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.

The First 1000 Days: A Healthy Return on Investment

Elise Miller
Ted Schettler

Elise Miller, MEd, CHE Director, and Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science Director at SEHN and CHE, contributed the following article to the current edition of San Francisco Medicine, focused on human health and the environment, and especially the effects of early-life exposures. The full article can be found on the San Francisco Medical Society’s website. Join CHE on December 2nd for a call with contributors to the journal as they discuss neurotoxicants, climate change, cancer, and much more. 

Upward trends in a number of childhood diseases and disabilities are featured almost daily in the media. As many as one in six children in the US has a neurodevelopmental disability, including autism, ADHD, and speech or cognitive delays. The number of children needing special education has increased by 200 percent from a quarter century ago. The incidence of childhood leukemia and brain cancer is also on the rise, and asthma is still the number one reason for school absenteeism among school children.

Meanwhile, we have been learning a great deal more about how children’s earliest experiences, beginning in utero, can significantly influence their lifelong health.

Many studies show that “toxic stress”–intense, sustained adverse experiences–in childhood increases the risk of many health and behavioral problems in the short and long term, including intellectual delays, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. This evidence has in turn prompted a surge of programs that provide support for new mothers and improved child care, such as Zero to Three and Early Head Start.

Other environmental influences on fetal development, starting even before conception, can of course be critical for lifelong health as well. Initiatives like the Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) take this into consideration with their emphasis on healthy nutrition before, after and during pregnancy. Efforts to address other social stressors like poverty and violence are also included in some maternal health programs in different health care systems as well as at local, county, and state levels across the country.

Various biologic mechanisms mediate the influence of environmental variables on child development, including genetic and epigenetic changes, altered molecular signaling patterns, and influences on hormonal and metabolic set points, which can lead to disturbances of organ structure and function over varying timeframes.

Another Highly Influential Factor: Chemical Exposures in Early Life

In addition to excessive stress and inadequate nutrition, a large and growing body of research shows that the developmental effects of pre- and post-natal exposures to toxic chemicals–now ubiquitous in air, water, food, soil, and consumer products–must also be considered. Most chemicals circulating in maternal blood can and do pass through the placenta and can adversely impact the developing fetus. Lead, alcohol, mercury, some pesticides, and flame retardants are among the best known, but in its Proposition 65 program, California lists 652 chemicals as reproductive/developmental toxicants. Biomonitoring programs, like CDC’s NHANES, show how commonly the general population is exposed to chemicals that can interfere with normal development with lifelong health consequences.

Continue reading the article on pages 10 and 11 of the journal.

The Ecological Paradigm of Health: An Interview with Dr. Ted Schettler

Yes! Magazine’s Fall 2012 issue features an interview with Dr. Ted Schettler, CHE’s science director:

Talking with Dr. Ted Schettler is probably unlike any conversation you have had with your physician. Raise the topic of breast cancer or diabetes or dementia, and Schettler starts talking about income disparities, industrial farming, and campaign finance reform.

The Harvard-educated physician, frustrated by the limitations of science in combating disease, believes that finding answers to the most persistent medical challenges of our time—conditions that now threaten to overwhelm our health care system—depends on understanding the human body as a system nested within a series of other, larger systems: one’s family and community, environment, culture, and socioeconomic class, all of which affect each other.

Continue reading on the Yes! Magazine website.

Toward a Sustainable, Health-based Food System

Elise Miller, MEd

Most of us have heard of Michael Pollan’s ‘An Eater’s Manifesto’: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Excellent advice for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a variety of food choices. The challenge of course is that our current industrialized food system (and related sectors such as advertising) encourages us to eat lots of food-like substances and high on the food chain—and for many in inner cities, finding a fresh vegetable, much less an organic one, can be as rare as gold.

In addition to these challenges, hormone disruptors (also known as endocrine disrupting chemicals) are found in everything from the feed given to animals to the pesticides sprayed on crops to the plastic additives in packaging—all of which we end up ingesting. These chemicals are now associated with a range of health concerns, including obesity, diabetes, certain cancers, neurological disorders and reproductive health problems, as the Endocrine Society described in their recent consensus statement. And then there are issues such as the use of antibiotics in food, the importation of foods that aren’t required to meet US standards, and food-borne viruses like e.coli.

The good news is that organizations on national, state and local levels are beginning to press for a health-based food system. For example, the American Medical Association (AMA) recently adopted a policy resolution “in support of practices and policies within health care systems that promote and model a healthy and ecologically sustainable food system.” In addition, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and The National Research Council (NRC) released a report last week that emphasized the need for local governments to create environments in which people make healthful lifestyle decisions. The statement calls for municipalities to “discourage fast-food restaurants near schools and playgrounds through zoning, provide tax incentives for groceries in underserved areas, and create nutritional standards for government-run after-school programs.” In addition, myriad groups across the country are promoting Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and working with local school districts to develop “farm to school” initiatives that would help local farmers as well as improve the quality of the food served in schools.

The question is whether these actions are enough to shift the economy towards a sustainable, health-based food system given the deeply intertwined and diverse set of players involved in the production and marketing of food. In an ecological or systems biology model, all the interacting factors work in concert, each as a complement to the other and each supporting the system as a whole. Right now at the federal level, the Department of Agriculture doesn’t collaborate with the Food and Drug Administration which doesn’t work with Environmental Protection Agency nor the Department of Housing and Urban Development nor the Department of Transportation, and so on—at times, in fact, some of these agencies even work at odds. Then on the local level, public health departments rarely work with school districts or planning commissions, certainly not in regards to the availability of high quality food.

This of course means we need to coordinate these efforts more effectively on every level if we are to improve the health of current and future generations. If you are interested in learning more about these issues and what we can do to address then, please join us on our next CHE Partner call entitled Food Matters: The Impact of Food Systems on Public Health to be held on September 22, 2009.