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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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In just the last several weeks, we’ve seen a series of horrific workplace explosions that have claimed a total of 52 workers’ lives: five at the Kleen Energy Systems plant explosion in Middletown, Connecticut; seven at the Tesoro Refinery explosion in Anacortes, Washington; 29 at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia; 11 on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned by Transocean Ltd and under contract to BP, in the Gulf of Mexico. The general public has probably become slightly more aware of the fact that going to work – especially in the energy industry – can be dangerous, but how long will that awareness last?

As President Obama suggested in his Workers Memorial Day proclamation, these large-scale tragedies garner attention, but far more workplace deaths happen one or two at a time and get little attention from the press or the public. He could also have pointed out that the horror and outrage often fade before policies and practices can be improved to make workplaces safer.

Workers Memorial Day (April 28th each year) offers an annual reminder that we must strengthen our systems for protecting worker health and safety – because workplaces are still killing, injuring, and causing disease in workers. The most powerful reminder of the urgency of this task is the grief of those who have lost loved ones to workplace disasters. Like last year, several of these family members gathered in front of the Department of Labor on the morning of Workers Memorial Day to bring a message to our public officials: Don’t let more workers lose their lives the same way our loved ones did.

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A roof fall at the Dotiki Mine in Hopkins County, Kentucky has killed at least one miner. A second miner is still missing, and the search for him continues. Dotiki Mine has a terrible safety record, Bloomberg News reports:

Alliance’s Dotiki mine ranks seventh in the U.S. by the number of “significant and substantial” violations accrued since January 2009, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data. The operation has collected 321 citations, 35 percent more than Upper Big Branch.

… Significant and substantial, or “S&S,” violations are those that are “reasonably likely to result in a reasonably serious injury or illness under the unique circumstance contributed to by the violations,” according to MSHA.

The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward tallies seven disasters that killed nine miners over the past five years at Alliance mines.

According to Bloomberg, the search team can’t yet identify the body that’s been found, because the miner is trapped beneath a rock. So, two families are still waiting to hear about the fate of their loved one. Our thoughts are with them.

Updated, 4/30: The rescue team has now found the bodies of both miners.

President Obama has just proclaimed April 28, 2010 as Workers Memorial Day. His official proclamation states:

This year marks the 40th anniversary of both the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which promise American workers the right to a safe workplace and require employers to provide safe conditions. Yet, today, we remain too far from fulfilling that promise. On Workers Memorial Day, we remember all those who have died, been injured, or become sick on the job, and we renew our commitment to ensure the safety of American workers.

The families of the 29 coal miners who lost their lives on April 5 in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia are in our thoughts and prayers. We also mourn the loss of 7 workers who died in a refinery explosion in Washington State just days earlier, the 4 workers who died at a power plant in Connecticut earlier this year, and the 11 workers lost in the oil platform explosion off the coast of Louisiana just last week.

Although these large-scale tragedies are appalling, most workplace deaths result from tragedies that claim one life at a time through preventable incidents or disabling disease. Every day, 14 workers are killed in on-the-job incidents, while thousands die each year of work-related disease, and millions are injured or contract an illness. Most die far from the spotlight, unrecognized and unnoticed by all but their families, friends, and co-workers — but they are not forgotten.

The legal right to a safe workplace was won only after countless lives had been lost over decades in workplaces across America, and after a long and bitter fight waged by workers, unions, and public health advocates. Much remains to be done, and my Administration is dedicated to renewing our Nation’s commitment to achieve safe working conditions for all American workers.

Providing safer work environments will take the concerted action of government, businesses, employer associations, unions, community organizations, the scientific and public health communities, and individuals. Today, as we mourn those lost mere weeks ago in the Upper Big Branch Mine and other recent disasters, so do we honor all the men and women who have died on the job. In their memory, we rededicate ourselves to preventing such tragedies, and to securing a safer workplace for every American.

I’m told that President Obama is the first president to issue a proclamation for Workers Memorial Day. This is a strong signal that his administration recognizes the importance of worker health and safety.

Yesterday, family members, friends, and neighbors of the 29 miners killed at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine gathered for a memorial service at the convention center in Buckhannon, West Virginia. They were joined by Governor Joe Manchin, members of West Virginia’s Congressional delegation, Vice President Biden, and President Obama. At the start of his remarks, the president read out the names of the miners who lost their lives in the April 5th explosion:

Carl Acord. Jason Atkins. Christopher Bell. Gregory Steven Brock. Kenneth Allan Chapman. Robert Clark. Charles Timothy Davis. Cory Davis. Michael Lee Elswick. William I. Griffith. Steven Harrah. Edward Dean Jones. Richard K. Lane. William Roosevelt Lynch. Nicholas Darrell McCroskey. Joe Marcum. Ronald Lee Maynor. James E. Mooney. Adam Keith Morgan. Rex L. Mullins. Joshua S. Napper. Howard D. Payne. Dillard Earl Persinger. Joel R. Price. Deward Scott. Gary Quarles. Grover Dale Skeens. Benny Willingham. Ricky Workman.

At his Coal Tattoo blog, Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette gives a moving description of the service. It begins:

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The Coast Guard has just called off its search for the 11 workers who’ve been missing since Tuesday’s oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Hopes that the workers made it into lifeboats have faded. It seems likely that the workers were either killed by the explosion or unable to make it safely off the burning platform – but then their bodies will have sunk along with rig. Their loved ones will have the additional anguish of not knowing for sure what happened to them.

Tom Fowler at the Houston Chronicle’s NewsWatch:Energy blog has a bit more on who the missing workers were and their likely location at the time of the explosion:

The 9 Transocean workers and 2 M.I. Swaco workers have been missing since late Tuesday night when the rig appears to have suffered a blowout that caused an explosion and fire. Many of the men are believed to have been on the drilling floor of the rig at the time of the accident, an area where the blowout could have had the most devestating impact.

The rig was owned by Transocean and leased to BP. Fowler also notes that the rig was holding 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel at the time of the explosion, and crews are trying to clean up oil that has spilled.

Houston Chronicle reporters Tom Fowler, Monica Hatcher, and Brett Clanton note that this is one in a string of recent disasters at oil and gas facilities:

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In the Washington Post, David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin contrast the first Earth Day in 1970 — which led to environmental victories for clean air and water — with today’s less promising iteration:

The problems [today] are more slippery: pollutants like greenhouse-gas emissions, which don’t stink or sting the eyes. And current activists, by their own admission, rarely muster the kind of collar-grabbing immediacy that the first Earth Day gave to environmental causes.

With Lisa Jackson now in charge at EPA, we’ve seen some steps toward curbing global climate change. In December, EPA issued an endangerment finding, stating that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare (which means EPA can regulate them). In April, with the Department of Transportation, the agency increased fuel-efficiency requirements and set greenhouse-gas emission standards for cars and light trucks.

While these actions are important, we need a much stronger response to stabilize the climate – and such a response doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. The Copenhagen climate talks were a crushing disappointment, and the better-than-nothing House climate bill is unlikely to survive the endless watering-down process that seems necessary to get anything through the Senate these days.

At least the Senate does seem motivated to do something about the woefully inadequate Toxic Substances Control Act. Last week, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act, and US Representatives Bobby Rush and Henry Waxman released a discussion draft of a similar bill. The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition supports the legislation, but also calls for it to be strengthened in several ways. Here’s their summary of the pros and cons:
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