Archives for the month of: December, 2010

NatureCan European companies meet the deadline for registering chemicals?

The European Union’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) legislation is the world’s most extensive attempt at improving the safe use of chemicals. By today all chemicals produced or sold in quantities of more than 1,000 tonnes a year must be registered, their existing toxicity data must be submitted along with proposals for additional tests to fill in gaps in safety information. Nature has investigated whether the European chemicals industry will meet the deadline and what will happen if it does not.  More . . .

Michigan Messenger: Students ask MSU to end coal power.

Michigan State University, the nation’s premier land grant college, built a central heating system in 1890 after fireplaces proved a risky way to heat school buildings. Now a student group is trying to convince the school that powering that plant with coal poses unacceptable health and environmental risks.

The university’s T.B. Simon coal plant burns around 250,000 tons of coal each year and provides all of the electricity for the school. It also provides steam heat for buildings and powers the water system. Coal-fired power plants are the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions and a study by the Clean Air Task Force this year found that air pollution form coal plants will cause 13,200 deaths this year.

MSU Beyond Coal, a campaign sponsored by the Sierra Student Coalition, is asking the university to commit to ending the use of coal for power. The effort is part of a national Sierra Club campaign to end coal burning on college campuses. In recent months the campaign has focused on on-campus rallies to raise awareness of the university’s reliance on coal. More . . .

Agence France-Presse: Tiny blood vessels show pollution, heart disease link.

By photographing tiny blood vessels in a person’s eyes, researchers have found a way to link exposure to air pollution with a higher risk of heart disease, a study published Tuesday said. “New digital photos of the retina revealed that otherwise healthy people exposed to high levels of air pollution had narrower retinal arterioles, an indication of a higher risk of heart disease,” said the study in PLoS Medicine.

A person who was exposed to low level of pollution in a short time period showed the microvascular — or extremely tiny — blood vessels “of someone three years older,” it said. Someone who faced longer term exposure to high levels of pollution had the blood vessels of someone seven years older, it said.  More . . .

The 2010 Report by the President’s Panel on Cancer had this to say about the inefficacy of existing regulations of chemical toxins:

The prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary. That is, instead of taking preventive action when uncertainty exists about the potential harm a chemical or other environmental contaminant may cause, a hazard must be incontrovertibly demonstrated before action to ameliorate it is initiated. Moreover, instead of requiring industry or other proponents of specific chemicals, devices, or activities to prove their safety, the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful. Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety.

U.S. regulation of environmental contaminants is rendered ineffective by five major problems: (1) inadequate funding and insufficient staffing, (2) fragmented and overlapping authorities coupled with uneven and decentralized enforcement, (3) excessive regulatory complexity, (4) weak laws and regulations, and (5) undue industry influence. Too often, these factors, either singly or in combination, result in agency dysfunction and a lack of will to identify and remove hazards.

From whenvironments:

An excerpt from the award-winning documentary, “Exposure: Environmental Links to Breast Cancer” focusing on the facts about mammography. Featuring Olivia Newton-John, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Sharon Batt and Dr. Susan Love.

Australian Associated Press: Cleaning agents may harm health.

Chemicals used to improve cleanliness may be harming the health of children and adults, new US research suggests. A study shows that young people who are over-exposed to the soap agent triclosan are more likely to suffer allergies. In adults, the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), used in plastics and to line food cans, may suppress the immune system. A resin coating containing BPA allows tin cans to be heated to kill off bugs without the metal contaminating food.

The chemical will be banned from baby bottles by mid-2011 under a ruling announced last week by the European Commission. But according to the new research, it may be most harmful to adults.  More . . .

Chemical & Engineering News: Coal ash spill in Tennessee still a problem.

Nearly two years ago, 978,000,000 gallons of wet coal ash spilled into the Emory River and its tributaries near Kingston, Tenn. Now researchers from Duke University report that the spill polluted downstream sediments with unexpectedly high levels of a particularly toxic form of arsenic.

The spill occurred on Dec. 22, 2008, when a holding pond ruptured, releasing its waste from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant, a coal-fired power plant. Ash produced by burning coal isn’t regulated as hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency, because the EPA’s testing protocol—known as the Toxicity Characterization Leaching Protocol—assumes that coal ash contaminants do not seep from municipal landfills into nearby water. The TVA spill provided a useful—if tragic—opportunity to test this assumption, says Duke geochemist Avner Vengosh: “It became a huge field experiment.” More . . .Upstre

Santa Cruz Sentinel: Statewide protest targets new strawberry pesticide.

State regulators plan to give strawberry growers the OK to use methyl iodide this month.

The pesticide, which kills bugs, weeds and disease that are particularly threatening to berries, is touted as a better alterative to methyl bromide, which is being phased out because of harm it’s done to the ozone layer. But a last-ditch campaign is under way to halt approval of methyl iodide, citing problems with the alternate choice.

“We’ve heard that methyl iodide is a carcinogen. That’s not disputed…. So why are we even having this conversation?” said state Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Carmel.

Monning was among a coalition of environmentalists, researchers and organic farmers that gathered Monday at Jacobs Farm in Santa Cruz County – and at six other sites statewide – protesting the impending use of methyl iodide and asking the governor or governor-elect to block it. The Legislature, Monning said, was not in a position to intervene now and future legislative efforts would be slow and uncertain.

“We want to stop it before it’s in the fields,” he said.  More . . .

From Environmental Health News:

A recent study finds that Medicare recipients who live in urban areas with high levels of manganese emissions are about 75 percent more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease compared to those in urban areas with lower manganese emissions. Though the causes of Parkinson’s disease are not established with certainty, prior studies suggest exposure to environmental toxicants – particularly metals and pesticides – may play a role in the development of the disease.  More . . .

In my interview of Dr. Frederica Perera (professor at the Mailman School of Public Health and Director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health), I asked about her current work on environmental health issues. This video contains her responses to the prompts listed below.

(Duration 12:57)

Contents

  1. Why did you begin studying inner-city communities in New York? 00:40
  2. Please describe your work at the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia. 02:00
  3. Please say more about how your new epidemiological methods work and what you’ve learned? 05:15
  4. What have you found about prenatal exposures to air pollutants and other toxic chemicals? 06:50
  5. Have you seen examples of where decreased toxic exposures have yielded positive health effects? 09:10
  6. What can you say about the interrelationship of toxic chemicals and climate change on young children? 10:10

More of the Perera interview is here.

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Houston KHOU TV: Residents of Houston neighborhood concerned about cancers, radioactive water.

Concerned residents of the Chasewood subdivision in southwest Houston told city leaders about what they feel are a high number of cancer cases in their neighborhood, and they expressed concern that the health problems may have something to do with radioactive drinking water the city pumped to their neighborhood for years. At least two members of Houston City Council said they shared residents’ concerns.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker and the city’s public works director, Daniel Krueger, attempted to calm citizens’ concerns in a neighborhood meeting, which was called after a KHOU investigation revealed the Chasewood neighborhood tested above the federal legal limit for radiation in drinking water in its most recent test in 2009.

The city took the radioactive well offline in November after KHOU began asking questions. . . . KHOU discovered the Chasewood water well’s problems date back many years. In fact, internal city records obtained through a Texas Public Information Act request reveal the well has tested at or above the federal legal limit for alpha radiation in all three of its last tests, which were performed separately in 2004, 2007 and 2009. Parker stressed that any previous failure to take action by the city took place before she took office.

Some neighborhood residents feel someone should be held accountable for their increased exposures to radiation in drinking water.

“Someone at the public works department knew about it,” Chasewood resident Denise Adams said.

“We’re not here to embarrass you we just need some honest, reliable data,” another concerned Chasewood citizen told city leaders.

At one point during the meeting, one resident read the results of a community survey which stated 37 cancer cases had been reported in the subdivision. One street, which consists of just 21 homes, reportedly had at least 14 cancer diagnoses.

More . . .

From CBS News:

A new government report finds that the Environmental Protection Agency has faced massive delays in its research of toxic chemicals, which could leave many in the U.S. at risk. Chip Reid reports.

Agence France-Presse: Europe may soon enforce a ban on baby bottles with bisphenol A.

Europe is likely to enforce a ban on baby bottles which contain the chemical Bisphenol-A,owing to its adverse effects on child health, the European Commission said.  European Union health commissioner John Dalli wants to pull such bottles off shop shelves across the 27-nation bloc because of the “uncertainties” about its effects on infants, his spokesman Frederic Vincent told AFP. More . . .

Yale Environment 360: A warning by key researcher on risks of BPA in our lives.

The chemical Bisphenol A, or BPA, has been much in the news lately. BPA is the building block for polycarbonate plastic — the sort of hard, clear plastic often used in water bottles — and it is found in everything from linings of metal cans, to the thermal paper used for cash register receipts, to the dental sealants applied to children’s teeth. The chemical mimics estrogen, and in studies involving lab animals, exposure to BPA, even at very low doses, has been linked to a wide variety of health problems, from an increased risk of prostate cancer, to heart disease, to damage to the reproductive system.

Frederick vom Saal, a biologist at the University of Missouri’s Endocrine Disruptors Group, is one of the world’s leading researchers on the ill health effects of BPA in humans and animals. He is also one of the most outspoken critics of U.S. businesses and regulators for glossing over, or concealing, the major impact that BPA exposure is increasingly having on human health. Vom Staal is irate that even though BPA is quite similar to another synthetic hormone — DES, or Diethylstilbesterol — that caused myriad health problems in thousands of women in the 1940s and 1950s, federal regulators are only now beginning to take seriously the threat from BPA. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, vom Saal excoriated the U.S. chemical industry for attempting to quash research showing the dangers of BPA and for threatening him and other researchers. More . . .

AOL News: Asbestos dangers known centuries ago, but battle continues.

Early on, the EPA saw the need to ban asbestos in this country, and 21 years ago the agency did just that.  But the ban was short-lived. The powerful Canadian asbestos industry — which remains one of the world’s largest producers of the killer mineral — sued the EPA almost immediately. Within months, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it on technical reasons. So, as it had almost a century before, the use of the fireproof mineral flourished, as did the number of people felled by asbestos-related disease. Granite chronicles of the deadliness of asbestos can be seen in workers’ graveyards near the vermiculite mine at Libby, Mont., in tiny towns along the string of taconite mines in upper Minnesota, and near Michigan’s auto plants, Boeing’s aircraft factories in Washington, talc mines in New York and shipyards on all coasts.

What can only be guessed at is the unknown number of asbestos-caused diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis in people exposed to asbestos from vermiculite insulation in their attics or walls or other consumer products they handle daily. More . . .

Prior to the 2010 Gulf oil spill, the largest oil spill in U.S. History was occurring drip by drip over decades (EPA estimates more than 30 million gallons of crude and petro-chemicals) underneath the streets in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Here are some news stories (two videos and one recent newspaper article) about the spill and its very slow cleanup.

Brooklyn Paper: Is the Exxon payout too small?

Less than a week after the state reached a historic $25-million settlement with ExxonMobil, forcing the company to finish cleaning up the Greenpoint oil spill, residents are questioning whether those funds will go far enough to repair six decades of pollution. “It’s small,” said Greenpoint resident Mike Hofmann. “They made $11.5 billion in one quarter a few years ago and we get $25 million? That’s crazy.” The largest environmental settlement in state history, announced by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on Nov. 18, abruptly ended a six-year legal battle between environmental groups, public officials and ExxonMobil over responsibility for cleaning up an estimated 17 million gallons of oil that leached into 55 acres of Greenpoint soil and groundwater for half a century. 

More . . .

From The New York Times: When Wrinkle-Free Clothing Also Means Formaldehyde Fumes

The iron, that relic of households past, is no longer required to look neat and freshly pressed. Why bother when retailers like Nordstrom offer crisp “wrinkle-free finish” dress shirts and L. L. Bean sells chinos that are “great right out of the dryer.”

Though it is not obvious from the label, the antiwrinkle finish comes from a resin that releases formaldehyde, the chemical that is usually associated with embalming fluids or dissected frogs in biology class.

And clothing is not the only thing treated with the chemical. Formaldehyde is commonly found in a broad range of consumer products and can show up in practically every room of the house. The sheets and pillow cases on the bed. The drapes hanging in the living room. The upholstery on the couch. In the bathroom, it can be found in personal care products like shampoos, lotions and eye shadow. It may even be in the baseball cap hanging by the back door. . . .

“From a consumer perspective, you are very much in the dark in terms of what clothing is treated with,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. “In many ways, you’re in the hands of the industry and those who are manufacturing our clothing. And we are trusting them to ensure they are using the safest materials and additives.”

The United States does not regulate formaldehyde levels in clothing, most of which is now made overseas. Nor does any government agency require manufacturers to disclose the use of the chemical on labels. So sensitive consumers may have a hard time avoiding it (though washing the clothes before wearing them helps).

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recently examined the levels and potential health risks of formaldehyde as required by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

Most of the 180 items tested, largely clothes and bed linens, had low or undetectable levels of formaldehyde that met the voluntary industry guidelines based on standards in Japan, which are among the most stringent. Still, about 5.5 percent of the items — primarily wrinkle-free shirts and pants, easy-care pillow cases, crib sheets and a boy’s baseball hat — exceeded the most stringent standards of 75 parts per million, for products that touch the skin. (Levels must be undetectable, or less than 20 parts per million for children under 3 years, and can be as high as 300 parts per million for products like outerwear that do not come into direct contact with the skin.) . . . .

A 2006 study that tested people with suspected skin allergies found that 9 percent of those tested were allergic to formaldehyde, but not all of those people will necessarily have a bad reaction to various compounds that release formaldehyde, said Dr. Peter Schalock, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School who runs a skin allergy patch testing clinic.

Critics of the government’s study say it could have incorporated a wider array of textiles, like drapes and upholstery. Others are calling for a closer look at the potential cumulative effects of exposure.

“Given all of the things we buy new that can release formaldehyde in our house, all of those things contribute,” said Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy at Consumers Union, who noted that the Environmental Protection Agency was currently developing formaldehyde emissions regulations for pressed-wood products. “Over all, minimizing your exposure is a good idea.”

As for ridding clothes of wrinkles, she said, “We’re all for irons, to be honest.”

More. . .

Picture from Orvis.com

CBS News: Living off toxic trash in the Philippines.

For decades, “Smokey Mountain,” a towering heap of trash billowing smoke in Manila, was the symbol of poverty in the Philippines. Images of women and children picking through the garbage for any salvageable scraps will remain burned into the minds of the nation for a generation. In 1990, the Philippine government closed the infamous landfill, which once held 2 million tons of trash. Low-cost government housing sprung up on the site in the following years, and residents were given some community-based employment. It should have been a new beginning — fresh hope for the nation’s poorest. Just across the road, however, in an area called Pier 18, a new landfill has taken Smokey Mountain’s place.  The area is home to a large and growing community of slum dwellers, and Cheryl Dalisay, 30, and her son, 10-year old Chervin Enoc, are among them. Like most who live here, Chervin and his mother earn a living by picking salvageable scraps of garbage off the mound of castaway junk.  More . . .

Cary News: A plant, a well and a wish for trustworthy water.

The Bradfords don’t trust their tap. Neither do many of their neighbors in Northgate, an unincorporated subdivision here that draws its water from a public well. In 2008, they discovered what the state had known for several years: Groundwater near their neighborhood had been contaminated with trichloroethylene, a chemical compound often used as an industrial solvent and suspected to cause cancer. The tainted water is likely the result of chemicals dumped decades ago at a now-vacant textile plant that borders the neighborhood. Avoiding groundwater pollutants – and easing Northgate residents’ worries about what they’re drinking – could be relatively simple. Getting clean water would require a few connectors to link to a town water line that frames the neighborhood. But Fuquay-Varina has not agreed to provide water, and will likely not do so unless all Northgate residents agree to be annexed by the town. More . . .

Barstow Desert Dispatch: Pregnant women, children most likely to be impacted by perchlorates.

The risk of adverse health effects of perchlorate water contamination at levels recently found in Barstow is not certain, but public health officials and experts agree that pregnant women and young children are most at risk. Dr. Maxwell Ohikhuare, Health Officer for the San Bernardino Department of Public Health, said that levels of perchlorate detected in Barstow’s water on Friday are not likely to affect anyone’s health — with the possible exception of pregnant women or those who suffer from hypothyroidism. High levels of perchlorate are known to affect fetal brain development and the neurological development of young children, but dangerous levels of exposure and specific impacts of the chemical are somewhat unknown due to a lack of studies. More . . .

Center for Public Integrity: EPA chemical health hazards program has 55-year backlog of work, report says.

Eighteen months after the Environmental Protection Agency announced reforms to its controversial process for evaluating health hazards posed by dangerous chemicals, significant problems continue to hamper the program and leave the public at risk, according to a new report by a nonprofit research group.The agency has fallen years behind in meeting its statutory requirements to profile at least 255 chemicals and assess their potential links to cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. That delay has effectively halted numerous regulatory actions that would protect the public, according to the report by the Center for Progressive Reform, a public health and environmental protection group. “[The Obama administration has] been so busy reacting to the right wing and fighting off crisis after crisis that it’s been difficult for them to see this pattern of regulatory failure,” said Rena Steinzor, president of the center and a University of Maryland law professor.

The Government Accountability Office, Congressional committees, and other experts have criticized the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) in recent years. Under President George W. Bush’s administration, critics say, the agency’s chemical assessment efforts ground to a near halt because of interference by other federal agencies, unwarranted delays, and a lack of transparency.

The GAO warned in a 2008 report that the IRISdatabase “is at serious risk of becoming obsolete.” In January 2009, the GAO added the EPA’s method for assessing and managing chemical risks to its list of“high-risk” areas requiring attention.

More . . .

Bergen County Record: Bill to curb fertilizers sidetracked in Assembly.

A measure that would have put tight restrictions on fertilizers that homeowners from Edgewater to Ringwood use on their lawns went into legislative limbo on Monday. The bill was considered the most prohibitive of its kind in the nation and a major protection for ponds and lakes, including several in North Jersey, that have been polluted by fertilizer runoff. It came out of a package of legislation to restore Barnegat Bay, but its impact would have been statewide. Republicans refused to move the bill to the Assembly floor Monday through a procedural vote. More . . .

Washington DC Bureau: Pennsylvania gas drillers dumping radioactive waste in New York.

Trucks hauling rock cuttings from drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania regularly cross the New York State border these days to dump in the Chemung County Landfill seven miles east of Elmira. The Marcellus formation is characterized by unusually high readings of naturally occurring radioactive material, or NORM, so most of the cuttings are probably radioactive. The Chemung Landfill, a former gravel pit, has never been licensed to handle low-level radioactive waste. So how can the landfill’s private operators get clearance from the county and state environmental regulators to become a regional dump for radioactive drilling wastes? The short answer: Provide the revenue-hungry county a rich payout, exploit a legal loophole, and presto, it’s a done deal. More . . .

Scripps Howard News Service: Rural residents say natural gas drilling has tainted their drinking water.

Neighbors had suffered declining health during the fall of 2008. After hearing about Hall’s horses, they became convinced that newfound natural gas drilling within about a mile of her property was poisoning their water. Hall and others in this isolated mountain county want drilling companies to fix the water that wasn’t bad until the drilling began earlier that summer, they say. At the center of their grievance is a natural gas-drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” It uses millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and toxic chemicals, to blast open underground rock formations that contain natural gas. Drilling companies insist that the fluids they use stay securely underground or are captured cleanly when they come back up through the well. But Hall and her neighbors are convinced otherwise. More . . .

In my interview of Dr. Frederica Perera (professor at the Mailman School of Public Health and Director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health), I asked about how and why she began her work on environmental health issues and how she began her work on molecular epidemiology.  This video contains her responses to the prompts listed below (duration: 10:58).

Contents

  1. How did you become interested in researching the effects of environmental pollutants on human health? 00:40
  2. Was there any event that particularly triggered your interest in studying environmental toxins? 01:30
  3. What led you to pursue a degree in Environmental Health Sciences and Public Health? 02:50
  4. Tell me a bit more about you learned in your early collaboration with Dr. Weinstein. 06:20
  5. How did the results of that study influence your work? 07:25
  6. How did your research in molecular epidemiology evolve to focus on the fetus and other susceptible groups? 08:40
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