The Science and Environmental Health Network


Blog, Updates, and In the News

Crafting the New Story.png

Precautionary Principle – Number 191

Precaution Round-up

February 2010


I. Do Toxins Cause Autism?  by Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times"The precautionary principle suggests that we should be wary of personal products like fragrances unless they are marked phthalate-free."

II. Natural Gas is not an Alternative Fuel  by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe, Denton (TX) Record-ChronicleEd and Carol Soph of Denton, Texas, were early adopters of the precautionary principle in 1998. Now people bring environmental problems to their door--natural gas drilling in this case--"like stray animals."

III. Expert Q & A: Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum on BPA by Andrea Rock, Consumer Reports Online

In this interview the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences endorses the precautionary principle but stops short of applying it to bisphenol A.

IV. India Defers First GM Food Crop BBC News

"Public sentiment is negative. It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach," the Indian environment minister said.

V. Residents: Proposal not enough for Belugas by Michael Armstrong, Homer Alaska - News

The real story is that Apple is up to 5.1 on the Greenpeace scale but still trails Nokia and others.

VI. Detox your Life 1: The Precautionary Principle by Starre Vartan, Greenopia

A straightforward how-to on personal precaution.

I. Do Toxins Cause Autism?

by Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, February 25, 2010

Autism was first identified in 1943 in an obscure medical journal. Since then it has become a frighteningly common affliction, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting recently that autism disorders now affect almost 1 percent of children.

Over recent decades, other development disorders also appear to have proliferated, along with certain cancers in children and adults. Why? No one knows for certain. And despite their financial and human cost, they presumably won't be discussed much at Thursday's White House summit on health care.

Yet they constitute a huge national health burden, and suspicions are growing that one culprit may be chemicals in the environment. An article in a forthcoming issue of a peer-reviewed medical journal, Current Opinion in Pediatrics, just posted online, makes this explicit.

The article cites "historically important, proof-of-concept studies that specifically link autism to environmental exposures experienced prenatally." It adds that the "likelihood is high" that many chemicals "have potential to cause injury to the developing brain and to produce neurodevelopmental disorders."

The author is not a granola-munching crank but Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and chairman of the school's department of preventive medicine. While his article is full of cautionary language, Dr. Landrigan told me that he is increasingly confident that autism and other ailments are, in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed.

"The crux of this is brain development," he said. "If babies are exposed in the womb or shortly after birth to chemicals that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime."

Concern about toxins in the environment used to be a fringe view. But alarm has moved into the medical mainstream. Toxicologists, endocrinologists and oncologists seem to be the most concerned.

One uncertainty is to what extent the reported increases in autism simply reflect a more common diagnosis of what might previously have been called mental retardation. There are genetic components to autism (identical twins are more likely to share autism than fraternal twins), but genetics explains only about one-quarter of autism cases.

Suspicions of toxins arise partly because studies have found that disproportionate shares of children develop autism after they are exposed in the womb to medications such as thalidomide (a sedative), misoprostol (ulcer medicine) and valproic acid (anticonvulsant). Of children born to women who took valproic acid early in pregnancy, 11 percent were autistic. In each case, fetuses seem most vulnerable to these drugs in the first trimester of pregnancy, sometimes just a few weeks after conception.

So as we try to improve our health care, it's also prudent to curb the risks from the chemicals that envelop us. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey is drafting much-needed legislation that would strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act. It is moving ahead despite his own recent cancer diagnosis, and it can be considered as an element of health reform. Senator Lautenberg says that under existing law, of 80,000 chemicals registered in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has required safety testing of only 200. "Our children have become test subjects," he noted.

One peer-reviewed study published this year in Environmental Health Perspectives gave a hint of the risks. Researchers measured the levels of suspect chemicals called phthalates in the urine of pregnant women. Among women with higher levels of certain phthalates (those commonly found in fragrances, shampoos, cosmetics and nail polishes), their children years later were more likely to display disruptive behavior.

Frankly, these are difficult issues for journalists to write about. Evidence is technical, fragmentary and conflicting, and there's a danger of sensationalizing risks. Publicity about fears that vaccinations cause autism — a theory that has now been discredited — perhaps had the catastrophic consequence of lowering vaccination rates in America.

On the other hand, in the case of great health dangers of modern times — mercury, lead, tobacco, asbestos — journalists were too slow to blow the whistle. In public health, we in the press have more often been lap dogs than watchdogs.

At a time when many Americans still use plastic containers to microwave food, in ways that make toxicologists blanch, we need accelerated research, regulation and consumer protection.

"There are diseases that are increasing in the population that we have no known cause for," said Alan M. Goldberg, a professor of toxicology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. "Breast cancer, prostate cancer, autism are three examples. The potential is for these diseases to be on the rise because of chemicals in the environment."

The precautionary principle suggests that we should be wary of personal products like fragrances unless they are marked phthalate-free. And it makes sense — particularly for children and pregnant women — to avoid most plastics marked at the bottom as 3, 6 and 7 because they are the ones associated with potentially harmful toxins.


II. Natural Gas is not an Alternative Fuel

by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe, Denton (TX) Record-Chronicle, February 16, 2010

A North Texas environmental fund dedicated to paying for projects that help clean the air will no longer pay for projects that use natural gas as an alternative fuel.

The Sue Pope Fund was created in 2007 with a $2.25 million settlement between a cement company and two environmental groups.

The Environmental Protection Agency found that Holcim Cement violated its air permit in 2005 and brokered the deal between the company and the environmental groups Blue Skies Alliance and Downwinders at Risk with the stipulation that the money be spent to reduce air pollution.

Jim Schermbeck, a member of the Downwinders board of directors, said the group would continue to fund two natural gas projects already in the works — a natural gas-powered bus serving the Trinity Railway Express Station in Fort Worth and 20 natural gas-powered taxicabs — but the directors voted in January to no longer consider any new ones.

Locally, pollution problems with Barnett Shale natural gas development showed up on the radar of more established environmental groups only recently, Schermbeck said.

"Most environmental groups were not paying attention the first couple of years," he said.

The Blue Skies Alliance became part of Downwinders soon after the settlement, Schermbeck said. Many groups, including those involved with Downwinders, had been focused on a 2006-07 campaign to defeat coal-fired power plants, he said.

"They were seeing it as the lesser of two evils," Schermbeck said of the alternative in natural gas-powered plants.

But recent revelations of problems in the extraction of natural gas made Downwinders and the Sue Pope Fund rethink their efforts. Schermbeck said it was especially disconcerting to see state environmental officials downplay the toxic emissions found at natural gas facilities around the Barnett Shale.

"This is vaguely reminiscent of the 1990s and our fight against the cement plants," Schermbeck said. "It's very, very familiar — same substances, same techniques and rhetoric."

In the decision not to pay for any more natural gas projects, the fund's directors also cited a lack of regulation of the industry, the massive consumption and contamination of fresh water, and the industry’s abuse of private property rights.

Denton environmental activist Ed Soph said his group, Citizens for Healthy Growth, heard environmental concerns about drilling years ago. People would call and ask when he would get involved.

"It's like people bringing stray animals to your door," Soph said. His wife, Carol, said they, like Schermbeck, are volunteers and people sometimes forget that.

As with health problems wrought by asbestos, tobacco and lead, legislators are slow to respond without lots of public pressure.

"It's almost as if we have to have the bodies lined up," Ed Soph said. "We act, or we allow others to act, before we know the full consequences."

He said he thought that could change if national, state and local legislators adopted the precautionary principle more fully — the same principle that requires drivers to wear safety belts, yet often falls short when regulating industry to build safer, cleaner cars.

Schermbeck said he didn't expect the fund's announcement to cause tremors in the industry, especially since the group only has a fraction of the money left to grant before the fund is depleted. But he said he’s seen small gestures like this one add up over time.

"That's how we’ve won all our own battles," Schermbeck said.


III. Expert Q & A: Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum on BPA

by Andrea Rock, Consumer Reports Online, January 28, 2010

At the same time that the Food and Drug Administration announced a significant shift in its view on the potential health risks posed by Bisphenol A, the Department of Health and Human Services said that it is investing $30 million in human and animal studies over the next two years to yield further information about BPA's health effects. BPA is a chemical used in the linings of most food and beverage cans as well as in many clear plastic containers.

Shepherding this crucial research effort is Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a federal research center based in North Carolina. The center's mission, as defined on its Web site, is "… understanding how the environment influences the development and progression of human disease." Birnbaum, an award-winning microbiologist and toxicologist, has served as a federal scientist for nearly three decades. During that time, her research has focused on the health effects of environmental pollutants such as dioxin, which like BPA is thought to be an endocrine-disrupting chemical.

I interviewed Dr. Birnbaum just a few days before the FDA's policy change was announced. Excerpts from that interview in the Q&A below address the challenges that lie ahead in assessing the safety of one of the highest-volume chemicals in the world: At least 7 billion pounds of BPA are produced annually for use in products ranging from dental sealants to medical equipment to coatings on cash-register receipts, as well as food containers and packaging.—Andrea Rock

Q: What do you think the most important unanswered questions are? In this $30 million of research what would be at the top of your list?

A: I think there are a couple that are really important. We really have to understand the severity of effects that can be caused. How important really are the effects that are being reported at very low levels of BPA? And there's a multitude of effects. Some of the analyses or the evaluations have focused, for example, on the effects on the developing reproductive system or the developing nervous system. Well, there's evidence that it also affects the immune system . There is evidence that it affects the cardiovascular system . And I think it's very important that we have a better understanding of the overall nature of the effects.

The other thing we really have to understand is how much of the BPA is needed to cause these effects? And what are the critical times of exposure in people? Are the critical windows in utereo? Are the critical windows in infants? What about puberty? There are now several new studies that have come out showing effects in adults. When you do cross-sectional studies, which are what these new studies are, and you look at a single point of time in people, you don't really know if the effects you are seeing are caused by the current exposure to BPA or whether it was the history of exposure that led to that effect. Those are still some major questions.

Major issues that I think other groups are looking at are trying to get a better handle on where is BPA in our environment. It's not just in linings of cans, it's not just in the polycarbonate bottles. Many of those sources are now being removed from the market. Industry has responded very responsibly and said we're looking for alternatives. But where else is the BPA and how are we really being exposed? Is some of the BPA in the indoor air, is some of the BPA in dust, where it's coming out of different consumer products? So we don't understand. You really need to understand how we're really being exposed eventually if we want to prevent exposure from happening.

Q: Do you believe there is enough uncertainty about BPA's safety to caution people to avoid it in all food contact items?

A: I think we don’t really know where it is in many cases. Your study, Concern over canned foods, very clearly showed that in two cans of the same brand, some had a lot of BPA and some had very little.

Q: But I'd read that you did say that was your belief, that there was enough uncertainty to caution consumers to avoid BPA in food contact items?

A: I think people have to do what makes sense to them and follow their own conscience and what they think and if people find that there’s something that they have concerns about and they have alternatives, then it’s their decision to choose.

Q: In your personal life have you made those kind of decisions?

A: Let's just say I’m a pragmatist and I do things that make sense to me.

Q: Like cutting back on canned food use and not microwaving in plastic containers?

A: I've never been a canned food user. I buy fresh vegetables as much as possible and I've done that for years. And I will say I stopped microwaving in plastic about 15 years ago, not because of concerns for BPA but just because of the lack of necessity to do that.

Q: Do you advocate our government following the precautionary principle?

A: I'm a believer in the precautionary principle. It doesn't say that you act when you have no information, but you act in the presence of concerning information even if you don’t have certainty. Science is rarely 100 percent certain. So if you follow the precautionary principle, you look at all the evidence and you say maybe we don't know everything, but there's enough to suggest that we might want to be cautious. That's the appropriate use of the precautionary principle.

Q: And with BPA and some of the other endocrine disruptors, do you think that applies at this point?

A: I think that there's a wealth of information, not all in agreement, but there is information that suggests that there may be a concern and that's why we're continuing to investigate to try to answer that question with more certainty. This will allow the regulators to make the appropriate decisions.

Q: What would you like to see FDA recommend with regard to its reassessment of BPA?

A: I think the FDA is working very hard on coming out with their decisions. What we are doing right now is conducting $30 million of research to address some of the questions about the potential adverse effects of BPA. And the studies that we are doing are not only going to help us understand BPA, but they’re really going to help us understand endocrine-disrupting chemicals in general. Other chemicals that are like BPA, other estrogenic kind of chemicals as well as others. Our mission is not regulatory. Our job is to try to understand what the health effects of things may be and if we can understand the effects, maybe we can understand how to prevent them.

Q: What products and/or exposures are you most concerned about when considering the risks of endocrine disrupting chemicals?

A: There are many compounds which have wide-spread exposure and little toxicity information at low doses. I would like to see more emphasis on studying compounds with lots of exposure to people, especially to children. And I would like to start trying to look at the totality of the exposure, instead of one chemical at a time.

Q: Testing at high doses doesn't always reveal risks that may occur at low doses for endocrine-disrupting chemicals, so do we need to re-evaluate how we assess risks of BPA and other endocrine disruptors?

A: It seems to me that science has moved in the last 30 or so years and we know a lot more than we did 30 years ago. We're understanding that the way chemicals can interact with the body is much more complicated than we originally thought. The real issue is that different things can happen at different levels of exposure. It's not that for example, a certain effect that occurs at a high dose may not occur at a low dose--that may be true--but other things may occur at a lower dose.

Take something like body weight as a simple example. People can weigh more for a number of reasons. If they exercise real hard and build up muscle mass, they will actually weigh more from that. Or maybe they're really sick and are having a lot of fluid accumulation, their heart isn't working right and they're in heart failure and they've got all this fluid accumulation, they weigh a lot more. Maybe they weigh a lot because they eat too much. Three completely different mechanisms leading to the same weight change.

So we have to be very careful when we're looking at effects of chemicals or the other kinds of exposures in trying to understand that different things may cause the same phenotype but they may have totally different causes. So that's been one of the things that endocrine disruptors have really made us think about. At very, very, very low doses we may be perturbing hormone systems in one way, and if we get to a much higher dose we may be causing toxicity in a totally different mechanism.


IV. India Defers First GM Food Crop

by BBC News, February 9, 2010

India has deferred the commercial cultivation of what would have been its first genetically modified (GM) vegetable crop due to safety concerns.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said more studies were needed to ensure genetically modified aubergines [eggplant or brinjal] were safe for consumers and the environment.

The GM vegetable has undergone field trials since 2008 and received approval from government scientists in 2009.

But there has been a heated public row over the cultivation of the GM crop.

The BBC's Geeta Pandey, who was at the news conference in Delhi, says Mr Ramesh's decision has put any cultivation of GM vegetables in India on hold indefinitely.

'Difficult decision'

"Public sentiment is negative. It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach," Mr Ramesh said.

"The decision is responsible to science and responsive to society."

He said the moratorium on growing BT brinjal - as the variety of aubergine is known in India - would remain in place until tests were carried out "to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals".

The minister said "independent scientific studies" were needed to establish "the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment".

Mr Ramesh said it was "a difficult decision to make" since he had to "balance science and society".

"The decision is responsible to science and responsive to society," he said.

India is the largest producer of aubergines in the world and grows more than 4,000 varieties.

Another discouraging factor is the high pricing of GM foods.

Indian seed company Mahyco - partner of US multinational corporation Monsanto -which has developed BT brinjal, says the GM vegetable is more resistant to natural pests.

But anti-GM groups say there are serious health concerns and they allege that consumption of GM crops can even cause cancer.

The government-controlled Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved BT brinjal for commercial cultivation in October 2009.

Following an uproar from farmers and anti-GM activists, the environment minister held a series of national consultation meetings across India.

Several of the aubergine-growing Indian states have already said they were opposed to BT brinjal.

India allowed the use of genetically modified seeds for cotton in 2002.


V. Residents: Proposal not enough for Belugas

by Michael Armstrong, Homer Alaska - News, February 10, 2010

Speakers at a public hearing held last Thursday at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center criticized a proposal by the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska to designate portions of Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay critical habitat for the beluga whale for not going far enough.

In contrast to public officials like Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who said NMFS lacks a full understanding of where critical habitat is located, many Homer speakers supported the designation of critical habitat — but said it should go further.

"Extend the critical habitat areas further up the rivers. Right now you just go to the mouth of the rivers," said David Martin, a 39-year commercial fishermen.

Of 19 speakers at last week's hearing, the majority spoke in favor of protecting Cook Inlet beluga whales through critical habitat or by listing the whales as an endangered species. Fishermen, mothers, writers and environmental activists testified about the need to protect beluga whales. Only one citizen spoke against the proposal, former Homer City Council member Doug Stark, who cautioned against the impact on development if the proposal should stand.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NMFS in October 2008 listed the Cook Inlet beluga whale as an endangered species.

According to NMFS research, the Cook Inlet beluga whale is a genetically distinct subspecies that declined by 47 percent between 1994 and 1998, largely due to unsustainable subsistence harvesting. In 1999, NMFS and Alaska Native whale hunters developed harvest restrictions, with only five whales taken from 1999 and 2008. Beluga whales did not recover as anticipated. NMFS population studies show a trend of a 1.5 percent annual decline from 1999 to 2009.

The beluga whale population has generally moved from middle Cook Inlet to upper Cook Inlet, Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm near Anchorage. The proposed rule designates two critical habitat areas, one in upper Cook Inlet north of Point Possession near Turnagain Arm, and another area south to below Kalgin Island, on the west side to Kamishak Bay and in Kachemak Bay.

NMFS looked at various factors in designating beluga whale critical habitat, such as shallow water depths; presence of primary prey species, including salmon, hooligan, cod, walleye pollock and yellowfin sole; passage between critical habitat areas; absence of toxins; and absence of high noise levels.

In a presentation before the hearing, NMFS marine biologist Mandy Migura explained the implications of a critical habitat designation. She said it would have no effect on commercial and sport fishermen, state and local governments, industry or private landowners unless activities came under a federal "nexus" — that is, if a project or action is funded, authorized or carried out by a federal agency.

In that event, federal agencies taking or approving action are required to consult with NMFS about potential impacts on beluga whale critical habitat. Of 17,052 such consultations done by NMFS, 17,010 did not adversely modify a critical habitat, Migura said.

NMFS can exempt military areas from critical habitat. Citing its importance as a strategic military port, Port of Anchorage officials have asked for an exemption; that request is still under consideration. NMFS exempted areas within the U.S. Army's Eagle River Flats firing range. Existing human made structures also would be exempted, Migura said.

NMFS concluded the economic impact of a critical habitat designation would be minimal, between $187,000 and $571,000. No areas would be excluded for economic reasons, Migura said. Migura pointed out that development has coexisted with endangered species in Alaska since 1970 for species like the blue whale, bowhead whale, fin whale, humpback whale, North Pacific right whale, sei whale, sperm whale and Steller sea lion.

Much of the testimony came from longtime lower Cook Inlet fishermen. They said beluga whales had been common in Kachemak Bay or lower Cook Inlet in the 1970s and 1980s, but disappeared, possibly through predation by orca whales.

Ken Castner, a commercial fisherman since 1978, said when he started fishing on the west side of Cook Inlet, belugas were ubiquitous.

"The center of Cook Inlet — it was like white caps there were so many belugas," Castner said.

Beaver Nelson, a commercial fisherman since 1965, recalled seeing belugas at the head of Kachemak Bay in the mid 1980s when he would go duck hunting. He also saw orcas, and said he thought predation by killer whales caused belugas to disappear from the bay.

"My feeling is that belugas are just a candy bar for orcas," Nelson said.

Another longtime fisherman, Doug Blossom, who moved to Clam Gulch in 1948, also said he saw belugas go away in the 1980s. That should affect habitat designation, he said.

"It looks to me like if you're going to have it, it should be where the belugas are, not where they aren't anymore," Blossom said.

Dave Aplin, a Homer resident who used to live on Kauai, Hawaii, spoke against that idea. Habitat should include areas where whales might come back. He cited the recovery of the endangered ne'ne goose in Hawaii. The ne'ne was reintroduced in its original mountain habitat and still declined, and then wildlife managers tried introducing the ne'ne in lower elevations.

"When they did that at Kauai, the population took off. They made some assumptions about what habitat should be," Aplin said.

NMFS should apply the precautionary principle, the idea of considering worst case scenarios so at to avoid them.

"Employ that precautionary principle of not where they're in trouble, but where they need to go," Aplin said.

Stark looked at the issue from its possible effect on the economy.

"I'm concerned that the proposed designation will cause massive problems for any development proposal," he said. "I suggest the proposal be reviewed or drastically reduced or eliminated."

Stark said the beluga whale population had increased 4 percent since 2005, a claim also made by the Resource Development Council. NMFS population assessments show the beluga whale population increased from 278 in 2005 to 375 in 2008, but then declined in 321 in 2009. The trend has been a 1.5 percent rate of decline, NMFS said.

Homer writer Miranda Weiss, author of "Tide, Feather, Snow," testified holding her newborn daughter, Cecily.

"I really want my daughter to have the experience of seeing belugas," Weiss said. "I want her to experience awe. I don't want her to come to me in 10 or 15 years and say, 'What did you do about the belugas?' I don't want to say to her 'I did nothing.'"


VI. Detox your Life 1: The Precautionary Principle

by Starre Vartan, Greenopia, February 5, 2010

A decade ago, almost nobody had heard of VOC's or phthalates, let alone thought about how they were affecting personal health. But we've all heard the aphorisms "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", "better safe than sorry", and "look before you leap".

The first decade of the 2000's brought a new awareness of the hazards of everyday chemicals that we willingly (and unnecessarily) brought into our lives, and with the new information about the cumulative effects of toxins in our lives growing every day, many people are practicing the Precautionary Principle, which states "..if an action or policy has suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action."

Basically, it's the idea that if something might cause harm, it's best to avoid it if there are alternatives.

Vorsorgeprinzip, translates into English as precaution principle, and it the concept "evolved out of the German socio-legal tradition in the 1930's." Even today, the European Union's rules take the Principle into consideration when making rules about allowed and banned substances.

Usually, the Precautionary Principle is used in reference to policy decisions made by government health agencies when they don't have 100% scientific proof that a chemical is causing a health problem (but it has been proved in animal tests, or studies are ongoing). But ever since I heard about this idea, I've been practicing it in my own life, in a personal way.

Practicing the Precautionary Principle in everyday life means thinking through the exposures to toxins and eliminating or minimizing those that you can control.

For most people, air quality- and to some extent water quality- are hard variables to control, and we know that a part of modern life includes exposures to carcinogenic, disease-causing toxins in our air and water. However, indoor air quality and the factors that effect it, including household cleaners, cigarette smoke, and candles/deodorizers can have an even larger impact on our health as we are exposed to them every day and on a regular basis (and sometimes at very dangerous levels). But it can be hard to know HOW to keep these toxins out of personal care, cleaning and other household products.

Here are some questions you can think about to help practice the Precautionary Principle in your own life:

  • Does this product contain toxic chemicals? (Tip: If it contains a warning label and the advisory to call poison control if you ingest, it probably does) You can also look up products for safety and ingredient info using the Cosmetics Safety Database or the Health and Human Services' Safety Database.
  • If the given product contains toxins, is there an alternative that's toxin free? Or can you do without it?
  • Is this product going to add to my toxic burden over time, not impact it, or reduce it?

Asking questions like these can reduce your toxin exposure over time and with it, your chance for disease. Keep an eye on this space in coming weeks as we explore some specific ways to detox your life!