Study: School Breakfast Program linked to better academic achievement

Pump Handle - April 03, 2015

Thanks to the federal School Breakfast Program, millions of low-income children have the opportunity to start the school day with a healthy meal. But does the program impact the brain as well as the belly? A new study finds that it does, with students at participating schools scoring higher in math, reading and science.

A striking illustration of the connections between nutrition and education, the study not only found higher academic scores within schools that participate in the School Breakfast Program, it also found that the effect was cumulative. In other words, the longer the school offered breakfast, the higher the academic achievement scores.

“There’s been a lot of research on the value of breakfast in general, but I wanted to specifically see whether or not the (School Breakfast Program) as it exists today is effective in improving educational performance,” said study author David Frisvold, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Iowa.

To conduct the study, which was published online in the Journal of Public Economics, Frisvold compared publicly available educational assessment scores among thousands of fifth-graders. Those students were grouped into two categories: Those at schools just below the threshold of being required to offer free breakfast and those at schools just above the threshold. (Many states require that schools begin offering free breakfast once a certain percentage of their student population is eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch.)

Overall, the study found that math scores were about 5 percent higher at schools taking part in the School Breakfast Program when compared to schools that didn’t take part in the program. In particular, kids at participating schools learned 25 percent more than they would have otherwise based on general averages of what a student is expected to learn over the course of a school year, Frisvold told me. He found similar gains in reading and science scores. Frisvold wrote in the study:

These results suggest that the persistent exposure to the relatively more nutritious breakfast offered through the (School Breakfast Program) throughout elementary school can yield important gains in achievement. In addition to providing evidence on the impact of state mandates and the availability of the (School Breakfast Program), this paper contributes to the understanding of the influence of childhood health and nutrition on cognitive achievement, which is an important determinant of human capital. Further, these results suggest that food assistance programs and nutrition interventions can influence cognitive achievement, not just in developing countries, but also in higher income countries, such as the U.S.

Frisvold also found a cumulative effect to the School Breakfast Program. In researching how long the fifth-graders had been exposed to the breakfast program, he found that the longer the school had been participating in the program, the greater the academic gains. He told me: “Consistent exposure to a more nutritious breakfast made a difference.”

So, what exactly makes the School Breakfast Program such an academic booster? Based on the scientific literature, Frisvold said better nutrition is the likely mechanism. Though he noted that other factors associated with the School Breakfast Program, such as reducing tardiness and school absenteeism as well as preserving family income for other needs, could also contribute to better academic scores.

From a policy perspective, Frisvold said his study findings do strengthen the argument that the School Breakfast Program is an effective intervention and one that improves educational outcomes. Though he noted that it’s only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to closing the academic achievement gap.

“I’d say that this program certainly contributes to reducing the gap between high-income and low-income students, but there’s such a large gap that this isn’t enough to level the playing field,” he said.

Originally established in 1966 as a federal pilot program, the School Breakfast Program served more than 12 million children every day in fiscal year 2011. Of those millions of children, more than 10 million qualified for free or reduce-priced breakfast. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, good health and academic achievement are closely linked, with high levels of education associated with longer life expectancies and lower rates of chronic disease.

To read more about the School Breakfast Program study, 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

Important changes since Upper Big Branch disaster, but coal miner deaths continue

Pump Handle - April 02, 2015

April 5, 2015 will mark the fifth anniversary of the coal dust explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine (UBB). It was the worst disaster in 40 years in the US coal industry.

Since then, some things have changed in coal mine safety. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in particular, has focused much of its attention on ways to address failures identified by the UBB disaster. Browse through the agency’s press releases dating back to May 2010 and you’ll see quite a few with some connection to UBB.

You’ll notice, for example, recaps of the agency’s “impact inspections,” a program that began in April 2010 and continues today.  The target of these special inspections are mining operations with a poor history of complying with safety and health regulations, above average injury rates, or evidence of practices to thwart mine inspectors from observing hazardous conditions. To-date, MSHA has conducted 896 impact inspections, which have resulted in more than 15,000 citations and orders.

You may recall that managers at the UBB mine had code words and other tactics to alert personnel that mine inspectors were on the property. During these impact inspections, MSHA uses a number of strategies to hinder the deception, or as MSHA chief Joe Main says, “catch opeartors off guard.” These strategies include:

“… late afternoon or evening arrivals at the mine site, driving unmarked government vehicles, and seizing mine phones to thwart communication between mining personnel working on the surface and those working underground.”

Regrettably, both impact and routine inspections find mine operators still violating standards that led to the death of the 29 men at UBB.  For example, a recent impact inspection at Ervin Stiltner’s No. 2 Mine, in Wise County, Virginia revealed accumulations of coal dust up to 2 feet thick covering 50 feet in numerous place. Water sprays designed to suppress coal dust were not working because the water supply was not turned on. Plus, the mine operator failed to follow his approved ventilation plan. To those who know what happened at UBB, those grave hazards will sound horribly familiar.

Looking at MSHA’s post-UBB news releases, you’ll also see that the agency has filed a record number of cases on behalf of miners who have been retaliated against for complaining about safety problems. In 2014, the agency took such action for 49 mine workers. Fear of retaliation was a common theme heard from miners who worked at UBB.

The agency has also been filing lawsuits to compel mine operators to pay monetary penalties (but with mixed results.) Massey Energy had racked up nearly $2 million in penalties, but had paid just one third of them.

You’ll also see that MSHA issued several new regulations. There’s one strengthening the requirements for coal mine operators to apply “rock dust” to make coal dust inert and less explosive. There’s another enhancing requirements for mine operators to conduct pre-shift, on-shift, and weekly examinations for hazards. Yet another put in practice a provision of the Mine Act that had never been used. It defined the criteria and procedures to be used by the agency to classify a mining operation as one with a “pattern of violations.” With that designation, mine inspectors can order workers out of the mine when they observe certain serious violations of safety regulations.

Despite these changes, mine workers continue to die on the job. Since the Upper Big Branch disaster, 97 coal miners and 107 miners who extract many other types of ore, have suffered fatal traumatic injuries in the US mining industry.

For the 97 coal miners who died on-the-job in the past five years, they did not perish from dust explosions, like the one that killed the UBB miners. They were killed by being struck by mobile equipment, crushed by a collapsing mine roof or rib, caught in machinery, and other causes. The 97 coal miners worked in 13 different States, including Arizona, Tennessee and Utah. Thirty-two and 26 of the coal miner deaths occurred in West Virginia and Kentucky, respectively. A few died along with a co-worker but the majority died one at a time.

Some things have changed for the better since the UBB disaster. MSHA has certainly taken steps to make its enforcement program more effective. But for the families of the 97 coal miners who died on the job since the UBB disaster, the changes put in place did nothing to save their loved ones’ lives. There’s still much work to do.

Categories: Health

Vibrant Simulation Shows Complexity of Ocean Circulation and Heat Transfer

Yale Environment 360 - April 02, 2015
This swirling, vibrant visualization of global water-surface temperatures from Los Alamos National Laboratory depicts

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Global ocean surface temperatures the complexity of ocean circulation and heat absorption. Cool temperatures appear as blues and greens while warmer waters are red and yellow. A clear temperature divide exists between waters in the Northern Hemisphere and those in the Southern Hemisphere. Researchers say that oceans south of the equator have absorbed substantially more heat over the past decade. Vortices near the surface, which play key roles in ocean circulation, appear as swirls on this map.
Categories: Environment, Health

In the Sagebrush Marketplace, A New Way to Protect Species

Yale Environment 360 - April 02, 2015
In the American West, where sage grouse populations have plummeted, conservationists, ranchers, and oil and gas companies are taking part in an experiment in which private landowners are paid to protect and restore critical habitat for the beleaguered bird. BY JOSHUA ZAFFOS
Categories: Environment, Health

Oil company uncomfortable with reminder of 35 deaths at Galveston refinery

Pump Handle - April 01, 2015

Marathon Petroleum (MPC) has some glitzy publications explaining its philosophy of “corporate citizenship.” The documents describe the company’s “deep involvement in the communities where we are privileged to do business.” They cover topics such as “Our People,” “Health & Safety,” and “Governance and Integrity.” But one recent act of disrespect may say more about MPC’s philosophy than their words on glossy paper.

It happened last week on the 10 year anniversary of a catastrophe at its Galveston Bay refinery which killed 15 workers and injured at least 170 people. The refinery was owned at the time by British Petroleum (BP). Members of the community held a candlelight vigil to remember the 31 men and four women who suffered fatal injuries at the plant since 1980. It was held on the perimeter of the refinery, which is currently the subject of a two-month old strike by the United Steelworkers (USW.)

The solemn ceremony, complete with a bagpipe musician playing Amazing Grace, included placing 35 small white crosses on a grassy easement in front of the refinery. Each cross bore the name of one of those 35 workers, but the display of crosses was gone before sunrise the next morning.

 “….picketers at the refinery gates watched a representative of management come out of one of your office buildings and remove all of the crosses,”

wrote Sonny Sanders of USW District 13 in a complaint to a MPC official. Organizers planned to leave the crosses in place for 24 hours.

It’s a mystery to me why MPC would take offense with the temporary memorial. The company purchased the refinery two years ago, and none of the 35 fatality victims were MPC employees. The most recent fatality at the plant occurred in 2008 when it was owned by BP. What harm did MPC think the crosses would cause?

Jason Samtson, a participant at the vigil, told Christopher Smith Gonzalez of Galveston County’s The Daily News:

“I think it is just a very wrong, tasteless and classless move to not even leave them up there for 24 hours. [The disaster] was the most devastating thing I’ve seen in my life. It just bothered me that they couldn’t even leave those crosses up.”

It’s odd. MPC – a $27 Billion company— is troubled by 35 little white crosses?

MPC corporate promotional materials say:

“We have the highest regard for the health and safety of our employees, contractors and neighboring communities.”

To me, having a high regard for health and safety includes acknowledging that uncontrolled hazards and irresponsible business decisions can have deadly consequences.

As USW’s Sonny Sanders explained:

“…members of USW Local 13-1 believe that the memorial is a strong reminder of just how hazardous our work can be and how important it is to work together to make sure that at the end of the shift we all get to go home safe.”

Even if MPC didn’t appreciate the memorial, the company says it embraces

“…the diversity of thought, ideas and opinions that promotes creativity and capitalize on differing points of view.”

Participating in the vigil or simply acknowledging that the display held special meaning in the community would have demonstrated an appreciation for “differing points of view.”  Had MPC officials participated in the vigil, they may have learned that some of the cross bearers had a special connection to the plant. Brandi Sanders, who is also with USW’s District 13, explained

“…many of the people who presented crosses were people from our fire department, EMTs who responded to those fatalities.”

Instead, MPC showed disrespect to the participants, and to the deceased and their families.

USW’s Brandi Sanders did not shy away from linking the 35 work-related fatality victims to the ongoing strike against MPC.

“This strike is about health and safety. When you look at the company’s risk profile and the risks that they are willing to take it’s all about money, and time, and what they think is cost-effective. If it’s cheaper for them to cut the time to clean a vessel, so they can get it back into service faster, well that’s what they are going to chose.

But if it’s not cleaned properly and put back into service faster …there’s a risk for explosion. [The company] will assume the risks on the front end, but we’re left starting up the equipment and we face all of the risks head on.”

I’m not the only person noticing the disconnect between Marathon’s— and other petrochemical firms’—corporate rhetoric about their values and reality. Former district court judge Susan Criss wrote an op-ed which appeared in the February 16 edition of The Daily News. Criss presided over more than 4,000 legal claims that stemmed from the March 2005 explosion at the Galveston Bay refinery.

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“These companies invest in chamber of commerce activities and advertising dollars to prove their support of their neighboring communities. They send representatives to chamber and charity events to show they care. Talent, resources and dollars are spent promoting their corporate good will and good citizen images. Yet they refuse to spend money maintaining refinery machinery in decent enough condition to prevent their workers from being killed.”

Brandi Sanders told me that the Texas City Police Department returned the crosses to the USW’s union hall the following afternoon. She said the union doesn’t know how the police got the crosses. Sanders added:

“They are now displayed in front of our union hall for all to see.”

 

Categories: Health

Curbing Global Warming Aligns With American Christians' Beliefs, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - April 01, 2015
A majority of American Christians think global warming is happening and that the government should support research and

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Majorities of U.S. Christians say global warming is real. tax policies that promote renewable sources of energy and energy efficiency, according to a new report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Among Catholics, 69 percent think global warming is happening, which is a higher percentage than Americans overall (63 percent). A majority of non-evangelical Protestants — 62 percent — also think global warming is occurring, as do 51 percent of evangelicals. The survey also found that majorities of Catholics, Protestants, and evangelicals say it is important to them personally to care for future generations, the natural environment, and the world’s poor. Of the three groups, evangelical Christians were the most likely to say that God expects people to be responsible stewards of nature.
Categories: Environment, Health

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

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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
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