More Crude Oil Spilled by U.S. Trains in 2013 Than in Previous 40 Years

Yale Environment 360 - January 21, 2014
U.S. trains spilled 1.15 million gallons of crude oil in 2013 — more than was spilled in the nearly 40 years since officials began tracking such accidents, federal data show. The majority of that volume came from two major derailments: a November incident in Alabama that spilled 750,000 gallons and a December incident in North Dakota that officials estimate spilled 400,000 gallons. Those incidents, as well as smaller spills, have added to growing concerns over the safety of using railways to transport crude as U.S. oil production surges in the upper Midwest. From 1975 to 2012, a total of 800,000 gallons of crude were spilled during rail transport. Excluding the two major derailments from the 2013 total, 11,000 gallons of crude were spilled last year — more than the previous two years combined. The data do not include a 1.5 million-gallon spill that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July.
Categories: Environment, Health

As Uses of Biochar Expand, Climate Benefits Still Uncertain

Yale Environment 360 - January 21, 2014
Research shows that biochar made from plant fodder and even chicken manure can be used to scrub mercury from power plant emissions and clean up polluted soil. The big question is whether biochar can be produced on a sufficiently large scale to slow or reverse global warming. BY MARK HERTSGAARD
Categories: Environment, Health

Not a good week to learn about backsliding on chemical warnings

Pump Handle - January 20, 2014

It was one of those weeks when two seemingly unrelated topics crossed my desk. Only later did it strike me that they were connected. Both involved toxic substances and what we know about their adverse health effects. One concerned the contaminated water supply in West Virginia. The other involved a commentary by attorney Steve Wodka about a newish revision to OSHA’s chemical right-to-know regulation.

The drinking water emergency in West Virginia—thousands of gallons of MCHM (methylcyclohexanemethanol) which flowed into the water supply— has focused attention on the inadequacy of the key law for US chemicals policy, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Many residents want to know, and journalists have been asking: “how is MCHM going to affect people’s health?”

Quickly they learned the manufacturer of MCHM doesn’t have a clue about its long-term health effects. Nothing about how it might affect their kids. Nothing about effects on the offspring of those who drank it. Nothing about whether it may cause neurological problems, or cancer. There’s no law–not TSCA or any other—that even expects them to know, and there’s no law requiring them to find out. For now, we are resigned to live in a giant black hole, with far too little health information about the 80,000 chemicals that are manufactured or processed in the U.S.

As Richard Denison with the Environmental Defense Fund wrote:

“How, you might well ask, is this possible? How can a chemical in active production and use – and now being released into the environment and exposing people – be on the market without any publicly available hazard data or evidence of its safety?”

There are however, a few chemicals about which there is ample information on some of their long-term health effects, specifically whether the cause cancer. (Largely because people served as guinea pigs in their workplaces, were exposed to toxic agents, and developed cancer as a result.) Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the US National Toxicology Program (NTP) have sophisticated review procedures, involving panels of scientific expert, to evaluate the epidemiological data and identify compounds for their carcinogenicity. To-date, the groups have independently classified about 60 substances as known human carcinogens. They’ve also designated some substances as likely to be or possible human carcinogens; IARC lists about 400 and NTP about 200 of these suspect compounds. At least for these toxic substances, individuals who are exposed or potentially exposed are not quite as stuck in that information void.

For nearly 30 years, workers who used or came into contact with these designated or suspect carcinogens had the benefit of a cancer warning label on containers of these compounds. If IARC or NTP classified them as carcinogens, OSHA required labels on containers of them to include the cancer warning. I say had because of what I read in Steve Wodka’s commentary.

In “Explaining the Inexplicable: OSHA’s Gift to the Chemical Industry,” Wodka writes:

“Until 2012, OSHA had a rule which required that a cancer warning label be placed on a chemical if it appeared on a national or international list of cancer causing chemicals. The rule was clear, simple and easy to enforce. It was not even controversial. But it is no longer in effect.”

Wodka is referring to OSHA’s 1983 Hazard Communication standard, which was amended in March 2012 to align with the “Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals.” He points to a change between the old and the new HazCom standard that I’m embarrass to admit never made it on my radar screen. He explains:

“OSHA decided to toss this entire system overboard and return to the olden days when these disputes were settled not by the quality of the evidence, but by the number of gunslingers one could hire. Under OSHA’s new “globally harmonized system” of hazard communication, a chemical manufacturer can dispute the science on which a cancer designation had been based. When these disputes arise, OSHA, not the manufacturer, bears the burden of proof. The agency will always be outgunned by the global chemical industry and worker protection will suffer. Inexplicably, this wound was completely self-inflicted. No one demanded or petitioned OSHA to make this change.”

The whole idea for the original 1983 HazCom standard was giving workers the “right-to-know” about the chemical hazards in their workplaces, especially how the compound could affect their health. The rule’s requirements for labeling of containers—including language about any IARC or NTP cancer designation—gave workers easy access to critical hazard information. That requirement was deleted by OSHA in 2012 when it revised its HazCom regulation. I’m glad (I guess) for Steve Wodka’s commentary bringing it to my attention.

Anxiety and frustration linger among WV residents on how little is known about the chemical that contaminated their drinking water. TSCA does nothing to help them know. OSHA’s HazCom standard used to require chemical manufacturers to label carcinogenic compounds based on IARC’s and NTP’s evaluations. Now those cancer warnings are no longer required by OSHA to be on the labels.

As the public dialogue revolves around the need for more testing and more disclosure of the potential health effects of toxic chemicals, I’ll use Wodka’s term “inexplicable” to describe OSHA’s backsliding.

Categories: Health

Soil Microbes Alter DNA In Response to Climate Change, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - January 20, 2014
A 10-year study of soil ecosystems has determined that microbes alter their genetic code in response to a warming climate so they can process excess carbon being absorbed by plants from the atmosphere, a team of U.S. researchers reports in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. A 2-degree Celsius temperature increase spurred microbes in soil ecosystems to, over many generations, tweak their DNA, amping up their respiratory systems and converting extra organic carbon in the soil to CO2. The soil contained extra carbon because the 2-degree temperature increase made plants grow faster and higher; when those plants began to die, the carbon in their leaves, stems, and roots was added to the soil and taken up by the microbial community. Understanding the "black box" of carbon's fate in soil ecosystems holds important clues for better forecasting an ecosystem's response to climate change, says Georgia Institute of Technology researcher Kostas Konstantinidis, an author of the study. "One reason that models of climate change have such big room for variation is because we don’t understand the microbial activities that control carbon in the soil," he said.
Categories: Environment, Health

The 'No More Tears' shampoo, now with no formaldehyde (New York Times, 1/17/14)

Breast Cancer Fund - January 17, 2014
"The company is a fundamental shift in consumer behavior, as an increasingly informed public demands that companies be more responsive to their concerns..."
Categories: Health

Media roundup: New study finds exposure to toxic phthalates in decline (1/15-1/16)

Breast Cancer Fund - January 17, 2014
Phthalate levels are declining in our bodies, according to a study published on Wednesday by Environmental Health Perspectives. Study authors suggest that the decrease may be due to a federal ban on phthalates in toys, as well as cosmetics companies...
Categories: Health

Study: Job conditions linked to preterm birth risk among Hispanic workers

Pump Handle - January 17, 2014

“There’s a lot we don’t know about preterm birth and we know even less about the disparities in those births.”

Those are words from Ondine von Ehrenstein, an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, who recently examined the links between occupational exposures and preterm birth rates among Hispanic women. Perhaps not surprisingly to those in the public health world, von Ehrenstein and her research colleagues did find that Hispanic women are at particular risk for preterm birth associated with certain occupational conditions. However, what may be more surprising — and what could be critical to an effective intervention — was that the effect of occupational exposure on preterm birth risk varied by nativity, or whether a woman was U.S.-born or foreign-born.

“We found higher risks related to physically demanding and shift work, especially among U.S.-born Latina women,” von Ehrenstein told me. “Why is there such a difference? We’ll need further research to really understand.”

However, Ehrenstein and fellow researchers have begun to lay the groundwork. To conduct the study, which was published in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers examined a case-control study nested within a cohort of more than 58,300 births in Los Angeles County in 2003 and used the U.S. Census Occupation Codes and Classification System to characterize the mothers’ occupations during pregnancy. The study noted that while previous U.S.-based studies have been conducted on preterm birth and occupational exposures (which is defined as both working conditions, such as daily working hours, and environmental exposures, such as indoor air quality), they have not teased out the relationship of the mother’s place of birth.

Authors also note that rates of preterm birth are higher in the U.S. than in many peer nations. (A recent March of Dimes report found that the U.S. preterm birth rate dropped to 11.5 percent in 2012 — a 15-year low — but it’s still the highest rate among industrialized nations.) Study authors von Ehrenstein, Michelle Wilhelm, Anthony Wang and Beate Ritz write:

The prevalence of preterm birth in the United States increased over the past decades with persistent racial/ethnic disparities, and it remains the main cause of infant mortality. Hispanic women have on average a higher prevalence of preterm birth than non-Hispanic White women, and risks tend to vary by nativity (US-born vs. foreign-born). These disparities remain poorly understood and have not to date been explained by social or demographic factors. …Occupational exposure may increase risks for preterm birth by interrupting the prenatal neuroendocrine balance, thereby promoting premature parturition (birth), and these adverse occupational influences may possibly affect Hispanic populations in the United States disproportionally and may possibly also be modified by nativity.

The study found that among all women who worked during pregnancy, there was a suggestion of increased risk of preterm birth among health care practitioners and technical occupations, building and grounds cleaning and maintenance, and food preparation and serving jobs. Risks were also associated with physically demanding work as well as shift work. When zeroing in on Hispanic women who worked while pregnant, the risk was higher among health care practitioners and technical occupations.

The risk of preterm birth also increased among Hispanic women doing shift work and physically demanding jobs — however, that risk only increased among Hispanic women who were born in the U.S. and not among foreign-born Hispanic women. The elevated odds ratio for preterm birth was statistically significant for foreign-born Hispanic women working in building and grounds cleaning and maintenance (though von Ehrenstein said it’s important to note that this group of Hispanic women also represented the vast majority of such workers). Still, foreign-born Hispanic women working in such maintenance jobs faced a preterm birth risk two-and-a-half times larger than women working in the office and administrative support sector.

“These ethnic disparities indicate that there is room for prevention,” von Ehrenstein said.

Researchers hypothesized a number of reasons for the differences. For example, the pronounced risk among Hispanic health care workers might indicate that such workers are “doing especially heavy physical work, although we currently have no evidence for this,” the study stated. Authors also noted that “lower acculturation has been reported for foreign-born compared with US-born Hispanics, and it has been associated with better support networks, healthier nutrition, and lower rates of smoking and alcohol consumption, reflecting healthier practices among women in the country of origin.” However, Ehrenstein pointed out that some of the biggest factors influencing pregnancy outcomes may be exposures that occur early in life — what she called the life course perspective — which could help explain the differences by nativity.

von Ehrenstein said the findings on nativity could be especially helpful when developing interventions. She also said that working to improve birth outcomes and infant health today — whether through policy or program — can reverberate throughout the lifespan.

“Early health risks may have lifelong implications,” von Ehrenstein said. “So if we want to reduce health costs and the implications for public health, a prime venue for prevention is really in promoting healthy pregnancies.”

To access the full 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

More Than 1,000 Rhinos Poached in South Africa in 2013, Officials Say

Yale Environment 360 - January 17, 2014
More than 1,000 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa last year, a record total and an increase of more than 50 percent from 2012, South African officials say. South Africa is home to nearly all of the Adam Welz world's 20,000 rhinos, which are targeted by poachers because their horns are highly valued and believed to contain medicinal properties. Although those claims are scientifically unfounded, demand from increasingly wealthy consumers in China and Vietnam has driven the price of rhino horns to over $65,000 per kilogram — more valuable than gold, platinum, or cocaine. South Africa has tried to stem the crisis by training park rangers to use arms, drones, and helicopters, but those anti-poaching efforts have shown limited success. Rhino poachings in 2012 also increased by 50 percent over 2011 totals, and 37 have been poached so far in 2014, officials report. Most of the killings are taking place in South Africa's Kruger National Park, where 606 rhinos were killed last year and 425 in 2012.
Categories: Environment, Health

Cell tower worker fatalities continue: More than a dozen deaths since 2012

Pump Handle - January 16, 2014

In 2012, a Frontline and Pro Publica investigation of the cell (or wireless) tower industry found that between 2003 and 2010 the average fatality rate for the US tower industry was more than 10 times greater than that of the construction industry. A January 6, 2014 story by KUOW reporter John Ryan about the death in January 2013 of tower climber Mike Rongey in Mount Vernon, Washington is a reminder that the industry remains extremely dangerous. It is also a reminder that the employers of the workers killed in these incidents may only be fined minimally and that the wireless service providers generating the work are rarely – if ever – cited for these accidents. In Mike Rongey’s case, the state has levied a penalty of $450 against the company that employed him.

According to the Wireless Estimator, a website that tracks communications tower industry news, in 2013, thirteen US cell tower workers died on the job. Add to these deaths the most recent such incident reported by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): On November 22, 2013, a maintenance worker died in a fall from a communication tower in North Witchita, Kansas. Cell tower worker fatalities cited by the Wireless Estimator occurred all across the country, in Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Virginia and Washington. Most of these cases are still under federal OSHA or state investigation so full incident detail and penalty information is not yet available. However, in November OSHA issued a memorandum for its regional administrators calling the past few months’ rate of injury and fatalities in the cell tower industry “alarming.” The number of such incidents in 2013, OSHA noted in the memo, was more than the previous two years combined.

Mike Rongey’s employer, WS Consulting & Construction, has been fined $450 for violation of telecommunications industry general safety rules, specifically for violating fall protection standards – that is, not providing proper fall protection, explained Washington Department of Labor and Industries spokesperson Elaine Fischer.The penalty amount, Fischer explained, is calculated based not only on the type of violation involved, but also on the number of employees the company has, how many employees were exposed to the hazard that caused the injury or fatality, and the employer’s history of violations. That the incident caused a worker’s death does not determine the size of the fine, she explained. In Mike Rongey’s case, his employer is a very small company, and only one employee – Rongey – was exposed to the hazard, Fischer said. What caused the fall was equipment that was improperly installed not by WS Consulting & Construction, but by another company that is, according to Fischer, no longer in business. And neither Rongey’s employer nor the company that installed the faulty equipment owns or manages that cell tower or uses it to broadcast wireless signals.

A multi-layered industry

How the layers of contractors and subcontractors affect cell tower workers’ safety is of major concern to Wally Reardon, project coordinator for the Workers at Heights Safety and Health Initiative affiliated with the Occupational Health Clinical Center in Syracuse, New York. As Reardon explains, the carrier – in the case of the tower where Mike Rongey fell – might be Clearwire, which is now part of Sprint, or a company like AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon. The company that owns the tower might also be a cellular service provider or telecommunications company such as Cox Communications, Time Warner or US Cellular. There are also companies that specialize in operating, building and leasing towers, as do Crown Castle (which owns the Mount Vernon, WA tower where Rongey fell), American Tower and SBA Communications, among many others.

In addition to complex layers of ownership, other companies, known in the industry as “turfers,” may be involved in managing these jobs. Turfers such as Bechtel and General Dynamics might hire other companies to do work in particular “market” or city, Reardon explains. If that company has too much work to complete on schedule, it might then subcontract out some of that work to another local company. The use of temporary workers to fill positions because of demands to upgrade infrastructure also adds to these layers, he noted.

This concern was also voiced by OSHA in its November 2013 memo in which OSHA said it “is aware that there has been an acceleration in communication tower work during the past year due to cellular infrastructure upgrades, and the Agency is concerned about the possibility of future incidents.”

There are rigorous safety standards for all aspects of cell tower work, as there are for tower construction and engineering, Reardon explained. There are also safety checklists and procedures that workers are required to follow – but under the pressure to meet job deadlines, follow-through can be lacking, he said.

Exacerbating these issues in Reardon’s opinion is the lack of organized support for tower workers, most of whom are not represented by labor unions. Tower workers are often reluctant to raise safety issues with their bosses, he said, for fear of being “blacklisted” or not hired for future jobs. If companies throughout the cell tower supply-chain, particularly the large companies with large assets and brands, could be held accountable that “would improve safety 100 percent,” said Reardon.

OSHA does have the ability under certain circumstances to use its “Multi-Employer” policy in citing companies for health and safety violations. But as Deputy Assistant Labor Secretary Jordan Barab explained to Frontline in 2012, it’s generally used only when the companies have employees working on the site where the violations occurred. Asked on January 9, 2014, OSHA was not able to respond to The Pump Handle by deadline to say if it had progressed in addressing the issues related to multiple companies’ involvement in cell towers and the responsibility for the safety of work on the towers.

Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said that a hearing on Mike Rongey’s case was expected to begin the week of January 13th  and that Washington State is “preparing to adopt new cell tower specific regulations” that she expects will be released in 2014. Only two states, Michigan and North Carolina, currently have cell tower specific safety regulations. Among the issues the Washington regulations are expected to address are those related to multiple company responsibility, thermal radiation and self-rescue – the last being of particular concern to cell tower workers in remote locations.

The annual number of US cell tower worker deaths appears to be declining since 2006, when 19 workers died. But that more than a dozen cell tower workers died from work-related injuries in 2013,  when OSHA records 31 accidents and 267 violations in its 285 recorded inspections in the industry, suggests that safety improvement is badly needed.

Meanwhile, the company cited in Mike Rongey’s death is contesting the $450 penalty.

[UPDATE 1/17/14: On January 17, 2014 an OSHA spokesperson sent the following statement: "OSHA is aware of the very serious nature of the hazards in communications tower work and conducts inspections in this industry. Among other activities, the agency has been gathering data on the 14 fatalities that occurred in 2013, including information on the contractual relationships associated with the activities in which a worker was killed." OSHA also referred to its memo cited above and said, "Under the OSH Act, employers may be responsible for hazards to their subcontractor’s employees if they maintained sufficient control over the work or worksites of those subcontractors. OSHA is committed to increasing its outreach and enforcement efforts in order to prevent further fatalities and injuries, and will continue to work to address the safety of cell tower workers."]

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 American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation. 

Categories: Health

Pebble Mine Would Endanger Alaska's Bristol Bay, Major EPA Study Finds

Yale Environment 360 - January 16, 2014
A three-year study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that mining in Alaska's Bristol Bay area would pose significant dangers to the environment, a potentially fatal setback for plans Mulchatna River, part of Bristol Bay watershed to develop Pebble Mine, a major open-pit mining project that aimed to exploit one of the largest and richest mineral deposits in the world. The EPA study cited concerns for the region's thriving sockeye salmon population and its native people, saying the mine would destroy 24 to 94 miles of salmon streams and 1,300 to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds, and lakes. Pebble Mine proponents, including Alaska Governor Sean Parnell, criticize the study as flawed and rushed, since the development company wasn't allowed to submit its mining plan before the EPA study. Native groups, fishermen, and environmental organizations are applauding the study. The proposed mine — which seeks to exploit gold, copper, and other metals — was already in trouble, with one of two major partners withdrawing from the project last year.
Categories: Environment, Health

Indian Microgrids Aim to Bring Millions Out of Darkness

Yale Environment 360 - January 16, 2014
Powered by solar panels and biomass, microgrids are spreading slowly across India, where 300 million people live without electricity. But can these off-grid technologies be scaled-up to bring low-carbon power to tens of millions of people? BY DAVID FERRIS
Categories: Environment, Health

Worth reading: West Virginia chemical release, antibiotics in agriculture, and using statistics to tackle substance abuse

Pump Handle - January 15, 2014

A few of the recent pieces I’ve liked:

Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston (WV) Gazette: Why wasn’t there a plan? Key players knew of potential for Elk River spill and State ignored plan for tougher chemical oversight (also check out opinions on the West Virginia chemical release from Deborah Blum at Elemental and Tom O’Connor at National COSH)

Jia Tolentino interviews MacArthur “Genius” Grant-winning statistician Susan Murphy at The Hairpin. (“Susan Murphy is a statistician developing new methodologies to evaluate treatments for chronic and relapsing disorders like depression and substance abuse.”)

Alexander Zaitchik at Salon: Big Ag’s big lie: Factory farms, your health and the new politics of antibiotics

Maryn McKenna at Superbug: Can Antibiotics User Fees Force Down Drug Mis-Use and Overuse?

Becca Aaronson in the Texas Tribune: Providers Face Obstacles in New Women’s Health Program (via Reporting on Health)

Categories: Health

West African Lions Are Critically Close to Extinction, Study Finds

Yale Environment 360 - January 15, 2014
West African lions are close to extinction, and vulnerable populations could be wiped out in the next five to 10 years, according to new research led by the wild cat conservation group Panthera. West African lions, which are genetically distinct from other African lions, once numbered in the tens of thousands. Now the Philipp Henschel/Panthera Male West African lion population has been reduced to around 400 individuals spread across 17 countries, largely due to habitat loss, a shortage of prey, and poaching, according to the study published in PLOS ONE. Of the remaining lions, only about 250 are mature enough to reproduce, but in many cases those individuals are spread too far apart to breed. West African lions are now present in only 1.1 percent of their original habitat and should be considered "critically endangered," according to the study. Running low on habitat and prey, the lions sometimes kill livestock. Villagers then kill the lions in revenge. "It's become very complicated for this carnivore at the top of the food chain to find enough space and food to survive," one scientist told Reuters.
Categories: Environment, Health

What We Can Learn From West Virginia

EWG Toxics - January 14, 2014
Categories: Health

Google's Acquisition of Nest Expected to Boost Smart Grid Expansion

Yale Environment 360 - January 14, 2014
Google's purchase of Nest, a leading manufacturer of smart thermostats, further deepens the Internet search giant's involvement in the green energy sector and is likely to help accelerate development of a more efficient smart grid, experts say. Google has already invested $300 million in distributed solar companies, which have been helping homeowners install photovoltaic panels to offset their conventional grid-based power consumption. The success of distributed solar hinges on effective smart-metering, and acquiring Nest — whose thermostats can be controlled remotely and can track and reduce energy consumption — could help Google gain valuable insight into millions of individuals' daily power consumption patterns, Quartz reports. As power grids and meters get "smarter," demand for technology like Nest's thermostats will likely grow; incorporating distributed solar energy sources should become easier for households, as well. The $3.2 billion deal will also give Google access to Nest Energy Services, a branch of the company that manages partnerships between Nest and U.S. power companies.
Categories: Environment, Health

Fifty years and 8 million lives saved since the first surgeon general’s smoking report

Pump Handle - January 14, 2014

It’s probably my earliest public health memory — the image of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and his grandfatherly beard on the television warning my elementary school self about the dangers of smoking. He was the first doctor I knew by name.

But while Koop may be the surgeon general that people of my generation most likely associate with the public health movement to reduce smoking, he wasn’t the first to speak out against tobacco. Koop was carrying on a legacy that began decades before with the nation’s ninth surgeon general, Luther Terry, who on Jan. 11, 1964, released the first surgeon general’s report on smoking and health and said unequivocally: “Cigarette smoking is a health hazard of sufficient importance in the United States to warrant appropriate remedial action.” On the 50th anniversary of that declaration, public health advocates are celebrating hard-fought declines in the smoking rate and warning that it’s no time to retreat.

“We have made enormous progress in the past 50 years, preventing millions of deaths and tens of millions of illnesses,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden. “But we have much further to go — tobacco remains, by far, the single leading preventable cause of death in the United States and the world.”

In that first surgeon general’s report, the authors wrote:

In the early part of the 16th century, soon after the introduction of tobacco into Spain and England by explorers returning from the New World, controversy developed from the differing opinions as to the effects of the human use of the leaf and the products derived from it by combustion or other means. Pipe-smoking, chewing and snuffing of tobacco were praised for pleasurable and reputed medicinal actions. At the same time, smoking was condemned as a foul-smelling, loathsome custom, harmful to the brain and lungs. The chief question was then as it is now: is the use of tobacco bad or good for health or devoid of effects on health? Parallel with the increasing production and use of tobacco, especially with the constantly increasing smoking of cigarettes, the controversy has become more and more intense. Scientific attack upon the problems has increased proportionately. The design, scope and penetration of studies have improved and the yield of significant results has been abundant.

Considering that this report is just 50 years old, it’s amazing how much public health has achieved (and keep in mind how enormously difficult it is to change people’s behavior, especially when public health has been continuously and enormously outspent by tobacco marketers). In fact in 1999, CDC ranked the declines in smoking and the lives saved as one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. According to the agency, smoking rates declined from more than 42 percent in 1965 to less than 25 percent in 1997, and the percentage of adults who never smoked went up from 44 percent to 55 percent. About half the country is now protected by smoke-free workplace laws.

A more recent study published Jan. 8 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that tobacco control efforts (education, cigarette taxes, smoke-free laws, media campaigns, sales and marketing restrictions, and cessation programs) have saved 8 million lives in the last five decades, with more than half of the lives saved younger than 65. In all, a gain of 157 million years of life is associated with tobacco control efforts. Without tobacco control, the study found that life expectancy among both men and women would be shorter by two to four years.

Still, more than 40 million adults and 3 million youth smoke in the U.S., and tobacco use results in hundreds of billions of dollars in medical costs and lost productivity. Worldwide, it’s estimated that 1.3 billion people smoke and 4.9 million people die every year from tobacco-related disease. On top of that, tobacco companies still spend billions on advertising every year — $8.37 billion on cigarette marketing in 2011 in the U.S. alone. At the same time, state spending on tobacco prevention doesn’t meet CDC recommendations. For example, officials estimated that although states collected more than $25 billion in tobacco taxes and legal settlements in 2013, lawmakers spent less than 2 percent of that on cessation and prevention. Plus, public health agencies continue to struggle with tight budgets and service cuts (see our previous coverage of how budget cuts are affecting health department tobacco efforts here).

In other words, there’s no doubt that continued tobacco use prevention is a steep climb. Luckily, public health folks aren’t used to easy victories.

“We still have an industry that continues to sell a product that we know is harmful and from which children are at enormous risk,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “This anniversary marks an important public health success, yet we need to make sure the victory we celebrate today is not hollow.”

Since that first surgeon general’s report in 1964, 30 additional surgeon general reports have been released on the dangers of tobacco and secondhand smoke, and another is expected this year.

For more on the 50th anniversary, click here. And check out Celeste Monforton’s Public Health Classics piece on the 1964 surgeon general’s smoking report 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

Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo on Russia and the Climate Struggle

Yale Environment 360 - January 14, 2014
In a Yale Environment 360 interview, the outspoken executive director of Greenpeace discusses why his organization’s activists braved imprisonment in Russia to stop Arctic oil drilling and what needs to be done to make a sharp turn away from fossil fuels and toward a green energy economy. BY DIANE TOOMEY
Categories: Environment, Health

Women at the helm: Jeanne Rizzo (Go Magazine, 12/22/2013)

Breast Cancer Fund - January 13, 2014
I'm amazed by how you can make a difference in your own life and the lives of others by modeling change, affecting change.
Categories: Health

California unveils public website to expose harmful cosmetics (Inside Bay Area, 1/13/2014)

Breast Cancer Fund - January 13, 2014
"Ultimately our feeling is these products don't belong in cosmetics in the first place."
Categories: Health
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