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by Carlos Rich, cross-posted from Imagine 2050

Can you imagine being severely hurt at your job, then going to the company doctor only to be told that you’re fine and you need to return back to work immediately? This is what happens to many immigrants and refugees in the food processing plants around the Midwest. When I first came to Southeast Iowa about two and half years ago, the first person I met was Juan*. He approached me in town because he had not seen me there before, and he invited me to his house. As we talked I learned of his story.

He told me of being injured at work; a deep cut on his left thumb. He showed me the doctor’s report which read, “3 inch cut, on left thumb, applied band aid and gave him two, ibuprofen”… “worker was sent back to the line to cut meat on the processing line.”

I thought to myself, ‘this is so barbaric!’ I thought it was an isolated incident; it wasn’t.

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Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Andrew Schneider broke the story of the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Montana, and now he’s digging into the use of another substance that has the potential to become equally widespread before its risks to human health are understood. In a three-part series for AOL News, Schneider reports on how widely used nanomaterials are, what researchers are learning about potential health risks associated with them – and how disappointingly slow the US regulatory system has been to respond.

In “Amid Nanotech’s Dazzling Promise, Health Risks Grow,” Schneider explains that the booming nanotech market holds promise for achieving advances in medicine and food safety, but we don’t yet know how our bodies are affected by nanoparticles we inhale, ingest, or spread on our skin. (You may not think you’re doing these things, but nanoparticles are in so many products these days that we’re all probably exposed to some degree.) He describes a range of research findings that raise concerns:

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A few months ago, the New York Times hosted an op-ed about vertical farming, which stacks several floors of hydroponic crops into tall buildings; now, it features in article about another version of hydroponic farming, known as aquaponics. (They stuck it in their “Home & Garden” section, though, and I doubt I’d have found it without the aid of Above the Fold.)

NYT’s Michael Tortorello describes Connecticut resident Rob Torcellini’s aquaponics setup as “either a glimpse at the the future of food growing or a very strang hobby – possibly both.” In an aquaponics setup, the waste from a tankful of fish provides nutrients to plants growing in tubs of water. According to Tortorello, aquaponics requires 80-90% less water than traditional growing methods.

Sylvia Bernstein, who helped develop a hydroponic product and has since become an aquaponics convert, explains on her Aquaponics Gardening Blog that it’s easier to get the nutrient mix right with aquaponics than with hydroponics. Since the plants’ nutrients come from fish waste, the system seems to eliminate (or at least dramatically reduce) the need for chemical fertilizers. Plus, the right kind of fish (like tilapia) will eat your table scraps.

So, will aquaponics be a big hit?

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Our DC-area readers interested in food and drug safety may want to attend this event.

Next Tuesday (1/12) at noon, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner for the FDA, will present, “Public Health and the FDA” here at the GW Hospital Auditorium (900 23rd St. NW, Foggy Bottom Metro). The event is part of Public Health Grand Rounds series hosted by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. Lunch will be provided.

Here’s Sharfstein’s bio from the event announcement:

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The sentinel cases of the debilitating lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans were among workers at a microwave popcorn facility.  It wasn’t too long before NIOSH researchers suspected the illnesses were related to workers’ exposure to the butter flavoring agent used in the plant.  The compounds are typically a mixture of volatile organic compounds (VOC), many of which can irritate severely the skin, eyes and respiratory tract.  Diacetyl, a 4-carbon alpha-diketone, was one of the VOCs identified in the microwave popcorn plant environment.  Diacetyl has come to serve as the catch-all name for the butter-flavoring agents, although NIOSH researchers noted:

“the vapors emitted from butter flavoring are a complex mixture that produces necrosis that cannot be explained by the known toxicological properties of any of its components.” (Hubbs, et al. 2002)

Although popcorn makers began selling still buttery-flavored product labeled “no diacetyl,” Sphere’s Andrew Schneider has been investigating whether a ‘no diacetyl’ claim translates into less health risk to exposed workers and consumers.  His sources have consistently said “No.”   Now, so does NIOSH Director John Howard.

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by Rena Steinzor, cross-posted from CPRBlog

What Progressives Expect from OIRA: An Open Letter to Cass Sunstein

Dear Cass:

As you know, we picked a spat with the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) last week over Randy Lutter’s supposedly temporary detail appointment to your office.  It’s not the first time we’ve criticized the workings of OIRA, and almost certainly won’t be the last. 

I’ve spoken to a number of people in the media and elsewhere who have expressed surprise that progressive organizations like CPR are such relentless critics of a progressive Administration.  I’m sure Administration officials feel this frustration as well.  That dynamic is at work in OIRA’s case because you have a reputation as a progressive thinker on many issues.

I won’t try to speak for all progressives, but I can assure you that very few of us criticize the Administration lightly.  Nor do we do it with any sense of pleasure. 

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New York-based Fairbank Farms is recalling more than 500,000 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Gardiner Harris reports in the New York Times that two people – one from New Hampshire and one from New York – have died after eating the ground beef suspected of contamination, and more than two dozen people have fallen ill.

The products in question bear a stamp reading “EST 492” and were distributed to retailers (including Trader Joe’s and Giant) in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. A Fairbanks Farms spokesperson told the Times that the products had September sell-by dates and should no longer be on grocery shelves; however, some customers may still have these products in their freezers. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has posted a list of the products subject to recall, and notes that one product – cases of 10-pound “Fairbank Farms Fresh Ground Beef Chubs” – was sold to retailers for further processing and will likely not bear the package dates and sell-by dates being publicized.

Harris’s article and the FSIS press release about the recall highlight two food-safety issues that bear emphasizing.

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Today is Blog Action Day, and bloggers around the world are posting about aspects of climate change. I’m highlighting one thing all of us can do to help the planet and our own health at the same time: eat less meat.

In their report Livestock’s Long Shadow, the UN Agricultural Organization estimates that the livestock sector is responsible for 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions. This comes from several elements of livestock production, including the following:

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The CDC has designated this week as “Get Smart About Antibiotics Week,” and is encouraging state health departments and other groups to raise awareness about the appropriate use of antibiotics. As cold season begins, CDC reminds us that antibiotics don’t cure viral infections – and using antibiotics inappropriately contributes to the evolution of antimicrobial-resistant pathogens. The campaign targets parents, healthcare providers, and pharmacists with information about when antibiotic use is and is not appropriate. 

The New York Times’ Anahad O’Connor (whether intentionally or not) has done a big service to this campaign by telling readers that green nasal discharge doesn’t necessarily indicate a bacterial infection that would improve with antibiotics. The article highlights a study that randomly assigned children with green nasal discharge to receive an antibiotic or a placebo, and found the groups’ outcomes to be similar.  

While this particular CDC campaign focuses on the use of antibiotics for human illness, the agency also has a “Get Smart on the Farm” program promoting the appropriate use of antibiotics in livestock. Large-scale livestock producers often dose their herds routinely with antibiotics to promote growth, instead of reserving the drugs for actual cases of illness. Since many of the antibiotics they use are the same as or similar to the ones we use for human infections, livestock producers’ practices also affect humans’ ability to recover quickly and safely from infections. (Visit the Union of Concerned Scientists’ website for more on the problem and where U.S. policy stands.)  

In short, neither sneezing green snot nor raising a herd of animals automatically calls for antibiotics. We should all use antibiotics judiciously so they’ll work when we really need them.

One of the most e-mailed articles on the New York Times website today is Dickson D. Despommier’s op-ed “A Farm on Every Floor.” He has an intriguing proposal: grow crops inside tall buildings, a practice known as vertical farming. Since climate disruption is altering rainfall patterns and causing more floods and droughts, farmers are finding it harder and harder to produce food for a growing population. And agriculture as practiced today is a major user of water, which is in short supply in regions throughout the world. 

Despommier has started a business to build vertical farms, so you can take his rosy picture with a grain of salt. But it sounds pretty appealing:

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