Archives for category: Scholars

air pollution

From Bloomberg (by Nicole Ostrow):

Children whose mothers have an increased exposure to air pollution from motor vehicles while pregnant may have a higher chance of developing certain cancers, a study found.

Each increase in exposure to pollution from gasoline vehicles and diesel trucks was associated with a 4 percent higher risk of developing acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common childhood cancer, as well as increased chances of developing rarer cancers of the eye and of cells that form the reproductive system, according to data presented . . . at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington.

Research in adults has shown that carbon monoxide can damage the retina and have an effect on germ cells of the reproductive system, said Julia Heck, the lead study author. Today’s findings are the first to link air pollution with rarer pediatric cancers, she said.

“With childhood cancers, there’s a lot less known about the causes,” Heck, an assistant researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Public Health, said in an April 5 telephone interview. “My results have to be confirmed in other studies. This is the first real study to report on these rare tumors.”

She said it is unknown why exposure to pollution in utero can raise childhood cancer risks.

Read entire article here.

Upstream Microphone

Deborah Cory-Slechta Podcast

Exposure to certain chemicals or stressors in utero can cause immediate health effects for fetuses and babies including lowered birth weight, birth defects, and impaired neurodevelopment. New lines of research are now showing that prenatal exposures may also contribute to health problems that typically arise later in life—such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Parkinson disease—via changes to DNA transcription and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. In this podcast, Deborah Cory-Slechta discusses the phenomenon known as the fetal basis of adult disease. Cory-Slechta is a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Listen to the podcast here.

Podcast Transcript

AHEARN: It’s The Researcher’s Perspective. I’m Ashley Ahearn.

When we are exposed to certain chemicals or stressors in the womb, research has shown there are certain immediate health problems that may arise—lowered birth weight, birth defects, or impaired neurodevelopment, to name a few.

But what about health problems that typically arise later in life—obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease? Could these also be the result of exposure to certain substances early in our development?

More and more research is being done to explore what’s called the “fetal basis of adult disease hypothesis.”

Joining me to talk about it is Dr. Deborah Cory-Slechta. She’s a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Dr. Cory-Slechta, thanks for being here.

CORY-SLECHTA: Glad to be with you.

AHEARN: Let’s start by laying out this hypothesis, the fetal basis of adult disease. What is it?

CORY-SLECHTA: Well, it actually started with some work done by Dr. Barker1 back many years ago looking at victims of a Dutch famine. And what he saw in those individuals was that those who suffered under-nutrition in the womb later in life had a much higher incidence of a variety of different diseases and disorders, particularly cardiovascular disease, hypertension. There were also cognitive kinds of problems, a real assortment of different diseases, and that’s what really got this whole area of the fetal basis of adult disease off and running, so to speak—that you could have something going on early in life, this under-nutrition, and even if those children ultimately caught up nutrition-wise with children who didn’t have early under-nutrition, they still ended up having this higher episode incidence of diseases and disorders later in life.

AHEARN: But this hypothesis now stretches beyond just under-nutrition in terms of stressors. We’re looking at exposures as well, right?

CORY-SLECHTA: We’re looking at, actually, a variety of different things. Yes, it does expand beyond that. So one of the things that’s become clear is that early under-nutrition itself can cause a variety of diseases and disorders later in life, and there are multiple ways in which that seems to happen. One is through something called epigenetics where you have an influence on what’s called the transcription of DNA—not a change in the DNA itself, the structure of the DNA, but in how it gets transcribed or activated. You can have what appear to be permanent changes in something called the HPA axis, the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. That’s the body’s system that controls responses to stress, and when you have early or maternal prenatal stress you can cause increases in stress hormones in the fetus that basically result in permanent changes in the HPA axis. That HPA axis change can lead, itself, to many different diseases and disorders because it controls a lot of those organ systems.

Also, now we’re beginning to look at a lot of environmental exposures that probably through these different mechanisms, like epigenetics or changing the HPA axis, among others, thereby lead to these diseases and disorders by permanently changing these mechanisms.

AHEARN: What other diseases that manifest later in life do you think could be tied to early developmental exposures?

CORY-SLECHTA: Well, let me use lead exposure as an example of that, something we know a lot about. We know that lead exposure early in life is one of the kinds of exposures that can permanently change this HPA axis function. Lead exposure early in life has been tied to later hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, schizophrenia, neurodegenerative changes, all of which may occur through these changes in the HPA axis function. That’s just one example. We haven’t studied a lot of these other chemicals, but I think we’re going to be seeing some similar kinds of things. Other examples are endocrine disruptors, things like bisphenol A or phthalates, which affect sex steroid hormones. Those two are producing permanent changes early in development, in this case in hormonal systems that basically target lots of different organs in the body. So it’s really going to be a variety of different diseases and disorders that are ultimately, I think, going to get tied back to some of these kinds of exposures.

AHEARN: Why does it take so long? When you’re looking at a disease that can crop up 65 years later, 70 years later, what’s going on in the interim?

CORY-SLECHTA: Things like epigenetics really can explain that because you’re producing changes in essentially the transcription or activation of a gene that can be lifelong kinds of changes. If they occur in the sperm or the egg, they can actually then be transmitted to the next generation so now we have the possibility not only of you having these epigenetic changes that can manifest themselves in diseases and disorders later in life, but that you could transmit to your offspring. When you change things like the HPA axis early in life it can be thought of like a thermostat that you’ve now reset and you can’t change it back again. So it never operates correctly later in life either. The brain development has to unfold; a sequence of steps has to unfold perfectly in time. If you change that early in life, then it’s broken. It never can refix itself because the time at which it goes through development has long since passed. So there’s really no way to repair some of these changes. They’re basically now set in stone for life.

And I think partly the other really important thing about this whole field of fetal basis is that those effects are extremely gender-specific.

AHEARN: Could you talk a little bit more about those gender differences? I mean, am I more vulnerable as a baby boy than a baby girl?

CORY-SLECHTA: Well, it depends on the disease that we’re talking about. So if you think about something like Parkinson’s disease we know that it has a higher prevalence in males; that is, females are protected against this disease. One of the thoughts about that is that it relates to estrogen somehow, and estrogen, of course, is something that if you modify that early in life during the differentiation of the brain, you can have permanent kinds of consequences. Or if you modify testosterone early in life, you can have permanent consequences.

If we’re talking about schizophrenia, there’s not so much of a different incidence or prevalence in males and females, but the schizophrenic syndrome manifests very differently by gender. If you think about things like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, again, something that we really don’t understand in terms of its etiology, it has a higher prevalence in boys than girls, whereas Alzheimer’s disease has a higher prevalence in women than in men; at least, most studies would say that. So you see these very, very clear gender differences, and these are things that are very likely to translate back into epigenetic changes that differ [between males and females], changes in HPA axis programming, which are different in males versus females, or hormonal changes that occur very early in life.

AHEARN: Dr. Cory-Slechta, what’s to be done with this growing body of research we have on the fetal basis of adult disease?

CORY-SLECHTA: Well, let me take it a couple directions. One, I think it will tell us a lot about what we need to do better maternal health, maternal screening, in terms of preventing these kinds of effects that might lead to later diseases and disorders in children. With respect to experimental exposures, we really haven’t had the data to be able to incorporate this kind of information into risk assessment paradigms. Once it comes there will really be policy issues about how we’re going to deal with this kind of information. What would it mean with respect to exposure levels that are safe? How much would it cost to decrease those kinds of exposures? So it can have a lot of those sorts of implications above and beyond the scientific data that comes out of these studies.

AHEARN: What makes you want to study the fetal basis of adult disease?

CORY-SLECHTA: Well, it’s a really interesting area because it’s this connection between something that happens early on and something later in life. I hope it’s, as I said before, going to really allow us to understand how environmental chemicals influence health or lead to diseases and disorders. I think without that understanding we may be underestimating the risks that are actually posed by environmental chemicals, because we don’t understand or we aren’t aware at this point of whether they are having these kinds of influences. I think it’s a really exciting area of research. It may hold a lot of answers to things that have eluded us for a long time.

AHEARN: So you’re in this for the long haul.

CORY-SLECHTA: Oh yeah, I think it’s a great area of research. It just has a lot of promise for better understanding of human diseases and disorders, and that’s why you’re in this field to begin with.

AHEARN: Dr. Cory-Slechta, thanks so much for joining me.

CORY-SLECHTA: Thank you, Ashley. Nice to be here.

AHEARN: Dr. Deborah Cory-Slechta is a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

And that’s The Researcher’s Perspective. I’m Ashley Ahearn. Thanks for downloading!

Note

  1. David J.P. Barker first reported an association between impaired fetal growth and chronic disease later in life in the seminal article “Infant Mortality, Childhood Nutrition, and Ischaemic Heart Disease in England and Wales” [Lancet 327(8489):1077–1081 (1986)]. Barker’s hypothesis is sometimes called the thrifty phenotype hypothesis.

dirty water

From UC Berkeley Press:

When it comes to climate change, deforestation and toxic waste, the assumption has been that conservative views on these topics are intractable. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that such viewpoints can be changed after all, when the messages about the need to be better stewards of the land are couched in terms of fending off threats to the “purity” and “sanctity” of Earth and our bodies.

A UC Berkeley study has found that while people who identified themselves as conservatives tend to be less concerned about the environment than their liberal counterparts, their motivation increased significantly when they read articles that stressed the need to “protect the purity of the environment” and were shown such repellant images as a person drinking dirty water, a forest filled with garbage, and a city under a cloud of smog.

Published today (Dec. 10) in the online issue of the journal Psychological Science, the findings indicate that reframing pro-environmental rhetoric according to values that resonate strongly with conservatives can reduce partisan polarization on ecological matters.

“These findings offer the prospect of pro-environmental persuasion across party lines,” said Robb Willer, a UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of the study. “Reaching out to conservatives in a respectful and persuasive way is critical, because large numbers of Americans will need to support significant environment reforms if we are going to deal effectively with climate change, in particular.”

Researchers conducted a content analysis of more than 200 op-eds published in such newspapers as The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, and found the pro-environmental arguments were most often pitched in terms of moral obligations to care about the natural environment and protect it from harm, a theme that resonates more powerfully with liberals, they added, than with conservatives.

They hypothesized that conservatives would be more responsive to environmental arguments focused on such principles as purity, patriotism and reverence for a higher authority. In their study, the authors specifically tested the effectiveness of arguments for protecting the purity of the environment. They said the results suggest they were on the right track:

“When individuals view protecting the environment as a moral issue, they are more likely to recycle and support government legislation to curb carbon emissions,” said Matthew Feinberg, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Stanford University and lead author of the study which he conducted while at UC Berkeley.

Scientific consensus on the existence of warming global land and ocean temperatures – attributed in large part to human activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions – continues to grow and influence public opinion, especially with such extreme weather events as Hurricane Sandy. A recent Rasmussen poll reported that 68 percent of Americans view climate change as a “serious problem,” compared to a 2010 Gallup poll in which 48 percent of Americans said they thought global warming was exaggerated.

In the first experiment, 187 men and women recruited via several U.S. Craigslist websites rated their political ideology on a scale of “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.” They then rated the morality of such activities as recycling a water bottle versus throwing it in the garbage. The results of that experiment, and a similar one conducted on 476 college undergraduates, showed that liberals are more prone to viewing sustainability as a moral issue than are conservatives.

Next, researchers conducted a content analysis of pro-environmental videos on YouTube and more than 200 op-eds in national newspapers, sorting them under the themes of “harm/care,” which they expected to resonate more with liberals, and “purity/sanctity,” which they predicted would appeal more to conservatives. They found that most pro-environmental messages leaned strongly toward liberal moral concerns.

In the last experiment, 308 men and women, again recruited via Craigslist, were randomly assigned to read one of three articles. The harm/care-themed article described the destruction wreaked on the environment by humans and pitched protection of the environment as a moral obligation. Images accompanying the text were of a forest with tree stumps, a barren coral reef and drought-cracked land, which are more typical of the visuals promoted by pro-environmental groups.

The purity/sanctity-themed article stressed how pollution has contaminated Earth and people’s bodies, and argued for cleaning up and purifying the environment. To enhance those themes and elicit disgust, the accompanying images showed a person drinking filthy water, a city under a cloud of pollution and a forest full of garbage. The neutral article talked about the history of neckties.

Participants were then asked to rate how strongly they felt certain emotions, including disgust, in response to what they’d read. Next, they reported how strongly they agreed or disagreed with such statements as “It is important to protect the environment,” “I would support government legislation aimed at protecting the environment” and ‘I believe humans are causing global warming.”

Overall, the study found that the purity-themed message inspired conservatives to feel higher levels of disgust, which in turn increased their support for protecting the environment.

Erin Clayton at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health wasrecently interviewed about her leading-edge research on the effect of BPA and other chemicals on people’s immune systems.

You can link to the podcast here.

Professor Brenda Eskenazi discusses the “Environmental Chemical Influences on Neurobehavioral Development of Children: The CHAMACOS Study.”

microbes

From Harvard Gazette:

In 2002, a new kind of bacterial infection was detected in the United States. It was caused by a common bug, Staphylococcus aureus, but with a troubling new twist. It was resistant to the drug that typically offered the last line of treatment, when other remedies failed.

The appearance of vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, dubbed VRSA, sent shock waves through the medical and public health communities. For years, vancomycin was the physicians’ ace in the hole, used to treat infections that didn’t respond to other drugs, in particular methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA.

In 2009, Harvard scientists teamed up to tackle the challenge posed by growing antibiotic resistance, creating a program bringing together researchers to examine the problem of antibiotic resistance, with a specific focus on VRSA, MRSA, and vancomycin-resistant enterococcus, or VRE.

Michael Gilmore, who organized the Harvard-wide Program on Antibiotic Resistance and whose lab in May announced it had decoded the genome of the 12 known VRSA strains in the United States, said the group is taking a diversified approach to meet the challenge of antibiotic resistance.

The group has seven main investigators who communicate and meet regularly, sharing notes and brainstorming fresh approaches to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Members of the group include Gilmore, the Sir William Osler Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary; Richard Losick, the Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS); Fred Ausubel, professor of genetics at HMS and Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH); Eleftherios Mylonakis, formerly at MGH and now contributing from Brown University; Suzanne Walker, professor of microbiology and immunobiology at HMS and an affiliate of the FAS Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology; Roberto Kolter, professor of microbiology and immunobiology at HMS; and David Hooper, professor of medicine at HMS and MGH.

Of the three bacteria types the group is studying, MRSA is the most widespread, making up 30 percent of bacterial infections contracted outside of hospitals. It is deadly, having killed 18,000 per year since 2005, and is resistant to all of the commonly used antibiotics, including penicillin, amoxicillin, and methicillin. Vancomycin is typically reserved to fight MRSA and has to be carefully administered in a hospital, Gilmore said.

One difficulty in fighting antibiotic resistance is that the pace of new drug discovery has slowed, and so new drugs to which bacteria could not yet be resistant are few, Gilmore said. Antibiotics are often isolated from new strains of bacteria taken from the environment. The problem, Gilmore said, is that pharmaceutical companies have already scoured the easily accessible locations and are now extending into extreme environments in search of novel compounds.

These compounds are often the result of the chemical warfare that bacteria wage on each other. But only about 1 percent of bacteria found in the wild can be grown in the lab, Gilmore said, making the other 99 percent too difficult to use as sources of new medicines. Though efforts are under way to create strains that can live in the lab — or to transplant their DNA into bacteria like E. coli that grow readily in laboratory conditions — the process remains slow and difficult, Gilmore said.

The problems in dealing with drug-resistant bacterial strains aren’t just biological, however. Economics also comes into play, Gilmore said.

Drug companies have slowed their own research into new antibiotics because it is more economical to focus efforts on drugs for long-term conditions, Gilmore said. Compared with statins, used for a lifetime by patients to control high cholesterol, a new antibiotic makes less economic sense. Such a drug has similar development costs but will be used just for a few weeks until a patient is cured. A replacement for last-line drugs like VRSA, used only in the most intractable cases, would bring in even less money.

That’s why, Gilmore said, it’s important that academic scientists do a lot of the groundwork and initial discovery no longer being done by pharmaceutical companies.

For Losick, that means collaborating with Kolter in working on biofilms to find new ways to fight a physical structure that appears to protect the bacteria from antibiotics. When bacteria form biofilms, Losick said, they become more resistant to antibiotics, so research into how to prevent biofilms from forming or how to disperse them can provide an alternative way to fight bacteria. Today, Losick said, if a biofilm forms on an implant, like a hip replacement, there are few good ways to fight it, and the implant often has to come out.

“Staphylococcus aureus is an important public health threat. The idea is to develop fresh strategies for controlling it,” Losick said. “I think we all feel very pleased on how the program is progressing.”

John Wargo is a Professor of Risk Analysis, Environmental Policy, and Political Science, and Chair of the Yale College Environmental Studies Major and Program. He has been a professor at Yale since 1985 and has lectured extensively on the limits and potential of environmental law, with a focus on human health.

His latest book, Green Intelligence Creating Environments that Protect Human Health, winner of several prestigious awards, compares the history of five environmental threats to children’s health over the twentieth century: nuclear weapons testing, pesticides, hazardous sites, vehicle particulate emissions, and hormonally active ingredients in plastics.  Below is a video of  the introductory portion of a public-radio interview he gave about the book.

From wnycradio:

Yale University professor John Wargo discusses the impact of chemical exposures on women and children, and how, although people are growing more environmentally aware, there are still more than 80,000 synthetic compounds whose effects on human health havent been sufficiently studied. In his book, Green Intelligence: Creating Environments that Protect Human Health, he explains our misunderstanding of everyday chemical hazards and offers a plan for improving our awareness.

Listen to the entire interview here.

Click here to listen to John Wargo interviewed on NPR’s Living on Earth.

Dr. Robert Lustig (Sugar: The Bitter Truth) speaks at Yale’s Peabody Museum on the policy and politics of the “Sugar Pandemic.” Hosted by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

Environmental Health Perspectives recently posted an excellent podcast interview, titled Neurobehavioral Effects of Artificial Food Dyes,” with Bernard Weiss:

“In the past several decades there has been a sharp increase in the amount of artificial dyes and flavorings children encounter daily in foods, beverages, medicines, and toiletries such as toothpaste. Over the same period there has been a marked increase in the number of diagnoses of neurobehavioral disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Bernard Weiss began studying potential links between artificial food dyes and neurobehavioral effects in children in the late 1970s. In this podcast he discusses some of his earliest research and tells why he remains convinced the two are connected. Weiss is a professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

You can listen to the podcast and read the transcript here.

From Harvard Gazette (10/01/12):

Writer Rachel Carson’s feared “silent spring” — the nightmare scenario in which widespread chemical spraying wipes out insects and the birds that feed on them —has not happened. But the world today faces no shortage of environmental challenges that demand the sort of intense energy and activism that she embodied.

That was the message of a panel of experts, writers, and activists Thursday at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Carson’s seminal book that chronicled the environmental harm wrought by pesticides and warned against their overuse.

The publication of “Silent Spring” often has been credited with galvanizing a generation into action against environmental degradation, with sparking the start of the modern environmental movement, and with leading to a ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972.

“This was a book, in some ways, that really changed at least the U.S. and perhaps even the world,” said Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and the event’s host. “It’s … an impassioned plea for a change in the course of human history.”

“Science and Advocacy: The Legacy of Silent Spring” was sponsored by the Center for the Environment and featured New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin, Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke, and writer and activist Bill McKibben.

It also featured several Harvard faculty members, including William Clark, the Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS); Rebecca Henderson, McArthur University Professor; Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies  at HKS; James McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS); and John Spengler, the Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation in the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

Schrag, the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and professor of environmental science and engineering, opened the event by reading passages from the book, in which Carson warned that humanity’s drive to subdue nature was bearing unintended consequences that threatened humanity itself.

Panelists said that Carson’s power came from a combination of factors. As a biologist, the science that she presented in the book was solid. And as a writer, her prose presented the situation in a way that was not only accessible to readers but also moved them to action.

Revkin, who has written about the environment for decades, said what struck him in reviewing the book was her treatment of uncertainty, a key element in any scientific debate. Carson was frank with readers about what experts knew and what they didn’t know, Revkin said, showing her readers respect and trusting that they could handle uncertainty. She let them make up their own minds, something missing from many discussions of science today, which tend toward black and white.

“She was able in this book to allow the reader to have authority to worry. She wasn’t telling them to worry,” Revkin said.

Revkin also highlighted the opposition that the book generated, and that continues today. Some critics suggest that the reduced use of DDT and other pesticides cost human lives, particularly in the fight against malaria.

Remaining objective under pressure

Panelists also discussed the tension that scientists feel between the pressure to remain objective and the public’s need for informed leaders, like Carson, to push for science-based reform.

McKibben, who authored 1989’s “The End of Nature,” the first book on climate change written for a general audience, said Carson’s impact extended beyond her book. Though riddled with cancer, which would lead to her death just two years after the book’s publication, Carson remained a vocal advocate of the ideas laid out in it.

McKibben said that people have different identities, at work and outside of it. One identity is that of a citizen, and it is in that role that people should work for change, even if advocacy may seem contrary to other roles. At Harvard, McKibben said, the University’s efforts to erect green buildings doesn’t go far enough in fighting climate change, and he voiced support for efforts to have the endowment divest oil company stock.

Clark said that prominent scientists sometimes fail to examine whether they’re living in ways consistent with the sustainability value that they espouse — flying around the world on carbon dioxide-spewing aircraft to give speeches when other alternatives exist. He cautioned that scientists and others supporting sustainability — even a noted climate change champion like former Vice President Al Gore, whose energy-gobbling home generated accusations of hypocrisy — can suffer when they don’t live according to stated beliefs.

“I think we let ourselves off the hook too easily,” Clark said.

Some panelists talked about the personal impact of Carson’s writings. McCarthy said Carson’s earlier book on the ocean, “The Sea Around Us,” was also eloquently written and widely read by a generation of oceanographers, including him. Spengler detailed how the echoes of Carson’s writing reached him in recent years, reminding him of a long-ago day at play in fields overflown by a biplane that sprayed him and his companions. Recent blood tests, he said, showed that the derivatives of DDT sprayed that day remain in his body.

Lessons worth teaching again

Despite the unquestioned impact of “Silent Spring,” some of its lessons appear to need reteaching. A few years ago, Spengler studied the high incidence of asthma in Boston public housing, tracing it to high levels of pesticides sprayed in the buildings. His work prompted adoption of integrated pest management techniques in the buildings and highlighted the importance of continued vigilance.

Though Carson came under intense attack from the chemical and agricultural industries and their supporters, she never wavered, Beinecke said. If she were alive today and saw the thousands of chemicals, some unregulated, that surround us and viewed the dangers of climate change, she’d likely focus her advocacy there.

“Would she be distressed?” Beinecke asked. “I’m sure she’d share the distress we all have, but I think she’d be motivated’’ to act.

Image by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer.


“We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation; how then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals we disseminate widely in our environment?”

~ Rachel Carson, author, Silent Spring

Huffington Post – “Bio-Remediation or Bio-Hazard? Dispersants, Bacteria and Illness in the Gulf

CorpWatchGulf Dispersants: BP and Nalco Play Toxic Roulette

An Northeastern University article about Upstream Contributor Phil Brown:

Many con­t­a­m­i­nants are easy for the public to spot, like emis­sions from the tailpipe of a car or the sludge from a mas­sive oil spill washing up on the ocean’s shores.

But Phil Brown, who joined Northeastern’s fac­ulty this fall, says many others are far less easy to iden­tify — including those found in beauty prod­ucts like deodorant and cologne or in flame retar­dants, which he has studied extensively.

“It’s the things we don’t think about being toxic that are in our everyday lives,” said Brown, Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Soci­ology and Health Sci­ences with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences.

For Brown, a renowned scholar whose inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research com­bines social sci­ence and envi­ron­mental health, issues like these are con­stantly in his crosshairs. Over the last 13 years at Brown Uni­ver­sity, he led a research group on envi­ron­mental health sci­ence that was sup­ported by a range of grants from sev­eral fed­eral agen­cies, including the National Insti­tutes of Health, the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion and the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency.

His research included focusing on bio­mon­i­toring, which mea­sures the level of con­t­a­m­i­nants in the human body, and on house­hold expo­sure mon­i­toring, which mea­sures tox­i­cants found in the air and dust inside our homes and the air in our driveways.

Now at North­eastern, Brown is the director of the new Social Sci­ence Envi­ron­mental Health Research Insti­tute. The institute’s mis­sion is to bring together an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of researchers to con­duct socialscience research, teaching, com­mu­nity engage­ment and policy work in the field.

Brown said envi­ron­mental health researchers should be nimble and attuned to the world’s emerging envi­ron­mental health issues. Brown, for his part, nav­i­gated to the field of envi­ron­mental health sci­ence in the 1980s while working in mental health policy. At the time, a col­league was serving as an expert wit­ness in a high-​​profile groundwater-​​contamination case in Woburn, Mass., in which civil suits were brought against two com­pa­nies fol­lowing com­mu­nity con­cerns over rising levels of child­hood leukemia and other illnesses.

The Woburn case cap­tured Brown’s atten­tion imme­di­ately, com­pelling him to investigate.

“I spent a lot of time with the fam­i­lies who had been affected, whose chil­dren died or became sick, and that really changed my life,” said Brown, who wrote a book on the topic called “No Safe Place: Toxic Waste, Leukemia, and Com­mu­nity Action.”

Brown soon real­ized that many other com­mu­ni­ties grapple with sim­ilar envi­ron­mental health issues, which led him to engage in the larger debate about envi­ron­mental causes of ill­nesses. Over the years, he has also exam­ined health-​​focused social move­ments in America dating back to the begin­ning of Medicare and Medicaid.

“You never know where the work will take you next,” said Brown, who earned his Ph.D. in soci­ology from Bran­deis Uni­ver­sity. “I’m always looking for inter­esting new things that are impor­tant, that con­cern people and that have an effect on many people’s lives.”

Many envi­ron­mental health issues are local by nature, but Brown said they also serve as cat­a­lysts for world­wide envi­ron­mental change. He praised inno­va­tors before him who paved the way for this type of thinking — including Barry Com­moner, one of the founders of modern ecology, who passed away last week, and Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book “Silent Spring” exposed the dan­gers of the pes­ti­cide DDT. Both thought leaders, he said, brought envi­ron­mental dan­gers to the public eye and helped spark the global envi­ron­mental movement.

“We need to have those big visions and not be afraid to say, ‘This is how the world can be better many years down the road,’” Brown said.

Visit Phil Brown’s main Upstream page.

From NPR.org (an article about, and interview of, among others, Upstream Experts Leo Trasande and Frederica Perera):

BPA could be making kids fat. Or not.

That’s the unsatisfying takeaway from the latest study on bisphenol A — the plastic additive that environmental groups have blamed for everything from ADHD to prostate disease.

Unfortunately, the science behind those allegations isn’t so clear. And the new study on obesity in children and teens is no exception.

Researchers from New York University looked at BPA levels in the urine of more than 2,800 people aged 6 through 19. The team wanted to know whether those with relatively high levels of BPA were more likely to be obese.

But the results, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, didn’t offer a simple answer to that question.

Among white kids and teens, higher BPA levels were associated with more than twice the risk of obesity. With black and Hispanic youth, though, BPA levels didn’t make a difference.

“When we find an association like this, it can often raise more questions than it answers,” says the study’s lead author, Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics at New York University. There’s no obvious reason why one group of kids would be affected by BPA while another group wouldn’t, he says.

Also, there’s no way in this study to know whether BPA is actually causing kids to put on weight, says Frederica Perera, who directs the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. “Obese children may be simply eating and drinking foods that have higher BPA levels,” she says.

And even if BPA is playing a role in weight gain, it may be just one of many chemicals involved, Perera says.

“Our center has recently published a study showing that exposure to another group of endocrine disruptors, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAH, was associated with obesity in the children,” Perera says. Those hydrocarbons are typically a part of air pollution in cities.

Some of the uncertainty about BPA may come because the researchers had no way of knowing how much exposure kids in the study may have had in the womb — the time many scientists believe chemical exposure is most likely to have a lifelong effect.

“Clearly we need a longer term study that examines exposure in the earliest parts of life,” Trasande says. Even so, he says, it may be time to rethink childhood obesity.

“Diet and physical activity are still the leading factors driving the obesity epidemic in the United States,” Trasande says. “Yet this study suggests that we need to also consider a third key component to the epidemic: environmental factors that may also contribute.”

* * *

Read entire story and transcript of NPR interview here.

From :

The Hertog Global Strategy Initiative, The Department of History, The Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health at the Mailman School of Public Health, and the Columbia University Global Strategy Seminar present: Laurie Garrett on “The Future of Global Health”

From Harvard Gazette:

he legacy of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 goes beyond the resultant war on terror and continued fighting in Afghanistan to include lies about public health threats at the time, ongoing health problems today, and a public health system that may be less secure in the present and future, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author said Thursday.

In a talk at the Harvard School of Public Health’s (HSPH) Kresge Building, Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, outlined a litany of ongoing public health troubles and missed opportunities, beginning with 9/11 and extending through anthrax attacks and outbreaks of SARS, bird flu, and swine flu.

“A lot of the most important public health aspects of 9/11 were completely buried and overlooked, and continue to be even today,” Garrett said.

Garrett touched on ongoing health problems stemming from the attacks themselves, including elevated rates of cancer and depression among responders; a U.S. public health system still vulnerable to major pandemics, such as from bird flu; and the proliferation of facilities containing dangerous microbes, a situation she compared to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Garrett’s talk drew on material from her 2011 book, “I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks.” She is the author of two other books and won her Pulitzer while a reporter at Newsday for coverage of the 1995 Ebola outbreak in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Garrett, who was introduced by HSPH Dean Julio Frenk and who was a fellow at the School’s Center for Health Communication from 1992 to 1993, was the first speaker in this year’s Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

Garrett, who was in New York on 9/11, said that what was overlooked in the focus on the immediate lives lost were the effects of the “horrible black plume” that emanated from the pile of World Trade Center rubble for months.

‘We now know that even as we were told by [EPA Administrator] Christie Todd Whitman … that there was nothing dangerous in the air whatsoever and no cause for concern, that we were lied to,” Garrett said.

The public health threat to New Yorkers living downwind of the site has been given little attention, Garrett said, and inquiries about possible health effects from surrounding residents can seem almost unpatriotic compared with the sacrifices of responders who lost their lives. Still, Garrett said, the plume is known to have been highly alkali and to have contained harmful chemicals, including asbestos, chlorine, and other halogens from the computer equipment in the towers.

Firefighters who worked at ground zero have been found to have a 19 percent increase in all cancers, while construction workers laboring on what was known as “The Pile” had increased respiratory ailments. Psychological problems were also seen, including a huge increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and depression among police responders, stress-related problems such as bed-wetting and depression among children who witnessed the attacks, and an increase in spontaneous abortions among pregnant women who viewed the attacks on television.

Garrett compared the U.S. response to the attacks with the response of Great Britain, which was targeted by al-Qaida attacks in 2005. After those attacks, the British ran a series of advertisements on television warning the population that loved ones might be suffering psychological trauma from the attacks and that free care was available. Lasting effects from the attacks there appear to be minimal, she said, emphasizing that post-traumatic stress disorder is treatable if help is provided.

The U.S. anthrax attacks that followed 9/11 brought the potential of bioterror and the need for biosecurity to the forefront, Garrett said. They also highlighted the inadequacy of microbial forensics, the techniques that allow tracking of specific microbes. She disputed the FBI’s conclusion that scientist Bruce Ivins was responsible for those attacks and said that evidence that might link them to al-Qaida was not fully pursued.

The United States spent billions of dollars on biodefense in response to the attacks, including constructing more biosafety level-4 labs, which handle the most dangerous microbes. This parallels an increase in those types of facilities internationally. The result, Garrett said, has been a proliferation globally of the most dangerous microbes, deadly and easily transmittable to humans. The situation, she said, is akin to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, particularly because there is no single agency in charge of security at these facilities, even in this country.

In addition, Garrett said, recent budget cuts have reduced the resources available to the state and federal agencies responsible for identifying and fighting such microbes, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The world is taking a Band-Aid approach to the threat, she said, providing resources when there’s an outbreak of a potentially deadly ailment, and then cutting back when the scare subsides.

The result, she said, is a health system that really isn’t ready for major new threats, such as that posed by H5N1 bird flu, which grabbed global headlines in the mid-2000s and then receded. Although bird flu isn’t in the headlines anymore, the threat remains, Garrett said. The virus, which killed 60 percent of the humans infected, has evolved to infect more kinds of birds, allowing it to spread to the bird populations of 67 countries, though none yet in the Western Hemisphere.

“It’s evolving and evolving fast,” Garrett said.

Although billions of dollars have been spent since 9/11, and some technological solutions are still being sought — such as a universal flu vaccine — the first line of bird flu defense for wealthy countries remains quarantining regions where the flu breaks out and killing poultry in poor countries, further impoverishing their populations.

“We have asked the poor countries of the world … to slaughter chickens over and over and over again,” Garrett said. “It’s not the rich world bearing the brunt of protecting itself; it’s the poor world protecting the rich world.”

From TEDxTC:

A skyrocketing demand for food means that agriculture has become the largest driver of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental destruction. At TEDxTC Jonathan Foley shows why we desperately need to begin “terraculture” — farming for the whole planet.

Jonathan Foley studies complex environmental systems and their affects on society. His computer models have shown the deep impact agriculture is having on our planet.

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