Category Archives: Health Science

New bill puts BPA back in the spotlight

Sarah Vogel, Ph.D., is Director of EDF's Health Program.

The hotly debated chemical BPA is back in the policy spotlight. This week Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass) joined Representatives Lois Capps (D-CA) and Grace Meng (D-NY) to announce the Ban Poisonous Additives (BPA) Act.  The bill would ban the use of BPA or bisphenol A from food packaging and mandates extensive consideration of the hazardous properties of any BPA alternative, so as to avoid substituting chemicals that may pose just as many health risks (as increasingly it appears to be with the case of the common BPA replacement, BPS).

Low dose exposure to BPA has been associated with a wide range of health effects including behavioral problems, prostate, breast and liver cancer as well as obesity.  A study released just last week demonstrated how low dose exposure to BPA during fetal development can alter gene expression in the mammary gland of female rats, resulting in abnormal development of the breast and increased susceptibility to breast cancer later in life.   Read More »

Also posted in Health Policy, Regulation | Tagged | 1 Response

Imbalanced act: An EPA IRIS agenda that speaks 1000 words

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Lead Senior Scientist.  Rachel Shaffer is a research assistant.

[UPDATE 6/24/14:  Perhaps in response to this post of last week, an updated agenda for this week's IRIS meeting was posted by EPA today that reflects a somewhat more balanced set of speakers.  Industry interests appear to have consolidated their number of slots, down from a high of 8 to a high of 6 per issue, and down from a high of 6 to a high of 4 individuals per issue from the same consulting firm.  In addition, several additional slots are assigned to non-industry speakers.  If you wish to see the changes, here is the agenda we linked to that was current as of last week, and here's the updated agenda posted today.]

In comments EDF made at a November 2012 stakeholder meeting held by EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program, we warned that the tendency of the IRIS program to respond to criticism by expanding opportunities for “public” input would serve to increase rather than decrease the imbalance in stakeholder input.

We noted that providing more opportunities for participation not only lengthens the timeline for completing assessments; it also virtually ensures the input received by EPA is imbalanced and badly skewed toward the regulated community. That’s because companies that produce and use each chemical to be assessed – and the trade associations and myriad hired consultants that represent them – have a clear vested financial interest in the outcome of the assessment.  They can and will take advantage of each and every opportunity for input, and they will be better represented than other stakeholders each and every time.

IRIS recently began holding bimonthly meetings focused on “key science issues” relating to upcoming assessments.  And guess what?  An army of industry representatives, including staff for trade associations and paid consultants, are overwhelming the agendas.

Exhibit A:  Have a quick look at the list of speakers in the agenda for this month’s bimonthly meeting.  A striking imbalance, no?  As many as 8 industry representatives are set to speak on a given issue, including 6 from the same consulting firm!  [UPDATE 6/24/14:  See the top of this post for a description of the updated, slightly more balanced agenda; here is the agenda we had linked to that was current as of last week, and here's the updated agenda posted today.] Read More »

Also posted in Health Policy, Industry Influence | Tagged , , , | 2 Responses, comments now closed

Flame retardants impair normal brain development: Even more evidence, still no action

Jennifer McPartland, Ph.D., is a Health Scientist.

Today a new study was published linking fetal exposure to certain flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) with cognitive and behavioral effects that develop later in childhood.  While the specific findings in this study are new, the link between these types of neurodevelopmental effects and exposure to PBDEs is not. 

Numerous scientific studies and governmental bodies across the globe have flagged the health effects of PBDEs.  At the same time, current proposals by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to better understand the hazards and sources of certain PBDEs remain in limbo.  Read on to learn more about today’s new study on PBDEs and the stalling of EPA initiatives to help protect us from exposure to them.  Read More »

Also posted in Health Policy, Regulation | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

A gift for mothers (and daughters, and all of us): New tools for breast cancer monitoring and prevention

Rachel Shaffer is a research assistant.

Our mothers are no doubt on our minds right now, after Mother’s Day weekend. And I am no exception, especially since, as I blogged about last year, this month is the anniversary of my own mother’s breast cancer diagnosis.

This year though, in addition to celebrating my mother’s recovery, I can find hope in a new report from researchers at the Silent Spring Institute that provides guidance to improve our ability to screen for and study potential breast carcinogens — thereby enhancing efforts to prevent this widespread disease. Good news, certainly… and a timely gift for all of the women in our lives.

This new report describes biomonitoring methods for 102 breast carcinogens with high exposure potential and identifies existing cohort studies into which these methods could be integrated immediately. These chemicals are among the 216 previously identified by the authors as chemicals linked to mammary gland tumors in rodents. By testing for exposure markers of these priority breast carcinogens in the population, researchers should be able to better identify and study high-risk groups, and regulators will be better able both to limit dangerous exposures and to demonstrate the public health benefits of these exposure reductions.

The full report is available online, but I want to highlight a few key themes that are particularly relevant to current scientific and political debates.  Read More »

Also posted in Emerging Testing Methods, Health Policy, TSCA Reform | Tagged , | Comments closed

Conflicted West Virginia chemical spill panel is repeating many of CDC’s mistakes

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.

Yesterday, the chair of a “Health Effects Expert Panel” convened by the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project (WV TAP) held a press conference to present the panel’s preliminary findings from its review of the “safe” level set by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for MCHM and other chemicals that spilled into the Elk River in early January and contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginia residents.

A final report from the panel apparently won’t be released until May, but a press release issued yesterday sounds far from preliminary in saying the panel supports CDC’s methods, assumptions, toxicity data and “safety factors.”  While providing no details, the release indicates the panel is using the same flawed and incomplete summary of a toxicity study used by CDC in its rush to set a safe level for MCHM.  And it parrots CDC’s erroneous use of the term “safety factors,” which is at odds with the National Academy of Sciences’ strong recommendation that such term should be avoided as it is highly misleading.

In addition to choosing to rely on the same summary CDC used of a 1990 study conducted by MCHM’s manufacturer, Eastman Chemical, the panel accepted at face value Eastman’s interpretation that the study identified a no-effect level.  That conclusion has been questioned and cannot be independently assessed because Eastman has not provided the actual quantitative data from the study.  Moreover, the study used a protocol dating from 1981 that has been extensively revised at least twice since then.  These are among the many problems identified with this study.

It appears the panel’s main departure from CDC was to assume the most highly exposed population would have been formula-fed infants instead of older children.  The panel’s “safe” level is 120 parts per billion (ppb), a value about 8-fold lower than CDC’s level of 1 part per million (ppm).  That seems an improvement over the CDC’s methodology.

The panel’s conflict of interest

However, the process by which the panel itself was formed and the clear conflict of interest (COI) involved – a conflict that only came to light in response to a reporter’s questions at yesterday’s press conference – are deeply concerning.

The company selected by WV TAP to convene the Health Effects Expert Panel is named Toxicology Excellence in Risk Assessment (TERA), founded by Dr. Michael Dourson.  TERA has a long history of working with the petrochemical and related industries.  Acknowledged sources of industry funding noted on its website include the American Petroleum Institute, PPG Industries, Eli Lilly, the American Cleaning Institute (formerly called the Soap and Detergent Association), Procter & Gamble, and the Nickel Producers Environmental Research Association.

While TERA was chosen by WV TAP to convene the Health Effects Expert Panel, TERA’s role is far more substantial.  TERA appointed its own founder, Dr. Dourson, as chair of the panel, and Dourson was the only one of the panel’s members to speak at yesterday’s press conference.

At the press conference, a reporter asked Dourson whether he or TERA had worked for Eastman Chemical, Dow Chemical (the maker of the other chemicals that spilled on January 9) or trade associations that represent their interests.  Dourson’s response to this question was apparently the first public disclosure of his affiliations with these companies.  According to the Charleston Daily Mail:

During the event, Dourson acknowledged his nonprofit organization TERA had conducted some work for Dow Chemical, one of the makers of a chemical believed to have been involved in the spill. He said they’ve also done work for Eastman Chemical, the maker of crude MCHM, but not recently. TERA has done work for the state of West Virginia in the past as well, he said.

On its website, TERA says it’s received between 31 and 40 percent of its funding since 2008 from industry and industry related work. The rest comes from “government and other nonprofit work.”

The fact that an individual and company that have done work directly for the companies that make the spilled chemicals were selected not only to convene the expert panel, but to chair it and serve as its spokesperson, points to a clear conflict of interest.  And the fact that the conflict was only revealed because a reporter happened to ask the right question is even more troubling.

A quick search for recent work done by Dourson and TERA funded by Dow turned up the following:

TERA also convenes and manages several other projects that are heavily funded by the chemical industry and promote its agenda.  These include:

Anyone else see a problem here?

 

Also posted in Industry Influence, States | Tagged , , | Comments closed

Is BPA a carcinogen?

Sarah Vogel, Ph.D., is Director of EDF's Health Program.

Add liver cancer—a childhood cancer on the rise in the US—to the growing list of potential health effects associated with bisphenol A (BPA) exposure that are under scrutiny by researchers.  A recent study by scientists at the University of Michigan, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, is the first ever to report a dose-dependent, statistically significant relationship between perinatal (before and just after birth) exposures to environmentally relevant levels of BPA and development of cancerous liver tumors later in life.

There are three particularly notable features of this study: first, the dose levels used; second, the timing of when those doses were delivered; and third, the age at which effects were observed.  Read More »

Also posted in Emerging Science | Tagged , , | 1 Response, comments now closed

Unnerving developments in the state of the evidence on developmental neurotoxicity

Rachel Shaffer is a research assistant.

Seven years ago, leading children’s environmental health experts Philippe Grandjean and Philip Landrigan published a groundbreaking review that identified five chemicals prevalent in the environment—lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic, and toluene—as developmental neurotoxicants. In their follow-up review released last week, they have added six more chemicals—manganese, fluoride, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), chlorpyrifos, DDT, and tetrachloroethylene (PERC)—to this list. The implications of early-life exposures to these common compounds, say the authors?  A “global silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity.”  Read More »

Also posted in Emerging Science, Health Policy | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Responses, comments now closed

A full month after West Virginia spill, many questions linger … along with the chemical’s distinctive odor

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.

Today marks exactly a month since what is now said to be 10,000 gallons of “crude MCHM” – mixed with what was later found to have included other chemicals – spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River, contaminated 1,700 miles of piping in the water distribution system for nine counties, and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of the state’s residents. 

Despite declining levels of the chemical in the water being fed into the distribution system, late this past week five area schools were closed due to detection of the distinctive licorice-like odor of MCHM and multiple reports of symptoms such as eye irritation, nausea and dizziness among students and staff.

The latest sampling data (for February 7 and 8) at locations such as area fire hydrants and hospitals and at schools shows that MCHM is at non-detect levels (<10 parts per billion) in most samples, but the chemical is still being detected in a minority of the samples despite extensive flushing.  Despite repeated calls to do so, officials appear to have yet to conduct any sampling of taps in residents’ homes.

This past week also featured a press conference by state and federal officials seeking to explain their response to the spill (a video of the entire press conference is available in four parts here; it’s worth watching).  [UPDATE 3/29/14:  As this link no longer works, here are updated links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of the press conference.]

Today’s Charleston Gazette features the latest in a long series of outstanding front-line reports by Ken Ward, Jr., and his colleagues, who have closely followed every twist and turn of both the spill and the government’s response to it.  Today’s article makes clear the extent to which federal officials were winging it in the hours and days after the spill was discovered as they rushed to set a “safe” level for MCHM in tap water.

In this post I’ll delve a little deeper into CDC’s rush to set the “safe” level and the many ways in which CDC inadequately accounted for major data gaps and uncertainties.  I’ll end by saying what I think CDC should have done instead.  Read More »

Also posted in Environment, Health Policy | Tagged , , | 2 Responses, comments now closed

Should we be holding our breath waiting for more information on risks of the chemical spilled in West Virginia?

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.

A hearing held yesterday by the West Virginia Legislature’s Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources created quite a stir, when a witness – West Virginia Environmental Quality Board vice-chairman Scott Simonton – said that the human carcinogen formaldehyde had been detected in several water samples drawn from a Charleston, WV, restaurant, and that people in the area affected by the January 9 spill could be expected to have inhaled the chemical, which he identified as a likely breakdown product of the spilled material, crude MCHM.  See stories in the Charleston Gazette and USA Today.

State officials and the West Virginia American Water company were quick to call Simonton’s claims “unfounded” and “misleading and irresponsible,” respectively.  The controversy led even the American Chemistry Council – which has laid low ever since the spill – to quickly issue its first statement related to the spill through its Formaldehyde Panel.

While experts are noting that data are insufficient to identify the spill as the source of any formaldehyde detected in the water samples, this new kerfuffle does point to yet another major data gap on crude MCHM.

The one part-per-million (1 ppm) “safe” level state and federal officials set was based on limited data from studies in which rats were exposed to crude or pure MCHM through oral ingestionAbsolutely no data are available on the chemical with respect to exposure through inhalation.  Yet officials did not hesitate to tell residents the 1 ppm level would be safe not only for drinking the water, but also for bathing and showering.

(It’s curious that the Eastman Chemical Company apparently performed no inhalation studies on crude or pure MCHM, given that Eastman said its motivation for the studies it did perform was to understand risks to workers in industrial settings, and its safety data sheet for crude MCHM prominently notes the potential for health concerns for workers from inhalation.)

[UPDATE 1/31/14:  This morning, Eastman posted an updated version of its Q&A document on its website (linked to in the above paragraph), and took down the earlier version.  Here is the original version, the updated version dated 1/31/14, and a redline comparison of the two versions.]

Clearly the material that spilled is volatile – that’s why people can smell it.  Taking a hot shower in such water means that people would clearly be exposed via inhalation of the vapor; how much exposure would occur has not been ascertained.  But in the absence of any data as to toxicity of the chemical via inhalation, there is simply no scientific basis on which to say or imply that showering in water contaminated at 1 ppm level was OK.

Chemicals can be more or less toxic by inhalation than by ingestion, with one study finding inhalation to be the more toxic route for half of the chemicals examined and oral ingestion to be the more toxic route for the other half.  Benzene, for example, is estimated to be several hundred times more toxic by inhalation than by ingestion, while inhalation of chloroform is estimated to be about 25-fold lower in toxicity than it is by ingestion.

What such comparisons indicate is that extrapolating from data on oral toxicity to predict inhalation toxicity – which is effectively what government officials did in this case – is about as accurate as flipping a coin.

Also posted in Environment, Health Policy | Tagged , , , | 3 Responses, comments now closed

Getting the data on chemicals is just the beginning

Jennifer McPartland, Ph.D., is a Health Scientist.

Common sense tells us it’s impossible to evaluate the safety of a chemical without any data. We’ve repeatedly highlighted the scarcity of information available on the safety of chemicals found all around us (see for example, here and here).  Much of this problem can be attributed to our broken chemicals law, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA).

But even for those chemicals that have been studied, sometimes for decades, like formaldehyde and phthalates, debate persists about what the scientific data tell us about their specific hazards and risks.  Obtaining data on a chemical is clearly a necessary step for its evaluation, but interpreting and drawing conclusions from the data are equally critical steps – and arguably even more complicated and controversial. 

How should we evaluate the quality of data in a study? How should we compare data from one study relative to other studies? How should we handle discordant results across similar studies?  How should we integrate data across different study designs (e.g., a human epidemiological study and a fruit fly study)? These are just a few examples of key questions that must be grappled with when determining the toxicity or risks of a chemical.  And they lie at the heart of the controversy and criticism surrounding chemical assessment programs such as EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). 

Recently, a number of efforts have been made to systematize the process of study evaluation, with the goal of creating a standardized approach for unbiased and objective identification, evaluation, and integration of available data on a chemical.  These approaches go by the name of systematic review

Groups like the National Toxicology Program’s Office of Health Assessment and Translation (OHAT) and the UCSF-led Navigation Guide collaboration have been working to adapt systematic review methodologies from the medical field for application to environmental chemicals.  IRIS has also begun an effort to integrate systematic review into its human health assessments. 

Recently a paper in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) by Krauth et al. systematically identified and reviewed tools currently in use to evaluate the quality of toxicology studies conducted in laboratory animals.  The authors found significant variability across the tools; this finding has significant consequences when reviewing the evidence for chemical hazard or risk, as we pointed out in our subsequent commentary (“A Valuable Contribution toward Adopting Systematic Review in Environmental Health,” Dec 2013). 

EDF applauds these and other efforts to adopt systematic review in the evaluation of chemical safety.  Further elaboration of EDF’s perspective on systematic review can be found here

 

Also posted in Health Policy, Regulation | Tagged , | Comments closed
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