Chemicals at work taking their breath away: work-related asthma

Pump Handle - April 24, 2015

Researchers with CDC’s National Institute for Occupational (NIOSH) report that nearly 16 percent of current asthma cases in US adults are work-related. The reported findings are based on data from the Behaviorial Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) Adult Asthma Call-back Survey (ACBS) and reported this month in Morbitity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). The survey respondents, made up of adults from 22 states, answered “yes” to the question:

“Have you ever been told by a doctor or other health professional that your asthma was caused by, or your symptoms made worse by, any job you ever had?”

The proportion of every-employed adults who answered “yes” was highest in Missouri (23.1%) and Wisconsin (21.1%) and lowest in Hawaii (9%) and New Mexico (13.5%).  The authors note the likelihood that the data understates the problem, writing:

“clinicians documented occupational exposure in only 7% of adult-onset cases indicating that work-related asthma is underdiagnosed in the US; thus results are likely underestimates of the true proportion” of the disease.

This may also explain the wide difference between States in reported work-related asthma cases.

On the heels of these findings is the report on a cluster of asthma cases from workers employed at a manufacturing facility in Massachusetts. The company makes syntactic foam which is used in large floatation equipment for the offshore oil and gas industry (e.g., this New Jersey company.)

The Massachusetts Department of Health learned of the cases through a unique program which requires healthcare providers and laboratories in Massachusetts to report certain occupational injuries (e.g., amputations) and illnesses (e.g., asthma.) From 2008 through 2012, six different physicians reported to the Massachusetts Occupational Health Surveillance Program a total of nine case of work-related asthma among employees at the plant.

The MMWR article describes the cases, which began with a 53 year-old worker who was a non-smoker and had no history of respiratory disease. He worked as an electrician and traveled throughout the facility repairing and maintaining equipment. His physician initially treated him for bronchitis and his symptoms would improve when he was off-work. After suffering several years with chronic breathing problems, he quit his job to work elsewhere. 

The cluster investigation is summarized in this week’s MMWR and elaborated on in a NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE). The HHE describes the toxic soup of chemical hazards he and the other workers at the plant were exposed to:  

“polystyrene beads, epoxy resins (e.g., bisphenol A, epichlorohydrin, bisphenol A diglycidyl ether), amines (e.g., triethylenetetramine), reactive diluents, carbon fibers, milled fibers, glass microspheres, polyester resin adhesives, anhydrides (e.g., methyltetrahydrophthalic anhydride) and catalysts.”

The facility (which is not named in the MMWR or the HHE) had been subject to OSHA inspections in 2007 and 2009. Among other things, the company was cited for an inadequate respiratory protection program. An EPA emergency response team also visited the facility in 2009 following the report of two employees being hospitalized because of chemical exposure.

In early 2012, the NIOSH investigators interviewed workers from the plant. The investigators write:

“Many [workers] felt that skin irritation and breathing problems were common among employees; some felt health problems were to be accepted as part of the job, as good jobs were difficult to find.”

Despite being cited previously by OSHA for the same problem, the NIOSH investigators found many deficiencies in the company’s respiratory protection program. Page after page of the report told me that this workplace was ripe for causing asthma and other injuries.

About half of the 165 workers at the plant identified as Black and another 10 percent as Hispanic. Sixty-nine percent were born outside the US. 

At the conclusion of NIOSH’s HHE, the agency provided about two dozen recommendations to the company to improve working conditions and cases of work-related asthma. Some of them involved equipment enhancements and substitutions of safer chemicals. Others involved a program to monitor employees’ respiratory health to identify early cases of occupational asthma and refer workers to a healthcare provider with expertise in occupational lung disease. The company is not compelled, however, to implement any of the recommendations. The HHE notes that the company took a few of those steps, but I’m not convinced they’ve done enough to stop taking away their workers’ breath.

Categories: Health

Long-Term CO2 Record by Keeling Named National Historic Chemical Landmark

Yale Environment 360 - April 24, 2015
The Keeling Curve — a long-term record of rising carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere — will be named a National Historic

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The Keeling Curve Chemical Landmark, the American Chemical Society announced yesterday. The late geochemist Charles David Keeling began collecting precise, systematic data on atmospheric CO2 concentrations at Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958. Since then, the rigorous and continuous measurements have become the most widely recognized record of humans' impact on the planet, helping to illustrate the link between rising CO2 levels from burning fossil fuels and global warming. Other works highlighted by National Historic Chemical Landmark program include the discovery of penicillin, deciphering of the genetic code, and the works of Rachel Carson, Thomas Edison, and George Washington Carver.
Categories: Environment, Health

Interview: Oklahoma’s Link Between Earthquakes and Energy Development

Yale Environment 360 - April 23, 2015
In recent years, Oklahoma has experienced a stunning increase in the number of earthquakes. Yet despite numerous

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Earthquake occurrences in Oklahoma since 2008. studies to the contrary, state officials have remained skeptical of the link between this seismic boom and oil and gas activity. That ended this week with the announcement by the Oklahoma Geological Survey that oil and gas wastewater injection wells were, indeed, the “likely” cause of “the majority” of that state’s earthquakes. Oklahoma geologist Todd Halihan, who has examined this issue, welcomed the announcement. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Halihan outlines some ways that the abnormal seismic activity in Oklahoma might be tamped down. But he also explains why he believes the problem has no quick or easy fixes.
Read the interview.
Categories: Environment, Health

Yale Plans to Charge University Departments for Carbon Emissions

Yale Environment 360 - April 22, 2015
Yale University has announced that it will enact a novel carbon-pricing mechanism in the next academic year in hopes of curbing its greenhouse gas emissions. Devised by a committee led by economist William Nordhaus — an expert on the intersection of climate change and economic policy — the program will operate in a pilot phase for three years before possibly going into full effect, the university said. According to the committee's report, departments within the university would be charged based on how much their carbon emissions deviated from average levels in the past. The report recommends a price of $40 per ton of carbon dioxide, which is based on current federal legislation and the government's estimates for the social cost of carbon. "We didn't see anything like this" when reviewing other institutions' carbon-pricing schemes, Nordhaus told E&E News, saying he believes Yale's program is the first and most comprehensive of its kind.
Categories: Environment, Health

Occupational Health News Roundup

Pump Handle - April 21, 2015

Last November, a roof section larger than a football field collapsed at the Woodgrain Millwork in Prineville, Oregon. Luckily, no one was harmed. However, mill workers, who spoke of a variety of workplace hazards, say they had alerted management to the leaky roof long before the collapse, reported Amanda Peacher for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

In 2004, Woodgrain, a global company with manufacturing facilities across the U.S., bought the 14-acre Prineville mill. Noting that each of the 23 former mill workers interviewed for the story described a “roof riddled with leaks,” Peacher writes:

Peggy Murphy managed inventory at Woodgrain. She described leaks throughout the building, and onto electrical equipment.

“It was a downpour on some of those machines. Like if you were standing in a shower,” she said.

Workers dealt with the leaks as best they could. They’d place buckets at their feet so they wouldn’t get soaked.

Brian Godat, a forklift driver, said he sliced a 50-gallon bucket in half and placed it sideways on two sawhorses to catch water at stairs, not far from the cut shop where the roof collapsed. During heavy rain, workers said, the bucket would fill every few hours.

Workers said they hung plastic sheets above cut saws to redirect the water.

According to former workers, maintenance staff instructed them to mark problematic leaks with red tape. Sam Rufener, who supervised the cut shop, remembers the red tape on several electrical panels. He said those leaks were not fixed.

Peacher described other hazards at the mill as well, such as Woodgrain’s temperature policy stating that “heat is used for manufacturing purposes only and not for comfort.” In turn, she reports, workers were forced to wear layers of bulky clothing and gloves, which made cutting lumber difficult and possibly dangerous. In reporting on OSHA’s response to the collapse, Peacher wrote:

The anonymous complaint that brought Oregon OSHA out to the mill after the collapse said, “The day before the employer was aware that the roof was unstable, and leaking water, in the building and on an electrical panel.”

The inspector’s visit was narrowly focused on the roof collapse so, state OSHA officials said, he was not responsible for investigating safety overall. But they also said that during any site visit inspectors can probe about potential safety concerns.

The inspector did not ask detailed questions about the leaks or potential hazards in an environment where water was falling onto workers, equipment and the concrete floor, according to OSHA. He did not ask how long the roof had been leaking, or if it had ever leaked onto electrical panels in the past.

Following the roof collapse, the Woodgrain company closed most of the Prineville operations and laid off hundreds of workers. Read the full investigation here.

In other news:

The New York Times: Last Wednesday, April 15, thousands of low-wage workers across the nation took to the streets to call for a minimum wage of $15 an hour and justice on the job. Reporter Noam Scheiber writes: “The protest by tens of thousands of low-wage workers, students and activists in more than 200 American cities on Wednesday is the most striking effort to date in a two-and-a-half-year-old labor-backed movement that is testing the ability of unions to succeed in an economy populated by easily replaceable service sector workers.” Joining fast food workers last week were armored guards, part-time college professors, child care providers and many more. Scheiber reports that there was initially some skepticism within the Service Employees International Union as to whether the union should spend millions organizing fast food and other low-wage workers. To that, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said: “We can no longer change our lives, and our kids’ lives, without the support of a broader movement of workers.” Visit Fight for $15 for all the coverage and check out the video below of one of last week’s protests in Pittsburgh.

ThinkProgress: Sacha Feinman reports on the aftermath of the Feb. 18 explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California, and which sent a “chemical ash” raining down on the surrounding community. Feinman writes about the slow government response as well as worries among residents that no one really knows what the possible health impacts might be. He also reports that the Torrance facility has a long history of accidents, such as a 1994 explosion that injured 20 workers. Regarding the February explosion, Feinman quoted Dave Campbell, the local United Steelworkers representative: “The truth of the matter is that the only reason workers weren’t killed that day is because they were out on a coffee break.”

Slate: United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has filed an official complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Walmart of shutting down five stores in retaliation of workers organizing for better pay and conditions. Reporter Beth Ethier writes that Walmart claims the stores were abruptly shut down for plumbing repairs. However, the giant retailer has announced that the more than 2,000 workers who suddenly lost their jobs will have to re-apply as new applicants. Workers were literally given just a few hours notice that the stores would be closing and they would be out of work. Ethier reports that the now-closed Walmart store in Pico Rivera, California, was the site of some of the earliest OUR Walmart wage protests.

In These Times: Workers at the online media site Gawker, often known for its quick wit and unique contribution to political discourse, are hoping to form a union, reports Alex Lubben. Lubben writes that Gawker staffer Hamilton Nolan said that while Gawker is good place to work, forming a “union in good times will protect their staff in bad times.” Lubben also writes that Gawker’s efforts could set a progressive example in the world of online publishing and new media: “Gawker’s union drive is bigger than any particular workplace dispute. Nolan stressed when we spoke that they are unionizing because they believe in unionism. ‘Every workplace could use a union,’ Nolan wrote in his post announcing the union drive. ‘A union is the only real mechanism that enables employees to join together to bargain collectively, rather than as a bunch of separate powerless entities.’”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Australia Could Attain 100 Percent Renewables by 2050, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - April 21, 2015
Australia could reduce its greenhouse emissions significantly and transition to an economy

Windy Hill wind farm in Queensland, Australia. predominantly fueled by renewable energy for very little cost, according to an analysis by the Australian National University and WWF. The country could generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewables and have zero net emissions by 2050 because wind and solar technologies have fallen rapidly in price in recent years and Australia is the world's sunniest and windiest continent. Any progress, however, will depend on the government's willingness to set clear, long-term policies and regulations encouraging renewable energy use, the authors note. Under conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Australia's current climate action plan calls for only a five percent cut in emissions from 2000 levels over the next five years.
Categories: Environment, Health

Record Amount of E-Waste Generated Globally in 2014, Report Finds

Yale Environment 360 - April 20, 2015
A record amount of electronic waste was discarded in 2014, with a total of 41.8 million tons of personal electronics and household

2014 saw a record amount of e-waste. appliances hitting landfills worldwide, a new report from the United Nations University found. The highest per-capita totals of so-called "e-waste" came from Scandinavian and European countries — Norway topped the list, followed by Switzerland, Iceland, and Denmark — and China and the U.S. were responsible for the largest volumes overall. Nearly 60 percent of e-waste by weight came from electronic components and wiring in large and small kitchen, bathroom, and laundry appliances, and 7 percent was discarded mobile phones, calculators, personal computers, and printers, the report said. It also found that less than one-sixth of all discarded electronics were properly recycled, and an estimated $52 billion in gold, copper, silver, and recoverable materials went to waste.
Categories: Environment, Health

On the Internet, Illegal Trade In Endangered Wildlife Thrives

Yale Environment 360 - April 20, 2015
On eBay and elsewhere on the Internet, illegal wildlife and wildlife parts — from elephant ivory to tiger skins to monkey and crocodile skulls — are being sold. Bringing an end to this illicit activity is proving to be a daunting challenge. BY TED WILLIAMS
Categories: Environment, Health

Fixing Medicare physician payments

Pump Handle - April 20, 2015

Last week, President Obama signed long-awaited legislation that will put an end to periodic panic at the prospect of massive, sudden cuts to Medicare physician payments. The bipartisan “doc fix” bill repeals the Sustainable Growth Rate formula that aimed, but failed, to control growth in Medicare physician payments (Medicare Part B).

When it was first adopted in 1997, the SGR probably seemed like a good idea for controlling spending growth. When total Medicare Part B payments exceeded the targeted amounts, the SGR mechanism was supposed to automatically reduce physician payment rates. But each time the spending exceeded its target, Congress instead stepped in to prevent the automatic reduction – spending a total of nearly $170 billion in the process. With each of these patches, the gulf widened between the amount physicians were supposed to be getting paid and the amount Congress temporarily agreed to pay them. This year, Congressional inaction would have resulted in a 24% cut in physicians’ Medicare payments.

Congress’s habit of temporarily averting scheduled payment cuts also meant a flurry of lobbying activity as each patch neared expiration. Vox’s Sarah Kliff reports that Congress has enacted 17 different patches since 2002. I’m sure physician practices spent hundreds of hours worrying and making contingency plans each time a deadline approached, as well as time re-doing financial plans each time payment specifics were announced. This was an inefficient use of time for doctors’ offices and Congressional committees alike.

Under the new law, Medicare physician payments will increase 0.5% a year for five years. In the meantime, explains a summary from the staff of the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committees, we’ll see a transition to a new system that “moves Medicare away from a volume-based system towards one that rewards value, improving the quality of care for seniors.” Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News writes:

The measure, which builds upon last year’s legislation from the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees and the Senate Finance Committee, would encourage better care coordination and chronic care management, ideas that experts have said are needed in the Medicare program. It would reward providers who receive a “significant portion” of their revenue from an “alternative payment model” or patient-centered medical home with a 5 percent payment bonus. It would also allow broader use of Medicare data for “transparency and quality improvement” purposes.

… A “technical advisory committee” will review and recommend how to develop alternative payment models. Measures will be developed to judge the quality of care provided and how physicians will be rewarded or penalized based on their performance.  While the law lays out a structure on how to move to these new payment models, much of their development will be left to future administrations and federal regulators.  Expect heavy lobbying from the physician community on every element of implementation.

At Vox, Sarah Kliff describes some of the challenges in developing a new payment system:

The law doesn’t say which quality metrics the government ought to use in measuring quality. And for some specialties, this is very tough: how do you measure if a radiologist, for example, is doing a great job? Mostly by if they read image scans right — but Medicare doesn’t get that information in patient claims.

“We’re inherently limited by what we’re able to measure,” Bob Berenson, a health economist at the Urban Institute, says.

There’s already worry about the metric-setting process: it requires the federal government to use quality indicators that doctor groups suggest to the health and human services secretary. The secretary can add her own metrics to the list — but doctors are then free to pick and choose which metrics they want to be judged on.

The new law also extends some other programs that many providers and advocates were worried about losing. These include permanently extending the transitional medical assistance program, which lets low-income families maintain Medicaid coverage for up to a year as they transition to work, and two-year extensions of the following:

  • The Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers eight million low-income children and pregnant women whose income is above their states’ Medicaid cutoffs (Kim Krisberg covered CHIP’s looming expiration for The Nation’s Health);
  • The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (I wrote about that program here); and
  • Funding for community health centers, the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) and the Teaching Health Centers Graduate Medical Education Program (which the New York Times covered here).

The total package will cost about $210 billion, and the law includes measures to offset about $70 billion of that. These include requiring higher-income beneficiaries to pay higher premiums for Medicare Part B and Part D (Part D is Medicare’s prescription-drug program), and requiring beneficiaries with Medigap insurance to pay the Part B deductible (currently $147 per year). In FY 2018, Medicare will also limit to 1% reimbursement increases for post-acute care providers like long-term care and inpatient rehab hospitals.

When the bill was under consideration, it faced some pushback because the increased expenditures weren’t fully covered by revenue increases or spending reductions. Given that the SGR has led to so much wasted time and money as Congress kicked the can down the road year after year, this was a worthwhile item to exempt from to pay-as-you-go requirements. I’m glad Congress has finally addressed this long-standing problem, and I hope the process for developing a new system that pays for quality rather than just quantity will result in better health as well as controlled Medicare spending.

Categories: Health

CDC: American youth now use e-cigarettes more than any other tobacco product

Pump Handle - April 17, 2015

In just a year, electronic cigarette use has tripled among American teens. And considering that no one really knows what the related health impacts are and any regulatory framework is lagging far behind the growing popularity of e-cigarettes, public health advocates say it’s time for action.

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data from the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey finding that current e-cigarette use among high school students, which is defined as using at least once in the prior 30 days, nearly tripled — from 4.5 percent in 2013 to 13.4 percent in 2014. In sheer numbers that means e-cigarette use grew from about 660,000 high school students to 2 million. Among middle school students, e-cigarette use more than tripled, from 1.1 percent in 2013 to 3.9 percent in 2014. CDC reports that for the first time since the youth survey began collecting information on the new trend, current e-cigarette use has officially surpassed the use of every other tobacco product. E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat up liquid mixtures usually containing nicotine and other flavorings and produce a vapor that users inhale.

While the CDC data did find declines in cigarette smoking among high school students — the 2014 rate was 9.2 percent, a new low — increases in e-cigarette and hookah use offset those gains, resulting in no real change in overall tobacco use among high school and middle school students. Overall, about 4.6 million middle and high school students currently use some type of tobacco product. The new data were published in this week’s issue of CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In reacting to the new data, Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said:

The dramatic decline in youth cigarette smoking is terrific news for our nation’s health and shows that the fight against tobacco is winnable if we do what we know works. However, the skyrocketing use of e-cigarettes is frightening and threatens this progress. It should spur strong and prompt action to prevent kids from using any tobacco product, not just cigarettes. We cannot allow the tobacco industry to keep addicting kids and create another epidemic with a new generation of tobacco products.

These survey results show why the Food and Drug Administration must act with urgency to protect our kids and issue a final rule to regulate all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, cigars and hookah. We again call on the FDA and the Obama Administration to issue a final rule by April 25 — one year after the FDA issued a proposed rule — and to close gaps in the rule by cracking down on marketing and flavors that appeal to kids. The FDA first announced in early 2011 that it planned to regulate e-cigarettes, cigars and other unregulated tobacco products, so these important public health protections are long overdue. We cannot afford more delays that allow the tobacco industry to continue targeting our kids with unregulated tobacco products.

And in a similar reaction from the American Lung Association, CEO and President Harold Wimmer said:

Previous studies should have served as warning bells to the federal government that FDA oversight of all tobacco products was urgently needed. Today’s study highlights the consequences of allowing these products to remain without oversight.

April 25 will mark the one-year anniversary from when FDA’s proposed rule was released, and over four years after FDA first announced its plan to oversee cigars, e-cigarettes and hookah. It is time for the Obama Administration to act with urgency.

The new CDC data found that in 2014, the most commonly used tobacco products among high school students were e-cigarettes, followed by hookahs (9.4 percent), cigarettes (9.2 percent), cigars (8.2 percent), smokeless tobacco (5.5 percent), snus (1.9 percent) and pipes (1.5 percent). Hookah use about doubled among middle school students, from 1.1 percent in 2013 to 2.5 percent in 2014, and among high school students, from 5.2 percent in 2013 to 9.4 percent in 2014. Overall, there were about 1.6 million young hookah users in 2014.

Research on the short- and long-term effects of e-cigarettes, which often contain a mixture of chemicals and flavorings, is still very much emerging, but most researchers agree that whether or not the novelty products are less harmful than cigarettes is yet to be known. One research article published just this week in the journal Tobacco Control found that “some flavour chemicals in e-cigarette fluids are sufficiently high for inhalation exposure by vaping to be of toxicological concern.” (And this recent in-depth investigation into worker exposure to diacetyl, a chemical that can permanently damage the lungs, also explored the chemical’s use in e-cigarettes.) However, one issue advocates are quick to point out is that the e-cigarette industry is using many of the same tactics to appeal to young people as Big Tobacco did. For instance, many e-cigarette flavors seem eerily kid-friendly, with flavors such as cotton candy, banana split and cherry crush.

Today, FDA only regulates e-cigarettes that are marketed for therapeutic purposes; however, the agency will be collecting public comments on its third and final public workshop on e-cigarettes and public health through July 2. For more on the June 1-2 FDA workshop and info on submitting comments, click here.

For a full copy of the new youth e-cigarette data, visit CDC. For more coverage of the data, including interviews with youth e-cigarette users, check out this New York Times article.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Labor group outlines significant flaws in chemical reform bill, joins growing list of opponents

Pump Handle - April 17, 2015

The AFL-CIO outlined in an April 13 letter the “serious flaws and deficiencies” in a bill introduced by Senators David Vitter (R-LA) and Tom Udall (D-NM) to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The country’s largest labor federation noted its deep involvement in the passage of TSCA in 1976, but its disappointment that the 40 year old law has “failed to provide meaningful and effective regulation” of toxic substances. (Even efforts to ban asbestos failed under the law.)

The labor federation has an important voice and perspective when it comes to chemical hazards. Workers are the guinea pigs for exposure to toxic chemicals and are often exposed to the highest concentrations of them.

The AFL-CIO indicates its support for major legislative reform of TSCA, but it outlines several defects in the Vitter/Udall (S. 697) bill. For example, the bill would restrict states from taking action to limit exposures to toxic substances. The AFL-CIO writes that States would be:

“preempted from acting once EPA designates a chemical as a high priority, years before there is any binding federal action to limit exposures, with no guarantee that EPA will actually take final regulatory action. In addition, states are prohibited from even co-enforcing standards that are identical to federal rules, a total departure from the shared state-federal enforcement responsibilities under TSCA and other environmental laws.”

A “fatal defect” in the bill, the AFL-CIO notes, is the missing definition for the legislation’s term “unreasonable risk.”

“What is unreasonable – is it a risk of harm of one in a thousand, one in ten thousand, one in a million or some other level of risk? The failure to establish a clear standard for protection will result in endless litigation to define what is meant by ‘unreasonable risk’ and thwart effective regulation.”

Their letter includes an attachment outlining nine problems with the Vitter/Udall bill. Among them:

“The inability of EPA to ban asbestos is recognized to be one of the most glaring failures of the current TSCA law.”

Yet the Vitter/Udall bill fails to fix that problem.

The AFL-CIO joins a growing list of organizations which have raised serious concerns about this TSCA reform bill. The groups include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Breast Cancer Fund (here), Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, Clean Water Action (here), Center for Environmental Health (here), Healthcare without Harm, and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Last month, David McCumber of Hearst Newspapers reported on the American Chemistry Council’s intimate involvement in drafting the Vitter/Udall bill.

Categories: Health

New Mapping Tool Could Make Finding Geothermal Energy More Affordable

Yale Environment 360 - April 17, 2015
A new online mapping tool could help governments and investors evaluate the geothermal energy potential for locations around

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Geothermal mapping tool the globe through satellite measurements, lowering the risks and costs involved in developing this clean energy source, its creators say. The tool uses gravity measurements from European Space Agency (ESA) satellites to look for certain characteristics unique to geothermal reservoirs, including areas with thin crusts, subduction zones, and young magmatic activity. This helps determine which locations are most likely to possess geothermal energy potential, narrowing the search — and cost — for prospectors. The project, which is a partnership between the ESA and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), will "help make a strong business case for geothermal development where none existed before,” said a director at IRENA.
Categories: Environment, Health

There is Nano-WHAT in My Food?

EWG Toxics - April 17, 2015
Categories: Health

Not an “accident”: Ronald Lee MacKnight, 39, suffers fatal work-related injury in Farr West, UT

Pump Handle - April 16, 2015

Ronald Lee MacKnight, 39, suffered fatal traumatic injuries on Monday, April 13, 2015 while working for Awnings and More Inc. in Farr West, Utah. The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

  • the incident happened “when a modular home [MacKnight] was helping to move fell on top of him”
  • the incident occurred “at the Westwood Village mobile home retirement community at 12:25 pm local time”

ABC4News reports:

  • MacKnight and a co-worker “had the home up on jacks” and they were underneath it.
  • “Either the jack failed or it came off of the jacks and it ended up coming down on top of him,” according to Lieutenant Lane Findlay of the Weber County Sheriff’s Department.
  • The Sheriff’s Office also told ABC4News “some of the other workers were related to Macknight.”
  • “The crew was from Awnings and More, a family owned and operated business from North Ogden that provides mobile home relocation and setup.”

KSL.COM reports:

  • ”The workers had transported the first part of the modular home to another location and were getting ready to move the second part.  …[the workers] were maneuvering jacks and securing the mobile home from underneath when the trailer shifted and crushed the man.”

MacKnight’s employer, Awnings and More, was cited in July 2013 by Utah OSHA for a serious safety violation. The company had failed to have proper fall protection for employees working on a steep roof. The company settled with Utah OSHA and paid a $750 penalty.

Each year, about 40 workers in Utah are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 37 work-related fatal injuries in Utah during 2013 (preliminary data, most recent available.) Nationwide, at least 4,405 workers suffered fatal traumatic injuries in 2013.

The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report notes:

  • Utah OSHA has 22 inspectors to cover more than 70,000 workplaces.
  • The average penalty for a serious workplace safety violation in Utah is $1,053.

Utah OSHA has until mid-October 2015 to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole Ronald Lee MacKnight’s life. It’s likely they’ll determine that MacKnight’s death was preventable. It was no “accident.”

Categories: Health

Researchers Discover New Source of Methane in the Arctic Ocean

Yale Environment 360 - April 16, 2015
A large reservoir of methane — a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide — was recently discovered on

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Knipovich Ridge in the Arctic Ocean Knipovich Ridge in the central Arctic Ocean, according to research published in the journal Geology. The methane in this deposit is locked up in icy crystals of water and gas called hydrates, and it was produced by abiotic geological processes rather than by microbes breaking down organic matter, as most methane is, the authors explain. Until now, scientists had not known that hydrates could contain this type of methane. "Up to 15,000 gigatons of carbon may be stored in the form of hydrates in the ocean floor, but this estimate is not accounting for abiotic methane," said co-author Jürgen Mienert. "So there is probably much more."
Categories: Environment, Health

Interview: For Buddhist Leader, Religion and the Environment Are One

Yale Environment 360 - April 16, 2015
Ogyen Trinley Dorje, spiritual leader of a 900-year-old lineage of Buddhism, says his deep concern for environmental issues

His Holiness the 17th Karmapa stems from his boyhood living close to the land on the Tibetan plateau. Now, as His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, he is promoting a program that seeks to instill good environmental practices in Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan region. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, the Karmapa talks about how ecological awareness fits with the Buddhist concept of interdependence, why the impacts of climate change in the Himalaya are so significant, and what role religion can play in helping meet the world’s environmental challenges. “The environmental emergency that we face is not just a scientific issue, nor is it just a political issue,” he says. “It is also a moral issue.”
Read the interview.
Categories: Environment, Health

Long road for a new worker safety regulation, wait may finally be over

Pump Handle - April 15, 2015

There’s a lot of griping in Washington DC about businesses being burdened by too many federal regulations. The gripers and their friends on Capitol Hill have introduced legislation with snappy names, such as the SCRUB Act (Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome), the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) and the ALERT Act (All Economic Regulations are Transparent). But there’s no doubt these laws are designed to put the skids on the rulemaking process. For some agencies, including OSHA, they’ve already been riding the regulatory brake for the last couple of decades. There hasn’t been a gusher of new regulations. OSHA regulations, in particular, take far too long to be developed and put in place.

Thankfully, one OSHA regulation that’s been in the pipeline for decades—yes, decades—may finally be issued. The White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) completed its review on April 3 of a final OSHA regulation to protect construction workers from confined space hazards. Vessels, tanks, vents and other small spaces can be deadly hazards for workers because they can be oxygen-deficient, explosive, or configured in such a way that a worker could get trapped. It really has taken decades to get us to this point. Here’s some of the long history:

It was 1975 when OSHA first indicated the need for a regulation to address confined space hazards for workers in all industries, including construction. In a 1975 advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM), OSHA noted it had:

“received several petitions and other recommendations concerning the need for a revision of the existing standards for work in confined spaces, such as tanks, boilers, sewer vaults, manholes, pressure vessels, trenches, and other confined compartments, or for a standard for work in these environments applicable to all industries.”

In March 1980 in a follow-up ANPRM, the agency said:

“Based on information available to the Agency, OSHA believes that the hazards of work in confined spaces are also significant in the construction industry. Therefore, OSHA is developing a proposal to revise its existing standards in order to effectively cover hazards connected with these activities in construction.”

During May 1980, the agency held public hearings in Houston, Denver and Washington DC to receive input on the need for the standard and how it could be designed to meet workers’ and employers’ needs. Then came the Reagan Administration. Work at OSHA on a confined space regulation went dormant.

The proposal was resurrected during the George H.W. Bush Administration. In June 1989—14 years after OSHA’s first ANPRM on the topic and nine years after those public hearings, the agency formally proposed a rule to address confined space hazards for workers. Among other data, the agency reported that between 1985 and 1990 there were at least 63 fatalities and nearly 6,000 lost-work day incidents related to confined space environments.

OSHA’s proposed rule did not, however, apply to the construction industry. OSHA asserted:

 “…confined space standards for agriculture, construction, and shipyard work should be addressed separately so that the Agency can focus on aspects of permit space safety that are specifically appropriate for these areas.” (4470)

That decision was controversial and not well received by some. One (unnamed) commenter said:

“I find it a grave error not to include construction in the proposed rulemaking. As your statistics succinctly point out, between 1974 and 1977, 276 confined space accidents claimed 234 lives and injured an additional 193 individuals. …Based upon these figures, why would you want to exclude construction?”

Three and one-half years later, in January 1993, OSHA’s final rule on confined space for general industry workers was issued. It happened just days before the Clinton Administration was poised to take office. Both industry and labor groups challenged the OSHA rule. Some argued it went too far, others argued it didn’t go far enough. By September 1994, all the objections had been addressed through settlement agreements.

In OSHA’s settlement agreement with the United Steelworkers Union, the agency made a big promise:

OSHA agreed to issue a confined space standard that would apply to workers in the construction industry.

The agreement did not, however, give OSHA a deadline for completing the task.

Here’s what has transpired in the 21 years since to fulfill that promise:

  • In February 1994, OSHA asked its Advisory Committee for Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) to provide feedback on a draft proposed standard addressing the hazards of confined spaces for construction workers. ACCSH formed a working group which ultimately develop a draft proposed standard. In late 1996, ACCSH recommended that OSHA use their draft standard as the agency’s proposed rule.
  • OSHA determined that the ACCSH document was not wholly appropriate as a proposed rule, in particular for small construction firms.
  • OSHA held public hearings in October 2000 to receive feedback from the construction industry on draft provisions of the proposed rule.
  • In late 2003, OSHA convened a panel of small business representatives (as required by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA)) to receive formal comments on its draft proposed rule.
  • Between 2004 and 2007, OSHA’s semi-annual regulatory agendas indicated that a proposed rule on this topic was forthcoming. In the fall of 2004, the agency said the public could expect it in March 2005. In Spring 2005, the agency said the public could expect it in December 2005, etc., etc.
  • OSHA submitted the proposed rule to the White House’s OIRA in July 2007. OIRA completed its review and returned the proposal to OSHA in October 2007. The proposal was published by OSHA in November 2007.
  • OSHA held public hearings on the proposal and the comment period closed in October 2008.
  • In 2010, the Obama Administration indicated that work on the final rule was nearly complete. OSHA’s Fall 2010 regulatory agenda indicated the final rule would likely be published by November 2011.  Between late 2010 and late 2014, the agency suggested the final rule was forthcoming. In the fall of 2011, the agency said the public could expect it in June 2012. In the spring of 2013, the agency said the public could expect it in December 2013, etc., etc.
  • In November 2014, OSHA submitted its draft final rule to OIRA for review.  OIRA completed its review after about 120 days and returned the final rule to OSHA on April 3, 2015.

OSHA is likely putting finishing touches on the final rule and preparing to release it in the weeks ahead. Once it is issued, I won’t be surprised if I hear complaints about it from certain lawmakers and those who oppose federal regulations. They may claim it’s an example of Obama’s avalanche of regulations, but it’s much more an example of something else: without a binding deadline, it can take OSHA decades to issue a new worker safety regulation.

 

Categories: Health
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