children’s health

Mapped Data Offers Insights about Water Quality and Birth Defects

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Aggregated data about metals in North Carolina’s well water indicate some disturbing connections between birth defects and well water in some parts of the state.

By Gabe Rivin

First, pull up a state map. Next, gather six years’ worth of childbirth records from across the state. Top it off with a surplus of data about the state’s drinking-water wells.

Confused what to do next?

If the connection isn’t immediately clear, you might want to ask Rebecca Fry, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and an expert in the harms wrought by heavy metals, such as arsenic and cadmium. Fry, along with researchers from UNC and the state’s government, recently combined these disparate data sets while studying the connections between well water and birth defects.

What they found, Fry said, was striking.

Water wells throughout the center of the state are saturated with manganese, they found. And babies in North Carolina were more likely to have heart defects if their mothers drank water from these manganese-rich wells.

In recent years, health researchers have increasingly turned their attention to heavy metals – such as cadmium, mercury, chromium and arsenic – particularly for their effects on unborn children. Fry and others have shown that cadmium can potentially harm newborns’ health and that the heavy metal has accumulated in mothers’ blood.

A map with average concentrations of four heavy metals in well water, listed in parts per billion. Graphic courtesy Rebecca Fry

A map with average concentrations of four heavy metals in well water, listed in parts per billion. Graphic courtesy Rebecca Fry

So it’s not entirely novel that a metal has been implicated in a health problem. But what is new, according to Fry, is that researchers have turned to data-rich maps to make these findings.

“Just being able to map those metals across the state is very new,” said Fry.

Mapping big data

Fry said she and her colleagues had a surfeit of data to work with.

For their study, published in September, the researchers gathered six years’ worth of childbirth data from across the state, captured by the state’s Birth Defects Monitoring Program. That program is part of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and keeps records on newborns’ birth defects in all 100 state counties.

The researchers gathered data from about 20,000 babies born with birth defects. As a control, they also considered about 668,000 born without defects.

The babies were born in counties in all regions of the state. And that meant that the babies’ mothers lived in counties across the state where water quality can vary dramatically from well to well.

The researchers wanted to know whether well water had anything to do with newborns’ birth defects. But they were limited, Fry said, since they couldn’t measure the mothers’ actual water consumption.

The Carolina slate belt runs from Virginia to Georgia and through central North Carolina, where it saturates drinking water wells with manganese. Graphic courtesy U.S. Geological survey

The Carolina slate belt runs from Virginia to Georgia and through central North Carolina, where it saturates drinking-water wells with manganese. Graphic courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

“We don’t have active environmental monitoring in everyone’s home,” she said.

So, to estimate the water that the mothers drank, the researchers instead relied on geocoding, a technique that allows different types of data to be plotted on maps.

It’s a technique that’s gaining momentum in public health research, according to Tzy-Mey May Kuo, a research associate at UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“This is not new, but it’s a technique that’s become popular,” she said, noting that geocoding is used in popular websites like Google Maps, whose maps are enriched with street-level images and information about businesses.

For the study’s authors, geocoding helped explain what was in the water that the mothers drank.

Using state records about well water, the researchers mapped out the different quality of the water across the state. They then combined this water data and another key data set – the locations of mothers’ homes while they were pregnant – in order to predict, on average, what sorts of heavy metals were entering the women’s bodies and potentially the bodies of their unborn children.

This complex method allowed them to answer three simpler questions: Where in the state is well water a problem, where are children being born with defects and is there a connection between the two?

The need for biomonitoring

When the data crunching was done, the picture was clear.

Manganese is highly concentrated in many North Carolina wells, the researchers found, especially in the central counties of the state, which sit above the Carolina slate belt, a cross-state geologic formation with an abundance of manganese. In fact, about 20 percent of private water wells exceeded the EPA’s suggested limit for the metal.

well image image is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

2.3 million North Carolinians rely on wells for their drinking water, but some 20 percent of the wells surveyed in the study had manganese levels that exceeded the EPA’s recommended limit. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And the manganese appeared to be causing harm. Newborns had a higher chance of being born with heart defects if their mothers drank the manganese-rich water, the study found.

Manganese toxicity follows a basic principle: the dose makes the poison. The body needs a small amount of the metal to function properly. But excessive amounts can be harmful.

Health researchers have known since the 1800s that manganese, which is used to harden steel, can cause neurological disorders in humans who’ve had high enough doses. Its effects, in fact, can emulate those of Parkinson’s disease. Among children, it’s also suspected of causing problems with neurological development.

But while their finding is worrisome, the researchers admit that their study had several significant limitations.

Though their sample size was large, the researchers were hampered by a lack of data about the mothers’ actual water consumption.

The study’s authors say their lack of individual measurements points to the need for biomonitoring, or chemical measurements of study participants’ bodies. But North Carolina currently doesn’t have any biomonitoring programs for pregnant women, they add.

They also note that until 2008 state government did not require residents to test well water – and even then, the tests were only made mandatory for new wells. So while the study relied on data from 1998 to 2010, the pre-2008 data would have come from residents who chose to have their wells tested. And that could have biased the data, the researchers say.

What well users can do

The UNC and government researchers used a sophisticated method to calculate health risks for newborns. But for residents concerned about their water, the solution can be much simpler. County health departments offer tests of private water wells, including tests for a number of heavy metals, including manganese.

In Montgomery County, well tests run between $35 and $85, and can measure pesticides, inorganic chemicals and petroleum. Teresa Davis, an environmental health coordinator with the county, said that most people seek out the county’s services on their own.

“Being such a small community, people know to call the health department,” she said.

Fry said that this is a good idea since federal and state regulations don’t cover the quality of well water. Residents can also install technology to remove heavy metals if they’re having an issue, she added.

But those filters can be more expensive than conventional water filters, like those made by Brita, Fry said. One, manufactured by Apyron, removes about 92 percent of arsenic from water but costs about $500. A reverse-osmosis system made by Certex costs about $300 and removes about 86 percent of arsenic.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services also collects water samples from newly drilled wells.

“The wells are sampled and the resident is given a list of contaminants (if any), possible remedies for such contaminants, as well as any health risks associated with consuming the water,” said Alexandra Lefebvre, a press officer with DHHS, in an email interview. “We recommend to all new well owners to sample their well annually after the first samples are collected.”

From North Carolina Health News.

Most IQ losses due to lead exposure fall outside of the federally established threshold. (Bruce Lanphear)

‘Little Things Matter’ Exposes Big Threat To Children’s Brains

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Tiny amounts of lead, chemical flame retardants and organophosphate pesticides, among other toxins, course through the blood of nearly every American. But just how much worry is a little poison worth?

Find out more from “Little Things Matter” at The Huffington Post.


Most IQ losses due to lead exposure fall outside of the federally established threshold. (Bruce Lanphear)



A breast cancer awareness charm bracelet for children sold at a Party City store in Albany County was found to contain cobalt, a heavy metal linked to cancer, according to tests of childrens' products done by public health advocates. More than two dozen toys sold at stores including Target and Ocean State Job Lot were found to contain unsafe levels of heavy metals or chemicals.

Danger on the toy shelf

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Study finds toxic metals and chemicals in children’s items sold at local stores
By Brian Nearing


A breast cancer awareness charm bracelet for children sold at a Party City store in Albany County was found to contain cobalt, a heavy metal linked to cancer, according to tests of childrens' products done by public health advocates. More than two dozen toys sold at stores including Target and Ocean State Job Lot were found to contain unsafe levels of heavy metals or chemicals.


The little metal toy charm of a cute fairy being sold at Ocean State Job Lots looks innocent enough, but it could expose any child who touches it — or puts it in his or her mouth — to dangerous levels of cadmium, a heavy metal linked to cancer, kidney and lung damage, and early onset of puberty, according to a report to be released Monday by a local public health group and an environmental advocacy organization.

That fairy charm was among nearly two dozen children’s toys on store shelves in Albany County allegedly found to contain unsafe levels of dangerous chemicals or metals like cadmium, arsenic, cobalt, mercury or lead, the report by Clean and Healthy New York and the New York League of Conservation Voters states.

Other tainted items included beads, hair clips, key chains, a luggage tag and jewelry. The metal in the fairy charm, the report states, was found to be almost 25 percent cadmium, a carcinogen with no safe level of exposure for children, according to federal guidelines.

“Parents who looked at the labels on these products have no way of knowing they are not safe,” said Kathleen Curtis, executive director of Clean and Healthy New York. Her group tested children’s toys sold at stores including Target and Party City, as well as Ocean State, using a hand-held X-ray fluorescence analyzer.

Curtis said tests were done to draw support and attention to a proposed Albany County law that would fine stores selling tainted toys up to $500 per toy, and up to $1,000 per toy for repeat violators.

Two allegedly contaminated toys sold at Target — a Lego “Legends of Chima” LED light key chain and a Monster High doll based on Dracula — were found to have unsafe levels of cobalt, a heavy metal linked to cancer, lung problems and development problems, or antimony, another heavy metal that can damage the heart, liver and respiratory tract.

A Target spokesman was unable to provide comment for this story Friday.

At Party City, a charm bracelet promoting breast cancer awareness was found to contain unsafe levels of cobalt, which is carcinogenic, the groups claim.

Bobbi Chase Wilding, a Clean and Healthy New York staffer who conducted the tests, said nearly all the dangerous toys were manufactured in China. She also said Target has a policy that urges — but does not require — its suppliers not to use hazardous chemicals or metals in their children’s products.

The New York League of Conservation Voters also supported the testing, the first time the group has gotten involved in measuring chemical exposure in children’s products, said Christopher Goeken, director of public policy and government relations for the league.

Test results point to a failure of federal and state regulators to inspect toys being imported for sale in the U.S., Wilding said. “In the absence of leadership by the federal government or state, Albany County is taking on this issue itself,” she said.

The proposal by county Legislator Bryan Clenehan, a Guilderland Democrat, would allow the county health commissioner to inspect children’s products in stores for the presence of banned or unsafe chemicals. Lead, for example, is banned in any product intended for children 13 or younger, but nine toys tested were found to contain lead.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends toys contain no more than 40 parts per million of lead. A hair clip sold at Ocean State tested out at more than 1,600 parts per million of lead, according to the report. That same clip was also found to be 11 percent cadmium.

Corporate offices for Ocean State and Party City did not return several telephone calls seeking comment for this story.

bnearing@timesunion.com518-454-5094@Bnearing10

Story originally published at http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Danger-on-the-toy-shelf-5897618.php

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How phthalate exposure impacts pregnancy

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In recent years, scientists have linked chemicals known as phthalates with complications of pregnancy and fetal development. Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastic materials more flexible and can also be found in personal care products such as perfumes, deodorants and lotions. They can enter the human body by being ingested, inhaled or through the skin. Most often phthalates are metabolized and excreted quickly, but constant contact with them means that nearly everyone in the United States is exposed, some more than others.

Read more at Science Daily.

coal

Coal’s black wind: Pregnant women in parts of India advised to stay away

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Staff Writer
Environmental Health News

Nov. 20, 2014

In some regions of India, a married woman will return to her mother’s house for the last trimester of pregnancy and the birth of her child. But in Mettur, pregnant women are advised by their doctors to stay away.

Amritraj Stephen/Community Environmental Monitoring
Children walk among smoldering coal fires in Jharia, India.

“Black wind” from a coal yard wafts constantly across poor neighborhoods, settling on rooftops, walking paths and even indoor furniture. People complain of asthma, wheezing and frequent colds.

In its bid to industrialize, India relies heavily on energy from coal. Accounting for 71 percent of India’s electricity, coal will remain a key player over the next decade, with 455 new plants proposed, according to energy experts.

Amritraj Stephen/Community Environmental Monitoring
Coal plants produce 71 percent of India’s electricity.

The poor pay the highest cost of India’s dependence on coal, said Jennifer Wang of the nonprofit group Health Care Without Harm. Already burdened by chronic disease, poor nutrition and inadequate health care, they also are highly exposed to air and water pollution, she said.

Mettur and other industrial cities throughout India are now mobilizing to document coal’s health impacts on their own residents in an effort to wring environmental protections from local politicians and world leaders.

Coal poses health risks in India at all stages – mining, transportation, storage and use:

♦ In Jharia, famous for its rich coal resources, 700,000 people are exposed to toxic smoke that seeps from the ground as fires from opencast coalmines burn around the clock. Residents suffer from asthma, chronic bronchitis and skin problems.

♦ In Gujarat, on the west coast, fish catches plummeted after the construction of a massive 4,800-megawatt coal plant destroyed mangrove and creek ecosystems by discharging polluted water in the sensitive ecosystem.

♦ Mercury-laced ash from five mega power plants in the Singrauli district in central India is stored in piles five feet thick, polluting air, water and soil.

♦ In Mettur, in southern India, a coal yard where fuel is shipped in by rail and stored for a power plant and factories stands just 100 feet from some homes. Coal dust blows from the yard into neighboring communities. Air pollution levels are high.

Women in Mettur, a city of about 50,000 with a variety of heavy industries, are hit particularly hard. Doctors often recommend that pregnant women leave.

Gonur West Agriculturist Development Union
In Mettur, coal trains unload next to a low-income neighborhood.

About 1,500 mostly low-income households are within reach of the coal yard dust, said Shweta Narayan of Community Environmental Monitoring, an environmental justice group in India.

“Women are told not to have their babies here. The pollution affects not only their daily lives, but their culture,” Narayan said.

“Women are told not to have their babies here. The pollution affects not only their daily lives, but their culture.” –Shweta Narayan, Community Environmental Monitoring, India A 2010 analysis by Narayan’s group found that airborne particles in Mettur were three to four times higher than the World Health Organization’s pollution guidelines. Worldwide, these tiny particles have been linked to increased deaths from lung and cardiovascular disease. Air quality measurements also suggest that Mettur’s air contains metal particles, such as manganese and nickel, which could harm child brain development.

Parents complain that their children are always sick. Kids often miss school due to wheezing. But complaints about sickness are largely anecdotal. Scientific analysis of the health impacts of coal pollution is lacking in Mettur and other communities.

“The health aspect has been largely ignored in India’s energy policy framing,” Narayan said.

Much of the evidence of health effects from coal pollution comes from the United States or Western Europe, which are much cleaner.

Amritraj Stephen/Community Environmental Monitoring
Coal plants have contaminated water and fish in some parts of India.

“There’s a lack of research regarding long-term exposure to air pollution in some of the world’s most polluted places, including India,” said Aaron Cohen, an epidemiologist at the Health Effects Institute in Boston.

“There’s a lack of research regarding long-term exposure to air pollution in some of the world’s most polluted places, including India.” –Aaron Cohen, Health Effects Institute, Boston An estimated 627,000 Indians die prematurely each year from outdoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease project. A 2012 Greenpeace India report estimated that about 20 percent of premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases each year could be attributed to coal pollution.

Next year, the nonprofit Community Environmental Monitoring will begin to screen people near the coal yard for asthma and other lung problems. They’ll also look for other effects in the women because “pollution manifests itself in different forms, including stress and anxiety,” Narayan said.

“Do we need more research to act? No. We know the immediate health effects from generating energy this way and the long-term effects from climate change,” said Dr. Peter Orris, director of the Global Toxics Policy Program at the University of Illinois School of Public Health. “But how do you convince local policy makers to take action? People need to feel a connection.”

Many of India’s coal plants and mines are government-run.

In some ways, energy regulations to curtail fossil fuel burning may be an easier sell in developing countries than in the United States, said Rachel Cleetus, senior economist with the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Carbon reduction efforts, such the landmark deal struck this week between the United States and China, are viewed largely as climate-change policies.

Growing concern over polluted air and water in China and India is more immediate. “Air and water pollution may be of concern to us, but to them it’s becoming a public health crisis,” Cleetus said.

The health costs associated with coal-fired power stations cost the European Union about 53 billion U.S. dollars each year, according to a report by the Health and Environment Alliance. No such economic analysis exists for India.

“Coal tends to look cheap when health and environmental costs aren’t taken into account. There is a huge need for monetizing the public health costs, especially in developing countries,” Cleetus said.

Looking to China, Cohen said, “it’s hard to argue that economic development there, in which coal has certainly played a role, hasn’t had significant beneficial effects on poverty reduction and population health. But it’s becoming evident that high levels of air pollution from coal burning and other sources is having an adverse effect on population health and life expectancy and is now an obstacle to continued development.”

Nevertheless, the energy landscape is beginning to change. China and India are the fastest growing markets in the world for wind and solar, Cleetus said.

“It’s not that old static picture anymore that coal is king,” she said. “We see that being challenged both in the U.S. and abroad.”

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 mcone@ehn.org.


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PVC pipe

Residents Sue National Pipe (PVC) NY

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Nearly 50 Endicott, NY residents have banded together in a lawsuit filed last week against National Pipe & Plastics, accusing the manufacturer of having “devastated the neighborhood” where it opened a new plant earlier this year.  The lawsuit claims noise and odors wafting from the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe manufacturing plant at 15 Mills Ave. have created an “ongoing public nuisance” to residents of the West Endicott neighborhood.

Read more.

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The Paradox of Science: Knowing so Much, yet so Little

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One of the toughest questions to answer is whether a person’s cancer or birth defect was the result of growing up at Love Canal, or Pensacola, FL or at any of the hundreds of communities in this country where there’s a toxics legacy. People wonder at the genius of their smart phone or the marvelous engineering feat of sending a crew of astronauts to the moon and backing them safely back, and then naturally expect the health experts at ATSDR or EPA to know what happens when people are exposed to toxic chemicals.

But neither of these technological and engineering feats can hold a candle to the complexity of the human body and the intricacy of its biological functioning. In the engineering world, one plus one will always equal two. In the biological world of the life sciences, there is no such simple mathematics to lay the foundation of understanding. When it comes to the biology of the human body, scientists actually know very little about how and why the body responds to toxic chemicals the way it does.

This is the paradox of science when it comes to toxic chemicals: we know a great deal about the mechanism of action of some chemicals such as dioxin or lead, yet we don’t know is what is going to happen to an individual who is exposed to 5 parts per billion (ppb) of benzene in their drinking water, or to 56 parts per trillion (ppt) of dioxin in the air, or to a child who eats lead paint chips for 3 months. In some cases, scientists can predict symptoms to expect, but it’s rare that they can predict health outcomes. Add in the reality of cumulative exposures, not only in the number of chemicals a person might be exposed to, but the time over which exposures might occur, and the certainty over what is known becomes even smaller.

There are a number of factors that determine what happens when a person is exposed to chemicals. These factors include an individual’s susceptibility (this varies quite a lot from person to person), how long exposures occur, how many chemicals a person is exposed to, the concentration of these chemicals, and the toxicity of the chemicals. Even if you knew all of these factors (which is very rare), it’s still almost impossible to predict what will happen when a person is exposed.

In addition, many symptoms or diseases are not specific to a particular chemical. In most instances, there can be many causes of the symptoms that people are having. And few physicians have experience with exposures to toxic chemicals, and they often blame the victim for his or her situation rather than looking at chemicals as a possible explanation. Another problem is determining what the “normal” rate of illness or disease is in a community. Scientists simply can’t decide what’s normal, in large part because of the many uncertainties already discussed.

So if you have a health problem that you think might be related to some exposure to toxic chemicals, don’t expect the scientific community to have many answers for you. Scientists can give you their “best guess” on what they think will happen, or maybe they can give you a risk range or a probability of getting cancer, but don’t expect much more. No matter what they tell, they just don’t know.  No one does.

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Childhood Leukemia from Power Lines

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We previously reported an association between childhood leukemia in Britain and proximity of the child’s address at birth to high-voltage power lines that declines from the 1960s to the 2000s. We test here whether a ‘corona-ion hypothesis’ could explain these results. This hypothesis proposes that corona ions, atmospheric ions produced by power lines and blown away from them by the wind, increase the retention of airborne pollutants in the airways when breathed in and hence cause disease. We develop an improved model for calculating exposure to corona ions, using data on winds from meteorological stations and considering the whole length of power line within 600 m of each subject’s address. Corona-ion exposure is highly correlated with proximity to power lines, and hence the results parallel the elevations in leukemia risk seen with distance analyses. But our model explains the observed pattern of leukemia rates around power lines less well than straightforward distance measurements, and ecological considerations also argue against the hypothesis. This does not disprove the corona-ion hypothesis as the explanation for our previous results, but nor does it provide support for it, or, by extension, any other hypothesis dependent on wind direction. Read more.

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Will You Support the Children and Firefighter Protection Act?

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85% of couches tested recently contained toxic or untested flame retardants. Exposure to toxic flame retardants is linked to a variety of health concerns like cancer, hormone-disruption, and harm to the developing brain.

Tell your senator to support a federal bill to get toxic flame retardants out of our living rooms and our children’s rooms.

As you may know, children are uniquely vulnerable to the toxic effects of these chemicals because they have a completely different physiology and metabolism than adults. Fire fighters are also exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals including flame retardants when a house is burning. But guess what? These chemicals are not effective in preventing fires and provide no meaningful protection from small open flames for upholstered furniture.

Please support The Children and Firefighters Protection Act (S. 2811) sponsored by Senator Chuck Schumer (NY).

The Schumer bill bans the ten worst toxic flame retardants from use in upholstered furniture and children’s products, and allows the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban similar chemicals shown to be hazardous.

Take action now and urge your U.S. senator to cosponsor The Children and Firefighters Protection Act (S. 2811).

Act Now!

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Pesticide levels on food unknown due to poor government testing

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not perform enough pesticide residue tests — on either imported or domestic foods – to say whether the American food supply is safe, according to federal auditors.

The Government Accountability Office report, which was released Thursday, said FDA is testing less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all imported fruits and vegetables and less than 1 percent of domestic fruits and vegetables. Federal auditors said the agency’s pesticide testing program is not “statistically valid,” making it impossible for it to meet one of its mandates, which is to “determine the national incidence and level of pesticide residues in the foods it regulates.”

Read the full story from Kimberly Kindy at The Washington Post.