Top 10 Selections: 2nd Quarter 2014

These are the environmental health stories, studies and reports that we think are most significant from the last three months. Comments are invited.

  1. Global toll of pollution on health
    The scope and depth of pollution worldwide and its significant toll on health and lifespan is underscored in these new reports.

    1. WHO: Air pollution top environmental health risk: Air pollution kills about 7 million people worldwide every year and is now the single biggest environmental health risk, with more than half the fatalities due to fumes from indoor stoves. The study: 7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution.
    2. In developing world, pollution kills more than disease: Pollution, not infectious disease, is the biggest killer in the developing world, taking the lives of more than 8.4 million people each year, a new analysis shows. However, pollution receives a fraction of the interest from the global community. A related report: The Poisoned Poor: Toxic Chemicals Exposures in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.
    3. China and India face huge cancer burden: experts: China and India are facing a cancer crisis. Sixty percent of cancer cases in China are attributable to “modifiable environmental factors”, including smoking, water contamination and air pollution, a new report concludes. The report: Challenges to effective cancer control in China, India, and Russia
  2. Economic costs of pollution
    It’s difficult to ignore these numbers and impacts, even for those not personally touched by disease or disability.

    1. Health costs of China’s polluted air ‘up to $300 bn a year’: Premature deaths and health problems from air pollution cost China as much as $300 billion a year, an official report said, calling for a new urbanisation model for the world’s second-largest economy.
    2. Health costs of air pollution from agriculture clarified: Computer models, including a NASA model of chemical reactions in the atmosphere, were used to better represent how ammonia interacts in the atmosphere to form harmful particulate matter. The study: Hidden cost of US agricultural exports: particulate matter from ammonia emissions.
    3. The full “costs” of environmentally related disease: What do failed attempts at environmental protection cost us, in terms as wide-ranging as health impacts, lost wages, and loss of IQ? Who is most burdened by our lack of societal commitment to primary prevention? The Environmental Health Policy Institute examines these questions through the lens of important cases.
    4. Health costs in the EU—how much is related to EDCs? Exposure to food and everyday electronic, cosmetic and plastic products containing endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) may be costing up to €31 billion per year in the EU. Also Economic benefits of tighter controls for endocrine disruptors outweigh hypothetical trade effects.
    5. Lead poisoning of children in Michigan costs $330 million per year: Four main categories of impact were studied and expenditures were projected for costs associated with lead contamination of children: increased health care, increased adult and juvenile crime, increased need for special education, and decline in lifetime earnings.
    6. Measuring the economic cost of environmental impacts on human health: 25 experts in air quality, health economics and environmental sciences as well as representatives of EU agencies and the civil society met in Berlin, Germany, to assess this cost and guide policy makers in reducing it by investing in prevention.
    7. Air pollution is a $1.7T health problem, OECD finds: In the 34 OECD member states, the monetary impact of death and illness due to outdoor air pollution was $1.7 trillion in 2010. Research suggests that motorized on-road transport accounts for about 50 percent of that cost. The report: The cost of air pollution: health impacts of road transport.
    8. Improving air quality in NYC would boost children’s future earnings by increasing IQ: The study is the first to estimate the costs of IQ loss associated with exposure to air pollution, and is based on prior research on prenatal exposure to air pollutants among low-income children. The study: Prenatal exposure to airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and IQ: estimated benefit of pollution reduction.
  3. Role of environmental influences on autism
    Research continues to reveal the contribution of environment to autism spectrum disorders.

    1. Autism risk higher near pesticide-treated fields, study says: Babies whose moms lived within a mile of crops treated with widely used pesticides were more likely to develop autism, according to new research. The study: Neurodevelopmental disorders and prenatal residential proximity to agricultural pesticides: the CHARGE Study.
    2. Environment as influential as genes in autism, study says: Environmental factors are more important than previously thought in leading to autism, as big a factor as genes, according to the largest analysis to date to look at how the brain disorder runs in families. The study: The familial risk of autism.
    3. Environmental influences may cause autism in some cases, study shows: The findings shed light on why older mothers are at increased risk for having children with ASD and could pave the way for more research into the role of environment on ASD. The study: Mosaic epigenetic dysregulation of ectodermal cells in autism spectrum disorder.
  4. The scent of a man: gender of experimenter has big impact on rats’ stress levels, explains lack of replication of some findings
    Scientists’ inability to replicate research findings using mice and rats has contributed to mounting concern over the reliability of such studies. Now, an international team of pain researchers led by scientists at McGill University in Montreal may have uncovered one important factor behind this vexing problem: the gender of the experimenters has a big impact on the stress levels of rodents, which are widely used in preclinical studies. The study: Olfactory exposure to males, including men, causes stress and related analgesia in rodents. The validity of the scientific processes and the results produced must be examined if we are to rely on scientific investigation to guide policy.
  5. Stress and health
    Stress as an environmental health issue, and how it interacts with other environmental factors, provides insights into the complexity of health. The transgenerational concerns are notable.

    1. Sperm RNA carries marks of trauma: A study finds that stress in early life alters the production of small RNAs, called microRNAs, in the sperm of mice. The mice show depressive behaviors that persist in their progeny, which also show glitches in metabolism. The study: Implication of sperm RNAs in transgenerational inheritance of the effects of early trauma in mice.
    2. Chronic stress heightens vulnerability to diet-related metabolic risk: Highly stressed people who eat a lot of high-fat, high-sugar food are more prone to health risks than low-stress people who eat the same amount of unhealthy food. The study: Chronic stress increases vulnerability to diet-related abdominal fat, oxidative stress, and metabolic risk. See also New insights into chronic stress, obesity, and metabolic syndrome: further support for an ecological model of health and an integrated approach to care for more analysis.
    3. Childhood bullying involvement predicts low-grade systemic inflammation into adulthood: Although C-reactive protein (CRP) levels rose for all participants from childhood into adulthood, being bullied predicted greater increases in CRP levels, whereas bullying others predicted lower increases in CRP compared with those uninvolved in bullying.
  6. EPA on climate change
    Though the EPA’s new report and rules on carbon emissions have evoked mixed responses, this is a bold stance for the EPA on addressing climate change.

    1. EPA report shows impact of changing climate on Americans’ health and environment: The report pulls together observed data on key measures of our environment, including US and global temperature and precipitation, ocean heat and ocean acidity, sea level, length of growing season, and many others. With 30 indicators that include over 80 maps and graphs showing long-term trends, the report demonstrates that climate change is already affecting our environment and our society. The report: Climate Change Indicators in the United States.
    2. EPA unveils sweeping rules to cut carbon emissions: The US power sector must cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, according to federal regulations that form the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s climate change strategy. The proposal: Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule.
    3. Supreme Court ruling backs most EPA emission controls: The Environmental Protection Agency can require greenhouse-gas controls on power plants and other large stationary sources of pollution, the Supreme Court ruled, but it said the agency went too far in claiming power to regulate smaller emitters.
  7. Exacerbation of cigarette smoking’s effects: cumulative impacts
    These studies showcase interactions of cigarette smoking with other environmental exposures.

    1. Does mortality risk of cigarette smoking depend on serum concentrations of persistent organic pollutants? Prospective Investigation of the Vasculature in Uppsala Seniors (PIVUS) study: The association between cigarette smoking and total mortality depended on serum concentration of PCBs and organochlorine pesticides.
    2. Lung-cancer risks sky high for smokers exposed to carcinogens: A growing body of research, including two studies under way at the University of Kentucky, shows the risk of lung cancer is much higher for smokers exposed to carcinogens such as radon, asbestos, arsenic or chromium.
  8. ‘Electrosmog’ disrupts orientation in migratory birds, scientists show
    Scientists have demonstrated that the magnetic compass of robins fails entirely when the birds are exposed to AM radio waveband electromagnetic interference—even if the signals are just a thousandth of the limit value defined by the World Health Organization as harmless. The study: Anthropogenic electromagnetic noise disrupts magnetic compass orientation in a migratory bird. See also Cracking mystery reveals how electronics affect bird migration. This study provides clear evidence of biological impacts of very low exposures to electromagnetic fields.
  9. Risk factors for breast cancer
    A number of new research studies this quarter highlight potential chemical and nutritional contributors to breast cancer.

    1. Study lists dangerous chemicals linked to breast cancer: A paper in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives lists 17 chemicals to avoid and offers women advice on how to minimize their exposure. The paper: New exposure biomarkers as tools for breast cancer epidemiology, biomonitoring, and prevention: a systematic approach based on animal evidence.
    2. High fat diet sharply increases breast cancer risk, study finds: A high-fat diet increases the risk of the most common form of breast cancer by a fifth. Heavy consumption of saturated fat had an even bigger impact, raising the risk of hormone-sensitive breast cancer by 28 percent. The study: Dietary fat intake and development of specific breast cancer subtypes.
    3. Could half of all breast cancers be prevented? If girls and women of all ages adopted healthier lifestyle behaviors and the highest-risk women took preventive drugs like tamoxifen, the authors of a new report say fully half of breast cancers in the US might be avoided. The review: Priorities for the primary prevention of breast cancer.
    4. Solvents may raise breast cancer risk for some, study finds: Women who already have an above-average risk of breast cancer and who work with organic solvents, such as factory and laboratory workers working with benzene or other such chemicals, may have an even higher risk. The study: Breast cancer risk in association with occupational exposure to organic solvents.
    5. Red meat ‘linked to breast cancer’: Eating a lot of red meat in early adult life may slightly increase the risk of breast cancer. The study: Dietary protein sources in early adulthood and breast cancer incidence: prospective cohort study.
  10. Newborns exposed to dirt, dander, germs may have lower allergy, asthma risk
    Infants exposed to rodent and pet dander, roach allergens and a wide variety of household bacteria in the first year of life appear less likely to suffer from allergies, wheezing and asthma, according to results of a recent study. Those who encounter such substances before their first birthdays seem to benefit rather than suffer from them. Importantly, the protective effects of both allergen and bacterial exposure were not seen if a child’s first encounter with these substances occurred after age 1, the research found. The study: Effects of early-life exposure to allergens and bacteria on recurrent wheeze and atopy in urban children. This research is important both because of the widespread prevalence and impact of asthma and because of the new finding of the importance of timing of exposures.

Science Pick: Premature Aging and Waste Landfill Sites.

Ted Schettler
Science Director

See the article in Gene: Telomere shortening in women resident close to waste landfill sites

In this study, scientists from the University of Naples collected blood samples from 50 apparently healthy pregnant women living in an area of Italy with a large number of waste dumps and from a control group of 50 healthy women living in an unpolluted area. The purpose of the study was to compare the length of telomeres on the ends of chromosomes in the cells from women from the two areas.  Telomeres are caps on the ends of chromosomes that shorten successively with each cell division.  Short telomeres are associated with cell senescence, diseases of aging, and cancer. Oxidative stress in the cells may explain how exposure to pollution causes shortening of telomeres.    

After controlling for age of participants, telomeres on the chromosomes of white blood cells from women living in the polluted areas were determined to be significantly shorter than those from the control group. Moreover,  teleomere length became progressively shorter the closer participants lived to the polluted area. Although this study did not include a direct measure of exposure to pollutants in individual participants, the results are highly suggestive of a causal relationship between exposure and shortened telomeres. 

Previous studies have shown also reduction of telomere length associated with exposure to air pollution from traffic and other sources. These findings may help explain the increased risk of premature diseases of aging and cancer in populations exposed to various kinds of environmental pollution.

Cumulative Exposures and Impacts: An Overview

The issue of cumulative exposures and impacts is not a new concept in environmental justice. Rather, it is a cornerstone notion by which low-income communities and communities of color have described their everyday lived experience. For more than fifteen years, communities living in the shadow of refineries, manufacturing plants, and other major sources of pollution have recognized and documented the onslaught of multiple sources of pollution on their bodies, their families, and their communities. Further, the environmental justice movement has clearly articulated “multiple, synergistic, and cumulative impacts” to be inclusive of social and economic disenfranchisement. The disproportionate levels of pollution faced by these communities can be historically linked to a breach of civil rights and continues to be a civil rights issue.

Cumulative exposures and impacts are also not a new concept to environmentalists. The National Environmental Policy Act, signed into law in 1970, established national policy to protect the environment, created a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and required that environmental impact statements be prepared for major federal actions having a significant effect on the environment. Guidelines prepared by CEQ for implementing NEPA broadly define both secondary and cumulative impacts. Secondary effects are those that are “caused by an action and are later in time or farther removed in distance but are still reasonably foreseeable” (40 CFR 1508.8). Generally, the later impacts stem from the initial action and comprise a wide variety of secondary effects such as changes in land use, water quality, economic vitality, and population density. The formal definition for cumulative effects is “impacts that result from the incremental consequences of an action when added to other past and reasonably foreseeable future actions” (40 CFR 1508.7). NEPA notes that cumulative effects of an action may at first be undetectable when viewed individually but nonetheless can multiply and eventually lead to a measurable environmental change. This important law expressed a commitment to accounting for interrelated factors.

More recently, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a federal advisory committee formed by the EPA to address issues of environmental justice, convened a Cumulative Risks/Impacts Work Group. This work group grappled on a national level with the question of how to address cumulative impacts as a key to remedying environmental injustice. Key concepts forwarded in their analysis include stressors, which are not only chemicals but can be socioeconomic in nature; vulnerability, which recognizes that, “disadvantaged, underserved, and overburdened communities come to the table with pre-existing deficits both of a physical and social nature that make the effects of environmental pollution more, and in some cases unacceptably, burdensome”; community-based participatory research; proportional response, which matches community needs with an appropriate level of action; and qualitative analysis. Using these key concepts, NEJAC lays out a set of recommendations and measures for implementation by the EPA.

Locally across the country, both environmental and environmental-justice organizations have combated the tendency for an increasingly narrow definition of cumulative impacts. Regulatory agencies, entrenched in long histories of decisionmaking through risk assessment, have remained reticent to providing analyses of cumulative exposures and impacts that contain qualitative as well as quantitative analyses. Further, regulatory agencies and their scientific staff continue to try to capture the issues of cumulative exposures and impacts within a risk-assessment methodology, which is often not a tool trusted by communities who have been subject to poor decisions justified by a risk assessment.

This tension makes a recent California process to define cumulative impacts at the state level an important victory for communities. Through a three-year process to implement environmental justice in all of the boards, offices, and departments of the California Environmental Protection Agency, an advisory committee guided Cal EPA through a comprehensive process inclusive of community voices. Recently, the Advisory Committee landed on a definition of cumulative impacts for the State of California to use as it implements environmental justice. They defined cumulative impacts to mean “exposures, public health or environmental effects from the combined emissions and discharges, in a geographic area, including environmental pollution from all sources, whether single or multi-media, routinely, accidentally, or otherwise released. Impacts will take into account sensitive populations and socioeconomic factors, where applicable and to the extent data are available”. This definition provides important guidance for the Cal EPA as it begins the process of taking action to remedy environmental injustice. Additionally, communities are relieved to see a regulatory definition of cumulative impacts that takes into account their lived reality.

Urban Habitat and the Collaborative on Health and the Environment have convened a call to learn from the debate on cumulative exposures and impacts. We also see this issue as a bridge between environmental justice communities and health-affected populations as we collectively work towards healthy communities and environments.