Top 10: 4th Quarter 2015

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.

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Top 10: 3rd Quarter 2015

We present the ten most significant news or research stories in environmental health of the last quarter, in CHE’s view. The first three items are statements from major scientific or health organizations summarizing large bodies of research and drawing conclusions about the interaction of our environments and our health. These reports join a growing list of statements and documents (see compilations of consensus statements and of resolutions and scientific statements on CHE’s website).

Additional items in this list present notable new research, new policy developments, new focus or new thinking on their respective topics.

  1. FIGOInternational Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics opinion on reproductive health impacts of exposure to toxic environmental chemical: The global health and economic burden related to toxic environmental chemicals is in excess of millions of deaths and billions of dollars every year, including impacts on health and quality of life. On the basis of accumulating robust evidence of exposures and adverse health impacts related to toxic environmental chemicals, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) joins other leading reproductive health professional societies in calling for timely action to prevent harm.
    Read CHE’s Blog post on the statement, written by a statement author, and join CHE’s call on the statement on October 30th.
  2. Executive Summary to EDC-2: The Endocrine Society’s second scientific statement on endocrine-disrupting chemicals: The full Scientific Statement represents a comprehensive review of the literature on seven topics for which there is strong mechanistic, experimental, animal, and epidemiological evidence for endocrine disruption, namely: obesity and diabetes, female reproduction, male reproduction, hormone-sensitive cancers in females, prostate cancer, thyroid, and neurodevelopment and neuroendocrine systems.
  3. PlanetaryHealthSafeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health: A growing body of evidence shows that the health of humanity is intrinsically linked to the health of the environment, but by its actions humanity now threatens to destabilize the Earth’s key life-support systems.
    See the infographic that accompanies this report.
  4. California bill leads nation with significant steps to limit antibiotic overuse in meat production: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified antibiotic resistance as one of the top health threats facing the nation. This action puts California at the forefront of efforts in the US to limit the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in meat production and protect the efficacy of precious antibiotics.
  5. Pesticide exposure linked to diabetes development: New studies, including a meta-analysis, appear to show that there is a link between exposure to pesticides and the later development of diabetes, researchers reported at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.
    See more about the meta-analysis: Analysis of 21 studies shows exposure to pesticides is associated with increased risk of developing diabetes.
    Although this meta-analysis and other studies were presented at a conference and have not been published, we felt this topic merited inclusion in the Top 10 because it reinforces the growing number of peer-reviewed studies that suggest a link between diabetes and pesticides.
  6. Assessing the carcinogenic potential of low-dose exposures to chemical mixtures in the environment: the challenge ahead: Our analysis suggests that the cumulative effects of individual (non-carcinogenic) chemicals acting on different pathways, and a variety of related systems, organs, tissues and cells could plausibly conspire to produce carcinogenic synergies.
    See news coverage on this report from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS): Exposure to low levels of chemical mixtures linked with cancer and Low-dose mixtures and cancer highlighted at NIEHS symposium, plus CHE’s teleconference call on the report: Theories of carcinogenesis: assessing the carcinogenic potential of low-dose exposures to chemical mixtures in the environment.
  7. Association of child poverty, brain development, and academic achievement: Poverty is tied to structural differences in several areas of the brain associated with school readiness skills, with the largest influence observed among children from the poorest households.
    See a news report on the study, drawing from an interview with the study senior author: Effect of poverty on brains may explain poor kids’ lower test scores.
    As the author notes, this study “closes the loop and adds the missing piece” regarding the connection between poverty, brain development and academic achievement, finding that the effects are mediated by a smaller hippocampus and frontal and temporal lobes and that the decrease in volume of the latter two structures explained as much as 15% to 20% of the achievement deficits found. Of note is that children facing numerous other risk factors for poor brain development were screened out from this study. cumulativeImpactsThe impacts of poverty, nutrition, conflict, disease and other stressors in addition to exposures to toxic chemicals and radiation each may have individual and synergistic effects on brain development. This study brings focus to the role of poverty on brain development and achievement, but because children living in poverty often face other adverse conditions concomitant to poverty, the full effects of poverty are likely even greater than reported in this study.
  8. Two articles on health effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking): Endocrine-disrupting chemicals and oil and natural gas operations: potential environmental contamination and recommendations to assess complex environmental mixtures and Environmental and health impacts of ‘fracking’: why epidemiological studies are necessary. These articles make the case for concern over serious impacts on health and call for more research, including regarding the endocrine-disrupting potential of chemicals used in the process.
  9. The scandal regarding Volkswagen’s programming cars to avoid emissions control. A flurry of news reports on this situation were published. We present two focusing on human health impacts: Scientists say car emissions rigging raises health concerns and How many deaths did Volkswagen’s deception cause in the US? Because 11 million cars worldwide may be affected, and because diesel-fueled cars account for just 3 percent of passenger vehicles in America but closer to 50 percent in Europe, the health impacts of VW’s intentional undermining of clean air standards could be enormous.
  10. The Center for Public Integrity’s series on occupational exposures and health. CPI’s reports published a long list of articles describing the health impacts of occupational exposures on workers and their families, the failure of current safeguards, the push to weaken even those, and recommendations for reform.

Top 10: 2nd Quarter 2015

The ten biggest news or research stories of the last quarter, in CHE’s view.

  1. Climate Change
    Climate change continues to receive attention, from top-level activities to broad new investigations of health impacts.

    1. 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’.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Weed killers, bee killers, sperm killers?
    Research on a variety of pesticides is finding new effects and driving decisions to reduce use.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
  4. Fracking/drilling and health
    Breathing problems, cancer, lower birth weight, earthquakes and other effects inform policy decisions on fracking.

    1. Contamination and geologic effects
      1. 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.
      2. 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.
      3. 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.
    2. Health impacts
      1. 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.
      2. 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.
    3. Policy
      1. 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.
      2. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Antibiotic use reduction
    After decades of warnings, the issue of antibiotic overuse and resistance is gaining traction.

    1. 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.”
    2. 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.
  8. 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!
  9. 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.
  10. Improving population-wide nutrition
    US agencies announced nutrition recommendations and a new ban.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.

Top 10 Selections: 4th quarter 2014

We present CHE’s picks of the most important environmental health stories from the last quarter of 2014.

  1. Air pollution and autism
    A growing body of evidence implicates air toxics as potential contributors to autism spectrum disorders, with four studies published in rapid succession this quarter:

    1. Environmental chemical exposures and autism spectrum disorders: a review of the epidemiological evidence.
    2. University of Pittsburgh study correlates autism with air pollution: Preliminary results from the study show that children with autism spectrum disorders were more likely to have been exposed to higher levels of certain air toxics during their mothers’ pregnancies and their first two years of life compared with children without the condition. The study: The association of national air toxics assessment exposures and the risk of childhood autism spectrum disorder: a case control study.
    3. Air pollution exposure in pregnancy linked to autism in study: Women who are exposed to high levels of air pollution during their third trimester of pregnancy may be twice as likely to have an autistic child. The study: Autism spectrum disorder and particulate matter air pollution before, during, and after pregnancy: a nested case–control analysis within the Nurses’ Health Study II cohort.
    4. Fourth study finds traffic pollution may cause autism: The more traffic pollution a pregnant woman is exposed to — especially during her third trimester — the greater chance her child will develop autism. The study: In utero exposure to toxic air pollutants and risk of childhood autism.
  2. Phthalates’ effects on health
    A proposed rule by the Consumer Product Safety Commission was mandated by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 and is now open for public comment: Prohibition of children’s toys and child care articles containing specified phthalates. Research continues to bring fuller understanding of the potential for harm from several phthalates:

    1. Prenatal exposure to household chemical linked to reduced IQ, study says: Children who were exposed in utero to high levels of phthalates went on to have lower IQ levels than their peers who were exposed to lower levels, a new study from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University found. The study: Persistent associations between maternal prenatal exposure to phthalates on child IQ at age 7 years.
    2. A birth cohort study to investigate the association between prenatal phthalate and bisphenol A exposures and fetal markers of metabolic dysfunction: Associations between maternal exposure to chemicals and markers of metabolic function appear potentially to be sex specific.
    3. Plastics chemical linked to changes in boys’ genitals: Boys exposed in the womb to high levels of a chemical found in vinyl products are born with slightly altered genital development, according to research published today. The study of nearly 200 Swedish babies is the first to link the chemical di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP) to changes in the development of the human male reproductive tract. The study: Prenatal phthalate exposures and anogenital distance in Swedish boys.
    4. How household plastics could ruin your sex life: Phthalates are being linked to, among other things, a decrease in libido in women. The study: Environmental exposure to di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate is associated with low interest in sexual activity in premenopausal women.
  3. Sugar and other sweeteners
    The impact of sugar and other sweeteners on health has been getting more attention lately. In addition to the launch of SugarScience, a new website touted as an authoritative source for evidence-based, scientific information about sugar and its impact on health, the nation’s first soda tax passed in Berkeley, California. Proponents of the tax say it will curb the consumption of sodas, energy drinks and sweetened teas which are contributing to the country’s obesity epidemic and Type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile, research is uncovering health effects of sugar and other sweeteners that go beyond obesity and diabetes:

    1. This is your teenager’s brain on soda: Researchers at the University of Southern California recently published a study showing a connection between sugar consumption and memory problems. The study: Effects of sucrose and high fructose corn syrup consumption on spatial memory function and hippocampal neuroinflammation in adolescent rats.
    2. Intake of energy-dense foods, fast foods, sugary drinks, and breast cancer risk in African American and European American women.
    3. Soda and cell aging: associations between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and leukocyte telomere length in healthy adults from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.
  4. Climate change
    The biggest climate story this quarter was that the US and China announced important new actions to reduce carbon pollution. The Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also reiterated that the situation requires immediate and substantial action or the Earth will face “further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” While the connection to human health is not always mentioned in reports on climate change, the health impacts are substantial. For example, in Chemically mediated behavior of recruiting corals and fishes: a tipping point that may limit reef recovery, there’s an understated repercussion of the loss of reefs: devastating impacts on sources of food, and especially protein, for much of the world’s human population. Other stories highlighting other aspects of climate change include these:

    1. From bar fights to wars, climate change will make us more violent: The hotter it gets, the more likely we are to kill each other. Murder rates go up in heat waves; in some countries, civil war is also more likely. In training exercises in hot weather, police are more likely to pull out a gun and fire. The paper: Climate and conflict.
    2. Climate change affects national security: After close examination of the science, the Military Advisory Board, a group of 16 retired flag-level officers, conclude that, “The national security risks of projected climate change are as serious as any challenges we have faced.”
  5. NY health and environmental chiefs: no to fracking
    New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration has moved to prohibit fracking in the state, citing unresolved health issues and dubious economic benefits of the widely used gas-drilling technique. This is the first US state to take such a stand. The report from the New York State Department of Health: A Public Health Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development and another recent report: Warning Signs: Toxic Air Pollution Identified at Oil and Gas Sites.
  6. BPA and its replacements
    While more research mounts on health concerns from exposure to BPA, the Food and Drug Administration maintains that “the available information continues to support the safety of BPA for the currently approved uses in food containers and packaging”, as reported in Bisphenol A is safe for approved uses in food containers, packaging, FDA says. In a conflicting decision, a California court upheld the state scientists’ finding that BPA is known to cause reproductive health problems: Court upholds BPA health warning. Recent research on BPA and replacements include these studies:

    1. Kids exposed to BPA before birth at risk of wheeze: study: Young kids who were exposed to Bisphenol A before birth are more likely than others to have a wheeze before age five, according to a new study that found no connection to BPA exposure after birth.The study: Bisphenol A exposure and the development of wheeze and lung function in children through age 5 years.
    2. Prenatal bisphenol A exposure and maternally reported behavior in boys and girls: These results suggest that prenatal exposure to BPA may be related to increased behavior problems in school age boys, but not girls.
    3. The leaching of BPA into skin from cash receipts is enhanced by using sanitizers: Touching cash register receipts while using sanitizers can dramatically increase your body’s absorption of BPA, researchers report. The study: Holding thermal receipt paper and eating food after using hand sanitizer results in high serum bioactive and urine total levels of bisphenol A (BPA).
    4. BPA exposure by infants may increase later risk of food intolerance: This research involving rats suggests that early life exposure at a dose significantly below the current human safety limit set by the FDA affects developing immune systems, predisposing offspring to food intolerance in adulthood. The study: Food intolerance at adulthood after perinatal exposure to the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A.
    5. That takeout coffee cup may be messing with your hormones: A new study suggests that whole classes of BPA-free plastics — including the kind in styrofoam — release estrogenic chemicals. The study: Estrogenic chemicals often leach from BPA-free plastic products that are replacements for BPA-containing polycarbonate products.
  7. New study charts the fate of chemicals affecting health and the environment
    In a new study, Rolf Halden, PhD, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, examines the trajectory of chemicals appearing as emergent threats to human or environmental health. His research offers a highly instructive analysis of how long it takes chemicals of concern to become recognized and acted on — and why. The review: Epistemology of contaminants of emerging concern and literature meta-analysis.
  8. 16 major companies and agencies say no to chemical flame retardants
    The Center for Environmental Health, which helped encourage a rewrite of California’s regulations regarding safety standards in furniture manufacturing, announced in mid December that 16 major furniture manufacturers have now “sworn off” chemical flame retardants. This is a prime example of how environmental health science can be effectively translated into regulations that better protect health. The CEH press release including the list: Major producers eliminating flame retardant chemicals as major buyers are demanding flame retardant-free furniture.
  9. National Institutes of Health ends longitudinal children’s study
    The US National Institutes of Health has cancelled its plan for an ambitious, multi-decade study of environmental influences on children’s health known as the National Children’s Study, agency director Francis Collins announced on December 12th. The study was originally approved by a bipartisan Congress in 2000 but was fraught with scientific and political challenges over the last 14 years. See also an analysis: How the US government botched its multibillion-dollar plan to beat childhood disease.
  10. Theo Colborn: Honoring the work of an environmental health giant
    Theo Colborn, PhD, passed away on December 14th at age 87, leaving an extraordinary legacy of careful and determined environmental health research and advocacy. She was particularly recognized for her seminal work on endocrine disrupting chemicals and fracking.

    1. A brief biography by Elizabeth Grossman.
    2. Theo’s CV.
    3. Comments and stories from those who knew Theo.
    4. Remembering the genius who got BPA out of your water bottles, and so much more, one of many media reports on Theo’s death.

Top 10: 1st Quarter 2014

CHE offers this selection of research, news and announcements that were of special significance during the first quarter of 2014. Items include research that made a noteworthy contribution to the field, news and announcements that took a conversation to a new level and/or new audience and some welcome action. As before, we offer both the scientific report and media reporting on it, when available, to meet the needs of our various audiences.

  1. Tobacco use
    Three items relating to tobacco use are of particular note this quarter:

    1. Historic smoking report marks 50th anniversary
      Those of us old enough to remember the Virginia Slims commercials from the 1970s will appreciate the irony of employing their slogan regarding changing the culture of smoking: “You’ve come a long way.” As described in this news article, “fifty years ago, ashtrays seemed to be on every table and desk. Athletes and even Fred Flintstone endorsed cigarettes in TV commercials. Smoke hung in the air in restaurants, offices and airplane cabins. More than 42 percent of US adults smoked, and there was a good chance your doctor was among them. The change of culture around smoking in public is one of the biggest public health success stories, done largely without heavy regulation.” This sea change in tobacco’s acceptance provides both hope and lessons for current campaigns. See a related article: Eight million lives saved since US alarm on smoking 50 years ago, the JAMA themed issue: 50 Years of Tobacco Control, and The Health Consequences of Smoking — 50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General, 2014.
    2. Health effects of “thirdhand smoke”
      A growing body of research on harmful effects of smoke and ash residue shows that this is a health concern: Cigarette smoke toxins deposited on surfaces: implications for human health, Thirdhand smoke causes DNA damage in human cells, plus older but relevant Third-hand smoke exposure and health hazards in children and The impact of second-hand tobacco smoke exposure on pregnancy outcomes, infant health, and the threat of third-hand smoke exposure to our environment and to our children.
    3. Policy shifts in smoking
      CVS drugstores to stop selling cigarettes over health issues: “Drugstore chain CVS will stop selling cigarettes this year after corporate leaders decided that offering tobacco products is antithetical to the company’s goal of improving customer health. This decision came with an expected economic loss to the company.” A large review bolsters the case for such policy shifts: Effect of smoke-free legislation on perinatal and child health: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
  2. Chlorinated persistent organic pollutants, obesity, and type 2 diabetes
    Not only does this article review the extensive evidence linking these conditions, it also explains puzzling findings in the field related to high vs low dose exposures and nonmonotonic dose-response curves, found in not only laboratory but also in epidemiological studies. It addresses the perplexing role of POPs in adipose tissue– perhaps a safer place to store them than in organs– but also causing harmful inflammatory effects in fatty tissue. It reviews the role of POPs as potential obesogens, as well as their potential interaction with gut microbiota, mitochondrial dysfunction, and other mechanisms. It outlines how future research may address some of the remaining questions in the field.
  3. Research and controversy around BPA
    1. Bisphenol A (BPA) pharmacokinetics with daily oral bolus or continuous exposure via silastic capsules in pregnant rhesus monkeys: relevance for human exposures: This research addresses the ongoing controversy in BPA research about using silastic capsules versus oral bolus. This study suggests that oral bolus exposure is not an appropriate human exposure model. Differences in pharmacokinetics of dBPA were evident between pre-pregnancy, early and late pregnancy, likely reflecting changes in maternal, fetal and placental physiology.
    2. FDA finding on BPA: The FDA’s publication, Toxicity evaluation of bisphenol A administered by gavage to Sprague-Dawley rats from gestation day 6 through postnatal day 90 generated a great deal of comment. See opposing views of the review: BPA is A-OK, says FDA and Scientists condemn new FDA study saying BPA is safe: “it borders on scientific misconduct.” Also compare FDA’s finding to news from France: RAC proposes to strengthen the classification of bisphenol A.
  4. The Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia
    This event and its repercussions kept water quality, chemical contamination, testing and regulation in Americans’ minds for weeks. Most notably it highlighted the failures of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and need for chemical policy reform. Though there were dozens of news articles and analyses, one example of the reach and possible impact of this story is Data deficit on Elk River chemicals shows need for TSCA reform, legislators say. “Members of a House subcommittee pointed to the lack of toxicity and other data on chemicals that recently contaminated drinking water for hundreds of thousands of West Virginia residents as illustrating a key reason the Toxic Substances Control Act needs to be revised.”
  5. Inheriting fear
    New research demonstrates that fear can be passed on from one generation of laboratory animals to the next. Epigenetic changes are most likely responsible, and this provocative study is bringing new challenges to how scientists think about behavior and evolutionary change.

    1. See the study: Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations.
    2. See also similar research regarding “inherited” stress: Is stress contagious? Study shows babies can catch it from their mothers and the study: Stress contagion: physiological covariation between mothers and infants.
  6. Fracking and health
    As more research and news regarding fracking emerges, the concerns and controversies about fracking’s potential impact on human health continue to deepen. In this last quarter, a few important new studies and reports were published:

    1. 4 states confirm water pollution from drilling: “In at least four states that have nurtured the nation’s energy boom, hundreds of complaints have been made about well-water contamination from oil or gas drilling, and pollution was confirmed in a number of them, according to a review that casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen.”
    2. Study shows fracking is bad for babies: researchers found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6 percent to more than 9 percent. The chances of a low Apgar score, a summary measure of the health of newborn children, roughly doubled, to more than 5 percent. See the study: Birth outcomes and maternal residential proximity to natural gas development in rural Colorado but also State questions study linking fracking to birth defects.
    3. Ohio earthquakes linked to fracking: “Ohio authorities shut down a hydraulic fracturing natural gas operation in Mahoning County on Monday after two earthquakes were felt in the area.”
    4. Report: Big Oil, Bad Air: Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas: “an eight-month investigation found Texas regulators are largely ignoring air pollution problems caused by fracking the Eagle Ford Shale.” See also Planning for fracking on the Barnett shale: urban air pollution, improving health based regulation, and the role of local governments: “Using the community experience on the Barnett Shale as a case study, this article focuses on the legal and regulatory framework governing air emissions and proposes changes to the current regulatory structure.”
  7. The Textbook of Children’s Environmental Health
    This textbook edited by Philip Landrigan, MD, MSc, and Ruth Etzel, MD, PhD, provides one of the most comprehensive overviews of the research and clinical applications to date and the scientific basis in clear and accessible language for why promoting children’s environmental health now is essential for a healthy, thriving society in the future. As the first course textbook of its kind, it could be used as the basis for the possible inclusion of questions on environmental health as part of the medical board certification process.
  8. In many neighborhoods, the main obstacle to good health is poverty
    For decades, activists and scholars around the country have emphasized that focusing solely on changing individual behaviors is not enough to change the broader patterns of inequities in health. Researchers who study disparities have found that social and economic factors, such as employment, education, and social networks, also strongly influence whether people have the resources to protect their health. In racially segregated neighborhoods such as the one discussed in this article, with its crumbling infrastructure and history of institutional neglect, the main obstacle to good health is poverty. Though this is not news, we chose to include this piece because it highlights not just the problem, but shifts the conversation toward a more ecological model of health and includes possible solutions and some emerging evidence to bolster them as well.
  9. Study questions fat and heart disease link
    “A large and exhaustive new analysis by a team of international scientists found no evidence that eating saturated fat increased heart attacks and other cardiac events.” This negates several decades of nutritional guidance and reopens a crucial conversation about what are the fundamentals of a healthy diet. See the study: Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
  10. Climate risks as conclusive as smoking and lung cancer link – scientists
    In an unusual policy intervention, one of the world’s largest scientific bodies said evidence that the world is warming is as conclusive as the link between smoking and lung cancer. There has been much hyping from climate deniers of the uncertainty around climate science and predictions. This statement provides context for non-scientists. See the statement: What We Know and also the newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.

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.

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.
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