Living near a fracking well may be dangerous to your health

pa frackingConnecting the dots between chronic, small-dose exposure to toxic substances and resulting illness takes time and money.  This has been the case time and again when studying cancer clusters and groundwater pollution (think A Civil Action in Woburn, MA) or asthma rates and vehicle exhaust emissions along Los Angeles transportation corridors.

That’s why this recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and PA wellsColumbia caught my eye.  It tested the association of hospitalizations in three Pennsylvania counties with the number of hydraulic fracturing wells in the area.  First, its methodology was straight forward: correlate inpatient discharge numbers from the state’s Healthcare Cost Containment Council with active wells by zip code in two counties, Bradford and Susquehanna, over a four-year period. Second, it is a case control study, where people living in a county without fracking wells (nearby Wayne County, where fracking is banned because it lies within the Delaware River watershed) but who otherwise look the same as those living near the wells were used as a control.

Results? Hospital admissions for cardiology conditions increased with the number of wells.  Or as the study puts it, “were significantly associated with number of wells per zip code.” Neurological admissions went up with increases in well density, i.e. “were bradford countysignificantly associated with wells per km2.”  More associations were noted with well density and dermatology, oncology, and urology admissions.  Bottom line:  Residents of Bradford and Susquehanna counties (including my uncle and aunt) were more likely to be admitted to the hospital for heart, nervous system and other medical conditions than their neighbors in Wayne County.

Bernard Goldstein, an environmental toxicologist and a former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said that the study is “careful in how they present this. They don’t present this as definitive evidence. It isn’t. But it is certainly something to make one even more upset about the fact that until now it has not been possible in Pennsylvania to do the kind of studies that would give a definitive answer.”

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Climate change is still “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”

Two recent reports add to the growing call for linking climate change laws with public health.

From the U.K., the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change followed up on its 2009 announcement that global warming “is the 21st century’s greatest threat to human health” by issuing a new report last week that also labels climate change as a singular opportunity to improve public health.

Why? Because increased government regulation of GHG emissions will result in a number of improved health outcomes. For example, reducing and lancet graphicthen finally eliminating coal-fired electricity generation not only reduces CO2 levels but does the same for particulate matter, which leads to decreased morbidity and mortality from respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Likewise government promotion of green space and public transit infrastructure (including bike paths) not only reduces transportation-related emissions but also engages people in more physical activity, thereby lowering their risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes. Having healthier people translates to lower medical bills (and increased productivity), a big financial impact given the cumulative cost of chronic disease. In sum, opines the Lancet Commission: “Health puts a human face on what can sometimes seem to be a distant threat.”

Over the next ten years, the Commission proposes policies that represent “no regret” options (those with “co-benefits” in UNFCCC-speak), meaning that they “lead to direct reductions in the burden of ill-health, enhance community resilience, alleviate poverty, and address global inequity.” The new report lays out 10 specific ones, but these four sum up their big picture approach: 1) investing in climate change and public health research,lancet graphic 2 monitoring, and surveillance; 2) financing climate resilient health systems world-wide; 3) phasing out coal from the global energy mix; and 4) encouraging transition to cities that promote healthy lifestyles with clean energy, public transport, and green space.

Given our tracking of U.S. health care providers’ increasing engagement with climate change, we note one specific call for action by the Lancet Commission: the creation of an independent and international Countdown to 2030: Global Health and Climate Action coalition that will monitor action taken on climate change’s health impacts and enable health professionals lead the response to these health threats.

Polish coal fired utilityFrom the U.S., the EPA has created a fact sheet to emphasize similar connections between climate change regulation and public health when explaining the benefits of its Clean Power Plan rules promulgated under the Clean Air Act in accordance with the President’s Climate Action Plan. The Agency highlights that by 2030, the new rules will cut carbon pollution from the power sector by approximately 30% from 2005 levels and that this cut will decrease the soot and smog that make people sick. Specifically, it estimates climate and health benefits worth between $55 and $93 billion per year due to avoiding 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children. The EPA calculates that these benefits outweigh the annual costs of the plan, estimated at $7.3 to $8.8 billion. The bottom line message: “From the soot and smog reductions alone, for every dollar invested through the Clean Power Plan, American families will see up to $7 in health benefits.”

Posted in air pollution, asthma, cardiovascular disease, climate change and health, coal, Fine Air Particulates, global health, global warming, public health | Comments Off on Climate change is still “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”

China’s viral enviro health documentary and US TSCA reform malaise

china under the domeLast month, this Chinese documentary about the country’s legendary air pollution problems went viral. Now available with English subtitles, Under the Dome has the look and feel of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, from TED style narration and eye-grabbing background slides to shots of rapt audience members and a closing call for action.  This grass roots effort bodes well not only for improved domestic air pollution regulation, but also for increased support for China’s announced climate change mitigation goals.

At around the same time in the United States, the persistent call for TSCA reform was sounded again.  This NYT article chronicles recent Senate debates about the current bill in Congress, which I’ve analyzed in past blog posts and in my article in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law. The Times article focuses more on politics, specifically on Senator Tom Udall’s filling of Senator Frank Lautenberg’s TSCA reformer role. The bill that was co-sponsored by Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Senator David Vitter (R-LA) continues to be debated in committee well after the NJ Senator’s death.  According to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who opposes the proposed bill’s state preemption provisions, things aren’t going well.  “I’ve been around the Senate for a long time, but I have never before seen so much heavy-handed, big-spending lobbying on any issue,” Ms. Boxer said. “To me it looks like the chemical industry itself is writing this bill.”  New drafts are being circulated, according to the article, but nothing has yet made it out of committee.

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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.”

Posted in agriculture and human health, Animal Protein, climate change and health, Food processing industry | Comments Off on Eat your veggies . . . and mitigate global warming

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.”

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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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