Archives for category: Upstream News

From The Telegraph:

Mobile phones and computers with wireless internet connections pose a risk to human health and should be banned from schools, a powerful European body has ruled.

A Council of Europe committee examined evidence that the technologies have “potentially harmful” effects on humans, and concluded that immediate action was required to protect children.

In a report, the committee said it was crucial to avoid repeating the mistakes made when public health officials were slow to recognise the dangers of asbestos, tobacco smoking and lead in petrol.

The report also highlighted the potential health risks of cordless telephones and baby monitors, which rely on similar technology and are widely used in British homes.

Fears have been raised that electromagnetic radiation emitted by wireless devices can cause cancers and affect the developing brain.

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From Chemical & Engineering News:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Ithaca Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image from here.

From California Watch:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From the Philadelphia Daily News:

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one seems to have an answer for that.

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From Times-Tribune:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Medscape News:

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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Living on Earth Podcast: “Pesticides Influence on IQ

From Port Huron Times Herald:

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

The answer so far: They’re investigating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Lexington Minuteman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From PBS’s

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

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

From Reuters:

Critics say it’s a chemical that could cause infertility or cancer, while others see it speeding the growth of super weeds and causing worrying changes to plants and soil. Backers say it is safe and has made a big contribution to food production.

It’s glyphosate, the key – but controversial – ingredient in Roundup herbicide and the top selling weed killer used worldwide. For more than 30 years, glyphosate has been embraced for its ability to make farming easier by wiping out weeds in corn, soybean and cotton fields, and for keeping gardens and golf courses pristine.

But the chemical touted as a safe, affordable and critical part of global food production, is now at a crossroads.

Amid rising voices of alarm, regulators in the United States and Canada are conducting a formal review of glyphosate’s safety, lawsuits are pending and some groups are calling for a global ban.

“Glyphosate’s days are numbered,” said Paul Achitoff, a lawyer for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that last month sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in part over concerns about heavy glyphosate use.

Agricultural seeds and chemicals giant Monsanto Co introduced the chemical to the world in 1974 and has made billions of dollars over the years from Roundup as well as from the “Roundup Ready” corn, soybeans and cotton the company has genetically engineered to survive dousings of glyphosate.

Last year alone, Monsanto made more than $2 billion in sales of Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides, though revenues have been in decline amid competition from generic makers since the company’s glyphosate patent expired in 2000.

“I think it would be difficult to overstate the contribution that glyphosate has made and will continue to make to farming,” said Monsanto executive vice president of sustainability Jerry Steiner. “It is a phenomenal product.”

Many top U.S. farmer organizations say glyphosate is too beneficial to give up. But critics say glyphosate may not be as safe as initially believed, and farmers should be fearful.

Environmentalists, consumer groups and plant scientists from several countries are warning that heavy use of the chemical over the years is causing dangerous problems for plants, people and animals alike.

The Environmental Protection Agency is examining the issue and has set a deadline of 2015 for determining if glyphosate should continue to be sold or in some way limited. The EPA is working closely with regulators in Canada as they also assess the ongoing safety and effectiveness of the herbicide.

“The agency plans to re-evaluate risks from glyphosate and certain inert ingredients to humans and the environment during the registration review process,” the EPA said in a written statement. The agency declined to make anyone available to discuss the review.

* * *

“Glyphosate resistance has built up to quite concerning levels in the United States,” said John Ramsay, chief financial officer of Switzerland-based plant sciences company Syngenta, one of many companies introducing glyphosate alternatives.

“It is not surprising that with every single farmer pouring glyphosate over virtually every acre, plant life is going to have something to say about it,” he said.

It all spells potentially big changes for world agriculture and the profits of those companies playing in the chemicals and seeds arena.

* * *

Along with the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds, health-related alarms have been raised by several scientists.

In January, well-known plant pathologist and retired Purdue University professor Don Huber sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warning of tests that indicated glyphosate could be contributing to spontaneous abortions and infertility in pigs, cattle and other livestock.

Scientists in Argentina last year published a study saying glyphosate caused malformations in frog and chick embryos.

Other scientists, both from private institutions and from the federal government, have said research shows harmful effects of glyphosate products on soil organisms, on plants, and on certain animals. A 2008 lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity said glyphosate was harmful to California’s red-legged frog and the EPA subsequently agreed it was “likely to adversely affect” the frog.

The Institute of Science in Society has called for a global ban on glyphosate, citing research showing the chemical has “extreme toxicity,” including indications it can cause birth defects. It also submitted a report to EPA.

Another study being looked at by the EPA cited detectable concentrations of glyphosate in the urine of farmers and their children in two U.S. states. Higher levels were found in farmers who did not wear protective clothing when they used glyphosate or who otherwise improperly handled it. The EPA said it will consider data from that study “more fully” as part of its ongoing risk assessment.

The agency also said it is looking at a study partly sponsored by the EPA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that found some users of glyphosate were observed to have a higher risk of multiple myeloma, a cancer affecting bone marrow, than people who never used the chemical. The two-fold increased risk was considered “non-significant” and EPA said the findings were preliminary and based on a small number of cases but it is still part of the review.

Monsanto has said repeatedly that glyphosate is safe and it has said studies by Huber and other scientists are invalid.

The EPA also has discounted the validity of many of the studies cited in biomedical literature and by opponents. But it acknowledged there are areas that need more evaluation and has said it wants more data on human health risk and risks to certain endangered species.

“We look closely at every study to determine whether the results are scientifically sound, regardless of the source,” EPA officials said in a written statement.

The EPA is not doing its own studies, instead evaluating information from others. Much of the data is coming from the agricultural chemicals industry as part of a registration review program that aims to examine each registered pesticide every 15 years.

The agribusiness giants, including Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Chemical, and BASF, have formed a 19-member task force to generate the data the EPA is seeking.

Another factor rankling opponents is that the EPA is using a lower safety standard than they argue it should.

Though the Food Quality Protection Act requires the EPA to use an extra tenfold (10X) safety factor to protect infants and children from effects of the pesticide, the agency determined there was adequate data available to show that the margin of safety for glyphosate could be reduced to only a 1X factor.

The EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs is in charge of the review and has three main options — continued approval of glyphosate with no changes; canceling the registration to ban its use in the United States; or continue as an approved product but with some modifications for its use.

The agency said it wants all the relevant data gathered by the summer of 2012 and expects to have a final decision no earlier than 2015.

Canada is likewise re-evaluating glyphosate and is coordinating with the United States to “harmonize the assessments,” the EPA said.

Both supporters and detractors say it is uncertain what the future holds for the world’s favorite weedkiller.

Wellesley College professor and food expert Professor Robert Paarlberg said critics are fueled more by dislike for Monsanto than real evidence of harm.

“The critics would do well to spend more time talking to farmers, who continue find glyphosate a safe and convenient way to control weeds,” Paarlberg said.

The science argues otherwise, according to Huber, who has asked USDA to conduct in-depth research on glyphosate’s effects. Huber was heavily criticized by Monsanto after his January letter to the USDA but he sent a second letter to Vilsack on March 30, reiterating his concerns.

“We are experiencing a large number of problems in production agriculture in the U.S. that appear to be intensified and sometimes directly related to genetically engineered crops, and/or the products they were engineered to tolerate – especially those related to glyphosate,” Huber wrote. “A large reduction in glyphosate usage would be a prudent consideration.”

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Vodpod videos no longer available.

From USA Today:

Claudia and Joe’s baby girl has been racing to grow up, almost from the moment she was born. Laila sat up on her own at 5 months old and began talking at 7 months and walking by 8½ months.

“All of our friends told us to cherish every moment,” Claudia says. “When I started planning her first birthday party, I remember crying and wondering where the time had gone.”

Even so, Laila’s parents never expected their baby to hit puberty at age 6.

They first noticed something different when Laila was 3, and she began to produce the sort of body odor normally associated with adults. Three years later, she grew pubic hair. By age 7, Laila was developing breasts.

Without medical treatment, doctors warned, Laila could begin menstruating by age 8 — an age when many kids are still trying to master a two-wheeler. Laila’s parents, from the Los Angeles area, asked USA TODAY not to publish their last name to protect their daughter’s privacy.

Doctors say Laila’s story is increasingly familiar at a time when girls are maturing faster than ever and, for reasons doctors don’t completely understand, hitting puberty younger than any generation in history.

About 15% of American girls now begin puberty by age 7, according to a study of 1,239 girls published last year in Pediatrics. One in 10 white girls begin developing breasts by that age — twice the rate seen in a 1997 study. Among black girls, such as Laila, 23% hit puberty by age 7.

“Over the last 30 years, we’ve shortened the childhood of girls by about a year and a half,” says Sandra Steingraber, author of a 2007 report on early puberty for the Breast Cancer Fund, an advocacy group. “That’s not good.”

Girls are being catapulted into adolescence long before their brains are ready for the change — a phenomenon that poses serious risks to their health, says Marcia Herman-Giddens, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“This is an issue facing the new generation,” says Laila’s doctor, Pisit “Duke” Pitukcheewanont, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, who treats girls with early puberty. “Many parents don’t know what is going on.”

Researchers don’t completely understand why the age of puberty is falling, Herman-Giddens says. Most agree that several forces are at work, from obesity to hormone-like environmental chemicals.

* * *

Why is this happening?

Like Laila’s parents, many people wonder: Why is this happening?

While much about early puberty remains a mystery, researchers say that suspects include:

•Obesity. The clearest influence on the age of puberty seems to be obesity, Steingraber says. In general, obese girls are much more likely to develop early than thin ones. And the number of heavy girls is growing, with 30% of children overweight or obese, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Obesity raises the levels of key hormones, such as insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar, and leptin, a hormone made in fat cells that helps regulate appetite, Steingraber says. While leptin may not trigger puberty by itself, research suggests that puberty can’t start without it.

Scientists aren’t yet sure whether insulin — or the body’s problems processing it — is a factor in early puberty, Steingraber says.

•Prematurity. Rising rates of prematurity — which have increased 18% since 1990 — may contribute to early puberty, as well.

Babies born early or very small for their gestational age tend to experience “catch-up growth” that can lead them to become overweight, Steingraber says. Children who undergo rapid weight gain tend to become less sensitive to the hormone insulin, putting them at greater risk for diabetes, Steingraber says.

•Genetics. Studies consistently show that black girls in the USA go into puberty earlier than whites, suggesting a possible genetic difference. Yet Steingraber notes that, 100 years ago, black girls actually matured later than whites. And she notes that black girls in Africa enter puberty much later than those in the USA, even when their nutrition and family incomes are comparable.

Kaplowitz notes that black girls in the USA tend to have higher levels of insulin and leptin. He notes that researchers are trying to figure out how problems in the body’s response to insulin, which are more common among American blacks, might also affect the start of puberty.

•Environmental chemicals. A variety of chemicals — found in everything from pesticides to flame retardants and perfume — can interfere with the hormone system, Herman-Giddens says. For example, chemicals used to soften plastic, called phthalates, can act like hormones. In a small study of 76 girls in Puerto Rico, researchers found that 68% of girls who went through early puberty had been highly exposed to phthalates, compared with only 3% of girls developing normally.

Steingraber is also concerned about an estrogen-like chemical, called BPA, or bisphenol A, that is found in hard plastics, the linings of metal cans and many other consumer products. Although BPA can cause early puberty in animals, its role in humans isn’t as clear. But studies by the CDC show that more than 90% of Americans have BPA in their bodies.

The National Institutes of Health is funding research to answer questions about environmental causes of early puberty and hormonal changes, says Frank Biro, director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Biro and colleagues are testing more than 1,200 girls for their exposure to chemicals such as BPA, phthalates, pesticides and chemical flame retardants. The National Children’s Study, also funded by the federal government, will study 100,000 children, from before birth through age 21, looking at a variety of environmental exposures.

•Screen time. There’s no evidence that watching sexy TV images can trigger puberty, but spending too much time in front of the screen can harm kids in other ways, such as causing them to gain weight, Steingraber says.

Preliminary research also suggests that screen time may hasten puberty by lowering levels of a critical hormone called melatonin, whose production is regulated by the daily cycles of light and dark, and which appears to keep puberty at bay, Steingraber says.

•Family stress. Family relationships also may play a role in the start of puberty. Preliminary research suggests that girls may be more likely to develop early if they experience more family stress, or if they don’t live with their biological fathers, says Julianna Deardorff, a clinical psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley‘s school of public health.

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From NatureNews:

As the immediate threat from Fukushima Daiichi’s damaged nuclear reactors recedes, engineers and scientists are facing up to a clean-up process that could last for many decades, or even a century.

Experts on previous nuclear accidents say that the sheer quantity of nuclear material that needs to be removed from the site, together with the extent of the damage, makes Fukushima a unique challenge. The plant’s damaged reactors are home to just under 1,000 tonnes of nuclear fuel and thousands of tonnes of radioactive water (see graphic).

Last week, the Toshiba Corporation floated a rough proposal to clean up the site in a decade. But veterans of clean-up operations at sites such as Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania say that it will probably take much longer. The removal of the radioactive material will require a carefully planned and technologically sophisticated programme, made all the more challenging by the devastation left after partial core meltdowns and explosions.

No clean-up can begin until the reactors are stabilized. Radiation around the plant is beginning to wane, but the threat of further releases has not yet passed. On 7 and 11 April, severe aftershocks struck nearby, raising fears that the three crippled reactors could be damaged further. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which manages the plant, says that no additional damage has been detected.

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From the Riverside Press-Enterprise:

School districts, the U.S. Marine Corps and Caltrans are among the public agencies and private companies that improperly shipped more than 160,000 tons of hazardous waste to an outdoor soil-recycling plant in Mecca that did not have a state permit to accept such waste, a Press-Enterprise analysis of 2009-2010 state data has found.

The shipments to the 10-acre Western Environmental Inc. plant, located on tribal land near the Salton Sea, violated state regulations that require those who create or dig up such waste to dispose of it at state-permitted facilities.

Residents of Mecca, a predominantly Hispanic farming community in the Coachella Valley, have complained to public agencies about strong odors from plant. They say the smell has made children and adults ill, sending some to the hospital.

During a monthlong investigation, the newspaper analyzed more than 10,000 shipments of contaminated soil and other waste to the Mecca plant.

When presented with the analysis on Thursday, Stewart Black, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control acting deputy director for brownfields and environmental restoration, said: “In a nutshell, the waste should not have gone to that facility.”

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From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Students in the South Allegheny School District, downwind of U.S. Steel Corp.’s Clairton Coke Works, have asthma rates 300 to 400 percent higher than national rates, convincing district officials to install air filtration systems in school buildings.

But studies show high rates of asthma prevail throughout southwestern Pennsylvania and the entire nation, affecting one in every 10 students.

The prevalence of lifetime asthma among Allegheny County school students is 11.3 percent, with Clearfield County claiming the region’s and one of the state’s highest asthma rates at 13.5 percent of students, according to state Health Department numbers.

“Diagnosis of asthma is better, but I do think there seems to be a lot more of it,” said Carol Ann Kuczma, director of program and services at the American Respiratory Alliance of Western Pennsylvania in Cranberry. “We have a lot of it, and it accounts for a lot of hospital dollars.”

But a study released Wednesday by Health Care Without Harm, the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and the National Association of School Nurses, said the already staggering human and financial toll of asthma in the United States “is likely to increase” if Congress carries through with its threat to weaken the Clean Air Act and block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from tightening air pollution regulations.

Congressional action could include blocking the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide.

More than 24 million Americans, including 7 million children, already have asthma, the study states. Direct and indirect annual national costs of treating the worsening epidemic is $53 billion, including $8 billion in out-of-pocket expenses for families.

“Congress is negotiating with the White House to continue funding the federal government with a new spending measure, onto which some members of Congress hope to attach EPA-blocking ‘riders’ that would also prevent the agency from reducing pollution,” the study release states.

A House bill introduced by Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, not only would block the EPA from reducing carbon pollution but also throw out EPA’s finding that carbon, as an element in airborne particulates, threatens health.

Air pollution — including smog, ozone and particulate pollution — can cause asthma and triggers attacks, the study said.

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