Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

Rachel's Democracy and Health News

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #928 "Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?" Thursday, October 11, 2007printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

Taking Stock
What are the big environment-and-health problems? Are environment- and-health activists successfully solving them?
Dangerous Chemicals Stay on Shelves Long After Being 'Recalled'
Corporations have gained the upper hand over government regulators, and therefore dangerous chemicals can stay on store shelves long after everyone acknowledges that people were being hurt and even killed.
Another Flame Retardant Found in Household Dust
More than a million pounds of Dechlorane Plus are released into products each year. The chemical's structure is similar to that of organochlorine pesticides such as heptachlor, chlordane, aldrin, and mirex, all of which have been either banned or restricted in the U.S. Now it has been found in household dust.
Anne Rolfes, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Receives Prestigious Award
New Orleans Environmental Justice Activist Anne Rolfes has received the $125,000 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award. Hats off to Anne!
Genetically Engineered Corn May Harm Stream Ecosystems
A new study shows that toxins from Monsanto's genetically engineered Bt corn can travel long distances in streams and may harm stream insects that serve as food for fish.
A Global Warming Threshold Has Been Crossed
An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report to be released next month will show that the rise in greenhouse-gases that scientists had hoped to avert has already been surpassed.
Is Battered Arctic Sea Ice Down for the Count?
"This [arctic] ice is more vulnerable than we thought." And that vulnerability seems to be growing from year to year, inspiring concern that Arctic ice could be in an abrupt, irreversible decline.


From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #928, Oct. 11, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


By Peter Montague

Every once in a while, it's good to take stock. Why are we doing what we're doing? And is it working? Here we review two large trends.

I. Public health is in decline

Many chronic disorders are on the rise (diabetes; asthma; attention deficits and hyperactivity; autism; certain cancers, especially childhood cancers; certain birth defects; Parkinson's disease, others). More than half of all Americans -- adults and children -- are now living with a chronic disease.

The U.S. spends more per capita on health care than any other nation (almost 17% of Gross Domestic Product [GDP]), yet is 42nd among nations in longevity and 41st among nations in infant mortality. An important component of this poor performance is racial disparities: Blacks die 5 years earlier, on average, than whites; and infant mortality among Blacks is twice the rate among whites (13.7 per 1000 live births among Blacks vs. a national average of 6.8 per 1000). "It really reflects the social conditions in which African American women grow up and have children," says Dr. Marie C. McCormick, of the Harvard School of Public Health. "We haven't done anything to eliminate those disparities."

About half the U.S. population lives with the ever-present possibility that a medical emergency will cost them their job, drain their bank account, and perhaps even render them homeless. The number of medically uninsured in the U.S. is now 47 million, 8.7 million of them children. But another 73 million people are underinsured. All told, 40% of Americans -- many of them middle class -- lack adequate health insurance.

Within this general picture of decline, the urban poor are suffering the most. As a writer in the New York Times described the situation in 2003, "Something is killing America's urban poor, but this is no ordinary epidemic. When diseases like AIDS, measles and polio strike, everyone's symptoms look more or less the same, but not in this case.... Even teenagers are afflicted with numerous health problems, including asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure. Poor urban blacks have the worst health of any ethnic group in America, with the possible exception of Native Americans.... It makes you wonder whether there is something deadly in the American experience of urban poverty itself." And poverty itself has been rising for the past decade.

II. Our human technologies (and our human numbers) are destroying the earth as a place suitable for human habitation. We are wrecking our only home.

1. Many industrial chemicals have turned out to be far more potent and dangerous then even most environmental health activists imagined.

The recent discovery of a second genetic code (the "epigenetic" code) is radically altering our understanding of the role of the environment in human health (and the health of other creatures). It is beginning to become clear that inheritable diseases can be caused, and handed down to offspring, without any genetic mutations. Just 15 years ago, this would have seemed a scientific heresy. Now it is widely accepted as a reality, with far-reaching consequences. It means that your disease today may have been caused by your grandmother's diet decades ago, and that your grandchild's health may depend on the environment you inhabit and how you choose (or are forced) to live within it. Epigenetics "...introduces the concept of responsibility into genetics," says Dr. Moshe Szyf of McGill University, a pioneer in epigenetics. "Epigenetics may revolutionize medicine," said Dr. Szyf, "and it also could change the way we think about daily decisions like whether or not to order fries with a meal, or to go for a walk or to stay in front of the television. You aren't eating and exercising for yourself, but for your lineage." Suddenly "the environment" has taken on a much more central role in human health.

2. The concept of "fetal programming" reached the scientific mainstream this year with the publication of the Faroes Statement. Fetal programming traces many adult diseases back to low-level chemical exposures (and other stresses) in the womb or shortly after birth. It means that low-level exposures to industrial poisons are far more important than previously realized.

3. Electromagnetic fields have emerged in Europe as a major source of concern, and to a lesser extent in this country. High-voltage power lines, cell phone towers, and saturation by city-wide wi-fi systems have changed the electromagnetic environment in which we live, and there is accumulating evidence that disease patterns are changing as a result.

4. The nuclear genie is out of the bottle in ways that few anticipated even 15 years ago. It is now apparent that any country that acquires a nuclear power plant can within a few years make a crude but effective nuclear bomb. Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have proven the point. Iran and a half-dozen other mid-east nations have now announced plans to acquire nuclear power. A new arms race is under way. To understand the nature of the threat, one need only ask, "If General Musharraf suddenly loses political power in Pakistan, who will end up controlling that nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons?"

5. As we and others predicted (it was a no-brainer), genetically modified crops have proven to be unmanageable. Only 10 years after the initial deployment of agricultural biotechnology, new phrases have entered the language -- "genetic contamination," "genetic trespass," and "superweeds," among others. Genetically modified organisms have proven impossible to control -- they travel long distances in ways that are poorly understood. Once established in new locations they cannot be eradicated. It is apparent that as time passes we will genetically modify the biology of the entire planet in ways we cannot anticipate, if we maintain our present course. And the most powerful changes are yet to come: biotechnologists are now creating crops that embody pharmaceutical products. It seems certain that these products, too, will be carried on the wind (or by birds, insects, or humans) and will end up growing in places where they are not wanted. As time passes, some or all of our food crops may well end up permanently contaminated with pharmaceutical drugs that are designed to be biologically active.

5. And most worrisome of all, the field of "biotechnology" has given rise to the even newer enterprise called "synthetic biology" in which new life forms are being created that have never been seen on earth before. Biotechnology merely manipulates genes that exist in nature. Synthetic biology, on the other hand, intends to create new genes that have never existed before, then construct entirely new creatures. Already viruses have been constructed from raw chemicals.

Just last week Craig Venter, a U.S. biotech entrepreneur, claimed to have constructed an artificial chromosome. "We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before," Venter said.

The next goal is to manufacture a simple bacterium from raw chemicals. This is a far greater challenge than creating a virus or even a chromosome, but the intention has been announced, and work is underway.

In synthetic biology, the hubris of the biotechnologist combines with the giddy optimism of "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" This line of inquiry promises to produce some marvelous and surprising inventions, no doubt -- accompanied no doubt by serious, irreversible mishaps of an unprecedented nature and scale.

6. Nanotechnology is being touted by investors as "the next big thing" -- but a stream of bad news about the hazards of nano-sized particles has flooded forth during the past three years. Despite this, dozens or hundreds of commercial products based on nanotechnology have entered the marketplace, entirely unregulated and unlabeled. It is only a matter of time before the dual nature of this grand experiment becomes clear. We seem determined to learn these lessons the hard way -- just as we did with chlorine-based chemistry, nuclear power, and biotechnology.

7. Because of all this rapid, unchecked innovation, our ignorance is growing. As the natural environment becomes ever-more modified by the built environment, our ability to discern what exactly is going on is steadily diminishing. Yes, we are leaning more about the details, but as the systems themselves grow more complex and are being rapidly modified, our ability to understand them is receding.

Despite the impression of "steady progress" that one gleans from newspapers and TV, our ignorance about the world we have created is growing, not shrinking. We add 750 new chemicals to the mix each year -- almost all of them untested for effects on human health or the environment. As the level of complexity rises, our understanding shrinks. We are flying blind this year and we'll be even more blind next year as the products of our technical wizardry mix, blend, and interact in ways we cannot measure or even imagine. Perhaps that is the lasting lesson of modern science: our ignorance is more vast and more intractable than we ever could conceive.

How are we doing?

In the face of all this, how are we doing? The trend that we see in environment-and-health activism is not promising. It seems clear to us that problems of public health and environmental destruction are the result of choices being made by a tiny elite (they number perhaps 50,000 individuals) -- those powerful few who sit on multiple boards of directors of large corporations.

These are the people who make the big decisions for the nation --

** Will our economy be powered by renewable sources of energy or will we continue giving multi-billion-dollar subsidies to coal, petroleum, and nuclear power?

** Will we allow global warming to develop, then try to fix it, or will we adopt a preventive approach?

** Will we commit our children and grandchildren to a perpetual global war on terror or will we develop non-military, preventive solutions?

** Will we provide care and nurture for all the nation's children during their early formative years or will we keep expanding the prison-industrial complex, warehousing more and more young people for life?

** Will we operate the economy to provide a job for everyone who wants to work, and a livable wage for everyone who works, or will we continue to operate the economy for the few at the expense of the many?

** Will we commit to preventing illness or will we allow diseases to increase as we continually expand the proportion of GDP devoted to drugs, surgery, and other costly (and often painful and debilitating) technical remedies?

** Will we make the investments needed to develop an economy that meets human needs without compromising the ability of the biosphere to renew itself, or will we continue to wreck our only home?

** And most importantly, will we develop a system for financing our elections that eliminates the influence of private wealth, or will we allow corporate elites to continue to choose who can run for office and therefore who we can vote for?

For environment-and-health activists, the central question is, will our work be guided by the recognition that imbalances of power lie at the heart of the problems we are tackling, or are we lowering our gaze, turning aside, and pretending we can ignore the steady growth of corporate power and still make a real difference?

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: The New York Times (pg. A1)
[Printer-friendly version]


By Eric Lipton

Denville, N.J. -- Walter E. Friedel's plans to waterproof the tile floors of his hot tub room using Stand 'n Seal, a do-it-yourself product sold at his local Home Depot, promised to be a quick weekend project, one he could wrap up in time to catch the Giants football game on a Sunday afternoon.

The product offered "a revolutionary fast way" to seal grout around tiles and, its label boasted, any extra spray would "evaporate harmlessly."

"It sounds like no big deal," Dr. Friedel said, looking back.

But instead of watching football that afternoon, Dr. Friedel, a 63- year-old physician, ended up being rushed to the hospital, where he would spend four days in intensive care, gasping for air, his lungs chemically inflamed.

Dr. Friedel was the latest victim of a product whose dangers had become known months earlier to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the companies that made and sold it. Before Dr. Friedel bought Stand 'n Seal, at least 80 people had been sickened using it, two of them fatally.

But even then, with the threat well-documented, the manufacturer, retailer and the commission had failed to remove the hazard from the shelves.

The task of getting dangerous products out of consumers' reach is perhaps the most pressing challenge the Consumer Product Safety Commission faces in this era of surging recalls, particularly of products from China. It is an essential part of the agency's mission, because premarket testing is not required for consumer products in the United States.

Nancy A. Nord, the commission's acting chairwoman, said the agency was proud of its record of moving rapidly and forcefully to pull hazardous products off the market.

"The point is to get the recall out there, to get the consumer informed of what's happening and then try to get the product out of consumers' hands," Ms. Nord said in testimony to a House panel in September. "I think a recall process works very well."

But the Stand 'n Seal case is a powerful illustration of the commission's failure to fully live up to its mission.

Court documents show that, as the case unfolded, the product's maker, BRTT, appeared at times to be more concerned with protecting its bottom line than with taking steps to ensure that the hazard was removed. That meant that hazardous cans of Stand 'n Seal remained on the shelves for more than a year after the 2005 recall.

And the product that BRTT initially rushed to put in its place -- and which Dr. Friedel and others bought -- contained the same chemical that had apparently caused injuries in the first place, the company and Home Depot now acknowledge.

Critics say the Stand 'n Seal case demonstrates how the Consumer Product Safety Commission is too overwhelmed with reports of injuries and with new hazards to comprehensively investigate or follow up on many complaints. The agency's laboratory is also so antiquated it did not have the equipment necessary to evaluate fully the remedy BRTT offered -- leaving the agency to rely largely on the company's promise that it would fix the problem.

And then, after receiving repeated complaints that the hazard persisted long after the recall, the agency failed to follow up adequately, documents show.

Even if the slip-ups were a result of companies having concealed important evidence, the commission still has a responsibility to use its enforcement powers to investigate and, if appropriate, to issue fines. To date, more than two years after the commission became aware of the problems with Stand 'n Seal, no fines have been issued.

"They did not get the job done that consumers expect, and people suffered as a result," said R. David Pittle, who served on the commission for a decade after it was created in 1973, and later as technical director at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

The problem is compounded because consumers often ignore warnings about unsafe products, or simply never hear them, and continue to use flawed products even after recalls have been issued.

A lawyer for BRTT, which was then known as the Roanoke Companies, declined to comment. Home Depot issued a statement saying it never knowingly sold a hazardous product.

"The Home Depot is working with Roanoke to make sure anyone injured from this product is treated fairly," the statement said.

The commission's own records show a growing list of products that have been subject to "expanded" recalls, like Stand 'n Seal.

"A recall is not necessarily a recall, that is what it comes down to," said Stuart L. Goldenberg, a Minneapolis lawyer who represents a family whose child was injured using an Easy-Bake toy oven. The maker, Hasbro, alerted consumers about injuries to children's fingers from the ovens, first simply offering a repair kit, but then expanding to a full-fledged recall after dozens of additional injuries were reported.

And evidence is widespread of hazardous products -- even after recalls -- being easy to find for sale, most notably imports from China that often are sold at discount shops or on the Internet. In one instance, Baltimore health officials found lead-contaminated toy rings in stores this year, three years after they had supposedly been pulled from shelves.

A New Ingredient

Stand 'n Seal seemed like the perfect do-it-yourself product when it came on the market in late 2003, for sale exclusively at Home Depot stores. Instead of having to use a paintbrush to apply waterproofing sealant to tile grout, customers could simply point the can and spray. A cardboard display at Home Depot stores featured a photograph of a mock customer doing just that -- standing, with no mask, in front of a closed window, spraying the product onto a bathroom floor.

In the spring of 2005, one of Roanoke's suppliers -- Easy Care Products of Scottsdale, Ariz. -- switched the active ingredient from a chemical known as Zonyl 225, made by DuPont, to a chemical called Flexipel S-22WS, made by a tiny Georgia company, Innovative Chemical Technologies, according to company documents. Roanoke executives were initially unaware of the switch, which was made for reasons that remain unclear, corporate e-mail messages show.

But only a few weeks after those reformulated cans reached Home Depot shelves, calls from customers, emergency rooms and doctors started to pour in to poison control centers and, initially in smaller numbers, to the Consumer Product Safety Commission's own hot line.

Terri Keenan of Kyle, Tex., was one of those callers. Ms. Keenan used the spray in late May 2005 to seal tile in her kitchen and bathroom. Within an hour or so, she began feeling dizzy, thirsty and short of breath. Minutes later, she started foaming at the mouth; then she could not get up from the ground. Her husband rushed her to the hospital, where she remained for five days.

"I just could not understand what was happening," Ms. Keenan said in an interview. "It was a nightmare."

In another case, an 11-year-old Colorado boy, Tyler Himmelman, had stopped to speak to his father, who was using Stand 'n Seal on a bathroom shower, when the boy began coughing, struggling to breathe and then vomiting. He, too, ended up in the emergency room, where doctors said about 80 percent of the surface area of his lungs had been damaged, said Sandie Himmelman, his mother.

Roanoke's initial reaction to the reports was to try to manage their public relations impact, documents show.

In early June, Richard F. Tripodi, Roanoke's chief executive, asked a staff member fielding calls at a 24-hour emergency number not to tell customers reporting illnesses that others had called with similar complaints, documents show. Doing so "may cause unnecessary public concern," the staff member wrote in a case file.

Federal law requires manufacturers to notify the Consumer Product Safety Commission within 24 hours after determining that a product defect might present a health hazard. In this case, several weeks passed before that report was made; it was not until mid-June 2005 that Roanoke notified the agency, and only after a physician from the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, which also had been getting calls from emergency room doctors, told Roanoke that he planned to call the commission on his own.

Commission staff members quickly contacted Roanoke. But internal company and agency documents, which have become public as a result of lawsuits, suggest Roanoke tried to play down the hazard.

Roanoke explained that the revised Stand 'n Seal formula left it with a "somewhat less chemically pungent" smell, and that, as a result, "some customers tend to use the material in poorly ventilated or enclosed spaces."

It did not mention that a safety data sheet published by the maker of Flexipel S-22WS explicitly stated that it should not be used in aerosol form because it could cause respiratory injury. Internal company documents show that Roanoke knew that even with ventilation, the spray containing Flexipel could cause a medical reaction. A Roanoke executive tested it in an office bathroom, with the exhaust fan running.

"I actually forgot I was performing a test and found myself leaning over the floor as I sprayed," wrote the executive, Michelle Kascak, Roanoke vice president for research, in an e-mail message to Mr. Tripodi, her boss, before the recall. After the three-minute test, Ms. Kascak wrote that she had a mild headache, dizziness and sinus irritation.

Mr. Tripodi's reply: "Please instruct us where to send the body when the test is complete."

Jokes aside, Mr. Tripodi made it clear that he wanted to ensure the product remained on the market.

"We are doing everything to convince the Home Depot that there is no reason to take these batches off the shelf," said one e-mail message Mr. Tripodi sent to a business associate in July 2005, as the company was negotiating the recall.

Nearly three months passed between the time Roanoke first received a report of an illness and the official recall by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a period during which dozens were sickened. They included Phillip Willis III, 73, a retired Navy officer, from Pasco County, Fla., and Thomas Kayser, 64, of Independence, Iowa, a retired John Deere machinist, who soon died from their exposures, medical records show.

The agency sent investigators before the end of 2005 to the homes of two victims, in Arizona and Iowa, and tested at least one can of Stand 'n Seal. The tests give a basic indication of what was in the product: mostly butyle acetate, an industrial solvent, and hydrocarbons, chemical compounds based on crude oil.

But the agency's laboratory does not have the equipment needed to identify the specific chemicals present, or what effect they might have on humans, said Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the commission.

"There are a lot of things the agency should have," Ms. Vallese said.

As a result of its limited testing capacity, the agency took Roanoke's word that it had fixed the problem. But in fact, the company had not, and it re-supplied Home Depot stores nationwide with 50,000 cans of Stand 'n Seal that still contained the chemical implicated in the earlier illnesses. The only change was an additive to give the spray a stronger odor to signal to consumers that they should use the product in a ventilated area.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has never publicly acknowledged that the threat remained. Its recall notice said that any can bought after June 2005 was safe.

Similar Problems

Dr. Friedel, a veteran physician, has a jovial air about him that quickly turns to agitation, then anger, when he discusses Stand 'n Seal. He knew nothing about the earlier trouble with the product when he went to the Home Depot.

"At least there should have been a sign," Dr. Friedel said of his Home Depot store in East Hanover, N.J., referring to the initial recall. "Without it, the consumer has no idea what they are getting into."

Dr. Jack Goldshlack, a pulmonologist who is still treating Dr. Friedel, said tests conducted after Dr. Friedel showed up at the hospital showed abnormal lung inflammation that limited his ability to get oxygen into his blood stream. After his release from the hospital, Dr. Friedel spent months taking oxygen-tank breaks in his office, as his lungs slowly recovered.

Interviews with a dozen other people turned up stories that are strikingly similar.

Andrew Lamer, a 24-year-old home contractor from Zeeland, Mich., who like Dr. Friedel bought one of those 50,000 cans used to restock the shelves, said he ended up in a hospital intensive care unit after using a can of Stand 'n Seal he bought in November 2005, four months after the recall.

Amy Paddock, 45, of Fridley, Minn., said she passed out in her car, after having felt ill and pulling to the side of the road, shortly after using the product in April 2006, and was also hospitalized.

Eileen Moreno, 50, an office manager from Fullerton, Calf., went to the hospital on Thanksgiving Day in 2006 -- more than a year after the recall -- after using Stand 'n Seal in her home. "I just couldn't breathe, I could not even move," Ms. Moreno said in a recent interview.

Her can had a lot number that showed it had been among the original batches that were recalled in August 2005 -- but it remained on the shelf at Home Depot, as the retailer and Roanoke, which shared responsibility to remove these cans, had not completed the job.

Growing Evidence

The Consumer Product Safety Commission received several notices that the hazard associated with Stand 'n Seal continued, even after the recall.

Sandra Himmelman, whose son was injured before the recall, called the agency after she was startled to find one of the "recalled" cans still for sale at her local Home Depot, agency records show. "How could it still be for sale?" she said she asked.

Rick Ericksen, 59, a Mississippi state geologist, called the agency to report "uncontrollable shivering spasms that convulsed my entire body" after using Stand 'n Seal, as well as a "tremendous headache, nausea and a dry cough that wouldn't stop," agency records how.

An agency official, reviewing the complaint, noted in the report that the lot number on the can Mr. Ericksen had used in September 2005 "was not on the list of recalled cans."

But Mr. Ericksen, Ms. Himmelman and others with similar complaints said they never received a response from the commission.

Roanoke had growing evidence that the problem persisted, documents show, including continued reports that went to the emergency call center about illnesses and a growing list of lawsuits based on injuries, many of them filed by consumers who used cans that were not among those recalled.

But it was not until March 2007, 18 months after the original recall, that Home Depot and Roanoke acknowledged the apparent source of the continuing problem.

The 50,000 cans used to restock the shelves in 2005, the companies conceded, "have been identified as containing the same potentially harmful formulation as the recalled batches," a Home Depot statement said.

The hazard was finally eliminated this spring, as Home Depot removed Stand 'n Seal from the market entirely and posted a notice on its corporate Web site offering a refund to anyone who, after the recall, had bought one of the 50,000 cans.

The commission blames misinformation provided by the Stand 'n Seal suppliers for much of the breakdown. But at the same time, it acknowledges that it is the agency's responsibility to detect and respond to bad information, and that it had failed to do so quickly in this case.

"Through investigations, the agency should be able to determine the accuracy of information being provided," said Ms. Vallese, the commission spokeswoman. "Hindsight is really a great thing."


Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: Environmental Science & Technology Online News
[Printer-friendly version]


By Kellyn Betts

Researchers in Canada have found that the flame retardant Dechlorane Plus accumulates in residential dust.

New research published in ES&T (DOI: 10.1021/es071716y) documents for the first time that a persistent and bioaccumulative flame retardant known as Dechlorane Plus can be found in household dust.

Jiping Zhu of Health Canada and his colleagues say their research suggests that more information is needed on the compound's toxicity, how it degrades in the environment, and whether it is present in people.

Dechlorane Plus is manufactured by OxyChem, and the U.S. EPA lists it as a high-production-volume compound, a designation for compounds manufactured in volumes of more than 1 million pounds annually. The chemical's structure is similar to that of organochlorine pesticides such as heptachlor, chlordane, aldrin, and mirex, all of which have been either banned or restricted in the U.S.

Very few data are publicly available on Dechlorane Plus's toxicity. At the behest of EPA, OxyChem is currently conducting toxicology tests to collect more information about the compound's environmental, reproductive, and developmental effects. "Based on all the information we have seen, we believe that Dechlorane Plus is a safe and effective product," says Richard S. Kline, the company's vice president of communications and public affairs.

Dechlorane Plus is not included on Environment Canada's priority list because quantitative structure-activity relationship data indicate that the compound is not likely to be very bioaccumulative, says Derek Muir, a senior research scientist with Environment Canada. However, the first evidence that Dechlorane Plus persists in the environment and can bioaccumulate in fish was published in 2006 (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2006, 40 (4), 1184-1189). More research is needed to investigate whether the compound biomagnifies in aquatic and terrestrial food webs, Muir says.

Zhu credits the 2006 paper with inspiring his team to look for the compound in household dust. He and his colleagues began by analyzing 69 archived samples collected in 2002 and 2003 from homes in Ottawa. They confirmed that Dechlorane Plus continues to be present in dust by testing additional samples collected this year.

The data suggest that unlike the levels of the compound in the outdoor environment, which have been decreasing since the 1980s, the levels in indoor environments do not appear to be declining, points out Tom Harner, a research scientist with Environment Canada.

In addition, the 2003 sample set included one outlier harboring Dechlorane Plus concentrations 2 orders of magnitude greater than the median. This is significant, the authors emphasize, because children can take up much higher concentrations of compounds from dust per unit of body weight than adults.

Dechlorane Plus is used primarily in cables and wires, according to Kline. Zhu and his colleagues say that they were unable to determine the source of the compound in any of the tested samples.

"It is unclear what the health implications are, due to poor toxicology data, but that in some ways increases the concern. How many more of these kinds of things are we going to find and then spend years or decades investigating?" asks Tom Webster of the Boston University School of Public Health's department of environmental health, whose group investigates exposure to flame retardants in dust. "That may be a good employment scenario for environmental scientists but sounds like bad policy to me."

Copyright 2007 American Chemical Society

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
[Printer-friendly version]


PRINCETON, NJ -- For more than eight years, Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) has worked with residents in Louisiana to mitigate the impact of polluted air and contaminated soil. Members of the Bucket Brigade have learned to collect and test soil and air samples and amass data that clearly illustrate the link between the foul substances and myriad health problems suffered by residents in the surrounding areas.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is honoring Rolfes for her leadership and advocacy in environmental health. She is one of 10 outstanding individuals from across America to receive the Foundation's 2007 Community Health Leaders (CHL) award. Each CHL receives $105,000 to further the work of their program and a $20,000 personal award.

Under Rolfes' direction the LABB developed the largest collection of community gathered air samples in the U.S. and documented hundreds of violations of state and federal air quality standards. Rolfes, a former Peace Corps volunteer, enlisted the aid of a physician and researchers to develop a low cost community-friendly survey to document the health symptoms and unequivocal evidence of the connection between the contamination and pollution and the health of the people who live in the areas surrounding the facilities.

Now Rolfes and the residents advocate for pollution control, health protections and fair compensation for contaminated properties so that residents can relocate from the affected neighborhoods and communities, most of which pre-date the existence of the plants and offending facilities.

Rolfes' environmental health advocacy began in Nigeria, where she documented the environmental and health destruction of the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta. Her work with Ogoni refugees resulted in their resettlement from refugee camps and their destroyed environment.

"It is tremendously exciting to meet Anne Rolfes and learn about her work," said Janice Ford Griffin, Community Health Leaders director. "Anne's work is an example of the many efforts underway in communities throughout the nation to take action to address their own problems by creating new approaches and solutions, and demanding changes in outdated systems and institutions. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders are the vanguard for assuring quality health for all citizens."

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders awards $1.25 million each year to health leaders who have surmounted personal and other obstacles to improve health and health care at the community level. Rolfes and other awardees for 2007 were honored at an event on October 3 in Washington, D.C.

Since 1992, the program has distributed 150 awards in 47 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. Those chosen are nominated by civic leaders, health professionals, government representatives, and others inspired by their efforts to provide essential health services to their communities. This year's award winners come from urban and rural areas of California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri, New York and Puerto Rico.

Nominations are now being accepted for the 2008-09 Community Health Leaders. Visit www.communityhealthleaders.org for more information.

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: National Science Foundation
[Printer-friendly version]


A new study indicates that a popular type of genetically engineered corn--called Bt corn--may damage the ecology of streams draining Bt corn fields in ways that have not been previously considered by regulators. The study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, appears in the Oct. 8 edition of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This study provides the first evidence that toxins from Bt corn may travel long distances in streams and may harm stream insects that serve as food for fish. These results compound concerns about the ecological impacts of Bt corn raised by previous studies showing that corn-grown toxins harm beneficial insects living in the soil.

Licensed for use in 1996, Bt corn is engineered to produce a toxin that protects against pests, particularly the European corn borer. Bt corn now accounts for approximately 35 percent of corn acreage in the U.S., and its use is increasing.

"As part of the licensing process for genetically modified crops, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was responsible for testing and identifying potential environmental consequences from the planting of Bt corn," says Jennifer Tank, who is from the University of Notre Dame and is a member of the team studying Bt corn.

To fulfill this requirement, EPA completed studies that assumed that plant parts would remain in fields without being carried away by streams draining agricultural lands, says Tank. In addition, EPA only tested the impacts of Bt corn on small lake organisms that are typically used to test the impacts of chemicals on aquatic ecosystems.

The agency did not evaluate the impacts of Bt corn on organisms that live in streams--even though Midwest agricultural lands where Bt corn is grown are heavily intersected by streams draining the landscape. But despite the limitations of its tests, EPA concluded that Bt corn "is not likely to have any measurable effects on aquatic invertebrates."

To more comprehensively evaluate the ecological impacts of Bt corn than did the EPA, the research team did the following:

Measured the entry of Bt plant parts--including pollen, leaves and cobs--in 12 streams in a heavily farmed Indiana region. The research team's results demonstrate that these plant parts are washing into local steams. Moreover, during storms, these plant parts are carried long distances and therefore could have ecological impacts on downstream water bodies, such as lakes and large rivers. Collected field data indicating that Bt corn pollen is being eaten by caddisflies, which are close genetic relatives of the targeted Bt pests. Todd V. Royer, a member of the research team from Indiana University, says that caddisflies "provide a food resource for higher organisms like fish and amphibians."

Conducted laboratory tests showing that consumption of Bt corn byproducts increased the mortality and reduced the growth of caddisflies. Together with field data indicating that the caddisflies are eating Bt corn pollen, these results "suggest that the toxin in Bt corn pollen and detritus can affect species of insects other than the targeted pest," Tank said.

Royer says that "if our goal is to have healthy, functioning ecosystems, we need to protect all the parts. Water resources are something we depend on greatly."

"Overall, our study points to the potential for unintended and unexpected consequences from the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops," Tank said. "The exact extent to which aquatic ecosystems are, or will be, impacted is still unknown and likely will depend on a variety of factors, such as current ecological conditions, agricultural practices and climate/weather patterns."

James Raich, a National Science Foundation program director, adds that "increased use of corn for ethanol is leading to increased demand for corn and increased acreage in corn production. Previous concerns about the nutrient enrichment of streams that accompany mechanized row-crop agriculture are now compounded by toxic corn byproducts that enter our streams and fisheries, and do additional harm."

The Bt corn researchers stress that their study should not be viewed as an indictment of farmers."We do not imply that farmers are somehow to blame for planting Bt corn, nor are they responsible for any unintended ecological consequences from Bt corn byproducts," Tank said. "Farmers are, to a large extent, required to use the latest technological advances in order to stay competitive and profitable in the current agro-industrial system."

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: Christian Science Monitor
[Printer-friendly version]


By Gregory M. Lamb

In Ray Bradbury's science fiction novel "Fahrenheit 451," that number represented the temperature at which books would burn, a symbol of a disturbing future under a totalitarian government.

For climate scientists, a similar number, 450 parts per million (ppm), holds its own ominous meaning. It represents a dangerous concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; a total that they were not expecting to be passed for at least another decade.

But a new UN-sponsored report, to be released next month, will show that as of 2005 the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere had already reached 455 ppm, according to Tim Flannery, a prominent Australian climate scientist who says he's seen the raw data that go into the document.

In an interview on Australian television this week, Dr. Flannery said that an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report will show that carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide, methane, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and other greenhouse gasses are at much higher concentrations than previously thought. Reuters quotes him:

"We thought we'd be at that threshold within about a decade.... We thought we had that much time. But the new data indicates that in about mid-2005 we crossed that threshold.... What the report establishes is that the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is already above the threshold that could potentially cause dangerous climate change."

About 75 percent of the total ppm represents carbon dioxide, associated with burning fossil fuels. The rest is a combination of the other gasses, he said.

On the Sierra Club website, blogger Pat Joseph explains the meaning of 450 ppm:

"450 ppm has long been held up as the threshold we dare not cross if we hope [to] avert the worst consequences of warming. Well, if Flannery is right, (and there's no reason to think otherwise) we crossed that line without even breaking stride."How did it happen? For one thing, countries such as China and India are actually "recarbonizing," Mr. Joseph says, meaning that their economies are becoming more energy-intensive "as they turn increasingly to [greenhouse-gas emitting] coal to feed their growth." [Blaming China and India for these problems is increasingly popular in the U.S. press, we note. --Rachel's editors.]

In May, the IPCC estimated current concentration of greenhouse gases at only 425 ppm, said a BBC report at the time. It noted that many scientists equated 450 ppm with a 2 degree C (3.6 degrees Fahrehheit) rise in temperatures. Allowing temperatures to rise more than 2 degrees C could lead to major impacts on the environment, scientists said. In the article, Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC, explained the strategy this way:

"If you want to stabilise around 450 ppm, that means in a decade or two you have to start reducing emissions far below the current level.... So in other words, we have a very short window for turning around the trend we have in rising greenhouse gas emissions. We don't have the luxury of time."

But, says Flannery, named Australian of the Year for 2007, that window is closed. According to the Australian Associated Press he says that higher figure is due to miscalculating the potency of other greenhouse gasses, which are included in the 450 ppm figure and measured in terms equivalent to that of CO2. But he adds:

"[A]lso we have really seen an unexpected acceleration in the rate of accumulation of CO2 itself, and that's been beyond the limits of projection... beyond the worst-case scenario. We are already at great risk of dangerous climate change -- that's what the new figures say.... It's not next year, or next decade; it's now."

A major UN climate change meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in December aims to set a course toward a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The current Kyoto Protocol, signed by the majority of the world's nations but not the United States, expires in 2012. Flannery told Reuters that the 450 ppm figure adds to the urgency and importance of that meeting.

Meanwhile, Erwin Jackson, policy director of the Climate Institute, an Australian environmental group, told the Australian Associated Press that reducing greenhouse gas levels would be the only path to avoiding a catastrophe:

"The longer we stay above the kind of levels we're at at the moment, the more likely it is that we would start to see the loss of the Great Barrier Reef; you would actually start see the collapse of the great ice sheets and places like the Amazon starting to burn down."

Copyright 2007 The Christian Science Monitor

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: Science
[Printer-friendly version]


By Richard A. Kerr

A few years ago, researchers modeling the fate of Arctic sea ice under global warming saw a good chance that the ice could disappear, in summertime at least, by the end of the 21st century. Then talk swung to summer ice not making it past mid-century. Now, after watching Arctic sea ice shrink back last month to a startling record-low area, scientists are worried that 2050 may be overoptimistic.

"This year has been such a quantum leap downward, it has surprised many scientists," says polar researcher John Walsh of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. "This ice is more vulnerable than we thought." And that vulnerability seems to be growing from year to year, inspiring concern that Arctic ice could be in an abrupt, irreversible decline. "Maybe we are reaching the tipping point," says Walsh.

There's no doubt that 2007 was a special summer melt season. The ice area remaining in September--the year's low point--had been shrinking since satellite monitoring began in 1979. Some years it recovered a bit, others it declined further, but overall it shrank 8.6% per decade. In 2005, it hit a record low of 5.6 million square kilometers, down 20% from 1979. But last month, "we completely blew 2005 out of the water," says sea ice specialist Mark Serreze of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Ice area plummeted to 4.13 million square kilometers, down 43% from 1979. That's a loss equivalent to more than two Alaskas. The new low is more than one Alaska below the trend line. Nothing else like that appears in the satellite record or, for that matter, in monitoring from ships and planes during the rest of the 20th century, says Walsh. An immediate cause of the record-breaking year is clear enough. As Serreze explains, an unusually strong high- pressure center sat over the central Arctic Ocean while a strong low hovered over Siberia. This weather pattern allowed more solar heat through the clear skies beneath the high-pressure center and pumped warm air up from the south between the high and the low.

The vicissitudes of weather may have enhanced ice loss this year, but there's more going on than that, scientists are realizing. For one thing, their models underestimate how fast summer ice has been disappearing in the warming Arctic. "It's very alarming the way things are changing so fast," says polar oceanographer D. Andrew Rothrock of the University of Washington (UW), Seattle. "We've thought we have the important physics in the models, but... it seems our models aren't very good in the Arctic."

Researchers say the models probably lack some realistic feedbacks, natural processes that can amplify a climatic nudge--whether natural or humanmade--into a shove. And that shove could send the ice past a tipping point. "You get a kick in the right direction," says Serreze, "and it sends the ice over the edge" and into a meltdown from which it cannot recover.

Last December, researchers reported finding that at least one climate model includes feedbacks that can accelerate sea ice into a tipping point. Modeler Marika Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, and colleagues wrote in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL) that when NCAR's Community Climate System Model, version 3--which has one of the most sophisticated ice components available--is run under a strengthening greenhouse, sea ice loss can suddenly accelerate, in one case cutting ice area by twothirds in a decade and wiping out September ice by 2040.

Such accelerations were driven by two feedbacks in the model. In one, thinner ice one year made ice melt more easily the next year. In another, when white, highly reflective ice melted, the darker, more absorptive open water that replaced it absorbed more solar energy. The added heat could help melt more ice and keep new ice thinner that year--and even the next, if the heat lingered through the winter. Holland and her colleagues "showed that in models, these abrupt changes can occur," says Walsh. Now, "this is the first time we may have seen it" in the real world. In an in-press GRL paper, polar researcher Donald Perovich of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, New Hampshire, and colleagues report estimates of increasing solar heating of the Arctic Ocean. They found that a large area of Arctic waters north of the Bering Strait had been absorbing increasing amounts of solar heat since 1979 as summer ice retreated, suggesting that the ice-reflectivity feedback has been operating there.

And in a paper appearing in GRL this week, Son Nghiem of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and colleagues report a continuing decline in the thicker, older ice that tends to persist from year to year. Much of the decline in perennial ice, they found, was due to winds blowing it out of the Arctic Ocean. But thinning from added heat had made it easier for the wind to blow the ice out. That would add a dynamical feedback to the thermal feedback of ice reflectivity.

Researchers suspect that these and other feedbacks are eroding sea ice's ability to resist the warming of recent decades. "Might we lose summer sea ice by 2030?" asks Serreze. "That is not unreasonable." Next September could tell whether natural variability just made for one bad year in the Arctic or whether it is pushing the ice over the edge. Meteorologist Ignatius Rigor of UW is wor ried. Given the beating the ice has taken of late, he says, "the chances of another extreme next year are pretty high."

Copyright 2007 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


  Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment &
  Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are
  often considered separately or not at all.

  The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining  
  because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who
  bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human
  health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the
  rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among
  workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy,
  intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and
  therefore ruled by the few.  

  In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who
  gets to decide?" And, "How do the few control the many, and what
  might be done about it?"

  As you come across stories that might help people connect the dots,
  please Email them to us at dhn@rachel.org.
  Rachel's Democracy & Health News is published as often as
  necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the

  Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org

  Tim Montague   -   tim@rachel.org


  To start your own free Email subscription to Rachel's Democracy
  & Health News send any Email to: rachel-subscribe@pplist.net.

  In response, you will receive an Email asking you to confirm that
  you want to subscribe.

  To unsubscribe, send any Email to: rachel-unsubscribe@pplist.net.


Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (19)