Archives for the month of: November, 2010

Chicago Tribune: Metra riders subjected to high amounts of diesel soot.

Day after day, thousands of commuters are breathing high levels of toxic diesel pollution trapped in Chicago’s two major rail stations and even inside the trains they ride, a Tribune investigation has found. Testing by the newspaper found the amount of diesel soot lingering in the air steadily increases as commuters walk deeper into Union Station or the Ogilvie Transportation Center. Levels of the lung– and heart-damaging pollution jump higher on platforms, where acrid blue clouds of diesel exhaust hover between trains, many of them built in the 1970s. It gets dramatically worse, not better, after boarding a train. As the doors close and the locomotive pulls out of the station, Tribune testing found, the air trapped inside the stainless-steel cars contains levels of diesel soot up to 72 times higher than on the streets outside.More . . .

Tampa Tribune: The enemy didn’t hurt soldier in Iraq; the toxic smoke did.

Bill McKenna served two tours as a U.S. Army sergeant in Iraq. No bullet ever hit him, no shrapnel from an improvised explosive device ever pierced his skin. But sitting on the couch of his Spring Hill home, it’s obvious he’s suffering from the wounds of war: He’s blind in one eye, is missing some teeth and his head is scarred. He has cancer, knee problems, doesn’t hear well and has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. McKenna’s cancer, according to him and to his doctors at the James A. Haley Veteran’s Hospital, is directly attributable to constant exposure to the thick, acrid smoke that wafted almost every hour of every day across Balad Air Base in Iraq where McKenna was stationed for about 18 months. In bases across Afghanistan and Iraq, amputated body parts, Humvee parts, human waste, plastic meal trays and other garbage is incinerated, using jet fuel, in large trenches called burn pits. The smoke billowing from the pits is so pervasive it can be seen from miles away. More . . .

Chemical & Engineering News: Fetal origins of disease.

A growing body of scientific research suggests that exposure to chemical toxicants in the womb can lead to chronic health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, later in life. Although scientists agree that the evidence is compelling, many of them are frustrated because such data aren’t being used in regulatory decision-making and risk assessment.  More . . .

In May of 2008, Newsweek Science writer and author Sharon Begley reviewed the book “Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health.”

* * *

That science can be bought is hardly news to anyone who knows about tobacco “scientists.” But how pervasive, effective and stealthy this science-for-hire is—as masterfully documented by David Michaels of George Washington University in his new book, “Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health”—will shock anyone who still believes that “science” and “integrity” are soulmates. In studies of how toxic chemicals affect human health, Michaels told me, “It’s quite easy to take a positive result [showing harmful effects] and turn it falsely negative. This epidemiological alchemy is used widely.”

The alchemy is all in how you design your study and massage the data. Want to show that chemical x does not raise the risk of cancer? Then follow the exposed population for only a few years, since the cancers that most chemicals cause take 20 or 30 years to show up. Since workers are healthier than the general population, they start with a lower death rate; only by comparing rates of something the chemical is specifically suspected of causing—a particular lung disease, perhaps—can you detect a problem. Or, combine data on groups who got a lot of the suspect chemical, such as factory workers, with those who got little or none, perhaps their white-collar bosses. The low disease rates in the latter will dilute the high rates in the former, making it seem that x isn’t that toxic. All these ruses have been used, delaying government action on chemicals including benzene, vinyl chloride, asbestos, chromium, beryllium and a long list of others that cause cancer in humans. “Any competent epidemiologist can employ particular tricks of the trade when certain results are desired,” Michaels writes.

* * *

This is all very big business. “Product-defense firms” have sprung up to spin the science and manufacture doubt—proudly. . . .

Make no mistake: raising doubt has run up the body count. By the early 1980s, for instance, studies had shown that children who took aspirin when they had a viral infection such as chickenpox were at greater risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, which damages the brain and liver and is fatal in about one case in three. Desperate to protect their market, aspirin makers claimed the science was flawed, called for more research (a constant refrain), and ran public-service announcements assuring parents, “We do know that no medication has been proven to cause Reye’s.” The campaign delayed by years the requirement that aspirin carry a warning label about children and Reye’s. In the interim, thousands of kids developed Reye’s. Hundreds died.

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Video of David Michaels authors@Google presentation.

From Chemical & Engineering News:

Daniel Horowitz, the recently appointed managing director of the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), began his first speech in his new role as top staff member with a grim litany of deadly chemical accidents.

Speaking to the CSB staff in September, Horowitz, an organic chemist with a decade of experience on the accident board, laid out a list of tragedies that occurred in the past century—a high school in New London, Texas, where unodorized natural gas exploded in 1937 killing 269 students and 24 teachers; a Los Angeles electroplating plant in which mishandled perchloric acid exploded in 1947 ending the lives of 17 people including a 12-year-old boy riding by on his bike; an Indiana refinery and tower that blew up in 1955, blasting tons of debris and killing a three-year-old boy sleeping in his home; a refinery in Sunray, Texas, where a pentane/hexane tank caught fire in 1956 killing 19 firefighters.

Horowitz then asked CSB’s accident investigators and safety experts to provide details of what went wrong.

“Even among our audience of chemical safety professionals,” he tells C&EN, “no one could provide details of exactly what happened. My point is that one day all accidents are doomed to be forgotten.

“The board’s challenge is to make sure that some permanent change occurs to a code, an industrial practice, or a regulation so that after the accidents, the victims, and the investigations have been swept away by time, something valuable still endures.”

Each older accident in some way, Horowitz says, mirrors one of the 60-plus accidents the board has investigated in the past 13 years. “We see emergency responders tragically killed trying to save property; we see siting issues with homes located too close to factories and refineries; we see unregulated reactive hazards at plants.”

For chemists, Horowitz’s professional path—from an organic chemistry major in graduate school to bench researcher to American Chemical Society congressional policy fellow to CSB managing director—shows the broad range of opportunities available for scientists who want to be public servants and apply their knowledge and experience to policy and government.

The small board on which Horowitz serves merges chemical science, industrial safety, and national policy through its charge to investigate and determine the root cause of significant chemical accidents. Although only in action since the late 1990s and with no regulatory power, CSB reports and recommendations have changed state and federal regulations, industry practices, and the codes of professional safety associations. With a five-member board, a staff of 46, including board members, and an annual budget of $10.6 million, CSB is a federal gnat.


A sample of CSB videos:


Discovery Channel: ‘Non-toxic’ scented products emit toxic chemicals.

From hair products to laundry detergents to diapers, we live in a world of fragrance that might be making us sick, suggests a new study, even when those scents come from products that claim to be natural and pure. In an analysis of 25 of the most commonly used scented products — including ones labeled “organic,” “natural” or “non-toxic” — scientists identified at least 133 chemicals wafting off of them. A quarter of those chemicals were classified as hazardous or toxic. Virtually none were listed on product labels. Along with prior evidence that nearly a third of Americans develop headaches, breathing problems and other symptoms when exposed to scented products, the new findings suggest that efforts to smell nice threaten both your health and the health of people around you. “‘Natural’ does not mean no synthetic chemicals,” said lead author Anne Steinemann, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Washington in Seattle. “‘Green’ does not mean safe or healthy. ‘Fragrance-free’ does not mean non-toxic or without fragrance. There are a lot of paradoxes and surprises here.” More . . .

Science News: Plenty of foods harbor BPA, study finds.

Some communities have banned the sale of plastic baby bottles and sippy cups manufactured using bisphenol A, a hormone-mimicking chemical. In a few grocery stores, cashiers have already begun donning gloves to avoid handling thermal receipt paper out of fear its BPA-based surface coating may rub off on the fingers. But how’s a family to avoid exposure to this contaminant when it taints the food supply? It’s a question many people may start asking in response to data posted online November 1 in Environmental Science & Technology by a team of university and government scientists. Indeed, the last author on the paper is Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.In recent years, she’s teamed up with toxicologist Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas School of Public Health on market-basket analyses of foods for various potentially toxic pollutants. Like Birnbaum, Schecter initially gained renown for studying dioxins. Now, both have moved into the BPA arena. In their team’s new paper, the Texas contingent locally purchased three samples of each of 31 types of canned or plastic-packaged foods. Another four examples of fresh meat and eight different types of pet food were also collected. All were analyzed for BPA — and 60 percent of the different food products hosted measurable quantities. Ironically, pet food contained less of the pollutant than did most of the items destined for human consumption. More . . .

Reuters: Arsenic in drinking water tied to stroke risk.

People who live in areas with moderately elevated levels of arsenic in the drinking-water supply may have a somewhat increased risk of stroke, a study of Michigan residents suggests. The findings, published in the journal Stroke, do not prove that drinking-water arsenic is responsible for the elevated risk. Nor do they suggest that water with arsenic levels that meet guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — which most U.S. drinking-water supplies do — are a stroke hazard, the study’s lead researcher told Reuters Health. However, the study does call for more in-depth research to determine whether arsenic in the water supply is contributing to some strokes. More . . .

Jennifer Loren put together an outstanding story (including a series of videos) about a battle between the coal industry and some local residents in Oklahoma over whether and how fly ash should be regulated.

From, here are a few excerpts:

Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is trying to decide if it should regulate an industrial byproduct called Fly Ash. It’s a battle that pits environmentalists against the $66 billion US coal industry. A group of small-town Oklahomans have inserted themselves into the middle of the battle because they say fly ash is killing them, literally.

Trains ship billions of tons of coal into Oklahoma every year to be burned at coal-fired electric power plants. The byproduct of burned coal is a powdery substance called Coal Combustion Waste, more commonly called fly ash. . . .

There are at least 12 fly ash sites scattered across Oklahoma, but none bigger than the one in Bokoshe. It’s an old mine that’s being “reclaimed” with the fly ash, but it’s 55 feet tall and covers more than 20 acres. It’s about a mile from the center of Bokoshe.

The lone cafe in town, Sassy’s, has become headquarters for the people of Bokoshe, fighting in the battle of their lives. It’s a battle against big coal, power companies and it turns out, the very state agencies put in place to protect them.

“They thought that they could come into a town of about 450 people and they could do pretty much what they wanted to do and that we would sit back and allow them to do so, but they underestimated their opponent,” said Sharon Tanksley, Bokoshe Resident.

It took seven years living in a haze of fly ash, but small town Oklahoma won their first battle against the state last year. They proved to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality that the ash was being dumped illegally and blanketing their town in harmful chemicals. DEQ now requires that water is mixed with the ash to keep it from contaminating the air.

* * *

Lifelong resident, Charles Tackett, said he believes their victory came too late.

“We have had a very bad rash of cancers and respiratory problems,” Tackett said.

Tackett said people in 14 of the 20 families living closest to the dump have died from or are living with cancer.

In the local sixth grade classroom, fly ash is often a topic of discussion. The children have learned the environmental effects of the dust they breathed for so many years. They said they’re living with the health effects.

“Would you raise your hands please if you have respiratory problems?” asked the teacher. Half the class raised their hands. Nine out of the 17 sixth graders have asthma. That’s six times the national average.

Bokoshe residents cannot prove their health problems are caused by the fly ash, but fly ash contains dozens of chemicals proven to be harmful. EPA documents show the local power plant dumped fly ash containing more than 56,000 pounds of arsenic compounds, 1,100 hundred pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead at the site in 2007 alone.

* * *

The entire story and a series of videos here.   Image source here.

Inter Press Service: Black Floridians await settlement on toxic contamination.

For close to four decades, residents of Tallevast in southwest Florida lived side by side with the American Beryllium Company, which employed local men and women to manufacture parts for nuclear weapons. Each day, workers inhaled beryllium dust and brought it home on their clothing. * * * Unbeknownst to Tallevast residents, toxic chemicals used in the plant, including dioxin and TCE, were seeping into the ground. By the time local regulators investigated, a poisonous plume had spread across 200 acres below the small historically Black town. The plant was sold to defence contractor Lockheed Martin in 1996, and the leakage was discovered as the company prepared to sell the property in 2000. The state of Florida and Manatee County officials were notified but the problem was hidden from residents. State officials quietly began removing soil until a resident questioned their actions. In late 2003 information was finally released on the groundwater contamination. Only then did the truth of this environmental nightmare begin to come to light. By this time, nearly one person in every household had been diagnosed with a type of cancer, and many people were dying very young. More . . .

NewsweekSins of the grandfathers.

Michael Skinner just published a paper confirming epigenetic changes in sperm which are carried forward transgenerationally. This confirms that these changes can become permanently programmed. Michael Skinner has just uttered an astounding sentence, but by now he is so used to slaying scientific dogma that his listener has to interrupt and ask if he realizes what he just said. Which was this: “We just published a paper last month confirming epigenetic changes in sperm which are carried forward transgenerationally. This confirms that these changes can become permanently programmed.” OK, so it’s not bumper-sticker-ready. But if Skinner, a molecular biologist at Washington State University, were as proficient with soundbites as he is with mass spectrometry, he might have explained it this way: the life experiences of grandparents and even great-grandparents alter their eggs and sperm so indelibly that the change is passed on to their children, grandchildren, and beyond. It’s called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance: the phenomenon in which something in the environment alters the health not only of the individual exposed to it, but also of that individual’s descendants.  More . . .

Australian Associated Press: Traffic link to ‘worsening’ child asthma.

Researchers assessed the cases of more than 600 children and adolescents who between 2002 and 2006 were rushed to West Australian hospitals suffering a serious asthma attack. Air-quality records for the period leading up to each attack were checked, and this revealed a strong trend of rising traffic-related pollutants ahead of each hospital trip. Atmospheric levels of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide were often elevated on the day before a child suffered the asthma attack.  An epidemiologist at the University of WA, Gavin Pereira, said the study showed how traffic pollution was a major factor in the “worsening of this respiratory condition” in children.  More . . .

In my recent interview of Drs. Carlos Sonnenschein and Ana Soto, I asked them about how they thought chemicals and the chemical industry should be regulated to better protect human health. Here is the second of two portions of that exchange (duration: 14:27).

Drs. Sonnenschein and Soto respond to the following prompts:

  1. How can a consumer live safely in a toxic environment? 00:40
  2. Can you give me an example of a specific regulation that you would like to see enacted? 03:50
  3. Do we need to change our regulatory mindset in this country? 04:20
  4. What do you mean by the “white paper” approach to regulating chemical?07:50
  5. What is green chemistry? 10:20
  6. What are the impediments to effective regulation, and how is that we overcome them? 11:00

The full, edited interview is now available on the Upstream Website. Frizz or formaldehyde? Trendy ‘do poses a hairy dilemma

“Suffer for beauty” has been taken to a whole new level with recent controversy surrounding a trendy hair treatment called the Brazilian Blowout.

The product, used in pricey salons, turns frizzy, unmanageable locks into the luxurious pin-straight looks made popular by celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The catch? Tests conducted by the state of Oregon earlier this month determined that the product contains unsafe levels of formaldehyde — as in, embalming fluid — a known carcinogen.

But that’s not deterring some from the pursuit of fabulous wash-and-wear locks.

“Chemicals are a way of life now,” says Stefeny Anderson, a 36-year-old event planner from Renton, Wash., who got her first Brazilian Blowout two weeks ago in an effort to tame “corkscrew curls” that frizz at the slightest hint of rain (a given in Washington state). “It’s not like you’re putting it in your hair every day.”

Introduced at salons a few years ago, the Brazilian Blowout costs about $250. But after the two-hour treatment — which involves coating the hair with the chemical, then flat-ironing it — coarse, kinky hair becomes soft, smooth and straight for two to three months. Sort of an anti-perm, the Brazilian Blowout has been touted as more effective and less time-consuming than other hair-straightening methods such as conventional relaxers, Japanese thermal processing or other keratin-based treatments (there are several available), although concerns have been raised about the product’s possible formaldehyde content in the past, when Allure magazine did an exposé.

These concerns soon dissipated, though, once the company reformulated the products and began distributing bottles labeled “formaldehyde-free.”

Earlier this month, though, Oregon Health & Science University issued two public alerts after tests performed by the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found up to 10.6 percent formaldehyde in the product (.2 percent formaldehyde is considered safe by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel).

Brazilian Blowout disputes the finding. “We have no formaldehyde in our formula,” spokesperson Dana Supnick said.

In other tests a couple of weeks ago, Canada’s health department found up to 12 percent formaldehyde and warned people to stop using it, citing consumer complaints of “burning eyes, nose, and throat, breathing difficulties, and one report of hair loss associated with use of the product.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, formaldehyde has been classified as a known human carcinogen with research suggesting an association between formaldehyde exposure in workers and several cancers including nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia. Short-term exposure is no picnic, either; adverse effects include watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat, coughing, wheezing, nausea and skin irritation.

Health complaints from stylists who’ve performed the Brazilian Blowout on clients have prompted at least one class action lawsuit against the manufacturer. The FDA has also announced it’s received “a number of inquiries from consumers and salon professionals concerning the safety of this product” and are currently looking into the issue.


More from The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

From Alliance for Justice, here is a 17-minute video that “examines the ongoing search for justice among the victims of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

From Alliance for Justice:

Shot on location in Louisiana, this film explores the damage done by this unimaginable environmental calamity to the lives and livelihoods of the people who depend on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for their income, their food, and the continuation of their culture. Titled Crude Justice, the 17-minute documentary looks at the difficulties ordinary people face in finding fair compensation and a secure future for their families in the face of corporate domination of the courts, statutes favoring big business, judges with ties to the oil and gas industries, and the uncertainties that accompany an incident where the long-term effects may not be known for years. Crude Justice tells the story of damaged lives, but also of the fighting spirit and resilience of people who understand that what’s threatened is not just justice for the victims of the spill, but the integrity of the American judicial system itself.


Inter Press Service: Black Floridians await settlement on toxic contamination.

For close to four decades, residents of Tallevast in southwest Florida lived side by side with the American Beryllium Company, which employed local men and women to manufacture parts for nuclear weapons. Each day, workers inhaled beryllium dust and brought it home on their clothing. * * * Unbeknownst to Tallevast residents, toxic chemicals used in the plant, including dioxin and TCE, were seeping into the ground. By the time local regulators investigated, a poisonous plume had spread across 200 acres below the small historically Black town.  The plant was sold to defence contractor Lockheed Martin in 1996, and the leakage was discovered as the company prepared to sell the property in 2000. The state of Florida and Manatee County officials were notified but the problem was hidden from residents. State officials quietly began removing soil until a resident questioned their actions. In late 2003 information was finally released on the groundwater contamination.  Only then did the truth of this environmental nightmare begin to come to light. By this time, nearly one person in every household had been diagnosed with a type of cancer, and many people were dying very young. More . . .

Huntsville WAFF: Inside the gate. Redstone Arsenal was a hub for chemical weapons in the 1940’s.

Three separate military facilities produced weapons like mustard gas and lewisite. After World War II came DDT and rocket fuel. Much of that toxic waste still remains. . . . Much of that toxic waste remains 24 years after the Environmental Protection Agency issued its first clean-up permit. A look into the EPA’s file on Redstone shows lots of studies on individual toxic waste sites, but there aren’t nearly as many clean-up operations. Of the 474 clean-up sites, by the Arsenal’s count, 94 are complete. That’s less than 20% of the contaminated sites. More . . .

Charlotte Observer: Calendar exposes cases of breast cancer in men at Camp Lejeune.

Thirteen men who suffer from breast cancer appear in a new calendar. All served or lived on the Marine base at Camp Lejeune. All believe their cancer can be traced to the decades in which drinking water contaminated with benzene, TCE, and other poisons poured from the base’s taps. More . . .


Reuters: Metal pollution tied to Parkinson’s disease.

People living near a steel factory or another source of high manganese emissions are at higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, suggests a new study. As many as one million Americans live with the degenerative disease, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Pesticides from farms have long been suspected of upping the chances of developing Parkinson’s, but much less is known about the influences of city living. * * * So Racette and his colleagues analyzed data on about five million Medicare beneficiaries who hadn’t moved between counties from 1995 to 2003. Then they compared Parkinson’s rates to industry emissions of copper, lead and manganese obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency. By 2003, less than one percent of people in urban areas developed Parkinson’s disease. In counties with little or no release of the metals, 274 out of every 100,000 people had the disease, compared to 489 in counties with high manganese levels. More . . .

Louisville Courier-Journal: Beware what’s in the air: Pollution may raise your heart disease risks.

The American Heart Association released a scientific statement on heart disease and air pollution earlier this year. A team of researchers from the University of Louisville and Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, published a paper on the topic recently as well.Both bring attention to a type of air pollution called fine airborne particulate matter, such as PM2.5, that’s generated by various sources, including individuals and industries. “Fine particles are really one of the biggest health threats among the pollutants,” said Lauren Anderson, executive director of the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District.They penetrate deep in the lungs, “can be present pretty much anytime,” and can result from common activities, such as driving around the city, she said. More . . .

ProPublica: Furious growth and cost cuts led to BP accidents past and present.

Jeanne Pascal turned on her TV April 21 to see a towering spindle of black smoke slithering into the sky from an oil platform on the oceanic expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. For hours she sat, transfixed on an overstuffed couch in her Seattle home, her feelings shifting from shock to anger.

Pascal, a career Environmental Protection Agency attorney only seven weeks into her retirement, knew as much as anyone in the federal government about BP, the company that owned the well. She understood in an instant what it would take others months to grasp: In BP’s 15-year quest to compete with the world’s biggest oil companies, its managers had become deaf to risk and systematically gambled with safety at hundreds of facilities and with thousands of employees’ lives.

“God, they just don’t learn,” she remembers thinking.

Just weeks before the explosion, President Obama had announced a historic expansion of deep-water drilling in the Gulf, where BP held the majority of the drilling leases. The administration considered the environmental record of drilling companies in the Gulf to be excellent. It didn’t ask questions about BP, and it didn’t consider that the company’s long record of safety violations and environmental accidents might be important, according to Carol Browner, the White House environmental adviser.

They could have asked Jeanne Pascal.

For 12 years, Pascal had wrestled with whether BP’s pattern of misconduct should disqualify it from receiving billions of dollars in government contracts and other benefits. Federal law empowers government officials to “debar”—ban from government business—companies that commit fraud or break the law too many times. Pascal was a senior EPA debarment attorney for the Northwest, and her job was to act as a sort of behind-the-scenes babysitter for companies facing debarment. She worked with their top management, reviewed records and made sure they were good corporate citizens entitled to government contracts.

At first, Pascal thought BP would be another routine assignment. Over the years she’d persuaded hundreds of troubled energy, mining and waste-disposal companies to quickly change their behavior. But BP was in its own league. On her watch she would see BP charged with four federal crimes—more than any other oil company in her experience—and demonstrate what she described as a pattern of disregard for regulations and for the EPA. By late 2009 she was warning the government and BP executives themselves that the company’s approach to safety and environmental issues made another disaster likely.

A close look by ProPublica and PBS FRONTLINE at BP’s explosive growth corroborated and expanded on Pascal’s concerns. The investigation found that as BP transformed itself into the world’s third largest private oil company it methodically emphasized a culture of austerity in pursuit of corporate efficiency, lean budgets and shareholder profits. It acquired large companies that it could not integrate smoothly. Current and former workers and executives said the company repeatedly cut corners, let alarm and safety systems languish and skipped essential maintenance that could have prevented a number of explosions and spills. Internal BP documents support these claims.


You can watch “The Spill,” a PBS FRONTLINE documentary drawn from this reporting  here.

A clip:

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