CO2 Levels Have Crossed 400 ppm Threshold Far Earlier This Year

Yale Environment 360 - March 19, 2014
Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have reached the 400 parts per million threshold two months earlier this year than last, an indication that the planet will soon experience the 400 ppm level year-round, according to scientists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Last year was the first time in hundreds of thousands of years that the 400 ppm threshold was crossed. Scripps scientists expect CO2 levels to hover around 400 ppm for the next two months, when the Northern Hemisphere spring will go into full bloom and plants will suck CO2 from the atmosphere until going dormant in the fall. "It’s just a matter of time before it stays over 400 forever," said Ralph Keeling, who took over the CO2 monitoring program from his father, Charles David Keeling, who started it in 1958. Since then, atmospheric CO2 levels have risen steadily from 313 ppm as the world continues to burn fossil fuels. Scientists estimate it's been 800,000 to 15 million years since the planet has seen concentrations this high.
Categories: Environment, Health

A River of Doubt

EWG Toxics - March 19, 2014
Categories: Health

A preventable work-related death is not “totally an accident”

Pump Handle - March 19, 2014

What would it take to get police departments to refrain from calling work-related fatalities “just an accident”? I read it all the time. A 60 year-old mechanic falls 50 feet through an unguarded floor opening, and it’s an “accidental death.” Or a 30 year-old production clerk gets pulled into a machine, and it’s a “tragic accident.”

The latest example I read involved a 23 year-old man, Erik Deighton, who was crushed a few weeks ago at Colonial Plastics. The small suburban Detroit manufacturing plant fabricates specialty parts for automakers. Shelby Township Police Captain Stephen Stanbury told the press, “This is totally an accident.”

In a few months, I bet we’ll hear something different from Michigan OSHA (MIOSHA) about what happened on March 5 at Colonial Plastics. I’ll be surprised if they conclude “it was just an accident.” In reality, it’s a rare thing when on-the-job fatalities are “accidents.”

The news accounts relying on Captain Stanbury’s comments indicate that the 23 year-old worker was trying to clear an obstruction from a press machine. The machine cycled to stamp a part and he was fatally crushed. Catherine Kavanaugh of Plastics News writes:

The police did not indicate “…the exact kind of press involved but officers described it as a large machine with doors on two sides. The victim and a co-worker were operating the press together but could not see one another. The victim was leaning through the door on his side when he was killed.”

Kavanaugh quotes Officer Stanbury:

“So even though the guy was leaning in through an open door, the machine thought both doors were closed and that’s why the guy on the other side who couldn’t see him [the victim] was able to start the machine or cycle it. It could be a machine malfunction or operator error. I don’t think it’s a sloppy operation from what our guys found at Colonial Plastics. Based on the management’s reaction, this is totally shocking. It seems they definitely care about their employees. It was truly an accident, just a sad state of affairs all the way around.”

Officer Stanbury’s commentary about the employer is not unusual. It’s difficult for most people to accept that an employer in their community gambles with workers’ lives. I’m sure the owners of the company did not wake up on March 5 and say “Let’s make the plant unsafe and maybe one of our workers will get killed.”

Having an employee killed on the job is no doubt a shock. But after the shock subsides, most reasonable people recognize that fatal and non-fatal work-related injuries and illnesses are largely preventable. LaborSafe’s Peter Dooley, an expert in workplace health and safety and someone with broad experience conducting fatality investigations said this when he learned of the incident that killed Erik Deighton:

Most workplace fatalities result when several failures in the safety systems occur at the same time to result in the disastrous loss of life. Modern machine guarding, along with other safety precautions, could have prevented this loss of life. State-of-the-art machine guarding makes it nearly impossible for something like this to happen, yet many companies are far behind the times to invest in the best protections for workers.”

There’s no record that MIOSHA conducted an inspection at the plant in at least the last 20 years. The agency is now conducting one. Their conclusions, in the form of citations and monetary penalties, will be released by early September 2014.

Categories: Health

Wildflower Season in Rockies Is 35 Days Longer as Climate Warms

Yale Environment 360 - March 18, 2014
A warming climate has extended the wildflower season in the Rocky Mountains by 35 days since the 1970s, according to a 39-year study of more than two million blooms. The bloom season, which used to run from late May to early September, now lasts from late April to late David Inouye Crested Butte, Colorado September, the researchers say. Previous, less extensive studies seemed to indicate most wildflowers simply shift their bloom cycles to earlier in the year, but new findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that the changes are more complex, with the flowers reaching peak bloom sooner and flowering later in the year. The shift in the timing of blooms could have a major impact on pollinating insects and migratory birds. For example, hummingbirds that summer in the Rocky Mountains time their nesting so that their eggs hatch at peak bloom, when there is plenty of flower nectar for hungry chicks. As the bloom season lengthens, the plants are not producing more flowers. The same number of blooms is spread out over more days, so at peak bloom there may be fewer flowers and less food for hummingbirds, the researchers say.
Categories: Environment, Health

Occupational Health News Roundup

Pump Handle - March 18, 2014

Three years after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, concerns persist about health effects while the cleanup poses ongoing health and safety challenges.

Living on Earth reports on a lawsuit filed by several US Navy sailors against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). The sailors were part of a relief operation, and their ship sailed into a plume of radioactive dust. Their attorney, Charles Bonner, told Living on Earth that many sailors are now suffering from “leukemias, ulcers, brain tumors, testicular cancers, dysfunctional uterine bleeding, thyroid problems.” The lawsuit seeks medical damages from Tepco on the grounds that it failed to warn the Navy about the radiation threat the company knew existed.

The New York Times reports that with many workers unwilling to undertake hazardous decommissioning work at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, labor brokers are recruiting destitute workers with limited skills and training. Those who manage the operations often fail to provide appropriate training and oversight, which puts the workers at risk and can also endanger the public. Hiroko Tabuchi writes:

Regulators, contractors and more than 20 current and former workers interviewed in recent months say the deteriorating labor conditions are a prime cause of a string of large leaks of contaminated water and other embarrassing errors that have already damaged the environment and, in some cases, put workers in danger. In the worst-case scenario, experts fear, struggling workers could trigger a bigger spill or another radiation release.

“There is a crisis of manpower at the plant,” said Yukiteru Naka, founder of Tohoku Enterprise, a contractor and former plant engineer for General Electric. “We are forced to do more with less, like firemen being told to use less water even though the fire’s still burning.”

That crisis was especially evident one dark morning last October, when a crew of contract workers was sent to remove hoses and valves as part of a long-overdue upgrade to the plant’s water purification system.

According to regulatory filings by Tepco, the team received only a 20-minute briefing from their supervisor and were given no diagrams of the system they were to fix and no review of safety procedures — a scenario a former supervisor at the plant called unthinkable. Worse yet, the laborers were not warned that a hose near the one they would be removing was filled with water laced with radioactive cesium.

Multiple layers of contractors are often present between the workers and Tepco, which critics say allows the company to evade responsibility.

In other news:

New York Times: McDonald’s workers in California, Michigan, and New York filed lawsuits agains the company and franchise owners over wage theft. Workers allege that their bosses failed to pay them for hours worked, required them to pay for uniforms even though doing so reduced their wages to below the federal minimum, and failed to pay required overtime wages.

Houston Chronicle: A Houston Chronicle investigation found that Texas oil and gas companies with multiple worker fatalities haven’t made it onto the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program list.

Slate: In a 97-0 vote, the Senate passed a bill changing the military’s sexual assault policies; the bill was authored by a bipartisan group of Senators – Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) – and ends the practice of allowing a “good soldier” defense for members of the military accused of sexual assault. The bill passed after a competing bill by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to move prosecutory authority outside the chain of command received 55 votes — a majority of the chamber, but not enough to overcome the filibuster. (This Washington Post piece describes the bill in greater detail.)

Washington Post’s Wonkblog: At the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, some workers are employed directly by the company while others work for an in-house contractor and earn about half as much as the Nissan employees. One of the contract workers who struggles to get by on his lower wage tells the Post, “you’re so exhausted from working seven days a week, you’re dependent on some drug to stay awake, or dependent on some drug to go asleep, or for pain.”

Center for Public Integrity: Sri Lanka has ordered a ban on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, after a new study suggested that the combination of glyphosate and heavy mentals in drinking water may cause the chronic kidney disease that’s been killing agricultural workers in Central America and Sri Lanka.

Categories: Health

OSHA’s proposed silica regulation: Let the public hearings begin!

Pump Handle - March 17, 2014

This week will mark the next big step in efforts to institute a federal regulation to protect workers who are exposed to respirable crystalline silica. Tuesday, March 18 will be the first of 14 days of testimony and debate about a proposed silica rule which was released in September 2013 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA). The “deadly dust” is associated with malignant and non-malignant respiratory diseases and other adverse health conditions. The hazard has been recognized for centuries, but the U.S. does not have a comprehensive rule on the books to protect the nation’s estimated 2 million exposed workers. If the proposed rule is implemented, OSHA projects the improvements will save nearly 700 lives per year and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis annually.

This proposed rule to protect silica-exposed workers is decades in the making. The 50 ug/m3 permissible exposure limit being proposed by OSHA was recommended in 1974 by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The written comment period for the proposal closed in February. The public hearing that begins tomorrow is the next step in OSHA’s rulemaking process.

More than 200 individuals filed notices in December 2013 informing OSHA of their intent to testify at the public hearing. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Chemical Council have requested 10 hours to present their testimony. Both industry trade associations have retained a team of consultants to challenge, among other things, the health effects and risk assessment supporting the proposed rule, the exposure sampling and analytical procedures for measuring respirable silica, and the feasibility of the rule. Other industry groups scheduled to testify include: the Brick Industry Association; National Association of Manufacturers; National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association; American Foundry Society; American Petroleum Institute; and the Concrete Sawing and Drilling Association.

Workers and their representatives have also requested time to speak. More than 9 hours of time has been designated for testimony from the AFL-CIO; the Int’l Union of Operating Engineers; the Int’l Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers; the United Steelworkers; and the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund. Workers who are not members of labor unions, including several from Houston, TX and Newark, NJ, are also schedule to testify.

The medical and public health communities will also be represented at the OSHA hearing.  For example, Robert Cohen, MD, Michael Fischman, MD and Rosemary Sokas, MD, will be testifying on behalf of the American Thoracic Society, American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and American Public Health Association, respectively, and have each requested 10 minutes to speak.

The information provided at the hearings is designed to complement the written comments already received by OSHA. But the procedures used by OSHA for its public hearings on proposed rules are unique among federal agencies. First, the proceedings are overseen by an administrative law judge.  Second, participants not only present their own views and evidence, but are permitted to make inquiries and cross-examine agency staff and other witnesses. Likewise, the agency staff and other witnesses can pose questions to those who testifying.

Some of the ground rules for this particular hearing were outlined in a March 4, 2014 memo by OSHA’s assistant secretary David Michaels. They include:

  • The ALJ will not permit duplicative, argumentative, or irrelevant questions. Questioners will not be permitted to use the question periods as a forum for debate or legal argument.
  • Participants may not issue subpoenas or call other persons to testify.
  • Motions to strike evidence will not be considered.
  • All participants who testify, or who participate in a panel of testifying witnesses, will be expected to respond to questions following their presentations.

Over the next three weeks, I’ll report my views on the highlights and low lights of the hearing. OSHA has yet to announce whether any of the proceedings will be webcast.


Categories: Health

Rebuilding the Natural World: A Shift in Ecological Restoration

Yale Environment 360 - March 17, 2014
From forests in Queens to wetlands in China, planners and scientists are promoting a new approach that incorporates experiments into landscape restoration projects to determine what works to the long-term benefit of nature and what does not. BY RICHARD CONNIFF
Categories: Environment, Health

Northeast Greenland Glaciers Are Now Melting Rapidly, Study Finds

Yale Environment 360 - March 16, 2014
The glaciers of northeast Greenland, long thought to be the most stable part of the massive Greenland ice sheet, are melting at an accelerating pace, losing roughly 10

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Ice surface velocities in Greenland billion tons of ice annually for the past decade, say researchers from the U.S. and Denmark. The finding will likely boost estimates of global sea level rise, which had previously not accounted for massive ice loss from that region, scientists say. The Zachariae ice stream in northeast Greenland, which drains 16 percent of the ice sheet, has retreated roughly 12.4 miles in the past decade, outpacing the fast-moving Jakobshavn glacier, which has retreated 21.7 miles over the last 150 years. Ice loss from the region is likely accelerating, the researchers say, because ice dams in nearby bays that had been blocking the glaciers' paths are now also melting, freeing the way for the glaciers to flow into the ocean.
Categories: Environment, Health

Study: Every $1 invested in childhood vaccines saves $10 (and thousands of lives)

Pump Handle - March 14, 2014

It’s not the first study to examine the enormous health and economic benefits of vaccines. But it’s certainly another impressive reminder about the power — and value — of prevention.

In a study published online earlier this month in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that childhood immunizations among babies born in 2009 will prevent 42,000 early deaths and 20 million cases of disease, saving the nation $13.5 billion in directs costs (medical costs and disease outbreak control) and more than $68 billion in total societal costs (premature death and lost productivity). That means that every $1 spent on vaccines ultimately saves at least $10. The study was based on the 2009 routine U.S. childhood immunization schedule (with the exception of the flu shot), vaccination coverage rates, historical data on disease incidence before vaccination, and disease reports between 2005 and 2009.

The study follows a similar study published in 2005 that examined the benefits of the 2001 routine childhood immunization schedule and which also found enormous economic benefits to vaccination. In fact, even though the expanded 2009 immunization schedule costs more to deliver, it still saved billions more dollars when compared to 2001. Authors Fangjun Zhou, Abigail Shefer, Jay Wenger, Mark Messonnier, Li Yan Wang, Adriana Lopez, Matthew Moore, Trudy Murphy, Margaret Cortese and Lance Rodewalk wrote:

Although increased cost of vaccines combined with increased administrative and travel costs led to an increase in program costs of $4.7 billion in 2009 (from $2.8 billion in 2001 to $7.5 billion in 2009), the program achieved additional savings of nearly $30 billion compared with costs averted in 2001.

In addition, the study found that because current levels of vaccine-preventable disease are so low in the United States, even modeling a 10-fold increase in disease incidence didn’t change the current benefit-cost ratio of 10-to-1 in a substantial way. They also modeled an increase in vaccine-related adverse events and still came up with a positive benefit-cost ratio. (The risk of a serious vaccine-related adverse event is extremely low and most adverse events are minor, such as soreness at the injection site or a mild fever.)

The authors did state that although vaccines saved more money in 2009, the benefit-cost ratio was lower than it was in 2001. They attributed this to three new immunizations — the hepatitis A vaccine, rotavirus vaccine and pneumococcal conjugate vaccine — and the diseases they prevent. In other words, the diseases are less likely to result in long hospitalizations and death and so their benefit-cost ratios are not very large. But, as with many public health and prevention interventions, their value can’t be entirely calculated in dollars and cents. The study estimated that the three newer vaccines will still prevent about 4 million cases of disease and 5,000 deaths. And estimated direct and indirect cost savings still totaled a whopping $3 billion.

The study noted that while the U.S. is home to high childhood immunization rates, underinsured children may not always enjoy the same kind of access to life-saving vaccines as children with private insurance. Luckily, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) aims to level the playing field. Under the health reform law, all private insurers participating in the federal and state-based health insurance marketplaces must cover federally recommended vaccines without cost sharing. And collecting data on the ACA policy and its impact on vaccine uptake could provide valuable insight during vaccine financing debates, the study stated.

“Our data confirm that the vaccines currently recommended for young children represent not only a major public health victory in terms of disease prevention, but also an excellent public health ‘buy’ in terms of dollars and cents,” the authors wrote.

According to 2012 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 90 percent of  U.S. children ages 19 to 35 months old received recommended immunizations and less than one percent received no vaccinations at all.

Visit Pediatrics for a full copy of the study.

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 Winds Have Lashed North Atlantic This Winter, NOAA Map Shows

Yale Environment 360 - March 14, 2014
Forty-three hurricane-force winter storms have lashed the North Atlantic since late October, boosting the region's average wind speed in January and February by more than 12 miles per hour, as shown in this map from

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January-February wind speed anomalies the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The blue colors indicate areas where wind speeds exceeded the 1981-2010 average; browns indicate winds that were lower than average. In the North Atlantic, an unusually high number of hurricane-force storms, with winds exceeding 74 mph, battered southeastern Greenland, Norway, and the coast of western Europe. The U.K. Met Office recently issued a report on the December and January storms that ravaged the British coast, saying, "For England and Wales this was one of, if not the most, exceptional (two month) periods of winter rainfall in at least 248 years." No studies have confirmed a link between these intense winter storms and climate change, but some scientists think climate-driven changes in the jet stream may be behind the wild weather.
Categories: Environment, Health

Changing language around addiction

Pump Handle - March 13, 2014

The latest issue of the Journal of Public Health Policy includes an interesting piece by Linda Richter and Susan E. Foster of the organization CASAColumbia about “changing the language of addiction.” (The journal is open access during the month of March; the home page is here.) They note that while the science of addiction has advanced, outdated public attitudes about it persist and interfere with effective treatment. Surveys have found adults, and even many physicians, to consider alcohol addiction to be at least partially a personal or moral weakness. Stigmatizing addiction can interfere with treatment, and updating the language we use to discuss diseases of addiction can allow for more effective responses. Richter and Foster summarize the current scientific understanding (references omitted):

Emerging scientific evidence supports an understanding of addiction as a primary disease rather than a symptom or sequela of another disease or condition. In the case of addiction involving nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs, it typically is triggered by the initiation of substance use during adolescence, a time of critical brain development. Addiction may involve a variety of compulsive behaviors in addition to those related to addictive substances. These include compulsive gambling and sex, for which there are accepted clinical diagnostic criteria, and may include other pathologically compulsive behaviors for which formal diagnostic criteria are under consideration but have yet to be established – behaviors related to food and Internet use, for example.

A growing body of research supports the notion that addiction may be a singular underlying disease with multiple manifestations that have common genetic antecedents, evince similar differences in brain structure and function, and co-occur at high rates; there also is a marked tendency for one manifestation of addiction, if addressed in isolation or inadequately, to be replaced by another. For example, some people with obesity who have bariatric surgery end up manifesting symptoms of risky substance use. While the bariatric surgery may address the symptom of addiction that is expressed through compulsive eating, it does not address adequately the underlying disease of addiction itself, increasing the likelihood of ‘addiction hopping’ where someone replaces one expression of addiction with another.

Richter and Foster emphasize that it is also important to distinguish between risky behaviors that may increase an individual’s risk of developing addiction but do not meet the clinical definition of addiction. Addiction, they note, is a chronic disease whose successful management is likely to require more than a single intervention or brief detoxification. For those with sub-clinical symptoms, however, less-intensive treatment can be most appropriate. For instance, Richter and Foster suggest, “placing an impressionable adolescent who engages in risky substance use but does not meet diagnostic criteria for addiction in an intensive addiction treatment program can increase rather than reduce the extent and severity of the young person’s substance use.”

Using terms like “risky behavior” and “addiction” can not only improve diagnosis and treatment, but can reduce the shame that can accompany descriptions of “drug abuse.” Feelings of shame can discourage patients from discussing concerns about tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use with their healthcare providers — even though such discussions could allow for earlier treatment. And, indeed, mental health professionals are moving in that direction, Richter and Foster explain:

Removing imprecise and pejorative terms from our clinical and popular lexicons and adopting language consistent with other health conditions is a necessary prologue to effectively preventing risky substance use and treating and managing the disease of addiction. Movement in this direction has begun with changes in the 2013 version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM),in which the separate categories of substance ‘abuse’ and ‘dependence’ are replaced with one disease classification with different levels of severity. A stronger step toward clear and accurate language, however, would be a comprehensive definition of ‘addiction’ that encompasses these DSM revisions and that is distinguished clearly from the definition of ‘risky use’, which encompasses any use of nicotine or illicit drugs, misuse of controlled prescription drugs, or alcohol use in excess of the US dietary guidelines, which does not meet clinical criteria for addiction.

Read the whole article here.

Categories: Health

Solar City Partnering With Best Buy to Sell Residential Solar Leases

Yale Environment 360 - March 13, 2014
Solar City, a company that installs and leases solar panels to homeowners, is partnering with big-box electronics seller Best Buy in hopes of boosting solar sales in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon, and New A Solar City residential installation in Hawaii York. Solar City will station salespeople in 60 stores throughout those states to pitch the benefits of their 20-year solar contracts directly to consumers, and Best Buy will take a cut of the sales. Based on a homeowner's utility company and monthly electric bill, Solar City representatives will be able to quickly give potential customers an estimate of the costs and savings associated with a solar lease. Leasing enables a homeowner to avoid the large upfront costs associated with purchasing and installing solar panels by spreading those investments over a 20-year lease and locking in a set rate for electricity generated by the panels. Residential solar installations have accelerated in recent years due largely to the popularity of leasing programs, with 2013 showing the fastest growth ever.
Categories: Environment, Health

In the Pastures of Colombia, Cows, Crops and Timber Coexist

Yale Environment 360 - March 13, 2014
As an ambitious program in Colombia demonstrates, combining grazing and agriculture with tree cultivation can coax more food from each acre, boost farmers’ incomes, restore degraded landscapes, and make farmland more resilient to climate change. BY LISA PALMER
Categories: Environment, Health

Media Roundup: FDA rejects cosmetics industry's draft legislation (3/6/14-3/7/14)

Breast Cancer Fund - March 12, 2014
"Industry simply should not be calling the shots anymore...They've been calling the shots for over 75 years in what little federal regulation there is."- Janet Nudelman, Breast Cancer Fund
Categories: Health

Nine Chinese Cities Outpaced Beijing in Air Pollution in 2013, Report Finds

Yale Environment 360 - March 12, 2014
China's air pollution problems are more severe and widespread than previously thought, with nine cities experiencing more days of extreme air pollution than Beijing in 2013, according to a new analysis by Greenpeace's Energy Desk. Fine particulate (PM2.5) pollution plagued dozens of cities and millions of people in China — most of them outside of Beijing, although the Chinese capital captured the most air pollution headlines last year. The city of Xingtai, southwest of the capital, fared worst, with 129 days of emergency air pollution — more than doubling Beijing's 60 days. More than half of the cities in the top 10 are in Hebei province south of Beijing, where many steel, cement, and coal-fired power plants are located. "There are now millions of Chinese people living in cities with air pollution above emergency levels for a third of the year, while other urban areas have gone a whole 12-month period with hardly any days of good-quality air," said a member of Greenpeace's East Asia climate and energy campaign. Beijing had only 13 days ranked as "good" on the U.S. air quality scale, along with one day considered "beyond index," or off the pollution scale.
Categories: Environment, Health

OSHA issues new whistleblower protections for food industry workers

Pump Handle - March 12, 2014

When President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law in 2011, it was described as the most sweeping reform of the nation’s food safety laws in nearly a century. Public health advocates hailed the law for shifting regulatory authority from reaction to prevention. What received less attention was a first-of-its-kind provision that protects workers who expose food safety lawbreakers.

The law’s whistleblower provision, also known as Section 402, amends the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to provide “protection to employees against retaliation by an entity engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, transporting, distribution, reception, holding, or importation of food” for reporting or testifying to a violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act or for refusing to participate in activities the worker “reasonably” believes to be a violation. Just a few weeks ago, OSHA issued its final interim rule on the whistleblower provision, outlining the agency’s procedures for handling FSMA-related complaints of employers retaliating against employees who raise food safety concerns. The provision is the first food industry-specific law designed to protect whistleblowers.

“It’s the gold standard of whistleblower protections — the Cadillac version,” said Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign at the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy and protection organization. (Here’s an example of the new whistleblower provision in action.)

Previously, a patchwork of different state and federal laws might have protected some food industry whistleblowers, Hitt told me, but left others with little recourse if they were fired after speaking up. However, with the new FSMA provision, “we get a nice uniform exception for the safety of public health,” she said. In a very real way, the whistleblower provision creates “civilians who are deputized to oversee food safety, to become inspectors in real time on the floor,” Hitt noted.

“Any time you get a uniform statutory set-up, you’ll get a much better informed workforce,” Hitt said. “With a patchwork that varies from state to state, you won’t get that sort of education inoculation. …What we would love to have is a totally educated workforce, but that’s probably not going to happen. What usually happens is you get better trained (human resources) staff and better educated industries and you hope they have appropriate training around whistleblower activity.”

Even though one wouldn’t imagine that the food industry favors whistleblower protection, Hitt said that getting the whistleblower provision included in FSMA wasn’t particularly difficult. Hitt’s colleague Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project, said FSMA was swept up in a wave of whistleblower rights that Congress routinely wrote into major regulatory legislation between 2006 and 2010. Devine said that not only was the Democratic majority at the time sympathetic to whistleblower rights, but the law also followed a “major paradigm shift in corporate speech” with passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was crafted in the wake of corporate frauds such as the Enron scandal. Sarbanes-Oxley puts in place criminal penalties for retaliating against whistleblowers.

While the FSMA provision is the first food industry-specific whistleblower protection, Devine noted that the industry’s workers had some prior protection “through the backdoor of other statutes.” For example, if the food company is publically traded, a whistleblower would be protected via Sarbanes-Oxley, though that worker would most likely be an accountant or bookkeeper, not someone who’d witness a food safety violation. Whistleblower protections written into environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, could also apply to food industry workers, depending on the violation being reported. Still, the FSMA provision is the first to specifically protect food industry workers and apply to food manufacturing practices.

“Whistleblower protection creates a safe channel for the free flow of information from the front lines where food safety breakdowns occur to all of society’s stakeholders who should be warned about them,” Devine told me. “(The FSMA) whistleblower provision reflects the current gold standard for free speech rights in the private sector. It was a landmark breakthrough for food safety.”

Gaps in protection

The provision isn’t perfect, though. First, it only applies to food industries that come under U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority. Whistleblowers in food industries regulated via the U.S. Department of Agriculture, such as beef and poultry producers, aren’t covered. Also, the complaint process, which is overseen by an OSHA investigator, has some gaps too, Devine said. For example, once OSHA makes its preliminary finding that a worker was a victim of retaliation, the agency gives the employer a chance to argue that finding. However, the worker doesn’t get the same chance to defend the preliminary finding. In other words, Devine said, once OSHA issues a preliminary finding, the worker is effectively shut out of the process.

Another big gap is that the provision doesn’t pin down who’s responsible for educating workers on the new whistleblower protections.

“The law should have had a provision that required every employer to post the rights and train its staff, both management and employees, in the new rules of the road for freedom of speech, but that didn’t happen,” Devine told me.

Devine said that retaliation is a “very significant barrier to exposing the truth,” noting that even employees with comfortable salaries can find themselves bankrupt due to legal expenses. During his career, Devine has worked with about 400 food industry workers, noting that whistleblower disclosures have been “indispensible” in stopping government attempts to deregulate meat and poultry inspection.

Hitt added that whistleblower protections not only help level the playing field between employer and employee, but between companies and consumers.

“Whatever rights consumers enjoy implies an ability for employees to speak up safely,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne illness affects about 48 million Americans every year, of which 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die. Researchers estimate that food-borne illnesses cost the country between $14 billion and $16 billion every year in medical costs, lost productivity and premature death.

To learn more about whistleblower protections and the food industry, visit the Food Integrity Campaign.

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

'Space Frame' Wind Tower Allows Turbines to Be Built in Remote Places

Yale Environment 360 - March 11, 2014
New wind power technology could bring turbines to hard-to-reach locations, according to engineers from General Electric. The company has developed a new

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type of wind tower, dubbed the "Space Frame Tower," consisting of metal latticework wrapped in weather-resistant fiberglass. Unlike conventional steel tube wind towers, the latticework can be bolted together on-site, which means the tower's framework can be transported using standard shipping containers and trucks, allowing taller wind towers to be installed in locations previously inaccessible to the longer trucks needed to transport conventional towers. The Space Frame Tower also has a five-leg base that's wider than conventional towers, increasing stability and ultimately allowing it to reach heights up to 450 feet — an advantage at sites where higher turbines can reach stronger winds. A 318-foot tall prototype is up and running in Tehachapi, California, with a 2.75 megawatt turbine nearly 400 feet wide.
Categories: Environment, Health

Chemicals in commerce: Will industry-promoted legislation undermine existing laws?

Pump Handle - March 11, 2014

“The United States is facing an industrial chemical safety crisis,” Chemical Safety Board Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on March 6th. He spoke at hearing held to discuss President Obama’s August 2013 Executive Order on chemical facility safety, which Obama issued following the catastrophic incidents at the West, Texas fertilizer plant and Louisiana petrochemical facilities. In the wake of the Freedom Industries chemical release in West Virginia, improving the nation’s chemical safety has taken on a new urgency. Yet while the Senate committee is pressing the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help prevent future chemical disasters, federal legislation has been introduced that would, if enacted, impair current chemical safety policy and make it harder for the public to obtain information about chemical hazards, either in industrial storage tanks or consumer products.

Released on February 27th, the draft Chemicals in Commerce Act (CICA) is being offered as the House bill to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the US law that regulates chemicals in commerce. Environmental health advocates and industry representatives agree that TSCA, enacted in 1976 and not updated since, is badly in need of revision. Among other problems, TSCA has allowed some 60,000 chemicals in use when the law was passed to remain on the market without full safety testing. This means that many chemicals, including the one that contaminated Charleston, West Virginia’s water supply (MCHM), are being used without any publicly available comprehensive information about their environmental or human health effects.

In addition to leaving the public with inadequate information about chemicals’ health effects, TSCA also makes it so difficult to ban a chemical’s use that only five have been barred under this law. Chemicals with well-recognized adverse health effects, like formaldehyde and other respiratory irritants, continue to be ingredients in numerous consumer products, including cleaning products, toiletries and cosmetics. Cleaning professionals, salon workers, and others can be exposed to these products for many hours each week.

The Senate introduced the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) (S. 1009), its TSCA-reform bill, last year. It has bipartisan support but is opposed by many environmental health advocates and state lawmakers because of provisions that would preempt state law, weaken existing health protections and fail to protect communities directly impacted by toxic pollution. The House CICA, sponsored by Representative John Shimkus (R-IL), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, includes more extensive state-law preemption provisions than the Senate bill as well as elements that would make it even harder than it currently is for the EPA to restrict hazardous chemicals.

The state preemption provisions have garnered the spotlight in this debate because more than half of all US states have enacted laws that either restrict the use of individual chemicals or require reporting on how they are used. These state-level actions have come in response to growing scientific evidence of potential adverse health effects of numerous widely used chemicals, and how difficult TSCA makes it for the EPA to restrict chemical use. The CICA would preempt such regulations, prevent states from acting independently and also prevent state and local governments from collecting information about chemicals from companies that make or use them. “The breadth and scope of CICA’s preemption provisions are truly stunning and deeply disturbing,” wrote Environmental Defense Fund Senior Scientist Richard Denison.

“This bill would do nothing whatsoever to protect the public from the health impacts of toxic chemicals and would instead roll back the very limited oversight that we currently have,” said Andy Igrejas, Director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of 450 environmental and health organizations.

“There is a massive disconnect between this bill and where the public and market is going on a global level,” said Kathy Curtis, Executive Director of Clean and Healthy New York, noting that many major manufacturers and retailers – Walmart, Target and Johnson & Johnson among them – are voluntarily implementing policies to restrict use of chemicals associated with health hazards that the EPA has not yet restricted. The CICA would not interfere with such policies, but it would prevent states from establishing what are effectively legally binding safety nets to ensure that all products be similarly free of hazardous ingredients.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has welcomed the CICA, calling it “a balanced approach” that “will provide Americans with more confidence in the safety of chemicals.” It’s worth noting, however, that the chemical industry spent more than $61 million on lobbying in 2013 – lobbying that specifically included work on S.1009. Thus far in the 2014 campaign cycle, petrochemical companies and industry associations have donated almost $100,000 to Shimkus’ reelection campaign and nearly twice that much to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Representative Fred Upton (R-MI). Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) Shimkus’ Democratic counterpart on the House Subcommittee has received less than $25,000 from these industry groups. And if there could be any doubt about the ACC’s support for Shimkus and Upton, there are the ACC-sponsored 2012 campaign ads.

FDA rejects industry proposal for cosmetic ingredient regulation

Industry’s hand in promoting legislation that would undermine existing chemicals regulation is directly apparent in the controversy that became public on March 6th when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its letter to the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) and Independent Cosmetics Manufacturers and Distributors (ICDM) detailing the FDA’s “profound disappointment” in the organizations’ “proposed draft legislation on FDA oversight of cosmetic safety.” The industry-supported proposal would, according to the FDA, prevent FDA from receiving most reports of illnesses or injuries caused by cosmetics products, virtually eliminate FDA’s ability to verify cosmetic companies’ assurances of product safety and authority to require cosmetics companies to register with the FDA and make it very cumbersome for FDA to declare an ingredient unsafe.

This draft was produced in response to an FDA proposal for enhancing agency oversight of cosmetics ingredients that FDA released last year after input from industry and environmental groups. In his letter to the trade associations, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael R. Taylor wrote, that while the draft bill “creates the appearance of a modernized cosmetics regime, but a reality that actually prevents federal and State governments from protecting Americans from unsafe cosmetics.”

The proposed bill’s provisions “not only do not move us forward toward that goal, they would actually reduce FDA’s current ability to take action against dangerous cosmetics. Taken together with the sweeping preemption provisions, which almost completely eliminate States’ authority to protect their citizens from unsafe chemicals in cosmetics,” wrote Taylor,  “the provisions of the draft industry bill could put Americans at greater risk from cosmetic-related illness and injury than they are today.”

What the industry is proposing, “demonstrates how far off the trade associations are from where consumer demand is right now,” said Janet Nudelman, Director of Program and Policy at the Breast Cancer Fund, which participated in the FDA-led policy discussions.

The Personal Care Products Council has said in a statement that it believes “the FDA’s response misrepresents the intent of our legislative proposals and we strongly disagree with their allegation that our proposed legislation would weaken their regulatory oversight of cosmetics.”

A long-standing labeling program

And while all of this was going on, ACC President Cal Dooley speaking at an industry-sponsored conference questioned the legality of the EPA’s plans for its Design for Environment (DfE) labeling program, saying it “doesn’t meet Federal Trade Commission guidelines for green labeling.” The program has been around for more than 15 years and works with industry, the environmental community and academia to evaluate environmental and human health concerns associated with chemicals used in manufacturing and products and promote use of safer chemicals. More than 2,500 products – including a great many professional cleaning products – have gone through this process and carry the DfE logo.

The EPA said it “has announced plans to engage stakeholders and the public in the redesign of the current label to ensure that it provides consumers with an easier to identify and understand label that better conveys the scientific rigors and benefits of the DfE Safer Product Labeling Program.”

“What we have concerns about is a public-sector entity that is assessing the safety of chemicals and should they also get into an arena where they are making determinations … that some product is safer for consumers than other products that they’ve already determined are safe for use,” said Dooley as reported by E&E. The program, Dooley said, according to the report, was “unprecedented” in having a federal agency “developing a label that has the potential for significant market implications.” EPA did not respond specifically to the ACC’s questioning of the label’s legality.

There seems to be a pattern here; while state and local governments – and many manufacturers – are responding to growing public is demand for safer chemicals and more information about chemicals used in products – industry trade associations appear to be working to counter that progress. – The House Subcommittee on the Environment and Economy has scheduled a hearing on the Chemicals in Commerce Act for March 12th.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific AmericanYale e360, Environmental Health PerspectivesEnsia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation. 

Categories: Health

Arsenic Remediation Project Will Begin Decontaminating Water in India

Yale Environment 360 - March 10, 2014
New technology that removes arsenic from drinking water is set to be deployed on a large scale in India, according to researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and an India-based water technology company. The device removes arsenic by passing electricity through steel plates submerged in a water reservoir. The electric current causes the plates to rust more quickly than they would under normal conditions, and the rust chemically binds to arsenic in the water and sinks to the bottom of the reservoir. The precipitated sludge can be removed from the tank, rendering the water safe to drink. Notoriously high levels of arsenic, a tasteless and odorless contaminant, naturally occur in groundwater sources in India, Bangladesh, and even California's Central Valley. Long-term exposure can cause cancer and severe damage to organs. A commercial plant is set to begin operations in West Bengal, India, this year and researchers estimate the drinking water can be sold for as little as eight cents per gallon.
Categories: Environment, Health
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