Monday, June 17, 2013

Occupational exposure to chemical used in PVC production linked to kidney stones

A study by researchers at UB and three Chinese research institutions is the first to demonstrate that low-level occupational exposure to the industrial chemical trimethyltin chloride (TMT) may be a risk factor for nephrolithiasis, or kidney stones.

TMT is a deadly neurotoxin produced as a byproduct of the plastic-stabilization process. At high levels it is implicated in a wide range of neurological disorders; acute poisoning has caused death.

The hunt is on for the cause of the silent epidemic of nephrolithiasis, an excruciating, unpredictable, treatable but potentially deadly disease whose prevalence and incidence has been increasing globally across divisions of age, sex and race. Its prevalence in the U.S. alone doubled between 1994 and 2010, and is rising among men, women and in children as young as 5. Researchers have taken aim at processed and junk foods, obesity and rising temperatures as causal agents.

“This study provides evidence that even low-level exposure to TMT in the workplace may increase the risk of developing kidney stones, a disease for which effective treatment is not universally available,” says co-author Xuefeng Ren, assistant professor in the UB departments of Social and Preventive Medicine, and Pharmacology and Toxicology.

“There is not enough information available about environmental methyltin exposure,” Ren says, “but given the widespread use of PVC pipes in public facilities, homes and workplaces, there is growing concern that methyltins leached from these materials can contaminate drinking water, food and various ecosystems.

“This study, combined with the recent epidemic of kidney disease, highlights the unique vulnerability of the kidney to environmental assault,” he says.

“We suggest that larger, more comprehensive studies be undertaken to confirm these findings, particularly in members of the general public, who may encounter low levels of TMT and other methyltin compounds through drinking water or other pathways.”

Ren says that in the U.S., the occupational exposure limits (OEL) for methyltins have not been established. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s recommended exposure limits for all organotin compounds, including methyltins, are 0.1 mg/m (permissible concentration-time weighted average, PC-TWA) and 0.2 mg/m (permissible concentration-short term exposure limit, PC-STEL). Although the 8 hour time-weighted average of TMT air level in this study was 0.013 (0.008, 0.028) mg/m, much lower than the U.S. standards, it still produced stones.

The study is a cross-sectional analysis of 335 workers in three plants in the manufacturing hub of Qing Yuan, a city in Guangdong, China. The study group comprised 216 workers in two plants that use methyltins as the heat stabilizer for PVC production in the manufacture of plastic window blinds. A control group of 119 workers was recruited from a factory that did not employ TMT in its manufacturing process.

Researchers employed a variety of research instruments, including air sampling, interviews, questionnaires, clinical examination that included ultrasonography, and blood and urine samples collected at the end of work shifts from both study and control groups.

They found that, relative to subjects in the control group:
  • The prevalence of kidney stones determined by abdominal ultrasonography was 18.06 percent in the TMT exposure group and only 5.88 percent in the control workers (p<0.01).
  • Increased TMT levels in personal air samples, blood and urine had statistically significant positive associations for the risk of kidney stones.
  • The length of employment at the window blind plants also was strongly positively associated with the development of kidney stones in the TMT exposure group.
  • TMT-exposed workers were more likely to have specific clinical symptoms of, or abnormal laboratory tests for, hypertension, gallstones, kidney stones, abnormal ECG, low hemoglobin count, elevated aspartate aminotransferase activity and occult blood in the urine.
  • Even workers with a relatively low level of occupational TMT exposure were more likely to have kidney stones than those in the control group.
The study, “Chronic low level trimethyltin exposure and the risk of developing nephrolithiasis,” was published in the most recent issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Paid sick leave reduces spread of flu

Allowing all employees access to paid sick days would reduce influenza infections in the workplace, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health modeling experts.

The researchers simulated an influenza epidemic in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County and found that universal access to paid sick days would reduce flu cases in the workplace by nearly 6 percent and estimated it to be more effective for small, compared to large, workplaces. The results are reported in the online version of the American Journal of Public Health and will be in the August print issue.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people with flu stay home for 24 hours after their fever breaks," said lead author Supriya Kumar, Ph.D., M.P.H., a post-doctoral associate in Pitt Public Health's Department of Epidemiology. "However, not everyone is able to follow these guidelines. Many more workers in small workplaces than in large ones lack access to paid sick days and hence find it difficult to stay home when ill. Our simulations show that allowing all workers access to paid sick days would reduce illness because fewer workers get the flu over the course of the season if employees are able to stay home and keep the virus from being transmitted to their co-workers."

In addition to investigating the impact of universal access to paid sick days, Dr. Kumar and her colleagues looked at an alternative intervention they termed "flu days," in which all employees had access to one or two paid days to stay home from work and recover from the flu. The idea behind flu days is that they encourage employees to stay home longer than they currently do, thus reducing the potential for them to transmit illness to colleagues at work.

Giving employees one flu day resulted in more than a 25 percent decrease in influenza infections due to workplace transmission. A two flu-day policy resulted in a nearly 40 percent decrease. The researchers found that flu days were more effective for larger workplaces, defined as having 500 or more employees.

"These findings make a strong case for paid sick days," said Dr. Kumar. "Future research should examine the economic impacts of paid sick-day policies."
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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Denver-area firm wins $80K for technologies that would protect public after a chemical or biological attacks

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is awarding $80,000 to TDA Research, Inc., in Wheat Ridge, Colo., to develop technologies to protect public health and the environment following potential accidents or intentional attacks involving chemical and biological agents. Today’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award is among more than $2 million EPA is providing to 25 small businesses nationwide to develop new environmental technologies that will help protect public health and the environment.

TDA Research will use the EPA grant to investigate an encapsulation technology that will seal in chemical and biological agent contamination on solid wastes. This technology involves applying an impermeable polymer material to create a barrier on contaminated wastes removed from response sites following chemical or biological incidents, including building materials, furniture, insulation, and other materials. The successful encapsulation of chemicals and biological agents would protect responders and the general public from exposure and expedite the safe removal of wastes. In this Phase I project, TDA Research will investigate the feasibility of this technology to allow the safe recovery, transport and disposal of these types of materials.

“Over the past 30 years, EPA’s SBIR program has funded over 900 small businesses that develop unique environmental technologies,” said Lek Kadeli, principal deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “This funding opportunity allows these companies to help protect public health and the environment through innovative technology and more sustainable solutions while creating jobs and increasing economic competitiveness.”

EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program funds innovative research resulting in new commercial products, processes and services that protect the environment, benefit the public, and promote the growth of small businesses. This year’s projects focus on drinking water, wastewater, manufacturing, green building, waste monitoring and management, air quality, sustainable use of biomass and homeland security.

Each of the 25 companies will receive an SBIR Phase I contract of up to $80,000 to further develop their technology over the next six months. Once the project has been demonstrated to be commercially viable, then companies are eligible to compete for a Phase II award of up to $300,000 to commercialize their technology. To be eligible to participate in the SBIR program, a company must be an organized for-profit U.S. business, and have fewer than 500 employees.

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EPA Finalizes Air Permit for Proposed Arecibo Solid Waste Facility

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its final approval of an air permit for the construction and operation of a new 77 megawatt solid waste facility, owned by Energy Answers Arecibo, LLC’s, at the former site of Global Fibers Paper Mill in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

The permit requires Energy Answers to use the best available control technology to reduce air pollutants to the maximum degree. The permit also requires performance tests, some continuous emissions monitoring, as well as other monitoring requirements to make sure that Energy Answers meets the air pollutant limits set in the permit. The EPA reviewed the analysis of the projected air quality impacts and has determined that the facility will meet air quality standards.

Since first proposing the permit in May 2012, the EPA held six public hearing sessions in Arecibo. The agency extended its public comment period and ultimately reviewed over 3,000 public comments before making its final decision. The EPA has carefully considered all comments and oral testimonies, and prepared detailed responses to these comments, which can be found on the EPA’s website at The response to comments is available in English and will be available in Spanish within a week.

The EPA made a number of adjustments to the permit in response to public comments. Several operating, monitoring and reporting requirements in the permit are more stringent than originally proposed. The final permit contains requirements for more frequent testing for dioxin and furan emissions.

In addition to the direct requirements of the permit for the facility, Energy Answers will finance the installation of a second monitor in the community to collect data on lead emissions. This is in addition to a lead monitor that is already operating in the Arecibo area. The Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board also operates an air monitor for particles in Barceloneta, approximately 8 miles from Arecibo.

The EPA’s approval of the air permit may be appealed through the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, D.C. The Environmental Appeals Board is authorized to review challenges to air permits issued by the EPA among other matters. For more information, visit The deadline for filing a written appeal is July 11, 2013.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

EPA Orders a Stop Sale of pesticide used to kill bacteria on cutting tools

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a Stop Sale, Use, or Removal Order (SSURO) to Hampton Manufacturing, Inc., located in Fayetteville, GA, to stop the sale of “Antibacterial H-42 Clean Clippers,” a pesticide used to kill bacteria and HIV-1 (AIDS Virus) on cutting tools such as clipper blades, shears and manicure implements.

The SSURO was issued to Hampton Manufacturing, Inc. for selling and distributing a pesticide that was misbranded and whose composition differed from the stated percentage of active ingredient in violation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Specifically, testing revealed that the pesticide contained less than the stated amount of the active ingredient. Additionally, some labels had directions for use of the product in a spray application. The only directions for use, approved by the EPA, require the clipper blades, shears and manicure implements to be placed directly into the liquid product.

Before selling or distributing any pesticide in the United States, companies must register the pesticide formulation and label with the EPA. Each producer, seller and distributor is required, under federal law, to ensure that the registered pesticide is formulated and labeled in accordance with EPA requirements.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Study: Only 5% of people wash hands correctly; Posting signs works

A new study by Michigan State University researchers found that only 5 percent of people who used the bathroom washed their hands long enough to kill the germs that can cause infections.

What’s more, 33 percent didn’t use soap and 10 percent didn’t wash their hands at all. Men were particularly bad at washing their hands correctly.

The study, based on observations of 3,749 people in public restrooms, appears in the Journal of Environmental Health.

“These findings were surprising to us because past research suggested that proper hand washing is occurring at a much higher rate,” said Carl Borchgrevink, associate professor of hospitality business and lead investigator on the study.

Hand washing is the single most effective thing one can do to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Failing to sufficiently wash one’s hands contributes to nearly 50 percent of all foodborne illness outbreaks.

Borchgrevink, who worked as a chef and restaurant manager before becoming a researcher, said the findings have implications for both consumers and those who operate restaurants and hotels.

“Imagine you’re a business owner and people come to your establishment and get foodborne illness through the fecal-oral route – because people didn’t wash their hands – and then your reputation is on the line,” he said. “You could lose your business.”

It takes 15 to 20 seconds of vigorous hand washing with soap and water to effectively kill the germs, the CDC says, yet the study found that people are only washing their hands, on average, for about 6 seconds.

The study is one of the first to take into account factors such as duration of the hand washing and whether people used soap.
Specific findings include:
  • Fifteen percent of men didn’t wash their hands at all, compared with 7 percent of women.
  • When they did wash their hands, only 50 percent of men used soap, compared with 78 percent of women.
  • People were less likely to wash their hands if the sink was dirty.
  • Hand washing was more prevalent earlier in the day. Borchgrevink said this suggests people who were out at night for a meal or drinks were in a relaxed mode and hand washing became less important.
  • People were more likely to wash their hands if a sign encouraging them to do so was present.
Borchgrevink and colleagues trained a dozen college students in data collection and had them observe hand washing in restrooms in bars, restaurants and other public establishments. The student researchers were as unobtrusive as possible – by standing off to the side and entering results on a smart phone, for example.
Borchgrevink’s co-authors were JaeMin Cha and SeungHyun Kim. All three are faculty members in MSU’s School of Hospitality Business.

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Contractor blamed for poor building air quality in Pennsylvania

Source: WHTM/ABC27

The Department of General Services says work being done on a roof is to blame for a wave of air quality complaints by the employees of the Department of Revenue in Harrisburg Pennsylvania.

"It was terrible," said Lori Coffey to ABC 27 news. "When they started, we started to get a really bad stench and I mean it, we were getting light-headed, our eyes were burning and I was getting a headache."

"There were fumes inside the building that were making people sick," said Crystal Singiser, a Revenue Department employee. "I mean, there were a couple of people who threw up."

Workers were moved to another section of the building and the roofing work has been suspended.

A union representing state employees said it will file grievances on behalf of workers.

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Companies pay almost $6,000 extra per year for each employee who smokes

A new study suggests that U.S. businesses pay almost $6,000 per year extra for each employee who smokes compared to the cost to employ a person who has never smoked cigarettes.

Researchers say the study is the first to take a comprehensive look at the financial burden for companies that employ smokers.

By drawing on previous research on the costs of absenteeism, lost productivity, smoke breaks and health care costs, the researchers developed an estimate that each employee who smokes costs an employer an average of $5,816 annually above the cost of a person who never smoked. These annual costs can range from $2,885 to $10,125, according to the research.

Smoke breaks accounted for the highest cost in lost productivity, followed by health-care expenses that exceed insurance costs for nonsmokers.

The analysis used studies that measured costs for private-sector employers, but the findings would likely apply in the public sector as well, said lead author Micah Berman, who will become an assistant professor of health services management and policy in The Ohio State University College of Public Health on Aug. 21. Berman began this work while on the law faculty of Capital University in Columbus.

"This research should help businesses make better informed decisions about their tobacco policies," said Berman, who also will have an appointment in the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State. "We constructed our calculations such that individual employers can plug in their own expenses to get more accurate estimates of their own costs."

The study focuses solely on economics and does not address ethical and privacy issues related to the adoption of workplace policies covering employee smoking. Increasingly, businesses have been adopting tobacco-related policies that include requiring smokers to pay premium surcharges for their health-care benefits or simply refusing to hire people who identify themselves as smokers.

The researchers acknowledge that providing smoking-cessation programs would be an added cost for employers.

"Employers should be understanding about how difficult it is to quit smoking and how much support is needed," Berman said. "It's definitely not just a cost issue, but employers should be informed about what the costs are when they are considering these policies."

The research is published online in the journal Tobacco Control.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated a decade ago that productivity losses and medical costs amount to about $3,400 each year per smoker. However, the report looked at overall costs to the American economy from smoking-related deaths and did not try to identify those costs that would be borne by an employer, Berman noted.

The CDC says smoking accounts for nearly one in every five deaths – or about 443,000 – in the United States each year and increases the risk for such illnesses as coronary heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and other deadly lung illnesses.

The researchers used multiple studies that calculated a variety of specific costs to develop an estimate of the overall annual extra cost of each employee who smokes.

According to their annual estimates per smoker, excess absenteeism costs an average of $517 per year; "presenteeism," or reduced productivity related to the effects of nicotine addiction, $462; smoke breaks, $3,077; and extra health care costs (for self-insured employers), $2,056.

The analysis also took into consideration a so-called death "benefit" in terms of economics. For employers who provide defined benefit plans, meaning they pay retirees a set amount in pension each year, a smoker's early death could result in an annual cost reduction of an estimated $296. This occurs when smokers pay more into the pension system than they receive in retirement – in effect, subsidizing nonsmokers' pensions because they live longer.

"We tried to be conservative in our estimates, and certainly the costs will vary by industry and by the type of employee," Berman said. "Several of these estimates are based on hourly employees whose productivity can be tracked more easily."

He noted that the analysis takes into account the known disparity in pay for smokers versus nonsmokers. In the calculations, smokers' salaries were discounted by 15.6 percent to reflect their lower wages.

The researchers describe their findings as "needed factual context to discussions about workplace policies" intended to inform the debate over whether such policies should exist.

"Most of the places that have policies against hiring smokers are coming at it not just from a cost perspective but from a wellness perspective," Berman said. "Many of these businesses make cessation programs available to their employees.

"Most people who smoke started when they were kids and the vast majority of them want to quit and are struggling to do so. This is a place where business interests and public health align. In addition to cutting costs, employers can help their employees lead healthier and longer lives by eliminating tobacco from the workplace."
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Monday, June 3, 2013

New research shows that asking for a precise number during negotiations can give you the upper hand

With so much on the line for job seekers in this difficult economic climate, a lot of new hires might be wondering how — or whether at all — to negotiate salary when offered a new position. A recently published study on the art of negotiation by two professors at Columbia Business School could help these new hires — and all negotiators — seal a stronger deal than before.

Research conducted by Professors Malia Mason and Daniel Ames and doctoral students Alice Lee and Elizabeth Wiley finds that asking for a specific and precise dollar amount versus a rounded-off dollar amount can give you the upper hand during any negotiation over a quantity.

"What we discovered is there is a big difference in what most people think is a good strategy when negotiating and what research shows is a good strategy," said Professor Mason. "Negotiators should remember that in this case, zero's really do add nothing to the bargaining table."

The research, forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, looks at the two-way flow of communication between 1,254 fictitious negotiators.

The negotiators were placed in everyday scenarios such as buying jewelry or negotiating the sale of a used car. Some people were asked to make an opening offer using a rounded-off dollar amount, while other people were asked to use a precise dollar amount; let's say for example $5,000 vs. $5,015.

The results showed that overall, people making an offer using a precise dollar amount such as $5,015 versus a rounded-off dollar amount such as $5,000 were perceived to be more informed about the true value of the offer being negotiated. This perception, in turn, led precise-offer recipients to concede more value to their counterpart.

In their negotiation scenarios, the professors concluded the person making a precise offer is successfully giving the illusion they have done their homework. When perceived as better informed, the person on the opposite end believes there is less room to negotiate.

To determine whether people make round offers more often than not, the researchers looked at the real estate market. Research done on Zillow, the online real estate marketplace, showed the overwhelming majority of displayed prices were rounded numbers, and that only two percent of people listed their homes with precise dollar amounts.

"The practical application of these findings – signaling that you are informed and using a precise number – can be used in any negotiation situation to imply you've done your homework," Mason concluded.