Archives for posts with tag: Living on Earth

From Living On Earth (portions of radio discussion of the “the health effects of the deepwater disaster”):

GELLERMAN: . . . . It’s been more than six months since BP finally capped its runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. But now come reports of a wave of illnesses and puzzling symptoms from some residents along the Gulf Coast. Their blood contains high levels of chemicals found in oil and the dispersants that were used to clean up the mess.

Many who are suffering say firm answers and adequate treatment are hard to come by, and there’s a growing sense of frustration with government agencies and the medical community. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has the first part of our special report: “Toxic Tide – Discovering the Health Effects of the Deepwater Disaster”.

[HEARING: OIL SPILL COMMISSIONER DON BOESCH Okay, questions and comments from the floor…]

YOUNG: When the National Oil Spill Commission presented its final report in New Orleans, commissioners expected to get an earful from rig workers and fishermen worried about their jobs. Instead they heard speaker after speaker worried about something else: their health.

SPEAKER 1: I worked 60 days on the frontline for BP out here. I’m sick today, nobody wants to take care of me.

SPEAKER 2: The issue is ongoing; people are getting sick and dying.

SPEAKER 3: I have seen small children with lesions all over their body. We are very, very ill. And there’s a very good chance now that I won’t get to see my grandbabies.

YOUNG: Some had worked cleaning up the oil, others lived in or had visited places where oil washed ashore. All complained of mysterious ailments that arose after the spill.

Robin Young was one of those who spoke out. She manages vacation rental properties in Orange Beach, Alabama, where she has lived for 10 years.

When the spill started, Young helped form a citizen group called Guardians of the Gulf. At first, the group was not focused on health issues. Then, people, including Young, started getting sick.

R YOUNG: Headaches, I would get nauseous – and these are all things that I don’t normally experience at all, I’ve always been very, very, very healthy. Then the coughing – I coughed up so much nasty looking mess.

J YOUNG: Young says symptoms started after she spent a day near the water in June and she still hasn’t fully recovered. She heard from others in her community and across the Gulf coast with similar problems.

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J YOUNG: Young’s group paid for more blood sampling. The Louisiana Environmental Action network asked biochemist and MacArthur grant winner Wilma Subra to analyze the results. The blood samples came from cleanup workers, crabbers, a diver who’d been in oiled water, and at least two children who live on the coast. All had reported recent health problems. Subra compared the levels of volatile organic compounds in those samples to a national database of VOC’s in blood compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics.

SUBRA: They’re as much as 5 to 10 times what you’d find in the normal population. And again, these are chemicals that relate back to chemicals in the BP crude and the dispersants.

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SUBRA: I think it’s demonstrating that the chemicals they are being exposed to are showing up in their blood. We’ve briefed the federal agencies on it, tried to get them interested – they are evaluating the results. And I think there’s a lot of frustration in the community members across the coastal areas. They are really requesting answers.

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YOUNG: Solid answers will take time. There’s little in the scientific literature on long term health effects of oil spills. In March the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences plans to start enrolling Gulf spill cleanup workers in a long-term health study. The principal investigator is Dale Sandler, chief of epidemiology at NIEHS. She hopes to track some 55,000 subjects for at least five years.

SANDLER: This will be by far the largest study of individuals exposed during an oil spill disaster that’s ever been conducted. So we have been moving heaven and earth to make this go quickly.

YOUNG: Sandler’s study has funding, thanks in part to BP. The study is a few months behind its original schedule. But researchers face another hurdle that may prove more difficult. Signing up tens of thousands of participants and getting people to accept results depends on credibility and trust. After the BP spill and Hurricane Katrina, trust is in low supply on the Gulf Coast. Here’s how Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kinnon sums up the attitude.

KINNON: The bottom line is very few people trust governmental agencies. They think there’s this incestuous relationship between BP and the government, and I tend to agree with them.

J YOUNG: And even as Robin Young asks the government to help her community, the plea comes with a note of deep suspicion.

RYOUNG: I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist – that’s what I’m starting to feel like. Because it’s hard to believe that something like this is going on in the United States and no one’s helping.

More . . .

Link to Living on Earth podcast.

Wilma Subra’s analysis of blood samples from sick Gulf Coast residents.

The NIEHS plan for a large-scale, long-term study of cleanup workers.


From Living On Earth (Bruce Gellerman):

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GELLERMAN: . . .Mossville, Louisiana is one of the most polluted places in the nation. More than a dozen industrial plants spew millions of pounds of toxic chemicals a year into the environment. When the federal government failed to act, residents of Mossville sued the U.S. for not protecting their environmental human rights. Last year, the community – mostly African American – caught a break when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made the historic decision to hear their case. Now, Mossville residents may have caught another legal break, as Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Six years ago Christine Bennett made her first trip to her nation’s capital to file a human rights complaint against her government.

BENNETT: Being here in Washington DC, going to make a petition is one thing. But it’s whether or not we’re going to be heard is the most important thing. Will somebody do something about it or are we just wasting our time?

SRISKANDARAJAH: Bennett and her neighbors have been waiting a long time. The story of their rights not being protected goes back generations. Emancipated slaves settled the bayous of Mossville, Louisiana. They had land, but no voting rights to protect it. After World War 2, plastics companies found little resistance to building factories in these disenfranchised black neighborhoods. Fourteen of those petrochemical plants ring the town today.

BENNETT: I’m living where my grandparents lived and I am one of the fourth generations. But now the place that was once so beautiful and so clean is now a dump.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Each year the air is loaded with four million pounds of carcinogens, earning this place the nickname “Cancer Alley.” Government researchers have measured three times the national average of dioxin in the bodies of Mossville residents. They argue that there are no environmental justice laws on our books to protect America’s most vulnerable communities. So that’s the case they took to the Inter-American Commission, a last line of defense for human rights in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. Government fought this arguing that the U.S. has plenty of environmental laws that protect its citizens. But last year, in an interview with Living on Earth, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, seemed to agree with the people of Mossville.

JACKSON: I think the Mossville case is a really interesting one because what the petitioners argue as I understand it is in order to get heard is that they basically had to make the case that the laws of this country do not provide them an opportunity for redress. And it is true that at this point there are no environmental justice laws; there’s nothing on the books that gives us the ability to do it.

SRISKANDARAJAH: It was what the community of Mossville had been waiting to hear: A high-ranking Government official agreeing with the main argument in their case. Administrator Jackson is the first African American EPA head and she’s from Louisiana. Since she took the job, she has made environmental justice a priority of her agency. But even apparent support from Administrator Jackson didn’t put the human rights petition in the clear.

HARDEN: I think no one in Mossville operates under the assumption that everything will be great without struggle because that hasn’t been their experience.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s Monique Harden. She’s the lawyer for the people of Mossville and has been making the case that they have to go outside of the U.S. to resolve their human rights abuses. The State Department argues back that the citizens can still appeal within the American legal system. To Harden, Administrator Jackson’s comment seemed to bolster the Mossville case.

BENNETT: Her statement was just very positive and very affirming and so when we read a few months later the brief that was filed by the U.S. government countering that, we felt that, well, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing here because we’ve got the person in charge of environmental protection of the United States agreeing with the Mossville human rights petition and we’ve got others within the U.S. government saying, it isn’t so.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Harden included Jackson’s statement in briefs she filed to the Commission last March, but the government hasn’t responded. The EPA and the State Department both declined to talk to Living on Earth as well. So we asked someone who advises on environmental human rights cases what this means. Barbara Johnston is a Senior Research Fellow for the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California. She says the government’s silence speaks volumes.

JOHNSTON: I think there’s a minor war occurring (laughs) with all sorts of skirmishes over where our priorities are, whether we are actually going to actually demonstrate that we are indeed a nation that has great and huge concern of environmental justice, especially in cases of demonstrated environmental racism versus our economic liability. Because if the U.S. comes out with a petition that acknowledges its liability in this particular case, there is a very, very, very, very long list of injured parties out there.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Which would make environmental justice a very, very, very expensive proposition. But environmental human rights lawyer Monique Harden says it may be expensive but that would be the cost of living in a society that values all citizens and neighborhoods equally.

HARDEN: What so often happens, in communities that are struggling for environmental justice, is that they’re in dialogue mode but there’s no remedy. And a favorable decision by the Commission would create a different paradigm for what governmental regulation of the environment should look like.

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More.

Links

From Living On Earth (portions of Bruce Gellerman interview of Professor Patricia Hunt, a reproductive biologist at The Washington State University School of Molecular Biosciences, about her letter to the Journal on Science calling for more stringent regulations of chemicals):

GELLERMAN: Did I get that right – there are actually 12,000 new substances registered daily?

HUNT: Yeah, that’s correct. It doesn’t mean that all of those chemicals go into production and enter our lives. And what we’re really concerned about is those that act like hormones in our body. And, of course, the ones that are also of most concern are the ones that are high-volume chemicals, the ones that are produced and are in our lives on a daily basis.

GELLERMAN: But they’re currently being tested, right?

HUNT: If they are added to our food, or to the drugs that we take, the pharmaceutical drugs, we test the living daylights out of them.

GELLERMAN: That would be the EPA, the FDA.

HUNT: Right. But much less testing is done of those chemicals that are used for other purposes, and so a lot of those get into our lives and we learn later that they perhaps are not so safe.

GELLERMAN: Well don’t these agencies test for these possible hormonal properties?

HUNT: Therein lies a problem: because traditionally, the way toxicologists have test[ed] – to gauge the toxicity of a chemical – is a standard set of guidelines for testing. And those guidelines, it turns out, don’t work very well for chemicals that mimic the actions of hormones.

These chemicals sort of defy the standard toxicology thought process, which is: the dose makes the poison. In other words, if a little bit of a chemical is harmful to you, more should be even worse, and even more should elicit an even stronger effect. And these chemicals that act like hormones or interfere with hormones don’t quite behave like that.

So they pose a real problem, and the federal regulatory agencies have realized that it’s a problem and that we need new testing guidelines, but getting these new guidelines is a slow process.

GELLERMAN: So, how do these agencies review chemicals now?

HUNT: They put together review panels to look at specific chemicals. The one on most people’s minds right now is bisphenol A, or BPA, because it’s received so much attention in the press. And what they’ll do is review all of the research that’s been published and decide whether or not our current estimates of safe levels of human exposure are adequate, or whether they should be readdressed.

GELLERMAN: So what are you proposing?

HUNT: The field of toxicology testing has actually moved beyond toxicologists and we need a broader expertise. What we’re offering is the expertise of different scientific societies: reproductive biologists, developmental biologists, endocrinologists – people who actually work on hormones – and geneticists. And we’ve asked that these regulatory agencies seek the advice or the council of these societies when they constitute panels to review chemicals.

GELLERMAN: Do we have the ability to test differently? Not the expertise, but the science?

HUNT: Okay, now you’re getting at what, to me, is the heart of the problem. Right now, when these panels sit down to review a chemical like bisphenol A, they’re faced with a really daunting task. There are hundreds of studies looking at the effects of bisphenol A – most of them using experimental animals. And when the regulatory panels sit down and look at them, quite frankly, they don’t know what to do with a lot of the research.

The studies that have been done using the standard toxicology testing guidelines are easy – they know how to deal with those, so those studies are always included. A lot of the academic studies, like some of the work that we’ve done in our laboratory, are a bit more puzzling, and frequently those studies just get set aside.
And this is where a wider expertise on some of these panels would be helpful, because some of these studies use very sensitive end points, newer technology, and really give us a very good look at exactly what these chemicals can do in bodies. Even though they’re rat bodies or mouse bodies, they’re actually very good model systems for what they would do in the human body.

GELLERMAN: So are there human studies that have found these effects, or all they all laboratory studies?

HUNT: It’s really hard to study humans directly. There have been some human studies asking things like: are bisphenol A levels correlated with miscarriages? But that’s a really difficult study to do because these are looking at correlations and trying to make conclusions. You know, it’s hard to establish cause and effect in humans.
I mean, we know this from smoking. We had a lot of data from animals, but actually establishing cause and effect in humans took many, many years. And the problem with these chemicals is, there are so many of them and some of them are present in our daily lives at pretty significant levels. And so, if these are having effects, and if they’re having effects on our developing babies and infants, it may take us a couple of generations to actually get that proof – that definitive proof – in humans.

GELLERMAN: So, in effect, we are actually doing these human tests – we’re doing them on us!

HUNT: Yeah, that’s one way to look at it isn’t it? (Laughs). And you know, in the case of something like bisphenol A, we have essentially run this experiment in humans before, because the whole diethylstilbestrol, or DES exposure, was exactly that – an experiment in humans.

It was given to women in the hope that it would prevent miscarriage. And as a result, there are thousands of DES-exposed sons and daughters. And we can in fact see some of these changes. There are some fertility effects, some increased cancer rates, some behavioral changes in these humans that were exposed to DES. And so we have every reason to suspect that some of these same effects would be seen from chemicals like bispehnol A, the phthalates, other endocrine disrupting chemicals.

GELLERMAN: And we’ll only see those generations later.

HUNT: Exactly. So that makes us dependent on those rodent studies. And in fact, in the case of DES, those rodent studies were terrific. They came after the human studies, and it turned out that human was a really good model for the mouse.

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More.

Read the letter.

From Living On Earth (portions of an interesting radio discussion of the “new curriculum in chemistry”):

GELLERMAN: . . . . In laboratories across the country chemists are trying to come up with new formulas to make safer products. And students at many universities are learning how to do it. It’s called green chemistry. Living On Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports on the changes at one of the nation’s most influential chemistry departments: the University of California, Berkeley.

WILSON: Our field has typically been about measuring the extent of the damage, and I became interested in the next level of question which was: Why are we creating these occupational and environmental health hazards in the first place? Don’t we have the have the talent and the resources to create safer chemicals and safer products from the beginning?

LOBET: These questions led Wilson to the field of green chemistry. Established by Paul Anastas and John Warner in the 1990s, it’s the emerging field that looks at where chemicals end up in people and the environment, and advocates safer substances. Next, Wilson began talking with the university chemistry department.

WILSON: What we found here at the Berkeley campus was that chemistry education hadn’t really changed much in the last 30-40 years.

LOBET: Not too long after, Wilson met a new chemistry grad student who’d arrived at the university. Marty Mulvihill and Mike Wilson had something in common—call it a public interest approach.

MULVIHILL: While I was here, it was really important to me not only that I do research, but that I reach out to my community and think about the ways that chemists specifically could influence society. Like, we use a lot of resources from society—chemistry is a very resource intensive thing—like, how do we give back?

LOBET: With this kind of community orientation it was natural that the first thing Mulvihill did when he got to Berkeley was start organizing other chemistry grad students.

MULVIHILL: The name of that group was actually Chemists for Peace, which turned out to be far too controversial for a place like Berkeley. I mean, there’s like that perception that Berkeley is an activist-oriented thing, but when you look at chemistry, anything that even appears political is not widely accepted.

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WILSON: Our field has typically been about measuring the extent of the damage, and I became interested in the next level of question which was: Why are we creating these occupational and environmental health hazards in the first place? Don’t we have the have the talent and the resources to create safer chemicals and safer products from the beginning?

LOBET: These questions led Wilson to the field of green chemistry. Established by Paul Anastas and John Warner in the 1990s, it’s the emerging field that looks at where chemicals end up in people and the environment, and advocates safer substances. Next, Wilson began talking with the university chemistry department.

WILSON: What we found here at the Berkeley campus was that chemistry education hadn’t really changed much in the last 30-40 years.

LOBET: Not too long after, Wilson met a new chemistry grad student who’d arrived at the university. Marty Mulvihill and Mike Wilson had something in common—call it a public interest approach.

MULVIHILL: While I was here, it was really important to me not only that I do research, but that I reach out to my community and think about the ways that chemists specifically could influence society. Like, we use a lot of resources from society—chemistry is a very resource intensive thing—like, how do we give back?

LOBET: With this kind of community orientation it was natural that the first thing Mulvihill did when he got to Berkeley was start organizing other chemistry grad students.

MULVIHILL: The name of that group was actually Chemists for Peace, which turned out to be far too controversial for a place like Berkeley. I mean, there’s like that perception that Berkeley is an activist-oriented thing, but when you look at chemistry, anything that even appears political is not widely accepted.

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More . . .


From Living On Earth (portions of an interesting radio discussion of the new field of epigenetics which “demonstrates how environmental factors can also determine diseases in our future, and in our children and grandchildren’s future”):

GELLERMAN: A failed laboratory experiment led to an accidental discovery that is changing the way we understand genetics. It happened in Professor Michael Skinner’s lab at Washington State University. Skinner was studying DNA—the genetic code of life…when he found, by chance, that environmental factors can change the way our genes work for generations far into the future, without damaging the DNA. Professor Skinner is what’s called an epigeneticist and he joins me from Pullman, Washington. Welcome to Living on Earth.

SKINNER: Thank you very much.

GELLERMAN: So, Professor, I looked it up and ‘epi’ is Greek for ‘on or around’ and genetics means ‘source or origins.’ So epigenetics – around the source, yeah?

SKINNER: Correct. So epigenetics would be things around DNA that regulate DNA activity but are independent of DNA sequence, thus, epigenetic.

GELLERMAN: So, something’s gumming up the switch, it’s not destroying the DNA.

SKINNER: Correct, correct. And so basically, sometimes it’s the structure of the DNA, how tightly it’s coiled, or loosened up, that can actually change what genes are turned on and off. And the thing that we study the most is the chemical modification of the DNA, called methylation. A small chemical gets put on the DNA, and that can also regulate what genes are turned on and off. All of this can be influenced by the environment, has nothing to do with changing the DNA sequence.

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GELLERMAN: Is there any population evidence to suggest, historically, that we’ve detected this happening?

SKINNER: So, almost every region of the world has different disease frequencies. So, for example, in Japan they have a very high rate of a stomach disease, and a very low rate of a prostate disease. In North America, we have a very low rate of stomach disease, but a very high rate of prostate disease. If you take someone early in life from Japan and put them in the United States, they will develop generally the North American disease frequency and have prostate disease and low levels of stomach disease. This suggests an environmental impact on disease. And so there’s a lot of epidemiology experiments like that which support that kind of concept.

GELERMAN: So give me an example of something that my mom might have been exposed to that wouldn’t have caused a mutation in me, but would have affected my genetic expression, if you will.

SKINNER: First of all, the most logical one is nutrition. There’s lots of nutritional elements that can regulate programming of the embryo and different tissues. In addition, in our society today, most people are exposed to a wide variety of environmental compounds. Whether it be the bisphenol phthalates (sp?) from the plastics, whether it be agricultural compounds like the fungicide that we used called Encloselin, most people are exposed to these types of compounds on a pretty routine basis. And so these compounds have the ability to alter the epigenetics as well.

GELELRMAN: So we should really be looking at pregnant women.

SKINNER: Pregnant women are definitely the most sensitive population for influencing the fetus’ adult onset of disease. So, yes, these early life events causing later life disease is something we need to think about more, in terms of medicine. What you are is to a large degree determined what your mother did during pregnancy.

GELLERMAN: So are there a lot of epigenticists around? I’ve gotta admit that I’d never heard of it before.

SKINNER: It is a growing field. And I think it does address a lot of our unanswered questions using genetics. For established scientists that have grown up and been trained in genetics, it is a difficult shift in their thinking to consider that there may be something else. And so I think it’s going to be more the younger generation coming in that pushes the epigenetic area.

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

Learn more at Dr. Skinner’s website.

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