Archives for the month of: May, 2011


Paul Mohai, founder of the Environmental Justice Program at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, discusses his recent research on racial and income disparities in the distribution of hazardous wastes sites in the U.S. Series.


Many things came out of the recent UN Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants , or POPs Convention (April 25-29, 2011), but the most valuable in many people’s opinion is the addition of Endosulfan to a growing list of highly dangerous chemicals, called by one pundit, “The worst of the worst.”

Endosulfan is a highly toxic, Class I pesticide. Like its closest relative, DDT, which was banned about 40 years ago based on severely detrimental health and environmental effects, endosulfan is an organochlorine, a class of pesticides known for their toxicity at every level in the living world. In fact, in 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said endosulfan’s health risks were actually more far-reaching than previously calculated or suspected.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, also known as the “POPs Treaty”, has been trying since 1995 to protect the world’s population from chemicals and pesticides uses in agriculture and industry that are known, even at very low levels, to cause cancer, central nervous system (CNS) disorders even in mature individuals, immune system failures, reproductive disorders, and delay or complete absence of certain infant and child (physical and mental) developmental paradigms. These chemicals are suspected of causing autism, ADHD, Central Auditory Processing Disorder, and Cerebral Palsy, to name a few.

POPs are persistent in the environment, building up in living organisms and demonstrating adverse effects on their health and development. POPs also move, traveling thousands of miles from their point of origin to infest and infect some of the last unspoiled wildernesses on the globe. For example, near the Arctic Circle, the presence of POPs are so prevalent that levels of HCH (Hexachlorocyclohexane), PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and endosulfan actually exceed those further south, even though the chemicals are not used in the Arctic.


From Chemical & Engineering News:

Two perfluorinated chemicals are linked to a delayed onset of puberty, according to a study of nearly 6,000 children living near a chemical plant (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es1038694).

Since 1951, a DuPont plant near Parkersburg, W. Va., has released perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a surfactant used in Teflon production, into the air and the nearby Ohio River. As a result, people living in the area have abnormally high levels of this compound in their blood.

In 2001, residents of the Mid-Ohio River Valley filed a class-action lawsuit against DuPont, alleging health problems that arose from drinking contaminated water. The company settled the lawsuit and agreed to fund research to determine whether PFOA exposure caused measurable health changes. Scientists had previously shown—in animals only—that PFOA causes cancer and disrupts sexual development.

Tony Fletcher, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, sits on the scientific advisory panel established by the settlement. He wanted to know if PFOA alters sexual development in humans as it does in animals.

In 2005 and 2006, in research funded by the settlement, health care workers collected blood and medical histories from 69,030 people who lived in contaminated water districts surrounding the chemical plant. Fletcher and his colleagues analyzed data gathered from 3,067 boys and 2,931 girls between the ages of 8 and 18. They found that the median PFOA serum concentration was 26 ng/mL for boys and 20 ng/mL for girls. Both concentrations were much higher than the level in the general U.S. population, 4.2 ng/mL. The researchers also examined serum levels of a related chemical that has also been linked to altered timing of sexual maturation in animals. That chemical is perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which was not produced by the DuPont plant. The median level of PFOS in the children was only slightly higher than the national average.

To determine the age at which the children reached puberty, the researchers used a questionnaire and measured blood levels of sex hormones. When the investigators compared serum PFOA or PFOS levels with the age of onset of puberty, they found that girls with high concentrations of PFOA started puberty later than girls with low concentrations did. Meanwhile, both boys and girls with high levels of PFOS matured later than their low-concentration peers did. For both chemicals, the median delays in puberty were about 4 to 6 months—a significant change, but one that’s unlikely to cause health problems, Fletcher says.

“These results were surprising because many endocrine disrupters lead to earlier puberty rather than delayed puberty,” he says. Previous studies of the developmental effects of perfluorochemicals have used only small groups of people and produced inconclusive results, Fletcher says. But he hopes that his study, the largest yet to examine the effects of PFOA and PFOS on puberty in humans, will pave the way for studies of other populations exposed to perfluorochemicals early in life.



Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – is a process used by energy companies to get natural gas out of the ground. Fracking involves forcing water, sand and chemicals underground to fracture rocks and release the natural gas trapped within them. But what happens to those chemicals once they’ve been injected into the ground?

That depends upon whom you ask. In a joint effort with ProPublica, the non-profit investigative journalist organization, Need to Know sent correspondent John Larson to Wyoming, where some residents believe fracking is contaminating their water and risking their health. Need to Know airs Fridays on PBS. Watch full-length episodes of Need to Know

From Ithaca Journal:

Scientists from Cornell University and Ithaca College briefed congressional aides Friday on what they say is a lack of research on the health and environmental impacts of a natural gas drilling process called hydraulic fracturing.

”Fracking is surrounded by metaphors rather than data,” said Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and scholar in residence at Ithaca College. “Many of the chemicals used in fracking are carcinogens.”

Federal energy officials announced Thursday they will create a working group to study hydraulic fracturing. Energy Secretary Steven Chu wants the panel of scientists, environmentalists and industry representatives to report within 90 days on ”immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of fracking.”

Panel members will issue a second report within 180 days, providing advice also to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.

But a leading House Republican doesn’t want more studies.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., issued a statement Thursday saying the panel violates the administration’s pledge to reduce government waste, since the EPA and Interior officials already have studies underway.

“While it might take numerous government agencies to smoke a salmon, there are also too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to the regulation of our nation’s energy supplies,” Upton said.

The Interior Department is examining whether new leases for drilling on federal land should require drillers to disclose the chemicals they add to water and sand to crack open shale deposits of natural gas.

And EPA has a yearlong study underway on whether federal drinking water laws should apply to hydraulic fracturing.

The three scientists who spoke at Friday’s briefing — two from Cornell and one from Ithaca — said the hydraulic fracturing procedure is 60 years old, but its use in shale formations was developed over the last 10 years.

Cornell Engineering Professor Anthony Ingraffea said the technology has been used to drill only about 20,000 wells into shale formations.

”This is not your grandmother’s gas well,” Ingraffea said.

He said hydraulic fracturing in shale formations uses more water and sand, and produces more waste than conventional natural gas wells.

Robert Howarth, who teaches ecology and environmental biology at Cornell, recently released a study showing that hydraulic fracturing contributes more to global warming than burning coal does, in large part because the process creates methane leaks.

Those leaks increase as wells age, but new technologies can reduce it as much as 90 percent, Howarth said. He said methane leaks also are a problem with natural gas transmission lines. About half the nation’s 3.1 million miles of lines are more than 50 years old.


Image from here.

From California Watch:

Researchers from UC Davis determined that California babies conceived in March had a significantly higher rate of autism, perhaps adding to a body of research that links spring and summer pesticide exposure to birth defects.

The report, which was published in the journal Epidemiology, found that children conceived in March have a 16 percent greater chance of being diagnosed with autism than children conceived in July. Researchers reviewed birth records for 7 million children born in California between 1990 and 2002.

The findings are a “starting point for further inquiry” into whether there is a connection between the increased autism incidence and additional exposure to pesticides that comes with spring and early summer planting, the report says. If such a connection is made, it would align with other studies showing that babies conceived in the spring have a higher rate of birth defects, such as Down syndrome and spina bifida.

Other research has found ties between occupational pesticide exposure among farm workers and birth defects. In one high-profile case, three babies born within three weeks of each other in February 2005 all had similar birth defects. Their mothers worked for the same tomato grower and were exposed to similar chemicals. Researchers could not determine that the pesticides clearly caused the birth defects, but called the incident a “cause for concern.”

Researchers delved into a rash of birth defects identified in rural Kettleman City, a California town surrounded by agriculture fields, but were not able to pinpoint a cause.

A study released last year showed that pesticides, likely from residue on food, were linked to attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder in children who were 8 to 15 years old. That study found that kids with higher-than-average levels of pesticide metabolites in their urine were also nearly twice as likely to have ADHD.

The California Department of Public Health has also studied the issue and found that certain types of birth defects are associated with women who said they were exposed to household gardening pesticides and those who lived within a quarter-mile of agricultural fields.

Researchers have repeatedly concluded that more research is needed to better understand how planting season and pesticides relate to birth defects.


From the Philadelphia Daily News:

Philadelphia tap water has been laced with fluctuating levels of radioactive iodine since at least 2007, but city officials say they only recently learned of the problem.

Iodine-131, which has no taste or smell, is a carcinogenic isotope, but federal environmental officials apparently weren’t concerned enough to tell you that it’s in your drinking water.

The Philadelphia Water Department, now participating in a multi-agency investigation, doesn’t know how the iodine is getting into the water supply.

“There’s something unusual here and we need to figure out what’s going on,” said Chris Crockett, the department’s acting deputy commissioner of environmental services.

You may ask: Does this have anything to do with the radioactive emissions from the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan?

The answer is no.

Although trace amounts of Iodine-131 have blown over to the United States from Japan, Philadelphia has a more serious – and mysterious – problem with an unidentified local source that predates Japan’s March nuclear disaster.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data show that the iodine in Philly’s water has exceeded federal drinking-water limit at least nine times since 2007 at two of the city’s three water-treatment plants.

And Philadelphia’s water has the highest iodine level among dozens of water systems in the U.S. tested by the EPA since the Japanese disaster.

Water Department officials tell the Daily News that they were not aware of the data until about the time that the Japanese crisis raised concerns about nuclear particles contaminating U.S. air and rainwater, an issue that turned out to be unrelated to the iodine in Philadelphia.

The Water Department is working with state and federal environmental officials to find the local source of Iodine-131, which can cause cancer in high or prolonged doses and is believed to be responsible for thousands of thyroid cancers following nuclear-bomb tests in the Nevada desert in the 1950s and ’60s.

“It’s not the type of thing you want to hear when you have kids,” said Bettina Berg, who lives in the city’s Bella Vista section and is worried about the health of her boys, ages 4 and 20 months. “That’s insane if it’s been at least four years and they haven’t done anything about it.”

In an attempt to filter out the iodine, the Water Department is using carbon at the Queen Lane Water Treatment Plant, which, along with the Belmont Water Treatment Plant, supplies about 40 percent of the city’s drinking water. Both plants use water from the Schuylkill. Lower levels of iodine have been found at Belmont in recent years.

“We want the public to know we have all of our attention focused on this,” said department spokeswoman Joanne Dahme.

Berg and other city residents want to know why officials weren’t concerned years ago, when the levels of Iodine-131 in the city’s drinking water repeatedly exceeded the EPA’s “maximum contaminant level” – the highest level of a contaminant allowed under federal regulations.

Crockett said the test results were not shared with the Water Department in 2007. If they were, he said, the department would have begun an investigation to find the local source.

“I personally would have loved to know about it three years ago,” Crockett said. “But we only got it now.”

Victoria Binetti, associate director of the water-protection division in the EPA’s regional office, said the results of those water samples, gathered through the national network RadNet, are not necessarily shared with local water officials.

Binetti acknowledged that Philadelphia’s drinking water had exceeded federal limits for Iodine-131, but said those limits are conservative and are based on decades of constant, prolonged consumption.

“It’s a level you don’t want to exceed, but it’s considered safe,” she said of the iodine in Philadelphia’s drinking water. (See chart for the city’s peak Iodine-131 levels).

But why did it take a nuclear incident halfway around the world for officials here to realize that there is a local source of radioactive iodine?

No one seems to have an answer for that.


From Times-Tribune:

A state environmental group is calling on lawmakers to restrict natural gas drilling near places people live, learn and work after it released a study Thursday showing hundreds of wells have been planned or drilled next to schools and hospitals.

The study by PennEnvironment found that Marcellus Shale gas wells have been permitted or drilled within two miles of 320 day cares, 67 schools and nine hospitals in the state, putting “our most vulnerable populations at risk,” PennEnvironment field director Adam Garber said.

State law restricts drilling within 200 feet of an occupied building regardless of its use, but local and state elected officials have introduced bills and ordinances to expand that buffer.

The PennEnvironment study found that the closest day care is 400 feet from a permitted well site, the closest school is 900 feet away and the closest hospital is half a mile away.

Although the study shows that a school and day care in Lackawanna County are each within two miles of permitted well sites, the permits for those wells expired without drilling taking place.

In Susquehanna County, wells have been drilled on Elk Lake School District property, and another well is permitted within 2,000 feet of a district school. In Wyoming County, Tyler Memorial Hospital is about a mile and a half from the closest permitted well.

The study did not look at the proximity of gas processing plants or compressor stations to schools, day cares and hospitals and it did not take into account traffic violations or accidents involving trucks operating near those facilities.

Mr. Garber said blowouts and spills at shale wells in the state demonstrate the hazards of the extraction process. A recent blowout of a Chesapeake Energy well in Bradford County that allowed toxic wastewater to reach a waterway was in a remote area, he said.

“God forbid it happen next to an elementary school,” he said.


Vodpod videos no longer available.

From The Durango Herald:

On a quiet back road near Turtle Lake, a metaphorical battle is being waged between neighbors Katrina Blair and Scott Sallee. The two fight over city contracts, but the differences are philosophical, ecological and – for Blair, at least – almost religious.

Blair, who lives in a rough-hewn log cabin with a solar-paneled roof on the north side of County Road 205, has been pushing Durango city officials for chemical- and pesticide-free parks since 2007. Sallee, who lives on the south side of the road in a neat stucco house surrounded by a moat of lush green grass, owns Scott’s Pro Lawn Service, which has held the $15,583 contract to spray the city’s parks since about 1996.

Each has their own view of what defines a healthy park, be it the level of weed-proliferation or the nutrient level in the soil. But this time of year, both are exhausted by what appears to be a losing battle.


Most of my focus on Upstream is on the role that man-made environmental degradation has contributed to human illness and disease. As the following video illustrates, there is another harmful effect of those changes: the reduction of access to environmental cures. Causes and Cures, prevention and prescription alike are affected by how we protect and preserve the planet from ourselves.

From Nature Conservancy:

Learn about one woman’s struggle with cancer and how coral reefs are providing the basis for drugs to fight this and other deadly diseases.

From Time:

When the Exxon Valdez ran ashore in Prince William Sound in 1989, the immediate focus was on the damage that millions of gallons of oil might do to the pristine Alaskan waters. And, indeed, the toll was terrible: an estimated 250,000 birds died because of the spill, and the Sound’s productive fisheries took years to fully recover from the pollution. Even today, you can find leftover oil on the rocky islands of the Sound.

Yet there was another long-lasting impact from the spill: the mental health of the nearby community. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, stress and divorce all skyrocketed in the wake of the disaster, and the wounds were slow to heal. A recent study found that levels of stress among those Alaskans who were involved in litigation over the oil spill were as high in 2009 as they were in 1991. The oil spill was, as sociologist Steven Picou termed it, a “constantly renewing disaster.”

Now, a year after the Gulf oil spill, there are concerns that even though the ecological effects of the accident aren’t as great as initially feared, residents along the coast might suffer the same fate their predecessors in Alaska did. A forthcoming study of Gulf Coast residents affected by the spill — conducted by Picou, Liesel Ritchie of the University of Colorado and Duane Gill of Oklahoma State University — found that one-fifth of respondents qualified as being under severe stress, and one-fourth were in moderate stress. Those numbers are comparable to stress levels in the Prince William Sound area a few months after the Valdez spill.

Those Gulf Coasters who had a connection to local resources, like fisherman, were even more likely to experience high levels of stress, as were people with low income levels and low levels of education. And if the trends observed in Alaska hold true for the Gulf Coast, significant levels of stress could continue for far longer. “Given the social scientific evidence amassed over the years in Prince William Sound, Alaska, we can only conclude that social disruption and psychological stress will characterize residents of Gulf Coast communities for decades to come,” the authors write.


Vodpod videos no longer available.


In 2005, neighbors of the Saufley Field Landfill began complaining of burning eyes, headache, nausea, difficulty breathing and respiratory infections caused by toxic debris that contaminated nearby groundwater.

Now, with Escambia County’s decision to move most of Saufley’s waste to one of two private landfills in the Wedgewood and Rolling Hills communities, residents in those communities fear their groundwater also may become contaminated and they may face similar health problems.


From Medscape News:

Prenatal exposure to organophosphate (OP) pesticides that are widely used on fruit and vegetable crops throughout the United States has been linked to IQ deficits in school-age children, according to 3 new studies published online April 21 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The studies add to the growing body of literature linking exposure to pesticides and insecticides to adverse neurologic and cognitive outcomes in children.

In February, a study in Pediatrics and reported by Medscape Medical News at that time showed that prenatal exposure to piperonyl butoxide, a chemical added to pyrethroid insecticides used in the home, was associated with delayed neurodevelopment in young children.

“The fact that 3 research groups reached such similar conclusions independently adds considerable support to the validity of the findings,” Hugh A. Tilson, PhD, editor-in-chief of Environmental Health Perspectives, said in a statement.

In the first study, Stephanie M. Engel, PhD, from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and colleagues analyzed third trimester maternal urines for OP metabolites and prenatal maternal blood for paraoxonase 1 (PON1) activity and genotype in 360 multiethnic pregnant women living in New York City between 1998 and 2002. PON1 is a key enzyme in the metabolism of OPs.

* * *

In the second study, researchers from the University of California (UC), Berkeley, School of Public Health found that prenatal exposure to OP pesticides was related to lower intelligence scores at the age of 7 years.

* * *

The third study, by Virginia Rauh, ScD, MSW, from Columbia University, New York City, and colleagues, showed children exposed to prenatal chlorpyrifos (CPF), a pesticide used to kill roaches and other pests, had declining IQ and memory. It is now banned for use in the home but is still commonly used to spray food crops.

* * *

“These findings are important in light of continued widespread use of CPF in agricultural settings and possible longer-term educational implications of early cognitive deficits,” the investigators write.

“Since agricultural use of CPF is still permitted in the US, it is important that we continue to monitor the levels of exposure in potentially vulnerable populations, including pregnant women in agricultural communities, and evaluate the long-term neurodevelopmental implications of exposure to CPF and other organophosphate insecticides,” they conclude.

“It is well known that findings from individual epidemiologic studies may be influenced by chance and other sources of error. This is why researchers often recommend their results be interpreted with caution until they are supported by similar findings in other study populations,” Dr. Tilson commented.

“As a group, these papers add substantial weight to the evidence linking OP pesticides with adverse effects on cognitive development by simultaneously reporting consistent findings for 3 different groups of children.”


Living on Earth Podcast: “Pesticides Influence on IQ

From Port Huron Times Herald:

Five children in southeastern St. Clair County have been diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer in the past four years, and officials are trying to find out why.

The answer so far: They’re investigating.

This isn’t the first time the St. Clair County Health Department has investigated reports of a cancer cluster — or this possible cluster involving Wilms’ tumor, a cancer which is diagnosed in about 550 cases annually in the United States.

The county began an investigation in 2009 into the incidence of Wilms’ tumor, said Susan Amato, the department’s director of health education and planning. The state Department of Community Health determined further investigation wasn’t needed, she said.

Several years before that investigation, the county health department contracted for a firm to research a possible link between petroleum refining in Chemical Valley and cancer in St. Clair County. No conclusive evidence was found, Amato said.

Officials reopened the 2009 investigation after the latest case of Wilms’ tumor — Ireland Kulman, a 6-month-old girl from Marine City who was diagnosed in March — sparked concerns within the community.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, a cancer cluster is a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area during a period of time. According to the CDC’s website, cases are more likely to represent a cluster if they involve one type of cancer, a rare type of cancer or a type of cancer in a group not usually affected by that cancer.

But determining if a number of cancer cases in an area constitutes a cluster is not easy . . . .


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