This is the last of CHE’s public quarterly Top 10 lists. We have selected studies and issues that we feel are significant in the field of environmental health, either because of their impact, their implications or their insight. Topics are listed in no particular order. Comments are welcome, as is always true with our blog posts. Corrected in an update 1/6/2016.
written by Elise Miller, EdM
At a funder-organized meeting I attended some years ago, a woman native to Hawai’i spoke about the difference between stewardship and kinship when considering environmental concerns. She said, “In my community we do not see ourselves as stewards of what is around us. Instead we are kin.” That simple reframing spoke volumes about how different cultures define the relationship between humans and environment. The predominant Western perception is that people are essentially separate from the environment and thus we need to oversee it. We are the deciders in terms of how to use and interact with what is outside ourselves—what is nonhuman. Many native cultures, however, have long held that we are inextricably embedded in the environment, and the environment is embedded in us. We are kin, not overseers.
These are CHE’s picks for the most significant stories, studies and developments in environmental health during the last quarter:
- The role of air pollution regulation in reducing morbidity or mortality
Several studies show substantial benefit from reducing pollution.
- Duke scientists report air pollution controls linked to lower NC death rates: Stronger emission controls in North Carolina may have saved lives by reducing deaths from respiratory illness, according to an academic study. The study: Long-term dynamics of death rates of emphysema, asthma, and pneumonia and improving air quality.
- Lowering coal-fired power plant emissions may have saved 1,700 lives in one year: Scientists assessed the effects of one state’s prescient restrictions on plant emissions. They estimated that the state’s legislation prevented about 1,700 premature deaths in 2012. The study: Health and air quality benefits of policies to reduce coal-fired power plant emissions: a case study in North Carolina.
- Trends of non-accidental, cardiovascular, stroke and lung cancer mortality in Arkansas are associated with ambient PM2.5 reductions: This study provides evidence that the implementation of air pollution regulations has measurable effects on mortality even in regions with high prevalence of major risk factors such as obesity and smoking.
- Clean air halves health costs in Chinese city: Air pollution regulations over the last decade in Taiyuan, China, have substantially improved the health of people living there, accounting for a greater than 50% reduction in costs associated with loss of life and disability between 2001 and 2010. The study: Health benefits of improving air quality in Taiyuan, China.
- Climate change and health
With the UN Climate Summit in September, world attention focused on the climate. These items, a study and two reports, bring a health perspective to the issue.
- Health benefits of reducing emissions outweigh costs involved, study: Cutting carbon emissions from sources like power plants and vehicles can lower asthma rates and other health problems, a new study finds. The study: A systems approach to evaluating the air quality co-benefits of US carbon policies.
- Better Growth, Better Climate: Countries at all income levels have the opportunity to build lasting economic growth and at the same time reduce the immense risk of climate change.
- Acting Now For Better Health: A 30% Reduction Target for EU Climate Policy: This report quantifies the health benefits for Europeans of stronger EU action on climate change for both the EU and different member states.
- Few doctors warn expectant mothers about environmental toxics
Doctors regularly counsel expectant mothers about the risks associated with smoking, drinking and poor nutrition during pregnancy. But many obstetricians are reluctant to speak with them about the potential dangers posed by toxic substances in the environment — things like heavy metals, solvents, and pesticides. The study: Counseling patients on preventing prenatal environmental exposures — a mixed-methods study of obstetricians.
See also CHE’s recent call on this topic: Prenatal Exposures: What Do Providers Know?
- New strategies in battle against antibiotic resistance
Two high-level reports outline a series of bold steps aimed at addressing this growing public health threat. The reports: National Strategy for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria and Report to the President on Combating Antibiotic Resistance.
- New test predicts which chemicals could cause cancer
Researchers with Boston University in Massachusetts have developed what they hope will become a simple and inexpensive test to determine the cancer-causing potential of tens of thousands of chemicals. The study: Genomic models of short-term exposure accurately predict long-term chemical carcinogenicity and identify putative mechanisms of action.
- TSCA reform developments
- Senate efforts to reach deal on chemical regulations fail: Efforts to reach a compromise on legislation to overhaul decades- old chemical regulations have failed — meaning there won’t be any changes until the next Congress.
- Boxer releases draft TSCA bill after compromise fizzles, lists changes needed to win her support: A key Democratic senator — and the leading opponent of a bill to revamp the nation’s chemical management system that’s favored by the chemical industry — put out her own proposal late yesterday hours after an effort to broker a deal on a new draft collapsed.
- Chemical giants want stronger federal law. The powerful chemical industry is putting its lobbying muscle behind legislation that would establish standards for chemicals used in products from household goods to cellphones and plastic water bottles – but also make it tougher for states to enact their own regulations.
- New insights on environmental factors in diabetes and metabolic syndrome
- Persistent organic pollutants (POPs)
- Strong associations between the pesticide hexachlorocyclohexane and type 2 diabetes in Saudi adults
- Prospective associations between persistent organic pollutants and metabolic syndrome: a nested case-control study
- Polychlorinated biphenyl exposure and glucose metabolism in Danish children aged 9 years
- Air pollution
- Early-life exposures
- Shift work
- Persistent organic pollutants (POPs)
- More evidence for PBDEs as neurotoxicants: cohort study corroborates earlier findings
Children from the Midwest involved in a prospective study are the third U.S. birth cohort to show strikingly consistent associations between prenatal exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants and impaired performance on neurodevelopment tests later in childhood. The study: Prenatal polybrominated diphenyl ether exposures and neurodevelopment in U.S. children through 5 years of age: the HOME study.
- Health impacts on embryonic and/or neurological development of electromagnetic fields
Much of the concern around magnetic and electromagnetic fields has focused on cancer and reproductive harm, but this collection of studies show effects on neurological development or performance.
- Correlation between exposure to magnetic fields and embryonic development in the first trimester: Embryonic bud length was inversely associated with maternal daily magnetic field exposure level; the association was statistically significant at the time-weighted-average and 75th percentile of MF exposure levels.
- Autism-relevant social abnormalities in mice exposed perinatally to extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields: We concluded that these results are supportive of the hypothesis of a causal link between exposure to ELF-EMF and ASD; however, replications of the study with further tests are recommended.
- Subacute exposure to 50-Hz electromagnetic fields affect prenatal and neonatal mice’s motor coordination: Results from the rotarod experiments demonstrated a pronounced deficit in the learning abilities of the prenatal exposed groups, but no pronounced effect was observed for the neonatal exposed group.
- Spatial learning, monoamines and oxidative stress in rats exposed to 900 MHz electromagnetic field in combination with iron overload: These results show that there is an impact of EMF on the brain and cognitive processes but this impact is revealed only in a task exploiting spontaneous exploratory activity. In contrast, there are no synergistic effects between EMF and a high content of iron in the brain.
- Nonthermal effects of lifelong high-frequency electromagnetic field exposure on social memory performance in rats: At 6 months of age, Global System for Mobile Communications-, but not Universal Mobile Telecommunications System-, exposed male adults showed a memory performance deficit.
- Simultaneous exposure to MRI-related static and low-frequency movement-induced time-varying magnetic fields affects neurocognitive performance: A double-blind randomized crossover study: Neurocognitive effects were only observed when simultaneously exposed to static magnetic stray fields and time-varying magnetic fields (TVMF) from a 7 T MRI scanner. Therefore, exposure to TVMF seems essential in eliciting the neurocognitive effects in our present study and, presumably, previous experiments.
- Air pollution’s interaction with social and economic factors
These studies show that not only is air pollution a problem, but its effects are unevenly distributed, with a greater burden on those facing other stressors.
- Fine particulate matter air pollution and blood pressure: the modifying role of psychosocial stress: These results suggest that psychosocial stress may increase vulnerability to the hypertensive effects of PM2.5.
- Burning wood indoors to cook raises health risks for billions: Indoor air pollution from burning fuels such as wood to heat or light homes or cook is putting nearly three billion people worldwide at risk of ill health and early death, new research suggests. The study: Respiratory risks from household air pollution in low and middle income countries.
- Chronic air pollution and social deprivation as modifiers of the association between high temperature and daily mortality: We found that chronic air pollution exposure is an effect modifier of the association between daily temperature and mortality, as well as between social deprivation, and mortality. We found a potential interactive effect between social deprivation and chronic exposure with regards to air pollution in the mortality-temperature relationship.
For the third quarter of 2013, CHE has selected stories and studies that come from a wide range of environmental health topics. Comments are welcome.
- Drug-resistant ‘superbugs’ deemed urgent threats: US report
“For organism after organism, we’re seeing this steady increase in resistance rates,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a telephone interview. “We don’t have new drugs about to come out of the pipeline. If and when we get new drugs, unless we do a better job of protecting them, we’ll lose those, also.” This is not a new issue, but it’s gaining substantially greater press.
[See the CDC report: Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013]
- Journal editors trade blows over toxicology
Leading toxicologists and endocrinologists have been trading barbs in the pages of respected journals over ‘endocrine disrupters’—chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), that affect the endocrine system and have been linked to developmental problems in humans.
[See the editorials: Scientifically unfounded precaution drives European Commission’s recommendations on EDC regulation, while defying common sense, well-established science and risk assessment principles; Policy decisions on endocrine disruptors should be based on science across disciplines: a response to Dietrich et al.; Transparency and translation of science in a modern world and Science and policy on endocrine disrupters must not be mixed: a reply to a “common sense” intervention by toxicology journal editors plus The 2013 Berlaymont Declaration on Endocrine Disrupters and analyses and commentary: Eight questions for toxicologists against proposals for new EU chemicals laws; EDCs: negotiating the precautionary principle and Special report: scientists critical of EU chemical policy have industry ties]
- Air pollution responsible for more than 2 million deaths worldwide each year, experts estimate
Co-author of the study, Jason West, from the University of North Carolina, said: “Our estimates make outdoor air pollution among the most important environmental risk factors for health. Many of these deaths are estimated to occur in East Asia and South Asia, where population is high and air pollution is severe.”
[See the study: Global premature mortality due to anthropogenic outdoor air pollution and the contribution of past climate change]
- American Academy of Pediatrics demands FCC protect children from cell phone & wireless radiation
The American Academy of Pediatrics submitted a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging “the FCC to adopt radiation standards” that 1) protect children’s health and well-being from radiation emitted by cell phones and other wireless devices; 2) reflect how people actually use their cell phones; and 3) provide sufficient information that enables consumers to make informed decisions when they purchase mobile phones. CHE considers this noteworthy because of AAP’s stature.
- New findings about arsenic: These items reveal several new concerning health effects from arsenic, an interaction between arsenic and estrogen, and a promising treatment for arsenic-contaminated soil.
- Contaminant found in most US rice causes genetic damage: A study has shown the first direct link between rice consumption and arsenic-induced genetic damage. [See the study: High arsenic in rice is associated with elevated genotoxic effects in humans and a related announcement: FDA explores impact of arsenic in rice]
- Drinking arsenic-laced water is like smoking for decades, study finds: The researchers found that people drinking water with dangerous levels of arsenic had decreased lung capacities. The effect appeared even when the researchers controlled for people’s ages, genders, smoking habits and other traits that affect lung capacity. The more arsenic the researchers found in the volunteers’ bodies, the smaller the volunteers’ lung capacity. [See the study: Arsenic exposure and impaired lung function: findings from a large population-based prospective cohort study]
- Arsenic immunotoxicity: a review: Overall, the data show that chronic exposure to arsenic has the potential to impair vital immune responses which could lead to increased risk of infections and chronic diseases, including various cancers.
- The arsenic in our drinking water: Long famed for its homicidal toxicity at high doses, a number of studies suggest that arsenic is an astonishingly versatile poison, able to do damage even at low doses. Chronic low-dose exposure has been implicated not only in respiratory problems in children and adults, but in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancers of the skin, bladder and lung.
- Low arsenic levels linked with heart disease: Exposure to even low levels of arsenic in drinking water and food may increase the risk of developing, and dying from, heart disease, a new study suggests. [See the study: Association between exposure to low to moderate arsenic levels and incident cardiovascular disease: a prospective cohort study]
- Researchers find cancer risks double when two carcinogens present at ‘safe’ levels: New research conducted by Texas Tech University scientists has found that low doses of both chemicals together [arsenic and estrogen]—even at levels low enough to be considered “safe” for humans if they were on their own—can cause cancer in prostate cells. [See the study: Chronic exposure to arsenic, estrogen, and their combination causes increased growth and transformation in human prostate epithelial cells potentially by hypermethylation-mediated silencing of MLH1]
- Friendly bacteria to detox arsenic: A new study has identified bacterial strains capable of oxidising toxic arsenic into a less toxic form, offering a feasible and affordable solution to the problem of arsenic in soil and water. [See the study: Arsenic-tolerant, arsenite-oxidising bacterial strains in the contaminated soils of West Bengal, India]
- Milestone study probes cancer origin
The international team of researchers was looking for the causes of certain mutations as part of the largest-ever analysis of cancer genomes. The well-known ones such as UV damage and smoking mutate the DNA, increasing the odds of cancer. But each also leaves behind a unique hallmark—a piece of “genetic graffiti”—that shows if smoking or UV radiation has mutated the DNA. Researchers, led by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK, hunted for more examples of “graffiti” in 7,042 samples taken from the 30 most common cancers. The ability to identify the specific cause of a mutation could change cancer litigation and policy profoundly.
[See also Towards incorporating epigenetic mechanisms into carcinogen identification and evaluation]
- New findings on brain development and mental health: This selection of studies provide new insights on environmental contributors to mental health: food, lead, tobacco use and antibiotic use.
- Early ‘junk food’ exposure risks kids’ mental health
Along with the myriad negative effects on physical health, “junk food” during pregnancy and in early childhood is linked to a significantly increased risk for poor mental health, including anxiety and depression, in very young children, new research shows. [See the study: Maternal and early postnatal nutrition and mental health of offspring by age 5 years: a prospective cohort study]
- Study links high lead levels to anxiety, alcohol problems: Childhood lead exposure in the South Australian city of Port Pirie has been linked to psychological illness and substance abuse problems in adulthood. [See the study: Prospective associations between childhood low-level lead exposure and adult mental health problems: the Port Pirie cohort study and more about the Birth to Now Study]
- Anxiety in your head could come from your gut: Scientists think there may be a link between what’s in your gut and what’s in your head, suggesting that bacteria may play a role in disorders such as anxiety, schizophrenia and autism. The foods and drugs that we use influence our gut bacteria, and so this is in part an environmental health issue.
- 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]
- Early ‘junk food’ exposure risks kids’ mental health
- Fukushima water leaks: new source of health concerns?
The radioactive water leak from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant—which was upgraded this week from level 1 to level 3, indicating the leak is a “serious incident”—has some wondering whether the contaminated water could be a source of concern for human health. Fukushima is a nuclear power catastrophe that refuses to be resolved, which could have broad implications throughout the industry and the world.
[See also Oceanic plume of radioactivity predicted to reach US by 2014 and the related study: Multi-decadal projections of surface and interior pathways of the Fukushima Cesium-137 radioactive plume and Pollution, Fukushima radiation tracked by environmental websites]
- Report: environmental chemicals are a pregnancy risk
From mercury to pesticides, Americans are exposed daily to environmental chemicals that could harm reproductive health, the nation’s largest groups of obstetricians and fertility specialists said Monday. Having the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists publish an opinion of this nature raises the level of awareness and conversation around this issue.
[See the ACOG Committee Opinion: Exposure to Toxic Environmental Agents]
- Wal-Mart announces phase-out of hazardous chemicals
Prodded by health and environmental advocates, Wal-Mart announced Thursday that it will require suppliers to disclose and eventually phase out 10 hazardous chemicals from the fragrances, cosmetics, household cleaners and personal care products at its stores. Because Wal-Mart, by virtue of its market share, can shift industry-wide behavior of suppliers, this announcement could be a game-changer.
[See responses from advocacy groups on the Safe Markets site]