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Lautenberg Leaves Lasting Legacy, Hope For Toxic Chemical Reform

Lynne Peeples   |   June 3, 2013    5:48 PM ET

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) did not live to see his efforts to safeguard children from toxic chemicals fully realized. But in response to his passing on Monday, at the age of 89, environmental health advocates are praising his progress and his lasting legacy.

"He was a genuine public health hero, and the leading champion for protecting the public from toxic chemicals," Andy Igrejas, executive director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families said in a statement.

Less than two weeks ago, Lautenberg co-sponsored the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013. The bipartisan reform bill was just the latest among his attempts to reverse the burden of proof on toxic chemicals -- from the current assumption that a chemical is safe until proven toxic, generally after it's already spent years on the market, to a requirement for industry to prove a chemical's safety prior to placing it on store shelves.

The Safe Chemicals Act, which he first introduced in 2005 to replace the outdated Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976, never made it far -- a likely result of intense industry lobbying.

Although met with criticism among some environmentalists who see it as too compromising and weak, hope is generally high that the newly proposed bipartisan bill will at least get the ball finally rolling on the Hill.

Of note, Lautenberg also succeeded in some earlier attempts to create a healthier environment for American families -- from classrooms to airplanes. Perhaps most notably, he started the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory program, which forces companies to disclose the chemicals they emit.

"The landmark law he authored to shine a light on harmful toxic chemicals in our communities and homes, and his tireless fight to keep our air and water clean have doubtlessly saved lives, keeping our families safer and our communities healthier," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. "I never met with Frank Lautenberg when he did not talk about his grandkids and how the work he was doing was meant to ensure they had the future they deserved."

"When you see a superfund site being cleaned, a clean beach or important open spaces like the Wallkill Wildlife Refuge," added Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, "you see Frank Lautenberg's legacy."

Ernest Moniz, Energy Secretary Nominee, Further Criticized For Fracking Ties

Lynne Peeples   |   March 21, 2013    5:36 PM ET

An influential MIT study that suggested fracking could provide a "bridge to a low-carbon future" and would pose only "manageable" environmental issues lacked disclosure that it's lead author -- and now energy department nominee -- Ernest Moniz had ties to the natural gas industry, according to a watchdog group.

In their report released on Wednesday, the Public Accountability Initiative said that Moniz, director of the Energy Initiative at MIT, had joined the board of ICF, a consulting firm with oil and gas ties, just three days prior to the release of the report. They add that Moniz has since collected over $300,000 from ICF.

The nonprofit group, which has been critical of the gas industry and fracking, goes on to suggest other timely conflicts of interest among authors of the study. One co-author had joined the gas company, Talisman Energy, prior to release of the study; another was on the board of a liquid natural gas (LNG) company that would receive the U.S.'s only LNG export permit shortly after the study came out.

"The public should have been informed that MIT's natural gas study was written by representatives of the oil and gas industry," Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative, said in a statement. "Is MIT an independent research university or an oil and gas industry mouthpiece?"

The criticism builds on concerns already raised by fracking opponents. As The Huffington Post reported at the time of Moniz's nomination earlier this month, the controversial MIT research itself had also received financial support from oil and gas companies. The ties were disclosed in the MIT study but still concern critics like Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University.

In a prior interview with HuffPost, Ingraffea noted a number of pro-fracking studies that had come out of influential institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin and were later found to have been supported by industry. The MIT study, he said, is just one example of what he calls "frackademia".

Victoria Ekstrom, a MIT Energy Initiative spokesperson, defended the study's independence.

"The notion that these findings are developed based on anything other than the unbiased research of MIT researchers is false," she said in response to questions posed by the watchdog group. "The natural gas study was prepared by the faculty and researchers at MIT, and received input from an advisory committee that was drawn from energy experts -- including representatives from environmental organizations and relevant industry. While we do accept sponsors for the development of these reports, those sponsors have no role in determining the outcome of the study."

Many environmentalists continue to support Moniz's nomination, highlighting his depth and breadth of knowledge -- something the White House has repeatedly cheered.

"Continuing to deliver on the President's all-of-the-above approach, increasing our nation's energy independence, taking action on climate change, and expanding a range of energy sources, including renewable sources like wind and solar, biofuels, oil and gas, nuclear, and clean coal, will be a focus for the Department of Energy in the President's second term," the White House said in a statement. "Dr. Moniz' work at MIT demonstrates his ability to work collaboratively with a wide spectrum of stakeholders on a broad range of energy issues."

ProPublica has described additional ties between Moniz and fossil fuel, nuclear power and other energy industries -- while adding that such relationships "aren't uncommon for cabinet nominees."

"The fact that these ties weren't disclosed speaks to Moniz's ability, or lack thereof, to manage conflicts of interest, and they build on his ICF connection," Connor told HuffPost in an email. "The study endorses natural gas exports and doesn't note that one of its authors was on the board of an LNG company that was about to receive the only LNG export permit in the US? Ludicrous."

Rising Resistance: New Film Explores Superbug Spread As Health Concerns Grow

Lynne Peeples   |   February 26, 2013    3:35 PM ET

Welcome to my blog, Toxic Tracks. Please send along any feedback via email or Twitter.

A new documentary aims to address an issue that "affects millions of people around the world and impacts everything from the sustainability of our food supply to the safety of our schools," according to a pitch video posted on Kickstarter (below).

"Resistance" filmmaker Michael Graziano goes on to point out that more people in the U.S. die from antibiotic-resistant infections than die from HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, emphysema, Parkinson's disease and homicides combined.

Based on the latest news, things are only getting worse.

In just the past couple weeks, we've heard about the rise of drug-resistant gonorrhea in the U.S. and the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis across South Africa.

Also this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released documents that show the use of antibiotics in livestock continues to increase -- already accounting for four times as much "miracle drug" as prescribed to sick humans. Also on the rise: the likelihood that the chicken or ground turkey you buy at the supermarket carries antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Wired's Maryn McKenna reports:

It's worth noting that this continued antibiotic use, and continued and rising appearance of resistant bacteria on meat, is happening as the FDA has abandoned attempting to regulate livestock producers' use of antibiotics, and has switched to a voluntary approach. Given the trend, I think it's worth asking how well that voluntary approach is going to work.

The government's weak action came up often in my earlier coverage of the topic -- from targeting drugs that play only a minor role in the public health crisis to poor tracking and monitoring of antibiotic use in livestock. Meanwhile, industry representatives consistently told me that the judicious use of antibiotics was key to keeping food animals healthy and that purported use of the drugs to prevent the spread of disease in cramped conditions or to promote growth had been overstated.

That heated battle continues. A letter sent Tuesday to Congress by a number of environmental and medical groups highlights the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in food animal production. The letter arrives just ahead of a Wednesday Senate subcommittee hearing to consider the reauthorization of the Animal Drug User Fee Act (ADUFA), legislation that could limit the unnecessary use of antibiotics in food animals that are not sick. The groups write:

The Director-General of the World Health Organization has warned that we face a "post-antibiotic era ... in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it" and that "[t]hings as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill."

As McKenna writes, the new film's pitch "captures a frustration" she has felt herself: "the topic is so big, the threat is so staggering, that you're lost for a way to express it without sounding over-the-top."

It's worth a watch.

Inexcusable Exposure: Unprotected Workers, Toxic Lead At Gun Range

Lynne Peeples   |   February 20, 2013    4:59 PM ET

Welcome to my blog, Toxic Tracks. Please send along any feedback via email or Twitter.

Knowledge of lead's toxicity is far from new. We began cutting the heavy metal from gasoline decades ago. We've removed it from house paints. And, as I've reported before, environmentalists have already spent years fighting to get it out of bullets -- a known route of contamination in gun ranges and on hunting grounds.

So, it was discouraging to read in The Seattle Times that workers who recently remodeled an indoor gun range in Bellevue, Wash. were not given any protective gear or instructions on how to avoid exposure to toxic lead dust.

It was also not surprising to read that many subsequently got sick.

Two dozen workers experienced headaches, stomachaches, lost appetite, fatigue, irritability and other symptoms of excess lead exposure during expansion of the firing range at Wade's Eastside Guns, according to the Times.

Ironworker Manny Romo said he experienced constipation, swollen feet, numbness in his hands and difficulty concentrating. Even now, he said, "My thought process is shot."

Workers even carried the neurotoxin home to their families. Romo's wife, 5-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son all had elevated blood lead. In fact, test results for his son came back even higher than most of the construction workers.

The gun range and one of its contractors acknowledged mistakes but said they didn't believe workers were permanently harmed, reported the Times. State departments of labor, ecology and public health are investigating.

Meanwhile, as I previously reported, a federal investigation released in December adds concern. Researchers found that levels of lead in the bloodstream long-deemed acceptable may be putting military and civilian firing-range workers at risk.

Evidence continues to mount of lead's health harms at ever-smaller exposures, particularly for pregnant women and young children. And while cases of acute poisoning such as those associated with the remodeling of this gun range have generally dropped, chronic low-level exposures are on the rise and may be contributing to higher crime rates and lower test scores.

Gun ranges can contribute to that problem as well.

Lead does not degrade. Rather, the heavy metal accumulates and leaves a lasting legacy. As Scientific American reported, Mark Pokras of Tufts Unviersity told an audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting over the weekend that 25,000 to 30,000 tons of lead are added to the environment each year by hunting and shooting-range ammunition, fishing-line weights, discarded batteries and electronic waste. Scientific American continued:

Many steps can be taken nationwide to further reduce lead levels. Tougher emissions laws can be imposed. Lead paint, still sold in China, for example, can be banned in that country, or for import by other countries. Lead pipes and old lead paint can be removed. A high tax could be imposed on products containing lead, and lead in ammunition and fishing weights could be replaced with substitutes -- although materials such as tungsten have not performed well in bullets.

Environmental groups are now sponsoring a California bill to ban lead hunting ammunition, expected to be introduced on Friday, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

As the debate in California makes clear, humans aren't the only ones at risk from lead bullets. The Mercury News reported:

"Countless wild animals suffer and die needlessly every year from the continued use of lead ammunition," said Jennifer Fearing, state director of the Humane Society of the United States. "It is put in the environment and stays there. It's toxic, and it's cumulative."

Afternoon Tracks: Hormone Mimics, Toxic Air, Dirty Dare And More

Lynne Peeples   |   February 19, 2013    1:56 PM ET

Welcome to my blog, Toxic Tracks. Please send along any feedback via email or Twitter.

Chemicals that mess with hormones in humans and wildlife such as BPA bisphenol A (BPA) -- a common plasticizer in food packaging and water bottles -- have become "a global threat," according to experts from the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Hormone-mimicking chemicals can disrupt metabolism, growth and development, sleep and mood, note the researchers in their report, which highlights the rise of many related diseases and disorders including diabetes, infertility and certain cancers.

Environmental Health News reports that a 2002 report called the evidence linking the chemicals to human health effects "weak." They interviewed Thomas Zoeller, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a co-author of the report:

"Frankly, for BPA, the science is done. Flame retardants, phthalates ... the science is done," Zoeller said. "We have more than enough information on these chemicals to make the reasonable decision to ban, or at least take steps to limit exposure."

The authors also highlight how the "vast majority" of chemicals in use today have "not been tested at all."

"We seem to be accepting as a society that it's acceptable to load up our next generation with chemicals in an unregulated manner and hope they're not bad," Zoeller said. "We need to change that entire culture."

The international report comes just a few days after a panel of U.S. breast cancer experts urged prioritizing prevention, including a focus on environmental causes. Hormone-mimicking chemicals are high on the suspect list.

Also in the news today:

  • More evidence suggests that air pollution takes a toll on the heart. A new study out of Houston found that heart attack risk rises with pollution levels. Forbes reports:
    Air pollution is of particular concern in Houston, which is home to the nation's biggest petrochemical refining complex, and which ranks 8th in the nation in ozone levels and 13th on Forbes' Annual Ranking of the 20 Dirtiest Cities in America. But the findings are significant to any region with air quality issues. Nationwide, according the their study, 300,000 people suffer heart attacks outside of hospitals, and a remarkable 90% of them die.

    Both particulate matter and ozone levels are of concern to experts. Forbes continues:

    Respiratory health researches have for years suspected a relationship between raised levels of particulate matter (defined as airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrograms) and cardiac arrest. But according to the researchers, this is the first time that a direct correlation has been made between ozone levels and heart attacks.
  • An entrepreneur in Zhejiang, China is offering $32,000 to any environmental protection official willing to swim in a local river for more than 20 minutes. The river flows through a neighborhood dense with manufacturing faciilties. China Daily reports:
    Referring to it as "the river I used to swim in when I was little" and the same used by his mother to wash the family's clothes, he claimed that residents have suffered from unusually high cancer rates as a result of pollutants in the water.
  • An Indiana farmer's case against the agribusiness giant Monsanto will be heard in the Supreme Court this week. NPR reports:
    The farmer is fighting the long reach of Monsanto's patents on seeds -- but he's up against more than just Monsanto. The biotech and computer software industries are taking Monsanto's side. Bowman also is battling a historic shift that's transformed the nation's seed business over the past 20 years.

    Meanwhile, a new report concludes that nearly half of surveyed farmers said they have weeds resistant to glyphospate -- the key ingredient in Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. As Mother Jones reports, more than 70 percent of all the the corn, soy and cotton grown in the U.S is now genetically modified to withstand glyphosate.

State Of The Union: Obama Addresses Climate Change And Green Energy, Short On Details

Lynne Peeples   |   February 12, 2013   11:38 PM ET

President Barack Obama's State of the Union remarks fell in line with what many energy experts, industry representatives and environmental advocates predicted to me earlier today -- lots of rhetoric yet little detail on how to tackle climate change and propel green energy.

Also unsurprisingly, his words on the issues have already generated a range of reactions.

Obama focused his clean energy comments not only on the promise of green jobs, as he primarily has in the past, but on the dire consequences of not taking action on climate change.

"Yes, it's true that no single event makes a trend," Obama said. "But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods -- all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late."

The Institute for Energy Research was not impressed.

"It is telling that President Obama seemed more concerned about climate change than job creation, clearly following a well-worn path for this administration where no crisis goes to waste in pursuit of the President's progressive agenda," said IER president Thomas Pyle. "For this administration, a deadly hurricane means a chance for carbon taxes."

Frank Maisano, an energy strategist at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, was generally unexcited about the climate and energy section of Obama's speech, going as far as to suggest it "put everybody to sleep."

"His rhetoric was very similar to previous State of the Unions," Maisano told The Huffington Post. "And there was lots of similar hype from the environmental community in advance of it, and I suspect there will be following it."

Sure enough, responses so far from the environmental community appear animated -- and fairly positive.

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, used the term "assertive" as she described the agenda Obama laid out for reducing carbon pollution.

"The president has a full box of tools to strike back at climate chaos," she said in a statement. "The best tool he has is the Clean Air Act. It gives him the authority to reduce the carbon pollution from our dirtiest power plants, the single greatest threat to our climate future. That will take presidential leadership. Americans are counting on it -- and that's what the president delivered tonight."

Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, offered a similarly optimistic response: "We applaud President Obama's commitment to 'reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy'," Van Noppen said in a statement. "The President's plan to 'cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years' is a great idea."

Forecast the Facts campaign director Daniel Souweine was more critical, however.

"While we are excited to hear the President connect the dots between climate change and increasingly severe weather, accurately explaining the problem is not nearly enough," he said in a statement. "Tonight, President Obama set the lowest possible bar for action -- he did not pledge to stop the carbon-spewing Keystone XL Pipeline nor promise carbon regulations on existing power plants. In fact, he pledged no specific actions at all."

Going after something like existing power plants in the State of the Union would have been "too much in the weeds," said Maisano, revisiting his suggestion from earlier today that the speech is about "broad strokes."

Also much to the chagrin of some environmentalists, Obama emphasized energy independence heavily in terms of home-harvested oil and natural gas. "We produce more natural gas than ever before -- and nearly everyone's energy bill is lower because of it," he said.

Still, Pyle of the energy group IER suggested that Obama isn't moving fast enough on oil and gas. "The President promised to 'keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.' Yet his record is a more reliable indicator of his agenda than his rhetoric," he said. "Currently, it takes more than 300 days to get a permit to drill for oil or gas on federal lands, compared with 10 days in North Dakota where an energy boom has led to the lowest unemployment in the country. For all his talk of speeding up permits, it is telling that one permit remains on ice: the Keystone XL pipeline."

The President also pledged to continue the progress he's made in reducing carbon emissions -- from the doubling of renewable energy from wind and solar to increasing fuel economy standards for cars. He pleased environmentalists with a promise that, going forward, he won't let partisan politics get in his way.

"I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change," Obama said. "But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will."

Frack Tracks: New York Regulations Delayed, Fracking Could Still Begin Soon

Lynne Peeples   |   February 12, 2013    7:46 PM ET

Welcome to my blog, Toxic Tracks. Please send along any feedback via email or Twitter.

Natural gas suporters expressed further frustrations and anti-fracking activists shared a cautious sigh of relief on Tuesday, as news broke that regulations for shale gas drilling in New York state will be further delayed.

Officials conducting a controversial health impact study have asked for more time to fully address potential health impacts. The Associated Press reports:

The Department of Environmental Conservation had faced a deadline Wednesday to complete its 4 1/2-year-old environmental impact study of drilling for gas using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said Tuesday that the deadline will be missed, meaning regulations due to be released Feb. 27 will be delayed.

In an emailed statement to The Huffington Post, Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman Steve Forde expressed his disappointment with the state's stall. "Families, consumers, and workers across the nation are realizing the economic, environmental, and energy security benefits of safe and responsible natural gas development," he said. "Leaders in Albany have had a clear choice for some time now: move forward with common sense regulations that will create more jobs, higher revenues, and cleaner, more affordable energy, or prolong a hurry-up-and-wait process that places the state further on the sidelines at a time when its residents can afford it least."

Anti-fracking activists, meanwhile, welcomed news of the delay and what they expect to be a more rigorous health study.

"Thank you, Governor Cuomo, for taking time to do a more complete health study," said Yoko Ono in a statement. "We look forward to the results, and time for public comment afterwards. We love you, Governor."

Biologist and writer, Sandra Steingraber, offered a similar take on the news. "Commissioner Shah is correct that the state needs to take the time to do a comprehensive study of the health effects of fracking to protect the public health," she said in a statement. "As he notes, no comprehensive studies have been done to date and New York must do so before making a decision about fracking. We are confident that such a review will show that the costs of fracking in terms of public health are unacceptable. Commissioner Shah has indicated how important it is to do this right, which means bringing the public and New York State health experts into this process."

Martens of the DEC told the AP that he expects the health commissioner, Nirav Shah, to complete the review in a few weeks. The state could still issue fracking permits without final regulations if the review comes back suggesting that natural gas drilling is safe.

As Bloomberg reports, this "delay" in the health study may actually "expedite" drilling. The state could grant permits within weeks, rather than months. Bloomberg goes on to report:

If the state issues permits without formal rules, it "will be met with fierce opposition," Roger Downs, conservation director for the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, said in an e-mailed statement. "We trust that the DEC will take this opportunity to re-evaluate the legality of using an environmental-review process as a de facto regulatory program," Downs said.
"Given the DEC commissioner's assurances that this delay will not mean delays for issuing permits, we respect the administration's need to finish this last study and finally come to a resolution," Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, said in an e-mailed statement. "We also know that it can and must end with a decision to move forward with creating jobs."

Resettled Rats Torment New Yorkers In Sandy's Wake; EPA To Ban D-Con Rat Poisons

Lynne Peeples   |   February 7, 2013    5:44 PM ET

Welcome again to my blog, Toxic Tracks. Please send along any feedback or ideas for environmental health topics via email or Twitter.

As Hurricane Sandy began to bear down on New York City this past October, I reported on an overlooked and potentially very real future consequence of the storm: city rats flooded from their underground residences could begin infesting more human homes and businesses.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported on displaced rats "resettling" and "running amok" in parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan:

Shortly after the storm, exterminators were inundated with calls from Dumbo, Brooklyn Heights and Lower Manhattan. And once the rats were resettled, they grew accustomed to their surroundings, feasting on the garbage created by the hurricane as well as by the normal churn of the winter holidays.

Increased rat numbers can translate to an increased risk of infectious diseases, including leptospirosis, hantavirus, typhus, salmonella, and even the plague. "One of the things we know can exacerbate disease is massive dispersal," Rick Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. told me in October.

"It's not just about the high winds and rain," he said. "A rat distrubance is something we should be concerned about." (Ostfeld and other experts shared more insights and predictions during a subsequent HuffPost Live segment -- below.)

The Times seems to validate Ostfeld's prediction, reporting that exterminators have been overwhelmed with clients since the storm. And despite their best efforts and most lethal tools -- including "blocks of poison" -- the rodents keep coming back.

Of course, some of those blocks of poison can cause their own problems. I reported in August on the threats to wildlife, pets and kids posed by the popular line of D-Con consumer products. A group of environmental and public health advocates had just written the EPA a letter pleading for a ban on the toxic pellets.

The EPA announced this week that it does intend to ban 12 D-Con rat poisons, noting that the products "fail to comply with safety measures."

Fortunately, there are alternative weapons such as traps and glue boards. Experts have also emphasized to me the importance of prevention. While we may not be able to prevent another superstorm like Sandy -- not directly, anyway -- eliminating rats' food, water and shelter can go a long way.

Frack Tracks: Safer Fracking Fluids, Water Crisis Worries And Drilling In The Desert

Lynne Peeples   |   February 4, 2013    3:05 PM ET

Welcome again to my blog, Toxic Tracks. Please send along any feedback or ideas for environmental health topics via email or Twitter.

With anti-fracking activists widely hoisting jugs of dirty water in protest of what they say is a toxic industry, natural gas companies are naturally looking for ways to ease public concerns. Their latest effort: nontoxic fracking fluids. As AP reported yesterday, energy giant Halliburton has developed a concoction that uses only food-industry ingredients.

In hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, large volumes of water, sand and chemicals are shot thousands of feet underground to crack open shale rock and extract its embedded natural gas. The potential contamination of drinking water by this mix and its flowback is among the most controversial aspects of the natural gas production process.

Environmental groups are cautiously optimistic about Halliburton's new brew, but highlight some caveats. For one, the safer fluid is more expensive. Also potentially limiting its use by industry is the "tremendous variation in the type of shale rock in different parts of the country," which forces drillers to use different fluids -- even within the same state, reports the AP.

As experts and advocates further note, water contamination concerns with fracking go beyond the chemical-infused injection fluids. Fracking wastewater may also carry heavy metals and radioactivity released from the shale itself.

Still, generally missing from the debate over water contamination with fracking is what may be happening to any deep water reservoirs at the depths fracking fluids are injected into gas-rich shale and waste water is reinjected into disposal wells.

Propublica posted an interesting story last week concerning Mexico City's plans to draw drinking water from a mile-deep aquifer. The article goes on to makes a cautionary connection: "America is poisoning wells it might need in the future."

U.S. environmental regulators have long assumed that reservoirs located thousands of feet underground will be too expensive to tap. So even as population increases, temperatures rise, and traditional water supplies dry up, American scientists and policy-makers often exempt these deep aquifers from clean water protections and allow energy and mining companies to inject pollutants directly into them.

Propublica interviewed Mike Wireman, a hydrogeologist with the EPA who also works with the World Bank on global water supply issues:

"Depth in and of itself does not guarantee anything -- it does not guarantee you won't use it in the future, and it does not guarantee that that it is not" a source of drinking water, he said.

Turns out, some of the U.S. regions most fervently drilling for natural gas are the same regions on the verge of a drinking water crisis, namely parts of Texas and Colorado.

Also worth a read is a piece in yesterday's New York Times about Colorado communities fighting against natural gas leases on public lands.

Here, amid dozens of organic farms, orchards and ranches, the federal government is opening up thousands of acres of public land for oil and gas drilling, part of its largest energy lease sale in Colorado since Mr. Obama took office. In all, leases for 114,932 acres of federal land across Colorado are being auctioned off next month -- a tiny piece of what Mr. Obama lauded during last year's campaign as a historic effort to increase domestic natural-gas production.

Artists Against Fracking Posts Plea For Frack-Free New York (VIDEO)

Lynne Peeples   |   February 3, 2013    1:19 PM ET

Welcome again to my blog, Toxic Tracks. Please send along any feedback or ideas for environmental health topics via email or Twitter.

With only weeks to go until Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Feb. 27 deadline to decide the fate of hydraulic fracturing in New York state, the anti-fracking community is stepping up its game.

I reported last week from Binghamton, where activists launched a new campaign and asked to meet with Cuomo -- suggesting he'd already obliged for natural gas companies and warning him that opposition to the industry is mounting.

In the new video below, unveiled by Artists Against Fracking and shot by Gasland director Josh Fox, Yoko Ono lays out how she sees the increasingly heated battle.

"On one side is the gas companies -- big, big companies -- on the other side there is people," says Ono. "But people are eventually going to win, because people are eventually going to keep on increasing their knowledge, whereas the gas company has to keep on increasing their lies. And that's the big difference."

She includes a familiar request for Cuomo: "Please meet us."

Ono, fellow artists, and journalists (myself included) got a first-hand look last month at what may be at stake with Cuomo's looming decision. The video chronicles our bus tour of northeastern Pennsylvania, a region that's already accrued years of experience with natural gas operations.

Of course, New York is not the only state contemplating whether or not to tap into its large volumes of shale gas -- nor is the U.S. the only country on the verge of such a monumental choice. "It would be so incredible if we can do something in the state of New York," says Ono in the video. "That might just create a precedent."

People in favor of expanding natural gas production have shared with me their frustrations with anti-fracking activists, who they say are using "radical scare tactics" to thwart what could be a welcome boon for the country, as well as for struggling families and small businesses.

Yoko Ono and Artists Against Fracking Find Out What Fracking Has Done to Pennsylvania from JFOX on Vimeo.

Frack Tracks: Life-Changing Royalties, Health Concerns And A Paper-Mache Pig

Lynne Peeples   |   January 28, 2013    1:16 PM ET

Private landowners in Pennsylvania likely reaped more than $1.2 billion in royalties from natural gas drilling last year, according to an AP analysis.

For some landowners, the unexpected royalties have made a big difference. "We used to have to put stuff on credit cards. It was basically living from paycheck to paycheck," said Shawn Georgetti, who runs a family dairy farm in Avella, about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

An economist interviewed by the AP cautioned that while the natural gas rush may help out some individuals, it is "not going to have a big impact on the overall vitality of the overall economy."

I've met many Pennsylvania residents in my reporting who have received potentially life-changing offers from natural gas companies vying for rights to tap the abundant underground gas in this area. Some have jumped at the opportunity, others have decided not to take the gamble out of fear of possible long-term environmental and health consequences. As I wrote on Friday, such decisions are often made without complete information.

In other fracking news from the state currently at the center of the natural gas boom...

  • A new analysis suggests that Pennsylvania may not be able to handle the wastewater produced by the fracking boom in the region. While the relatively new technique of hydraulic fracturing produces 30 times more natural gas than conventional wells, it also produces 10 times as much wastewater -- fluids that return to the surface immediately or even years after the concoction of water, sand and chemicals are injected deep into the shale rock. More than 830 million gallons of wastewater seeped back up from Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale in 2011. NBC News interviewed Brian Lutz, a biogeochemist at Kent State University and co-author on the study:
  • "Wastewater from the Marcellus Shale is really a central challenge to future development," he said. "It is not an ancillary problem that is perhaps going to solve itself, but something that really needs to lead the discussion, at least from the environmental side of things, as we think about future development."
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has announced a new study of radioactivity associated with fracking. Some scientists are raising concerns about radium, a known carcinogen, released during natural gas production. Radon, a decay product of radium, is even more dangerous. But as NPR reports, the jury is still out on whether there is any real public health concern here:
  • The problem with radium is it can accumulate in the soil where crops are grown, and where animals graze. From there, it could be passed on to people. Radium at some level, is present in almost all rocks, soil and water. The question is how much would be harmful to public health, and how much is released by the drilling process. The Environmental Protection Agency says the body will eliminate the bulk of radium that is ingested, but long-term exposure can be harmful.
  • Anti-fracking activists locked themselves to a nine-foot-tall paper-mache pig at a natural gas well site in Bessemer, Penn. on Sunday. Fracking, their chants and signs protested, is threatening local agriculture and food safety.

Friday Freak Out: BPA May Create An Even Bigger Hormonal Mess

Lynne Peeples   |   January 25, 2013    4:36 PM ET

Welcome again to my blog, Toxic Tracks. Please send along any feedback or ideas for environmental health topics via email or Twitter.

Among its devastating effects, bisphenol A (BPA) -- a common plasticizer in food packaging and water bottles -- has been shown to lower sperm counts, damage the uterus and trigger obesity. It appears that exposures to even tiny doses of the hormone-scrambling chemical could pose serious harm.

Such knowledge makes the unveiling of these new studies and stats all the more disturbing:

  • Descendants of rats exposed to BPA developed reproductive disease and obesity, according to a study published yesterday. Researchers found that the third generation had "significant increases" in pubertal abnormalities, testis disease, ovarian disease and obesity. Evidence for this so-called epigenetic effect is piling up and beginning to change how people think about environmental exposures. Will it spark more movement on toxic chemical legislation? Either way, get ready to hear more about this phenomenon down the line.
  • "Your great-grandmothers exposures during pregnancy may cause disease in you, while you had no exposure," Michael Skinner, lead author of the new study, said in a statement.
  • As I've reported before, BPA-free doesn't guarantee a safe product. Another new study adds to that concern: Researchers found that low doses of a substitute chemical used in some BPA-free products, bisphenol S (BPS), altered hormones in much the same way as its chemical cousin. Environmental Health News interviewed Cheryl Watson, a University of Texas biochemistry professor and lead author of the study:
  • "I think we should all stop and be very cautious about just accepting this as a substitute for BPA," Watson said. "And not just BPS. We should question the whole process about how we introduce chemicals into the marketplace without properly testing them first."
  • So, what might this hormonal mess be doing to us individually, and as a human race? It's hard to make any definitive links given everything else that has changed over time, including our diets, but scientists are raising some red flags. Sperm counts dropped by 28% and sperm quality by 38% between 2001 and 2011, according to a new Spanish study. Another study, published in December, found French sperm counts fell by a third between 1989 and 2005. The Daily Mail reports:
  • A ten year-study of more than 200 men found the average concentration went from 72 million spermatozoids per millilitre in 2001 to 52 million/ml in 2011. The researchers, from the University of Murcia, say the findings are important because previous research has shown that a concentration lower than 40 million/ml makes conception more difficult. "If the rate of loss we have outlines continues, with an average decline in quality of two per cent per year, the sperm of young men could reach this danger level of 40 million/ml in a very short space of time," said co-researcher Professor Jaime Mendiola.
  • Due to a combination of male and female reproductive problems, nearly one in six U.S. couples now struggles to get pregnant. Reuters reports:
  • Infertility specialist Dr. Sacha Krieg from the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City agreed that infertility rates may be on the rise - possibly due to women waiting longer to try to have children or, more controversially, to the possible effects of environmental toxins.

Aquatic Toxic: 'Frankenfish', Gulf Seafood and Killer Prawns

Lynne Peeples   |   January 23, 2013   10:21 AM ET

This morning's toxic trackings on the increasingly complex relationship between seafood and our health...

  • As debate continues over the safety and merits of genetically modified grains and vegetables, a GM animal is making headway towards your plate. The U.S. biotechnology firm, AquaBounty, has designed a fish that would look like its natural Atlantic salmon cousin yet reach market size in half the time. In its recent assessment, the FDA declared that the all-female, sterile salmon would have "no significant food safety hazards or risks." Still, some environmentalists remain concerned, suggesting that the meat would be nutritionally inferior and contain harmful hormones. They also warn that a small percentage of the "frankenfish" could remain fertile and escape into the wild. The BBC reports:
  • There is still a brief period to voice objections, but Dr David Edwards of the Biotechnology Industry Organization is certain of the outcome: "From my read of the review it looks like it should be approved." The AquAdvantage salmon, reared from the eggs of wild Atlantic salmon, sports some extra genes from the Pacific Chinook salmon and an eel, the ocean pout. Together they make the fish grow faster and all-year round.
  • Nearly three years after a BP offshore rig exploded, spewing 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, skepticism remains over the safety of Gulf seafood. Chemicals in the oil and in the dispersants used to break up the oil, some say, could still contaminate the region's prize cuisine -- a concern I heard from many people on my trip through the region last year. The Times-Picayune reports from this week's Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill & Ecosystem Science Conference in New Orleans:
  • The seafood safety issue has remained a bone of contention for some fishermen and coastal residents who have reported finding either deformed fish or evidence of hydrocarbons in shrimp or oysters. But Robert Dickey, director of the FDA Gulf Coast Seafood Laboratory and the agency's Division of Seafood Science and Technology, insists that the testing conducted in the aftermath of the spill, the most comprehensive in the history of the agency, continues to show that commercial seafood is safe to eat.
  • Seafood also holds the power to decontaminate. In fact, prawn farming could help eradicate a killer disease and alleviate poverty in part of Africa, according to researchers. Schistosomiasis kills more than 200,000 people a year and causes long-term health problems for the many more who become infected through contaminated waters. But a recent experiment in Senegal has bolstered hope. The BBC reports:
  • Researchers believe if the shell fish are reintroduced into the West African nation's rivers, they will eat the snails that host the parasite that causes schistosomiasis.

Doggy Tracks: Dog Shares Spread The Love, Limit The Poo

Lynne Peeples   |   January 16, 2013   10:45 AM ET

A little pet therapy seems appropriate after yesterday's toxin-laden post...

Do you like dogs, yet don't have the time or space to care for one of your own? City Dog Share, a free dog-sitting co-op, may be your answer. The car-share-like concept may also help shrink the environmental pawprint of our four-legged best friends -- and the likelihood that your own footprint will get caked in dog poo.

Founder Eric Husk was a "a dog person without a dog," reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

His idea: Offer a Facebook forum for people to connect when they need help caring for their canine, or would like to offer their own walking, feeding or dog-sitting services.

Sharing a dog's love may mean fewer people feeling the need for one of their own. And fewer pooches on the streets could bring broad environmental and health benefits. As I've covered in the past, doggy doo-doo poses a public health hazard when not scooped and discarded properly.

For one, pet feces carry bacteria, viruses and parasites into waterways that can cause unpleasant infections such as giardia and E. coli. More indirectly, the excrement also releases nutrients into the water that can feed algae, kill marine life, contaminate beaches and send unlucky swimmers home with bouts of diarrhea or hives.

Husk's non-profit is spreading fast, now covering San Francisco, Los Angeles, Humbolt County, Portland and, most recently, Seattle -- a city in which dogs currently outnumber kids.

Here's how City Dog Share works: