Tag Archives: toxins

UN: Growing environmental threat from animal-to-man diseases

The most worrying environmental threats facing the world today range from the rise in diseases transmitted from animals to humans to the increasing accumulation of toxic chemicals in food crops as a result of drought and high temperatures, according to a U.N. report.

The U.N. Environment Agency’s Frontiers report also highlighted the threat to human health posed by the alarming amount of plastic waste in the oceans, and scientific evidence suggesting that losses and damage from climate change are inevitable, with “profound consequences” for ecosystems, people, assets and economies.

The report emphasizes “the critical relationship between a healthy environment and healthy people,” and stresses the importance of combatting global warming by moving to a low-carbon future.

According to the report, the 20th century saw dramatic reductions in ecosystems and biodiversity — and equally dramatic increases in the numbers of people and domestic animals inhabiting the Earth.

This increased the opportunity for viruses, bacteria and other pathogenic agents to pass from wild and domestic animals through the environment to cause diseases in people, the report said.

These diseases — called “zoonotic” or “zoonoses” diseases — include Ebola, bird flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Rift Valley fever, West Nile virus and Zika virus, it said.

In the last two decades these emerging diseases have had direct costs of more than $100 billion, the report said, and “if these outbreaks had become human pandemics, the losses would have amounted to several trillion dollars.”

According to the report, “around 60 per cent of all infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic as are 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases.” And “on average, one new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months,” it said.

While many zoonotic diseases originate in wildlife, livestock often serve as a bridge, the report said, citing the case of bird flu which first circulated in wild birds, then infected domestic poultry which in turn passed the virus to humans.

As for toxic chemicals in crops, normally plants convert nitrate into amino acids and protein but drought slows the conversion causing nitrates to accumulate and become toxic to animals, the report said.

Worldwide, over 80 plant species are known to cause poisoning from accumulation of nitrates and wheat, barley, maize, millet, sorghum and soybeans are among the crops most susceptible, it said.

“Acute nitrate poisoning in animals can lead to miscarriage, asphyxiation and death,” the report said, and it can ruin the livelihoods of small farmers and herders.

Another toxin associated with climate change is hydrogen cyanide or prussic acid that can accumulate in plants such as cassava, flax, maize and sorghum, it said.

Mycotoxins, which are chemical by-products of the growth of mushrooms and other fungi, “can cause severe damage to the health of animals and humans, even at small concentration,” the report said. And “mycotoxin-producing fungi infect many crops such as coffee, groundnut, maize, oilseeds, peanut, sorghum, tree nuts and wheat.”

Aflatoxins, which are fungal toxins that can cause cancer and stunt fetal growth, are another emerging problem in crops, the report said.

EPA developing new guidelines for toxic algae in lakes, rivers

New national guidelines are being developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect swimmers and kayakers from the growing threats posed by toxic algae in lakes and rivers.

Agency officials said the focus will be on people who are likely to swallow water during recreational activities.

The EPA issued a report to Congress last week saying that it also will be looking at whether new health advisories are needed on algae toxins in drinking water.

Harmful algae blooms have been expanding rapidly in both numbers and intensity, the EPA said.

An algae bloom that spread across Lake Erie last summer was the largest on record, government scientists said earlier this month, while another toxic algae outbreak stretched more than 600 miles along the Ohio River through four states.

Tackling the problem has taken on greater urgency since toxins from algae contaminated the tap water for 400,000 people in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan in August 2014.

The EPA said in its report last week that there are information gaps when it comes to understanding toxic algae.

One of the challenges is “an incomplete understanding of how to prevent, predict, analyze, monitor and treat toxins in drinking water,” the report said.

Those toxins can cause rashes, diarrhea, vomiting and breathing difficulty. In some cases, it can lead to liver, kidney and nervous system problems. But not all algae blooms are toxic.

Scientists say climate change and higher levels of nutrients such as phosphorus seeping into waterways may be why they’re seeing a rising number of algae contamination cases.

The EPA said it will work with states and water treatment plant operators to update guidelines on monitoring drinking water for algae-produced toxins while also looking at treatment plans.

It also plans to take steps toward improving the quality of the lakes and rivers that supply drinking water, including putting more funding toward limiting nutrient pollution that feeds the algae in the Great Lakes.

A draft of the proposed guidelines for swimmers is expected to be released by summer, the EPA said last week. It may also look at exposure limits for coming into contact with toxins in the water if there is enough data.

The guidelines will look at two specific toxins produced by blue-green algae.

Nineteen states already have their own regulations. They are California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

EPA announces new protections for farmworkers

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today increased protections for the nation’s 2 million agricultural workers and their families.

Each year, thousands of potentially preventable pesticide exposure incidents are reported that lead to sick days, lost wages and medical bills but with changes to the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard the risk of injury or illness resulting from contact with pesticides on farms and in forests, nurseries and greenhouses can be reduced.

“President Obama has called closing gaps of opportunity a defining challenge of our time. Meeting that challenge means ensuring healthy work environments for all Americans, especially those in our nation’s vulnerable communities,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a news release. “We depend on farmworkers every day to help put the food we eat on America’s dinner tables — and they deserve fair, equitable working standards with strong health and safety protections.  With these updates we can protect workers, while at the same time preserve the strong traditions of our family farms and ensure the continued the growth of our agricultural economy.”

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said, “No one should ever have to risk their lives for their livelihoods, but far too many workers, especially those who work in agriculture, face conditions that challenge their health and safety every day.”

He continued, “Workplace illness and injury contribute greatly to economic inequality, and can have a devastating impact on workers and their families. By promoting workplace safety, these provisions will enhance economic security for people struggling to make ends meet and keep more Americans on the job raising the crops that feed the world, and we are proud to support the EPA in this effort.”

EPA’s updates reflect comment federal and state partners and the agricultural community including farmworkers, farmers and industry.

The EPA said the provisions will help ensure farmworkers nationwide receive annual safety training; that children under the age of 18 are prohibited from handling pesticides; and that workers are aware of the protections they are afforded under today’s action and have the tools needed to protect themselves and their families from pesticide exposure.

These revisions will publish in the Federal Register within the next 60 days. 

Waste from thousands of mines creates toxic stew beneath western U.S.

Beneath the western United States lie thousands of old mining tunnels filled with the same toxic stew that spilled into a Colorado river last week, turning it into a nauseating yellow concoction and stoking alarm about contamination of drinking water.

Though the spill into the Animas River in southern Colorado is unusual for its size, it’s only the latest instance of the region grappling with the legacy of a centuries-old mining boom that helped populate the region but also left buried toxins.

Until the late 1970s there were no regulations on mining in most of the region, meaning anyone could dig a hole where they liked and search for gold, silver, copper or zinc. Abandoned mines fill up with groundwater and snowmelt that becomes tainted with acids and heavy metals from mining veins which can trickle into the region’s waterways. Experts estimate there are 55,000 such abandoned mines from Colorado to Idaho to California, and federal and state authorities have struggled to clean them for decades. The federal government says 40 percent of the headwaters of Western waterways have been contaminated from mine runoff.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency was trying to staunch leakage from a gold mine – not worked since 1923 – high in the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado. But workers moving debris from the mine tunnel accidentally opened up the passage, leading to a million gallons of sludge spilling into a creek that carried it into the Animas River. From there the discharge headed toward the Colorado River, which provides water to tens of millions of Westerners.

“The whole acid draining issue is something we struggle with in the western United States,” said Bruce Stover, the Colorado Department of Mining official in charge of dealing with abandoned mines in that state.

One of the complicating factors is money and legal liability. Cleaning up the mines is very costly, and the Clean Water Act says that anyone who contributes to pollution of a waterway can be prosecuted for a federal crime, even if they were trying to clean up pollution. That’s kept environmental groups from helping the EPA treat water and tidy up mines. Groups for several years have been pushing for a federal law that would let so-called “Good Samaritan” groups help with cleanup without being exposed to legal liability.

“There’s still a whole generation of abandoned mines that needs to be dealt with,” said Steve Kandell of Trout Unlimited, one of the organizations backing the bill.

But the spill from the Gold King mine shows the amount of damage that the slightest cleanup accident can inflict. The mine is one of four outside the old mining town of Silverton that have leaked heavy metals into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas. Cement Creek is so poisoned that no fish live there and the EPA has long registered abnormal levels of acidity and heavy metals in the upper Animas that have also injured aquatic life.

Downstream, though, the Animas flows through the scenic town of Durango and is a magnet for summer vacationers, fishermen and rafters. The river turned yellow Thursday, emitting a sickening stench and sending water agencies scrambling to shut off the taps from the waterway.

The EPA apologized profusely to residents for both the accident and failing to warn anyone for the first 24 hours. During a town hall meeting in Durango on Friday, a restaurant owner asked the EPA if it would compensate businesses for lost revenue, while officials warned that the river may turn yellow again in the spring, when snowmelt kicks up the settled contaminated sediment.

The history of the Gold King and its neighboring mines is also an example of the difficulty in cleaning up old waste. The EPA had initially tried to plug a leak in another mine that drained into Cement Creek, the American Tunnel, but that simply pushed more contaminated water out of the neighboring mines such as Gold King.

“In this day and age, everyone wants the quick fix, but these things take time,” said Jason Willis, an environmental engineer who works with Trout Unlimited in Colorado. “These are site-specific tasks.”

Stover said it was particularly galling that the Animas was contaminated by the very chemicals that environmental officials have been trying to remove from its watershed.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Stover said. “We’ve been fighting this war for years, and we’ve lost a battle. But we’re going to win the war.”

Congressional Republicans attack clean air, water and wildlife protections in budget process

Congressional Republicans are waging an all-out assault on U.S. environmental policy, using the budget process to attack regulations and orders intended to protect air, land, water and wild America.

“Equipped with spending cuts and policy riders, House Republican leadership has presented a vision for an impotent Environmental Protection Agency unable to defend public health or the environment from corporate polluters,” said Lukas Ross of the grassroots environmental group Friends of the Earth. “They are doing this by taking aim at 40 years’ worth of bipartisan environmental protection. Attacks against the EPA are attacks on the American people and the clean air and clean water we need to survive.”

The GOP campaign in the U.S. Capitol resembles the campaign waged against the environment by Wisconsin Republicans in Madison. The tactic is to change policies and weaken regulations in the budget process.

Republicans in the U.S. House attached about 20 anti-environment riders to the Interior and Environment appropriations bill, which already included a 9 percent cut to the EPA’s 2016 budget.

The House was set to vote on the spending bill on July 9 and then July 10, but the measure was pulled from debate after the introduction of a Republican amendment intended to protect the display and sale of Confederate flags in some federal cemeteries.

It was unclear as of July 15 when the House would take up the massive spending measure on the floor.

“Republican amendments to this bill would gut virtually every conservation, environmental, safety and health advance,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy and watchdog group.

The NRDC, earlier this summer, released a thorough analysis of riders that Republicans attached to the Interior bill and other spending measures for the new fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1. 

In the House’s Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Act, riders would block the EPA from finalizing the first-ever carbon pollution standards for new and existing fossil fuel power plants, as well as bar the government from assessing and weighing the full costs of extreme weather or other climate impacts caused by pollution.

Another rider would treat biomass burned for electricity production as zero-carbon pollution despite the fact that emissions from wood biomass are often higher than those from coal.

Additional riders would prevent the EPA from limiting pollution from livestock production under the Clean Air Act or require the reporting of greenhouse gas emissions from manure management systems.

Republicans also want to take away the EPA’s authority to set standards curtailing use of super-polluting hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants and foam blowing agents, which harm the ozone layer and are potent greenhouse gases.

Additional riders would permanently prohibit the EPA from clarifying which streams and wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act and block the Department of Interior from developing or implementing safeguards designed to protect streams from pollution from surface coal mining.

Another rider would impede the Department of Interior and the U.S. Forest Service from using the Land and Water Conservation Fund to acquire lands and waters to conserve critical habitat and expand recreation.

More than a dozen other riders were attached to the Interior spending bill, among them provisions weakening endangered species protections.

Republicans also have worked to weaken environmental policy and regulations with riders to:

• The House Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill, including one to essentially repeal the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by prohibiting civil and criminal enforcement and another to undermine the recoveries of fish population, including salmon and steelhead.

• The House State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill, including a push to reverse the president’s policy of not backing funding for most new overseas coal plants. 

• The House Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill, including a provision to prohibit paying a salary to the assistant to the president for energy and climate change. 

• The House Energy and Water appropriations bill, including provisions to prevent the Department of Energy from providing any funds to the Cape Wind Project off the coast of Massachusetts, prevent the government from shutting down the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada and blocking enforcement of certain energy efficient standards in homes.

One rider to the energy bill would prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from updating the definition of “fill material,” which would allow the mining industry to continue dumping toxic waste into mountain streams.

• The House Transportation appropriations bill, including a provision to block work on the California High-Speed Rail Program and another to block the implementation of federal energy efficiency requirements in housing assistance through HUD.

Goldston said, “These measures would not only damage the environment, they make it ever more likely that there will be a counterproductive showdown this fall, perhaps leading to another costly government shutdown. This is not what the public wants from Congress.”

Both Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy protested the Republican riders and the cut.

Donovan has called them “irresponsible” and said the Republicans are using the appropriations process to try “to jam through unrelated, ideological riders that undercut health, safety and environmental protections.”

McCarthy, in a press call, said, “Those provisions are very problematic and we strenuously object to inclusion of such restraints on the agency’s ability to carry out its mission as guided by science and the law.”

See also Republican senators seek to roll back auto, rail safety regulations.

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Spike in water toxins blamed for hundreds of turtle deaths

Hundreds of small turtles have washed up dead on the eastern end of Long Island in the past month, a die-off scientists blame on waterborne toxins that have reached unprecedented levels for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

Necropsies on some of the more than 200 diamondback terrapins found on the island’s North Fork point to saxitoxin, a biotoxin produced in algae blooms that has been found in the water at 10 times the normal level. The poison collects in shellfish, which are eaten by the turtles in brackish bays and estuaries, quickly causing paralysis and death.

“We’re seeing bodies washing up in perfect condition. This has never happened before. It’s an alarming thing,” said Karen Testa, executive director of Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, whose volunteers have collected dozens of the dead turtles and sent them to state officials for analysis.

She says all signs point to saxitoxin.

“There’s no other explanation for what’s causing the die-off of these poor animals,” she said. “It’s a horrible way to go.”

Christopher Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences who has studied algal blooms off Long Island for more than 20 years, said saxitoxin is normally detected in the region’s waters, but he has never seen saxitonin this high and never seen it cause such a wildlife die-off.

Red algae blooms produce the saxitoxin, which state officials have called a “dangerous neurotoxin” that can damage or impair nerve tissue. Shellfish filter the toxic algae cells from the water and when other creatures chomp down on the shellfish, they can become paralyzed.

Saxitoxin can also cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans, which typically results in numbness and tightening in the face and a loss of coordination. In most cases, patients make a full recovery in a few days, but rare cases have resulted in death.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 30 cases of poisoning by marine toxins are reported each year, but officials have been unable to pinpoint a precise number because there is no requirement that health care providers report the illnesses. The CDC says an average of one person dies every four years from toxic seafood poisoning.

Suffolk County has never had a reported case of illness or death related to saxitoxin, Assistant Deputy County Executive Justin Meyers said. However, he said there is a “long-term potential threat to public health” if the saxitoxin levels continue to rise. 

Meyers said county and state officials had advised people not to consume shellfish from the area and enacted a shellfishing ban for three creeks and bays. The county health department also advised against swimming in discolored water.

A spokesman for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which runs a marine toxin monitoring program and sent representatives to collect the deceased turtles, said all signs from initial necropsies point toward saxitoxin, but the agency is sending the turtle’s organs for further testing. Those results won’t be available for several weeks.

“This is a serious threat to public health,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment. “It’s not a joke anymore. When you have a saxitoxin that can kill humans, you need to address the cause.”

Gobler and Esposito both believe the increase in saxitoxin levels may be related to nitrogen in the water caused by leaking septic tanks and sewage that makes its way into bays, though there appears to be no explanation for why the levels are now higher than ever before. 

Meyers said the county has developed a plan to reduce nitrogen pollution, including acquiring $400 million in state and federal grants to improve wastewater infrastructure. The county also is trying to convert 360,000 homes from having cesspools to using municipal sewers.

Experts say the damage already done to the eastern Long Island turtle population, coming during the breeding and egg-laying season, could have long-term consequences.

“We’ve seen very few instances like this before,” said Dr. Russell Burke, the chairman of the biology department at Hofstra University, who also studies turtles on Long Island. “It can take decades to recover.”

Scientists urge White House action to protect bees

More than 100 scientists called on leaders of President Barack Obama’s Pollinator Health Task Force to take action on pesticides to protect and promote healthy populations of bees and other pollinators.

“Bees have been quietly pollinating our crops for millennia, but now they need our help. It is vitally important that we take steps to reduce exposure of bees and other wildlife to these systemic, persistent neurotoxins,” said Dave Goulson, a bee expert and biology professor at the University of Sussex. He is a leader of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s global Task Force on Systemic Pesticides.

The 108 scientists — whose areas of expertise include entomology, agronomy, ecology, ecotoxicology — called on task force co-chairs Gina McCarthy and Tom Vilsack to place a moratorium on use of neonicotinoid pesticides in the United States and to increase investment, research and funding for growers to adopt alternatives.

Almost a year after Europe implemented a moratorium on neonicotinoids, federal policymakers in the United States have yet to take any substantive action.

Bee declines across the country have continued at unprecedented rates — more than 30 percent annually —with significant ramifications for beekeepers’ livelihoods, crops that rely on pollination and the agricultural economy. EPA has refused to finish its review for clothianidin and thiamethoxam, as well as other neonicotinoids, before 2018.

“The president’s task force should listen to the body of science that links pesticides to bee harm and bee declines,” said Jim Frazier, an entomology professor at Pennsylvania State University and commercial beekeeper advisor who specializes in chemical ecology. “These systemic pesticides are not only lethal to pollinators, but at low doses can disrupt critical brain functions and reduce their immunity — leaving them susceptible to common pathogens. The weight of the scientific evidence certainly incriminates neonicotinoids, in line with the 2013 European Food Safety Agency’s review of 800-plus publications that led to the current moratorium on certain neonicotinoids.”

The IUCN’s June 2014 “Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA)” — a review of over 800 studies by 29 independent researchers — documents significant harms to bees and ecosystems from neonicotinoids. Scientists submitting the letter today join others around the globe calling for new, dramatic restrictions on bee-harming pesticides in the United States and beyond. The report also suggests that the current regulatory system has failed to capture the range of impacts of these pesticide products. And it suggests the impacts on ecosystems can, in turn, have even greater impacts on food and farming in the United States.  

“Native bees are important contributors to crop pollination – not only do they serve as our insurance policy when supplies of honey bees are low or variable, but they often contribute as much or more to fruit and vegetable pollination as honey bees do. They can complement the actions of honey bees by flying under different weather conditions or visiting different parts of the plant – leading to more production. In all of these ways, they enhance farmer’s abilities to get their crops pollinated,” said Claire Kremen, PhD, a conservation biology professor at University of California – Berkeley, and co-director of the Berkeley Food Institute. “Policymakers must protect native pollinator habitat on farms and ensure that their populations are not damaged due to harmful pesticides.”

As more studies link pesticides to bee harm and declines, more studies show that neonicotinoid seed treatments aren’t serving farmers or promoting pollination. In a study released in October, the EPA noted, “Published data indicate that in most cases there is no difference in soybean yield when soybean seed was treated with neonicotinoids versus not receiving any insect control treatment.” 

Neonicotinoids are an increasingly widely used class of systemic insecticides that are absorbed by plants and transported throughout the plant’s vascular tissue, making the plant potentially toxic to insects. They are commonly used in commodity agriculture as seed treatments, and also as foliar and granular treatments in nurseries. Neonicotinoids including imidacloprid (Bayer), clothianidin (Bayer), thiamethoxam (Syngenta) and dinotefuran (Mitsui Chemicals) first came into heavy use in the mid-2000s. Additional systemic pesticides that similarly disrupt brain function like sulfoxaflor (Dow) are slated to come to market soon.

Suit against EPA seeks ban on pesticides in flea treatments

The Natural Resources Defense Council has filed a lawsuit seeking to push the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  to respond to its petitions and ban two hazardous pesticides used in popular pet flea treatment products.

The EPA has restricted household use of some neurotoxic pesticides due to concerns that the products can harm children’s brains and nervous systems, but it still allows neurotoxic propoxur and tetrachlorvinphos (TCVP) to be used in flea treatments for dogs and cats.

The lawsuit filed this week seeks to force EPA to respond to cancel all pet uses and manufacturer registrations fo the two chemicals.

“These flea collars leave a toxic residue on pets’ fur, exposing children to chemicals which can have harmful effects on their brains, similar to those from lead,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, senior scientist with NRDC’s health program. “Luckily, there are less-toxic alternatives readily available to control fleas. Nearly a decade has passed since NRDC urged EPA to get these toxic chemical collars off store shelves, but the agency continues to drag its feet. After all, EPA decided long ago that nervous system-damaging chemicals shouldn’t be used indoors, so why is it OK to put them on our pets?”

Flea collars are designed to leave pesticide residues on pet fur, exposing people to the chemicals they contain when they play with their pet or touch pet bedding. Once on a child’s skin, the pesticide is absorbed through the skin or it can be ingested when a child puts their hand in their mouth.

Propoxur and TCVP are types of pesticides that are known to be toxic to brain development, nervous system communication and can cause cancer. Children are particularly vulnerable because their smaller bodies are still developing and their activities, such as putting their hands in their mouths after petting animals or playing, increase the likelihood and amount of these pesticides that can enter their bodies, according to the NRDC.

In large doses, these chemicals can also harm or kill dogs, cats and in extreme poisoning cases, even humans.

To protect against exposure to these chemicals, NRDC recommends avoiding flea collars brands that use them, including: Sergeant’s Pet Care Products, Inc., Wellmark International and Hartz Mountain Corporation. NRDC has updated its Green Paws product guide, which encourages consumers and pet owners to use safer methods of pet flea control.

NRDC’s Green Paws guide also ranks more than 125 flea and tick products based on ingredients, categorizing them by the level of their potential health threat to people and animals.