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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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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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by Richard Denison, PhD, cross-posted from EDFBlog

Note: We accidentally posted the contents of an earlier Richard Denison post (available here) under this title. We’ve updated the post, and apologize for the error. – TPH Editors

Please help me welcome to the true mainstream of scientific and medical thought the seemingly radical yet commonsense notion that chemical exposures are a significant contributor to cancer, many types of which are rising in incidence even as overall rates decline.

This morning, the President’s Cancer Panel released its 2010 report [available here].  The report is remarkable not so much for its core finding that chemical exposures are a major factor in human cancer, but rather because of its source – an authoritative and bipartisan body — and because of the strong linkages it makes to our failed chemicals policies.

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by Rena Steinzor, cross-posted from CPR Blog

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was in a tough position on coal ash.  If you are African American and low-income, you have a 30 percent greater chance of living near a big pit of this toxic brew than a white American, so Jackson correctly decided that such an important environmental justice issue should be at the forefront of the Obama Administration’s agenda. But Jackson was also taking on Big Coal, a special interest historically near and dear to swing voters in Ohio and Illinois.  Nevertheless, this sturdy “eco-warrior,” as she was recently dubbed by Rolling Stone, marched forward, right into the basement of the White House and the chilling influence of Cass Sunstein and the economists at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
Jackson’s tough, but as yet secret, regulatory proposal arrived in crisp fall weather, only to be greeted by a tsunami of industry lobbyists, who visited and revisited OIRA.  By the time the spring flowers were out, Jackson was forced to take a pass on getting hard-hitting regulation on a speedy path to implementation.  After the long scuffle with OIRA, she instead announced that EPA was considering two strikingly different alternatives, thereby postponing any definitive action for at least six months and, far more likely, a year or more.  Then, to add insult to injury, she stepped in between angry activists and OIRA, trying in vain to slap lipstick on a not particularly cute pig.

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by Ken Ward Jr., cross-posted from CoalTattoo

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials just finished their phone-in press conference to announce their action regarding regulation of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.

In its press release, EPA describes its action this way:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today is proposing the first-ever national rules to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants.

And it quotes EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson saying:

The time has come for common-sense national protections to ensure the safe disposal of coal ash. We’re proposing strong steps to address the serious risk of groundwater contamination and threats to drinking water and we’re also putting in place stronger safeguards against structural failures of coal ash impoundments. The health and the environment of all communities must be protected.

But after listening to the press conference, and as I read the 563-page document EPA just posted on its Web site,  I have a hard time understanding how this is more than the Obama administration punting on making a decision here.

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By DemFromCT, cross-posted from Daily Kos

The Fatal Strain: On the Trail of Avian Flu and the Coming Pandemic
Alan Sipress
Viking Adult
Hardcover, 400 pages, $27.95 list
Kindle Edition $13.49
November, 2009

Money quote: CDC and WHO epidemiologist Tim Uyeki is in Indonesia, collecting flu specimens from a very sick bird flu patient who is deeply suspicious of westerners and his own country’s doctors (he’s already fled from a local hospital because family members died there.) So suspicious, in fact, the family will not permit blood samples or protective gear other than a respirator and gloves.

Uyeki squatted beside him and leaned right in. The doctor’s eyes were just inches from those of his patient. Uyeki lifted the swab. Then, he carefully inserted it through the open mouth and down Dowes [Ginting]’s throat.

The sensation must have tickled. For at that very moment, Dowes coughed. And when he did, it was right in Uyeki’s face.

Uyeki didn’t blanch. But inside, his stomach dropped. “Oh, this is not good,” Uyeki fretted to himself. Despite the mask, most of his face was exposed. His mind raced. He instantly thought about his unprotected eyes.

Basic Premise: The author follows the emergence of bird flu in Southeast Asia, including near miss outbreaks, the response of the local population and national governments, and WHO’s struggle to conduct surveillance against a backdrop of mistrust and lack of cooperation. All of those problems continue to exist, and the next pandemic may well be more severe than this one.

Author: Alan Sipress is a deputy business editor and former foreign correspondent at The Washington Post. In the past, he’s primarily written about national security and foreign affairs. In 2005, the Post team that he anchored was awarded the Jesse Laventhol Prize for Deadline Writing for coverage of the South Asian tsunami. This is his first book.

Readability/quality: Compelling and unnerving medical detective story. See the money quote about the epidemiologist who gets a cough in the face while sampling a bird flu victim. Full disclosure: I know Tim Uyeki, and that excerpt unnerved me.

The author brings depth to the topic (see interview) beyond just the science aspects (one example is witch doctors, live bird markets and cock fighting and their relationship to disease prevention and treatment.)

Who should read it: Anyone who wants to know what it’s like to to be a medical detective in developing countries (and learn more about how the medical system works there); anyone who wants to know why there’s an emphasis on vaccine production for pandemic planning; anyone interested in the food chain origin of human disease; anyone interested in the politics and culture of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia.

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Dear readers,

We’re doing something different with this month’s post.

Robert F. Herrick of the Harvard School of Public Health wrote an excellent article on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) exposure in schools, which was published in the most recent issue of New Solutions. This article has been made available for free download by the journal’s publisher, Baywood Inc.

The piece has already sparked some dialogue on the testing and regulation of PCB exposure for school maintenance workers, who are pegged with the important task of removing potentially toxic material that may be damaging children’s health. David M. Newman of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH) wrote a response to Dr. Herrick’s piece, in which he addresses major gaps in policy and practice and the need for a strong labor presence to take the lead in demanding necessary worker protection.

Dr. Herrick responded by outlining some of the research done on PCB exposure among construction workers.

Below you can find the abstract of Dr. Herrick’s piece, as well as the following responses.

We now ask you, readers, to add your two cents. What needs to be done to further address the issues of public PCB exposures, as well as occupational hazards for those pegged with the task of clean up?


Mara Kardas-Nelson
Editor, New Solutions: The Drawing Board

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Committees in both the House and Senate will be holding hearings for Worker Memorial Day. The official date for Worker Memorial Day is April 28th, but the Senate is holding its hearing this afternoon.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions’  “Putting Safety First: Strengthening Enforcement and Creating a Culture of Compliance at Mines and Other Dangerous Workplaces” is scheduled for 2pm on April 27th in 430 Dirksen.

If you’re in the DC area, join us tomorrow (April 28th) in front of the Department of Labor (200 Constitution Ave. NW) at 8am for a gathering with family members who’ve lost loved ones to workplace disasters. We’ll then head to the House office building for the  House Education & Labor Committee’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee hearing, “Whistleblower and Victims Rights provisions of HR 2067, the Protecting America’s Workers Act.” It’s scheduled for 10am in 2175 Rayburn. Celeste will be one of the witnesses.

And no matter what you’re doing tomorrow, take a moment to think about all the workers who’ve been injured and lost their lives while on the job – and what we can and should be doing to make workplaces safer and healthier for all.

By Rena Steinzor, cross-posted from ACSblog

On the list of federal agencies decimated by the Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) deserves to be placed right near the top. Here is an agency that for decades has struggled with a tiny budget to get the job done, only to be taken over for eight years by a group of industry representatives dedicated to lowering the cost of doing business. What’s left for the Obama administration — and David Michaels, the head of OSHA — has been what I’d technically define as a “mess.”  

It’s in that context that a group of Member Scholars of the Center for Progressive Reform released Workers at Risk: Regulatory Dysfunction at OSHA. We wanted to examine what has gone so wrong at the agency, and explore what the Obama administration can do within existing law to get the agency on track. (Legislative changes to the OSH Act would be useful as well, but that’s for another day’s discussion).

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