Archives for the month of: April, 2011

From the Utah News:

Ling Seager is dead.

So is Jim Sproul, who sat next to her in an office in the Utah National Guard’s Joint Language Training Center. And so is Chris Jensen, who sat beside Sproul.

Across from Seager sat Mike Chen; he survived a brain tumor. A few feet away was Mark Hepper; he’s dying.

Megan Cate, Scott Forman, Jackie Leedy, Andy Swatsenbarg — all of them worked in the same small office. All of them are sick. None of them knows why.

Utah National Guard leaders say it’s just a “weird coincidence” that so many people who worked in the same office at the center have died or become debilitatingly ill. Their investigation into environmental conditions at the facility, located at a sprawling industrial park in northern Utah, concluded that the office was safe for its workers — even as engineers continue to remove toxic chemicals from the ground surrounding the building in the middle of an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.

Swatsenbarg, a career Army officer who fell ill in 2007, isn’t impressed with the military’s self-examination.

“So the National Guard checked itself out and says everything is fine? Well, that’s a big surprise,” he says. “I wonder if Procter & Gamble could get away with that. Or how about Dow Chemicals or DuPont?”

Swatsenbarg and other veterans of the language center say they simply want to know that a serious effort has been made to ascertain whether their sicknesses are linked to their service. And that, they say, will take an investigation from someone outside of the Guard.

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From Lexington Minuteman:

After seeing both of her siblings diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, Lexington High School senior Emily Hanson began researching what may have caused the illness to strike her family twice. She concluded that toxins and chemicals in the environment are increasing the frequency of diseases, including diabetes, that at one time were much more rare.

“Looking at the causes of these diseases, the general public is not well aware of what they are being exposed to,” said Hanson.

Hanson has worked with organizations to raise money to find a cure for diabetes but that is not her focus. Hanson said she wants to highlight why the rates of some disease have increased in recent years.

To explain her findings, she launched Upstream, a new media platform “to promote the discoveries, insights, and successes of scholars, writers, and activists working to prevent environmental illness and promote environmental justice.” Upstrm.org includes a blog, links to information, and video interviews with experts about the link between toxins in the environment and the rate of diseases in the population.

Much of the work on the site was done last summer.

“I really like to use my filming skills and I had blogged at other times in my life,” said Hanson.

Hanson believes there is a lack of information available to the general public about the harmful effects of chemicals in the environment. She also believes there are not enough regulations in place to prevent the buildup of harmful materials.

“In other countries, they have to prove a chemical is safe before it can get on the market,” said Hanson.

Her site uses new media to convey the message. Hanson said she usually conducts 45-minute interviews with scientists she has found through her research. She asks them to explain their work and its impacts. Those 45-minute interviews are distilled down to more manageable segments and featured on the website.

Along with the video interviews, Hanson’s site features a blog, her own personal story, and an explanation of why she has spent so much time trying to spread the word about the need for environmental stewardship.

Hanson’s efforts have been yielded some significant endorsements, including that of Yale Law School Prof. Douglas Kysar, author of “Regulating from Nowhere: Environmental Law and the Search for Objectivity.”

“We know that pervasive chemical exposure plagues us. We know how to reduce that exposure through industrial process changes, substitute technologies, and stringent regulations. What we do not know is how to convince our political representatives to act wisely on our behalf,” Kysar wrote. “Upstream is a huge step in the right direction.”

Hanson said building awareness is the best way to influence change.

“I don’t think [standards] are going to change unless people become a lot more aware of it and bring more pressure on legislators for great regulation because the corporate interests are so strong,” she said.

Hanson, who is set to graduate from LHS this spring, said she is trying to decide whether to go to college immediately or spend a year focusing on Upstream.

“I’m thinking of taking a year off, even though I have some great options,” she said. “I want to have more interviews, that would mean traveling across the country … I want to spread the word about my site so people are able to access it.”

More.

From Greenwire:

One word could describe U.S. EPA’s oversight of BP PLC’s decision to pour 1.84 million gallons of oil-dispersing chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: uncertain.

Responding to growing public unease last year over BP’s strategy of fighting a massive chemical spill with more chemicals, EPA flexed its regulatory muscle. The result was not confidence-inspiring: a shoving match between the world’s largest environmental regulator and one of the world’s largest oil companies that showed how little the regulators understood about oil dispersants.

One year later, scientists say little has changed.

Decisionmaking about the use of dispersants to combat the oil pouring out of the Macondo well 5,000 feet below the Gulf surface were driven more by politics, circumstances of supply and availability, and educated guesswork than by informed science, experts say.

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From The Independent:

Jamie Simon worked on a barge in the oily waters for six months following the BP spill last year, cooking for the cleanup workers, washing their clothes and tidying up after them.

One year later, the 32-year-old said she still suffers from a range of debilitating health problems, including racing heartbeat, vomiting, dizziness, ear infections, swollen throat, poor sight in one eye and memory loss.

She blames toxic elements in the crude oil and the dispersants sprayed to dissolve it after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, 2010.

“I was exposed to those chemicals, which I questioned, and they told me it was just as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid and there was nothing for me to worry about,” she said of the BP bosses at the job site.

The local doctor, Mike Robichaux, said he has seen as many as 60 patients like Simon in recent weeks, as this small southern town of 10,000 bordered by swamp land and sugar cane fields grapples with a mysterious sickness that some believe is all BP’s fault.

Andy LaBoeuf, 51, said he was paid $1,500 per day to use his boat to go out on the water and lay boom to contain some of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spewed from the bottom of the ocean after the BP well ruptured.

But four months of that job left him ill and unable to work, and he said he recently had to refinance his home loan because he could not pay his taxes.

“I have just been sick for a long time. I just got sick and I couldn’t get better,” LaBoeuf said, describing memory problems and a sore throat that has nagged him for a year.

Robichaux, an ear, nose and throat specialist whose office an hour’s drive southwest of New Orleans is nestled on a roadside marked with handwritten signs advertising turtle meat for sale, says he is treating many of the local patients in their homes.

“Their work ethic is so strong, they are so stoic, they don’t want people to know when they’re sick,” he said.

“Ninety percent of them are getting worse… Nobody has a clue as to what it is.”

* * *

Some similar symptoms, including eye irritation, breathing problems, nausea and psychological stress, have been seen among responders to the Prestige oil tanker spill off Spain in 2002 and the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 off Alaska.

Local chemist Wilma Subra has been helping test people’s blood for volatile solvents, and said levels of benzene among cleanup workers, divers, fishermen and crabbers are as high as 36 times that of the general population.

“As the event progresses we are seeing more and more people who are desperately ill,” she said.

“Clearly it is showing that this is ongoing exposure,” Subra said, noting that pathways include contact with the skin, eating contaminated seafood or breathing polluted air.

“We have been asking the federal agencies to please provide medical care from physicians who are trained in toxic exposure.”

She said she has received no response.

More.

From PBS’s

The rise in the number of reported autism cases has caused a surge in research to find the causes. Robert MacNeil speaks with four leading researchers: Dr. Gerald Fischbach of the Simons Foundation, Dr. David Amaral of the MIND Institute, Dr. Martha Herbert of Harvard University and Dr. Craig Newschaffer of Drexel University. It’s part three of the Autism Now series of reports.

Note to regular Upstream readers:  I will be interviewing Dr. Herbert in June of 2011. ~eh

From PBS’s NewsHour:

In the second report in his Autism Now series, Robert MacNeil investigates why the number of children with autism is increasing in the U.S. He meets children at different points on the autism spectrum and gets several views on the increase in prevalence — from better diagnosis to a variety of environmental factors.

From Living On Earth (portions of Bruce Gellerman’s recollections of his 1996 report on Chernobyl):

* * *

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. 25 years ago – April 26, 1986, at precisely 1:23 in the morning, Ukraine time – the number four reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded.

The graphite core of the Soviet reactor ignited and fuel rods vaporized, sending a plume of radioactivity high into the atmosphere. For nearly two days, Soviet officials denied anything had happened. Then the radiation was detected in Sweden and Russian TV news had this short announcement:

[SFX – Russian news cast…SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Voiceover: “An accident has happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One reactor has been damaged. The government has formed a commission of inquiry.”]

* * *

GELLERMAN: A faded mural on a vacant apartment building welcomes us to Pripyat. The town was once home to 45,000 residents – plant workers and their families. The sign reads: “The Party of Lenin Leads Us to a Communist Victory.” My guide Alexander Shevchenko deadpans an old party slogan: the people of Pripyat really did invite the friendly Atom into their homes. He laughs alone in the silence.

 * * *

GELLERMAN: But for our Geiger counter, the apartments are ghostly quiet. Plant officials delayed the evacuation of Pripyat for a day and a half. By then, Alexander says, the clouds of radioactive iodine had delivered intense doses to the town’s children.

GELLERMAN: Why did they wait 36 hours before they evacuated?

SHEVCHENKO: They waited for the order from Kremlin. They knew about the danger, but they waited for the instructions. I think it is forever – it shouldn’t be forgotten.

* * *

GELLERMAN: We’re standing at Ground Zero. Today, what remains of the melted number four reactor is entombed in a massive 24-storey sarcophagus. But even 300,000 tons of steel and concrete can’t contain the intense radiation within.

* * *

GELLERMAN: The levels on our Geiger counter double when we pointed at the sarcophagus – it’s the most radioactive building on the planet. The amount of radiation released at Chernobyl was 250 times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. After a minute here, Alexander wants to leave this place.

SHEVCHEKOV: We better get to the car.

GELLERMAN: Why’s that?

SHEVCHEKOV: Because it’s rather high. You know, I’ve been inside the sarcophagus four times.

GELLERMAN: What is it like? What does it look like inside?

SHEVCHEKOV: Wrecks. Ruins. Ruins, wrecks, and high levels of radiation. Only two minutes allowed.

* * *

GELLERMAN: The Chernobyl sarcophagus was built in seven months – a Herculean effort by some 850 thousand Soviet soldiers, so-called “liquidators.”

[SHOVELING SOUNDS]

GELLERMAN: Shovelful by shovelful, the liquidators removed the radioactive debris and erected the sarcophagus.

[SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Voiceover: “We were like ants. Just as some were finishing their task, others would immediately take their place. And that’s how, together, we were able to fight the radioactivity.”]

Video about Chernobyl’s “Biorobots”

DODD: What they did was heroic, you know, and I shudder at the thought of anybody ever having to work like that again. Many of these people – and you’ve seen them in the videos – went up on the roof of the Turbine Generator Hall and were basically given instructions to run out into the hall to pick up a piece of fuel or radioactive graphite, carry it 30 or 40 meters, and throw it over the wall. Oftentimes, they were limited to 10 or 15 seconds to do that – once they did that, they basically had taken a lifetime of radiation and they went back home.

* * *

GELLERMAN: But here we are – 25 years out from Chernobyl – and many people have forgotten it, and you don’t have enough money to complete your work, at least right now, and yet we’re betting on future, future, future generations to deal with this.

DODD: That’s right. I mean, this is a consequence of Chernobyl, and certainly for the 100-years lifetime of the New Safe Confinement, there’s going to be…it’s going to employ the children and the grandchildren of some of the current workers of the Chernobyl site.

* * *

GELLERMAN: Laurin Dodd is managing director of the new Chernobyl safe confinement structure. He lives just outside the evacuation zone. Author Mary Mycio has been inside the zone more than 25 times. She’s author of the book “Wormwood Forest – A Natural History of Chernobyl.”

MYCIO: The first time I went there, I was absolutely stunned to find out that it was, first of all, not this big giant dead parking lot that I’d imagined – it was really green. And that – when you get out into the wild, it’s actually…there are parts of it that are very, very beautiful.

You have the wetlands and peat lands. In one single day, I saw a herd of red deer, a herd of about 40 boars, four moose, and wolf. In the absence of human activity, it becomes a very inviting environment for wildlife.

GELLERMAN: But it’s radioactive!

MYCIO: Well they can’t tell. Radioactivity’s invisible.

GELLERMAN: But isn’t that the point? You can’t see the radiation, yet there’s been this terrible disaster there. Can’t you tell that radiation has its biological effect?

MYCIO: Well I guess you could if you did large animal studies and had, you know, random samples or comparative studies, but nobody is doing that. And…I mean, yes, you can study mice because all you would theoretically need is a couple of mouse traps and some cheese and you’ll get your sample of mice.

If you want to study, let’s say, moose, you have to do some big game hunting and it takes awhile – it’s not like they show up on command. So nobody has been providing that kind of funding right now.

GELLERMAN: But we had no gross genetic damage that we can see now. No giant insects and birds…

MYCIO: No, no, nothing like that. If there are mutations being born in the wild, they die – they get eaten by scavengers so nobody actually finds them. Nobody has identified any mutations except for these studies done on swallows where they have some…they had pigmentation damage, like albino spots on their faces.

GELLERMAN: What about the forests and the flora, the trees? Have they been affected? Can you see mutations in them?

MYCIO: Well there are places where you can see – it’s called radiomorphism, which is radioactivity affecting the orientation that the plant has and the way that it grows. So in very, very radioactive areas, you will have these kind of stunted pine trees that look more like bushes.

GELLERMAN: So now we have this largely abandoned area – when do you think people will be able to come back?

MYCIO: Oh, it depends. There are parts of the zone where people could actually live now because the lines were drawn in a very, very rough way. Other parts – the parts that are closest to the reactor – as a practical matter, never. They won’t be able to come back. Because plutonium – you have plutonium there and that’s got a half-life of 24,000 years. So unless they figure out a way to clean it up, or…I don’t know if there’s an ‘or’ to that. (Laughs). I can’t see how people could come back there in a safe way.

GELLERMAN: When I was in the zone around Chernobyl 15 years ago, I interviewed an old couple who moved back into the zone, and they’re not alone – there are a bunch of people who have moved back. Have we seen any changes in them – any biological effects?

MYCIO: Well the irony is that a lot of the people who went back – they’re doing better than people of their own age who were evacuated because the impact of radiation takes so many decades to show up that if you’re an older person, you’ll die of something else before the radiation will kill you.

And the people who were evacuated, let’s say, from these beautiful – really truly beautiful, lush wetlands – into, let’s say, the suburbs of Kiev in a high-rise apartment building…that’s a traumatic thing, and a lot of the older people had a very, very difficult time adjusting. While the people who went back – they were sort of in their old houses and, yes, there’s radiation around, but a lot of them prefer to be home. Though I would also caution that a lot of the people who live in the zone aren’t there because they have happy stories to tell.

GELLERMAN: Mary Mycio is author of “Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl.”

* * *

GELLERMAN: One of the, if not the saddest photo I think you’ve taken and the one that kind of has burned an image in my mind, is the one of a farmer and he’s got a tattoo of his wife on his shoulder.

ROTHBART: So his full name is Vassily Olessandrovich. I was walking through the town of Ivankiv and I heard him half-drunk, crying in his front yard, and I peeked over his fence and I thought, ‘he’s never going to let me photograph him.’ But I screwed up my courage to knock on the door and ask, and he let me in and talked to me, and we just talked for a few minutes.

And he has this tattoo of a woman – I asked him about it. And he told me that his wife had died the previous year from cancer – she died of liver cancer after a long illness. And so after she died, he tattooed her picture on his shoulder as a personal memorial. And while I was working on this new exhibit, I had my assistant Kiev do some fact-checking and she found out that Vassily has now also died. He died last year of stomach cancer, and he was 57.

GELLERMAN: You photographed a Chernobyl engineer who had worked at the plant for 24 years – I’m looking at the picture of Viktor.

ROTHBART: Yeah, Viktor Gaidak was an engineer at the plant and he continued to work for almost a decade after the 1986 accident. And then in 2004, he had colon cancer and had surgery. And one thing he told me…he told me that when he was sick with cancer, he said, ‘we sold our car to pay for the surgery,’ he said, ‘we sold our TV, our refrigerator, jewelry, everything we could.’ And then he pointed to his wife Lydia next to him and said, ‘well now my wife Lydia has cancer and there’s nothing left for us to sell.’

* * *

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Links

From UCTelevision:

Robert H. Lustig, MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, explores the damage caused by sugary foods. He argues that fructose (too much) and fiber (not enough) appear to be cornerstones of the obesity epidemic through their effects on insulin.

From E.P.A.:

Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is escaping in vast volumes from oil and gas fields in the United States, Russia and other countries. Some companies have found that investments in capturing the emissions quickly pay off in sales of the fuel.

From EarthJustice:

Millions of Americans suffer from asthma, however most people don’t know how brutal it is to live with the disease. Breathing is a fundamental right, yet every day air pollution is affecting millions of American’s Right to Breathe.

From Greenpeace:

25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, residents of the area are still exposed to the radiation.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

From MSNBC:

Scuffles between protesters and security guards marred BP’s first annual shareholder meeting since the Gulf oil spill Thursday, as investors registered their disapproval with sizable protest votes against company directors.

From the Associated Press:

With everything Big Oil and the government have learned in the year since the Gulf of Mexico disaster, could it happen again? Absolutely, according to an Associated Press examination of the industry and interviews with experts on the perils of deep-sea drilling.

The government has given the OK for oil exploration in treacherously deep waters to resume, saying it is confident such drilling can be done safely. The industry has given similar assurances. But there are still serious questions in some quarters about whether the lessons of the BP oil spill have been applied.

The industry “is ill-prepared at the least,” said Charles Perrow, a Yale University professor specializing in accidents involving high-risk technologies. “I have seen no evidence that they have marshaled containment efforts that are sufficient to deal with another major spill. I don’t think they have found ways to change the corporate culture sufficiently to prevent future accidents.”

He added: “There are so many opportunities for things to go wrong that major spills are unavoidable.”

The worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history began with an explosion April 20, 2010, that killed 11 workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig. More than 200 million gallons of crude spewed from the well a mile beneath the sea.

Since then, new drilling rules have been imposed, a high-tech system for capping a blown-out well and containing the oil has been built, and regulators have taken steps to ramp up oversight of the industry.

But deep-sea drilling remains highly risky. The effectiveness of the much-touted containment system is being questioned because it hasn’t been tested on the sea floor. A design flaw in the blowout preventers widely used across the industry has been identified but not corrected. And regulators are allowing companies to obtain drilling permits before approving their updated oil-spill response plans.

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From The Altantic:

Bisphenol A (BPA)—the once-obscure chemical building block of polycarbonate plastics, the epoxy resins that line many food and beverage cans, and of the coatings that make inks appear in most cash register receipts—is now almost a household word. But familiarity with the chemical has grown not because BPA is used in countless everyday products, but because of its potential adverse health effects, in particular its ability to act as an endocrine-disrupting chemical.

As a result, many major manufacturers of baby bottles, toddlers’ drinking cups, and reusable water bottles—among other products—have switched to “BPA-free” materials. A number of prominent retailers in the U.S. and abroad are doing the same. So the question arises: What are these BPA-free materials, and who’s making sure they’re safe?

As scientific evidence of BPA’s biological activity grows, the search for alternatives becomes more imperative. While the polymers BPA creates are strong, they easily release the substance, which can get into our bodies not only through contact with BPA-laden products themselves but also through food, dust, and air. Potential adverse effects—which can occur at very low levels of exposure—include disrupted genetic signaling and hormone activity that can lead to diabetes; obesity; impaired reproductive, developmental, neurological, immune, and cardiovascular system function; and certain cancers. Of particular concern are the effects of BPA on infants and children. BPA eventually does break down, but the chemical is in so many products that it is virtually ubiquitous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found BPA in more than 90 percent of the Americans it has tested.

* * *
While there are currently no federal restrictions on BPA use, both the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has labeled BPA “a chemical of concern,” and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued statements of support for the use of BPA alternatives.

* * *
Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the U.S. law that regulates chemicals in commerce, it’s entirely permissible to launch a new material into high-volume production without disclosing its precise chemical identity or any information about its toxicity. This makes it impossible for the public to assess product safety independently of manufacturer claims. And currently, despite EPA and FDA policies that support “safe” alternatives to a chemical of concern like BPA, neither federal agency conducts safety testing of new materials destined for consumer products before they come on the market.

* * *

What all this means is that while U.S. federal policy supports alternatives to BPA—and we’re using products containing these new materials at increasing volume—we actually know very little about them and lack a system that would provide independent assessment of new materials before they’re in our homes. With demand growing for safe plastics, it’s clear that we need a better and more proactive way of ensuring their safety—and ours.

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Vodpod videos no longer available.

From PBS:

In the first of six reports in his Autism Now series, former NewsHour anchor Robert MacNeil takes viewers on a visit with his 6-year-old grandson, Nick, to see how autism affects the whole family. Nick experiences autism not just as a brain-development disorder, but also as physical ailments affecting his whole body.

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