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Rachel's Democracy and Health News

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #914 "Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?" Thursday, July 05, 2007printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

Father's Day Report Notes Greater Environmental Risks To Boys
"All children are at risk from exposure to environmental hazards, but boys appear to be at greater risk," said Dr. Lynn Marshall, with the Ontario College of Family Physicians. "For health outcomes such as asthma, cancer, learning and behavioural problems and birth defects, the boys are faring worse than the girls," noted Loren Vanderlinden, with Toronto Public Health.
A Flame Retardant Is Linked To a Common Birth Defect in Boys
A new study links the common flame retardant, PBDE, to a common birth defect in boys.
The Mystery of the Missing Boys
The sex ratio among newborns has shifted and boys are no longer being born at the historical rate, compared to girls. Although researchers do not know why boys are taking a hit, they suspect contributing causes could include widespread exposure to hormone- mimicking pollutants by women during pregnancy and by men before they help conceive children.
Wasting Away: Superfund's Toxic Legacy
Toxic waste still plagues American communities 27 years after the U.S. government set up a program to identify and clean up the country's worst sites. Nearly half of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of one of the 1,304 active and proposed Superfund sites listed by the Environmental Protection Agency. A one-year investigation by the Center for Public Integrity reveals the beleaguered state of the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund effort, uncovers the companies and government agencies linked to the most sites and tracks progress of the clean up.
'Safe' Levels of Lead May Not Be That Safe After All
Although the removal of most lead from gasoline and paint in the United States has driven exposure levels down -- way down from levels seen 30 years ago -- new research sharply lowers the level of lead exposure that should be considered safe. And it expands the population of adults and children who need to worry about the toxic chemical. See original studies here and here, and an editorial here.


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By Kathleen Cooper, Loren Vanderlinden, Dr. Lynn Marshall

Ottawa and Toronto: In a report released for Father's Day, the Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment urges greater awareness among parents, especially fathers, about environmental risks to boys. (Full report available here and report summary available here.)

"All children are at risk from exposure to environmental hazards, but boys appear to be at greater risk," said Dr. Lynn Marshall, with the Ontario College of Family Physicians.

The report summarizes the evidence about environmental risks to boys. "For health outcomes such as asthma, cancer, learning and behavioural problems and birth defects, the boys are faring worse than the girls," noted Loren Vanderlinden, with Toronto Public Health.

We know that the time of greatest vulnerability for children is in the womb. It appears that boys are even more vulnerable than girls during these critical developmental stages. Brain development in boys is of particular concern. "Four times more boys than girls are affected by autism and ADHD. Boys are also at increased risk for learning disabilities, Tourette's syndrome, cerebral palsy and dyslexia," noted Kathleen Cooper, with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

The report summarizes what is known about environmental links to health outcomes in children, noting the many areas of uncertainty. Given the risks of lifelong impacts, it is better to be safe than sorry. Like CPCHE's other educational materials, the CPCHE Father's Day report seeks to raise public awareness. Fathers and all members of society can take action to reduce or prevent environmental or occupational exposures that can affect a fetus or child.

Kathleen Cooper, Senior Researcher, Canadian Environmental Law Association 705-324-1608

Loren Vanderlinden, Supervisor, Environmental Health Assessment & Policy, Environmental Protection Office, Toronto Public Health 416-338-8094

Dr. Lynn Marshall, co-chair, Environmental Health Committee, Ontario College of Family Physicians 905-845-3462

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From: Environmental Science & Technology
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By Kellyn S. Betts

Scientists have long suspected that children may be especially vulnerable to the endocrine-disrupting effects of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants because the main route of exposure to the chemicals is through consumer products in the home. A new study by Katharina Maria Main of Rigshospitalet [2.8 Mbyte PDF], part of the Copenhagen University Hospital, is the first to link elevated PBDE levels with a human birth defect.

The study, published online May 31 in Environmental Health Perspectives, associates cryptorchidism, a condition in which one or both testicles fail to descend into the scrotum, with higher concentrations of PBDEs in breast milk. The incidence of cryptorchidism is increasing rapidly in some countries, which suggests that environmental factors may be involved, according to the paper. Main and her colleagues found that PBDE concentrations in the breast milk of Danish and Finnish mothers of sons born with undescended testicles were significantly higher than those in the breast milk of mothers of sons with normal testicles.

Because testicular descent is strongly androgen-dependent, the researchers say that the new findings are in line with a 2005 study showing that PBDEs are antiandrogenic in mice. They also point out that testicular cancer is the most severe symptom of testicular dysgenesis syndrome, which also includes cryptorchidism. In 2006, Swedish researchers linked early-onset testicular cancer with higher levels of maternal PBDEs.

The new findings aren't clear-cut, because researchers saw no correlation between PBDE levels in the cord blood of infants in the study and the incidence of cryptorchidism. Why this is the case is not clear, the researchers write. They posit that the combined exposure to multiple environmental factors may be responsible for the link they observed between PBDE concentrations in mother's milk and cryptorchidism.

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From: Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada) (pg. A4)
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By Martin Mittelstaedt, Environment Reporter

Where are all the missing boys?

It is a question posed by {a new study} that has found the proportion of boys born over the past three decades has unexpectedly dropped in both the United States and Japan. In all, more than a quarter of a million boys are missing, compared to what would have been expected had the sex ratio existing in 1970 remained unchanged.

The study also says the world's most skewed sex ratio is in Canada, in a native community surrounded by petrochemical plants in Sarnia, Ont., where the number of boys born has plunged since the mid-1990s at a rate never seen.

Although the researchers do not know why boys are taking a hit, they suspect contributing causes could include widespread exposure to hormone-mimicking pollutants by women during pregnancy and by men before they help conceive children.

"We hypothesize that the decline in sex ratio in industrial countries may be due, in part, to prenatal exposure to metalloestrogens and other endocrine disrupting chemicals," said the study, issued this week in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer reviewed journal of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

These types of chemicals include some pesticides, dioxin and methylmercury, a pollutant from coal-fired power plants and many industrial sources commonly found in seafood.

The study also flagged a host of other possible factors, including rising obesity rates, older parental age, growing stress levels, and the increasing number of children being conceived using fertility aides. Other research has shown some associations between these factors and a drop in boy births.

The study was conducted by researchers in both the U.S. and Japan, and led by Devra Lee Davis, a prominent epidemiologist and director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

In an interview, Dr. Davis said that although the cause of the decline isn't known, it could be linked to the increasing number of other male reproductive problems, such as falling sperm counts and rising testicular cancer rates.

She said that males during fetal development may be more sensitive to pollutants that mimic hormones, leading to increased fetal deaths and reproductive problems later for the surviving males.

The situation in Sarnia, where nearly twice as many girls are being born than boys on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, is internationally significant, according to the study. "To our knowledge, this is a more significantly reduced sex ratio and greater rate of change than has been reported previously anywhere," it said.

The reserve is located in the heart of Sarnia's chemical valley, and the native community, along with researchers at the University of Rochester and the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, are trying to find the cause of the unusual sex ratio.

Fewer boys than expected are being born in the non-aboriginal community downwind of the petrochemical plants in the area, but not to the same degree as on the reserve. The work force in Sarnia has not been studied, something that would shed light on whether pollutants are the cause.

Researchers in many countries have been reporting a drop in the ratio of boys to girls being born over the past few decades.

It is considered normal in a large population for the number of baby boys to slightly outnumber girls, by a proportion of about 105 males to 100 females. It is widely thought that more boy births are a way nature compensates for higher rates of male mortality.

But the ratio has not been static in industrialized countries, and researchers suspect that increasing numbers of male fetuses are being miscarried, a kind of sex-based culling in the womb.

In Japan, the sex ratio fluctuated with no trend from 1949 to 1970, but then declined steadily to 1999, the end of the study period there.

The decline in the number of boys in Japan equals 37 out of every 10,000 births.

In the U.S., the sex ratio also declined from 1970 to 2002. The drop in the number of boys equals 17 out of every 10,000 births.

The U.S. change was concentrated among whites. There was almost no change among blacks.

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From: Center for Public Integrity
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By Joaquin Sapien, with data analysis by Richard Mullins

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2007 -- Communities across America face a daunting threat from hazardous waste sites -- some near neighborhoods and schools -- 27 years after the federal government launched the landmark Superfund program to wipe out the problem, a Center for Public Integrity investigation has found.

Initiated in 1980, Superfund is desperately short of money to clean up abandoned waste sites, which has created a backlog of sites that continue to menace the environment and, quite often, the health of nearby residents.

Nearly half of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of one of the 1,304 active and proposed Superfund sites listed by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the Center's analysis of these sites and U.S. Census data of the 2000 population.

In its investigation, the Center reviewed data, obtained from the EPA through more than 100 Freedom of Information Act requests, and interviewed dozens of experts inside and outside the agency, which administers Superfund.

Among the findings:

Cleanup work was started at about 145 sites in the past six years, while the startup rate was nearly three times as high for the previous six years.

During the last six years, an average of 42 sites a year reached what the EPA calls "construction complete," compared with an average of 79 sites a year in the previous six years. Construction complete is reached when all the cleanup remedies have been installed at a site.

Lacking sufficient funding, EPA officials said they have had to delay needed work at some hazardous sites, use money left over from other cleanups -- which itself is dwindling -- and resort to cheap, less effective fixes.

While some companies say they have paid their fair share for cleanups, the amount of money Superfund is getting back from other companies in reimbursements for cleanups has steadily declined. The amount of money the agency recovered from those companies has fallen by half in the past six fiscal years, compared with the previous six years, 1995 through 2000. Recovered costs peaked in the fiscal years 1998 and 1999, at about $320 million each year. By fiscal 2004, collected cost recoveries had dropped well below the $100 million mark. In the last two fiscal years, 2005 and 2006, the EPA collected about $60 million each year.

The backlog of sites needing cleanup is growing while the money allocated to do the work is running out, according to former and current EPA officials familiar with Superfund.

Superfund officials keep details about the program secret, meeting behind closed doors to rank which sites are the most dangerous and in need of immediate attention. The ranking is "confidential" because the agency does not want polluters to know which sites are a priority and which ones aren't. Some EPA insiders say the secrecy is intended to avoid provoking the public into demanding a solution from Congress.

"Obviously all these problems stem from a lack of funding, and it is disturbing that EPA is keeping this a secret rather than going to Congress and trying to get more money," said Alex Fidis, an attorney who deals with Superfund issues for U.S. PIRG, a public-interest advocacy group.

Superfund sites are areas contaminated with hazardous material and left by corporate or government entities whose operations may have moved. They can be old landfills, abandoned mines or defunct military complexes.

In some cases, one company is responsible for the pollution at a site; others, like landfills, can have hundreds of "potentially responsible parties" (PRPs), making a coordinated cleanup effort difficult. A single site can take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up.

By the EPA's accounting, Superfund has cleaned up only 319 sites to the point where they can be deleted from the list. Another 1,243 are active and an additional 61 are proposed, which brings the total number of sites ever involved in the Superfund program to 1,623.

Pollution continues

Sites where contamination has been blamed for deaths, caused cancer or poisoned children have existed for decades.

In Libby, Mont., where a plume of asbestos from a nearby vermiculite mine has enveloped the town, more than 200 people have died from asbestos-related diseases, according to EPA estimates. Cleanup at the site began in 2000.

In Smelterville, Idaho, where the nation's worst childhood lead- poisoning epidemic occurred, due, in part, to a 1973 fire at a nearby lead smelter, experts warn that some homes still may have high levels of lead without the owners' knowledge because the homes have not been sampled. Lead is a neurotoxin that is especially dangerous for young children, affecting their mental and physical growth.

Along the Hudson River in upstate New York, where more than a million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were dumped by General Electric Co., the New York Department of Health has linked high PCB blood levels to consumption of fish caught in the river. PCBs are considered a probable carcinogen by the EPA and the World Health Organization.

Contamination at these sites has been well documented for decades, and each of the sites has been on the National Priorities List -- a compilation of the toxic waste sites the EPA considers to be the most dangerous -- for at least five years. Cleanup has not been completed at any of them.

For the past 11 years, the EPA has convened a panel of representatives from each of its 10 regions twice a year to decide which sites deserve immediate financial attention. The rankings are based on the site's risk to the surrounding community, the environment and, to an extent, public concern, according to the agency.

But the meetings of the National Risk-Based Priority Panel are closed, and the list of sites that comes out of these sessions is an "enforcement confidential" document, meaning it is off-limits to the public.

Besides the head of the Superfund program and the members of the panel who rank the sites, no one knows which ones are on track to receive funding and get cleaned up, which are not, and why, the Center study found.

Susan Bodine, the top-ranking Superfund official, told the Center that the list is kept confidential to prevent polluters from taking advantage of the EPA's funding decisions; agency insiders, however, say the EPA wants to leave the public in the dark because the agency does not want citizens to turn to Congress for help.

In a statement to the Center, the EPA defended its record, stating that more than 1,000 of the current Superfund sites are "construction complete." The EPA defines this stage as all physical cleanup systems are in place, all immediate threats are eliminated and all long-term threats are under control.

The construction complete phase can take years to reach complete cleanup and deletion from the Superfund list and can involve years of EPA monitoring, reviews and evaluations.

The statement said, however, that "the term 'construction complete' does not indicate that all cleanup goals at a given site have been met. Some sites that achieve 'construction complete' status are determined to be safe for particular uses, others are not."

But the number of construction completions has also been declining: there have been half as many over the past six years, compared with 1995 through 2000. EPA data show exactly 40 construction completions for each of the past four fiscal years.

And, according to recent EPA data, at nearly 40 of these sites considered "construction complete," human exposure to dangerous substances or migration of contaminated groundwater off the site are not under control.

Love Canal legacy

The Superfund program was launched in 1980 in the wake of a national tragedy that unfolded at Love Canal, N.Y. Lois Gibbs, a housewife- turned-activist who would come to be known as the "Mother of Superfund," discovered that her family's and neighbors' sickness could be traced to toxic waste buried underneath her hometown decades earlier by Occidental Petroleum Co.

Initially, the program was funded by a tax on polluters, which fed the actual "Superfund," a pool of money used to pay for the cleanup of sites whose polluters were unknown or unable to do the work. But the tax law expired in 1995, under a Republican-controlled Congress, and the $3.8 billion that had accumulated in the fund at its peak ran dry in 2003.

The program is now funded with taxpayer dollars and money that the EPA manages to recover from polluters for work the agency has done at their sites.

But Superfund's budget has not kept up with inflation. In 1995, the program received $1.43 billion in appropriations; 12 years later, it received $1.25 billion. In inflation-adjusted dollars, funding has declined by 35 percent.

Elliott Laws, an environmental lawyer who was Bill Clinton's Superfund chief, sees that as a problem. "What you've got isn't buying as much as it once could," he said.

Financial constraints are so severe that much of the program's cleanup money is being spent on 10 to 12 large projects, according to the EPA. With less money, the EPA has also started looking at the cheapest remedies when it's paying the bill, critics say.

At an abandoned creosote factory in Pensacola, Fla., for example, plans are underway to place a giant tarp and layers of clay and soil over a nearly 600,000-cubic-yard mound of chemical waste -- a measure that many observers consider inadequate and inefficient, largely because the community's groundwater could become contaminated.

"I think funding is a very important part of what is happening at this site and all orphan sites," said Frances Dunham, an environmental activist with a grassroots nonprofit organization called Citizens Against Toxic Exposure. The EPA's public report on PRPs shows nearly 400 "orphan sites," meaning the agency hasn't found any viable parties it could force to pay for cleanup costs at those sites.

Over the past several years, funding constraints have forced sites ranked by the National Risk-Based Priority Panel to compete for money left over from cleanups completed in previous years. These "deobligated funds" make up a significant amount of the money used to clean up sites that are ready to receive funding.

According to Bill Murray, who has served on the EPA's risk panel for eight years, agency staffers have been told in recent years "to get into those cupboards and scrape together those crumbs" -- referring to the deobligated funds.

Now, even those crumbs are running out.

"This year is going to be a tough year in terms of harvesting more deobligations, and I expect next year will be, too," Murray said.

"It is like having four sick kids at a table, and you only have one aspirin," said Love Canal's Gibbs. "You can't decide which one to give it to even though they all need assistance, and, like a Superfund site, those illnesses are going to get worse and those medical costs are going to get higher the longer it takes you to address the problem."

Another panel member, John Frisco, said cleanups at numerous sites have been stretched out over longer periods of time because there isn't enough money to get them done quickly and still pay for other ongoing cleanups.

"Those kinds of budget evaluations are something you never would have heard of 10 years ago but are now quite common," Frisco said.

As a result of the funding shortages, the EPA's cleanup plans for some sites are being more closely scrutinized, and sometimes delayed on purpose, according to Bradley Campbell, former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

"There were particular cases where I was shown internal EPA correspondence where EPA staff was directed to find faults in the cleanup plan, because funding wasn't there for a cleanup otherwise ready to begin," Campbell said.

According to Fidis, the U.S. PIRG attorney, that poses a major problem to the public. "When you have a situation where site cleanups are being postponed, delayed or not investigated in a timely manner due to financial constraints, then you leave a threat to surrounding residents," he said. "There could be an increased likelihood of groundwater contamination or potential for humans to come into contact with contaminated soil."

Superfund chief Bodine, who is assistant EPA administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, acknowledged in an interview that deobligated funds have decreased in recent years.

She also told the Center in an interview that the EPA does not share the panel's list of prioritized sites with the public because the agency does not want polluters to know which sites it will be focusing on.

"Letting people know where we are planning to spend money is information we don't want responsible parties to have," Bodine said. "That is information they could use and take into account as they are negotiating settlements with us."

But some say that argument doesn't make sense. One reason these sites are ranked for Superfund attention in the first place is that the EPA has not identified a polluter capable of paying for the cleanup, say members of the panel.

"I think, in general, sites that go to the panel for ranking are submitted to the panel because there is not a viable alternative to [Superfund] funding," Frisco said. "And generally, that is because the site is truly abandoned."

Bodine said that the secrecy is necessary anyway, because a polluter with the ability to pay could be linked to a site after the EPA has already begun the cleanup.

That's unlikely for sites ranked by the panel, say those who have worked with the program. "In my experience, it's never happened," said former EPA deputy regional administrator Tom Voltaggio, who worked at the agency for more than 25 years.

Gibbs said she is troubled by this process. "The public thinks that these decisions are made based on data and threats to public health. They don't think people are sitting around a table trying to determine which site gets the scraps," she said.

One EPA official who is familiar with the panel said that some information is available to the public -- buried on the EPA Web site -- about the panel's site rankings, where the EPA annually reveals how many sites will receive "new construction funding" and how many will not. New construction funding goes to sites where cleanup is ready to begin as soon as money is secured.

Superfund shortfall

The EPA inspector general, the Government Accountability Office and Congress have all issued reports pointing out Superfund's funding shortfalls, and program experts have been recommending budget increases in light of the number of sites in the pipeline that will soon be ready to be funded.

But EPA officials have not requested more money. In fact, they have done the opposite.

As a staff member of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment in 1999, seven years before her appointment to head Superfund, Bodine helped author a bill that called for a $300 million reduction in the program's budget. The bill did not make it to the House floor.

During her confirmation hearings for the EPA post, Bodine assured the Senate that she would be a "fierce advocate for Superfund funding."

A month after her confirmation in March 2006, Bodine supported a Bush administration call for a $7 million decrease, from $588.9 million to $581.5 million, in the EPA's remedial budget, which pays for site cleanups.

President Bush's latest EPA budget request for 2008 again sought to reduce Superfund's budget by $7 million.

In an interview with the Center, Bodine expressed confidence that the amount of money the program has been allocated is sufficient to get the job done.

Fewer Superfund sites listed

Overall, the number of Superfund sites listed per year has declined substantially in recent years, but that's not necessarily a good thing, depending on who is asked.

From 1995 to 2000, an average of 25 sites were added each year to the Superfund's National Priorities List. From 2001 to 2006, an average of 17 sites were added per year.

According to Superfund's Bodine, the numbers are shrinking because "the smaller sites are being addressed through the state voluntary cleanup programs so that there are fewer sites being brought forward to the EPA."

But Rena Steinzor, an environmental law professor at the University of Maryland, who co-wrote the 1986 amendments to the Superfund law as a congressional staffer, speculates that the EPA is trying to kill the program "by reducing the perception that it is needed."

Resources for the Future, a Washington-based environmental think tank, proposes this explanation: It's all about declining funding. In a 2001 book written for Congress on the subject, it says EPA managers have been cautious about listing larger, more expensive toxic waste sites to avoid "breaking the bank.... Sites that need cleanup are not being addressed because of funding concerns." The group's book recommends a budget increase, which never came.

Local activists, meanwhile, continue to wait for help that they fear may never come. Gibbs said that many communities have developed a deep distrust of the program.

"They know if they get listed, it's a 10- or 20-year process to get a site cleaned up," said Gibbs, who no longer lives in Love Canal and now heads the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a nonprofit organization that assists communities struggling with hazardous waste issues.

She said she thought that Superfund was the "perfect solution," but that the program is no longer what it used to be. "It doesn't represent the positive image for communities that it once did," she said.

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From: Los Angeles Times (pg. F3)
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By Melissa Healy, Times Staff Writer

Efforts to reduce lead exposure in the United States have been a good news-bad news affair -- and the bad-news side of the ledger just got a bit longer.

Although the removal of most lead from gasoline and paint in the United States has driven exposure levels down -- way down from levels seen 30 years ago -- new research sharply lowers the level of lead exposure that should be considered safe. And it expands the population of people who need to worry about the toxic chemical.

Concern about lead exposure has long focused on children, who can suffer mental impairment and later fertility problems at elevated levels. More recently, children with blood levels of lead long considered safe have been found more likely to suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Among adults, elevated levels of lead exposure have been found in recent years to raise the risk of high blood pressure and kidney disease. But now comes news that levels long considered safe for adults are linked to higher rates of death from stroke and heart attack. The latest study was published in the Sept. 26 issue of the American Heart Assn.'s journal, Circulation.

Researchers used a comprehensive national health survey of American adults to track 13,946 subjects for 12 years and looked at the relationship of blood lead levels and cause of death. They found that compared with adults with very low levels of lead in their blood, those with blood lead levels of 3.6 to 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood were two and half times more likely to die of a heart attack, 89% more likely to die of stroke and 55% more likely to die of cardiovascular disease. The higher the blood lead levels, the greater the risk of death by stroke or heart attack.

The dangers of lead held steady across all socioeconomic classes and ethnic and racial groups, and between men and women.

Study authors acknowledged that they were unsure how lead in the blood impaired cardiovascular functioning. But they surmised that it might be linked to an earlier finding: that lead exposure stresses the kidneys' ability to filter blood. Lead may also alter the delicate hormonal chemistry that keeps veins and arteries in good tone, the authors wrote.

Federal standards, however, don't reflect the new research. Although almost 4 in 10 Americans between 1999 and 2002 had blood lead levels in the newly identified danger range, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that regulates toxic exposures in workplaces, considers up to 40 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to be safe for adults. And recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allow for up to 10 micrograms per deciliter for women of childbearing age.

Paul Muntner, an epidemiologist at Tulane University and one of the study's authors, says the findings suggest strongly that the federal government should revisit the limits of lead exposure it considers safe for adults. In total, about 120 occupations -- including roofing, shipbuilding, auto manufacturing and printing -- can bring workers in contact with high levels of lead.

For individuals, Muntner adds, the study underscores that every small bit of prevention is worth the trouble. Worried consumers can purchase lead-detection kits from hardware stores.


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  Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment &
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  The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining  
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