Top 10 Selections: December 2013

For this Top 10 list from the last quarter of 2013, CHE selected several items in which we perceived clusters of news stories – patterns and connections that we share with our partners and other readers. We offer both the media version and the scientific report when available to make this information most accessible and meaningful to both scientists and the general public. Full journal articles may require purchase or subscription. Comments are invited.

  1. New California chemical flame retardant rules adopted
    The flame retardant story has been ongoing—and in our Top 10 before.  The spotlight directed on this issue by the Chicago Tribune in 2012 precipitated this sweeping change in policy in California. New flammability standards for furniture and other products will allow manufacturers to stop using chemical flame retardants—a big win for public health.
  2. Progress on reducing harm from mercury exposures
    Two news items indicate that awareness of mercury’s toxic effects is becoming more mainstream, with real benefits for people worldwide. This is another big win for health.

    1. New global treaty cuts mercury emissions and releases, sets up controls on products, mines and industrial plants: The Minamata Convention on Mercury—a global, legally binding treaty—was agreed to by governments in January and formally adopted as international law in early October.
    2. Women’s mercury levels dropping: Mercury levels in women of childbearing age dropped by a third in the past decade, a survey by the US Environmental Protection Agency has found. See the report: Trends in Blood Mercury Concentrations and Fish Consumption Among U.S. Women of Childbearing Age: NHANES, 1999-2010.
  3. Fracking sites tied to hormone disruptors
    Surface and ground water samples taken from hydraulic fracking sites in a drilling-dense area of Colorado showed higher levels of estrogenic, anti-estrogenic, androgenic and anti-androgenic activity than reference sites with limited drilling. This research is provocative, suggesting that natural gas drilling operations may result in elevated endocrine-disrupting chemical activity in surface and ground water. See also a response to this study: Oil industry group disputes fracking health study findings.
  4. Oceans in trouble
    Two stories describe deep problems in our oceans, with serious impacts on human and ecological health.

    1. How plastic in the ocean is contaminating your seafood: fish ingest and absorb into their tissue a “slew of synthetic and organic pollutants.” See the ocean study: Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress and a related story that describes a similar issue in fresh water: Scientists turn their gaze toward tiny threats to Great Lakes.
    2. Oceans face ‘deadly trio’ of threats, study says: The world’s oceans are under greater threat than previously believed from a “deadly trio” of global warming, declining oxygen levels and acidification, an international study said on Thursday. See the report: Big Threats: The Main Factors Destroying Ocean Health and a related article: Sea change: food for millions at risk.
  5. Glimmers of hope regarding climate change
    Related to the issue of ocean warming and acidification and much more, a couple of positive developments in response to climate change:

    1. China recognizes the importance of climate change: US academics and think tanks applaude the latest move by California and China to strengthen low carbon development to fight climate change.
    2. US lays out strict limits on coal funding abroad: The United States said in late October it plans to use its leverage within global development banks to limit financing for coal-fired power plants abroad, part of Washington’s international strategy to combat climate change.

    However, see more sobering articles: Greenhouse gas concentrations in atmosphere reach new record, The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability and Diseases on the move because of climate change.

  6. World’s largest cancer database launched
    The online resource, called CanSAR, was developed by a team at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, and contains 1.7 billion experimental results relating to genes, clinical trials and pharmacological data. The environmental health story here is that environmental exposure data, and thus prevention, is not on the radar for this project. With recent reports highlighting the role of environmental exposures in cancer from the President’s Cancer Panel and the Breast Cancer Fund, we wonder how much more useful this database could have been—and could still be—if it cast prevention in a starring role.
  7. Early life exposures and mental health
    With children being diagnosed and medicated at young ages for various mental health issues, identifying potential causes and working toward prevention is all too rarely prioritized. The research here brings to light links between environmental exposures and several mental health outcomes.

    1. Smoking in pregnancy linked to child depression: Children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy have altered brain growth, which may put them at greater risk of anxiety and depression. See the study: Prenatal tobacco exposure and brain morphology: a prospective study in young children.
    2. Air pollution and psychological distress during pregnancy:  Maternal psychological distress combined with exposure to air pollution during pregnancy has an adverse impact on the child’s behavioral development, according to researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. See the study:Prenatal exposure to air pollution, maternal psychological distress, and child behavior.
    3. Transmitting stress response patterns across generations: Offspring born to stressed mothers show stress-induced changes at birth, with altered behavior and gender-related differences that continue into adulthood. See the study: Prereproductive stress to female rats alters corticotropin releasing factor type 1 expression in ova and behavior and brain corticotropin releasing factor type 1 expression in offspring.
    4. Pregnant mother’s stress affects baby’s gut and brain: Pregnant women may pass on the effects of stress to their fetus by way of bacterial changes in their vagina, suggests a study in mice. It may affect how well their baby’s brain is equipped to deal with stress in adulthood.
  8. CDC’s Camp Lejeune study links birth defects to marine base’s drinking water
    The study concludes that babies born to mothers who drank the tap water while pregnant were four times more likely as other women to have such serious birth defects as spina bifida. Babies whose mothers were exposed also had a slightly elevated risk of such childhood cancers as leukemia, according to the results. This study is just the most recent unfolding of a story that involves the US military and its provisions, or lack of them, for military service members and their families as well as its environmental stewardship and transparency in addressing problems. See the study: Evaluation of exposure to contaminated drinking water and specific birth defects and childhood cancers at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina: a case-control study.
  9. Controversy around science review and publication
    Two stories from within the scientific community and one about media reporting on science show weaknesses or distortions within the process of designing, publishing and reporting research studies—studies that we all rely on to guide policy and inform decisions. If we can’t rely on the integrity of the science published, then we are further handicapped in effectively addressing the toughest public health concerns of our times.

    1. GMO study retracted—censorship or caution? A French study in 2012 led by Gilles-Eric Séralini found animals fed Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn had increased mortality and more tumors than a control group. Amid heavy industry criticism, the journal that published the research has retracted the study from its archives. This article looks at the controversy: “Basically what Dr. Séralini did was he did the same feeding study that Monsanto did and published in the same journal eight years prior, and in that study, they used the same number of rats, and the same strain of rats, and came to a conclusion there was no problem. So all of a sudden, eight years later, when somebody does that same experiment, only runs it for two years rather than just 90 days, and their data suggests there are problems, that all of a sudden the number of rats is too small?”
    2. Nobel winner declares boycott of top science journals:  Randy Schekman, a US biologist who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine this year, says pressure to publish in “luxury” journals encourages researchers to cut corners and pursue trendy fields of science instead of doing more important work. Further, some journals favor more sensational stories, further distorting the types of research being conducted.
    3. US science reporters becoming an endangered species: At a time when conversations should be revolving around climate change, energy, natural resources and sustainable development, space for environmental reporting and coverage in the United States seems to be shrinking.
  10. Progressive actions from the FDA
    The US Food and Drug Administration, often spotlighted in the media recently for allowing drugs on the market that have proven unsafe, took three notable actions this quarter to safeguard public health and safety.

    1. FDA issues proposed rule to determine safety and effectiveness of antibacterial soaps: The FDA issued a proposed rule to require manufacturers of antibacterial hand soaps and body washes to demonstrate that their products are safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections.
    2. Phasing out certain antibiotic use in farm animals: The FDA is implementing a voluntary plan with industry to phase out the use of certain antibiotics for enhanced food production. Why is this important? See this article, for example: When antibiotics stop working, here’s what else we’ll lose. A caveat is that the FDA plan is not as strong as the situation calls for: The FDA’s not-really-such-good-news .
    3. FDA takes step to further reduce trans fats in processed foods : FDA announced its preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. See also an interview with Dennis Keefe, PhD, Director of the Office of Food Additive Safety at the FDA, about the evidence underlying this decision and the implications for clinicians: Removing trans fats from foods: the FDA’s view.

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