Yesterday’s Albany Times Union published damning information about GE’s PCB contamination of the Hudson River. The polluted 200-mile stretch from Hudson Falls to the Atlantic Ocean makes it one of the largest Superfund sites, according to the EPA. PCBs were banned in 1977 and are considered probable human carcinogens that are also linked to low birth weight, thyroid disease, and learning, memory, and immune system disorders. The federally mandated dredging of the Upper Hudson is costing GE $1 billion, while taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions more in related cleanup costs.
GE has long held that chemicals in the insulating fluid used in its Washington County capacitor plants aren’t harmful to humans and that the river is able to clean itself. Yet documents show that as early as the 1960s — well before the EPA ordered GE to dredge the river — company officials learned of the potential serious health threats of PCBs and GE engineers called it “hazardous waste” in confidential memos. The documents also indicate that GE dumped more PCBs into the Hudson than estimated by regulators, and that another million pounds a year were hauled by “scavenger crews” and dumped indiscriminately, leading one GE engineer to call the disposal method “out of sight, out of mind.”
The Times Union obtained the documents through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests aimed at the federal lawsuit filed against GE by the towns of Halfmoon, Stillwater and Waterford, the village of Stillwater, and the Saratoga County Water Authority in 2009. The municipal agencies claim that their water systems, which are tied to the Hudson River, have been tainted by the ongoing dredging project as well as the original contamination from GE’s capacitor plants over a 30-year period. They seek to compel GE to pay for alternate drinking-water supplies while the company performs the clean up. Last week GE officials announced that it had reached a “settlement in principle” with three of the plaintiffs.
The Times Union article also notes what it cannot access: thousands of other internal company records, including “scores of documents related to GE’s multimillion-dollar public relations campaign in opposition to dredging,” which GE argues are privileged. For more details, primary documents, photos, and videos, read here.
Three environmental and public health groups represented by Earthjustice filed suit yesterday, asking the U.S. District Court in San Francisco to require the EPA to promulgate final rules requiring public disclosure of specific pesticide ingredients.
The Center for Environmental Health, Beyond Pesticides, and Physicians for Social Responsibility allege that “unreasonable delay” by the Agency has led to some 350 inert pesticide ingredients, many classified as carcinogenic, possibly carcinogenic or potentially toxic, not to be listed on consumer labels. Because these inert ingredients can be just as hazardous as active ingredients for which the EPA does require label disclosure, and because they can make up almost all of a pesticide’s formulation, the lawsuit argues that the EPA has failed to protect public health under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).
An inert ingredient is one that is “not active,” meaning it’s not targeted at killing a pest. In general, inert ingredients are minimally tested. Pesticide labels only identify the weight percentage of inert ingredients, and can mislead the public into thinking that they are safe. In 1997, EPA’s own studies found that “many consumers have a misleading impression of the term ‘inert ingredient’ believing it to indicate water or other harmless ingredients.”
More than 20 public health groups and a coalition of state attorneys general petitioned EPA in 2006 to act on this issue. EPA said in 2009 that it was starting the rulemaking process, according to the lawsuit, but has taken no further action since then.
PSR joined in the rulemaking petition and in this week’s lawsuit because its doctor members see the impact on public health. “When pesticide producers refuse to identify all the ingredients in pesticides, doctors are compromised in their ability to treat patients,” said Barbara Gottlieb, Director of Environment and Health at Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). “Immediate access to information on inert substances in pesticides can make a critical difference in patient outcome.”
The New Yorker recently published an article about Tyrone Hayes, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Since 1997, Hayes has focused his research on the health effects of exposure to atrazine, the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. In 1997, Hayes was hired by the consulting firm, EcoRisk, Inc. His role was to research atrazine for Novartis, the multinational company responsible for the herbicide. (Novartis later became Syngenta).
Atrazine is the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. for broadleaf crops such as corn and sugarcane and golf courses and residential lawns. Farmers apply more than 76 million pounds of atrazine each year, which, according to Syngenta provides $3 billion in benefits by increases crop yields by 600 million bushels each year and reducing 85 billion tons of soil erosion annually.
It also turns out that atrazine is the most commonly detected contaminant in U.S. drinking water. In 2010, 16 cities sued Syngenta after finding atrazine levels exceeding the standards under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. In 2012, Syngenta settled two class-action law suits brought by towns with contaminated drinking water. When Hayes’ notified the EcoRisk that his data indicated that atrazine was extremely toxic, Novartis refused to continue funding his research. Hayes was able to secure other sources of funding, and in 2012 published data replicating his earlier findings (which provided the scientific basis for the aforementioned lawsuits), but this marked the beginning of widespread opposition to his findings. Despite being banned in the European Union since 2004 because of it’s persistence in the water supply and corresponding effects on the endocrine system, in 2006 EPA indicated that “the risks associated with [atrazine] residue pose a reasonable certainty of no harm.” EPA has since begun research evaluating the herbicide’s health effects, despite the array of data coming from Hayes’ lab and others, all confirming that atrazine is toxic.
While EPA continues to “look” for answers about atrazine’s health effects, Hayes’ research repeatedly indicates that exposure to the herbicide disrupts the endocrine system. The majority of his research is on frogs, and shows that exposure to atrazine causes male frogs to exhibit female characteristics (for a brief description about this process, start viewing the video here around minute 2). Known as “intersex,” the effect is seen in waterways across the country, where large scale fish kills are common and fish are routinely found with male and female reproductive organs.
In “The Ripple Effect,” Alex Prud’homme discusses endocrine disrupting pollutants. Which he classifies under the umbrella of “emerging contaminants.” These include the array of chemicals or materials in water, soil, river sediments, or air—typically present at very low concentrations—that were not previously detected or are being detected at levels that are higher than expected. Specifically, endocrine disruptors, like atrazine, are found in PCBs, industrial chemicals, pesticides, cleaning products, and plastics (BPA). The main source of water contamination, however, is agricultural runoff caused by stormwater runoff from treated fields.
According to Hayes’ research, atrazine causes hormone imbalances by turning on an enzyme, aromatase, that turns testosterone into estrogen, feminizing males. This is especially relevant for women because breast cancer cells are regulated by the aromatase enzyme. When breast tissue develops a cancerous cell, aromatase converts adrogens into estrogens, which promote proliferation of those cancerous cells, creating a tumor. In fact, as Hayes points out, one of the latest treatments for breast cancer is a medication called Letrozol, which blocks estrogen so cancerous cells cannot develop into tumors. Letrozol is, it turns out, manufactured and sold by Novartis.
Aviv’s New Yorker article is worth a thorough read, discussing several frustrating aspects of Hayes’ career and its lack of any meaningful impact on EPA’s regulation of atrazine. One of the most interesting sections, however, addresses EPA’s reliance on the Data Quality Act as the foundation for its refusal to regulate the herbicide. As Aviv explains, after EPA reviewed Hayes’ data in 2002, an organization called the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness petitioned EPA to ignore his results because his studies failed to meet the standards for quality under the Data Quality Act. What Aviv highlights is that not only is Jim Tozzi, the head of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, a consultant for Syngenta, but that he was behind the language that would ultimately inhibit agency reliance on scientific data. Regardless of Tozzi’s motivation, EPA revised its determination of Hayes’ research and refused to restrict atrazine based on its endocrine disrupting properties until “appropriate testing protocols have been established.” This raises the question: what is appropriate? Hayes has worked on atrazine’s endocrine disrupting properties at Berkeley for more than 15 years, a period during which he has published his results in numerous peer reviewed journals, including Nature, and has reproduced his research with the same results. That sounds like “established protocols” to me.
February is American Heart Month. To honor it and make the case for how environmental laws lead to improved public health, the EPA created a new Public Service Announcement (PSA) about how air pollution affects heart health aimed at patients and health care providers. It highlights research that has shown that air pollution (especially small particulate matter found in vehicular exhaust) can trigger heart attacks and strokes, and worsen heart conditions, especially in the one-in-three Americans who live with heart disease. The new PSA advises people with heart disease to check the daily, color-coded Air Quality Index forecast and adjust their outdoor activities accordingly. These forecasts are available for more than 400 cities.
On the indoor or personal air quality front (or that air envelope we pass through when entering buildings that ban smoking), a recent study linked the incidence of breast cancer in young women with smoking. Researchers found that women between 20 and 44 years old who smoked a pack of cigarettes per day for at least 10 years were 60% more likely than those who smoked less to develop estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer. (In contrast, these smokers were not more likely to develop a less common but more aggressive form of breast cancer known as triple-negative breast cancer.) Previous research has found links between smoking and breast cancer, but the study of breast cancer in younger women has produced conflicting results. This new study questions whether smoking is linked to an increased risk of some types of breast cancer but not others. “I think there is a growing appreciation that breast cancer is not just one disease and there are many different subtypes,” said Dr. Christopher Li, the study author. “In this study, we were able to look at the different molecular subtypes and how smoking affects them.” When analyzing how smoking could specifically affect cancer development, Li and his colleagues hypothesize that some substances found in cigarettes may act like estrogens, which would promote estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer: “There are so many different chemicals in cigarette smoke that can have so many kinds of effects.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, about one in every eight American women will eventually develop breast cancer. The American Lung Association reports that women are catching up to men in terms of smoking rates. Putting these two facts together underscores the importance of Li’s study.
Newsflash from the Last Frontier: The Toxic-Free-Children’s Act (SB 151) decribed in this earlier post received a hearing in the Senate Health and Social Services Committee on Wednesday and was speedily passed out of committee two days later. Guest blogger Maricarmen Cruz-Guilloty ’12 of Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) reports that the committee room was packed with moms, nurses, fire fighters, Native communities, sustainable businesses, ACAT, and concerned citizens from around Alaska, as well as corporate lobbyists representing the chemical industry/American Chemistry Council and the AK Chamber of Commerce. You can watch to the testimony here and track the bill here.
During a recent visit to California, President Obama announced plans to help the farmers, small businesses, and communities that are being affected by the state’s drought. California is suffering through some of the driest years on record; nearly 99% of the state is drier than average, and 27 counties have been declared primary natural disaster areas because of drought conditions. According to President Obama, climate change is largely to blame, saying that “this trend is going to get worse. And the hard truth is even if we do take action on climate change, carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades. The planet is slowly going to keep warming for a long time to come. So we’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for; we’ve got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for, to anticipate, to start building new infrastructure, to start having new plans, to recalibrate the baseline that we’re working off of.”
As a part of this plan, Obama outlined measures, including transferring $100 million from the farm bill for livestock disaster assistance, an additional $15 million in relief for California and other states suffering from extreme drought, and a moratorium on water usage for new, non-essential landscaping projects at federal facilities.
In addition, Obama plans to add $1 billion to his proposed budget to establish a “Climate Resilience Fund” to encourage research on the impacts of climate change, development of technologies to help communities prepare for climate change, and to establish incentives to build more resilient infrastructure. This funding is part of a move to focus “on how all these changes in weather patterns are going to have an impact up and down the United States — not just on the coast but inland as well — and how do we start preparing for that.” Climate change has already contributed to drought conditions and extreme weather events throughout the country, including wildfires, all of which have affected food production and resulted in increased agricultural and stormwater runoff. In 2010, the United States declared 81 presidential disasters, a figure that rose to 99 in 2011, contributing to an estimated $188 billion in costs and 1,107 fatalities. White House spokesman Matt Lehrich told POLITICO that Obama “is going to continue to make the case that climate change is already hurting Americans around the country and that it will only get worse for our children and grandchildren if we leave it for future generations to deal with.” Unfortunately, because a number of congressional Republicans deny climate science, it is uncertain whether a budget would pass with the Climate Resilience Fund intact.
Transparency and disclosure are regulatory buzz words, corresponding to demand for information about how the government makes decisions and the information used to justify those decisions. In an interesting turn of events, Republicans have begun to introduce or support bills promoting transparency in the rule making process. The bills are less about shining sunlight on the rule making process, however, and more about restricting the rule making process and the types of information agencies can use.
One such bill, recently approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, would require federal agencies to give more notice on upcoming regulations. The All Economic Regulations are Transparent Act of 2013 would require the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to post rules online for six months before they are finalized. Agencies would also be required to submit monthly reports and summaries on new rules, including cost estimates. According to Representative Doug Collins (R-GA), the Act would “provide certainty to the American people.” Democrats disagree, however, arguing that the bill would impede the government’s ability to implement new rules, calling it “another attack on agency rulings that ins being mischaracterized as government transparency.”
A second bill, introduced by Republican Representative David Schweikert (AZ) is intended to make agency science “more accessible.” The Secret Science Reform Act, H.R. 4012, would accomplish this by prohibiting EPA from using data or scientific studies that are not publicly available. According to Schweikert, the bill would ensure that those who are interested in understanding, analyzing, and forming an opinion about an issue have access to the underlying data. Democrats disagree, however, arguing that the bill could bar EPA from using the best available science because it would prohibit EPA from considering studies that are not publicly available. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, agreed, saying that the bill, which would essentially “crowd-source science,” is not such a great idea. Similarly, John Walke, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, sent a letter to the panel calling it “deeply troubling” because it would force EPA to ignore scientific studies.
While Democrats and Republicans disagree about the meaning of “transparency” and “disclosure,” government watchdog groups, like the Center for Effective Government, continue to push for change.
Our favorite guest blogger, VLS alum Maricarmen Cruz-Guilloty, Environmental Health and Justice Coordinatorat Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT), reports that the Alaska Legislature will consider a bill about toxic chemicals in children’s products in 2014. Senator Donny Olson, representing the Bering Straits/Interior villages, introduced the Toxic-Free Children’s Act (SB 151) to protect children from toxic flame retardants in products. The bill focuses on a class of chemicals known as tris flame retardants, which are known to cause cancer, neurological damage, and reproductive harm. In the 1970’s, use of chlorinated tris was discontinued in baby sleepwear due to its carcinogenicity. But recently it’s been found in such baby and children’s products as nap mats, nursing pillows, car seats, and play tents.
With the introduction of the Toxic-Free Children’s Act, Alaska joins other states passing statutes to protect children from toxic chemical exposure. States see he federal law, TSCA, as ineffective because it doesn’t reach many chemicals associated with cancer, learning disabilities, and reproductive problems that are commonly used in children’s products. If passed, the Alaska bill would create a list of chemicals of “high concern” for children’s health and phase out toxic tris flame retardant chemicals from children’s products.
In support of the bill, ACAT sponsored a teleconference on February 5th featuring Arlene Blum Ph.D., author, mountaineer, and founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, for a discussion of the health effects of flame retardant chemicals and the likely impacts of California’s new furniture flammability standard. California Governor Jerry Brown announced the standard in November, and it has since become the de facto standard for manufacturers across the US and Canada. Questions abound about whether California will succeed in shifting manufacturers away from tris flame retardants.
Asbestos, a heat resistant mineral fiber, was commonly used as insulation and in manufactured goods as a fire retardant until it was banned for many of these uses in the 1970s. In 1989, EPA attempted to ban all products containing asbestos under Section 6 of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), but the rule was remanded by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the 1991 case Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA. Millions have sought compensation from companies for the long-term effects of workplace exposure to asbestos, which include lung cancer, mesothelioma, and non-malignant lung and pleural disorders, which has contributed to the bankruptcy of more than 100 companies, including Garlock, a gasket manufacturer.
Chapter 11 and 524(g) of the federal bankruptcy code permits a company to transfer its liabilities and certain assets to an asbestos personal injury trust, which becomes responsible for disbursing compensation to present and future claimants. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, more than 60 trusts have been established since 1988, with about $37 billion in assets. These trusts have paid out $17.5 billion in compensation in over 3.3 million mesothelioma claims.
A recent case, however, has exposed the “massive fraud” routinely practiced in mesothelioma litigation, where demand figures have escalated as more and more of the liable companies file for bankruptcy. In January, a Federal Bankruptcy Court judge from North Carolina reduced the amount the company owed asbestos victims from $1.4 billion to $125 million in response to findings that the victim’s lawyers had inflated claims. The lawyer’s fraud came to light after Judge George Hodges granted Garlock’s attorneys permission to review fifteen old cases which revealed that not only had the victim’s lawyers withheld evidence that their clients had been exposed to asbestos from multiple sources, but that they had filed claims on behalf of the victims with multiple companies. Not surprisingly, the victim’s lawyers argue that Judge Hodges perception of events is inaccurate, claiming that the judge’s radical approach highlights his lack of experience in asbestos litigation.
It is difficult to say whether the 4,000 ex-Garlock employees and the untold number of future victims with asbestos-induced mesothelioma will suffer because of their lawyer’s fraudulent conduct, which resulted in a significantly smaller trust for compensation. Either way, the lawyers will not go without punishment: EnPro, Garlock’s parent company, has responded to the ruling by suing six of the law firms associated with the fraudulent claims.
A recent study published in JAMA Neurology has identified one of the first environmental risk factors for Alzheimer’s by establishing an association between exposure to the pesticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and Alzheimer’s disease. DDT was widely used as an agricultural insecticide in the United States until it was banned in 1972, in large part precipitated by Rachel Carson’s seminal work, SilentSpring, in which she exposed the chemical’s hazardous effects on human health. The pesticide is still in use, in part because of the World Health Organization’s recommendation to use DDT to prevent malaria.
Despite the passage of more than forty-years since it was banned, DDT is still found in human tissue. The chemical’s lipophilic properties mean that it persists in the environment and fat tissue long after exposure: in 2005, more than thirty years after it was banned in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control detected DDT in almost all of the human blood samples they tested. It is DDT’s tendency to bioaccumulate that was found to be significant in the JAMA study, which found that patients with Alzheimer’s had almost four times more DDT in their tissue than those without the disease.
The researchers hope that the correlation will allow for early detection and intervention, which will slow the progression of the disease. Next, the researchers behind the study will try to replicate their findings in a larger sample size and determine the reason behind the association between DDT and Alzheimer’s.