Endosulfan watchdogs; Agent Orange & prostate cancer; EU adopts "Green Crimes" law; Mile-high pesticides; and more…

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August 21, 2008

Coalition to monitor disposal of sunken endosulfan

On August 21, two months after the June 21 sinking of the passenger liner Princess of the Stars, a coalition of health and environmental groups has formed a new watchdog group called "BANtay Endosulfan” (“Endosulfan Watch”) to monitor the fate of 10 tons of the toxic pesticide endosulfan stored on the doomed ferry when it capsized near the central Philippine island of Sibuyan. The coalition (which includes Pesticide Action Network, the EcoWaste Coalition, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, and Greenpeace) aims to ensure that the chemicals recovered through salvage operations set to begin on August 31 will be disposed in an environmentally sound manner with no incineration or land filling. In addition to endosulfan, the EcoWaste Coalition reports the vessel was loaded with “asphalts, paints, electric transformers and other agrochemicals such as Antracol WP70, Tamaron 600SL, Trap 70WP and Fuerza GR3.” An immediate threat that the group is addressing is the possibility that the salvaged chemicals might be burned in a controversial incineration facility in the province of Cavite or in a Holcim cement kiln. The coalition is also working with PAN Asia-Pacific to ensure that the exemption given by the Philippines government to Del Monte and Dole for using endosulfan will expire as scheduled in December 2008.

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Agent Orange and prostate cancer

In the largest study of its kind, researchers at the University of California Davis Cancer Center reviewed the medical records of more than 13,000 Vietnam veterans between 1998 and 2006 and found that soldiers exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange (and its contaminant, dioxintetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin, or TCDD) were almost four times more likely to develop prostate cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death for men in the US. Exposed vets were also diagnosed with the disease 2.5 years earlier. Agent Orange has been linked to leukemia, Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Meanwhile, a study in the May issue of Toxicological Sciences reports that young rats exposed to purified 2,4-D showed "a significant decrease… in the formation of myelin sheaths" that protect the nervous system. Rats exposed to the herbicide were found to develop "irreversible brain damage." In humans, the journal noted, the impacts of 2,4-D exposure "range from embryotoxicity to neurotoxicity."

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Europe set to adopt "environmental crimes" law

The ENDS Europe Daily News Service reports that the European Union (EU) Council of Ministers has published the final wording of a "Green Crimes" law intended to "criminalize the most serious offenses against the environment." The new law is to be written into the statutes of all 27 EU countries over the next two years. Members of the European Parliament reached a compromise agreement on the scope of the new law in May, listing a wide range of activities that will soon be classified as "criminal." ENDS reports the newly punishable offenses include releasing pollution, shipping toxic wastes, mishandling radioactive materials, killing or trading wildlife, damaging habitats, producing or selling ozone-depleting substances, and "managing waste or managing dangerous activities or substances in any way that 'causes or is likely to cause' death or serious injury to people or substantial damage to environmental quality or biodiversity." Punishable acts can be either "intentional," the result of "serious negligence" or "lack of supervision" and punishment can be applied both to "companies and individuals within them."

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Organophosphate fumes at 30,000 feet

In order to keep aircraft passengers from freezing at high altitudes, hot air from jet engines is cooled down and transferred into cabins and cockpits. But this air can contain toxic ingredients found in the engine oil -- including tricresyl phosphate (TCP), an organophosphate (OP) neurotoxin that is related to other OPs like malathion and diazinon. TCP can cause headaches, nausea, blurred vision, temporary paralysis and long-term neurological damage. Ten years ago, the head of Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority told a Senate Inquiry that oil leaks occasionally contaminate cabin air. Last year, the Australian weekly, Sunday, revealed that flight crews were "secretly swabbing the interiors of passenger aircraft all over the world to see if TCP and other neutotoxins are making it into the plane." The "overwhelming evidence" was that "TCP is indeed getting into aircraft cabins." Brian Haley, a US surgeon has been using brain scans to examine the possible effects of polluted air on cabin crew. Meanwhile, Captain Tristan Loraine, a former Boeing 757 pilot has created a documentary, "Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines," that investigates the risks and Susan Michaelis, a former Australian pilot, has published the first Aviation Contaminated Air Reference Manual.

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Pesticide link suspected in Oregon breast cancers

Oregon and Washington have the nation’s highest breast cancer rates. On average, 47 women in Oregon are diagnosed with breast cancer every week. Ingrid Edstrom, a nurse practitioner with a master's degree in health education, has been using infrared technology to study changes in women's breasts following exposure to pesticides. The Eugene Weekly reports that Edstrom employs “breast thermography” tests using a heat-sensitive IRIS (Infrared Imaging System) that "can potentially pick up on inflammatory changes in a woman's breast tissue months to years before a lump is large enough to be detected by hand or a conventional mammogram." After Edstrom began conducting scans in her Lane County community, she began to notice an apparent link between inflammation of breast tissue and exposure to pesticides containing endocrine-disrupting xenoestrogens (synthesized compounds that act like the hormone estrogen). The report notes that the herbicide 2,4-D, which is frequently applied in Lane County, acts as a xenoestrogen.

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More bad news for bees

Penn State researchers report finding "shocking" levels of pesticides in beehive wax. Scienceagogo.com reports that tests found "unprecedented levels of fluvalinate and coumaphos" -- two pesticides applied to hives to combat varroa mites that threaten hive health. Tests also turned up traces of 70 agricultural pesticides and their breakdown metabolites. While the accumulation of fluvalinate and coumaphos was expected (because the old wax is reused by the bees in building new hives), Penn researcher Maryann Frazier told the 236th meeting of the American Chemical Society that "it was a bit of a shock to see the levels and widespread presence of these [other] pesticides." Every bee tested positive for "at least one pesticide" and pollen tested positive for as many as 31 different pesticides -- six pesticides on average. Frazier expressed concern that some of the fungicides detected "in combination with pyrethroids and/or neonicotinoids can sometimes have a synergistic effect 100s of times more toxic than any of the pesticides individually." The researchers next hope to compare small versus large beekeeping operations and organic versus nonorganic operations.

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Good news, bad news on Bovine Growth Hormone

In mid-August, the environmental community celebrated the news that Monsanto was abandoning Bovine Growth Hormone, a genetically engineered animal drug (aka Posilac®) designed to artificially "pump-up" the milk production in dairy cattle. The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) hailed the demise of "a product with major health, environmental, and public relations problems" but the celebrations were premature. On August 20, the news broke that the rights to manufacture the controversial drug had been purchased by Eli Lilly's Elanco agricultural division. This is a troubling development OCA's "Organic Bytes" newsletter notes, since Lilly is "infamous for marketing drugs with serious and often deadly side-effects -- like Prozac and Cialis." Eil Lilly is the world's 10th largest pharmaceutical corporation with $18 billion in annual sales.

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Learning from the Maasai

When the industrialized world runs out of cheap oil and global warming raises temperatures and lowers water supplies, modern societies will need to learn survival strategies from land-based societies like Africa's Maasai. The BBC notes that the pastoralist Maasai "have learnt over generations how to farm in deserts and scrublands." While the surviving Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya have been "marginalized politically, their way of life deemed out-dated and irrelevant," a new Oxfam report, "Survival of the Fittest," argues that we have much to learn from people who have the "ability to maintain a sustainable livelihood [while]... moving from one place to another and sharing access to water and pasture." Kenya's northeastern minister Mohammed Elmim told the BBC that "pastoralists had been adapting to changes in climate for millennia and these skills could help them cope with the continent's increasingly hot weather." Meanwhile, the New York Times reports, global food shortages have placed North Africans "in a quandary as they are forced to choose between growing more crops to feed an expanding population or preserving their already scant supply of water." The Times reports that Djibouti is turning away from traditional agriculture to experiment with "growing rice in solar-powered greenhouses fed by groundwater and cooled with seawater."

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