Archives for category: Reports

Pollution in China

From New York Times:

Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total, according to a new summary of data from a scientific study on leading causes of death worldwide.

Figured another way, the researchers said, China’s toll from pollution was the loss of 25 million healthy years of life from the population.

Read article here.

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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently completed an amazing series of reports on the cancer clusters in Western Pennsylvania. Here is a sample from Day 3 of their 8-day series.

A more accurate and thorough air-monitoring network is necessary to assess human health risks and support enforcement of environmental regulations. And that’s especially true in rural areas where few monitors now exist.

“We do not have the kind of robust monitoring network we need nationally,” said S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. “And we never have enough monitors in environmental justice areas, poorer areas, and rural areas that cannot protect themselves as well.”

State Department of Environmental Protection documents show that only seven of the 18 ambient air-quality monitors in 13 western counties measure levels of nearly invisible particulates — known as PM2.5 because they are smaller than 2.5 micrometers — that can be inhaled deeply into human lungs and cause or aggravate a variety of health problems, including asthma and cardiac and respiratory disease.

More . . .

Center for Public Integrity: Big polluters freed from environmental oversight by stimulus.

In the name of job creation and clean energy, the Obama administration has doled out billions of dollars in stimulus money to some of the nation’s biggest polluters and granted them sweeping exemptions from the most basic form of environmental oversight, a Center for Public Integrity investigation has found.

The administration has awarded more than 179,000 “categorical exclusions” to stimulus projects funded by federal agencies, freeing those projects from review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Coal-burning utilities like Westar Energy and Duke Energy, chemical manufacturer DuPont, and ethanol maker Didion Milling are among the firms with histories of serious environmental violations that have won blanket NEPA exemptions.

Even a project at BP’s maligned refinery in Texas City, Tex. — owner of the oil industry’s worst safety record and site of a deadly 2005 explosion, as well as a benzene leak earlier this year — secured a waiver for the preliminary phase of a carbon capture and sequestration experiment involving two companies with past compliance problems. The primary firm has since dropped out of the project before it could advance to the second phase.

Agency officials who granted the exemptions told the Center that they do not have time in most cases to review the environmental compliance records of stimulus recipients, and do not believe past violations should affect polluters’ chances of winning stimulus money or the NEPA exclusions.

The so-called “stimulus” funding came from the $787-billion legislation officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in February 2009.

Documents obtained by the Center show the administration has devised a speedy review process that relies on voluntary disclosures by companies to determine whether stimulus projects pose environmental harm. Corporate polluters often omitted mention of health, safety, and environmental violations from their applications. In fact, administration officials told the Center they chose to ignore companies’ environmental compliance records in making grant decisions and issuing NEPAexemptions, saying they considered such information irrelevant.

Some polluters reported their stimulus projects might cause “unknown environmental risks” or could “adversely affect” sensitive resources, the documents show. Others acknowledged they would produce hazardous air pollutants or toxic metals. Still others won stimulus money just weeks after settling major pollution cases. Yet nearly all got exemptions from full environmental analyses, the documents show.

More . . .

A Report by Healthy Schools Network, titled “Sick Schools 2009: America’s Continuing Environmental Health” [pdf here] provides a state-by-state analysis of environmental health risks in the nation’s schools.  The report begins as follows:

Crisis for Children

We know that healthy school buildings contribute to student learning, reduce health and operating costs, and ultimately, increase school quality and competitiveness. However, 55 million of our children attend public and private K-12 schools where poor air quality, hazardous chemicals and other unhealthy conditions make students (and their teachers) sick and handicap their ability to learn.

Differences in school resources for maintaining schools exacerbate social and economic inequities and academic disparities.3 However, “poor children, in poor schools with a poor environment may have poor academic achievement. To assume that the cause of their lack of achievement is solely due to curricular and teaching deficiencies ignores other strong confounding variables in the child’s environment.”

You can download the report by clicking here.

Newsweek ran a story, “Heavy Metal High School,” this week on the mounting evidence of health risks in America’s schools.  It begins this way:

The elementary, middle, and high schools in Cle Elum, Wash.—a town on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains with a poverty rate twice the national average—were built across from the trash transfer station. They are also near a washing station once used by coal-mining operations, which left hills of black waste containing arsenic, cadmium, and lead. The elementary school opened without heat, and the boilers that were ultimately installed did not burn cleanly and released exhaust into an intake for the ventilation system located feet away. Construction issues led to water seeping into the building, and mold grew throughout the school.

All of this is according to Thelma Simon, a parent who removed her son, Kyle, from the system in 1995 because of his constant asthma attacks, and former teachers who also claim to have been sickened by the buildings. Other kids and teachers reported symptoms including mouth blisters, rashes, and cysts, and teachers in the high school ultimately filed a lawsuit. But though the school district made some improvements in response to the suit, Simon and teachers who left the school system for health reasons say the underlying problems remain unaddressed, and they continue to hear reports of the schools’ causing illness. . . .

This should be a one-of-a-kind story. But tales of schools rife with mold and toxins from building materials, as well as schools built on former industrial sites or in the shadow of chemical factories, can be found all across the country.

Read the entire story here.

From Living On Earth (portions of a fascinating radio discussion of the latest attempt to overhaul the U.S.’s anemic laws on governing toxic chemicals):

YOUNG: It’s our recycled edition of Living on Earth – I’m Jeff Young.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 74 billion pounds of chemicals are produced or imported into the United States each day. That’s more than 240 pounds of chemicals for every man, woman and child in the country. And that doesn’t even include chemicals used in drugs, foods, fuels or pesticides.

The federal law that’s supposed to protect people and the environment from industrial chemicals is more than three decades old. And consumer and environmental groups, the EPA, even manufacturers agree—the current regulations are long over due for reform. Living on Earth’s senior correspondent Bruce Gellerman reports from Washington.

GELLERMAN: In the Living on Earth broadcast studio on Capitol Hill I’m surrounded by things made from chemicals. The walls and floor are carpeted, the ceiling is insulated tile, my desk is painted, I’ve got a plastic bottle, my pens and printer are filled with ink, there’s a pile of alkaline batteries. And just look around. Chances are you too are also surround by products made with industrial chemicals.

WALLS: Our products, our industry’s products touch 96 percent of all manufactured goods.

GELLERMAN: That’s Michael Walls—Vice President of Technology and Regulatory Affairs with the American Chemistry Council. It’s a trade group representing the nation’s largest chemical manufacturers.

WALLS: You’re talking about an industry that is vital for the national defense. It’s vital to the health and safety of all Americans. You’re talking about the solutions to some of our global problems like climate change, you know, reducing CO2 emissions is fundamentally a chemistry problem.

GELLERMAN: There are over 82 thousand industrial chemicals registered for use in the United States and that number is increasing by about 700 new chemicals a year—that concerns health advocate Andy Ingrejas.

INGREJAS: It’s true that chemicals are used in almost everything. There’s lots of benefits from chemicals. But I think for most people that’s all the more reason why we should know what’s going on with them.

GELLERMAN: Ingrejas is campaign director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. It’s a coalition of 200 organizations campaigning for changes in the federal law regulating industrial chemicals.

INGREJAS: Chemicals on the market right now are effectively unregulated. The federal government has not reviewed their safety and said, ‘oh okay…this is okay to be used in all these ways.’ They have not done that. It’s nothing like what we do for drugs.

GELLERMAN: For drugs, manufacturers must prove to the Food and Drug Administration that their chemical compounds are safe.

But under the federal law known as TSCA—the Toxic Substances Control Act—industrial chemicals are automatically considered safe. It’s up to the government to prove they’re not. Senate Democrat Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey has proposed a bill that would radically overhaul TSCA. California Democrat Henry Waxman is leading the effort in the House.

WAXMAN: The Toxic Substances Control Act was adopted in 1976 and it has never been revised, but no one thinks it’s working, even the industry realizes the law needs to be revised.

DOOLEY: Clearly we’re committed to the safe use of our products.

GELLERMAN: Former Congressman Calvin Dooley is head of the American Chemistry Council.

DOOLEY: We think TSCA has been working very well, but we also recognize that after 30 years that there’s opportunities to even enhance it’s effectiveness and utilizing some of the new science and technology to even do a more accurate assessment and comprehensive assessment of the safety of chemicals.

GELLERMAN: This represents a major shift in the Chemistry Council’s position—a reaction to growing public concern over environmental toxins. Previously, the Council advocated voluntary measures, but in recent months, congressional and EPA staffers, advocacy groups and industry representatives have been meeting to work out the many technical details for overhauling TSCA. Michael Walls of the Chemistry Council has participated in those sessions.

WALLS: I think that’s what’s remarkable about this issue is that at this stage in the discussion there is a consensus that maybe we can do something. But it’s in the details where the hard work still needs to be done.

GELLERMAN: The devil is in the definitions. Right now, in order for the government to regulate a chemical the EPA has to prove it poses—quote—”an ‘unnecessary risk’ to people or the environment.” Jane Houlihan, vice president for Research at the Environmental Working Group says that’s the first thing that needs to be changed.

HOULIHAN: Under the current system chemicals are innocent until proven guilty and the new proposals would flip that, there would be a burden of proof. Industry would need to provide proof to EPA that the chemicals are safe enough to use.

GELLERMAN: The new standard would require companies to demonstrate—quote—”a reasonable certainty of no harm.” That’s the same standard the federal government now uses to regulate pesticides. The American Chemistry Council agrees the burden of proof should be on manufactures, but president Cal Dooley cautions that adopting the “no harm” standard could hamper innovation.

DOOLEY: You know, I think the question’s now is really in terms of, how do you define that standard? And I think that’s the public policy challenge that we face…. is: what is that risk standard that we’re willing to accept?

GELLERMAN: And how is that standard set and met? Today, the United States is the only developed country in the world that does not require a chemical maker to submit safety data before production. But without the data, how can the EPA determine risk or harm? Again Jane Houlihan of The Environmental Working Group:

HOULIHAN: One thing we have in federal law now is a requirement for companies to submit studies—that they happen to do—there is no requirement to submit studies. If the company determines that that study indicates a significant risk to human health or the environment. Now that’s the company’s interpretation of whether that is a significant risk. If they say, “yeah we think it’s a significant risk” then they submit that study to the EPA. But it’s their discretion.

GELLERMAN: Right now, the EPA has just 90 days to review a new chemical before a company can start selling it. And in only 15 percent of those products does the manufacturer provide the agency with any health and safety studies.

HOULIHAN: It’s such a weak law that EPA has used it to get off the market or set restrictions for only five chemicals or chemical families in the history of the law. They’ve only required testing for about 200 chemicals or chemical mixtures. Now compare that to the 82 thousand chemicals that are registered for use in the U.S. and you see that they are only able to tackle a tiny fraction of what’s on the market.

GELLERMAN: The last time the EPA tried to ban a chemical under TSCA was 1991. That was asbestos, a known carcinogen, responsible for nearly ten thousand deaths a year in the United States. Asbestos is still used in consumer products. That’s because according to federal law the EPA must use the least burdensome option, of all other possible actions, to reduce risk, so banning asbestos is simply not an option.

The proposed Safe Chemicals Act would require companies to provide basic health and safety data for each chemical they produce. It would also create a list of the most dangerous products on the market and give the EPA expanded powers to regulate them. Congressman Henry Waxman wants to go even further. He says manufacturers should have to show how exposure to chemicals affect people in real life.

WAXMAN: I think the approach that we often take that we’re going to look at chemical-by-chemical leads us nowhere. We’ve got to get it on a much faster time frame and look at not just one chemical but the impact of a number of different chemicals in combination.

GELLERMAN: Researchers say environmental exposure to chemicals may be responsible for up to 35 percent of asthma cases, ten percent of cancers, and 20 percent of neurological disorders. But which chemicals? What products? Under current law manufacturers can claim confidentiality; they can keep their ingredients secret. Congressman Henry Waxman:

WAXMAN: People who buy curtains or other products that have chemicals in them have no idea that they may be exposing themselves and their loved ones to something that could cause cancer or other disease. So there is no rationality to the regulation at the federal level to protect the public, to make sure that industry has the rules under which they must operate and to make particularly clear that we want to watch out for the interests of our children who are even more susceptible to toxic chemicals.

GELLERMAN: Proposed updates to the Toxic Substances Control Act would do just that. In the future, chemical companies would have to consider the affects their products have on especially vulnerable populations including women, children, people of color and those living near chemical factories. After decades of failed attempts, Congress is now putting the overhaul of TSCA on the fast track. Congressman Waxman hopes the house will vote on it before Memorial Day, and Cal Dooley, the head of the American Chemistry Council is cautiously optimistic.

DOOLEY: You know when you look at the political environment today, you look at the complexity of this issue is that the stars would have to align in order to see action, I think, this year.

GELLERMAN: But many states and cities are not waiting for the stars to align. In the absence of federal action a growing number of local governments are moving to restrict, and in some cases ban chemicals the EPA now lacks the ability to effectively regulate. For Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

* * *

The entire transcript, links to the podcast, and images can all be found here.

From CHE Blog (post by Sarah Howard):

The UK nonprofit organization CHEM Trust (Chemicals, Health and Environment Monitoring Trust) just released a report on the links between chemicals and diabetes/obesity. Studies published in recent years provide compelling evidence that human chemical contamination can play a part in both conditions. The report concludes that the chemicals that we accumulate throughout life, via our everyday lifestyles, is likely to contribute to these modern epidemics. This is the same conclusion reached by the National Toxicology Program’s review of the scientific evidence on chemicals and diabetes/obesity, published last month.

The CHEM Trust report, entitled Review of the Science Linking Chemical Exposures to the Human Risk of Obesity and Diabetes, is written by two of the world’s leading experts: Professor Miquel Porta, MD, MPH, PhD, of Spain and Professor Duk-Hee Lee, MD, PhD, of South Korea.

The report focuses on endocrine disrupting chemicals in both obesity and diabetes. Exposures to these chemicals in the womb, at other critical periods of life, and in adulthood may be linked to obesity and disruption of the normal functioning of insulin in later life. Evidence of the role of hormone disrupting chemicals comes from both laboratory studies and studies on human populations.

In one example, the report describes a study from the general US population that found that persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in fatty tissue, even more than the fat itself, plays a critical role in the development of diabetes. People who were obese did not have an increased risk of diabetes if their levels of POPs were low. People who were thin did have a higher risk of diabetes if their POP levels were higher. And those with higher POP levels who were also obese had the highest diabetes risk of all.

The chemicals suspected of increasing weight gain or diabetes in humans include a variety of chemicals, including numerous POPs, arsenic, BPA, phthalates, pesticides (including atrazine, organophosphorous and organochlorine pesticides), brominated flame retardants, metals (including cadmium, mercury, organotins), and more. Many of these are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), and have the ability to disrupt our natural hormones which control both fat storage and blood sugar regulation, and hence can play a role in obesity and diabetes.

Professor Miquel Porta stated, “The epidemics in obesity and diabetes are extremely worrying. The role of hormone disrupting chemicals in this must be addressed. The number of such chemicals that contaminate humans is considerable. We must encourage new policies that help minimize human exposure to all relevant hormone disruptors, especially women planning pregnancy, as it appears to be the fetus developing in utero that is at greatest risk.

Elizabeth Salter Green, CHEM Trust Director stated, “If exposure to hormone disrupting chemicals is programming us to be fat, it is high time that public health policy takes into account cutting edge science. Obesity and diabetes are examples of the adverse health trends linked with endocrine disruption which need to be urgently addressed. We are talking about prevention, and in this time of financial squeeze, anything that can help with prevention is a good idea. CHEM Trust is calling for the UK Government and the EU to urgently identify hormone disruptors to ensure that chemicals suspected of playing a role in diabetes and obesity are substituted with safer alternatives.”

Summary of the report’s conclusions

  • Studies suggest that exposure to certain chemicals in the environment can play an important role in obesity and diabetes. The chemicals implicated include some to which the general population are exposed on a daily basis.
  • Substantial evidence exists to consider exposure to EDCs with estrogenic activity as a risk factor for the etiology of obesity and obesity-related metabolic dysfunction.
  • Evidence suggesting a relationship between human contamination with environmental chemicals and the risk of diabetes has existed for more than 15 years, with the volume and strength of evidence becoming particularly persuasive since 2006.
  • Obesity is a known risk factor for diabetes, and chemicals that accumulate in body fat (e.g., POPs) may play a role in the causal relationship between obesity and diabetes.
  • Many of the chemicals that can cause weight gain and related metabolic effects have endocrine disrupting properties.
  • Embryonic, fetal, and infantile stages may be especially vulnerable to obesity from relatively low doses of EDCs. Nonetheless, the risk of obesity due to obesogenic pollutants can also increase during adolescence and adulthood.

Summary of the report’s recommendations

  • Action to reduce exposures to such chemicals is warranted on a precautionary basis, and is likely to be cost-effective.
  • National governments and the EU need to urgently put forward mechanisms to identify EDCs to ensure that currently used chemicals suspected of playing a role in obesity and diabetes are substituted with safer alternatives.
  • Health professionals, citizens’ organisations, companies, authorities and society at large need to be better informed of the role that chemical exposures may play in causing diabetes and obesity.
  • Individuals, industry, the agricultural sector, dieticians and the medical professions all have roles to play in reducing exposures both in the home and in occupational settings.
  • Personal changes in lifestyle are certainly important for the prevention of obesity and diabetes, but this should not obscure the need for government policies within and outside the health sector to decrease human exposure to obesogenic and diabetogenic environmental compounds.
  • As many of the chemicals implicated widely contaminate the animal and human food chains and some are also released from some food containers, dietary interventions ignoring the presence of contaminants in food may hamper the expected beneficial effects of dietary recommendations.
  • In order to protect fetuses and newborn babies, specific advice is needed for pregnant women and midwives regarding EDCs in the diet and in consumer products used by pregnant women and/or babies.
  • Public health policies, including those seeking to reduce exposure to suspect chemicals, need to be implemented swiftly. To preserve quality of life, prevention in both cases is vastly preferable to treatment.
  • Evidence for the association between exposure to EDCs and obesity should lead to a paradigm shift in how to tackle obesity. The focus should be broadened from one based on individual lifestyle, diagnosis and treatment to one that includes population prevention measures.
  • Population-based biomonitoring must be strengthened to provide a better understanding of the extent of human contamination by environmental obesogens and diabetogens in the general population.
  • Progress is also needed in identifying the sources of exposure (e.g., which food products, which consumer products). Further research is particularly warranted on the role that food additives, contaminants in animal feed and human food, and packaging may play in obesity and diabetes.
  • Screens and tests to identify chemicals that can impact on obesity and diabetes should be developed, and certain chemicals should be required to undergo such testing.
  • More attention should be given to protecting populations in the developing world from exposure to environmental pollutants, including that arising from electronic waste, food contamination, air pollution and the erroneous use of certain pesticides.

CHEM Trust’s goal is to protect humans and wildlife from harmful chemicals. They have published previous reports on chemicals and the developing brain, breast cancer, reproductive health, and more.

This report as well as others are available at the CHEM Trust website.

Visit the CHE Blog.

From EENews:

As President Obama catches up, at least rhetorically, with drilling critics who have pushed for public disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals, activists are stressing that disclosure is not enough.

In his State of the Union address last night, Obama said he would implement a proposal bouncing around the Interior Department since 2010 to require drillers to publicly disclose the chemicals used when fracturing on public land (E&E Daily, Jan. 25). It was the only specific action he mentioned about how he would develop the country’s vast store of natural gas in shale formations “without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”

But activists stress that disclosure alone does not protect health and safety. Once the chemicals are known, they say, officials should move to make sure they are regulated, some would say banned.

“I can’t point to any community where that’s saved lives,” said Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist at Ithaca College, speaking at a conference earlier this month in the Washington area on drilling and public health.

At the same conference, Kathleen Hoke Dachille of the Network for Public Health Law pointed to U.S. EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, saying it has been helpful but “not transformative.”

“Disclosure is necessary, but not sufficient,” Dachille, director of the network’s Eastern region, said in an interview. “Detection is not prevention.”

Such sentiments are likely to rekindle suspicions in the oil and gas industry that disclosure is a Trojan horse in its persistent conflict with environmental groups.

“This isn’t the first time these folks have moved the goal posts on us, and we’re not naive enough to think it’ll be the last,” said Chris Tucker of the industry group Energy in Depth. “The bottom line here, at least for some of these groups, is that they don’t want us to produce the resource, plain and simple.”

Industry as a whole has moved grudgingly toward disclosure in the last few years, slowly giving up some of its concerns about revealing trade secrets.

While disclosure has gained acceptance among some companies and state regulators, actual public disclosure remains in its infancy. There is still no database of well-by-well fracturing chemicals that allows researchers to search by chemical or easily see how often a chemical has been used. In many states, public disclosure remains voluntary.

The industry-preferred method of disclosure, a website called FracFocus.org, included lists of chemicals used for 5,200 wells as of October. Operators could upload the data from any well “fracked” after Jan. 1, 2011. But more than 30,000 wells had been drilled in the United States through October (E&ENews PM, Oct. 21, 2011).

Disclosure requirements in Colorado and Texas have yet to go into effect. Colorado starts in April and Texas starts in February. Wyoming has required disclosure since September 2010.

After all the political fights over disclosure, there is little mention of the chemicals actually listed, which include diesel fuel and other carcinogens.

More.

From Reuters:

Toxic contamination from coal ash, a waste product of coal-fired power plants, has been detected in ground water and soil at 20 sites in 10 U.S. states, an environmental watchdog group reported on Tuesday.

These sites are the latest to contribute to a total of 157 identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the independent Environmental Integrity Project, which released the report.

Coal ash is left after coal is burned at power plants and has concentrations of heavy metals and salts that can leach into the environment unless disposed of properly in ponds with liners and covers, said Jeff Stant, the report’s editor.

But most states do not require ponds to be lined, have any construction standards or any monitoring or cleanup requirements, Stant said, adding that almost half the wastes from coal-burning in the United States are dumped this way.

Nineteen of the 20 newly identified sites show ground water contaminated with arsenic or other toxic metals exceeding the maximum contaminant level set out in the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The 20th site showed contaminated soil with arsenic 900 times the federal screening level for site cleanups, the report said.

Those who live near these sites, including three people who spoke at a briefing, reported contaminated streams, respiratory problems and air pollution powerful enough to turn a white house black. In one case, a rancher said he closely monitors the amount of sulfate in the water his cattle drink because this chemical can reach lethal levels.

PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERN

The Environmental Integrity Project released an open letter to Congress signed by more than 2,000 people living near coal ash sites, decrying “legislation that would stop EPA in its tracks and replace real standards with imaginary state ‘plans’ that polluters could ignore …”

Stant and others noted at a briefing that the House of Representatives has passed and the Senate is considering legislation that the environmental group said would give the states, instead of the federal government, authority to address the problem of coal ash contamination of water and soil.

“We already have here a clear and present danger to America’s public health,” Stant said at a telephone briefing. “It is no solution for Congress to hand authority for addressing the problem permanently to states that have refused to enforce common-sense standards for the last 30 years and hope that the whole problem goes away.”

John Ward, of the American Coal Ash Association, disputed that interpretation of the measure now in Congress.

“There are no federal standards for coal ash right now,” Ward said by telephone. “This bill would also expand EPA’s enforcement authority from what it is now.”

Ward noted that coal ash is generated in vast quantities and can be reprocessed into such consumer goods as wallboard and shingles.

“We think the solution to coal ash problems is to stop throwing it away, to alleviate the need to have these disposal ponds at all,” Ward said.

More.

  • The full Environmental Integrity Project report is available online at environmentalintegrity.org.
  • For the report click here.
  • For the news release click here.
  • Read the letter to Congress from more than 2,000 Americans living near coal ash sites
  • Listen to the December 13, 2011 news event here.

From iWatch:

One spring day in 2010, the haze hanging over this Mississippi River town was worse than usual. It billowed from the smokestacks of a corn processing plant and blanketed the neighborhood across the street. It enshrouded homes and, seen from a certain angle, looked almost blue.

Kurt Levetzow watched from his car. An inspector with the state agency that enforces air pollution laws, he’d been fielding more and more citizen complaints lately about Grain Processing Corp., known as GPC.

The company’s plant sits on the edge of the town’s South End neighborhood, where black soot and bits of corn collect on cars and homes and many residents worry about what they’re breathing. Even on an ordinary day, a pungent burnt-corn odor hangs in the air, and the haze can be seen from miles away.

But Levetzow hadn’t seen anything like this. Driving through the neighborhood near the plant, he snapped pictures and took notes for the memo he would write. “I went through Muscatine on 3-26-10,” he wrote. “I was amazed at what I saw.”

A pickup truck came to a stop next to Levetzow’s car. It was a company security guard.

“Is there a problem?” the guard asked.

“Yes, there is,” Levetzow answered. “GPC is fogging that residential area with a blue haze.” Levetzow pointed. “You see what I mean?”

The guard looked over. “Ah, they’re getting used to that,” he said, chuckling.

Many communities have had little choice but to get used to it. As the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News has reported, hundreds of communities are beset with chronic air pollution involving toxic chemicals Congress intended to rein in years ago. Here in the heart of the Corn Belt, people endure the consequences of a regulatory system that has failed them for years.

The plant’s troubles are well-known to state and federal officials, but fixes — when they have come at all — have been slow. Memos, reports and thousands of emails obtained by iWatch News detail Levetzow’s efforts, the company’s resistance and the state environmental agency’s passivity. They also highlight gaps in a regulatory system that relies on a self-reporting honor system, spotty monitoring and ambiguous rules.

Officials at the state Department of Natural Resources, known as the DNR, have allowed GPC to avoid improvements that would reduce pollution. Even when Levetzow told his bosses he thought GPC’s apparent compliance with air pollution laws was a façade and repeatedly urged them to act, they did little, emails show.

The company says it stays within the limits outlined in its permit, has followed air pollution rules and is upgrading pollution control equipment as part of a major plant improvement project, some of which is scheduled to be finished in 2014. The improvements — some required by a court order resolving a case brought by the state for environmental violations five years ago — still may fail to keep the area in compliance with air quality standards, the state says.

GPC spokesperson Janet Sichterman said other companies share responsibility for Muscatine’s air quality problems, and GPC is doing its part to clean up the skies. “We want this to be a great community with quality air, too,” she said.

While the Clean Air Act delegated enforcement duties to the states, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency keeps tabs on state agencies and sometimes steps in. The plant appeared on the September version of EPA’s internal “watch list,” which includes serious or chronic violators of the Clean Air Act that have faced no formal enforcement action for nine months or more. GPC was not on the list in October.

Now, after years on the sidelines, the EPA has started to get involved. The agency says it is conducting an ongoing criminal investigation of GPC — a rare step the EPA usually reserves for companies it feels have knowingly violated the law. In December 2009, a team of investigators led by the EPA raided the plant and seized documents. Sichterman said the company doesn’t know why it’s being investigated but is confident the probe will determine GPC followed all laws.

Some residents, no longer content to wait for official action, are organizing and building their own case. They are filing complaints and documenting health problems. Recently, they hired a lawyer. As in other communities, they face significant hurdles, from limited air monitoring and health studies that would help them make their case to wariness among their neighbors about taking on powerful political and economic forces.

More.

From Forbes:

The debate over air pollution and, more specifically, the regulation of air pollution, raged on this week as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) watered down its cross-state pollution rule and House Republicans moved to delay new rules on toxic air pollution from cement plants, solid waste incinerators, and industrial boilers.  These latest debates come on the heels of President Obama’s move last monthto reneg on promises to tighten up smog standards, a decision that angered environmentalists and led to speculation that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson might be ready to walk. In all cases, the argument against regulation goes something like this: The last thing a down economy needs is new regulation, and the EPA is overstepping its boundaries.

These arguments center largely around the idea that current air pollution regulation is good enough as-is, and that any further restrictions are aimed at tackling environmental issues and climate change, both typically seen as luxuries in a down economy. But research is continuing to pile up in support of the claim that not only are current air pollution regulations inadequate, but that air pollution is very much a public health issue.

When viewed through the public health lens, the economic arguments against regulation of air pollution begin to unravel, particularly in the face of rising healthcare costs. Consider, for example, a spate of new studies that have found a rather convincing correlation between the presence of small particulate matter (PM2.5, the ultrafine particles blown into the air by road traffic, coal-fired power plants, industrial manufacturing, and residential wood fuel combustion) and both obesity and diabetes.

Medical research has long supported the fact that exposure to ultrafine particulate matter increases the risk of various respiratory, cardiovascular, and pulmonary illnesses. Incidences of asthma, heart attacks, and chronic bronchitis are all higher in areas where the concentration of ultrafine particulate matter is higher. The correlation between particulate matter and these health issues is particularly pronounced in children, as well as low-income communities, which are often located closer to the sources of particulate matter (highways, factories, power plants) than their higher income neighbors.

Over the past decade, new studies have emerged that link air pollution to two of this country’s most pressing (and expensive) health epidemics: obesity and type II diabetes. Both are not only on the rise in terms of diagnoses, but also in terms of the costs associated with treatment. According to a January 2011 study by the Society of Actuaries, the current cost of the obesity epidemic in the United States is $270 billion a year.  The American Diabetes Association puts the current cost of dealing with diabetes (over 90 percent of U.S. diabetes cases are type II) at $174 billion. According to the Center for Disease Control, asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism in the United States, and the cost of treating asthma in children 18 and under alone is $3.2 billion per year. Meanwhile, financial analysts estimate the cost of tightened air pollution regulations at $130 billion. Granted, these are not budget line items that are easily swapped in for each other, but a tie-in to obesity and diabetes may just make tackling air pollution more economically viable.

Of course, no one is saying, “hey, forget about diet and exercise, just take care of air pollution!” Nonetheless, even after controlling for factors such as genetics, income levels, weight, diet and exercise, Harvard researchers found a “consistent and significant” relationship between Type II diabetes prevalence and exposure to ultrafine particulate matter in a recent study.

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From Scientific American:

A workplace accident might mean a paper cut or spilled coffee for many—or even loss of life or limb for others. For a select few scientists, however, a little slipup on the job could release a deadly virus or toxin into the environment.

Some 395 reported “potential release events” of “select agents” occurred in U.S. government laboratories between 2003 and 2009, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) reported. “Select agent” is government-speak for a biological agent or toxin that is considered to pose “a severe threat” to human, animal or plant health—or livestock and agricultural products. Special approval from the government is required to handle these agents and toxins, and that can only happen in specially equipped labs.

Not all labs, of course, are of the Contagion and Outbreak biosafety level-4 ilk that handle mega-killers such as Ebola and smallpox. But there are plenty of other organisms studied in government labs that can easily infect and sicken humans if an accidental release occurs.

Just what were these little incidents? Most (196) were an unspecified “loss of containment.” There were also 77 reported spills and 46 accidental needle sticks or other “sharps” injuries, according to unpublished data collected in 2010 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With all of these incidents, however, only seven lab-acquired infections were reported: four Brucella melitensis (which also infects cows and sheep), two Francisella tularensis (also known as rabbit fever, which is a class A, highly virulent bacterium) and one case of San Joaquin Valley Fever (Coccidioides, an infectious fungus).

These CDC mishaps are described as part of a National Research Council (NRC) review published earlier this month in preparation for assessing the risks of a proposed bio-research facility at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. (The CDC plans to publish a more detailed analysis of potential releases in early 2012, CIDRAP noted.)

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From the Sydney Morning Herald:

RATES of mental illnesses including depression and post-traumatic stress will increase as a result of climate change, a report to be released today says.

The paper, prepared for the Climate Institute, says loss of social cohesion in the wake of severe weather events related to climate change could be linked to increased rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and substance abuse.

As many as one in five people reported ”emotional injury, stress and despair” in the wake of these events.

The report, A Climate of Suffering: The Real Cost of Living with Inaction on Climate Change, called the past 15 years a ”preview of life under unrestrained global warming”.

”While cyclones, drought, bushfires and floods are all a normal part of Australian life, there is no doubt our climate is changing,” the report says.

”For instance, the intensity and frequency of bushfires is greater. This is a ‘new normal’, for which the past provides little guidance …

”Moreover, recent conditions are entirely consistent with the best scientific predictions: as the world warms so the weather becomes wilder, with big consequences for people’s health and well-being.”

The paper suggests a possible link between Australia’s recent decade-long drought and climate change. It points to a breakdown of social cohesion caused by loss of work and associated stability, adding that the suicide rate in rural communities rose by 8 per cent.

The report also looks at mental health in the aftermath of major weather events possibly linked to climate change.

It shows that one in 10 primary school children reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of cyclone Larry in 2006. More than one in 10 reported symptoms more than three months after the cyclone.

”There’s really clear evidence around severe weather events,” the executive director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute, Professor Ian Hickie, said.

”We’re now more sophisticated in understanding the mental health effects and these effects are one of the major factors.

”What we have seriously underestimated is the effects on social cohesion. That is very hard to rebuild and they are critical to the mental health of an individual.”

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From the Colorado Independent:

At least 22 toxic chemicals, including four known human carcinogens, were found in nine separate air samples taken near natural gas drilling operations by community advocacy and environmental groups in Garfield and La Plata counties in Colorado and the San Juan Basin of New Mexico, according to a new report from Global Community Monitor.

Entitled “GASSED! Citizen Investigation of Natural Gas Development (pdf),” the report details how the air samples, taken near homes, playgrounds, schools and community centers, were analyzed by a certified lab.

“Carcinogenic chemicals like benzene and acrylonitrile should not be in the air we breathe – and certainly not at these highly alarming levels,” said Dr. Mark Chernaik. “These results suggest neighboring communities are not being protected and their long-term health is being put at risk.”

As part of the air-quality study, neighbors of natural gas drilling operations were asked to record various chemical odors, sample the air quality and appeal to various regulators to investigate complaints.

“My husband, pets, and I have experienced respiratory and other health-related problems during the 12 years we have lived on Cow Canyon Road in La Plata County, Colo.,” Jeri Montgomery said of nearby natural gas development. “We believe these health issues are related to the air quality in our neighborhood and in the area.”

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From Washington Post:

Nearly 10 percent of the world’s adults have diabetes, and the prevalence of the disease is rising rapidly. As in the United States and other wealthy nations, increased obesity and inactivity are the primary cause in such developing countries as India and in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

That’s the sobering conclusion of a study published Saturday in the journal Lancet that traces trends in diabetes and average blood sugar readings in about 200 countries and regions over the past three decades.The study’s findings predict a huge burden of medical costs and physical disability ahead in this century, as the disease increases a person’s risk of heart attack, kidney failure, blindness and some infections.“This study confirms the suspicion of many that diabetes has become a global epidemic,” said Frank Hu, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s School of Public Health who was not involved in the research.

“It has the potential to overwhelm the health systems of many countries, especially developing countries.”Worldwide, the prevalence of diabetes in men older than 25 rose from 8.3 percent in 1980 to 9.8 percent in 2008. For women older than 25, it increased from 7.5 percent to 9.2 percent.“This is likely to be one of the defining features of global health in the coming decades,” said Majid Ezzati, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at Imperial College London, who headed the study. “There’s simply the magnitude of the problem. And then there’s the fact that unlike high blood pressure and high cholesterol, we don’t really have good treatments for diabetes.”There are two types of diabetes, a metabolic ailment in which the body is unable to rapidly or adequately move sugar out of the bloodstream and into tissues after a meal. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease that comes on in childhood and requires that a person take insulin shots to survive. Type 2 accounts for 90 percent of cases and generally comes on after age 25. It is controlled by insulin, pills and, in some cases, weight loss and exercise.

The disease is most common in the islands of the South Pacific — Oceania — where an explosion of severe obesity, coupled with a genetic proclivity for diabetes, has driven diabetes prevalence to 25 percent in men and 32 percent in women in some places. The Gulf States also have very high rates, with Saudi Arabia ranking No. 3, Jordan No. 8 and Kuwait No. 10 in diabetes among men in 2008.

Among high-income countries, the United States had the steepest rise over the past three decades for men and the second-steepest rise for women (behind Spain). In 2008, 12.6 percent of American men and 9.1 percent of women had the disease.

China and India, however, are the nations that will be most responsible for what happens over the next several decades. Together, they account for 40 percent of people with diabetes today. In contrast, 10 percent of the world’s total live in the United States and Russia.

Barry M. Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina who has done research in China, said the increase in diabetes there has just begun. That’s because diabetes lags behind inactivity and obesity, both of which have increased during China’s economic boom.

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From Greenwire:

Tall smokestacks are one reason that emissions from coal-fired power plants are blown across state lines, making it more difficult for downwind states to clean up their air, a new Government Accountability Office study found.

Nationwide, there are now 284 smokestacks in operation that are more than 500 feet tall, the report (pdf) says. About 35 percent of those are in five states along the Ohio River Valley — Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Power companies build tall stacks to avoid causing air quality problems in the area around coal plants. But the states along the I-95 corridor in the Northeast blame tall smokestacks for their struggles to meet federal air quality goals, claiming that the stacks feed into fast air currents that carry soot- and smog-forming emissions for hundreds of miles.

GAO found that many older coal plants have tall smokestacks and no modern pollution controls. Fifty-six percent of the boilers attached to tall stacks lack scrubbers to control sulfur dioxide (SO2), and 63 percent do not have controls to trap emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx).

“Stack height is one of several factors that contribute to the interstate transport of air pollution,” the report says. “While the use of pollution controls has increased in recent years at coal power plants, several boilers connected to tall stacks remain uncontrolled.”

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