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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Aamjiwnaang: A culture in shock

This news in from our guest blogger from Alaska, Maricarmen Cruz-Guilloty, highlighting an upcoming conference call seminar entitled Aamjiwnaang: A culture in shock.  It will take place TOMORROW, Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 9:00 AM Alaska time (10:00 AM Pacific; 1:00 PM Eastern).  You can sign up by following this link.

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

aamjiwnaangAamjiwnaang First Nation is an Aanishinaabek community located on the border between Ontario, Canada and Michigan, USA. Surrounded by 63 petrochemical refineries, Aamjiwnaang was called “The Most Polluted Spot in North America” by National Geographic staff. The World Health Organization concluded that Aamjiwnaang has “The Most Contaminated Air-shed” in Canada. Aamjiwnaang residents continue to be exposed to a range of harmful pollutants, including chemicals known to cause respiratory and cardiovascular health effects. They also have an alarmingly low number of baby boys being born: since the early 1990s, the number of boys born dropped from a normal ratio of roughly half of all births to a skewed ratio of two girls born for every boy. Researchers suspect the change may be caused by exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Join Ron Plain, founder of the Aamjiwnaang Environment Committee as he shares cultural impacts on citizens living on Aamjiwnaang, the research that opened the community’s eyes, and current arguments to counter the Government’s and industry’s blame-the-victim strategies for avoiding responsibility for the cumulative impacts of the pollution.

Ron Plain is Instructor of Trent University’s Indigenous Environment and Health program and founder of the Aamjiwnaang Environment Committee. Ron has lead several well-documented grassroots actions to bring Aamjiwnaang to the world’s attention. A sought after Lecturer, Ron has spoken around the world on the impacts of industry, contamination and encroachment on Indigenous cultures and people. Join the Conversation.

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Same old DC gridlock on TSCA reform

Just moments ago I posted on yet another state’s successful lawmaking on commercial chemicals regulation.  Now, unfortunately, I get to update you on the continued paralysis in Congress on federal TSCA reform.

The Hill reports today that Rep. Shimkus’s floating of “draft bills” within his subcommitteecongress on Environment and the Economy (of the House Energy and Commerce Committee) has produced little progress.   As blogged earlier, these trial balloons have been shot down by lawmakers and public health and environmental groups as being too soft on industry.

Now Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking  Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at a recent subcommittee  hearing, “I’m not ready to give up, but I do have a suggestion.  I think we should considering scaling back the ambition of this  effort.  Let’s focus on where we can find agreement.  Let’s see if we can return  to the drawing board and come up with a streamlined proposal that can truly be  bipartisan.”


The Hill observes that “the current  Congress has until the end of the year to reach an agreement, experts say, or  risk losing any momentum lawmakers have already achieved when the new Congress  comes in on Jan. 3, 2015.”

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“Overwhelming support” for Vermont chemicals law

This in from local on-line news source, the Vermont Digger: “In one of the most decisive votes of the session the Vermont House supported the regulation of toxic chemicals found in children’s products.  The vote was 114-27.”montpelier

As blogged a few weeks ago, a bill that would require manufacturers to label or remove toxic chemicals from children’s products sold in the Green Mountain State was making its way through the Senate and now, the House.

While Vermont has chosen to regulate individual chemicals like BPA and flame retardants during the last decade, this bill marks a transition from a series of one-offs controlled by the legislature to a systemmatic and comprehensive appproach driven by the state Health Department.  As Rep. David Deen, chair of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee and a drafter of the House bill, said, “One of the problems that we face with this whole situation is the immense growth of new chemicals coming into the marketplace without testing.  We can no longer face this onslaught, chemical by chemical.”

BPA sippy cupThis Vermont House version is modeled on similar state laws in California, Washington, and Maine.  The bill allows the Health Department to establish a list of chemicals that fall under its jurisdiction, then report back to lawmakers in a year with recommendations for additional products to include.

Under the bill, manufacturers must report toxic chemicals found in their products sold in Vermont and pay a $200 fee every two years for each of the chemicals they report.  These fees would support the program.


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Water quality and mine acid rock drainage

acid rock drainageOur guest blogger from Alaska, Maricarmen Cruz-Guilloty, highlights this upcoming conference call seminar on how acid rock drainage from mining affects water chemistry and environmental health.  The Wednesday, April 30 teleconference will explore how acid rock drainage is one of the major sources of toxic metals associated with mining.  When waste rock excavated from a mine is exposed to air and water, it chemically reacts to form sulfuric acid by essentially dissolving the surface of the rock.  Metals leach from the rock and may contaminate both surface and ground water.  Direct exposure to these metals can be harmful to fish and people, and can indirectly harm via changes in water quality that affect aquatic habitat.
The teleconference presenter, Kendra Zamzow, Ph.D., is an environmental biogeochemist and the Alaska representative for the Center for Science in Public Participation (CSP2).  She specializes in microbial interactions with trace metals, environmental toxicology, and processes relating to acid rock drainage, metal leaching, and water quality.  Since joining CSP2, Dr. Zamzow has provided technical analysis of projects including copper heap leach closure, arsenic chemistry in a tailings impoundment, mercury release from thermal processing of gold, potential for acid drainage, and chemistry of underground coal gasification.  She has commented on regulatory issues, including federal gold mine mercury air emission regulations and Alaska coal and water quality regulations.  Recently she completed an American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowship at the EPA Office of Research and Development in Washington, DC.
N.B. from Maricarmen:  The commercial chemicals bill introduced in the Alaska legislature this term, the Toxic Free Children’s Act (SB 151), died in the Judiciary Committee.  Maricarmen is hopeful that “the Legislature will do the right thing next year!”
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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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