I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 6, 2010

A chemical pot pourri

This is a real hodge-podge of items.

Bisphenol A

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently announced the findings of a study that found BPA in a large percentage of paper receipts it had collected.  http://ewg.org/BPA_Found_In_Receipts

Chemicals in cosmetics

Another resource EWG maintains is the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database.

http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/

Speaking of cosmetics, Annie Leonard (“The Story of Stuff”) has come out with “The Story of Cosmetics”, a look at chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products.  The Story of Stuff blog looks at the cosmetics industry’s reaction.

Learning and developmental disabilities and other diseases and conditions

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE) covers a wide range of topics, from learning and developmental disabilities to the CHE Toxicant and Disease Database, a searchable database that summarizes links between chemical contaminants and approximately 180 human diseases or conditions, to the Metabolic Syndrome Discussion Group.

BP (not just oil spills)

The CHE site also includes news items like:

6 Aug Thousands sign on for $10 billion BP suit. The revelation that BP’s Texas City refinery emitted toxic benzene for more than a month has ignited a furor in the port community that has suffered its share of deadly industrial accidents and toxic spills. Houston Chronicle.

Yes, before the BP oil spill there was the BP Texas City refinery explosion.  The U.S. Chemical Safety Board conducted an investigation.  I believe that they are looking into whether these incidents show that BP fostered a culture of cutting corners.

Chemicals and depression?

Was reading Peter Kramer’s Against Depression, where he argued that depression is a true illness.  (At least that’s what I’m getting out of it.)  He makes a couple of points that struck me.  One, on p. 156 he states that there is a connection between diabetes and depression.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite a source for that.  And if true, it’s not clear which caused which.  That is, does having diabetes make it more likely that you would be depressed?  Or does depression in some way connected to the development of diabetes.  Or could diabetes and depression be caused by the same agent?  (Or some combination of the above.)

He also talks about how long-term stress can result in increased levels of corticotropin and that such stress can lead to depression and illness.  Of course, corticotropin is but one element of the neuroendocrine system.  And with many of these things, there are feedback loops that get out of whack if enough recovery time is not available.  That’s actually why some scientists have proposed that a chronic lack of sleep can cause obesity over the long haul.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer and NIOSH are looking at whether “shift work” (along with a number of chemicals) can be considered carcinogenic.

Leptin: An example of what we didn’t know

Leptin, the appetite hormone, was not discovered until 1994 (though its effects had been observed much earlier).  (Zhang Y, Proenca R, Maffei M, Barone M, Leopold L, Friedman JM (December 1994). “Positional cloning of the mouse obese gene and its human homologue”. Nature 372 (6505): 425–32. doi:10.1038/372425a0. PMID 7984236.) I mention that because chemical industry apologists seem to ignore the fact that we’ve learned a lot about the human body in the last 15-20 years.  And the more we learn, the more we discover how chemicals can mess up our systems.

Regarding leptin, I found the following using the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus service.

A National Cancer Institute fact sheet on physical activity and cancer states that “increasing physical activity may influence insulin and leptin levels and influence breast cancer prognosis.”

An EPA report, “A Decade of Children’s Environmental Health Research:  Highlights from EPA’s Science to Achieve Results Program,” cites an EPA-funded study that found that “autistic children showed higher levels of leptin (a hormone that affects the regulation of body weight, metabolism, and reproductive function, and influences the immune system) in their blood when compared to typically developing children (Ashwood et al. 2007; R829388C002).”

Citation: Ashwood P., Kwong C., Hansen R., Hertz-Picciotto I., Croen L., Krakowiak P., Walker W., Pessah I.N., and Van de Water J. 2007. “Brief report: Plasma leptin levels are elevated in autism: association with early onset phenotype?” J. Autism Dev. Disord. Advanced online publication (DOI 10.1007/s10803-006-0353-1).  Abstract

So our bodies are these incredibly complex systems.  Some chemical companies would have you believe that the stuff they make, even the synthetic chemicals that human beings have never been exposed to before, have absolutely NO effect on our health.

Truth is, despite the Environmental Defense Fund saying that we’re not guinea pigs, we all are.  (See previous post: “Tired of being a guinea pig?“)

“Would you like BPA with those fries?”

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May 11, 2010

President’s Cancer Panel recommendations for individuals

I had difficulty copying these from the 7+ MB report (my Adobe Acrobat kept crashing).  Then I discovered that Acrobat Reader 9 lets you save a PDF as text!

Full report URL – http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf

Note: I added the links below—they were not in the original report (and they may or may not be sanctioned by the Panel or the U.S. government).

President’s Cancer Panel – What Individuals Can Do: Recommendations

Much remains to be learned about the effects of environmental exposures on cancer risk. Based on what is known, however, there is much that government and industry can do now to address environmental cancer risk. The Panel’s recommendations in this regard are detailed above. At the same time, individuals can take important steps in their own lives to reduce their exposure to environmental elements that increase risk for cancer and other diseases. And collectively, individual small actions can drastically reduce the number and levels of environmental contaminants.

CHILDREN

1. It is vitally important to recognize that children are far more susceptible to damage from environmental carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting compounds than adults. To the extent possible, parents and child care providers should choose foods, house and garden products, play spaces, toys, medicines, and medical tests that will minimize children’s exposure to toxics.
Ideally, both mothers and fathers should avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals and known or suspected carcinogens prior to a child’s conception and throughout pregnancy and early life, when risk of damage is greatest.

CHEMICAL EXPOSURES

2. Individuals and families have many opportunities to reduce or eliminate chemical exposures. For example:

  • Family exposure to numerous occupational chemicals can be reduced by removing shoes before entering the home and washing work clothes separately from the other family laundry.
  • Filtering home tap or well water can decrease exposure to numerous known or suspected carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Unless the home water source is known to be contaminated, it is preferable to use filtered tap water instead of commercially bottled water.
  • Storing and carrying water in stainless steel, glass, or BPA– and phthalate-free containers will reduce exposure to endocrine-disrupting and other chemicals that may leach into water from plastics. This action also will decrease the need for plastic bottles, the manufacture of which produces toxic by-products, and reduce the need to dispose of and recycle plastic bottles. Similarly, microwaving food and beverages in ceramic or glass instead of plastic containers will reduce exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals that may leach into food when containers are heated.
  • Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers and washing conventionally grown produce to remove residues. Similarly, exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat raised without these medications if it is available. Avoiding or minimizing consumption of processed, charred, and well-done meats will reduce exposure to carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
  • Individuals can consult information sources such as the Household Products Database to help them make informed decisions about the products they buy and use.
  • Properly disposing of pharmaceuticals, household chemicals, paints, and other materials will minimize drinking water and soil contamination. Individuals also can choose products made with non-toxic substances or environmentally safe chemicals. Similarly, reducing or ceasing landscaping pesticide and fertilizer use will help keep these chemicals from contaminating drinking water supplies.
  • Turning off lights and electrical devices when not in use reduces exposure to petroleum combustion by-products because doing so reduces the need for electricity, much of which is generated using fossil fuels. Driving a fuel-efficient car, biking or walking when possible, or using public transportation also cuts the amount of toxic auto exhaust in the air.
  • Individuals can reduce or eliminate exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke in the home, auto, and public places. Most counseling and medications to help smokers quit are covered by health insurance or available at little or no cost.

RADIATION

3. Adults and children can reduce their exposure to electromagnetic energy by wearing a headset when using a cell phone, texting instead of calling, and keeping calls brief.

4. It is advisable to periodically check home radon levels. Home buyers should conduct a radon test in any home they are considering purchasing.

5. To reduce exposure to radiation from medical sources, patients should discuss with their health care providers the need for medical tests or procedures that involve radiation exposure. Key considerations include personal history of radiation exposure, the expected benefit of the test,
and alternative ways of obtaining the same information. In addition, to help limit cumulative medical radiation exposure, individuals can create a record of all imaging or nuclear medicine tests received and, if known, the estimated radiation dose for each test.

6. Adults and children can avoid overexposure to ultraviolet light by wearing protective clothing and sunscreens when outdoors and avoiding exposure when the sunlight is most intense.

SELF-ADVOCACY

7. Each person can become an active voice in his or her community. To a greater extent than many realize, individuals have the power to affect public policy by letting policymakers know that they strongly support environmental cancer research and measures that will reduce or remove from the environment toxics that are known or suspected carcinogens or endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Individuals also can influence industry by selecting non-toxic products and, where these do not exist, communicating with manufacturers and trade organizations about their desire for safer products.

May 10, 2010

President’s Cancer Panel report on “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk”

Nicholas Kristof blogged about the President’s Cancer Panel (PCP) issuing its Annual Report for 2008-2009 entitled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk, What We Can Do Now,” in “New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer“.  While his blog is very informative, the report itself can be found at Annual Report for 2008-2009 (the URL for the PCP reports page is http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/pcp.htm).

The Panel looked at Sources and Types of Environmental Contaminants, including Exposure to Contaminants from Industrial and Manufacturing Sources, Exposure to Contaminants from Agricultural Sources, Environmental Exposures Related to Modern Lifestyles, Exposure to Hazards from Medical Sources, Exposure to Contaminants and Other Hazards from Military Sources, and Exposure to Environmental Hazards from Natural Sources.

The text of the letter accompanying the report:

Though overall cancer incidence and mortality have continued to decline in recent years, the disease continues to devastate the lives of far too many Americans. In 2009 alone, approximately 1.5 million American men, women, and children were diagnosed with cancer, and 562,000 died from the disease. With the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer, the public is becoming increasingly aware of the unacceptable burden of cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposures that could have been prevented through appropriate national action. The Administration’s commitment to the cancer community and recent focus on critically needed reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act is praiseworthy. However, our Nation still has much work ahead to identify the many existing but unrecognized environmental carcinogens and eliminate those that are known from our workplaces, schools, and homes.

To jumpstart this national effort, the President’s Cancer Panel (the Panel) dedicated its 2008–2009 activities to examining the impact of environmental factors on cancer risk. The Panel considered industrial, occupational, and agricultural exposures as well as exposures related to medical practice, military activities, modern lifestyles, and natural sources. In addition, key regulatory, political, industrial, and cultural barriers to understanding and reducing environmental and occupational carcinogenic exposures were identified. The attached report presents the Panel’s recommendations to mitigate or eliminate these barriers.

The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread. One such ubiquitous chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), is still found in many consumer products and remains unregulated in the United States, despite the growing link between BPA and several diseases, including various cancers.

While BPA has received considerable media coverage, the public remains unaware of many common environmental carcinogens such as naturally occurring radon and manufacturing and combustion by-products such as formaldehyde and benzene. Most also are unaware that children are far more vulnerable to environmental toxins and radiation than adults. Efforts to inform the public of such harmful exposures and how to prevent them must be increased. All levels of government, from federal to local, must work to protect every American from needless disease through rigorous regulation of environmental pollutants.

Environmental exposures that increase the national cancer burden do not represent a new front in the ongoing war on cancer. However, the grievous harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the National Cancer Program. The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures. The Panel urges you most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.

What the Panel recommends people do….

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

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
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