Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

Whether abroad...
...or at home...
... we celebrate and remember those who have given their lives so that we may live and be free.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

You might be a brain tumor if ...

You might be a brain tumor if you...
  • Cause severe headaches
  • Regularly make people nauseous
  • Dilate single pupils
  • Induce episodes of fainting or loss of consciousness
  • Provoke seizures
  • Make personalities change
  • Encourage profound lethargy
Still not sure? You are definitely a brain tumor if you're the:
  • second leading cause of cancer‐related deaths in children under age 20.
  • second leading cause of cancer‐related deaths in males up to age 39.
  • second leading cause of cancer‐related deaths in females under age 20.
  • fifth leading cause of cancer‐related deaths in females ages 20–39.6
May is National Brain Tumor Awareness month so New Voices is taking the opportunity to briefly review the condition.

Two general types of cells exist in the brain – neurons, which are classical “brain cells”, and glial cells, which are by and large responsible for supporting neurons. While a wide variety of brain tumors have been identified, they most commonly result from an abnormal or uncontrolled growth of glial cells, called a glioma. If gliomas are composed of cancerous cells they are malignant, whereas non cancerous gliomas are benign. Of the thousands of Americans diagnosed each year with malignant gliomas, approximately half are alive one year after diagnosis, and only 25% after two years.

In 2008, more than 52,000 Americans were diagnosed with either a malignant or benign brain tumor. The incidence of malignant brain tumors appears to increase steadily with age, for the least number of cases are seen in individual younger than 20 (4.5 per 100,000 persons) and the greatest in those 75—84 (57 per 100,000 persons).

While age, race, gender, genetic mutations and exposure to certain environmental toxins have all been implicated in some brain tumor cases, research has yet to conclusively define the causes. Interestingly, there is mounting evidence that cell phone use might increase chances of affliction. Two highly credible and recent studies have found a clear risk associated between cell phone use and prevalence of brain tumors.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lots of Links

On the web and in the news....
  1. Craig Venter and his team created the first synthetic cell.
  2. BP continues to try to contain the underwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
  3. Groups use scratch cards to help authenticate medicines in Africa
  4. Ask President Obama's science advisor, John Holdren, a question
  5. Google's Pacman logo effects productivity?
  6. The Lazarus Effect (check out the video below)

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Call to Action

Image credit: A6U571N

The bottom line is that environmental chemicals, such as endocrine disrupting chemicals, are a real concern, but the specific health threats are still poorly understood. Environmental health research is key to improving public health, because it will help us determine how we can prevent rather than treat environmentally related effects.

The ultimate outcome of this research will be information that can be used to guide policy by identify chemicals of concern, determine exposure levels that lead to health effects, and evaluate the effectiveness of prevention efforts. But beyond policy, this data will allow people to make better choices, such as where to live or types of health care they need.

Investment in environmental health research clearly has the potential to improve Americans quality of life and reduce economic and societal costs that result from environmentally-related health effects. As voters, we have the power to encourage investment in this research by telling the representatives we elected that it is how we want our tax dollars spent. The greatest impact you can have is by communicating with your representatives.

I am writing letters to my Senators and Representatives on how I believe environmental health research should be a priority, will you join me?

This is Part 10 in the Chemical Exposures and Public Health series.
Part 1 - From Interest to Passion
Part 2 - An Environmental Health Risk
Part 3 - Lead: A Regulatory Success Story
Part 4 - Something My Body Needs Anyway?
Part 5 - Obesity's Elephant: Environmental Chemicals
Part 6 - Why Our Approach to Toxicology Must Change
Part 7 - Failures of U.S. Chemical Regulation
Part 8 - Cleaning Up Our Act
Part 9 - Environmental Health Research Saves Lives and Money
Part 10 - Call to Action

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Revenge of the Nerds...for a Day

As the picture on the right demonstrates, all geeks are NOT created equal. While some may display a healthy interest in math and science, others cover their bodies in tattoos of Boba Fett or the Linix penguin and would happily wait in line for two days for a new iProduct. Well, today is the day to embrace your inner geek, no matter where you fall on the nerd spectrum. May 25th has officially been declared Geek Pride Day and organized events are scheduled from Calgary to Tel Aviv.

The Spanish seem particularly engaged in geekdom. They not only organized a 300 person human pacman in Madrid last year, but in 2006 went as far as adopting an official Geek Manifesto (in English). The Rights and Responsibilities of a Geek outlined in the Manifesto can be found below.

Geek Rights:
  1. be even geekier
  2. not leave your house.
  3. not have a significant other and to be a virgin.
  4. not like football or any other sport.
  5. associate with other nerds.
  6. have few friends (or none at all).
  7. have all the geeky friends that you want.
  8. not be "in-style."
  9. be overweight and have poor eyesight.
  10. show off your geekiness.
  11. take over the world.
Geek Responsibilities:
  1. Be a geek, no matter what.
  2. Try to be nerdier than anyone else.
  3. If there is a discussion about something geeky, you must give your opinion.
  4. Save any and all geeky things you have.
  5. Do everything you can to show off your geeky stuff as though it were a "museum of geekiness."
  6. Don't be a generalized geek. You must specialize in something.
  7. Attend every nerdy movie on opening night and buy every geeky book before anyone else.
  8. Wait in line on every opening night. If you can go in costume or at least with a related T-shirt, all the better.
  9. Don't waste your time on anything not related to geekdom.
  10. Befriend any person or persons bearing any physical similarities to comic book or sci-fi figures.
  11. Try to take over the world.

We leave you with an unknown - but probably oft-used in certain circles - geek quote:
"My Pokemon brings all the nerds to the yard, and they're like you wanna trade cards? Darn right, I wanna trade cards. I'll trade this but not my charizard."
Happy Nerd/Geek Pride day everyone!

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Environmental Health Research Saves Lives and Money

Along with public opinion and advocacy, research is another important driver of policy decisions. Research is the an essential tool for the identification of safe alternatives for chemicals in commerce that are a health concern. Efforts by scientists in areas such as green chemistry aim to design new chemicals that have little to no negative effects on our health.

The same research tools can also be used to guide chemical regulatory policy. To encourage regulation of a specific chemical, research needs to prove it poses a threat to human health. To better understand the risk posed by chemical exposures, scientists first needed to develop methods to identify which chemicals are getting into our bodies and at what levels. One technique is bio-monitoring; which involves looking at both the environment a person lives in and samples from the person themselves.

Historically, human exposures were estimated from the concentration of a chemical in the environment, food, water, or consumer goods. But advances have enabled scientists to directly measure the concentration of a chemical or metabolites in specimen, such as blood, urine, or bone. A recent CDC study detected over 212 chemicals in the U.S. population. Even DDT was found at a detectable level in children, despite the fact that it had been banned decades before they were born.

But what does bio-monitoring data mean for public health? The problem is that bio-monitoring studies on their own do not determine the relationship between chemical exposures and health effects. Bio-monitoring is the first step, but can only determine what enters our bodies. In order for regulatory action to be taken, these chemical exposures must be linked to specific effects, as was done for children's lead exposure and mental deficits. Unfortunately, for endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) many links remain unknown.

To better determine links between environmental exposures and health effects, a multi-agency collaboration is conducting a national research effort called the National Children’s Study . The study will track 100,000 children from before birth to the age of 21 collecting data on their chemical exposures and potentially related health effects. Then, researchers will analyze the data to learn how environment influences health, including evidence identifying which chemicals in our bodies are making us sick.

The study is focusing on children because research has documented their unique vulnerability to chemicals, and how exposures during development can set us up for chronic health problems and the development of diseases later in life.

Because of the sheer size and length, the National Children’s Study will be expensive. To get the full benefit, it is critical that funding is maintained. This study is about prevention, we need to try to stop environmentally related health effects before they start. Investment in environmental health research is important because of the clear potential to save both lives and treatment costs.

This is Part 9 in the Chemical Exposures and Public Health series.
Part 1 - From Interest to Passion
Part 2 - An Environmental Health Risk
Part 3 - Lead: A Regulatory Success Story
Part 4 - Something My Body Needs Anyway?
Part 5 - Obesity's Elephant: Environmental Chemicals
Part 6 - Why Our Approach to Toxicology Must Change
Part 7 - Failures of U.S. Chemical Regulation
Part 8 - Cleaning Up Our Act
Part 9 - Environmental Health Research Saves Lives and Money
Part 10 - Call to Action

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Friday, May 21, 2010

New Voices News Round-Up: May Edition

Here's some of what New Voices are reading (and watching) online right now:

Political News
The$86 billion dollar America COMPETES Act succumbs to political tactics and is ridiculously derailed by an amendment about pornography. Apparently, since some federal employees view pornography at work, America should not stay competitive in science and engineering research.

Joe Sestak defeats Arlen Specter in the PA Democratic Primary. Specter has been a huge advocate for health research over his 30 year career in the Senate. Will Sestak be able to fill such experienced and big shoes?

Around the Country
BP officials and the government watch as potentially the largest oil spill in the history of the planet makes its way towards the ecologically crucial coral reefs of the Florida Keys.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood joined Oprah Winfrey in warning that the increasing popularity of high tech toys being used while driving is making U.S. roads far more dangerous. To put it in perspective, in 2008 there were an estimated 6k deaths attributed to distracted drivers , while in the same year annual drunk driving fatalities were at 11.7k.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of some great reads like Blink, Outliers and the Tipping Point, published an incredibly illuminating piece about the hidden world behind developing drugs to treat cancer.

Just for Fun

After re-reading Steve Alten's Meg on the metro last week, this article on Megalodon teeth captured Heather's eye. (They're seriously making a movie?)

In honor of all of students graduating around the country this month, here are two great commencement speeches: Steve Jobs at Stanford and J.K. Rowling at Harvard.

*Don't forget we've got our last round of quotes from the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum going up this afternoon starting at 1 p.m. on Twitter. Follow @NV4Research for some words of wisdom from the Honorable Vernon Ehlers' "The Silent Scientists" lecture.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Cleaning Up Our Act

Image credit: Method

In my last post, I described some of the legislative hurdles for U.S. chemical regulation. How can Americans encourage positive change? The best ways to influence policy is through public support since legislators respond to their constituents concerns. Advocacy is an effective tool to raise public awareness and is most powerful when backed by research.

A public opinion poll conducted in August 2009 for Safer Chemicals, Health Families showed that Americans are concerned with the way the U.S. currently regulates chemicals. When given a description, 74% say they support the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). 87% expressed concern when they learned that chemicals in existence prior to TSCA were simply presumed safe and grandfathered. And 71% were in support of proposed changes for the legislation.
Image credit: Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

This public support is being generated and maintained by advocacy. Advocates try to educate the public about regulatory issues through books, such as Not Just A Pretty Face by Stacy Malkan, which raises concerns about chemicals in personal care products, and Slow Death by Rubber Ducky by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, which examines how everyday items we use are polluting our bodies. Advocates also use advertisements to raise awareness about harmful chemicals in makeup, from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, or cleaning products, from Method.

In response to public concern, many companies have already begun to reformulate products, removing specific chemicals without government intervention. Two endocrine disrupting chemicals that have already begun to be phased out are BPA, which is used to make reusable water bottles, baby bottles, and carbonless paper receipts, and phthalates, a group of chemicals used to soften children’s plastic toys and to help fragrances last longer.

However, a specific chemical being removed does not guarantee the new product is any safer. Manufactures simply swap one chemical for another, but just like the initial chemical, the alternatives are not being thoroughly tested for safety. It becomes a game of 'whac-a-mole', with
another concerning chemical popping up every time you knock one down. Regulatory changes are critical so that we don’t have to remove dangerous chemicals from products, but instead are preventing them from getting to the market in the first place.

What's the best way to ensure that the environmental chemicals we are exposed to are safe? Research. Stay tuned for the next part of this series on the benefits of Environmental Health Research.

This is Part 8
in the Chemical Exposures and Public Health series.
Part 1 - From Interest to Passion
Part 2 - An Environmental Health Risk
Part 3 - Lead: A Regulatory Success Story
Part 4 - Something My Body Needs Anyway?
Part 5 - Obesity's Elephant: Environmental Chemicals
Part 6 - Why Our Approach to Toxicology Must Change
Part 7 - Failures of U.S. Chemical Regulation
Part 8 - Cleaning Up Our Act
Part 9 - Environmental Health Research Saves Lives and Money
Part 10 - Call to Action

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum - Day 2

Yesterday, we started sharing some of the themes captured by your New Voices bloggers at the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum. Today we continue by sharing our notes from two of Friday's sessions.

Also - be sure to check out the New Voices Twitter feed for direct quotes from the speakers.

Strengthening the U.S. Climate for Innovation
  • Innovation is using new knowledge to generate payback.
  • Innovation has accounted for half of U.S. productivity growth over the pat 50 years (see slide above, courtesy of Andrew Taylor of The Boston Consulting Group).
  • Increased direct government spending yields results.
  • Excellence in science and technology is not enough to be a world leader.
  • We need to remove barriers and encourage creativity.
  • We need new kinds of scientists and engineers with: communication skills, multicultural understanding, foreign languages, and training in psychology and the creative arts
  • What can the U.S. do?
  1. Promote science & technology education
  2. Increase innovation spending
  3. Promote industry clusters & centers of excellence
  4. Remove bureaucratic barriers
  5. Promote intellectual property protections
National Security and the Roles for Science and Technology
  • Cyber security is uncharted territory; there are no rules of war.
  • There is a relationship between higher education and intelligence communities. One mechanism for collaboration is the NSHEAB - National Security Higher Education Advisory Board which works with federal intelligence community.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum - Day 1

Two of your New Voices bloggers were at the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum last week to hear the latest policy news on issues in the scientific community. There was a ton of information shared over the two days, so we're breaking it down into three segments for you: day 1, day 2, and the William D. Carey lecture. (A full agenda is available for more details.)

The themes are captured here, and we'll be sharing quotes starting tomorrow morning on our Twitter feed - so follow us @NV4Research for even more coverage of the forum.

Budgetary and Policy Context for R&D in FY2011

  • The budget for research is increasing in fiscal year 2011
  • The Obama administration cares about science; demonstrated by 30 members of the National Academies of Sciences on his staff.
  • Investment at the federal level is more important than ever as state economies suffer from the recession and deal with budget cuts.
  • It's hard to change institutions, because due to unions, firing people is difficult.
  • Extending the Bush tax cuts would be terrible for the economy
  • There is a long, slow gray area between a good and a bad economy, and we are in that gray area right now.
Societal Impacts of Science and Technology
  • Greater health directly relates to greater wealth.
  • It is hard to analyze the impact of R&D, because there is often not a direct link between the two.
Beyond Cap and Trade: Other Climate Issues
  • Geo-engineering poses a number of both scientific and moral questions, not the least of which is, who's hand is on the thermostat if we do have the ability to change the climate?
  • Energy and climate change are inherently security issues, because they serve as threat multipliers for instability in the world.
  • Who are the experts and which experts do you trust on which issues?
  • There is a mismatch between agencies with social science expertise and those with environmental missions, which makes explaining the complexity of climate change an even more difficult task.
  • We need more strategies for adapting to climate change, including advanced disease surveillance that accounts for differences in regional climates.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Building Blog Content

Comic credit:

The New Voices bloggers have been out and about at the 35th Annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy and are currently generating some of that fabulous content you desire. So, while you're waiting, why not check out one of our top ten posts of all time?
  1. Coolest Scientist Ever - Winner!
  2. St. Patrick's Day Special: Beer
  3. Can you name a living scientist?
  4. Climate Change and Health: Malaria
  5. Loving Science
  6. DC Cherry Blossoms
  7. Worst 5 Science Movies
  8. The Importance of Basic Research
  9. On Dogs and Research
  10. There is No General Audience

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Friday, May 14, 2010

O Say Can You See

In honor of Stars & Stripes Forever Day and Armed Forces Day (both this weekend), we're taking a look at the Smithsonian's preservation project of the Star Spangled Banner. Seeing the staff work on the massive flag was the highlight of my first visit to the National American History Museum. Keeping this national treasure in good shape for future generations takes much more than fancy stitching skills.

Some fun facts:
  • Conservation specialists analyzed the flag's pH to determine the best method for cleaning it (they used dry sponges first, then an acetone solvent and blotting paper).
  • A spectrometer was used to analyze colors - including those of stains on the fabric.
  • Microscopic images helped determine where the weakest thread fibers were so that the flag could be properly supported.
If you haven't been to the Smithsonian lately, I'd definitely recommend taking a peek in at this masterpiece for both the science and the history. Our national anthem is based on the rising of this flag over Fort McHenry in 1814 (during the War of 1812).

New Voices tips our hat to the original creators of the flag, lyricist Francis Scott Key, the troops that successfully fought the British that September night, and the scientists and historians working together to preserve American history.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Failures of U.S. Chemical Regulation

Image credit: Echoey13

In previous posts, I've shared how research demonstrates a link between endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and negative health effects, such as obesity. Since EDC exposures are a health concern, the government needs to identify chemicals of concern and implement policies to reduce exposures, as was done for lead. Unfortunately, U.S. chemical regulation is not a straightforward process.

Chemical regulation is split between several agencies. Two of the main agencies are the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The FDA oversees chemicals we are exposed to through certain consumer products like pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and food additives, while the EPA regulates exposures that are more environmental, such as air pollution.

Some authorities are further split, as is the case for water, with bottled water being regulated by the FDA and tap water by the EPA. As a result, individual contaminants could end having different maximum permissible amounts in bottled vs. tap water.

This fragmented regulation makes it difficult to protect public health. But there were also a large number of chemicals in commerce that were initially unregulated if they were not covered under other existing laws, such as the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act which regulates pharmaceuticals. In an attempt to close this gap, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976, which gave EPA the authority over all unregulated chemicals.

A major flaw is that TSCA treats new chemicals differently than chemicals that existed before the act. Existing chemicals were not evaluated and were just presumed safe. At the time TSCA passed, there were already about 62,000 chemicals in commerce. Regulation of new chemicals isn’t much better and has limited requirements. Companies are only required to submit available data and don’t have to test for toxicity. It is estimated that only 15% of new chemicals have complete health and safety data.

TSCA had the potential to unify regulatory authority, by giving the EPA authority over chemicals of unreasonable risk to health or the environment. For example, BPA is approved by the FDA as an indirect food additive, but because of concerns for human health, the EPA is using its authority under TSCA to investigate BPA.

However, the phrase “unreasonable risk” created another major hurdle, because it places the burden of proof on the EPA, and requires a significant level of evidence prior to regulatory action that can take years to develop. As a result, chemicals are only regulated when proven harmful rather than requiring they are proven safe to enter the market.

TSCA was introduced over 30 years ago. Today, there are over 80,000 chemicals approved for use in the products we use, such as household cleaners, shampoo, and makeup. But to date, the EPA has only been able to regulate 5 chemicals and require testing for about 200. I feel the numbers clearly show that TSCA has failed to protect Americans.

Image credit: Abeeeer

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO), the agency that evaluates the effectiveness of government programs and policies, also believes TSCA has not given the EPA the necessary authority to protect human health and the environment. U.S. GAO put the EPA's process for "assessing and controlling toxic chemicals" on its "high-risk" list in 2009. The list includes federal programs, policies, and operations that should be a top priority for reform

Currently, Congress is considering legislation to reform TSCA. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced a bill called the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 in the Senate. Representatives Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Henry Waxman (D-CA) have released a discussion draft of the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010 in the House. Only time will tell if these bills will provide Americans with meaningful reform that will improve public health.

This is Part 7 in the Chemical Exposures and Public Health series.
Part 1 - From Interest to Passion
Part 2 - An Environmental Health Risk
Part 3 - Lead: A Regulatory Success Story
Part 4 - Something My Body Needs Anyway?
Part 5 - Obesity's Elephant: Environmental Chemicals
Part 6 - Why Our Approach to Toxicology Must Change
Part 7 - Failures of U.S. Chemical Regulation
Part 8 - Cleaning Up Our Act
Part 9 - Environmental Health Research Saves Lives and Money
Part 10 - Call to Action

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Getting Involved

I was recently planning an event with a group of friends, and invited someone to join our informal planning committee. Her immediate response was: "I'm on so many committees for work already. I'll come, but I don't want to get more involved than that."

I totally respected where she was coming from (having regularly succumbed to the habit of over-committing myself), and let it go. But I had this strange sense of deja vu; why did that type of response seem so familiar?

I later realized it was because I often face a similar situation in my professional life. When trying to engage scientists to become advocates or stronger communicators for science, I'm frequently told how much people want to participate, but then when it comes to actually doing things, there just isn't enough time in the day.

Advocacy and communication for and about science is my actual job, not something I do in addition to my work. When it comes to additions - like showing up to the city council meeting to defend the value of the public library or lower community center fees - I have just as much trouble scheduling it into my day as the next person.

So what is the solution? How can we make it easier to get involved with things we really care about but don't usually have the time to do?

Don't leave me hanging ... join the discussion.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why Our Approach to Toxicology Must Change

Exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) are a particular concern for children. Because children are developing rapidly, hormone disruption can have a greater impact; resulting in chronic health problems or making children susceptible to the development of illnesses later in life.

Research has shown that chemicals in a mother's body are able to cross the placenta, and therefore, children are being exposed to environmental chemicals even while they are in the womb. As infants, they are exposed to chemicals at higher levels because consume more food relative to body weight, but also because their immune systems are less developed, and therefore, less able process and remove chemicals from their bodies.

For lead, proper regulation took several decades because we initially had a poor understanding of its health effects. We face the same problem today with EDCs.

The famous adage the "dose makes the poison" describes the assumption toxicologists use when determining safe chemical exposure levels. Toxicology studies currently assume that a greater dose, or exposure level, will produce a greater effect.

To determine safe exposure levels, animals are exposed to varying amounts of a chemical and a dose that does not produce observable effects is identified. Then, a series of uncertainty factors are applied to that dose in order to calculate an acceptable level for human exposure. The uncertainty factors account for different sensitivities between the animals studied and humans but also to account for varying sensitivities between humans.

So, what is wrong with the current approach?

Scientists who study the endocrine system have recognized for a while that hormones have a different relationship between dose and effect. Hormones and hormone mimicking chemicals, like EDCs, can produce opposite effects at different exposure levels. A low level exposure can turn a process on, while a high level exposure could shut the process off.

Since EDCs have a different dose-effect relationship, the current assumptions used in toxicology studies are outdated. High-dose experiments can not be effectively used to predict low-dose results for EDCs, and therefore, safety testing needs to be adapted to make sure that potential low-dose effects are investigated. In order to address our evolving understanding of endocrine disruption, the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program was established by the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a battery of tests to properly identify EDCs, information that will enable us to update the way we conduct toxicology studies.

The scientific understanding of how endocrine disruption can be identified and measured is still in the early stages, and research will be our best chance to close these knowledge gaps and identify chemicals that are a real public health threat.

This is Part 6 in the Chemical Exposures and Public Health series.
Part 1 - From Interest to Passion
Part 2 - An Environmental Health Risk
Part 3 - Lead: A Regulatory Success Story
Part 4 - Something My Body Needs Anyway?
Part 5 - Obesity's Elephant: Environmental Chemicals
Part 6 - Why Our Approach to Toxicology Must Change
Part 7 - Failures of U.S. Chemical Regulation
Part 8 - Cleaning Up Our Act
Part 9 - Environmental Health Research Saves Lives and Money
Part 10 - Call to Action

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Obesity's Elephant: Environmental Chemicals

Today, obesity is the fastest rising health concern in the U.S. Obesity is a problem that people have tried to use both diet and exercise to combat, yet a growing body of research is suggesting there is another component of this problem, our exposure to environmental chemicals.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are a public health concern because they mimic natural hormones and interfere with our endocrine system. Research shows a potential link between children being exposed to EDCs during development and the increased burden of chronic health problems, such as obesity.

One EDC you may have heard about recently is Bisphenol-A (BPA). BPA has been used for years in the production of reusable water bottles and baby bottles, but now many companies are now offering BPA-free products.

The reason BPA is becoming a public health concern is that research has demonstrated a link between children's exposure to BPA during critical developmental windows - such as in the womb or as infants - and obesity. For example, Nikaido et al. exposed pregnant rats to BPA to determine the effects on fetal development [1]. The results showed that prenatal exposure to BPA at human-relevant doses accelerated weight gain of the female offspring compared to offspring of the mothers not exposed to BPA.

This study is one of many that demonstrate chemical exposures could be a factor, changing our bodies in ways that make us obese.

1. Nikaido, Y. et al. Reprod. Toxicol. 2004; 18: 803-811.

This is Part 5 in the Chemical Exposures and Public Health series.
Part 1 - From Interest to Passion
Part 2 - An Environmental Health Risk
Part 3 - Lead: A Regulatory Success Story
Part 4 - Something My Body Needs Anyway?
Part 5 - Obesity's Elephant: Environmental Chemicals
Part 6 - Why Our Approach to Toxicology Must Change
Part 7 - Failures of U.S. Chemical Regulation
Part 8 - Cleaning Up Our Act
Part 9 - Environmental Health Research Saves Lives and Money
Part 10 - Call to Action

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Friday, May 7, 2010

Something My Body Needs Anyway?

Image Source: Time Magazine

The impact of environmental chemicals on health is becoming a defining concern of this century. I’m sure you’ve seen the increasing number of articles published by the mainstream media questioning the safety of chemicals in consumer products, like plastics. Research has shown that these chemicals are getting into our bodies and can mimic our hormones.

Hormones are signals that regulate biological processes by communicating messages to cells. Hormones bind to a receptor like a key fits into a specific lock, which tells the cell to carry out a specific action.

One example is human growth hormone. As children, growth hormone is released in our body to tell limbs and organs to grow. But when we become our adult size, our body stops releasing the growth hormone, so the cells are no longer receiving the message to grow. Hormones are regulated by a group of glands called the endocrine system.

Image credit: Principles and Explorations, Teaching Transparencies.
Copyright 1996 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Certain unnatural chemicals entering our bodies can mimic our natural hormones. They are called endocrine disrupting chemicals (or EDC) because of their ability to interfere with our endocrine system.

The problem with EDCs is that they are not made by your body, and therefore, your body is not able to regulate EDCs like it regulates your natural hormones. But at the same time, EDC’s (green) can bind to the receptors (purple) of specific natural hormones (orange), initiating the same cell response. Research suggests that EDCs artificially switching processes on and off and at the wrong time is contributing to the rising burden of illness in America.

I am particularly interested in EDCs because we are just now discovering the sheer number of chemicals that have the ability to act this way, but we don’t yet know which chemicals, or at what exposure levels, are linked to which real public health threats.

The government again needs to decide if regulatory action is necessary, a decision that depends largely on whether the chemicals pose a threat to U.S. health.

This is Part 4 in the Chemical Exposures and Public Health series.
Part 1 - From Interest to Passion
Part 2 - An Environmental Health Risk
Part 3 - Lead: A Regulatory Success Story
Part 4 - Something My Body Needs Anyway?
Part 5 - Obesity's Elephant: Environmental Chemicals
Part 6 - Why Our Approach to Toxicology Must Change
Part 7 - Failures of U.S. Chemical Regulation
Part 8 - Cleaning Up Our Act
Part 9 - Environmental Health Research Saves Lives and Money
Part 10 - Call to Action

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

How Clean is Your Air?

Yesterday, Sarah wrote about how removing lead from gasoline decreased air pollution and improved health. While lead is no longer a threat, there are still plenty of chemicals in the air. Interested to see how your city and state are doing? Check out this project by the American Lung Association, which details (and grades!) cities and counties based on ozone and particle pollution.

Based in the DC metro area, I knew New Voices probably weren't breathing the cleanest possible air, but it's interesting to compare our air to the city immediately next to ours and see notable differences. How did your city do? And if you live in a failing area (as I do), what are you going to do about it?

How about sending a note to your member of Congress about the value of research:
With continued investment in research and the work at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies, we can continue to find the answers we need to improve the quality of air we breathe.

Thanks to Jennifer Chow for her help constructing this post.

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