Happy Public Health Week

Public Health Law Research (PHLR), a grantee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has been celebrating National Public Health Week by contributing graphics and posts on the specific role that public health law plays in improving human health.  PHLR’s research agenda is to produce evidence about which public health laws work to save lives and reduce morbidity (or not), and to communicate their evidence to encourage improved law and policy making.

PHLR’s contributions this week include one environmental public health law example:  lead laws.

According to PHLR:

“In 1990 approximately 20 percent of all U.S. children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. However, only a decade later that percentage was down to 1.6 percent, thanks to public health laws researched and crafted to look out for the wellbeing of children. One of the most significant pieces of legislation was The Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988, which was already on the path to improving public health in 1990.”

Now see it graphically.

PHLR leadlaws


This video tells the story of the Philadelphia Lead Court, which was created in 2002 as an innovative law enforcement strategy to compel property owners to comply with city health codes to remediate their properties of lead hazards.  This study analyzes the effectiveness of the PLC as compared with precourt law enforcement strategies and within the context of a specialized court; its use of fines; the impact of grant funding for remediation work; and major advantages and disadvantages of the PLC, along with suggested changes to improve the court’s function.

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DC Court of Appeals Upholds EPA Rule on Mercury Emissions

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld EPA’s 2012 rule setting emission standards for coal and oil-fired electric utility steam generating units, denying the challenge from utilities and industry groups that EPA exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act.

The rule, establishing limits for mercury and other hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), are based on authority granted under the 1990 amendment to § 112 of the Clean Air Act. The amended Act requires EPA to implement maximum achievable control technology (MACT) standards for certain HAPs when they find such regulation appropriate and necessary based on a study of their hazards to public health. The MACT standards cannot be less stringent than the average emission limitation achieved by the best performing sources, regardless of cost or considerations other than the study of their hazards.


The groups opposing EPA’s MACT standard argued that the phrase “appropriate and necessary” in § 112(b)(1)(A) limits EPA’s ability to regulate emissions from electric utilities, and that EPA exceeded its authority by considering factors other than public health. The Court disagreed, explaining despite the statutory ambiguity of the phrase, EPA’s “commonsense” construction–which considered the HAPs hazards generally but within the context of the requisite study on public health–was permissible, satisfying Chevron’s two-part test, and within the bounds of its discretion.

According to an EPA spokesperson, the MACT standards will eliminate 90 percent of mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants.



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Climate Change and the Rise in Beef Prices

The price of beef has risen to $5.28 per pound, the highest since 1987, reflecting both increased demand and record drought in the U.S.’s major cattle regions. As the climate warms, causing drought in the Southwest and Midwest, reduced crop yields drive up the cost of cattle feed, forcing cattle farmers to reduce herd sizes. The country’s cattle population is now around 88 million, the lowest since 1951. As the supply of cattle dwindles, demand has risen. This rise can be attributed, at least in part, to the rate of exports to China, where the country’s 1.35 billion people consume more than twice the amount of beef than the U.S. population. As costs continue to rise, U.S. consumers may turn to other sources of protein, including chicken and non-animal sources.
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Spring reading

VJEL coverTwo new articles of mine on environmental health law topics have just been published and can be found on SSRN.  The article on the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, a bill pending in Congress to overhaul TSCA, can be found at the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law‘s beautiful home page.  The essay about the ethics of using human health-based standards in environmental law, published in the University of Michigan’s Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law, will appear soon at this site.

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Anadarko pollution map

The Anadarko Petroleum settlement of environmental health claims against its Kerr-McGee subsidiary has rightfully garnered a lot of attention in the last few days:  the biggest environmental cash settlement in Department of Justice history, the $5.15 billion settlement involves clean up of dozens of sites across the country and compensates more than 7,000 people living with the effects of contamination from Kerr-McGee’s 85-year operation of chemical, energy and manufacturing businesses.

While the focus now is on moving the business and its shareholders into a more certain financial future, this map published in the Wall Street Journal (under the headline “A frightening map of where Kerr-McGee polluted”) documents the company’s continuing environmental and health impacts.


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Remembrance of Things Past: London, 1952

This week the United Kingdom has experienced a toxic smog that has caused 1.6 million people to suffer an  asthma attack.  A survey by Asthma UK conducted yesterday found 30% of the country’s  5.4 million asthmatics had suffered an asthma attack as a direct  result of the toxic cloud hanging over the U.K.  Dr. Keith Prowse, honorary medical  adviser to the British Lung Foundation,  said symptoms brought on by the  smog could last several days:  “The people who are most vulnerable are people  with chest diseases and heart disease, the very young and very old because their  immune systems  cannot cope as well.”  Ambulance  services saw a 14% spike in 999 calls and hospitals are braced for an UK toxic cloud 2014increase  in admissions.  Mike McKevitt, head of patient services at the British Lung Foundation, said: “It would be surprising if we didn’t see an overall increase in the number of  hospital admissions as a result of the pollution, certainly among people with  respiratory condition such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary  disease.”

A combination of dust from the Sahara Desert, emissions from the European continent, low  south-easterly winds, and domestic pollution has caused air quality to plummet  across the UK and the smog-like conditions are not expected to clear until  Friday night.

In addition to warnings aimed at asthmatics, public health officials urge others experiencing sore eyes, cough, or sore  throat to reduce outdoor activity.  Some schools in London have banned students from outdoor playgrounds to reduce their  exposure to the fog.  Frank Kelly, a professor of environmental  health at King’s College London and a member of the Department of Health’s  Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution, said that doing so would help reduce  long-term harm to children.  Meanwhile, officials of the London Marathon reported that its doctors were monitoring the smog ahead of next weekend’s race.

london smog 1952All of which reminds me of London’s Great Smog of 1952, an event, along with the Donora, Pennsylvania smog a few years earlier, that is described in every environmental health text as leading to air pollution laws.  The Met Office describes the Great Smog as “a fog so thick and polluted it left thousands dead [and] wreaked havoc on London in 1952. The smoke-like pollution was so toxic it was even reported to have choked cows to death in the fields. It was so thick it brought road, air and rail transport to a virtual standstill.”  This smog resulted from an inversion, which occurs when air close to the ground is cooler than the air higher above it.  When warm smoke emitted from home heating chimneys (it was a particularly cold and wet winter), as well as from (at that time, unregulated) factory chimneys,  the particles and gases in it were trapped.  And like this week’s toxic smog, winds from the east added industrial pollution from the continent in 1952.  All told, 1,000 tons of smoke particles, 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 140 tons of hydrochloric acid, and 14 tons of fluorine compounds infused the Great Smog of 1952. In addition, 370 tons of sulphur dioxide were converted into 800 tons of sulphuric acid.  As a result,  when the  fog cleared a few days later, some 4,000 people were dead, many more suffered breathing problems, and even cattle were claimed to have been asphyxiated by the smog.

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Research Finds Correlation Between Arsenic and IQ Scores

According to a study recently published in Environmental Health, exposure to arsenic in drinking water, even at low levels, can cause cognitive impairment. Researchers from Columbia University and the University of New Hampshire followed 272 school children from three school districts in Maine for five years. After adjusting for social factors, the researchers concluded that on average, exposure to arsenic in well water was associated with decreased IQ scores and perceptual reasoning, working memory, and verbal comprehension scores. Exposures as low as 5 parts per billion (ppb) correlated with IQ scores 5-6 points lower than average. EPA’s standard for arsenic in public drinking water is 10 ppb, but there is no limit for private wells, which provide drinking water to more than 13 million Americans. Based on data indicating that between 10-20% of private wells have arsenic concentrations greater than 5 ppb, thousands of Americans may be at risk for cognitive impairment.

Map-- Arsenic concentrations in 31,000 ground-water samples

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A Last Call for Limits to Growth?

Following closely on the heels of the IPCC’s most recent publication on climate change (outlook: not good), Dartmouth College screened the film Last Call about the controversial 1972 book Limits to Growth. Limits to Growth explored the potential consequences of population growth, concluding that unless political measures are taken to mitigate current rates of population and economic growth, they will both increase exponentially until they exceed the limits of sustainability and suffer a catastrophic decline. Needless to say, no measures were taken and the book was heavily criticized. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan famously argued “there are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.”

After the screening, one of the book’s authors, Dennis Meadows, answered questions. A student addressed a part of the film where co-author Donella Meadows expressed frustration at the public’s refusal to accept the study and its calls for action. The student asked how “we” (environmentalists) should respond when those in power refuse to take action on environmental issues. Dennis Meadows quickly replied that we should ignore them and focus on disseminating information about the issue. His point, which he went on to articulate, reminded me of a recent conversation about collective animal behavior–the coordinate behavior of a herd or group of animals of the same species. Large groups of animals often make decisions as a group. Herds of red deer, for example, spend the day grazing but at some point, each deer needs water. If the herd goes to the river too soon, some of the deer won’t get enough to eat; if they wait too long, some of the deer will become dehydrated. So how does the herd decide when to go? When more than half of the deer stand and face the river. In this way, each deer has an influence on the herd’s decision, but not all of the deer need to agree on when they should go.

The film’s reminder of this behavior makes it a little easier to think about the political gridlock impeding meaningful reform of TSCA. The proposed bills pit environmentalists against the chemical industry, forcing those seeking reform to settle for compromise or to try and convince politicians that weak standards, loopholes, and exceptions erode the ability of the law to protect health. But the film quietly suggests otherwise, asking whether hope for meaningful reform could lie in this theory of collective animal behavior—that at some point, when the majority is looking for change, political decisions will reflect that collective desire. This sounds a lot like how the democratic process should work, but with a reminder that politicians can only represent the herd when they know which direction they are facing.

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UN Panel Releases Report on the Impacts of Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group II released the most recent contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), the second of three reports the IPCC will ultimately synthesize and release in December, 2014. Established in 1988 by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the IPCC is comprised of three Working Groups, a Task Force, and a Task Group. The IPCC’s Working Groups (WG) review and analyze scientific and technical information on climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts. The WG’s have issued four previous Assessment Impacts, Adaptation, and VulnerabilityReports on climate change, commissioned by the governments of 195 countries. This most recent report focuses on risk, evaluating “how patterns of risk and potential benefits are shifting due to climate change… [and] considers how impacts and risks related to climate change can be reduced and managed through adaptation and mitigation.” According to WG II, the effects of climate change will be “severe, pervasive and irreversible.” The majority of observed changes will have the strongest impact on natural systems–water resources, sea level, and biodiversity–but will also affect human systems, such as food production and livelihoods. The report identified eight key risks of continued warming, based on criteria including magnitude, probability, and irreversibility. These risks, which include death, injury, and health impacts, are associated with the physical consequences of warming–such as flooding and severe weather–as well as the results of these consequences, including the degradation of the natural environment and the breakdown of infrastructure, some of which will affect particular regions and some of which will have cascading effects.
1. Risk of death, injury, ill-health, or disrupted livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones and small island developing states and other small islands, due to storm surges, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise.
2. Risk of severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods for large urban populations due to inland flooding in some regions.
3. Systemic risks due to extreme weather events leading to breakdown of infrastructure networks and critical services such as electricity, water supply, and health and emergency services.
4. Risk of mortality and morbidity during periods of extreme heat, particularly for vulnerable urban populations and those working outdoors in urban or rural areas.
5. Risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes, particularly for poorer populations in urban and rural settings.
6. Risk of loss of rural livelihoods and income due to insufficient access to drinking and irrigation water and reduced agricultural productivity, particularly for farmers and pastoralists with minimal capital in semi-arid regions.
7. Risk of loss of marine and coastal ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for coastal livelihoods, especially for fishing communities in the tropics and the Arctic.
8. Risk of loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for livelihoods.


In addition to the risks, the report discusses the specific impacts of continued warming. Examples of impacts include an increase in the number of people experiencing water scarcity and the proportion affected by major river floods, submergence, and erosion due to sea-level rise. Under certain rates of emission, there is also a “high risk of abrupt and irreversible regional-scale change” to certain ecosystems, which will create an increased risk of extinction for land-based and freshwater wildlife and a shift in range for fish and other marine animals. According to estimates, a 2C rise in temperature above 20th Century levels will have impacts on the production of the major food crops–wheat, rice, and maize–which will result in food security. Continued warming is also expected to slow economic growth, making it more difficult to overcome poverty. Taken together, these factors are likely to increase rates of emigration, conflict, and population, all of which will have substantial impacts on health.


To address the risks and impacts of climate change, the report stresses the importance of adaptation. It highlights steps taken by governments to respond to these changes by developing plans and integrating climate considerations into existing programs, such as disaster risk management and water management programs. For example, the US has undertaken “incremental” planning, including proactive measures to protect long-term investments in energy infrastructure. To aid governments in this planning process, the report lays out a principles for effective adaptation, which include enhancing planning and implementation through international collaboration, addressing the causes of climate change, and reducing exposure and vulnerability to the variability associated with warming. The report emphasizes that measures addressing the causes rather than the effects of climate change may serve to slow the rate of global warming, and therefore lessen the risks associated with climate change.

The most recent contribution to AR5 can be found here.

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Vermont strives for comprehensive chemical regulation

Vermont has enacted a variety of commercial chemicals laws over the last decade in response to specific issues.  For example, 18 V.S.A. § 1511 limits the concentration of  phthalates in products intended for children under 3 years old; 9 V.S.A. § 2973-2980 similarly regulates flame retardants; 18 V.S.A. § 1512 places limits on BPA in food and beverage containers; and 18 V.S.A. § 1781 limits the use of cleaning products in schools to those that are “environmentally preferable.”vermont

Now the state is moving to a more comprehensive approach.  This week, the Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would ban chemicals from consumer products sold in Vermont if the state considers them harmful to human health.  The bill, S.239, needs final approval from the Senate before moving to the House.

The proposed new regulatory scheme takes a page from the California playbook.  It would authorize the state Department of Health to maintain a list of potentially toxic chemicals –“chemicals of high concern” —  and require manufacturers to report their consumer products that contain these chemicals.  Regulatory authority also includes powers that range from labeling to banning.  An advisory group would make recommendations to the health commissioner on how to regulate certain chemicals. Members of the group would include public interest groups, state officials, businesses and others.

If enacted, S.239 would have the health department publishing a list by July 1, 2016 and regulating per it the following year.  Manufacturers would pay up to $2,000 for each chemical of high concern, to fund the Agency of Natural Resources and the health department to implement the program.  Finally, the bill includes exemptions for electronic devices, ammunition (including lead shot), certain pesticides, tobacco, foods and beverages, and motor vehicle components.

montpelierThe bill’s supporters and opponents separate along usual lines, with the business community generally lining up against the bill and public health and environmental non-profits supporting.  Interestingly, firefighters have come out as vocal supporters.  Ben O’Brien, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont, spoke about toxic chemicals in firefighting gear and burning furniture causing respiratory illnesses and cancer.  “Firefighters around the country are experiencing alarming rates of cancer,” O’Brien said. “More firefighters today are actually dying with their boots off than they are from any other job-related cause.”

Senator Ginny Lyons, the bill’s lead sponsor, echoed this point:  “We want to eliminate toxic chemical in our state from personal products, from products that are in our homes and our residences so that when firefighters are called to save lives and save property, that they are not exposed to very toxic chemicals that can give them cancer and other chronic health conditions.”  This concern is taking hold across the U.S.

UPDATE:  As of 4/2/14, the Senate approved S.239 and it’s now over in the House.  According to the Center for Public Intergrity, Vermont’s action puts it in the mainstream of a massive state commercial chemicals reform effort:  ”At least 442 bills involving toxics and chemicals have been filed in 2014, or refiled from previous sessions, covering 39 states, according to an environmental health legislation database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures. A year earlier, 399 such bills were filed and the year before that, the database shows, more than 500.”  Put simply by Justin Johnson, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency for Natural Resources, who also serves on the Environmental Council of the States, a nonpartisan association of state leaders: “I’ve been personally to the statehouse here in Vermont for five years in a row. ‘Let’s wait and see what the feds do. It’s getting pretty old.”

Posted in chemical safety regulation, children's products, flame retardants, label laws, phthalates, public health, synthetic chemicals | Comments Off