Archives for posts with tag: environmental toxins

From CNN:

As a third-grader in Winsted, Connecticut, last year, Matthew Asselin was sick — a lot. He was lethargic and plagued with a persistent wet cough, respiratory infections and painful headaches.

As the school year wound down, Matthew’s health worsened. He was out for two weeks in the spring with pneumonia and then developed a sinus infection so severe he needed to spend the night at the hospital, where he received intravenous antibiotics and breathing treatments.

In all, Matthew missed 53 days of school.

But over the summer, a strange thing happened. Matthew was healthy. He was energetic. He could ride his bike for hours at a time.

“When we put him back in school this year, within three weeks, he missed 10 days with a respiratory infection,” Melissa Asselin said. That’s when Matthew’s mother had an a-ha moment.

“When he was out of school, he was well. When he was in school, he became ill,” Asselin said.

Matthew’s parents concluded that the 9-year-old’s school, Hinsdale Elementary, was making their son sick.

Indoor air problems

Figures are hard to come by, but studies have estimated that a third or more of U.S. schools have mold, dust and other indoor air problems serious enough to provoke respiratory issues like asthma in students and teachers.

A national survey of school nurses found that 40% knew children and staff adversely affected by indoor pollutants.

Indoor air affects more than health. A growing body of research suggests students also perform better in schools with healthier air.

“If you get an unhealthy building, you’re not going to have a successful school,” said Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the United States.

“Asthma is the number one chronic illness that keeps kids out of school, and it’s growing,” Eskelsen added.


Programming note: For more about environmental health issues in the classroom, watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s report “Toxic Schools” on “CNN Presents” Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET on CNN.

From Cincinnati Enquirer:

Jeff Moore worries about the 1 billion pounds of toxic materials buried less than a half-mile from his home on Aber Road.

It’s in a 208-acre landfill in rural, northeastern Clermont County – one of only two dumps in Ohio ever licensed to take hazardous waste. And while the site on Aber hasn’t accepted such waste in more than 20 years, Moore knows it contains “some real bad stuff,” including PCBs, benzene, arsenic, cyanide, toluene, mercury, pesticides and thousands more contaminants.

He fears that toxins could seep into groundwater and the creek that runs behind his home. And he questions what will happen when the owner’s 30-year requirement to monitor the landfill expires in 2027.

Those concerns are shared by Clermont County officials and their environmental consultants, who for many years have pointed to troubling issues at the closed landfill known as Cecos. Since 1988, the county has spent $10 million on legal and consulting fees, mostly in an attempt to fix what it says are flaws in the existing plan to monitor the site.

“It’s not so much that the county expects there to be an immediate major mishap. It’s really about protecting us in the future,” said county administrator David Spinney.

The county’s biggest concern is that the landfill poses a potential threat to Harsha Lake, a main source of the county’s drinking water.

While the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the landfill’s owner say measures to protect the environment are in place and working as designed, the county contends that its statistical analysis of data that Cecos is required to report indicates some leakage has already occurred.

“Is it a catastrophic leak? No. Is this a precursor of what will continue to happen? The answer is yes. Eventually it will leak enough that it will present a problem,” said Linda Aller, noting that such landfills were designed to contain material for 30 years. She is principal geologist with Bennett & Williams, a Westerville, Ohio-based environmental consulting firm that has been working on Cecos issues for Clermont County since the late 1980s.

Other technical experts hired by the county agree.

Brent Huntsman, president of Beavercreek, Ohio-based Terran Corp., is a geologist who specializes in ground water issues. Given the amount of waste at Cecos, he said, “it’s just a matter of time before it escapes into the environment.”

That has happened elsewhere. He points, for example, to U.S. Department of Energy hazardous waste landfills such as the Mound Site in Miamisburg. “If you look at all of their large installations, yes, all of their landfills have failed.”


From the Wall Street Journal (a report about Upstream contributor Dr. Frederica Perera):

Congested cities are fast becoming test tubes for scientists studying the impact of traffic fumes on the brain.

As roadways choke on traffic, researchers suspect that the tailpipe exhaust from cars and trucks—especially tiny carbon particles already implicated in heart disease, cancer and respiratory ailments—may also injure brain cells and synapses key to learning and memory.

New public-health studies and laboratory experiments suggest that, at every stage of life, traffic fumes exact a measurable toll on mental capacity, intelligence and emotional stability. “There are more and more scientists trying to find whether and why exposure to traffic exhaust can damage the human brain,” says medical epidemiologist Jiu-Chiuan Chen at the University of Southern California who is analyzing the effects of traffic pollution on the brain health of 7,500 women in 22 states. “The human data are very new.”

So far, the evidence is largely circumstantial but worrisome, researchers say. And no one is certain yet of the consequences for brain biology or behavior. “There is real cause for concern,” says neurochemist Annette Kirshner at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. “But we ought to proceed with caution.”

To be sure, cars and trucks today generate one-tenth the pollution of a vehicle in 1970. Still, more people are on the road and they are stuck in traffic more often. Drivers traveling the 10-worst U.S. traffic corridors annually spend an average of 140 hours, or about the time spent in the office in a month, idling in traffic, a new analysis reported.

No one knows whether regular commuters breathing heavy traffic fumes suffer any lasting brain effect. Researchers have only studied the potential impact based on where people live and where air-pollution levels are highest. Even if there were any chronic cognitive effect on drivers, it could easily be too small to measure reliably or might be swamped by other health factors such as stress, diet or exercise that affect the brain, experts say.

* * *

Scientists believe that simple steps to speed traffic are a factor in reducing some public-health problems. In New Jersey, premature births, a risk factor for cognitive delays, in areas around highway toll plazas dropped 10.8% after the introduction of E-ZPass, which eased traffic congestion and reduced exhaust fumes, according to reports published in scientific journals this year and in 2009. The researchers, Princeton University economist Janet Currie and her colleagues at Columbia University, analyzed health data for the decade ending 2003.

After New York traffic managers rerouted streets in Times Square recently to lessen congestion, air-pollution levels in the vicinity dropped by 63%.

Scientists are only beginning to understand the basic biology of car exhaust’s toxic neural effects, especially from prenatal or lifetime exposures. “It is hard to disentangle all the things in auto exhaust and sort out the effects of traffic from all the other possibilities,” says Dr. Currie, who studies the relationship between traffic and infant health.

Researchers in Los Angeles, the U.S.’s most congested city, are studying lab mice raised on air piped in from a nearby freeway. They discovered that the particles inhaled by the mice—each particle less than one-thousandth the width of a human hair—somehow affected the brain, causing inflammation and altering neurochemistry among neurons involved in learning and memory.

To study the effect of exhaust on expectant mothers, Frederica Perera at Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health began in 1998 to equip hundreds of pregnant women with personal air monitors to measure the chemistry of the air they breathed. As the babies were born, Dr. Perera and colleagues discovered a distinctive biochemical mark in the DNA of about half of the infants, left by prenatal exposure to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in exhaust.

By age 3, the children who bore the mark of exhaust in their genes were developing mental capacities fractionally more slowly. By age 5, their IQ scores averaged about four points lower on standard intelligence tests than those of less exposed children, the team reported in 2009. The differences, while small, were significant in terms of later educational development, the researchers said.

By age 7, the children were more likely to show symptoms of anxiety, depression and attention problems, the researchers reported this year in Environmental Health Perspectives.

“The mother’s exposure—what she breathed into her lungs—could affect her child’s later behavior,” Dr. Perera says. “The placenta is not the perfect barrier we once thought.”


See the excellent interview of WSJ journalist covering this story (Lee Hotz) below:

View the extended Upstream Interview of Dr. Frederica Perera here.


From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Scientists are learning that health is the function of genes and environment. The work of Milwaukee-based researchers suggests that this principle also applies to the health of a growing fetus and a premature infant.

Michael Laiosa, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Public Health, and neonatologist Venkatesh Sampath, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin, want to understand how genetics and the environment affect the health of humans during the most vulnerable stages of development.

In Milwaukee, there were 807 infant and fetal deaths between 2005 and 2008, according to the city’s Fetal Infant Mortality Review. A disproportionate number were African-American. Of the 499 who were not stillborn, nearly 54% died from complications of being born too soon.

During gestation and early in life, infants reach developmental milestones at a rapid pace. But in the presence of a dysfunctional gene, toxic exposures, or a combination of both, development is prone to error.

According to Sampath, who is collaborating with colleague Ronald Hines, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Medical College, some premature babies may be more susceptible to necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, a leading cause of mortality and disability in very low birth-weight preterm infants weighing less than 3½ pounds.

What causes this disease is unknown, but doctors believe that an underdeveloped immune system or intestinal lining may leave a preterm infant’s bowel vulnerable to infection or injury. What results is severe inflammation, which can lead to a deadly infection. Between 25% and 40% of babies afflicted with NEC die.

In their recent study published in the Journal of Surgical Research, Sampath and Hines detected a variant of a gene called NFKB1, differing slightly from the normal form, which is involved in mounting an immune response. Investigators said premature infants with a genetic variant may be at higher risk for developing the potentially fatal NEC.

In the study of 270 very low birth-weight preterm infants, investigators reported that of the 15 infants diagnosed with NEC, all had at least one copy of the defective gene and were disproportionately African-American.

“African-American infants run a higher risk of NEC,” Sampath said of the study findings.

The defective gene turned up in 65% of infants not diagnosed with NEC, suggesting that other factors are involved in the onset of the disease. Sampath said it may be the presence of a particular bacteria, poor blood flow to the intestines, or another malfunctioning gene.

Infants with NEC experience pain, according to Sampath. “It’s a nasty disease,” he said.

Sampath added that those infants who survive a severe case of NEC are at greater risk for developmental delays and cerebral palsy.

Jackie Sevallius, supervisor of the newborn intensive care center at Wheaton Franciscan-St. Joseph hospital in Milwaukee, cares for infants with NEC and said signs of pain in a preterm infant are often subtle and manifest as changes in blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and color.

Very low birth-weight babies unable to muster a cry will express their pain through a facial grimace, said Sevallius.

Whether the variant gene can be used as a marker of NEC susceptibility in preterm infants is not yet clear.

“At this stage, it is preliminary, which means it needs to be addressed in a large amount of patients before we can tell for sure. It is worth further digging,” Sampath said.

David Hackam, professor of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said Sampath’s studies may one day offer doctors a way to screen premature infants for increased risk for NEC. Early screening could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment, he said. Current treatments include changes in feeding, antibiotics and surgery. “These studies make a strong case for further genetic studies to understand this complex and devastating disorder,” Hackam said.

Sampath said he hopes to explore whether this genetic variant can be used to predict other diseases of prematurity.

Developmental origins

How the outside world leaves its imprint on a growing fetus and potentially affects health later in life is an emerging field of research. A pregnant woman’s lifestyle choices, nutrition, exposure to toxicants – and even stress – may modify when and how genes are expressed during the course of fetal development.


From VBS TV:

We decided to make a documentary about Williamsburg because our office is here and many of us have been lurking these parts for upwards of a decade. What had once been a bargain neighborhood close to Manhattan, albeit with some dangerous amenities, has now flourished into quite the sophisticated outpost. The first wave of kids that came along put up curtains and dusted off the rubble, but soon the ambience chasers had migrated in en masse and totally remade the place. This sprucing made us happy. It also made property owners happy. People who were sitting on abandoned warehouses and old factories reaching all the way into Greenpoint realized their shit had turned to gold. But what we here at Vice didn’t realize was that under all of this snazzy development was a subterranean environment heavily damaged by decades of industrial activity. And it wasn’t just us–an ever younger and expanding population was tripping on in blissfully unaware of the residual toxicity harbored in a place increasingly known for art galleries, great bars, and restaurants.

From Documentary Website:

Toxic Trespass, a compelling new film on children’s health and the environment, . . . investigates the growing evidence that we are conducting a large-scale toxicological experiment on our children, and explores what some scientists, doctors, activists and others are doing about it.

From greenpeaceusa:

From the mountains of Kentucky, to the innercity neighborhoods of Chicago, the entire life cycle of coal is filthy – from disastrous mining practices like mountaintop removal, to toxic emissions. What is the true cost of coal on our planet, and on the lives and health of ordinary Americans? Hear firsthand stories from local activists Nina and Mickey McCoy (Inez, KY), and Leila Mendez (Chicago).

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
  • 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.

In my interview of Dr. Frederica Perera (professor at the Mailman School of Public Health and Director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health), I asked about her current work on environmental health issues. This video contains her responses to the prompts listed below.

(Duration 12:57)


  1. Why did you begin studying inner-city communities in New York? 00:40
  2. Please describe your work at the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia. 02:00
  3. Please say more about how your new epidemiological methods work and what you’ve learned? 05:15
  4. What have you found about prenatal exposures to air pollutants and other toxic chemicals? 06:50
  5. Have you seen examples of where decreased toxic exposures have yielded positive health effects? 09:10
  6. What can you say about the interrelationship of toxic chemicals and climate change on young children? 10:10

More of the Perera interview is here.

From CBS News:

A new government report finds that the Environmental Protection Agency has faced massive delays in its research of toxic chemicals, which could leave many in the U.S. at risk. Chip Reid reports.

%d bloggers like this: