written by Laura N. Vandenberg, PhD
Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director of Environmental Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences
Laura Vandenberg (Credit: umass.edu)
Reprinted with permission from Environmental Health News
Cancer. Diabetes. Autism. Infertility. ADHD. Asthma. As the rates of these diseases increase over time, the public and researchers alike have focused on the role the environment might play in their cause and progression. Scientists in the field of environmental health sciences are not satisfied just to know that the environment contributes to human disease – they want to know how.
This week [ScienceSeptember 18-20], researchers, public health advocates, government officials, and industry spokespersons will meet at National Institutes of Health (NIH) to celebrate 25 years of scientific research on one aspect of environmental health: endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These are compounds that alter the way hormones act in the body, often by mimicking or blocking their actions. Just a few examples of widely used consumer products that contain EDCs are plastics, electronics, flooring, some personal care products, and furniture treated with some flame retardants.
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.
- 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.
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]
- 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]
Director of CHE Special Projects
Read more about this workshop held September 11 – 13, 2012.
The official workshop report will be published in a few weeks by workshop organizers, but I want to give you a sense right away of the nature and content of discussions.
First, the workshop successfully brought together experts and researchers in toxicology, endocrinology and epidemiology with European risk assessment regulators to discuss the implications of low dose effects and non-monotonic dose response curves for risk/safety assessment—or, endocrinology meets toxicology. If exposures to toxic chemicals at the low levels currently measured in the environment can cause harm through endocrine disruption, then risk assessment may need to change its approaches to toxicity testing.
Members from the chemical industry and the public interest community also participated in the workshop discussions, but the focus of discussion for all was the possibility of integration of the principles of endocrinology into current risk assessment practices and whether such integration requires a major overhaul of standard risk assessment or whether a few tweaks here and there might be sufficient.
Sharyle Patton, Lisette van Vliet and Genón Jenson
A major step forward in the discussion and development of policy to regulate chemicals with endocrine disrupting properties occurred last week when the European Commission released an important report, “State of the Art of the Assessment of Endocrine Disruptors.” The voluminous report, written by Professor Andreas Kortenkamp and a specially constituted research team, was contracted by the Directorate-General of Environment in the European Commission, a unit which is responsible for the overarching strategy document guiding European Union actions on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). The report will inform both the revision of this strategy, now 12 years old, and the Commission’s deliberations on how to improve existing and develop specific future EU regulatory processes that define, identify and regulate EDCs. In particular, the report will serve to inform the EU’s work over the next two years to develop the criteria that will be used to identify and regulate hormone disruptors under the EU Pesticides and Biocides laws, and to some extent REACH *(the so-called industrial chemicals regulation). Later these criteria will potentially be deployed in other relevant EU laws, such as those on cosmetics, food contact materials, and toys safety.
Elise Miller, MEd
A major study released earlier this week in Pediatrics concluded that girls are starting puberty earlier than ever. (See the New York Times article or the full text of the study). Though early puberty is influenced by multiple and interacting factors, including heredity, socioeconomic status, obesity, premature birth, formula feeding and more, synthetic chemicals, particularly those that can disrupt our bodies’ normal hormonal messaging systems from conception onward, are increasingly considered contributors to this growing concern.
Controversy about whether earlier puberty was in fact happening was significantly heightened after a study suggesting similar findings was published in Pediatrics in 1997. However, questions about the association between chemical exposures and health problems from breast cancer to reproductive abnormalities can easily be dated back to the time of Rachel Carson’s research. Dr. Sandra Steingraber’s 2007 report, “The Falling Age of Puberty: What We Know, What We Need to Know,” commissioned by the Breast Cancer Fund, was based on a comprehensive review of the literature on the timing of puberty. Given the scientific evidence, the report recommended a set of actions—from improving the built environment to encourage physical activity to making healthy food more accessible to reducing the use of endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as phthalates and bisphenol A, in consumer products. What is notable about these recommendations is that they could curb not only the worrisome implications of earlier and earlier puberty, but a plethora of other chronic diseases and disabilities that currently plague our country.
Given it is far harder to turn an ocean liner around than a row boat, many leading thinkers underscore the need for creative solutions to be generated on the community level in order to develop effective, sustainable models. One such person is Wilma Subra, a leading resource scientist for low-income communities in the Gulf Coast. Michael Lerner will interview Dr. Subra on our CHE Partnership call tomorrow (visit the call page to RSVP). Other leaders emphasize that reforming our chemical regulatory system on a national level must be a priority. Action is also being taken along those lines with the introduction of “Toxic Chemicals Safety Act” in the House just late last month (see CHE’s Chemical Policy Reform webpage).
At whatever level you choose to approach this work, the study on early puberty published in Pediatrics this week only affirms that we, in fact, already know what we need to do. The harder part is how to do it—how to implement effective and strategic interventions at all these levels of society. As a CHE partner, we hope you will continue to participate in our calls and working groups to help us collectively figure out what we can do now to ensure that health is a birthright, not an afterthought.
Sandra Steingraber, PhD
This essay is reprinted with permission from Sandra’s “Living Downstream” website.
The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.
—Theodore Roosevelt (inscribed on the wall of the U.S. Capitol Building)
On May 21, I participated in a congressional staff briefing organized by the Collaborative on Health and the Environment and the Breast Cancer Fund in conjunction with Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The topic was the President’s Cancer Panel report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, released on May 6. The essay below is taken from the first half of my presentation. The second half appears in this space next week. My co-presenters were physician Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, and epidemiologist Richard Clapp, DSc, MPH, first director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry and a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
I was last here in Washington, DC, just a month ago as part of a film and book tour. My book Living Downstream, which explores the environmental links to cancer, has recently been released as an updated second edition as well as a documentary film. The movie version premiered here as part of the a special screening hosted by the DC Environmental Film Festival.
A few hours before the film screening, I jogged over to the Smithsonian Institution to visit the new Hall of Human Origins and its life-like mannequins of Lucy and other hominids. I’m a biologist; I have an abiding fondness for natural history exhibits. I also had a special reason for this particular visit.