Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Is there bias in bi(a)sphenol A?

Over the past two years the debate about bisphenol A (BPA) has become a quagmire where highly regarded scientists who once worked side by side, now sit across the fence virtually flinging insults at one another. You wouldn’t know this reading the Sunday paper or countless mainstream press articles, blogs and even academic journals which have successfully vilified this ubiquitous chemical. Like many Americans, you’re probably tossing away your polycarbonate bottles and looking askance at the stash of cans in your pantry.

Yet two summary panel reports on BPA prepared by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and by the Food and Drug Association (FDA)* downplayed the risks of BPA, while at the same time, NTP highlighted the need for more research - and as of January 2010 the FDA indicated they too have concluded there is some cause for concern, particularly in infants and children. As a writer I find this disconnect fascinating. As a mother who replaced the polycarbonate bottles shortly after the first round of BPA press, I wonder if the chemical is deserving of its reputation as the evil twin of estrogen. As a toxicologist, I am dismayed by the apparent bias found on both sides of the fence.

Years ago, while interviewing for a job, I was asked if science was objective. I quickly answered in the affirmative. My future employer’s brow wrinkled, but she remained silent – giving me time to think. While science is objective, it is carried out by mere humans. And we all have our biases. I wouldn’t have been interviewing with a group whose mission was to support communities affected by industrial contaminants and who could only offer a pittance in salary if I didn’t lean towards the affected. Yet, I pondered, when reviewing the literature in support of their mission would I be biased? Here’s the truth – when reading studies funded by either the military or industry my sci-dar is on full alert. Likewise, I’m just as wary when reading studies conducted by environmental activist organizations, yet I am more trusting of studies produced by academics, particularly those funded by sources that tend not to have a stake in the outcome. Really, my sci-dar should be on full alert at all times, and in the end, I am careful not to cherry-pick studies from any one source, just to support a position.

Are there concerns about bias in the bisphenol A analysis? As a recent memoirist who shall not be named, likes to say, “You Betcha.” Just Google “BPA bias” and you’ll find over one million pages.

One need only read Environmental Health Perspectives, published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), where the most recent BPA battle is playing out. But the stakes are higher than simply resolving BPA’s toxicity. Bisphenol A has brought to the fore the very nature of toxicity testing and regulation, questioning the role or (or lack of) basic research in chemical testing and regulation.

That toxicity testing, particularly of endocrine disrupting chemicals like BPA is in dire need of overhaul is not in question. Says Dr. L. Earl Gray**, Research Biologist and Team Leader of the Reproductive Toxicology Division at the US EPA, about updating routine chemical testing:

“There is a lot more awareness of the issues with endocrine disrupting chemicals and thoughts about screening….they are also trying to shorten the multigenerational protocol [one of the standard toxicity tests required of industry]…hopefully and likely the new assays will be able to replace the old ones fairly quickly.

Problem is, it took a decade to develop and validate those new assays. A snail’s pace, and a significant chunk of time for those at greatest risk, the very young. Even so, when it comes to BPA, there are those who suggest reviewers and regulators stick with studies based on regulatory testing protocols, because those methods have been rigorously validated, even if they don’t incorporate the latest science.

Of the hundreds of scientific articles on BPA many could be classified as basic science, while only a fraction use regulatory testing protocols. Studies in rodents report that BPA causes diabetes, weight gain, mammary gland cancer, early onset puberty, infertility and behavioral changes. Some of these findings cannot be repeated (reproducibility is a central tenet of science). Meanwhile studies in human populations report associations (which are not cause and effect linkages) between BPA and heart disease, diabetes, infertility in industry workers, and behavioral changes in toddlers born to mothers whose urine concentrations during pregnancy mirror those in the general population.

Despite the uncertainties, aren’t all of these studies enough to require that industry remove the chemical from our food and drink? While I am skeptical of studies produced by industries whose bottom line depends upon a particular chemical and in sticking with decades old testing procedures, I also know that a chemical posing an imminent danger is good for academic business, generating more grant money, more publications, and more consulting. It’s not an ideal system, but given time the scientific method prevails – and in the interim we have guidance from the expert panels. In the case of BPA both panels had the freedom to consider any and all relevant and valid studies.

While the NTP panel concluded there was cause of “some concern,” noting the need for more research, the FDA concluded that current exposures to BPA do not present a health risk. So began the fireworks. Critics charged the panels were biased omitting too many basic studies from their final analysis. In his congressional testimony, Gray who was a member of the NTP panel disagrees. Testifying before congress about BPA, Gray noted, that “the criteria [for inclusion in the review] provided minimum standards for experimental design and statistical analysis. Many studies failed to meet these minimal criteria – these studies came from industry, government and academic laboratories.

“The controversy,” says Gray “resides over the fact that standard and enhanced multigenerational studies are negative for low dose effects and many academic studies were positive…. several of the multigenerational studies have added low dose groups, estrogen sensitive endpoints and tried to replicate the low dose effects to no avail... These differences are due in part to differences in how a chemical is administered in a study.” Differences which also include the use of live animals versus test tube studies (which preclude metabolism and excretion of a chemical), the timing of exposure and the range of doses tested.

Yet based on accounts by the popular press, enviro-blogs and magazines – if you still drink from a polycarbonate bottles or serve your kids canned foods then you must be an irresponsible parent. When I replaced our reusable bottles with BPA free – but didn’t toss the canned goods, my inner toxicologist reasoned that we are exposed to a myriad of natural estrogenic chemicals in foods like soy, plants, and milk – was BPA any worse? Meanwhile the environmentalist in my brain reminds me that we don’t choose to consume industrial chemicals like BPA. Shouldn’t we have that choice? But since BPA does not accumulate in humans (a quality that may trigger a chemical ban), “that choice” depends primarily upon the amount and frequency of BPA exposure, how it’s metabolized and its potency.

So is it or isn’t it? Maybe the nearly 30 million dollars recently committed by NIEHS for BPA research will solve the question, and maybe BPA will be one more example for the scientific flip-flopper pile along with fiber, mammograms, and therapeutic estrogens. For now, there’s FDA’s final report due at the end of the month, and Consumer Report’s recent investigation of BPA in canned goods – both of which will surely add a few feet to the fence separating some very good scientists.

*This report is the 2008 draft, a final report was just published you can find FDA's current position on BPA here.

Here is a recent article on the relationship between BPA in urine and heart disease

CHECK OUT the US DEPT Health and Human Services site for the latest on BPA (added Jan 16 2010)

AND a Jan 28 2010 interview with Dr. Linda Birnbaum of NIEHS

**In the spirit of disclosure, I worked for Earl back in the early nineties, he was not only a great guy to work for, but I also respect his science and opinions.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Recombinant DNA, Synthetic Biology,and Nanotechnology, oh my!

There is an interesting article on Synthetic Biology in last week's New Yorker. Though I just gave it a skim, and didn't read the ending – the topic is intriguing and describes a field of science devoted to developing the capacity to build and manipulate biological systems as if they were Legos. According to SyntheticBiology.Org their goals begin with identification of the parts that “have well-defined performance characteristics and can be used (and re-used) to build biological systems” and end with “reverse engineer and re-design a ‘simple’ natural bacterium."

Wow. Should they succeed, they’d bear a hefty biological, ethical, environmental responsibility. Were these people nut jobs? Nascent Frankensteins? Or were they just being realistic about the future of their science? As I thought about what this all meant it dawned on me that Synthetic Biology, being an extension of Genetic Engineering, in some ways wasn’t so different or separate from nanotechnology.

I don’t mean that they’re similar in how the products of these technologies interact with living systems, all threats of “grey goo” (a worst-case scenario hypothesized by Eric Drexler, popularizer of nanotechnology, whereby nanobots run a muck, literally mucking up the world) aside - one science proposes to build biological systems while the other builds chemicals. Although, I suspect, as time goes on these two technologies will mingle if not marry (if they haven't run off to Las Vegas and done so already.) Biological systems after all are nothing more than chemical building blocks – so once those building blocks are better understood, and once we have the capability to not only engineer one cell at a time, but also to build chemicals one atom at a time, why not?

As a toxicologist observing the emergence of nanotechnology it has been easy to ask what nanotechnology can learn from past practices of chemical production, regulation, use and disposal. But beyond toxicology, biotechnology, has also laid some groundwork as to how to proceed with – or not-- development of a new technology that will impact all of our lives for better or worse, in ways we cannot fully understand.

Genetic engineering, the cornerstone of biotechnology, has been around since 1972 when scientists including Paul Berg of Stanford University first recombined pieces of DNA – the molecule which holds the secrets of all live on earth. Two years later, Berg and others raised serious concerns about unfettered recombinant DNA research, eventually calling for a temporary moratorium on certain types of research. Berg’s committee proposed that, “…until the potential hazards of such recombinant DNA molecules have been better evaluated or until adequate methods are developed for preventing their spread, scientists throughout the world join with the members of this committee in voluntarily deferring the following types of experiments....” the authors then listed specific research that they considered most risky, acknowledging that…”our concern is based on judgments of potential rather than demonstrated risk since there are few available experimental data…and that adherence to our major recommendations will entail postponement or possibly abandonment of certain types of scientifically worthwhile experiments.” A year later, the first conference on “Recombinant DNA molecules” widely referred to as Asilomar for the idyllic conference center by the sea, took place, and is still referred to, and reflected upon as a model of “self-regulation” by the scientific community (the meeting included scientists from around the world, lawyers, government officials and journalists as well.)

Of course the concept of self-regulation may be an oversimplification since the conference purposefully focused on health and environmental safety only. The ethics and legalities of recombinant DNA were not on the agenda, “This choice of agenda,” wrote Berg years later, “was deliberate, partly because of lack of time at Asilomar and partly because it was premature to consider applications that were so speculative and certainly not imminent.” Perhaps. I imagine, like my district’s school committee meetings which I’ve sometimes referred as “adults behaving badly” – if we stuck with the nuts and bolts rather than the deeper questions – we too might be more successful.

Berg revealed one other key to success on at a symposium celebrating the 25th anniversary of Asilomar: molecular biologists weren’t yet heavily invested in the science and the public knew very little – so that there was still room for fluidity in the conversation. Positions on the recombinant DNA were not yet “hardened,” and scientists were primarily academic. This was a time when government funding was flush, when there was separation of academia and industry and the biotechnology industry with all its promises of the next million dollar drug was more “Jetsons” than reality.

Which brings me back to nanotechnology - a field developing under incredible public, government, and scientific scrutiny. Even industry, as I’ve read and heard, wishing to avoid the genetically modified foods fiasco (which is either ironic or inevitable considering Asilomar), seems willing to tread carefully when it comes to development of nanomaterials. A recent report by the DEEPEN (Deepening Ethical Engagement and Participation in Emerging Nanotechnologies) project – emphasizes a role for increased public participation in governance decisions related to nanotechnology development. In part because nanotechnology is poised to affect everyday life – so why not include all participants -- those who deliberately participant and those who are incidental nano-tourists in the conversation?

There's one caveat to suggestions by DEEPEN and others. There have been so many meetings, and project reports on how best to move forward conscientiously with nanotechnology, that there is some concern there’s too much talk and too little action. Meanwhile, nanomaterials find their way into more and more consumer products (1000 and counting,) and the body of research papers continue grow like a bacterial culture in log growth phase. But that's no reason not to broaden the conversation.

Perhaps comparisons between nanotechnology and Asilomar are unfair for nanotech.

As Berg noted, in 1975, neither Joe Public nor Joe the Plumber were invited members of the 'Recombinant DNA steering committee,' the focus of the meeting was strictly focused, and recombinant DNA was, and still is fairly easily defined. Isolating and rejoining segments of DNA – that was recombinant DNA. Today we have the world wide web of information where the public, if they wish can be informed, NGOs following and reporting on nanotechnology, a technology that is already in use, and scientists who can’t even agree on what constitutes a nanoparticle. Are they particles with one dimension measuring 100 nm or less? Or, should they be much smaller, encompassing particles in the 30 nm or smaller range, particles most likely to exhibit new and different physical-chemistry?

Then there are nanodots, nano-metals oxides, nanotubes and other nanos – all very different chemically although they may share some basic properties in terms of size, or increased reactivity as a result of decreased size, but how much do we know of their differences in terms of how nanoparticles will move and react inside a living being, or outside in the big wide world?

Our best hope right now, is that nanotechnology as a field is still young and flexible. Hopefully the talk with turn to action before nanotech’s arteries begin to harden before, as Berg observed twenty-five years after Asilomar – the issues become “chronic.”

(For the results of a recent poll on public understanding of nanotechnology and synthetic biology click here. )

Monday, October 05, 2009

Lining Asbestos-Concrete Drinking Water Pipes with Vinyl: Its enough to make you wonder

I’ve been a “lurker” on the TCE List serve – a gathering site for those impacted by this old industrial solvent and one of this country’s most important groundwater contaminants. Unfortunately it is an incredibly active list because so many people are affected by this legacy pollutant. Often, I let the emails pile up - shifting them into my TCE folder - in case, one day, I might have something useful to offer the list. But today one email caught my attention.

It began with a posting by Lenny Siegel, Executive Director, Center for Public Environmental Oversight – and list host. The subject line was “PCE in pipes - this is new to me.” If something about these chlorinated solvents is new to Lenny it’s new to a lot of folks, activists and scientists alike, because Lenny really knows his stuff. So I took a look.

According to the Cape Cod Times article posted by Lenny, a study by Boston University epidemiologist Ann Aschengrau, found an association between exposure to PCE (perchlorethylene, or tetrachlorethylene – a solvent most commonly associated with dry cleaning) contaminated drinking water, and an increased risk for birth defects in offspring of Cape Cod women exposed to the water back in the 70's and early 80's.

That PCE was in drinking water wasn’t surprising – it’s a common contaminant in groundwater near old dry cleaning sites . What was surprising was that an old leak, landfill or dry cleaner wasn’t responsible for contamination this time around. The culprit was the municipal drinking water pipes.

Apparently back in the good old days (in this case the 1960’s and '70's) according to the Aschengrau, who was interviewed for the article,

“…water pipes in several towns on the Cape and elsewhere in Massachusetts were purposely sprayed with vinyl plastic and PCE to improve the taste of drinking water.....

Manufacturers wrongly assumed the PCE would disappear during the drying process, but large amounts remained and slowly leached into drinking water in Barnstable, Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee, Sandwich, Provincetown, Brewster and Chatham, ……Once the PCE contamination was detected, authorities cleared the pipes through a flushing process, saying replacing hundreds of miles of vinyl-coated pipe would be too expensive..”

Reading the chatter on Lenny’s list, I learned that back in the early 1980s Avery Demond, an MIT master’s student studied leaching of PCE from those vinyl lined pipes. Back then Demond wrote that while his focus was on the hydrodynamic factors controlling release of the toxicant, it was “difficult if not impossible” to ignore the social context of the problem. Meaning, people were drinking the contaminated water. As Demond noted, PCE was a common contaminant in drinking water a levels of 1 part-per-billion (ppb) or below. But then a 1976 survey of organic chemicals in water (with a focus on water treatment byproducts) turned up PCE concentrations ranging from 6 ppb to upwards of 1000 ppb in water from a Newport RI state park, warranting a closer look. After seeking potential industrial sources, municipal pipes eventually came under suspicion.

Wrote Demond, early on,

“...the PSWB [water board] tested the liner in May 1968 and contemporary analytical tests and techniques could not find anything undesirable in the water that might have arisen from the water’s contact with the liner. (The sophisticated powerful gas chromatography equipment in general use today was either unavailable or not thought to be needed.) The development of the liner predates the current widespread concern about organics.”

That last statement about sums it up, if you were wondering what they were thinking using pipes recently treated with a solvent combined with a plastic matrix allowing it to leach out over time. They weren't, because they didn't have to. Smell no evil, taste no evil, measure no evil.

Although by the time Demond wrote his thesis, organic solvents were losing their innocence, as residents of Woburn, Massachusetts were realizing the possible linkages between high incidences of childhood leukemia and water contaminated with PCE's chemical cousin, TCE.

Unfortunately for New Englanders, according to Demond, the vinyl-lined asbestos-cement pipes produce by Johns Mansfield Company (of asbestos fame) were used primarily in New England to control alkalinity-related corrosion of the pipes. Over 600 miles of vinyl lined asbestos-cement pipes were laid in Massachusetts, with the majority on Cape Cod. A few years after the leaching problem was identified the company stopped production.

While some pipes were replaced, remediation more often consisted primarily of flushing, until concentrations fell below levels of concern at the time.

Twenty year's later, Aschengrau’s paper in the journal Environmental Health reports finding “large increases in the risk of gastrointestinal defects (particularly oral clefts), neural tube defects (particularly anencephaly) and, modest increases in the risk of genitourinary defects (particularly hypospadias),” and concludes

The results of this study suggest that the risk of certain congenital anomalies is increased among the offspring of women who were exposed to PCE-contaminated drinking water around the time of conception. Because these results are limited by the small number of children with congenital anomalies that were based on maternal reports, a follow-up investigation should be conducted with a larger number of affected children who identified by independent records.”

For more, check out Aschengrau's paper.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The salty dumping grounds: plasticized Part II

[Here is the second part of The Dumping Grounds, a history of ocean plastics.]

An Earlier Voyage

In 1971 over twenty years before the Alguita’s first voyage, nearly forty years before the recent Scripps voyage into the Gyre and roughly twenty years after his own voyage across the Pacific in Kon-Tiki, anthropologist and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl with a small international crew made his way across the Atlantic aboard the Ra I, a papyrus raft-vessel constructed as a modern day experiment using ancient technology. On that first voyage, as Ra made its way from across the Atlantic from Morocco to just east of Barbados, Heyerdahl, commenting on the preponderance of oil-clots and other flotsam wrote “pollution observations were forced upon all expedition members by its grave nature…” [1]

Encouraged by interest in their findings by members of United Nations, Heyerdahl set off in the Ra II a year later prepared to record observations, and to collect samples. With oil lumps washing aboard at one point, the Ra II’s log reported that “the pollution is terrible.” A couple of days later, after encountering a plastic bottle, some rope, a can and other items, a log entry expressed shock at the degree to which remote regions of the Atlantic had become polluted by man. From the day of departure, wrote Heyerdahl, to the day they landed in Barbados, the Ra II was accompanied not only by lumps of oil, but also by plastic containers, metal cans and glass bottles. In closing wrote Heyerdahl,

“The present report has no other object than to call attention to the alarming fact that the Atlantic Ocean is becoming seriously polluted and that a continued indiscriminate use of the world’s oceans as an international dumping ground for imperishable human refuse may have irreparable effects on the productivity and very survival of plant and animal species.”

Plastics Overboard!

Years before Heyerdahl’s journey, Stephen Rothstein, then a University of California biologist, had discovered small plastic particles in the stomachs of Leach’s Petrels and nestlings captured on Gull Island, Newfoundland in 1964. Wondering why the petrels might ingest plastics, Rothstein wrote, “Before the occurrence of plastic particles, it is probable that nearly all such objects were edible. Thus, natural selection would not have favored petrels which avoided nonedible floating objects…[2] It seems this was the case with other marine creatures as well, as researchers throughout the early 1970’s and ‘80s cataloged the impacts of plastics on marine mammals, birds, turtles and fish. While plastic fishing nets, ropes and packing bands ensnared Neptune’s creatures, small bits substituted for food. Seabirds mistook plastic bits for prey, inadvertently feeding them to their young, as green sea turtles gobbled down plastic banana bags tossed off the side of a dock. Wrote David Laist, then senior policy and program analyst at the Marine Mammal Commission, in his testimony at the 1986 hearing on Plastic Pollution in the Marine Environment, “Animals which become entangled may exhaust themselves and drown, be slowed to the point of becoming easy prey for other predators, or unable to catch fast moving prey, or develop wounds and infections from abrasion of attached debris. Animals which ingest plastics may be poisoned or have digestive tracts blocked or damaged by plastics that are difficult or impossible to excrete, regurgitate, break down, or otherwise eliminate once ingested.[3] As a 1970’s teenager, the “Keep America Beautiful” decade, it’s hard to forget the heart rending photos of fur seals girdled by discarded plastic strapping, or young turtles and seabirds caught up in six-pack rings. By some accounts, a 1988 cleanup along a 1.8 mile stretch of the Texas coast turned up almost 16,000 six-pack rings[4]. I have a vague recollection of pulling six-pack rings from my parent’s trash after chastising them for carelessly throwing them away without first slashing them apart. There was growing concern that endangered marine mammals and sea turtles alike were adversely impacted by their encounters with plastic waste, the likes of which the Alguita had stumbled upon in the North Pacific gyre. Only the hearing to prevent plastic pollution took place ten years earlier.

One of the first suggestions proposed by Laist to improve the situation was ratification and implementation of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships or MARPOL Annex V, introduced through the International Maritime Organization by the United States and other countries. MARPOL is the main international convention dealing with release of pollutants by ships. Before MARPOL, there was OILPOL, an international convention adopted to prevent ships from releasing waste oil, back in the 1950’s, strengthened over the years to include releases of oily bilge water and toxic chemicals. Not until 30 years later, as plastic lines and nets became integral to the fishing industry, and plastic strapping and packaging of food items and other consumables became common aboard all sea-going vessels from the merchant marines to the world’s Navy’s did the international community recognize the need to control the release of plastics from ships as well. Ratification of MARPOL Annex V would ban the dumping of plastics into the ocean from all vessels, in all locations. There is some unintended logic to the progression from the early OILPOL to MARPOL’s Annex V, for oil is the precursor to our modern day plastics.

The Marine Mammal Commission wasn’t alone in calling for the ratification of annex V. MARPOL’s annex V was supported by a rare combination of organizations and federal agencies, including those normally in opposition such as the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Society of Plastics Industry. In his testimony in favor of ratification at the Plastic Pollution hearing, C.E. O’Connell, sounded much like today’s National Rifle Association’s dictum that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” when he essentially stated that the plastics industry did not pollute the world’s oceans, plastics users, including beachgoers, municipalities and the marine, naval and fishing industry did[5]. And they did - legally. Back in 1982, when the merchant marine fleet registered around 71,000 ships, and plastics had worked their way on board in every conceivable role, from the packaging galley food to plastic strapping, it was estimated that some 639,000 plastic containers were tossed daily[6]. And that estimate didn’t even include all the plastics tossed overboard by navy ships, luxury cruise ships, like the QE2, which serve as a luxury playground for nearly 10 million Americans each year, or the tons of plastic fishing nets and gear lost to the sea.

I inadvertently contributed my share back in 1989. After collecting winter flounder from the Narrow River, a seemingly clean river that cut through Narragansett, RI on its way to the bay, and finding them distressingly contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls I was eager to collect winter flounder untainted by coastal contaminants. As it turned out, EPA’s ocean survey vessel the Anderson, a converted Vietnam era Naval Patrol gunner, had a few unscheduled days that fall. We booked four days at sea, hired Mike the Rebel fisherman (he kept a confederate flag in the rear window of his truck, had long blond hair and a good sized tattoo on his bicep) and headed 130 miles offshore to Georges Bank to trawl for flounder. When the Anderson nearly jerked to a halt mid-tow, and the winches spun a little too easily, the loss of our net, along with the heavy metal doors that dragged along the oceans bottom became all too clear. We had just made our contribution to the hundreds of miles of ghost fishing nets drifting about or laying upon the ocean floor. Though I never would have tossed my Styrofoam coffee cup overboard, the episode didn’t register as an environmental catastrophe. The ocean was big and the net was gone. “It happens,” was all Mike had to say, that was why we brought a spare.

The thousands of lost fishing nets and lines are only part of the ocean’s plastic problem. Like early twentieth century coastal cities, merchant marines, cruise ships, navy vessels and fishing boats have looked to the sea for disposal. And why not? Aircraft carriers with crews of 6,000 sailors generate over 3 million pounds of trash during their six months at sea[7]. By some estimates, plastics, before any major efforts by the navy to reduce plastic waste, accounted for over 12 % of all waste generated on board[8]. That means over 300,000 pounds of plastics dumped in a six month period by a single vessel, in just one of the world’s navies. Up until 1988, the Navy estimated it contributed more than 4.5 million pounds of plastic to the world’s oceans[9] [insert volume analogy, e.g. # of coke bottles]. For far too many years it was common practice to dump trash directly overboard.

In total, just the amount of plastics dumped at sea from say, the 1960’s when plastics entered our lives in a big way through the mid-1980s (when at least those adhering to MARPOL Annex V quit dumping) is mind boggling. Particularly because all of that plastic is still with us – somewhere – today. We’ve contaminated the largest of earth’s commons, the oceans, with our plastics.

Considering this enormous tonnage of plastic in addition to that which has floated down rivers and out with the tides or with the sewage, left on beaches, blown from the decks of hulking garbage scows on their way to mega landfills in New York and New Jersey like Fresh Kills, Meadowlands and Pelham Bay, the recent encounters with a gyre full of plastic is sadly not surprising. What is surprising is that until now, no one really knew the extent to which we’d contaminated our oceans, and how that contamination would eventually come back to haunt us.

[1] Heyerdahl, Biological Conservation Vol 3 April 1971, 164-168

[2] Plastic Particle Pollution of the Surface of the Atlantic Ocean: Evidence from a Seabird, The Condor 75:344-366, 1973.

[3] Statement of Mr. David Laist Senior Policy and Program Analyst Marine Mammal Commission, Plastic Pollution in the Marine Environment, 1986 Hearing before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Navigation, Washington, DC Serial No. 99-47. P. 21


[5] Statement of C.E. O’Connell, President of the Society of the Plastics Industry, Plastic Pollution in the Marine Environment, 1986 Hearing before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Navigation, Washington, DC Serial No. 99-47 p. 108.

[6] Horsman, 1982, The Amount of Garbage Pollution from Merchant Ships, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 13:167-169. Wastes in the Marine Environment, Office of Technology Assessment, Washington, DC, 1987.

[7] Navy’s Shipboard Solid Waste Management Program, Ye-Ling Wang, 1997.

[8] A Float Solid Waste Characterization Study, 2008

[9] Clean Ships, Clean Ports, Clean Oceans p. 23

Friday, September 25, 2009

Lice patrol

Though I’ve got lice stories to tell of my own, I’ve been embargoed by the victims. So instead I’ll begin with my friend, Kate’s* daughter, who discovered the unwelcome visitors two days before her first day of high school – a school in a new town where she didn’t know a soul. As if walking into a new social situation wasn’t hard enough!

Although Kate makes a point to tread lightly on this earth, choosing natural to synthetic, and organic when possible, for her, this called for an exception.

“We went for the toxic stuff,” she said.

Why lice, so common these days, can still cause one to be ostracized I don’t know. There isn’t a school around that hasn’t reported a recent outbreak.

Growing up in the suburbs circa 1960s, lice was more of a joke than a problem. “You don’t have lice do you?” was a common refrain when offered a comb or brush for our preteen locks. No one ever thought their best friend would seriously be harboring the little critters.

So back in the mid-ninties when lice hit my daughter’s day care, I was appalled.

A few years later those lice had apparently moved on to my kids’ elementary school, where the motto “Caring is Sharing” apparently went a little too far (and yes embarrassingly enough, that was their motto - at least for a time.) Each year, as the dreaded “letter” indicating a new crop of lice arrived in the mail, we’d tentatively comb through our kids’ hair, thankful every time we found suspect nits to be nothing more than lint. Our school wasn’t alone. It is estimated that upwards of six to twelve million kids ages 3-12 are infested each year in the United States alone.

Humans have been battling lice since the earliest days of our existence. Archeological digs reveal lice or nits (the rice-like egg cases adult female lice affix to human hair shafts) on human hairs, old combs, mummies you name it. And, just to dispel any fears, the body lice associated with Typhus and other diseases are not the lice that infect our silken locks. In fact there are three types of lice, head lice, body lice and pubic lice. Curiously and thankfully they not only seem to know their place on our bodies, but can apparently distinguish us, their favored and only host, from our pet pooches and lap cats. And, head lice, unlike body lice, are seldom associated with disease other than excessive itching and an occasional infection as a result of said itching.

Given all these years living together, humans of course have developed a diverse arsenal from the lethal to the eccentric fight these beasties. A swig of shed snake skin tea anyone? Or perhaps a liniment of mercury and stavesacre - also known as lice-bane, or Delphinium staphisagria – a beautiful but highly toxic plant. In the 1920’s its topical use was apparently associated with the death of at least one child. And then there was, and according to some reports still is, kerosene. A treatment which brings me back to my tree-climbing days when my father used gasoline to remove sticky pine-sap from my hands. Clean of sap, but coated with a flammable solvent I’d walk to the shower afraid I might explode. Not a recommended practice – and something I’d thought was left behind with the generation for whom chemicals were life saving and life simplifying miracles – not for our generation who was left to clean up their mess. So I was surprised when, besides exhortations to avoid using kerosene, I came across a recent report from
Harvard School of Public Health warning those seeking lice-treatments away from “…motor or machine oils, as these materials can be harmful.” Really? But then, we’ve used plenty of harmful treatments to remove the itchy pests over the years.

For decades the most effective treatment was DDT – credited with keeping lice out of our hair from the 1940s when it was first hailed as a wonder-pesticide through the 70s (the chemist Paul Muller snagged a Nobel Prize eight years after patenting this now notorious organochlorine chemical.) DDT’s widespread use has been credited with keeping me and my 1960s compatriots lice-free throughout our youth. But then DDT became the poster-chemical for all that was wrong with wonton use of industrial, persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals. Not only did it contribute to the demise of raptors and fish eating birds, but after only a little over twenty years of use, the wily little beasts began to develop resistance (as did other pests treated with DDT.) Not surprising for an insect that can eat and mate at the same time. Clearly lice are efficient when it comes to survival and reproduction.

More recently, lice have developed resistance to other standbys like Lindane, now banned in California and some European countries for a combination of reasons - including its toxicity. One wonders why it’s still available for use in the U.S. when
according to the FDA “….serious side effects including seizures and deaths have been reported to the FDA in patients who use too much Lindane or after a second treatment with Lindane….Seizures can happen in some patients even if they use Lindane as directed; Certain people are at higher risk to develop seizures and death from Lindane. This includes: babies and children; elderly; people weighing less than 110 pounds (50 kg).”

If for some reason you are prescribed Lindane, I would suggest you check out FDA’s site and read carefully.

And then there are the commonly used and readily available over-the-counter formulations including RID, Pronto and licetrol, which rely upon an ancient remedy derived from chrysanthemums – pyrethrin. Unfortunately, today’s lice have developed resistance to both pyrethrins and their synthetic chemical cousin permethrin (found in NIX, another popular treatment.) According to one report, if lice are still hanging around after two courses of correctly applied treatments – your little guests are very likely resistant to eviction – at least by those chemicals.

And finally (for toxic stuff) there’s malathion – an FDA approved lice treatment for children greater than six years of age. Malathion not only is an irreversible neurotoxicant but also, in its commercial formulation, has the added risk of going up in flame. Because the treatment is so flammable, users are warned away from using hair dryers and curling irons (for the 8-12 hours required for treatment,) and while resistance has yet to be documented in the U.S. that’s not the case worldwide.

So, what’s a modern parent like Kate to do when faced with a head full of lice, and an impending social disaster for her child?

Enter the
Medical Letter On Drugs and Therapeutics, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to appraisals of new drugs, which just published a review of lice medications including FDA’s most recently approved treatment, a 5% benzyl alcohol lotion. According to Medical Letters, because it actively suffocates lice by opening and obstructing their airways – rather than working at a biochemical level (inhibiting certain enzymes, a mode of action to which insects may develop resistance) there’s some hope this treatment won’t contribute to development of “superlice.” Additionally studies suggest the required ten-minute treatment is not only effective but “well tolerated,” even by the very young. Though they note that “preterm neonates injected intravenously with products containing benzyl alcohol have developed a ‘gasping syndrome’ with CNS depression,….sometimes progressing to neurological deterioration and cardiovascular collapse,” lice treatments are topical and this one has been approved for infants six months of age and older.

There are also “smothering” treatments – like mayonnaise and olive oil – to which I can personally attest (though I won’t say how.) These treatments slow active lice down enough to easily remove, but be warned, at least one recipient of the treatment (which involves spending the night with hair dressed in mayonnaise) has sworn off the stuff for life.

Here again, one can find words of wisdom offered up by Harvard’s School of Public Health which cautions that “Olive oil (or any similar food-grade product) would seem intrinsically safe, but may have associated hazards nonetheless. Oil may cause accidents (slips), and would be difficult to remove from the hair and scalp.” Hmmmm, here's a thought - avoid swabbing your floors with the stuff, and you may be OK. Seriously though, their
site is worth checking out for a review of lice treatments in general.

Another smothering agent is dimethicone, the “primary” and apparently active ingredient in another newish product, LiceMD (I say apparently because it is frustratingly difficult to find any information on how the product works other than it contains
dimethicone.) Dimethicone is type of silicone oil. I can confirm the ease of combing one’s hair (my own) after use – silicone after all is an excellent lubricant for rusty chains and creaky doors too. So maybe we’re not too far from motor oil and other lubricants after all.

A more pleasant treatment might be a combination of essential oils including lavender, peppermint and eucalyptus dissolved in ethanol and isopropanol (another alcohol) –
reported to work as well on active lice as some of the more traditional pesticides to which lice are resistant.

Lice shouldn’t be cause for social trauma, but they are. So when the bugs find their way to your home, be patient – and at least give the non-toxics a try - they might just do the trick. And, you never know, there may even be some unexpected benefits - there’s nothing like gently combing through and nitpicking your kids hair to (at least temporarily) strengthen family ties - not that I'd know.

*Not her real name.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The salty dumping grounds: a brief history of ocean dumping

In light of all the recent activity surrounding ocean plastics including voyages by both Captain Charlie Moore and Scripps, I thought it might be relevant to consider our practice (past and present) of using the oceans as receptacles for our waste. This is a little different than the typical posts (it's from an earlier project on plastics) and will be posted in sections. Here's the first.

In with the tides, Nantasket Beach, 1988

As far as plastics in the ocean, I needed no introduction. All along the sandy beaches of Hull, a thin barrier beach reaching out into Massachusetts Bay, where my family resided each summer, plastics washed up by the incoming tide were a common sight. We knew when Boston’s sewers had overloaded by the condoms, tampon applicators and other assorted bits of plastic that washed ashore after a storm. When lobstermen switched from the picturesque wooden traps to plastic coated metal, we knew by the fragments of trap that poked up from the wet sand below the high-tide mark. So when the Coastweeks cleanup came to Hull in 1988 my father, garbage bag in hand, wearing his Sears dungarees, faded blue denim shirt, and size 12 Jack Purcells, combed the beach separating plastic, metal and cardboard from the sand. My father, along with hundreds of other volunteers that year, collected a total of 25 tons of debris from Massachusetts’s beaches.

That fall, as I attended the annual Society of Toxicology and Chemistry Halloween Dance dressed as “Beach waste,” I was na├»ve about the dangers of plastics. As far as I knew plastic was a nuisance and an eyesore but was essentially inert unless burned; not all that interesting to a toxicologist. But it made a good costume. A necklace of pink and white tampon applicators and milk bottle caps collected by my father was the perfect accessory to the orange fishnet cape adorned with fading coke bottles, pieces of old lobster trap and other assorted beach waste items. Problem was, only other east coast attendees got that I was beach waste.

Back then, Alice Outwater, fresh out of MIT’s graduate school worked with the floatable scum of Boston - wastewater scum - for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. She writes about the 1980s, “roughly fifty thousand tampon applicators a day were arriving at the wastewater treatment plants in Boston.”[1] Recently, I asked her about the fate of those applicators, “Most of the plastics in the wastewater,” she replied, “ended up in the scum, which, originally, was released on the outgoing tide. ” As recently as 1989, Boston’s sewage treatment plants released upwards of 10,000 gallons per day of that scum, which included grease, oil, and rosy pink tampon applicators,[2] and it was all legal.

Who would have thought that the applicators my sisters and I flushed from our Newton home might one day wash up on our beloved Nantasket beach in Hull? Did Playtex consider this when they manufactured the first silky plastic applicators back in 1962[3]? Or, did both Playtex and consumers assume, as generations before them, that flowing water combined with technology was the solution for much of our waste?

The solution to pollution

Our relationship with the world’s oceans includes worship, fear and contemplation, yet throughout history we have dumped our waste into the nearest water body. If the ocean was large enough to hide fearsome sea monsters, make ships disappear, and swallow Atlantis, surely it was large enough to absorb our waste. By one estimate, for every million molecules of the world’s waters, the ocean contains over 970,000 molecules, while glaciers and ice caps contain 21,000, rivers contain a single molecule[4], and all of life including us watery beings contains a mere half a molecule. So what could beings who represent less than one part-per-million of all the oceans water possibly do to harm the oceans? Turns out, quite a lot.

Four thousand years ago, the Sumerians not only figured out how to move water to where they wanted it, but they also managed to develop a sewer system to carry away their waste. Two thousand years ago Romans built public latrines that discharged via their central sewage system, aptly named the Cloaca Maxima, directly into the river Tiber. Despite all this historical precedent (although one might think we’d have figured this out sooner) western world city dwellers were still dumping chamber pots into the streets and ditches until well into the late nineteenth century. Fortunately for us, city engineers and health departments finally figured out what the ancients had known - that flowing water could carry away a city’s human waste. By early twentieth century, when my father’s father was setting down roots in his new country after a trip across the Atlantic, and in his new city Boston, Boston was being celebrated for having one of the best sewage treatment systems in the country thanks to a collection of pipes that sent the city’s wastewater out into Boston Harbor.

As east coast cities like Boston and New York exploded with immigrants like my grandfather and his family, so too did the amount of household waste, including ashes, garbage, night soil and cesspool cleanings (for those not hooked up to the cities sewers) which along with street sweepings and dead animals, ended up in watery graves along the eastern seaboard, out of sight. While our coastal ancestors paved the way for dumping at sea, inlanders were no different. For them, flowing water, was also the solution to growing waste problems. By the end of the nineteenth century, some Midwestern cities were dumping upwards of 270,000 tons of garbage, manure, night-soil and dead animals into the mighty Mississippi River, while others dumped into the Missouri, the Ohio[5] and the Great Lakes

Occasionally, all this dumping was problematic. Once in a while, dumping interfered with the boats and barges that worked the rivers, or the tides and winds conspired, pushing putrid waste back towards the shore. Navigation became difficult, and coastal areas became hazardous to one’s health. After this happened in Boston during the summer of 1898, ninety years before tampon applicators washed up in Hull, and almost 100 years before Alguita’s maiden voyage, the wisdom of dumping at sea was reconsidered[6]. By 1899 the country’s first law protecting our waterways was enacted.[7] Although key phrases like floatable waste and navigable waters separated the lawful from the unlawful, centuries-old habits die hard. Seven years after the new law, Bostonians were still sending literally tons of market waste, ashes and house dirt, street sweepings and cesspool and catch basin cleanings out to the coastal ocean. Dumping at sea was cheap. In 1912 for just 40 cents, Boston could unload a ton of garbage[8]. As long as the stuff didn’t reappear and as long as ships could still sail, there was no reason not to dump it.

Thankfully for us all, coastal garbage dumping eventually ceased, but our mindset, that the solution to pollution is the ocean, persists. Throughout the past century and into the next, coastal cities and towns have continued to rely upon local rivers and harbors to swallow up their citizen’s sewage. Yet the sewage and wastewater that traveled from my grandfather’s apartment out to the harbor was far different than the sewage that flowed from the subsequent generation of Bostonians who came of age living better through chemistry. Before the current age of plastics, much of what was dumped eventually degraded – even the oil. But plastics don’t break down – at least not within our lifetime. And as recently as 1987, over 1,000 major industrial facilities and nearly 600 municipal sewage treatment plants discharged directly into estuaries or coastal waters around the country[9] dispersing not only fugitive tampon applicators and other bits of plastics but industrial contaminants as well.

To find out more about plastics in our oceans today, check out websites of both the ORV Alguita (Captain Moore's vessel) and the New Horizon, (Scripps' vessel.)

The second part to this article can be found here.

[1] Water, by Alice Outwater pg 169, and personal communication.


[3]; "The new Gentle Glide tampon is a major breakthrough in design. Since 1962 when Playtex created the first plastic applicator tampon, we've continually improved the design of our feminine care products by listening to consumers and anticipating their feminine care needs. This exciting new product is designed to meet women's needs for ultimate comfort and protection", commented Julie Elkinton, Vice President of Feminine Care at Playtex.” From

[4] Gaia’s Body, Tyler Volk, p 112

[5] The Collection and Disposal of Municipal Waste, 1908, Wm F. Morse, The Municipal Waste Journal and Engineer, Ny, NY

[6] The Collection and Disposal of Municipal Waste, 1908, Wm F. Morse, The Municipal Waste Journal and Engineer, Ny, NY.


[8] R. Hering and S. Greeley: Collection and Disposal of Municipal Refuse, 1921

[9] Wastes in Marine Environments, OTA, 1987 p.13.