Texas weakens chemical exposure guidelines, opens door for polluters


By Lisa Song, Center for Public Integrity

AUSTIN— In 2007, Texas regulators quietly relaxed the state’s long-term air pollution guideline for benzene, one of the world’s most toxic and thoroughly studied chemicals. The number they came up with, still in effect, was 40 percent weaker, or less health-protective, than the old one.

The decision by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was a boon for oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other benzene-emitting facilities, because it allowed them to release more benzene into the air without triggering regulatory scrutiny. But it defied the trend of scientific research, which shows that even small amounts of benzene can cause leukemia. The American Petroleum Institute, lobbyist for some of the nation’s largest benzene producers, privately acknowledged as early as 1948 that the only “absolutely safe” dose was zero.

It’s “the most irresponsible action I’ve heard of in my life,” said Jim Tarr, an air-quality consultant who worked for the TCEQ’s predecessor agency in the 1970s. “I certainly can’t find another regulatory agency in the U.S. that’s done that.”

The benzene decision was part of Texas’ sweeping overhaul of its air pollution guidelines. An analysis by InsideClimate News shows that the TCEQ has loosened two-thirds of the protections for the 45 chemicals it has re-assessed since 2007, even though the state’s guidelines at the time were already among the nation’s weakest.

The changes are being supervised by TCEQ toxicologist Michael Honeycutt, who began updating the way Texas develops its guidelines in 2003, when he was promoted to division chief. A genial, bespectacled man who takes great pride in his work, Honeycutt is a trusted advisor to top TCEQ officials and often acts as the agency’s scientific spokesman. He is also a frequent critic of federal efforts to reduce air pollution.

Honeycutt’s actions reflect Texas’s pro-industry approach to air quality, which InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity have been examining for the past year and a half.  Most of the air-quality guidelines the state’s oil and gas producers are supposed to meet are not legally enforceable regulations. That means violators are rarely punished, and residents who complain about foul air near drilling sites have few places to turn for help.

Texas has made its anti-regulatory stance known on the national front. Attorney General Greg Abbott, the state’s governor-elect, has taken legal action against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 19 times since 2010, arguing that overly restrictive regulations stifle business growth, cost jobs and threaten the state’s economy.  The EPA is “a runaway federal agency that must be reined in,” Abbott said last year when he challenged greenhouse gas regulations.

Honeycutt has publicly criticized the EPA for being overzealous in its regulation of ozone, which exacerbates asthma; particulate matter, a known respiratory hazard; and hexavalent chromium, the cancer-causing chemical that launched the Erin Brockovich case. In testimony before a congressional committee in 2011, he said the EPA had been overly cautious in evaluating the toxicity of mercury, a powerful neurotoxin known to lower IQ. Mercury is particularly harmful to developing fetuses.

“EPA ignores the fact that Japanese eat 10 times more fish than Americans do and have higher levels of mercury in their blood, but have lower rates of coronary heart disease and high scores on their IQ tests,” Honeycutt said in a letter responding to written questions from one of the committee members after the hearing.

State Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat who has tried for years to strengthen Texas public health regulations, said Honeycutt’s role as chief toxicologist is more political than scientific.

“I consider him an apologist for the polluters,” Burnam said. “I think he doesn’t give a tinker’s dam about public health.”

Honeycutt said the toxicologists on his staff are good scientists who take their jobs seriously.

“Our friends and family live in this state, too,” Honeycutt said. “My son wants to go to school in Houston, and I want him to be just as protected as every other kid in Houston.”

Scientists interviewed for this story agree that Texas needed to update the process it uses to set air quality guidelines. When Honeycutt took over, he introduced formalized methods of risk assessment, an interdisciplinary field of science that includes toxicology, epidemiology and biostatistics. Risk assessment has become the most widely used method of determining the health risks chemicals pose to the public.

But scientists say the process has inherent uncertainties that open the door to bias.

“This is done across the spectrum, not only from those more inclined to have higher permissible standards, but also by those that would like to have lower ones,” said Maria Morandi, a private consultant who formerly worked as a health scientist at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.

The problem, Morandi said, is that finding the scientifically “correct” exposure level for each of the thousands of chemicals industries release into the air is impossible because it would require exorbitantly expensive experiments, or illegal and unethical testing on humans. The best scientists can do, she said, is extrapolate data from existing studies and hope the numbers they produce are low enough to protect a majority of the population.

The potential for bias comes in when the risk assessment team chooses which studies to include or exclude, and how to weigh the available evidence. Some scientists lean toward the side of public health and believe many existing standards aren’t strong enough. Others tend to be more lenient, taking the view that overly protective standards place needless and expensive burdens on industry.

It’s “about what questions you ask, what uncertainties you leave alone and which ones you decide to focus on,” said Ruthann Rudel, director of research at the Silent Spring Institute, a research center in Massachusetts. Bias in risk assessment is rarely a product of fraudulent science, she said, but rather a reflection of how scientists choose to frame their analysis.

The InsideClimate News analysis shows that in Texas, the bias tilts toward industry.

As of September, nearly 60 percent of the new guidelines Honeycutt’s team derived for outdoor air quality are less protective than analogous numbers used by the EPA and by California, whose guidelines are among the strictest in the nation.

A year after its benzene announcement, the TCEQ released a new cancer risk assessment guideline for another high-profile chemical: 1,3-butadiene, which is  produced by the synthetic rubber industry and can cause leukemia. Texas is responsible for the majority of the nation’s butadiene emissions.

Ron Melnick, a former scientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, analyzed the TCEQ’s 139-page description of its butadiene decision-making process for InsideClimate News. When Melnick compared the Texas approach with the EPA’s, he said Texas “dismissed anything which might have made the risk seem higher than what they wanted.”

The TCEQ’s new butadiene number is 60 times less protective than the EPA’s and 340 times less protective than California’s.

Such glaring discrepancies are possible—and perfectly legal—because the federal government rarely sets legally enforceable air quality standards for the chemicals it has assessed. That leaves each state to come up with its own approach for each chemical, which means people in different states are protected to different levels. A chemical release that could trigger a public-health alert in California, for instance, might not even be noticed by Texas regulators.

“It’s confusing, because you cross the state boundary and the toxicity of the chemical changes,” said Loren Raun, a health scientist who works for the city of Houston and teaches at Rice University. “That, right there, is a problem.”

Few Texans are aware that Honeycutt’s department is changing the state’s air-quality guidelines. Because they are not legally enforceable standards, the toxicology department can update them without public hearings or approval from top officials, according to former TCEQ Commissioner Larry Soward.

When the TCEQ released its benzene proposal in 2007, the only person who submitted a public comment was a representative of a chemical trade group, who urged the TCEQ to further weaken the guideline. The agency refused.

Soward, who was one of the TCEQ’s top three officials when the benzene guideline was changed, said he didn’t learn of the revision until InsideClimate News asked him about it in July. Soward left the agency in 2009 and spent several years working for Air Alliance Houston, an environmental group.

When Soward was appointed a TCEQ commissioner in 2003, he said, he often met with Honeycutt to discuss public health issues and thought the toxicologist “was a very scientific-based, impartial person.” By 2005, however, Soward felt Honeycutt was advocating for “positions he felt like he was supposed to advocate” for, regardless of the science.

“I think he really believes…that air pollutants don’t really have a health effect unless there’s such a toxic exposure to them that it leads to direct problems,” Soward said. “I used to joke I didn’t think there was a toxic pollutant he didn’t like.”

Burnam, the state representative, blames the TCEQ’s governor-appointed commissioners for the agency’s pro-industry bent.

“For the past 20 years, you’ve either had oil industry [George W.] Bush or oil industry apologist [Rick] Perry making all the appointments,” said Burnam, who was defeated in the March Democratic primary and leaves office this month. “…The good [employees] at the lower levels are totally frustrated and hamstrung.”

Michael Honeycutt


‘I love this job’

Honeycutt’s 15-member division is one of the largest state toxicology departments in the country. In addition to setting air-quality guidelines, it reviews air and water monitoring data, advises emergency crews after chemical accidents and provides scientific expertise to agency officials.

“We have probably one of the best toxicology departments in the world,” Commissioner Toby Baker said at a TCEQ hearing last year.

The division’s size remained relatively steady even when the TCEQ’s operating budget dropped 39 percent from 2008 to 2013. Its stature rose in 2012, when an agency-wide reorganization put Honeycutt’s department directly under the office of the TCEQ’s executive director. The toxicology division now occupies a suite of offices and cubicles in a gleaming blue building in Austin, on the same floor as the executive director and the TCEQ’s three commissioners.

“I love this job,” Honeycutt said in November, during an interview in his spacious office. “This is the job I went to school to learn how to do. I get to sit on the side of the table opposite everybody. One thing we’ve learned is, usually when everybody’s mad at you you’re probably doing your job right.”

Honeycutt, 48, studied toxicology at the University of Northeast Louisiana at Monroe, 30 miles from his hometown. His high school yearbook reveals he graduated with honors and was a leader, or “beau,” of the library club.

He stayed at Monroe to get his Ph.D. in toxicology. David Roane, who now chairs the pharmacology department at East Tennessee State University, advised Honeycutt on his dissertation about how earthworms dispose of the element cadmium.

“I trusted his work more than most people and found him to be conscientious in a small town kind of way,” Roane said. “He was a real wholesome guy.”

Carey Pope was teaching in the toxicology department when Honeycutt was a graduate student. The two men still occasionally run into each other. Pope describes Honeycutt as “the kind of guy who was always the first in line to help you.”

After graduation, Honeycutt worked three years as a researcher for the Army Corps of Engineers, where he focused on screening for contaminants in sediments and soils. He joined the TCEQ in 1996, when the agency was still known by its former name: the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, or TNRCC. Critics called it “train wreck.”

By the time Honeycutt was promoted to toxicology division chief, TNRCC had become TCEQ and the agency was under fire for the way it managed air quality guidelines. The problem was the haphazard way it set Effects Screening Levels, or ESLs, for thousands of chemicals.

ESLs are critical because the TCEQ uses them to draft the air permits it issues to oil and gas production sites, refineries, power plants and other industries.  Companies must show that chemical concentrations at the boundaries of their facilities will meet the ESLs. If they don’t, the TCEQ can require them to adjust their operations.

Most chemicals have a short-term ESL (for hour-long exposures) and long-term ESL (for annual average concentrations). For example, the short-term ESL for benzene in 2003 was 25 parts per billion (ppb) of benzene in air. The long-term benzene ESL was 1.0 ppb.

When the Houston Chronicle reported in 2005 that the TCEQ’s ESLs were among the least protective in the country, Honeycutt told the newspaper his department was addressing the problem by changing the way ESLs are established.

The TCEQ hired a nonprofit consulting firm—Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA)—to convene a panel of outside scientists to review the new procedure. TERA was founded by Michael Dourson, a former EPA toxicologist and one of Honeycutt’s close friends. TERA often works for industry and runs a database that has raised the profile of industry-funded risk-assessment values.

Morandi, the consultant, sat on the TERA review panel and said she was comfortable with the TCEQ document.

But she said what also matters is how the protocol is applied to individual chemicals.

The TCEQ documents its risk assessments in long, complex reports that are posted online for public comment. Honeycutt said he has tried to encourage more feedback by extending the comment period from 60 to 90 days. But few people outside industry have the time and expertise to understand or critique the highly technical documents.

The Texas environmental community tends to rely on a single expert—Elena Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund—to weigh in on risk assessment science. Air Alliance Houston Executive Director Adrian Shelley said he often turns to Craft for help on these issues.

Of the 56 comments that have been filed for the 45 chemicals the TCEQ has assessed, only one came from the environmental community. About 80 percent of the comments came from industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council and ExxonMobil.

Adam Finkel, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Program on Regulation and a former director of health standards programs for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said environmental groups could help level the playing field by hiring more scientists who understand risk assessment.

Some environmental organizations have multi-million dollar budgets, he said, but they’re focused on other issues.

‘This is crazy’

While the TCEQ was developing its risk-assessment strategy, air pollution was making waves in the Texas press. In January 2005, a TCEQ report linked 1,3-butadiene and benzene to elevated cancer risks in Harris County. The county is home to Houston and many refineries and petrochemical plants that emit both chemicals.

The butadiene levels corresponded to two additional cancer cases per 10,000 people—20 times what the TCEQ considered acceptable at the time. Benzene levels were seven times higher than the TCEQ’s benchmark cancer risk.

That same month, the Houston Chronicle published “In Harm’s Way,” a series by reporter Dina Cappiello. The newspaper had placed air monitors at 100 locations near large industrial sources and found 84 readings “high enough that they would trigger a full-scale federal investigation if these communities were hazardous waste sites.”

Only a few measurements exceeded the TCEQ’s cancer exposure guidelines, which the paper reported were “among the most lenient in the country.” The Chronicle noted that the results “would be considered a serious health risk in other states.”

The two reports hit a nerve with Bill White, a year into his first term as Houston’s mayor. A deputy secretary of energy during the Clinton administration, White made air quality a priority during his three terms as mayor.  But he found himself fighting the TCEQ as well as the industries that were polluting his city.

policy analysis article by Texas academics summed up the situation:

“The problem in Houston has been compounded by the reluctance of state and regional regulators to assume a strong role in pollution control and environmental enforcement, particularly concerning the chemical and refining industry, which is a key source of jobs and philanthropy in the region.”

The TCEQ increased air monitoring in Harris County, but Houston wanted more concrete action. Honeycutt met frequently with Elena Marks, White’s director of health and environmental policy from 2004 to 2009.

Marks is now a fellow at Rice University, researching health care policy. She said she often came away from those meetings frustrated, because Honeycutt “always seemed to err on the side against human health.”

When city and county officials hosted a town hall meeting to discuss the alarming reports, the TCEQ didn’t show up, despite its pledge to send at least two representatives. Honeycutt later criticized the TCEQ’s own report, saying it was “overpredictive” about the cancer risks.

When Houston threatened to sue Texas Petrochemicals, the main culprit behind the elevated butadiene levels, Marks said the TCEQ got “pissed off” and worked out a pollution-reduction plan with the company. But the agreement was voluntary, and Houston continued to threaten legal action. Texas Petrochemicals finally reached a legally binding agreement with the city to reduce its emissions, and butadiene levels began to drop.

To tackle the benzene problem, White tried to persuade local businesses and the TCEQ to work together on a regional benzene reduction plan, but he said the TCEQ wasn’t interested.

Benzene levels in Houston did begin to fall. But White, now senior advisor and chairman of the financial firm Lazard Houston, attributes the change to the city’s aggressive leadership, which “created a tremendous incentive for compliance and put pressure on the TCEQ.”

Marks put it more bluntly.  “Every time we found benzene emissions…we were just a pain in the ass—and the plants thought it was just easier to curb benzene.”

When asked to comment on the TCEQ’s role in Houston during those years, agency spokesman Terry Clawson said in an email: “The TCEQ works in partnership with local governmental [entities] to address environmental issues within their communities.”

In 2007, as Houston was still struggling to remove benzene from its air, Honeycutt’s department weakened the long-term benzene guideline 40 percent, from 1.0 ppb to 1.4 ppb.

The new number was 13 times weaker than California’s guideline. It was at the least-protective end of the range recommended by the EPA, which last updated its benzene numbers in 1998.

Marks remembers her shock when she learned of the change.

“My reaction was ‘This is crazy. Why would you do that?’” she said. “The more you learn, the more likely you’d be to tighten any standards or screening levels.”

An examination of the TCEQ’s decision on butadiene shows how its conclusions could differ so sharply from the EPA’s.

The EPA’s analysis, done in 2002, relied primarily on an industry-funded University of Alabama-Birmingham study from the 1990s that tracked leukemia rates in workers.

The TCEQ’s analysis used a 2004 study by the same researchers, also funded by the industry. They said their original study had vastly underestimated the amount of butadiene the workers were exposed to, which meant it had overestimated the risk.

Melnick, the former NIEHS scientist who analyzed the TCEQ’s butadiene document, said it’s hard to tell which of the two University of Alabama studies is more accurate—but the discrepancies show the “murky” history of the reports.

Because the TCEQ used the second study as its starting point, it began its analysis with numbers that showed butadiene was less toxic, Melnick said. It then made a series of subsequent decisions that made the number even less conservative, including using a different statistical model and not adopting some uncertainty factors used by the EPA.

Melnick said it’s impossible to say the Texas number is wrong. But it’s clear that “Texas tried to load it up to allow the highest exposure possible.”

Workers drill for oil at a site, Monday, Dec. 15, 2014, near Williston, Texas.

Eric Gay/AP

‘The things they didn’t like’

Texas has invested time and money to oppose two federal efforts that could lead to tighter chemical regulations.

Its first effort was to address a 2009 National Academy of Sciences risk assessment report authored by Finkel, the Penn professor, and 14 other scientists from academia, government and consulting firms. Among other things, the report recommended that scientists reconsider the long-held assumption that any chemical not known to cause cancer has a safety threshold—a level below which it is completely safe. If adopted by risk assessors, the recommendation could lead to additional regulations.

The following year, the TCEQ helped lead a series of workshops to discuss the National Academies’ report. They were sponsored by the Alliance for Risk Assessment, a spinoff of TERA—the consulting firm founded by Honeycutt’s friend Michael Dourson. Both Dourson and Honeycutt sit on the alliance steering committee. Dourson said the TCEQ came up with the idea for the workshops.

The TCEQ has awarded TERA at least $700,000 in contracts since 2010, with $7,000 going to the alliance to help fund the workshops. Honeycutt said that to avoid conflicts of interest he recuses himself whenever the TCEQ proposes a project to the alliance.

Honeycutt chaired the first workshop, which was held at TCEQ headquarters. Commission Chairman Bryan Shaw gave the opening speech. The agency has hosted three of the eight workshops that have taken place so far. More than 50 groups from industry, government, consulting and research centers support the workshops, according to the alliance website.

Honeycutt and Dourson say the workshops are designed to expand upon the National Academies’ report and foster collaborations to develop practical risk assessment methods.  But Finkel and two other health scientists who work in risk assessment say the main focus was to criticize the report, especially the part about the non-carcinogen thresholds.

“They were essentially formed to respond to that report and the things they didn’t like,” said Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies reproductive health and the environment.

Finkel said the workshops were so biased toward industry’s point of view that he stopped attending them.

‘He is our expert’

The TCEQ has also consistently opposed the EPA’s handling of ozone, one of six compounds with federal air standards. Ozone is created primarily by fossil fuel emissions and is known to exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Exhaustive reviews by EPA scientists and independent agency advisors have urged that the federal standard of 75 parts per billion be lowered.

In November, the EPA proposed a new standard of 65-70 ppb, which the agency predicted would prevent thousands of premature deaths and asthma-related emergency room visits each year.

Just minutes after the EPA’s announcement, the TCEQ issued a press release in which chairman Shaw described the decision as “shortsighted.”

A lowered standard would create serious problems for Texas’ three largest cities—Houston, San Antonio and Dallas—which are out of compliance with the current standard.

Honeycutt has criticized the EPA’s ozone science at public hearings, in comments submitted to EPA’s ozone panel, in presentations at scientific conferences and his own scientific analyses posted on the TCEQ’s website.

In the TCEQ’s October newsletter, he said his agency’s “in-depth review” of the EPA’s scientific analysis found that “further lowering of the ozone standard will fail to provide any measurable increase in human health protection.”

“The fervor with which they’ve been critical of the ozone standard…is unprecedented,” said Craft, the Environmental Defense Fund scientist. “I can’t think of another state where they’ve spent the amount of time and resources on this issue as Texas.”

Last year, the TCEQ paid a Massachusetts-based consulting firm, Gradient, $1.65 million to examine the science behind EPA’s air quality standards, which include ozone. Clawson, the TCEQ spokesman, recently told the Texas Tribune that the agency is developing a separate Gradient contract to “provide a comprehensive review” of the science “addressing potential impact of ozone on asthma.”

One of Honeycutt’s main objections to EPA science is that it’s based on an eight-hour ozone exposure. He thinks the standard should be weakened because people are rarely outside for that long.

The problem with that reasoning, Craft said, is that some people, including construction workers, do spend most of their day outside. “And what if someone wanted to stay outside all day? I think most people want the option of being able to go outside and feeling like you’re breathing air that is healthy.”

Another of Honeycutt’s arguments relies on a 2009 study that projects a few dozen more deaths in Houston if the ozone standard is tightened. Those results were based on the assumption that Houston would use a particular cleanup strategy that targets only one class of ozone-forming chemicals, Craft said. The TCEQ can avoid the problem by choosing a different plan, she said.

Robert Haley, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, grappled with the TCEQ’s position on ozone last year when he was lobbying for the shutdown of three coal-fired power plants that contribute to the ozone problem in Dallas. Haley is a member of the Dallas County Medical Society, which has petitioned for the closures.

Haley spoke with each of the TCEQ commissioners in back-to-back meetings and said Honeycutt sat in on all of them. The commissioners “all deferred to him, [saying] ‘He is our expert.’…

“They consult him on everything.”

Not long after those meetings, the TCEQ denied the petition.

“It does no one any good to go and require reducing ozone if we’re not having a beneficial impact,” Shaw said during the petition hearing. “And there’s data…that suggests that [reducing] ozone may not be giving us that benefit.”

‘Does not necessarily indicate a problem’

The TCEQ’s critics say the agency’s industry-friendly ESLs are just part of the air-quality problem in Texas. The bigger problem, they say, is that violations of the ESLs don’t necessarily trigger regulatory action.

The Texas guidelines are “just a number that they picked, and they said that when the air pollution monitors hit that number, then they would investigate further,” said Marks, the former Houston environmental director. “There was no actual consequence to finding the air quality was above that particular number.”

It’s hard to tell when or how the TCEQ enforces the ESLs.

The agency’s toxicology website says if airborne concentrations “exceed the screening levels [ESLs], it does not necessarily indicate a problem but rather triggers a review in more depth.”

The website also says ESLs are only used to screen companies that apply for air permits, and should not be used to gauge outdoor air quality. The TCEQ has a separate set of health-based guidelines to evaluate air-monitoring data, and those numbers can be up to three times less protective than the ESLs.

But even when these more lenient numbers are exceeded, the TCEQ doesn’t necessarily see a health risk.

When InsideClimate News asked the TCEQ what happens when air-monitoring data exceed guidelines, spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said the data are examined on a case-by-case basis. For example, she said,  if an air monitor showed 5,000 ppb of a chemical whose TCEQ’s guideline was 1,000 ppb, the toxicology department would say “there is a potential for adverse health effects.”

In other words, even a number that’s five times the TCEQ guideline doesn’t automatically trigger enforcement action.

InsideClimate News then asked if the agency had ever penalized or shut down a facility for violating ESLs or air monitoring guidelines. Clawson, the spokesman, said the TCEQ “does not collect and track information on enforcement actions” in a way that would enable him to answer that question. To get that information, he said, it would be necessary to examine individual investigation reports.

When Honeycutt was asked if he thought the ESLs should be turned into legally enforceable standards, he said that decision rests with the state legislature. A 2007 House bill that aimed to do that never made it out of committee.

Honeycutt defended the way his agency reacts when guidelines are exceeded. He said the TCEQ handles the problem by putting neighborhoods or regions with elevated chemical levels on an Air Pollutant Watch List. The agency then dedicates more resources to improving air quality in those areas, perhaps by investigating local industries or doing additional air monitoring.

“We don’t just note [the problem] and go on with our lives,” Honeycutt said. “We do do something about it.”

But being added to the list doesn’t guarantee a speedy solution.

In 1998, a neighborhood in Corpus Christi was placed on the list because annual benzene concentrations exceeded the TCEQ’s 1.0 ppb guideline. The neighborhood was removed from the list 12 years later, in 2010—not because the annual benzene average had dropped below that level, but because the agency had weakened the guideline to 1.4 ppb.

The agency’s website cited the new guideline as the reason for the delisting.


Air Pollution Exposure in Pregnancy Linked to Autism in Study


Women who are exposed to high levels of air pollution during their third trimester of pregnancy may be twice as likely to have an autistic child, a study found.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found the risk of autism rises in parallel with exposure to fine particulate matter during pregnancy, with the biggest effect occurring in the final months of gestation. The results appear in the Dec. 18 edition of Environmental Health Perspectives.

The findings add to other research suggesting the environment plays a role in the development of autism, a developmental disorder marked by repetitive behaviors and trouble communicating and socializing. The study, which started in 1989 and involved more than 100,000 nurses from across the U.S., will help researchers home in on the causes of autism and potential ways to prevent it, said Marc Weisskopf, a senior study author.

“One of the unique aspects of the study we did is that it provides an even stronger piece of evidence for there being a causal effect,” said Weisskopf, an associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at Harvard in Boston. “It’s really the pollution doing it.”

Autism, thought to affect 1 in 68 children in the U.S., is typically diagnosed after behavioral changes start to develop before the age of 5. Recent studies suggest it may begin when certain brain cells fail to properly mature within the womb.

Study’s Scope

Researchers focused on 1,767 children born from 1990 to 2002, including 245 diagnosed with autism. The design of the study and the results rule out many confounding measures that can create a bias, Weisskopf said. The researchers took into account socioeconomic factors that can influence exposure to pollution or play a role in whether a child is diagnosed with autism.

The fact that pollution caused problems only during pregnancy strengthened the findings, since it’s unlikely other factors would have changed markedly before or after those nine months, he said in a telephone interview.

The ultimate cause of autism remains a mystery in most cases, said Charis Eng, chairwoman of the Lerner Research Institute’s Genomic Medicine Institute at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. While the Harvard study isn’t definitive and the findings could be coincidental, it’s not likely given the large size and the precise results, she said in a telephone interview.

“The truth is there has to be gene and environmental interactions,” said Eng, who wasn’t involved in the study. “I suspect the fetus already had the weak autism spectrum disorder genes, and then the genes and the environment interacted.”

If the child didn’t have the genetic predisposition, the impact may have been minimal or nonexistent, she said.

Body’s Response

It’s likely there is an inflammatory or immune system response to the pollution that reaches the fetus, Weisskopf said. His team is now exploring those biological pathways and mapping autism cases to see if there are any clusters. He emphasized that many things contribute to the disorder and the absolute risk from pollution may be very small.

Fine particulate matter stems from many different sources, including traffic and power plants located hundreds of miles away. There is no way to avoid it entirely, though pregnant women may want to try to curtail their exposure when possible, Weisskopf said. He recommended against trips to cities with high levels of pollution and exercise in traffic-clogged areas during pregnancy.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michelle Fay Cortez in Minneapolis at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Crayton Harrison at Andrew Pollack, Stephen West

Fracking In New York State Officially Banned


Today is a momentous day in the ban against unsafe fracking as Governor of New York  Andrew Cuomo’s administration has banned Hydraulic Fracturing in the state of New York. The decision was, “based on the recommendations of two commissioners who have studied the energy extraction process”, according to Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker at a public year-end cabinet meeting provided an overview of the reasoning behind the decision citing evidence of significant health risks as a major contributing factor for the ban.

From Salon, ‘Would I live in a community [with fracking] based on the facts I have now? Zucker asked. “Would I let my child play in a school field nearby, drink water from the tap or grow vegetables from the soil? My answer is no.”

He concluded, “I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York.”

Dr. Zucker said the numerous reports of environmental and health risks found in many peer-reviewed journals and studies pointed to many threats both to adjacent water supplies as well as air quality.

‘The bottom line is that we lack the comprehensive long-term studies,” Zucker said. “The science isn’t there.’

The decision comes in the wake of a 6 year moratorium on the practice put in place in 2008.

In June, New York’s highest court ruled that municipalities in New York should be allowed to ban fracking within their respective boundaries. It also allowed over 170 other measures against fracking to be passed.

“This has been the most emotionally charged issue that I’ve ever experienced. More than marriage equality, more than the gun issue, more than the death penalty,” Cuomo said, “ “But I will be bound by what the experts say,” said during the commission, “Let the science decide.”




The Cuomo administration announced Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State, ending years of uncertainty by concluding that the controversial method of extracting gas from deep underground could contaminate the state’s air and water and pose inestimable public-health risks.  Read more here.


A once-polluted Chicago industrial site now a community park


Community park opens on ex-Chicago Superfund site

Posted by Richard Gehres

City, state and federal officials joined residents in the city’s Little Village neighborhood on Sunday to officially open the La Villata  Park on a 22-acre site.

The land once was home to a Celotex Corp. plant, which made asphalt roofing. The site was contaminated with chemicals and eventually placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list.

It was remediated in recent years to allow construction of a park in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood. The $19 million park includes artificial-turf soccer fields, basketball courts, a skate park and playground. It also has a promenade, multi-use trail and landscaping.The city still plans to open a natural-grass baseball and softball field with concession and restrooms.


Chemical Phthalates in Food Packaging Linked With Lower IQ in Kids


Kids whose moms had the highest levels of certain chemicals in their bodies during pregnancy had markedly lower IQs at age 7, researchers said Wednesday.

It’s the latest in a series of studies linking the chemicals, called phthalates, with health effects ranging from behavioral disorders to deformations of the sex organs.

While the study doesn’t show for sure that the phthalates damaged the kids’ brains during development, the researchers say they did everything they could to filter out other possible effects and they still found the link between some — but not all — of the phthalates and IQ.

Read more from Maggie Fox at NBC News.


Low Oil Prices Are Putting The Freeze On Fracking Projects Around The World


The collapse of oil prices may have a bigger impact on the shale boom than anyone realizes.

The biggest threat may not be to the existing wells in the US, but the untapped resources around the world.

Read more from Shane Ferro at:

The passing of a health warrior, Theo Colborn


TEDX has just announced that Theo Colborn has passed away. Many of you know her incredibly important work in defining the field of endocrine disruption and her tireless efforts to get EDCs regulated. I encourage any of you to send to the TEDX website any stories of of how her work has guided your own sense of the need to regulate, ban, measure, etc. and how you may have incorporated her research into the work of your organization. Personal stories are also welcome.

Warm best,


Theo Colborn, 1927–2014

©2014 Julie Dermansky for Earthworks

If you ever had the chance to meet her, even once, you knew Theo Colborn. She didn’t have a single hidden agenda. Her commitment to uncovering the truth was out there for the world to see.

For nearly 30 years she dedicated herself to revealing the dangers of endocrine disrupting chemicals to wildlife and humans. More recently she alerted us all to the threats posed by chemicals associated with oil and gas development. She wove the two together beautifully in her statement The Fossil Fuel Connection, which she worked on until the day she died.

Theo’s visionary leadership and passion shone most brilliantly when she made direct connections between new ideas, scientists whose work confirmed them, impacted individuals, and people in positions to change what needed changing. She will be remembered for many generations to come, generations that she worked tirelessly to protect.

Theo often feared that we had already passed the tipping point — that our intelligence and compassion had been so compromised by endocrine disruptors that we could no longer think our way out of the crises we had created.

As the living embodiment of her legacy, we at TEDX say, “No. It is not too late. There are people out there who ‘get it’ and who care — a lot of people — and we won’t let you down Theo.”

— From the Staff and Board of Directors of TEDX

Theo’s family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to TEDX.

Share your Theo Colborn story

Read a brief biography by Elizabeth Grossman

Read Theo’s CV

Keep fighting for the health and well being of all living things.


Closing in on ALS? Link between lethal disease and algae explored


Staff Writer
Environmental Health News

December 11, 2014

For 28 years, Bill Gilmore lived in a New Hampshire beach town, where he surfed and kayaked. “I’ve been in water my whole life,” he said. “Before the ocean, it was lakes. I’ve been a water rat since I was four.”

Bill Gilmore
New Hampshire native Bill Gilmore, shown with his wife Paula, was diagnosed with ALS in June.

Now Gilmore can no longer swim, fish or surf, let alone button a shirt or lift a fork to his mouth. Earlier this year, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In New England, medical researchers are now uncovering clues that appear to link some cases of the lethal neurological disease to people’s proximity to lakes and coastal waters.

About five years ago, doctors at a New Hampshire hospital noticed a pattern in their ALS patients – many of them, like Gilmore, lived near water. Since then, researchers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center have identified several ALS hot spots in lake and coastal communities in New England, and they suspect that toxic blooms of blue-green algae – which are becoming more common worldwide – may play a role.

California EPA
Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, can emit neurotoxins.

Now scientists are investigating whether breathing a neurotoxin produced by the algae may raise the risk of the disease. They have a long way to go, however: While the toxin does seem to kill nerve cells, no research, even in animals, has confirmed the link to ALS.

No known cause

As with all ALS patients, no one knows what caused Bill Gilmore’s disease. He was a big, strong guy – a carpenter by profession. One morning in 2011, his arms felt weak. “I couldn’t pick up my tools. I thought I had injured myself,” said Gilmore, 59, who lived half his life in Hampton and now lives in Rochester, N.H.

Three years and many doctors’ appointments later, Gilmore received the news in June that the progressive weakening in his limbs was caused by ALS.

Neither Hampton nor Rochester is considered a hot spot for ALS. Gilmore is one of roughly 5,600 people in the United States diagnosed each year with the disease. The average patient lives two to five years from the time of diagnosis.

There is no cure, and for the majority of patients, no known cause. For 90 to 95 percent of people with ALS, there’s no known genetic mutation. Researchers assume that some unknown interaction between genes and the environment is responsible.

New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services

In recent years, some of this research has focused on blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.

“There’s a growing awareness of the importance of gene/environment interactions with neurodegenerative diseases. There is more interest in examining environmental exposures, including exposures to cyanobacteria, as possible risk factors for sporadic ALS,” said Paul Alan Cox, director of the nonprofit Institute of Ethnomedicine in Wyoming, which focuses on treatments for ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Cyanobacteria – some of the oldest organisms on the planet – can occur wherever there is moisture. Blooms are fed largely by nutrients in agricultural and urban runoff.

Some cyanobacteria produce toxic compounds that can sicken people. In August, hundreds of thousands of people in Toledo, Ohio, were left without tap water for days when toxins from an algal bloom in Lake Erie were found in the water supply.

While the cyanobacteria toxin that prompted the Toledo water crisis can cause diarrhea, intestinal pain and liver problems, other toxins produced by the blue-green algae can harm the nervous systems of humans and wildlife.

One morning in 2011, Bill Gilmore’s arms felt weak. He was a big, strong guy, a carpenter by profession. “I couldn’t pick up my tools. I thought I had injured myself,” he said.Scientists have long suspected that a cyanobacteria toxin could play a role in some forms of ALS. After World War II, U.S. military doctors in Guam found that many indigenous Chamorro suffered from a rapidly progressing neurological disease with symptoms similar to both ALS and dementia. Years later, scientists found the neurotoxin BMAA in the brains of Chamorro people who died from the disease. Cyanobacteria that grow on the roots and seeds of cycad trees produce the toxin.

Cox, a researcher in Guam in the 1990s, hypothesized that BMAA worked its way up the food chain from the cycad seeds to bats to the Chamorro who hunted them. But Cox and his colleagues also found BMAA in the brains of Canadian Alzheimer’s patients who had never dined on Guam’s fruit bats. In patients who had died from other causes, they found no traces of it. The source of the BMAA in the Canadians remains unknown.

Some researchers have suggested that fish and shellfish from waters contaminated with cyanobacteria blooms may be one way that people ingest BMAA. In southern France, researchers suspect ALS cases may be linked to consumption of mussels and oysters. Lobsters, collected off the Florida coast near blooms, also have been found with high levels of BMAA.

Scientists around the world are investigating how the neurotoxin gets into the body and whether it contributes to disease.

“We don’t really know what exposure routes are most important,” Cox said.

Lindsey Konkel
Massachusetts’ Lake Attitash, like many other lakes, experiences seasonal cyanobacteria blooms.

New England’s ALS hot spots

In New Hampshire, Dartmouth neurologist Elijah Stommel noticed that several ALS patients came from the small town of Enfield in the central part of the state. When he mapped their addresses, he saw that nine of them lived near Lake Mascoma.

Around the lake, the incidence of sporadic ALS – cases for which genetics are not a likely cause – is approximately 10 to 25 times the expected rate for a town of that size.

“We had no idea why there appeared to be a cluster around the lake,” Stommel said.

Based on the link between ALS and the neurotoxin in other parts of the world, Stommel and his colleagues hypothesize that the lake’s cyanobacteria blooms could be a factor.

Across northern New England, the researchers have continued to identify ALS hot spots – a large one in Vermont near Lake Champlain and a smattering of smaller ones among coastal communities in New Hampshire and Maine.

Earlier this year, the researchers reported that poorer lake water quality increased the odds of living in a hot spot. Most strikingly, they discovered that living within 18 miles of a lake with high levels of dissolved nitrogen – a pollutant from fertilizer and sewage that feeds algae and cyanobacteria blooms – raised the odds of belonging to an ALS hot spot by 167 percent.

The findings, they wrote, “support the hypothesis that sporadic ALS can be triggered by environmental lake quality and lake conditions that promote harmful algal blooms and increases in cyanobacteria.”

How people in New England communities could be ingesting the neurotoxin remains largely a mystery. While fish in the lakes do contain it, not everyone in the Dartmouth studies eats fish.

“We’ve sent questionnaires to patients and there’s really no common thread in terms of diet or activities,” Stommel said. “The one common thing that everybody does is breathe.”

In other words, it’s possible that a boat, jet ski or even the wind could stir up tiny particles of cyanobacteria in the air, where people then breathe it in.

Lindsey Konkel
Scientist Jim Haney and a graduate student prepare to collect air samples at Lake Attitash.

Testing the air for a neurotoxin

Last August, at Lake Attitash, Jim Haney, a University of New Hampshire biologist, waded knee-deep into swirling green water. Cyanobacteria were blooming at the small lake in the northeastern corner of Massachusetts. Haney had rigged up three vacuum-like devices with pipes, plastic funnels and paper to suck up and filter air near the lake’s surface.

He took the filter papers back to his laboratory and measured the cyanobacteria cells, BMAA and other toxins stuck to them.

“We’ve developed this view of nature as idyllic, which is wonderful, but not everything in nature is benign. Rattlesnakes are natural and you wouldn’t get too close to one of those.” –Jim Haney, University of New Hampshire “We want to know what level lake residents may be exposed to through airborne particles,” said Haney, who is sampling the air at Massachusetts and New Hampshire lakes in collaboration with the Dartmouth team.

Stommel said,“it’s very compelling to look at the filter paper and see it just coated with cyanobacteria.”

At this point, Haney and graduate students are trying to understand under what conditions the toxins might be coming out of the lake and whether the airborne particles are an important route of exposure. Preliminary findings suggest that BMAA and other cyanobacteria cells are being aerolized. “There is potentially a large quantity of cyanobacteria that could be inhaled,” Haney said. He noted, however, that the measurements were taken about eight inches above the water’s surface, making it likely that concentrations would be much lower farther away.

While the toxins are likely to be most abundant in the air around lakes, they exist all over the planet, even in deserts.

In 2009, BMAA was even detected in the sands of Qatar. Crusts containing cyanobacteria may lie dormant in the soil for most of the year, but get kicked up during spring rainstorms. Cox and colleagues hypothesized that breathing in toxins from dust might be a trigger for a doubling of ALS incidence in military personnel after Operation Desert Storm.

Near Haney’s workstation at Lake Attitash, a child splashed in the shallow water off a dock. Haney scooped up a cupful of water. He peered at the tiny green particles in the cup that reflect the sunlight, making the mixture resemble a murky pea soup.

“We’ve developed this view of nature as idyllic, which is wonderful, but not everything in nature is benign,” he said. “Rattlesnakes are natural and you wouldn’t get too close to one of those.”

Algae blooms, fed by nutrients in farm and urban runoff, are becoming more common worldwide.

“Proximity does not equal causality”

The hypothesis that exposure to BMAA may trigger the disease in some people remains controversial.

Researchers have evidence that people living close to lakes with blooms may be at increased risk for ALS. They’ve even found BMAA in the diseased brain tissue of people who have died of neurodegenerative diseases. Nevertheless, “proximity does not equal causality,” said Deborah Mash, a neuroscientist at the University of Miami in Florida.

The big, unanswered question is whether the toxin can actually cause the disease. So far, there’s little evidence to show how it could induce the type of brain changes seen in people with ALS.

Tests of human cells have found that BMAA kills the motor neurons – nerve cells that control muscles – implicated in ALS. Primates fed high levels of BMAA in the 1980s showed signs of neurological and muscular weakness. But the toxin did not kill their motor neurons.

“What is lacking at this point is a clear animal model that demonstrates that BMAA exposure results in ALS-like neuropathy,” Cox said.

So what is a possible mechanism for how the toxin may lead to the disease? The body may mistake BMAA for the amino acid L-serine, a naturally occurring component of proteins. When the toxin is mistakenly inserted into proteins, they become “misfolded,” meaning they no longer function properly and can damage cells.

Cox and colleagues soon will test two drugs in FDA-approved clinical trials. They’re about to enter second-phase testing with L-serine. The idea, explained Sandra Banack, a researcher at the Institute for Ethnomedicine, is that large doses of L-serine may be able to “outcompete” low levels of BMAA in the body, preventing it from becoming incorporated into proteins.

For ALS patients like Gilmore, the research can’t come soon enough. “If they can figure out a cause, then hopefully they can find a cure,” Gilmore said.

Follow Lindsey Konkel on Twitter.

EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author’s name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN’s version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Editor in Chief Marla Cone at


Feds raise max amount oil and gas companies required to pay for offshore spills


By Jennifer Larino, | The Times-Picayune

The federal government on Thursday (Dec. 11) increased the maximum amount oil and gas companies are required to pay in the case of a major oil spill. The move comes more than four years after the fatal 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and ensuing oil disaster, which prompted calls to raise the liability cap for oil spills.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore oil and gas leasing, said it has raised the liability limit for oil spill damages from $75 million to $134 million under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The new cap takes effect in January.

The liability cap, which covers all facilities handling oil and gas in federal and state waters, applies only to private economic and public environmental damage claims.

It does not include the cost of removing oil from the water and coastline, which companies are required to cover in full. The cap no longer pertains if a company is found to have violated the law or acted with gross negligence.

“BOEM is taking an important step to better preserve the ‘polluter pays’ principle of the Oil Pollution Act and further promote safe and environmentally responsible operations,” BOEM Acting Director Walter Cruickshank said in a statement.

In September, a federal judge ruled BP was grossly negligent in 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. But the company had already waived the $75 million cap in the early weeks of the spill.

The move to increase the liability cap was one of several recommendations made by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, which studied the causes and aftermath of the disaster. Though the panel urged a higher liability limit, it did not say how high that limit should go.

The increase, first proposed in February, is the first time the government has raised the liability cap since the Oil Pollution Act took effect.

Under the law, the government is required to adjust the liability cap for inflation at least every three years, but no changes have been made to the broad liability limit until now.

Cruickshank said the change adjusts for inflation, which has increased 78 percent over the past 24 years.

Environmental groups have acknowledged the increase as a step forward, but calls for a higher, if not unlimited, liability for oil spills remain.

The $134 million cap is the highest the BOEM can raise the liability limit without further action from Congress.

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and one of the appointees to the presidential oil spill commission, said the increase is still “woefully inadequate for a major accident.”

Boesch said the commission recommended Congressional action to address the offshore liability limit, but has yet to see a response.

A 2010 Senate bill backed by environmental groups proposed a $10 billion liability cap, but it ran into opposition from lawmakers who argued such a sharp increase would hurt the oil and gas industry.

Alternate proposals suggest scaling the liability cap according to the level of risk an offshore operation poses.