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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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The Pump Handle is pleased to provide the full text of an article, published in the Bureau of National Affairs’ “Occupational Safety & Health Reporter,” on SKAPP’s Scientists in Government project report.*

by Stephen Lee

A study of scientists’ opinions at 13 federal agencies, including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, found that many feel political pressure guides much of their work.  The research, published March 3 by the George Washington University Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, said scientists at NIOSH felt the agency deliberately avoided research that might lead to controversial findings for fear the agency might be eliminated.  One senior NIOSH scientist was quoted in the report as saying,

“All research areas are dictated from management, and you must be limited to doing research in these specific areas. As a consequence, eight people have left within the last two years alone. They felt they weren’t being treated as full scientists.”

The 100-page report , Strengthening Science in Government: Advancing Science in the Public’s Interest, interviewed 37 participants at 13 federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Agriculture.

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by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

The latest study on flu vaccine effectiveness in children has been well discussed in the MSM and the flu blogs, so I’ll point you to those excellent pieces (Branswell, crof, Mike Coston at Avian Flu Diary) and just add some things not covered elsewhere. The full text of the article is available for free at JAMA and it’s a pretty good read, so if you want to see for yourself what is involved I urge you to read it, too. First, let me back up a bit and connect this to the controversy about observational and randomized clinical trials we’ve been discussing here of late (before my grant writing interfered, anyway).

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By Paul Whaley

As a society we could do much better at incorporating environmental health science into clinical advice and policy recommendations.

Take formaldehyde: In the early 1980s multiple studies in rats were showing that exposure to formaldehyde increased their chances of developing nasal cancers. However, it took another 20 years of human observational research to pile up, confirming the same health outcome in people, for formaldehyde to begin being restricted.

Bisphenol-A (BPA), the controversial plastic additive, is shaping up as a classic contemporary example of the problem public health practitioners had with formaldehyde. In this case, there are around 1,000 studies of its potential health effects – but there is still only political wrangling instead of a clear decision on whether or not it is safe.

Environmental health experts know there is a substantial body of evidence connecting environmental chemicals with a range of diseases including cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, autism, diabetes and so forth. However, the cases of formaldehyde and BPA show there are significant obstacles between the acquisition of environmental health knowledge and society then acting to protect public health. In the case of formaldehyde alone, this arguably meant 20 years of unnecessary nasal cancers in people.

The slow speed at which environmental health research shapes policy and clinical action may be due in part to differences between environmental-health and clinical research, and several groups are working to address this gap.

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by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

Every two years the US National Science Board does an analysis of how the country is doing on research and development (R&D). While an important measure of the ability to innovate and compete in a highly competitive and globalized world, I have a hard time getting excited about how this is being portrayed as a horse race, who is ahead, how is coming on strong, who is slipping behind. I’m a scientist and I don’t think of this as a national competition. I understand how the President’s science advisors might, since they are interested in science as a handmaiden to the economy. But if someone in China or Belgium discovers how to cure cancer, fine with me.

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Last month, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Toyota Motors’ Department of Environmental and Safety Engineering, pledging to:

“to improve the assessment, management, analysis, and control of workplace conditions related to the safety and health of employees.”

The news release suggests this is a two-party agreement, not the tripartite labor-managment-goverment model we expect for health and safety projects.   It’s hard to imagine how the goals of the MOU can be accomplished successfully without on-par involvement of workers.

Nancy Lessin of the United Steelworkers’ Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education offers us her perspective below on this new NIOSH-Toyota partnership. 

The pairing of NIOSH and Toyota to collaborate on research to improve workplace health and safety and identify best practices (without the participation of the workforce, mind you), tackling such things as ergonomics and comprehensive worksite programs, conjures up the image of absurd pairings such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Bernie Madoff teaming up to fix financial institutions, or more topically, the insurance industry teaming up with Congress to fix the nation’s health care system.

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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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On the phone last night with my mom, I started complaining about how late in the season my office would be providing its employees with flu shots. She asked me if I was planning to get one, and like any good graduate of public health school, I answered yes and somewhat pretentiously added, “I very much believe in vaccines.” It’s one of those beliefs I take for granted; I have always opted for preventing problems over fixing them, both in health and in life in general, and a vaccine policy course I took earlier this year only cemented that approach.

But while reading the Washington Post Express on the metro this morning, I came across an article that got me thinking about it again (see pg.3). Read the rest of this entry »

The New York Times editorial page draws attention to a new report that provides details about just how badly our system of workplace protections is failing workers in low-wage industries. Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Cities provides the results of extensive research by the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project and the U.C.L.A. Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. Researchers surveyed 4,387 front-line workers (i.e., excluding managers and professional and technical workers) in low-wage industries in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. Their study provides numbers showing just how appalling and widespread employment and labor law violations are. Here are a few of the figures from their report:
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by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

I’ll soon be at the end of my career, funding-wise, although I plan to continue as an active scientist for as long as my neurons will process information in a logical order. I mention this so you won’t take this as special pleading. I’m not going to benefit from it. But if we want to continue to make advances in science and health (as well as other things), we’re going to have to invest more heavily in basic research. And when we do, we’ll have to do it smarter than we’ve done it before. Notice I didn’t say anything about competing economically as a nation, although any nation that fails to invest in science will fall behind. Science doesn’t care about national borders and neither do I. I’m talking about learning enough about how the world works that we can deal with major threats like influenza pandemics — to take an example not at all at random.

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