Saturday, March 12, 2011

Toxins: A Global Threat

Credit: Jiang He / Greenpeace
Toxins: A Global Threat took place on Friday, March 11 and Saturday March 12 at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center (at 98th and Madison) hosted by The Mount. Sinai School of Medicine Global Health Training Center and is the institute's 9th Annual Conference on Global Health. For more details visit the Event Page.

Richard Fuller, President of the Blacksmith Institute: Remediating Toxic Waste Sites in the Developing World
Fuller talked captivatingly about the process of identifying, categorizing, and cleaning up hazardous waste sites around the world.  The Blacksmith Institute has committed to be not another advocacy group but one deeply fixed in the issues with strong technical standards, helping with concrete solutions. Founded in 1999, the Blacksmith Institute has now completed over 50 projects in 20 countries and is currently working on the GIP, Global Inventory Project, a review of the toxic hotspots throughout low and medium income areas in the world. They formalized a system to maintain consistent results that involves a three-day training process to help locals categorize the hotspots. They avoid countries with ongoing conflict, where government support is impossible or non-existent, and where projects are already in the process.  The categorization involves identifying the pollutant, pathway, and population effected. 

They have found that it is generally small, local companies or government agencies that make the messes because larger, multinational corporations are held accountable for their actions by their consumers in developed nations and can be prosecuted there. 

The top three polutants are lead, mercury, and chromium and the Blacksmith Institute has found that an estimated 100 million people worldwide are effected (to put that into context, 34 million worldwide have HIV and 14 million, TB).  Children are disproportionally effected because of their size and developing brains.  Their equation for rating sites is very simple, in fact, Fuller shared it with us:
log 10 (population effected) + log 10 (intensity x severity) + 1 (if severe and persistent). 
They use this system to rate sites on a scale from 1 to 10, and have so far rated 2100 sites.  Clean up is relatively inexpensive, coming out at around $10 per person effected. 

Questions for Consideration:
  1. What is being done to educate the industry, locals, and populations of developed nations about these issues?
    • Some countries are doing better in terms of education and cleanup than others (ex. China has spent $630 million and plans to spend another $6 billion). The nations that are behind can often attribute this to lack of government infrastructure, which takes time to build. But the overall situation is improving. 
  2. What do you replace these industries with in communities where the toxic jobs are their source of livelihood?
    • Often the industries can be replaced with similar ones done in a safer way (ex. battery recycling --> collection center for batteries to send to a safe recycling center).
  3. How can you remove lead from the soil?
    • The lead is dug up, collected, and put into a sealed and covered landfill.
  4. Do you use bioremediation in any of these circumstances?
    • In some instances bioremdiation is useful; however, plants are often uneffective because of the limited reach of their roots. Ex. A type of Australian worm was used in India to successful reduce amounts of chromium in the soil - they burry down and eat the chromium until they are sick and come up to the surface to die.
  5. There is often a battle between Fortune 500 companies and local ones as to who is to blame. The point was also made that globalization of trade is a major part of the problem (see my The Economics of Happiness blog post).

Lewis Goldfrank, MD: Importance of Toxicologic Research in Global Health
Goldfrank spoke about the fact that of death by injury, suicide accounts for 16.9% in low and medium income countries. Many of these suicides are committed by despaired farmers who intentionally ingest fatal quantities of pesticides. Both in suicidal and accidental cases, pesticide ingestion is a growing issue and restrictions need to be put on the use and availability of these chemicals, especially in developing nations where emergency and poison control care is extremely limited, or even nonexistent.  

Goldfrank also commented that poisoning is preventable and that any case of poisoning that makes it to the emergency room or poison control center is a failure in the medical system. Poisoning needs to be thought of in context of the Haddon Matrix, that is pre-event, event, post-event and host, agent, environment. 

Toxins are "glocal" issues - effecting many communities around the world.

Hydrofracking and Advocacy Panel Discussion
1. Al Appleton, Former Commissioner of the NYC DEP
This was the second time I have heard Al speak (I also heard him at the Gasland screening at Dalton, which I also blogged about), and each time he has been incredibly charismatic with insertions of witty humor. His first anecdote was a piece of advice he had received when he was young: There are 2 reasons one dies in war - law of averages and stupidity. You can't do anything about the law of averages, so you have to prevent the stupidity. Public health is our attempt to prevent the stupidity. 

Fracking rips up the environment is is the energy of the past - fracking is like going backwards when we have green energy that can take us ahead. We need to ban fracking for most areas, and areas in which it is not banned need to have strict regulations. However, regulations will do no good if there is no enforcement to back them up. At this point, he argues, the industry shouldn't even be brought to the table. They have shown that they are unwilling to compromise and add nothing to the discussion. 

He adds that if there are any letters you should write, it should be to the following people:
  1. Cuomo - The NYC watershed should be made sacrosanct and off limits.
  2. Shelly Silver (Assembly Majority Speaker) - We can not afford to compromise on this issue.
One of the great points he made was that there should not be a distinction between activist and citizen. 

2. Tracey Carluccio
Tracey is from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and spoke about the activism side of the situation. She spoke about the moratorium and much of the history on the regulations on the Delaware River, and what Riverkeeper has done to try to keep the river safe. 
Pedre is a doctor working in private practice focusing on integrated medicine and disease prevention. 
He has come to understand that holistic health is important and that even small levels of environmental toxins can be harmful. Hydraulic fracturing is currently taking place in 34 states and other countries and is a practice that is unfortunately spreading. Doctors need to unite against hydrofracking.  While thinking about making a group of physicians against fracking, he realized hat it would be more productive to create a physicians for social responsibility group, and is in the very early planning stages. 
He also stressed the use of social media in environmental campaigns such as fracking. 
His wife has a blog called Mothers United for Sustainable Technology (MUST).

4. Dr. Perry Sheffield
Dr. Sheffield is a pediatric doctor focusing on environmental medicine. Dr. Landrigan and she recently published a paper on the effects of climate change on pediatric health - Global Climate Change and Children's Health: Threats and Strategies for Prevention (a very interesting article).

She talked about the importance of education of environmental health issues and of hydrofracking risks. She also said that it is a more reasonable question to ask ourselves whether any fossil fuel use should be acceptable. 
Before we do any fracking, we must study the following: 1. Water (of which there is an EPA investigation, with many holes), 2. Health Impacts (on children especially), 3. Disaster Management Planning. We need to uncover the true costs of fracking and make them apparent. We need to get rid of the incredible subsidies that exist for fossil fuel burning. 

Questions for Consideration:
  1. What steps can we take to spread the word and educate about hydraulic fracturing?
  2. Would a carbon tax be helpful?
  3. What is the most sustainable energy source? There seem to be issues with each one, but which is the best?
  4. What role does social media play in environmental movements like fracking?

Barry Castleman, ScD: Asbestos: Exporting Hazardous Waste around the World
Credit: TreeHugger
Castleman is a chemical engineer who has studied asbestos for many years.

Asbestos inhalation kills 10,000 people per year in the U.S. and 107,000 per year globally.  It is a mined chemical fiber used in thermal insolation, pipe coating, and a number of other products as reinforcement.  Symptoms have a "maturation period," meaning they often don't show up for more than five years after exposure. In 1898 asbestos was recognized to cause health problems, and it wasn't until the 1920s that asbestos was described in medical journals. However, it was the insurance companies that first realized asbestos exposure as a liability risk and refused to insure many asbestos workers. 

Castleman also mentioned that the role of the media is crucial in awareness and regulations against asbestos. in 2006 the WHO and ILO made a consensus to ban manufacturing of asbestos products. Currently China and India are the largest users of asbestos, and Canada, which was previously the foremost mining country has almost completely stopped production. 

Questions for Consideration
  1. What role does social media have in the role of public education on issues such as asbestos inhalation?
  2. What role does corporate social responsibility play in the regulation of asbestos use. 

Phillip J. Landrigan, MD, M.Sc., Dean for Global Health, Mount Sinai School of Medicine: Plastics, Pesitcides and Global Health 

The world population is now 6.8 billion, and, of that, 2.2 billion are children - 2.0 billion of those are in the developing world.  Children are disproportionately affected by toxins.
Landrigan talked about three case studies:

  1. Pesticides: Flour contamination in Jamaica
    • After much investigation, it was finally concluded that the contamination took place in the Port of Hamburg, Germany where the flour was kept hazardously close to pesticides without proper containment. It was also discovered that products being shipped to developed nations such as the United States and the EU were much more carefully kept.
  2. Export of Banned Industries: Mercury --> Nicaragua
    • A company dumped 40 tons of mercury into a lake that was also the source of drinking water, and when mercury droplets started coming out of faucets an investigation was finally conducted. 
  3. Hazardous E-waste export to third world countries
    • The hazardous export of e-waste to third world countries where it is inevitably picked apart by women and children and then left to pollute the environment is an incredible showing of international inequity. This is a topic I am passionate about and will write future blog posts on. Annie Leonard talks about the topic in her eloquent movie The Story of Electronics.

Questions for Consideration:
  1. Having organized a number of "e-waste drives" for my community, I have heavily researched the topic and have seen some reports that show that even what is supposedly responsibly recycled e-waste is often shipped off to third world countries. 
    • Answer by Dr. Sheffield: There is a new e-waste recycling plant that opened in Long Island, NY that recycles the materials responsibly, locally, and safely, and even has video cameras in their plant to ensure this.  I have not yet been able to find this company online, so if anyone knows of it, please leave a comment below. 
    • I also found the website of a company called Newtech Recycling, Inc. which is based in NJ and claims to be environmentally responsible. 
  2. Being involved in the sustainability and environmental movements, I have seen a sort of disconnect between all the people working on the issues such as scientists, journalists, activists, etc. How can we work to bring together all these people who are working for similar goals but often in isolation and competition. How can we move to favor collaboration in all of this?
As always, please comment with any ideas, questions, suggestions, etc.!

1 comment:

  1. There is indeed a disconnect between people working on these issues. I am "acting" in isolation, finding it very difficult to unite with like-minded individuals because they tend to keep to their own organizations which deal with only a single aspect of health. Or, in the case of Greenpeace, this prestigious NGO tends to sometimes overlook the link between environmental and health issues, as in the case of GMOs. One idea is to hold informational meetings for exchange of ideas. At the end of this month, the Swiss electromagnetic advocacy group, Gigaherz, is organizing a Congress on Electrosmog, inviting legislators, physicians, scientists, advocates from a number of European countries and presenters from Canada, Germany, France. One makes contacts at such meetings which leads to further exchange. Prof. Belpomme, President of ARTAC, one of the presenters at this Congress, has been successful in linking health organizations with environmental groups throughout Europe and collaborates with other European - and even American scientists. He's mentioned coming to the US to talk to our legislators! We need this type of exchange on a global scale. This is one of the "projects" I've been working on - to act as a sort of bridge between Europe and the US. I signaled Dr. Landrigan's work to Prof. Belpomme who will use it in the upcoming Paris Symposium on Children's Health and the Environment.