Archives for the month of: January, 2012

From PRI’s “The World”:

Robert Law raises sheep and grows sugar beets, wheat, barley oats and rye on his farm about an hour north of London.

It’s a big operation set on nearly 4,000 acres of rolling hills near the town of Royston. One key ingredient makes it all flourish — nitrogen fertilizer. Law said he uses it for almost all his crops, because his land is inherently very low in naturally-available nitrogen, which plants need to thrive./p>

Law is hardly alone. The invention of nitrogen-based fertilizer in 1909 helped fuel a global agricultural boom, and it’s been crucial in feeding a growing population ever since.

But a growing number of scientists say that boon to our food supply has come at a big cost — massive, nitrogen-based pollution.

Mark Sutton, of the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in the United Kingdom, said the threat to the environment is large

“We’ve known for many years that using nitrogen for fertilizer is a great thing for farming to increase productivity,” Sutton said. “But there’s a whole range of threats resulting from this nitrogen leaking into the environment.”

Nitrogen is an inert gas that’s necessary for life. But we’re changing it into forms that are harmful, overloading the environment with it, and throwing the natural nitrogen cycle out of whack, Sutton said. Nitrogen compounds running off farmland have led to water pollution around the world, while nitrogen emissions from industry, agriculture and vehicles make a big contribution to air pollution.

Sutton said the cost is immense. Last year he was part of a team of 200 scientists from 21 countries who studied the problem in the European Union. They calculated the dollar value of the damage from nitrogen pollution at between $90 billion and $400 billion per year.

That’s “a massive number,” Sutton said.

The cost comes to both the environment and human health. For instance, Sutton said, particulate air pollution caused in part by nitrogen shortens the lives of many Europeans by more than a year. Overall, the EU report estimated that the cost of nitrogen pollution in the EU is more than double the value that nitrogen fertilizers add to European farm income.

“So these are significant issues,” Sutton said.

The EU study is the first to calculate these costs in Europe. But Alan Townsend, an ecologist at the University of Colorado, insists nitrogen pollution is “unquestionably” a global problem.

The U.S. is also a major hotspot, and big problems are emerging in China, Southeast Asia and Latin America. The impacts of nitrogen pollution can be hard to recognize. Big environmental disasters like oil spills tend to grab all the attention, Townsend said, but “there is essentially a nitrogen spill everyday.”

The irony is that in the right places and chemical forms, nitrogen is valuable stuff. Every ounce of fertilizer that runs off a field into a river is a waste of resources and money. But Townsend said it’s a problem that shouldn’t be that hard to solve.

“This is not one of those problems where we sit around scratching our heads and say, ‘Man this is going to be a disaster, how are we going to deal with it, there’s nothing we can do,’” he said. “A lot of the solutions are right in front of us. It’s just about moving down that path.”

That path includes increasing the use of technology to cut nitrogen pollutants from power plants and vehicles, which is already widely used in the U.S. and Europe.

Cutting nitrogen pollution from food production is a more complicated challenge, but Townsend says on the farm field itself, it comes down to a simple principle: use fertilizer more efficiently.

“We have to approach it as an efficiency problem,” he said. “How do we maximize the benefits that we’re going to get from this stuff and minimize the unwanted consequences?”

Law is trying to rise to that challenge. He prides himself on running a farm that’s not only productive, but environmentally sensitive.

His tractor now sports a small computer console that his farmhands use to ensure each field gets only the exact amount of fertilizer it needs, depending on the crop, the season and the weather.

“We just program each individual field as we come to it,” said farm worker Mark Moule. ”Just press start and finish and one minute you’ll be putting 50 kilos on per hectare, next minute it’s 150.”

That kind of precision helps reduce the amount of nitrogen that runs off farm fields into nearby streams. It can also help save money on fertilizer.

But this kind of technology is expensive, and many smaller farms can’t afford it.

For his part, Law is willing to look for even more efficient ways to use fertilizer. But he warns that Britain and the rest of the world face a growing challenge when it comes to feeding a growing population.

“The area available for farming in this country is getting smaller each year,” Law laments. “Roads are being built, towns are being built.”

It’s a global trend — less farmland and more mouths to feed. And that will only add to the challenge of getting rid of the excess nitrogen we’ve been putting into the environment.

Listen to the story and get more information here.

From EENews:

As President Obama catches up, at least rhetorically, with drilling critics who have pushed for public disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals, activists are stressing that disclosure is not enough.

In his State of the Union address last night, Obama said he would implement a proposal bouncing around the Interior Department since 2010 to require drillers to publicly disclose the chemicals used when fracturing on public land (E&E Daily, Jan. 25). It was the only specific action he mentioned about how he would develop the country’s vast store of natural gas in shale formations “without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”

But activists stress that disclosure alone does not protect health and safety. Once the chemicals are known, they say, officials should move to make sure they are regulated, some would say banned.

“I can’t point to any community where that’s saved lives,” said Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist at Ithaca College, speaking at a conference earlier this month in the Washington area on drilling and public health.

At the same conference, Kathleen Hoke Dachille of the Network for Public Health Law pointed to U.S. EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, saying it has been helpful but “not transformative.”

“Disclosure is necessary, but not sufficient,” Dachille, director of the network’s Eastern region, said in an interview. “Detection is not prevention.”

Such sentiments are likely to rekindle suspicions in the oil and gas industry that disclosure is a Trojan horse in its persistent conflict with environmental groups.

“This isn’t the first time these folks have moved the goal posts on us, and we’re not naive enough to think it’ll be the last,” said Chris Tucker of the industry group Energy in Depth. “The bottom line here, at least for some of these groups, is that they don’t want us to produce the resource, plain and simple.”

Industry as a whole has moved grudgingly toward disclosure in the last few years, slowly giving up some of its concerns about revealing trade secrets.

While disclosure has gained acceptance among some companies and state regulators, actual public disclosure remains in its infancy. There is still no database of well-by-well fracturing chemicals that allows researchers to search by chemical or easily see how often a chemical has been used. In many states, public disclosure remains voluntary.

The industry-preferred method of disclosure, a website called FracFocus.org, included lists of chemicals used for 5,200 wells as of October. Operators could upload the data from any well “fracked” after Jan. 1, 2011. But more than 30,000 wells had been drilled in the United States through October (E&ENews PM, Oct. 21, 2011).

Disclosure requirements in Colorado and Texas have yet to go into effect. Colorado starts in April and Texas starts in February. Wyoming has required disclosure since September 2010.

After all the political fights over disclosure, there is little mention of the chemicals actually listed, which include diesel fuel and other carcinogens.

More.

From :

With an eye toward envisioning a Farm Bill that promotes health, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Jennifer Billig will provide an overview of the Farm Bill and its intersections with public health, including the kinds of farming and eating the bill currently supports.

Roni Neff, PhD of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health will enrich the discussion by sharing an innovative new web-based tool that allows visual analysis of Farm Bill spending. Using the Farm Bill Budget Visualizer, Neff will answer questions like, “What portion of the overall Farm Bill goes to fruits and vegetables, to commodity crops, or to industrial food animal production?” and “How big are some of the public health initiatives within the Farm Bill?”, demonstrating graphically how the provisions and budgets within the bill tie into the nation’s public health and environmental sustainability. Beth Hoffman of Food+Tech Connect will also join us to share highlights from the Farm Bill Hackathon, an event held in early December that brought together policy experts with designers and developers to create more visually interesting representations of the Farm Bill.

From USA Today:

Children exposed to chemicals called PFCs — used in some non-stick cookware, stain-resistant coatings, fast-food packaging and microwave popcorn bags — have a reduced response to vaccines, raising the possibility that the compounds could prevent children from being adequately protected against disease, a new study shows.

The study, published today’s Journal of the American Medical Association, focused on perfluorinated compounds, hundreds of which are in use, says study author Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health. Children can be exposed prenatally as well as environmentally.

Because the compounds are water- and grease-resistant, they are used as coatings on paper plates, rainwear, upholstery and other uses. They can be absorbed through food, water and the dust from treated textiles. A 2011 report found that six of 10 paper bags and cardboard boxes used for food packaging contained PFCs.

Scientists measured children’s exposure by taking blood samples from their mothers during pregnancy, and from the children at ages 5 and 7.

At age 5, just before receiving a scheduled booster shot, 26% had antibody concentrations too low to protect them from tetanus; 37% had levels too low to protect from diptheria. Researchers gave them booster shots to provide additional protection, Grandjean says.

Children with the highest prenatal PFC exposure had the lowest response to vaccinations, as measured by the antibodies produced after they received the shots, the study says. Doubling a child’s PFC exposure cut immune response in half.

“That’s a pretty impressive effect, and one that deserves attention,” says Peter Hotez, director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, who wasn’t involved in the study. It “gives us pause for concern.”

The study involved 587 children born from 1999 to 2001 in Denmark, where people eat a lot of seafood, which can be heavily contaminated with PFCs. The results are very relevant to American children, whose PFC levels are even higher, says the study, sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Danish government.

Grandjean acknowledges that his study’s design doesn’t definitively prove that PFCs compromise children’s vaccine response. It’s possible that something else affected their response, says Paul Offit, chief of infectious disease at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. For example, it would help to know if children with higher PFC levels have any basic immune system problems, independent of vaccines.

The EPA and chemical industry phased out U.S. production of one of these compounds, PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, in 2002. Since then, blood tests show that exposure to this chemical have declined, Grandjean says. Manufacturers are in the process of phasing out another major compound, called PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid.

“But other PFCs may be increasing,” Grandjean says. “PFOS is now produced in large amounts in China.”

More.

A documentary that examines the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico following the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

From the Madison Capital Times:

When Republicans passed their far-reaching tort reform bill last year, they did away with the effects of a 2005 state Supreme Court ruling that made six paint manufacturers potentially responsible for a Milwaukee boy’s lead poisoning. Now, in a move that raises constitutional questions, Republicans want to apply the new court standards to cases already in court.

The proposal, Senate Bill 373, would invalidate so-called “risk contribution” theory by requiring plaintiffs in 173 pending cases to identify the producer of the paint that poisoned their children. The risk contribution theory, adopted by the high court, allowed the family of Steven Thomas to sue the paint companies even though the family couldn’t identify which company produced the paint that poisoned him.

The theory was not new. It was adopted by the state’s high court in 1984 in Collins vs. Eli Lilly, a case that dealt with the miscarriage-prevention drug diethylstilbestrol, which was linked to vaginal cancer.

In the Thomas case, the Supreme Court ruling did not decide it. It only allowed the lawsuit to proceed. If the companies lost, they would share a degree of liability for producing the paint.

Peter Earle represented Thomas and is the attorney for the 173 children in the current cases. On Thursday Earle said at a state Senate judiciary committee hearing that he’d never seen litigation that changed the rules in pending court cases, and for the benefit of specific litigants.

“It’s obnoxious. It’s onerous. It’s something that I would expect to happen in North Korea, not the United States of America,” he said.

The bill, introduced only last week, is moving at breakneck speed, getting a hastily scheduled public hearing on Thursday. Introduced by Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, the proposal also apparently has the blessing of Republican leadership. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has signed on as a co-sponsor.

“When a court does something that’s as outrageous as (the Thomas ruling), when they retroactively tell businesses that were producing paint in 1900 or 1910 that not only can you be liable for damages … but you have to be liable for any paint produced by any paint company in the United States in 1900, obviously you can’t operate commerce with that type of decision made,” Grothman said at the hearing.

Business interests were also enraged by the Thomas decision when it came out in 2005. In fact, they launched a successful electoral crusade to tilt the liberal court toward the conservative side. In 2008 the author of the Thomas decision, former Justice Louis Butler, lost his bid for reelection after business interests spent millions to back Michael Gableman, an obscure, conservative circuit court judge.

Grothman said Thursday that the pending lead paint cases were “filed at the last minute” to beat last year’s Feb. 1 enactment of the state’s “tort reform” bill, but Earle said he filed his cases before the law was even proposed, some as early as 2006.

Grothman didn’t restrict his comments to the bill. He questioned the notion, which has been well-documented over decades, that paint in the home can cause lead poisoning.

“Quite frankly, it’s scandalous that lawyers are leading people to believe that the lead paint in these houses is responsible for the increases in the (lead) levels in their blood,” he said.

Earle cited state health department statistics showing that Wisconsin is far above the national average in lead poisoning, and that the bulk of poisoning cases are concentrated in inner-city Milwaukee.

Earle, who showed up with several of the children he is representing who suffer from lead poisoning, said he was offended by Grothman’s comment.

“These children are born into socioeconomic situations that have every single burden that society can impose upon them imposed upon them,” he said. “And then what lead poisoning does is attacks the very gift that God gave them — their cognitive capacity, their ability to try to stand up and persevere over that.”

Earle also charged that the bill is an inside job, designed specifically to circumvent litigation in the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the cases are being litigated.

He said the parties were arguing the case on Jan. 9 and word that the bill had been drafted prompted the paint industry attorneys to cut arguments short. Two hours later, he said, Grothman sent out an email instructing the Legislative Reference Bureau to ready the bill.

“I believe it was put in the hopper so the six lead paint manufacturers had it in their back pocket, depending on how they saw the litigation in Chicago going,” Earle charged.

Grothman didn’t deny that the bill was designed to help the paint industry by eradicating the effects of the 2005 Supreme Court ruling.

Questioned by state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, about the origin of anonymous memos in the bill’s drafting documents that were incorporated in the bill, Grothman said he didn’t know where they came from.

“I’ve never seen it before,” Erpenbach said about the insertion of an anonymous memo in the drafting documents.

Critics say the bill could go much further than just protecting the paint industry.

“If you don’t like the court decision, why didn’t you just come in with a bill, a simple bill, that in effect repeals the court decision, rather than come up with a bill that may have serious, unintended results?” asked state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison. “Because this affects not only the paint case; it affects other cases.”

More.

From Living on Earth:

It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.Until last March there had never been an earthquake recorded near Youngstown, Ohio. But since then there have been 11- the last one on New Year’s Eve. The epicenter was near an injection well used by gas drillers to dump millions of gallons of wastewater from hydro-fracking – much of it from nearby Pennsylvania’s gas-rich shale deposits.

Did the disposal of the fracking waste cause the Ohio quakes? Well, the jury is still out, but the polluted fracking water is filled with chemicals and it is extremely salty – 5 times saltier than seawater. Before they began pumping Pennsylvania’s fracking waste into Ohio wells much of it ended up in rivers and streams, and posed a risk to drinking water.

Pennsylvania officials thought they solved the problem when they banned fracking water from treatment plants, but that didn’t work. Reid Frazier of the radio program The Allegheny Front reports, scientists are now scrambling to find out why not, and what to do about it.

FRAZIER: Frank Blaskovich is standing on a catwalk over a pool of water near the Ohio River. He points at a series of pipes draining into the far end of the pool.

BLASKOVICH: What we’re seeing is out of those seven standpipes over there… that’s the river water coming in.

FRAZIER: Blaskovich manages the Wheeling, West Virginia, water treatment plant. His job is to take water from the Ohio and make it into safe drinking water for his city of 30,000. But since 2008, the Ohio has been too salty. So he’s had to dilute it with groundwater from backup wells. Blaskovich doesn’t like doing this because each added step costs money.

BLASKOVICH: The price of water will eventually go up which probably will lead to a possible rate hike.

FRAZIER: But he’s blending the river water anyway because it’s got high levels of bromide. Bromide is a salt, and by itself it’s harmless. But combined with chlorine, at a drinking water plant like this one, it forms chemicals called trihalomethanes. Long term exposure to trihalomethanes increases the risk of bladder and other cancers. Because of high bromide levels in the rivers, Wheeling and dozens of plants in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia have violated the EPA’s limits on trihalomethanes over the last three years.

Bromides come from many places–sea water, coal-fired power plants, and chemicals. But the Ohio’s spike in bromide occurred three years ago, and Blaskovich thinks that’s no coincidence.

BLASKOVICH: That’s when deep drilling for gas sort of took off up in this area of the country.

FRAZIER: Each Marcellus shale gas well produces millions of gallons of salty water. The water is full of bromides, and until recently, drillers in Western Pennsylvania trucked this brine to wastewater plants for disposal. The plants could treat the water for metals and other pollutants, but not bromides. That requires expensive new technology. The plants would simply release the treated water–bromides and all–into rivers and streams.

But after trihalomethane levels started creeping up at drinking water plants, regulators took interest. In March, the EPA expressed concern over Pennsylvania’s handling of Marcellus discharge, and a month later, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection asked drillers to stop sending wastewater to treatment plants. DEP secretary Mike Krancer said a voluntary program would simply be quicker than making a new rule.

KRANCER: The industry– and I knew they would–did the responsible thing and complied, so we had compliance in 28 hours instead of 28 months.

FRAZIER: According to DEP records reviewed by The Allegheny Front, the request stopped most, but not all drillers from sending Marcellus shale brine to these plants. After the request was made, some facilities, like the Franklin Brine Treatment plant, south of Erie, saw their oil and gas wastewater shipments drop by 70 percent.

Drillers say they are recycling more of their water now, or sending it to Ohio, where it’s injected into deep storage wells. So if drillers are sending much less of their salty water to treatment plants, bromide levels in the rivers should be going down. But, at least this year, that hasn’t been the case. Jeanne Van Briesen is a Carnegie Mellon scientist who’s monitored bromide on the Monongahela River for the past two years.

VAN BRIESEN: We thought in such a wet year, we would see almost no bromide, it would be below our detection limit in most of our samples, and it was not.

FRAZIER: But the question remains, where is the bromide coming from?

Read or listen to the rest of the story here.

From the Denver Post:

Black goo is still seeping into waterways from Suncor Energy’s oil refinery north of Denver, and the latest tests show benzene levels 48 times the limit for drinking water, even downstream of the point at which Sand Creek flows into the South Platte River.

Federal labor officials have launched an investigation of possible worker exposures at the refinery, where tap water also is tainted.

State regulators say they’re working with Suncor to find a way to block the toxic material from burbling into the bed of Sand Creek.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data — from samples taken by Suncor — showed benzene concentrations at 720 parts per billion on Jan. 9 at the point where Sand Creek meets the South Platte, up from 190 on Jan. 6, and 144 times higher than the 5 ppb national drinking-water standard. Benzene is a chemical found in crude oil that is classified as cancer-causing, especially affecting blood.

Downriver on the South Platte, the data show benzene at 240 ppb on Jan. 9, a decrease from 590 on Jan. 6 but still 48 times higher than the standard.

The South Platte River is the main water source for northeastern Colorado and the Denver area.

Spilled contaminants from decades of refinery operations at the site have seeped underground, “and it is snaking through. The pressures change. It finds the path of least resistance, and that’s apparently what has happened: It has found the path of least resistance to get into Sand Creek,” Colorado health department environmental-programs director Martha Rudolph said in an interview last week.

“We were not expecting that to occur,” she said. “If we were expecting that to occur, we would have taken steps to stop it.”

State regulators favor construction of underground clay walls at the creek and the refinery to try to block toxic material before it spreads; vapor-extraction systems to remove it from soil; and pumping of contaminated groundwater — all aimed at preventing further pollution.

They characterized the spill as one where hydrocarbons dissolved in groundwater enter through the bottom of Sand Creek, which carries them into the river. Aerators are being installed on Sand Creek to try to release toxic vapors trapped in water into the air — which is analogous to blowing through a straw in a fizzy drink to release what is trapped in the bubbles.

Preventing further pollution of Sand Creek has become a top-tier priority, Rudolph said. “We need to accelerate our responding to that particular issue — to get it out of Sand Creek, to stop that.”

For utilities such as Aurora Water, which serves 335,000 people, the situation has proved the importance of state-of-the-art water-treatment systems that can remove benzene before water reaches residents’ homes. Aurora Water currently is not drawing from its Prairie Waters intake system, 13 miles downriver, and will assess the upstream seepage before doing so, spokesman Greg Baker said.

Shortly after the spill was discovered Nov. 28, benzene in Sand Creek reached 120,000 ppb, according to state data released after a written request by The Denver Post.

Under Suncor’s property, a monitoring well detected benzene in groundwater at 74,000 ppb, with ethyl benzene at 7,300 ppb (standard is 700), toluene at 110,000 ppb (standard: 1,000), and xylenes at 38,000 ppb (standard: 1,400).

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating both air and water on Suncor property in response to a complaint that workers may have been exposed.

“It’s going to definitely take weeks, by the time we review all the information,” said Herb Gibson, director of OSHA’s Denver-area office. “We have not found any over-exposures. We’re focusing on benzene because that is the chemical that has the lowest exposure limit.”

However, OSHA lacks jurisdiction to look into the situation at the nearby Metro Wastewater plant, where toxic vapors forced workers to wear respirators and the closure of a technical-services building.

More.

Image from Flickr.

From Toronto Star:

A new study has found early exposure to a chemical commonly used in dry-cleaning can increase the risk of developing bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress syndrome.

The study, published in the open access journal Environmental Health, examined the impact of the solvent — known as tetrachloroethylene or PCE — which leached into the water supply from vinyl-lined water pipes used in the Cape Cod area.

PCE and vinyl resin were used to attach liners to the water pipes. The pipes were dried for 48 hours before being shipped for use. It was thought that the PCE would evaporate before the pipes were installed. But that didn’t appear to be the case.

Quantities of PCE seem to have stayed on the liner and ended up leaching into the public water supply, said Ann Aschengrau, a professor and epidemiologist at Boston University School of Public Health who conducted the study.

Aschengrau and a team of researchers did a retrospective cohort study on 1,500 subjects, born between 1969 and 1983 in the Cape Cod area. They were traced through their current address and telephone number, credit bureau records, telephone books and the Internet.

Eight hundred and thirty-one of them were identified as being exposed to the solvent through drinking water either prenatally or in early childhood, Aschengrau said in an interview with the Star.

Through data linked to their mothers’ addresses and the water distribution companies’ information on where the pipes were located, the researchers were able to find who had been exposed to the PCE-laden water.

They sent questionnaires to all the participants, asking about a variety of things, including mental illness. They were asked if a doctor or health-care provider ever said they had depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

In sifting through the data, the researchers found a high increased risk for bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder.

“There was an 80 per cent increased risk for bipolar disorder in those who were exposed to PCE,” Aschengrau said.

“And there was a further increase risk in those who were highly exposed — a 170 per cent increase for bipolar disorder.”

There was also a 50 per cent increased risk for those who were exposed to the PCE for post traumatic stress disorder and it rose to 70 per cent amongst those who were highly exposed, she said.

The number of cases of schizophrenia was too small to draw reliable conclusions, the study said. Nor was the risk of depression associated with prenatal and childhood PCE exposure.

“Prior studies have found increases in risk of depression and anxiety and mood disorders among people who are occupationally exposed to PCE. I think it’s the first time it has been examined,” said Aschengrau.

More research needs to be done and her study corroborated, she said. The study was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Research Program.

In the meantime, she said that people should be wary of PCE, which is considered a serious carcinogen and a “well recognized animal and human neurotoxicant.”

More.

From Environmental Health News:

A study raises concern about children’s exposure to mercury through fish eating, tying it for the first time to hormone changes that increase chronic stress and associated immune system dysfunction.

The mercury levels measured in the children were well below the levels considered a health risk by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This new study from Oswego County, New York, finds that higher mercury levels measured in the children’s blood are significantly associated with lower cortisol levels. The hormone cortisol is released in response to stress and is important for metabolism, immune responses and blood pressure. Its levels naturally fluctuate during the day – levels are higher in the morning and lower in the afternoon.

Even lower cortisol levels and responses can result in chronic stress even though stress increases the hormone’s level. The study’s results suggest that mercury exposure at levels commonly seen in fish eating populations may do this. It may act as a chronic stressor and disrupt the stress response. Chronic stress means the body doesn’t relax – cells continually function in high gear and do not return to a normal state. Long-term stress can have many negative health effects such as increased heart disease, more metabolic disorders and lowered immunity.

The findings are in line with prior studies in people and fish. The toxic metal increased inflammation in miners exposed to mercury. Animal studies find reduced cortisol levels in mercury-contaminated fish after capture stress.

Fish consumption is a major source both of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and toxic mercury. Omega-3s benefit health by protecting against heart disease. Mercury is potentially harmful because it affects the brain and nervous system in children. Although there are fish advisories in many states, it is still uncertain whether the benefit of eating fish outweighs the potential harm in children.

To address the pros and cons of fish eating in children, the researchers examined 100 children from 9 to 11 years old in New York State. Parents reported children’s fish consumption, which was categorized as eating or not in the analysis. Blood mercury levels, blood lipids, cortisol in saliva and inflammation markers were measured. Blood lipids indicate future heart disease risk; cortisol reflects changes of stress response; and inflammation markers indicate immune response differences.

Fish eaters had higher HDL – or so called good cholesterol – related to lower heart disease risk, than non-fish eaters. However, the fish eaters also had much higher – almost three times higher – mercury levels than non-fish eaters (1.1 and 0.4 microgram per liter, respectively).

More.

From Reuters:

In a study of more than 4,000 black women in Los Angeles, those who lived in areas with higher levels of traffic-related air pollution were at increased risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure.

The researchers, led by Patricia Coogan at Boston University, found that black women living in neighborhoods with high levels of nitrogen oxides, pollutants found in traffic exhaust, were 25 percent more likely to develop diabetes and 14 percent more likely to develop hypertension than those living in sections with cleaner air.

Previous research has linked air pollution to health problems such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease and even higher rates of death.

“The public health implications are huge,” said Dr. Jiu-Chiuan Chen, who studies the effects of air pollution at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, especially for black women, who have higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure than white women. He was not involved in the current work.

Forty-four percent of all black women in the U.S. have high blood pressure and about 11 percent have diabetes compared with 28 percent and roughly seven percent, respectively, of white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black Americans also experience higher levels of air pollution than white Americans, according to the study authors.

For their investigation, published in Circulation, the researchers followed participants in the ongoing Black Women’s Health Study for 10 years. The women were mainly recruited from subscribers to Essence magazine, and none had diabetes or high blood pressure when the study began in 1995.

Over the course of a decade, 531 women developed high blood pressure and 183 women were diagnosed with diabetes.

The findings on their relative risks for those conditions take into account several other potential influences, including how heavy the women were, whether they smoked and other stressors, including noise levels at participants’ homes.

Although researchers measured average pollution levels near participants’ homes for only one year of the ten-year study, Coogan told Reuters Health that air pollution patterns remained relatively constant over the entire study period.

While Coogan and her colleagues estimated nitrogen oxide concentrations near participants’ homes, they did not account for commuting habits or exposure to air pollution at work. According to the researchers, Americans, on average, spend about 70 percent of their time at home.

In addition to measuring nitrogen oxides, a proxy for traffic pollution, the researchers evaluated levels of fine particulate matter. Many sources contribute to this type of air pollution, including traffic, power plants and industrial processes.

Women who lived in areas with higher fine particulate exposures also faced an increased risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, although statistically the link was weak and could have been due to chance.

Previous reports have suggested that air pollution particles small enough to make their way into the blood stream may contribute to a narrowing of blood vessels, which can lead to high blood pressure and reduce sensitivity to insulin.

More.

Image from Flickr.

From Environmental Health News:

Paul Anastas, one of the fathers of green chemistry, is leaving his high-ranking post at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency next month and returning to Yale University. During an interview with Jane Kay of Environmental Health News, Anastas, who will remain at his post for another month or so, said there has been a “growing realization across EPA” that green chemistry “can meet environmental and economic goals simultaneously.” During his two years as science advisor and assistant administrator at EPA’s Office of Research and Development, Anastas played a key role in many controversial issues, including use of dispersants during the Gulf oil spill and the agency’s long-awaited analysis of dioxin.  –Marla Cone, Editor in Chief

Q
: Why are you leaving the EPA to return to Yale University?

A: I was just describing to some folks in Washington that people always say they’re leaving their positions to spend more time with their family. Sometimes it’s actually true. In the confirmation hearings, I was asked why I’d leave a perfect life. I said I considered it to be an extension of my love for my family, for my children. That fact in so many ways was necessary for me to leave them for this time. We’ve made some important changes at the EPA. It’s time for me to go home.

I have a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old. The 1-year-old was born during the Gulf oil spill. Some of the most painful time is spending time in the Gulf of Mexico away from your wife when you have a newborn-to-be. We had a large town hall meeting in the Gulf of Mexico. Someone asked how do we know that you people in Washington care about us in the Gulf. I said I have a 6-week baby and I’ve been down here for the last five weeks. You can be sure I care what’s happening. I’ve been gone half of my oldest daughter’s life, and all of my youngest daughter’s life.
Q: How have you instituted the principles of green chemistry at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?

A: The most important thing is that there’s been this realization: the only reason to deeply understand a problem is to inform and empower its solutions. The EPA has a long history of understanding how toxic certain chemicals are. There’s this realization now that we can actually design chemicals and design manufacturing so they are less toxic and less polluting.

I can point to the work that’s going on in the labs in Cincinnati developing new manufacturing processes, new synthetic methodologies and new nano materials making sure that you get the new performance without the concerns and the hazards. I can point to our work at Research Triangle Park in computational toxicology, which is informing molecular design to reduce hazards. We’re doing it in our internal research, in our research grant programs to universities and in continuing the green chemistry awards that recognize accomplishments. This is part of solution orientation, how you use innovation to generate solution rather than only quantifying the problem. There is a growing realization across EPA that this approach can meet environmental and economic goals simultaneously.

Q: What do you think is your greatest accomplishment at the EPA?

A: My role in advancing the “Green Book” produced by the National Academies of Science. It is one of the best reports that I’ve ever seen from the NAS, and is something that I’m glad to be a part of. The “Green Book,” or “Sustainability and the U.S. EPA,” is a tremendously informative and powerful document that has received contributions from representatives of industry, academia, public health and non-governmental organizations. Its recommendations are currently being reviewed and deliberated by the agency this spring as part of the ongoing listening sessions to get people’s perspectives about sustainability. The whole point is that we have 25 years of knowledge. This “Green Book” outlines the scientific, technical and analytical way to put sustainability into practice. While it is directed at the EPA, it is far more broadly applicable for people who want to put sustainability into practice.

Q
: What still needs to be done at the EPA?

A: We need to strengthen scientific and legal foundations, expand the conversation on environmentalism to communities who have not traditionally been included and introduce innovation into consideration of all of the work that we do.

Q: What are your thoughts on the White House’s decision to withdraw a tougher ozone standard?

A: The president takes into account many factors in making decisions. The timing of any actions needs to be considered as well. The science of the ozone assessment is very solid and is never in question. The standards on ozone are ones that the agency will revisit in the future in accordance with the law.

More.

From The Independent:

Olympic athletes could suffer impaired performance times and become ill as a result of London’s unacceptably high levels of air pollution, leading respiratory scientists are warning.

Fears are growing that during the Games, beginning in July, athletes, who take in much more air than a sedentary person, will take in high levels of pollutants such as particulates, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, and could suffer pulmonary irritation, chest pain and decreased lung capacity. Such a situation would be a disaster for London when the city is on show to the world.

But it is considered a real possibility in certain weather conditions, as levels in the capital of several pollutants are so high that they are in breach of EU limits, putting the UK at risk of a £300m fine.

London has the highest levels of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the EU, and has received a series of legal warnings for failing to comply with European laws governing PM10s, tiny specks of particulate matter 10 microns across (a micron is a millionth of a metre). The capital’s air quality is also affected by the gas ozone, created by pollutants from vehicle exhausts reacting with sunlight.

Experts say that the risk for the Games is that in certain summer weather conditions – in particular, a “temperature inversion” in which on still, hazy days, a layer of warm air traps pollutants close to the ground – the pollution levels could go so high as to affect athletes’ health and performance.

Temperature inversions are common, and affect people more in the summer, according to the Met Office. “It’s not a rare thing. It can happen all the time,” a Met Office spokesman said yesterday. “If we have a high-pressure temperature inversion period, there may well be high levels of ozone and nitrogen dioxide and these could induce coughs, breathlessness and other problems,” said Professor Sir Malcolm Green, spokesman for the British Lung Association.

Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London, said: “If we’re unlucky we’re going to get bad publicity for our air quality. Athletes, such as marathon runners and cyclists, need to breathe very hard. If it’s a high-pollution day, they will be taking in large amounts of pollution. Their chests may tighten up, they may feel pain and shortness of breath, and for certain conditions such as asthma they may need medication.

“A few athletes may not attain the performances they hoped to and they might spend a few days feeling unwell. From an athletic point of view, they will not be at the best of their ability.”

Simon Birkett, director of the campaign group Clean Air in London, said yesterday: “The Mayor of London [Boris Johnson] needs to show the world that the Olympic city is determined to tackle this massive public health crisis by banning the most polluting vehicles from the Olympic route network.”

However, there is no sign of London taking the drastic action that was seen at the last Olympics in Beijing, when the Chinese government issued a blanket ban on more than half the city’s cars and shut down polluting industries, at a cost of £6bn.

Mr Johnson introduced a long-term air quality strategy for the capital in December 2010 but this is aimed at improvements in the medium to long term. An update to the strategy, introduced in May last year, includes several measures designed to have a shorter-term impact, including a ban on motor vehicle engine idling at priority locations, the use of dust suppressants and “green infrastructure”, such as screens of trees.

More.

Image from Flickr.

An Al Jazeera report on London’s air pollution problem (and one partial solution):

From Reuters:

Nurses who worked with chemotherapy drugs or sterilizing chemicals were twice as likely to have a miscarriage as their colleagues who didn’t handle these materials, in a new study.

Lead author Christina Lawson, a researcher at the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), said she was not too surprised that exposure to certain chemicals would be tied to lost pregnancies.

“What surprised me the most was that (chemotherapy) drugs are something we’ve been trying to educate nurses on, about the hazards, and we’re still finding exposures during the first trimester,” Lawson told Reuters Health.

Because chemotherapy drugs typically target rapidly dividing cells, such as those in a tumor — or a fetus, they have been a concern for pregnant women who come into contact with them, Lawson said.

Not all previous research has agreed on whether nurses’ exposures at work are tied to more miscarriages, though.

To help resolve the issue, Lawson and her colleagues set out to do a larger study than the earlier ones.

They surveyed nearly 7,500 nurses who had had a pregnancy between 1993 and 2002.

The nurses were asked to remember how often they worked with certain chemicals or equipment, such as X-rays, anesthesia, anti-cancer drugs and disinfectants, during each trimester.

One out of every 10 nurses ended up losing her pregnancy before the half-way point, 20 weeks.

Lawson said that number seems similar to the rate of miscarriages in the general population.

However, among nurses who handled chemotherapy drugs for more than an hour a day, that rate was double – about two out of every 10 nurses lost her pregnancy.

NIOSH is the organization that provides safe-handling recommendations for workers who use chemicals.

Barbara Sattler, a nursing professor at the University of Maryland, said the results reflect a lack of adherence to those safety guidelines.

“I know most hospitals try to do the best they can, but if all these nurses are lining up with spontaneous abortions…it’s a significant issue to be addressed,” said Sattler, who was not involved in this study.

Nurses who gave patients X-rays had a slightly higher risk of miscarriage too, about thirty percent larger than nurses who didn’t work with X-rays.

And nurses who handled sterilizing agents, such as ethylene oxide or formaldehyde, more than an hour a day also had a doubled risk of miscarriage, but only during the second trimester.

Lawson said that miscarriages during the second trimester might result from a toxin affecting the mother’s ability to carry the baby, whereas a miscarriage in the first trimester suggests the toxin is affecting the fetus.

She added that it’s difficult to determine the cause of the miscarriages seen in the study because the researchers don’t know which chemicals each woman had contact with, and for how long.

More.

From CNN:

As a third-grader in Winsted, Connecticut, last year, Matthew Asselin was sick — a lot. He was lethargic and plagued with a persistent wet cough, respiratory infections and painful headaches.

As the school year wound down, Matthew’s health worsened. He was out for two weeks in the spring with pneumonia and then developed a sinus infection so severe he needed to spend the night at the hospital, where he received intravenous antibiotics and breathing treatments.

In all, Matthew missed 53 days of school.

But over the summer, a strange thing happened. Matthew was healthy. He was energetic. He could ride his bike for hours at a time.

“When we put him back in school this year, within three weeks, he missed 10 days with a respiratory infection,” Melissa Asselin said. That’s when Matthew’s mother had an a-ha moment.

“When he was out of school, he was well. When he was in school, he became ill,” Asselin said.

Matthew’s parents concluded that the 9-year-old’s school, Hinsdale Elementary, was making their son sick.

Indoor air problems

Figures are hard to come by, but studies have estimated that a third or more of U.S. schools have mold, dust and other indoor air problems serious enough to provoke respiratory issues like asthma in students and teachers.

A national survey of school nurses found that 40% knew children and staff adversely affected by indoor pollutants.

Indoor air affects more than health. A growing body of research suggests students also perform better in schools with healthier air.

“If you get an unhealthy building, you’re not going to have a successful school,” said Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the United States.

“Asthma is the number one chronic illness that keeps kids out of school, and it’s growing,” Eskelsen added.

More.

Programming note: For more about environmental health issues in the classroom, watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s report “Toxic Schools” on “CNN Presents” Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET on CNN.

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