Monday, June 24, 2013

To Compromise or Not to Compromise: That is the Question

Legislation introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg just weeks before he died continues to be the focus of much discussion and dissension. To recap, the Toxic Substances Control Act has been in effect since the 1970s. Under the TSCA, chemicals don’t have to be proven safe before they enter the market. The Environmental Protection Agency must prove a chemical to be unsafe before it can be banned, but there are challenges (such as the difficulty of acquiring needed information from manufacturers) that make that task difficult.

Senator Lautenberg addressed the problem by introducing the Safe Chemicals Act, but the bill failed to attract bipartisan support. Then, a bipartisan compromise bill (the Chemical Safety Improvement Act) was drafted by Lautenberg and Senator David Vitter. Environmental and public health advocacy groups are divided over the Lautenberg-Vitter bill; with some supporting it and some saying they can not endorse it until it is strengthened.

According to various news reports on the issue, here’s where things currently stand:

  • The compromise bill came as a surprise to many chemical safety advocates, including Senator Barbara Boxer, who has emerged as its strongest opponent.

  • Boxer is a friend of Lautenberg’s widow, who has urged her to support the bill.

  • Boxer has accused some of the bill’s supporters of not fully understanding it. They deny that charge and state that they support it because it has a better chance of passage.

The organization Safer Chemicals: Healthy Families urges people to ask lawmakers to strengthen the Lautenberg-Vitter bill. They provide an easy way to do that on their “Take Action” page.Taking a minute to visit the page and send an electronic message is another way to let our elected representatives know that the issue of chemical safety is important to us. This vital issue finally has a little bit of traction, and I pray that some sort of improvement to the TSCA will make it across the finish line.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Brain Atrophy in Gulf War Illness

Chemical injury goes by many names. Some believe that Gulf War Illness is one of those names and that the syndrome is related to the chemical exposures that veterans faced. In 2008, the author of a National Academy of Sciences study was quoted in an AFP article on the issue. She stated her belief that "enough studies have been conducted . . . to be able to say with considerable confidence that there is a link between chemical exposure and chronic, multi-symptom health problems.” She added that “the same chemicals affecting Gulf War veterans may be involved in similar cases of unexplained, multi-symptom health problems in the general population."

Last week, a study was published that sheds more light on Gulf War Illness. Articles published in USA Today and the LA Times note the following components of the study and its results:

  • Clinicians measured the blood pressure of 28 ill veterans and a healthy control group while they were lying down. When the subjects stood, readings were taken again. In the healthy subjects, blood pressure immediately rose to normal levels and no problems were reported. Among the ill veterans, 10 experienced an abnormally high jump in pressure and the other 18 reported an increased perception of pain.

  • Researchers then tested subjects using exercise stress tests and functional MRIs (brain scans that allow observers to determine which parts of the brain are being activated at a given time). Brain scans were administered while volunteers completed an exercise designed to test short-term memory. Two scans were administered: one after rest and the other after an exercise session.

  • Two subgroups of Gulf War Illness sufferers were identified. One group had elevated pain after exercise. The other group experienced heart racing when they stood up after lying down.

  • Two corresponding patterns of brain atrophy were discovered. In veterans who had elevated levels of pain, scans showed a loss of brain matter in areas associated with pain regulation. Scans of the veterans with heart racing issues showed atrophy in the brain stem, which is associated with control of heart rate and blood pressure.

A researcher explained that because of brain dysfunction, people suffering from Gulf War Illness compensate when doing cognitive tasks. Brain activity follows a circuitous path which can be described as a “crutch” which performs the task usually performed by a different brain region. He noted that after exercise "It was as if you took the crutches away.” 

The study is just another example of the very real problems that can be caused by toxins in the environment. Let’s take the issue seriously. Chemical injury is easier to prevent than to cure.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Pesticides, Parkinson's, and Procrastination

The American Academy of Neurology recently examined and analyzed 104 studies from around the globe and found an association between exposure to pesticides and solvents and the development of Parkinson's disease. The studies examined exposure to various types of pesticides, including those that target weeds, fungi, rodents, and bugs. Reports of the meta-analysis note the following:

  • Exposure to implicated chemicals increased the risk of developing the disease by 33 to 80 percent.

  • Overall, exposure to pesticides increased the risk by 58 percent.

  • Those exposed to certain chemicals (a weed killer and two fungicides) faced twice the normal risk of developing Parkinson's disease.

  • Farming and living in the country were associated with higher disease rates.

  • The risk of developing the disease increased with the length of time exposed.

My favorite headline reporting on the story was one from Reuters, which stated "Pesticides Again Tied to Parkinson's Disease." "Again" is the interesting word. In fact, my thought upon first reading a report of the analysis was to wonder why it was news. Pesticides and Parkinson's disease have been linked for many years, through many studies. An article on Connecticutt's site quotes the executive director of Grassroots Environmental Education as saying that “for literally decades, we’ve been looking at a link between pesticides and neurodegenerative disorders."

Given that fact, I found an "action point": on the MedPage Today report of the study somewhat frustrating. It advised readers (presumably doctors) to "point out that the evidence linking pesticides or solvents to Parkinson's disease is limited and awaits further studies." How many studies are needed? Are 104 not enough to be taken seriously?

While the government, medical establishment, and industry await further studies, it's wise for each of us to do what we can to protect ourselves and those around us from the myriad dangers of pesticides and solvents. Avoiding them is easier said than done, especially for those who live in agricultural areas, but we can choose not to use pesticides in our own homes and yards and we can support pesticide-free farming by choosing to buy organic food, cotton, and other products. We don't need to contribute to unnecessary suffering. We can do our part to reduce the risk now.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Lautenberg's Legacy

There's been some recent movement on the effort to modernize and improve the woefully inadequate Toxic Substances Control Act that has been in effect for over 30 years. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, a bill was written (the Safe Chemicals Act) that would require manufacturers to prove products safe before they are allowed to be sold. That bill failed to garner bi-partisan support, but a compromise bill with an equal number of Democratic and Republican sponsors and co-sponsors has recently been introduced.

The new bill is known as the Chemical Safety Improvement Act. Key provisions include the following:

  • New chemicals must be tested for safety before entering the marketplace. The responsibility for testing falls to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

  • Chemicals already being sold must be evaluated for safety. Those designated as having a high probability of potential risk to human health and the environment must be evaluated further.

  • The EPA is given expanded authority to act when chemicals are found to be unsafe, They may act in a number of ways, from requiring labeling to limiting use to completely banning a chemical from the marketplace.

  • The EPA is given authority  to secure health and safety information from chemical manufacturers.

  • When evaluating risks, the EPA is required to consider vulnerable populations, like children and pregnant women.

Health and environmental advocates are still evaluating the bill. Some note that it is  weaker than the Safe Chemicals Act in a number of ways, including having a weaker standard of safety, risk management requirements that are similar to what currently exists, no minimum requirements for information on new chemicals, no priority review given to the most troubling compounds, and no clear deadlines for the completion of safety reviews. There is also some concern that the federal bill may weaken state laws, which are in some cases more stringent than current federal regulations.

Despite these issues, support for the bill is growing. The New York Times calls it "the first credible effort in years to revamp the nation's outmoded chemical safety law."  The Environmental Defense Fund calls it a hard-fought compromise and urges support for it. The author of an article entitled Safe Chemicals Act Now Has Bipartisan Support calls it ground-breaking and notes that "both sides are grumbling, which is a good sign that the legislation may have struck an appropriate balance which will lead to passage into law."

I had written most of this post when I saw the news that Senator Frank Lautenberg died this morning. Senator Lautenberg was the prime force behind the Safe Chemicals Act and a sponsor of the compromise bill. I admire his tenacity and drive and his willingness to work hard for something he believed in until he drew his final breath. He was 89 years old and his health had been failing for some time. I pray that his work on the chemical issue will not have been in vain and that all of us together will take up the cause.