21 July 2019
Pregnant woman exposed to high levels of air pollution had children with lower IQs, researchers found.
Pregnant woman exposed to high levels of air pollution had children with lower IQs, researchers found.
Multiple studies point to a connection between bad air days and lifelong health problems for babies conceived and or born during periods of pollution.
It's Surprisingly Hard to Ban Toxic Sex Toys, But Here's How to Protect Yourself
OCTOBER 13, 2017 3:05 PM
PHOTO: COMEDY CENTRAL
These days, most of us will carefully check ingredients lists for gluten and trans fats, demand that our water bottles be made without BPA, and seek out paraben-free, body-safe cosmetics. But the average person can’t tell you what a toxic sex toy is—or even that they exist. Unfortunately, in the unregulated sex toy industry, plenty of sex toys are potentially rife with products that can hurt you (and not even in the fun, kinky way).
Perhaps the most well-known offender in terms of toy toxicity is a group of chemicals known as phthalates, a plasticizer that can be blended with other substances to make them softer and more flexible. A spotlight’s been shone on phthalates in recent years, as publications like Bustle and Bitch, and feminist-oriented sex shops like Good Vibes and Babeland have spoken out against them.
So why all the hullabaloo? It turns out that phthalates may have side effects when they come into contact with your body that could potentially be terrible for you—and aren’t disclosed by most sex toy manufacturers. According to Amanda Morgan, D.H.S., a faculty member at the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who wrote her master’s thesis on harmful sex toy materials, phthalates are known endocrine disruptors that can cause health problems. “[Phthalates] mess with your hormones; they can cause birth defects, or other things related to liver or kidney functioning,” Morgan told me, referencing studies that have linked phthalates to irregular fetal development, early-onset puberty, and lower sperm counts, among other issues. “They can really mess you up because they pretend to be your hormones, and so your body’s hormonal cycle gets knocked out of whack from exposure to these things.”
With the short-term effects of chlorine and the long-term effects of phthalates, PVC is, Morgan said, “definitely one of the worst sex toy materials we’ve seen.”
When you hear horror stories about sex toys, though, it’s not necessarily phthalates that are to blame. One of the most common anecdotal complaints about toxic toys is that they cause skin irritation: “I first thought [it] was a yeast infection or BV, because of extreme itching and burning on my inner labia,” reports one reader who wrote in to sex toy review blog Dangerous Lilly. “My ass suddenly felt like it was on fire. A burning sensation spread throughout my butt,” recalled sex educator Tristan Taormino about a questionable dildo she used. One Playboy story described a dildo that caused a woman “such severe pain that she could barely speak.”
I asked Emily S. Barrett, Ph.D., a professor at the Rutgers University School of Public Health who has done extensive research on the prenatal effects of endocrine disruptors like phthalates, whether these reported burning sensations fit with her understanding of the chemicals. She told me she hasn’t seen evidence that phthalates irritate the skin in this way, and that they tend to “act on a much more subtle level most of the time.”
So what is causing these health problems? According to Amanda Morgan, phthalates aren’t the only sketchy ingredient still getting into our sex toys. As part of her thesis research, Morgan tested 32 sex toys to determine their chemical makeup. What she found was pretty scary: The toys she tested typically contained 30 to 35 percent chlorine. She said PVC, a material commonly used to make inexpensive sex toys, always contains chlorine (hence the chemical name “polyvinyl chloride”). Even scarier, in 2006, BadVibes.org—an organization that, full disclosure, is linked to pro-toy-safety sex shop The Smitten Kitten—ran lab tests on four popular sex toys. They found that two of them were made of PVC and contained “very high levels of phthalate plasticizer.”
“We use chlorine to kill bacteria in things,” Morgan said. “If you are being exposed to this high level of chlorine, especially in a sensitive membrane area [like the vagina or rectum], we could definitely chalk that up to causing irritation, burning, or messing up the environment by exposing it to something that is, as we know, a sterilization product.” So with the short-term burning effects of chlorine and the long-term endocrine effects of phthalates, PVC is, Morgan said, “definitely one of the worst sex toy materials we’ve seen.”
Now, you might be thinking, “OK, great to know! I’ll just buy only safe toys from now on!” Well, it’s not so simple. Since the sex toy industry is unregulated, it doesn’t fall under the current purview of the Food and Drug Administration. According to FDA press officer Angela Stark, that’s because the agency “does not regulate devices meant purely for sexual pleasure. It does, however, regulate genital devices that have a medical purpose such as vibrators intended for therapeutic use to treat sexual dysfunction or to supplement Kegel exercises.” Of course, the vast majority of sex toys don’t fall under this “health aid” umbrella.
The current Congress likely wouldn't rush to make a bold, sex-positive statement like mandating sex toy safety.
The responsibility of regulating sex toys could potentially fall to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but Morgan told me the understaffed CPSC is already in charge of regulating over 15,000 types of products—not to mention the products themselves. The complex issue of sex toy regulation would be a big ask on top of all that.
Add to all of this the fact that the current Congress likely wouldn’t rush to make a bold, sex-positive statement by mandating sex toy safety, and there are plenty of reasons your sex toy might not meet body-safe standards. “Our government doesn’t generally like to talk about people pleasuring themselves,” Morgan pointed out.
Beyond that, though, Morgan adds that regulating the sex toy industry might not even be the best solution to getting rid of toxic toys anyway. “If something is federally regulated, that means that the federal government—depending on where they are in their political leanings at that time—could potentially make it illegal to have these products, by saying they are ‘dangerous’ and then regulating them out of existence,” she reasoned. “You get certain types of people in power, and they may not believe in sexual health, wellness, [or] self-pleasuring. It might go against their core values, and therefore they [might] use their political agenda and the federal regulation system to regulate these products out of people’s hands.”
It’s a conclusion that Zach Biesanz, a legal assistant in the office of New York’s Attorney General, came to in his 2007 paper in the journal Law & Inequality: "Special regulation of the sex toy industry would be unreasonably burdensome from a regulatory standpoint,” he wrote. "Only banning these toxins outright will suffice to protect consumers from phthalates' harmful and even lethal effects.”
"Sniff your sex toy. That's the easiest thing you can do [to protect yourself]."
In the meantime, how do you tell if a toy is safe? Sex toy experts like Morgan, Smitten Kitten founder Jennifer Pritchett, and seasoned sex toy reviewer Epiphora all recommend buying toys made of phthalate-free, body-safe materials like pure silicone, stainless steel, glass, and hard plastic. Still, it’s difficult to know what’s what in an industry that mislabels its products so frequently. “Sniff your sex toy,” said Morgan. “That’s the easiest thing you can do. If you smell these products and they don’t smell like anything, then it most likely is a stable chemical compound like silicone.” Phthalates and PVC, however, smell “like chemicals,” according to Morgan, “like a new shower curtain,” according to Epiphora, and “like a headache,” according to Pritchett. The sex toy smell test might sound a little weird, but it’s a pretty good first line of defense.
Morgan also recommends buying toys made by “companies that take a lot of pride in making good-quality, body-safe toys,” citing Tantus and Jimmyjane as examples. Other companies that proudly declare their products body-safe include We-Vibe, Fun Factory, Vixen Creations, and Funkit Toys.
And when in doubt, find a reviewer you can trust. Sex toy review blogs abound on the internet —Epiphora, Dangerous Lilly, and Formidable Femme, to name just a few—and while you’d be wise to take claims about sex toys with a grain of salt in this unregulated industry, sometimes the preponderance of good or bad reviews about a particular company or toy can suggest conclusions about its safety (or lack thereof).
Most important, though, demand body-safe sex toys by buying only from companies you can trust. “Consumers vote with their pocketbook,” said Tantus founder Metis Black. “Support the businesses that make safe toys a priority, that use their resources to educate, that take a stand and advocate for consumers.” She added that while pure silicone toys are expensive now—especially in comparison to PVC toys, which can often be under $30 a pop versus $100+ for silicone—more consumer demand for body-safe toys will create a larger supply at lower prices, as bigger companies with more resources start making nontoxic toys in larger quantities. That’s just sex toy economics.
Bloggers, consumers, and ethical toymakers alike all dream of a future in which no sex toys will burn your junk, give you infections, or cause long-term bodily harm. It seems reasonable enough. And if we keep fighting for it, maybe one day it’ll be reality.
The Zika virus struck fear into the hearts of parents and would-be parents, last year. Moms who were infected during pregnancy often gave birth to babies with serious birth defects, including small brains. A number of the problems linked to the disease came from how the virus impacted the developing nervous system. But someday, Zika might also gain renown as a medical therapy — to treat deadly brain cancers.
That‘s the finding of a new study. In it, researchers infected human cells and mice with the virus. And in both, the virus killed certain stem cells — ones that would have gone on to become an aggressive type of brain tumor. This deadly cancer is known as a glioblastoma (GLEE-oh-blas-TOE-mah). Even more exciting, the germ left healthy brain cells unharmed.
Explainer: What is a stem cell?
Jeremy Rich is a scientist who focuses on regenerative medicine at the University of California, San Diego. His team shared its new findings online September 5 in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.
Previous studies had shown that Zika kills the cells in the developing brain that can mature into nerve cells — also known as neurons. Neuroscientists thought maybe this explained the brain problems seen in many babies whose mothers who had been infected with Zika during pregnancy.
There are similarities between those cells that will become neurons and the cells that can turn into glioblastomas. Knowing this, Rich’s team suspected Zika might target the cells that can morph into the very deadly brain-cancer cells.
In the United States, some 12,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with glioblastoma this year. One of them was U.S. Senator John McCain. Doctors diagnosed his cancer this past July. The bad news: Even with treatment, most patients live only about a year after a gliobastoma diagnosis.
Explainer: What is a virus?
Rich and his colleagues have now tested their Zika treatment in the lab. They infected human stem cells that will go on to become glioblastomas. This treatment halted the cells’ growth, the scientists report. The virus also infected some full-blown glioblastoma cells, but not as many. The good news: The virus did not infect normal brain tissues.
Mice, too, can develop glioblastomas. And Rich’s team treated some mice with the cancer and then watched what happened to their disease. Compared to uninfected mice, tumors in the Zika-treated animals either shrank or grew more slowly. Zika-infected mice lived longer, too. In one trial, almost half of the mice survived more than six weeks with their brain cancer after being treated with Zika. In comparison, the cancers in mice who had not been uninfected with the virus died within two weeks of the start of the trial.
Using a virus to knock out cancer isn’t a new idea. Some tumors, including glioblastomas, are being treated with a modified poliovirus. Such trials are experimental. The U.S. government has also approved a modified herpes virus to treat melanoma, a deadly skin.
Andrew Zloza is a cancer specialist at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick. Cancer-fighting viruses seem to work in two ways, he says. First, they infect and kill tumor cells. Then, as the dying cells split open, previously hidden tumor fragments become visible to the immune system. The body recognizes those fragments and launches a fight against them.
“Right now we don’t know what kind of viruses are best” for fighting cancer, Zloza says. But Zika, he notes, is now another candidate.
Further tests are needed to find out if the virus is safe and effective in people. Since Zika’s effects are more harmful in developing brains, a Zika-based cancer therapy might be safe only in adults. And genes in the virus would need to be modified to make the germ safer and less likely to spread.
Rich and his colleagues are now running tests in mice to see if combining Zika with traditional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy drugs, would be more effective than either treatment alone. Because Zika targets the cells that generate tumor cells, it might also prevent tumors from coming back.
Oh, the Superfund program created in 1980 was a very good idea. Industries and businesses would be held accountable, through taxes, for polluting communities all over the United States. Those taxes – paid by landfill owners, chemical companies and industrial manufacturers – paid for cleanups of polluted sites, an often expensive proposition.
We know just how expensive because since the Superfund taxes expired in 1995, the cleanup and oversight costs for waste-polluted properties have run to more than $21 billion. And the money’s easy to track because it’s been paid by – you guessed it – taxpayers. Many hundreds of companies responsible for the contamination of water have paid nothing, because they’re out of business, they can’t be identified because of a change in ownership or oversight or they just can’t afford to pay for the cleanup.
So the tab goes to the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning to all Americans. The ones who do pay taxes.
This report on the Superfund program came from Carnegie-Knight News21, a national investigative reporting project out of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
This is a classic case of a good program failing to get the job done because the taxes that supported it were allowed to expire in 1995, and while this will doubtless shock Americans, members of Congress didn’t have the courage, political or personal, to support restarting the taxes. Christine Whitman, a former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, supports the reinstatement of taxes but says, “It was something for which Congress had no appetite. They just were not willing to consider anything that had the word ‘tax’ in it.”
That is of course a ridiculous irony: No law to put taxes on businesses that may be responsible for pollution, sometimes for absolutely horrendous pollution affecting thousands of acres and thousands of people – a chemical spill, for example – but a willingness to let average taxpayers pay the bills for offending industries.
And President Trump, of course, has actually proposed cuts in the Superfund program as it currently exists in an already anemic form.
The types of substances that can be involved in environmental spills of the type that the Superfund program is designed to clean up include, News21 reported, chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and infertility. And Census data shows that 53 million Americans live within 3 miles of a Superfund remedial site.
With less money in the program, what cleanups there are move more slowly, which means risks from environmental spills last longer.
The Superfund taxes should be reinstated. President Trump’s allies in the business world, such as they are, would howl, of course, but average Americans would support the idea – and more than 50 million of them are within 3 miles of a site, for goodness sakes.
For them, and for millions of other people likely to be affected in the future, as the risks from relaxed environmental regulations under Trump become greater, this is an issue that must be addressed with an urgency justified by the risks already looming for millions.
In the end, the military campaign was called Operation Ranch Hand, but it originally went by a more appropriately hellish appellation: Operation Hades. As part of this Vietnam War effort, from 1961 to 1971, the United States sprayed over 73 million liters of chemical agents on the country to strip away the vegetation that provided cover for Vietcong troops in “enemy territory.”
Using a variety of defoliants, the U.S. military also intentionally targeted cultivated land, destroying crops and disrupting rice production and distribution by the largely communist National Liberation Front, a party devoted to reunification of North and South Vietnam.
Some 45 million liters of the poisoned spray was Agent Orange, which contains the toxic compound dioxin. It has unleashed in Vietnam a slow-onset disaster whose devastating economic, health and ecological impacts that are still being felt today.
This is one of the greatest legacies of the country’s 20-year war, but is yet to be honestly confronted. Even Ken Burns and Lynn Novick seem to gloss over this contentious issue, both in their supposedly exhaustive “Vietnam War” documentary series and in subsequent interviews about the horrors of Vietnam.
Vietnam’s half-century of disaster
More than 10 years of U.S. chemical warfare in Vietnam exposed an estimated 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese people to Agent Orange. More than 40 years on, the impact on their health has been staggering.
This dispersion of Agent Orange over a vast area of central and south Vietnam poisoned the soil, river systems, lakes and rice paddies of Vietnam, enabling toxic chemicals to enter the food chain.
Today crops are grown and livestock graze at former U.S. bases where toxic dioxin continues to pollute the soil. HOANG DINH NAM / AFP
Vietnamese people weren’t the only ones poisoned by Agent Orange. U.S. soldiers, unaware of the dangers, sometimes showered in the empty 55-gallon drums, used them to store food and repurposed them as barbecue pits.
Unlike the effects of another chemical weapon used in Vietnam – namely napalm, which caused painful death by burns or asphyxiation – Agent Orange exposure did not affect its victims immediately.
In the first generation, the impacts were mostly visible in high rates of various forms of cancer among both U.S. soldiers and Vietnam residents.
But then the children were born. It is estimated that, in total, tens of thousands of people have suffered serious birth defects – spina bifida, cerebral palsy, physical and intellectual disabilities and missing or deformed limbs. Because the effects of the chemical are passed from one generation to the next, Agent Orange is now debilitating its third and fourth generation.
Aerial spraying in central and southern Vietnam. Wikimedia
A legacy of environmental devastation
During the 10-year campaign, U.S. aircraft targeted 4.5 million acres across 30 different provinces in the area below the 17th parallel and in the Mekong Delta, destroying inland hardwood forests and coastal mangrove swamps as they sprayed.
The most heavily exposed locations – among them Dong Nai, Binh Phuoc, Thua Thien Hue and Kontum – were sprayed multiple times. Toxic hotspots also remain at several former U.S. air force bases.
And while research in those areas is limited – an extensive 2003 study was canceled in 2005 due to a reported “lack of mutual understanding” between the U.S. and the Vietnamese governments – evidence suggests that the heavily polluted soil and water in these locations have yet to recover.
The dangerous quantity of residual dioxin in the earth thwarts the normal growth of crops and trees, while continuing to poison the food chain.
Vietnam’s natural defenses were also debilitated. Nearly 50 percent of the country’s mangroves, which protect shorelines from typhoons and tsunamis, were destroyed.
On a positive note, the Vietnamese government and both local and international organizations are making strides toward restoring this critical landscape. The U.S. and Vietnam are also undertaking a joint remediation program to deal with dioxin-contaminated soil and water.
Mangrove forests before and after spraying. Wikimedia
The destruction of Vietnamese forests, however, has proven irreversible. The natural habitat of such rare species as tigers, elephants, bears and leopards were distorted, in many cases beyond repair.
In parts of central and southern Vietnam that were already exposed to environmental hazards such as frequent typhoons and flooding in low-lying areas and droughts and water scarcity in the highlands and Mekong Delta, herbicide spraying led to nutrient loss in the soil.
This, in turn, has caused erosion, compromising forests in 28 river basins. As a result, flooding has gotten worse in numerous watershed areas.
Some of these vulnerable areas also happen to be very poor and, these days, home to a large number of Agent Orange victims.
War propaganda and delayed justice
During Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments spent considerable time and effort making the claim that tactical herbicides were safe for humans and the environment.
U.S. propaganda about Agent Orange was so effective, it fooled American troops into thinking it was safe, too.
It launched a public relations campaign included educational programs showing civilians happily applying herbicides to their skin and passing through defoliated areas without concern.
One prominent comic strip featured a character named Brother Nam who explained that “The only effect of defoliant is to kill trees and force leaves to whither, and normally does not cause harm to people, livestock, land, or the drinking water of our compatriots.”
Brother Nam assured readers that herbicides were safe. Wikimedia
It’s abundantly clear now that this is false. Allegedly, chemical manufacturers had informed the U.S. military that Agent Orange was toxic, but spraying went forward anyway.
Today, Agent Orange has become a contentious legal and political issue, both within Vietnam and internationally. From 2005 to 2015, more than 200,000 Vietnamese victims suffering from 17 diseases linked to cancers, diabetes and birth defects were eligible for limited compensation, via a government program.
U.S. companies, including Monsanto and Dow Chemical, have taken the position that the governments involved in the war are solely responsible for paying out damages to Agent Orange victims. In 2004, a Vietnamese group unsuccessfully attempted to sue some 30 companies, alleging that the use of chemical weapons constituted a war crime. The class action case was dismissed in 2005 by a district court in Brooklyn, New York.
Many American victims have had better luck, though, seeing successful multi-million-dollar class action settlements with manufacturers of the chemical, including Dow, in 1984 and 2012.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government recently allocated more than US$13 billion to fund expanded Agent Orange-related health services in America. No such plan is in store in Vietnam.
It is unlikely that the U.S. will admit liability for the horrors Agent Orange unleashed in Vietnam. To do so would set an unwelcome precedent: Despite official denials, the U.S. and its allies, including Israel, have been accused of using chemical weapons in conflicts in Gaza, Iraq and Syria.
As a result, nobody is officially accountable for the suffering of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. The Burns and Novick documentary could have finally raised this uncomfortable truth, but, alas, the directors missed their chance.
This story was co-authored by Hang Thai T.M., a research assistant at the Posts and Telecommunications Institute of Technology, in Hanoi.
San Francisco is expected to ban the sale of upholstered furniture with flame retardant chemicals.
The ban, introduced by Supervisor Mark Farrell, would extend to online sales and also include children’s products, such as booster seats, changing pads and high chairs.
These flame retardant chemicals, which come in the form of foams, like those found in sofas, are linked to cancer and increase risks of birth defects and learning disabilities, according to studies. Small particles of the foam travel through the fabric and are released into the air. Even cats are thought to succumb to thyroid complications through exposure.
In August, Maine became the first city or state in the U.S. to enact such a ban, effective January 2019, after state representatives overturned the governor’s veto of the proposal. Supporters said they were up against powerful lobbyists from the chemical industry.
San Francisco is now expected to follow suit.
The Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee will vote Wednesday on Farrell’s legislation and, if approved, the full board will vote next week to make it law, which would also go into effect January 2019.
The law would impact the approximate 200 furniture retailers in San Francisco, of which 160 are independent shops. Seventeen other stores sell the children’s products that fall under the legislation, though the ban does not apply to second-hand resales.
There is no increase in cost to create products without the flame retardants, city officials say, and retailers would have one year to sell their inventory.
Farrell became involved in the issue when approached about a year ago by Sustainable San Francisco, a group that advocates for environmental policies.
Last week, the proposal was unanimously supported by the Small Business Commission and has support from the Department of the Environment and the San Francisco Firefighters Local 798 labor union. Firefighters experience higher rates of cancer and flame retardant toxins are found in their blood.
Debbie Raphael, director of the Department of the Environment, said more recent research shows eliminating these fire retardant chemicals isn’t a choice of health over public safety.
“When you load up foam full of flame retardants, you don’t actually get any fire safety benefit,” Raphael said. “The benefit comes from when the fabric is fire-resistant, not the foam inside. It’s a false choice.”
California changed its testing standards in recent years and “furniture can meet all the fire safety standards it needs to without any flame retardants inside,” she said.
Tom O’Connor, president of San Francisco Firefighters Local 798 and co-founder of the 10-year-old San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, said, “Supervisor Farrell’s legislation is the first step in the direction to minimize our exposure to these chemicals.”
O’Connor said there remains ongoing research to examine cancer rates among firefighters to inform policies to reduce them, including a study of female firefighters with UC Berkeley’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health.
“We are finding that in San Francisco female firefighters under the age of 50 have six times the national average of breast cancer as do people outside of the firefighter service,” O’Connor said.
He added, “The scariest building a firefighter goes into isn’t on fire, it’s the building where their oncologist works.”
Industry and government officials say PFOA, the toxic chemical blamed for contaminating drinking water supplies in Hoosick Falls and several other area communities, is no longer used in manufacturing in the United States.
But if PFOA has been phased out, what are industries using in its place?
People like Silvia Potter would like to know the answer to that question for the two Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plants that still operate in Hoosick Falls.
Potter said people in her community know “absolutely nothing” about the identity of the chemical or chemicals the company is using as a replacement for PFOA. The lack of information has been frustrating for Potter and other members of the local advocacy group NY Water Project.
“We only know what the company volunteers,” she explained.
Perfluorooctanoic acid, widely used for decades in the making of nonstick coatings like Teflon and a variety of other consumer products, is considered toxic even in tiny amounts. PFOA has been linked to cancer, birth defects and immune system dysfunction.
In 2006, eight major chemical companies, including 3M and DuPont, entered into a “voluntary stewardship agreement” with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to phase out the production and use of PFOA by 2015.
In its place, the industry switched to other chemicals in the same family that were deemed less hazardous by the EPA. But lately a variety of experts have begun to believe that these new chemicals also pose grave threats to human health.
Remarkably, it’s not clear whether government regulators – or even companies like Saint-Gobain – know the specific chemical identities of the substances being substituted for PFOA. In response to questions for this story, Saint-Gobain issued a statement saying it has relied on its suppliers to provide replacement chemicals for PFOA and that the composition of these chemicals “in the case of some suppliers may be proprietary.”
At public meetings, Potter said she and other members of NY Water Project have asked questions “at every appropriate moment” about what substances have replaced PFOA. But the information they have sought hasn’t been forthcoming.
“We’re just assured that everything is safe,” she said. “This concerns us, because things went wrong once. We wouldn’t even know about PFOA if it weren’t for Michael Hickey and his determination to get to the bottom of these mysterious illnesses. I believe the town owes Michael a debt of gratitude.”
Hickey’s father, who for many years worked at one of the local Saint-Gobain plants, died of kidney cancer. It was Hickey who thought to test Hoosick Falls’ water for PFOA in 2014, revealing the village’s water contamination problem for the first time.
Change for the better?
PFOA is sometimes called C-8, for its chain of eight carbon atoms, each bonded to fluorine. The carbon-fluorine bond is extremely strong, making PFOA virtually indestructible. So it stays in the environment essentially forever: It doesn’t degrade in water or soil, and plants and animals don’t metabolize it.
By 2014, long after PFOA’s hazards to the environment and human health were first documented, the EPA classified the chemical and its cousin PFOS, which was widely used in firefighting foam, as “emergent contaminants.”
But to this day, the federal government still doesn’t regulate them. And PFOA and PFOS, despite their notoriety, are only two of an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 other unique, highly fluorinated compounds.
The chemicals fall within the EPA’s purview under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. But in the four decades since that law was enacted, the EPA has formally assessed only a tiny fraction of the more than 80,000 manmade chemicals on the market.
PFOA is part of a family of highly fluorinated chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The chemicals are used to make consumer products resistant to water, grease or stains, such as Gore-Tex rain gear, Teflon no-stick cookware and Scotchgard stain-repellent for carpets and furniture fabrics.
The EPA agreement that phased out PFOA and PFOS by 2015 didn’t stop the production and use of other highly fluorinated chemicals. Instead, the chemical industry has shifted from PFAS compounds with long chains of carbon and fluorine atoms, like PFOA, to shorter-chain compounds in the same family.
The industry had persuaded the EPA that short-chain PFAS chemicals are less persistent in the environment and less harmful to human health than their longer-chain predecessors.
But experts who gathered at a conference this summer in Boston said the supposition that short-chain compounds are inherently safer is not warranted, even though the EPA has enshrined a distinction between short- and long-chain compounds in its policies.
“Every perfluorinated compound studied is causing problems,” said Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist who serves as the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.
A new generation of toxins
Birnbaum outlined the adverse effects of PFAS compounds in her keynote address at a June conference focused on these chemicals. The conference at Northeastern University brought together research scientists, government officials, lawyers, journalists, environmentalists and people from communities affected by PFAS contamination.
Birnbaum said even minuscule concentrations of perfluorinated compounds can pose risks.
According to conventional wisdom and principles of toxicology, she explained, poison is a function of dosage. So if a substance doesn’t pose risks at high doses, it’s considered unlikely to do so at low exposure.
But with this class of chemicals, Birnbaum said, low levels of exposure may induce biological effects even if high levels of exposure do not. This same dynamic also occurs with other endocrine-disrupting substances.
Andrew Lindstrom, an EPA research scientist who studies trace contaminants for the National Exposure Research Laboratory, told those attending the conference that industry is using short-chain substitutes in place of long-chain compounds like PFOA and PFOS. But he said the replacement compounds present multiple challenges.
First, he said, regulators and the public generally don’t know the specific identities of these chemicals, the quantities in which they’re being produced, their health effects or how long they’re retained in the human body.
There is some data, though, on one short-chain PFAS compound produced under the product name GenX. DuPont introduced GenX in 2009 specifically as a safer replacement for PFOA for use in making Teflon and the stain-resistant and water-repellant coatings found in many consumer products.
In her series “The Teflon Toxin,” investigative journalist Sharon Lerner of the online magazine The Intercept details the numerous health and environmental hazards with this short-chain PFAS compound.
She wrote that DuPont “submitted 16 reports [to EPA] of adverse incidents related to GenX between 2006 and 2013, describing experiments in which lab animals exposed to the chemical developed cancers of the liver, pancreas, and testicles as well as benign tumors. The industry research also tied GenX to reproductive problems, including low birth weight and shortened pregnancies in rats, and changes in immune responses.”
Local companies stay mum
The question of what chemicals have replaced PFOA is moot in North Bennington, Vt., where a former Saint-Gobain plant -- now blamed for contaminating the private wells of more than 200 homes -- has been closed since 2002.
But the issue remains a pressing one for neighbors of the Saint-Gobain plants in Hoosick Falls and the Taconic Plastics factory in Petersburgh, which has been blamed for PFOA contamination discovered last year that affected about 70 local water users.
Neither Saint-Gobain nor Taconic have revealed what chemicals they’re using in place of PFOA.
A call to Saint-Gobain did not yield a direct answer. The response came via Peppercomm, a New York City public relations firm. The firm provided a written statement attributed to Dina Pokedoff, Saint-Gobain’s director of branding and communication.
The statement said Saint-Gobain officials “reasonably rely on our suppliers” to provide replacement chemical for PFOA.
“As part of the U.S. EPA’s Stewardship Program that major raw material producers participated in, a primary goal was to eliminate PFOA from producers’ production processes and to identify replacements for PFOA,” the statement said.
But Saint-Gobain would not characterize those replacement chemicals more specifically. Instead it simply stated, “It is our understanding that the compounds that eventually replaced PFOA are reviewed by the U.S. EPA and in the case of some suppliers may be proprietary.”
A query to Taconic Plastics, which used PFOA for years at its Petersburgh plant, brought a response from corporate counsel Laurie Mason. She declined to provide any information for this report, citing a Superfund investigation and pending civil litigation.
Company records detail hazards
Rob Bilott, a lawyer who brought a class-action suit against DuPont on behalf of people exposed to PFOA near the company’s plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., said the company has a history of professing the safety of highly fluorinated compounds to the public and government regulators -- despite its own research demonstrating serious hazards.
DuPont settled the Parkersburg suit for $235 million in 2004. But Bilott told participants in the June conference how the lawsuit opened a rare window into the normally secret world of an industrial corporation grappling with responsibility and liability for a nightmare chemical.
Through the legal process of discovery, DuPont handed over more than 100,000 pages of internal documents, which Bilott said he then submitted to the EPA with the goal of putting them into the public record.
In that trove of papers, Bilott said he discovered that DuPont had been aware of PFOA’s dangers for several decades. The company studied the chemical in its laboratory program and also collected evidence by monitoring its workers. As a result, DuPont had internally concluded in 1988 that PFOA was a human carcinogen, Bilott said.
By the 1970s, DuPont already knew that PFOA was bio-persistent. In 1984, the company surreptitiously collected samples to test public drinking water for contamination and determined that PFOA was getting into public water supplies, Bilott said.
More than 35 years ago, 3M’s rodent studies had linked PFAS with birth defects. When DuPont repeated the studies, it dismissed any association. But then it monitored a small number of pregnant employees exposed to PFOA. Two women out of a sample of eight or ten gave birth to babies with the same type of unusual birth defects, Bilott said.
In the late 1980s DuPont established its own action level of 500 parts per trillion for PFOA in drinking water. That’s 100 times lower than the threshold of 50 parts per billion that New York was using as a fallback when PFOA was first found in Hoosick Falls’ drinking water in 2014, prior to EPA’s intervention in late 2015 to warn the public not to drink the village water.
The EPA first set a guidance level of 400 ppt for short-term exposure to PFOA in drinking water in 2009. In 2016, the agency established 70 ppt as a guideline upper level for long-term exposure, and New York followed suit.
Last year, after PFOA was detected in North Bennington wells, Vermont established a drinking water enforcement standard of 20 ppt.
Contamination spread widely
Jason Galloway, an Ohio State University graduate student who grew up along the Ohio River, told conference participants he became interested in determining the geographic extent of PFAS contamination from DuPont’s Parkersburg plant, now operated by DuPont spinoff company Chemours. Galloway teamed up with Lindstrom, the EPA scientist, who has sensitive analytic equipment for detecting PFAS, and went out in a kayak to collect water samples.
The plant’s air emissions are only monitored within a 2-mile radius, but some of Galloway’s samples taken much further away contained PFOA. In the direction of prevailing wind, to the northeast, he found PFOA at 100 ppt 15 miles from the plant. At a distance of more than 25 miles, PFOA was still detected, though concentrations dropped to 10 ppt.
Twenty miles north of the plant, Galloway also found GenX, though the short-chain PFOA replacement had only been used for a short time.
Lindstrom and his collaborators also detected GenX at a concentration of 661 ppt in the drinking water supply of Wilmington, N.C., where they collected samples downstream of another DuPont-owned factory operated by Chemours.
The EPA has estimated, based on its monitoring of large public water systems, that PFOA and other long-chain perfluorinated compounds are in the drinking water of 6 million Americans.
But Harvard environmental engineering professor Elsie Sunderland told participants in the Boston conference that this number seriously underestimates the magnitude of the problem, because about 90 million people rely on private wells or small public water systems that aren’t subject to EPA monitoring.
Sunderland also questioned whether the testing methodologies used by water systems to comply with EPA’s requirements are sensitive enough to find these chemicals. PFAS compounds can cause health effects at levels as low as 1 ppt, she said.
Pushing for a phase-out
Arlene Blum, an environmental chemist who founded the Green Science Policy Institute, said a body of research now contradicts DuPont’s claim that short-chain PFAS compounds are safe and environmentally preferable to longer-chain compounds like PFOA.
Using a science-based approach – convening scientific experts, motivating needed studies, and publishing research findings in peer-reviewed journals -- the Green Science Policy Institute has embarked on a new campaign to eliminate six classes of harmful chemicals. PFAS is the first class the group is targeting.
The institute’s approach builds on the Madrid statement, which calls for limiting PFAS as a class because the chemicals pose numerous serious hazards that make them unsuitable for production and use. In 2015, 230 scientists from 38 nations signed the Madrid statement, which was published with references in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
This class-wide strategy would prevent “regrettable substitutions” like those that scientists fear are occurring with the new short-chain PFAS compounds, Blum explained.
So far, at least 40 companies have been persuaded to stop using all PFAS compounds – both long- and short-chain – in clothing and textiles, Blum said.
“Our big hope is that the military will do the same,” she added.
Despite widespread water and soil contamination on military bases from the use of PFOS-containing firefighting foam, the Pentagon has continued to procure highly fluorinated products for this purpose, she said.
Detailing health risks
The most definitive information on how PFOA exposure can affect human health comes from studies of 70,000 people living near a DuPont chemical plant in Parkersburg, W.Va. As part of the settlement in the large class-action lawsuit brought by Bilott against DuPont, three epidemiologists approved by both sides studied this population, which also received free health monitoring. DuPont agreed not to fight personal injury suits from area residents who experienced these health problems.
The data indicated a probable association between PFOA exposure and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Although other effects may occur, they were not statistically significant in this population.
As endocrine disruptors, PFAS compounds affect hormonal systems. This can cause of a cascade of effects, because hormones act as signals to start, stop and otherwise regulate many physiological processes.
Courtney Carignan, a reproductive environmental epidemiologist at Harvard, noted that PFAS compounds affect thyroid function. Adequate thyroid levels are critical for brain development and maturation in the developing fetus and during childhood, she said.
PFAS compounds also are associated with an autoimmune hypothyroid marker. PFOA also disrupts sex hormones, for example by depressing testosterone levels.
At the blood concentrations found in children in the Ohio River valley where DuPont’s Parkersburg’s plant contaminated drinking water, PFOA exposure affects mammary gland development in the developing fetus. Later in life, prenatal exposure may impair a woman’s capacity to breast feed and predispose her to breast cancer.
Alan Ducatman, a professor of medicine and public health at West Virginia University, suggested other mechanisms through which PFOA can cause developmental problems. He said studies show PFOA induces problems with fat metabolism in rodents and disrupts cholesterol metabolism in humans. Cholesterol is a sterol, and the disruption of sterol metabolism is associated with developmental abnormalities, he said.
Highly fluorinated compounds also affect the immune system in complex ways. Birnbaum cited a long-term study of mother-child pairs in the Faroe Islands, which are part of Denmark. In that study, children whose mothers were in the top 20 percent for exposure to PFAS compounds couldn’t mount a normal immune response to vaccination.
In pregnant women, perfluorinated compounds are carried from the placenta to the fetus, and breast milk is a source of exposure for children.
Cathy Dawson, an operating room nurse who’s lived in Hoosick Falls for 30 years, brings a health orientation to the NY Water Project. When she first “heard the rumblings” about PFOA and saw a notice about it in her village water bill, she said she didn’t pay much attention.
But then she messaged Michael Hickey. As a boy, he and his parents and siblings were her next-door neighbors when Dawson first moved to Hoosick Falls. Hickey’s response propelled her into action.
“Michael filled me in on everything that was going on, and told me about his research,” she recalled.
Picking up where he left off, she did her own research. What she learned left her outraged.
“A lot of people are afraid of the cancers” associated with PFOA, Dawson said. “But something like arthritis impacts people day to day with pain and disfigurement. PFOA is also known to cause cranial-facial abnormalities, and there are all the endocrine disorders. Studies have also linked PFOA to seizures. From a health-care perspective, it’s awful.”
NY Water Project’s big push now is to get the village a new water supply. Although state officials say a new filtration system is now keeping PFOA out of tap water, the village’s water comes from underground wells near the Saint-Gobain plant on McCaffrey Street, and the wells remain heavily contaminated.
But water isn’t the only part of Hoosick Falls’ environment affected by industrial pollution. Portions of the village that were contaminated by Saint-Gobain’s plants are on track to be designated a Superfund site – they made it onto EPA’s National Priorities List in late July -- and thus become eligible for federal cleanup funds.
For the people being affected, local pollution isn’t just a legacy issue. Dawson said she believes Saint-Gobain is still releasing industrial toxins into the air, and air deposition is one way that highly fluorinated compounds get into ground and surface water.
“The air still stinks, though it’s not as bad as it used to be,” she said, adding that odors from the plant are intermittent. “It smells like burning plastic, like if you left a Teflon pan on the stove.”
By USHA LEE MCFARLING @ushamcfarling SEPTEMBER 29, 2017
Photos by DANIA MAXWELL FOR STAT
L MONTE, Calif. — The chickens are used to the needles.
They don’t fuss when vector ecologist Tanya Posey pulls opens the door of a coop in a community garden here, firmly grasps a Leghorn, and pulls a blood sample out of its wing vein. She’s so good, she can bleed a chicken in about 30 seconds.
That’s helpful, because she has a lot of chickens to test.
More than six dozen sentinel chickens, living in coops dotted around Los Angeles, make up one of the first lines of defense in this sprawling county’s fight against West Nile virus. The disease has been a background threat for years here, but cases have spiked this fall to worrisome levels. Six deaths have been reported by Los Angeles County this year — including three just last week.
And the cases are alarmingly severe: Of 98 reported infections here this year, 79 have led to serious neurological side effects, and 87 have required hospitalization. Because it’s still peak mosquito season, more deaths are expected.
So local public health officials this week launched an all-out attack. They’re sending teams of green-shirted vector control agents door to door to tell residents to wear bug spray, install window screens, and dump the stagnant water where the insects breed. They’re plastering the county with posters that read “It’s Not Just a Bite” and “No Es Solo Un Piquete.” They’ve even created a rap video featuring a fetid swimming pool, a giant dancing mosquito, and teams of uniformed agents rapping, “You’ve got to dump the water out, drain the water flow, tip the water out, toss the water slow.”
On a national level, a duo from Johns Hopkins and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last week petitioned for a new mosquito emoji, arguing that it could lend some buzz to public health efforts.
West Nile virus causes no symptoms in 8 of 10 infected people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But some, particularly the very young and very old, can get fevers, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms. (Dr. Lyle Petersen, the director of the CDC’s division of vector-borne diseases, experienced that misery himself back in 2003, when he was infected with West Nile virus after going out to pick up his mail without insect repellent.)
The virus has caused more than 2,000 deaths in the U.S. since it first appeared in New York in 1999. States hit hardest in recent years include California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and South Dakota. This year, 22 states have already reported 49 deaths and 658 of the most severe cases, known as “neuroinvasive,” which can involve meningitis, encephalitis, and paralysis.
But at least here in Southern California, residents don’t seem to be concerned.
“You can’t imagine how much outreach we’re doing, but it’s really hard to get people to pay attention,” said Kelly Middleton, who directs community affairs for the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District.
Some experts blame complacency, because West Nile is old news. Others blame the months of media coverage over the past year on Zika, another mosquito-borne virus that can cause grave birth defects when it infects pregnant women. Though there’s no evidence Zika is being transmitted by mosquitoes in Southern California, residents nonetheless seem focused on that — instead of the far more prevalent threat of West Nile.
“Certainly we all care about infants and birth defects, so Zika gets a lot of attention,” said Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, deputy chief of the county’s program for acute communicable disease control. “But West Nile causes more deaths than Zika does — and it causes them every year.”
Flocks of chickens generate vital data
To control West Nile virus, first you have to know where it’s lurking. It’s a monumental task for the district, which covers a territory of more than 1,340 square miles — roughly the size of Rhode Island.
The district has some 180 mosquito traps. Checking them all involves grueling drives five days a week by two field assistants.
But simply detecting virus inside mosquitoes doesn’t confirm that the insects are infectious. Finding infected birds does. The district collects and tests dead birds — crows and blue jays — when residents alert them, but such reports can be spotty.
So the district relies on its sentinel chickens, checking their blood for West Nile virus antibodies every two weeks.
On a recent day, Posey and her teammate Harold Morales checked a group of 10 white Leghorns — the iconic white chickens with bright red combs. (An attempt to use Rhode Island Reds failed miserably; the birds couldn’t handle the Southern California heat.) Seven of the chickens had already tested positive for West Nile, so Morales bled the three that hadn’t, dropping a few milliliters of blood onto filter papers he would later send to a state testing lab.
“It’s just like going to the doctor and getting a blood sample,” said Susanne Kluh, who heads disease surveillance for the district. “Some get feisty, but it’s pretty easy on the chickens.”
Wild birds don’t seem to mind the needles, either. Many that have been trapped for surveillance, banded, and released return repeatedly to the traps — where they can be tested again to see if they have immunity. “They give their blood and get free food,” Middleton said. “The same birds come back week after week.”
Unlike sparrows, finches, jays, and crows — which can die from West Nile and also transmit it to new mosquitoes — chickens don’t get sick or spread the virus. Indeed, the sentinel Longhorns are healthy enough that local gardeners gather their eggs and use their manure for fertilizer. Once testing season ends in late fall, the birds are given away — for pets or meat. “They’re good eating,” said Kluh.
And they’re good data generators, helping Kluh and colleagues generate a precise map of where the virus is active. The district can then target outreach and abatement efforts.
Human cases are too slow to be useful for surveillance, she said, because people often don’t go to the doctor right away and doctors don’t always report cases. (Indeed, the number of actual West Nile deaths is likely higher than stated because of underreporting, public health officials say.)
An army of invading mosquitoes
Los Angeles County public health officials credit the vector control district with keeping the outbreak from being far worse. But for Kluh and her team, every West Nile death is difficult.
“It’s hard,” Kluh said. “We take it really personally.”
This month, 84-year-old Julia Shepherd, an active grandmother from a Los Angeles suburb, died of West Nile after becoming paralyzed and disoriented.
The case is exactly the type public health officials fear, one that robs healthy older adults — those most likely to be outdoors — of either their lives or their independence. Some half of older adults who have been infected with neurological symptoms have still not recovered their ability to function independently after a year, Schwartz said.
While they’re focussed on West Nile, which is transmitted by Culex mosquitoes, Kluh and her team do still monitor the spread of Aedes aegypti, which can transmit Zika. She’s also tracking Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito that’s a carrier of dengue and chikungunya. And she’s got her eye on the newly arrived Aussie Mozzie mosquito — Aedes notoscriptus — that transmits yet other viruses.
“I guess I’ve got job security,” she joked.
Kluh sees a silver lining in the invasion of these aggressive new species. Unlike California’s resident Culex mosquitoes, the newcomers bite humans more than birds, bite all day long, and tend to raise welts that are itchier and more noticeable. Because of this, many people here are finally starting to complain about mosquitoes — and that’s music to Kluh’s ears.
“Because it’s so unpleasant,” she said, “people might finally start protecting themselves from getting bitten.”
Usha Lee McFarling
West Coast Correspondent
Usha is STAT's West Coast correspondent.
Exposure to Agent Orange sprayed during the Vietnam War has been linked to increased levels of certain hormones in women and their breastfeeding children decades later, potentially putting them at higher risk of health problems, according to a new study in Science of the Total Environment.
Previous research has shown a link between exposure to herbicides that contain chemicals called dioxins – such as Agent Orange – and prostate cancer in men. The new study, by researchers at Kanazawa University in Japan, reveals for the first time the impact of dioxin exposure on women and babies.
“Dioxin hotspots in the South of Vietnam are of the most severely polluted regions in the world,” said Prof. Teruhiko Kido, lead author of the study from Kanazawa University, Japan. “We know exposure to dioxins has an impact on our hormone levels, and we wanted to know if this was being passed through generations and potentially putting babies at risk in these areas.”
Agent Orange is one of the dioxin-contaminated herbicides that were sprayed during the Vietnam War and used in different industrial and agricultural activities. Their use has resulted in hotspots of dioxin contamination, with concentrations of the chemical two to five-fold higher in affected areas in southern Vietnam than in non-contaminated regions.
Dioxins are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) – they interfere with how hormones send messages to each other around the body. EDCs have been implicated in causing birth defects, cancer and neurodevelopment disorders. In particular, dioxins have an effect on a hormone called Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which is responsible for male and female characteristics in humans. Dioxins put these out of balance, leading to health problems and disfigurement.
“Decades of industrial development and chemicals released during the Vietnam War have led to high levels of dioxins in the soil and atmosphere and people are absorbing these chemicals from the food they eat and the air they breathe,” said Prof. Teruhiko Kido. “We know dioxins have an impact on our hormones, so we wanted to see whether they were being passed from mother to baby.”
In the new study, the team assessed 104 women with their newborn babies from two carefully selected locations. They chose a region in northern Vietnam, which was not occupied by the United States Air Force, and Bien Hoa, an industrial city where the Americans stored approximately 50% of Agent Orange and where there were at least four leaks in 1969-1970. Despite the natural elimination of dioxins in the past five decades, environmental and human samples around this area still contain high levels of the chemical.
The scientists analyzed the level of dioxin in the mothers’ breast milk, and tested non-invasive samples of saliva from the babies for levels of the hormone DHEA. The results showed a nearly three-fold increase in DHEA in babies from the dioxin hotspot compared to non-contaminated regions. This was linked to dioxins being transferred from mother to baby through their umbilical blood and breast milk.
“Our study confirms how sensitive and vulnerable children are to the environmental toxins their parents and even earlier generations have been exposed to,” said Prof. Kido. “There is a lot we still don’t know about what this means for children’s health and what the long term impact could be, but studying people in these dioxin hotspots gives researchers the chance to understand the implications better.”
Prof. Kido and the team plan to follow the children in the study up to the age of 10 to assess more accurately the endocrine impact of dioxin exposure during pregnancy and early life.
It remains one of the great mysteries of the Zika epidemic: Why did a virus that existed for decades elsewhere in the world suddenly seem to become more destructive when it landed in Latin America?
Why did the Zika virus cause thousands of babies to be born with microcephaly, unusually small and damaged brains, when previous outbreaks in Africa and Asia seemed to cause much less harm?
An intriguing study in mice, which has prompted some skepticism among experts, suggests that a single genetic mutation helped transform the Zika virus into a devastating force in Latin America. The report was published on Thursday in the journal Science.
The mutation, called S139N, first arose in an Asian strain of the Zika virus in 2013, just before a small outbreak in French Polynesia — the first linked to an increase in babies born with microcephaly.
Zika is believed to have first appeared in Latin America later in 2013, possibly introduced by soccer players from French Polynesia competing in a tournament in northeastern Brazil. The mutation has appeared in every strain of the virus in the Latin American outbreak, the researchers said.
The study, by scientists in China, found that strains of Zika with the S139N mutation caused substantially more death and microcephaly in mice than other strains. And in a laboratory dish, the S139N strain killed many more human cells important to early brain development than an earlier strain without the mutation.
Some experts voiced doubts, saying the findings were too preliminary to establish that a single mutation was the critical factor. At least, they said (and the study authors agree), the results must be replicated in primates, because laboratory experiments with mice and even human brain cells cannot fully capture how the virus functions in nature.
“It’s potentially important, and it’s provocative,” said David H. O’Connor, head of global infectious diseases at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s primate center, which has tested the Zika virus in monkeys.
“But it will require a lot of additional work to show that it can be reproduced in multiple settings, to show that it isn’t simply a coincidence.”
Other experts found the study persuasive.
“They showed this mutation is both sufficient and necessary to make the virus worse,” said Hongjun Song, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania who helped discover how Zika attacks the fetal brain. “I would say this is one of the smoking guns.”
“The scary part, maybe the take-home message, is that it doesn’t take that much — just one mutation — to make something really, really bad,” he added.
The researchers do not claim the S139N mutation is solely responsible for the birth defects among children born to women infected by mosquitoes during pregnancy. Other causes could involve differences in the population in Latin America, including the possibilities that their genetic makeup or exposure to previous mosquito-borne viruses made them more susceptible to harm from Zika.
It is also possible that Zika previously caused microcephaly, but cases simply went unnoticed when the virus reached Asia around the 1960s.
Microcephaly has many causes, many mothers gave birth at home, and newborns with severe brain damage might have died without immediate intensive care. The surge in microcephaly in northeast Brazil in late 2015 was noticed by doctors in hospital neonatal units.
The researchers noted that strains of the virus without the S139N mutation caused some mice to develop mild microcephaly, meaning that the mutation, which occurs on a protein involved in making the virus’s protective coating, is likely only a piece of the puzzle.
But it seems to be an important piece, the scientists said.
“In the beginning, we thought we may need multiple mutations” to create a viral strain that causes severe microcephaly, said Dr. Zhiheng Xu, a principal investigator with the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who led the study with Cheng-Feng Qin, a virologist at the Beijing Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology.
“That was a surprise to us, that it was just one mutation.”
The researchers first compared a strain of the Zika virus from an outbreak in 2010 in Cambodia with three strains from the recent Latin American outbreak. The viruses were injected into brains of one-day-old mice whose development, the researchers said, approximates that of third-trimester human fetuses.
About 17 percent of mice infected with the Cambodian strain died, compared to 100 percent of mice infected with the Latin American strains.
Next, the researchers created a Zika virus with several of the seven mutations that have appeared since 2013 and found that it caused greater mortality in newborn mice than the Cambodian strain. Then the team made seven strains of the Zika virus, each with one mutation.
Six caused comparatively mild damage, similar to the Cambodian strain. But the virus with the S139N mutation — in which only one nucleotide differs from the Cambodian version — killed more mice and caused more brain damage. In mouse embryos, the S139N mutation caused more severe microcephaly and dead brain cells.
To double-check the finding, the researchers created yet another strain, this one with a reversed version of the mutation: N139S. Its effect on mice was mild, like the Cambodian strain.
Even then, Dr. Qin was “not quite confident about the significance of our finding,” he said. “Honestly, we are also asking ourselves, ‘Can these results directly translate to humans?’”
So they tested the strains on human neural progenitor cells, which act as scaffolding upon which the fetal brain forms and are the virus’s main target. The S139N strain reproduced faster than the Cambodian strain and killed more cells.
The authors and other experts said they did not know why the mutation might have such a profound effect.
The viral coating protein that contains the S139N mutation is “used in viral assembly” before part of the protein degrades, said Genhong Cheng, a microbiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study.
So S139N may make the coating more protective or help the virus assemble more effectively, he said. “It certainly seems like this particular mutation is able to at least make a contribution to making it more virulent,” Dr. Cheng added.
Still, recent microcephaly cases in Thailand were caused by an Asian strain without S139N, he noted, so it is unlikely to be the only villain.
Kristian G. Andersen, director of infectious disease genomics at the Scripps Research Institute, said the study had several important limitations, including that it did not explain why, in the recent outbreak, microcephaly rates varied widely across the Americas.
Microcephaly cases were heavily concentrated in northeastern Brazil, for example, but the mutated Zika strain was found everywhere.
“This is an interesting study, but I’m skeptical of their findings, and I don’t believe their hypotheses are well supported,” he said.
Dr. O’Connor noted that injecting the virus directly into mouse brains did not mimic infection in nature, where the virus must infect a mother, cross the placenta and reach the fetus.
The researchers also did not try to address why this mutation might have persisted. Did it confer a survival advantage to the Zika virus or just incidentally increase the virus’s ability to cause microcephaly?
“That’s a very good question,” Dr. Xu said. “You got me.”
Coffee sold in California could carry cancer warning labels
A nonprofit group wants coffee manufacturers, distributors and retailers to post ominous warnings about a cancer-causing chemical stewing in every brew and has been presenting evidence in a Los Angeles courtroom to make its case
At the center of the dispute is acrylamide, a carcinogen found in cooked foods such as French fries that is also a natural byproduct of the coffee roasting process
Published 3:53 AM ET Tue, 26 Sept 2017 Updated 20 Hours Ago
The Associated Press
Coffee sold in California could carry cancer warning labels
20 Hours Ago | 01:03
A future cup of coffee in California could give you jitters before you even take a sip.
A nonprofit group wants coffee manufacturers, distributors and retailers to post ominous warnings about a cancer-causing chemical stewing in every brew and has been presenting evidence in a Los Angeles courtroom to make its case.
The long-running lawsuit that resumed Monday claims Starbucks and about 90 other companies, including grocery stores and retail shops, failed to follow a state law requiring warning signs about hazardous chemicals found everywhere from household products to workplaces to the environment.
At the center of the dispute is acrylamide, a carcinogen found in cooked foods such as French fries that is also a natural byproduct of the coffee roasting process. The coffee industry has acknowledged the presence of the chemical but asserts it is at harmless levels and is outweighed by benefits from drinking coffee.
Although the case has been percolating in the courts since 2010, it has gotten little attention.
A verdict in favor of the little-known Council for Education and Research on Toxics could send a jolt through the industry with astronomical penalties possible and it could wake up a lot of consumers, though it's unclear what effect it would have on coffee-drinking habits.
The lawyer taking on Big Coffee said the larger goal is to motivate the industry to remove the chemical from coffee, which would also benefit his own three-cup-a-day fix.
"I'm addicted — like two-thirds of the population," attorney Raphael Metzger said. "I would like the industry to get acrylamide out of the coffee so my addiction doesn't force me to ingest it."
Under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, passed by voters as Proposition 65 in 1986, private citizens, advocacy groups and attorneys can sue on behalf of the state and collect a portion of civil penalties.
Metzger represented the council in a case later taken up by the state attorney general that resulted in potato chip makers agreeing in 2008 to pay $3 million and remove acrylamide from their product.
The law has been roundly criticized for abuses by lawyers shaking down businesses for quick settlements but is also credited with reducing chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects, such as lead in hair dyes, mercury in nasal sprays and arsenic in bottled water.
But warnings, which can be startling on first encounter, have been less effective due to sometimes inconspicuous placement or vague language. Drivers everywhere appear to prioritize parking in a garage over warnings such as, "This area contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects and other reproductive harm."
The state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment adopted new regulations last year that will require more specific warnings that list the chemical consumers may be exposed to and list a website with more information. Parking garages, for example, will have to post that breathing air there exposes drivers to carbon monoxide and gas and diesel exhaust and warns people not to linger longer than necessary.
"The intent is not to scare people," said Allan Hirsch, chief deputy of the office. "The intention is to help people make more informed decisions. If you continue to buy a product that will expose you to a chemical, that's OK as long as you're informed."
Global coffee consumer looking for a different kind of experience: Lavazza vice chairman
5:40 AM ET Thu, 6 July 2017 | 04:21
Many of the coffee defendants have already posted warnings that specifically say California has determined acrylamide is among chemicals that cause cancer and attorneys have stated others, from mega-chains to mom-and-pop operations, will follow suit if the judge rules against them.
Metzger said many of those warnings often appear after the point of sale or where cream and sugar is provided, which offers no warning to someone drinking black coffee.
Coffee companies lost a first round in the case two years ago and are now presenting their last defense.
Defense lawyers declined to comment on the case but asserted in court that they should prevail under an exemption for chemicals that result naturally from cooking necessary for palatability or to avoid microbiological contamination.
"It is hard to imagine a product that could satisfy this exemption if coffee does not," defense attorney James Schurz said in court papers. "The answer to the question of whether Proposition 65 requires coffee to carry a cancer warning must be an emphatic 'No.'"
In the first phase, Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said the defense failed to present enough credible evidence to show there was no significant risk posed by acrylamide in coffee. The law puts the burden on the defense to show that the level of the chemical won't result in one excess case of cancer for every 100,000 people exposed. Berle said the epidemiology studies they presented were inadequate to evaluate that risk.
Civil penalties could come to $2,500 per person exposed each day. With penalties reaching back eight years that could ring up an astronomical bill in a state with close to 40 million residents, though such a massive figure is very unlikely.
Starbucks Corp., the lead defendant, would not comment on the case. Its latest quarterly report said it's not "party to any legal proceeding that management believes could have a material adverse effect on our consolidated financial position, results of operations or cash flows."
Two of the defendants have settled in the past month and agreed to post warnings. BP West Coast Products, which operates gas station convenience stores, agreed to pay $675,000. Yum Yum Donuts Inc. agreed to pay nearly $250,000.
Hurricane Maria's devastation of Puerto Rico presents a test case of the United States' response to climate-related damages on a small island territory that is impoverished, vulnerable and underrepresented in Congress. The storm caused widespread damage that could leave people homeless, jobless and without clean water or electricity for months. As is so often the case, the harm hit hardest those with the fewest resources.
It's not just that Puerto Rico was already laden with chronic debt and acutely injured by an earlier storm that had passed just north of the island two weeks before. Nor is it merely that Maria, probably the most destructive hurricane in the island's history, is the kind of event that climate change experts have long warned would be among the risks facing coastal areas as the planet warms.
From the vantage point of environmental justice, this storm also represents many of the ways that those risks are unfairly distributed—and whether the United States, like the world as a whole, is prepared to come to the aid of poor and vulnerable communities that have contributed little to climate change.
The Category 4 hurricane wiped out Puerto Rico's electric grid, and it's expected to be out for months, leaving the island's 3.4 million people—about 44 percent of whom already lived below the poverty line—isolated without life's basic necessities and. As of late Thursday, Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, said there had been no contact with officials in 85 percent of the island.
Among the questions will be this narrow one, which Congress and the White House will have to grapple with: If there is not enough money to pay all the costs, yet untallied, of the record hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico this summer, will the funds be equitably allocated? The two other devastated states have among the largest voting blocs in Congress, and Puerto Rico has no vote.
Puerto Rico is, in many ways, a microcosm for climate fairness issues at the global level. Puerto Ricans use one-third as much energy and emit less than half as much carbon dioxide as the rest of the United States on a per capita basis yet bear the risk of increased hurricane activity in a warming Atlantic basin.
Like its Caribbean neighbor, the U.S. Virgin Islands, which was also hit by hurricanes Maria and Irma, Puerto Rico is a part of the world that doesn't contribute significantly to climate change but is impacted significantly by it.
Since 2003, more than 4,000 natural disasters, including extreme temperatures and droughts, storms, floods and epidemics, have wreaked havoc on the Caribbean, up from fewer than 100 over a similar time period at the beginning of the 20th century. The number of the strongest storms, Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, will likely increase over the coming century, according to the latest National Climate Assessment.
"This is the new norm," Christina Chan, climate resilience practice director for the World Resources Institute and former branch chief for the U.S. State Department's climate change office, said. "How do we start building that into the bloodstream of our economic, social and development work, whether you are talking domestic or international?"
How Will Congress Respond?
The initial federal response to Maria suggests the U.S. will step up.
As news of the devastation on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands made headlines on the mainland, President Donald Trump upped the federal response from "emergency" declarations to "disaster" declarations for the territories, and prominent Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah, pledged their support.
The declarations will cover millions of dollars worth of initial recovery efforts, but full recovery and rebuilding costs will be in the tens of billions and will follow on the heels of unprecedented hurricane recovery spending in Texas and Florida, states with a combined Congressional delegation of more than 60 representatives, mostly Republicans. Puerto Rico has one, non-voting "resident commissioner" in Congress, Jenniffer González.
"Texas and Florida will receive the bulk of that funding," Roger-Mark De Souza, director of population, environmental security and resilience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said. "It doesn't mean that there isn't additional need or greater need on these more vulnerable territories, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, so there needs to be a consideration of how we balance those allocations, to meet the needs of those who are most vulnerable."
Toxic Sites, Flooding Raise Health Risks
Low-income, minority communities in Texas and Florida also face a long road to recovery, though the situation in Puerto Rico will likely be more difficult.
Judith Enck, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator for Region 2, which includes Puerto Rico, said she's particularly worried about Cano Martin Pena, a low-income community in the capital, San Juan.
"Even when there is just a few inches of rain, they have major flooding problems, and reports are there were over 30 inches of rain in San Juan," Enck said. "On a routine basis, they had problems where there was flooding and then people's furniture would get all wet and then they would endure mold, and then they would have more incidents of asthma—it's just a vicious cycle. There is also just a huge amount of sewage in the floodwaters, so people are exposed to pathogens and bacteria and are prone to rashes and skin diseases."
Puerto Rico is home to a slew of other toxic sites, many of which lack sufficient safeguards to protect surrounding communities under the best of conditions, let alone a major hurricane.
More than half of Puerto Rico's municipal landfills are in violation of EPA's regulations, according to a 2016 report from the bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico. The territory is also home to 23 Superfund sites that pose a risk to surrounding soil and groundwater, including much of the island of Vieques, which the U.S. military used as a bomb-test site for decades.
Perhaps of greatest concern, however, is a five-story coal ash pile near an electric power plant in Guayama, a low-income community on Puerto Rico's Caribbean coast. The ash, according to EPA testing, contains arsenic, chromium and selenium, which have been linked to serious health effects, such as higher rates of asthma, birth defects and cancer according to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). The senator recently wrote to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, urging him to take appropriate measures to protect the health of Puerto Ricans from "potentially deadly toxic exposure."
Adriana Gonzalez, Sierra Club's environmental justice organizer for Puerto Rico, said before Maria made landfall that she feared the ash will "either blow with the wind or rain will wash it off."
The potential impacts on low-income communities of color led former EPA advisor Michael Dorsey to ask more than a year ago whether Puerto Rico was the next Flint, referring to the Michigan city where low-income communities of color were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water. Dorsey urged the nation to do something about similar pollution concerns in Puerto Rico, before it was too late.
It's still too early to assess the full scope of the damage wrought by Maria or the amount of federal aid the territory will need or receive. One image, however, is beginning to emerge. Puerto Rico is quickly becoming a poster child for a problem that spans the globe; the disproportionate impacts of climate change risks on the poor, vulnerable and especially colonial and island nations.
By Michael Biesecker | AP September 23 at 10:44 PM
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency says it has recovered 517 containers of “unidentified, potentially hazardous material” from highly contaminated toxic waste sites in Texas that flooded last month during Hurricane Harvey.
The agency has not provided details about which Superfund sites the material came from, why the contaminants at issue have not been identified and whether there’s a threat to human health.
The one-sentence disclosure about the 517 containers was made Friday night deep within a media release from the Federal Emergency Management Agency summarizing the government’s response to the devastating storm.
At least a dozen Superfund sites in and around Houston were flooded in the days after Harvey’s record-shattering rains stopped. Associated Press journalists surveyed seven of the flooded sites by boat, vehicle and on foot. The EPA said at the time that its personnel had been unable to reach the sites, though they surveyed the locations using aerial photos.
The Associated Press reported Monday that a government hotline also received calls about three spills at the U.S. Oil Recovery Superfund site, a former petroleum waste processing plant outside Houston contaminated with a dangerous brew of cancer-causing chemicals. Records obtained by the AP showed workers at the site reported spills of unknown materials in unknown amounts.
Local pollution control officials photographed three large tanks used to store potentially hazardous waste completely underwater on Aug. 29. The EPA later said there was no evidence that nearby Vince Bayou had been impacted.
PRP Group, the company formed to clean up the U.S. Oil Recovery site, said it does not know how much material leaked from the tanks, soaking into the soil or flowing into the bayou. As part of the post-storm cleanup, workers have vacuumed up 63 truckloads of potentially contaminated storm water, totaling about 315,000 gallons.
It was not immediately clear whether those truckloads accounted for any of the 517 containers cited in the FEMA media release on Friday. The EPA has not responded to questions from AP about activities at U.S. Oil Recovery for more than a week.
About a dozen miles east, the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site is on and around a low-lying island that was the site of a paper mill in the 1960s, leaving behind dangerous levels of dioxins and other long-lasting toxins linked to birth defects and cancer. The site was completely covered with floodwaters when the AP surveyed it on Sept. 1.
To prevent contaminated soil and sediments from being washed down river, about 16 acres of the site was covered in 2011 with an “armored cap” of fabric and rock. The cap was reportedly designed to last for up to 100 years, but it has required extensive repairs on at least six occasions in recent years, with large sections becoming displaced or having been washed away.
The EPA has not responded to repeated inquiries over the past two weeks about whether its assessment has determined whether the cap was similarly damaged during Harvey.
The companies responsible for cleaning up the site, Waste Management Inc. and International Paper, have said there were “a small number of areas where the current layer of armored cap is thinner than required.”
“There was no evidence of a release from any of these areas,” the companies said, adding that sediments there were sampled last week.
The EPA has not yet released those test results to the public.
When Susie Worley-Jenkins survived cervical cancer after being diagnosed at 22 years old, she hoped that she was done with the disease. It was 1979, and she had no idea what was coming.
Thirty-five years later, she was diagnosed with cancer in her left breast. Then her right breast. Then she got cancerous moles on her hand and nose.
In her 62 years, Ms Worley-Jenkins says she has had four cancer diagnoses – and she’s not the only one. Her husband, Randy Jenkins, has been diagnosed with skin cancer four times and was treated in 1999 for leukemia. Months later her childhood friend died of a brain tumor.
‘I just went to one funeral, then another funeral, then another funeral, and I said, “This ain’t right. Not that many people should die that quickly",' she tells DailyMail.com.
Something had to be wrong in her small town of Minden, West Virginia, she reasoned. She knew of many other families suffering with cancers, birth defects and chemical burns - and began going door-to-door in Minden four years ago making an informal survey. She was stunned to find that nearly every household she visited was privately dealing with some type of ‘horrendous’ health condition.
‘My friends were dying of cancer. Their grandkids have brain tumors, and I’m not talking about people old like me or older than me and stuff – I’m talking about 15-year-old kids,’ Ms Worley-Jenkins says.
The high sickness levels, she believes, can all be attributed to contaminated water. The area has a cancer rate that’s nearly four times higher than the national average, and a local doctor spent decades trying to link that to pollution from industrial byproducts.
An investigation by DailyMail.com found an environmental disaster that began more than a century ago with the coal-mining industry and went on to include dumped toxic chemicals – leading the Environmental Protection Agency to fund clean-up with Superfund money, designated for hazardous waste sites. Now residents fear nearby fracking by oil and gas companies could be further contaminating their water and region, and Fayette County officials have already banned natural gas or oil waste within county borders amidst concerns about possible pollution.
Recent academic studies have recorded worrying trends associated with the loosely-regulated fracking industry, identifying a higher number of hospitalizations among people living near fracking sites. And while the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has denied a cancer cluster, at least one state statistician has expressed concern at the Minden levels in an email seen by DailyMail.com.
DailyMail.com spoke with officials and examined numerous documents, including pertinent reports, studies and correspondence – and the findings support Ms Worley-Jenkins’ initial, worrisome hunch.
There is something wrong with Minden.
Sleepy riverside town that became a dumping ground for industrial waste: Oblivious residents were exposed to elevated levels of toxic chemicals for decades
Minden is a sleepy riverside town of 250 residents, mostly poor and white – which was once a thriving coal town in Fayette County, southern West Virginia. But during the 1970s, now-defunct company Shaffer Equipment, which rebuilt electrical substations for the local coal mining industry, dumped industrial products or chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the area.
The EPA found that Shaffer – which had employed Randy Jenkins – had dumped electrical equipment laden with PCB oil on the coal company’s now-abandoned mine site in the center of Minden. The predominant practice was to store the fluid in containers, but the agency found that even when the company followed protocol, some of the fluid leaked onto the ground.
Since Shaffer abandoned Minden in the early 1980s, the town has received funding from the EPA’s Superfund program, designed to fund the clean-up of the country’s most complex or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.
Although the area received funding from this program, it was never actually deemed a Superfund site on the EPA's National Priorities List of most contaminated sites – a common occurrence for places that the agency believes only require ‘immediate, short-term responses’, according to an EPA spokesman.
Ms Worley-Jenkins says she’s seen 80 neighbors, even their pets, die in the past two decades – all victims of cancer. She’s created a list of 237 people who she says have been diagnosed or died with the disease during this time – and the number of those affected continues to grow.
After she was diagnosed with cancer in both of her breasts, Ms Worley-Jenkins’s one-story home became a staging ground for an environmental justice fight. She has emerged as the leader of a group of residents demanding residential buyouts from the state. But the effort to identify a root cause of the sickness rates extends far beyond Ms Worley-Jenkins.
Dr Hassan Amjad, an oncologist and hematologist in nearby Beckley, considered it his life’s work to document the high cancer rates in the Minden area. He was conducting a study on the possible link between PCB contamination and cancer patients when he died suddenly in August, weeks after speaking with DailyMail.com for this investigation and sharing his research and information.
According to his research, Minden's cancer rates far exceeded those nationally; while the cancer mortality rate is currently 171 per 100,000 in the US, he found that Minden's was as high as 692 – and, in previous years, had climbed as high as 2,092 per 100,000.
The West Virginia Health Statistics Center reported that from 1979-2016, the cancer death rate was 642.1 per 100,000 - more than twice that of Fayette County's 279.1, already significantly higher than the national average. Dr Amjad believed the real toll is likely even higher because of flawed reporting or sufferers who left the area.
Shaffer was among the county’s worst polluters, said Dr Amjad, claiming that Minden residents for decades were exposed to wildly elevated levels of PCBs. They were commonly used to insulate electrical equipment until 1979, when the EPA banned them as a ‘possible’ human carcinogen.
A June 1993 public health assessment by the Centers for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry identified potential ways people could be exposed to PCBs in Minden. This included going on the grounds of the fenced-in Shaffer site, on-site workers in the Shaffer equipment building, children playing in yards and Arbuckle Creek, as well as people eating snap turtles from the area.
Dr Amjad worked with various hospitals in southern West Virginia for more than 20 years; he told DailyMail.com that, after speaking with cancer patients who live or have lived in Minden and studying their medical records, at least 36 per cent of residents have been diagnosed with a form of cancer. He publicly called out the EPA for failing to protect Minden residents for more than two decades.
His daughter, Dr Ayne Amjad, 39, watched her father fight for the people of Minden from a young age and actively helped him as she, too, became a physician and obtained a masters in public health.
She tells DailyMail.com that her father always reasoned: 'If I'm going to be recognized for any efforts in my life, I would like it to be for the people of Minden.'
'That was a big thing for him - probably his most passionate project that I could recall, and he did a lot of stuff,' she says. 'Every day he would text me or call me with some exciting news, showing me all the emails, showing me everything that's going on.
'He was very passionate that ... something would be done, at least recognize that the people of Minden were disadvantaged mainly, he felt, because of their economic status and because of where we live and so forth - that they got dumped on literally and didn't get any help, even though he was fighting for that since the early 80s.'
Dr Amjad had turned 70 just days before his death, which came quickly, though he had struggled with conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, says his daughter - who intends to take up where he left off in his quest to help the people of Minden.
'He was never in the hospital, he was never sick, per se - he didn't have time to be sick,' she says.
In 1985, an 11-member watchdog group, Concerned Citizens to Save Fayette County, also formed and pushed for continued EPA soil sampling in Minden.
Lucian Randall, the group’s vice president, was one member who has already died from cancer. Randall was a former coal miner who lived next to the Shaffer site. He had collected information on the PCB contamination prior to his death. Another member, Thelma Phillips, has colon cancer and the group’s leader, Larry Rose, is alive but in poor health; he’s being screened for cancer.
The EPA initially denied the residents’ requests for more soil sampling, saying that PCBs no longer posed a risk there, according to court documents. It was only after the group petitioned West Virginia politicians and held rallies that attracted protesters from other states did officials agree to retest the site in 1990.
In March 1990, EPA testing validated residents’ concerns: soil samples showed PCB contamination at Shaffer and agents found more contaminated barrels buried at the site, according to court documents. This prompted the agency to conduct a second clean-up effort the following year, with millions of dollars wasted on mismanaging the site. In 1992, the EPA tore down the site and constructed a cap over it.
The same year, the agency sought to recover its costs from Shaffer, now bankrupt, Berwind Land Company, which leased the land to Shaffer, and Johns Hopkins University, though the suit was later thrown out after revelations about an EPA official lying about his credentials.
Dr Amjad charged that the EPA and state health officials have shirked duties to Minden residents and that a government buy-out of properties may be the only solution to save them.
Despite the EPA’s efforts to extract and remove contaminated soil on the Shaffer site – they made three attempts between 1984 and 1991 – they ultimately determined a year later that it was best to destroy and construct a cap over the site.
Responding to concerns from Minden residents, the West Virginia Cancer Registry conducted a series of cancer cluster studies in Fayette County from 1979 to 2016, finding a normal-to-expected rate of the disease among residents.
An agency spokesperson wrote in an email to DailyMail.com, after declining multiple requests for a phone interview: ‘The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Bureau for Public Health will reiterate, there is no current data in the West Virginia Health Statistics Center and West Virginia Cancer Registry to support a cancer cluster in Minden.
‘It would be highly inappropriate to unnecessarily alarm residents by misconstruing a limited data set.’
Though the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health stressed that the data does not support a cancer cluster occurring in Minden, emails seen by DailyMail.com suggest that not all agency representatives agree with its findings.
‘It does show a much higher cancer death rate than Fayette County in general. It is still small numbers, but given the tiny population the rate is concerning,’ an agency statistician wrote in an August 7 email to Dr Amjad.
A cancer cluster is hard to prove. It may be a statistical fluke, or sometimes there are other confounding variables like an older population or a higher concentration of smokers. But the state’s cancer cluster studies are flawed, Dr Amjad said, since they rely on health information collected from death certificates, which are often inaccurate.
More significantly, Minden has no hospital. As a result, Dr Amjad said, the studies excluded many residents and Shaffer employees who moved away or died in hospitals outside Fayette County.
Many residents have undergone physical examinations, providing blood and urine samples for analysis. Dr Amjad told DailyMail.com he collected and sorted all the information to determine Minden residents have a significantly higher incidence of cancer compared to other towns - possibly 20 times higher in the case of certain cancers.
Ms Worley-Jenkins is one of those residents who’s determined not to die in Minden, though she says she and others in the town can’t afford to move on her monthly pension of $1,427 from her days as a local welder and restaurant manager.
‘Nobody wants it. It doesn’t have value to it,’ she said of her one-acre property, valued around $85,000, which has depreciated in value because of the PCB contamination in the area.
‘These people can’t replace their homes. They have no money for travel, they barely have enough money to eat. They don’t even have insurance, half of ‘em.’
Since moving to Minden as a child, Ms Worley-Jenkins said that, in addition to her cancer diagnoses, she has suffered a range of skin ailments, including inflamed hair follicles on her head, which doctors could never fully explain. But several years ago, she says Dr Amjad stated that her conditions were the result of exposure to ‘toxic substances’.
She rattles off a list of friends, all residents, diagnosed with or deceased from cancer. One childhood friend has ovarian cancer; another is infertile. Her other friend had skin cancer and is now dying of lung cancer, she says.
‘I have to laugh about it or I’ll cry,’ Ms Worley-Jenkins says.
Dr Amjad urged the EPA 25 years ago to relocate Minden residents because of their exposure to PCBs, but his request fell on deaf ears. The agency returned to the town in June, after residents worried a proposed sewage project could upset the site, to conduct a month-long sampling of 20 locations on county and private properties to test for the chemicals.
The EPA has yet to release the results for Minden - and many residents say they don’t trust the agency after their experiences with the EPA in the 1980s and early 1990s, when officials sealed off the about one-acre Shaffer mine site and told residents that it was unlikely the soil was contaminated and that their health wasn’t at risk.
Dr Amjad said it’s ‘impossible’ to clean the Shaffer site because the half-life of PCBs is 100 years.
The toxic history of Minden: The once-thriving coal mining town where at least 36% of residents have been diagnosed with a form of cancer
The EPA’s history in Minden began shortly after an unidentified Shaffer employee reportedly notified state officials that PCB oil was stored at the company’s site, according to court documents from a June 1992 district court case. A West Virginia Division of Natural Resources agent notified the federal agency, which sent investigators to the town sometime in November 1984.
Investigators found oil from capacitors and transformers stored in containers on the Shaffer site. Employees admitted to pouring PCB-laden oil on the dirt roads to combat the dust, according to testimonies submitted during debate over the Superfund Reform Act of 1994.
Long-time Minden resident Darrel ‘Butter’ Thomas, 58, claims Shaffer employees dumped between 100 and 200 gallons of this oil every other day for around 12 years: ‘It was huge.’ Mr Thomas says he’s surprised he hasn’t experienced any health problems because he played on the site as a child.
In fact, many long-time Minden residents have fond memories playing on the site as children. They wonder now why there were no signs warning them of the potential dangers.
Frank Ward, 70, is another long-time resident of Minden. The former Shaffer employee confessed to The Register-Herald in June that while working for the company in the 1960s he dumped PCB-laden transformers at various mine sites in town.
In his June interview with the newspaper, he said he didn’t know there was a possible link between the chemicals and cancer until after he left Shaffer. Since then, he says he’s seen numerous Minden residents, including his mother, die of cancer.
‘I’m guilty of it, big time,’ he said – though he declined requests for comment from DailyMail.com.
When Anna Shaffer, daughter of company founder and owner of the namesake site, testified in 1992 that she didn’t have the money to clean the area, and Berwind Land Company, which leased land to Shaffer, denied responsibility, the EPA sent a team led by Robert Caron. He was later sentenced to three months of home detention for lying to the agency about his education and expertise, according to court documents from 1992 and 1993.
Caron suggested use of a new technology, a ‘solvent extraction method’, for cleaning the site, which, at the time was the seventh largest clean-up in Superfund history. Using this method, the EPA washed contaminated soil in methanol to extract PCBs. The agency was trying to avoid transporting the chemicals to a remote landfill – but their attempts failed.
A year later, they abandoned the method and removed 4,735 tons of contaminated soil to Emelle, Alabama, home to the nation’s largest hazardous waste dump, according to court documents. According to the EPA, they’ve implemented multiple clean-ups that would total $6,890,490.
But certain fish breeds in the New River, which flows through Fayette County, have been found to have low levels of PCBs, among other chemicals, and should only be eaten once a month, according to the West Virginia Fish Consumption Advisories. Minden residents told DailyMail.com that they’ve caught catfish in the New River with sores that look like cigarette burns.
PCBs move up through food chains, from insects to the creatures that eat them. The chemicals accumulate and remain stored in fat in top predators like bald eagles, found to breed and nest in southern West Virginia, and humans, who can transmit PCBs through breast milk, Dr Amjad said.
Is fracking the new threat looming over Minden? Residents buy bottled water because they worry it's still not safe to drink from the taper chemicals
And many Minden residents worry that history is repeating itself as a potential new threat looms over the town: Fracking.
Time has shown the ecological cost of coal mining, says Ms Worley-Jenkins, but whether fracking will bring an economic boom or environmental doom has yet to be seen.
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling technique using pressurized mixtures of water and chemicals to extract natural gas from deep rock formations like the Marcellus Shale, which runs through West Virginia.
The rapid advent of fracking in West Virginia and former coal mining operations have led to contaminated water in Minden and other rural communities in the state, various studies claim.
A 2014 study by Duke University found that contaminants associated with oil and gas wastewater had spilled into Wolf Creek, a waterway that feeds into the New River – a water source for thousands of people. The results add to an increasing body of work pointing to greater risks from the transport and treatment of fracking wastewater.
The gas industry produces thousands of tons of this waste and companies and state regulators struggle to find safe ways to dispose of it.
There’s little federal oversight and a patchwork of state regulations regarding this type of waste. Each state’s left to figure out its own plan.
The EPA only has jurisdiction over the wells if diesel fuel is among the chemicals. When Congress passed the Energy Policy Act in 2005 they allowed for broad fracking exemptions.
Locals may have reason to worry. Studies suggest that metals from coal mining activities have already contaminated Wolf, Arbuckle, Dunloup and Piney Creeks, and a number of incidents over the past few years in West Virginia serve as examples as to why officials shouldn’t downplay the risks of toxic pollution.
While there’s no actual fracking going on in Fayette County, Ms Worley-Jenkins claims plenty of toxic fracking wastewater is being hauled in from other areas and dumped in wells that are flowing down into Minden and also making people sick.
Opponents say the oil and gas industries have taken advantage of West Virginia’s ‘dirty-energy-friendly’ policies, which has led to the creation of 60,161 active fracking wells, according to the state’s department of environmental protection.
As of March, state regulations require fracking operators to complete and submit a list of chemicals they use. Operators can, however, withhold a chemical or chemical concentration if they consider it to be a trade secret.
West Virginia is one of 28 states that require disclosure of some fracking fluids.
Today, roughly half of West Virginia’s population lives near an active fracking site, a new study has revealed.
Researchers from PSE Health Energy, the University of California, Berkeley and Harvey Mudd College looked at the nationwide measurement for the number of people living near active oil and gas wells.
When people live within a mile of these operations, they have a higher risk of being hospitalized for numerous medical issues, including heart and neurological problems, cancers and asthma.
Fayette County banned wastewater injection wells in 2016 as a reaction to residents’ complaints about the safety of fracking waste. The ordinance, although praised by local environment groups, was challenged by oil and gas companies.
While the Duke study found toxic fracking chemicals in Wolf Creek, a spokeswoman with local water utility West Virginia American Water told DailyMail.com that the creek is being monitored by the New River Water Treatment Plant. She says the plant has not detected any fracking-related contamination.
But Ms Worley-Jenkins and other Minden residents remain distrustful, often buying bottled water that eats into already tight household budgets. All along people’s fences in the town, dozens of plastic gallon water jugs pile up because they don’t think it’s safe to drink from the tap.
And the New River is also a major tourist attraction in West Virginia, whose reputation is as a ‘wild, wonderful’ destination – a slogan stamped on state license plates which could be tarnished by reports of tainted waters.
Rafting companies like American Canadian Expeditions, better known as ACE Adventure Resorts, take tourists from Oak Hill down the New River to Minden.
Jerry Cook, ACE co-founder, told DailyMail.com that no testing he’s commissioned on the water and sediment near his company’s operations have found any contamination.
But the results of summertime EPA testing have raised yet another set of concerns. Although not in Minden, an object was found beneath PCB-contaminated soil near Fayetteville and is a suspected underground storage tank (UST). The area that was tested is at the entrance of Wolf Creek Park.
EPA Roy Seneca told the Fayette Tribune last week that the agency had never approved the burial of a UST in the location and had no records of one being stored there.
‘I think we can be relatively certain that the origin of these PCBs is Minden, at the Shaffer plant,’ Fayette Commission President Matt Wender told the newspaper. ‘It’s hard to believe somebody would just dump these things somewhere on the side of the road. How some rogue operator may have decided to dump some of this cleanup material is very troubling.’
Minden is a ‘really painful reminder’ of what happens when environmental issues become silenced, says Brandon Richardson, founder of Headwaters Defense, an environmental group based in nearby Oak Hill.
‘The water around here can’t really be trusted to drink because the pollution from Minden washes into the river,’ says Mr Richardson. ‘The pollution from Wolf Creek and the injection wells in the fracking washes into the New River and then downstream of all that industrial activity is where we recover our drinking water from.’
Drinking water quality is often dependent on the wealth of residents, says 26-year-old Richardson. Small communities oftentimes have to fend for themselves with little help from state and federal governments, he adds.
Every time the area floods, residents are reminded of Minden’s coal mining past. When heavy rainfall hit Minden in June, the three inches of flooding renewed residents’ fears of PCBs. Video footage taken by residents after the flooding shows what could be PCBs turning up on the surface of puddles as a rainbow-colored sheen. PCBs tend to not evaporate or easily dissolve in water, Dr Amjad said.
Over the past four decades, an immense amount of effort has gone into cleaning the country’s polluted waters. Environmental laws have stopped the dumping of coal wastes into streams and regulated pesticides. But the latest federal budget imposes cuts to water-quality protections like the Superfund program.
This would put a curse on future generations of Americans, says Ms Worley-Jenkins. She doesn’t want her 10 grandchildren, two of whom have chronic illnesses, to shoulder the burden.
Ms Worley-Jenkins says the flow of polluted water into creeks and rivers is everyone’s problem.
‘It’s not just affecting this area; it’s affecting everywhere this water runs to,’ she says. ‘This water runs down into Charleston and into the Ohio River and it continues to go to the Mississippi. So, it’s not just our problem.’
The toxic history of Minden in coal-mining country
Minden, West Virginia was once a thriving coal town in Fayette County. Today, deaths are nearly four times higher than the national average, which residents believe is owed in part to the dumping of PCBs by Shaffer Equipment, a now-defunct company that for decades churned toxic chemicals into the atmosphere while rebuilding electrical substations for the local coal mining industry.
Shaffer had dumped electrical equipment laden with PCB oil on the coal company’s now-abandoned mine site in the center of Minden, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The predominant practice was to store the fluid in containers, but the agency found that even when the company followed protocol, some of the fluid leaked onto the ground at the less than one-acre site. PCBs were also reportedly burned as starter fuel in the company’s building that served as both a warehouse and office.
PCBs were commonly used to insulate electrical equipment until 1979, when the EPA banned them as a ‘possible’ human carcinogen.
Since Shaffer abandoned Minden in 1984, the town has received funding from the EPA’s Superfund program, designed to fund the clean-up of the country’s most complex or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.
The EPA’s history in Minden began shortly after an unidentified Shaffer employee reportedly notified state officials that PCB oil was stored at the company’s site, built on leased land owned by Berwind Land Corporation.
A West Virginia Division of Natural Resources agent notified the federal agency, which sent investigators to the town sometime in November 1984. Investigators found oil from capacitors and transformers stored in containers on the Shaffer site.
When Anna Shaffer, daughter of the company’s founder and owner of the namesake site, said she didn’t have the money to clean the area and Berwind officials denied responsibility, the EPA sent a team led by Robert Caron. He was later sentenced to three months of home detention for lying to the agency about his education and expertise.
In March 1990, EPA testing validated residents’ concerns: soil samples showed PCB contamination at Shaffer and agents found more contaminated barrels buried at the site. This prompted the agency to conduct a second clean-up effort the following year, with millions of dollars was wasted on mismanaging the site. Despite the EPA’s efforts to extract and remove contaminated soil on the Shaffer site, they ultimately determined that it was best to destroy and construct a cap over the site, which the agency did in 1992.
West Virginia residents are exposed to toxic fracking fumes more than any other state
West Virginians are exposed to toxic fracking fumes more than any other state
Roughly half of West Virginians live near an active oil or gas well, a new study reveals.
Researchers from at PSE Health Energy, the University of California, Berkeley and Harvey Mudd College produced a state-by-state comparison to see which ones had a high amount of people living near these wells.
West Virginia topped the list with around 915,000 residents being exposed to harmful toxins on a daily basis.
Experts say the report should be a red flag to public health officials that protective regulations and policies need to be improved to help prevent exposure. Wells on state and private lands, where most fracking occurs, aren’t regulated.
The Environmental Protection Agency can regulate air and water pollution from drilling sites but not the drilling process.
The wells contaminate the quality of the air, water and soil and increase harmful toxins, such as benzene – present in coal tar and petroleum – and formaldehyde.
People living within a mile of these toxic fumes have an increased risk for getting cancer, heart disease, dementia or a neurological problem.
Birth defects, such as pre-term birth, low weight and congenital heart defects have also increased around the areas with active oil and gas production.
The study states that there should be a regulated distance between fracking operations and places where people live, play and learn.
The company scraps planned Pennsylvania investments and will instead shut down three polluting batteries in 2023. The announcement comes a week after a study shows lower lung function in people living near its Pittsburgh-region facility.
EHN.org scientific investigation finds western Pennsylvania families near fracking are exposed to harmful chemicals, and regulations fail to protect communities' mental, physical, and social health.