I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

March 31, 2010

More industrial infrastructure problems (Cradle to Cradle, pt. 4)

McDonough and Braungart.  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

Design problems with “universal” design solutions

  • One size fits all
  • Products are designed for worst-case scenarios (guarantees widest possible market–also reflects assumption that nature is “the enemy”)
  • Logic of brute force – make universal solutions “fit” local conditions through chemical brute force & fossil fuel energy

Natural systems rely on energy from the sun, but people extract and burn fossil fuels without energy of harnessing local natural energy flows.
Burning fossil fuels leads not only to greenhouse gases and global warming, but production of particulate matter, which can cause respiratory and other health problems.

You wouldn’t want to depend on savings for all of your daily expenditures, so why rely on savings to meet all of humanity’s energy needs?

Culture of monoculture

  • Diversity is treated as a hostile force and a threat to design goals
    “Brute force and universal design approaches to typical development tend to overwhelm (and ignore) natural and cultural diversity, resulting in less variety and greater homogeneity.”
  • Modern urban areas replace natural land cover with asphalt and concrete
  • Conventional agriculture

Native plants help prevent erosion and provide habitat for insects and birds, some of whom are natural enemies of crop pests.  Loss of pests’ natural enemies results in an increase of pests (and monoculture can become vulnerable to widespread destruction if the wrong pest gets introduced, whether that be insects, fungi, etc.)

Increase in pests has led to increase in use of pesticides, which in turn has led to increase in pesticide resistance.

Super weeds

Here’s a link to the ABC News story on pigweed, “Super Weed Can’t Be Killed” (Oct. 6, 2009):
http://abcnews.go.com/Video/playerIndex?id=8767877

(The pesticide industry’s basic reaction: “You dumb farmers!  You need to use additional herbicides and not just Roundup.”)

Glyphosate-Resistant Weeds: Can We Close the Barn Door? (Weed Science Society of America)
Researchers say cost-competitive management techniques can slow weed resistance to the herbicide and improve crop yields

And Monsanto’s take on this – http://www.monsanto.com/pdf/science/weed_management.pdf

And now there are reports that Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bt cotton (Bacillus thuringiensis) is failing because pink bollworms in India are developing Bt resistance as well.

Hmm, maybe if Monsanto hadn’t bred glyphosate-resistant plants (Roundup Ready!), thereby encouraging farmers to use more Roundup, we wouldn’t have this problem.  It kind of infuriates me that they’re now saying, “We knew this would happen!  We tried to warn people!”  If they knew that, why did they go ahead and develop genetically-modified (GM) plants in the first place?

The problem according to McDonough and Braungart?  Simplified systems actually require more maintenance because they can’t survive without intervention.

Economics

Activity equals prosperity

McDonough and Braungart note that the 1991 Exxon Valdez oil spill actually increased Alaska’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).    They note that GDP only takes one thing into account, economic activity.  They note that:

…if prosperity is judged only by increased economic activity, then car accidents, hospital visits, illnesses (such as cancer), and toxic spills are all signs of prosperity.

They note that loss of resources, cultural depletion, negative social and environmental factors, and reduction of quality of life can all be negated by a simplistic economic figure.

Crude products

The authors define these as products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health because they are unintelligent and inelegant.  Because little attention is paid to the design of products, we end up with what they call “products plus.”  You get the item or service you wanted, plus additives you didn’t ask for and didn’t know were included.  For example, examining a number of high-tech products, they discovered that during use they off-gassed carcinogens and/or chemicals that cause birth defects.

They claim that high-tech products are usually composed of low-quality-materials, including cheap plastics and dyes that would be banned in Europe or the U.S., but are used in materials made in developing countries where their use has not been banned.

As a result of emissions from these “crude products,” indoor air quality is often more contaminated than outdoor air.  They cite a Scientific American story by Wayne R. Orr and John Roberts, “Everyday Exposures to Toxic Pollutants,” Feb. 1998, that notes that levels of toxic chemicals found in households were high enough to trigger a formal risk assessment at a Superfund site.

They note that even products designed for children can contain high levels of toxic chemicals which can be absorbed.  Not only can these include carcinogens, but they can also include chemicals that stress children’s bodies and also weaken the immune system, making children more susceptible to cancer-causing chemicals and other stressors.  Citing Our Stolen Future, they note that many of these chemicals can also disrupt the endocrine system and that only a small fraction of industrial chemicals have been tested for their effects on living systems.

They say that it might be tempting to try to turn back the clock, but that

the natural materials to meet the needs of our current population do not and cannot exist.

Also, even “natural” products are not necessarily safe and healthy.  (Some of the strongest poisons are natural in origin.)

A Strategy of Tragedy, or a Strategy of Change?

McDonough and Braungart argue that the poor designs created by today’s industrial infrastructure are not sustainable.  They say that most industrial methods and materials are unintentionally depletive.  (That might be true for agricultural practices, but I don’t actually see how they can say that about resources like petroleum and coal.  We clearly know that we’re depleting such resources.)

So how they propose we get out of this cycle of what they call intergenerational remote tyranny?

At some point a manufacturer or designer decides, “We can’t keep doing this. We can’t keep supporting and maintaining this system.” At some point they will decide that they would prefer to leave behind a positive design legacy.  But when is that point?

We say that point is today, and negligence starts tomorrow.  Once you understand the destruction taking place, unless you do something to change it, even if you never intended to cause such destruction, you become involved in a strategy of tragedy, or you can design and implement a strategy of change.

They then note that many people probably think such a strategy already exists.  After all, don’t a number of “green” and “eco-efficient” movements already exist?

Isn’t such a strategy viable?  (The short answer, No.)  In the next chapter, they make an argument for “Why Being ‘Less Bad’ Is No Good.”

March 28, 2010

Environmental exposures and child development

Came across several articles in Current Opinion in Pediatrics because of a blog post on Autism and environmental chemicals: a call for caution. Unfortunately, only the abstracts are free to view.

But what these show is that medical science is beginning to look more closely at possible environmental causes of childhood diseases.  This  does not mean that environmental factors in and of themselves cause disease, but as Dr. Philip Landrigan notes, genetic factors account for only a small fraction of autism cases and do not explain key features of autism.

What causes autism? Exploring the environmental contribution

Landrigan, Philip J.  Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 22(2):219-225, April 2010. doi: 10.1097/MOP.0b013e328336eb9a

Excerpts from the abstract:

Autism is a biologically based disorder of brain development. Genetic factors – mutations, deletions, and copy number variants – are clearly implicated in causation of autism. However, they account for only a small fraction of cases, and do not easily explain key clinical and epidemiological features. This suggests that early environmental exposures also contribute. This review explores this hypothesis.

Expanded research is needed into environmental causation of autism. Children today are surrounded by thousands of synthetic chemicals. Two hundred of them are neurotoxic in adult humans, and 1000 more in laboratory models. Yet fewer than 20% of high-volume chemicals have been tested for neurodevelopmental toxicity.

Environmental exposures and development

Mattison, Donald R. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 22(2):208-218, April 2010. doi: 10.1097/MOP.0b013e32833779bf

Excerpts from the abstract:

Summarizes recent studies exploring the relationship between paternal and maternal environmental exposures to chemicals before, at the time of and after conception to adverse developmental outcomes including preterm birth, death, structural and functional abnormalities and growth restriction.

Recent studies have demonstrated that human pregnancy and development are vulnerable to environmental exposures of the father and mother to chemical, biological and physical agents.

Whereas single genes and individual chemical exposures are responsible for some instances of adverse pregnancy outcome or developmental disease, gene-environment interactions are responsible for the majority.

Gene-environment interaction and children’s health and development

Wright, Robert O; Christiani, David. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 22(2):197-201, April 2010. doi: 10.1097/MOP.0b013e328336ebf9

Excerpt from the abstract:

Purpose of review: A systematic approach to studying gene-environment interaction can have immediate impact on our understanding of how environmental factors induce developmental disease and toxicity and will provide biological insight for potential treatment and prevention measures.

Summary: Using a genome-wide approach, combined with prospective longitudinal measures of environmental exposure at critical developmental windows, is the optimal design for gene–environment interaction research. This approach would discover susceptibility variants, and then validate the findings in an independent sample of children. Designs that combine the strengths and methodologies of each field will yield data that can account for both genetic variability and the role of critical developmental windows in the etiology of childhood disease and development.

Childhood obesity and the built environment

Galvez, Maida P; Pearl, Meghan; Yen, Irene H. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 22(2):202-207, April 2010. doi: 10.1097/MOP.0b013e328336eb6f

Risk factors for breast cancer – Missing one of the major ones?

Up to a third of breast cancers could be avoided (Yahoo! News)

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100325/ap_on_he_me/eu_med_avoiding_breast_cancer

European breast cancer conference in Barcelona. Carlo La Vecchia cited figures from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (website).  I couldn’t find the precise source for the figures, but perhaps they came from “Estimates of cancer incidence and mortality in Europe in 2008” (abstract only).

Conference website – http://www.ecco-org.eu/Conferences-and-Events/EBCC-7/page.aspx/840

Abstracts – http://www.ecco-org.eu/Conferences-and-Events/EBCC-7/Abstracts-online/page.aspx/2177

Or go directly to http://ex2.excerptamedica.com/ciw-10ebcc/

Type in “cancer” in the search field.  You should get 655 abstracts.

The focus of the conference was clearly on diagnosis and treatment with little to no discussion of environmental factors.  Certainly screening, diagnosis, and treatment are critical, but shouldn’t we try to prevent as much as we can?

More from the Yahoo story

Dr. Michelle Holmes of Harvard University, who has studied cancer and lifestyle factors, said people might wrongly think their chances of getting cancer depend more on their genes than their lifestyle.

“The genes have been there for thousands of years, but if cancer rates are changing in a lifetime, that doesn’t have much to do with genes,” she told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Cambridge, Mass.

Could perhaps increasing exposure to substances in the environment change rates in a lifetime?  That doesn’t have much to do with genes either.  Though if you’re being exposed to chemicals that interfered with how your genes were turned on and off before you were born, or are interfering with that now, perhaps it does.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. In Europe, there were about 421,000 new cases and nearly 90,000 deaths in 2008, the latest available figures. The United States last year saw more than 190,000 new cases and 40,000 deaths.

Tara Beaumont, a clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care, a British charity, noted that three of the major risk factors for breast cancer — gender, age and family history — are clearly beyond anyone’s control.

What about environmental exposure to chemicals?

IARC, on its World Cancer Day page, notes that it has an active program in the identification of carcinogenic risks. The IARC Monographs identify environmental factors—including chemicals, complex mixtures, occupational exposures, physical and biological agents, and lifestyle factors—that can increase the risk of human cancer.

In other words, there are several other environmental factors besides lifestyle that have been identified.  See the articles below for examples of how environmental factors could be contributing to breast cancer.

While the advice to eat less and exercise more is good (in fact, given that no one really has much direct control over environmental exposures that advice is probably even more important), I find it disturbing that the major risk factors cited in news stories seem to be reduced to diet, lifestyle, gender, age, and family history (that is, genetics), leaving environment out of the picture.

Why is that?  Because it’s easier to blame cancer victims than to confront companies and industries that sell us products that release substances that can mess with our health and who continue to release carcinogens and endocrine disruptors into our air and water?  (I’ll refer you again to the TEDX site, “Prenatal Origins of Cancer” for more information on that.)

Another perspective

In a post “do patients need doctor navigators to use the internet?”, David Collins discusses a March 25 New England Journal of Medicine opinion piece titled “Untangling the Web — Patients, Doctors, and the Internet” in which the authors “expressed a lot of concerns about how the internet is putting patients in touch with a lot of questionable information about disease” and about how they thought that changes the doctor-patient relationship in an adverse way.  (While they do raise some good points about the quality of some of the information on the Internet, I tend to agree with Collins.)

The reason I’m citing that here is the following statement from his post:

When I joined cancer public health in the ’70s the medical community almost universally rejected the idea that food and nutrition had anything to do with the prevention of cancer. People who talked about a relation between nutrition and cancer were sneered at and called the “fruits and nuts” crowd. Thirty-five years later as I approached retirement I had to chuckle inwardly many times about the current enthusiasm for the view that diet and nutrition are key to the prevention of much cancer. These days ya gotta eat your greens and grains!

So even the experts can change their minds….

Finally, it seems that environmental factors only really get attention when there are clusters of rare cancers.

Democratic Senators Eye New EPA Role Investigating Local Cancer Clusters

Environmental Policy Alert – March 24, 2010

From InsideEPA.com’s Environmental NewsStand (pay-per-view news)

Note: The site has a one-time offer of three free articles or documents by creating a new account today.

Senate environment committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) are working on legislation that would give EPA and the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) a major new role helping local health agencies investigate and address cancer clusters and communicate risks to local residents.

Press release from Sen. Bill Nelson on legislation

Nelson plans to preview testimony he’s been invited to give at next Wednesday’s hearing (my blog post on the March 17 hearing), which aims to find ways to strengthen the federal government’s hand in investigating cancer clusters, like the Acreage.

Recent Acreage blog post on Nelson’s efforts

Right now the federal Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA ) and Department of Health and Human Services ( HHS ) usually don’t get involved absent a request from a state.
“This effort is aimed at finding ways to bring in more federal resources more rapidly to help protect people, especially little children,” said Nelson, who’s also expected on Friday to announce he’s partnering with U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer on new legislation to do the same.
Sen. Nelson’s testimony at Senate committee hearing on EPA and children’s environmental health

March 25, 2010

The need for information about toxic substances in articles

For consumers to make informed decisions about whether the products we’re buying are safe, we need information about what is in them.  The following report discusses that issue.

Toxic substances in articles: the need for information
This report explores the benefits that can be gained by improving the provision of information on chemicals in articles.

Executive Summary (excerpt)

This report describes the problem of the lack of information on chemicals in articles. It illustrates specific cases where problems caused by chemicals in articles occur in all life cycle stages: manufacturing, use, recycling and disposal. The report explores the benefits that could result from the development of an internationally standardized information system for the chemical contents of articles; the challenges of disseminating such information; and existing models that could inform such a system. While an information system is not a substitute for other policy mechanisms to mitigate the harms from toxic substances in articles, it can be a powerful compliment [sic].

Note: This report was an input to the further development of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), adopted in February 2006, in particular to the objectives on knowledge and information (Objective 15) of its Overarching Policy Strategy and to some of the activities in the Global Plan of Action. The report was presented at an informal international workshop on stakeholders’ information needs on chemicals in articles in Geneva in February 2009.

The report was commissioned by the Swedish Chemicals Agency (KemI), with funding from the Nordic Chemicals Group under the Nordic Council of Ministers. Responsibility for its contents rests with the authors. The authors are Rachel I. Massey and Janet G. Hutchins at the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, Joel Tickner at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production and Monica Becker, Monica Becker & Associates.

Contents

Understanding the Problem: Case Studies of Toxic Substances in Articles

  • Case Study 1: Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) in waterproof  textiles
  • Case study 2: Lead in children’s toys and jewelry
  • Case study 3: Nonylphenol ethoxylates: Water contaminants from textile manufacturing and use
  • Case study 4: Toxic materials in personal computers
    Toxic materials in personal computers include lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, antimony, brominated flame retardants, perfluorinated compounds, and polyvinyl chloride plastic.
  • Implications for policies addressing information on substances in articles

Models for information management

Existing legal requirements for information on substances in articles

  • California: Notification of chronic health effects and Toxics Information Clearinghouse
  • Maine and Washington: Notification of toxics in children’s products
  • Mercury products legislation
  • Restriction on Hazardous Substances: EU and China
  • Management of Information on Chemicals in Articles under REACH
  • Globally Harmonized System (GHS) for Classification and Labelling of Chemicals

Voluntary systems

  • Industry-specific systems
  • Corporate Restricted and Preferred Substance Lists
  • Consumer-oriented Databases
  • Voluntary Environmental Performance Labelling (Eco-labels)

The way forward

  • Toward an Internationally Standardized System
  • Scope of the system

Read full report (PDF – 2.28 MB)

March 21, 2010

Sound advice to companies on endocrine disruptors

Found a post on endocrine disruptors that advises companies on steps they should be taking to deal with endocrine disruptors now.  You’re probably thinking what I thought when I first saw the post, “Yeah, right.”

I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s heartening to see an investment manager taking an enlightened  position like this.

The Chemicals That Should Be on Your Radar … but Probably Aren’t

By Richard Liroff – Published February 25, 2010
[This post is a follow up to Liroff’s earlier article “What Does the FDA’s BPA Decision Mean for Companies?” on GreenBiz.com.]

Liroff notes:

As a class, [endocrine disruptors (EDs)] can have profound and unparalleled impacts on families, communities and businesses because of their possible links to learning disabilities, selected cancers, reproductive disorders, diabetes and other health disorders.

Systematically identifying EDs, substituting safer substances and product designs, and reducing exposures promise sizeable payoffs from reduced health care burdens and enhanced employee productivity. Such actions help align consumer-facing companies in particular with consumers’ concerns about involuntary exposures to toxic chemicals in daily living.

Liroff lists several recent developments in public awareness regarding endocrine disruptors, describes what endocrine disruptors are and how they can affect health, and offers the following advice to chemical companies regarding endocrine disruptors:

1. Get educated.

He provides links to European, U.S. EPA, and NIEHS endocrine disruption websites as well as the The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) list of resources.  (A very nice list!)

2. Make sure corporate science staff stay current.

Why the Adage ‘the Dose Makes the Poison’ Can Be Toxic to Corporate Chemicals Policy

Heed the advice of NIEHS’s Dr. Linda Birnbaum: “[T]he timing, as well as the dose, makes the poison.” The American Chemical Society, in a newly published statement on endocrine disruptors, echoes this view: “A large and growing body of environmental health literature shows that endocrine disrupting substances … do not fit the central tenet of regulatory toxicology, namely, that the ‘dose makes the poison.'”

3. Know the chemicals in your products and supply chain.

4. Take action. Join the leading edge companies who are actively screening their chemical inventories for endocrine disruptors and are taking steps to lower toxicity via safer chemical substitutes or designs….

[A] proactive approach of analysis and substitution, and responding to early warning signals, is more likely to buttress consumer confidence in your brand than defensive posturing that reflexively asserts “more research is needed” or “no cause-effect relationships have been shown.”

Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN). IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN website, www.iehn.org. Disclosure: Liroff serves as Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange and served on the priority-setting work group of EPA’s Endocrine Disruption Screening and Testing Advisory Committee.

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