TAG: "Environmental health"

UC Davis professor appointed to prestigious NIH committee

Irva Hertz-Picciotto honored for achievements in environmental epidemiology.

Irva Hertz-Picciotto

Irva Hertz-Picciotto, UC Davis

Environmental epidemiologist Irva Hertz-Picciotto, UC Davis professor of public health sciences, has been appointed to the Neurological, Aging and Musculoskeletal Epidemiology (NAME) Study Section of the Center for Scientific Review of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The appointment is effective immediately and ends in June 2017.

Hertz-Picciotto was selected for the honor because of her “demonstrated competence and achievements in her scientific discipline as evidenced by the quality of research accomplishments, publications in scientific journals, and other significant scientific activities, achievements and honors,” said Center for Scientific Review Director Richard Nakamura.

Professor Hertz-Picciotto is section chief of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health in the Department of Public Health Sciences in the UC Davis School of Medicine. As a member of the NAME Study Section, she will review grant proposals submitted to any of the NIH institutes, primarily those that address health concerns related to child neurotoxins, mechanisms governing abnormal development and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as disorders of aging, such as osteoporosis.

“It’s an honor to serve the NIH, which is the primary funder of biomedical research in the United States and the premier national research funding institution worldwide,” Hertz-Picciotto said of the appointment.

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Blazing trails out of the toxic swamp

UC Berkeley’s Arlen Blum works to reduce use of flame retardants in household products.

Arlene Blum, UC Berkeley

The determination that made Arlene Blum a history-making mountaineer is apparent, nearly four decades on, as she walks her favorite trail in Tilden Park. You see it not so much in the hike itself, which is gentle enough for business meetings — she calls this placid stretch of green and gravel “my office” — but in how she views a signal breakthrough in her campaign to get toxic chemicals out of America’s furniture.

Breakthroughs appeared unlikely in 2007, when Blum set her sights on reducing the widespread use of flame retardants, a threat few were even aware of. She had just returned as a visiting scholar to UC Berkeley — where she earned a Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry in the 1970s — when she discovered alarming levels of PBDEs in the blood of her cat Midnight, then suffering from hyperthyroidism and severe weight loss. She learned that the disease, unseen in cats until 1979, had become epidemic.

And though she “hadn’t done chemistry in a very long time,” she quickly saw that the chemical structure of PBDEs, commonly used as a flame retardant in furniture, closely resembled the hormone thyroxine. At elevated levels, thyroxine was known to result in weight loss, hyperactivity and increased appetite, and suspected to be a major cause of death in cats.

As she proved in her 30s, when she led the first all-female teams to the summits of Annapurna and Denali, Blum — often described as “a force of nature” — has a knack for inspiring others to join her on ambitious, arduous quests. Now, eyes on a new objective, she set about rallying scientists, elected officials and concerned citizens to the task of raising awareness about flame retardants, and getting them out of household furniture.

Six years of effort are about to pay off: If all goes well, sofas and other foam products sold in the state could be free of the chemicals by next year, thanks to a sweeping regulatory change ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Blum, however, isn’t ready to plant the flag. She calls herself “cautiously optimistic.”

She has reason for caution. Her 1977 paper in the journal Science — co-authored as a doctoral student with UC Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames — led to a federal ban on treating children’s pajamas with brominated Tris, a fire retardant shown to cause cancer in animals. Success, however, was short-lived. Brominated Tris was replaced with a close cousin, chlorinated Tris, which she and Ames also identified as a likely carcinogen. Chlorinated Tris, too, was removed from kids’ sleepwear.

Blum, meanwhile, moved on, devoting her time and talents to heading up treks in the Himalayas, writing memoirs, conducting leadership-training workshops and raising a daughter.

So she was understandably shocked to find, on returning to academia, that Tris was still being used in furniture and other household products — including, yes, baby products. In order to comply with California’s “fire safety” standard, it turned out, makers of such products had no choice but to add flame retardants, which have been linked to health effects ranging from cancer and reduced fertility in adults, and to lower IQs and neurological problems in children exposed during pregnancy. The chemicals have turned up everywhere from human breast milk to the tissue of Arctic marine mammals.

Blum consulted with scientists and business leaders. She made the case to journalists — often on walks in Tilden Park — and advised state lawmakers. She launched an annual series of campus seminars on “The Fire Retardant Dilemma,” and founded the Green Science Policy Institute, which aims to provide “unbiased scientific data to government, industry and non-governmental organizations to facilitate informed decision-making about the use of chemicals in consumer products.”

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Aerial mosquito spraying study finds no immediate public health risks

ER visits remained stable during last big Sacramento area-wide sprayings for West Nile virus.

The study evaluated emergency room visits in Sacramento County hospitals on days that pesticides were sprayed as well as the three days following spraying.

In what researchers say is the first public health study of the aerial mosquito spraying method to prevent West Nile virus, a UC Davis study analyzed emergency department records from Sacramento area hospitals during and immediately after aerial sprayings in the summer of 2005. Physicians and scientists from the university and from the California Department of Public Health found no increase in specific diagnoses that are considered most likely to be associated with pesticide exposure, including respiratory, gastrointestinal, skin, eye and neurological conditions.

The study appears in the May-June issue of Public Health Reports.

This week, mosquito control officials said the region’s recent rainstorms and warming temperatures have increased stagnant water and favorable conditions for mosquitoes, which will likely magnify the incidence West Nile virus and the risks of human transmission. The mosquito-borne disease first appeared in the state about 10 years ago. It already has been detected in dead birds and mosquitoes in at least 10 counties in recent weeks, including Sacramento and Yolo. However, the adult mosquito population has yet to increase to levels that require aerial spraying over heavily urbanized areas as was done in the Sacramento region in previous years.

“Unfortunately, West Nile virus is endemic in California and the United States, and the controversy of mosquito management will likely arise every summer,” said Estella Geraghty, associate professor of clinical internal medicine at UC Davis and lead author of the study. “Findings from studies such as this one help public health and mosquito control agencies better understand the risks and benefits of their practices.”

West Nile virus has become an increasingly serious problem throughout the United States and may become more of a threat as the climate warms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Nile virus is the leading cause of viral encephalitis in the United States. The virus is transmitted to humans and animals through the bite of an infected mosquito. Mosquitoes become infected with the virus when they feed on infected birds.

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Berkeley Lab confirms thirdhand smoke causes DNA damage

UCLA, UCSF scientists collaborate on study.

A study led by researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has found for the first time that thirdhand smoke — the noxious residue that clings to virtually all surfaces long after the secondhand smoke from a cigarette has cleared out — causes significant genetic damage in human cells.

Furthermore, the study also found that chronic exposure is worse than acute exposure, with the chemical compounds in samples exposed to chronic thirdhand smoke existing in higher concentrations and causing more DNA damage than samples exposed to acute thirdhand smoke, suggesting that the residue becomes more harmful over time.

Berkeley Lab scientists (from left) Altaf Sarker, Mohamad Sleiman, Lara Gundel, Bo Hang and Hugo Destaillats worked on the thirdhand smoke study.

“This is the very first study to find that thirdhand smoke is mutagenic,” said Lara Gundel, a Berkeley Lab scientist and co-author of the study. “Tobacco-specific nitrosamines, some of the chemical compounds in thirdhand smoke, are among the most potent carcinogens there are. They stay on surfaces, and when those surfaces are clothing or carpets, the danger to children is especially serious.”

Their paper, “Thirdhand smoke causes DNA damage in human cells,” was published in the journal Mutagenesis. The lead investigator was Bo Hang, a biochemist in the Life Sciences Division of Berkeley Lab; he worked with an interdisciplinary group, including chemists from Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division — Gundel, Hugo Destaillats and Mohamad Sleiman — as well as scientists from UC San Francisco, UCLA Medical Center and the University of Texas.

It is the first major study of disease-related mechanisms to come out of the California Consortium on the Health Effects of Thirdhand Smoke, which was established two years ago largely as a result of work published in 2010 by Gundel, Destaillats, Sleiman and others. The consortium is funded by the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, which is managed by the University of California and funded by state cigarette taxes.

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Early-life air pollution linked with childhood asthma in minorities: study

Research by UCSF team indicates that traffic-related pollution might be a cause.

Esteban Burchard, UC San Francisco

A research team led by UC San Francisco scientists has found that exposure in infancy to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a component of motor vehicle air pollution, is strongly linked with later development of childhood asthma among African Americans and Latinos.

The researchers said their findings indicate that air pollution might, in fact, be a cause of the disease, and they called for a tightening of U.S government standards for annual exposure to NO2.

The study is reported online currently in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine ahead of print publication.

In the study, the largest to date of air pollution exposure and asthma risk in minority children in the United States, the team found that for every five parts per billion increase in NO2 exposure during the first year of life, there was a 17 percent increase in the risk of developing asthma later in life.

The study involved 3,343 Latino and 977 African American participants.

“Many previous studies have shown an obvious link between traffic-related pollution and childhood asthma, but this has never been thoroughly looked at before in an all-minority population,” said lead author Katherine K. Nishimura, M.P.H., a graduate student in the laboratory of senior author Esteban G. Burchard, M.D., M.P.H., a UCSF professor of bioengineering and therapeutic sciences and medicine and director of the UCSF Center for Genes, Environment & Health.

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New center targets ocean contaminants and human health

Scripps scientists lead two projects to track potentially toxic chemicals in marine life, impacts on human health.

(From left) Paul Jensen, Brad Moore, Eric Allen, Lihini Aluwihare of Scripps and Eunha Hoh of San Diego State University.

Capitalizing on UC San Diego’s unique ability to address environmental threats to public health, a new center based at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego will target emerging contaminants found naturally in common seafood dishes as well as man-made chemicals that accumulate in human breast milk.

With $6 million in joint funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, the new Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health will track natural chemicals known as halogenated organic compounds, or HOCs. Human-manufactured varieties include polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, chemicals that until recently were manufactured and broadly used in commercial products as flame retardants in the textile and electronics sectors.

Less is known about the natural versions of HOCs that accumulate in marine mammals such as seals and dolphins and have been identified in top predators that humans consume such as tuna and swordfish. While PBDEs are well known for their toxicity and have been linked to a variety of human diseases, including cancer and thyroid ailments, the origin and transmission of their natural counterparts are poorly understood.

The Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health will investigate the biology and chemistry behind these natural contaminants in the Southern California Bight, from Point Conception in Santa Barbara south to Ensenada, Mexico.

“The new Center for Oceans and Human Health is uniting leading experts in oceanography and medicine, two areas that make UC San Diego one of the best and most unique universities in the world, to address an emerging threat to public health and safety,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “UC San Diego is proud to be leading this effort in collaboration with other prominent institutions around the San Diego region.”

“The Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health is focused on addressing to what extent nature contributes to the production and transmission of these toxins in the marine environment,” said Bradley Moore, director of the new center and a professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical sciences at Scripps and the UC San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. “Southern California waters will be the focus of our study, in part because our state has the highest reported incidence of polybrominated chemicals in human breast milk in the world.”

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Breathing auto emissions turns HDL cholesterol from ‘good’ to ‘bad’

Inhalation of emissions can contribute to clogged arteries.

Jesus Araujo, UCLA

Academic researchers have found that breathing motor vehicle emissions triggers a change in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, altering its cardiovascular protective qualities so that it actually contributes to clogged arteries.

In addition to changing HDL from “good” to “bad,” the inhalation of emissions activates other components of oxidation, the early cell and tissue damage that causes inflammation, leading to hardening of the arteries, according to the research team, which included scientists from UCLA and other institutions.

The findings of this early study, done in mice, are available in the online edition of the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, a publication of the American Heart Association, and will appear in the journal’s June print edition.

Emission particles such as those from vehicles are major pollutants in urban settings. These particles are coated in chemicals that are sensitive to free radicals, which have been known to cause oxidation. The mechanism behind how this leads to atherosclerosis, however, has not been well understood.

In the study, the researchers found that after two weeks of exposure to vehicle emissions, mice showed oxidative damage in the blood and liver — damage that was not reversed after a subsequent week of receiving filtered air. Altered HDL cholesterol may play a key role in this damaging process, they said.

“This is the first study showing that air pollutants promote the development of dysfunctional, pro-oxidative HDL cholesterol and the activation of an internal oxidation pathway, which may be one of the mechanisms in how air pollution can exacerbate clogged arteries that lead to heart disease and stroke,” said senior author Dr. Jesus Araujo, an associate professor of medicine and director of environmental cardiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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Ultrafine particles cause lung damage, study shows

Substances used in everything from paint to sporting equipment.

Kent Pinkerton, UC Davis

Kent Pinkerton, UC Davis

A consortium of scientists from across the country, including UC Davis, has found that breathing ultrafine particles from a large family of materials that increasingly are found in a host of household and commercial products, from sunscreens to the ink in copy machines to super-strong but lightweight sporting equipment, can cause lung inflammation and damage.

The research on two of the most common types of engineered nanomaterials is published online today in Environmental Health Perspectives, the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). It is the first multi-institutional study examining the health effects of engineering nanomaterials to replicate and compare findings from different labs across the country.

The study is critical, the researchers said, because of the large quantities of nanomaterials being used in industry, electronics and medicine. Earlier studies had found when nanomaterials are taken into the lungs they can cause inflammation and fibrosis. The unique contribution of the current study is that all members of the consortium were able to show similar findings when similiar concentrations of the materials were introduced into the respiratory system. The findings should provide guidance for creating policy for the safe development of nanotechnology.

“This research provides further confirmation that nanomaterials have the potential to cause inflammation and injury to the lungs. Although small amounts of these materials in the lungs do not appear to produce injury, we still must remain vigilant in using care in the diverse applications of these materials in consumer products and foods,” said Kent Pinkerton, a study senior author and the director of the UC Davis Center for Health and the Environment.”

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Poison lips?

UC Berkeley researchers find troubling levels of toxic metals in cosmetics.

S. Katharine Hammond, UC Berkeley

A new analysis of the contents of lipstick and lip gloss may  cause you to pause before puckering.

Researchers at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health tested 32 different lipsticks and lip glosses commonly found in drugstores and department stores. They detected lead, cadmium, chromium, aluminum and five other metals, some of which were found at levels that could raise potential health concerns. Their findings were published online today (May 2) in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Prior studies also have found metals in cosmetics, but the UC Berkeley researchers estimated risk by analyzing the concentration of the metals detected and consumers’ potential daily intake of the metals, and then comparing this intake  with existing health guidelines.

“Just finding these metals isn’t the issue; it’s the levels that matter,” said study principal investigator S. Katharine Hammond, professor of environmental health sciences. “Some of the toxic metals are occurring at levels that could possibly have an effect in the long term.”

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Hidden dangers in air we breathe

Berkeley Lab researchers work on new building standards after discovering previously unknown indoor air pollutants.

Jennifer Logue, Berkeley Lab

For decades, no one worried much about the air quality inside people’s homes unless there was secondhand smoke or radon present. Then scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) made the discovery that the aggregate health consequences of poor indoor air quality are as significant as those from all traffic accidents or infectious diseases in the United States. One major source of indoor pollutants in the home is cooking.

The Berkeley Lab scientists are now working on turning those research findings into science-based solutions, including better standards for residential buildings and easier ways to test for the hazardous pollutants. These efforts are the result of a paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2012 that described a new method for estimating the chronic health impact of indoor air pollutants. That research uncovered two pollutants that previously had not been recognized as a cause for concern—fine particles and a gas called acrolein.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of pollutants in the home. If you can’t prioritize it makes it very hard to do anything,” said Jennifer Logue, the lead author of the paper. “As a result of this study, we can not only say that all our ventilation standards should focus on [fine particles] we can also say, hey this is a really big deal because it’s as damaging to the health of the U.S. population as traffic accidents.”

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A hopeful message gets a hearing

UC San Diego researcher spreads word about potential short-term win vs. climate change.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, UC San Diego

A push to curb air pollution as a means of slowing the pace of climate change is gaining momentum as a UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher takes his message to new audiences.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a distinguished professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at Scripps, published new findings April 14 that control of certain pollutants can significantly attenuate sea-level rise. Prior to that, Ramanathan framed the issue as a matter of climate justice during an event at UC San Diego on April 10 with former Irish president and human rights advocate Mary Robinson. Next week, Ramanathan will take the message to Congress, when he takes part in a hearing on the benefits of controlling emissions of methane, a key greenhouse gas.

Ramanathan’s research over the past two decades has led him to conclude that if emissions of soot, methane, and refrigerants and the formation of ozone can be controlled, the speed at which global average temperatures are rising could be cut nearly in half. In combination with efforts to control emissions of carbon dioxide, the most ubiquitous greenhouse gas produced by everyday activities, mitigation of such pollutants could help society avoid many of the dangerous consequences of climate change, according to Ramanathan.

The veteran researcher, who joined UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1990, has sought to inform a wide range of legislative and even spiritual leaders about this solution, operating outside of common science channels to engage diplomats and religious leaders. Ramanathan made pollution control the centerpiece of his remarks during the April 2012 visit of the 14th Dalai Lama to UC San Diego. Ramanathan had previously witnessed the creation of a multilateral initiative to curb pollution launched by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants began in February 2012 with six countries and the United Nations Environment Programme as members. It has grown to 25 members in the past 14 months.

“I’ve been encouraged at the reception this concept has received,” said Ramanathan. “I think policymakers are impressed when they understand that they can achieve relatively fast results using technologies that are already available. This kind of action needn’t be delayed by the need to achieve global political consensus that has prevented action on climate before. Countries can do this now and reap the benefits themselves.”

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A quarter of Angelenos breathe noxious freeway pollutants every morning

Heavily trafficked roadways have large impact on downwind populations.

Suzanne Paulson, UCLA

Although air quality has improved dramatically in Los Angeles in recent decades, a joint study by UCLA and the California Air Resources Board suggests that roughly a quarter of Angelenos are exposed to noxious plumes of freeway fumes almost every morning — far more people than previously believed.

Researchers found that overnight atmospheric conditions concentrate freeway pollutants in a plume stretching 1.5 kilometers (approximately 0.93 miles) downwind, seeping inside homes and buildings, and lingering as late as 10 a.m. The same effect would be expected downwind of any highway nationwide, the researchers said.

Half of the residents of the greater Los Angeles area live within these impact zones around freeways, meaning that about a quarter are on the downwind side of a freeway on any given day.

The 1.5 kilometer measurement is in striking contrast to earlier studies in the United States and Australia showing that daytime pollutant concentrations extended no more than about 300 meters (about 0.19 miles) downwind of major roadways, and confirms an earlier UCLA study that showed the same result at a single coastal location.

Professor Suzanne Paulson of UCLA’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability headed the study, working with professor emeritus Arthur Winer of UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and led by Wonsik Choi, a postgraduate researcher in Paulson’s lab. The findings were published in December in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

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