Archives for category: The Environment

From Earth Justice:

Each year, nearly one billion pounds of pesticides are sprayed into fields and orchards around the country. As the families who live nearby can tell you, those pesticides don’t always stay in the fields and orchards.

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Greenwire: Prenatal exposures prompt EPA to re-examine chemical regulations.

U.S. EPA regulators convened with scientists last month to discuss how to design regulations for chemicals based on emerging science that connects exposures during pregnancy with disease much later in life.

A mother exchanges with her child in the womb chemicals that have remained constant for much of human evolution. They dictate which genes will be turned on and off in the child, which proteins the child will make in his body and how much of them.

New research, in a field called epigenetics, now suggests that these changes, made during the earliest part of gestation, could spell out the child’s longer-term medical record. It could determine his propensity for mood swings, his tendency to gain weight into the realms of obesity, his risk of developing cardiovascular disease or cancer when he hits 50, and his propensity of passing on his genes to his children.

The idea is that the child adapts to environmental cues in the womb that will reflect the chemical composition of the world, thus conferring a Darwinian fitness advantage.

The mix of chemicals a fetus is exposed to has exploded in the past 200 years, heralded by the Industrial Revolution. Technology has outstripped evolution, said Robert Chapin, senior research fellow in drug safety research and development at Pfizer Inc. People were suddenly surrounded by particulate matter from cars, coal-plant emissions, metals, organic molecules from hand sanitizers, body lotions and other chemicals, some of which could cross into the placenta and merge into the child’s aqueous world.

Some, such as folic acid, were intentionally given to moms as beneficial; others such as bisphenol A became common in the modern environment and had the ability to mimic hormones that are naturally present in humans. Yet others, such as arsenic and tin, are naturally present in some places.

Scientists now suspect that the altered chemical cues during the critical windows of pregnancy — at stages when gender is still developing and the human is little more than a collection of cells — could trigger pathways that manifest as disease well into adulthood.

More . . .

You can link to an illuminating podcast interview, titled “Better Living Through Chemistryfrom the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), here.

Here is PSR’s brief description of the interview:

We depend on chemicals in consumer products to perform as expected, and to be safe. But our regulatory system is not adequately protecting us from potential hazards in our food cans, diapers, shower curtains, baby bottles, and other consumer products. Listen to Washington State PSR President, Dr. Steven Gilbert, a toxicologist, together with pediatric urologist and Phsicians for Social Responsibility (“PSR”) board member Dr. Rich Grady, discuss chemicals policy in an illuminating radio interview, touching on “chemical trespass,” the precautionary approach to chemical regulation, and the importance of state-level policy change. They also discuss the federal bills, currently before Congress, intended to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act — including the need to strengthen these bills. The interview was aired on Seattle radio station KEXP on June 19, 2010.

Listen to the interview here (mp3, 10 MB).

From VBS TV:

Last winter we decided VBS had to do a story on the Oil Sands of Alberta. So far no American media outlet had comprehensively covered it and even the local press’s approach has left a lot to be desired. No one seemed to even know what it was. It’s strange that as we hit peak oil and the global oil reserves go on the decline, we have heard next to nothing about the fact that Canada, due to improved oil extraction technology and record oil prices, is poised to become a major player in the geopolitical market place. The big question going in is what does this sudden access to previously unobtainable oil mean? Is this our get out of jail free card for the present energy crisis or is it another pipe dream being hyped up by the very corporations and lobbyists who stand to gain the most from it? Traveling through the haze of Ft. McMurray did nothing but fortify our stance on fossil fuel. It’s dirty, expensive, and–most importantly–nonrenewable. Al Gore recently likened the oil sands to a drug pusher, satisfying our jones for quick and cheap energy. Say what you will about pushers (at least they’re not kicking out greenhouse gasses to the tune of 80 million kilograms a day), but we think he’s got us and our jones pretty much square on the head.

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From NJ.com:

Piles Creek is an offshoot of the Arthur Kill — a dead-end waterway that stops in an industrial no-man’s-land in Linden.

To the west is the rumbling New Jersey Turnpike and a cluster of puffing smokestacks. To the north a horizon of power lines and refineries. To the east and south factories and a brownfield.

And what lives here is not quite normal — a strange ecosystem of creatures large and small that seem cast from a bad toxic apocalypse movie.

Grass shrimp and fiddler crabs are larger, and tend to thrive — even though they eat less. In fact, they are not eaten as much themselves.

Their predators, like killifish and bluefish, are smaller, more sluggish and can’t hunt as well — perhaps because their thyroid glands and neurotransmitters are abnormal.

The blue crabs are sluggish and feeding on easily-available food like algae and sediments. But they are also hardier when exposed to toxicity and more savvy at avoiding predators — even becoming nasty and aggressive when provoked.

“It’s a tough neighborhood to grow up in — that’s the way we thought of it in the lab,” said Rutgers University marine biologist Judith Weis, a 70-year-old grandmother of three who has spent the past two decades documenting the creek’s slow recovery since the beginnings of the environmental movement.

For most of the 20th century, wildlife at Piles Creek had no chance to survive. Weis once saw no life in the brackish water, which is still contaminated by mercury, other metals and a whole mess of acronyms, including PAHs and PCBs. Even now, a bridge of gas and oil pipelines runs over the water, marked with neon stakes. A sign warns trespassers of danger.

Over time, though, the Clean Water Act and other environmental protections since the 1960s have slowly brought life back to Piles Creek. But the recovery has left a toxic legacy — a strange process caused by heavy industry, according to Weis.

Her team from Rutgers meticulously documented five species’ transformations. The food chain was in disarray. She said pollution has created its own variety of unnatural effects on the creatures in Linden and Newark Bay, compared with their counterparts in the cleaner waters of Tuckerton some 80 miles to the south.

The team found healthy creatures introduced into the tainted environment were immediately affected. Blue crabs and killifish from Tuckerton lost their innate hunting abilities when they were put into the polluted water.

“If a predator is worse off than you are, it’s an advantage,” Weis noted.

Despite the slow comeback of Piles Creek, it remains an ecological war zone. Lauren Bergey, a student of Weis’s who is now an assistant biology professor at Centenary College, said she once saw a male fiddler crab waving his huge claw atop a Thermos bottle, trying to attract a mate. He had made his burrow inside the container, she said.

“I still do work out there, and when I come back, I smell like an oil refinery,” Bergey said.

The Rutgers study is unique in that pollution-effects studies most often just examine the effects of poisons by dosing specimens in the laboratory, the researchers said.

“I’m hoping this leads to more research out in the field, instead of just exposing species to the contaminants in the lab,” said Weis, who wrapped up decades of observations of the return of life to the polluted water in a study published last month in BioScience.

Weis — who is chair of the science advisory board of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, has served on committees for the Environmental Protection Agency, and is currently writing about water for the United Nations — believes the Clean Water Act and other environmental protections since the 1960s have brought life back to Piles Creek and other places. Yet she said the environmental threats remain.

“The current regulations are allowing really dreadful places like Piles Creek become better,” she said. “However, it will take a lot more effort, money and stronger regulations — and a lot of years — for them to really become healthy environments.”

From Scientific American:

The French parliament voted on June 30 to ban the controversial technique for extracting natural gas from shale rock deposits known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the web sites of Le Monde and other French media reported.

The bill had already passed the National Assembly, the country’s lower chamber, on June 21, and on June 30 a Senate vote of 176 to 151 made France the first country to enact such a ban, just as New York State is preparing to lift a moratorium on the same method.

The vote was divided along party lines, with the majority conservative party voting in favor and the opposition voting against the bill, according to Le Monde. The Socialist Party, in particular, opposed the bill because it did not go far enough. The bill’s critics said that it left open possible loopholes and that in particular it does not prevent the exploitation of oil shale deposits by techniques other than fracking. An earlier version of the bill, which the Socialists had supported, would have banned any kind of development of the deposits, Le Monde reported.

Companies that currently own permits for drilling in oil shale deposits on French land will have two months to notify the state what extraction technique they use. If they declare to be using fracking, or if they fail to respond, their permits will be automatically revoked.

Fracking requires the injection of vast quantities of water and potentially hazardous chemicals into the ground to force the release of natural gas. The U.S. government is investigating the environmental impact of the technique, which critics say produces toxic waste and pollutes water wells.

From People’s World:

More than 160 scientists from major universities across Michigan this week urged support for the Environmental Protection Agency, calling the federal agency’s role essential to protecting the public health.

In a letter addressed the state’s congressional delegation, the scientists called on elected officials to “reject any measure that would block or delay the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from protecting the people of Michigan from air pollution and human caused climate change, both of which put public health, agriculture, the environment and our economy at risk.”

“For more than 40 years, the EPA has protected public health and safety by holding polluters accountable – and it should be allowed to continue doing its job,” Knute Nadelhoffer, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday, March 9.

“Scientists across Michigan stand united with scientists at the EPA and across the nation,” he said. “Science, not politics, must drive our fight against dangerous pollution.”

Full article here.

From SELCVA (Southern Environmental Law Center):

Southern utilities say coal is “cheap,” but this argument doesn’t add up when you factor in the costs to our environment and health.

The close linkage between environmental pollution and cancer is discussed by biologist Dr. Sandra Steingraber (author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment) and Ellen Crowley.

From whenvironments:

An excerpt from the award-winning documentary “Exposure: Environmental Links to Breast Cancer” about the effects of radiation. Featuring Olivia Newton-John, Dr. Rosalie Bertell and Dr. Susan Love.

From VBS TV:

Meredith Danluck is a New York artist, director, and all-around amazing person who has a killer collection of power tools. VBS bumped into her a few months ago and discovered that she has been working on a film in West Virginia, a sort of impressionistic account of the current environmental catastrophe in the Appalachian Mountains. Mining companies are destroying entire mountains in order to get at the coal inside them. Quickly and efficiently, the oldest mountain range in the world is being systematically obliterated. We sent Meredith and VBS correspondent Derrick Beckles to the hills and hollers of West Virginia to show us what the end of the world looks like.

Daily Green: Wanted: Chemicals that cause autism,

Dr. Philip Landrigan is rounding up a posse in search of one of America’s most elusive evildoers: The cause of autism, which afflicts as many as 1 in 80 American children. Though the soft-spoken, gentlemanly pediatrician doesn’t cut the figure of a sheriff, he used Wild West language to describe the hunt he and his fellow scientists have embarked on.

“We want a ‘Most Wanted Chemicals’ list. We want a ‘Dirty Dozen,'” he told the audience Wednesday at Exploring the Causes of Autism and Learning Disabilities, a conference organized by the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center, where Landrigan is dean of global health and chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine. Landrigan received a 2010 Heart of Green Award from The Daily Green.

Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, a developmental disability with a range of effects on intelligence and sociability, increased 57% between 2002 and 2006, according to Colleen Boyle, acting director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. And while the center’s last set of statistics drew alarming headlines about 1 in 110 children now being diagnosed with autism, she said that’s an average; the rate could be as high as 1 in 80 (or as low as 1 in 240).

As recently as 2005, the increase in diagnoses was attributed to just that: An increase in diagnoses. Doctors and parents, it was thought, were more aware of the symptoms of the disease, the definition of the Autism Spectrum Disorder grew more expansive, government services were more widely available and the stigma associated with the illness was disappearing – all of which contributed to an increase in diagnosis that had little or no basis in actual increased illness.

But the rates of disease are actually increasing, not just the diagnosis or treatment of disease, according to research by Irva Hertz-Picciotto and colleagues at the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the University of California-Davis.

And that’s just one reason genetics alone can’t explain autism. Genetics clearly plays a role – if one identical twin has autism, 70% of his siblings do, too. But even scientists sometimes mistake a genetic basis of disease for an explanation of its causes: the environment is still the trigger for the expression of genes. (And scientists are only now exploring the epigenetics of disease – not just the genes themselves, in other words, but their place in the DNA sequence.)

The question is: What are those environmental triggers that cause autism? And when in the early development of a fetus does the trigger get pulled? The triggers may or may not be synthetic chemicals: Other aspects of the environment that may affect gene expression include nutrients in food, physical factors like heat or radiation, and exposure to medications, alcohol and drugs.

The trigger-happy culprits are on the lam. Landrigan and his colleagues are hunting them down.

More . . .

From Earth Justice:

Coal-fired power plants are poisoning our rivers, lakes and streams with coal ash, a waste product that contains arsenic, mercury, and lead. Coal ash poisons fish, making them unsafe to eat. For decades, power plants have carelessly dumped coal ash into ponds and landfills that leak into our rivers and streams. It’s time for the EPA to set strong safeguards that classify coal ash as hazardous waste—because that’s exactly what it is.

From the 2009 Report “Justice in the Air: Tracking Toxic Pollution from America’s Industries and Companies to Our States, Cities, and Neighborhoods (pdf)”:

On the long road to securing the right of every American to a clean and safe environment, an historic milestone came when Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986. This law requires industrial facilities across the United States to disclose information on their annual releases of toxic chemicals into our air, water, and lands.

The premise behind the law is simple: the public has the right to know what pollutants are in our environment and who put them there. The resulting data, available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in something called the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), are not always easily accessible or readily usable. You can track pollution to the plant that caused it but not always to the company that is responsible. You can see the pounds of individual pollutants released at a plant but it’s hard to cumulate the overall health impact of the plant’s multiple pollutants.

And even if you can gauge the overall effect of a single facility, there is no easy way to determine what this means for a neighborhood burdened with pollution from many such sources.

This report tackles these issues by using a new dataset built upon the TRI dataset to measure the extent to which toxic pollution released by industry disproportionately contaminates the air in neighborhoods where people of color and low-income families live. Most significantly, we present a scorecard for companies that measures the extent to which their pollution is concentrated in these neighborhoods – the first time such a measure has been calculated and made available to the public.

This investigation is entirely consistent with the aims of the 1986 Right-to-Know legislation. The law’s proponents expected that better access to information would not only increase public awareness, but also increase public demand for actions by firms and government officials to curb pollution. Information, they believed, is power. The right to know was intended to be a means to thegreater goal of securing our right to clean air and clean water.

The mere fact that companies are now compelled to publicly disclose this information has had a striking impact on their behavior (Konar and Cohen 1997). Within the first ten years, total emissions of the chemicals listed in the TRI had fallen by 44% (Tietenberg 1998). For the most part these reductions happened without new regulations: when companies knew that the public knew about their releases of pollutants, they began to clean up their acts.

In the 1990s the EPA took another big step to expand public information about toxic pollution. The agency launched the Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) project to assess the human health risks resulting from toxic chemical emissions at industrial sites. Building on the TRI data, the EPA combined three variables to assess the human health risks posed by toxic releases:

  • fate and transport, or how the chemical spreads from the point of release to the surrounding
    area;
  • toxicity, or how dangerous the chemical is on a per-pound basis; and
  • population, or how many people live in theaffected areas.

This report uses the information generated by the EPA’s RSEI project to develop a measure of corporate “environmental justice” performance based on releases of toxic air pollutants. Along the way, we explain what the data mean, which states and metropolitan areas are most affected, and what companies and communities can do to improve their performance and the environment.

Download pdf here.

Prior to the 2010 Gulf oil spill, the largest oil spill in U.S. History was occurring drip by drip over decades (EPA estimates more than 30 million gallons of crude and petro-chemicals) underneath the streets in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Here are some news stories (two videos and one recent newspaper article) about the spill and its very slow cleanup.

Brooklyn Paper: Is the Exxon payout too small?

Less than a week after the state reached a historic $25-million settlement with ExxonMobil, forcing the company to finish cleaning up the Greenpoint oil spill, residents are questioning whether those funds will go far enough to repair six decades of pollution. “It’s small,” said Greenpoint resident Mike Hofmann. “They made $11.5 billion in one quarter a few years ago and we get $25 million? That’s crazy.” The largest environmental settlement in state history, announced by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on Nov. 18, abruptly ended a six-year legal battle between environmental groups, public officials and ExxonMobil over responsibility for cleaning up an estimated 17 million gallons of oil that leached into 55 acres of Greenpoint soil and groundwater for half a century. 

More . . .

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