Archives for the month of: March, 2011

From Columbia Daily Review:

One in 15 U.S. homes contains high levels of a gas that is thought to be the second-leading cause of lung cancer — after smoking — and causes more than 21,000 deaths a year.

The colorless, odorless killer is called radon, and it is the product of the breakdown of uranium in soil. The gas can seep upward into cracks and holes in the foundations of buildings, where it can accumulate. Radon also can sneak into a home through well water, and, in a small percentage of buildings, the building materials themselves can contain radon.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, radon accumulated inside a building reaches a dangerous quantity when it is measured at 4 picocuries per liter and the building’s inhabitants are exposed to the gas for years.

The risk of developing lung cancer from radon exposure is much higher for smokers.

Robert Dye, an environmental scientist with the EPA, said there is no clear profile of homes that are more likely to contain high levels of radon. The gas can occur in houses of any age and value and anywhere in the United States.

Dye said without testing your home for radon, “there’s no way to know if you have an elevated level.”


From the New York Times:

Recent studies suggest that smog-filled air kills more people and causes more breathing problems than previously thought, U.S. EPA scientists say in a new draft paper, but due to a procedural twist, the findings can’t be taken into account as Administrator Lisa Jackson decides whether to set stricter limits than the George W. Bush administration chose in 2008.

The new research provides stronger evidence that short-term spikes in ground-level ozone can cause premature death, according to the 996-page scientific assessment, which was released late Friday. And on top of that, EPA scientists found evidence that long-term exposure could lead to more premature deaths — a conclusion that was not reached when the agency last reviewed the state of smog science in 2006.

It is well-established that ozone can have health effects at the current limit of 84 parts per billion (ppb), which still has not been met in parts of the Northeast, much of Southern California and industrial cities such as Houston. According to the assessment, recent studies found a robust link between health effects and smog levels below either the current limit or the standard of 75 ppb that was selected by the last administration.


From :

NRDC attorneys make their case against the proposed mega-mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska.


From Environmental Health News:

A shift to a bio-based raw material can reduce several chemical hazards associated with making one of the most popular plastics – polyurethanes – in production today, researchers report in the journal Green Chemistry. The new process means polyurethane plastic may be less hazardous to make and easier to break down in the environment.

Polyurethanes are a family of commodity plastics very commonly encountered in everyday life. They are widely used in industrial, automotive, engineering and medical applications and are found in a large range of products, including paints, foams, adhesives and coatings.

The new process for making polyurethanes focuses on one class called polycarbonate urethanes. These are found commercially in coatings and medical devices.

Almost all polyurethanes are prepared from chemicals called isocyanates. Most isocyanates are acutely toxic and pose a health risk to workers during manfacturing and to people who live in the communities surrounding the facilities.

The manufacturing of polyurethanes usually relies on toxic metal catalysts that can be released from the products into the environment. Research has shown that environmental exposures to these chemicals can lead to disruption of hormonal processes in animals.


From the New York Times:

Radioactivity levels are “at or below” safe levels in Pennsylvania rivers, state regulators said on Monday, based on water samples taken last November and December from seven rivers.

The results come at a time of growing scrutiny of the potential hazards of radioactivity and other contaminants in wastewater from natural-gas drilling. The wastewater is routinely sent to treatment plants in Pennsylvania, which then discharge their waste into rivers.

In a letter sent to the state on Monday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency noted the state’s test results, but instructed officials there to perform testing within 30 days for radioactivity at drinking-water intake plants.

It also said that all permits issued by the state to treatment plants handling this waste should be reviewed to ensure that operators were complying with the law.

The E.P.A. asked the state for data and documents so it could check whether current permits were strict enough in requiring monitoring and in limiting the type of pollution the treatment plants can release into rivers.

“E.P.A. is prepared to exercise its enforcement authorities as appropriate where our investigations reveal violations of federal law,” the letter said.

The E.P.A.’s moves follow reports in The New York Times about gas-industry wastewater with high levels of radioactivity being sent to sewage treatment plants that were not designed to remove radioactive materials. These plants then discharge the processed wastewater into rivers and streams.

The Times found that samples taken by the state in the Monongahela River — a source of drinking water for parts of Pittsburgh — came from a point upstream from the two sewage treatment plants on that river. The state has said those plants are still accepting significant quantities of drilling waste.

Because that sampling site is upstream, the discharges from those two plants are not captured by the state’s monitoring plans.


Peggy Shepard 

Peggy Shepard is executive director and co-founder of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Founded in 1988, WE ACT was New York’s first environmental justice organization created to improve environmental health and quality of life in communities of color.

In this portion of my interview, she discusses some of the challenges and rewards of environmental activism, as she responds to the prompts listed below.

(Duration 14:22)


Part 7 – Environmental Activism

  1. What do you consider to be the biggest obstacles to reform and most significant challenges to reformers? 00:40
  2. Why is community involvement and mobilization important? 03:00
  3. Why do you think community organizing has died out? 05:20
  4. What are some consequences of not having meaningful community movements? 07:00
  5. Why do you suppose so many people are apathetic with regard to environmental health risks? 08:30
  6. Does the global focus of many mainstream environmental groups contribute to the public apathy toward more local environmental justice concerns? 10:00
  7. What can we do to promote environmental health and environmental justice in our own communities? 11:00

Go to Part 8 – “Five Favorites”.

Title Duration
Part 1 – Early Career 10:30
Part 2 – The Origins of WE ACT 8:24
Part 3 – The Work of WE ACT 11:02
Part 4 – Environmental Health & Justice 6:29
Part 5 – Collaborating with Scientists 7:51
Part 6 – Policy Reforms 10:15
Part 7 – Environmental Activism 14:22
Part 8 – Five Favorites 5:45
Full Interview 66:41

Visit Peggy Shepard’s main Upstream page.

From New West:

Residents of Battlement Mesa, a sprawling housing development in western Colorado, are used to seeing the golf course from their windows, not gas rigs. But when an energy company announced plans to start drilling inside the subdivision, residents became concerned not just about the noise and the traffic, but the health effects of air and water pollution.

“I can understand gas drilling,” says Bob Arrington, a retired engineer and former bed-and-breakfast owner who bought a home in Battlement Mesa three years ago, when gas drilling amid the residential development was the farthest thing from his mind. “But when they go into urban areas, I think they have a much higher obligation to mitigate and protect the health of people than when they’re operating out in the boondocks.”

He and other neighbors asked Garfield County to fund a heath impact assessment to see if any health harms might come from the drilling operations. They received a blunt answer. Researchers found air emissions from natural gas operations will probably make some residents sick.

“The key findings of our study are that health of the Battlement Mesa residents will most likely be affected by chemical exposures, accidents or emergencies resulting from industry operations and stress-related community changes,” researchers concluded.

Industry representatives have long downplayed the health risks of emissions from natural gas operations, but this assessment, performed by the Colorado School of Public Health, insisted that drilling operations have already harmed the air in Garfield County, and that new operations in a dense subdivision could bring more impacts.

Without proper pollution prevention measures, researchers found, air pollution will likely “be high enough to cause short-term and long-term disease, especially for residents living near wells. Health effects may include respiratory disease, neurological problems, birth defects and cancer.”


From BBC:

Sperm quality significantly deteriorated and testicular cancers increased over recent years, a Finnish study says.

The study in the International Journal of Andrology looked at men born between 1979 and 1987.

The University of Turku research suggests environmental reasons, particularly exposure to industrial chemicals, may be behind both trends.

A UK expert said chemicals may affect the development of male babies.

Finnish men were studied as they have previously been shown to have some of the highest sperm counts in the world.

But scientists were never sure if this was because of their genetics or because they were exposed to fewer harmful chemicals.

‘Danger chemicals’

The researchers looked at three groups of men who reached the age 19 between 1998 and 2006.

Men who were born in the late 1980s had lower sperm counts than those who were born in the beginning of the decade.

Total sperm counts were 227m for men born in 1979-81, 202m for those born in 1982-83 and 165m for men born in 1987, respectively.

In addition, the researchers observed that there was a higher incidence of testicular cancer in men born around 1980 compared with men born around 1950.


From Baltimore Sun:

Joe Pawley says he’s fighting to save his children’s future, and he’s feeling very alone right now.

During routine testing last summer, his 2-year-old son, Aaron, was found to have a dangerous level of lead in his blood, and city health workers found the toxic metal in the paint on the window sills, baseboards and walls of the Pawleys’ rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore.

The family sought help from the city Health Department to hire a contractor to remove or cover the deteriorating lead paint, which could cause lifelong learning and behavioral problems for their three young children. The agency has federal funds for such work. But their application was rejected, Pawley says, and he’s not sure why.

“If you can’t get the city to come out here and help out a homeowner or somebody who has lead, I think the city don’t really care,” he said, as Aaron and another son, 22-month-old Joshua, scampered about. A box of wet wipes sat on the television, for scrubbing his youngsters’ hands of any lead dust they might pick up and put in their mouths.

The Pawleys are one of hundreds of families in Baltimore struggling to protect young children from the lead paint that lurks in older homes. Over the years, the city has helped thousands like them, using tens of millions of dollars in federal funds. Its efforts put the city at the forefront of the nation’s campaign to reduce lead paint hazards.

But now, the federal tap has been shut off. Problems with the city’s program to treat lead paint in homes caused the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare the local health agency ineligible for new grants.


From The Globe and Mail:

In the 1980s, back when obesity and diabetes were considered problems, not plagues, a British researcher dished up a wild idea to explain the diet-related ills of the world.

While studying the causes of death for England and Wales, David Barker, an epidemiologist with the University of Southampton, stumbled upon the fact that, in the 1970s, deaths due to heart disease were highest in poor regions that 60 years earlier also had the highest rates of infant mortality.

Prof. Barker considered that curious, since coronary disease was thought to be the result of rich living. He went on to trace the fate of 15,000 people born before 1930 in the English county of Hertfordshire and discovered that those with the lowest birth weights, presumably because their mothers were malnourished, again had the greatest risk of heart disease.

Prof. Barker, who published his initial findings in The Lancet in 1986, eventually came to the conclusion that a mother’s nutrition can shape the metabolic future of her baby – affecting the child’s lifelong risks for heart disease and all the health problems related to it.

At the time, the idea seemed almost absurd. The prevailing view held that susceptibility to disease was something chiselled into your genes from prehistoric times, not dictated by a pregnant woman’s diet. The theory of the thrifty gene ruled the day, with the idea that former hunter-gatherer populations faced steady pressures of feast and famine that gave them fat-storing genes to survive the lean times – thrifty genes that made their descendants, aboriginal people in particular, obese and diabetic in the modern world.

But 25 years on, science, and society, have evolved.

With failed efforts to find a thrifty gene, or any genetic explanation for the rapid global rise in obesity and diabetes, Prof. Barker’s hypothesis, better known today as the developmental origins theory, has emerged as a leading explanation. It’s also a more attractive one: If correct, it suggests that something can be done to turn the tide.

Rewriting nature’s script

Support for the developmental origins idea has grown alongside epigenetics, a budding branch of biology that is forcing a radical rethinking of genetic science as it reveals how the environment can alter DNA.

Dramatic experiments have shown that even small environmental changes can have a powerful, and permanent, impact on the way genes work: Tweaking the diets of pregnant rats, pigs, guinea pigs, rabbits and sheep can induce obesity and a range of other metabolic ills among the offspring. In one case, it changed the colour of a mouse.

The implication is that DNA may be the script that nature provides, but nurturing determines how that script will be performed – and, according to the origins theory, rehearsals begin in the womb.

“It’s almost a sensing system of what’s going on in the environment, so that a fetus can adapt,” says Rosanna Weksberg, an epigenetics researcher at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Problems can arise when the world outside the womb is dramatically different – “there’s an epigenetic memory of nutrition.”

Growing in a woman who is malnourished – either from eating too little or receiving too few nutrients – primes the fetal DNA to hoard every calorie available, only to be vulnerable to obesity and diabetes in a postnatal world of caloric overload. At the end of the Second World War, for instance, children born to women pregnant during the Dutch “hunger winter” proved susceptible to diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other health problems.


From :

The Story of Citizens United v. FEC, an exploration of the inordinate power that corporations exercise in our democracy.

From Greenpeace:

E-waste is routinely exported by developed countries to developing ones, often in violation of the international law. This practice is legal because the US has not ratified the Basel Convention.

From NPR’s All Things Considered:

Most plastic products, from sippy cups to food wraps, can release chemicals that act like the sex hormone estrogen, according to a study in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study found these chemicals even in products that didn’t contain BPA, a compound in certain plastics that’s been widely criticized because it mimics estrogen.

Many plastic products are now marketed as BPA-free, and manufacturers have begun substituting other chemicals whose effects aren’t as well known.

But it’s still unclear whether people are being harmed by BPA or any other so-called estrogenic chemicals in plastics. Most studies of health effects have been done in mice and rats.

The new study doesn’t look at health risks. It simply asks whether common plastic products release estrogen-like chemicals other than BPA.

The researchers bought more than 450 plastic items from stores including Walmart and Whole Foods. They chose products designed to come in contact with food — things like baby bottles, deli packaging and flexible bags, says George Bittner, one of the study’s authors and a professor of biology at the University of Texas, Austin.

Then CertiChem, a testing company founded by Bittner, chopped up pieces of each product and soaked them in either saltwater or alcohol to see what came out.

The testing showed that more than 70 percent of the products released chemicals that acted like estrogen. And that was before they exposed the stuff to real-world conditions: simulated sunlight, dishwashing and microwaving, Bittner says.

“Then, you greatly increase the probability that you’re going to get chemicals having estrogenic activity released,” he says, adding that more than 95 percent of the products tested positive after undergoing this sort of stress.

* * *

Read or listen to the full story here.

From Unnatural Causes – Episode 2:

When Atlanta lawyer Kim Anderson was pregnant with her first child, she did everything right: she ate a healthy diet, exercised, and got the best prenatal care. But her baby was born almost three months premature. This excerpt . . . explores racism’s impact on pregnancy outcomes.



From the Boston Globe:

[Upstream Contributor] Dr. Ana Soto won’t use plastic in the microwave.

R. Thomas Zoeller uses an iPhone application that flags products with potentially dangerous chemicals to help him make wise choices at the grocery store.

Dr. Perry E. Sheffield washes her hands often — as much to get rid of potentially dangerous chemicals as germs.

It’s nearly impossible to prove scientifically that certain diseases are caused by household chemicals, such as bisphenol-A, phthalates, and flame retardants, which are found in everything from kitchen cleaners to baby creams, carpeting to tin cans.

But as research accumulates about their potential dangers, and rates of diseases that are plausibly caused by these chemicals rise, these three scientists are anxious enough to make changes in their own homes.

“Effectively, we’re conducting experiments on our population,’’ said Sheffield, an assistant professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Researchers long ago proved that chemicals like bisphenol-A and phthalates can disrupt development in animals by interfering with their hormones. Now, scientists are increasingly demonstrating that these chemicals, known as endocrine disruptors, might be harmful to people, too.

“What’s happening to rats and mice is an indicator of what’s happening to humans,’’ said Soto, professor of cellular biology at Tufts University School of Medicine.

In one study of 427 men published in December, those who had the most bisphenol-A — known commonly as BPA — in their urine reported the highest levels of sexual problems, from decreased desire to lower satisfaction with their sex lives. In a 2009 study of 250 toddlers, girls (but not boys) were more likely to act aggressively if their mothers had high urine levels of BPA during pregnancy.

And a national survey of more than 1,400 adults showed that people with higher concentrations of BPA in their urine were more likely to have been diagnosed with heart disease or diabetes, according to a 2008 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

None of these studies are conclusive evidence of harm, the researchers said, because they do not meet the gold standard of medical research. To do that, scientists would have to study two large populations of people — one exposed to a chemical and one not — potentially for decades, to see if there are health differences between the two. Since virtually everyone is exposed to the major chemicals, and since our lifestyles differ in so many different ways, it would be nearly impossible to conduct such a study. Instead, researchers look to animal studies and weaker human studies to build a case.

The scientists interviewed for this story said enough data has accumulated to suggest that these chemicals might be harmful — and that we should take precautions as if they were.

It’s scientifically plausible that these chemicals account for some cases of autism, ADHD, learning disorders, and autoimmune problems like allergies and asthma, said Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Exposure and Human Health Committee.


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