environmental toxins


Study: Well-Water Can Raise Arsenic Levels In Formula-Fed Babies

Parents already concerned by recent revelations about arsenic in rice, grains and juices, brace yourselves: A new study found higher levels of arsenic excreted by infants exclusively fed formula, compared to breast-fed babies. A likely culprit: well-water.

In the small study of private well-water users in New Hampshire, overall arsenic exposure was relatively low for most 6-week-old infants regardless of how they were fed. “So that’s good news,” says Kathryn Cottingham, a professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth and the study’s co-lead author. “That said, infants fed exclusively with breast milk were less exposed to arsenic than infants fed with formula, and some infants fed with formula may have been exposed to very high levels of arsenic due to high concentrations in their home tap water.”

In the study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers measured arsenic in the home tap water of 874 families, urine from 72 infants and breast milk from nine mothers.

(Donald Clark/Flickr)

(Donald Clark/Flickr)

Arsenic levels in the tap water tended to be well below the EPA’s recommended upper limit, researchers report. Still, they found that: “measured urinary arsenic concentrations were 7.5 times higher in exclusively formula-fed infants compared to breast-fed infants,” says Cottingham.

The bottom line, she says, is get your well-water tested.

“In terms of fear mongering, that’s the fear I’d like to instill: if you have well-water, get your water tested,” she says.”I don’t want to freak people out about feeding their babies formula.”

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in groundwater around the world — and in some places, in very high concentrations.

Exposure to high levels of arsenic, a human carcinogen, has a number of potential health consequences, the study authors note, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, adverse birth outcomes and altered immune systems. Continue reading

Live Near Logan? You May Face Higher Risk Of Asthma, Pulmonary Disease

The AP reports the not-so-great results of a new study on the health of residents who live near Logan International Airport. The bottom line is that respiratory problems that look a lot like asthma appear to be more prevalent among children who live in this “high exposure” area compared to those living further from the airport. For adults, the likelihood of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was higher among those living in close proximity to the airport.

Produced by the state Department of Public Health, the report focused on 17 communities within a five-mile radius of Logan: Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Hull, Lynn, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Nahant, Quincy, Revere, Saugus, Somerville and Winthrop.

Logan Airport Health Study

Estimated Exposure Areas Based on Assigning High, Medium, and Low Exposure Areas to Respondents. (Logan Airport Health Study, Department of Public Health)

From the report:

•Among children, study results identified some respiratory effects indicative of
undiagnosed asthma (i.e., probable asthma); children in the high exposure area
were estimated to have three to four times the likelihood of this respiratory
outcome compared with children in the low exposure area.

•Among adult residents, individuals diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary
disease (COPD) were statistically significantly more likely to have lived in the high
exposure area for three or more years.

•There were no statistically significant differences in cardiovascular outcomes in the
study population across the high, medium, and low exposure areas.

•There were no statistically significant differences with respect to hearing loss in
either adults or children for those living in the high exposure area compared to the
lowest exposure area.

Continue reading

Summertime Blues: Pesticide-Laden Strawberries And Your Health

Pesticide spraying at a farm on the North Shore of Massachusetts. (Photo: Alexandra Morris)

Pesticide spraying at a farm on the North Shore of Massachusetts. (Photo: Alexandra Morris)

By Alexandra Morris

This weekend marks the start of the summer season, but I can’t help dwelling on the downside. Each year at this time, crowds from urban Boston descend on the farm next to my parents’ house on the North Shore in Mass. to pick their own strawberries – fresh, sweet, ripe…and coated with toxins.

While the farm staff warns visitors to wash the fruit before eating it, many choose to snack along the way (one group was caught sitting in the strawberry field with a can of “Reddi-Whip” in hand). After all, what’s the cost of a few unwashed strawberries?

Unfortunately, when it comes to our health, the cost may be fairly high.

Over the years, researchers have documented the bad effects of pesticide exposure on human health. Recently, though, and at a forum this week at Harvard, there’s been increased attention on the links between pesticides and neurodegenerative diseases, notably Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

In a study published earlier this year in the journal Neurology, researchers from UCLA identified the way in which certain pesticides can increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease. They also found that people with a common genetic variant are even more sensitive to these pesticides – they are two to five times more likely to develop Parkinson’s if exposed.

“Once you identify the toxicity of these things, getting rid of the bad pesticides…would be a goal, not just for the people that live in the area, but for the workers that use it,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Jeff Bronstein, a professor of neurology at UCLA.

In a separate report out of Rutgers University, published in JAMA Neurology, researchers found that exposure to the pesticide DDT may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, researchers found that levels of DDE, the chemical compound that develops when DDT breaks down, were higher in the blood of Alzheimer’s patients compared to those without the disease.

And the effects go beyond the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Marc Weisskopf, an associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, who spoke at the Harvard forum, said there is evidence that pesticides contribute to a host of neurodevelopmental disorders as well, from ADHD and developmental disorders to lowered cognitive performance. Continue reading

More Concern Over BPA, Link To Breast Cancer


USA Today sounds the latest warning on BPA, or bisphenol A, in a report on growing concerns that the industrial chemical and synthetic estrogen (which is still used as a lining in many canned goods as well as in plastics and other common products) may be linked to breast cancer.

The news report cites a just-released study by advocates at the Breast Cancer Foundation that focuses on the potential dangers of prenatal exposure. According to the report:

Prenatal exposure to this toxic endocrine-disrupting chemical is of even greater concern than childhood exposure.

During the prenatal period, the foundation is set for how the body’s systems develop, and animal and human studies show us that fetal exposure to BPA can set the stage for later-life diseases, including breast cancer.

To understand the mechanism at work, reporter Liz Szabo quotes Tufts biologist Dr. Ana Soto, who published a paper last month that found BPA increased the risk of mammary cancers in rats:

In two studies of rhesus monkeys published last year, other researchers found that BPA disrupted egg development, damaged chromosomes and caused changes in the mammary gland that made animals more susceptible to cancer.

Soto says it’s possible that prenatal BPA exposure makes fetuses more sensitive to estrogen, a hormone that drives the growth of most breast cancers. In that way, BPA could indirectly increase the risk of breast cancer later in life. Continue reading

Flame Retardant Update: After CA Ban, Lower Toxin Levels In Pregnant Women

Last month, we posted a story on renewed efforts to eliminate toxin-containing flame retardants — used on couches and myriad household items so they don’t combust — from use, including a new push by some students and faculty at Harvard to ban flame retardant dorm furniture from campus.

CommonHealth contributor Karen Weintraub reported:

Flame retardants, also known as PBDE’s (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers) are ubiquitous, required since the 1970s by fire marshals in every state and community, and promoted by the chemical industry that makes them. But critics say they’re problematic — both in everyday use and when burned – and their effectiveness at stopping fires is also being questioned.



Flame retardants accumulate in the blood stream and can cause endocrine disruption — essentially mucking with hormones needed to grow, reproduce, and think and avoid cancer, according to studies in animals. They also release cancer-causing chemicals like dioxin when burned, said Robin Dodson, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, an environmental group. Their impact is particularly significant in young children and during pregnancy, research suggests.

Now, researchers in California report that a decade after the state banned certain chemical-containing flame retardants, the level of those chemicals found in the blood of pregnant women has greatly declined.

From the University of San Francisco news release:

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 on Sept. 25 in Environmental Science & Technology.

Researchers said the dramatic decline was most likely the result of the statewide ban, Continue reading

FDA’s Reassurance On Arsenic In Rice Not So Reassuring

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg and colleagues visited research facilities and rice farms in California on Sept. 4-5, 2013 in an effort to gain a greater understanding of the presence of arsenic in rice. Photo: United States Government Work/flickr

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg and colleagues visited research facilities and rice farms in California on Sept. 4-5, 2013 in an effort to gain a greater understanding of the presence of arsenic in rice.
Photo: United States Government Work/flickr

I was a little confused last week when the FDA issued what was portrayed as a reassuring update on levels of arsenic in rice and rice products. After analyzing more than 1,300 rice-containing foods, the agency said, essentially, that the arsenic in rice won’t kill you, at least not today. The headline in The New York Times mirrored most of the media coverage: “No Immediate Risk Found In Arsenic Levels in Rice,” it said.

OK, but what about last year’s Consumer Reports investigation (which the FDA confirmed) that showed “worrisome levels” of arsenic in rice, notably brown rice, in common food products including  “organic rice baby cereal, rice breakfast cereals, brown rice [and] white rice”? Consumer Reports noted that “arsenic not only is a potent human carcinogen but also can set up children for other health problems in later life.”

When I read the updated FDA materials, including an FAQ for consumers and a blog by FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who went on a fact-finding mission and visited with U.S. rice growers, it became clear that we should still be concerned about arsenic in our rice. The key point in this new flurry of agency news? “We still need to better understand long-term health risks,” Continue reading

Study: Genetic Damage Linked To Arsenic In Rice



It was big news last year when both the FDA and Consumer Reports came out with studies showing alarming levels of arsenic in brown rice. (At least I thought it was alarming, as did scores of readers who commented here on the findings.)

A little background from Consumer Reports should remind you of the problem:

Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That’s in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains. In the U.S. as of 2010, about 15 percent of rice acreage was in California, 49 percent in Arkansas, and the remainder in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. That south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle…

Inorganic arsenic, the predominant form of arsenic in most of the 65 rice products we analyzed, is ranked by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as one of more than 100 substances that are Group 1 carcinogens. It is known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers.

Now comes a study of heavy rice-eaters in West Bengal, India that links high levels of arsenic in the rice to elevated genetic damage in humans.

From the news release:

Over the last few years, researchers have reported high concentrations of arsenic in several rice-growing regions around the world.

Now, University of Manchester scientists, working in collaboration with scientists at CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in Kolkata, have proven a link between rice containing high levels of arsenic and chromosomal damage, as measured by micronuclei in urothelial cells, in humans consuming rice as a staple.

The researchers discovered that people in rural West Bengal eating rice as a staple with greater than 0.2 mg/kg arsenic showed higher frequencies of micronuclei than those consuming rice with less than this concentration of arsenic.

The study, published in Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports, looked at the frequency of ‘micronuclei’ — a tell-tale sign of chromosomal damage (that has been shown by others previously to be linked to cancer) Continue reading

Report: Widespread Fish Mislabeling Raises Public Health Concerns

More landmines on the path toward feeding your family healthy, nutritious food: a new report by the conservation group Oceana finds fish in New York City restaurants and grocery stores are widely mislabeled — with some fish being sold containing harmful toxins. From The New York Times:

Some of the findings present public health concerns. Thirteen types of fish, including tilapia and tilefish, were falsely identified as red snapper. Tilefish contains such high mercury levels that the federal Food and Drug Administration advises women who are pregnant or nursing and young children not to eat it.

Ninety-four percent of fish sold as white tuna was not tuna at all but in many cases a fish known as snake mackerel, or escolar, which contains a toxin that can cause severe diarrhea if more than a few ounces of meat are ingested.

“There are a lot of flummoxed people out there who are trying to buy fish carefully and trying to shop their conscience, but they can’t if this kind of fraud is happening,” said Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana, who led the study.

With fish, what you buy isn’t always what you get, a new report finds. (Source: Oceana)

Here are the report’s key findings, from the Oceana news release:

–58 percent of the 81 retail outlets sampled sold mislabeled fish (three in five).
–Small markets had significantly higher fraud (40 percent) than national chain grocery stores
–100 percent of the 16 sushi bars tested sold mislabeled fish.
–Tilefish, on the FDA’s do-not-eat list because of its high mercury content was substituted for red
snapper and halibut in a small market.
–94 percent of the “white tuna” was not tuna at all, but escolar, a snake mackerel that has a toxin
with purgative effects for people who eat more than a small amount of the fish.
–Thirteen different types of fish were sold as “red snapper,” including tilapia, white bass, goldbanded jobfish, tilefish, porgy/seabream, ocean perch and other less valuable snappers.

The report follows earlier studies that found fish mislableling in cities across the U.S. An Oceana news release says: “Everywhere seafood is tested, fraud has been found. In fact, Oceana and others recently found shocking levels of mislabeling in the Boston (48 percent), Los Angeles (55 percent) and Miami (31 percent) areas.” Continue reading

Report: EPA Probing Toxic Laundry Emissions Across New England


Read this excellent investigative piece by Barbara Moran in The Hartford Courant and (with nice graphics) on the Connecticut Health Investigative Team web site about toxic laundry emissions throughout New England.

Why should you care? Some of these industrial laundries are polluting your air, Moran writes: “Laundering shop and print towels, which are cloths used to wipe oil, solvent and other chemicals off machinery, can fuel the release of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) above federal limits. The use and processing of shop towels is largely under-regulated, despite its potential to emit toxic substances into the air.”

Read on:

VOCs are chemicals that evaporate quickly, and many common products, like paint thinner, contain them. VOCs range from innocuous to toxic, but because they evaporate rapidly people are likely to inhale them.

When Ginsberg analyzed the emissions from G&K, he found that they posed a potential threat to public health, especially for vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly. Many organic solvents irritate the skin and eyes, and can cause nausea, dizziness and headaches. Long-term exposure can damage a person’s kidneys, liver and respiratory system. Continue reading

When Your Hair Relaxer Is Toxic

There’s a thoughtful roundup on Our Bodies Our Blog about the dangers of hair products commonly used by black women, and how the mainstream media hasn’t fully covered the story. Read the report by Kat Friedrich and reconsider your beauty regimen:

The ingredients of hair relaxers, which many black women use to straighten their curls, are anything but relaxing. Almost all of the samples of currently available hair relaxers tested by Environmental Working Group (EWG) were ranked highly toxic, although limited information was available. Allergic reactions, hormone disruption, immune system toxicity and organ toxicity were four of the main risks.

In contrast, hair straighteners, which are more commonly used by white women, have generally been considered to be relatively safer. EWG’s website shows most of these products are medium-risk with the highest concerns being allergic reactions, immune toxicity and hormone disruption. These risks are similar to those of the hair polishers which are used by women of color. Continue reading