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Monday, July 21, 2014

CDC admits to poor lab safety measures

Lax safety measures in labs could lead
to staff exposure to dangerous microbes.
Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spent much time completing a report that would let the public see how the sloppy handling of anthrax by scientists at its headquarters had potentially exposed dozens of employees to the deadly bacteria.

But then he got a call about another accident, this one just as disturbing, if not more so — and no one in the agency’s top leadership had been informed about it earlier, though the C.D.C.’s lab had been told about it more than a month before.

C.D.C. workers had somehow shipped a dangerous strain of avian influenza to a poultry research lab run by the Department of Agriculture. Known as H5N1, the virus had killed more than half of the 650 people who had been infected with it since 2003.

The recent revelations have created a crisis of faith in the federal agency, prompting calls for an independent body to investigate such episodes in the future, as well as for sweeping changes at the agency and to a sprawling web of research labs that has grown after the 2001 terror attacks led to an intensified focus on microbes that could be used as biological weapons.

Dr. Michael Bell, a 19-year C.D.C. veteran who has been appointed by Dr. Frieden to a new position overseeing laboratory safety, said in an interview that he was most concerned about the “potential for hubris” among researchers who grow so inured to the daily grind of working with deadly microbes that they cease to follow safety protocols.

The agency both conducts that research and is charged with ensuring that other labs adhere to federal safety standards.

The agency’s internal investigation of the troubling events found that senior staff members had failed to write up a plan for researchers to follow in the anthrax study.

It also faulted scientists who neglected to review the existing literature before working with the deadly pathogen, and found that the agency was ill-prepared to respond to a potential exposure episode.

“It is ironic that the institution that sets U.S. standards for safety and security of work with human pathogens fails to meet its own standards,” Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, wrote in an email . “It is clear that the C.D.C. cannot be relied upon to police its own select-agent labs.”

Dr. Frieden has closed the agency’s flu and bioterror laboratories and has banned all shipments from the agency’s highest-security labs while safety protocols are reviewed — a move that could freeze work at many public-health labs that rely on such shipments

Later this month, the C.D.C. will invite outside experts to form an external advisory group on lab safety. But some experts say that the agency should not police itself.

Dr. Frieden said the idea of an independent investigative agency was “certainly worth exploring.”

The anthrax accident occurred on June 5 in the agency’s bioterrorism rapid response lab. C.D.C. researchers in Atlanta had been preparing to test a faster way to identify dangerous substances. The lab used a virulent anthrax strain in the test when a weaker one would have worked.

The work was conducted in area classified as a “three” on the biosafety scale, with four being the highest security level. Such labs work with microorganisms that may lead to serious illness or death if inhaled, and follow strict safety guidelines: Workers wear safety hoods that filter air and typically work with infectious materials in special ventilated boxes called biosafety cabinets.

On June 2, according to the report, a lab supervisor called a scientist at another lab who had done similar work on a different bacterium, brucella, which can cause fevers and swelling in humans.

The written protocol for preparing brucella for the test was sent to the bioterrorism lab, and the supervisor told a scientist to follow it while preparing eight dangerous pathogens, including anthrax. But anthrax forms hardy spores, while brucella does not.

In addition, the brucella protocol required that bacteria be killed in a bath of formic acid for 10 minutes, and that small samples of it be incubated for 48 hours to be sure it was dead.

But a mix-up occurred when the instructions were conveyed over the phone. The scientist incubated the test samples for only 24 hours before sending the bulk of the bacteria to less-secure labs. Some of the bacteria were not filtered to remove spores.

After 24 hours, one scientist tried to sterilize the test plates in a high-power steam autoclave. But its door was stuck, so the plates were returned to the incubator. It was an inconvenience that would prove extremely lucky.

Over the next few days, scientists in two other labs where breathing equipment was not used agitated the bacteria and sprayed them with compressed gas, which could have blown spores into the air.

On June 13, one scientist checked the incubated plates and saw that anthrax was growing. If the door to the autoclave had opened properly and, as the report noted, the plates had been sterilized, “the event would not have been discovered.”

The troubling finding was reported immediately, according to the report. Rooms were closed off, and floors, tabletops, equipment and door handles were decontaminated.

Lab tests would later determine that the chemical bath would have killed any live, growing anthrax sent out of the lab, but not all the dangerous spores. Staff exposure, the report concluded, was “not impossible,” but “extremely unlikely.”

By looking at videotapes and the use of door key cards, managers tried to figure out who might have been exposed. They discovered another safety violation: staffers often “piggybacked,” following colleagues through doors without using their own cards.

Ultimately, 62 employees were offered vaccines and antibiotics. None have shown signs of illness related to anthrax exposure.

The near miss should have been reported immediately to top leadership, but was not.

Dr. Frieden said the delay shocked him because the agency’s flu lab is renowned in its field.

The report recalled other errors. In 2006, the agency accidentally sent live anthrax to two other labs, and also shipped out live botulism bacteria.

Both Dr. Frieden and his predecessor, Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, replied in letters over their signatures that the problems would be fixed.

The agency’s report suggested that fewer labs should be handling dangerous microbes.

Source: New York Times
This article has been edited for length.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

WTC cleanup workers can renew health claims, court rules

Cleaners that were exposed to toxic substances
in buildings may renew their claims in court.
A federal appeals court in New York has revived claims by 211 cleanup workers who sought compensation for their alleged exposure to toxic contaminants in buildings near the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a lower court judge erred in dismissing the claims, after the workers had answered "none" when asked if they had been "diagnosed" with ailments, injuries or diseases.

These workers were employed by cleaning companies hired by Verizon Communications Inc, Brookfield Properties and dozens of other owners of downtown Manhattan buildings damaged or destroyed in the attacks, the court said.

"The fact that plaintiffs answered 'none' to the interrogatory was an insufficient basis, by itself, for a blanket conclusion that all 211 plaintiffs could not establish their claims against defendants as a matter of law," Circuit Judge Denny Chin wrote for a three-judge 2nd Circuit panel.

The decision overturned an August 2012 dismissal of the claims by U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan, who oversees much of the Sept. 11 litigation.

Verizon spokesman Bob Varettoni had no immediate comment. Lawyers for the phone company and the other defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"I applaud the 2nd Circuit for having the ability and desire to do the right thing," Marc Bern, a lawyer for the workers, said in a phone interview. "It is clear that the exposures that these individuals had led to their injuries."

The 2nd Circuit said Hellerstein should have examined whether each plaintiff suffered a compensable injury, even if it had been undiagnosed or surfaced late.

It also gave examples of workers who reported no diagnosed symptoms but deserved a chance to press their claims.

One complained of dizziness, fatigue and shortness of breath but received no diagnosis when he saw a doctor, while a second reported bronchitis, chronic coughing and difficulty breathing.

"While we appreciate that the sheer number of cases before the district court made its task of managing this mass tort litigation extraordinarily difficult, the district court was obligated to individually consider each plaintiff's answer of 'none' in the context of any other evidence of injury," Chin wrote.

The 2nd Circuit also upheld Hellerstein's dismissal of claims by 31 workers who did not timely pursue their cases.

The case is Markut et al v. Verizon New York Inc et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Nos. 12-3403 and 12-3729.

Source: Reuters

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Electrocorp air cleaners available worldwide

Electrocorp's RAP series air purifiers
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Monday, July 14, 2014

Micro-monitors to warn of air pollution hot spots

Small air quality monitors can provide valuable information
about local air pollution levels to citizens and the public.
Louisville is planning to monitor air pollution on a micro-level, potentially shedding light on city "hot spots" that could be damaging people's health.

Using new technology tied to the Internet, Louisville philanthropist Christy Brown is helping to deploy a fleet of micro-monitors about as big as a softball that will continuously sniff the air and provide individuals — as well as the public — a quick view of the pollution surrounding them.

Brown announced the program to deploy the first 100 so-called Air Quality Eggs at a cocktail supper for 200 guests at her northeast Louisville home. They will monitor for nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulates, temperature and humidity.

The goal, Brown said, is to "find a new way to care for each other." And Mayor Greg Fischer, who frequently speaks about the need for compassion and innovation, is endorsing the effort.

"We are living in an extraordinary time ... with all these new tools we have not had available before," he told those at Thursday's event. "You may not understand this egg thing, but go ahead and become a civic entrepreneur."

While not as reliable as government sensors, the readings do give people an approximate idea of pollution levels immediately nearby, so they can be more informed in seeking better air quality, said Dirk Swart, a co-founder of the company that makes the monitors, Wicked Device LLC of Ithaca, N.Y.

"The goal is to make information actionable," by making it immediate and personal, he said.

Ted Smith, the mayor's innovation czar, said that the party's participants purchased as many as 100 of the monitors. When bought from Brown's new nonprofit Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil, each monitor costs $200 a piece. That's less than the $243 that the company charges for the same package on its Wicked Device website.

Smith said people can donate the eggs so a project team can place them in strategic locations. That way they can search for potential pollution hot spots that may be missed by the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District's network of six monitoring stations, he said.

"The best possible outcome is a closer connection between health and well-being and our environment," he said.

For those who want to track more pollutants, they may purchase an egg directly from the Wicked Device website, adding packages that detect ozone and volatile organic compounds, which contribute to smog.

All the data will be sent automatically to the Air Quality Egg website, as well as a special website being developed for Louisville, which will include other information such as the location where people who are participating in a related project are having asthma attacks.

The special Louisville website will also compare Egg readings to an index, giving people a sense of what the data means, Smith said.

Accuracy uncertain

The Air Quality Egg was launched in 2012, part of what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls the next generation of air monitoring. There are also businesses that have developed small monitors that connect to smart phone applications, providing instant readings of what their users are breathing.

"In the last two years, we have seen an explosion around these technologies," said Ron Williams, a research chemist with the EPA's Office of Research and Development.

He said EPA has been conducting laboratory and field tests to determine how accurate the personal monitors are, and said "that has yet to be determined. It's certainly not regulatory grade."

Without commenting specifically on the Air Quality Egg, he said "most of these devices have value for low-cost citizen science."

Swart acknowledged that their data can't match the quality of official government monitors.

"We are not trying to be the EPA," he said.

Similar community initiatives are underway with the Air Quality Egg in Boston and the country of Georgia, he said.

Arnita Gadson, executive director of the Kentucky Environmental Quality Commission, said officials working on new air-monitoring initiative will have to be careful about how they communicate with the public, because there are many types of air pollution, and the personal monitors only track a few.

In addition to Louisville's six official monitoring stations, Indiana and Kentucky run several others in the region that are used to determine the community's compliance with federal clean-air rules.

They sample for a variety of pollutants, such as ozone and the smallest of particulates, and have shown that in recent decades, air quality locally has improved.

While those monitors are meant to characterize air quality across a region, air pollution can be different from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Search for hot spots

That's where the micro-level reporting may be especially helpful — helping to identify potential hot spots and their sources.

In general, people who live in more polluted cities don't live as long, said Aruni Bhatnagar, a professor of medicine at University of Louisville.

And there can also be places in cities where air quality is worse, he said, calling them hot spots where air pollution can also damage people's bodies and make them sick.

The effort harkens back more than a decade when Louisville was gripped in a fight over toxic air from industrial sites.

Smith said he plans to seek advice from the Louisville air district and and its health department on where to place the air monitors that people donate.

Air district staff are willing to do that, said Keith Talley Sr., executive director of the agency.

He said it's too soon to evaluate the citizen monitoring program but said it "could point out some stuff we need to look at."

The biggest impact, he said, may be "the community awareness it will bring."

Source: The Courier-Journal
This article has been edited for length.

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Monday, July 7, 2014

Texas gas town wants to ban fracking

Oil and gas production has
fueled concerns over air
and water quality.
Natural gas money has been good to the Texas city of Denton: It has new parks, a new golf course and miles of grassy soccer fields. The business district is getting a makeover, and the airport is bustling, too.

For more than a decade, Denton has drawn its lifeblood from the huge gas reserves that lie beneath its streets. The gas fields have produced a billion dollars in mineral wealth and pumped more than $30 million into city bank accounts.

But this former farming center north of Dallas is considering a revolt. Unlike other communities that have embraced the lucrative drilling boom made possible by hydraulic fracturing, leaders here have temporarily halted all fracking as they consider an ordinance that could make theirs the first city in the state to permanently ban the practice.

If the city council rejects the ban, it will go to voters in November.

The college town has preserved much of its agricultural past. Historic downtown streets lined with 19th-century buildings open up to expansive fields with greenhouses and grazing cattle. But drilling is never far away, with some 275 active gas wells piercing the earth.

The willingness to reject fracking in the heart of oil and gas country reflects a broader shift in thinking.

In place of gas drills, some of Denton's 120,000 residents envision a future in which their city is known for environmentally friendly commerce and the nation's largest community garden.

They've even embarked on a campaign to persuade the maker of Sriracha hot sauce to expand its massive pepper-grinding business here — a prospect that appeals to the local farm-to-table culture.

Fracking involves blasting a mix of water, sand and an assortment of chemicals deep into underground rock formations to free oil and gas. The method has long stirred concerns about its effect on air and water quality, and whether it releases cancer-causing chemicals and causes small earthquakes.

Around the time fracking began in Denton, in 2000, the population started to swell, along with doubts about the drilling.

The Denton Drilling Awareness Group proposed tighter fracking rules and even won a series of temporary bans on new drilling permits.

At the same time, drillers defied city rules that required them to line wastewater pits and prohibited them from burning off, or "flaring," waste gas in residential areas.

"All that did was make people so fired up," McMullen said. "We had no choice" but to call for an outright ban, she said.

It also helped that only 2 percent of Denton's residents see royalties from the drilling, McMullen said, citing an analysis of city appraisal records on mineral property values between 2002 and 2013.

Scores of other cities and some states have considered similar bans, but few, if any, have Denton's close ties to the oil and gas industry. The issue could test whether any community in Texas — the nation's biggest oil and gas producer — can rebuff the industry and still thrive.

The debate comes as the city tries to wean its business community off fossil-fuel revenue. The Sriracha campaign is the highest-profile part of that effort. Another example is Tetra Points Fuels, which produces ethanol from expired soda and other sugary drinks that have been thrown away.

If the fracking ban is adopted, it's unclear whether the law would hold up in court. Cities in Colorado and California are being sued by drilling operators over similar bans, and owners of mineral rights here are already making their case for more drilling.

Ed Ireland, director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, a pro-industry group, said Denton can't implement a ban because the city in 2000 began issuing drilling permits to operators "in perpetuity."

Land in Texas is split between the surface and the minerals below. In Denton, most of the mineral rights are held by estates and trusts outside Texas, according to a preliminary study by University of North Texas researchers who support the ban.

The Rayzor Co., which has one of the largest mineral holdings in Denton, stands to lose about $1.75 million a year if it's barred from fracking on its former cattle ranch. Chief executive Phillip Baker insists that fracking is the only process capable of retrieving gas from the mineral rights held by Rayzor and others.

Meanwhile, city councilman Kevin Roden has different hopes for the future. He launched the Sriracha campaign despite the company's problems in Irwindale, California, where residents complained about odors and fumes that burned their throats and eyes.

"There's a big distinction," Roden said he tells skeptics, "between the toxins emitted from oil and gas and the irritation that comes from chopping tons of onions and jalapenos.

Source: AP

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