Why do environmental regulators soft-pedal truly disturbing findings?

rm iwest mugIt's not like we needed another study to tell us that air pollution levels in some places are high enough to make people sick and even kill them. But the way New Jersey environmental regulators handled the public release of  this new study is noteworthy because it's a classic case of government soft-pedaling some truly disturbing news.

Autism explosion starts to look like "It's the environment, stupid" (not the vaccinations)

rm iwest mugThere were two pretty big developments on the autism story today. You've no doubt heard that for a while there it looked like a preservative in vaccinations given to children for measles, mumps and rubella was responsible for the increasing incidence of autism in American kids.

Not so much, it seems. Today the Lancet medical journal retracted a pivotal scientific paper in support of this concept. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal offered some tantalizing research tidbits that, while not identifying a cause, certainly seem to point toward an environmental factor or factors... or possibly social factors.

The backdrop here is that autism rates are skyrocketing in American children. My InvestigateWest colleague Carol Smith was onto this trend more than a decade ago, when the incidence was running  no higher than 1 out of every 500 children. It's now up at something more like 1 in 100 children. That's 1 percent of the population!

In today's news, first the retraction: It was a paper by a bunch of scientists led by one Dr. Andrew Wakefield that in 1998 set off a bit of a panic among parents, particularly in Britain, about the possibilty that vaccinations could be causing autism.

It was an appealing hypothesis, because it would explain why autism rates are increasing seemingly all over.

But years of studies followed.

Study sees parking lots dust as cancer risk


Chemicals in a cancer-causing substance used to seal pavement, parking lots and driveways across the U.S. are showing up at alarming levels in dust in American homes, prompting concerns about the potential health effects of long-term exposure, a new study shows.

The substance is coal tar sealant, a waste product of steel manufacturing that is used to protect pavement and asphalt against cracking and water damage, and to impart a nice dark sheen. It is applied most heavily east of the Rockies but is used in all 50 states.

InvestigateWest photographer again arrested at United Nations climate talks

COPENHAGEN -- For the second time in a week, an InvestigateWest photographer trying to cover protests against the United Nations climate treaty negotiations here has been arrested.

Christopher Crow was taken into custody along with a number of protesters attempting to get inside the Bella Center, where the international summit is being held, InvestigateWest correspondent Alexander Kelly reports.

Kelly will have a more detailed dispatch forthcoming.

Crow was also arrested on Sunday while covering demonstrators who were on their way to shut down Copenhagen harbor in protest of the "cap  and trade" policies international negotiators are haggling over.

Those policies, critics say, are misguided because they allow corporations to buy and sell the right to emit planet-warming gases such as carbon dioxide.  Proponents of the system point to the way it has helped ratchet down sulfur dioxide levels in the United States, lessening the impact of acid rain.

-- Robert McClure

African dust bringing toxic chemicals to U.S., Caribbean; is it killing corals? Hurting people?

It's one of those increasingly frequent stories demonstrating that ecologically, the whole globe is connected -- and why that's not always a good thing:

Pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls are among the contaminants hitching an airborne ride to the United States and other parts of the Western Hemisphere on dust storms blowing out of West Africa. That's according to new research presented at the just-completed annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

[caption id="attachment_6259" align="alignleft" width="197" caption="This image from Aug. 5, 2005 shows African dust spreading west, north and south as the green and yellow. Courtesy Dr. Douglas Westphal, Navy Research Lab, Monterey, CA"]This image from Aug. 5, 2005 shows African dust spreading west, north and south as the green and yellow. Courtesy Dr. Douglas Westphal, Navy Research Lab, Monterey, CA[/caption]

The findings are worrisome because some of the chemicals carried on the trade winds originating in Africa are persistent in the environment, they bioaccumulate, and they are known to be toxic at low concentrations, said U.S. Geological Survey researcher Ginger Garrison, who presented the findings at the SETAC conference in New Orleans.

It's been known for some time now that dust storms blowing off North Africa make their way across the Atlantic and deposit fine particles of dust. I covered that in my Florida days, the Sunshine State being the U.S. region getting the highest concentrations of the superfine dust.

The dust travels as far west as the Rockies and as far north as New England, and tongues of it have reached out across Central America into the Pacific.

Seattle pledges more pollution control to help Puget Sound

The city of Seattle and King County will step up efforts to prevent raw sewage from flowing into Puget Sound and its tributaries, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today.

But the steps are small compared to those called for by environmentalists who want to see Puget Sound and the Duwamish River cleaned up. The current schedule gives Seattle until 2020 and King County until 2030 to almost completely end pollution from so-called "combined sewer overflows." (PDF)

These sometimes-smelly oopsies result from a piping system that mixes untreated sewage with rainwater runoff. Most of the time it's a good system because the rainwater -- aka stormwater, the largest remaining water pollution source in the country -- goes to a wastewater treatment plant.

But when a lot of rain hits overloaded systems like the one King County and Seattle operate, the whole mess comes shooting out into waterways. Sometimes the stuff backs up into streets or even basements.

Major pollution discharges into the Duwamish River are scheduled to continue for decades, despite today's order and despite what's supposed to be a  major EPA effort to clean up the Duwamish.

Such discharges happened 336 times in the Seattle-King County system in 2007, the most recent figures available.

A surprising number of these overflows happen during relatively dry periods after little or no rain.

Pollution from cars makes our kids dumber

In-womb exposure to components of air pollution can depress childrens' IQ scores about as much as exposure to lead, new research shows.

In fact, it might cause as much of a diminution of intelligence as fetal alcohol syndrome, according to a Science News story by Janet Raloff.  The research by Columbia University's Frederica Perera traced exposure of expectant mothers in New York City's Harlem, South Bronx and Washington Heights neighborhoods to components of auto exhaust known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbonsscience-news-cover-august-07. (I can say that five times fast -- can you?)

The exposed children showed an average IQ drop of 4.3 points. While that doesn't sound like much unless it's your own child, Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University, just up the road in Vancouver, B.C., told Raloff that if one extrapolates that across the whole United States:

A downward shift in IQ by 5 points will increase by 3.5 million the number of children who meet the criteria for mental retardation.

It's a pretty clear case of a situation where controlling the pollution would be cheaper for society in the long run, Raloff writes.

Perera's paper was one of several discussed this week at a National Academies of Science workshop that also touched on how car-based pollutants can spark athsma, and how contaminants can turn genes on and off even if they don't outright damage DNA.

The workshop, covered in a wide-ranging story by Bette Hileman in Environmental Health News, delved into whether pollutants might be doing damage by turning off genes, or turning them on at the wrong time in an organism's development.