Rachel's Democracy & Health News #840
"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"
Thursday, February 2, 2006
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^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Featured stories in this issue... The Failure of Chemical Regulation: The Case of Mercury Year after year since 1953, researchers have uncovered new evidence that mercury is harming humans and other creatures -- particularly the developing brains of babies. Yet regulators have consistently argued against protecting public health because risk assessments can't prove harm beyond a shadow of a doubt. And so the devastating pollution continues. Study Finds Toxic Threat in Auto Interiors The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has just released a report showing that toxic chemicals are found in automobile interiors at levels 5 to 10 times as high as those found in homes and offices. We've Lost That Croaking Sound "That's the way it happened all over the world. One year the ponds were full of frogs, the next they were empty. Many places that very recently held thriving populations of croaking and singing amphibians have since fallen silent." Chemical Mixtures Are More Toxic Than Their Parts Pesticides and other chemicals can be more potent when added together. University of California Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes has found significant harmful effects on frogs given mixtures of pesticides commonly found in agricultural runoff -- even though levels of the individual pesticides were thought to be harmless and were 10 to 100 times below EPA standards. Massive West Coast Seabird Die-off: Just a Blip or Future Trend? Massive seabird die-offs up and down the west coast of the U.S. are a symptom of a recent collapse of the base of the ocean's food web. :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #840, Feb. 2, 2006 THE FAILURE OF CHEMICAL REGULATION: THE CASE OF MERCURY By Peter Montague Mercury pollution offers us a well-lit window into the failed system of chemical regulation in the U.S. Mercury was discovered harming humans in Japan starting in 1953 -- 53 years ago. Hundreds of people were affected by severe brain damage, blindness, and horrendous birth defects -- all from eating fish heavily contaminated with mercury dumped into Minimata Bay by the Chisso Corporation. Birds and cats were afflicted with the same symptoms. Ten years later, researchers in Sweden were systematically scouring the countryside, finding dead birds with elevated mercury in their blood. This time the culprit was seeds treated with mercury-containing fungicides. In 1966 Swedish researchers held a conference in Stockholm to present their findings and issue warnings -- mercury levels in the environment were rising ominously, partly because of the use of mercury in pesticides, and partly for reasons unknown. The U.S. government sent representatives to the Stockholm conference, but they returned home without making a peep. In 1969, Environment magazine told the story of mercury in Japan and Sweden and openly speculated that mercury would be found throughout the environment of the U.S. if anyone took the time to look for it. No one did. Then in February, 1970, the Huckleby family in Alamogordo, New Mexico was poisoned by a batch of mercury-treated seed that they had fed to their hogs, which provided the family's ham and bacon. Three Huckleby children were severely injured -- one deafened, another was blinded, a third arriving at the hospital raving mad. The story made national news and within 24 hours the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wrapped up "10 years" of research on the dangers of mercury and declared mercury-containing pesticides an "imminent hazard." Within days USDA canceled the registration of mercury-containing pesticides and demanded that the manufacturer recall the product from store shelves. A month later. Norvald Fimreite -- a graduate student at Western Ontario University -- revealed that fish in many lakes along the U.S.- Canada border were contaminated with mercury at high levels (7 parts per million, for example). Ohio closed its portion of Lake Erie to commercial fishing. On June 18, 1970 Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel declared mercury "an intolerable threat to the health and safety of the American people" -- a statement so true and bold that it remains the quintessential summary of the mercury problem 35 years later. Later that same year, 1970, a public interest research organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico -- Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) -- arranged to take samples from the stack gases emitted from the Four Corners coal-burning power plant and analyze them for mercury. SRIC's staff scientist, Charles Hyder, was convinced that burning coal was the major source of mercury in the natural environment. The Four Corners tests proved him right. The Associated Press reported the results -- that burning coal releases enormous quantities of mercury -- but no one with any authority raised an eyebrow, much less a finger. (Disclosure: I worked with Hyder on that project.) Meanwhile, Norvald Fimreite's lonely work around the Great Lakes had aroused the world. Researchers began looking for mercury in fish everywhere. Soon everyone knew that big fish -- fresh and saltwater, both -- contain dangerous amounts of mercury: big walleye, big swordfish, big tuna, big grouper, big pike. Obviously, mercury was concentrating as it moved up the food chain. People began to realize that at the top of the food web you find big bears, large birds, and humans. Soon the U.S. Food and Drug Administration established an "interim" standard, setting 0.5 parts per million (ppm) as the maximum allowable concentration for mercury in fish. It seemed as if science and good sense had prevailed to protect the public. But then the U.S. regulatory system began to work just as it was designed to: in 1977, the nation's swordfish distributors took the FDA to court, demanding that FDA stop seizing swordfish that exceeded the 0.5 ppm limit. The trial lasted four days and when it was over a federal judge had effectively doubled the nation's allowable limit on mercury in fish, to 1.0 ppm. Instead of building a scientific and precautionary case to protect the public, to prevent harm, the FDA caved in to the food distribution industry. In 1979, the FDA announced in the Federal Register that it was formally adopting 1.0 ppm as the new standard for mercury in fish, based in new data provided by the Commerce Department, showing that Americans didn't eat as much fish as the FDA had thought. Relaxing the acceptable level of mercury in fish, the Commerce Department said (and the FDA repeated), would "provide a significant economic benefit to those industries most seriously affected" by the more stringent limit and "enhance the future development of a number of presently underutilized fisheries." Moreover, Commerce and FDA said, a less restrictive rule "would significantly increase consumer confidence in seafood." As the public grew more health-conscious, the consumption of seafood steadily rose, and the FDA turned a blind eye to questions of safety. The FDA essentially went to sleep for 12 years until a report from the National Academy of Sciences embarrassed it again in 1991. At that point FDA began testing fish to see how much mercury they contained, and the agency repeatedly promised to revisit its 1.0 ppm limit on mercury in fish, but it never actually got around to it. That 1979 limit still holds today. In 1997, U.S. EPA set a mercury limit in fish that was four times as strict as the FDA's, but EPA only had the power to inform consumers of the danger of eating mercury-contaminated fish. In 2000 the National Academy of Sciences endorsed EPA's findings. Once again, FDA was being shamed into reviewing its 1979 mercury limit. But again the food distributors had their tentacles deep inside FDA. As Peter Waldman of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported August 1, 2005, "When the FDA issued a revised mercury advisory in 2001, it urged women of childbearing age to shun four high-mercury species: swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico. It didn't mention tuna. Yet cumulatively, according to data provided by the EPA, the four species it urged avoiding account for less than 10% of Americans' mercury ingestion from fish, while canned tuna accounts for about 34% of it." And FDA concluded that it should stick with its 1979 recommendation, outlawing the sale of fish containing over 1.0 ppm of mercury. Why did the FDA not mention canned tuna? The WSJ points out, "Food companies have long lobbied to mitigate any FDA action on canned tuna, one of the top-grossing supermarket items in revenue per unit of shelf space." The WSJ reported that even some EPA scientists concluded that FDA was coddling the fishing industry: "They really consider the fish industry to be their clients, rather than the U.S. public," says Deborah Rice, a former EPA toxicologist who now works for the state of Maine. But in April 2003, FDA caved in to mounting evidence of harm to children, announcing that it would consider adopting the EPA's stricter guidelines for mercury in fish. Later that year FDA and EPA proposed issuing a joint-agency advisory for consumers. The WSJ reported what happened next: "At the hearing, FDA scientists said they had put fish in three categories: high in mercury, medium and low. The level for the low- mercury group was that of canned light tuna, explained FDA official Clark Carrington. 'In order to keep the market share at a reasonable level, we felt like we had to keep light tuna in the low-mercury group,' he said, according to the meeting's official transcript. "Later, the FDA's Dr. Acheson (director of food safety and security) reiterated that point. He told the meeting the fish categories 'were arbitrarily chosen to put light tuna in the low category.'... "Says Maine's Dr. Rice: 'Here's the FDA making what are supposed to be scientific decisions on the basis of market share. What else is there to say?,' WSJ reported. The joint FDA-EPA advisory was finally released and it did warn against eating too much albacore tuna but it did not identify other high-mercury species like yellow fin tuna, orange roughy, grouper, marlin and walleye. In late 2005, the Chicago Tribune investigated FDA's history of work on mercury and concluded, "The Tribune's investigation reveals a decades-long pattern of the U.S. government knowingly allowing millions of Americans to eat seafood with unsafe levels of mercury." The Tribune revealed that the tuna industry often packages a high- mercury fish (yellow fin tuna) but labels it "light tuna" which falls into FDA's "low mercury" category (because, as we have seen, FDA created its categories specifically to make sure "light tuna" ended up in the "low mercury" category). So far, this yellow fin deception has escaped the notice of the FDA. Although FDA has the legal authority to seize fish that exceed 1.0 ppm mercury it almost never does so because it almost never tests any fish -- especially not imported fish, which makes up about 80% of all the fish sold in the U.S. The Chicago Tribune tested 18 fish from each of eight Chicago supermarkets, conducted some simple calculations using formulas provided by FDA, and concluded, "Some samples of grouper, tuna steak and canned tuna were so high in mercury that millions of American women would exceed the U.S. mercury exposure limit by eating just one 6-ounce meal in a week." The Tribune reported, "Many experts now believe that even tuna-fish sandwiches -- a favorite of the American diet -- can be risky for children. "'The fact that we poisoned our air and our oceans to such an extent that we can't eat a damn tuna sandwich is just diabolical,' said Ayelet Waldman, a noted mystery author whose daughter was diagnosed with mercury poisoning at age 5 after frequently eating tuna." She was eating one tuna sandwich per week made from albacore tuna. It turns out that mercury poisoning far more common than you might think. In early 2004, EPA revised its estimate of the number of newborn babies with enough mercury in their blood to cause learning disabilities, sluggishness, and other neurological problems. Prior to 2004, EPA thought "only" 8% (1 in 12) newborns were in danger if having their brains damaged by mercury. Now EPA believes 16% of U.S. newborns, 1 in 6, may be victims of mercury poisoning. In real numbers, this means that 630,000 newborns each year (out of 4 million) may be somewhat impaired even before they start the long journey of life. Furthermore, a small study by Ellen Silbergeld at Johns Hopkins University seems to indicate that adults can be harmed by mercury as readily as children can. "Adults may be just as sensitive to mercury as children," says Silbergeld, who studied neurological function in 52 men and 77 women living in fishing villages downstream of gold mines in Brazil. In the U.S. mercury contamination is widespread, just as Environment magazine predicted in 1969. In 2002, at least 43 states issued mercury warnings for fish covering 12 million acres of lakes and 400,000 miles of rivers. You might think that keeping mercury out of the natural environment, to the extent possible, would be a top public health priority of U.S. chemical regulators, but you would be mistaken. Everyone now agrees with Charles Hyder that the biggest single human- created source of mercury in the natural environment is coal-burning power plants, which emit 48 tons of mercury each year in the U.S. This is a technical problem -- the mercury can be removed from the coal before burning, or it can be captured before it escapes up the smoke stack. But of course the coal industry -- famous for claiming it is now the "clean coal" industry -- resists every effort to try to clean up its mercury emissions. The issue? Just money. Early in 2005, two researchers calculated that the average reduced IQs of U.S. babies caused by mercury in their mothers could be translated into dollars of lost earnings over their lifetimes: $8.7 billion per year is the price tag on diminished IQs, they concluded. When EPA considered issuing new rules to force coal-burning power plants to reduce their mercury emissions, EPA hid the results of a study they had commissioned by Harvard University researchers. The Harvard study had concluded that reducing mercury emissions carried a huge public health benefit and therefore EPA would be justified in clamping down hard on the coal-burners. By hiding this study from the public, EPA tried to claim that the health benefits would be minimal and therefore the power industry shouldn't be required to spend large sums. When asked about all this by the Washington Post in early 2005, EPA officials simply lied, saying the Harvard study had arrived late and was flawed. Neither claim was true and EPA officials knew it at the time they said it. EPA had said the cost to the coal-burners would be $750 million per year, but the health benefit would be only $5 million per year, so cleaning up mercury emissions from coal plants wouldn't be worth it. The Harvard crew calculated that the health benefit would be $5 billion each year -- making it well worth everyone's while to clamp down on mercury emissions from coal. Without apology, EPA and FDA continue to waffle, fudge and fake it -- doing their best to protect the coal industry at the expense of the nation's children and the nation's future. That's chemical regulation, U.S. style. Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Detroit News, Jan. 30, 2006 STUDY FINDS TOXIC THREAT IN AUTO INTERIORS Chemical industry disputes report on dangers; Volvo cited as leader in interior air quality. By Jeff Plungis WASHINGTON -- A report by an Ann Arbor environmental group that says toxic chemicals are present in automobile interiors at levels five to 10 times higher than those found in homes and offices has sparked protests from the chemical industry and interest from automakers. The report, "Toxic at Any Speed," was released by the Ecology Center on Jan. 11, amid the din of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The report, based on samples of windshield film and dust samples from randomly selected cars made by 11 leading manufacturers, concludes there is a pervasive safety threat that few consumers know about: Cars can expose their occupants to worrisome levels of toxic chemicals, emitted from the materials used to make seating, carpets, arm rests and wire coverings. The Environmental Protection Agency has called indoor air pollution one of the top five environmental risks to public health, said Jeff Gearhart, an Ecology Center researcher who co-wrote the report. According to the center's tests, car air quality is worse than what is typically found in buildings and far worse than outdoor air -- at least as far as two types of toxic chemicals are concerned. The pattern of one of the chemicals cited in the report, a flame- retardant named decabrominated diphenyl ether, or deca-BDE, has been accumulating in the environment and is the subject of a growing number of studies, Gearhart said. The chemical has been linked to health effects in laboratory animals similar to other toxic chemicals, like slowing brain development and causing reproductive problems and cancer. "They could create a legacy like PCBs," Gearhart said of the flame retardant BDE, referring to a now-banned toxic chemical that found its way up the food chain. "They have all the lineage of that type of environmental disaster. We think the writing is on the wall. The smart people within the auto industry know that." The Ecology Center cited Ford subsidiary Volvo Car Corp. as an industry leader in following a policy to reduce flame-retardant chemicals as concern has grown in Europe. Volvo and other well- performing companies prove the feasibility of providing safer alternatives, Gearhart said. After the report, Volvo issued a statement touting its models' "best interior air quality." The test scores were the result of a conscious company policy to reduce interior emissions and improve air filtering, the company said. "In an age when many people suffer from asthma and allergies, it is only natural for Volvo cars to offer its customers a good environment even inside the car," said Anders Karrberg, Volvo's environmental director. General Motors Corp. and BMW vehicles performed better than average for all chemicals tested. Mercedes, Chrysler, Toyota and Subaru had higher than average concentrations of both kinds of toxic chemicals. Some companies had dramatically different results for different chemicals. Hyundai had the lowest score of the 11 auto companies tested for flame retardants -- with only a tiny trace equivalent to what is found outdoors. But it had the highest score for a toxic plastic softening group of chemicals called phthalates. The Ecology Center said these chemicals have been linked to liver, kidney and reproductive problems in lab animals. In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said phthalates could cause developmental problems in children. Hyundai officials met with the Ecology Center last week to explore ways to reduce their use of phthalates, Gearhart said. But not everyone is convinced the chemicals cited in the study present a problem. The Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, the industry association representing the four manufacturers of bromine-based flame retardants, said the Ecology Center was asking manufacturers to abandon a proven chemical for alternatives that may not be as effective. There were 297,000 car fires in the U.S. in 2004, the group said. "Automobiles are significant heat sources and therefore require the most effective flame retardants available," forum chairman Raymond Dawson said in a statement. And automakers have already agreed to phase out two of the three flame retardant chemicals cited in the report, said Eron Shosteck, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spokesman. The remaining chemical has been studied by the European Union for 10 years and has been proven safe, Shosteck said. Even so, lawmakers and manufacturers around the world have attempted to reduce exposure to some of the chemicals cited by the Ecology Center. Reach Jeff Plungis at (202) 662-8735 or email@example.com. Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Toronto Star, Jan. 28, 2006 WE'VE LOST THAT CROAKING SOUND Frog numbers keep dropping Frog populations in serious decline around the world Loss of habitat said to be the major cause By Jerry Langton "Frogs are the best bait for bass," says Max Radiff, a retired teacher who used to run a bait shop in Kinmount, a resort town in the Haliburtons. "I used to catch my own frogs and eat frogs' legs too -- the big bullfrogs were always around trying to eat the little frogs, so we'd eat them. Some of them had legs as big as small chicken drumsticks." Radiff has to use artificial lures now, though. "I had some ponds I'd go to regularly and there were millions of them there -- no matter how many you took there seemed to be the same number every year," he says. "Then, one year it was like a curtain fell down and there were none left." That's the way it happened all over the world. One year the ponds were full of frogs, the next they were empty. Many places that very recently held thriving populations of croaking and singing amphibians have since fallen silent. "I collected all kinds of frogs when I was a student in California," says Richard Wassersug, a biology professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and a renowned authority on reptile and amphibian populations. "I was saddened to see some of them are now threatened or endangered species." Canada, where almost all reptiles and amphibians are at the very northernmost edge of their distribution, has been hit particularly hard. Although there is no truly accurate way to determine frog densities, the evidence that does exist is startling. Manitoba used to have a thriving frog export business, sending whole leopard frogs to U.S. biological supply houses for students to dissect. In 1972, 1.2 million frogs were sent down south; in 1973, the number fell to 270,000 and by 1976 there were none at all. There was no change in the laws, no decline in demand -- the frogs simply vanished. And it hasn't just been leopard frogs. "I did my thesis in 1976 when frogs were still plentiful and have been back to the same place pretty much every year since 1983," says Frederick Schueler, curator of the Bishop Mills Natural History Centre and an expert on reptiles and amphibians, particularly those of Eastern Ontario. "Since then, I've only seen two immature frogs -- that was back in 1992." On a recent trek around Lake Ontario, it wasn't until Schueler made it to Presqu'ile Provincial Park halfway to Toronto, that he ran into thriving populations of amphibians. "I heard the booming of bullfrogs," he says. "And it had been so long since I heard it, I actually thought it was cattle." There's no single reason why frog populations have crashed but it has been a worldwide phenomenon that scientists started noticing in the 1950s, but it did not become publicly acknowledged until the '80s. Some species have become extinct, many more are endangered. "I'm reluctant to tell you that it's habitat destruction because people say that so often it's kind of lost some of its impact," Wassersug says. "But everyone accepts it as a major cause, and with amphibians, it's more complex than the space taken up by a house or a road." Because of their unique life cycle, amphibians like frogs are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss. With very few exceptions, amphibians must spend their larval (tadpole) stage in water. But, because they are poor swimmers, the tadpole generally only survive to adulthood in numbers when there are no fish present. What few clean bodies of water remain in this country have usually been stocked with aggressive and voracious sport fish. 'One year it was like a curtain fell down and there were none left' Max Radiff "If you have fish, you won't have frogs," Wassersug says. "One woman asked me why she didn't have frogs in her pond anymore and didn't realize it was because she had stocked it with goldfish." What frogs need to survive is water that's too shallow, swampy or impermanent to sustain fish populations. Years ago, frogs could rely on puddles and ponds created by annual flooding along rivers to lay their eggs safely, but human settlement has put a stop to that. "People like to live near permanent bodies of water," Wassersug says. "And they have worked very hard to prevent flooding." A few species have adapted to take advantage of the drainage ditches beside highways, but they're usually so full of runoff, especially salt, that few can survive for very long. Radiff is sure the reason is pollution. "The ponds are still there, but the frogs are gone," he says. "It's got to be pollution. I've seen what acid rain and especially acid snow can do to aquatic plants -- and frogs are especially sensitive to pollutants." Pollution has also been cited as a culprit for population declines, but no one single chemical has been determined to be more noxious than the others, as DDT was found to be responsible for declining raptor populations in the 1960s. "How can you know which one is responsible? It's a witch's brew of chemicals out there," Schueler says. "Even organic fertilizers have been shown to burn holes through the skin of amphibians." Sometimes, human intervention can make habitat too healthy for amphibians. "When fertilizers enter a water supply, it can create an environment we call eutrophic -- too rich in nutrients," Wassersug says. "A layer of green scum, algae, appears and kills almost everything else in the water." That's when things get even more esoteric for the unfortunate amphibians. "Snails feed on the algae and rapidly multiply," he says. "And there's a parasite called a trematode that spends part of its lifecycle in snails and has been linked to frog deaths in the U.S." As if dying in massive numbers were not enough, remaining frog populations have had to put up with deformities -- particularly common on the banks of the St. Lawrence River -- and the remarkable fact that many male frogs on the Prairies are transforming into females before they can breed. While the situation may appear hopeless, the few frogs left in Canada can be protected and coaxed to breed when and where conditions are right. "A friend of mine in Rochester, N.Y., has transformed her backyard into a frog breeding area," says Schueler. "All she did was put a little pond in there with some ground cover. She now has three species of frogs breeding there when there were none in the area before." Of course, not everyone can build a pond in their backyard, but there are things people can do to ensure frogs don't become extinct in their neighbourhood. "People should avoid using herbicides and insecticides on their lawns, not stock fish in every body of water they find and provide hiding places around shorelines for frogs to hide in," Wassersug says. Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Oakland (Calif.) Tribune, Jan. 24, 2006 CHEMICAL: MIXTURES MORE TOXIC THAN THEIR PARTS Studies find pesticides and other chemicals are more potent when added together By Douglas Fischer Chemical mixtures, such as the soup of pesticides found in agricultural run-off, can be vastly more toxic to humans and creatures than a single chemical, suggesting current efforts to assess health risks posed by such compounds significantly underestimate their danger, researchers find. The threat comes not just from pesticides: The plastic lining your soup can, the additives used to keep nail polish from chipping and beach balls from cracking, even the trace amounts of DDT found in your house dust all can have an effect when mixed with others far greater than any single chemical alone. And that means, scientists say, that safety tests used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration -- where one compound is tested and regulated in isolation -- miss the real effects of the chemical stew making up our world. The most recent finding came Tuesday from University of California Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes. His report, published in the online version of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found significant harmful effects on frogs given mixtures of pesticides commonly found in agricultural runoff -- even though levels of the individual pesticides were thought not to cause harm and were 10 to 100 times below EPA standards: ** Frogs treated with the mixture were, on average, 10 to 12 percent smaller than the untreated control group. ** Nearly 70 percent of those frogs succumbed to a common pathogen that the control group successfully fought off. ** In the control group, those frogs that spent the most time in the water as tadpoles were the largest. But tadpoles swimming in the treated water found the reverse -- the longer they stayed tadpoles, the smaller they were as frogs. ** Treated frogs developed holes, or plaques, in their thymus, an organ crucial for suppressing disease. ** Those frogs also had high levels of corticosterone -- a hormone, similar to one also found in humans, associated with stress and known to decrease growth and retard development. And in a related paper, also published Tuesday, Hayes showed these chemicals are quite efficient at switching testosterone to estrogen. Which means the testes of exposed male frogs don't produce sperm. They produce eggs. "Metolachlor" -- a common herbicide -- "Doesn't do anything on its own," Hayes said Tuesday. "But mix it with something else and it becomes bad somehow. You add them all up and you get significant effects. Representatives of CropLife America, a trade group representing pesticide companies, had no comment Tuesday on the new findings. The group has long said, however, that there is insufficient evidence that pesticides harm frogs. Chemical manufacturers decry any effort to link extremely low levels of their chemicals to harm. "The data are extensive. The exposure is quite low. It takes really high levels (to see effects)," said James Lamb, a former regulator who is now consulting for the American Chemistry Council. "We don't have a lot of data on children, but with data on adults, we don't see effects." But what alarms Hayes is that he sees effects in frogs at 0.1 parts per billion, far below any health threshold. The urine of a farm worker contains, on average, 2,400 ppb of some of these compounds. Hayes said he could dilute that urine and effectively castrate 720,000 frogs. We don't know what that means for humans, however. But Dr. Shanna Swan, a researcher at the University of Rochester, has found an association between low fertility in men and pesticide concentrations in urine as low as 0.1 ppb. "All we know is that humans are exposed to large amounts of chemicals," Swan said. "Rodents are exposed to one chemical at a time." Swan has found similar problems in baby boys born to women with high levels of phthalates (THAAL-ates), a common additive used to make nail polish chip-proof, to dissolve fragrances in cosmetics, and to soften plastics. That meshes with research by the U.S. EPA in North Carolina that finds phthalates, when added together at levels known to cause little or no problems individually, somehow afflict upwards of a quarter of the test animals with permanent reproductive damage. Levels of those phthalates in the amniotic fluid of the most highly exposed women in the U.S. are not too far from levels known to cause harm in rats. And, Hayes notes, a fetus in amniotic fluid is not all that different from a tadpole in a pond. "It's like pregnancy: The longer you're pregnant, the bigger your baby. The longer the tadpole (stage), the bigger the frog," Hayes said. But for the tadpole, at least those in pesticide-laced run-off, that is no longer true. "It's like, the longer she's pregnant, the smaller your baby's going to be," Hayes added. "That says the womb is not a nurturing place." Wire services contributed to this report. Contact Douglas Fischer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 30, 2006 SCIENTISTS FEAR UNUSUAL WEATHER BEHIND MASSIVE SEABIRD DIE-OFF By Robert McClure Alone in the nest, the starving seabird chick looked a little woozy. Then it collapsed. Hours passed before the desperate mother bird returned, a fish tail sticking out of her beak. Again and again she offered the fresh morsel. But it was too late -- the baby bird was dying. "It's an ugly, gut-wrenching thing to watch," said University of Washington researcher Julia Parrish, who witnessed such a scene repeatedly last summer, hidden amid the cacophony of 6,000 nesting murres on Tatoosh Island off the Olympic Peninsula. The murres' unusual mass starvation became a clue in a mystery unfolding along the West Coast. Weather, scientists know, is the key to the puzzle. For some reason, winds and currents crucial to the marine food web just didn't happen on schedule last year. Seabird breeding failures in the summer were preceded by tens of thousands of birds washing up dead on beaches in Washington, Oregon and California. And Washington's largest colony of glaucous-winged gulls also sputtered: Where 8,000 chicks normally fledge, 88 did last year. "The whole process broke down," Parrish said. "We don't know what happened." Earlier this month, 45 researchers met in Seattle to hash out the cause. Though they couldn't trace the source of the weird weather, many are warily eyeing the coming spring, wondering: Was that just a blip, an anomaly -- or is this what global warming looks like? Recall that at this time last year, Seattleites were cooing about a string of sunny winter days -- if they weren't complaining about the lack of powder on the slopes at Snoqualmie. It was warm and dry. It marked the third year of above-normal ocean temperatures. Then rain started pouring in early spring. At a time when the birds should have been making and feeding babies, a network of beachcombing citizen-scientists run by Parrish instead found them dead. "It was the birds that were the first harbingers of this whole problem," said Bill Peterson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which set up the Seattle meeting. The dramatic downturns among certain bird species didn't happen in a vacuum. Researchers last year also recorded low catches of juvenile salmon and rockfish, and there were sightings of emaciated gray whales. Those findings were preceded by the first-time appearance in Washington of thousands of squid normally not found north of San Francisco. And a kind of plankton typically found near San Diego bloomed along Northwest beaches. A scientist studying the longest-running set of indicators of Pacific Ocean conditions says we can expect this kind of thing to repeat as the planet warms and weather patterns are altered. "There are all these unconnected reports of biological failures," said John McGowan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. "It's all the way up and down the coast. ... There's a lot of evidence there are important changes going on in the Pacific coast system." 'The smoking gun' By the door to Parrish's office is a little sign: "I really need to stop depending on birds for important information. They're cute to look at but don't have much upstairs." From her perch above a courtyard at UW's College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences in Seattle, Parrish directs the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team. About 300 volunteers scour Oregon and Washington beaches for dead birds. Based on monthly surveys, researchers estimated the dead birds numbered in the tens of thousands. Dominating the toll were the Brandt's cormorant and the common murre. "They were clearly starving to death -- no fat, reduced musculature," Parrish said. "The smoking gun is no food." Unlike migratory birds, they were stuck with what the Northwest coast had to offer. Unlike birds with wider-ranging diets, such as gulls, both rely almost exclusively on diving deep underwater for small schooling baitfish that also feed whales, seals, salmon and other animals. At Tatoosh Island, it looked like the same story. The murres like fatty, nutritious sand lance, herring, surf smelt and eulachon -- the latter nicknamed "candlefish" because they're so full of oil that, when dried, they can be placed upright and lit to burn like a candle. For a murre, eating those fish "is like popping little energy bars," Parrish said. But last summer the murres brought back no sand lance and hardly any herring. Catches of the other two fish also were reduced. Instead Parrish's research team saw them toting fish like the Pacific saury, which they had almost never seen the birds eating in 14 years of watching them. "The steak and chicken fell out of the diet," Parrish said. "It's like going to the grocery store and (seeing) there are only a few yucky things in the store. You adapt by using what's there." The phenomenon was widespread. At Triangle Island in British Columbia and California's Farallon Islands, researchers saw a third seabird, the Cassin's auklet, show signs of starvation, said Bill Sydeman of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. The Farallon auklets started the breeding season late. Only half as many as normal even tried. Then they abandoned the nests. "That's unprecedented in 35 years of studying Cassin's auklets on the Farallons" and unnoted in decades of anecdotal accounts before, Sydeman said. In nearby waters, researchers found a 60 percent reduction from the last year in the birds' primary food, a tiny shrimplike crustacean called krill. Up in British Columbia, the birds eat a different form of plankton -- yet also had trouble raising young. No one thinks a single year's breeding failure is a catastrophe for overall populations of the birds. They live many years. But it was unusual and widespread enough to spark urgent questions. "It's something having to do with food," Sydeman said. "We're all pretty sure." Weather sparks meeting Along the coast of Washington and Oregon, researchers think they know what happened: The wind didn't blow. Usually in the spring, a weather maker called the Aleutian Low that throws winter storms our way moves north. Soon strong winds blow from north to south. Because the Earth is turning to the east, these winds push the surface of the Pacific to the southwest, leaving a little gap in the water near shore. Water from deep in the ocean surges up to fill the gap. It's cold water, loaded with nutrients from dead plankton, dead fish, fish excrement and more. "Basically, you can think of it as a lot of schmutz that settles to the bottom," Parrish said. The cold water is fertilizer to the ocean garden. No cold water, no plankton. No plankton, no sand lance or other "forage fish" -- staples of many fish and birds. Last year, though, the winds from the north didn't start in March or April as they normally do. Nary a wisp came until late May, and it didn't really get going good until mid-July. The scientists' meeting in Seattle was organized to bring together oceanographers, atmospheric scientists, marine mammal experts, seabird biologists and researchers who model ecosystems and ocean circulation. "The weather guys didn't really know what to say other than it was weird weather. That's not very satisfying," said Peterson, the oceanographer. The term "global warming" oversimplifies a chain of coming changes -- some related to warming, some not, but happening simultaneously, scientists emphasize. Climate change is superimposed on natural cycles. "We're all scientists. ... We want to know why, and if it could happen again," Peterson said. Instead, they will write a series of scientific papers carefully documenting their observations. A look at the past, said Scripps' McGowan, is telling: In the last 30 years, the top 300 feet of the Pacific warmed and became more dense. Off Southern California, zooplankton are down 70 percent, fish larvae 50 percent, and there have been massive die-offs of kelp. McGowan's institution has studied ocean temperatures since 1919 and started a comprehensive Pacific monitoring project in 1949. In Puget Sound, the number of seabirds dropped by nearly half since the 1970s. Nearly a third of seabird species are legally protected or candidates for protection. "All kinds of things are changing, and the biology is responding in funny, non-linear, confusing ways," McGowan said. "Not everything has declined, but many things have." Gulls abandon nests The largest gathering of nesting seabirds in Washington happens every summer at Protection Island, between Sequim and Port Townsend off the northeast Olympic Peninsula. It's also the state's largest colony of glaucous-winged gulls. There, researcher Joe Galusha of Walla Walla College has studied the gulls for 25 years. Last year the birds began gathering as usual. About 8,000 paired up, established nests and laid eggs -- just as always. The gulls seemed to have no trouble gathering food -- unlike the murres at Tatoosh Island. The gulls have a much less specialized diet than the murres, which may explain the difference, Parrish said. Even so, most of the gulls later abandoned their nests. Galusha thinks bald eagles may be to blame. When he started watching the gulls in 1980, the eagles' numbers were way down. Perhaps seven or eight harassed the 8,000 or so gulls by the early 1990s. Their numbers grew gradually to the point that last summer, up to 38 different eagles menaced the gulls simultaneously. Every time, the gulls had to take flight -- which burns energy. Most simply gave up. In the end, 88 chicks were fledged where 8,000 to 10,000 normally are. "We classify that as catastrophic reproductive failure," Galusha said. Simple, right? Maybe not. Galusha and others still want to know why eagles are increasingly turning to Protection Island. Is their food supply also in flux? "Next summer is key," Galusha said. "This may simply have been an aberration." The Sea Doc Society, a University of California-Davis research arm, is about to fund a study by Parrish to investigate seabird diets in the Puget Sound region. Nathan Mantua, a UW scientist studying the effects of climate change on the Northwest, said he will run climate simulations to see how often this kind of thing could have been expected in the past and how often we might expect it as man-made greenhouse gases alter the climate. "We don't know if it's just a random thing or something we might expect to see more or less of in the future," Mantua said. "If you're thinking this is just an unlucky roll of the dice, how often will it happen again?" ===================================================== Sidebar: WEIRD WEATHER With ocean temperatures warming to unusually high levels over the last three years, scientists noted a string of unusual happenings affecting marine life from northern California to Alaska. Triangle Island: Nesting success plummeted for the Cassin's auklet, a seabird, in 2005. Lake Washington and Ship Canal: About half the 2004 run of sockeye salmon -- some 200,000 fish -- failed to materialize. Scientists suspect overly warm water was the cause. Whidbey Island: A Humboldt squid, normally found in Mexico and southern California, turned up on the beach on Jan. 2. Protection Island: Last summer, glaucous-winged gulls that normally fledge about 8,000 chicks produced only 88. Tatoosh Island: Breeding started late for common murres last spring. Only about one-fifth fledged chicks, compared to up to four- fifths in a good year. Northwest Coast: Tens of thousands of common murres and Brandt's cormorants -- emaciated at a time of year they should be flush -- turned up dead on Oregon and Washington beaches in spring 2005. Southern Washington to Alaska Panhandle: Numerous sightings of Humbolt squid, which normally lives off Southern California and farther south, in summer 2004. Northwest coast: Gray whales migrating from Mexico to the Bering Sea had so exhausted their fat reserves that their bodies were misshapen as they passed by last spring. Northwest coast: Scientists trawling for young salmon found counts extremely low in spring and fall 2005. Northern California: Scientists trawling for young rock- fish found counts very low in 2005. Farallon Islands: Auklets that abandoned their nests in unprecedented numbers. Where hundreds of chicks normally are produced, only a handful were in 2005. Lack of food is blamed. Monterey, Calif.: Large number of seabirds found dead on beaches in spring 2005. ===================================================== P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or email@example.com. Copyright 1998-2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all. The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. 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