Eat your veggies . . . and mitigate global warming

eating meatAccording to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), a panel of scientists that recommends updates to the Dietary Guidelines to the U.S. Department of Agriculture every five years, Americans should think about their own health and that of the environment when choosing what to eat.  In its recently released 2015 report, the DGAC stated that “a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”

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Taking Politics Out of Science

EPA-LogoThe Center for Public Integrity published this article last week entitled Obama’s EPA breaks  pledge to divorce politics from science on toxic chemicals.  Having pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” in his inaugural address, CPI argues that the Obama Administration’s plan, in fact ”has been a failure. In the past three years, the EPA has assessed fewer chemicals than ever. Last year, it completed only one assessment. Today, the agency has even embraced measures sought by the chemical industry that have led to endless delays.”

As we’ve blogged regularly, the state of commercial chemicals regulation in the United States is outdated, at best,  and dangerous, at worst.  Certainly it has not inspired confidence in products made with phthalates and BPA, for example, as consumer campaigns and state chemicals laws evidence.  The most recent reform bill, the Chemicals Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), remains stuck in a congressional committee.

Read more here on how “the story of how this happened is a lesson in how Washington works.”

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“I Can’t Breath,” an enviro justice double entendre?

BlackLivesMatterListen to this WGBH news story, exploring the overlap between the civil rights and environmental justice movements.  It leads off with:

Environmental activists may not seem like the most likely allies for police brutality protestors who, in recent months, have been participating in riots, protests, die-ins, and social media campaigns in response to recent killings of unarmed black men by white police officers. But, on the contrary, a long history of ties exists between the civil rights movement and some fraction of the environmental movement.

Slogans of recent movements against police brutality — including “I Can’t Breath” and “Black Lives Matter” — are a testament to the parallels between themes in the movement against policy brutality and those in environmental movements. 

“I can’t breath has a double meaning; it’s not only about the increased repression that is being expressed in communities of color. It’s also about the deepening ecological crisis that literally — because of the concentration of polluting facilities — people can’t breathe; black, Latino and Asian Americans breathe different air than white Americans,” says environmental researcher at Northeastern University, Dr. Daniel Faber.

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Environmental toxins and children’s brain development

child eating paintThis news in from our guest blogger from Alaska, Maricarmen Cruz-Guilloty, highlighting an upcoming conference call seminar on Wednesday, February 4, 2015, entitled Only One Chance: How Contaminants in our Environment Impair Brain Development.

Here’s a description of the seminar topic and speaker:

The brain is an extremely complex organ that has to undergo a variety of developmental stages in a particular sequence and at a particular time to develop properly. What happens when the developing brain is exposed to environmental toxicants such as lead, mercury, pesticides, PCBs, or PFCs? These and other harmful chemicals can be present in our household products, air, water, and food. Some environmental chemicals are known to cause brain damage and many more are suspected of it, but few have been tested for such effects. Philippe Grandjean, MD, PhD has been examining the adverse neurodevelopmental effects of environmental chemicals on children for decades. Grandjean will present the latest evidence of which environmental chemicals are considered to be harmful to children and discuss how we must protect future generations from exposure. Learn more.

Philippe Grandjean, MD, Ph.D. is an adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health and head of the Environmental Medicine Research Unit at the University of Southern Denmark. Grandjean has devoted his career to studying how environmental chemicals affect children and their brain development. Grandjean has published about 500 scientific papers and is author of Only One Chance: How Environmental Pollution Impairs Brain Development — and How to Protect the Brains of the Next Generation. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark and in Cambridge, MA, and travels widely to study environmental problems and to examine children whose lives have been affected by pollution, more specifically, the delayed effects of developmental exposure to environmental chemicals. Philippe Grandjean’s website.

To join this call: Please sign up online or call (907) 222-7714.

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Turn off a light, save environmental health?

This recent study, entitled Altruism, self-interest, and energy consumption, tested the common belief that putting a price on an activity has the most influence on changing human behavior.

saving electricityTo determine what motivates the most energy conservation, approximately 120 young Los Angeles couples and families had smart meters installed in their homes and received weekly e-mails with different motivational messages over a four-month period.

Results:  Reminders about potential money savings for decreasing electricity consumption showed no net energy savings.  In contrast, the group that received e-mails about the amount of pollution their energy use produced and how this pollution led to childhood asthma and cancer cut energy use 8%.  This health message was even more effective when there were children at home: this group decreased power usage by 19%.

Principal investigator Magali Delmas, a UCLA professor of management and environmental economist, observed that “although people said in the survey that money was the most important driver, in fact, that wasn’t what happened. In reality, health was much more powerful as a message.”

Read here for more information about the study and how it reinforces earlier work featured in this blog post.

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New EPA report on health impacts of chlorpyrifos

Environment Health News just published this article about this recent EPA study chlorpyrifosconcluding that chlorpyrifos, an insecticide used on corn and other U.S. crops, poses health risks to workers and can also contaminate drinking water. Chlorpyrifos is one of the most commonly applied organophosphate pesticides (used commercially on corn, soybeans, fruit and nut trees and some golf courses), even though it has been banned for more than a decade for household use.

In another issue, EHN highlights the “real American idols” in this year-end article, noting the impact on the field of environmental health of four scientists who died in 2014 .  I theo colburnencourage everyone to learn more about Theo Colborn, who is often mentioned in the same breath as Rachel Carson.  Her work with a group of researchers studying chemical impacts on IQ, vital organs, and reproduction led to the creation of the phrase “endocrine disruptors.”  As the tribute observed, “she didn’t live long enough to find  all the answers, but she asked all the right questions.”

Posted in agriculture and human health, drinking water, endocrine disruptors, EPA, insecticides, pesticides, Rachel Carson, synthetic chemicals | Comments Off

Doctors and climate change awareness

If it’s true that an apple a day might keep the doctor away (and believe it or not, the jury is still out on Vitamin C and the common cold), could a majority of thoracic physicians help their patients improve their health by combatting climate change?

MJEAL CoverIn my article in the Michigan Journal of Environmental & Administrative Law published last April, I made the case for the growing awareness of health care professionals about climate change and its potential impact on human health by increasing patient/citizen awareness about the links between the environment and illness.  This recent report of a survey of members of the American Thoracic Society supports my argument.

It found that a majority of physicians surveyed said they were already seeing health effects in their patients that they believe are linked to climate change.


  • 89% believe that climate change is happening.
  • 65% think that climate change is relevant to direct patient care.
  • 44% perceive that climate change is already affecting the health of their patients a “great deal” or a “moderate amount.”
  • 77% have seen an increase in chronic diseases related to air pollution.
  • 58% have seen increased allergic reactions from plants or mold.
  • 57% have seen injuries related to severe weather.

Dr. Mona Sarfaty, director of the program on climate and health at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and lead author of the paper analyzing these survey results, sums up the potential impact of doctors concerned about climate change on public opinion: “Not too many people personally know a climate scientist, but they do know physicians, and physicians are well thought of.”

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NPR on Climate Change and Health

mcmichaelAlthough the UNFCCC negotiators express concerns about climate change’s impact on human health, there is little in the treaty’s governance structure to induce specific action on the issue.  A 2014 round up on NPR this week singled out the contribution of Tony McMichael, an Australian doctor and epidemiologist who said of dealing with climate change impacts before his death this year that “it’s likely to be an extraordinary century and we’re going to have to have our wits about us to get through it.”

In 1993, McMichael led the health team on the IPCC’s second report, AR2. That same year, he published the first scholarly book devoted to the health effects of climate change, Planetary Overload: Global Environmental Change and the Health of the Human Species. During his career, he published more than 300 scientific papers describing how increasingly erratic weather and climate (think heat waves, ice storms, droughts, floods, and disease-carrying insects expanding their habitat) can cause health problems. Recently McMichael’s work has inspired research on the mental health effects of climate change, for example on rates of anxiety and depression among people in both drought-stricken and flooded areas.

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India’s Poisonous Nuclear Power

Guest blogger Catherine Craig, Northeastern School of Law JD ’15 and Vermont Law School MELP’15, contributes this post.

Despite limited fuel supply and insufficient regulation, India intends to become a world leader in nuclear power.  It aspires for nuclear power to account for 25% of its national electricity by 2050.  Australia is poised to help India achieve this goal, by signing a civil nuclear deal to provide ample uranium.

judagodaWhile nuclear power provides a less-carbon intensive option to meet India’s growing energy demand, India’s nuclear industry has resulted in decades of suffering. In 1965, Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) incorporated the town of Jadugoda, India. UCIL evicted local tribes to make way for the town, which contained its own hospital, tennis courts and an Atomic Energy Center School for local children. Today, the residents of the area are plagued by radiation poisoning. Independent nuclear scientist Sanghmitra Gadekar, who conducted a survey of 9,000 villagers living near mines, has documented thousands of cases of congenital deformities, infertility, cancer, respiratory problems and miscarriages. Several other studies have demonstrated that air, water and soil in Jadugoda are contaminated with radiation. When confronted with these allegations, Chairman Diwakar Acharya responded: “I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of those guys are imported from elsewhere, ok?”Buddha-Weeps-231x300

A recent order by the Jharkhand High Court of India mandates UCIL to release information regarding radiation levels in the mining areas. The court also required UCIL to explain how the company ensures safety to communities exposed to its 193-acre (78-hectare) radioactive waste dump near Jadugoda. As India continues to invest in nuclear energy, the question is whether accountability will be taken for past environmental health impacts, and whether proper safeguards will be established to protect against further degradation.

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A new push on arsenic

I had the good fortune to be one of 40 people invited to participate in the 2014 MDIBL Human and Environmental Sustainability Summit 2014 on the Environmental and Human Health Consequences of Arsenic.  The participants included scientists, consumer advocates, health officials, food industry representatives, educators, and policy makers.  The conference was sponsored by Nature’s One, the Superfund Research Programs at Dartmouth, and the University of Arizona.arsenic in periodic table

Exposure to arsenic in drinking water represents a significant health problem for people around the world.  People are exposed to elevated levels of inorganic arsenic through drinking contaminated water, using contaminated water in food preparation and crop irrigation, eating contaminated food, smoking tobacco, and industrial processing.  Some 3 billion people are exposed to arsenic in food and 500 million ingest arsenic in drinking water.  While there are about two parts arsenic for every million parts of rock or soil on average, arsenic is not distributed evenly throughout the globe.  Concentrations can be seen in India, China, and South America, as well as several New England and Southwestern states in the U.S.  In 1997, the World Health Organization recognized arsenic in drinking water as a major public health problem requiring emergency attention. Arsenic is number one on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) list of hazardous substances.

arsenic handsHuman exposure to arsenic has been linked to an array of adverse health effects.  Drinking water with arsenic for many years can lead to cancer of the bladder, lung, liver, prostate, and skin; diabetes; heart disease; reproductive and developmental problems; and cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological, and endocrine problems.  Fetuses and babies exposed to arsenic face an increased potential for cancer and other diseases in adulthood.  Exposure has also been associated with increased infant mortality, reduced birth weight, and reduced ability to fight other diseases.  See this earlier post on arsenic’s impact on IQs.

While attention has been traditionally paid to high-dose arsenic exposures through drinking water and of industrial workers, recent studies have focused on the equally pernicious effects of low level exposures via both water and food.  For example, application of pesticides containing arsenic by U.S. cotton, tobacco, grape and apple growers in the 1950s has resulted in low levels of the heavy metal remaining in treated soils because arsenic does not break down.  This human use of arsenic adds to the arsenic exposures already naturally occurring. Food plants, like rice, that take in arsenic from the soil pose health risks to humans who eat them on a regular basis.

arsenic in waterRegulating arsenic in water has improved in the U.S., but is limited in scope.  In 2001, the EPA lowered the public drinking water standard for arsenic from 50 to 10 parts per billion (ppb).   But its authority under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act is limited to public, not private, drinking water systems and so a broad swath of people living in more rural areas remain exposed.  For example, about 40 percent of New Hampshire’s 1.3 million people drink water from private wells.  In some parts of the state, about one in five private wells contain high levels of arsenic from naturally-occurring sources in bedrock. Other states with unusually high arsenic level include Maine, Michigan, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.

Regulating arsenic in food is minimal.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently does not set minimum standards, but is considering establishing limits for arsenic in food products such as fruit juice and rice.  See this earlier post on rice, this one on apple juice, and this one about the FDA’s statement on arsenic levels in rice.

Arsenic-Summit-2014-1The forty summit participants committed to working towards specific goals to reduce exposure to arsenic, build awareness and education and develop a committed network of stakeholders. Over the next two months, we will develop a consensus statement that conveys why arsenic is a major health problem and what can be done about it. This statement will be used as a platform for action, fundraising, and advocacy. Other goals include creating a classroom curriculum about arsenic and developing cost-effective technologies for the identification and reduction of arsenic in drinking water. Plans for a follow-up summit in 2015 are being formulated.

“The summit brought together a group of diverse stakeholders who are committed to taking action to reducing arsenic exposure in water and food to improve public health,” says Bruce Stanton, who convened the conference in collaboration with the MDI Biological Laboratory.  Stanton is a professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, director of Dartmouth’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences, and a visiting faculty member at the MDI Biological Laboratory. “I was impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication of all participants and their development of ambitious, but achievable, goals to reduce disease caused by arsenic in the environment.”MDIBL

The MDI Biological Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution with a long history of bringing people together to solve problems in health and the environment. It launched the annual Human and Environmental Sustainability Summits in 2013 to enable stakeholders with a variety of perspectives to meet and develop effective solutions to environmental health issues.

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