Archives for posts with tag: pollution

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently completed an amazing series of reports on the cancer clusters in Western Pennsylvania. Here is a sample from Day 2 of their 8-day series.

In many places around Western Pennsylvania residents see clusters of death and clusters of people sickened by cancer or heart and lung diseases.

And, like Lee Lasich, a Clairton resident, they’re frustrated that government health and environmental agencies don’t see them too, don’t do something about the problems and don’t take a tougher stance on enforcement of air pollution regulations.

* * *

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s analysis of Pennsylvania Department of Health mortality data from 2000 through 2008 found that 14,636 more people died from heart and respiratory disease and lung cancer in 14 Western Pennsylvania counties than national rates would predict, or 12,833 after adjusting for excess smoking in the region. And the yearlong investigation found numerous people throughout the region who talked about what seemed like unnatural and unexplained clusters of illnesses and death in their communities.

This overlap of high mortality rates and pollution raises questions about whether there is a causal relationship. The question has not been definitively answered, but for the people who live among these clusters, the connection seems clear.

More . . .

When it comes to particulate pollution, what you can’t see can hurt you.

“The stuff now is more insidious but much harder to perceive,” said Lester B. Lave, the Carnegie Mellon University economics professor who pioneered pollution mortality research in the 1970s. “There is no rotten egg smell. There is no dirt. It is less easily perceived. People are usually astonished that Pittsburgh still is one of the worst, but air pollution is continuing.”

Studies estimate that pollution kills 20,000 to 60,000 each year in the United States. Even at the lower range, pollution deaths would equal the nation’s annual rate of homicides.

The upper range would equal traffic fatalities and suicides combined and rank pollution as the nation’s eighth leading cause of death, just behind diabetes — another disease pollution has been linked with — and just ahead of the combined category of influenza and pneumonia.

And what’s true about pollution deaths holds true about particulate pollution: Both remain largely imperceptible to the general public.

Science to the rescue

For the past 40 years, science time and again has implicated particle pollution as a major killer.

In 1970, Dr. Lave and Eugene B. Seskin for the first time calculated health damage from pollution. Their subsequent book, “Air Pollution and Human Health,” published in 1977, found not only “a close association between air pollution and mortality,” but determined the relationship to be substantial.

Drs. Lave and Seskin’s work stirred such controversy that it prompted an effort to get Dr. Lave fired from his teaching position. But their science stood the test of time and helped inspire major epidemiological studies in subsequent decades.

More . . .

Center for Public Integrity: Big polluters freed from environmental oversight by stimulus.

In the name of job creation and clean energy, the Obama administration has doled out billions of dollars in stimulus money to some of the nation’s biggest polluters and granted them sweeping exemptions from the most basic form of environmental oversight, a Center for Public Integrity investigation has found.

The administration has awarded more than 179,000 “categorical exclusions” to stimulus projects funded by federal agencies, freeing those projects from review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Coal-burning utilities like Westar Energy and Duke Energy, chemical manufacturer DuPont, and ethanol maker Didion Milling are among the firms with histories of serious environmental violations that have won blanket NEPA exemptions.

Even a project at BP’s maligned refinery in Texas City, Tex. — owner of the oil industry’s worst safety record and site of a deadly 2005 explosion, as well as a benzene leak earlier this year — secured a waiver for the preliminary phase of a carbon capture and sequestration experiment involving two companies with past compliance problems. The primary firm has since dropped out of the project before it could advance to the second phase.

Agency officials who granted the exemptions told the Center that they do not have time in most cases to review the environmental compliance records of stimulus recipients, and do not believe past violations should affect polluters’ chances of winning stimulus money or the NEPA exclusions.

The so-called “stimulus” funding came from the $787-billion legislation officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in February 2009.

Documents obtained by the Center show the administration has devised a speedy review process that relies on voluntary disclosures by companies to determine whether stimulus projects pose environmental harm. Corporate polluters often omitted mention of health, safety, and environmental violations from their applications. In fact, administration officials told the Center they chose to ignore companies’ environmental compliance records in making grant decisions and issuing NEPAexemptions, saying they considered such information irrelevant.

Some polluters reported their stimulus projects might cause “unknown environmental risks” or could “adversely affect” sensitive resources, the documents show. Others acknowledged they would produce hazardous air pollutants or toxic metals. Still others won stimulus money just weeks after settling major pollution cases. Yet nearly all got exemptions from full environmental analyses, the documents show.

More . . .

From the Myrtle Beach Sun News: Mutant fish: A puzzle in the water (by Claudia Lauer, September 29):

Longtime Bucksport residents know every curve in the dirt road leading to the Bull Creek boat landing.

* * *

Fishing and wading in the muddy waters is almost second nature for generations of residents who grew up as river folks, but something in the creek is starting to worry some residents.

A U.S. Geological Survey study released in September 2009 reported that 90 percent of the largemouth bass pulled from the creek during the study had male and were developing female reproductive cells. A year after the study was finished, residents still have questions about the effects of the fish on people and whether something in the water — the same water filtered for drinking water for many Horry County residents — is causing what biologists call endocrine disruption, which makes reproduction for the fish more difficult.

The problem is not confined to Bull Creek, but the Pee Dee Basin had the highest incidence of intersex fish in the study. The study looked at river basins all over the country and found that about half of them had some instances of intersex fish. The only river basin examined that didn’t show any problems was Alaska’s Yukon River Basin. In parts of the Mississippi River in Minnesota and the Yampa River in Colorado, 70 percent of the smallmouth bass had female signs. Scientists and residents say more research must be done to determine which of the many possible environmental contaminants to the water may be causing the issue in the fish and whether it’s something being done locally or upstream.

Steve Howell, like many of the lifelong residents, feels some ownership in the creek that he, his family and his friends have fished for generations.

“What about taking baths, drinking the water, cooking and etc. with the water from your tap that is coming straight out of the same river that is highly contaminated that it is screwing the fish up?” Howell said. “Since it is affecting the fish in such drastic ways as this, then what is it going to do to humans over a period of time, and why isn’t anyone or any group doing a study to try and find out?”

* * *

A number of contaminants have been suspected as the cause of the endocrine disruption. Researchers are studying the effects of livestock farming, of industrial chemicals, and of hormones and other chemicals that find their way into waste water. Hormones and birth control pills have become more commonplace and leave the human body in our waste.

* * *

Howell said he plans to continue fishing in the creek, but he’s wary of what the long-term effects could be.

“You want to know what is happening because if the water is doing that to the fish, then what happens to us?” he said. “What happens to women who are pregnant or babies that aren’t born yet? You want to know what they’re doing to make sure we’re safe and whether there’s more happening other than here’s this study and we don’t know why it’s happening or what it means.”

Read the entire article here.

Lindsey Konkel has just published an outstanding article on Environmental Health News.  Here is an excerpt:

When doctors told Wanda Ford her 2-year-old son had lead poisoning, she never suspected that the back yard in her low-income neighborhood was the likely culprit.

Ford knew that exposure to the heavy metal could be dangerous. So when she and her husband moved into the Lower Lincoln Street neighborhood, Ford, then pregnant, took steps to make sure their 100-year-old home was lead-free.

“We never thought to test the soil – my son played in the back yard all the time,” said Ford, whose son is now seven.

It’s long been known that children in poorer neighborhoods like Ford’s are more likely to be exposed to lead, industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust and other contaminants. Now, scientists are beginning to suspect that low-income children aren’t just more exposed – they actually may be more biologically susceptible to them, even at low levels.

A growing body of research suggests that the chronic stressors of poverty may fundamentally alter the way the body reacts to pollutants, especially in young children. Several studies have found that such stress may exacerbate the effects of lead on children’s developing brains, while others reported more asthma symptoms in kids with simultaneous exposure to air pollution and socioeconomic problems.

Everyone experiences stress occasionally; it can improve focus and performance to overcome obstacles at work, during athletic competitions, or in everyday life. But stress also can harm the body.

“When the stress is chronic and the stressors are out of our control, we experience it as a threat rather than a challenge,” said Dr. Rosalind Wright, a physician and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. “This type of stress can have negative, lasting effects on key systems in the body. It’s like having the fight or flight response turned on all the time.”

Schools and homes next to refineries and Superfund sites, farm workers drinking toxic water, urban children breathing exhaust from congested streets. Many of these people are living in poverty or with low incomes, and they have to cope with socioeconomic problems as well as high exposure to pollutants. Scientists say living in such areas and facing financial strain, racial issues and high crime rates can wear down the systems responsible for controlling immunity and hormones. Hormones needed for proper brain development may be altered, or the immune system may continually release inflammatory molecules into the blood.

“This may make you more susceptible to everything else around you, including pollution,” said Jane Clougherty, an exposure scientist and epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

One + one = four

Stress, when combined with certain pollutants, may produce a much greater health effect than either stress or pollution alone.

“It would be like adding one and one together and getting three or four,” said Dr. Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, a non-profit organization focused on applying science to promote health. “Socioeconomic status may affect underlying biology, making exposure to certain chemicals more adverse for the poorer kid.”

In Worcester, about 40 miles west of Boston, nearly one in five residents lives below poverty level, almost double the Massachusetts average, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. Its median household income is roughly 30 percent lower than the state’s.

Worcester is representative of many old manufacturing towns across the country. “With a decline in manufacturing, you get a decline in certain types of pollution, but you are also left with ongoing problems such as lead contamination in soil, which is typical of a lot of older American towns and cities,” said Katherine Kiel, an environmental economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. “Low-income housing is often built where property is cheapest. Unfortunately, these areas often have more pollution.”

Socioeconomic stress “may make you more susceptible to everything else around you, including pollution.  Jane Clougherty, University of PittsburghThe eaves of Ford’s home – one of Worcester’s iconic triple-decker apartment houses – are blackened by soot from trucks and cars. From her front porch, she can see the on-ramp to the interstate highway that bisects the city.

“This feels like a depressed town. There are a lot of neglected, dilapidated places. It’s not very child-friendly,” said Ford, who is not using her real name for fear that her son will be bullied at school about his learning disabilities.

Ford is black, as is roughly 12 percent of Worcester. One small study published last year found that women in Boston who faced racial discrimination and community violence had higher levels of a stress hormone linked to preterm births.

Gang activity and a drug raid at a house nearby have brought community violence close to home. “My husband and I didn’t see it at first when we moved here, but it’s pervasive,” said Ford.

Rates of violent crimes in Worcester are about 17 percent higher than the national average. In 2010, there were roughly 471 assaults, armed robberies and murders per 100,000 inhabitants in Worcester. The national average for that same period was 404 violent crimes per 100,000 people, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.

She worries constantly about the safety of her kids. Four of them, all under the age of 15, live at home.

When her son was born in 2004, he seemed healthy. “Looking back, there were signs of developmental delays early on, like he drooled too much, but we didn’t think much of it,” she said.

When he was 2, his doctor found that his blood lead levels were elevated, though they fell below the commonly defined threshold for effects of lead. Ten micrograms per deciliter has traditionally been defined as the harmful level, but recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered it to five, recognizing that effects can occur at lower levels.

Synergy between lead and stress

With lead pollution, “the toxicity of lead may be stronger in a child also exposed to the stress of poverty,” said Dr. Robert Wright, a pediatrician and environmental health scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, and husband of Rosalind Wright.

Lead exposure, which has been linked to reduced IQs, attention problems and aggressive behavior, may be more detrimental to low-income kids than to children in families with higher incomes. Children in Boston began to show reduced IQ at blood lead levels as low as six micrograms per deciliter, while kids from families with more financial resources only began to show cognitive deficits at levels greater than 10, according to one study.

“If this synergy exists between stress and lead, from a biological perspective, it’s plausible this link exists between stress and other neurotoxic pollutants, such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as well,” said Robert Wright.

For years, toxicologist Deborah Cory-Slechta of University of Rochester and her colleagues have studied the combined effects of lead and stressful conditions on lab rats. Lead plus stress had effects on their learning ability and brains that did not occur with either of those factors alone, according to their research.

Researchers are trying to tease apart why chronic stress may make some pollutants more harmful. Both human and animal studies suggest that it can throw key systems of the body out of whack. At a young age, it may create hormonal shifts that permanently alter the way the body responds to future stresses, including chemical exposures. It also may weaken the immune system or trigger inflammation.

“Inflammation is central to a lot of chronic diseases we worry about today,” including respiratory diseases such as asthma, Clougherty said.

In one study, young male laboratory rats put under chronic stress showed a rapid, shallow breathing pattern when inhaling polluted air – unlike rats exposed only to the pollution.

The researchers created a stressful environment by placing the young male rat in the home cage of an older, dominant male twice a week. The stressed rats had higher levels of molecules associated with inflammation in their blood.

Also, in East Boston, children who were previously exposed to community violence were more likely to show signs of asthma when breathing traffic-related air pollution than children in less violent neighborhoods. “This suggests a model where stress impacts the child’s susceptibility to pollution,” said Clougherty.

In addition to asthma, this may make low-income children more predisposed to diabetes, heart disease and even dementia later in life.

Kids living with violence also may experience more wear and tear on their DNA, damage that has been linked to disease later in life, according to a Duke University study published in April.

Susceptibility starts in the womb. Exposure to stress and pollution before birth and during early childhood may be particularly harmful because “both may alter development of the brain, lungs and nervous system during these critical periods,” said Rosalind Wright.

This raises an important question: Are people protected by policies that just consider their chemical exposures without looking at their living conditions, too? Many scientists think not.

Increased risks due to social status are “a critically important but neglected area within risk assessment, and should be incorporated in the future,” Harvard epidemiologists Joel Schwartz and David Bellinger and Johns Hopkins’ Thomas Glass wrote in a 2011 report.

Schettler said “this new understanding has the potential to change the way we think about interventions for low-income children.”

More.

From U.S. News and World Report, an article about Upstream expert, Dr. Frederica Perera’s most recent study:

Women exposed to higher levels of certain air pollutants while pregnant are more likely to have children with anxiety, depression and attention problems by ages 6 and 7, new research suggests.

“This study provides new evidence that prenatal exposure to air pollution at levels encountered in New York City can adversely affect child behavior,” said Frederica Perera, a professor of environmental health sciences and director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

She led the new study, published online March 22 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The researchers looked at pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). They are created by the burning of fossil fuels and are common in urban environments. Traffic emissions are a major source of these pollutants.

The study is believed to be the first to link behavior problems in school-age children with two measures of prenatal PAH exposure: air concentrations and a PAH-specific marker found in mothers’ blood samples and umbilical cord blood. The PAH, inhaled by the mom during pregnancy, can cross the placenta, experts know.

Perera’s team followed the children of 253 inner-city women who gave birth between 1999 and 2006. None of the mothers smoked.

The researchers measured the concentrations of PAH in the environment of the mothers for 48 hours during trimester two or three. They also took blood samples from the mothers and the umbilical cords.

In addition, the women answered questions about their children’s behavior, including describing any attention problems, anxiety or depression. The attention problems would not qualify as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Perera noted.

The investigators found a link between higher PAH exposure levels and behavior problems. “Symptoms of anxiety and depression were 45 percent higher in the higher exposure group versus the lower,” Perera said. Attention problems were 28 percent greater in the higher PAH exposure group.

When the researchers took into account other sources of pollutants such as tobacco smoke and diet, the link remained. However, although the study found an association between prenatal PAH exposure and childhood behavior problems, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

The level of problems were those that could result in referral to a doctor for further evaluation, Perera noted.

Several mechanisms could explain the link, she said. Oxidative stress is one. Or, the chemicals may be “endocrine disrupters, which are capable of affecting the normal signaling that occurs in early brain development.”

Perera plans to follow the children until they are age 12.

“The study by itself is not convincing to me,” said Dr. Victor Klein, an obstetrician-gynecologist who specializes in high-risk pregnancies and is director of patient safety and risk reduction at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y. He reviewed the study and said that “further research has to be done.”

More.

Read other Upstream posts about Dr. Perera’s work, including her Upstream interview videos, click here.

From :

 

From PRI’s “The World”:

Robert Law raises sheep and grows sugar beets, wheat, barley oats and rye on his farm about an hour north of London.

It’s a big operation set on nearly 4,000 acres of rolling hills near the town of Royston. One key ingredient makes it all flourish — nitrogen fertilizer. Law said he uses it for almost all his crops, because his land is inherently very low in naturally-available nitrogen, which plants need to thrive./p>

Law is hardly alone. The invention of nitrogen-based fertilizer in 1909 helped fuel a global agricultural boom, and it’s been crucial in feeding a growing population ever since.

But a growing number of scientists say that boon to our food supply has come at a big cost — massive, nitrogen-based pollution.

Mark Sutton, of the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in the United Kingdom, said the threat to the environment is large

“We’ve known for many years that using nitrogen for fertilizer is a great thing for farming to increase productivity,” Sutton said. “But there’s a whole range of threats resulting from this nitrogen leaking into the environment.”

Nitrogen is an inert gas that’s necessary for life. But we’re changing it into forms that are harmful, overloading the environment with it, and throwing the natural nitrogen cycle out of whack, Sutton said. Nitrogen compounds running off farmland have led to water pollution around the world, while nitrogen emissions from industry, agriculture and vehicles make a big contribution to air pollution.

Sutton said the cost is immense. Last year he was part of a team of 200 scientists from 21 countries who studied the problem in the European Union. They calculated the dollar value of the damage from nitrogen pollution at between $90 billion and $400 billion per year.

That’s “a massive number,” Sutton said.

The cost comes to both the environment and human health. For instance, Sutton said, particulate air pollution caused in part by nitrogen shortens the lives of many Europeans by more than a year. Overall, the EU report estimated that the cost of nitrogen pollution in the EU is more than double the value that nitrogen fertilizers add to European farm income.

“So these are significant issues,” Sutton said.

The EU study is the first to calculate these costs in Europe. But Alan Townsend, an ecologist at the University of Colorado, insists nitrogen pollution is “unquestionably” a global problem.

The U.S. is also a major hotspot, and big problems are emerging in China, Southeast Asia and Latin America. The impacts of nitrogen pollution can be hard to recognize. Big environmental disasters like oil spills tend to grab all the attention, Townsend said, but “there is essentially a nitrogen spill everyday.”

The irony is that in the right places and chemical forms, nitrogen is valuable stuff. Every ounce of fertilizer that runs off a field into a river is a waste of resources and money. But Townsend said it’s a problem that shouldn’t be that hard to solve.

“This is not one of those problems where we sit around scratching our heads and say, ‘Man this is going to be a disaster, how are we going to deal with it, there’s nothing we can do,’” he said. “A lot of the solutions are right in front of us. It’s just about moving down that path.”

That path includes increasing the use of technology to cut nitrogen pollutants from power plants and vehicles, which is already widely used in the U.S. and Europe.

Cutting nitrogen pollution from food production is a more complicated challenge, but Townsend says on the farm field itself, it comes down to a simple principle: use fertilizer more efficiently.

“We have to approach it as an efficiency problem,” he said. “How do we maximize the benefits that we’re going to get from this stuff and minimize the unwanted consequences?”

Law is trying to rise to that challenge. He prides himself on running a farm that’s not only productive, but environmentally sensitive.

His tractor now sports a small computer console that his farmhands use to ensure each field gets only the exact amount of fertilizer it needs, depending on the crop, the season and the weather.

“We just program each individual field as we come to it,” said farm worker Mark Moule. ”Just press start and finish and one minute you’ll be putting 50 kilos on per hectare, next minute it’s 150.”

That kind of precision helps reduce the amount of nitrogen that runs off farm fields into nearby streams. It can also help save money on fertilizer.

But this kind of technology is expensive, and many smaller farms can’t afford it.

For his part, Law is willing to look for even more efficient ways to use fertilizer. But he warns that Britain and the rest of the world face a growing challenge when it comes to feeding a growing population.

“The area available for farming in this country is getting smaller each year,” Law laments. “Roads are being built, towns are being built.”

It’s a global trend — less farmland and more mouths to feed. And that will only add to the challenge of getting rid of the excess nitrogen we’ve been putting into the environment.

Listen to the story and get more information here.

From the Denver Post:

Black goo is still seeping into waterways from Suncor Energy’s oil refinery north of Denver, and the latest tests show benzene levels 48 times the limit for drinking water, even downstream of the point at which Sand Creek flows into the South Platte River.

Federal labor officials have launched an investigation of possible worker exposures at the refinery, where tap water also is tainted.

State regulators say they’re working with Suncor to find a way to block the toxic material from burbling into the bed of Sand Creek.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data — from samples taken by Suncor — showed benzene concentrations at 720 parts per billion on Jan. 9 at the point where Sand Creek meets the South Platte, up from 190 on Jan. 6, and 144 times higher than the 5 ppb national drinking-water standard. Benzene is a chemical found in crude oil that is classified as cancer-causing, especially affecting blood.

Downriver on the South Platte, the data show benzene at 240 ppb on Jan. 9, a decrease from 590 on Jan. 6 but still 48 times higher than the standard.

The South Platte River is the main water source for northeastern Colorado and the Denver area.

Spilled contaminants from decades of refinery operations at the site have seeped underground, “and it is snaking through. The pressures change. It finds the path of least resistance, and that’s apparently what has happened: It has found the path of least resistance to get into Sand Creek,” Colorado health department environmental-programs director Martha Rudolph said in an interview last week.

“We were not expecting that to occur,” she said. “If we were expecting that to occur, we would have taken steps to stop it.”

State regulators favor construction of underground clay walls at the creek and the refinery to try to block toxic material before it spreads; vapor-extraction systems to remove it from soil; and pumping of contaminated groundwater — all aimed at preventing further pollution.

They characterized the spill as one where hydrocarbons dissolved in groundwater enter through the bottom of Sand Creek, which carries them into the river. Aerators are being installed on Sand Creek to try to release toxic vapors trapped in water into the air — which is analogous to blowing through a straw in a fizzy drink to release what is trapped in the bubbles.

Preventing further pollution of Sand Creek has become a top-tier priority, Rudolph said. “We need to accelerate our responding to that particular issue — to get it out of Sand Creek, to stop that.”

For utilities such as Aurora Water, which serves 335,000 people, the situation has proved the importance of state-of-the-art water-treatment systems that can remove benzene before water reaches residents’ homes. Aurora Water currently is not drawing from its Prairie Waters intake system, 13 miles downriver, and will assess the upstream seepage before doing so, spokesman Greg Baker said.

Shortly after the spill was discovered Nov. 28, benzene in Sand Creek reached 120,000 ppb, according to state data released after a written request by The Denver Post.

Under Suncor’s property, a monitoring well detected benzene in groundwater at 74,000 ppb, with ethyl benzene at 7,300 ppb (standard is 700), toluene at 110,000 ppb (standard: 1,000), and xylenes at 38,000 ppb (standard: 1,400).

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating both air and water on Suncor property in response to a complaint that workers may have been exposed.

“It’s going to definitely take weeks, by the time we review all the information,” said Herb Gibson, director of OSHA’s Denver-area office. “We have not found any over-exposures. We’re focusing on benzene because that is the chemical that has the lowest exposure limit.”

However, OSHA lacks jurisdiction to look into the situation at the nearby Metro Wastewater plant, where toxic vapors forced workers to wear respirators and the closure of a technical-services building.

More.

Image from Flickr.

From Reuters:

In a study of more than 4,000 black women in Los Angeles, those who lived in areas with higher levels of traffic-related air pollution were at increased risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure.

The researchers, led by Patricia Coogan at Boston University, found that black women living in neighborhoods with high levels of nitrogen oxides, pollutants found in traffic exhaust, were 25 percent more likely to develop diabetes and 14 percent more likely to develop hypertension than those living in sections with cleaner air.

Previous research has linked air pollution to health problems such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease and even higher rates of death.

“The public health implications are huge,” said Dr. Jiu-Chiuan Chen, who studies the effects of air pollution at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, especially for black women, who have higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure than white women. He was not involved in the current work.

Forty-four percent of all black women in the U.S. have high blood pressure and about 11 percent have diabetes compared with 28 percent and roughly seven percent, respectively, of white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black Americans also experience higher levels of air pollution than white Americans, according to the study authors.

For their investigation, published in Circulation, the researchers followed participants in the ongoing Black Women’s Health Study for 10 years. The women were mainly recruited from subscribers to Essence magazine, and none had diabetes or high blood pressure when the study began in 1995.

Over the course of a decade, 531 women developed high blood pressure and 183 women were diagnosed with diabetes.

The findings on their relative risks for those conditions take into account several other potential influences, including how heavy the women were, whether they smoked and other stressors, including noise levels at participants’ homes.

Although researchers measured average pollution levels near participants’ homes for only one year of the ten-year study, Coogan told Reuters Health that air pollution patterns remained relatively constant over the entire study period.

While Coogan and her colleagues estimated nitrogen oxide concentrations near participants’ homes, they did not account for commuting habits or exposure to air pollution at work. According to the researchers, Americans, on average, spend about 70 percent of their time at home.

In addition to measuring nitrogen oxides, a proxy for traffic pollution, the researchers evaluated levels of fine particulate matter. Many sources contribute to this type of air pollution, including traffic, power plants and industrial processes.

Women who lived in areas with higher fine particulate exposures also faced an increased risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, although statistically the link was weak and could have been due to chance.

Previous reports have suggested that air pollution particles small enough to make their way into the blood stream may contribute to a narrowing of blood vessels, which can lead to high blood pressure and reduce sensitivity to insulin.

More.

Image from Flickr.

From The Independent:

Olympic athletes could suffer impaired performance times and become ill as a result of London’s unacceptably high levels of air pollution, leading respiratory scientists are warning.

Fears are growing that during the Games, beginning in July, athletes, who take in much more air than a sedentary person, will take in high levels of pollutants such as particulates, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, and could suffer pulmonary irritation, chest pain and decreased lung capacity. Such a situation would be a disaster for London when the city is on show to the world.

But it is considered a real possibility in certain weather conditions, as levels in the capital of several pollutants are so high that they are in breach of EU limits, putting the UK at risk of a £300m fine.

London has the highest levels of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the EU, and has received a series of legal warnings for failing to comply with European laws governing PM10s, tiny specks of particulate matter 10 microns across (a micron is a millionth of a metre). The capital’s air quality is also affected by the gas ozone, created by pollutants from vehicle exhausts reacting with sunlight.

Experts say that the risk for the Games is that in certain summer weather conditions – in particular, a “temperature inversion” in which on still, hazy days, a layer of warm air traps pollutants close to the ground – the pollution levels could go so high as to affect athletes’ health and performance.

Temperature inversions are common, and affect people more in the summer, according to the Met Office. “It’s not a rare thing. It can happen all the time,” a Met Office spokesman said yesterday. “If we have a high-pressure temperature inversion period, there may well be high levels of ozone and nitrogen dioxide and these could induce coughs, breathlessness and other problems,” said Professor Sir Malcolm Green, spokesman for the British Lung Association.

Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London, said: “If we’re unlucky we’re going to get bad publicity for our air quality. Athletes, such as marathon runners and cyclists, need to breathe very hard. If it’s a high-pollution day, they will be taking in large amounts of pollution. Their chests may tighten up, they may feel pain and shortness of breath, and for certain conditions such as asthma they may need medication.

“A few athletes may not attain the performances they hoped to and they might spend a few days feeling unwell. From an athletic point of view, they will not be at the best of their ability.”

Simon Birkett, director of the campaign group Clean Air in London, said yesterday: “The Mayor of London [Boris Johnson] needs to show the world that the Olympic city is determined to tackle this massive public health crisis by banning the most polluting vehicles from the Olympic route network.”

However, there is no sign of London taking the drastic action that was seen at the last Olympics in Beijing, when the Chinese government issued a blanket ban on more than half the city’s cars and shut down polluting industries, at a cost of £6bn.

Mr Johnson introduced a long-term air quality strategy for the capital in December 2010 but this is aimed at improvements in the medium to long term. An update to the strategy, introduced in May last year, includes several measures designed to have a shorter-term impact, including a ban on motor vehicle engine idling at priority locations, the use of dust suppressants and “green infrastructure”, such as screens of trees.

More.

Image from Flickr.

An Al Jazeera report on London’s air pollution problem (and one partial solution):

From al.com:

Alabama’s coal-fired power plants dispose of almost 15 million pounds of toxic metals in on-site ash ponds, more than plants in any other state. Alabama Power Co.’s Miller Steam Plant in western Jefferson County sends more toxic metals to its ash pond than any other plant in the country, more than 5 million pounds annually.

That’s according to an analysis of data in the U.S. EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory published Thursday by the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy organization.

The nation’s attention turned to coal ash ponds three years ago, when a pond associated with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured, flooding 300 acres of the countryside with contaminated sludge that inundated homes and fields and flowed into the Emory and Clinch rivers, filling in large areas of the rivers and resulting in fish kills.

In the aftermath of the spill, industry and governmental agencies increased scrutiny of the ponds. Pond usage is one method of disposing of the ash left over from burning coal. That ash contains traces of such metals as arsenic, chromium and lead that occur naturally in the coal. Wet ash is pumped to the ponds, where the water is held so the contaminants settle out of suspension.

Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman said Miller’s No.1 ranking and top 20 rankings for its Gorgas plant in Walker County, its Gaston plant in Shelby County and the Barry plant near Mobile are mostly a function of the size of the plants. Miller is one of the nation’s largest coal-fired plants.

Alabama Power chose to build larger plants that burn more coal, he said, while another utility might have multiple plants that would add up to a similar volume. Sznajderman said the ponds are part of the plants’ environmental controls and the company has a long track record of operating them safely.

“We did have our ash impoundments inspected and received a satisfactory rating and that is the highest rating you can get,” he said. “The fact of the matter is we have operated these ash impoundments for decades to contain these materials onsite at the plant safely. We have a vigorous inspection program to ensure these facilities are inspected regularly.”

In addition to the assessment EPA made of the condition of ash pond dams across the country, the agency also classified ash ponds by the level of hazard posed if dams were to fail.

All but one of the Alabama Power ponds were classified as a significant risk, meaning that, if a rupture occurred, environmental and property damage would result. One ash pond at the Gaston plant in Shelby County’s Wilsonville is classified as a high hazard, meaning that loss of life could occur if a dam broke. All the ponds lie near waterways that receive treated discharge from the ponds.

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From the Associated Press:

When winter comes to Utah and atmospheric conditions trap a soup of pollutants close to the ground, doctors say it turns every resident in the Salt Lake basin into the equivalent of a cigarette smoker.

For days or weeks at a time, an inversion layer in which high pressure systems can trap a roughly 1,300-foot-thick layer of cold air — and the pollutants that build up inside it — settles over the basin, leaving some people coughing and wheezing.

“There’s no safe level of particulate matter you can breathe,” said Salt Lake City anesthesiologist Cris Cowley, who is among a number of Utah doctors raising the alarm over some of the nation’s worst wintertime air.

The doctors and a lobby group of Utah mothers are blaming a company that mines nearly a mile deep in the largest open pit in the world for contributing one-third of Salt Lake County’s pollution. The rest is from tailpipe and other emissions.

They have filed a lawsuit against Kennecott Utah Copper, accusing it of violating the U.S. Clean Air Act. The company operates with the consent of state regulators who enforce the federal law.

The company is the No. 1 industrial air polluter along Utah’s heavily populated 120-mile Wasatch Front and operates heavy trucks and power and smelter plants. It says the claims are “without merit.”

Kennecott cites the blessing of Utah regulators for expanded operations and new controls that hold emissions steady.

Utah’s chief air regulator, however, acknowledged Kennecott is technically violating a 1994 plan adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that limited the company to hauling 150 million tons of ore a year out of the Bingham Canyon Mine.

Utah has twice allowed the company to exceed that limit, most recently to 260 million tons, as the company moves to expand a mine in the mountains west of Salt Lake City. In each case, Utah sought EPA’s consent, but the EPA didn’t take any action.

The lawsuit could force EPA’s hand, said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

Bird said the old limit would defeat changes Kennecott made to curb dust and emissions since 1994.

The EPA rules that set production instead of emissions limits puts many companies in a similarly “awkward position” and undermines confidence in Utah’s air pollution permits, Bird said.

Kennecott disputes the doctors’ figure and says it contributes about 16 percent of Salt Lake County’s overall emissions.

An examination by The Associated Press of emissions figures provided by Kennecott to state regulators shows the company’s share of pollutants ranges from 65 percent of Salt Lake County’s sulfur dioxide emissions to 18 percent of its particulates.

Particulates are tiny flecks of dust that doctors say can attract heavy metals. The particulates are ingested through the nose and lungs and can become lodged in brain tissue. They are especially damaging to the development of children.

Medical research has found that the first few minutes of exposure to air pollution does the most damage, with many people’s bodies able to react and fight off longer bouts of exposure, the doctors said.

Yet exposure to dust, soot and gaseous chemicals constricts vessels and send blood pressure soaring, making some people’s hearts flutter and spiking emergency hospital visits while putting fetuses in the womb at risk, the doctors say.

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From Reuters:

Toxic contamination from coal ash, a waste product of coal-fired power plants, has been detected in ground water and soil at 20 sites in 10 U.S. states, an environmental watchdog group reported on Tuesday.

These sites are the latest to contribute to a total of 157 identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the independent Environmental Integrity Project, which released the report.

Coal ash is left after coal is burned at power plants and has concentrations of heavy metals and salts that can leach into the environment unless disposed of properly in ponds with liners and covers, said Jeff Stant, the report’s editor.

But most states do not require ponds to be lined, have any construction standards or any monitoring or cleanup requirements, Stant said, adding that almost half the wastes from coal-burning in the United States are dumped this way.

Nineteen of the 20 newly identified sites show ground water contaminated with arsenic or other toxic metals exceeding the maximum contaminant level set out in the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The 20th site showed contaminated soil with arsenic 900 times the federal screening level for site cleanups, the report said.

Those who live near these sites, including three people who spoke at a briefing, reported contaminated streams, respiratory problems and air pollution powerful enough to turn a white house black. In one case, a rancher said he closely monitors the amount of sulfate in the water his cattle drink because this chemical can reach lethal levels.

PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERN

The Environmental Integrity Project released an open letter to Congress signed by more than 2,000 people living near coal ash sites, decrying “legislation that would stop EPA in its tracks and replace real standards with imaginary state ‘plans’ that polluters could ignore …”

Stant and others noted at a briefing that the House of Representatives has passed and the Senate is considering legislation that the environmental group said would give the states, instead of the federal government, authority to address the problem of coal ash contamination of water and soil.

“We already have here a clear and present danger to America’s public health,” Stant said at a telephone briefing. “It is no solution for Congress to hand authority for addressing the problem permanently to states that have refused to enforce common-sense standards for the last 30 years and hope that the whole problem goes away.”

John Ward, of the American Coal Ash Association, disputed that interpretation of the measure now in Congress.

“There are no federal standards for coal ash right now,” Ward said by telephone. “This bill would also expand EPA’s enforcement authority from what it is now.”

Ward noted that coal ash is generated in vast quantities and can be reprocessed into such consumer goods as wallboard and shingles.

“We think the solution to coal ash problems is to stop throwing it away, to alleviate the need to have these disposal ponds at all,” Ward said.

More.

  • The full Environmental Integrity Project report is available online at environmentalintegrity.org.
  • For the report click here.
  • For the news release click here.
  • Read the letter to Congress from more than 2,000 Americans living near coal ash sites
  • Listen to the December 13, 2011 news event here.

From Epoch Times:

Coal and oil-burning power plants have long been responsible for much of the nation’s air pollution. But a new report says that these facilities have managed to avoid emissions standards that every other industry has had to observe for decades.

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) last week released an analysis identifying the nation’s most polluting power plants. Using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, the report examined power plant emissions of four highly toxic heavy metals. They found that most of the mercury, arsenic, and selenium released into our air can be traced to a relatively small of amount facilities.

“Half of all the mercury in the U.S. today comes from approximately 500 existing coal fired power plants,” said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative, in a conference call for the report.

EIP associate director Ilan Levin added that only 47 facilities were responsible for “almost 60 percent of all power plant chromium emissions nationwide.”

“These chemicals are listed as hazardous air toxics for a reason—at high levels they are dangerous to people and the environments,” continued Levin. “For example, arsenic and chromium are human carcinogens, lead and mercury exposure are known to harm brain and nervous system development in infants and children. These are dangerous chemicals.”

Overall toxic emissions have declined over the past decade. But the EIP says the decrease is being driven by a few companies that are installing modern pollution controls, while the rest of the nation’s power plants are doing very little.

Nilles explained that the coal industry has managed to skirt regulations since 1990, when Congress put in place requirements for all other industries to take steps toward tougher pollution controls. When the legislation was passed, power plants were granted a special exemption, and the EPA was required to conduct a study to examine whether controlling power plant pollution was necessary and appropriate.

“If you step back and think about that, this loophole is pretty remarkable,” observed James Pew attorney for Earthjustice. “It’s essentially saying for an industrial category that everybody already knew was the worst polluter the EPA had to determine whether it was worth controlling.”

While the required study confirmed that power plants were indeed a major source of pollution, stricter standards were further delayed during the Bush administration. The industry insisted that curbing emissions was an impossible task, and some lawmakers were concerned that harsher regulations would significantly raise energy costs.

But experts say that the technology and pollution control equipment necessary to clean up toxic emissions has been widely available for years, and has already been working at some power plants across the country.

“This is not something we don’t know how to fix,” continued Nilles. “There are readily available technologies that are able to address mercury pollution and a host of other toxic pollutants that come from coal burning. We know from EPA studies that go back a decade that there is pollution technology available that would reduce mercury emissions 90 percent—from current levels of 34 tons to 5 tons.”

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