From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #917, Jul. 26, 2007
TOXIC LEAD IS STILL ROBBING OUR CHILDREN OF BRAIN POWER
By Peter Montague
In a front-page story June 22, the New York Times reported that a first-born child typically has a 3-point IQ advantage over any brothers or sisters born later. The editors of the Times considered this information so important that they featured it in a second news story, an op-ed commentary, and four letters to the editor.
Here is how the Times initially described the importance of a 3-point IQ advantage:
"Three points on an I.Q. test may not sound like much. But experts say it can be a tipping point for some people -- the difference between a high B average and a low A, for instance. That, in turn, can have a cumulative effect that could mean the difference between admission to an elite private liberal-arts college and a less exclusive public one."
The Times did not mention it, but for some children the loss of 3 IQ points could mean the difference between a high D average and a low C, with a cumulative effect that could mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out.
In other words, a 3-point loss of IQ may be crucially important in every child's life, not just those headed for the Ivy League.
The U.S. Department of Labor says 19 million jobs will be created in the next decade and 12 million of them (63%) will require education beyond high-school. As the globalized economy puts U.S. workers under greater competitive pressure, workers are expected to survive by retraining themselves 2 or 3 times during their working years. In this new world, every IQ point takes on new importance.
Unfortunately, the loss of 4 to 7 IQ points is far more widespread among U.S. children than anyone has so far reported, except in obscure medical journals.
One of the main causes of widespread loss of IQ is the toxic metal, lead, which is a potent neurotoxin. This soft gray metal was widely used in paint, in leaded gasoline, in sealing "tin" cans, and in water pipes throughout most of the 20th century, and the residuals are still taking a toll today in the form of peeling paint, toxic house-dust in older homes, contaminated soil, and a measurable body burden in almost all our children.
The most common units of measurement for lead in blood are micrograms per deciLiter of blood (ug/dL). A microgram is a millionth of a gram and there are 28 grams in an ounce. A deciLiter is a tenth of a liter and a liter is roughly a quart.
As lead in your blood goes up, your IQ goes down. And paradoxically the first few micrograms of lead are the most damaging.
As a child's lead rises from less than 1 ug/dL up to 10, he or she loses an average of 7 IQ points.[7,8,9,10] If lead continues rising from 10 to 20, another 2 IQ points get shaved off. The first 5 ug/dL reduce a child's IQ by about 4 points.[7,8,9,10]
According to the latest available data, 26 percent of all children in the U.S. between the ages of 1 and 5 have 5 to 10 micrograms of toxic lead in each deciLiter of blood -- which corresponds to a loss of 4 to 7 IQ points.[7,8,9,10] The estimate of lead in blood was published in December 2003, covering the period 1988-1994. Average levels today are probably somewhat lower because the trend for lead in children's blood is downward.
Unfortunately this 26% average for all U.S. children masks a disproportionate effect among non-whites, who tend to live in families with low income and in older homes that may have peeling paint containing toxic lead.
In the 2003 report, nearly half (47%) of non-Hispanic Black children ages 1 to 5 had blood lead levels in the range of 5 to 10 ug/dL, which corresponds to a loss of 4 to 7 IQ points. Nineteen percent of white children and 28% of Hispanic children fell in the same range.
This means that exposure to toxic lead is still a huge problem in the U.S., robbing more than a million children each year of the intellectual potential they were born with.
Unfortunately, there is widespread misunderstanding (and muddled reporting in the media) about this problem, due in no small part to confusing and contradictory policies set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). State governments by and large just go along.
Prior to 1971, doctors only treated children for lead poisoning if they had more than 60 ug/dL. At this level many children died, and those who survived had major permanent brain damage. Permanent damage from lead poisoning was well documented at least as early as 1943, but it wasn't until 1971 that the definition of "elevated" lead in children's blood was reduced to 40 ug/dL. By 1978, it was apparent that children were still being brain-damaged at 40 ug/dL, so the definition of "elevated" was reduced to 30. In 1985, the definition of "elevated" was reduced again, to 25, and in 1991 it was reduced again, to 10 ug/dL.
In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reaffirmed its 10 ug/dL "level of concern," using tortured logic. CDC first acknowledged that "there is no 'safe' threshold for blood lead levels." [15, pg. ix] In other words, CDC acknowledges that any amount of lead greater than zero causes some harm. CDC then says, "Although there is evidence of adverse health effects in children with blood lead levels below 10 ug/dL, CDC has not changed its level of concern, which remains at levels equal to or greater than 10 ug/dL.... If no threshold level exists for adverse health effects, setting a new BLL [blood lead level] of concern somewhere below 10 ug/dL would be based on an arbitrary decision," CDC says.[15, pg. ix]
In other words, since any amount of lead in blood greater than zero is harmful to children, then 10 is as good a number as any for defining where the problem begins. It's like saying automobiles are dangerous at any speed above zero, so setting the legal speed limit at 100 mph is as good as any other number.
So this is where it stands today: CDC says children are being harmed at levels below 10, yet CDC retains its official "level of concern" of 10 because picking any number below 10 (except zero) would be arbitrary.
It gets worse: CDC says 10 ug/dL is the "level of concern" but finding 10 ug/dL in a child's blood still does not trigger official attention to that individual child. When a community finds 10 ug/dL in some of its children, it is supposed to take community-wide action to prevent lead exposures -- urging homeowners to wet-mop to reduce household dust, for example. Yes, this will help, but it is an adequate response?
By current CDC guidelines, a child must have 15 ug/dL before the local health department is supposed to initiate "case management," visiting the home, for example, to discuss ways to reduce exposure. If a child has 20 ug/dL or more, then serious intervention may be initiated -- forcing homeowners or landlords to remove sources of lead (such as old paint) from the home, for example.
But here's the worst news: CDC's "level of concern" is widely interpreted as a "safe" level by other government agencies. It was never intended as such. As one lead researcher has written, "Although the CDC's intervention level is not a statement concerning the level of childhood blood lead considered 'safe' or 'acceptable,' it has been interpreted as such by the general public and by federal regulatory agencies." And, we should add, by state agencies as well.
For example, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has never set a "reference dose" for inorganic lead, as it has for several other neurotoxins about which far less information is available. EPA uses CDC's logic: it cannot find a level of exposure to lead that is "likely to be without deleterious effects during a lifetime" of exposure. So it ignores the problem by refusing to set a reference dose.
As you can probably gather from this description, CDC guidelines do not flag 10 ug/dL as a serious threat to children. And that is the way it is understood across America, as a recent scan of newspapers revealed [with my comments inside square brackets]:
** The Wasau (Wisc.) Daily Herald reported May 27, 2007, that in Marathon County, Wisconsin, 1617 children were tested "with 43 registering levels higher than 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood." [With only 43 out of 1617 affected, the problem doesn't sound very serious, does it?]
** The Arizona Daily Star reported Feb. 4, 2007 that only 1 percent of children in Pima County have "elevated blood-lead levels." [Only 1 percent? Sounds like the problem has been solved, doesn't it?]
** The Westerly, Rhode Island, Sun reported Feb. 3, 2007 that "In 2005, about two percent of 31,669 children screened in Rhode Island, or 621 children, showed an elevated lead count in their blood..." [Only two percent -- sounds like the problem is small.]
** In Fitchburg, Massachusetts the Sentinel & Enterprise reported Nov. 6, 2006, that childhood lead poisoning has dropped from 8.2 per 1000 children in 1998 to 2.7 per 1000 in 2005 (with "lead poisoning" defined as 20 ug/dL). [Sounds like the problem is small and under control.]
** The Denver Post reported April 29, 2007, "About 38 out of every 100,000 children under the age of 6 tested in Colorado in 2003-04 showed elevated levels of lead." [Only 38 out of 100,000? Sounds like the problem has been solved.]
** The Erie (Pa.) Times-News reported Dec. 3, 2006, "... the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 310,000 children nationwide between the ages of 1 and 5 have blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or greater. Ten micrograms per deciliter is the federal threshold for lead poisoning in children that can result in development, learning and behavior problems." [A wonderfully clear statement of the point I'm making -- 10 ug/dL is almost universally reported as a level below which there are no real problems.]
To be fair, several of these news stories quoted one individual or another (often a community activist) saying that levels of lead below 10 can cause problems in children -- but none of the stories mentions the number of children exposed at levels below 10. It's as if levels below 10 don't really matter. All the published numerical estimates are expressed in terms of CDC's official "level of concern" -- and all the published estimates make the problem appear small.
The habit of only reporting 10 ug/dL or more comes directly from CDC itself and from state health departments, many of whom measure, but do not publish, data on lead in blood below 10 ug/dL. For example, here is how the New Jersey state health department presented its summary of lead in N.J. children in 2005 (the latest year for which N.J. data are available):
"While 191,788 (97.7%) children tested in New Jersey in FY 2005 had blood lead levels below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) threshold of 10 ug/dL, there were 4,547 (2.3%) children with a blood lead test result above this level."[18, pg. 7]
So in all of New Jersey, only 2.3% of children rise to the level of concern defined by CDC. This is very different from estimating, for example, that about 140,000 kids younger than 5 in New Jersey have lost 4 to 7 IQ points because they have 5 to 10 ug/dL lead in their blood.
Numerical data on how many children have lead levels below 10 ug/dL seem to be a closely guarded secret. A review of dozens of published reports on lead in children's blood since 1985 uncovered only one report that estimated the proportion of children in the U.S. with 5 to 10 ug/dL. The federal government and many state governments collect this data -- but none of them publish it. They focus instead on the small number of children with more than 10 ug/dL, continuing the illusion that 10 or more is the only amount that matters.
How could a small amount like 5 ug/dL harm anyone?
How could such a small amount of lead -- 5 ug in each deciLiter of blood -- cause brain damage? One way to understand such a question is to ask about the environment in which our species, Homo sapiens, evolved. How much lead are humans accustomed to?
From modern studies, scientists know the relationship of lead in blood to lead in bones. So in 1992, a group of scientists measured lead in the bones of pre-industrial humans, for the purpose of estimating "natural background" (pre-industrial) levels of lead in blood. They concluded that the natural background level of lead in human blood is 0.016 ug/dL -- so 5 ug/dL represents a level 300 times as high as natural background.
A 300-fold increase in a potent nerve poison seems certain to take its toll on humans so exposed, especially if they are exposed during early childhood, when their brains are developing rapidly.
Brain damage is not the only harm caused by lead at levels below 10 ug/dL. In 2004, CDC asked a panel of experts to evaluate and summarize the current scientific literature on adverse health effects associated with blood lead levels less than 10 ug/dL. [See the Appendix in footnote 15.]
They found that intellectual impairment -- brain damage -- was number one, but they also found:
** Reduced height and head circumference as blood lead levels rise above 1 ug/dL.
** Delayed sexual maturation. Two studies observed late puberty in girls with blood lead levels in the range of 2 to 5 ug/dL. This seems to indicate that lead is interfering with the endocrine (hormone) system.
** Dental caries (popularly known as "cavities" in teeth) were more likely to develop as a child's blood lead level rose from 1 to 3 ug/dL.
And a study too recent to have been included in the Appendix has shown that a child is 4 times as likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when blood lead levels reached 2 ug/dL or greater, compared to children with lead at 1 ug/dL. In the U.S., an estimated 4.4 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD.
So the problem is large -- but the government and the media together have managed to make it appear small. Yes, we have made progress in curbing the very substantial harm done to ourselves and our children by the paint and gasoline corporations during the 20th century. But we've still got a long way to go.
To make any real progress, government agencies need to stop pretending that this problem has been solved. Publishing all the available data on lead in children's blood would be a good start. Yes, parents would find it disturbing and there might be an uproar. That's as it should be.
 Benedict Carey, "Research Finds Firstborns Gain The Higher IQ," New York Times June 22, 2007, pg. A1. http://tinyurl.com/26nbc4
 Benedict Carey, "Findings on Birth Order and IQ Prompt Debate on Influence of Family Dynamics," New York Times June 25, 2007, pg. A17. http://tinyurl.com/yofxms
 Benedict Carey, "I Am Worm, Hear Me Roar," New York Times July 1, 2007, Week in Review, pg. 1.
 "Mom Always Said You Were Smarter," New York Times June 29, 2007, pg. A28.
 Mason M. Bishop, "Promoting U.S. Worker Competitiveness; Statement of Mason M. Bishop, Deputy Assistant Secretary For Employment and Training, U.S. Department of Labor before the Committee on House Ways and Means June 14, 2007." http://tinyurl.com/yvtwgp
 Occasionally you will see lead in blood reported in micromoles per liter; if you have micromoles per liter and you want ug/dL, multiply by 20.704; conversely, if you have ug/dL and you want micromoles per liter, multiply by 0.0483.
 Richard L. Canfield and others, "Intellectual Impairment in Children with Blood lead Concentrations below 10 ug per Deciliter," New England Journal of Medicine Vol. 348, No. 16 (April 17, 2003), [pgs. 1517-1526. http://tinyurl.com/26l24n See Figure 2.
 Bruce P. Lanphear and others, "Low-level Environmental Lead Exposure and Children's Intellectual Function: An International Pooled Analysis," Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 113, No. 7 (July 2005), pgs. 894-899. http://tinyurl.com/2b6yv7 See Figures 3 and 4.
 Bruce P. Lanphear and others, "Cognitive Deficits Associated with Blood lead Concentrations <10 ug/dL in US Children and Adolescents," Public Health Reports Vol. 115, No. 6 (Nov/Dec 2000), pgs. 521-529. http://tinyurl.com/2fn4lp
 David C. Bellinger and others. "Low-Level Lead Exposure, Intelligence, and Academic Achievement: A Long-term Follow-up Study," Pediatrics Vol. 90, No. 6 (December 1992), pgs. 855-861. http://tinyurl.com/2rmvqq
 Susan M. Bernard and Michael A. McGeehin, "Prevalence of Blood Lead Levels Greater Than or Equal to 5 ug/dL Among US Children 1 to 5 Years of Age and Socioeconomic and Demographic Factors Associated with Blood of Lead Levels 5 to 10 ug/dL, Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988-1994," Pediatrics Vol. 112, No. 6 (December 2003), pgs. 1308-1313. http://tinyurl.com/3y5arc
 There are about 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year; if 25% have lead between 5 and 10 ug/dL that's a million babies harmed. This number omits some immigrants and children with lead levels above 10 ug/dL.
 Walter J. Rogan and James H. Ware, "Exposure to Lead in Children -- How Low is Low Enough?," New England Journal of Medicine Vol. 348, No. 16 (April 17, 2003), pgs. 1515-1516. http://tinyurl.com/26wx7b
 Centers for Disease Control, Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children (Atlanta, Ga.: October 1, 1991). http://tinyurl.com/2db87t
 Centers for Disease Control, Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children; A Statement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Atlanta, Ga.: August, 2005). [Contains an important Appendix: Work Group of the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention. A Review of Evidence of Adverse Health Effects Associated with Blood Lead Levels < 10 ug/dL in Children, August 2005.] http://tinyurl.com/3daf3q
 Susan M. Bernard, "Should the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Childhood Lead Poisoning Intervention Level Be Lowered?" American Journal of Public Health Vol. 93, No. 8 (August 2003), pgs. 1253-1260. http://tinyurl.com/yrk6fl See also http://tinyurl.com/2dbyhq.
 "Blood Lead Levels -- United States, 1999-2002," MMWR [Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report] Vol. 54, No. 20 (May 27, 2005), pgs. 513-516. http://tinyurl.com/ypsoqz
 New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. Childhood Lead Poisoning in New Jersey. Trenton, N.J.: New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, 2005. [Covers the period July 1, 2004 to June 30, 2005] http://tinyurl.com/2gmgth
 Even the 4,547 number gives an overly-optimistic impression of the situation in New Jersey in 2005. In July, 2005, there were 563,900 children under age 5 in New Jersey. http://tinyurl.com/258uoy. If 2.3% of these have lead levels of at least 10 ug/dL, that's 12,970 kids who have lost at least 7 IQ points. And if one-quarter of the 563,900 have 5 to 10 ug/dL, that's about 140,000 kids who have lost 4 to 7 IQ points to lead.
 A. Russell Flegal and others, "Lead Levels in Preindustrial Humans," New England Journal of Medicine Vol. 326, No. 19 (May 7, 1992), pgs. 1293-1294. http://tinyurl.com/38rnq3
 Joe M. Braun and others, "Exposure to Environmental Toxicants and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in U.S. Children," Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 114, No. 12 (December 2006), pgs. 1904-1909. http://tinyurl.com/2ohcwf
 "Mental Health in the United States: Prevalence of Diagnosis and Medication Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder -- United States, 2003." MMWR [Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report] Vol. 54, No. 34 (September 2, 2005), pgs. 842-847. http://tinyurl.com/2u38fc
More Readings on Harm from Blood Lead Levels Below 10 ug/dL
American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Environmental Health. "Lead Exposure in Children: Prevention, Detection, and Management," Pediatrics Vol. 116, No. 4 (October 4, 2005), pgs. 1036-1046. http://tinyurl.com/2at8fq
Bellinger, David C. "Lead." Pediatrics Vol. 113, No. 4 (April, 2004), pgs. 1016-1022. http://tinyurl.com/2k33vv
Bellinger, David C. and Herbert L. Needleman. "Intellectual Impairment and Blood Lead Levels." New England Journal of Medicine Vol. 349, No. 5 (July 31, 2003), pg. 500. http://tinyurl.com/2btyj8
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Environmental Health. "Why not change the blood lead level of concern at this time?" Accessed (and captured as a PDF file) on the CDC web site August 7, 2004; available in PDF at http://tinyurl.com/2a3vft
Chen, Aimin, and others. "Lead Exposure, IQ, and Behavior in Urban 5- to 7-Year-Olds: Does Lead Affect Behavior Only by Lowering IQ?" Pediatrics Vol. 119, No. 3 (March 3, 2007), pgs. e650-e658. http://tinyurl.com/2dq3mo
Chiodo, Lisa M. and others. "Neurodevelopmental effects of postnatal lead exposure at very low levels." Neurotoxicology and Teratology Vol. 26 (2004), pgs. 359-371. http://tinyurl.com/2zo7y6
Committee on Environmental Health, American Academy of Pediatrics. "Policy Statement -- Lead Exposure in Children: Prevention, Detection, and Management." Pediatrics Vol. 116, No. 4 (October 2005), pgs. 1036-1046. http://tinyurl.com/2at8fq
Needleman, Herbert L. "Deficits in the Psychologic and Classroom Performance of Children with Elevated Dentine Lead Levels," New England Journal of Medicine Vol. 300, No. 13 (March 29, 1979), pgs. 689-695. http://tinyurl.com/2wj8l8
Needleman, Herbert L. "Lead Poisoning," Annual Review of Medicine Vol. 55 (2004), pgs. 209-222. http://tinyurl.com/2jgw2j
Needleman, Herbert L., and Philip J. Landrigan, "What Level of Lead in Blood is Toxic for a Child?" American Journal of Public Health Vol. 94, No. 1 (January 2004), pg. 8. http://tinyurl.com/2dbyhq
"Neurodevelopment inversely related to blood lead levels <10 mcg/dL," Blood Weekly (Oct. 12, 2006), pg. 73. http://tinyurl.com/ytzfrx
Schnaas, Lourdes, and other. "Reduced Intellectual Development in Children with Prenatal Lead Exposure." Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 114, No. 5 (May 2006), pgs. 791-797. http://tinyurl.com/2dq3mo
Schwartz, Joel. "Low-Level Exposures and Children's IQ: A Meta- analysis and Search for a Threshold." Environmental Research Vol. 65 (1994), pgs. 42-55. http://tinyurl.com/2c63nc
Shih, Regina A., and others. "Cumulative Lead Dose and Cognitive Function in Adults: A Review of Studies That Measured Both Blood Lead and Bone Lead." Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 115, No. 3 (March 2007), pgs. 483-492. http://tinyurl.com/2kcvhk
From: New York Times
FDA SAYS NO NEW LABELING OR REGULATIONS FOR NANOTECH PRODUCTS
CHICAGO (Reuters) -- The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday said the rising number of cosmetics, drugs and other products made using nanotechnology do not require special regulations or labeling.
The recommendations come as the agency looks at the oversight of products that employ the design and use of particles as small as one- billionth of a meter. There are fears by consumer groups and others that these tiny particles are unpredictable, could be toxic and therefore have unforeseen health impacts.
A task force within the FDA concluded that although nano-sized materials may have completely different properties than their bigger counterparts, there is no evidence that they pose any major safety risks at this time.
"We believe we do not have scientific evidence about nano-sized materials posing safety questions that merit being mentioned on the label," said Dr. Randall Lutter, FDA's associate commissioner for policy and planning, during a briefing with reporters.
As least 300 consumers products, including sunscreen, toothpaste and shampoo are now made using nanotechnology, according to a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars report.
The technology is also being used in medicine, where scientists are developing tiny sensors that detect disease markers in the body, and in the food industry, which is using it to extend shelf life in food packaging.
The FDA now treats products made with nanotechnology the same way it handles all products -- requiring companies to prove safety and efficacy before their product can come to market.
But some product categories, such as cosmetics, foods and dietary supplements are not subject to FDA oversight before they are sold, which already worries some advocates. Producing them with nanotechnology adds another layer of concern.
The International Center for Technology Assessment, a nonprofit policy group that is suing the FDA calling for more oversight over the technology, said the recommendations lack teeth.
"Nano means more than just tiny. It means these materials can be fundamentally different, exhibiting chemical and physical properties that are drastically different," said George Kimbrell, staff attorney at the group. "The consumer is being made the guinea pig."
The group sites studies showing certain types of the particles can cause inflammatory and immune system responses in animals as an example of possible dangers.
The FDA said it will soon issue guidance documents for industries using nanotechnology, which include pharmaceutical companies, medical device makers and consumer products firms.
Lutter said the task force concluded that nanotechnology is not substantially different from earlier emerging technologies such as biotechnology or irradiation.
Copyright 2007 Reuters Ltd.
A VERY, VERY SMALL OPPORTUNITY
By David Rejeski
Over the last few decades, scientists have developed tools that allow them to see and manipulate matter at an atomic scale, down to a nanometer (that's around one eighty-thousandth the width of a human hair). Nano is an invisible technology with big impacts that almost nobody is talking about; bring manufacturing down to a nanoscale and you have the makings of the next industrial revolution.
Government and industry are betting that nanotechnology will allow us to create new properties from old matter, making materials stronger and lighter, for instance, and even create whole new forms of matter. If you talk with investors, they will tell you that nano is the next big thing.
By 2014, nanotechnology is expected to account for over $1.4 trillion of global economic production. Like most technological revolutions, this one will have some downsides. Animal studies have shown that nanoparticles can enter the bloodstream, cross the blood-brain barrier, and damage tissue and DNA -- reasons for concern, and for more research.
Given the size of the global investment, possible risks, and what's at stake for our lives, our economy, and the environment, you might ask: "Shouldn't we be having a conversation about this technology?" Yet recent surveys have shown that 70 to 80 percent of Americans have heard "nothing" or "very little" about nanotech, despite its potentially transformative effects on medicine, agriculture, computation, defense, and energy production.
This is nothing new. When was the last time the government asked you how to spend your taxes on science? That didn't happen with nuclear power, genetics, or agricultural biotechnology. For people who lived through the biotech revolution, nanotech is a flashback: the collision of rapidly advancing technology with lagging public understanding, which could scuttle billions of dollars in public and private sector investment in nanotech and jeopardize some real breakthroughs, like better treatments for cancer and far cheaper solar energy.
It doesn't have to be this way. In nanotechnology we find an unprecedented opportunity to do things differently, to develop a social contract between the public and the scientific community that is built on openness and trust. And that begins with a conversation.
For the past two years, a number of surveys and focus groups have been conducted around public attitudes toward nanotechnology. When given some balanced background material on nanotechnology and its potential benefits and risks, few people in the U.S. want to shut down scientific progress. But most do not trust industry to self-regulate. They want effective oversight, more disclosure and transparency, premarket testing, and testing done by independent, third parties -- all rational expectations for a new science with some inherent risks. These are expectations that could form the foundation for a new social contract between society and science that helps define mechanisms for oversight, industry disclosure, better risk research, and public consultation.
Movement in this direction is starting at a community level. Berkeley, California, recently passed the world's first nanotechnology ordinance, requiring nanotech firms within city limits to detail what they are producing and what they know about its risks; Cambridge, Massachusetts, may do the same. NGOs are asking valid questions about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, and media coverage is finally expanding beyond the science journals. If we are on the cusp of the next industrial revolution, we need a public conversation about our goals. Nano may be the small technology that creates that large opportunity.
David Rejeski is the director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
DIOXINS LINKED WITH BEHAVIORAL DISORDERS
By Robert Weinhold
Two clinically significant behavioral disorders, namely learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder, have been linked with low or average blood serum concentrations of two dioxins and one furan.
Researchers say these are the first indicators of a connection between such levels of persistent organic pollutants and diagnosed behavioral problems in children in the general population. Previous work has shown a correlation between these chemicals and reductions in cognitive function indicators. The findings, by Duk-Hee Lee with Kyungpook National University School of Medicine (South Korea) and colleagues from Spain and the U.S., were published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (2007, 61, 591-596).
The team discovered the link after reviewing 1999-2000 data for seven polychlorinated compounds as well as lead and cadmium from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. In 278 children aged 12-15, those who had detectable concentrations of three of the polychlorinated compounds were about 2-3 times as likely as those without detectable concentrations to report that they had been diagnosed with a learning disability. The researchers also found that exposure to two of those three compounds was linked with reports of a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder. The affected children tended to be white and to have mothers who were younger and smoked during pregnancy.
The tested concentrations of the three implicated compounds -- 1,2,3,4,6,7,8-heptachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (HPCDD); 1,2,3,4,6,7,8,9- octachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin(OCDD); and 1,2,3,4,6,7,8- heptachlorodibenzofuran (HPCDF) -- were in the middle or lower end of the concentration ranges in the CDC's Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.
These compounds usually are generated by certain chlorination, manufacturing, or incineration processes. Human exposures largely occur via breast milk or contaminated meat, milk, eggs, or fish.
The researchers acknowledge that limitations of the study preclude firm conclusions about the cause-effect relationships of these substances and behavioral disorders. However, they say that their research -- including the discovery that these results would not have been predicted by using accepted toxic equivalency factors -- adds to the growing knowledge and uncertainties about the neurotoxic effects of dioxins and furans.
POLLUTION-CHOLESTEROL LINK TO HEART DISEASE SEEN
By Marla Cone
Strengthening the link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease, new research suggests that people with high cholesterol are especially vulnerable to heart disease when they are exposed to diesel exhaust and other ultra-fine particles that are common pollutants in urban air.
Microscopic particles in diesel exhaust combine with cholesterol to activate genes that trigger hardening of the arteries, according to a study by UCLA scientists to be published today.
"Their combination creates a dangerous synergy that wreaks cardiovascular havoc far beyond what's caused by the diesel or cholesterol alone," said Dr. Andre Nel, chief of nanomedicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a researcher at UCLA's California NanoSystems Institute. He led a team of 10 scientists who conducted the study, published in an online version of the journal Genome Biology.
Although diet, smoking and other factors contribute to the risk of cardiovascular disease -- the leading cause of death in the Western world -- scientists have long believed that air pollution, particularly tiny pieces of soot from trucks and factories, plays a major role, too.
For years, scientists around the world have reported that on days when fine-particle pollution increases, deaths from lung diseases, heart attacks and strokes rise substantially. Riverside County and the San Gabriel Valley have among the worst fine-particle pollution in the nation.
The scientists say their study, conducted on human cells as well as on mice, is the first to explain how particulates in the air activate genes that can cause heart attacks or strokes.
The researchers exposed human blood cells to a combination of diesel particles and oxidized fats, then extracted their DNA. Working together, the particles and fats switched on genes that cause inflammation of blood vessels, which leads to clogged arteries, or atherosclerosis.
The team then duplicated the findings in living animals by exposing mice to a high-fat diet and freeway exhaust in downtown Los Angeles. The same artery-clogging gene groups were activated in the mice.
The scientists reported that diesel particles may enter the body's circulatory system from the lungs, and then react with fats in the arteries to alter how genes are activated, triggering inflammation that causes heart disease. Other research has shown similar inflammatory damage in lungs exposed to fine particles. Diesel exhaust has also been linked to lung cancer, asthma attacks and DNA damage.
"Our results emphasize the importance of controlling air pollution as another tool for preventing cardiovascular disease," said Ke Wei Gong, a UCLA cardiology researcher who was one of the study's authors.
In many urban areas, including the Los Angeles region, ultra-fine particles are the most concentrated near freeways, mostly from diesel exhaust, which is spewed by trucks, buses, off-road vehicles and other vehicle engines.
For decades, California and local air-quality regulators have been ratcheting down particulate emissions from trucks and other sources, but the airborne levels in most of the Los Angeles region still frequently exceed federal health standards.
"There are a few hot spots throughout the country that compete with Los Angeles from time to time, but in general, we tend to have the highest levels here," Nel said.
Exposed in a mobile laboratory moving down the freeway, the mice breathed a concentration of fine particles, 362 micrograms per cubic meter of air. That was five times higher than the peak that people in the San Gabriel Valley were exposed to last year.
However, humans breathe polluted air every day for decades, whereas the mice in the study were exposed five hours per day, three days per week, for eight weeks.
"The levels were high, but they came from real freeway exhaust so they were not artificially high," Nel said. "It was almost within the realm of what we are exposed to."
Diesel particles contain free radicals, which damage tissues, and so do the fatty acids in cholesterol.
The study aimed to find out what happened when these two sources of oxidation came in contact.
In the cells exposed to just the cholesterol or just the diesel, the effects on the genes were much less pronounced. More than 1,500 genes were turned on, and 759 were turned off, when diesel particles were combined with the fats.
"Now that we see this genetic footprint, we have a better understanding of how the injury occurs due to air pollution particles," Nel said.
The UCLA scientists hope to transform the gene changes to a biomarker, which experts can then use to predict which people are most susceptible to heart disease from air pollution.
The smaller the particle, the more harm it can cause. More artery- clogging genes were activated in mice exposed to the ultra-fine particles in diesel exhaust than in those exposed to larger particles in the air. Smaller particles generally come from sources of combustion -- mostly vehicles.
From: Los Angeles Times (pg. A18)
EDITORIAL -- A WARMING WORLD: NO TO NUKES
Japan sees nuclear power as a solution to global warming, but it's paying a price. Last week, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake caused dozens of problems at the world's biggest nuclear plant, leading to releases of radioactive elements into the air and ocean and an indefinite shutdown. Government and company officials initially downplayed the incident and stuck to the official line that the country's nuclear plants are earthquake-proof, but they gave way in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Japan has a sordid history of serious nuclear accidents or spills followed by cover-ups.
It isn't alone. The U.S. government allows nuclear plants to operate under a level of secrecy usually reserved for the national security apparatus. Last year, for example, about nine gallons of highly enriched uranium spilled at a processing plant in Tennessee, forming a puddle a few feet from an elevator shaft. Had it dripped into the shaft, it might have formed a critical mass sufficient for a chain reaction, releasing enough radiation to kill or burn workers nearby. A report on the accident from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was hidden from the public, and only came to light because one of the commissioners wrote a memo on it that became part of the public record.
The dream that nuclear power would turn atomic fission into a force for good rather than destruction unraveled with the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 and the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. No U.S. utility has ordered a new nuclear plant since 1978 (that order was later canceled), and until recently it seemed none ever would. But rising natural gas prices and worries about global warming have put the nuclear industry back on track. Many respected academics and environmentalists argue that nuclear power must be part of any solution to climate change because nuclear power plants don't release greenhouse gases.
They make a weak case. The enormous cost of building nuclear plants, the reluctance of investors to fund them, community opposition and an endless controversy over what to do with the waste ensure that ramping up the nuclear infrastructure will be a slow process -- far too slow to make a difference on global warming. That's just as well, because nuclear power is extremely risky. What's more, there are cleaner, cheaper, faster alternatives that come with none of the risks.
Modern nuclear plants are much safer than the Soviet-era monstrosity at Chernobyl. But accidents can and frequently do happen. The Union of Concerned Scientists cites 51 cases at 41 U.S. nuclear plants in which reactors have been shut down for more than a year as evidence of serious and widespread safety problems.
Nuclear plants are also considered attractive terrorist targets, though that risk too has been reduced. Provisions in the 2005 energy bill required threat assessments at nuclear plants and background checks on workers. What hasn't improved much is the risk of spills or even meltdowns in the event of natural disasters such as earthquakes, making it mystifying why anyone would consider building reactors in seismically unstable places like Japan (or California, which has two, one at San Onofre and the other in Morro Bay).
Weapons proliferation is an even more serious concern. The uranium used in nuclear reactors isn't concentrated enough for anything but a dirty bomb, but the same labs that enrich uranium for nuclear fuel can be used to create weapons-grade uranium. Thus any country, such as Iran, that pursues uranium enrichment for nuclear power might also be building a bomb factory. It would be more than a little hypocritical for the U.S. to expand its own nuclear power capacity while forbidding countries it doesn't like from doing the same.
The risks increase when spent fuel is recycled. Five countries reprocess their spent nuclear fuel, and the Bush administration is pushing strongly to do the same in the U.S. Reprocessing involves separating plutonium from other materials to create new fuel. Plutonium is an excellent bomb material, and it's much easier to steal than enriched uranium. Spent fuel is so radioactive that it would burn a prospective thief to death, while plutonium could be carried out of a processing center in one's pocket. In Japan, 200 kilograms of plutonium from a waste recycling plant have gone missing; in Britain, 30 kilograms can't be accounted for. These have been officially dismissed as clerical errors, but the nuclear industry has never been noted for its truthfulness or transparency. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki contained six kilograms.
Technology might be able to solve the recycling problem, but the question of what to do with the waste defies answers. Even the recycling process leaves behind highly radioactive waste that has to be disposed of. This isn't a temporary issue: Nuclear waste remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years. The only way to get rid of it is to put it in containers and bury it deep underground -- and pray that geological shifts or excavations by future generations that have forgotten where it's buried don't unleash it on the surface.
No country in the world has yet built a permanent underground waste repository, though Finland has come the closest. In the U.S., Congress has been struggling for decades to build a dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada but has been unable to overcome fierce local opposition. One can hardly blame the Nevadans. Not many people would want 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste buried in their neighborhood or transported through it on the way to the dump.
The result is that nuclear waste is stored on-site at the power plants, increasing the risk of leaks and the danger to plant workers. Eventually, we'll run out of space for it.
Given the drawbacks, it's surprising that anybody would seriously consider a nuclear renaissance. But interest is surging; the NRC expects applications for up to 28 new reactors in the next two years. Even California, which has a 31-year-old ban on construction of nuclear plants, is looking into it. Last month, the state Energy Commission held a hearing on nuclear power, and a group of Fresno businessmen plans a ballot measure to assess voter interest in rescinding the state's ban.
Behind all this is a perception that nuclear power is needed to help fight climate change. But there's little chance that nuclear plants could be built quickly enough to make much difference. The existing 104 nuclear plants in the U.S., which supply roughly 20% of the nation's electricity, are old and nearing the end of their useful lives. Just to replace them would require building a new reactor every four or five months for the next 40 years. To significantly increase the nation's nuclear capacity would require far more.
The average nuclear plant is estimated to cost about $4 billion. Because of the risks involved, there is scarce interest among investors in putting up the needed capital. Nor have tax incentives and subsidies been enough to lure them. In part, that's because the regulatory process for new plants is glacially slow. The newest nuclear plant in the U.S. opened in 1996, after having been ordered in 1970 -- a 26-year gap. Though a carbon tax or carbon trading might someday make the economics of nuclear power more attractive, and the NRC has taken steps to speed its assessments, community opposition remains high, and it could still take more than a decade to get a plant built.
Meanwhile, a 2006 study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research found that for nuclear power to play a meaningful role in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the world would need to build a new plant every one to two weeks until mid-century. Even if that were feasible, it would overwhelm the handful of companies that make specialized parts for nuclear plants, sending costs through the roof.
The accelerating threat of global warming requires innovation and may demand risk-taking, but there are better options than nuclear power. A combination of energy-efficiency measures, renewable power like wind and solar, and decentralized power generators are already producing more energy worldwide than nuclear power plants. Their use is expanding more quickly, and the decentralized approach they represent is more attractive on several levels. One fast-growing technology allows commercial buildings or complexes, such as schools, hospitals, hotels or offices, to generate their own electricity and hot water with micro-turbines fueled by natural gas or even biofuel, much more efficiently than utilities can do it and with far lower emissions.
The potential for wind power alone is nearly limitless and, according to a May report by research firm Standard & Poor's, it's cheaper to produce than nuclear power. Further, the amount of electricity that could be generated simply by making existing non-nuclear power plants more efficient is staggering. On average, coal plants operate at 30% efficiency worldwide, but newer plants operate at 46%. If the world average could be raised to 42%, it would save the same amount of carbon as building 800 nuclear plants.
Nevertheless, the U.S. government spends more on nuclear power than it does on renewables and efficiency. Taxpayer subsidies to the nuclear industry amounted to $9 billion 2006, according to Doug Koplow, a researcher based in Cambridge, Mass., whose Earth Track consultancy monitors energy spending. Renewable power sources, including hydropower but not ethanol, got $6 billion, and $2 billion went toward conservation.
That's out of whack. Some countries -- notably France, which gets nearly 80% of its power from nuclear plants and has never had a major accident -- have made nuclear energy work, but at a high cost. The state-owned French power monopoly is severely indebted, and although France recycles its waste, it is no closer than the U.S. to approving a permanent repository. Tax dollars are better spent on windmills than on cooling towers.
BETTER HEALTH THROUGH FAIRER WEALTH
By Brydie Ragan
Research now tells us that lower socio-economic status may be more harmful to health than risky personal habits...
I recently saw a billboard for an employment service that said, "If you think cigarette smoking is bad for your health, try a dead-end job." This warning may not just be an advertising quip: public health research now tells us that lower socio-economic status may be more harmful to health than risky personal habits, such as smoking or eating junk food.
In 1967, British epidemiologist Michael Marmot began to study the relationship between poverty and health. He showed that each step up or down the socio-economic ladder correlates with increasing or decreasing health.
Over time, research linking health and wealth became more nuanced. It turns out that "what matters in determining mortality and health in a society is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed. The more equally wealth is distributed, the better the health of that society," according to the editors of the April 20, 1996 issue of the British Medical Journal. In that issue, American epidemiologist George Kaplan and his colleagues showed that the disparity of income in each of the individual U.S. states, rather than the average income per state, predicted the death rate.
"The People's Epidemiologists," an article in the March/April 2006 issue of Harvard Magazine, takes the analysis a step further. Fundamental social forces such as "poverty, discrimination, stressful jobs, marketing-driven global food companies, substandard housing, dangerous neighborhoods and so on" actually cause individuals to become ill, according to the studies cited in the article. Nancy Krieger, the epidemiologist featured in the article, has shown that poverty and other social determinants are as formidable as hostile microbes or personal habits when it comes to making us sick. This may seem obvious, but it is a revolutionary idea: the public generally believes that poor lifestyle choices, faulty genes, infectious agents, and poisons are the major factors that give rise to illness.
Krieger is one of many prominent researchers making connections between health and inequality. Michael Marmot recently explained in his book, The Status Syndrome, that the experience of inequality impacts health, making the perception of our place in the social hierarchy an important factor. According to Harvard's Ichiro Kawachi, the distribution of wealth in the United States has become an "important public health problem." The claims of Kawachi and his colleagues move public health firmly into the political arena, where some people don't think it belongs. But the links between socio- economic status and health are so compelling that public health researchers are beginning to suggest economic and political remedies.
Richard Wilkinson, an epidemiologist at the University of Nottingham, points out that we are not fated to live in stressful dominance hierarchies that make us sick -- we can choose to create more egalitarian societies. In his book, The Impact of Inequality, Wilkinson suggests that employee ownership may provide a path toward greater equality and consequently better health. The University of Washington's Stephen Bezruchka, another leading researcher on status and health, also reminds us that we can choose. He encourages us to participate in our democracy to effect change. In a 2003 lecture he said that "working together and organizing is our hope."
It is always true that we have choices, but some conditions embolden us to create the future while others invite powerlessness. When it comes to health care these days, Americans are reluctant to act because we are full of fear. We are afraid: afraid because we have no health care insurance, afraid of losing our health care insurance if we have it, or afraid that the insurance we have will not cover our health care expenses. But in the shadow of those fears is an even greater fear -- the fear of poverty -- which can either cause or be caused by illness.
In the United States we have all the resources we need to create a new picture: an abundance of talent, ideas, intelligence, and material wealth. We can decide to create a society that not only includes guaranteed health care but also replaces our crushing climate of fear with a creative culture of care. As Wilkinson and Bezruchka suggest, we can choose to work for better health by working for greater equality.
Brydie Ragan is an indefatigable advocate for guaranteed health care. She travels nationwide to present "Share the Health," a program that inspires Americans to envision health care for everyone.
Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all. The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few. In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How do the few control the many, and what might be done about it?" As you come across stories that might help people connect the dots, please Email them to us at email@example.com. Rachel's Democracy & Health News is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject. Editors: Peter Montague - firstname.lastname@example.org Tim Montague - email@example.com
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