Archive for the ‘environmental issues’ Category

Toxins for tots and the rest of us too: part one

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

This speaks for itself

All of us are exposed to potentially dangerous substances in many of our household products, but there's been increasing concern that pregnant women need to pay special attention to  the ever-growing list of chemicals around the home. I just read an article published in The New York Times nine days ago with the gripping title "Is It Safe to Play Yet?" The subtitle described what's going on in many families: "Going to Extreme Lengths to Purge Household Toxins."

I found a reference to an extraordinary study which examined umbilical cord blood samples drawn from ten infants of minority heritage: African-American, Asian or Hispanic. Five independent laboratories were involved and up to 232 toxic chemicals were found. I was familiar with the Environmental Working Group, one of the two non-profits who commissioned the research, but not with Rachel's Network which I found online. It's a women's organization named in honor of Rachel Carson whose book, Silent Spring, in many aspects launched the modern environmental movement.

EWG had been unable to find any published studies focused on minority group infants, yet some of their homes are more likely to be situated near busy highways and roads, to be closer to industrial shops and factories and to have been built before current safety standards were established.

Other studies have found up to 358 chemicals in cord blood of US infants; some are acknowledged as possible cancer-causing agents, nervous-system toxins or endocrine hormone disrupters. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of NIH, says those latter toxins can be found in metal food cans, plastic bottles, food, toys, cosmetics, detergents, pesticides and flame retardants. Their adverse effects have increased potential to harm fetuses and young babies as their bodies develop.

asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a rare cancer usually of the lining of the lungs and chest cavity

Our Toxic Substances Control Act, is a 1976 law that, unfortunately, grandfathered most existing chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was mandated to protect the public by regulating the manufacture and sale of chemicals But 60,000 chemicals were excluded because they were already in use and over the following years the EPA succeeded in restricting only five of those: one was asbestos, but two years after the chemical was banned the rule was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court as being too broad.

In contrast, the European Union, in 2007, passed REACH, the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals act that applies to all chemical substances; not only those used in industrial processes but also in day-to-day lives, for example in cleaning products, paints as well as in articles such as clothes, furniture and electrical appliances.

REACH places the burden of proof on companies. To comply with the regulation, companies must identify and manage the risks linked to the substances they manufacture and market in the EU. They have to demonstrate to a governmental agency how the substance can be safely used, and they must communicate those risk management measures to the users.

One estimate, published in Health Affairs in 2011, estimated the US spends $76.6 billion a year on kids' medical issues that may be related to their environment.

We have a long ways to go, both in determining which chemicals are actually risky and banning or controlling their use.

And, on the other hand, knowing which chemicals, old and new, are safe for us and our offspring.

Arsenic Toxicity: Part One, history & worldwide impact

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

It looks harmless here

I started to write a post on arsenic in baby food since there's been a spate of recent articles on this issue appearing both in newspapers and online (the AMA Morning Rounds email I receive started me thinking of the subject). But, as usual, when I began to pursue a topic, I found there was both a long history I needed to cover and, in this case, a worldwide problem that should be discussed.

Human industrial use of arsenic dates back 5,000 years. I found the Harvard Arsenic Project has a thorough coverage of varying aspects of our utilization of this element, both beneficial and detrimental. It has been used as a poison for many centuries since it has little if any odor or taste, especially when mixed with food or wine. A Roman leader named Sulla outlawed arsenic poisoning in 82 B.C., to no avail. In Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Borgias, especially Pope Alexander VI and his son, Cesare were said to have killed scores of bishops and cardinals by liberally lacing their wine with arsenic; then, by Church laws, they owned the property of their victims.

Roger Smith, a Dartmouth Medical School Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology has published an online discussion of the uses of the element with the gripping title, "Arsenic: A Murderous History."

Scientifically it is classed as a "heavy metal." Nowadays we think of that term as referring to a form of music. But from the chemistry pound of view it actually is one of a group of elements that, volume for volume, are at least five times as heavy as water. Iron, lead and mercury are in that group, but so is arsenic.

If you were to ingest arsenic, diluted in wine or water, at an incredibly small level, 60 parts per million, you would develop belly pain, nausea, diarrhea and then die. Until a few years ago the US drinking water limit was 50 parts per billion. Then in 2000 the EPA proposed all 54,000 community water systems in this country should cut their arsenic levels to no more than 10 parts per billion.

but it's a a plague here

Our local water lab just told me our Fort Collins levels are less than 1 part per billion. That's clearly not true elsewhere in the world. Over 137 million people in 70 countries are exposed to toxic levels in their drinking water. Bangladesh has the most well-known problem. When more than eight million deeper wells were dug in the 1970s and beyond, as an attempt to lower the infant death rate from ineffective water purification, arsenic  replaced infectious diseases as a major threat. The drinking water for more than 30 million people had levels over 50 parts per billion.

So they potentially could develop chronic arsenic effects include skin, lung, kidney, liver or bladder cancers and perhaps a variety of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

We've a long, long ways to go before we solve the issues raised by arsenic.



Biofuels, greenhouse gases and you: Part one of many

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Not the right choice for a sustainable biofuel

The excursion into what was initially a vaguely known arena started with a Wall Street Journal article on 11-8-2011, but then strayed far afield as my learning curve tilted steeply upward.

The article itself dealt with airlines trying out newer biofuels: Alaska Airlines and United were highlighted as having pilot projects in this area. As I read further, scanning online material, international carriers, especially KLM, with 200 flights using 50% biofuels and, impressively, Lufthansa with 1,200 flights using 50% biofuels, are far ahead in this arena.

The fuels come not from corn, as in the United States, or sugarcane, as in Brazil (more on the latter in a subsequent post), but rather from algae, cooking oil, animal fat, and two plants I'd never heard of, Camelina (I'm trying to find it as a cooking oil) and Jatropha.

We had dinner company a few days ago; I was cooking a cabbage dish from the Shan people of Northern Thailand and Mynamar, Lynnette made squash and potatoes simmered in olive oils with both vegetables coming from our weekly CSA allotment. The dinner and subsequent conversations and disagreements (these are close friends and we have differing views on a wide variety of topics) lasted from just after 6 PM to just before 11.

It was immediately obvious that our friends favor oil, gas and coal as fuels. They don't think biofuels, solar energy, wind power, geothermal or tidal energy are economically feasible. They would approve of nuclear energy with appropriate precautions (avoiding building nuclear power plants on known earthquake faults or in areas prone to tidal waves comes to mind).

I think we haven't put enough time, money or brainpower into developing alternative energy sources and urgently need to do so. The political will to accomplish this seems lacking and our faltering, argumentative Congress, polarized as it currently is, hasn't helped the situation.

I certainly agree that subsidizing the growth of corn to be converted into ethanol isn't the way to go. And Brazil, despite its exceedingly osuccessful and sustainable biofuels program, isn't going to be able to supply enough ethanol to fuel the rest of the world.

Mount Saint Helen's in a quiet mood

Our friends said one volcano can add enough greenhouse gas (GHG) to make all our cars' polluting, to mix a metaphor, seem a drop in the bucket.

I don't disagree that the rare volcanic eruption can be catastrophic in this sense as in others (local loss of life and property among them). We've visited Mount Saint Helens (I strongly suggest reading Tim McNulty's 1998 retrospective on the explosion; just Google his name and add that of the mountain).

He makes the point that in this natural disaster, as opposed to industrial clear-cutting, damage was variable, trees, animals and insect survived and the area has come back strongly. I liked the line, "The ecosystem has been through this before."

Yet adding our dollop of pollution is not natural; it may tip us over an edge.

So I am in favor of the pursuit of alternative sources of energy. These may vary from country to country or within a country as the local winds, tides & solar-project possibilities permit.

But it's time and very nearly past time.

Kudzu: the semi-good, the bad and the stinky

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

kudzu growing over abandoned vehicles in Tennessee

I'm way afield on this post, but I just couldn't resist. I was reading The Wall Street Journal one recent morning and ran across an article with the intriguing title, "Bug Battle: An Invasive Plant Now Faces Its Own Attacker." The plant of course was kudzu. I thought it was widespread...somewhere in the South, and accidentally introduced, forty years or so ago,  into the United States. I decided due diligence was needed here as in my other background research and looked for both the "bug" and the history of kudzu itself. I was hooked on the story within an hour.

It turns out that the introduction of kudzu into North America was more complex and multi-layered than I had ever suspected. The first mention of it in the United States dates back 135 years to the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Then, as one small part of a multi-national effort to celebrate the birth of our country, kudzu was shown as an ornamental vine at the Japanese Pavilion. In 1902 a botanist named David Fairchild, who had seen it used as pasturage in Japan, planted seedlings around his Washington, DC home. In the 1920s owners of a Florida nursery promoted its usage for forage and sold plants through mail-order.

Then came the Great Depression of the 1930s: the Civilian Conservation Corps gave jobs to hundreds of men planting kudzu for erosion control. In the 1940s Channing Cope, the farm editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and one of the South's best-known and most influential radio broadcasters, started Kudzu Clubs to honor the so-called "miracle vine (July 4, 1949 edition of Time Magazine).

Kudzu spread, growing as much as a foot per day in the Southeast during Summer and sixty feet a year overall. In 1953, the US Department of Agriculture banned kudzu as a cultivated crop, but by then its aggressive growth had started taking over many thousands of acres. One prominent US Forest Service researcher tried various herbicides as control methods: over an 18-year period  he didn't find a single agent that effectively controlled the vine; one actually promoted its growth.

A variety of uses for kudzu have been promoted by ingenious American scientists and merchants: an Agronomist at Tuskegee University found that angora goats could control the noxious plant on otherwise unusable land while simultaneously producing wool and milk. Others sell baskets made from kudzu, turn its blossoms into jelly and produce hay high in nutritive value. Potential drugs developed from kudzu are in the research pipeline, but not yet ready for human use in this country (though utilized for hundreds of years elsewhere).

But it now occupies over eight million acres of the Southeast and its native antagonist, a relative to stink bugs, wasn't found in the United States until 2009.

The Kudzu bug

Now it's here, first discovered on the exterior of homes in northeast Georgia, but spreading rapidly to sixty Georgia counties, parts of the Carolinas and Tennesee. Megacopta cribaria, kudzu bugs, are small (4-6 mm long), olive-green and when crushed or disturbed, produce a "mildy offensive" odor. They also munch kudzu effectively with estimates of up to a third of the current infestation being eaten over the next decade. Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, they like soybeans as well; perhaps the next step is to import the wasp that eats their eggs in Japan.

But then what...

Great tongue-in-cheek article on growing kudzu: 32nd Annual Blythewood Kudzu Festival Kudzu Growing Tips


Friday, October 14th, 2011

The culprits, this time.

Reading "USA Today" online, I found an article detailing the repercussions of the recent/ongoing outbreak of disease linked to cantaloupes coming from one specific farm in Colorado. That operation, Jensen Farms, re-called its fruit in mid-September. The Food and Drug Administration and the Seattle-based Institute for Environmental Health have not yet found the root cause of the outbreak. Since the normal shelf life for cantaloupe is ~two weeks, none of the Jensen Farm product should still be in stores. And no other sources have been implicated. Nonetheless, cantaloupe producers in California and Arizona, the two states with the largest crops of this fruit, are seeing sales plummet 80% or more.

That probably shouldn't surprise us. Spinach sales, devastated by the 2006 E. coli outbreak, are still down nearly a third in one California county.

As of October 12, the current outbreak had led to 116 illnesses and 23 deaths, making it the deadliest in more than a quarter century. There was another outbreak in Texas in October of 2010; that one was related to celery and resulted in 10 total illnesses and five deaths.

I went to several online medical sites to refresh my memory on Listeriosis. When I dealt with infections from this bacteria it was in immuno-compromised patients. Listeria is found worldwide, often in association with farm animals, many of which are otherwise healthy carriers of the bacterium. People can also be carriers and perhaps five to ten percent of us have Listeria in our bowel flora.

There are roughly 2,500 US cases of Listeria infections yearly and about a fifth of those infected die. Most are isolated cases, not major outbreaks The bacteria isn't transferred from person to person with the exception of pregnant women and their fetuses or newborn babies.

This is a foodborne illness, most commonly associated with improperly processed deli meats or unpasteurized milk products.

About 30% of all reported US cases occur in pregnant women. As opposed to the majority of us, who may have nonspecific symptoms, or none at all, pregnant women can transmit the infection to their fetuses or to their newborn infants. They also may have minor symptoms, if they are otherwise healthy, but Listeria can lead to miscarriages, stillbirth, premature birth or, potentially, to serious disease or death of newborn babies.

Others at higher risk for serious disease when infected with this bacterium include the elderly, diabetics, cancer patient, AIDS patient, those with significant kidney disease and anyone on immunosuppressive drugs.

It's tough to diagnose Listeria infections: the most common signs and symptoms include fever, muscle aches, nausea and/or diarrhea. There are no reliable tests for the bacteria, so the diagnosis is difficult in the absence of a history of exposure to a potentially contaminated food source during an outbreak.

Most of us clear the infection without any treatment; those at higher risk should be considered for immediate IV antibiotics and consultation with an Infectious Disease specialist is recommended (and if a pregnant woman has the inception, an Ob-Gyn specialist and a Pediatrician should be involved.

More on the heatwave and its consequences.

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Here's one way to cool off

This morning I read in the New York Times Breaking News that comes to my Kindle that NYC has recently seen an unprecedented number of heat-related deaths. The age range of the victims varied considerably; youngsters, a 45-year-old  woman and some elderly folk all were struck down. Today I'd like to concentrate on older adults.

You may or may not believe in global warming (I certainly do) and, if you do, whether humans are making a significant contribution to it. But in the meantime we seem to be experiencing a hot patch and we have to cope with that.

I got up fairly early, took Yoda, my Tibetan terrier, to Whole Foods to buy a sack of his dog food and then took him for a walk. All in 72 to 75 degrees on a day that will later see a 95+ degree peak temperature. And this is in Colorado at 5,200 feet elevation. I checked out temp predictions for Denver and for the mountains; the former will be just under 100 degrees later on today whereas those areas at considerably higher elevation will stay in the 70s.

But agewise, I'm also in my 70s, as of April, and therefore read with interest the National Institute on Aging's paper titled "NIH tips for older adults to combat heat-related illnesses." The basic concepts are threefold: we lose some of our ability to adapt to heat as we get older; we are in a group that frequently has underlying diseases/conditions that fare poorly in hot weather; the meds our physicians use to treat those diseases sometimes limit our ability cope with the  heat.

I'll add a link to the article below, but will paraphrase some of their points and add my own spin.

Firstly some of the physiologic changes we experience as we age limit our ability to respond to elevated temperatures. Those include our cooling via sweating or , in some cases, our limited mobility and, in other cases, our mental responses or lack thereof. Additionally, our ability to vasodilate small blood vessels may be compromised.

Then we're experiencing, as a nation, an epidemic of obesity and concurrently those who exceed their weight goal by a large amount experience more heat-connected problems. I searched medical websites for the rationale and, if I were a teenager, would have said, "Duh!" The layer of adipose tissue the obese accumulate is the equivalent of wearing an insulted suit, something you wouldn't want to do in the heat of a summer day.

And then there are all those medications we take as we age. One article I found said older people take 2 to 6 prescribed drugs while also taking a number of OTC medications. Those drugs can directly alter our response to heat while potentially causing increased body temperature in a number of other ways, e.g., hypersensitivity reactions or the pharmacological action of the drug itself.

That helps

So if you're an older adult, avoid the heat of the day, get enough fluids and, if necessary, contact the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (through HHS) for help with home cooling.

Dengue fever; global warming effects versus a new hope

Friday, August 26th, 2011

avoid at all costs

I haven't thought about Dengue Fever in years, probably since I returned from an Air Force tour of duty in the Philippines in 1986. Now global warming and a fascinating NPR tidbit brought it back to the forefront of my consciousness.

Dengue, a major cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics, is a viral illness spread by mosquitoes. Worldwide it causes up to 100 million infections and 25,000 deaths per year. The typical result is a high fever, headache, muscle/joint/bone pain and a rash. There is no effective vaccine available and avoidance of mosquito bites is the most effective preventive strategy.

So why am I concerned enough about dengue to bring it to your attention? Simple, we're traveling more, cases have been seen in Florida, Texas and Hawaii; it's an endemic disease in Puerto Rico and, with our climate heating up, I'm concerned that we may see the disease spreading further in the United States and elsewhere. I'll add a link to information on dengue from the NIH's PubMed website.

There's another concern; more than 5% of Key West residents monitored in a 2009 study had antibodies to the one of the four viruses that cause dengue. That puts them at risk for a much more severe form of the disease if they're bitten by a mosquito carrying a different dengue virus than they were first exposed to.

Dengue hemorrhagic fever is a serious problem, though relatively uncommon. It can lead to a generalized rash, bruising and bleeding and, potentially to a shock-like state, liver and brain damage, and seizures. Early diagnosis and aggressive care measures  can improve survival rates, but half of untreated patients who go into shock die.

Most physicians in the US probably have never seen a case of dengue hemorrhagic fever. I have, in the Philippines, but that was the result of working there for a year and a half. So bringing this disease to the attention of doctors (and potential patients) in locations that previously haven't seen dengue makes sense to me.

the old way to control mosquitoes

But now for the good news. Research scientists in Australia recently released specially-bred mosquitoes, infected with a bacteria that is a parasitic microbe, seen in roughly a sixth of other neotropical insects. Apparently Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes will not spread dengue to humans, but when allowed to intermingle with uninfected mosquitoes, results, in a relative brief period, in those insects also being unable to spread the disease. The article on these experiments came out in Nature, online on the 24th and in print yesterday.

Now it's time for large-scale projects in multiple countries, but it looks like dengue may finally have met its match.





Beating the heat by using the new data:

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Ready, set, eat well

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal described how the Houston Texans professional football team is using data I read in the Archieves of Internal Medicine online to improve player safety. The Texans are facing some of our worst summer heat and are going to extraordinary lengths to prevent heat-related injury.

I'm not at all sure I agree with their stategem, practicing in triple-digit weather outdoors in the full sun. Their theory is that doing so helps their players remain fresh in the heat of early-season games. Other teams have opted for temperature-controlled practice arenas or night-time workouts or cooler climes.

We'll wait and see the results, but at least they're using the latest medical research and some practical concepts.

Players are weighed pre-practice and afterwards (the team, collectively, lost an incredible average of 450 pounds per two-hour session one week). That's in spite of replacement fluids and ice to the tune of 100 gallons of water, 50 cases of Gatorade and three quarters of a ton of ice for ninety men. One three-hundred-plus tackle lost seven pounds and had to receive IV fluids.

The Archives  article and a subsequent Harvard Heart Letter detailed research and historical perspective. Our intake of sodium, in table salt and foods, is important, but the ratio of how much sodium to potassium in our diets may be even more crucial.

An older edition of the Harvard Heart Letter compared our modern diet to that of our primitive ancestors. Paleolithic man consumed sixteen times as much potassium (in milligrams) as sodium; today our typical diet has nearly five times as much sodium and less than a quarter of the potassium as the hunter-gatherers ate, so the ratio has marked changed.

lots of potassium in this bunch

So how do you return to a healthier diet, in those terms. Well, a banana, for instance has over 400 milligrams of potassium and almost no sodium (1 milligram). An orange has over 230 times as much potassium as sodium, steamed Brussels sprouts 35 times as much (I mean in milligrams in all cases, so scientifically my comparisons are ratios).

The Texan's head dietician and senior trainer are altering the team's diet, using lots (and I mean lots) of electrolyte-containing vegetables and fluids. They even formed a players' food committee to make sure the team members would have choices that they would like. Southerners want okra and potatoes, so that's what they get. The team members were concerned about blood pressure effects from all the salt they're getting; then they heard how the new research showed foods high in potassium and other electrolytes can balance out the effects of sodium.

The proof is in the pudding is the old saying; we'll see how the Houston team does when the season starts.

But I can certainly see the sense behind their approach.


Beating the Heat

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Cooling down

We've been away for a short vacation with our eleven-year-old grandson at Harry Potter Wizarding World in Orlando. It was hot and humid much of the time, although the frequent rain storms helped cool things off.  One of the reasons we moved from the San Antonio area to Colorado after retiring from the Air Force was the heat. My comment in the late 1990s was, "Texas has Summer and the other three days."

I grew up in Wisconsin, my wife in Montana, and although we lived in a number of locales during each of our 20+ years as USAF officers, most of them were in warmer climates. We wanted four seasons in our retirement location and we certainly have them now.

Florida brought back memories of my years in Texas; sixteen of my twenty-three active duty years were spent there. So the article in the August 2, 2011 edition of The Wall Street Journal titled "Spotting and Taming Signs of Heatstroke" caught my attention.

I've had very little experience with heatstroke, but considerable dealings with heat exhaustion, a milder manifestation of heat-related illness. A lot of that was with basic military recruits, many of whom moved to their initial Air Force training from cooler places. Most of my own exercise these days during the summer months is in an indoor setting, so I'm at somewhat lesser risk in spite of being seventy.

Heatstroke killed over 3,000 Americans from 1997 to 2007 and the National Weather Service statistics said 138 in 2010 and at least 64 in thus far in 2011 died from heat-related illnesses. In some years heat causes more deaths than hurricanes or floods, the other major weather-linked agents of fatalities.

Games offer less risk than practice

Hydration, hydration, hydration is a major, but not infallible preventive step with water being ranked as good as sports drinks according to a co-author of the American College of Sports Medicine' guidelines. High-school and college football players, who suffer the majority of heat-related sports deaths, need rest breaks, shade, and water, especially during practice, according to that expert who had his own brush with heatstroke in 1985 during a 10K race. During the games themselves, he says, rest breaks are built in.

Along with athletes (and infants left in a hot car), older adults are at high risk, especially those with underlying diseases treated with medications that can worsen the severity of the reaction to heat.

Treatment of heatstroke is a medical emergency, so early diagnosis is critical. Look for confusion, irrational speech, skin that is red, hot and dry, rapid pulse, throbbing headache, dizziness  and nausea; some of those casualties become unconscious. Call 911 and get the victim into the shade.

Beyond that lies controversy with some professional groups recommending cooling the afflicted person as rapidly as possible in a cold or ice-water bath, others such as the American Heart Association suggesting fanning and sponge-bathing the person or misting them with cool water, rather than ice water.

Looking at online news articles, I think we may break records this year for heat-associated illness and deaths.