Meaningful gains or huge setbacks?: Congress weighs two bills aimed at reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act

Pump Handle - March 31, 2015

For years, advocates have been calling on policymakers to reform the nation’s outdated chemical safety laws. Today, two such bills stand before Congress — one that advocates say better protects the public’s health and another that advocates warn is a dangerous step backward.

Introduced in the Senate earlier this month within just days of each other, each bill takes aim at the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was enacted in 1976 and hasn’t been updated since. Under TSCA, which doesn’t require chemicals undergo health impact testing before being released into the marketplace, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered safety testing for about 250 of the 84,000 chemicals in use today and only nine have been banned or restricted. To put TSCA’s failure to protect health into better perspective, consider this: Despite the overwhelming evidence against asbestos, officials still don’t have the legal authority under TSCA to ban a known carcinogen responsible for the deaths of more than 107,000 people worldwide every year. It’s clear that the nation’s chemical safety framework needs an update; however, the two bills now before Congress would take the country down two very different paths.

“As Americans, we should absolutely expect that the products on our shelves have been tested for safety,” said Ansje Miller, eastern states director for the Center for Environmental Health. “Taking action on chemical safety is critical. We’re seeing skyrocketing rates of problems linked to chemicals, such as childhood cancers, birth defects, learning disabilities, fertility problems…we need to get a handle on this so when chemicals go on the market, we know that they’re safe.”

The two Senate reform bills are the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, known as S. 697, introduced by Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., and the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act, S. 725, introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Ed Markey, D-Mass. The Vitter-Udall bill has attracted widespread criticism from health and safety advocates. In fact, it’s been reported that a draft form of the bill originated from the American Chemistry Council. Miller described the Vitter-Udall bill as a “giant step backward,” pointing specifically to the bill’s language that would prohibit rules and enforcement at the state level.

In response to inaction at the federal level, states have been enacting and enforcing their own chemical safety rules for years. According to a recent report from the Center for Effective Government, 38 states have established more than 250 laws or rules regulating toxic substances, and 20 state legislatures are now considering nearly 75 new chemical safety policies. Under the Vitter-Udall bill, however, states would be pre-empted from taking action on any chemical designated by EPA as “high priority” and for which the agency has begun a safety review. That safety review could take EPA seven years or longer, during which time states would be prohibited from acting — it’s a period of time that advocates have dubbed the “death zone.” In essence, the Vitter-Udall bill would gut local authority and leave state officials with few options to protect their residents.

The Vitter-Udall bill would also block states from co-enforcing EPA chemical safety restrictions and make it extremely difficult for states to enact rules that are more protective than national standards. In other words, the Vitter-Udall bill would prohibit states from enforcing chemical safety rules that are identical to federal rules. That’s a big departure from the current rules under TSCA and one reason why advocates are saying the Vitter-Udall proposal is a big leap in the wrong direction. In contrast, the Boxer-Markey bill does not pre-empt state action and allows state officials to co-enforce EPA standards.

In a recent letter from attorneys general in six states, the authors said the Vitter-Udall pre-emption measures would create a void “where states would be prevented from acting to protect their citizens and the environment from those chemicals even though federal restrictions may not be in place for many years.” They wrote:

The goal of TSCA is vitally important: to establish necessary and appropriate restrictions on the manufacture and use of chemicals that present an unreasonable risk of injury to human health or the environment. We strongly support this goal, and recognize the essential contribution that TSCA could make in ensuring the adequate protection of public health and the environment from toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, in practice, TSCA has largely failed to live up to its goal and, as a result, we welcome efforts to reform this important statute. However, we cannot support S. 697’s broad expansion of limitations on the authority of states to protect our citizens from the health and environmental risks posed by toxic chemicals within our states in the name of “reform.” In fact…we believe that, rather than bringing TSCA closer to attaining its goal, the draft legislation’s greatly expanded limitations on state action would move that goal further out of reach.

Miller explained that if the Vitter-Udall bill passed into law as currently written, enforcement of EPA’s chemical safety findings at the state level would quite literally have to come directly from EPA and its regional offices. And with the tightening of federal budgets, it’s very doubtful that the agency would have the budgetary support required for such a job. Miller added that this approach would differ from nearly every other federal EPA safety standard in which states serve as co-enforcers.

“Over the past 35 years that TSCA has been broken, the states really have stepped in to fill the void,” said Miller, who noted that while the Boxer-Markey bill isn’t perfect, “it’s a step forward and a much better example of the kind of laws we need to protect public health.”

No mention of asbestos in Vitter-Udall

Both the TSCA reform bills set new time lines for chemical safety reviews, but the Boxer-Markey bill quickens the pace and allows for a more robust program, its supporters say.

The Vitter-Udall bill would require EPA to launch reviews of 25 chemicals in the first five years and add a new substance to the list every time a review is completed. In contrast, the Boxer-Markey bill would require EPA to begin reviewing 75 chemicals within the first five years and add three more chemicals to the queue upon each completed review. The Boxer-Markey bill would also direct EPA to embark on a rapid review of toxic chemicals known to be persistent and build up in a person’s body and specifically calls for a rapid review of asbestos. In a blog post from Environmental Working Group, Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs, writes of the Vitter-Udall provisions: “The EPA estimates that roughly 1,000 chemicals need immediate health and safety review. Under the (Vitter-Udall) bill, that process would take hundreds of years. …There is no deadline for implementing restrictions, phase-outs or bans of even the most toxic chemicals, which in many cases have contaminated Americans’ blood for decades.”

The Vitter-Udall bill also directs EPA to separate chemicals into two groups: high priority and low priority. In a letter to senators organized by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, the authors write:

High priority chemicals are reviewed against the safety standard, and if they flunk that standard, the EPA is directed to impose appropriate risk management. Low priority chemicals are not really reviewed at all. EPA makes a judgment as to whether the chemical is “likely to meet” the safety standard without conducting a new assessment. These chemicals are then treated as safe for any and all uses.

Needless to say a low priority designation will be highly coveted by any chemical company, resulting in enormous pressure on the agency to stretch the murky concept of “likely to meet” as far as possible. Yet this is the one major decision in the bill that the public cannot challenge in court. The omission is conspicuous and an invitation to abuse.

The two TSCA reform bills propose markedly different safety thresholds as well. Vitter-Udall maintains the “no unreasonable risk of harm” safety standard, while the Boxer-Markey bill proposes a “reasonable certainty of no harm” standard, which is the same standard used to evaluate food additives and the pesticides used on produce.

For Charlotte Brody, vice president for occupational and public health initiatives at the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations, a priority concern is that the Vitter-Udall bill “takes chemical regulation off the agenda of what a state can do.” Noting that workers are often the first to experience the harmful effects of chemical exposures, Brody said Vitter-Udall could effectively pre-empt local action on various worker health issues, such as current efforts among firefighters to move away from toxic flame retardants. The pre-emption measures could have a chilling effect on the ability of workers to organize in support of safer workplaces — “the chemical industry wants to get in the way of good organizing,” Brody told me.

“Anyone paying attention can see that the Vitter-Udall bill is much better for the chemical industry and much worse for the health of the American people,” she said.

Brody said a major piece missing from the Vitter-Udall proposal is the “worse first” concept — in other words, any TSCA reform needs to prioritize chemicals that likely pose the greatest harm. The Boxer-Markey bill does address this issue, calling for a rapid review of certain chemicals and in particular, of asbestos. In contrast, the Vitter-Udall bill doesn’t mention the word “asbestos” once, said Linda Reinstein, president and CEO of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.

The Boxer-Markey bill is named after Reinstein’s husband, Alan, who died in 2006 after a three-year battle with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Every year, more than 10,000 Americans die from asbestos-related disease, however the substance is still legal and the U.S. continues to import asbestos. The Boxer-Markey bill would expedite an asbestos review and EPA could ban it within three years.

“(The Boxer-Markey bill) would empower and ensure that the EPA could do its job and clean up the toxic mess that they’ve been left with by the chemical industry,” Reinstein told me, noting that more than 450 independent health and environmental organizations have declared their opposition to the Vitter-Udall bill. “It’s incredulous to think that someone would write a TSCA reform bill and not even mention asbestos.”

Reinstein said “meaningful” TSCA reform has to be strong enough to clean up nearly 40 years of lax chemical safety laws, it must give EPA the necessary authority to analyze and regulate chemicals, and it must give officials the flexibility to respond to future health and safety concerns. In other words, the law needs to be innovative enough to keep up with the chemical industry.

“We can’t keep operating under a law that enables the chemical industry to continue like it’s the wild, wild West,” Reinstein said.

Advocates such as Reinstein have been working to pass TSCA reform for years. So, will this year be any different — will Congress finally send a bill to the president’s desk? Miller at the Center for Environmental Health said considering the current make-up of Congress, she isn’t optimistic that the Boxer-Markey bill will succeed into law, though she said one scenario could be combining the best parts of both bills into a proposal that’s more likely to get through Congress. Reinstein said if the Vitter-Udall bill makes it the president’s desk in its current form, her organization would call for a veto. Brody said considering the current political climate, chemical safety reform might be better left until another year.

“The reform of U.S. chemical policies is too important to the health of the American people to be settled by this Congress,” Brody said. “This is not the year to be looking for a new clean water act, a new clean air act, a new workers’ rights vision, and I don’t think it’s the year to be looking for progressive TSCA reform.”

To learn more about the competing TSCA bills — there are many more differences and provisions not explored in this article — visit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, the Environmental Working Group, the Center for Environmental Health or the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works recently held a hearing on the Vitter-Udall bill — watch that webcast here.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Major Wildlife Impacts Still Felt 5 Years After Gulf Oil Spill

Yale Environment 360 - March 31, 2015
Nearly five years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico continue to die at unprecedented rates, endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are experiencing diminished nesting success, and many species of fish are suffering from abnormal development among some juveniles after exposure to oil. Those are the conclusions of a new study from the National Wildlife Federation, released three weeks before the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill, which began on April 20, 2010. The study also said that populations of brown pelicans and laughing gulls have declined by 12 and 32 percent respectively, and that oil and dispersant compounds have been found in the eggs of white pelicans nesting in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. The National Wildlife Federation said that the oil giant, BP, must be held fully accountable for the environmental damage and that fines and penalties should be used to restore habitats in the Gulf. Meanwhile, in advance of the spill’s fifth anniversary, BP is stepping up its public relations efforts to assure consumers that life is returning to normal in the Gulf.
Categories: Environment, Health

Natural Filters: Freshwater Mussels Deployed to Clean Up Polluted Rivers

Yale Environment 360 - March 31, 2015
Conservationists and scientists in the U.S. and Europe are working to re-establish declining or endangered freshwater mussel

An Eastern elliptio mussel populations so these mollusks can use their natural filtration abilities to clean up pollution in waterways. One such program has been established on the U.S.’s Delaware River, where environmentalists and biologists are reseeding mussel populations in the more polluted sections of the river and in tributary streams. Water companies have expressed interest in these programs in the hope that large populations of freshwater mussels might eventually relieve the companies of some of the burden and expense of mechanical water filtration.
Read the article.
Categories: Environment, Health

Warming Winters Not Main Cause of Pine Beetle Outbreaks, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - March 30, 2015
Milder winters can't be blamed for the full extent of recent mountain pine beetle outbreaks in the western United States, according

Pine forest affected by mountain pine beetles to a new study by Dartmouth and U.S. Forest Service researchers. Winters have been warming across the western U.S. states for decades, as overall the coldest winter night has warmed by 4 degrees C since 1960. But that warming trend could only be the primary driver of increasing pine beetle outbreaks in regions where winter temperatures have historically killed most of the beetles, such as in the Middle Rockies, eastern Oregon, and northern Colorado, the study says. Warming is unlikely to have played a major role in other regions since winters were rarely cold enough to kill the beetles, according to the study published in the journal Landscape Ecology. Other factors — including changes in the pine beetles' seasonal development patterns and forestry practices that have influenced pine density and age — were likely more important, the authors say.
Categories: Environment, Health

Young v. UPS and lifting guidelines for pregnant workers

Pump Handle - March 30, 2015

In 2006, UPS driver Peggy Young became pregnant and asked for lighter-duty work that would comply with her doctor’s advice to limit lifting (to packages weighing 20 pounds or less during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy, and 10 pounds or less during the remainder). UPS denied her request. Young was placed on leave without pay and lost her medical coverage, so she sued UPS. She didn’t win at the federal district or appeals court level, but the Supreme Court last week made a decision that gives Peggy Young a shot at winning – and might help other pregnant workers.

The Court didn’t actually decide whether UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by denying Young’s request for light duty; instead, it sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit along with a new framework for deciding. SCOTUSBlog’s Lyle Denniston summarizes:

Dissatisfied with every argument made to it, a Supreme Court majority on Wednesday on its own fashioned a new way to test complaints that employers are discriminating against workers who become pregnant.  The result, in Young v. United Parcel Service, was a kind of hybrid remedy, judging intentional bias on the one hand and harmful impact on women workers on the other.

It was clear, though, that female workers did not receive legal protection as strong as their advocates sought, but neither did employers get a free pass from claims of pregnancy bias.  The six-to-three decision thus looked like a compromise, landing somewhere in the middle.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick explains the background:

The underlying facts of Young v. UPS are pretty straightforward: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The first clause of the PDA clarified that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination “be­cause of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” The second clause says that employers must treat “women affected by pregnancy … the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” The question for the Supreme Court was whether Peggy Young’s claim that UPS violated the PDA and engaged in pregnancy discrimination was correctly decided by the lower courts, which threw her case out before she ever got to trial. The answer today? No. She gets to go back and argue her claim in the Virginia courts.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer found that, “Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Young, there is a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s. She should be allowed to go back to court to argue that the reason she was not accommodated was her pregnancy.”

… UPS wouldn’t accommodate [Young’s] request for light lifting, contending that the company offered accommodations for only three classes of workers: those injured on the job, those who lost their Department of Transportation driving certification, and those who have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. UPS told Young that she was ineligible for an accommodation and forced her to take an unpaid leave of absence without health benefits. According to her lawyer, Sharon Gustafson, in a conference call, any pregnant worker who sought accommodation at UPS at the time was similarly sent home.

In an article written just after the case’s oral argument, Lithwick noted that UPS has since voluntarily changed its policy to allow light-duty assignments for pregnant workers. But what about pregnant workers at other companies who are denied accommodations? Writing in the Huffington Post, Tom Spiggle offers a tennis-match analogy and concludes that the Court’s decision will make it easier for pregnant workers to bring discrimination cases in the future:

So the Court struck a compromise finding that an employer could not treat a pregnant worker differently than a non-pregnant work unless the employer had a good non-discriminatory reason.

In practice, it would be something like a tennis match. A pregnant employee could get a lawsuit over the net by arguing that her employer violated the law when it refused to give her, for instance, a light-duty assignment while giving non-pregnant workers similar changes.

The employer could then knock the lawsuit back over the net by showing that it had a good, non-discriminatory reason to treat pregnant workers differently.

The pregnant employee could then lob the lawsuit back over the net again if she could show that the reason offered by the employer was just a cover story for discrimination. A jury would then determine which side it believed offered the best evidence.

Note that this type of framework is well established in employment law. The tennis match that I referred to is called “burden shifting” and courts have long used it after the Supreme Court established it in McDonnell Douglas vs. Green.

Why This is a Win for Pregnant Workers

Some commentators have suggested that this was a compromise. That is true as far as the legal theory goes. The Court fashioned a framework somewhere in the middle of the polar opposite positions taken by Young and UPS. But, as a practical matter, this was a bigger win for pregnant employees because the ability to get into court is more than half of the battle.

Occupational guidance for pregnant workers

We’ll have to wait and see how the lower courts rule when they apply the Supreme Court’s framework for deciding cases involving the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. In the meantime, Young’s case made me curious about the kinds of work accommodations doctors might recommend for pregnant workers. Just last year, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing reviewed the existing evidence and created “Occupational guidance for physical and shift work of pregnant women in the United States.”

The guidelines recommend that a physician conduct a systematic evaluation for a pregnant worker to determine whether work restrictions or modifications may be necessary; the evaluation should include an occupational health interview and identification of work-related risk factors. Such risk factors include long work schedule (more than 40 hours per week), multiple employments, frequent overtime, shift work, repetitive stair climbing, bending or stooping for more than an hour a day late in pregnancy, manual lifting, and prolonged hours standing (more than three or four hours of standing continuously). For women with uncomplicated normal pregnancy, sedentary activity may be performed for 40 weeks or the beginning of labor, while very heavy activities are advised only until 20 weeks.

Recommendations specifically regarding lifting in pregnancy reference recent publications in the journals American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology (Leslie A. MacDonald et al) and Human Factors (Thomas R. Waters et al). The lists of authors for both articles are similar, and include multiple authors from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – although both articles include disclaimers that the views are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent NIOSH’s views. Both describe the researchers work to adapt the revised NIOSH lifting equation to develop recommended weight limits for pregnant women.

The authors of these articles cite literature that describes risks for both fetuses and pregnant women, with the caveat that levels of evidence vary. Research has linked heavy exertion during pregnancy to an increased risk of miscarriage, spontaneous abortion, pre-term delivery, and pre-eclampsia. For pregnant women, changes in their center of mass, spinal curvature, and abdominal girth may increase their risk of injury from lifting. The authors suggest that physicians ask pregnant women about the frequency and duration of on-the-job lifting, and propose different weight limits depending on the responses.

One important thing about the recommended weight limits is that they vary depending on the location of the item the worker is lifting (this is also considered in the lifting equation for the general worker population). It’s easiest for a worker to lift something that’s located directly in front of his or her abdomen. The size of a typical pregnant woman’s abdomen at 20+ weeks makes it hard for her to lift things from the most favorable lifting position, so the recommended weight limits for the second half of women’s pregnancies are lower. The researchers do not recommend lifting objects off the floor for women at any stage of pregnancy.

Specific recommendations range from 17 to 36 pounds for a woman who’s early in her pregnancy and lifts infrequently, with the 17-pound limit being for objects located high up and far away from the body, and 36 pounds for objects lifted from directly in front of the abdomen. The limit for the front-of-the-abdomen location drops to 26 pounds for women more than 20 weeks pregnant. For women who lift repetitively for more than an hour a day, the limits range from nine pounds to 18 pounds, with the latter figure dropping to 13 pounds for women more than 20 weeks pregnant. The authors note, though, that these guidelines assume certain conditions, such as two-handed lifting, lifting without rotation of the spine, and no more than three lifts per minute. When any of these assumptions is violated, the authors recommend a job analysis. And, of course, they note that clinicians should always consider individual patient factors and use their own judgments.

This new guidance can help physicians offer evidence-based advice to their pregnant patients whose jobs involve lifting. The extent to which employers feel obligated to offer work assignments that comply with physician advice will be influenced by Peggy Young’s case, which is not yet fully resolved.

Categories: Health

How Long Can Oceans Continue To Absorb Earth’s Excess Heat?

Yale Environment 360 - March 30, 2015
The main reason soaring greenhouse gas emissions have not caused air temperatures to rise more rapidly is that oceans have soaked up much of the heat. But new evidence suggests the oceans’ heat-buffering ability may be weakening. BY CHERYL KATZ
Categories: Environment, Health

Researchers: Inadequate vaccination rates fueled recent measles outbreak

Pump Handle - March 27, 2015

In a somewhat frightening illustration of anti-vaccine trends, a new report estimates that among groups affected in the recent measles outbreak, the rates of measles-mumps-rubella immunization might have been as low as 50 percent.

Earlier this month, a report published in JAMA Pediatrics concluded that MMR vaccination rates in many of the populations affected by the Disneyland-related measles outbreak are well below the necessary numbers to maintain herd immunity. Led by researchers at Boston Children’s Informatics Program, the project used disease data from the California Department of Public Health as well as current and historical data from the disease surveillance system known as HealthMap to estimate vaccination rates among the recent outbreak clusters. Researchers then used estimates of disease transmission among fully susceptible as well as immune populations to calculate their findings.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from January to March 20, 178 cases of measles have been reported in 17 states and Washington, D.C. The majority of the cases — 74 percent — were linked to the multistate outbreak traced back to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. CDC reports that the majority of those who have contracted the virus were not vaccinated. The JAMA Pediatrics report puts that point into even clearer focus, finding that inadequate vaccination rates were likely fueling the outbreak. (This may seem like a no-brainer, as public health officials made numerous pleas for people to get vaccinated in the wake of the outbreak. But in the world of public health, associations are rarely made without first seeing the science. This report is the first to positively link measles vaccination rates and the current outbreak.)

“Our data tell us a very straightforward story — that the way to stop this and future measles outbreaks is through vaccination,” said report co-author John Brownstein, a digital epidemiologist at Harvard and co-founder of HealthMap, in a news release. “The fundamental reason why we’re seeing the number of cases we are is inadequate vaccine coverage among the exposed.”

The report found that within measles outbreak clusters in California, Arizona and Illinois, the measles vaccination rate is likely between 50 percent and 86 percent. Both rates are well below what’s needed to protect the larger population. Because measles is so contagious, the report estimates that a vaccine rate of 96 percent to 99 percent is needed to preserve herd immunity and prevent future measles outbreaks. The report authors noted that their estimates only reflect vaccination rates among the exposed populations within each outbreak cluster and do not reflect nationwide rates or the overall rate for California. Report authors Brownstein, Maimuna Majumder, Emily Cohn, Sumiko Mekaru and Jane Huston write:

While data on MMR vaccination rates are available, coverage is often calculated at the state or county level and may not be granular enough to assess risk in an outbreak situation; this is especially the case for outbreaks originating at a tourist destination, where vaccination coverage among visitors is highly heterogeneous. Clearly, MMR vaccination rates in many of the communities that have been affected by this outbreak fall below the necessary threshold to sustain herd immunity, thus placing the greater population at risk as well.

In conjunction with the JAMA Pediatrics report, researchers at HealthMap also put together a dynamic model that shows how different vaccination rates affect the growth of a measles outbreak. The model shows that if a population is fully immunized against measles, one case of measles will result in only two additional cases within 70 days of the start of an outbreak. Using that same scenario and time period, the model found that a 90 percent vaccination rate would lead to 29 cases, an 80 percent vaccination rate would lead to just more than 200 cases, a 70 percent coverage rate would result in about 900 cases, and a 60 percent vaccination rate would lead to more than 2,800 cases.

Visit HealthMap to see the model for yourself. To request a copy of the JAMA Pediatrics report, click here.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Metals Used in High Tech Are Becoming Harder to Find, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - March 27, 2015
Metals critical to newer technologies such as smartphones, infrared optics, and medical imaging will likely become harder

Enlarge

This chart shows the criticality of 62 metals. to obtain in coming decades, according to Yale researchers, and future products need to be designed to make reclaiming and recycling those materials easier. The study, the first to assess future supply risks to all 62 metals on the periodic table, found that many of the metals traditionally used in manufacturing — zinc, copper, aluminum, lead, and others — show no signs of vulnerability. But some metals that have become more common in technology over the last two decades, such as rare earth metals, are available almost entirely as byproducts, the researchers say. "You can't mine specifically for them; they often exist in small quantities and are used for specialty purposes," said Yale scientist Thomas Graedel. "And they don't have any decent substitutes."
Categories: Environment, Health

Pollution May Trigger Heath Problems in Deep-Water Fish, Researchers Say

Yale Environment 360 - March 26, 2015
Fish living in deep waters near continental slopes have tumors, liver pathologies, and other health problems that may be

Microscopic abnormality in a black scabbardfish liver. linked to human-generated pollution, researchers report in the journal Marine Environmental Research. They also describe the first case of a deep-water fish species with an “intersex” condition — a blend of male and female sex organs. In the study, which looked at fish in the Bay of Biscay west of France, researchers found a wide range of degenerative and inflammatory lesions in fish living along the continental slope, which can act as a sink for heavy metal contaminants and organic pollutants such as PCBs and pesticides. The fish that live in these deep waters are often extremely long-lived — some can be 100 years old — which allows them to bioaccumulate such contaminants. However, linking the fishes' physiological changes to pollution is preliminary at this time, the researchers said.
Categories: Environment, Health

Trial of former coal CEO on horizon, five year mark of disaster approaching

Pump Handle - March 26, 2015

I’ll be looking to the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. to keep me apprised of the upcoming trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. The trial is scheduled to begin on April 20. That’s just a few weeks after the 5th anniversary (April 5) of the massive coal dust explosion that killed 29 mine workers at Blankenship’s Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia.

Ward reports this week on Blankenship’s appearance on March 24 before a US magistrate. He plead not guilty (again) to three felony counts, including a conspiracy to thwart federal mine safety inspections. Ward explains how this revised indictment differs from the one brought by the Justice Department in November 2014. He also describes some of many pre-trial motions filed by Blankenship’s attorneys to delay the trial and/or exclude evidence, and at Coal Tattoo, Ward posts the legal briefs for 20 of them. These documents are now available to the public because his newspaper and other media organizations challenged a gag order imposed by the federal judge hearing the case.

Blankenship’s legal team and lead attorney have filed motions that run the gamut from asking to disqualify certain federal judges to claims of a vindictive prosecutor. One motion asks the court to dismiss the indictment because

“the government has charged him and singled him out for prosecution in retaliation for his release of a documentary film entitled “Upper Big Branch — Never Again.”

[I blogged here when the film was released last year and urged people boycott it.]

The motion continues:

“That documentary, an exercise of Mr. Blankenship’s First Amendment rights, excoriated the federal government and accused the Mine Safety and Health Administration of being negligent and wrong about the cause of the Upper Big Branch disaster and standing in the way of mine safety. The prosecution constitutes a vindictive and selective prosecution in violation of the First and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”

I think this and the other motions are a sign of things to come—-long, drawn out litigation.

As the family and friends of the 29 men who were killed in the Upper Big Branch mine prepare to mark the fifth anniversary of the disaster, I know that some are finding comfort that the man ultimately responsible for it is being held to account. I’m glad we’ll have Ken Ward Jr. and others from the Charleston Gazette reporting on the trial for us.

 

Categories: Health

Interview: Why This Tea Partyer Is Seeing Green on Solar Energy

Yale Environment 360 - March 26, 2015
Debbie Dooley’s conservative credentials are impeccable. She was one of the founding members of the Tea Party movement and

Debbie Dooley continues to sit on the board of the Tea Party Patriots. But on the issue of solar power, Dooley breaks the mold. To the consternation of some of her fellow conservatives, she has teamed up with the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations, first in Georgia and now in Florida, to form the Green Tea Coalition. The group is working to get an initiative on the Florida ballot that would allow individuals and businesses to sell power directly to consumers. In an interview with e360, Dooley explains why she supports solar energy campaigns and why she’s willing to go up against conservative organizations when it comes to this issue.
Read the interview.
Categories: Environment, Health

Occupational Health News Roundup

Pump Handle - March 25, 2015

In a joint investigation from the Texas Tribune and Houston Chronicle, reporters looked into workplace safety at oil refineries 10 years after an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, left 15 workers dead and injured another 180. Unfortunately, reporters found that “though no single incident has matched the 2005 devastation, a two-month investigation finds the industry’s overall death toll barely slowed.”

In the four-part series, reporters chronicle what went wrong at the Texas City refinery, explore the aftermath and talk with survivors, and analyze data showing where and how refinery workers continue to lose their lives on the job. Among the investigation’s top findings: 58 workers have died at U.S. refineries since the 2005 Texas City explosion, which is just slightly fewer than in the decade before; federal officials have documented about one fire every week at refineries in the past eight years; and regulators don’t have the data they need to accurately track fatalities and monitor safety within refineries.

In the series’ fourth installment, “A Deadly Industry,” reporters Jim Malewitz, Jolie McCullough, Ben Hasson and Lise Olsen offer an exhaustive list of worker deaths at refineries culled from OSHA records, government investigations, newspaper archives and legal filings. They write:

The public can easily search data at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which records deaths and injuries reported across all industries. But typing the code for “Petroleum Refining” — 2911 — into the agency’s query tool only reveals a small fraction of all who died at refineries.

Oil refiners have increasingly contracted out some of their most dangerous jobs to companies that are classified elsewhere in the federal system.

The many categories include “3443, Fabricated Plate Work,” “1799, Special Trade Contractors, Not Elsewhere Classified” and “1629, Heavy Construction, Not Elsewhere Classified.”

In the 2005 Texas City blast, for instance, all of the 15 workers killed were contractors. None of their deaths show up in the federal government’s annual tally for the refining industry.

To read the full series, visit the Texas Tribune.

In other news:

EHS Today: Last week, McDonald’s employees filed OSHA complaints against 28 McDonald’s restaurants in 19 cities, claiming the fast food giant and its franchisees are overlooking serious safety risks, such as greasy floors, minimal protective equipment and no access to basic first aid kits. The workers said understaffing and pressures to work too fast are contributing to safety risks and injuries, writes Sandy Smith. With the support of Fight for $15, a grassroots movement to raise wages in the fast food industry, workers spoke at a news conference about their experiences, telling reporters that management had told workers to use condiments such as mustard to treat hot oil burns. During the news conference, organizers also released a new survey of fast food workers, finding that 79 percent have been burned in the past year. Smith quoted McDonald’s worker Brittney Berry of Chicago: “My managers kept pushing me to work faster, and while trying to meet their demands I slipped on a wet floor, catching my arm on a hot grill. The managers told me to put mustard on it, but I ended up having to get rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.”

Huffington Post: Today, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with former UPS worker Peggy Young, who sued the company for violating pregnancy discrimination laws. According to reporter Dave Jamieson, the Supreme Court threw out a lower court’s ruling that had blocked Young’s lawsuit, in which she said UPS refused to lighten her physical work duties to accommodate her pregnancy. Jamieson writes: “Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said the question the lower court needed to ask was ‘why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?'”

Los Angeles Times: Reporter Richard Marosi writes that one of Mexico’s biggest harvests destined for the U.S. is in the balance as farmworkers in Baja California go on strike for safer and fairer working conditions. In some instances, the protests were turning violent, with Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights sending observers after protestors complained of arrests and police mistreatment. Marosi reports: “Labor leaders say that growers haven’t given raises in years, refuse to pay overtime and government-required benefits, and allow crew bosses to sexually harass female workers. They are asking agribusinesses to triple wages, now about $10 per day, and comply with all labor laws.”

USA Today: Mike Snider reports that San Francisco officials have unanimously voted in favor of requiring the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency to review a shuttle bus company’s labor practices when issuing permits to use official city bus stops. Snider quoted Scott Wiener, a member of the city and county Board of Supervisors: “Employee shuttles provide an important transportation service for many San Francisco residents and reduce the number of cars on our streets. It’s important to ensure that the drivers of these shuttles are treated fairly in terms of wages and working conditions. This resolution puts the Board of Supervisors firmly on record in support of these working men and women.”

Pittsburgh Business Times: OSHA has issued U.S. Steel a “willful violation” citation and seven serious violations in the wake of a September explosion at its plant in Fairfield, Alabama, that injured one worker and killed two, writes reporter Ethan Lott. According to the article, OSHA found that opening and closing a high-pressure valve while a furnace was operating at the direction of management caused the explosion. Lott quoted local OSHA director Ramona Morris: “Management knew that attempting to operate the valve while the furnace was still running placed workers at risk, yet they allowed them to do it because they didn’t want the production line down for hours. This employer chose productivity over the safety of its workers, and two people died as a result of this decision.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Dutch Energy Company Is Heating Homes With Custom-Built Computer Servers

Yale Environment 360 - March 25, 2015
A Dutch energy company is installing radiator-sized computer servers — which infamously generate large amounts of

A radiator-sized computer server installed in a home. waste heat as they churn out data — in residential homes to offset energy costs, company representatives said this week. In the trial program, Rotterdam-based Eneco has equipped a handful of houses with custom-built computer servers designed to heat rooms as the servers process data for a variety of corporate computing clients. Eneco and the company behind the radiator-servers, Nerdalize, expect each one to reduce a home's heating expenses by roughly $440 over the course of a year. Eneco will cover all computing-related energy costs, the company said, but they expect the program to reduce server maintenance costs by up to 55 percent through preventing complications that arise when servers overheat. In summer months, the server-radiators will redirect excess heat outside the home, its designers say.
Categories: Environment, Health

Not an “accident”: James Harrison, 35, suffers fatal work-related injury in Jal, NM

Pump Handle - March 24, 2015

James “Rusty Shake-Down” Harrison, 35, suffered fatal traumatic injuries on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 while working at a drilling operation in southeastern, New Mexico. KCBD reports:

  • The incident happened around 3:30 p.m.
  • According to the Lea County Sheriff’s Office “workers were loading oil field related materials into perforated pipe, which was being installed into the drilling pipe when an explosion occurred.”
  • “The oil field site belonged to Mesquite SWD.”
  • Mr. Harrison, and another worker who was seriously injured in the incident, were employed by  Warrior Wireline.

Sarah Matott of the Carlsbad Current-Argus reports:

  • Emergency services from both Lea and Eddy counties, as well as from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, responded to the incident.
  • An Eddy County official said the source of the explosion was believed to be “a tank battery fire.”

Each year, about 50 workers in New Mexico are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 53 work-related fatal injuries in New Mexico during 2013 (preliminary data, most recent available.) Nationwide, at least 4,405 workers suffered fatal traumatic injuries in 2013.

The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report notes:

New Mexico-OSHA has mid-September 2015 to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole James Harrison’s life. It’s likely they’ll determine that Harrison’s death was preventable. It was no “accident.”

Categories: Health

Extreme Forest Fragmentation Is Documented in Comprehensive New Study

Yale Environment 360 - March 24, 2015
Fragmentation of the world’s forests has become so severe that 70 percent of remaining woodlands are now within 1 kilometer of a road or other form of development, according to a new study. Using the world’s first high-resolution satellite map of tree cover, as well as an analysis of seven long-term fragmentation studies, researchers showed that the ongoing destruction of global forests is decreasing biodiversity by as much as 75 percent in some areas and adversely affecting the ability of forests to store carbon and produce clean water. The study, published in the journal Science Advances, found that 20 percent of the world’s forests are just 100 meters from a human-created “edge.” Even many parks and protected areas have undergone fragmentation, the study said. The few remaining large, virgin tracts of forest are found in parts of the Amazon, Siberia, Congo, and Papua New Guinea.
Categories: Environment, Health

As Himalayan Glaciers Melt, Two Towns Face the Fallout

Yale Environment 360 - March 24, 2015
For two towns in northern India, melting glaciers have had very different impacts — one town has benefited from flowing streams and bountiful harvests; but the other has seen its water supplies dry up and now is being forced to relocate. BY DANIEL GROSSMAN
Categories: Environment, Health
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