Friday, February 19, 2010

Senator Lautenberg Diagnosed with Stomach Cancer

From the Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. -- The office of New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg says the 86-year-old Democrat has stomach cancer.

Spokesman Caley Gray says doctors for the nation's second-oldest U.S. senator found B-cell lymphoma of the stomach. His office says the tumor is "curable" and will require treatment over the next few months.

Dr. James Holland of New York City's Mount Sinai Medical Center says Lautenberg will receive six to eight chemotherapy treatments. The doctor says he expects a "full and complete recovery."

Lautenberg was taken to the hospital Monday after his office said he fell. The office said Tuesday the senator was treated for a bleeding ulcer.

More details are here.

Senator Lautenberg is expected to introduce the new version of his Kid Safe Chemical Act shortly. Watch his opening remarks at the recent Senate hearings on TSCA reform here on YouTube.

Do Chemicals in the Body Pose a Risk?

Biomonitoring studies routinely demonstrate that the human body has become a receptable for a variety of chemicals. Whether these are large scientifically robust analyses such as those conducted by the Center for Disease Control or less robust studies in which a handful of mothers or environmental ministers are checked for a laundry list of chemicals, the fact is that there are many chemicals that are virtually always found in our bodies. But does it really mean anything?

Ah, that's the $64,000 question (or perhaps with inflation, the $64 billion question).

An article published in the February 15, 2010 edition of the New York Times discusses this issue as it relates to the ongoing debate about reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The one thing that is clear is that "presence of a chemical in the body does not necessarily mean it will have an effect." This is repeated by the chemical industry whenever an environmental or health advocacy group publishes a report based on the analysis of a handful of people. And it is absolutely true. Both Henry Falk (of the CDC) and Linda Birnbaum (of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) concur that our ability to measure tiny amounts of chemicals in our bodies has far outpaced our ability to understand what the presence of these chemicals means relative to effects...or the lack of effects.

But others argue that the very presence of so many chemicals in the body is enough to take action.

Aye, and there is the rub. What action is appropriate?

Clearly we are in a situation in which we must make decisions even with uncertainties in our knowledge. So it seems that the focus of TSCA reform should be on collecting the information necessary to reduce that uncertainty and provide greater confidence in decision-making. The results of biomonitoring studies can inform the prioritization process under the new TSCA (or Kid Safe Act) by identifying chemicals that can be given a closer look. But biomonitoring can't be the only prioritization mechanism since we can't adequately measure all chemicals in the Inventory (roughly 85,000 of them). And new chemicals are put on the market every day. So there will be testing of new chemicals, and at the very least, of existing chemicals that have been identified as priorities for further work by their presence in the body, their widespread use, their high production volumes, or their persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) properties.

Do we need the new law to require biomonitoring of every new chemical? No. Do we need some sort of biomonitoring, such as the CDC program? Yes. Do we need a way to identify new chemicals to look for in biomonitoring studies? Yes. Will we have to make decisions based on uncertainty? Yes.

The bottom line is that biomonitoring will play a role in prioritizing chemicals for closer review, but we can't get lost focusing on biomonitoring as an end in itself. The key is to reduce risk, not merely document exposure.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Book Review - Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, by Al Gore

Climate change and sustainable energy seems to be one of the most polarizing issues on the planet right now, and Al Gore seems to be a focal point around which much of that polarization is based. Those who love him may read this book just because of that; those who hate him may be predisposed not to read it. That would be a mistake. Everyone, and I mean everyone, should read this book.

The book, of course, is “Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.” Published in November of 2009, the book takes an honest look at the unsustainability of our current energy usage, and the ways we can become more sustainable. After identifying the issue, Gore takes us through a series of chapters, each of which deals with our sources of energy. The chapters include a look at our current reliance on oil, natural gas and coal; solar power; wind energy; geothermal energy; biofuels; the possibility of carbon capture and sequestration; and finally “the nuclear option.” For each energy source he gives a very readable and visually appealing overview of the current state of the technology, the advantages of each, the drawbacks of each, and the political and technological obstacles to taking fullest advantage of each. He also provides some ideas for future enhancements.

The book then goes into discussions of “living systems” such as the role of forests (and deforestation), soil, and population as related to climate change and energy usage. These are often overlooked in the debate but extraordinarily important. He also has a section on “how we use energy” in which “less is more” and the need for a super grid. The penultimate section is a thorough discussion of “the obstacles we need to overcome.” This section focuses on the need to change the way we think, the need to accurately and honestly put a true cost on carbon, and, of course, the political obstacles. While there are obviously many technological challenges still to be faced, it is clear that the real inhibition to innovation is the lack of political will, and in many cases, the downright political obstructionism. Removing these hindrances will allow America to use our full ingenuity to keep jobs in America and be on the forefront of innovation and energy self-sufficiency.

Gore ends the book with two chapters on “The Power of Information” and the fact that how we proceed is “Our Choice.” We need to “go far quickly” if we are to outcompete other countries that are not holding themselves back and if we are to correct our energy trajectory before it is too late.

To reiterate my lede, people seem to either love Al Gore or hate Al Gore, but it would be a serious mistake to pass up this book. It manages to treat a highly technical topic in a way that is accessible to the public. And it does it in a way that is highly enlightening as well as informative. If you hate Al Gore and don’t want to buy the book, then suck it up and go borrow it from the library. Cover it with a paper bag if you have to, but read it. This book is way too important to miss. Our collective energy future depends on us learning and moving forward.

Other global warming and climate change articles can be found here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Recession Delaying California Biomonitoring Program Implementation

As people following this blog no doubt have noticed, biomonitoring seems to be playing a significant part in the discussions for reform of the Toxic Substances Chemical Act (TSCA). California always seems to lead the pack when it comes to making changes that protect the environment, but the current recession has caused some problems for the watershed biomonitoring program already signed into law in 2006.

Like many states hard hit by the recession, California has recently had to furlough some staff at the California EPA, which along with the California Department of Public Health, administers the biomonitoring program and that has meant a delay in issuing a mandatory report to the state legislature on the status of the program. But the furloughs seem to be more of the tip of the iceberg, the mass of which is related to the overall deficiency in funding for the program.

The realities of the economy are that money is tight, especially with the state and federal agencies that are responsible for administering the various human and environmental health protections. Evidence seems to show that the economy is picking up and that 2010 will be a better year for most industries, including the chemical industry, but government agencies are likely to see continued cost containment for quite some time. The ramifications of this are two-fold. First, the recovering, though still fairly weak, economy may be used as an excuse not to "put additional regulatory burdens on industry." But it also demonstrates why industry, and not governments, should be responsible for demonstrating the safety of chemicals and products put on the market. Currently the system requires EPA to find significant harm, something they can't easily do given TSCA's lack of requirement to provide test data. The new system will almost certainly require test data, or other relevant and defensible data, to be submitted before new chemicals go on the market and to keep existing chemicals on the market.

The testing issue raises some additional questions related to animal welfare and the extrapolation of animal data to human effects. I'll try to address this aspect in future posts. Let me know if there are specific questions or issues that you would like me to discuss.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Biomonitoring and TSCA Chemical Control Reform

"Mind Disrupted" is a report recently released with the results of a biomonitoriting project sponsored by the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative (LDDI). The project involved "twelve leaders and self-advocates from the learning and developmental disabilities community" who "stepped forward to have their bodies tested for the presence of a set of known or suspected neurotoxic or endocrine disrupting chemicals."

Results indicated that "sixty-one distinct chemicals were detected in the participants." All 12 participants tested positive for at least 26 of the tested chemicals, including bisphenol A, mercury, lead, PBDEs (brominated flame retardants), PFCs (perfluorinated compounds), perchlorate, and organochlorine pesticides. The report then goes on to evaluate possible connections between exposure to these chemicals and various learning and developmental disabilities.

The report concludes that TSCA needs to be updated to:
"reflect 21st Century science - including the importance of critical windows of development, mixtures of chemicals, and low-dose exposures - to ensure current and future generations reach their fullest potential."

They also suggest that federal chemicals management be modernized to do the following:

1) Take immediate action on the worst chemicals
2) Require basic information for all chemicals in teh market and for those intended to be developed and marketed
3) Protect the most vulnerable from exposure
4) Use the best scientific methods
5) Hold industry responsible for demonstrating chemical safety
6) Prioritize environmental justice and protect low income, communities of colar and indigenous communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution
7) Enhance government coordination between agencies
8) Promote safer alternatives by implementing the principles of green chemistry
9) Ensure the "right to know" by requiring labeling of chemical ingredients in products.

Other TSCA related posts (click here and scroll for articles)

Monday, February 15, 2010

New EU Report Calls for Responsible Development of Nanotechnology

One of the areas under discussion for TSCA reform in the United States is how to deal with nanotechnology. In short, nanomaterials are really really tiny versions of some common chemicals that are already on the TSCA Inventory, and thus theoretically already considered "existing chemicals." But EPA announced last month that they are planning to issue a series of rules to better regulate nanomaterials.

Now the European Union is getting into the act. Actually, they have been working on this issue for some time and had sponsored a forum called the "FramingNano Project" under the auspices of the EU's 7th Framework Programme. The group is about to publish its recommendations in a new report, a draft of which can be read here. The FramingNano project focused on environmental health and safety, ethical and legal issues, institutional and regulatory control, communications, and international harmonization. They called for the establishment of a nanotechnology governance platform that would both provide technical advise and help make decisions on appropriate actions moving forward.

Back in the US, the new TSCA law - or Kid Safe Chemical Act if it retains the previous Lautenberg offerings - will undoubtably mention nanomaterial control specifically. Whether as a separate Title or not, it is clear that nanotechnology is a growing field of new chemistry and as such imbues a rising public concern similar to the way GMOs were introduced created a public backlash. Look for there to be data requirements triggered by the nano-sized nature of the chemical, even if the chemical composition itself has been on the market already.