December 23, 2005

Christmas Lift

A year-end piece of good news about the Northwest's successful push in 2005 for cleaner cars, via a note yesterday from the Oregon Environmental Council:

"This afternoon, Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission adopted the clean car standards by temporary rule. By acting before the end of the year, EQC has alerted automakers that they must provide cleaner, more climate-friendly cars to Oregonians starting with model year 2009. These new cars will consume less fuel and produce less pollution. They’ll cost less to operate. And they’ll reduce our dependence on oil."

The one hitch is that the EQC needs to make the rule permanent within 180 days, or it will expire. See more at

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December 12, 2005

Toxic Whales

BBC News reports that orcas are the most toxic-contaminated mammals in the Arctic. Fat samples recently taken from killer whales in a Norwegian fjord revealed startlingly high levels of pesticides, PCBs, and flame retardants.

Whales in the Arctic may be somewhat more susceptible because toxics often concentrate in the polar regions, but the Norwegian whales are a reminder that the southern resident orcas of Cascadia are also sickened by high levels of toxics. And unlike their Arctic brethren, the whales of BC and Washington are next door neighbors to millions of people and our heavy industry. All those increasingly banned and phased-out flame retardants persist in the environment where they can continue to poison both people and wildlife.

As we begin to plan for protecting the southern residents under the Endangered Species Act, perhaps we should consider testing the southern residents for toxics in a systematic way. The last time one of the southern residents was tested for PCBs (a dead whale that had washed ashore) it registered perhaps the highest levels of contamination ever measured in a killer whale--so high that the machines had to be re-calibrated. Not only would tests help us prioritize the most critical threats to orcas, but their levels of contamination may give us clues about how vigilant we ought to be about toxic-laden consumer products.

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December 05, 2005

PBDEs: Another Nail

Some cheery news for Monday:  The Olympian, Washington's capital city newspaper, reports that the state departments of ecology and health are proposing further steps to eliminate PBDEs, a toxic flame retardant, from commerce.  And I imagine that some state legislators are paying close attention to those recommendations as they gear up for the legislative session next January.

Just to recap -- PBDEs are flame retardants used in furniture foams and plastics, but have some disturbing similarities to their chemical cousins, the PCBs.  Both classes of compounds have been found to affect neurological development in lab animals, and PCBs are known to cause developmental delays and deficits in children.  Scientists routinely find PBDEs in samples of food, housedust, and human breastmilk and body fat -- and levels in North America, where the use of the most troublesome forms of the compound has been concentrated, are the highest in the world.

Last year the Washington legislature funded a PBDE action plan for the state, but delayed action on a bill to actually remove compounds out of commerce.  Meanwhile, the manufacturer of the kinds of PBDEs most often found in people's bodies has stopped manufacturing the compounds, under an agreement with the US EPA.  Still, one type of PBDEs are still used widely in commercial electronics and other applications (though, apparently, many manufacturers have managed to remove all PBDEs from their supply chain).

Today's news means, in essence, that departments of health and ecology are leaning towards a more comprehensive ban of PBDEs.  As summarized by the Olympian:

The two agencies recommend that the Legislature:
• Ban the manufacture, distribution or sale of new products containing Penta or Octa [which are the most problematic forms of the compounds].
• Ban the use of Deca [the PBDEs that are still in widespread use] in electronic components, as long as safer fire retardants are available or if additional studies show that Deca harms human health.
• Consider a ban on Deca in products that don’t already contain it, but could in the future, including textiles and mattresses.
• Continue research on PBDE alternatives and monitor the levels of PBDE in the environment.

These are all good steps.  Of course, it would have been nice if the same level of caution had been exercised before PBDE contamination became so widespread.

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December 02, 2005

When Fake News Is Real News

Because of our work on PBDEs -- the flame retardant chemicals that are showing up at alarming levels in northwesterners' bodies -- I've set up a Google alert that lets me know whenever something new is published that contains the word "PBDE".  I was hoping to keep abreast of new scientific findings, or maybe new policy developments that I might not otherwise get wind of.  But most of what I've gotten has been just P.R. announcements -- fake news stories, really -- from companies crowing that they've phased PBDEs out of their products. Just today, for example, Hewlett-Packard announced that they've already gotten rid of PBDEs from their plastic electronics casings, and are soon to phase out another brominated flame retardant.

Right now, I'd say that the industry P.R. makes up the large majority of the PBDE news that Google sends me in any given week.

At first, I found the stream of P.R. annoying.  But now I realize that, far from being junk, the steady drip of PR news has become a real story in itself.  It wasn't long ago that the electronics industry was begging for exemptions from PBDE phaseouts, saying that they simply didn't have any viable alternatives to the compounds.  But, apparently, the engineers have had a chance to do some tinkering, and are finding that they can get along well enough without them.

Which suggests that getting rid of PBDEs completely may be a lot easier than the industry lobbyists had predicted.  Which should come as little surprise.  Time and again, industrial engineers have shown that they've got the creativity to solve pollution problems quickly and cost effectively.  Sometimes, all it takes is to give their higher-ups a little kick in the pants.

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November 07, 2005

How 'Bout A Nice Tall Glass of Mercury

Yoiks:  A southern Idaho reservoir is contaminated with mercury at levels up to 180 times higher than those found in lakes in the northeast US.  From the Idaho Statesman:

"Nobody's ever seen a hot spot like this before," said Mike DuBois, an air quality analyst at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

The likely culprit:  four gold mines across the border in northern Nevada, which emitted 15,000 pounds of mercury in 2002 alone.  Of course, the mines are patting themselves on the back for reducing their  mercury releases to just a couple of tons per year as of 2004.  But that's still a huge amount of mercury for just a handful of mines.  The 1,000-odd coal-fired electricity industry generators in the US emit a total of 48 tons of mercury each year; so those few Nevada mines make up a disproportionately large share of the nation's total mercury output.

And just in case you need a reason to care about this: mercury contamination early in life can knock a few points off a kid's IQ, which in addition to being grossly unfair, costs nearly $9 billion a year in lost earnings.

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October 14, 2005

A Beacon in the Smog

I doubt that most residents of leafy suburbs paid a lot of attention to air quality when they chose their homes.  But it’s not hard to believe that, when suburban commuters return home from work each night, they breathe a little easier in the belief that they’ve escaped the smog and fumes of the city.

Only, maybe they haven’t.  At least, not in the greater Puget Sound, anyway.

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency maintains a network of air monitoring stations throughout the region.  Some are in central Seattle, some in smaller cities, and some in suburbs and rural locations.  And--perhaps surprisingly--there doesn’t appear to be a decisive air quality advantage to living in the suburbs.  (See this pdf for more details.)

Or, to be a little more accurate:  air quality tends to be both highly variable and very localized.  Monitoring stations in the neighborhoods surrounding Seattle’s downtown tend to report that the air is pretty clean -– cleaner, in some cases, than at more suburban monitoring stations in Bellevue, Lynnwood, or Lake Forest Park.  On the other hand, the air in Seattle’s industrial zones can be pretty dirty; but then again, so can the air in Kent and Marysville.

The Beacon Hill monitoring station, a mile or so southeast of downtown Seattle, is worth a special mention. 

The Beacon Hill neighborhood is just to the east (i.e., downwind) of I-5, the heavily trafficked West Seattle Bridge, and the Port of Seattle; to the north it's bordered by I-90.  Given its location, you might expect the air quality on Beacon Hill to be pretty bad.  In fact, if you had to pick one residential neighborhood in Seattle that’s likely to have outdoor air quality problems, Beacon Hill might well be it.

But Beacon Hill’s air is, surprisingly, pretty clean. For fine particulate matter (i.e., soot, largely from diesel vehicles), it does moderately well: 3rd best of 7 regional monitoring stations by one measure, 7th of 16 by another, best among 5 by yet another.  It has less ozone than any other monitoring station in the region (not surprisingly, as concentrations of ground-level ozone are typically lower in city centers than in leafy suburbs and exurbs).  And its carbon monoxide levels were the lowest among 7 stations.  I'm not sure why Beacon Hill does as well as it does -- perhaps it's just a function of altitude and prevailing wind patterns. But whatever the reason, it's good news for the people who live there.

Clearly, the monitoring station results don't offer definitive proof that Beacon Hill residents have nothing to worry about from their air.  But it does mean that a move from Beacon Hill to, say, Lynwood or Bothell or Lake Forest Park or Marysville—all suburban locations—won’t necessarily buy cleaner air.

Three more points are worth mentioning here.  First, as we mentioned in this post, the air in your car is typically among the worst you’ll breathe all day.  Second, for most pollutants, indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air –- and most people spend 90% or more of their time indoors.  And third, outdoor air quality seems to have improved pretty substantially since the early 1980s; King County has had no “unhealthy” air quality days since 1999, and only 31 days in 6 years in which the air has been “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”  That’s not a perfect record, obviously, but it does represent a substantial improvement from where we once were.

To me, these facts suggest that at this point improving the air that you breathe depends, in large measure, on keeping yourself off the highway, and keeping hazardous products out of your home.  Obviously, clean outdoor air matters too -– it’s just that living in the suburbs doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll get it.

Update:  I should mention that "A Beacon In The  Smog" is, or at least was, the official tag line of Grist Magazine.  Plagiarism, like imitation, is a sincere form of flattery.

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October 11, 2005

Biomonitoring Bill Terminated

In California, Gov. Schwarzenegger just vetoed a bill that would have required the state to begin monitoring synthetic chemical pollutants in the bodies of California residents, and to explore the connection (if any) between such chemical "body burdens" and human health.

To me, what seems notable here is the reason the governor gave for the veto:

"While the intent of the measure is worthy...the bill will only provide a partial snapshot of chemicals present in tested participants without proper context of what the presence of (a) specific chemical means or how it interacts with other health factors.

Translation: it's better to keep flying blind than to start opening our eyes.   According to the Oakland Tribune, the governor has pretty much lifted this argument from the chemical industry's talking points -- so I'm sure it won't be the last time we hear it.

Of course, it's not quite true that we're flying blind here.  Plenty of people are doing biomonitoring, including the US Centers for Disease Control.  But those programs have pretty definite limitations -- biomonitoring studies by academics, state labs, and public interest groups tend to be one-off affairs, rather than long-term, coordinated efforts; and the CDC data provides a useful baseline for some contaminants, but doesn't look at chemical combinations or health effects.  Those are gaps the California program could have filled.  Too bad it was Terminated.

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October 07, 2005

Good Air Day

This is pretty cool. Real-time air quality measurements for 17 locations around Puget Sound. At the moment, every monitoring station is showing good air quality. It'll be interesting to check back periodically as wintertime inversions trap pollution in the basin.

Anyone know of other web-based measurements like this one for other places in the Northwest?

UPDATE: Here's a clickable map of county-by-county air quality for Washington state. (Hat tip to the ever-vigilant Alan Durning.)

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October 03, 2005

VOCs Populi, or that New Car Smell

Love that new car smell? You may not get that smell from the next new car you buy, and for good reason. Japanese auto makers are planning to reduce the new car smell that comes from fresh glue, paint, plastics because it contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Short-term exposure to VOCs like benzene and formaldehyde can cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness, while long-term exposure can cause cancer. Studies (pdf) show that most people get their most concentrated dose of VOCs in cars of all ages when caught in traffic or refueling, and the new car smell just adds to the problem. Because the smell generally dissipates after 6 months, it probably won't give you cancer. But, still, kudos to Japan for tackling another air quality problem.

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August 25, 2005

Flame On!

Dumb headline (unless you're a Fantastic Four fan), but a serious subject.  A new chemical analysis, being released today by California EPA scientists at an international scientific conference in Toronto, shows that 30 percent of Northwest moms tested in NEW's 2004 toxics study had higher levels of the toxic flame retardants PBDEs in their bodies than of well-known chemical threats PCBs.  This study is a follow-up to the PBDE study of Northwest women that we did last year.

The study provides pretty unambiguous evidence that PBDEs have emerged as a major toxic menace.  And it suggests that, if recent trends continue, PBDEs could soon overtake PCBs as the most dominant "organohalogen" pollutant in people's bodies.

And an interesting -- and probably significant -- side note to the study was that there was no correlation between PCB and PBDE levels.  This suggests that they may get into people's bodies through different pathways.  At this point, the principle source of PCB contamination in people is food, particularly fish.  For PBDEs, nobody is sure; but a recent exposure modeling study from Canada suggests that ordinary housedust, containing minute quantities of PBDEs sloughed off from furniture and the like, may be the principle route of exposure in people. (More here.)

Some context is in order.  PBDEs are fire retardants that are added to furniture foams, industrial fabrics, consumer electronics, and a number of other products.  They're pretty good at preventing fires. But in recent years, scientists have noticed an alarming rise in the concentration of PBDEs in peoples bodies -- in their blood, in fatty tissues, and in breast milk alike.  Concentrations of the compounds appeared to be doubling every two to five years.  Ecologists have found similar rises in marine sediments and wildlife.  As it turns out, PBDEs didn't stay put in consumer products; minute quantities would leach out into the environment and ultimately wind up sequestered in living things, including people.

At the same time that this rapid rise was detected, new evidence was uncovered that PBDEs may have similar health effects as their close chemical cousins, the PCBs.  Tests on laboratory animals showed that a dose of PBDEs during a critical phase of early development could cause memory deficitis and behavioral aberrations -- effects very similar to those caused by PCBs.  The two chemicals may actually work together, either additively or synergistically, to cause harm.

Last year, Northwest Environment Watch commissioned an analysis of 40 breastmilk samples from Northwest moms, 10 each from Washington, Oregon, BC, and Montana.  The study found that the moms had among the highest median PBDE levels on record.  (Yoiks!) 

The problem isn't breastmilk per se; we tested breastmilk just because it was the most convenient way to get a biological sample that's high in fat, since PBDEs adhere to fat.  As far as I know, every epidemiological study that has looked at the issue has concluded that, except in extremely rare cases of PCB poisoning, breastfeeding is by far the best and healthiest choice for infants.  The major risk of PCBs appears to be during fetal development; and the benefits of breastfeeding may actually mitigate the potential harms caused by PCB or PBDE exposure in utero.  So, seriously, if you're a nursing mom, keep breastfeeding.  Please.  Really.

The bottom line of this study is that, even though PCB levels are still higher than PBDE levels, we may soon be approaching a point at which PBDEs are more of a concern than PCBs.  And from this I draw 3 lessons.  First, we should be paying close attention to PBDE levels in the coming years, to see whether PBDE levels continue to rise in people.  Second, we should be looking at ways of removing PBDE-laden products from people's homes. 

And third, we need to learn our lesson about the risks posed by untested chemicals.  In retrospect, it should have been obvious that PBDEs posed some risk -- their chemical structure is very similar to that of PCBs, dioxin and DDT.  So that alone should have triggered some elementary testing requirements before the compounds were used widely commerce.  But it didn't.  At some point, we've got to learn the lesson, and take steps to make sure this sort of chemical fiasco -- releasing potentially harzardous compounds without adequate testing -- doesn't keep happening again and again and again.

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