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Monthly Archives: July 2011

In California, furniture manufactures must meet some of the stringent regulations in not just the country, but the world.  Stuffed furniture such as couches and beds must withstand 12 seconds of flame without catching on fire.  To comply with standards, manufacturers drench stuffing in a chemical called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) to make it flame resistance. 
 But a new study of pregnant women in California suggests that exposure to this chemical may be doing more harm than good.
The study followed 416 mainly Mexican women in Monterey County, California from 1999 to 2000.  With each year that the women lived in the U.S., their blood level of PBDE increased  4%.  Pregnant women who had the highest levels of PBDE in their blood suffered from reduced thyroid hormone concentrations and difficulties becoming pregnant.  Other studies with animal and humans have also linked PBDE to neurological disorders in both the mother and her offspring.
Old furniture is believed to pose the biggest risk.  In 2006, California law makers banned the use of pentaBDE, the most commonly used flame retardant, but furniture built before 2006 would still contain this chemical.  As old furniture breaks down, the toxin is released and contaminates household dust that can then be breathed directly into the body.
Foam items such as mattresses, pillows and car seats will likely contain PBDEs if made before 2005.  Be careful around fabrics that are not completely encased in protective fabric.  You can also use a vacuum fitted with HEPA filter to help remove contaminants.
Researchers will now turn their focus to how children born to women with high blood levels of PBDE are affected.  The study will be looking for links with modern day health issues such as changes in the start of puberty in children, neurodevelopment and behavioral disorders such as autism.

The Amazon rainforest is amongst the largest in the world, spanning nine countries including Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and the three guianas. With nearly 20% of Earth's oxygen being produced by the Amazon, it has earned the nickname, "the lungs of our planet."
Globalization drives the clearing of the Amazon as emerging economies need more and more resources. Huge domestic and foreign markets for timber, soy, beef and cocaine fuel the clearing of the southwestern Amazon.
Brazil's National Institute for Space Research tracks deforestation from outer space. In the month of May of 2011, 268 miles of the Amazon were cleared, a 144% increase since May of last year. 35% of this deforestation occurred in the state of Mato Grosso where agricultural expansion is responsible for much of the clearing. More than 70% of cleared land of the Brazilian Amazon is turned into pasture land for cattle that supplies the fast food industries.
In the northeastern region of the rainforest however, much of the Amazon is still untouched by roads, mining, oil exploration and agricultural expansion. Indigenous tribes such as the Zoro, Diahui, Cinta and Surui have lived in the rainforest for millenia and are as connected to the rainforest as their ancient ancestors were. The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is an environmental group of social entrepreneurs who advocate and protect the Amazon by working with indigenous tribes.
ACT has worked with the Surui Indians for more than a decade. By combining the Surui's expertise of the Rondonia and Brazilian border and modern technology, together they mapped their land with GPS systems and labtops.   “It brought together generations of ancient knowledge with 21st century technology” says Dr. Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team.
Dr. Plotkin says globalization can be better managed. “I don't want to see these forests turned into chop sticks for the Chinese or burgers for fast food. There's no easy solution [but] It's never too late.”
By mapping important trees and plants used for medicinal purposes, bodies of water and breeding areas for wildlife, tribes can define their borders and manage and maintain the biodiversity of their land.
The Suruis and other indian tribes were given the rights to their land decades ago by the Brazilian government.  Yet they have endured years of grave abuses and murders by loggers and miners who consider any attempt to organize as a threat.  
ACT has won $1.6 million from the Skoll Foundation to protect 114 million acres of Amazonian forest through the Biocultural Conservation Corridor initiative. The Skoll Foundation was founded by Jeffery Skoll, the first employee and president of eBay.  ACT is the first environmental group to win a Skoll grant.  The grant will fund to train indigenous tribes how to be park guards, learn to communicate with state and national governments and provide them with the technology needed. 

Lack of access to health food has long been blamed for the rise of obesity in low income neighborhoods.  We are often reminded of the abundance of McDonald's, Wendy's, KFC's and Chinese food carry outs compared to the scarcity of green grocers.
But a new study out of the University of North Carolina has found that simply building super markets isn't enough to improve diets.  The study tracked 5,000 adults, ages 18-30 in Birmingham, Chicago, Minneapolis and Oakland for 15 years.  Researchers found that those who lived in food deserts and had access to large grocery stores did not necessarily eat a healthier diet.
A food desert is defined as an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, typically found in low income communities.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 23 million Americans live in such a place and as a result eat more fatty, cheap food.
While proximity to fast food restaurants increases one's consumption of fast food, proximity to grocery stores does bring increases to consumption of fruits and vegetables.  For one thing, grocery stores also sell plenty of cheap, fatty and processed foods.
Penny Gordon-Larsen, an author of the study and associate professor at University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, says that multiple approaches are needed to effect positive changes in people's dietary habits.  "Dietary behaviors are complex.  There needs to be attention to the quality and costs of foods offered, promotion of healthier food items [and] educational efforts."
Obesity experts are calling for a comprehensive plan to improve what people are eating that involves programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.  The program provides year round vouchers to low income women for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Education is equally important in the voucher program as the money.  In a 2010 study, educating voucher recipients of the program was key to helping them make better choices in the super market.  

We launched Planet Harmony last April with a story on the community of Mossville, Louisiana. The residents there live in the shadow of 14 petrochemical refineries and suffer from some of the highest cancer rates in the country. Now the human rights lawyers representing the people of Mossville are using Planet Harmony's report in their historic appeal to the Inter America Commission on Human Rights.

Monique Harden, one of the lead lawyers in the case, filed this brief to the Commission:  "It will be interesting to see how the administration will deal with the fact that the arguments it presented in its first brief to the Commission are entirely contradicted by the statement made by EPA Administration Lisa Jackson in her interview with Ike Sriskandarajah."

The U.S. Government claims that the people of Mossville "have not exhausted domestic remedies" which is a requirement to be heard by the IACHR.  But EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told Planet Harmony: "I think the Mossville case is a really interesting one because . . . they had to basically make a case that the laws of this country do not provide them an opportunity for redress. And it is true that at this point there are no environmental justice laws; there's nothing on the books that gives us the ability to do it."

Harden said she was surprised by Administrator Jackson's statement in our report, "heck yeah I was surprised and joyful, greatful." She added about the admistrator, "this is a person who gets it."

The EPA was not immediately available to comment. Harden and her firm, Environmental Human Rights, say that this will be definitely be a "sticking point" for the Government's defense. 

We'll be following this story as it develops.  In the meantime here's the report in full:  

SRISKANDARAJAH: Mossville, Louisiana is old. The village was founded by freed slaves. They chose to settle land with deer to hunt, fish to catch and fertile soil to grow rice and sweet potatoes. Today the descendents of those settlers live in a very different place. Christine Bennett’s family has been living here for four generations.

BENNETT: The place that was once so beautiful and so clean is now a dump.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The petrochemical industry built 14 factories where she lives. They make things like siding for houses and each year release four million pounds of carcinogens such as benzene and vinyl chloride.

BENNETT: What happened to that place that I was reared at—that I can go back and share with my children. This is where my ancestors are. But now part of it is gone, the rest that’s left there is a little ghost town people and starving for life.

SRISKANDARAJAH: We met up with Bennett on her way to file a petition in Washington D.C. on behalf of her community’s human rights. Now, after five years of back and forth with the Government, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will hear the case.

FARRIOR: Well this case is important in a number of respects.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Stephanie Farrior teaches International Law at Vermont Law School.

FARRIOR: It is the first environmental case coming out of the United States to go to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So this is the first? So nobody’s tried this before? FARRIOR: Not from the United States.

SRISKANDARAJAH: But other environmental cases have succeeded. In 1985 The Yanomamo Indians charged the Brazilian government with violating their human rights.

FARRIOR: So that was the first environmental case that came to the Inter-American Commission.

SRISKANDARAJAH: For 50 years the Commission, made up of members from Canada to Argentina, has provided a last line of defense for human rights in the Americas. The United States has been before the Commission on complaints about the death penalty and Indian land claims. But this is the first environmental case from the U.S. to reach the Commission.

FARRIOR: And the commission found the petition actually did make out several potential claims regarding two important rights. One is the right to equality and freedom from racial discrimination, and the other, which they linked to the environment, the right to protection of the law against abusive attacks one’s life, family life.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Racial discrimination and health impacts of polluted environments have been notoriously hard to win in American courts. Jerome Ringo—former Chairman of the National Wildlife Federation—consulted on another Mossville case. That succeeded in buying up homes of residents closest to a petrochemical factory.

RINGO: Today the first mile from the plant, from the fence line of the plant to a mile into Mossville is abandoned and the property now is owned by the industry and that is contaminated property.

SRISKANDARAJAH: This suit compensated for property damage, but personal health damage…that’s another story. Legal standards make it difficult to pinpoint which of the 14 plants, if any, is to blame for the high rates of cancer in the area.

RINGO: The EPA and the CDC does studies that really check the chemicals that are being discharged by a specific plant, but I am not aware of any study that monitors the chemicals that once they meet into the atmosphere and they mix what do we have then?

SRISKANDARAJAH: This toxic chemical mix is a hallmark of Louisiana’s infamous cancer alley. The emancipated slaves who settled Mossville had land, but no voting rights to protect it. With the boom in the chemical and plastics industries after World War Two, companies found little resistance to building factories in these disenfranchised, black neighborhoods. Today, government researchers find three times the national average of dioxin levels in Mossville residents.

RINGO: Well you know that’s the responsibility of government. We recognize that we have an EPA, who is now doing great job because of the leadership of Lisa Jackson.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Jackson is the first African American administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. And she cares about this area. JACKSON: That’s right. It’s where I grew up.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The administrator has made environmental justice a centerpiece of the EPA. But she says that the laws of the United States still don’t provide adequate protection to its poor and minority populations.

JACKSON: And I think the Mossville case is a really interesting one because what the petitioners argue, as I understand it, is not in order to get heard they had to basically make a case that the laws of this country do not provide them an opportunity for redress. And it is true that at this point there are no environmental justice laws—there’s nothing on the books that gives us the ability to do it.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Since 1994 a U.S. presidential order has mandated equal protection for minority and low-income populations. But implementation is weak. This isn’t only a problem in North America says Santiago Canton. He’s the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

CANDON: We hear that over and over again from people that come to the Commission saying that they try to exhaust local remedies in their own countries, they tried to find justice in their own countries, and they couldn’t find it, so that’s why they come to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In the coming year the Commission will determine the merits of the Mossville case. This could be a lengthy process as 1,500 petitions are filed every year. But, international lawyer, Stephanie Farrior, says just getting the case heard is a victory.

FARRIOR: The Commission’s decision to let the case go forward really goes to the very foundation of human rights law. Conditions of severe environmental pollution are inconsistent with the right be respected as a human being. And I think that’s what this case is about.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And depending on the outcome, this case could open a new channel to protect and defend the human right to a clean and safe environment for all American citizens. For Living on Earth and Planet Harmony I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.

CURWOOD: Ike is the Senior Editor of Planet Harmony, and everyone is invited to participate in our new online network, and we especially encourage young people of color to share their stories of environmental concern.

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Pollution and chemicals have long been blamed for disrupting our hormone systems and permanently altering how our bodies carry out vital functions. Evidence has pointed to endocrine disruptors causing girls to hit puberty at younger and younger ages, causing undescended testicles in young boys and lowering the sperm counts in men.  Now, yet another study is pointing to toxic chemicals in the environment that are causing women to experience menopause at much younger ages than average.
The study done by London's Imperial College found that one in every sixteen women are experiencing premature menopause or Premature Ovarian Failure (POF) in the UK.  In some cases women are experiencing menopause 15 years earlier than the average age of about 50.  Researchers examined the health records of 4,968 of 50 year old women across the UK and found links to smoking, poor diet and PFC's which are chemicals found in non stick cookware and food packaging.  Women who had the highest levels of PFCs were found to have the lowest levels of estrogen in their blood.
Endocrine disruptors such as PFCs not only affect estrogen levels but also can disrupt the pituitary and thyroid gland which plays an important role in regulating hormones.  The study found that hydrocarbons in cigarette smoke led to egg cell death.
Poorer women were more at risk due to increased chances of a combination of poor diet, smoking and inadequate health care.  Poor women are not the only women at risk however.  In a Daily Mail interview, leading nutritionist Dr. Marilyn Glenville said that "as we become more of a stress driven, sedentary society with young girls exercising less and drinking much more than previous generations, we may be looking at an epidemic of POF in years to come."
The study did produce some good news however.  Premature menopause was not found to be linked to birth control pills and although there were hereditary links found in some cases, genetics did not always decide a woman's fate.  Rather, POF was found to be an auto-immune response as a result of stress, poor diet and trauma.  However, once a woman's reproductive system shuts down, she may never regain her ability to have children. 


A pipeline owned by Maple Energy burst on Sunday in the Peruvian Amazon spewing toxic oil into the Mashiria River.  Indigenous community members from Nuevo Sucre were then hired to clean the spill and equipped with nothing but rags and buckets.  No training, no protective gear and no warning about the potential health hazards were given to 32 Shipibo workers whose families fish and drink from the Mashiria River every day.  
This is the sixth oil spill in just two years that Maple Energy is responsible for.  Sunday's spill marks the second time since 2009 that locals have been hired to clean up the mess with their bare hands.  During previous clean ups, Maple Energy employees only "supervised" the Shipibo workers without participating in clean up efforts themselves.  
According to a 37 page complaint filed with the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) by local human rights groups, Maple Energy refused to allow community members to leave Nuevo Sucre after another spill in 2010.  The oil company was accused of renting out all the boats in the community to ensure that no one left.   The company told community leaders "no one can leave Nuevo Sucre for Contamana, because everyone is going to work here, the young and adults too."  Maple Energy was also accused of human rights abuses, refusal to pay for goods and sexual harassment. 
In 2007, the IFC granted Maple Energy $40 million to expand their operations in the Peruvian Amazon.  Over 70% of the Peruvian Amazon is now open for drilling as a result of the former Garcia administration who pushed for the oil boom.  In 2009, tensions between government police and locals exploded in violence during a protest against the oil companies and their human rights abuses.  The protest left 23 police officers and at least 10 protesters killed.  Locals say however that the number of protesters killed is much higher but was concealed by dumping the bodies in the river.  
Indigenous rights groups such as the Federacion de Comunidades Nativas del Bajo Ucayali (FECONBU) are now asking Maple Energy to compensate community members in the form of clean drinking water, food and health assistance.  They are also asking that Maple Energy extend the most basic courtesy, to provide workers with protective gear and fair pay.

Photo by Amazon Watch

A new strain of the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea has been discovered in Japan that is resistant to all available antibiotics.  The gonorrhea "super bug" strain, H041, threatens to turn what is now an easily treatable infection into a global public health problem.  
Most strains of gonorrhea are already resistant to at least one major class of antibiotics.  But now, the H041 strain has developed an extreme resistance to all cephalosporin-class antibiotics which are the only available antibiotics effective in treating the infection.
Bacteria become resistant to drugs through evolution.  When bacterial colonies are first exposed to antibiotics, the weakest and most susceptible die off first leaving the strongest to survive.  The strong then reproduce and pass on their drug resistant genes to their offspring creating a new generation of stronger bacteria.  Eventually over the course of many generations and constant exposure to antibiotics, all of the new bacteria that is produced carries more and more drug resistant qualities.
Since the 1940s, gonorrhea has been treated with antibiotics.  Many strains built up resistance to penicillin and tetracycline in the 1970s taking only a decade to become wide spread.  Since the 1980s, more strains became resistant to fluoroquinolines.  Gonorrhea is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the world.  According to the CDC, in the U.S. over 700,000 cases occur each year.
It is too early to determine whether H041 is already widespread but finding the strain in Japan follows a pattern that researchers call "alarming."  In an interview with Reuters, Dr. Unemo said that "Japan has historically been the place for the first emergence and subsequent global spread of different types of resistance in gonorrhea."
Newly emerging bacteria that are multi-drug resistant are known to be able to spread rapidly through out the world. Resistant tuberculosis for example, has spread to 64 countries, claiming 150,000 lives each year. 
In a study out of the University of Gothenburg, bacterial DNA that carries antibiotic resistant genes can travel swiftly not just to different types of bacteria but also to different bacterial species.  Overnight, one bacterium can multiply into a billion.

Job hunters looking to use their skills to better the environment have a new online resource to help them locate green jobs in the DC metropolitan area.  The Mid-Atlantic Regional Collaborative (MARC) has launched a new site called the MARC Green Consortium that allows users to search for environmental training programs, jobs as well as view job market trends.
The site was created thanks to a $4 million grant from the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration in hopes of connecting green employers to job seekers.  Energy efficiency; green house and pollution reduction; recycling and waste management; agricultural and natural resource conservation; education and public awareness are some of the most popular industries featured.
According to the site's own tracking, 235,600 green jobs exist in the DC, Maryland and Virginia area alone.  That number is expected to rise 12% in the next two years.  Fifty percent were found in the construction, technical and education and policy sectors.  The fastest growing green sectors in DC and Maryland are in architecture and engineering while in Virginia its law related positions.
The study found that those without a bachelors degree are at a much greater disadvantage.  Only about 6,500 jobs in the area do not require a bachelors degree, the case is even  in DC.  Nearly 70% of the jobs available in DC required a bachelors degree or higher while only 23% required the same in Maryland and 26% in Virginia. 
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate in 2010 amongst those with a bachelors degree 5.4%.  For those with just a high school diploma, that percentage jumped to 10.3%.  While the Green Consortium is a step towards building a stronger green economy, the site may not be as much of a benefit to those who need it the most.

At a time when Europe is reeling with an E. coli outbreak that has sickened 4,100 and claimed the lives of 40, the House has passed a bill that would cut funding for the Microbiological Data Program.  The ten year- old program tests annually about 15,000 samples of produce including sprouts, spinach, lettuce and tomatoes for deadly pathogens such as E.Coli and salmonella.  In just two years the program’s findings have caused the FDA to make 19 recalls.
The Microbiological Data Program (MDP) is the only national program that screens fruits and vegetables on a regular basis.  The program was created in conjunction with the Pesticide Data Program (PDP), which tests pesticide levels in produce.  Both programs are operated out of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and are partially funded by the produce industry.  The MDP and PDP report their findings to the Food and Drug Administration which then decides if a recall is needed.
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service was designed to promote U.S. produce but the industry claims that the MDP’s findings are counterproductive because they may hurt consumer confidence in farmers.  In a letter to the Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsak, the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Advisory Committee called to defund $4.5 million from the program.  In a Chicago Tribune interview, David Gombas of United Fresh Produce complained that the MDP’s findings were causing recalls, saying that,"over time it got twisted and it turned into a regulatory program where they were finding contamination and turning it over to the FDA and causing recalls."
But food safety advocates say the industry's attempts are motivated by profit.  The Environmental Working Group has called the proposed bill a "serious diservice" to public health.  The industry claims that the money could be better spent elsewhere because other programs such as the Food and Drug Administration also screen for pathogens.  However, the FDA screens annually only 1,000 samples of produce a year.  Even more concerning, the FDA does not screen for as many E. coli strains including the non-O157 strain responsible for Germany's outbreak.
According to the World Health Organization, foodborne illnesses costs the U.S. both monetarily and in lives.  Diseases such as cholera, E. coli and salmonella cost $35 billion annually in medical costs and loss of reproductivity and causes 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year.

The Sunshine State is filled with hundreds of fresh water springs. A family trip to Wakulla Springs reminds commentator Andrew Skerritt of the beauty of this natural resource and the need to conserve it for future generations.

Florida is the Sunshine State but it’s also blessed with more than six hundred fresh water springs. You can swim in some, including Wakulla Springs. Andrew Skerritt recalls his first dip.

SKERRITT: Every cell in my body seems to protest as I step gingerly into Wakulla Springs. The average water temperature is about 68 degrees, but on a steamy-hot Florida afternoon, it feels near freezing. But I’ve come twenty miles from home in Tallahassee – it’s too late to turn back. It’s time to be baptized into one of the deepest and largest freshwater springs in the world.

I’ve lived in Florida longer than anywhere else in this country, but it takes a visit from my sister-in-law to lure me into this glorious water. My ten-year-old daughter accompanies me in. She holds nothing back as she swims to the nearest wood platform. Before long she’s running and jumping feet first into the green lagoon. The water is clear as crystal on the surface but murky at the bottom. Since the nineties, invasive hydrilla plants have threatened to choke and muddy this piece of paradise.

A trip to Wakulla Springs makes for the kind of idyllic summer day that southern novelists have long teased us about – those languid days of swinging from ropes into clear, clean water. When the sun’s rays dance over the surface, when time slows and the only things that seem to matter are the collision of flesh against water and the laughter of black birds in the distance.

The springs sit in the heart of Wakulla Springs State Park, long considered to be the gem of the Florida state park system. But this natural resource is more barometer and less ornament. Every day, 260 million gallons of water emerge from subterranean caverns, enough to satisfy a city of two and a half million people. The health of the spring reflects the quality of our drinking water.

The full majesty of the park and spring hits home as I stand on the observation and diving platform overlooking the springhead. I pretend to enjoy the view as I ponder testing my mettle. At fifty, have I finally mustered the courage to leap from a twenty-foot diving platform? As if to lend words to my thoughts, a father and son standing nearby banter about jumping in. The boy is fearless, while the older man hesitates. He hasn’t tried a cannon ball from this platform in twenty years. He’s unsure if he remembers how. This used to be the father’s spring. Now summers belong to his son.

That brief exchange illustrates what the spring, this iconic body of Florida water, symbolizes. It’s a community resource passed down from one generation to the next. It’s part of our environmental legacy, a gift. And each dive, each cannon ball, each collision of body against water serves like a handshake sealing a contract honoring our commitment, to conserve, preserve, and protect it.

Andrew Skerritt teaches journalism at Florida A&M University in Tallahasee. His book, “Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial, and the AIDS Epidemic in the South,” will be published this fall.

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