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: April 2013

For our third quarterly Top 10 list, we again selected from several dozen candidate news articles, journal articles, policy decisions and reports that have had a significant impact or are likely to have a significant impact on thinking and action in the field of environmental health. We consider these selections to be the biggest contributors toward new insights, toward changing the conversation or expanding the scope of the conversation on a topic to a new audience or awareness, or toward defining a new trend. Comments are welcome.

The selections, in no particular order:

  1. Report: Late Lessons from Early Warnings: Science, Precaution, Innovation from the European Environment Agency.
    As stated in the promotional text for this report: “The case studies across both volumes of Late Lessons from Early Warnings cover a diverse range of chemical and technological innovations, and highlight a number of systemic problems. The ‘Late Lessons Project’ illustrates how damaging and costly the misuse or neglect of the precautionary principle can be, using case studies and a synthesis of the lessons to be learned and applied to maximizing innovations whilst minimizing harms.” This report explores weaknesses in regulatory science and expands on histories of past environmental and public health mistakes. It includes new substances with potential for harm and several false positives. All is drawn together to provide a framework in which precaution guides policy.
    See more information about the partnership call CHE hosted on this report: Late Lessons from Early Warnings: A Retrospective Look at Learning about Precaution.
  2. The need to look at mixtures in assessing safety.
    Two items this quarter address the need to look at interactions among exposures when determining risk of exposures. First is Research Brief 217: Majority of Women Exposed to Multiple Pollutants, from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). According to a new analysis of thousands of US women of child-bearing age, almost 83% of women aged 16 to 49 meet or exceed median blood levels of one or more of three environmental pollutants—lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—that are known to harm brain development of fetuses and babies. Most women exceeded the median blood level for two or more of these pollutants, even though “scientists do not yet know whether co-exposure to all three chemicals is more harmful than each chemical alone.” With exposures this pervasive, it is imperative that risks be assessed and policies adopted to protect fetuses and children. The second item is a statement from NIEHS on this topic:  Unraveling the health effects of environmental mixtures: an NIEHS priority. NIEHS recognizes that it “is imperative to develop methods to assess the health effects associated with complex exposures in order to minimize their impact on the development of disease.” NIEHS draws from its background in both supporting and conducting combined exposure research to state that this topic will continue to be a priority at the Institute.
  3. America’s real criminal element: lead  and Correlation between exposure to lead and violence is being taken seriously across scientific world.
    “New research finds that lead is the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic. And fixing the problem is a lot cheaper than doing nothing.” This line of investigation has deep repercussions socially. With substantial costs not only to individuals and their families, but to our entire society, from crime, lowered educational attainment and attendant problems. There is new impetus to prevent or to find and remediate lead in housing, in soil, and in consumer goods. Beyond the social significance, though, this story is a great case study in epidemiology and criminology.
  4. New report: U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health.
    This report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine investigates potential reasons for the US health disadvantage and assesses its larger implications. No single factor can fully explain the US disadvantage:  It likely has multiple causes and involves some combination of inadequate health care, unhealthy behaviors, adverse economic and social conditions, and environmental factors, as well as public policies and social values that shape those conditions. This report packages the ecological model of health which CHE encourages our partners to consider when investigating environmental effects on health.
  5. Further impacts from smoking tobacco.
    Three studies provide new thinking around an old problem, in case anyone still needed a reason to reduce tobacco use.

    1. Passive smoking can dramatically increase the risk of developing severe dementia Breathing in someone else’s cigarette fumes increases your risk of severe dementia, according to researchers. The study is the first to find a significant link between passive smoking and the neurological disease.
      See the study: Association between environmental tobacco smoke exposure and dementia syndromes
      Between the widespread exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and the substantial costs to society of dementia, this is a huge public health issue. If reducing exposures to tobacco smoke can decrease the incidence or severity of dementia, the benefits to society could be enormous, in addition to the improvement in quality of life for individuals and their families.
    2. Cigarette smoke may increase microbial virulence
      A new study expands the potential health effects to a new front, showing that acute in vitro exposure of Staphylococcus aureus to cigarette smoke promoted biofilm formation and adhesion to human cells.
      See the study: Cigarette smoke increases staphylococcus aureus biofilm formation via oxidative stress.
    3. Cutting smoking saves more in health bills than lost tax: EU
      The cost and health benefits of getting people not to smoke—and better still, not to start—more than outweigh the taxes the tobacco industry pays to governments, the European Commission said Monday.
  6. Pollution crisis in China.
    A long series of news reports on air and water pollution, the resulting unrest in the population, and the government’s response describes a society’s struggle with chemical contamination in China.

    1. Chinese struggle through ‘airpocalypse’ smog
    2. Beijing air pollution soars to hazard level
    3. Beijing orders official cars off roads to curb pollution
    4. Chinese take fight against water pollution to social media
    5. Chinese Internet users scream for clean air act
    6. Eye-stinging Beijing air risks lifelong harm to babies
    7. Water pollution: a Bay of Pigs moment in China
    8. China’s toxic harvest: a “cancer village” rises in protest
    9. China steps up toxics controls
    10. Waiting to exhale in China
    11. A new environment for fight against pollution
    12. In China, breathing becomes a childhood risk
  7. Global data and meta-analayses of prenatal exposures and birth outcomes.
    Two large studies showcase the effects of environmental exposures on pregnancy outcomes.

    1. Environmental risk factors of pregnancy outcomes: a summary of recent meta-analyses of epidemiological studies
      The meta-analyses found statistically significant negative associations between environmental tobacco smoke and stillbirth, birth weight, and any congenital anomalies; PM2.5 and preterm birth; outdoor air pollution and some congenital anomalies; indoor air pollution from solid fuel use and stillbirth and birth weight; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) exposure and birth weight; disinfection by-products in water and stillbirth, small for gestational age, and some congenital anomalies; occupational exposure to pesticides and solvents and some congenital anomalies; and agent orange and some congenital anomalies.
    2. Maternal exposure to particulate air pollution and term birth weight: A multi-country evaluation of effect and heterogeneity
      A growing body of evidence has associated maternal exposure to air pollution with adverse effects on fetal growth; however, the existing literature is inconsistent. The objectives of this study were to quantify the association between maternal exposure to particulate air pollution and term birth weight and low birth weight (LBW) across fourteen centers from nine countries and to explore the influence of site characteristics and exposure assessment methods on between-center heterogeneity in this association. Maternal exposure to particulate pollution was associated with low birth weight at term across study populations. This study helps clarify previous disparate findings on air pollution and birth weight. Taking into account differences in location and methodology, these findings support the association between maternal particulate matter exposure and low birth weight.
  8. US report urges deeper look into breast cancer’s environmental links.
    A new federal advisory panel report makes a forceful case for more research into environmental causes of breast cancer, which was diagnosed in 227,000 women, killed 40,000 and cost more than $17 billion to treat in the United States last year. For years, the focus in breast cancer has been on early detection and treatment, and this move toward prevention shifts the focus upstream.
    See the report: Breast Cancer and the Environment: Prioritizing Prevention and information about CHE’s partnership call on the report.
  9. UN, WHO panel calls hormone-disrupting chemicals a ‘global threat.’
    An international team of experts reported today that evidence linking hormone-mimicking chemicals to human health problems has grown stronger over the past decade, becoming a “global threat” that should be addressed. There’s still much research needed, but this moves the conversation about health effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals onto a bigger stage.
    See the report: State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and other coverage: European Parliament vote on EDCs conveys urgency of protecting health.
  10. Transgenerational effects of prenatal exposure to environmental obesogens in rodents.
    Three studies were published this quarter:

    1. Transgenerational inheritance of increased fat depot size, stem cell reprogramming, and hepatic steatosis elicited by prenatal obesogen tributyltin in mice
    2. plastics derived endocrine disruptors (bpa, dehp and dbp) induce epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of obesity, reproductive disease and sperm epimutations
    3. Hydrocarbons (jet fuel JP-8) induce epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of obesity, reproductive disease and sperm epimutations

    This is a new finding in both obesity research and in transgenerational research. These studies all show the ability of environmental chemicals (not only endocrine disruptors, but also jet fuel) to promote obesity in three generations of rodents.
    See information about CHE’s working group call on these studies: Transgenerational Effects of Prenatal Exposure to Environmental Obesogens in Rodents.