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We’re delighted to welcome journalist Elizabeth Grossman as a new writer for The Pump Handle. Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health,  and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American,  Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post.  Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of  the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold  Nautilus Award for investigative journalism. – The Editors

By Elizabeth Grossman

As the unprecedented offshore oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico unfolds and extraordinary measures are being taken to protect vulnerable coastal and marine environments from the toxic fuel, the question arises: Is the health and safety of responders being protected as well?  Over the past week, I’ve been investigating this question for The Pump Handle, but answers to my questions have not been forthcoming. On May 3, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) head David Michaels visited the Gulf and profile of responder health and safety issues began to rise, but many questions remain unanswered. This is an evolving situation, with conditions changing daily. Information about the incident, while to a certain extent copious, is also being tightly controlled. This is what The Pump Handle has learned to date.

As of May 12th there were approximately 27,500 people involved in what’s officially called the Deepwater Horizon response – some 13,000 civilian and military personnel and an additional 14, 500 volunteers. The effort to date involves more than 500 boats; deployment of nearly 300 miles of protective and absorbent containment boom; and recovery of nearly 5 million gallons of oily water. About half a million gallons of chemical dispersants have been used, most sprayed aerially onto surface water, but nearly 30,000 gallons have also been tested underwater. There are also ongoing controlled burns of oil on the water’s surface. Additional efforts are underway to physically cap the underwater gusher, to plug the well holes, and drill a relief well.  Tar balls are washing ashore, oiled wildlife are being attended to, and affected areas of the Gulf are closed to fishing and shellfish harvesting.

A pressing question is how to ensure the health and safety of response workers – a question being asked with the specters of the Exxon Valdez, World Trade Center, and Hurricane Katrina looming large. Concern is real that in the rush to protect beaches, sensitive wetlands, and wildlife – and to contain the massive oil flow – health and safety of those on the front lines is receiving scant attention.
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We keep writing about the risks involved with nanotechnology, so it’s nice to be able to highlight a potential benefit. Andrew Schneider reports for AOL News that researchers from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology have developed a “nanopatch” that can deliver vaccines more effectively than intramuscular injection:

[University of Queensland Professor Mark] Kendall told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the nanopatch is designed to place vaccines directly into the skin, where a “rich body of immune cells are.” A needle, by contrast, injects vaccines into muscles with few immune cells. As a result, the vaccines delivered by nanopatch are more effective, he said.

Cheap, simple, and effective vaccine administration has the potential to dramatically increase immunization rates in underresourced areas. Currently, many agencies struggle to fund struggle to fund vaccination programs that rely on refrigerated vaccines administered by trained professionals. Kendall also points out that easier transportation and administration of nanopatches can speed vaccination when the next pandemic develops. (The kind of fast response he envisions would also require us to overhaul our current vaccine-production system, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Such worthwhile applications of nanotechnology reminds us why we need to get this right — study the risks of nanotechnology, and put appropriate safeguards in place before nanoparticles are omnipresent. If several years from now nanoparticles have become the next asbestos, the chances of successfully promoting this kind of promising application will shrink.

In Yale Environment 360, Sonia Shah highlights a promising trend: communities in Mexico, China, Tanzania, and elsewhere are adopting non-chemical methods to control the populations of mosquitos that transmit malaria. They’ve seen their numbers of malaria cases drop, and dramatically reduced their use of the pesticide DDT.

In addition to the environmental health risks that DDT poses, its continued use often results in mosquitos becoming resistant to the pesticide – or, they can adapt to interventions like insecticide-treated bednets by changing the times and places in which they bite, which Shah reports has happened in Dar es Salam.

Here are some of the non-chemical approaches that Shah describes:

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The nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch has just released a report describing the risks faced by child farmworkers in the US. Their findings include the following:

Children risk pesticide poisoning, serious injury, and heat illness. They suffer fatalities at more than four times the rate of children working in other jobs. Some work without even the most basic protective gear, including shoes or gloves. Many told Human Rights Watch that their employers did not provide drinking water, hand-washing facilities, or toilets. Girls and women in these jobs are exceptionally vulnerable to sexual abuse.

The country’s estimated 300,000-400,000 child farmworkers aren’t covered by the same restrictions on work hours and hazardous work that apply to children in other industries. Human Rights Watch notes that even existing laws covering child farworkers are poorly enforced. David Crary reports in the Associated Press that Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis is adding more field investigators to improve enforcement, and legislation introduced by US Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard would eliminate the discrepancies between the law regarding child farmworkers and children employed in other industries.

In other news:

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Elizabeth Weise’s USA Today article about potential health effects of the Gulf oil disaster and its cleanup notes that we don’t have a whole lot of research to draw on about this kind of exposure. Residents and cleanup workers alike will be exposed both to the oil itself and to cleanup agents, particularly the chemical dispersants.

Weise references a Korean study conducted following the 2007 sinking of an oil tanker of the Korean coast, which found that residents had an increased risk of headaches, nauseau, and neurological and respiratory symptoms. With regards to the dispersants, she reports, “The potential human hazard for the two dispersants being used to break up the oil is rated high for one of them, moderate for another, according to the Material Data Safety Sheets posted on the government’s Deepwater Horizon Response website.”

But the section of Weise’s article that really caught my attention was this one (emphasis added):

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John M. Peters, MD, DSc, MPH, the Hastings Professor of Preventive Medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine passed away at age 75 on May 6 from pancreatic cancer.  The School’s dean, Carmen A. Puliafito, said

“one of the legends of environmental and occupational health.  His work took him from the freeways of Los Angeles to the tire factories of Akron to the granite mines of Vermont.  The focus of his research was to investigate and quantify environmental risks and then contribute to strategies to mitigate that risk in the workplace and in everyday life.”

My dear friend and former deputy asst. secretary at MSHA, Andrea Hricko, MPH, first met John Peters in the early 1970s.  She was working for Ralph Nader, and John Peters was a professor at Harvard.   He was serving on a panel for OSHA making an inquiry about vinyl chloride and BF Goodrich – and she testified before him.  She told me

“He was already on his way to becoming a legend in occupational health, with his studies of granite shed workers and workers exposed to toluene diisocyanate (TDI).  

After leaving MSHA in 1997, Andrea  was recruited by John Peters to USC.  She said:

“John Peters was a brilliant, witty, and gentle man whose main professional goal in life was ‘doing the best science possible,’ something he did with the greatest integrity.  John has left an amazing legacy, hiring and mentoring  a dozen new faculty members at USC who now work on air pollution and other environmental health issues, and who all already miss him terribly.”

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I can’t keep up with Ken Ward Jr.’s coverage of the trouble brewing,  battle, strong difference of opinion between Secretary Hilda Solis/MSHA Asst. Secretary Joe Main and the United Mine Workers (UMWA), family members of deceased coal miners and journalists about the Department of Labor’s decision to have closed-door interviews of witnesses as part of the Massey Upper Big Branch disaster investigation.

Lest you think the press and blogs are the only way to take the pulse of the public, think again.  Mr. Dennis O’Dell, the current UMWA H&S director, is sharing his disgust about MSHA’s decision on the social media site Facebook.  His commentary begins:

May 2 (3:07 pm):  “The UMWA has been asked by miners at Upper Big Branch to be their Representatives during the investigation.  There are those out there who want to ice us out of the interviews. What happened to transparency?  If there is nothing to hide then why keep us out. What about a Public Hearing?”

May 6 (8:27 am): “Ok so here is the deal..the UMWA,Upper Big Branch family members, the media, the WV Coal Board, and even Massey has asked for open public hearings on the UBB investigation. What does MSHA do…”

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Thank you to the 255 signatories for their recently-published letter to the editor “Climate Change and the Integrity of Science” in the 7 May 2010 issue of Science. The letter, a polite request to de-escalate political assaults on scientists, is concise, direct, and refreshing (almost radical). Here’s an excerpt:

We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.

Gratitude is expressed to the 255 signatories because they are speaking out and challenging what could become, or has become, status quo.

I hear the rally cry expressed by the signatories and will respond by doing what I can to continue to fight for the integrity of science and the people who practice and teach it.

All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts.

Sign me up.


by Ken Ward Jr., cross-posted from CoalTattoo

There’s been no formal announcement yet today from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration about how it plans to proceed in its investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster — no word on public hearings or opening up the interviews to the victims’ families or taking any other steps to make this process more transparent.

But the information I’ve received so far from various sources is that this is the plan:

– MSHA will continue its general practice of conducting investigation interviews behind closed doors.

– The United Mine Workers union — designed as miners’ representative under the Mine Act by several Upper Big Branch workers — will not be allowed in the room for interviews unless the specific miner being questioned has designated the union as his representative.

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