TAG: "Environmental health"

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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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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