andrew schneider investigates

July 30, 2008

Top EPA boss asked to resign

The Environmental Protection Agency’s first administrator to have come up through the ranks has been invited to avoid the likely January rush of fleeing agency heads. Stephen Johnson has been asked to resign now.

The invitation came yesterday from four senior senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee who charged that Johnson had given misleading testimony before Congress; refused to cooperate with congressional oversight; and based agency decision-making on political considerations rather than scientific evidence or the rule of law.

In English, that means that Johnson took his marching orders from the White House rather than the often-ignored army of environmental and health scientists who occupy the agency’s HQ, labs and regional offices.

The Democratic senators sent a lengthy letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey asking that the Justice Department investigate whether Johnson lied under oath while testifying for the committee.


EPA’s Stephen Johnson

The committee members contend that there are contradictions between Johnson’s testimony and the testimony of others regarding the circumstances surrounding EPA’s denial of California’s request for a waiver under the Clean Air Act so it could set strong standards for global warming emissions from vehicles.

Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer said the committee had lost all confidence in Johnson’s ability to carry out EPA’s mission in accordance with the law. Insisting that Johnson has become a “secretive and dangerous ally of polluters” Boxer, from California, called on him to immediately resign his position.

According to the Associated Press, Johnson plans to keep his job. EPA spokesman Tim Lyons said that the administrator’s statements and testimonies before Congress have been truthful and that he will not step down.

Johnson has 27 years with the agency and before becoming the EPA’s 11th administrator in 2005, he headed the agency’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. It wasn’t long before the glee and excitement that many felt at having one of their own heading the agency dissipated as an increasing number of scientific decisions were tainted by political desires.

“Administrator Johnson has done the bidding of the Bush administration and its political allies without hesitation or question,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney and attorney general for Rhode Island.

“He has acted, consistently and routinely, without regard for the law or the determinations of the courts; he has damaged the mission, the morale, and the integrity of his great department; and he has betrayed his solemn duty to Americans who depend on him to protect their health and environment.”

On Dec. 19, 2007, Johnson denied a request by California for a waiver of the Clean Air Act that would permit the states to set tough standards on global warming pollution from motor vehicles. He testified that the decision was “mine and mine alone.”

However, last week, Johnson’s former No. 1 person — Jason Burnett — testified under oath that the administrator intended to grant California the waiver but bowed to White House orders not to do so.

Johnson has angered many congressional Democrats and more than a few Republicans because he has repeatedly refused to appear before committees seeking answers on agency action or lack thereof.

July 29, 2008

Spices protect BBQers from cancer agents

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food additives,Food Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 15:37

For those squeamish barbequers who worry that charring burgers, chicken, steak and about anything else on the backyard grill will cause cancer, take heart. We may all be saved by the what’s in our spice cabinet.

But first, here’s why we need to be saved. The American Cancer Society says that eating large amounts of grilled meat or chicken can increase the risk of developing cancer.

From a culinary perspective, it’s that charring that creates flavor, whether it’s done over an open wood fire, a charcoal or gas grill or in a pan on a stove top. Put meat together with temperatures high enough to char and cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCA) are produced.

But there’s hope.

Scientists in Italy have shown that garlic, sage and olive oil are solid antioxidants and can block the formation of HCA. Some preliminary studies documented that Washington State cherries, especially the tart variety, are loaded antioxidants and very protective, reducing HCA by 60 percent or more.

I know you can mix the cherries with chopped meat and chicken and get the benefit. But I’m not sure what you do with a steak.

The answer may come from J. Scott Smith and his team of food researchers from Kansas State University. They reported that when rosemary extract is added to the surface of a burger before it’s tossed onto a hot grill, the cancer-causing compound caused by the high heat is reduced by 70-percent or more.

Smith says that fresh rosemary could be used, but he tested rosemary extract which, he says, won’t flavor the beef and is still protective.

Today, The Institute of Food Technologists, a not-for-profit international scientific society with 22,000 members, released Smith’s latest study which shows that marinating meats to be grilled may decrease the HCA.

The KSU scientists tested three commercial spice-containing marinade blends on round beef steaks. The steaks were marinated for one hour in an off-the-shelf Caribbean, southwest, and herb mixture, and then grilled at 400 degrees.

The food scientists found that steaks marinated in the Caribbean blend produced an 88-percent decrease in the cancer-causing compound, This followed by the herb blend at 72-percent and the southwest blend at 57-percent.

“Commercial marinades offer spices and herbs which have antioxidants that help decrease the HCAs formed during grilling,” said Smith, the principal researcher. “The results from our study have a direct application since more consumers are interested in healthier cooking.”

July 28, 2008

Radioactive countertops and humor

Filed under: Environmental health issues,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 06:46

One of the most interesting things about writing this blog is reading the comments you send in reaction. Unlike the stories I write for the paper, which seem to generate mostly anti-Bush comments, my blog items attract insightful � and often witty � responses that make me laugh and, sometimes, make me cringe.

For example, in response to my blog item on radioactive granite countertops, I was called on using an incorrect word. I had people “pouring” over a slick magazine rather than “poring.” And I wrote about Realtors with a capitol “R,” when I was really talking about all agents, including those with less training.

But while I’m impressed with the copy editing skills of the blog’s readers, it’s your humor that I most enjoy.

An “unregistered user” told me “I have granite countertops, a microwave oven and a cell phone, that means I have more nuclear capabilities than Iraq and North Korea. I am a superpower. I expect to be a permanent member of the UN Security Counsel by next week.”

“Jack” asked: “All I want to know is if I can run my electric appliances with the granite. Maybe I can cut my oil dependency. Maybe someone can design a car that runs on countertops. Energy independence might be just a countertop away”.

One more unregistered user questioned: “If my ex-wife gets cancer and dies from the granite countertops I insisted on installing, am I liable for murder?”

Willowywisp added: “I was kind of hoping that granite countertops really were radioactive enough to have a giant recall – just because I can’t convince my husband to get something less expensive and more practical because he’s bought into the idea that anything else looks “cheap”. At least he doesn’t want cement countertops like our uber-rich friends have.”

“jcg” wrote about: “Thousands of yuppies proving that they have money to burn by installing heat-sucking, easily etched, realtor-thinks-it’s-cool monstrosities, and dying because the countertops fried them.”

Keep the comments coming. And I wish we required your email addresses. I’d like to chat with many of you.

July 25, 2008

Imported produce getting a free ride?

Filed under: FDA,Food labeling,Food Safety,Pesticides,Risks to children,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 16:00

On the 19th, we ran in the PI a story in the P-I on a hazmat coalition involving King Country and three dozen other political entities that removed from its Web site and handout materials a wallet-sized shopping guide to
which fruits and vegetables contained the most and least pesticides.

The story explained that agri-business groups had urged the county to get rid of the guide. Washington Friends of Farms and Forests said failure to do so would end the very existence of local farmers.

And, as happens every time I write about pesticide residue in our food, my mailbox became clogged with opinions and suggestions from four continents. Really, four.

Some requests are anatomically impossible to comply with. Others are easy to address. For example, here is the link to the guide that the county says it’s rewriting. The data on which the card was based came from USDA analysis of more than 50,000 samples of food.

One thing that I could have stressed when talking about the card was that in most cases, even when residue from five or six different pesticides was found, the total amount of chemical present was usually infinitesimal.

Some of the mail came from people who said they were family farmers “already hanging on by their fingernails.”

I called a few of them to chat and their stories were similar: “Cards like this force people to buy organic.” Or, “we can’t compete with imported food because their labor costs are a fraction of ours and they can, and do, use all the pesticides they need.” Both true.

I also spoke to consumers who said they want to “buy local” because they trust American farmers, but they find that much of the non-organic food on the shelves come from many other countries. A thought repeated by several.

About six of the “farmers” with whom I chatted said they belonged to Ag groups like the “Friends of Farmers” mentioned above. When I asked them why their associations didn’t buy billboards or raise hell about imported food and the lack of government inspection, or why, at least they didn’t demand action from their congressional reps, to whom their groups or umbrella political action campaigns always donate, they replied “good question.”

Interestingly, two of the famers — one from Yakama and the other from Montana — both reminded me that people from the chemical companies that make pesticides sit on the boards of their associations and contribute a good bit of money to keep the groups going.

They also raised the obvious fact that the U.S. chemical companies sell pesticides that are banned in this country all over they world. Thus, looking too hard at what’s comiing back on imported produce would probably not get their support.

Nevertheless, I think I’ll look a bit closer at who’s watching the imports and I’m open to suggestions on where to look.

July 24, 2008

A radioactive kitchen?

Filed under: Environmental health issues,EPA,Random observations,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 13:55

With the abysmal housing market showing absolutely no signs of improving, many homeowners are biting the bullet and upgrading the houses and condos they’re stuck with.

It is fun?

Oh sure, days can be spent poring over slick magazines and equipment catalogs and fondling the stainless steel skin of the goodies lining the aisles of high end kitchen showrooms. For many of us, the fun ends when we’re forced to equate our desires for the newest “professional style” whatever with the realities of the size of our checkbook or credit cards.

Kitchen designers say that picking out the material for the countertops often becomes a battleground if more than one person is weighing in on the decision.

Blame it on the Realtors. For years they’ve touted, often in euphoric terms, the life and death necessity of having granite countertops, and how it’s a “must,” should you ever want to sell that kitchen and the house that accompanies it.

Speaking as one who often cooks for large crowds and has remodeled or had built six kitchens, I urge you to go slowly. I have used far less expensive solid laminates in five of the houses and think it’s great. And yes, the houses sold.

Check out what Consumer Reports says about countertops this month.

But this posting offers an unexpected reason not to buy granite .

This morning, New York Times writer Kate Murphy told the tale of a pediatrician who was have a routine inspection done on a cottage she was purchasing and the inspector found elevated levels of radon, a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer.

A radon measurement and mitigation technician was brought in to find the source.

While passing what the reporter describes as “richly grained cream, brown and burgundy granite countertop” his Geiger counter indicated radiation levels 10 times higher than those he had measured elsewhere in the house.

And now we get into the ever-present dispute of how much is too much.

The Marble Institute of America told the Times that such claims are “ludicrous” because although granite is known to contain uranium and other radioactive materials like thorium and potassium, the amounts in countertops are not enough to pose a health threat.

Health physicists and radiation experts agree that most granite countertops emit radiation and radon at extremely low levels. They say these emissions are insignificant compared with so-called background radiation that is constantly raining down from outer space or seeping up from the earth’s crust, Murphy writes.

However, she said, with increasing regularity in recent months, the Environmental Protection Agency has been receiving calls from radon inspectors as well as from concerned homeowners about granite countertops with radiation measurements several times above background levels.

Tell this to your Realtor.

EPA can’t win on pesticide actions

In the chaotic and weird world of regulating agricultural chemicals, EPA gets praised for banning one pesticide and sued for not banning another, all on the same day.

This morning, a lawsuit was filed in federal court in San Francisco against the EPA to stop the continued use of a pesticide called endosulfan, which has already been banned by the European Union and 20 other countries, according to Kathryn Gilje, director of the Pesticide Action Network.

The suit, which was brought by a coalition of farm worker, public health and environmental groups demands that the EPA ban endosulfan, which is a DDT-like organochlorine. The groups charge that endosulfan is persistent in the environment and poisons humans and wildlife both in agricultural areas and in regions far from where it was applied.

“This dangerous and antiquated pesticide should have been off the market years ago,” said Karl Tupper, a staff scientist with Pesticide Action Network. “The fact that EPA is still allowing the use of a chemical this harmful shows just how broken our regulatory system is.”

Acute poisoning from endosulfan can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, convulsions, and in extreme cases, unconsciousness and even death.

A 2007 study found that children exposed to endosulfan in the first trimester of pregnancy had a significantly greater risk for developing autism spectrum disorders. In addition, endosulfan has been found in food supplies, drinking water and in the tissues and breast milk of pregnant mothers, the suit states.

“Congress gave EPA the duty to protect the public from dangerous pesticides,” said Joshua Osborne-Klein, a Seattle-based attorney for Earthjustice who is representing the coalition. “EPA’s decision to keep endosulfan on the market despite the well-documented risks to children and wildlife is dangerous and illegal.”

Mae Wu, health attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, added: “When EPA doesn’t consider how a hazardous pesticide could impact the health of children, it is breaking the law. She called EPA’s approach to reviewing the safety of this chemical “flawed and dangerous – but also illegal.”

However, when it comes to another ag chemical, carbofuran, EPA has taken a surprisingly forceful and unusual action to protect children by revoking its license to be used.

The insecticide was initially approved by EPA to control pests in soil and on leaves in a variety of field, fruit, and vegetable crops – mostly corn, alfalfa, and potatoes – but now the agency has concluded that “that dietary, worker, and ecological risks are of concern for all uses of carbofuran. ”

“All products containing carbofuran generally cause unreasonable adverse effects on humans and the environment and do not meet safety standards,” the agency said in a statement. And added, “Due to considerable risks associated with carbofuran in food and drinking water, EPA is revoking the regulations that allow carbofuran residues in food. ”

Even though less than a million pounds of the chemical is applied in the U.S., the USDA opposed EPA’s action, saying the carbrfuran is “economically important.” Nevertheless, EPA stuck to its plans.

“Because dietary exposures to infants and children are of particular concern, the Agency is moving to revoke carbofuran tolerances first, before canceling carbofuran registrations,” said the EPA.

This is the first time in 20 years that the EPA has initiated regulatory action against a
registered pesticide,” said agency Spokesman Dale Kemery.

When a pesticide poses risks of unreasonable adverse effects and does not meet the agency’s food safety standard, EPA first tries to reach a voluntary agreement with the registrant, the manufacturer, to phase out or immediately terminate uses.

EPA had no indication that the manufacturer, FMC Corporation, would undertake a voluntary cancellation of carbofuran, explained Kemery.

“So we are moving ahead with tolerance revocation, an important step in the broader process of canceling all uses of carbofuran in the U.S.” he said.

EPA establishes tolerances for pesticides that may be found on foods, and can also revoke tolerances to better safeguard public health and the environment.

“EPA is finally doing the right thing with carbofuran, after years of people demanding that it be banned,” said Earthjustice’s Osborne-Klein. “EPA needs to do the same thing with endosulfan. Americans don’t want these poisons in our food, children, and environment.”

For far more details and background, check out Jen Sass’ blog at the NRDC.

July 20, 2008

Science for sale. Asbestos victim’s loss

From top doctors and scientists to widows, public health experts are mustering to try to keep the EPA from watering down regulations determining the cancer-causing danger of asbestos exposure.

At a meeting in Washington tomorrow, the EPA’s Superfund cops � the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency � will take testimony on the agency’s plans to change the way it estimates potential cancer risk to those who inhale fibers of asbestos.

The scientific debate boils down to a conflict between the public health community and corporations that have used or still market asbestos containing products or material.

The debate hasn’t changed for decades and won’t tomorrow.

Scientists paid by the automotive and chemical industry and miners of sand, tale, taconite and gravel contaminated with asbestos, argue that whichever type of asbestos they use “can’t be harmful” because the size, shape or chemical composition of their asbestos fiber is benign. On the other side, physicians who have treated thousands of asbestos victims, and scientists who have documented the public health toll, just point to the graveyards.


Tremolite asbestos fiber

It’s not as if the hazard from asbestos hasn’t been studied. It has for more than a century and the conclusions are always identical. Asbestos kills.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer declared asbestos a human carcinogen 30 years ago. The World Health Organization and scores of other public health bodies, including the EPA and OSHA, agree there is no known level of exposure that is safe.

Yet, industry continues to fight this battle and spend millions of dollars funding “research” to show that their products could not have harmed or killed anyone.

It’s logical to ask why. But I’m sure you won’t be shocked when I tell you the motivation is money.

W.R. Grace and company announced last month that it will pay $3 billion to those harmed from exposure to the tremolite asbestos from their now-closed vermiculite mine in Libby. Montana.

“The personal injury asbestos litigation in the US is projected to reach $140-200 billion or more in the coming years, in addition to sums already paid,” Barry Castleman, an international authority on medical and legal issues surrounding asbestos, said in comments submitted to the EPA panel.

“Defendant corporations have gone to extraordinary lengths to reshape the scientific literature to defend these cases,” and his testimony cites chapter and verse. Castleman has testified in scores of asbestos trials.


Can Castleman, who has written what is called the definitive work on asbestos and corporate shenanigans, be saying that men and women in white lab coats, sweating over hot microscopes, will accept money to produce bogus science?

Dr. Michael Silverstein, a clinical professor and occupational health specialist at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences has submitted a 29-page report signed by 83 of the nation’s leading public health authorities which, in part, shows the harm to this science-for-hire practice.

In the evaluation of EPA’s asbestos risk assessment process, Silverstein wrote: “There have been no significant new studies or data since 2003 that would provide a compelling basis for another risk assessment proposal.”

He also cited the work of David Michaels, whose new book “Doubt Is Their Product,” discusses in detail the work of those paid to publish “product defense” scientific papers.

Michaels, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Energy for Environment, Safety and Health, documents how this bogus science is conducted on behalf of manufacturers and users of not just asbestos, but of benzene, beryllium, chromium, methyl tertiary-butyl ether, perchlorates, phthalates, and virtually every other toxic chemical in the news today.

“Their business model is straightforward. They profit by helping corporations minimize public health and environmental protection and fight claims of injury and illness,” wrote Michaels, the director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington School of Public Health.

There will be someone testifying that will put a human face on the painful results of this corporate and government intrigue. Linda Reinstein lost her husband to mesothelioma and she is now the executive director of a victim’s group called the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.

She will tell the EPA that the human toll from these preventable diseases is staggering and its efforts to focus on differences of cancer potency of different types of asbestos and particle size sow a high disregard for public health.

“As a widow, I am appalled to see public health risk analysis translated to math formulas that negate the progress science has made towards ending this disaster. Consider the rage of Americans, if we opened discussions about various types of tobacco leaves and their “cancer potency factors,” she wrote in remarks to be submitted.

She says EPA should be using science to prevent exposure to these carcinogenic fibers, not construct a new risk model that build a larger maze of confusion and deception.

“You must prevent disease with regulations and legislation that protect public health not industry. One life lost to asbestos disease is tragic, hundred of thousands of lives lost is unconscionable.”

Do I believe all this effort by these public health authorities, many of whom who have fought this battle for decades, will do anything to force EPA to do what’s best for the public?

Not a chance.

EPA leaders won’t even listen to their own experts, who say there is an urgency by industry’s lobbyists to get this new risk assessment on the books before there is a new occupant in the White House and before agency Administrator Steve Johnson moves on to be a well-paid spokesman for the pesticide or chemical industry.

Remember, this is the same agency that, in its “Value of a Statistical Life,” just lowered its official estimate of life’s value, from about $8.04 million to about $7.22 million.

Mother Jones, the legendary fighter for worker’s safety and health in the 1920s wrote “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

July 17, 2008

FDA: Not so fast all you salsa eaters

Filed under: FDA,Food poisoning,Food Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 18:38

With 1,220 persons infected with salmonella saintpaul in 42 states, the District of Columbia and Canada, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has decided to declare victory in its war against tainted tomatoes.

It’s not that they found the source of the dangerous red fruit. They haven’t. It’s not that people aren’t getting sick, they are. About 30 or 40 new cases are still being added to CDC tally sheets every day. This is about three less oer day than what was reported in June.

The disease detectives have just run out of suspect tomatoes to examine, but since the first of the month they’ve been looking at recently reported clusters of illness, and the epidemiologists are now suspicious of raw serrano and jalapeno peppers. Some investigators are peeking at cilantro. Yes, you’re correct. Put the greens together with tomatoes with their newly issued clean bill of health and you’ve got salsa.

The FDA made the announcement just a day after Western Growers, an agricultural trade association, screamed “enough.” Growers President Tom Nassif urged FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach to make a strong public announcement that all tomatoes grown in the United States, regardless of variety, are safe to eat.

Meanwhile, the FDA says high-risk persons, such as infants, the elderly and people with impaired immune systems, should avoid eating the uncooked peppers.

July 14, 2008

Diseased water runs from lab

Filed under: Environmental health issues,EPA,Salmon,Seafood — Andrew Schneider @ 16:16

Those of us living along Puget Sound do a pretty good job of contaminating the water to the point that wild salmon have a difficult time of it, and we don’t need help from anyone else in making the Sound more precarious to our delectable finned friends.

Nevertheless, there are reports that large volumes of untreated water “laced with fish diseases” was discharged from a University of Victoria laboratory through Victoria’s questionable sewage system and into the water north of the sound.

According to Andrew MacLeod of TheTyee, the problem was only the latest at the lab used by Microtek Research and Development Ltd., a company that makes vaccines for the fish farming and hatchery industries.

The Tyee, a native word for king salmon above 30 pounds, is a daily online magazine covering British Columbia.

As part of a series of three investigative reports on this, the Web magazine collected a large number of university documents and internal e-mails to support its reporting. MacLeod wrote that Microtek, which is the largest user of the university’s aquatic facility, is involved in studying diseases and developing vaccines not only for salmon, but also tilapia and rainbow trout. The Tyee also reported the firm is studying diseased Atlantic salmon, and wrote that “at least one experiment involved sea lice, a parasite some salmon researchers say likely spreads from fish farms to wild fish.”

Several of the huge pens containing millions of faux salmon have been infected with sea lice in the past several months, according to Canadian environmentalists.

Documents discussed in the Web magazine’s reporting show university officials concerned about the safety of the pathogens from the fish lab being released into the waste water.

Tyee said Environment Canada was not notified by the spring release. I made a couple of calls to managers in the Seattle regional office of the U.S. EPA and uncovered no U.S. knowledge of the release.

However, the EPA officials responsible for keeping the sound clean have long been frustrated Victoria’s dumping of untreated sewage into water which flows into the Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

But, at last, our Canadian neighbors say they are finally “planning” to build a proper treatment system.

if you want to checkout The Tyee’s investigation, here’s a link to their site.

For more information on the company doing the research, here is a link to Microtek’s Web site.

July 11, 2008

Feds to ID stores with tainted food

It’s not going to help consumers who still may have E. coli tainted meat in their freezers, but soon the USDA may finally stop keeping dangerous secrets and begin telling the public which stores received potentially hazardous meat.

This morning, Ed Schafer, the Secretary of Agriculture, said that beginning next month USDA will announce the specific retail stores that received meat and poultry involved in a Class 1 recall, which is one that involves a reasonable probability of serious health consequences or death for those with weakened immune systems.

“The identity of retail stores with recalled meat and poultry from their suppliers has always been a missing piece of information for the public during a recall . . . and by providing lists of retail outlets during recalls, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service will improve public health protection by better informing consumers.” said Schafer.

The FSIS will identify supermarkets or other grocery stores, convenience stores, meat markets, wholesale clubs and supercenters, but not distribution centers, institutions or restaurants, since they prepare food for immediate consumption without packaging that is identifiable or available to consumers, the agency said.

However, in a statement issued today, Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, criticized USDA’s refusal to list institutions such as schools and nursing homes that have been shipped recalled products.

(more…)

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