Archive for the ‘Health’ Category
Very interesting article, especially for those with a chronic condition that is treated by continually taking small doses of antibiotics. Pagan Kennedy (obviously, not one of the Catholic Kennedys) writes in the NY Times:
IF you walk into a farm-supply store today, you’re likely to find a bag of antibiotic powder that claims to boost the growth of poultry and livestock. That’s because decades of agricultural research has shown that antibiotics seem to flip a switch in young animals’ bodies, helping them pack on pounds. Manufacturers brag about the miraculous effects of feeding antibiotics to chicks and nursing calves. Dusty agricultural journals attest to the ways in which the drugs can act like a kind of superfood to produce cheap meat.
But what if that meat is us? Recently, a group of medical investigators have begun to wonder whether antibiotics might cause the same growth promotion in humans. New evidence shows that America’s obesity epidemic may be connected to our high consumption of these drugs. But before we get to those findings, it’s helpful to start at the beginning, in 1948, when the wonder drugs were new — and big was beautiful.
That year, a biochemist named Thomas H. Jukes marveled at a pinch of golden powder in a vial. It was a new antibiotic named Aureomycin, and Mr. Jukes and his colleagues at Lederle Laboratories suspected that it would become a blockbuster, lifesaving drug. But they hoped to find other ways to profit from the powder as well. At the time, Lederle scientists had been searching for a food additive for farm animals, and Mr. Jukes believed that Aureomycin could be it. After raising chicks on Aureomycin-laced food and on ordinary mash, he found that the antibiotics did boost the chicks’ growth; some of them grew to weigh twice as much as the ones in the control group.
Mr. Jukes wanted more Aureomycin, but his bosses cut him off because the drug was in such high demand to treat human illnesses. So he hit on a novel solution. He picked through the laboratory’s dump to recover the slurry left over after the manufacture of the drug. He and his colleagues used those leftovers to carry on their experiments, now on pigs, sheep and cows. All of the animals gained weight. Trash, it turned out, could be transformed into meat.
You may be wondering whether it occurred to anyone back then that the powders would have the same effect on the human body. In fact, a number of scientists believed that antibiotics could stimulate growth in children. From our contemporary perspective, here’s where the story gets really strange: All this growth was regarded as a good thing. It was an era that celebrated monster-size animals, fat babies and big men. In 1955, a crowd gathered in a hotel ballroom to watch as feed salesmen climbed onto a scale; the men were competing to see who could gain the most weight in four months, in imitation of the cattle and hogs that ate their antibiotic-laced food. Pfizer sponsored the competition.
In 1954, Alexander Fleming — the Scottish biologist who discovered penicillin — visited the University of Minnesota. His American hosts proudly informed him that by feeding antibiotics to hogs, farmers had already saved millions of dollars in slop. But Fleming seemed disturbed by the thought of applying that logic to humans. “I can’t predict that feeding penicillin to babies will do society much good,” he said. “Making people larger might do more harm than good.”
Nonetheless, experiments were then being conducted on humans. In the 1950s, a team of scientists fed a steady diet of antibiotics to schoolchildren in Guatemala for more than a year,while Charles H. Carter, a doctor in Florida, tried a similar regimen on mentally disabled kids. Could the children, like the farm animals, grow larger? Yes, they could.
Mr. Jukes summarized Dr. Carter’s research in a monograph on nutrition and antibiotics: “Carter carried out a prolonged investigation of a study of the effects of administering 75 mg of chlortetracycline” — the chemical name for Aureomycin — “twice daily to mentally defective children for periods of up to three years at the Florida Farm Colony. The children were mentally deficient spastic cases and were almost entirely helpless,” he wrote. “The average yearly gain in weight for the supplemented group was 6.5 lb while the control group averaged 1.9 lb in yearly weight gain.”
Researchers also tried this out in a study of Navy recruits. . .
Ryan Koronowski writes at ThinkProgress:
Alpha Natural Resources, the third-largest coal company in the U.S., agreed to pay a $27.5 million fine after violating water pollution permits in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Over the last seven years, Alpha and its subsidiaries discharged heavy metals into waterways across those five Appalachian states 6,289 times, through 794 different discharge points, sometimes by as much as 35 times the legal limit.
The pollutants that spilled from the coal mines throughout Appalachia include “iron, pH, total suspended solids, aluminum, manganese, selenium, and salinity,” according to an EPA press release.
The giant coal company will also spend $200 million to stop sending toxic discharge into the nations rivers and streams. According to the AP, which obtained details about the settlement on Wednesday, “under the agreement, the mine operators will install wastewater treatment systems and take other measures aimed at reducing discharges from 79 active coal mines and 25 coal-processing plants in those five states.”
Cynthia Giles, who runs the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement office, told the AP that the settlement was “the biggest case for permit violations for numbers of violations and size of the penalty, which reflects the seriousness of violations.”
“This is the largest one, period.”
A big part of the reason this settlement was so comprehensive and expensive is because in 2011, Alpha Natural Resources bought a coal company called Massey Energy. Massey’s coal operations account for more than half of the violations represented in Wednesday’s settlement.
Alpha spent $7.1 billion to purchase Massey, and it has been picking up the pieces ever since. Months after the purchase agreement was announced, Massey was still fighting a legal battle over dumping 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into old underground coal mines — knowing all the while that the mines leaked into the water supply. Alpha settled the lawsuit with hundreds of West Virginia residents in 2011.
Massey received global headlines for the tragic explosion in 2010 that killed 29 miners, and stayed in the headlines as Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s confrontational relationship with safety regulators prompted shareholder calls for his resignation. In 2009, Blankenship called the idea that safety regulators cared more about coal miners than he did “as silly as global warming.” This despite the small world encompassing coal industry and coal regulators: President Bush appointed a former Massey official to an MSHA review commission in 2002.
In 2012, Massey mine superintendent Gary May pled guilty to charges of criminal conspiracy over deceiving federal safety regulators. When the Mine Safety and Health Administration would come for an inspection, May would warn miners, increase air ventilation, falsify records, and cut corners in order to hide dangerous safety violations.
Though 2014 is barely two months old, the U.S. has seen a raft of coal spills — in West Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia again, and West Virginia again — signalling the problem of dirty coal is not going away.
Andrew Briner writes at ThinkProgress:
Add attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to the list of ailments attributed to the popular painkiller acetaminophen. A new study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that more than half of mothers who took acetaminophen during pregnancy were more likely to have children with ADHD-like behavior or hyperkinetic disorder, a severe form of ADHD.
It’s unclear at this point whether acetaminophen use is actually causing these symptoms or if both are a sign of other unnoticed factors, as the Globe and Mail pointed out. And the long, shameful history of blaming and criminalizing pregnant women for pretty much anything they do during pregnancy means this news should be taken carefully. But even if proof of a causal link is demonstrated, the FDA’s record on regulating over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, specifically acetaminophen, shows it wouldn’t be up to the job of dealing with it.
And this news comes just as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it would berevamping its process for approving and regulating over-the-counter drugs, in response to just such concerns that it’s too slow to respond to new products and safety issues.
Acetaminophen is one such failure, as ProPublica extensively documented in September. The FDA convened a panel of experts to evaluate its safety in 1977, as the drug was first becoming widely popular. The panel determined it was “obligatory” to include a label warning that acetaminophen could cause “severe liver damage.” The FDA didn’t add that warning until 2009.
Acetaminophen is both one of the most commonly-used pain relief drugs in the United States and the primary cause of acute liver failure, nearly half of all cases. Overdoses kill an estimated 458 Americans each year, and are responsible for more than 56,000 emergency room visits and 2,600 hospitalizations.
No painkiller or drug is without risk. But for comparison, the entire class of drugs that includes ibuprofen, the Advil ingredient that is similarly popular to acetaminophen, was responsible for 15 deaths in 2010, according to CDC data as reported in ProPublica. In the same year acetaminophen killed 321, 166 of which were accidental overdoses.
The main problem is that the difference between a therapeutic dose and a life-threatening one is small. . .
We should focus on eating plants. Rina Shaikh-Lesko notes in The Scientist:
Two studies published March 4 in Cell Metabolism suggest that a low-protein diet may be key for longevity, casting doubt on the widespread dietary trend of reducing carbohydrate intake and loading up on protein.
One study, led by Stephen Simpson at the University of Sydney, looked at the life spans of mice on diets containing varying levels of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Mice on a high-protein diet were leaner, but mice on a low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet lived much longer. The other study, led by Valter Longo of the University of Southern California, used death certificate data from people 50- to 65-years-old who had participated in the national NHANES nutrition survey. NHANES participants who reported a high-protein diet on NHANES had a higher rate of death, especially from cancer before age 65. However, after age 65, a high-protein diet seemed beneficial.
“If these two studies are really correct, what people in general are trying to do . . . might be completely wrong in terms of maintaining health and even longevity,” Shin-ichiro Imai of Washington University in St. Louis told ScienceNow.
Popular nutrition writer Marion Nestle, who is also a public health professor at New York University, is more skeptical of Longo’s results. “Protein is not, and never has been, an issue in American diets, and the data presented in this study do not convince me to think otherwise,” she told the Washington Post.
Nice to know that a high-protein diet is good for me. (I’m past age 65.) However, I do respect Prof. Nestle’s opinion.
Fascinating article at Pacific Standard by Ethan Watters:
One morning last fall, the evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill was standing with me in front of the gorilla enclosure at the Albuquerque zoo. He was explaining a new theory about the origins of human culture when Mashudu, a 10-year-old western lowland gorilla, decided to help illustrate a point. In a very deliberate way, Mashudu sauntered over to the deep cement ravine at the front of his enclosure, perched his rear end over the edge, and did his morning business.
Mashudu, I suspected, had just displayed what evolutionary theorists call a “behavioral immune response”—a concept central to Thornhill’s big theory. So I asked him whether I was right about Mashudu. “Pooping downhill is pretty smart,” Thornhill said after some consideration. “He got his waste as far away from him as possible. I think that would probably count as a disease avoidance behavior.”
It might seem strange to fixate on how a gorilla goes about answering the call of nature. But according to Thornhill’s hypothesis, much of what we humans like to think of as politics, morality, and culture is motivated by the same kind of subconscious instinct that likely drove Mashudu to that ledge.
Anyone with a basic grasp of biology knows that all animals have immune systems that battle pathogens—be they viruses, bacteria, parasites, or fungi—on the cellular level. And it’s also fairly well understood that animals sometimes exhibit outward behaviors that serve to ward off disease. Just around the corner from the fastidious Mashudu, Thornhill and I watched an orangutan named Sarah grooming her six-month-old son Pixel, poring through his hair for parasites. Some species of primate, Thornhill told me, will ostracize sick members of the group to avoid the spread of disease. Cows and other ungulates are known to rotate their movements among pastures in such a way as to avoid the larvae of intestinal worms that hatch in their waste. And in ant societies, only a small number of workers are given the task of hauling away the dead, while sick ants will sometimes leave the nest to die apart from the group.
At the most quotidian level, Thornhill finds it easy to convince people that humans likewise manifest such instinctual behaviors to avoid infection and illness. Some of these habits very much parallel those seen in other creatures. I admitted to Thornhill that I had recently been displaying a bit of grooming behavior myself after the youngest primate in my care came home from preschool itching with head lice. Like Mashudu, we humans remove waste from our living quarters. We ostracize our sick, at least to the extent that we expect those with the flu to stay home from work or school. And similar to the lowly ant, we assign a small number of our fellows the solemn duty of hauling away and disposing of our dead. On examination, everyday life is full of small defensive moves against contamination, some motivated by feelings, like disgust, that arise without conscious reflection. When you open the door of a gas station bathroom only to decide you can hold it for a few more miles, or when you put as much distance as possible between yourself and a person who is coughing and sneezing in a waiting room, you are displaying a behavioral immune response.
But these individual actions are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Thornhill and a growing camp of evolutionary theorists. Our moment-to-moment psychological reactions to the threat of illness, they suggest, have a huge cumulative effect on culture. Not only that—and here’s where Thornhill’s theory really starts to fire the imagination—these deep interactions between local pathogens and human social evolution may explain many of the basic differences we observe between cultures. How does your culture behave toward strangers? What kind of government do you live under? Who are your sexual partners? What values do you share? All of these questions may mask a more fundamental one: What germs are you warding off?
The threat of disease is not uniform around the world. In general, higher, colder, and drier regions have fewer infectious diseases than warmer, wetter climates. To survive, people in this latter sort of terrain must withstand a higher degree of “pathogen stress.” Thornhill and his colleagues theorize that, over time, the pathogen stress endemic to a place tends to steer a culture in distinct ways. Research has long shown that people in tropical climates with high pathogen loads, for example, are more likely to develop a taste for spicy food, because certain compounds in these foods have antimicrobial properties. They are also prone to value physical attractiveness—a signal of health and “immunocompetence,” according to evolutionary theorists—more highly in mates than people living in cooler latitudes do. But the implications don’t stop there. According to the “pathogen stress theory of values,” the evolutionary case that Thornhill and his colleagues have put forward, our behavioral immune systems—our group responses to local disease threats—play a decisive role in shaping our various political systems, religions, and shared moral views.
If they are right, Thornhill and his colleagues may be on their way to unlocking some of the most stubborn mysteries of human behavior. Their theory may help explain why authoritarian governments tend to persist in certain latitudes while democracies rise in others; why some cultures are xenophobic and others are relatively open to strangers; why certain peoples value equality and individuality while others prize hierarchical structures and strict adherence to tradition. What’s more, their work may offer a clear insight into how societies change. According to Thornhill’s findings, striking at the root of infectious disease threats is by far the most effective form of social engineering available to any would-be reformer.
If you were looking for a paradigm-shifting theory about human behavior, . . .
Trip Gabriel reports in the NY Times:
Last June, state employees in charge of stopping water pollution were given updated marching orders on behalf of North Carolina’s new Republican governor and conservative lawmakers.
“The General Assembly doesn’t like you,” an official in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told supervisors, who had been called from across the state to a drab meeting room here. “They cut your budget, but you didn’t get the message. And they cut your budget again, and you still didn’t get the message.”
From now on, regulators were told, they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible. Big changes are coming, the official said, according to three people in the meeting, two of whom took notes. “If you don’t like change, you’ll be gone.”
But when the nation’s largest utility, Duke Energy, spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in early February, those big changes were suddenly playing out in a different light. Federal prosecutors have begun a criminal investigation into the spill and the relations between Duke and regulators at the environmental agency.
The spill, which coated the river bottom 70 miles downstream and threatened drinking water and aquatic life, drew wide attention to a deal that the environmental department’s new leadership reached with Duke last year over pollution from coal ash ponds. It included a minimal fine but no order that Duke remove ash — the waste from burning coal to generate electricity — from its leaky, unlined ponds near drinking water. Environmental groups said the arrangement protected a powerful utility rather than the environment or the public.
Current and former state regulators said the watchdog agency, once among the most aggressive in the Southeast, has been transformed under Gov. Pat McCrory into a weak sentry that plays down science, has abandoned its regulatory role and suffers from politicized decision-making.
The episode is a huge embarrassment for Mr. McCrory, who worked at Duke Energy for 28 years and is a former mayor of Charlotte, where the company is based. And it has become yet another point of contention in North Carolina, where Republicans who took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and the governor’s mansion last year have passed sweeping laws in line with conservative principles. They have affected voting rights and unemployment benefits, as well as what Republicans called “job-killing” environmental regulations, which have received less notice.
Critics say the accident, the third-largest coal ash spill on record, is inextricably linked to the state’s new environmental politics and reflects an enforcement agency led by a secretary who suggested that oil was a renewable resource and an assistant secretary who, as a state lawmaker, drew a bull’s-eye on a window in his office framing the environmental agency’s headquarters.
“They’re terrified,” said John Dorney, a retired supervisor who keeps in touch with many current employees. “Now these people have to take a deep breath and say, ‘I know what the rules require, but what does the political process want me to do?’ ”
Duke has apologized for the Dan River spill and says it is now committed to cleaning up some of its 32 coal ash ponds across the state. The company has also been subpoenaed in the federal investigation.
A spokesman for Governor McCrory said the governor had no role in the state’s proposed settlement with Duke. . .
Continue reading. The story at the link includes a video. And the comments are worth reading. People are becoming increasingly angry at the downfall of the US.
Jerome Groopman has an interesting book review in the NY Review of Books. Just one quotation in the article:
To put it bluntly, marijuana works. Not dazzlingly, but about as well as opioids. That is, it can reduce chronic pain by more than 30 percent. And with fewer serious side effects. To be sure, some researchers think it’s too soon to declare marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids a first-line treatment for pain, arguing that other drugs should be tried first. But that may be too cautious a view.
Would a corporation deliberately harm the health of the public, including not merely illness but many deaths, merely for the sake of profit? Need I ask? (cf. cigarettes for a prime example—and it’s still going on)
Mark Bittman has a good column in the NY Times:
In the last few years, it’s become increasingly clear that food companies engineer hyperprocessed foods in ways precisely geared to most appeal to our tastes. This technologically advanced engineering is done, of course, with the goal of maximizing profits, regardless of the effects of the resulting foods on consumer health, natural resources, the environment or anything else.
But the issues go way beyond food, as the City University of New York professor Nicholas Freudenberg discusses in his new book, “Lethal but Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health.” Freudenberg’s case is that the food industry is but one example of the threat to public health posed by what he calls “the corporate consumption complex,” an alliance of corporations, banks, marketers and others that essentially promote and benefit from unhealthy lifestyles.
It sounds creepy; it is creepy. But it’s also plain to see. Yes, it’s unlikely there’s a cabal that sits down and asks, “How can we kill more kids tomorrow?” But Freudenberg details how six industries — food and beverage, tobacco, alcohol, firearms, pharmaceutical and automotive — use pretty much the same playbook to defend the sales of health-threatening products. This playbook, largely developed by the tobacco industry, disregards human health and poses greater threats to our existence than any communicable disease you can name.
All of these industries work hard to defend our “right” — to smoke, feed our children junk, carry handguns and so on — as matters of choice, freedom and responsibility. Their unified line is that anything that restricts those “rights” is un-American.
Yet each industry, as it (mostly) legally can, designs products that are difficult to resist and sometimes addictive. This may be obvious, if only in retrospect: The food industry has created combinations that most appeal to our brains’ instinctual and learned responses, although we were eating those foods long before we realized that. It may be hidden (and borderline illegal), as when tobacco companies upped the nicotine quotient of tobacco. Sometimes, as Freudenberg points out, the appeals may be subtle: Knowing full well that S.U.V.’s were less safe and more environmentally damaging than standard cars, manufacturers nevertheless marketed them as safer, appealing to our “unconscious ‘reptilian instincts’ for survival and reproduction and to advertise S.U.V.’s as both protection against crime and unsafe drivers and as a means to escape from civilization.”
The problems are clear, but grouping these industries gives us a better way to look at the struggle of consumers, of ordinary people, to regain the upper hand.The issues of auto and gun safety, of drug, alcohol and tobacco addiction, and of hyperconsumption of unhealthy food are not as distinct as we’ve long believed; really, they’re quite similar. For example, the argument for protecting people against marketers of junk food relies in part on the fact that antismoking regulations and seatbelt laws were initially attacked as robbing us of choice; now we know they’re lifesavers.
Thus the most novel and interesting parts of Freudenberg’s book are those that rephrase the discussion of rights and choice, because we need more than seatbelt and antismoking laws, more than a few policies nudging people toward better health. . .
The comments to the article are quite interesting, although not always well thought out.
The food industry always opposes any effort to inform the consumer. Food companies, for whatever reason, VERY much do not want consumers to have information about the foods they are buying. But the proposed improvements look good to me:
Tara Culp-Pressler writes in ThinkProgress:
Later this week, the White House is set to unveil the first update to FDA-approved nutrition labels in more than two decades. Politico reports that First Lady Michelle Obama will announce the changes on Thursday, as part of her larger focus on encouraging healthy habits and tackling childhood obesity.
At the beginning of this year, the Food and Drug Administration indicated that updating nutrition labels would be a top priority for the agency in 2014. But officials didn’t confirm a timeline for rolling out the new requirements.
The move has the potential to impact a considerable number of Americans. A recent studyconducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the number of people who rely on nutrition labels when they’re grocery shopping is on the rise. About 42 percent of working-age adults and 57 percent of older adults now say they consider the FDA’s labelwhen they’re selecting their food — and nearly three fourths of all adults report they would use similar information in restaurants if it were available.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to nutrition and food policy, has repeatedly urged the FDA to “bring food labeling into the 21st century.” Back in 2010, the organization released a report entitled “Food Labeling Chaos” that detailed the lack of industry-wide regulations in this area to hold companies accountable. The report urged the agency to crack down on brands that made overreaching claims about their products, establish a consistent standard for the foods labeled as “natural,” and make several updates to the current nutrition labels.
CSPI’s report put forth several suggestions for improving nutrition labels — like . . .
A very interesting interview, well worth reading. From the interview, a clue to the obesity epidemic:
The USDA has tracked America’s eating habits beginning in 1909. The average American in 1909 ate just under 124 pounds of meat, per year. That slowly–but steadily–went up and hit a peak in 2004, when it hit 201 pounds per person. That is an increase of 75 pounds of meat per person, per year. In the same interval, cheese intake, which was less than 4 pounds per person back in 1909, shot up to about 34 pounds per person, per year. And sugar intake went up, as well. You put all this together, and what do you do with a person who, year after year, is eating 75 more pounds of meat, 30 more pounds of cheese, 40 to 50 more pounds of sugar? The problem is, they will become overweight and have many health problems.
The USDA has been severely compromised by unrelenting industry pressure. Wenonah Hauter givens an example in the Progressive Populist:
Earlier this year, Food & Water Watch received information that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was going to permit a trade association — the National Chicken Council — to collect data in poultry plants to assess the rate of foodborne pathogens in chicken parts. The information came in the form of an e-mail from the Assistant FSIS Administrator for Field Operations Daniel Engeljohn, informing his district managers that he was aware of the effort and gave his full blessing to the project. What was troubling about the e-mail was that it told the district managers that the purpose of the data collection was for the industry to develop its own voluntary pathogen performance standards that it was going to enforce on poultry processing plants. It went on to say that FSIS inspection personnel assigned to the plants were not to interfere with the National Chicken Council data collection and that they had no right to look at the data that was collected.
In other words, the poultry industry would create the standards for pathogen levels in chicken parts, and they would only “voluntarily” stick with them. Not only would the industry be able to decide how much salmonella or campylobacter there is on your chicken, but there would be no USDA enforcement of the standard.
Welcome to the latest in privatization of chicken inspections that the industry is pushing, with the USDA’s blessing. Another example is the “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection,” the proposed plan whose “modern” twist is to turn most poultry inspection over to the very companies that produce our poultry, leaving only one government inspector per plant to inspect over 175 birds per minute — or three birds per second.
This hasn’t happened overnight. The industry has been chipping away at the USDA’s mandate to protect our food system for over a decade. Since the late 1990s, . . .
Continue reading. I would feel better if industry were not driven solely by a drive to cut costs and increase profits. That motivation is insufficient to protect our health and the quality of our food supply—indeed, our health and the quality of the food supply often get in the way, which is why we get industry postures as the above.
This sort of facility seems like an excellent idea, and apparently it results in improved happiness and health for its residents. I bet it’s a more pleasant place to work than the usual assisted-living home. With Baby Boomers aging, this would be a good thing to initiate as publicly-owned (taxpayer-supported) facilities. This is exactly the sort of thing you do NOT want to run on a profit motive, which inevitably leads to cuts in quality of service and higher prices over time due to the inexorable drive to grow profits.
A strong editorial in the NY Times:
North Carolina citizens have good reason to wonder just whom their environmental regulators are trying to protect. The state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources has engaged in a series of maneuvers that seem designed to protect the state’s largest utility, Duke Energy, from paying big fines for water pollution from coal ash ponds and meeting reasonable requirements that it move toxic coal ash to lined landfills away from rivers and lakes used for drinking water and recreation.
Meanwhile, the rest of the country — having heard of the damaging North Carolina coal ash spill this month — must be wondering why the federal government has yet to move against a serious pollution problem it has known about for years.
One answer is the political power of the utilities. In North Carolina, a coalition of environmental groups, led by the Southern Environmental Law Center, tried three times over the past year to sue Duke Energy in federal court for violating the Clean Water Act, only to be pre-empted by the state regulatory agency, which asserted its authority to protect the public through enforcement actions in state courts. Once in control of the litigation, the state regulators quickly proposed a sweetheart settlement of suits against two Duke Energy plants. It would have imposed total fines and costs of about $99,000, a pittance for a company with operating revenues of $19.6 billion in 2012, plus a cleanup plan riddled with loopholes.
Critics blamed the new Republican governor, Pat McCrory, who had worked at Duke Energy for 29 years, and the businessman he appointed to head the environmental department, John Skvarla. Federal prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the Dan River spill and issued subpoenas for the records of Duke Energy and the environmental department.
The third suit was still pending when coal ash spilled on Feb. 2 into the Dan River, near the Virginia border, through a ruptured pipe at another Duke Energy plant that is no longer in use. The state’s Department of Health and Human Services has warned people not to have contact with the water or sediment downstream and not to eat fish or shellfish from that area.
On Feb. 9, The Associated Press revealed that lenient state regulators had maneuvered to block the environmental groups. The environment agency, embarrassed by the spill and the revelations, immediately asked the state judge to hold its proposed settlement in abeyance while it conducted a comprehensive review of all coal ash facilities in the state. We can only hope that this is a genuine attempt to solve the problem and not a stalling tactic. Meanwhile, Duke Energy has apologized for the big leak and pledged to make things right, but it has not committed to moving the waste to safer locations.
This tawdry tale illustrates . . .
Corporations have become accustomed to being unaccountable—at the worst, they may have to pay a fine, which they see as a cost of doing business. Emily Atkin describes at ThinkProgress a particularly bad example of a company that apparently believes it has not responsibility to answer for its actions:
Exactly one month and a day after 10,000 gallons of chemicals spilled into West Virginia’s water, members of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee on Monday traveled to the state’s capital city, ostensibly to ask state leaders the still-unanswered questions surrounding the leak. There are many.
Perhaps the most important party that could provide answers would have been Freedom Industries, the company whose chemical storage tanks leaked a coal-cleaning chemical called crude MCHM into the water. Company president Gary Southern had been invited to testify, but in the end, did not show up.
“I find that extremely telling,” said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). “Freedom Industries’ decision not to testify today compounds its gross misconduct, and is an absolute affront to every person impacted by its spill.”
Freedom Industries’ decision not to show up to a hearing that otherwise housed every party that should be held accountable for the spill (Representatives from West Virginia American Water, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board showed up, to name a few) is depressingly typical, and a painful reminder of the company’s non-presence throughout the month-long ordeal.
“They’ve been basically out of the picture since day one of this crisis, even though they were the cause of the crisis,” Executive Director of West Virginia Citizen Action Gary Zuckett, told ClimateProgress, recalling the events of the week following the spill. “The first thing that [Freedom] did was file for bankruptcy. The second thing they did was open a new corporation to loan the first corporation money.”
Indeed, after being being criticized for failing to immediately report the chemical leak, and faced with lawsuits from those who had been harmed, Freedom filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy shielded it from lawsuits, and since then the company has been increasingly opaque — only breaking its silence to revise spill numbers (last week it said 10,000, not 7,500 gallons, had spilled) and admit that more than one chemical had actually spilled.
“That’s the big reason they filed bankruptcy, I think, so that they can be excused for stepping out,” Maria Gunnoe, spokesperson for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, told ClimateProgress. “They realize, they’re in — instead of hot water — poison water.”
Of course it’s hard to forget the one time Freedom Industries’ president Gary Southern decided to step out and speak, the day after the chemical spill was said to have begun occurring. Fumbling with reporters’ questions and attempting to excuse himself multiple times, an exasperated Southern took a sip of bottled water in front of the news cameras — an image that many called “brazen” considering his company was preventing others from that very luxury.
When asked for comment by the Huffington Post, a representative for Freedom Industries referred to its lawyer, Paul Vey, who said Southern did not attend “simply because the company is relatively small and we are focused exclusively on remediation of the spill.”
And considering all the bad press, Zuckett said maybe it was for the best that Southern didn’t show up to the hearing.
“He was digging this thing deeper,” Zuckett said. “They wisely decided to get him out of the spotlight.”
Andrew Breiner writes at ThinkProgress:
As the Obama Administration continued delaying regulation of coal ash, up to 82,000 tons of it spilled into North Carolina’s Dan River from an “antiquated” storage pit, contaminating the river with high levels of lead, arsenic and mercury. Danville, Virginia draws its drinking water from the Dan River and is located 25 miles downstream from the spill. Five days after the spill, Danville’s water appears to be safe, but the long-term effects of the spill will not be known for some time.
Sunday’s spill occurred at the kind of storage basin that has been long-criticized by public health advocates: an earthen pond located near a major waterway that provides drinking water to nearby towns. A storm pipe under the basin ruptured Sunday, allowing 27 million gallons of water mixed with up to 82,000 tons of ash to flow out and into the river before the leak was stopped. Many utilities have begun using lined storage ponds placed farther away from waterways to store ash, but absent federal regulation, spills like this one are likely to continue.
A judge ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set a deadline for creating the first-ever federal coal ash regulations due to a lawsuit from public health and Native American groups, which they set for the end of 2014. It is currently unclear what those regulations will entail or when they will be implemented.
Coal ash is the toxic byproduct that comes from burning coal, and typically contains arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, which “can cause cancer and neurological damage in humans,” and harm and kill wildlife. Even outside of major spills, the 535 or more unlined ponds operating throughout the country pose a major threat to drinking water.
The EPA announced two paths it might take toward regulation in 2010. It could regulate coal ash as “solid waste,” the less-stringent classification, which would still require liners, more frequent inspections, and other safeguards that were absent in the Dan River spill, and could have helped prevent it. But enforcement would still be left up to the states, and citizen lawsuits.
On the other hand, if the EPA regulated coal ash as “hazardous waste,” the federal government would be in charge of enforcing and monitoring those new requirements. On top of that, wet ash ponds would be phased out entirely, in favor of special ash landfills. And companies would have to show they’re financially capable of cleaning up in the event of a disaster. Mining and utility companies claim this classification would cost too much, discouraging coal-fired power plants. In addition to the safety benefits of treating coal ash carefully, discouraging coal-fired power plants would have immense climate and air quality benefits.
Until the EPA steps in, regulation is left up to states, which Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel at Earthjustice, described to ThinkProgress as “a patchwork of programs, with many states imposing few, and sometimes, no, regulatory safeguards.” House Republicans passed a bill in July that would have kept it that way, preventing the EPA from regulating. But it went nowhere in the Senate.
I can’t help but note that the US seems to shoot itself in the foot a lot.
Freshly squeezed orange juice is quite a pleasant drink: a big bowl of Valencia oranges, a good orange press, and you can enjoy. The stuff you buy as frozen concentrate or in cartons at the store: read what Adee Braun has to say in The Atlantic:
A tall glass of orange juice is the very image of refreshment, packed with vitamins and radiating with sunshine freshness. It’s part of a balanced breakfast, after all. But America’s classic morning drink is in trouble: sales of commercial orange juice are down to their lowest levels in the last 15 seasons, according to the WSJ and the Florida Department of Citrus. The industry is facing growing competition from exotic fruit and energy drinks while its “all-natural” claims are being called into serious question.
Orange juice’s fresh and healthy reputation lies in the balance today, but it was once America’s healing elixir around which an entire industry staked its hopes. Orange juice’s fabled health benefits were promoted by nutritionists, fruit producers, marketers, and the government, who credited orange juice with curing everything from scurvy to listlessness, and even a rare blood condition called acidosis. But orange juice did not always have a place at the American breakfast table, mostly because for years it was either too expensive, or just didn’t taste very good.
Here’s a taste experiment for the adventurous and historically inclined drinker: Boil some orange juice, place it in a can, and leave it on a shelf for several weeks. This is what most people knew as orange juice in the 1920’s. In lieu of pricey fresh-squeezed, average Americans enjoyed what the latest preservation technology offered: canned juice, which was essentially boiled to death. Unsurprisingly, its flavor was…somewhat lacking.
At the time, most people ate oranges rather than drinking their fruit. Coffee was the primary morning beverage. But consuming oranges in any form became an increasingly important part of a healthy diet largely because of the efforts of advertisers and an ambitious biochemist named Elmer McCollum. According to Harvey Levenstein’s book Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat, McCollum became the unofficial nutritionist of the nation beginning in the early 1920’s when he heavily promoted the life-extending and healing capabilities of vitamins and warned against the deadly effects of a vitamin-deficient diet. This “Vitamania” gave producers the perfect marketing opportunity. The National Fruit Growers Exchange, under the Sunkist brand, created a national campaign promoting drinking daily doses of orange juice for its “health giving vitamins and rare salts and acids.” But McCollum soon cast aside vitamins in favor of acid.
McCollum ignited a panic over a nebulous condition called acidosis: an excess of acid in the bloodstream which supposedly caused fatigue and lassitude. He claimed the ailment was brought on by consuming meat, eggs and bread, which were acid producers. His advice: Eat lots of citrus fruit and lettuce. These foods rather counterintuitively were transformed from acid into alkaline in the stomach. Unsurprisingly, citrus producers seized upon this new health scare.
In this 1929 acidosis awareness booklet/Sunkist advertisement, the devastating effects of untreated acidosis are illustrated: “Estelle seemed to lack vitality; didn’t even make an effort to be entertaining; hence, she did not attract the men…‘Acidosis’ is the word on almost every modern physician’s tongue.” The cure was simple: Consume oranges in any form and at every possible opportunity. And Sunkist assured the acidosis-fearing reader that it was impossible to overindulge in oranges. By 1934, scientists began calling acidosis a fad and a rare ailment unaffected by drinking orange juice, and citrus producers redirected their marketing efforts back to vitamin C. When World War II broke out, the government also turned its attention to vitamin C. Orange juice’s journey to its exalted place at the breakfast table really begins here.
During World War II the U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged Florida citizens to do their wartime duty and increase production of food staples such as oranges. But the government soon recognized a larger problem: American soldiers were rejecting the vitamin C-packed lemon crystals included in their food rations—they simply didn’t taste very good. The government needed to fulfill the nutritional needs of soldiers and ward off scurvy with a tasty and transportable vitamin C product. With the support of the federal government and the Florida Department of Citrus, a group of scientists went to work developing something superior to canned orange juice in the name of science and country. In 1948, three years after the war had ended and after nearly a decade of research, frozen concentrated orange juice was born. It was heralded as a symbol of American innovation and determination, and it arrived just in time.
Despite marketing campaigns promoting the consumption of oranges as a cure for everything from singlehood to the common cold, Florida’s fertile groves were producing too many oranges. The push for production during the war was now threatening the survival of the entire Florida orange industry. The arrival of frozen concentrated juice provided mass market potential for oranges for the first time. By 1949, Florida’s orange processing plants were churning out 10 million gallons of concentrated orange juice which was, rather deceptively, marketed as “fresh-frozen.” Consumers finally had an affordable, “tasty,” convenient and vitamin-C rich product, and they gulped it down.
The post-war American Dream was an image of domestic serenity in which the national talent for creating labor-saving technology was realized. Americans were eating better for less money and in less time. “Fresh-frozen” orange juice was concentrated health stuffed into a can and its only preparation requirements were thawing, adding water, and stirring. In Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, Harvey Levenstein argues that such convenience foods became an essential part of the post-war housewife’s duty to build a healthy and happy American home. In 1952, the American Can Company advertised that frozen orange juice had saved housewives the equivalent of 14,000 years of “drudgery” that year.
Alissa Hamilton points out in Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice, that with the rapid growth of convenience foods a larger question emerged around the very notion of what normal food was: processed or untouched? People ate one alongside the other without thinking too much about it. In the 1950’s, chemists developed more than 400 new additives to aid in processing and preserving food (taste was an afterthought, at best). Canned meals, powdered foods, frozen seasonal and exotic produce were now readily available year-round. Women’s magazines extolled these “new” foods and their miraculous time-saving attributes. But the idea that something processed could also be “fresh,” was provoking questions. By 1960 the FDA was becoming concerned with the misrepresentative “fresh” labeling of commercial orange juice. Not only was it far from fresh, but sugar and water were being added. Federal standards and regulation ensued.
Frozen concentrated orange juice remained the breakfast drink of choice until the mid-1980’s when technology finally got closer to quenching consumer’s thirst for fresh-tasting juice with the creation of reconstituted “Ready to Serve” juice. Portraying orange juice as practically fresh-squeezed was now the primary pursuit of marketers, like this Tropicana commercial with the enticing “squeeze me a glass” jingle. In the 1990’s “not from concentrate” orange juice hit the shelves and blew everything else away. Rather than vitamins in a can, we now had freshness and purity in a carton.
But as Hamilton details in her book, there is practically nothing fresh or pure about it. Most commercial orange juice is so heavily processed that it would be undrinkable if not for the addition of something called flavor packs. This is the latest technological innovation in the industry’s perpetual quest to mimic the simplicity of fresh juice. Oils and essences are extracted from the oranges and then sold to a flavor manufacturer who concocts a carefully composed flavor pack customized to the company’s flavor specifications. The juice, which has been patiently sitting in storage sometimes for more than a year, is then pumped with these packs to restore its aroma and taste, which by this point have been thoroughly annihilated. You’re welcome.
Recently there has been a series of lawsuits against PepsiCo, Tropicana’s parent company, disputing its “all-natural” labeling, in part because of Hamilton’s exposure of industry practices. Meanwhile, growers plan to . . .
It’s truly out of control—that is, corporations now truly act as though they are unconstrained by law or regulations—cf. the recent chemical spill in West Virginia. Rachel Aviv gives another vivid example in the New Yorker:
In 2001, seven years after joining the biology faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, Tyrone Hayes stopped talking about his research with people he didn’t trust. He instructed the students in his lab, where he was raising three thousand frogs, to hang up the phone if they heard a click, a signal that a third party might be on the line. Other scientists seemed to remember events differently, he noticed, so he started carrying an audio recorder to meetings. “The secret to a happy, successful life of paranoia,” he liked to say, “is to keep careful track of your persecutors.”
Three years earlier, Syngenta, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world, had asked Hayes to conduct experiments on the herbicide atrazine, which is applied to more than half the corn in the United States. Hayes was thirty-one, and he had already published twenty papers on the endocrinology of amphibians. David Wake, a professor in Hayes’s department, said that Hayes “may have had the greatest potential of anyone in the field.” But, when Hayes discovered that atrazine might impede the sexual development of frogs, his dealings with Syngenta became strained, and, in November, 2000, he ended his relationship with the company.
Hayes continued studying atrazine on his own, and soon he became convinced that Syngenta representatives were following him to conferences around the world. He worried that the company was orchestrating a campaign to destroy his reputation. He complained that whenever he gave public talks there was a stranger in the back of the room, taking notes. On a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2003, he stayed at a different hotel each night. He was still in touch with a few Syngenta scientists and, after noticing that they knew many details about his work and his schedule, he suspected that they were reading his e-mails. To confuse them, he asked a student to write misleading e-mails from his office computer while he was travelling. He sent backup copies of his data and notes to his parents in sealed boxes. In an e-mail to one Syngenta scientist, he wrote that he had “risked my reputation, my name . . . some say even my life, for what I thought (and now know) is right.” A few scientists had previously done experiments that anticipated Hayes’s work, but no one had observed such extreme effects. In another e-mail to Syngenta, he acknowledged that it might appear that he was suffering from a “Napoleon complex” or “delusions of grandeur.”
For years, despite his achievements, Hayes had felt like an interloper. In academic settings, it seemed to him that his colleagues were operating according to a frivolous code of manners: they spoke so formally, fashioning themselves as detached authorities, and rarely admitted what they didn’t know. He had grown up in Columbia, South Carolina, in a neighborhood where fewer than forty per cent of residents finish high school. Until sixth grade, when he was accepted into a program for the gifted, in a different neighborhood, he had never had a conversation with a white person his age. He and his friends used to tell one another how “white people do this, and white people do that,” pretending that they knew. After he switched schools and took advanced courses, the black kids made fun of him, saying, “Oh, he thinks he’s white.”
He was fascinated by the idea of metamorphosis, and spent much of his adolescence collecting tadpoles and frogs and crossbreeding different species of grasshoppers. He raised frog larvae on his parents’ front porch, and examined how lizards respond to changes in temperature (by using a blow-dryer) and light (by placing them in a doghouse). His father, a carpet layer, used to look at his experiments, shake his head, and say, “There’s a fine line between a genius and a fool.”
Hayes received a scholarship to Harvard, and, in 1985, began what he calls the worst four years of his life. Many of the other black students had gone to private schools and came from affluent families. He felt disconnected and ill-equipped—he was placed on academic probation—until he became close to a biology professor, who encouraged him to work in his lab. Five feet three and thin, Hayes distinguished himself by dressing flamboyantly, like Prince. The Harvard Crimson, in an article about a campus party, wrote that he looked as if he belonged in the “rock-’n’-ready atmosphere of New York’s Danceteria.” He thought about dropping out, but then he started dating a classmate, Katherine Kim, a Korean-American biology major from Kansas. He married her two days after he graduated.
They moved to Berkeley, where Hayes enrolled in the university’s program in integrative biology. He completed his Ph.D. in three and a half years, and was immediately hired by his department. “He was a force of nature—incredibly gifted and hardworking,” Paul Barber, a colleague who is now a professor at U.C.L.A., says. Hayes became one of only a few black tenured biology professors in the country. He won Berkeley’s highest award for teaching, and ran the most racially diverse lab in his department, attracting students who were the first in their families to go to college. Nigel Noriega, a former graduate student, said that the lab was a “comfort zone” for students who were “just suffocating at Berkeley,” because they felt alienated from academic culture.
Hayes had become accustomed to steady praise from his colleagues, but, when Syngenta cast doubt on his work, he became preoccupied by old anxieties. He believed that the company was trying to isolate him from other scientists and “play on my insecurities—the fear that I’m not good enough, that everyone thinks I’m a fraud,” he said. He told colleagues that he suspected that Syngenta held “focus groups” on how to mine his vulnerabilities. Roger Liu, who worked in Hayes’s lab for a decade, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, said, “In the beginning, I was really worried for his safety. But then I couldn’t tell where the reality ended and the exaggeration crept in.”
Liu and several other former students said that they had remained skeptical of Hayes’s accusations until last summer, when . . .
An interesting article. A good goal is to get all your micronutrients from food sources (except for Vitamin D: sunshine for that one).
Interesting note by Kerry Grens in The Scientist:
It’s a frightening thought: deliberately feeding peanut protein to severely allergic children. But that approach has actually fought back children’s allergic reactions, according to results from a study published in The Lancet today (January 30). “We’ve shown fantastic results, with 80 [percent] to 90 percent of children being able to tolerate eating peanuts regularly after treatment,” lead researcher Andrew Clark of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, UK, told New Scientist.
Clark and his colleagues fed several dozen kids peanut flour in tiny amounts—just 2 milligrams (mg) to begin with—and gradually increased the daily dose to 800 mg over a course of six months. By the end of the study, 84 percent of participants could safely eat several peanuts’ worth of the protein at a time. “It’s huge, absolutely huge,” Maureen Jenkins, the director of clinical services at Allergy UK, told New Scientist. “There hasn’t been any way of treating this before.”
The scientists caution that this should not be used as a home remedy to treat peanut allergy, and said that it’s too soon to know whether the approach will work outside of a research setting. There were many more allergic events among the kids in the treatment group than those in the control group. It’s also not clear how durable the effect is. In their paper, the authors wrote: “It is probable that long-term peanut protein ingestion will be needed to provide continued protection from accidental exposure, perhaps for several years.”
There are a number of unanswered questions that will need to be worked out, such as the optimal dose and whether the children will suffer any long term consequences, pointed out Hugh Sampson, an allergy researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital. He told Science that “while this study adds to the growing data on the potential utility of oral immunotherapy for treating food allergy, I am not sure that this study brings us closer to the answers.”
I stopped taking anti-oxidant supplements long ago, for reasons noted in this post and this post. I also realized, in looking at the nutrient analysis of what I was eating by using Fitday, that I was getting ample amounts of micronutrients (including anti-oxidants) from my diet. Given the findings in the second link above, it seems much better to get these things from one’s diet—a finding reinforced recently by looking at fish-oil supplements, which turn out not to be what one would want. So now I eat fatty fish twice a week, once again looking to my diet as the source. (The fish is usually sardines—low on the food chain, low in mercury—which I eat with a salad.)
Although some people spend countless dollars on antioxidant supplements to improve their health, many studies have found that these would-be panaceas could actually exacerbate the diseases they claim to prevent.
Now, a team of Swedish scientists has shown that two antioxidants—vitamin E and N-acetylcysteine (NAC)—can fuel the growth of lung cancers in mice. The team also worked out why.
Antioxidants protect cells from chemically unstable molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS), which can easily react with DNA and cause damage that leads to cancer. But Martin Bergo’s team at the University of Gothenburg showed that antioxidants neutralize ROS in tumors as well as healthy cells. “If we give extra antioxidants in the diet, we’re helping the tumor to reduce radicals that would otherwise block its growth,” Bergo said. “Then it can speed up all it wants.”
The results, published today (January 29) in Science Translational Medicine, are particularly important for people with an increased risk of lung cancer, including smokers or people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). “There’s no scientific evidence to suggest that these people should take extra antioxidants,” said Bergo. “It may even be harmful”
“They might have a small undiagnosed tumor, and no one knows the frequency of those,” he added. “There’s a possibility that antioxidants would speed up the growth of those tumors.” This word of caution is especially relevant to people with COPD, who often take large amounts of NAC to relieve the build-up of mucus in their airways.
“A warning seems appropriate for everyone who has been seduced to use antioxidants or vitamins on a regular basis, as a preventive measure,” the University of Syndey’s Nico van Zandwijk told The Scientist in an e-mail.
These results fit with those from a long line of human clinical trials, in which antioxidants failed to prevent disease or made things worse. . .
The answer seems to be to eat a good, diverse diet of fresh foods, heavy on plants and leaves, plus moderate activity.