Vegas. However, getting used to a climate can only take you so far. The body’s ability to cool itself off diminishes significantly beyond 95 F (35 C). Hence, there are upper limits to acclimatization. Likewise, acclimatization may not prevent health effects from chronic heat exposure.

Chart showing where heat crosses the dangerous threshold for each percentage of relative humidity. At 100% humidity, 90 degrees is dangerous. At 40% humidity the same temperature requires caution and 108 becomes dangerous.
Humidity increases the health risk as temperatures rise. NOAA

Adapting workers for the increasing extreme heat

There are many strategies for reducing occupational exposure to heat. A workplace may require breaks and offer water; implement technologies that keep workers cool, such as cooling vests; reduce expected rates of productivity when temperatures climb; or even stop work.

Some of these strategies, however, will likely become less effective under intensifying climate change. Some locations may face high temperatures combined with humidity levels that exceed thresholds for workability.

The Biden administration’s new efforts, announced in late September 2021, provide direction for adapting to extreme heat in and out of the workplace. Some of the proposed strategies include creating standards for heat exposure at work, improving enforcement and inspections for the heat safety of workers, increasing opportunities to direct federal funds to household cooling assistance and technologies, and transforming schools into locations with free air conditioning access.

As presented, the strategies for workers are isolated to the workplace and hot days. However, chronic heat exposure, whether from living in a hot home or a habitually hot climate, is an emerging risk. Worker-specific responses that target social determinants of health and chronic exposure may be necessary, such as improving access to cooling among itinerant workers in temporary housing.

Rapidly reducing emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases is also essential to reduce climate change that will bring more frequent exposure to dangerous temperatures.

About a dozen farmworkers in long sleeves, jeans, hats and boots sit in the shade of a covered, open-air truck bed.
Farmworkers get a shade break while picking melons on a hot day in California. AP Photo/Terry Chea

Other gaps in the plan

The proposal for addressing the most pressing heat risks across America also has important gaps.

First, other environmental threats like air pollution exacerbate heat-related health impacts but aren’t currently factored in with high temperatures and humidity when developing workplace health and safety standards and heat-health policies. From emergency responders exposed to toxic dust at the Surfside Condo collapse to farmworkers facing wildfire smoke in Fresno, California, addressing heat and poor air quality together is a critical need.

Second, the proposal doesn’t address heat risk in other facilities, including prisons and migration detention centers. Here, heat protections and proper enforcement of those protections are critical for both the workers and the people in those facilities.

Third, in addition to increasing federal spending on cooling assistance, utilities could be required to stop residential utility shut-offs during extreme heat events. Although many utilities provide such protections to people with medical waivers, this process can be arduous.

Solutions should consider what influences a person’s vulnerability to heat, as well as their threat of chronic exposure. Ambitious heat safety policies are critical in a rapidly warming world.

Lynée Turek-Hankins, Ph.D. Student in Environmental Science & Policy, University of Miami and Katharine Mach, Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, University of Miami

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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EPA Administrator Regan announces comprehensive national strategy to confront PFAS pollution

“For far too long, families across America – especially those in underserved communities – have suffered from PFAS in their water, their air, or in the land their children play on,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “This comprehensive, national PFAS strategy will deliver protections to people who are hurting, by advancing bold and concrete actions that address the full lifecycle of these chemicals. Let there be no doubt that EPA is listening, we have your back, and we are laser focused on protecting people from pollution and holding polluters accountable.”

“This roadmap commits the EPA to quickly setting enforceable drinking water limits for these chemicals as well as giving stronger tools to communities to protect people’s health and the environment,” said North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. “As we continue partnering with the EPA on this and other important efforts, it is critical that Congress pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and the larger budget resolution that includes billions of dollars to address PFAS contamination.”

The Strategic Roadmap delivers on the agency’s mission to protect public health and the environment and answers the call for action on these persistent and dangerous chemicals. Today, alongside the release of the Roadmap, the agency is announcing a new national testing strategy that requires PFAS manufacturers to provide the agency with toxicity data and information on categories of PFAS chemicals. The PFAS to be tested will be selected based on an approach that breaks the large number of PFAS today into smaller categories based on similar features and considers what existing data are available for each category. EPA’s initial set of test orders for PFAS, which are expected in a matter of months, will be strategically selected from more than 20 different categories of PFAS. This set of orders will provide the agency with critical information on more than 2,000 other similar PFAS that fall within these categories.

The Roadmap lays out:

  • Aggressive timelines to set enforceable drinking water limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure water is safe to drink in every community.
  • A hazardous substance designation under CERCLA, to strengthen the ability to hold polluters financially accountable.
  • Timelines for action—whether it is data collection or rulemaking—on Effluent Guideline Limitations under the Clean Water Act for nine industrial categories.
  • review of past actions on PFAS taken under the Toxic Substances Control Act to address those that are insufficiently protective.
  • Increased monitoring, data collection and research so that the agency can identify what actions are needed and when to take them.
  • A final toxicity assessment for GenX, which can be used to develop health advisories that will help communities make informed decisions to better protect human health and ecological wellness.
  • Continued efforts to build the technical foundation needed on PFAS air emissions to inform future actions under the Clean Air Act.  

“I’m encouraged that EPA is giving this urgent public health threat the attention and seriousness it deserves,” said Senator Tom Carper. “This is truly a soup-to-nuts plan—one that commits to cleaning up PFAS in our environment while also putting protections in place to prevent more of these forever chemicals from finding their way into our lives. After the previous administration failed to follow through on its plan to address PFAS contamination, EPA’s new leadership promised action. I look forward to working with them on living up to this commitment.”

“Communities contaminated by these toxic forever chemicals have waited decades for action,” said Ken Cook, President of the Environmental Working Group. “So, it’s good news that Administrator Regan will fulfill President Biden’s pledge to take quick action to reduce PFOA and PFOS in tap water, to restrict industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water, and to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances to hold polluters accountable. It’s been more than 20 years since EPA and EWG first learned that these toxic forever chemicals were building up in our blood and increasing our likelihood of cancer and other health harms. It’s time for action, not more plans, and that’s what this Administrator will deliver. As significant as these actions are, they are just the first of many actions needed to protect us from PFAS, as the Administrator has said.”

EPA’s Strategic Roadmap is a critical step forward in addressing PFAS pollution. Every level of government – from local, to state, to Tribal, to federal will need to exercise increased and sustained leadership to continue the momentum and make progress on PFAS. President Biden has called for more than $10 billion in funding to address PFAS contamination through his Build Back Better agenda and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal. These critical resources will enable EPA and other federal agencies to scale up the research and work, so that they meet the scale of the PFAS challenge.

Over the coming weeks, EPA will be working to partner for progress on PFAS. The agency will be engaging with a wide range of stakeholders to continue to identify collaborative solutions to the PFAS challenge, including two national webinars that will be held on October 26 and November 2. Please RSVP to the webinars using the hyperlinked dates.  

Background

In April 2021, Administrator Regan established the EPA Council on PFAS to address the dangerous impacts of PFAS contamination and meet the needs of EPA’s partners and communities across the United States. To date, under the Biden-Harris Administration, EPA has:

  • Launched a national PFAS testing strategy. 
  • Restarted rule development process for designating PFOA and PFOS as CERCLA hazardous substances. 
  • Built momentum to set national primary drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS, 
  • Announced actions to stop companies from dumping PFAS into America’s waterways. 
  • Formed a workgroup to champion regulating PFAS as categories. 
  • Proposed a rule to expand data collection efforts on PFAS.
  • Started planning to conduct expanded nationwide monitoring for PFAS in drinking water. 
  • Announced robust review process for new PFAS. 
  • Released preliminary Toxics Release Inventory data on PFAS.  
  • Updated a toxicity assessment for PFBS after rigorous scientific review.
  • Released a draft PFBA toxicity assessment for public comment and external peer review.

Additional information on the Strategic Roadmap: www.epa.gov/pfas.

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