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.
It isn’t often that a class of chemicals is the subject of three independent news items on the same day, but the perfluorinated chemicals that have helped give Teflon and Stainmaster their nonstick properties received considerable attention yesterday.
written by Elise Miller, EdM
When many of us think of air pollution, images often come to mind of smoke stacks and diesel trucks spewing dirty fumes or thick brown smog enveloping cities. We think of people coughing or wearing masks on their faces to breathe, kids being rushed to emergency rooms for asthma attacks. These respiratory and lung conditions are of course part of our global reality today—and sadly so.
But I was truly struck by the plethora of new studies published during the last quarter implicating air pollution in a litany of other health outcomes. These conditions, not often associated with exposures to air particulates and other toxic airborne matter, include diabetes, autoimmune diseases, various forms of cancer, mental health, brain function, and birth defects. Nancy Hepp, CHE’s Research and Communications Specialist, compiled a long list of relevant studies (below) that appeared in journals and other media outlets from April through June 2015 highlighting these concerns.
The ten biggest news or research stories of the last quarter, in CHE’s view.
- Climate Change
Climate change continues to receive attention, from top-level activities to broad new investigations of health impacts.
- Pope delivers strong message on climate change in encyclical ‘Laudato Si’‘: In his much-awaited encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis offered a broad and uncompromising indictment of the global market economy, accusing it of plundering the Earth at the expense of the poor and of future generations. The encyclical: Laudato Si’.
- Obama Administration announces actions to protect communities from the health impacts of climate change at White House summit: The White House hosted a first-ever Summit on Climate Change and Health, featuring the Surgeon General, to stimulate a national dialogue on preventing the health impacts of climate change. See the speaker presentations and other videos on the White House blog.
- EPA carbon emissions plan could save thousands of lives, study finds: New carbon emissions standards that were proposed last year for coal-fired power plants in the United States would substantially improve human health and prevent more than 3,000 premature deaths per year, according to a new study. The study: US power plant carbon standards and clean air and health co-benefits.
- Climate change set to take major toll on economy and children’s health, experts warn: Researchers have only scratched the surface of the complex effects climate change will have on children’s health and the economy, panelists said at a climate change forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
- Cancer risk from chemical cocktail
Scientists looked at 85 chemicals not usually considered to have a role in causing cancer and found that 50 could play a part. The chemicals, at everyday exposure levels, were found to support mechanisms in the body that helped cancer to develop. They included chemicals found in items such as mobile phones, detergents and cooking pans, and pesticides used on fruits and vegetables. The study: Assessing the carcinogenic potential of low-dose exposures to chemical mixtures in the environment: the challenge ahead.
- Weed killers, bee killers, sperm killers?
Research on a variety of pesticides is finding new effects and driving decisions to reduce use.
- Controversial insecticide use rises as farmers douse seeds: Since the early 2000s, US farmers have dramatically increased their use of controversial insecticides suspected of playing a role in the decline of pollinating insects, such as honeybees. The report: Large-scale deployment of seed treatments has driven rapid increase in use of neonicotinoid insecticides and preemptive pest management in U.S. field crops.
- Announcing new steps to promote pollinator health: In June 2014, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum directing an interagency task force to create a Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. In May, under the leadership of the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of Agriculture, the task force released its strategy. A summary and analysis: US plan to help bees focuses on more land.
- Pesticides on vegetables and fruit linked to lower sperm counts: A study found that those who consume fruits and vegetables that are known to have the highest quantity of pesticides have sperm counts that are 50 percent lower than those who eat the smallest amount of these items. The study: Fruit and vegetable intake and their pesticide residues in relation to semen quality among men from a fertility clinic.
- Health Canada looks to re-label weed killer Roundup: Health Canada announced on Monday that it will begin public consultations to update the product label to reduce human and environmental exposure. The consultation webpage: Consultation on Glyphosate, Proposed Re evaluation Decision PRVD2015-01
- France bans sale of weedkiller Roundup over UN fears it may be carcinogenic: French Ecology Minister Segolene Royal announced Sunday a ban on the sale of popular weedkiller Roundup from garden centres, which the UN has warned may be carcinogenic.
- Europe starts taking glyphosate off the shelves: Switzerland’s two largest retailers, Migros and Coop, have been listening to their customers and are already taking retail products containing glyphosate off their shelves. The Swiss retail withdrawal of glyphosate follows the announcement by German retail giant REWE that it will complete its withdrawal of glyphosate products from its 350 gardening outlets by September this year, at the latest.
- Chemical reactions: glyphosate and the politics of chemical safety: The IARC’s evaluation presents a dilemma for regulatory institutions. If they explicitly accept the validity of the IARC’s findings (and therefore acknowledge the choice-laden nature of safety evaluation) this might invite scrutiny and criticism of their own assessments, and regulatory decisions.
- Fracking/drilling and health
Breathing problems, cancer, lower birth weight, earthquakes and other effects inform policy decisions on fracking.
- Contamination and geologic effects
- Fracking chemicals detected in Pennsylvania drinking water: An analysis of drinking water sampled from three homes in Bradford County, Pa., revealed traces of a compound commonly found in Marcellus Shale drilling fluids, according to a study published on Monday. The study: Evaluating a groundwater supply contamination incident attributed to Marcellus Shale gas development.
- New study reveals potential Texas fracking contamination: A new peer-reviewed study reveals potential groundwater contamination in the Barnett Shale, a geological formation that underlies 17 counties in North Texas, including Denton County. But the cause is still under debate. The study: A comprehensive analysis of groundwater quality in the Barnett Shale region.
- Okla. science agency links quakes to oil: The state agency in charge of determining the cause of Oklahoma’s earthquake swarms announced today that it is “very likely” that the shaking has been caused by oil and gas activity. The statement: Statement on Oklahoma Seismicity.
- Health impacts
- Fracking produces air pollution that increases the risk of breathing problems and cancer, study claims: Researchers found that people living within three miles of a fracking site could be exposed to pollution levels that are significantly higher than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems safe. The study: Impact of natural gas extraction on PAH levels in ambient air.
- Lower birth weight associated with proximity of mother’s home to gas wells: Pregnant women living close to a high density of natural gas wells drilled with hydraulic fracturing were more likely to have babies with lower birth weights than women living farther from such wells, according to a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health analysis of southwestern Pennsylvania birth records. The study: Perinatal outcomes and unconventional natural gas operations in southwest Pennsylvania.
- Fracking poses ‘significant’ risk to humans, says new EU report: A major new scientific study has concluded that the controversial gas extraction technique known as fracking poses a “significant” risk to human health and British wildlife, and that an EU-wide moratorium should be implemented. The report: Chemical Pollution from Fracking.
- New York makes fracking ban official: The Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation announced the decision on Monday, saying a ban was the only reasonable alternative after years of exhaustive research and examination of the science and facts.
- Contamination and geologic effects
- DDT in pregnancy may raise breast cancer rates in daughters
The researchers observed a sizable, statistically significant association between in utero DDT exposure and risk of breast cancer in young women and a possible association with more aggressive tumors. These findings are the first ever reported for a prospective observation of a large pregnancy cohort. The study: DDT exposure in utero and breast cancer.
- US government recommends lower level of fluoride in water
For the first time in more than 50 years, the federal government has recommended lowering the level of fluoride in drinking water. The recommendation: U.S. Public Health Service Recommendation for Fluoride Concentration in Drinking Water for the Prevention of Dental Caries.
- Antibiotic use reduction
After decades of warnings, the issue of antibiotic overuse and resistance is gaining traction.
- White House opens ‘superbug’ summit, orders federal cafeterias to use meat raised with ‘responsible antibiotic use’: President Obama kicked off the day-long, mostly-closed-door meeting by directing federal departments and agencies to begin a process to buy meat and poultry raised with “responsible antibiotic use.”
- What Tyson’s pledge to stop using human antibiotics in chicken means for the future of superbugs: The Natural Resources Defense Council called the Tyson news a “tipping point for getting the chicken industry off antibiotics.” Yet when it comes to protecting against antibiotic resistance, critics say the change may be too little and too late.
- US chemical regulation reform gets boost as House passes TSCA rewrite
The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan bill that would update the nation’s industrial chemicals regulations for the first time in nearly 40-years. The bill—which would make it easier for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to request new safety data on chemicals and regulate chemicals already on the market—takes a narrower approach than a competing bill in the Senate. See analyses of the bill: Who is looking out for the health of America’s children? House chemicals bill favors industry over families and The House passes TSCA reform!
- Parma consensus statement on metabolic disruptors
A multidisciplinary group of experts gathered in Parma, Italy, for a workshop hosted by the University of Parma, May 16-18, 2014, to address concerns about the potential relationship between environmental metabolic disrupting chemicals, obesity and related metabolic disorders.
- Improving population-wide nutrition
US agencies announced nutrition recommendations and a new ban.
- Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee
The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.
- FDA cuts trans fat in processed foods: The US Food and Drug Administration is taking a step to remove artificial trans fat from the food supply within three years. This step is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.
- Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee
This quarter’s selections include a discussion of the role of bad luck in cancer, the continuing saga of federal chemical policy reform, the costs of hormone-disrupting chemicals, a couple of success stories, and plenty of research on the impacts of several common toxics on health. Find out more about many of the Top 10 topics in the new A Story of Health illustrated multimedia eBook developed by CHE and other partners. Through the lives of fictional characters and their families we investigate the multiple environmental factors that influence asthma, developmental disabilities and cancer. Each story features the latest scientific research about disease origin and prevention, key concepts on environmental health, and links to a wide range of additional resources and hundreds of scientific papers.
- The “bad luck” of cancer
A study and its media reporting caused quite a stir among scientists and advocates, with conversation continuing for weeks.
- The study: The bad luck of cancer
- An initial media report: Most cancer types ‘just bad luck’
- Reiterated a few days later in the New York Times: Cancer’s random assault
- Response from Silent Spring Institute: Is cancer just bad luck? We don’t think so.
- Response from CHE: Cancer, Stem Cells, and Bad Luck
- Response from the International Agency for Research on Cancer: Most types of cancer not due to “bad luck”: IARC responds to scientific article claiming that environmental and lifestyle factors account for less than one third of cancers
- Reply by Science Magazine: Backlash greets ‘bad luck’ cancer study and coverage
- Response from Medscape: Why the ‘cancer due to bad luck’ story needs revision
- Response from Natural Resources Defense Council: No, cancer is not mostly bad luck—the role of environmental factors
- Chemical policy legislation introduced
Two new bills have been introduced in Congress to update and reform the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Substantial conversation and analysis has ensued, including these items:
- Udall introduces bill to reauthorize Toxic Substances Control Act
- 697 – Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act introduced by Senator Tom Udall
- 725 – A bill to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act, and for other purposes Introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer
- Safer Chemicals’ Igrejas discusses competing Senate TSCA reform bills
- Eight key questions on chemical safety reform (Environmental Working Group)
- How best to strengthen chemical regulations (New York Times)
- Reducing Our Exposure to Toxic Chemicals: Stronger State Health Protections at Risk in Efforts to Reform Federal Chemical Law (Center for Effective Government)
- The bizarre way the US regulates chemicals—letting them on the market first, then maybe studying them (Washington Post)
- Environmental contributors to autoimmune diseases
While research into the role of environmental contributors to autoimmune diseases is not new, the specifics of contributors and their effects is difficult to pinpoint. We applaud these new discoveries:
- Mercury in seafood may raise risk of autoimmune diseases in women: study: To explore risk factors for autoimmune disorders, the study authors focused on government data that looked at women between the ages of 16 and 49 between 1999 and 2004. The study: Mercury exposure and antinuclear antibodies among females of reproductive age in the United States: NHANES.
- Environmental estrogen bisphenol A and autoimmunity: Here, we review the role of a specific environmental factor, bisphenol A (BPA), in the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases. BPA belongs to the group of environmental estrogens that have been identified as risk factors involved in the development of autoimmune diseases.
- World Trade Center workers at increased risk of developing autoimmune diseases: A new study has found a strong link between prolonged work at the World Trade Center (WTC) site following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the development of various autoimmune diseases including arthritis and lupus. The study: Nested case-control study of selected systemic autoimmune diseases in World Trade Center rescue/recovery workers.
- Maternal intake of fatty acids and their food sources during lactation and the risk of preclinical and clinical type 1 diabetes in the offspring: Maternal consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, during lactation may increase the risk of type 1 diabetes.
- Chemical exposure linked to billions in health care costs
Exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals is likely leading to an increased risk of serious health problems costing at least $175 billion (US) per year in Europe alone, according to a study. The four reports, plus two CHE calls, from the study:
- Estimating burden and disease costs of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the European Union
- Male reproductive disorders, diseases, and costs of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the European Union
- Obesity, diabetes, and associated costs of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the European Union
- Neurobehavioral deficits, diseases and associated costs of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in the European Union
- March 24th call: A High Price to Pay: Burden of Disease and Costs of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals in the European Union
- April 28th call: A High Price to Pay: Obesity, Diabetes, and Associated Costs of Exposure to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals in the European Union
- Concerns about glyphosate and other herbicides
Gyphosate, known by trade names Roundup, Accord, Rodeo and Touchdown, was under fire this quarter by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and several new studies. IARC also classified several other herbicides as to their carcinogenicity.
- International Agency for Research on Cancer: carcinogenicity of several herbicides: A monograph published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has branded the herbicide glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The insecticides malathion and diazinon received the same classification (Group 2A) while the tetrachlorvinphos and parathion were classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B) based on convincing evidence that these agents cause cancer in laboratory animals. The preliminary report: Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate.
- Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases III: manganese, neurological diseases, and associated pathologies: A recent study on cows fed genetically modified Roundup®-Ready feed revealed a severe depletion of serum manganese (Mn). Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup®, has also been shown to severely deplete Mn levels in plants. Here, we investigate the impact of Mn on physiology, and its association with gut dysbiosis as well as neuropathologies such as autism, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, and prion diseases.
- Study links widely used pesticides to antibiotic resistance: A study published by mBio has linked glyphosate and two other widely-used herbicides — 2,4-D and dicamba — to one of the most pressing public health crises of our time: antibiotic resistance. The study: Sublethal exposure to commercial formulations of the herbicides dicamba, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, and glyphosate cause changes in antibiotic susceptibility in Escherichia coli and Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium.
- Drinking well water and occupational exposure to herbicides is associated with chronic kidney disease, in Padavi-Sripura, Sri Lanka: The current study strongly favors the hypothesis that CKDu epidemic among farmers in dry zone of Sri Lanka is associated with, history of drinking water from a well that was abandoned. In addition, it is associated with spraying glyphosate and other pesticides in paddy fields.
- Nation’s biggest furniture retailer drops flame retardants
Ashley Furniture, the nation’s largest furniture retailer, is purging flame retardants from its product lines, the strongest evidence yet that the toxic, ineffective chemicals are on the way out of household couches and chairs. This is a success for public health.
- Developmental origins of health and disease: a paradigm for understanding disease cause and prevention
The evidence in support of the developmental origins of the health and disease paradigm is sufficiently robust and repeatable across species, including humans, to suggest a need for greater emphasis in the clinical area. As a result of these data, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular morbidity, and neuropsychiatric diseases can all be considered pediatric diseases. Understanding the origins of disease is the first step in prevention.
- Effects of arsenic
From blood pressure and heart disease to gestational diabetes, hypothyroidism, chickenpox, early childhood growth, infant mortality and neurobehavioral effects, arsenic is much under investigation. Because arsenic exposure is widespread and often natural in origin, these effects are quite concerning.
- Blood pressure and heart disease:
- Blood pressure changes in relation to arsenic exposure in a US pregnancy cohort: In our US cohort of pregnant women, arsenic exposure was associated with greater increases in blood pressure over the course of pregnancy. These findings may have important implications as even modest increases in blood pressure impact cardiovascular disease risk.
- Blood pressure, left ventricular geometry, and systolic function in children exposed to inorganic arsenic: Early-life exposure to inorganic arsenic was significantly associated with higher blood pressure and left ventricular mass and with lower ejection fraction in our study population of Mexican children.
- Association between lifetime exposure to inorganic arsenic in drinking water and coronary heart disease in Colorado residents: Lifetime exposure to low-level inorganic arsenic in drinking water was associated with increased risk for CHD in this population.
- A nested case-control study indicating heavy metal residues in meconium associate with maternal gestational diabetes mellitus risk: The present work implies that exposure to some of the selected metals (noticeably arsenic) may contribute to maternal gestational diabetes mellitus risk during pregnancy.
- Arsenic exposure, arsenic metabolism, and incident diabetes in the Strong Heart Study: Arsenic metabolism, particularly lower monomethylarsonate percentage, was prospectively associated with increased incidence of diabetes.
- Association of hypothyroidism with low-level arsenic exposure in rural West Texas: The prevalence of hypothyroidism was significantly higher in Hispanics or non-Hispanic whites of this rural cohort than the national prevalence. Measures should be taken to reduce arsenic in drinking water in order to prevent hypothyroidism in rural areas.
- Varicella zoster virus, cause of chicken pox and shingles
- Arsenic exposure and prevalence of the varicella zoster virus in the United States: NHANES (2003-2004 and 2009-2010): In this cross-sectional analysis urinary arsenic was inversely associated with VZV immunoglobulin G seroprevalence in the US population. This finding is in accordance with clinical observations of zoster virus reactivation from high doses of arsenic.
- Pregnancy/infant outcomes
- Association of arsenic with adverse pregnancy outcomes — infant mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis: Arsenic is associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes and infant mortality. The interpretation of the causal association is hampered by methodological challenges and limited studies on dose-response.
- Association between maternal urinary arsenic species and infant cord blood leptin levels in a New Hampshire pregnancy cohort: These results suggest in utero exposure to low levels of arsenic influences cord blood leptin concentration and presents a potential mechanism by which arsenic may impact early childhood growth.
- Neurobehavioral outcomes
- Neurobehavioral effects of arsenic exposure among secondary school children in the Kandal Province, Cambodia: Arsenic-exposed school children from the Kandal Province of Cambodia with a median hair As level of 0.93 µg/g among those from the highly contaminated study site, showed clear evidence of neurobehavioral effects.
- Blood pressure and heart disease:
- BPA and neurodevelopment
- BPA exposure linked to autism spectrum disorder, study reports: A newly published study is the first to report an association between bisphenol A (BPA), a common plasticizer used in a variety of consumer food and beverage containers, with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children. The study: Bisphenol A exposure in children with autism spectrum disorders.
- Bisphenol A exposure and behavioral problems among inner city children at 7-9 years of age: These results suggest BPA exposure may affect childhood behavioral outcomes in a sex-specific manner and differently depending on timing of exposure.
- Autistic features associated with prenatal exposure to endocrine disruptors: Exposure during pregnancy to a combination of fire retardant chemicals and phthalate chemicals, which are present in the average home, may contribute to autistic-like behaviors in offspring, according to a new Canadian study.
- Cleaner air linked to bigger, stronger lungs in Southern California children
Cleaner air has for the first time been linked to bigger and stronger lungs among school-age children, according to findings from a two-decade study in Southern California. This is another success story. The study: Association of improved air quality with lung development in children.
written by Nancy Hepp, MS
Research and Communications Specialist
Nathan Seppa at ScienceNews published a summary of the state of knowledge about the effects of chronic stress on health. The summary draws from research on the effects of stress on heart attacks, stroke, cancer, premature childbirth, type 2 diabetes, telomere length, asthma and even the common cold. Seppa writes:
Chronic stress is the kind that comes from recurring pain, post-traumatic memories, unemployment, family tension, poverty, childhood abuse, caring for a sick spouse or just living in a sketchy neighborhood. Nonstop, low-grade stress contributes directly to physical deterioration, adding to the risk of heart attack, stroke, infection and asthma. Even recovery from cancer becomes harder.
Scientists have now identified many of the biological factors linking stress to these medical problems. The evidence centers on nagging inflammation and genetic twists that steer cells off a healthy course, resulting in immune changes that allow ailments to take hold or worsen.
written by Elise Miller, MEd
Hundreds of events were organized worldwide in recognition of World Cancer Day last week. The theme this year: ‘It’s not beyond us’. CHE Partner Génon K. Jensen, Executive Director of Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) gave the keynote address at Malta’s World Cancer Day event, noting that few countries are currently calling for strengthened environmental policies to help prevent cancer. Jensen also observed that only within the last 18 months has “the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) cancer agency (IARC) officially recognized air pollution as a contributor to lung cancer…and a positive association between higher levels of air pollution and an increased risk of bladder cancer.” Given the scientific evidence that has been mounting for decades linking pollution and other chemical exposures with various forms of cancer, this acknowledgement of environmental contributors to cancer seems a terribly long time in coming, particularly for those who are debilitated and die from these conditions every year.
Sadly, worldwide statistics regarding cancer only continue to look worse in the coming years. WHO states that deaths from cancer are projected to rise to over 11 million by 2030, up from 8.2 million in 2012, and the number of new cases each year is expected to increase by 70% in the next two decades. In the US, federal research dollars for cancer have remained essentially flat in recent years (and are likely not to increase given current Congressional priorities). Most of those funds go to study cancer treatments and screening technology, not prevention.