Month: August 2007

Lead from toys not the real problem

Here’s what happens when you make a long verbal rant to someone about how the risk of lead exposure from water and air probably exceeds the risk from toys with lead paint, and then don’t blog about it because that means doing an hour or two of research and you don’t find the time… Someone else has the same notion, and actually writes about it AND gets published in a mainstream website!

The lingering danger to children from lead. – By Darshak Sanghavi – Slate Magazine

While tainted toys are in the news now, kids historically have gotten lead from two sources: the atmosphere and house paint. Roughly a quarter-million tons of lead compounds entered the atmosphere annually beginning in 1922, after a General Motors scientist developed a lead-based gasoline additive that prevented auto knocking. Lead’s chemical durability, recognized centuries ago, also made it an attractive paint additive. Toddlers are particularly susceptible to eating lead paint because it has a sugary taste; ancient Romans used lead powder to sweeten wine. By 1980, more than half a million American children—4 percent of all toddlers—had quite toxic blood lead levels from these sources.

Lead is a serious problem in the US, and the bulk of exposure is from crumbling infrastructure, the inability (or unwillingness) to fix and replace decaying lead pipes, and the still ubiquitous presence of lead paint layers in older houses.

The article doesn’t still give you exposure comparisons or numbers, so I guess I still have to do the work.

Biofuels are evil, part 1000

Turns out that as I keep saying again and again, biofuels are just plain pointless and may actually increase CO2 concentrations.

Forget biofuels – burn oil and plant forests instead – earth – 16 August 2007 – New Scientist Environment

It sounds counterintuitive, but burning oil and planting forests to compensate is more environmentally friendly than burning biofuel. So say scientists who have calculated the difference in net emissions between using land to produce biofuel and the alternative: fuelling cars with gasoline and replanting forests on the land instead.

They recommend governments steer away from biofuel and focus on reforestation and maximising the efficiency of fossil fuels instead.

The reason is that producing biofuel is not a “green process”. It requires tractors and fertilisers and land, all of which means burning fossil fuels to make “green” fuel. In the case of bioethanol produced from corn – an alternative to oil – “it’s essentially a zero-sums game,” says Ghislaine Kieffer, programme manager for Latin America at the International Energy Agency in Paris, France

ED is not just Erectile Dysfunction.

The grist features a must read post on endocrine disruption (ED). Great first paragraph, BTW, but read the whole thing. Before Viagra, had any one other than doctors and the unfortunate masses suffering such dysfunction ever heard of erectile dysfunction? The effects of direct to consumer drug marketing of diseases and disorders is the subject of other posts, but this one’s about endocrine disruptors!

Side note, Erectile dysfunction has 2.3 million hits in google, Endocrine Disruption (or disruptors) has 1.7 million, so, at least google is catching up!

The ED you should really be worried about: Endocrine disruption | Gristmill: The environmental news blog | Grist

What a crazy world we live in when almost everyone knows what the acronym ED stands for. Millions of dollars have been poured into creating awareness of ED, erectile dysfunction, because it is profitable. This 21st-century sales-pitch strategy — “disease mongering” — has proven to be good for the bottom line. The irony of all this is that there is another ED out there into which millions have also been poured — to keep it a secret. That ED is endocrine disruption, and if the public were to learn about it, bottom lines could shrink instead of grow.

Endocrine disruption should be right at the top of the list of most critical technological disasters facing the world today, up with climate change. With little notice, vast volumes and combinations of synthetic chemicals have settled in every environment in the world, including the womb environment. Synthetic chemicals at very low concentrations in the womb change how genes are programmed, cells develop, tissues form, and organs function, and thus undermine the potential and survival of developing animals, including humans. The chemicals threatening the integrity of future generations are derived from the processing of crude oil and natural gas, the same processes that are driving climate change. This is an integral part of the climate change story.

Flame Retardants and Hyperthyroidism in Cats

Caveat Emptor: They found a correlation, not a causative mechanism. But Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs, yum!) have structures that can mimic endocrine hormones. Because hormones signal at very low doses and continuously, our whole toxicological risk testing structure of looking for acute effects at high doses and trying to extrapolate those effects to low doses is flawed for endocrine disrupting compounds. We are finally beginning to see some new research, especially with other toxics such as Bisphenol A, which test for chronic conditions and subtle gene and hormonal signalling effects at low doses. After all, small changes in hormone regulation especially at childbirth and a young age can have very serious effects later on in life.

Inside Bay Area – NEW: Flame retardants linked to thyroid disease in cats

A mysterious epidemic of thyroid disease in cats may be linked to flame retardants common in carpets, foam furniture and mattresses, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researchers, who suggest that scientists have underestimated the damaging health risk the chemicals pose to humans.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, does not prove these compounds, known as PBDEs, caused the rash of hyperthyroidism in the nation’s household cats over the past 30 years.

Rather, it lays out a hypothesis, showing that cats are heavily contaminated by these compounds, which leach from household products and are found everywhere, particularly household dust. Cats, meticulous cleaners, ingest PBDE-contaminated dust daily.

The case of fire retardants is especially difficult because they save many lives, so manufacturers can always point to that fact and resist change. The logical fallacy, however is as follows:

  1. Fire retardants save lives (therefore good)
  2. PBDEs are fire retardants
  3. Therefore, PBDEs are good!!

The search for a safer fire retardant needs to continue, and will not happen unless the old ones are under pressure of being phased out.

India at 60 – A Public Health Perspective

Well, at least I don’t have to take part in endless parades and listen to speeches any more. But India turned 60 today, and the head of the Indian public health foundation takes stock, and it is sobering.

The Hindu : Persisting public health challenges

Recent health indicators in India are a cause for both celebration and concern. While life expectancy at birth has risen to 63 years, infant mortality rate (IMR) and maternal mortality rate (MMR) are still at unacceptably high levels (57 per 1000 and 301 per 100,000 live births respectively). There is widespread disparity among States with Kerala being the star performer. Within States, the rural areas are way behind the urban segments. Even as our economy has grown rapidly, the nutritional status of children has remained stunted, suggesting that wide income disparities are preventing the poor from becoming the beneficiaries of growth.

Yes, I be the killjoy.

More from Amartya Sen

There is reason enough to celebrate many things happening in India right now. But there are failures as well, which need urgent attention. For example, there is still widespread undernourishment in general and child undernutrition in particular–at a shocking level. The failures include, quite notably, the astonishing neglect of elementary education in India, with a quarter of the population–and indeed half the women–still illiterate.

The average life expectancy in India is still low (below 64) and infant mortality very high (58 per 1,000 live births). It is certainly true that India has narrowed the shortfall behind China in these areas–that is, in life expectancy and infant mortality–but there is still some distance to go for the country as a whole. The problems are gigantic in some of the more “backward” states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. And yet there are other states in which the Indian numbers are similar to China’s.

he goes on…

If India has to overcome these failures, it has to spend much more money on expanding the social infrastructure, particularly school education and basic health care. It also needs to spend much more in building up a larger physical infrastructure, including more roads, more power supplies and more water. In some of these, the private sector can help. But a lot more has to be spent on public services themselves, in addition to improving the system of delivery of these services, with more attention paid to incentives and disciplines, and better cooperation with the unions, consumer groups and other involved parties.

Ah, basic and boring infrastructure building!

Happy Independence day, Pakistan

Pakistan turns 60 today, and this article provides good perspective

The poor neighbour | The Guardian | Guardian Unlimited

Amid all the hoopla surrounding the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, almost nothing has been heard from Pakistan, which turns 60 today. Nothing, that is, if you discount the low rumble of suicide bombings, the noise of automatic weapons storming the Red Mosque and the creak of slowly collapsing dictatorships.

In the world’s media, never has the contrast between the two countries appeared so stark: one is widely perceived as the next great superpower; the other written off as a failed state, a world centre of Islamic radicalism, the hiding place of Osama bin Laden and the only US ally that Washington appears ready to bomb.

On the ground, of course, the reality is different and first-time visitors to Pakistan are almost always surprised by the country’s visible prosperity. There is far less poverty on show in Pakistan than in India, fewer beggars, and much less desperation. In many ways the infrastructure of Pakistan is much more advanced: there are better roads and airports, and more reliable electricity. Middle-class Pakistani houses are often bigger and better appointed than their equivalents in India.

The first three paragraphs nail it. Pakistan is home to a burgeoning and prosperous middle class, but I bet all the average American thinks of is Madrassas, Osama, veils and nukes. I am sure Pakistan has all of them 🙂 However, there’s much more!

Happy I. Day, Pakistan, don’t forget, India’s up next on the 15th of August!

The real terrorist: Pollution

It is true. A staggering number of people die every year due to lack of access to clean water, air or food. Aggregate statistics like these are a good way to summarize the humongous nature of the problem. While reams and reams of coverage and attention are focused on “terrorists”, people all around the world die of much more mundane causes such as bacteria in water, smog, poverty, starvation, malnourishment, etc.

ScienceDaily: Pollution Causes 40 Percent Of Deaths Worldwide, Study Finds

About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.

Factory Farm Maps

Want to know where the factory farms are? Want to see a nice graphical representation of the number of hogs, or cows, or chickens that live next to you in factory conditions? Well, look no further than Factory Farm Map.

You will find, for instance, that Iowa is the hog king at 13 million hogs, followed closely by North Carolina at 9.8 million. However, Iowa has them spread out through the state while North Carolina has them in one part of the state (Down east), exacerbating the concentration of the pollution, and the differential impacts of the pollution with geographical location. There are 2.19 million hogs in Duplin County alone, that is 40+ hogs to every human that lives there, or 25000+ hogs per square mile, nice…

Anyway, words don’t do the site justice, just go and play with it.

Feds punt on Bisphenol A

By studiously ignoring all the subtle hormone disruption effects of bisphenol A and concentrating on easily observable neurological effects, the CERHR essentially does the industry’s bidding.

Some risk linked to plastic chemical – Los Angeles Times

A federal panel of scientists concluded Wednesday that an estrogen-like compound in plastic could be posing some risk to the brain development of babies and children.

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is found in low levels in virtually every human body. A component of polycarbonate plastic, it can leach from baby bottles and other hard plastic beverage containers, food can linings and other consumer products.

Culminating months of scientific debate, the decision by the 12 advisors of the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction — part of the National Institutes of Health — is the first official, government action related to the chemical. Their recommendation will be reviewed for a federal report that could lead to regulations restricting one of the most used chemicals.

The scientists ranked their concerns about BPA, concluding they had “some concern” about neurological and behavioral effects in fetuses, infants and children, but “minimal” or “negligible” concern about reproductive effects. The findings put the panel roughly in the middle — between the chemical industry, which has long said there is no evidence of danger to humans, and the environmental activists and scientists who say it is probably harming people.

For a detailed look at how bisphenol research has been corrupted by industry sponsored “focused counter research” – where the goal is to show no effects and the experiment is tiled to ensure this goal, read this excellent article in the The Public Library of Science Biology Open Source Journal. Note, because it is Open Access, you can actually read it without selling a kidney! Some highlights…

The moment we published something on bisphenol A, the chemical industry went out and hired a number of corporate laboratories to replicate our research. What was stunning about what they did,” vom Saal says with a mix of outrage and bemused disbelief, “was they hired people who had no idea how to do the work. Each of the members of these groups came to me and said, ‘We don’t know how to do this, will you teach us?’”

More…

The HCRA report, commissioned before Schwartz’s tenure, concluded that “the weight of the evidence for low-dose effects is very weak” [15]. Industry groups hailed the report as a comprehensive review by independent experts and quickly disseminated its findings. Yet the “comprehensive” report reviewed just 19 of 47 studies available in April 2002, and when it was published more than two years later, three panelists asked not to be listed as authors.

What the hell, just read the whole article, especially the bit about the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and its well documented industry shillness.

The key to understanding bisphenol research is to realize that it is a hormone disruptor that works at low doses. At high doses, normal toxicological testing doses that is, it floods the hormone receptors and slows down the receptor pathways. So, the usual technique of testing in rats and mice at high doses and extrapolating will not work.