CHE’s Top 10 Environmental Health Stories, October through December 2012

For our second quarterly Top 10 list, we again selected news articles, journal articles, policy decisions and events that we consider “game-changers” in one way or another: they all have had a significant impact, or are likely to have a significant impact on thinking and action in the field; they’ve changed the conversation on a topic or expanded the scope of the conversation to a new audience or awareness; and/or they are likely to be pivotal in defining a new trend.

These were selected from several dozen candidates for this list:

  1. Workshop ‘Low Dose Effects and Non-Monotonic Dose Responses for Endocrine Active Chemicals’
    This groundbreaking international meeting in September moved the conversation about low-dose effects from endocrine disrupting chemicals significantly forward in re-examining the ways in which chemicals are tested for endocrine disrupting properties and how risk to human health is managed.
    See also a report from the World Health Organization: Endocrine disrupters and child health; movement from the EPA: EPA responds to scientists’ concerns, initiates new effort for low-dose, hormone-like chemicals and an article in Nature magazine: Toxicology: the learning curve.
  2. Designing endocrine disruption out of the next generation of chemicals
    The Tiered Protocol for Endocrine Disruption (TiPED) was developed with the expertise and oversight of leaders in both green chemistry and the environmental health sciences. According to Pete Myers, one of the paper’s authors, TiPED will be used to help “chemists design inherently safer chemicals” rather than focus “on the regulation of existing chemicals.” He added, “It’s a way to get around the current conundrum that existing replacements for problematic chemicals often turn out to be just as bad as what they are designed to replace, and we usually know a lot less about them….By obtaining information about inherent toxicity earlier in the design process, chemists can avoid spending time and money on compounds that ultimately may prove problematic.”
    See a related article: Barriers to the implementation of green chemistry in the US.
  3. Hurricane Sandy’s causes and effects
    Whether Hurricane Sandy was a manifestation of climate change or just an anomaly was the focus of some significant discussion. See an analysis from Scientific American: Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy? Several articles looked at Sandy’s and similar storms’ short-term and long-term effects, including the increase of exposures to toxic chemicals, on health and wellness. Here are a few:

    1. Sandy stirs toxic-site worry
    2. The inter-connections between health and climate change
    3. Connecting health and environment.
  4. An exploratory study of air quality near natural gas operations
    This study confirmed what some residents near natural gas mining sites have claimed for years – that drilling activity (also known as fracking) releases toxic chemicals into the air, sometimes at concentrations known to impact fetal development. The study also found high concentrations of methylene chloride, which was not listed as an ingredient in any of the products reported by the natural gas industry, indicating perhaps that full chemical disclosure is needed.
    See also related articles: Fracking secrets by thousands keep U.S. clueless on wells and Wyoming groundwater again tests positive for fracking-related chemicals on Wind River Reservation, which reported the first evidence of fracking’s contamination of groundwater.
  5. France bans BPA in food packaging and New York county first to ban BPA in receipts
    These bans are significant in helping to reduce exposures to BPA, which studies continue to link to a plethora of health issues:

    1. Bisphenol A exposure increases liver fat in juvenile fructose-fed Fischer 344 rats
    2. The environmental obesogen bisphenol A promotes adipogenesis by increasing the amount of 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 in the adipose tissue of children
    3. 3D Models of MBP, a biologically active metabolite of bisphenol A, in human estrogen receptor α and estrogen receptor β
    4. Maternal urinary bisphenol A during pregnancy and maternal and neonatal thyroid function in the CHAMACOS Study
    5. Urinary bisphenol A concentrations and implantation failure among women undergoing in vitro fertilization
    6. Bisphenol A and metabolic syndrome: results from NHANES. Urinary BPA levels are positively associated with metabolic syndrome, in a representative sample of US adults and independent of traditional risk factors for metabolic syndrome.

    The emerging science makes it clear that removing BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups is not sufficient, for these do not reduce exposures of pregnant and breastfeeding women to this chemical. To protect children from exposure before birth and during breastfeeding, reducing adult exposures is required.

  6. The merits of organically grown food
    A review in early September in the Annals of Internal Medicine drew a lot of attention, and a lot of fire, for its conclusions that “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” See these items for a larger view:

    1. An analysis of the AIM study: Organic food conclusions don’t tell the whole story
    2. A study in Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences  that came to a different conclusion: Agroecosystem management and nutritional quality of plant foods: the case of organic fruits and vegetables
    3. A related report from the American Academy of Pediatrics: Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages
    4. Pesticides Action Network North America report: A Generation in Jeopardy: How Pesticides Are Undermining Our Children’s Health & Intelligence
    5. A statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health: Pesticide exposure in children
    6. A related study from Critical Reviews in Toxicology: Neurobehavioral problems following low-level exposure to organophosphate pesticides: a systematic and meta-analytic review
  7. Toxic couches? Flame retardants on the rise in furniture, study finds
    Bans on PBDEs in furniture have been a huge legislative victory, and the levels of these particular flame retardants are now substantially lower in new furniture. However, the banned chemicals have simply been replaced by other chemicals that are also beginning to show adverse health effects.
    See the related journal articles: Novel and high volume use flame retardants in US couches reflective of the 2005 pentaBDE phase out; After the PBDE phase-out: a broad suite of flame retardants in repeat house dust samples from California and  Accumulation and endocrine disrupting effects of the flame retardant mixture Firemaster(®) 550 in rats: an exploratory assessment.
  8. Most doctors don’t warn pregnant patients about environmental risks
    Though the need for doctors to warn pregnant patients about the potential health impacts of exposures to chemicals has been discussed for decades, this practice does not appear to be standard in clinical settings. As the study authors conclude, “prevention of developmental exposures to environmental chemicals would benefit greatly from the active participation of reproductive health professionals in clinical and policy arenas.”
  9. Big sugar’s sweet little lies
    “Beginning in the 1970s, the sugar industry used Big Tobacco-style tactics to ensure that government agencies would dismiss troubling health claims against their products. So effective were the Sugar Association’s efforts that, to this day, no consensus exists about sugar’s potential dangers.” This article takes the discussion of sugar to a new level because it highlights how this industry, even in the face of the obesity and diabetes epidemics, continues to prioritize its bottom line over human health. Similarly, high fructose corn syrup’s health effects continue to come to light, such as in this article: Link between high fructose corn syrup intake and diabetes prevalence. Because both sugar and high fructose corn syrup are so common in foods, consumers have to go to great lengths, even if they shop at “health food” stores, to avoid them. These articles suggest that a serious national conversation around the effects of these ingredients, and how to ensure foods contain far fewer of them, needs to be prioritized.
  10. Radiation, cell phones and health
    A 2012 update to the Bioinitiative Report highlights that “bioeffects are clearly established and occur at very low levels of exposure to electromagnetic fields and radiofrequency radiation.” Related to exposures from cell phones, the American Academy of Pediatrics has endorsed cell phone safety legislation.
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