Monday, May 04, 2015

Common solvents disrupt hormone systems, scientists warn

Benzene, xylene and other solvents contaminate the home

Low-level, everyday exposures to dangerous
chemicals are linked to many health issues,
scientists say.
Four chemicals present both inside and outside homes might disrupt our endocrine systems at levels considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to an analysis.

The chemicals – benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene – are ubiquitous: in the air outside and in many products inside homes and businesses. They have been linked to reproductive, respiratory and heart problems, as well as smaller babies.

Now researchers from The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) and the University of Colorado, Boulder, say that such health impacts may be due to the chemicals’ ability to interfere with people’s hormones at low exposure levels.

“There’s evidence of connection between the low level, everyday exposures and things like asthma, reduced fetal growth,” said Ashley Bolden, a research associate at TEDX and lead author of the study.

“And for a lot of the health effects found, we think it’s disrupted endocrine-signaling pathways involved in these outcomes.”

Bolden and colleagues – including scientist, activist, author and TEDX founder Theo Colborn who passed away last December – pored over more than 40 studies on the health impacts of low exposure to the chemicals.

They looked at exposures lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s reference concentrations for the chemicals, which is the agency’s estimated inhalation exposure level that is not likely to cause health impacts during a person’s lifetime.

Many of the health problems – asthma, low birth weights, cardiovascular, disease, preterm births, abnormal sperm – can be rooted in early disruptions to the developing endocrine system, Bolden said.

The analysis doesn’t prove that exposure to low levels of the chemicals disrupt hormones. However, any potential problems with developing hormone systems are cause for concern.

“Hormones are how the body communicates with itself to get work done. Interrupt that, you can expect all sorts of negative health outcomes,” said Susan Nagel an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women's Health School of Medicine who was not involved in the study.

Cathy Milbourn, a spokesperson for the EPA, said in an emailed response that the agency will "review the study and incorporate the findings into our work as appropriate."

The "EPA is screening thousands of chemicals for potential risk of endocrine disruption," she said. "As potential risk of endocrine disruption is identified, these chemicals are assessed further."

Chemicals found in many consumer products

The four chemicals are retrieved from the wellheads during crude oil and natural gas extraction and, after refining, are used as gasoline additives and in a wide variety of consumer products such as adhesives, detergents, degreasers, dyes, pesticides, polishes and solvents.

Ethylbenzene is one of the top ten chemicals used in children’s products such as toys and playground equipment, according to a 2013 EPA report.

Toluene is in the top ten chemicals used in consumer products such as fuels and paints, the report found.

All four get into indoor and outdoor air via fossil fuel burning, vehicle emissions and by volatizing from products. Bolden said studies that measure the air in and around homes and businesses find the chemicals 90 to 95 percent of the time.

Katie Brown, spokeswoman for Energy in Depth, a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in an email that the study suggests “products deemed safe by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission are more dangerous than oil and gas development.

“Contrary to their intentions, what this report actually shows is that people should be no more afraid of oil and gas development than products in their home,” she said.

The Consumer Specialty Products Association, a trade group that represents companies that manufacturer consumer goods including cleaning products, pesticides, polishes, would not comment on the study but a spokesperson said that member groups typically don’t use the chemicals mentioned.

In several of the monitoring studies Bolden and colleagues examined, levels of the chemicals were higher in indoor air than in outdoor air, suggesting that people might be exposed within their homes.

“A lot of time indoor air is poorly circulated,” Bolden said.

Nagel cited a “huge need” to look at the impact of exposure to ambient levels of these chemicals. The study highlights “a whole lot we don’t know” about how these compounds may impact humans, she said.

Using human tissue cells, Nagel’s lab has previously shown that the chemicals can disrupt the androgen and estrogen hormones.

The authors said regulators should give air contaminants the same attention they’ve given greenhouse gas emissions recently.

“Tremendous efforts have led to the development of successful regulations focused on controlling greenhouse gases in an attempt to reduce global temperatures,” the authors wrote in the study published in Environmental Science and Technology journal.

“Similar efforts need to be directed toward compounds that cause poor air quality both indoors and outdoors.”

Source: Environmental Health News

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Smokeless tobacco also poses health risks, researchers say

Researchers found carcinogens from smokeless
tobacco products in household dust.
Photo by Uffe_Johansson 
Secondhand exposure to tobacco may be possible even when no cigarette smoke is involved, according to a new study.

An analysis of dust samples from six homes with smokeless tobacco users shows that the dust there contains more tobacco-specific carcinogens and alkaloids than dust from non-tobacco-using homes, putting household members, especially children, at risk of indirect exposure

Scientists have long known that cigarette smoke is carcinogenic, whether inhaled by the user, by others as secondhand smoke, or brought into the home on clothing as thirdhand smoke.

But they didn’t know whether indirect exposures could arise with smokeless tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco or moist snuff.

Todd P. Whitehead of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health and his colleagues wondered whether smokeless tobacco use at home might taint household dust.

They were already collecting dust samples from homes as part of the California Childhood Leukemia Study, which among other things explores how environmental exposures to contaminants such as cigarette smoke could influence leukemia risks.

Of the households they surveyed and analyzed, six told the researchers that they had users only of smokeless tobacco, six had users only of cigarettes, and 20 had no tobacco users.

Using liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry, researchers analyzed dust samples from these homes for five nitrosamines that are found only in tobacco, as well as five tobacco-only alkaloids such as myosmine. The team also used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to measure nicotine, the best-known tobacco alkaloid, which is addictive.

The team wanted to distinguish smokeless-tobacco contamination from cigarette-smoke contamination, so they calculated the ratio of myosmine to nicotine. In unburned tobacco, myosmine content is less than 0.5% of the nicotine content. But as tobacco burns, myosmine is produced, increasing the ratio to roughly 7% in tobacco smoke.

Levels of two key carcinogenic nitrosamines—N′-nitrosonornicotine (NNN) and 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK)—were roughly five and seven times as high, respectively, in the dust of smokeless-tobacco households as in samples from tobacco-free households.

Moreover, the median myosmine-nicotine ratio was 1.8% in smokeless-tobacco households versus 7.7% in cigarette-user households, confirming that contamination in the smokeless-tobacco homes came primarily from smokeless tobacco.

Whitehead warns that the researchers don’t yet know how much of a risk this dust contamination might pose, or how the smokeless tobacco got into the dust.

But the findings suggest that household members who don’t use smokeless tobacco could be exposed to its known carcinogens.

Young children, who often play on the ground and put their hands in their mouths, can accidentally ingest dust and may be especially vulnerable to exposure, he says.

The contamination could come from activities such as opening a package or dropping small amounts on the floor during use, Whitehead says, which could lead to simple strategies for reducing the risk of contamination.

Hugo Destaillats, an environmental chemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who wasn’t involved with the work, calls the findings an interesting first step.

The sample size was small, note both Whitehead and Destaillats, and the study didn’t directly measure anyone’s exposures.

Additional research, they suggest, could focus on the amount of tobacco-related compounds that young kids ingest when they live with someone who uses smokeless tobacco, and the resulting health risks. And Destaillats suggests doing future studies to see how dust contamination might vary in other geographical areas.

Source: American Chemical Society. This article has been edited for length.

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Thursday, April 09, 2015

Weed killer linked to chronic illness

Toxic chemicals used in farming may contaminate our
food, water and air, experts say.
The bestselling herbicide in Canada and the world, glyphosate was once promoted as safe enough to drink. But some critics are raising renewed alarm.

One of them is Thierry Vrain, a plant pathologist and former head of biotechnology with Agriculture Canada, who says there is no safe intake level for this toxic chemical, which appears to be linked to a rising tide of chronic illnesses.

Indeed, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer has just declared glyphosate a "probable carcinogen."

Farmers have used glyphosate to weed Ontario fields since 1978. But the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops in 1997 - most of them designed to be glyphosate-tolerant - was a game changer. Farmers could now raze weeds with a single blanket spray of glyphosate without killing their crops.

Though industry promised GM crops would drive down pesticide application, glyphosate use has risen dramatically, by some 76 per cent between 2003 and 2008 in Ontario.

Farmers are increasingly using the herbicide as a desiccant (dryer) on both GM and conventional plants, making harvesting easier or moving up a harvest threatened by bad weather.

It's increasingly difficult to avoid the most popular herbicide on earth. A recent study of U.S. honey found 59 per cent of samples contained glyphosate.

Though a safe glyphosate level in honey hasn't been determined, recent research suggests the current level of glyphosate exposure in general may constitute a health threat to the population.

You might think organic crops would be free of this chemical, but glyphosate has recently been discovered in samples of air and water, so all food may now be tainted.

Glyphosate was first thought to pose little threat because neither human nor animal cells have shikimate pathways, a metabolic route used by plants and bacteria.

Glyphosate does its deadly work by binding to the metal atoms of enzymes in the plant's pathways, preventing them from producing critical amino acids. Without those, the plant dies.

New discoveries about the human microbiome - including the 100 trillion bacteria in the human gut - are starting to reveal the critical role microorganisms play in promoting human health.

Don Huber, professor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University, says that just as it attacks plants, glyphosate can demobilize the bacteria on which humans and animals depend.

But Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science & Society at McGill University, says the theories need to be proven under proper laboratory conditions before they should be believed.

Antibiotic threat

Monsanto patented the chemical as an antibiotic in 2010, a tacit acknowledgement of its effectiveness in killing microbes, though the pesticide industry maintains it's applied to fields in concentrations too low to produce any serious antimicrobial effects in the animals, including us, consuming those crops. Schwarcz insists the antibiotic effect is "absolutely trivial."

But Huber argues that increasing miscarriages, birth defects and chronic botulism in cattle, sheep and pigs are signs of glyphosate's strong antibiotic activity against beneficial organisms.

Backing up Huber, Vrain points to research from 2013 showing that, at a concentration of just one part per million, glyphosate killed all the beneficial bacteria in the guts of poultry. Only salmonella and clostridium survived - pathogens blamed for farm animal illness.

In the meantime, a recently published study by Nancy Swanson virtually twinned increasing rates of glyphosate use with rising incidence of a host of chronic diseases. They include liver, kidney and bladder cancers; Crohn's and celiac disease; stroke, diabetes and autism, among others.

New GM seeds resistant to glyphosate, as well as 2,4-D, are expected to start rolling out across Canada this year. The new seeds will help farmers battle glyphosate-resistant weeds.

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While Vrain admits that biotechnology has been transformative for the just over 2 per cent of Canadians who farm, "One hundred per cent of people eat," he says.

Source: Now Toronto. This article has been edited for length.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Air pollution slows brain development: study

Air pollution takes a double toll on babies' brains

Studies have tied air pollution to a wide range
of problems in children.
A common pollutant in vehicle exhaust, power plant emissions and cigarette smoke can shrink white matter in fetal brains and cause developmental damage during the toddler years, a new study suggests.

In 40 children examined by researchers, prenatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons was correlated with reduced white matter on the left side of children's brains during their early childhood.

Those physical changes in the brain's internal wiring also were correlated with slower cognitive processing and with symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity, according to the study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

“They tend to be fidgety and hyperactive and very impulsive, so they leap before they look,” said Dr. Bradley Peterson, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children's Hospital Los Angeles and the lead author of the report.

The researchers had previously tied behavioral and cognitive problems to eight common types of these pollutants, which are a product of incomplete combustion of organic materials.

The new study now suggests those problems have a biological root in the altered architecture of the brain.

The research involved 655 New York City women of Dominican and African American descent who gave birth between 1997 and 2006.

During late pregnancy, the women carried detector backpacks that measured exposure to PAHs over 48 hours. Their children later were tested for exposure and underwent several rounds of cognitive and behavioral testing.

For the JAMA Psychiatry study, Peterson and his colleagues selected a representative sample from the original study group: 20 children whose own PAH readings were below the median and 20 whose PAH levels were above it.

All the children were about 8 years old when they underwent magnetic resonance imagery scans.

Those scans showed that white matter was significantly reduced from normal volumes throughout the left hemisphere, an area that controls language and cognition, among other higher functions.

In fact, the higher their prenatal exposure to PAH was, the more white matter was reduced and the more acute the behavioral and developmental problems were, the study found.

Scientists don’t know why the left side seemed to be affected more, but they suspect the compounds interfere with an early biochemical process that helps the fetal brain divide into slightly asymmetrical hemispheres.

The damage, however, is not isolated to prenatal stages, or to the left hemisphere. Postnatal PAH exposure, measured at age 5, correlated with diminished white matter in areas of the prefrontal cortex of both hemispheres, the study found.

“It’s a double hit,” Peterson said. “They have the abnormality from prenatal life throughout the left hemisphere and then on top of that they have this bilateral frontal hit from exposures around age 5.”

The 40 children were from nonsmoking homes and had little or no exposure to lead or insecticides that likewise have been linked to developmental and behavioral problems, according to the study. All were right-handed.

Although it remains possible that other pollutants could be affecting the results, the researchers said their sampling methods eliminated the major contenders, helping to isolate the effects of the PAH compounds.

Numerous studies have linked air pollution — especially particulate matter — to respiratory and cardiac problems. But over the last decade, researchers have accumulated more evidence that particles and other types of airborne pollution can affect brain development.

A 2012 study using a database of 19,000 nurses found greater cognitive decline among older women exposed to high levels of particulate matter.

A 2011 Boston study involving 680 men showed similar results. A series of studies involving children in Mexico City linked air pollution with the brain inflammation that is typical of diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

“It is worrisome,” Peterson said of the latest findings. “California has gone a long way toward improving and cleaning up the air, but there’s a long way to go. Future generations depend on it.”

Source: LA Times

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Homeowners try to assess formaldehyde risks in floors

Laminate wood flooring may look nice, but some brands
release formaldehyde fumes into the air, experts say.
Installing a new wood floor is usually about aesthetics: brown or black? Glossy or matte?

Now, some Americans and businesses are grappling with another feature: formaldehyde.

Uneasy consumers have flooded state and federal safety agencies with inquiries about Lumber Liquidators, the discount flooring retailer accused in a “60 Minutes” episode of selling laminate wood with high levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

Should they rip it out? Leave it in? And what are the dangers to adults, children or even pets?

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York has opened an inquiry into whether the company violated safety standards. Safety officials in California are also likely to investigate.

But federal regulators, armed with murky rules or none at all, have scrambled to respond, leaving consumers largely responsible for assessing the risk.

Formaldehyde exposure can cause immediate health problems like respiratory and sinus effects, but the effects of long-term exposure remain unclear.

Regulators, at least for now, are advocating a tempered approach.

“We are not encouraging people to rip out their flooring right now,” said Lynn Baker, an air pollution specialist with the California Air Resources Board, which enforces the state formaldehyde rules that Lumber Liquidators is accused of breaking.

Commercial customers could also be affected, although Lumber Liquidators estimates that commercial sales make up less than 10 percent of the market for laminate flooring, a cheaper alternative to hardwood. Homeowners account for the bulk of its sales.

Lumber Liquidators disputes the “60 Minutes” report and says its flooring is safe. The company also said it was considering offering air testing services to reassure concerned consumers.

Installers, too, find themselves on the front lines after the report.

No federal rules for airborne chemicals in the home

While federal rules exist for workers, no federal rules protect consumers from formaldehyde or most other airborne chemicals in their homes.

And while research exists on formaldehyde’s health effects, experts have difficulty correlating levels of exposure with cancer risk since so many factors can affect the development of the disease.

“Any exposure to a carcinogen can increase your risk of cancer,” said Marilyn Howarth, a toxicologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Mr. Baker, with the California agency, said consumers should ask two questions: How long has the flooring been installed, and have they been feeling sick?

“If the flooring has been installed more than a couple of years ago, most of it has probably already off-gassed,” he said, meaning that the chemical would probably have been released.

“If it was just installed last week, that’s a different story — you definitely want to ventilate the home.”

The floorboard controversy bears a resemblance to the cases of Chinese-made drywall that released sulfur gases into thousands of homes built after the 2005 hurricane season, which resulted in metal corrosion and health complaints.

But while the drywall gases were expected to be released for decades, formaldehyde emissions in flooring may not last as long.

Most new floors emit small levels of formaldehyde. But it also seeps out of adhesives used to bind furniture and other household items, affecting the quality of the air residents breathe.

To combat its harmful effects, governments around the world have limited the use of formaldehyde in household products, particularly those made of wood.

In Europe, chemical emissions from composite wood products are tightly regulated, and Japanese regulators put the onus on home builders to limit formaldehyde levels over all within houses they construct.

The United States, however, trails when it comes to such regulations. California enacted rules to cap emissions from composite wood products sold in the state.

As far back as 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was considering adopting California’s limits nationwide, and it issued a proposed rule in 2013.

But after many delays at the request of the wood products industry, the E.P.A. has yet to complete its rule. The E.P.A. said it had no plan to investigate Lumber Liquidators, citing the lack of a finished rule.

Agency proposes ventilation and air testing

The agency says it is trying to give consumers “actionable guidance” when it comes to formaldehyde from composite woods, according to Bob Axelrad, a policy adviser in the office of air and radiation.

That includes proper ventilation, when possible, and using reliable air testing methods.

David Krause, an environmental consultant at the consulting firm Geosyntec and the former state toxicologist of Florida, said ventilation helped but was not always a solution: Humidity, for example, can intensify the problem.

Testing indoor air quality is also not a simple proposition — mainly because federal standards are geared toward workplaces, not homes. There are no definitive testing levels, and people react in different ways to the chemical.

“We really don’t have anything that is enforceable,” Dr. Krause said.

Still, based on current knowledge of the Lumber Liquidators’ product, he added: “This is not a ‘Your hair’s on fire’ emergency.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission may take a lead role in investigating Lumber Liquidators. The commission can push for a recall if it can prove direct harm to human health.

But that would involve a long regulatory inquiry. Several consumers have begun pursuing a different path: suing the company.

Source: New York Times; This article has been edited for length.

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