TAG: "Environmental health"

Indian company licenses Berkeley Lab invention for arsenic-free water


Technology could help save millions of lives in India and Bangladesh.

When Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) scientist Ashok Gadgil set out to solve an insidious public health problem afflicting South Asia, arsenic contamination of groundwater, he knew the hard part would not just be inventing the technology but also ensuring a way to sustain its long-term use on a large scale.

“A lot of technologies to remove arsenic on the community- and household- scale have been donated. But if you go to these villages it’s like a technology graveyard,” said Gadgil, who heads the Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division and is also a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley. “One study found that more than 90 percent failed within six months, and then were abandoned to rust in the field.”

So Gadgil and his lab came up with ECAR, Electrochemical Arsenic Remediation, which binds arsenic using iron dissolved in water. Their innovation was twofold. They created a technology that is exceptionally effective, inexpensive and easy to maintain. And just as importantly, from the start they conceptualized a business model for implementing the technology in a way that creates incentives for its longevity.  Now Indian company Luminous Water Technologies has licensed ECAR and plans to bring it to arsenic-affected villages throughout India and Bangladesh.

“Technology alone is not enough. It has to fit within a sustainable system based on partnerships with local entities,” said Susan Amrose, who has worked on ECAR since 2008 as the lead project scientist in Gadgil’s lab. “Other technologies have failed because there is no system of incentives or money or knowledge to keep them running. The key difference with ECAR is that it was designed to fit within a local system aimed at achieving successful social placement — so a flow of funds pays for ongoing operation, maintenance and social marketing, without turning it into privatized water.”

Arsenic-contaminated groundwater can be found all over the world, including in the United States, but the problem is particularly acute in South Asia, where tens of millions of people in India and Bangladesh get their drinking water from tube wells highly contaminated with arsenic, almost all of it occurring naturally. Arsenic poisoning, or arsenicosis, can cause painful lesions, diabetes, cancer and blood vessel diseases that often lead to gangrene, amputation and premature death.

Amrose has seen the devastation first-hand in her travels to affected villages. “Over time you’ll see people get worse and worse,” she said. “There was one man who in 2009 had lost his right pinkie finger by amputation due to arsenic. In 2011 he lost his right hand, and in 2013 lost his entire arm. Earlier this year he committed suicide. In some areas, you’ll see a lot of people with black spots on their palms, an external sign of arsenicosis. And a lot of things you won’t see. People will be linked with arsenic and ostracized, or young people unable to marry because their family lives in an area that has arsenic.”

One of the aims of Gadgil’s lab is to reduce the time lag between invention and commercialization from 18 years, the current norm, to 10 years. “We’re actually quite on target with ECAR,” Amrose said.

They started work on the concept in 2005. They’re now preparing a 10,000 liter-per-day trial over 15 months. “As we get to larger-scale field trials we’re intent on conducting them with our field partners,” Amrose said. “By working on a common goal, we get to effectively transfer the technology know-how, while they guide us towards what needs to be done to effectively scale up.”

Luminous Water Technologies was founded by an Indian serial entrepreneur, Rakesh Malhotra, with the aim of providing clean drinking water and commercializing new technologies in the drinking water market. Luminous’ current focus is on reverse osmosis systems, and they were looking to diversify in other water technologies when they identified ECAR for licensing.

“Arsenic poisoning is an endemic problem in India and Bangladesh and is seen as a silent killer,” said Luminous Managing Director RS Rajan. “It is Dr. Gadgil’s conviction and perseverance which has been a key motivating factor in Luminous opting for this technology. Luminous Water, with its reach across India and longstanding business record, will work towards commercializing this technology along with Berkeley Lab and create a sustainable module to provide solutions to impacted communities.”

ECAR works by using electricity to quickly dissolve iron in water. This forms a type of rust that readily binds to arsenic; the rust can then be separated from the water through filtration or settling. For the remaining waste Gadgil’s lab is now working on partnerships with cement and concrete companies to do research on embedding the sludge in concrete.

“We find in early tests that it’s very well stabilized, and the arsenic is not getting back into the environment,” Amrose said. “We expect and hope this form of sludge management will be viable and pass environmental approvals for market scale-up. Until then Luminous will dispose of the waste according to prevailing pollution control guidelines.”

ECAR is envisaged to operate as a village-owned micro utility in the villages where it is installed. Luminous would operate and maintain the utility and sell the water, with concurrent support for social marketing and education.

Last year ECAR was awarded a UC Proof of Concept Program Commercialization Gap Grant to see if it could be used to remediate arsenic-contaminated groundwater in California. Rural communities in California are often too poor to afford commonly available arsenic remediation techniques, and most techniques are only cost effective on larger scales, such as the city water supply system. As a result, many California residents drink water with dangerous levels of arsenic every day. The burden falls disproportionately on minorities and residents of lower socioeconomic status, particularly migrant farming communities and Native American communities.

ECAR has yet to be proven in California groundwater, which is known to contain a different composition of interfering ions from that in South Asia. This grant funds a proof-of-concept demonstration of ECAR in California to reduce entry risk for potential licensees.

The ECAR effort was initiated at Berkeley Lab with internal seed funds (from Laboratory Directed Research and Development funding) in 2005. It is being further developed in part with funding from the Development Impact Lab at UC Berkeley. ECAR technology is available for licensing in the United States. For more on Gadgil’s arsenic removal research visit arsenic.lbl.gov.

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Researchers ID more pesticides linked to Parkinson’s


They also find gene that increases risk.

Pesticides and Parkinson'sStudies have shown that certain pesticides can increase people’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Now, UCLA researchers have found that the strength of that risk depends on an individual’s genetic makeup, which, in the most pesticide-exposed populations, could increase a person’s chance of developing the debilitating disease two- to six-fold.

In an earlier study, published January 2013 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the UCLA team discovered a link between Parkinson’s and the pesticide benomyl, a fungicide that has been banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That study found that benomyl prevents the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) from converting aldehydes — organic compounds that are highly toxic to dopamine cells in the brain — into less toxic agents, thereby contributing to the risk of Parkinson’s.

For the current study, UCLA researchers tested a number of additional pesticides and found 11 that also inhibit ALDH and increase the risk of Parkinson’s — and at levels much lower than they are currently being used, said the study’s lead author, Jeff Bronstein, a professor of neurology and director of the movement disorders program at UCLA.

Bronstein said the team also found that people with a common genetic variant of the ALDH2 gene are particularly sensitive to the effects of ALDH-inhibiting pesticides and are two to six times more likely to develop Parkinson’s when exposed to these pesticides than those without the variant.

The results of the new epidemiological study appear Feb. 5 in the online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“We were very surprised that so many pesticides inhibited ALDH and at quite low concentrations — concentrations that were way below what was needed for the pesticides to do their job,” Bronstein said. “These pesticides are pretty ubiquitous and can be found on our food supply. They are used in parks and golf courses and in pest control inside buildings and homes. So this significantly broadens the number of people at risk.”

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Made in China for us: Air pollution as well as exports


UC Irvine study finds blowback causes extra day per year of ozone smog in LA.

Air pollution chartChinese air pollution blowing across the Pacific Ocean is often caused by the manufacturing of goods for export to the U.S. and Europe, according to findings by UC Irvine and other researchers published today (Jan. 20) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study is the first to quantify how much of the pollution reaching the American West Coast is from the production in China of cellphones, televisions and other consumer items imported here and elsewhere.

“We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and much of our pollution, but some of it is blowing back across the Pacific to haunt us,” said UC Irvine Earth system scientist Steve Davis, a co-author. “Given the complaints about how Chinese pollution is corrupting other countries’ air, this paper shows that there may be plenty of blame to go around.”

Los Angeles experiences at least one extra day a year of smog that exceeds federal ozone limits because of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emitted by Chinese factories making goods for export, the analysis found. On other days, as much as a quarter of the sulfate pollution on the U.S. West Coast is tied to Chinese exports. All the contaminants tracked in the study are key ingredients in unhealthy smog and soot.

China is not responsible for the lion’s share of pollution in the U.S. Cars, trucks and refineries pump out far more. But powerful global winds known as “westerlies” can push airborne chemicals across the ocean in days, particularly during the spring, causing dangerous spikes in contaminants. Dust, ozone and carbon can accumulate in valleys and basins in California and other Western states.

Black carbon is a particular problem: Rain doesn’t easily wash it out of the atmosphere, so it persists across long distances. Like other air pollutants, it’s been linked to a litany of health problems, from increased asthma to cancer, emphysema, and heart and lung disease.

The study authors suggest the findings could be used to more effectively negotiate clean-air treaties. China’s huge ramp-up of industrial activity in recent years, combined with poor pollution controls, has unleashed often fierce international debates.

“When you buy a product at Wal-Mart,” noted Davis, an assistant professor, “it has to be manufactured somewhere. The product doesn’t contain the pollution, but creating it caused the pollution.”

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Exposures to some phthalates fall after federal ban


UCSF study finds widespread exposure to these endocrine disrupters.

Ami Zota, UC San Francisco

Ami Zota

Americans are being exposed to significantly lower levels of some phthalates that were banned from children’s articles in 2008, but exposures to other forms of these chemicals are rising steeply, according to a study led by researchers at UC San Francisco.

Phthalates, which are used to soften plastic, can be found in nail polish, fragrances, plastics and building materials, as well as the food supply. An accumulating body of scientific evidence suggests they can disrupt the endocrine system, which secretes hormones, and may have serious long-term health consequences.

Phthalate exposures to adult men have been linked to DNA damage in sperm and lower sperm quality, while exposures to pregnant women have been linked to alterations in the genital development of their male children, as well as cognitive and behavioral problems in boys and girls.

The paper, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, is the first to examine how phthalate exposures have changed over time in a large, representative sample of the U.S. population. It delineates trends in a decade’s worth of data — from 2001 to 2010 — in exposure to eight phthalates among 11,000 people who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We were excited to see that exposure to some of the phthalates that are of public health concern actually went down,” said Ami Zota, Sc.D., M.S., an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, who did the research when she was a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. “Unfortunately, our data also suggest that these are being replaced by other phthalates with potential adverse health effects.”

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Wildfire smoke, exposure linked to reduced immune system, lung functions


Researcher studied monkeys living outdoors and exposed to pollution during 2008 widlfires.

In the study, investigators found a link between reduced immune system function and abnormalities in lung function, particularly in female animals. (Photo by Kathy West, California National Primate Research Center )

In the study, investigators found a link between reduced immune system function and abnormalities in lung function, particularly in female animals.

California wildfires in 2008 led to a natural experiment with monkeys living outdoors at the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis, showing for the first time that exposure to high levels of fine particle pollution affects both development of the immune system and lung function.

“These animals were breathing the same air that we were breathing, so from a health point of view, it’s very significant,” said professor Lisa Miller, who carried out the study and leads the center’s Respiratory Diseases Unit. Miller noted that the monkeys, which live in outdoor corrals, would have received a higher dose than human residents of Davis.

In June 2008, widespread wildfires in Northern California caused notable smokiness in the Davis area. Over a period of 10 days levels of small particles classed as PM2.5 (inhalable particles smaller than 2.5 microns) at the UC Davis campus were recorded at 50 to 60 micrograms per cubic meter. Some readings reached nearly 80 micrograms per cubic meter, well over the federal standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

The California National Primate Research Center houses about 5,000 animals, mostly rhesus macaques. Many of the animals are born and live outdoors in large family groups of 100 or more. Infants are born in late spring and early summer.

With funding from the California Air Resources Board, Miller, a professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, tested lung function and took blood samples from monkeys that were born during the 10 days of peak air pollution.

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Researcher shows ingested plastic transfers chemicals, impacting health


Study demonstrates plastic ingestion delivers pollutants and additives into animal tissue.

UC Santa Barbara's Mark Browne looking at marine organisms in a tide pool.

UC Santa Barbara's Mark Browne looking at marine organisms in a tide pool.

With global production of plastic exceeding 280 metric tons every year, a fair amount of the stuff is bound to make its way to the natural environment. However, until now researchers haven’t known whether ingested plastic transfers chemical additives or pollutants to wildlife. A new study conducted by UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) shows that toxic concentrations of pollutants and additives enter the tissue of animals that have eaten microplastic. The findings are published today (Dec. 2) in Current Biology.

Lead author Mark Anthony Browne, a postdoctoral fellow at NCEAS, had two objectives when the study commenced: to look at whether chemicals from microplastic move into the tissues of organisms; and to determine any impacts on the health and the functions that sustain biodiversity. Microplastics are micrometer-size pieces that have eroded from larger plastic fragments, from fibers from washing clothing or from granules of plastic added to cleaning products. Microplastics are then consumed by a variety of animals, beginning with the bottom of the food chain. These tiny bits of plastic act like magnets, attracting pollutants out of the environment to attach to the plastic.

“The work is important because current policy in the United States and abroad considers microplastic as non-hazardous,” Browne said. “Yet our work shows that large accumulations of microplastic have the potential to impact the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems.”

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Study documents heavy air pollution in Canadian area with cancer spikes


Carcinogens detected in emissions downwind of “Industrial Heartland.”

The Industrial Heartland of Alberta, Canada, is home to more than 40 companies, including oil refineries, natural gas liquids facilities and chemical plants.

The Industrial Heartland of Alberta, Canada, is home to more than 40 companies, including oil refineries, natural gas liquids facilities and chemical plants.

Levels of contaminants higher than in some of the world’s most polluted cities have been found downwind of Canada’s largest oil, gas and tar sands processing zone, in a rural area where men suffer elevated rates of cancers linked to such chemicals.

The findings by UC Irvine and University of Michigan scientists, published online this week, reveal high levels of the carcinogens 1,3-butadiene and benzene and other airborne pollutants. The researchers also obtained health records spanning more than a decade that showed the number of men with leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was greater in communities closest to the pollution plumes than in neighboring counties. The work is a dramatic illustration of a new World Health Organization report that outdoor air pollution is a leading cause of cancer.

While the scientists stopped short of saying that the pollutants they documented were definitely causing the male cancers, they strongly recommended that the industrial emissions be decreased to protect both workers and nearby residents.

“Our study was designed to test what kinds of concentrations could be encountered on the ground during a random visit downwind of various facilities. We’re seeing elevated levels of carcinogens and other gases in the same area where we’re seeing excess cancers known to be caused by these chemicals,” said UC Irvine chemist Isobel Simpson, lead author of the paper in Atmospheric Environment. “Our main point is that it would be good to proactively lower these emissions of known carcinogens. You can study it and study it, but at some point you just have to say, ‘Let’s reduce it.’ ”

Co-author Stuart Batterman, a University of Michigan professor of environmental health sciences, agreed: “These levels, found over a broad area, are clearly associated with industrial emissions. They also are evidence of major regulatory gaps in monitoring and controlling such emissions and in public health surveillance.”

The researchers captured emissions in the rural Fort Saskatchewan area downwind of major refineries, chemical manufacturers and tar sands processors owned by BP, Dow, Shell and other companies in the so-called “Industrial Heartland” of Alberta. They took one-minute samples at random times in 2008, 2010 and 2012. All showed similar results. Amounts of some dangerous volatile organic compounds were 6,000 times higher than normal.

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Flame retardants in pregnant women’s blood drop after state ban


UCSF study finds lower levels of chemical linked to learning difficulties in children.

Tracey Woodruff, UC San Francisco

Tracey Woodruff, UC San Francisco

A class of flame retardants that has been linked to learning difficulties in children has rapidly declined in pregnant women’s blood since the chemicals were banned in California a decade ago, according to a study led by researchers at UC San Francisco.

Blood levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), tested in patients at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center fell by two-thirds since they were last tested three years ago and found to be the highest levels reported among pregnant women anywhere in the world. The findings were published online today (Sept. 25) in Environmental Science & Technology.

Researchers said the dramatic decline was most likely the result of the statewide ban, as well as a voluntary national phase out. But they said the levels fell more quickly than expected, given how persistently these chemicals remain in the environment once they have been introduced.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the extent of the decline,” said Ami R. Zota, Sc.D., M.S., an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, and the study’s lead author. Zota conducted the research while she was a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health. “Regulations can have an impact on people’s everyday lives.”

PBDEs were used in foam furniture starting in the 1970s to meet the state’s fire safety regulations, which are now being reviewed. Experiments in animals and also in human cells have shown that PBDEs damage the brain in utero.

Researchers have found a strong relationship between an expectant mother’s exposure to the chemicals – even at low levels – and subsequent learning difficulties in her child, including worsened concentration and attention and lower IQ. The chemicals also can disrupt thyroid hormones in adulthood and during development. While much of the data is correlational, the researchers said there is enough evidence to raise serious concern that the chemicals are harmful to people.

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Reassuring findings for moms who have flu shot during pregnancy


National study gathers data on safety of flu vaccine during pregnancy.

Christina Chambers, UC San Diego

Christina Chambers, UC San Diego

Researchers from the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Boston University, in collaboration with the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), have found evidence of the H1N1 influenza vaccine’s safety during pregnancy. The national study, which was launched shortly after the H1N1 influenza outbreak of 2009, is summarized in two companion papers published online on Sept. 19 in the journal Vaccine.

“The overall results of the study were quite reassuring about the safety of the flu vaccine formulations that contained the pandemic H1N1 strain,” said Christina Chambers, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the nonprofit Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS) Research Center and lead investigator of UC San Diego’s team. “We believe our study’s results can help women and their doctors become better informed about the benefits and risks of flu vaccination during pregnancy.”

Despite federal health authorities’ recommendations that all pregnant women be vaccinated for influenza, it is estimated that less than 50 percent  of women follow this advice, largely because they are concerned about the effects flu vaccines might have on the developing baby.

Since it was anticipated that the 2009 H1N1 influenza season would be severe, a national study was launched by the Vaccines and Medications in Pregnancy Surveillance System (VAMPSS), a collaboration between UC San Diego School of Medicine and Boston University and coordinated by AAAAI to gather data on the safety of this vaccine during pregnancy.

The team from UC San Diego followed 1,032 pregnant women across the United States and Canada who either chose to receive an influenza vaccine or were not vaccinated during one of the three seasons from 2009-12.  Women were recruited through MotherToBaby, a service of OTIS.

Chambers’ team found that women vaccinated during pregnancy were no more likely to experience miscarriage, have a baby born with a birth defect or have a baby born smaller than normal compared with those who did not receive a vaccination. Although vaccinated women were more likely to have their babies before term, on average these infants were delivered three days earlier than those born to unvaccinated women.

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Global data shows distinct Kawasaki disease season


Findings support earlier evidence that KD cases linked to large-scale wind currents.

Jane Burns, UC San Diego

Jane Burns, UC San Diego

After more than four decades of research, strong evidence now shows that Kawasaki disease has a distinct seasonal occurrence shared by regions across the Northern hemisphere.

The first global analysis of the seasonality of Kawasaki disease, published Sept. 18 by PLOS ONE, was carried out using data obtained between 1970 and 2012.  It included 296,203 cases from 39 locations in 25 countries around the globe, with 27 of those locations in the extra-tropical Northern hemisphere, eight in the tropics, and four in the extra-tropical Southern hemisphere.

Kawasaki disease (KD) is a severe childhood disease that many parents, even some doctors, mistake for an inconsequential viral infection.  In fact, if not diagnosed or treated in time, it can lead to irreversible heart damage. Decades of research have been unable to pinpoint the cause of the disease, although genetic studies show a heritable tendency to acquiring the disease.

Findings of an international team of scientists – organized by Jane C. Burns, M.D., professor of pediatrics and director of the Kawasaki Disease Research Center at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego – now support earlier evidence that KD cases are linked to large-scale wind currents that track from Asia to Japan and also traverse the North Pacific.

The study found that 40 percent more cases of Kawasaki disease in the Northern hemisphere occurred from January through March than from August through September – coinciding with high and low intensities of tropospheric winds.  Previous studies showed that when winds blew from the northwest across Japan in a southeasterly direction, the number of KD cases there increased.  At the conclusion of the epidemics, the wind had reversed direction and commenced blowing across Japan from the Pacific Ocean in a northwesterly direction. This same pattern was repeated from year to year.

The passage of these large-scale wind patterns across the Pacific was similarly associated with an increase in KD cases in San Diego.

This study built and expanded upon earlier research investigating a possible influence from large-scale environmental factors, (published by this scientific team in a November 2011 study in Nature Scientific Reports) by a team of researchers that also included two contributors to this study: Daniel R. Cayan, Climate Atmospheric Science and Physical Oceanography (CASPO) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, and Xavier Rodó of the Institut Català de Ciències del Clima and the Institució Catalana de Recerca (IC3) in Barcelona, Spain.

“Our data suggest a seasonal exposure to a KD agent that operates over large geographic regions and is concentrated during winter months in non-tropical regions of the Northern hemisphere,” Burns said.

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Ozone linked to heart disease deaths


Strong link also found between nitrogen dioxide, increased risk of death from lung cancer.

Smog in Los AngelesChronic exposure to ground level ozone, a powerful greenhouse gas and a widespread air pollutant in many major cities, is linked to premature death from cardiovascular disease, finds a new study led by University of California, Berkeley, researchers.

The analysis, funded by the California Air Resources Board and published in the current issue of American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, also found a strong link between nitrogen dioxide, a marker for traffic pollution, and increased risk of death from lung cancer.

Numerous studies have connected air pollution to a higher risk of mortality, but until now, the extent of the impact had been uncertain.

For the new paper, researchers developed individualized air pollution exposure estimates of more than 73,000 California residents. They used a combination of home addresses, government air monitors and statistical models to obtain monthly averaged values of exposure to ozone, nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter pollution. Researchers tracked mortality from 1982-2000 to link the deaths to air pollution exposure.

“Ozone has already been linked to respiratory problems, but this is the first study to show that it also increases the risk of death from ischemic heart disease, which accounts for more than 7 million deaths worldwide each year,” said study lead author Michael Jerrett, professor and chair of environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “Our findings will likely up the total deaths due to air pollution by hundreds of thousands per year in the next World Health Organization assessment.”

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Study documents cigarette environmental hazards


UC program finds that mix of toxins in butts pollute beaches, oceans and our bodies.

The most common kind of trash on beaches is cigarette butts, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

The most common kind of trash on beaches is cigarette butts, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

Back in the bad old days when teenagers smoked cigarettes to be cool, it wasn’t unusual for a teenage girl to surreptitiously pocket a cigarette butt left behind by a boy she had a crush on.

The soundtrack for that scene could well be “Tainted Love” as recent research shows that cigarette butts contain toxic chemicals, including arsenic, cadmium and toluene.

The pollution caused by cigarette butts, along with massive deforestation from cutting down trees for wood to dry and fire cure tobacco, means smoking is seen more and more as an environmental problem.

It’s a problem that’s on the rise, with an estimated 5.6 trillion cigarettes smoked annually, and more smokers in the developing world every day.

“Cigarette smoking is a full service health hazard,” said Dr. Thomas Novotny, a scientist formerly at UCSF and UC Berkeley who is now a professor at San Diego State’s Graduate School of Public Health. “It’s also a full-service environmental hazard.”

Novotny, an epidemiologist, leads research funded by UC’s Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program to look at the lesser-known hazards associated with smoking.

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