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Toxic Tuesday: China's Air, Asbestos Debris, Mercury-Laden Fish And Fast Food

Lynne Peeples   |   January 15, 2013   12:10 PM ET

In keeping with my reputation as the bearer of bad news, here is more evidence that toxins permeate our world -- and a few hints on how to avoid at least some of them.

  • Face masks could have been helpful for dozens of high school students, as young as 13, who recently helped gut a former Ohio YMCA loaded with asbestos. The kids did the work without any protective gear, according to an investigative report by Ohio's WKYC. The news station interviewed Darren Clink, who lives next to the old building:
  • "The entire site was contaminated with asbestos and the people who were doing it were all children," said Clink. "The kids were loaded with it."
  • While asbestos tends to target the lungs, the developing brain is most vulnerable to mercury poisoning. And the primary route of exposure for most Americans: fish. As delegates from around the world convene in Geneva this month to negotiate an international treaty to reduce mercury emissions, a new report from the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine adds urgency. Researchers found that 84 percent of fish contain unsafe levels of the toxic heavy metal.

    But don't swear off fish just yet. The Natural Resources Defense Council offers a consumer guide for choosing seafood low in mercury yet still high in health omega-3 fatty acids -- generally fish that live lower on the food chain such as oysters and herring. Meanwhile, researchers in Wisconsin offer hope for lovers of fish -- even bigger fish -- should the world succeed in implementing new mercury limits. As Milwaukee Public Radio reports, once mercury is filtered out of a lake, it is quickly eliminated from the food chain. Jim Hurley, a study author from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke on the radio show:

  • "When you're burning coal and doing other types of industrial processes, you're increasing background [levels of mercury] by about a factor of four... If you can decrease the sources, you should see a fairly rapid response in lakes like the one that we studied."
  • Fast food, unlike fish, already has a bad rap. And that reputation has taken yet another hit. Three or more fast food meals a week raises a child's risk of asthma, eczema and other allergies, according to a study published this week. (The researchers found that fruit reduced symptoms.) U.S. News and World Report interviewed Samantha Heller, an exercise physiologist and clinical nutrition coordinator at the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn.:
  • "I cannot imagine any parent would choose the convenience of fast food over their child's health if they fully understood how deleterious a diet of fast and junk food is to children," Heller added.

Monday Tracks: GMO Debate Rages On After Prop 37 Failure

Lynne Peeples   |   January 14, 2013   12:41 PM ET

Welcome again to my (relatively) new blog: Toxic Tracks. Here, I'm posting short bits of daily news and commentary on environmental health topics. Please send along any thoughts or feedback via email or Twitter.

California's Proposition 37 sparked a heated national debate last year over the labeling of genetically modified foods, or GMOs. Despite the ballot measure's failure in November, the controversy is far from over. A few headlines I'm tracking...

  • Many anti-GMO advocates are finding their narrow defeat wasn't a complete loss. Even if foods containing GMOs don't yet require a label, non-GMO foods are now more commonly labeled as such. The Orange County Register interviewed Megan Westgate, director of the Non-GMO Project:
  • "More and more vendors are starting to label if their ingredients are non-GMO because they know that's what our industry is asking for," she said. "It's a huge trend. It's just truth in labeling."
  • The front lines of the GMO fight have moved to Washington State, where a labeling initiative similar to California's was filed this month. The LA Weekly reports:
  • If a GMO labeling law goes into effect in any state, it's likely to impact the entire country, being that food companies are unlikely to produce special packaging and labeling for only one state. However, the scenario that one state's laws would make GMO labeling the norm is much more likely with a state as large as California.
  • Farmers took their battle against Monsanto to Washington, D.C. last week, asking the federal court to reconsider granting legal protection from lawsuits filed by the biotech giant. Monsanto patents GMO seeds, and when those seeds end up on an unlicensed farm -- intentionally, or via the wind -- the company often takes legal action against those growers. This particularly frustrates organic farmers, who say that the wind-blown GM pollen threatens their crops. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the 200-some protesters had further demands:
  • Protesters announced that another rally will take place on Jan. 21 with a march on the National Mall demanding that Obama follow through with what they say was his promise in 2007 to seek labeling of food with genetically modified ingredients... Creve Coeur-based Monsanto spent at least $8 million in an industry-wide effort to sink the California proposition.
  • Meanwhile, a leading voice in the anti-GMO movement has switched sides. Earlier this month, Mark Lynas gave a speech at a conference on farming at Oxford University in which he apologized for "having spent several years ripping up GM crops." His reversal has sparked yet more chatter from both sides over the biotechnology. A post by the New York Times' Andy Revkin includes video of the speech. A few excerpts, as prepared for delivery at Oxford:
  • When I first heard about Monsanto's GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get - here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.
    What we didn't realize at the time was that the real Frankenstein's monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.

Off Track: Coal Miners, Loggers And Milkmen In America's First Adventure Race

Lynne Peeples   |   January 11, 2013    4:15 PM ET

I got a bit sidetracked from toxics after coming across the below trailer for "The Mountain Runners". The new documentary, currently screening in the Pacific Northwest, tells the story of America's first adventure race held more than century ago near Bellingham, Wash.

From 1911 to 1913, groups of men apparently raced by auto, rail and foot to the 10,781-foot-high summit of Mount Baker -- and back -- for a chance at a $100 purse of gold coins.

"These were not professional athletes," Todd Warger, a historian of the Mount Baker Marathon, says in the trailer. The competitors included a postman, a milkman, a bedspring maker, loggers and coal miners.

the mountain runners

The 1912 race was won by a mule packer for the Polson Coal Mines, Harvey Haggard, pictured center. (CREDIT: themountainrunners.com)

The daunting race was eventually discontinued on account of its dangers, which included the treacherous approach by car or train to the base of the glacial peak. (One train derailed with a racer on board.) On the mountain itself, runners suffered everything from broken bones to hypothermia to falls into glacial crevasses. Needless to say, few finished the race.

I couldn't help but wonder how the coal miners fared, especially on the ascent, given their likely respiratory handicaps. So I asked one of the film's producers, Brian Young.

His answer: None won a race, but one did come close.

"There were two coal miners in the first race (1911), Joseph Frankoviz and Norman Randall," Young told me in an email. "Randall was running neck and neck with the first year's winner, but couldn't keep up and missed out on placing in the race."

Tracking Fracking Fights

  |   January 10, 2013   11:30 AM ET

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Afternoon Tracks: Warming Woes And Climate Clues

Lynne Peeples   |   January 9, 2013    4:33 PM ET

Last year was the warmest ever recorded in the contiguous U.S., according to a report released on Tuesday by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In fact, 2012's average temperature of 55.3 degrees Fahrenheit broke the previous record by a full degree. But perhaps more significant for those concerned about public health is the fact that 2012 also boasted the second most "extreme" weather on record, complete with devastating droughts and storm surges.

A few coffee break reads to add perspective...

  • Dr. Howard Frumkin, the dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health, published an op-ed in Sunday's The Seattle Times that pushes climate change links beyond the obvious crop losses and tragic drownings. He highlights pervasive smoke from this summer's forest fires in Washington State and an epidemic of mold on Long Island after Hurricane Sandy, and then goes on to list many more direct and indirect health woes associated with warming:
  • Climate change hurts real people, right now -- respiratory diseases, injuries, depression, displacement, upended lives. Globally, the impacts include spreading infectious diseases, hunger aggravated by agricultural declines, wars over scarce resources.
  • Australia, too, is slashing many of its own temperature records. In their case, the heat itself is of greatest concern to health experts. Temperatures are predicted to reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) later this week. New Scientist reports:
  • The country is sweltering under a record-smashing "dome of heat" causing the worst fire threat on record, and forcing Australian meteorologists to add two colours to their heat maps... When it gets hotter than 35 °C, people have difficulty maintaining normal body temperature, putting strain on the heart. Babies, older people and those with heart conditions are most at risk.
  • Back on the side of the world where January still means mittens and hockey sticks, researchers are enlisting the help of ice skaters to collect climate change clues. Outdoor rink conditions, they say, have deteriorated in recent years with warming temperatures. Canadian citizens are now tracking when and where they are able to skate. The Ottawa Citizen interviewed Robert McLeman, an associate professor in the geography and environmental sciences department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo:
  • "The season is getting shorter, and there are fewer skating days, and within the skating season there are more of these freeze-thaw-freeze events that mean you're not getting onto the rinks as often as you would have in the past," McLeman said.

Lead Poisoning Linked With Higher Crime Rates, Lower Test Scores

  |   January 9, 2013    9:02 AM ET

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