Friday, September 26, 2014

Chemical plant inundated with complaints from nearby residents

Residents close to a chemical plant
have been getting sick, they say.
PASCAGOULA – An Environmental Protection Agency inspector, during a tour of Mississippi Phosphates in 2009, walked through a puddle so acidic it ate leather off the inspector’s steel-toed boots.

The inspector’s vivid account is one of dozens from an inspection that year that yielded a biting administrative order from the EPA to the company, using the words “imminent and substantial” danger when referring to the possible impact on human health or the environment.

The federal agency ordered the company to fix uncontrolled leaks and spills of sulfuric acid on its grounds, and stop untreated discharges to the adjacent bayou and uncontrolled spills and leaks of phosphoric acid to unlined ditches.

The agency found more issues in 2011, and in 2012, reinforced its orders to clean up.

Then last year, the state Department of Environmental Quality shut down two plants at the fertilizer manufacturer because they were creating an acid mist that caused neighboring industry to evacuate workers.

All the while, a neighborhood less than a mile away says it was unaware of the reports. Cherokee Forest has 132 homes along heavily industrialized Bayou Casotte in east Pascagoula, where several industries contribute heavily to air emissions.

Residents have been complaining in recent years about thick dust, strong acrid smells and health problems.

They’ve told regulators what’s in the air and what’s on the ground at neighboring industry is coming into their yards, onto their cars, onto their skin and into their lungs.

The company says it has fixed its problems from the 2009 inspection.

“EPA conducted a final compliance inspection in October 2010 and confirmed that MPC had implemented all the corrective action items addressed in the 2009 order,” it said in a statement to the Sun Herald.

Over the last five years, MPC has continued to invest in its operation and environmental programs and work with the EPA and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to ensure future environmental compliance at the facility.”

So what’s the significance of the EPA inspector’s boot?

Howard Page, a community coordinator with the STEPS Coalition in Biloxi, who helped organize the neighborhood into a group, said although Mississippi Phosphates has made improvements, he believes the story of the acid puddle is relevant today.

“It shows how very real the threat is,” Page said. “It’s not the most recent event; things the company has been cited for and had to correct. But it captures the issue — how strong that acid is.

“If it does that to a boot, just imagine what it does when you’re breathing it as a mist. It’s a concrete example of what people are facing, not just odors or a possible concern.”

Mississippi Phosphates said it pledged more than $2.5 million to cleanup what the EPA found in 2009, has made other improvements and more recently has offered air monitors in the neighborhood to detect sulfuric acid.

But Page said he believes the chronic history of problems, “not one or two times, but a long series of incidents” presents a health threat to workers and nearby residents.

He said there’s a need to control the risk to workers and neighbors.

“The process they operate there that involves acid is a potentially dangerous process if it’s not managed and overseen well,” he said.

Page said one issue for the neighborhood has been substantiating their complaints. And though other industries are putting dust and chemicals in the air, remarks of trained EPA inspectors at Mississippi Phosphates in the 2009 report sound familiar to residents:
  • “the sampling team tasted a metallic flavor in the air that permeated to the back of the throat. Sampling team members complained of burning, stinging and itchy skin and eyes. The metallic taste remained with EPA personnel for at least two days after leaving the site.”
  • “The ongoing inhalation of sulfuric acid mist may pose substantial harm to personnel at and visitors to the facility.”
  • “The effects of discharges . extend far beyond the initial discharge zone, reaching to the other side of Bayou Casotte, and far into the commercial turning basin (of the bayou).”
  • “Low pH liquids facilitate the mobilization of metals such as arsenic, cadmium and chromium. Metals are readily leached from the soils and or sediment into groundwater upon contact with a solution of pH less than 3.5.” The puddle one inspector stepped in had a pH of less than 2 (the company’s permit allows a range of 6 to 9).
Today, the residents, complaining of health issues, find it is up to them to chase complaints and prove their case. And Page pointed out local government, the Department of Environmental Quality and the industries are also at the table looking for solutions.

Source: Hattisburg American

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wildfires lead to costly health problems

Wildfire air pollution worsens respiratory and cardiac
health issues for people far away, scientists warn.
There are plenty of immediate concerns in a fire: protecting homes and businesses, saving lives, limiting the number of acres consumed and so on.

But increasingly, researchers and policymakers are finding that the lingering health and safety impacts of wildfires may be far more worrisome – and more widespread.

Smoke, after all, can travel any way the wind takes it, exacerbating an array of health problems in cities hundreds of miles from the original fire. In 2002, for example, a fire in Canada caused a 30-fold increase in fine particulate matter in the air in Baltimore, 1,000 miles away.

According to Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist with the health and environment program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), that level of air pollution can contribute to a variety of respiratory and cardiac issues and has even been correlated with premature death and low birth weights.

In a 2011 study, conducted in partnership with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at San Francisco, Knowlton found that more than 760,000 encounters with the health system between 2000 and 2009 could be attributed to exposure to wildfire smoke.

These health problems carried a steep price tag: $740,000 in direct healthcare costs and more than $14bn in overall health costs once the value of lives lost prematurely was factored in.

The 2003 wildfire season in southern California alone resulted in 69 premature deaths, 778 hospitalizations, 1,431 emergency room visits, and 47,605 outpatient visits, mostly for respiratory and cardiovascular health problems aggravated by smoke exposure.

A brewing health crisis

Scientists fear that, as climate change intensifies, the conditions that make wildfires likely – namely heat, drought, and shifting weather patterns – are becoming increasingly common, laying the foundation for more wildfires and a major public health crisis.

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that we may already be in the midst of one: a 2011 brief from the NRDC found that two-thirds of US citizens live in counties affected by smoke conditions.

In its most recent report, the National Climate Assessment addressed the potential costs and risks of wildfire-related health concerns, noting that smoke from a fire could contribute to health impacts in regions far from the original disaster.

Moreover, the report argued, particulate matter from wildfire-related smoke could affect atmospheric properties and thus weather patterns.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIEHS, has also addressed this side of the wildfire issue.

For the past five years, it has taken a particular interest in research that examines climate change-related health impacts on vulnerable populations, and in 2010 launched dedicated funding for this research. The first of those grants began in 2011, including a project at Yale that aims to pinpoint which populations are most vulnerable to the health impacts of forest fires under a changing climate.

Still more research attempts to quantify the financial impact of wildfires. The 2008 fire season led to almost $2.2m in hospital costs in the Reno-Sparks area of Nevada, while the 78,000 wildfires in California between 1999 and 2013 burned approximately 3.8m acres and incurred more than $4bn in suppression costs, a recent Union of Concerned Scientists study reports.

And these impacts are likely to increase. In a Harvard University study on the effects of wildfires on US air quality, researcher Xu Yue estimates that by the middle of this century wildfires will have increased the amount of fine particulate matter in the air from 46% to 70%, and the amount of black carbon from 20% to 27%, relative to today’s numbers.

Not only are respiratory and cardiac issues expected to rise, but also, in a seemingly endless and vicious loop, the particulate matter and other chemicals contained in wildfire-smoke will further exacerbate climate change.

A 2010 study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado at Boulder estimates that wildfires in the contiguous US and Alaska release about 290m metric tons of CO2 a year, which is the equivalent of 4%-6% of the nation’s CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Learning to live with fire

The Clean Air Act has gone a long way toward reducing the amount of particulate matter and other pollutants emitted into the air by companies.

However, the act doesn’t cover air pollution caused by wildfires, and the combination of climate change and continued development in fire-prone areas could negate much of the improvement that it has brought about.

In a recent research brief, the Nasa Air Quality Applied Sciences Team alluded to this problem. It began by pointing out that US air quality has vastly improved in recent years: “Eight-hour averages of surface ozone (O3) have declined by nearly 20% since 1990, while 24-hour averages of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) have dropped by 25%.”

The report then noted, however, that these improvements are vulnerable to atmospheric disturbances: “Unusual weather can interrupt that trend, as was seen in the hot dry summer of 2012, when Chicago and St Louis experienced double the average number of O3 episodes from the previous four years.”

Given the difficulty of regulating fire-related air pollution, state and local agencies have focused instead on better communicating health risks to the public, creating early-warning systems, and integrating wildfire risks into climate adaptation plans.

That means looking at everything from land-use management and development permits to forest management in an effort to minimize the impacts of wildfires in the future.

Even shifting the time of year that fire departments conduct controlled burns could have an impact; recent research has shown that extreme heat exacerbates the health impacts of fires, and thus recommends that controlled burns happen in the spring.

Source: The Guardian

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Carpet industry at forefront of innovation

The carpet industry is responding to concerns about VOCs.
Photo credit: "Swatches of carpet 1" by Quadell
New carpet smell used to be considered an asset. After all, it meant a new product.

But in recent years, customers have been asking for carpets that don't "off-gas," meaning carpets that won't release chemicals, which may be hazardous to health.

And the carpeting industry seems to have taken the hint.

For one thing, most carpets no longer release those volatile organic compounds, or VOCS, that come from the glues or other components. Consumers should look for the industry-run certification Green Label Plus.

More carpet is made of recycled content, and more is being recycled all the time.

Indeed, the carpet industry has been a leading innovator in construction, said Janet Milkman, executive director of the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.

"They've been analyzing the environmental impacts of their products and processes for years, and are now looking deeply into the human health impacts," she said.

Experts credit the U.S. Green Building Council's building certification system, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which sets standards and drives purchasing decisions.

The thousands of buildings across the nation that are now LEED-certified represent countless phone calls to manufacturers from architects and interior designers asking about all kinds of environmental considerations, said Max Zahniser, who once ran the LEED certification program but returned to Philadelphia seven years ago to start a green consulting firm, Praxis Building Solutions.

Enough of those, and manufacturers take heed.

Hurdles remain

While American rugmakers have stopped using stain repellents made from perfluorinated chemicals, some think the replacements aren't much better. And carpet made abroad, even if it's for a U.S. company, may contain the old chemicals.

Some companies still use vinyl plastic in the backing; triclosan may be used as an antimicrobial as well. Both are linked to health effects, said Michael Schade, a campaign director with the nonprofit advocacy group, Safer Chemicals/Healthy Families. Ask, he said, and choose alternatives.

Last year, researchers at the Healthy Building Network, a nonprofit that works to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals in building products, looked at 50 "asthmagens" - substances that can cause asthma - in carpet and other building materials.

Only three were covered by the leading indoor air quality protocols, said Jim Vallette, one of the researchers.

There seems to be no end to things consumers should consider.

Deep-pile or not? Over time, deep-pile carpet will generally harbor more microbiotic organisms.

Natural wool or manmade fiber such as nylon? Wool often does not have stain-resistant chemicals or flame-retardants, another group of chemicals that concern health professionals. But it's not very durable, and so is less sustainable.

Nylon is durable, but it's made from petrochemicals. Then again, it's recyclable.

That's another major industry advance, experts say. Many companies have take-back programs for older, less environmentally friendly carpeting.

But in the push to increase the proportion of recycled materials in carpet in order to meet sustainability goals, some manufacturers are using coal fly ash - a byproduct from coal-fired power plants that may contain heavy metals - as a filler in the carpet backing.

Whatever type of carpeting you get, the advice of experts is to take care of it - extending its lifespan and reducing its environmental footprint (not to mention the drop in your bank account).

That includes cleaning it with a vacuum or chemicals that are too brutal on the poor rug. The institute's website ( lists its approved vacuums and cleaners.

This article has been edited for length.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

People near fracking wells list health concerns

People living close to fracking wells reported more
health issues, researchers say.
People living near natural-gas wells were more than twice as likely to report upper-respiratory and skin problems than those farther away, says a major study on the potential health effects of fracking.

Nearly two of every five, or 39%, of those living less than a kilometer (or two-thirds of a mile) from a well reported upper respiratory symptoms, compared to 18% living more than 2 kilometers away, according to a Yale University-led random survey of 492 people in 180 households with ground-fed water wells in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The disparity was even greater for skin irritation. While 13% of those within a kilometer of a well said they had rashes and other skin symptoms, only 3% of those beyond 2 kilometers said the same.

"This is the largest study to look at the overall health of people living near the wells," says lead author and University of Washington environmental health professor Peter Rabinowitz, who did the research while at Yale.

The study focused on Washington County, part of the Marcellus Shale where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is widely used to extract natural gas.

"It suggests there may be more health problems in people living closer to natural gas wells," but it doesn't prove that the wells caused their symptoms, he says, adding more research is needed.

Fracking, combined with horizontal drilling, has spurred a U.S. boom in oil and natural-gas production. It blasts huge amounts of water — mixed with sand and chemicals — deep underground to break apart shale deposits and extract gas and oil from the rock's pores.

Prior peer-reviewed studies have linked fracking to possible birth defects, higher lung disease risks, methane contamination in drinking water and elevated endocrine-disrupting chemical activity in groundwater. Some environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, oppose fracking, saying it has insufficient safeguards.

Yet the oil and gas industry defends fracking as a safe way to bolster the U.S. economy and lessen the nation's dependence on foreign sources of energy.

At the time the research was conducted in the summer of 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said there were were 624 active natural-gas wells in the survey area, 95% of which used fracking. The study received funding from private foundations, including The Heinz Endowments.

This article has been edited for length.
Source: USA Today

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Europe lists nine chemicals as Very High Concern

Europe requires chemicals of concern
to be used with specific authorization.
The European Commission has officially designated nine chemicals, including one used to make coated galvanized steel, as substances of very high concern, meaning their uses will have to be authorized.

In a separate action, Austria, Denmark, Germany and Sweden announced their intent to nominate an additional 10 chemicals as substances of very high concern (SVHC).

The European Commission regulation, published in the Aug. 19 Official Journal of the European Union, carries out recommendations made by the European Chemicals Agency in 2013.

The regulation places nine chemicals on the Annex 14 list of the registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals (REACH) regulation (EC 1907/2006).

Listing in Annex 14 means the substance can't be used without specific authorization. The Aug. 19 regulation includes deadlines by which authorization requests must be filed. Depending on the chemical, the deadlines fall between Feb. 22, 2016, and July 22, 2017.

Steel-coating chemical of concern

Among the nine chemicals is strontium chromate (EC No. 232-142-6; CAS No. 7789-06-2), which is made in or imported into the European Union in a total volume ranging between 1,000 metric tons and 10,000 metric tons (1,102-11,023 U.S. short tons) per year, ECHA said in a background document supporting its recommendation. Much of that is exported, ECHA added.

Coil coating refers to steel that is coated, often including a layer of zinc, during the manufacturing process, as opposed to coating in batches after production. Flat-rolled steel is often shipped in rolls known as coils.

Wayne Pigment Corp. is the main U.S. company making strontium chromate, while Akzo Nobel Coatings Inc. is among the chemical's importers.

Strontium chromate primarily is used to protect steel and zinc in coil-coated galvanized steel, ECHA said. The coil-coated metal mainly is used in buildings.

Much smaller quantities of strontium chromate are used in primers, sealants, joint compounds and top coat paints for aerospace applications and in anticorrosion primers, in fillers and sealants for the construction and maintenance of heavy duty vehicles and trucks, military vehicles and agricultural equipment, ECHA said.

Other chemicals added to the list:
  • Ethylene dichloride, also known as 1,2-dichloroethane. The most common use of 1,2-dichloroethane is to make vinyl chloride, which is used to make a variety of plastic and vinyl products, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, furniture and automobile upholstery, wall coverings, housewares and automobile parts. The uses that would be subject to authorization are 1,2-dichloroethane's use as a solvent and as an ingredient in chemical mixtures, ECHA said.
  • Oligomeric reaction products of formaldehyde with aniline (technical MDA);
  • Arsenic acid;
  • Bis(2-methoxyethyl) ether (diglyme);
  • 2,2'-dichloro-4,4'-methylenedianiline;
  • Dichromium tris(chromate);
  • Potassium hydroxyoctaoxodizincatedichromate
  • Pentazinc chromate octahydroxide

Member States Propose 10 SVHCs

Meanwhile, on Aug. 4 Austria, Denmark, Germany and Sweden filed information to support the nomination of several phthalates and other chemicals among 10 compounds they said should be classified as substances of very high concern.

Those 10 chemicals are:
  • Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate
  • 2-benzotriazol-2-yl-4,6-di-tert-butylphenol (UV-320) 
  • Dibutyl phthalate 
  • 2-(2H-benzotriazol-2-yl)-4,6-ditertpentylphenol (UV-328) 
  • Cadmium sulphate 
  • Cadmium fluoride 
  • 2-ethylhexyl 10-ethyl-4,4-dioctyl-7-oxo-8-oxa-3,5-dithia-4-stannatetradecanoate
  • Diisobutyl phthalate 
  • Benzyl butyl phthalate 
  • A reaction chemical proposed by Austria

Source: Bloomberg News

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Medical center exposed workers to asbestos, other health hazards: OSHA

All employers must keep their workers safe, OSHA says.
Aleda E. Lutz Veterans Administration Medical Center employees in Saginaw were exposed to asbestos, bloodborne pathogens and unsafe operation of powered industrial vehicles, a U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection found.

OSHA issued six notices of unsafe or unhealthful working conditions following the March 2014 inspection initiated as part of OSHA's Federal Agency Local Emphasis Program*.

"The Veterans Administration Medical Center failed to ensure that the facility was a safe and healthy workplace because it did not provide appropriate personal protective equipment or train employees how to keep themselves safe," said Larry M. Johnson, director of OSHA's Lansing Area Office.

"All employers, including federal employers, are responsible for knowing the hazards in their facilities. They must follow standards to protect worker safety and health."

OSHA's inspection found that officials failed to remove a broken, powered industrial vehicle from service, resulting in one repeat violation. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' facility in Battle Creek was cited for the same safety violation in 2013.

To issue notices for repeat violations, OSHA must issue at least one other notice for the same violation, within the same standard industrial classification code, at another agency establishment. Thousands of workers are injured every year, sometimes fatally, while operating powered industrial vehicles.

In addition, OSHA found five serious violations for failure to ensure employees wore masks and eye protection whenever they could expect exposure to splashes, spray, spatter or droplets of blood or other infectious material, and to ensure that work surfaces were properly decontaminated.

Facility officials did not ensure that powered industrial truck operators completed training successfully or that employees who performed housekeeping duties were provided asbestos awareness training. Additionally, the facility used a power strip that exceeded acceptable voltage levels.

A serious notice is issued when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

As required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, federal agencies must comply with the same safety standards as private sector employers.

The federal agency equivalent to a private sector citation is the notice of unsafe and unhealthful working conditions. A notice is used to inform establishment officials of violations of OSHA standards, alternate standards and 29 Code of Federal Regulations citable program elements.

OSHA cannot propose monetary penalties against another federal agency for failure to comply with OSHA standards.

The medical center has 15 business days from receipt of its notices to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA's area director, or appeal the notices by submitting a summary of the agency's position on the unresolved issues to OSHA's regional administrator.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA's role is to ensure these conditions for America's working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit

Source: OSHA

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Coal ash to blame for cancers in PA prison: Report

A high rate of cancer among inmates at a southwestern Pennsylvania prison is linked to a nearby coal ash dump, and the correctional facility should be closed down, according to a recent report.
Black dust was seen settling on prison
grounds, experts say.

Eleven prisoners died of cancer from 2010 through 2013, and six others have been diagnosed with cancer at the State Correctional Institution Fayette, said the report, released by the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm based in Pittsburgh, and the Human Rights Coalition, a national prison reform group.

SCI Fayette has a higher inmate death rate than all but two other prisons in the state, both of which have high geriatric populations, it said.

A 12-month investigation found that blowing coal ash was the most likely cause of the inmate cancers as well as other illnesses at the facility.

Inmates quoted in the report described black dust blowing from the dump and settling onto the prison and its grounds.

The report calls for SCI Fayette, which houses 1,986 inmates and has 677 staff, to be shut down. The medium security facility was built for $119 million and opened in 2003. All of the state’s license plates are made there.

Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is the residue of burning coal in a power plant. It was used extensively in Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s in mine reclamation projects, notably in the effort to control a mine fire under the town of Centralia.

Its carcinogenic components, including lead, arsenic and mercury, were revealed in a 2010 report by a public interest group, Physicians for Social Responsibility.

“There is a strong correlation between confinement at SCI Fayette and the onset of serious health symptoms,” said Bret Grote, an author of the prison report. “There needs to be an independent and comprehensive study of the health of people at the prison and in the surrounding community.”

Officials at the state Department of Corrections are reviewing the report, a spokeswoman said.

“We take the health of our inmates and staff seriously,” said the spokeswoman, Susan McNaughton.

David LaTorre, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association, said it too would review the report carefully.

“We are aware of some officers from SCI Fayette who are suffering from illness,” he said.

Fly ash from two regional power plants was dumped at the Fayette County site for 60 years, said John Poister, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

No one answered the telephone at Matt Canestrale Construction Inc in Elizabeth, which owns the dump site.

Source: Reuters

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Aging brain affected by environmental exposures

The population of Americans aged 65 and older is expected to double between 2010 and 2050,1 and by mid-century the proportion of the human population made up of people over age 80 is projected to have quadrupled since 2000.
Seniors may be affected by poor IAQ and chemical
exposures earlier in life, researchers say.

So factors that affect this aging population are of increasing importance. Of particular concern are the neurological diseases and disorders typically associated with advanced age, among them Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, dementia, and reduced cognitive function.

Investigators are studying the effects of not just present-day exposures and environmental influences such as physical and mental exercise, but also exposures that occurred much earlier in life, whose effects may only become apparent in old age.

It was long assumed that “once the brain received its allotted quota of nerve cells, its destiny was frozen. After that, the passage of time eroded our allotment steadily and irrevocably,” as professor emeritus Bernard Weiss of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry wrote in 2007.3

Now, however, there is increasing evidence that the brain is capable of generating new neurons and other functional brain cells even during advanced age. There is also evidence that the older brain can respond quickly and positively to external influences such as physical exercise and intellectual stimulation.

This is prompting considerable interest in developing strategies for protecting and enhancing neurological function in the elderly.

The two most vulnerable periods for the brain, Weiss says, are early in life, when the organ is first developing, and later in life, when the body’s defenses and compensatory mechanisms begin to falter.

There is a large and growing body of evidence indicating these two vulnerable life stages can be linked when damage incurred during early development contributes to health disorders that may not become apparent until later in life.

Weiss also notes that declining defense mechanisms may magnify vulnerability to contemporary environmental exposures.

He says that when older adults experience cognitive problems, diagnoses rarely consider the possibility that environmental chemical exposure may be involved, simply because questions about such exposures are typically not asked as part of clinical intake.

Over the past 30 years, Weiss says, research attention has focused primarily on environmental influences on early developmental stages. Far less extensively researched, but a subject of increasing interest, are environmental chemical exposures that can affect the health of the aging brain.

Neurotoxic agents

In the past 10 years, however, a number of studies have looked at the effects of chronic low-level lead exposure on adult humans’ cognitive abilities. The findings of such studies suggest that lead that has accumulated in bones can be mobilized over time as part of the aging process, resulting in exposures that adversely affect adults’ cognitive skills later in life.

Other metals may adversely affect neurological function in later life by either acting directly on the brain or adversely impacting other organs or hormones that maintain healthy neurological function.

For example, cadmium can cause kidney disease, which is associated with cognitive problems. Like lead, cadmium is stored in the body, primarily in the kidneys and liver but also in joints and other tissues, where it has a biological half-time of decades.

Similarly, lead and mercury have been associated with liver disease, which itself is associated with adverse neurological health effects, including a condition that produces a type of neuronal plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Chemical exposures that adversely affect kidney and liver function can also hamper the body’s ability to detoxify and excrete environmental toxicants, thus letting them remain in the body—an effect that may be particularly problematic in advanced age when a body’s defense mechanisms are in decline.

There is evidence connecting certain metals (e.g., lead, manganese), pesticides (e.g., paraquat, maneb), and solvents (e.g., toluene, trichloroethylene) with neurological 
symptoms characteristic of Parkinson’s disease. Many of the exposures studied have been occupational, and some were acute, rather than lower-level and chronic. Much more extensive research is needed to determine the precise role environmental exposures to these agents may play in prompting Parkinson’s disease.

More substantial evidence links various solvent exposures to other neurological conditions, including cognitive impairments, neuropathy, and what is sometimes called “pseudodementia,” when temporary neurological dysfunction produces symptoms similar to those of dementia.

Organic solvents, including toluene, have also been found to impair color vision, while other solvent exposures have been linked to hearing loss, particularly when combined with noise exposure.

Such exposures have been primarily studied when they occur occupationally, but some epidemiological studies suggest there is also potential for adverse effects from ambient environmental exposures.

Solvent and pesticide exposures have
been linked to neurological disorders.
These solvent and pesticide exposures can, of course, occur at any age. But because the neurological disorders with which they are linked mirror those associated with motor and sensory-function declines of aging, they can be mistaken in diagnosis for the effects of aging or diseases of old age like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

It also appears that long-term non-acute exposures to solvents and pesticides can affect verbal memory, attention, and spatial skills, with effects that may not become apparent until later in life, when they, too, might be confused with or compounded by aging-related conditions.

More subtle environmental exposures are also thought to be implicated in neurological health effects that can manifest later in life. These include exposures to chemicals that may disrupt the normal function of hormones involved in regulating neurological health, chief among them thyroid hormones.

Hormones are intimately involved with neurological function; a normal brain can’t develop without healthy thyroid hormone function, and the fetal brain is extremely receptive to thyroid hormone.

When environmental factors affect thyroid and other hormones, the result can be health effects associated with conditions that impair neurological function.

For example, there is evidence that exposure to persistent organic pollutants including dioxins and certain polychlorinated biphenyls, halogenated flame retardants, and pesticides can produce hormonally mediated effects that promote obesity and diabetes, which increase risk for vascular health problems.

There is also evidence that exposures to some of these same compounds may directly increase risk for hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

These cardiovascular conditions can, in turn, cause less dramatic neurovascular effects that sometimes result in memory loss, or what’s called “vascular dementia,” when reduced blood flow to the brain deprives brain cells of oxygen and causes the equivalent of small strokes.

Evidence of similar effects has been reported for exposure to chemicals that are pervasive due to widespread use but are not environmentally persistent.

Among these is bisphenol A (BPA).

Laura Vandenberg, an assistant professor of environmental health studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explains that numerous animal studies indicate early-life exposure to BPA can produce health effects characteristic of metabolic syndrome.

Individuals with metabolic syndrome are at increased risk for hypertension, with its risk for adverse neurological effects. It is also often hard to exercise for those who are overweight or obese or who have cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Yet aerobic exercise in later life appears to be an essential component of maintaining, if not also enhancing, brain function in older age.

Protective Factors

There is now substantial research investigating how physical activity and exercise affect brain function. This is also the area of research where it is perhaps the easiest to make direct comparisons between animal experiments and human studies.

One focus is to understand the mechanisms by which exercise protects and restores the brain.

Of particular interest is learning how physical exercise increases the production of new neurons, and how that may enhance performance of certain memory functions. Functions of interest include what’s called “relational binding”—for example, remembering the name of a person you recently met and where you met that person.

Physical exercise also appears to enhance “visual pattern separation,” which enables you to distinguish and remember different patterns—a process that increases memory accuracy.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Gas workers may be exposed to dangerous levels of benzene: Study

Gas well workers exposed to benzene
have a higher risk for blood
cancers like leukemia, researchers say.
A new study this month reveals unconventional oil and natural gas workers could be exposed to dangerous levels of benzene, putting them at a higher risk for blood cancers like leukemia.

Benzene is a known carcinogen that is present in fracking flowback water. It’s also found in gasoline, cigarette smoke and in chemical manufacturing.

As a known carcinogen, benzene exposures in the workplace are limited by federal regulations under OSHA. But some oil and gas production activities are exempt from those standards.

The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) worked with industry to measure chemical exposures of workers who monitor flowback fluid at well sites in Colorado and Wyoming.

A summary of the peer-reviewed article was published online this month on a CDC website. In several cases benzene exposures were found to be above safe levels.

The study is unusual in that it did not simply rely on air samples. The researchers also took urine samples from workers, linking the exposure to absorption of the toxin in their bodies. One of the limits of the study includes the small sample size, only six sites in two states.

Dr. Bernard Goldstein from the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health says the study is the first of its kind. Goldstein did not contribute to the study’s research, but he has conducted his own research on benzene. And he’s treated patients exposed to the carcinogen.

“These workers are at higher risk for leukemia,” said Goldstein. “The longer, the more frequently they do this, the more likely they are to get leukemia particularly if the levels are high.”

The study looked at workers who use a gauge to measure the amount of flowback water that returns after a frack job is initiated. A spokeswoman for NIOSH says none of their studies draw any conclusions about exposures to nearby residents, but focus specifically on workers.

But Dr. Goldstein says it shows that there could be potential risks to residents as well.

“We’re not acting in a way to protect the public who are at high risk,” said Goldstein. “And we can’t even tell you who is at high risk. Yet we’re rushing ahead in a situation where all of the data are telling us that there are risks.”

Authors of the NIOSH benzene study said that more research with larger sample sizes should be done, especially since there was so much variation in the levels observed at different times and well sites.

The researchers also listed a number of recommendations for industry to take to reduce benzene levels on the job site. These include changing tank gauging procedures, training workers, limiting exposure times, carrying gas monitors, using respiratory and hand protection, and monitoring exposure levels.

Source: StateImpact

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Friday, September 5, 2014

Paint strippers contain harmful chemicals: EPA

Agency releases three final chemical risk assessments

DCM found in paint strippers poses
health risks to workers and
consumers: EPA risk assessment.
The EPA released three final risk assessments for specific uses of three chemicals found in common household products.

The risk assessment for Dichloromethane (DCM), which is widely used in paint stripping products, indicates health risks to both workers and consumers who use these products, and to bystanders in workplaces and residences where DCM is used.

EPA estimates that more than 230,000 workers nationwide are directly exposed to DCM from DCM-containing paint strippers.

“While EPA continues to support much needed reform of this country’s chemicals management legislation, we are also using our current authorities as effectively as we can, which includes conducting risk assessments on chemicals to determine if they are safe for the public,” said Jim Jones, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

“Our review indicates that the use of DCM in paint strippers pose risks to human health, so EPA is beginning an effort to determine options for addressing the concern.”

Risk assessments for the other two chemicals did not show concerns. The other two looked at ecological risks of antimony trioxide (ATO) used as a synergist in halogenated flame retardants and 1,3,4,6,7,8-Hexahydro-4,6,6,7,8,8,-hexamethylcyclopenta-[γ]-2-benzopyran (HHCB) used as a fragrance ingredient in commercial and consumer products.

These final assessments and the recently released TCE risk assessment, which identified concerns for certain uses, were developed as part of the agency’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Work Plan, which identified chemicals for review and assessment of potential risks to people’s health and the environment.

The risk assessments are based on the best available information and were finalized after careful consideration of comments from the public and experts during an independent, scientific peer review of the assessments.

For DCM, EPA is considering a range of possible voluntary and regulatory actions to address concerns and anticipates conducting a workshop in late fall to engage key stakeholders and the public on potential alternatives and risk reduction approaches.

In the meantime, EPA recommends that consumers check the label to determine if the product contains Dichloromethane or Methylene Chloride. If so, EPA recommends taking precautions that can reduce exposures, such as using the product outside or in an extremely well-ventilated area and wearing protective equipment.

EPA is also currently evaluating risks of another chemical in paint strippers called N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP).

EPA released a draft risk assessment for NMP which identified risks associated with use of NMP-containing paint strippers. EPA does not expect the final risk assessment to significantly change this conclusion, and therefore recommends that those using NMP-containing paint strippers also take measures to minimize exposure.

Source: EPA

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

TCE to be regulated by EPA, unless industries take action

TCE is often used in degreasing
operations and dry cleaning.
The Environmental Protection Agency will regulate uses of trichloroethylene that pose health risks to workers or consumers unless companies voluntarily stop using the solvent or find ways to reduce exposures, according to a senior agency official.

“Voluntary efforts are frequently quicker and more cost-effective than regulations,” Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, director of EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT), said during a recent workshop. “But where we can't do it through voluntary efforts, we will pursue regulations.”

In the U.S., most trichloroethylene is used in refrigerant manufacturing, which poses minimal exposure risks and isn't an application the EPA is focusing on.

The EPA is concerned about worker exposure in commercial degreasing operations and dry cleaning, as well as consumer exposure through various products that contain TCE.

The EPA held a workshop July 29-30 to discuss alternatives to trichloroethylene use as a degreaser. Participants also discussed ways to reduce exposures if the solvent must be used. In future forums, the agency will address TCE alternatives for dry cleaners.

Companies make about 250 million pounds of trichloroethylene in the U.S. or import it into this country annually, said Tala Henry, director of OPPT's Risk Assessment Division. The vast majority, 83.6 percent (209 million pounds), is used to make refrigerants in well-controlled and contained workplace environments, Henry said.

The EPA estimates 14.7 percent (36.75 million pounds) of the remaining trichloroethylene is used as a commercial degreasing solvent, and 1.7 percent (4.25 million pounds) has consumer applications such as automotive degreasing products, home office toner aids, home mirror edge sealant and arts and crafts fixatives or cleaners, Henry said.

Risk assessment identified health concerns

OPPT organized the workshop as its initial response to its analysis of risks TCE poses when used in degreasing, dry cleaning and some arts and crafts applications.

Thousands of workers in small commercial degreasing shops and dry cleaning facilities face an increased risk of contracting cancer and giving birth to children with cardiac or other health problems, OPPT concluded.

Employees who don't work with TCE directly, but work near where it is used, also faced increased health risks, the assessment said.

The offspring of pregnant consumers who inhale brief high concentrations of TCE-containing arts and crafts sprays or other materials may also face risks, the assessment found, although many companies have stopped using TCE in consumer goods, according to information presented at the workshop.

Trichloroethylene is found at more than half of the nation's superfund sites, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which focuses on human health risks of hazardous waste sites.

TCE also is a volatile organic compound and hazardous air pollutant, said Margaret Sheppard, an environmental scientist with EPA's Office of Air and Radiation.

Alternatives for degreasers

Alternative ways of degreasing equipment include water-based cleaners that may contain small amounts of surfactants, rust inhibitors and other compounds; acetone; a coating that could be peeled off to remove contaminants; and frozen crystals of carbon dioxide called “snow.”

Source: Bloomberg News
This article has been edited for length.

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Monday, September 1, 2014

Electronic cigarettes need stronger regulation: WHO

Vapers have become increasingly popular,
yet experts worry about health threats.
Governments should ban the use of electronic cigarettes in public places and outlaw tactics to lure young users, the World Health Organization said in a report that calls for some of the toughest measures yet proposed for the increasingly popular devices.

It also expressed “grave concern” about the growing role of the powerful tobacco industry in the e-cigarette market, warning that the financially powerful companies could come to dominate the new business and use the current tolerance of the new products as a gateway to ensnaring a new generation of smokers at a time when the public health authorities seem to be winning the battle against tobacco.

The proposals by the organization, a United Nations agency, are only recommendations that might have little likelihood of being widely adopted. But health experts said they would serve as an important reference point for policy makers, both nationally and locally, as they try to navigate the complex balance of benefits and risks with very little science on which to base conclusions.

Many health experts welcomed the recommendations, which they said would help guide policy makers around the world as they struggle to keep up with a multibillion-dollar industry.

But some experts said they worried that the proposals were so restrictive that they might undermine the potential benefits of e-cigarettes, which, because they use battery-powered heating units to vaporize a liquid nicotine solution rather than burn tobacco, might not expose users to as many hazards as conventional cigarettes.

Some experts have even argued that e-cigarettes have the potential to drastically reduce rates of smoking, one of the biggest causes of preventable death worldwide, and so should not be overregulated.

But in its report, the organization said that because there were still too many uncertainties surrounding e-cigarettes, which have been on the market for less than a decade, their use indoors should be banned “until exhaled vapor is proven to be not harmful to bystanders.”

The report also called for regulation to ensure the products contain a standard dose of nicotine, as the drug content now varies widely among manufacturers. And to stop children from picking up the habit, it said that e-cigarette sales to minors should be banned and that fruity, candy-type flavorings should be prohibited.

The 13-page report, which summarizes the growing body of evidence on the health impact of electronic cigarettes, was prepared by the World Health Organization for the United Nations Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to be held in mid-October in Moscow.

The organization has no power to enforce its recommendations, but delegates to the meeting could, in theory, endorse the measures for inclusion in the treaty or call for yet more studies before taking further action.

The proposals come from the same organization that successfully pushed for the United Nations tobacco treaty, adopted in 2003, that is intended to reduce illnesses and deaths caused by tobacco.

The rapid growth of the market for e-cigarettes has left national regulatory systems and health policy experts struggling to keep up, as old notions about the dangers of tobacco and smoking are posed in a new light.

The health body said that there were now 466 brands of e-cigarettes globally, in a market valued last year at $3 billion. The market research firm Euromonitor forecasts sales will swell by a factor of 17 by 2030.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that e-cigarettes may hold promise as smoking cessation aids. But the World Health Organization report noted that there was scant evidence for their effectiveness in helping smokers give up the habit.

“Vapers,” as e-cigarette aficionados are known, have become a potent lobby on behalf of the products. Their support helped the tobacco industry defeat a European Commission proposal that the devices be regulated in Europe as medicines. In February, the European Parliament voted to adopt a set of rules that include a ban on advertising. The tobacco industry is lobbying to water down the measures before they are to go into effect in 2016.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration proposed in April extending its regulation of tobacco products to include e-cigarettes, with a ban on their sale to people under 18. The proposal remains under consideration.

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

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