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Archive for the ‘Air Pollution’ Category

The Dark Side of the Perfectly Manicured American Lawn: Is It Giving You Cancer?  By McKay Jenkins from the book Contamination 

On a beautiful April day, I decided to meet outside with my students at the University of Delaware, where I teach journalism. We sat on the central lawn between two buildings that just happened to bear the names of two gargantuan chemical companies: DuPont and Gore. In the middle of a conversation about agricultural pesticides, a groundskeeper, dressed from feet to neck in a white chemical suit, drove by us on a mower. He wasn’t cutting the grass, though; he was spraying it. And not from one nozzle, but from half a dozen. Up and back he went, describing parallel lines as neat as those in any Iowa farmer’s cornfield. Not a blade escaped the spray. This became a perfect teaching moment.

“Who’s going to ask him what he’s spraying?” I asked my students. One young woman marched over to the groundskeeper. He turned off his engine, they spoke, and she returned.

“He said he’s spraying 2,4-D,” she said. “He said we didn’t need to worry, because he sprayed where we’re sitting at five this morning.”

Which would mean about seven hours earlier. My students chuckled uneasily. He was wearing a full-body chem suit, and they were sitting on the grass in shorts and bare feet?

They’d never heard of 2,4-D, or 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid. But they had heard of Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant used in Vietnam, and 2,4-D, one of the most extensively used herbicides in the world, is a constituent of Agent Orange (it did not cause the bulk of the devastating effects associated with Agent Orange). It was developed during World War II, mostly as a weapon to destroy an enemy’s rice crops. Despite its history, 2,4-D has long been seen as safe for consumer use.

In the 1940s, botanist E. J. Kraus of the University of Chicago fed five and a half grams of pure 2,4-D to a cow every day for three months. The cow was fine, according to Kraus, as was her calf. Kraus said he himself had eaten half a gram of the stuff every day for three weeks and felt great. This was apparently good enough for the rest of the country; within five years, American companies were annually producing 14 million pounds of the stuff. By 1964, the number had jumped to 53 million pounds.

Today, annual sales of 2,4-D have surpassed $300 million worldwide, and it’s found in “weed and feed” products, like Scotts Green Sweep, Ortho Weed B Gon, Salvo, Weedone, and Spectracide. At first, its impact on humans seems mild—skin and eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, stiffness in the arms and legs—and many lawn-care companies have dismissed health concerns. Plus, the businesses add that the amount of chemicals in sprays is very diluted.

With 80 million home lawns and over 16,000 golf courses, you get close to 50 million acres of cultivated turf in America.

But the effects are more worrisome when considered over time. Because 2,4-D is designed to mimic a plant’s natural growth hormone, it causes such rapid cell growth that the stems of treated plants tend to become grotesquely twisted and their roots swollen; the leaves turn yellow and die; and the plants starve to death (2,4-D does not have this effect on grass).

Unsurprisingly, 2,4-D also appears to affect human hormones. The National Institute of Health Sciences lists it as a suspected endocrine disrupter, and several studies point to its possible contribution to reproductive-health problems and genetic mutations. Although the EPA says there isn’t enough evidence to classify 2,4-D as a carcinogen, a growing body of research has begun to link it to a variety of cancers.

A 1986 National Cancer Institute (NCI) study found that farmers exposed to 2,4-D for 20 or more days a year had a sixfold higher risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Another NCI study showed that dogs were twice as likely to contract lymphoma if their owners used 2,4-D on their lawns.

Like flame retardants, this compound also tends to accumulate inside people’s homes even days after the lawn has been sprayed. One study found 2,4-D in the indoor dust of 63 percent of sampled homes; another showed that levels of the chemical in indoor air and on indoor surfaces increased after lawn applications. After 2,4-D was sprayed, exposure levels for children were ten times higher than before the lawns were treated—an indication of how easily the chemical is tracked inside on the little feet of dogs, cats, and kids.

Thanks to pressure from campus activists, my university replaced 2,4-D with “softer” herbicides and began putting signs on lawns that had just been sprayed. Of course, 2,4-D is one of scores of pesticides in use. According to David Pimentel, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University, 110,000 people suffer adverse health effects from pesticides every year, and 10,000 cases of cancer in humans may be attributable to pesticide exposure.

 

The Greening of America

In 1900, 60 percent of Americans lived in rural areas. Today, 83 percent live in cities or suburbs. With that change has come an astonishing shift in the landscape. Over the past half century, Americans have become obsessed with grass. When you add up the country’s 80 million home lawns and over 16,000 golf courses, you get close to 50 million acres of cultivated turf in the United States, an expanse roughly the size of Nebraska. This space is growing by 600 square miles a year.

By 1999, more than two thirds of America’s home lawns had been treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides—14 million by professional lawn-care companies. A year later, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that Americans were spraying 67 million pounds of synthetic chemicals on their grass every year, and annual sales of lawn-care pesticides had grown to $700 million.

The landscaping trucks rolling through our suburban neighborhoods seem to represent something more than a communal desire for lush grass. Could it be relief from anxiety? (Why else call a company Lawn Doctor?) For one thing, hiring lawn-care specialists is a public declaration that you have the money not to take care of your yard yourself.

Diligent lawn maintenance and chemical use are also associated with approval and social status, Ohio State researchers reported in 2012: “The main factor influencing a homeowner’s decision to use lawn chemicals is whether neighbors or other people in the neighborhood use them. Homeowners crave acceptance from their neighbors and generally want their lawns to fit in with their surrounding community, so they adopt their neighbors’ practices.”

We also create manicured lawns to play the most chemically dependent of pastimes: golf. By 2004, there were just under 15,000 golf courses in the United States—a patchwork of chemically treated turf the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Even grass seed comes coated with chemicals. A close look at a bag of Scotts grass seed reveals it has been treated with Apron XL fungicide, whose active ingredient is Metalaxyl-M, or methyl N-(methoxyacetyl)-N-(2,6-xylyl)-D-alaninate. The bag requests that the product be stored away from foodstuffs, kept out of the reach of children, and not be applied near water, storm drains, or drainage ditches. (A Scotts spokesperson says that its products are designed to be safe when used as directed.)

As the use of chemicals has become widespread, lawn companies have found an unexpected source of profits. Herbicides like 2,4-D preserve grass but kill weeds like clover. Clover, however, pulls nitrogen out of the air and fixes it in the soil. Without clover, soil becomes nitrogen poor and fails to support plant life. So chemical companies now replace the depleted nitrogen, which homeowners used to get for free from clover, with synthetic nitrogen, for which they have to pay.

In America’s watersheds, nitrogen runoff is considered among the worst problems for water quality. Since synthetic fertilizers are water soluble, a good amount runs off your lawn after a rain, where it mixes with runoff from other homes and ends up feeding the plants in bodies of water. Doused with chemicals, algae grow and grow, creating “algae blooms” that—as they decay and die—suck most of the oxygen out of rivers, lakes, and bays and lead to massive “dead zones,” in which neither fish nor plants can live.

In 2007, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation published a report card on the bay’s health that showed just how much trouble chemicals can pose. The bay received an F for nitrogen pollution, a D-minus for phosphorous, an F for water quality, an F for dissolved oxygen, and a D for toxics. On a scale of 100 (with 100 being the best), the bay’s health was rated at 28.

In California, scientists are discovering that algae blooms off the coast not only remove oxygen; they also release a toxin, domoic acid. It enters the food chain when fish eat algae, then moves into the sea lions that consume the fish. If a sea lion is pregnant, her fetus can be contaminated, and years later, that mammal may develop epilepsy.

 

One Man’s Chemical Conversion

Paul Tukey knows about pesticides; the man who invented 2,4-D was a distant cousin. When Tukey was a kid in the late 1960s, his grandfather hired a biplane to spray his 300 acres of fields in Maine a couple of times a year. The fields were mostly planted with cattle feed, not with crops intended for human consumption. For Tukey, spraying day was a thrill.

“My grandfather would go out in the field, dressed in his wool underwear and thick heavy pants, and wave the biplane over his field,” Tukey recalled. “They’d drop this white powder, and he’d get back in the truck looking like Frosty the Snowman. Then we’d drive to the next field, and he’d do it again. My grandfather was getting doused 20 times a day, but he would never let me get out of the truck. I always wondered why I couldn’t go out and get dusted.”

Tukey’s grandfather died of a brain tumor at 60.

Tukey also followed his family’s agricultural tradition but charted his own course. For years, he operated one of southern Maine’s largest landscaping services and considered his job ideal. He worked outside in shorts and sandals. He never bothered with putting on protective gear.

In 1993, he started getting nosebleeds. His vision became blurry. But with business booming, Tukey was too busy to worry. One of his jobs was tending the grounds of a hospital where he hired university students for the work. One day, their professor, an eminent horticulturist named Rick Churchill, came by to say hello to his students. Tukey went out to greet him.

Churchill’s eyes were focused on the weeds, which Tukey’s crew had doused with herbicides and which were curling up and turning brown.

Churchill said, “I asked him how anyone in good conscience could be applying pesticides on the grounds of a hospital where there were patients being treated for cancers that could be linked to their exposure to pesticides. I asked whether he knew anything about the toxicity ratings of what he was applying and how dangerous many of these compounds were to an individual compromised by illness.”

The words cut deeply. “It was devastating,” Tukey told me. “In Maine, Rick Churchill is an icon.”

“You have broken bags of poison,” Tukey told the manager. “They all say, ‘Keep out of reach of children’!”

Tukey did some reading, and what he found was troubling. Pediatric cancers in Los Angeles had been linked to parental exposure to pesticides during pregnancy. In Denver, kids whose yards were treated with pesticides were found to be four times more likely to have soft-tissue cancers than kids whose yards were not. Elsewhere, links had been found between brain tumors in children and the use of weed killers, pest strips, and flea collars.

Tukey also learned that exposure to lawn chemicals was particularly alarming for people who spread them for a living. One study showed a threefold increase in lung cancer among lawn-care workers who used 2,4-D; another found a higher rate of birth defects among the children of chemical appliers. When he finally went to the doctor for his rashes and deteriorating eyesight, he learned that he had developed multiple chemical sensitivity. And his son—conceived in 1992, during the height of Tukey’s use of synthetic chemicals—was diagnosed with one of the worst cases of ADHD his physician had ever seen. (Several recent scientific reports suggest that toxic chemicals may play a role in ADHD.)

“All the evidence indicates that you don’t want pregnant women around these products, but I was walking into the house every single night with my legs coated with pesticides from the knees down,” he said. “Even when my son was a year or two old, … [he] would greet me at the door at night by grabbing me around the legs. He was getting pesticides on his hands and probably his face too.”

Tukey’s Breaking Point

In the midst of his research, Tukey was driving one day when he saw a sign: A store was having a big sale on Scotts Turf Builder. Tukey made a beeline. He was going to buy the store’s entire stock. Once inside, he walked to the lawn-care section. Tukey noticed a woman standing by the lawn chemicals. At her feet, a girl was making sand castles from a broken bag of pesticides. Suddenly, something in him burst—the DDT squirting over his grandfather’s fields, the chemicals that he’d sprayed outside the hospital, and now a child in a pile of pesticides.

Tukey told me, “I said, ‘Ma’am, you really shouldn’t let your child play with that. It’s not safe.’ I’m fundamentally shy, but this just came out of me.”

The store wouldn’t sell the stuff if it wasn’t safe, she told Tukey. She took her child and walked away. A manager came up and asked him if there was a problem. Tukey said there was.

“You have broken bags of poison on the floor,” Tukey said to the manager. “All those bags say, ‘Keep out of reach of children’!”

Those labels are there because of government formality, the manager said. The stuff isn’t dangerous. The store wouldn’t carry it if it was.

“That really was the stake in the heart of my chemical career,” Tukey said. “By then, I’d already made myself sick. I’d already been questioned by Rick Churchill. When I saw that girl making sand castles out of the pesticides, [there] was just a sudden gut-level reaction I couldn’t have anticipated. I was shaking when I left the store.”

Tukey issued a decree to his employees: His business was going organic. It was time to start weaning his company—and customers—off synthetic chemicals. Most clients were fine with his decision, just as long as it didn’t cost any more and as long as their lawns continued to look the same.

More than 170 municipalities in Canada have banned lawn pesticides, especially on public spaces like school yards and sports fields. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have banned 2,4-D. In 2009, the European Parliament passed laws banning 22 pesticides that can cause cancer or disrupt human hormones or reproduction.

 

How to Bring Back Butterflies

Certainly, switching to a less toxic lawn company can reduce your family’s—and neighbors’—exposure to synthetic chemicals. It would also reduce the pollutants you contribute to the watershed. But there is another option, one that gets into the more inspiring realm of restoration. There is a way to think of your yard as more than a burden that needs to be mowed and weeded. There is a way to think of your yard as transformational, even magical. Doug Tallamy can show you how.

When Tallamy, former chair of the entomology department at the University of Delaware, walks around his yard, he sees things most of us would not. He can look at a black cherry tree and spot the larvae of 13 tiger swallowtail butterflies. He has planted scores of trees: sweet gums, tulips, white oaks, river birches, and sugar maples. But he’s really interested in bugs and birds—and boosting their numbers.

Suburban development has been devastating to avian populations. Most of the birds we see in our yards are probably house sparrows and starlings, invasive species from Europe. If you study the population numbers for native birds, you’ll find the wood thrush is down 48 percent; the bobwhite, 80 percent; bobolinks, 90 percent. An estimated 72 million birds are killed each year in America by direct exposure to pesticides, a number that does not include baby birds that perish because a parent died from pesticides or birds poisoned by eating contaminated insects or worms. The actual number of birds killed might be closer to 150 million.

In mid-Atlantic gardening circles, Tallamy is a bit of a prophet, his message freighted with both gloom and promise. It is the promise of ecological renewal that he most wants people to understand. His vision is based on three ideas: If you want more birds, you need more native insects; if you want more native insects, you need more native plants; and if you want more native plants, you need to get rid of—or shrink—your lawn.

Tallamy says that when we wake up in the morning to birdsong, it’s often being made by hungry migratory birds that may have just flown 300 miles. What is there to eat? Too frequently, ornamental trees that bear none of the insects the birds need—and chemically treated grass. Tallamy’s prescription: Put in native plants that will make your yard a haven for caterpillars, butterflies, and birds. In the mid-Atlantic region, this can mean swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, buttonbush, joe-pye weed, and a rudbeckia species like black-eyed Susans. At the University of Delaware, Tallamy and a team are restoring native species to the campus.

And me? I ripped up 20 percent of my lawn and planted two flower gardens, two sets of flowering shrubs, and seven vegetable beds. Now my daughter helps me pick eggplants, tomatillos, okra, and Swiss chard. My son can identify not only monarchs and tiger swallowtails but also which plants they like to eat. How? Because last year the butterflies were not here, and this year they are. We replaced the grass, which monarch caterpillars can’t eat, with native flora they can consume. It’s as simple as that. Milkweed and joe-pye weed were born to grow here. All you have to do is plant them and wait for the butterflies.

 

Wise Moves for a Lush Lawn

1. Get tested. “Spending money on fertilizer without a soil test is just guessing,” says Paul Tukey. Good soil is key to a great lawn, and a soil test can tell you what’s in the dirt and what’s missing. For a test, call your county extension office (a national network of agriculture experts).

2. Plant clover with your grass. Clover competes with weeds and fixes nitrogen in the soil. John Bochert, a lawn and garden specialist in York, Maine, recommends a seed mix of white clover, perennial rye (it germinates quickly), fescue, and bluegrass.

3. Mow high, and leave the clippings. Taller grass provides more leaf for photosynthesis, develops deeper roots, and resists weeds. The clippings act as fertilizer. “Lawns mowed at four inches are the most weed-free,” Tukey says. “If you did only one thing, adjusting your mower height would be it.”

4. Cut back on watering. Frequent watering leads to shallow roots, so “water once a week if at all,” says Tukey

5. Apply compost. “Weeds need light to grow,” Tukey says. “Spreading compost on a lawn in the spring prevents weed seeds from germinating.”

6. Listen to weeds … “Weeds are nothing if not messengers,” says Tukey. “Dandelions are telling you the ground needs more calcium. Plantains are telling you the ground is too compact and needs aerating.”

7. … and to insects. Beneficial nematodes, which are microscopic worms, eat some 200 species of insects, including grubs that become Japanese beetles; you can buy them from farm and garden stores. Mix them in water, and spray them on your lawn.

 

 

 

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The Burn Pits of Iraq and Afghanistan

The United States military is utilizing burn pits to dispose military waste throughout their bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are highly toxic locations and pose a significant health hazard to the military and the public living in the communities surrounding them. Pregnant women and children under the age of three are at significant health risk from these burn site locations. In fact, pound-for-pound, children breathe 50 percent more air than do adults, and as a result, our children inhale a greater percentage of harmful air contaminants. The science of incinerators is well known and should be stated. Burn pits are unlike incinerators, in that they contain no filters or filtration systems to capture the most lethal contaminants in the burning process.

Sandra Steingraber explains the science of incinerators in Living Downstream. Keep in mind that Burn Pits do not contain those filters.

No matter how improved or what they are called, incinerators present two problems that landfills do not. First, incinerators only transform garbage; they don’t provide a final resting place for it. There remains the question of where to put the ashes. Second, these cavernous furnaces create, out of the ordinary garbage they are stoked with, new species of toxic chemicals. In addition to producing electricity, they generate hazardous waste….

Moreover, the process of burning concentrates into the ash whatever hazardous materials are present in the original refuse. Heavy metal, such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, for example, are not destroyed by fire. Occurring as ingredients in household batteries, lightbulbs, paints, dyes, and thermometers, they are absolutely persistent. Air pollution control depends on the ability of an incinerator’s cooling chambers to condense these metals onto fine particles, which are then caught in special filters.

Once again, the irony of trade-offs becomes readily apparent: the less air pollution, the more toxic ash. An incinerator burning eighteen boxcars of trash per day, for example, produces about ten truckloads of ash per day. The trucks must then rumble out onto the highways, hauling their poisonous cargo through all kinds of weather. Once ensconced in special burying grounds, incinerator ash, of course, presents a hazard to groundwater.

The second problem is more an issue of chemistry than physics. Somewhere between the furnaces and the top of the stack, on the slippery surfaces of fly ash particles, in the crucible of heating and cooling, carbon and chlorine atoms rearrange themselves to create molecules of dioxins and their closely related organochlorine allies, the furans.

There are many dozens of dioxins and furans, but, as with snowflakes, their individual chemical configurations are all variations on a theme. Recall that benzene consists of a hexagonal ring of carbon atoms. This ring can then be studded with chlorine atoms. Two chlorinated benzene rings bonded directly together form a polychlorinated biphenyl, a PCB. By contrast, two chlorinated benzene rings held together by a single atom of oxygen and a double carbon bond are called a furan. A pair of chlorinated benzene rings linked by two oxygen atoms form a dioxin. There are 135 furans and 75 dioxins, each with a different number and arrangement of attached chlorines.

Dioxins and furans behave similarly in the human body, and they all to some degree elicit the set of biological effects described earlier. The most poisonous by far, however, is the dioxin known as TCDD. This particular molecule bears four chlorine atoms, each bonded to an outer corner. Because these points of attachment are located on the carbon atoms numbered 2,3,7, and 8, its full name is a mouthful. 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin. Imagine looking down from an airplane window at a pair of skydivers in a free fall, both hands joined together. Their geometry provides a reasonable impersonation of a TCDD molecule: the divers’ linked arms represent the double oxygen bridge, their bodies the benzene rings, and their splayed, outstretched legs the four chlorine atoms.

TCDD is scary because it is so stable. The symmetrical arrangement of its chlorine legs prevents enzymes–ours or any other living creature’s–from breaking TCDD apart. In human tissues, TCDD has a half-life of at least seven years. As we shall see, this particular geometry also allows TCDD admission into a cell’s nucleus and access to its DNA.

Ascertaining dioxin’s contribution to human cancers is one of the more frustrating challenges for public health researchers. Because dioxin is so potent at such vanishingly small levels, exposure is expensive to measure. Because it is so widely distributed, there remain no populations to serve as unexposed controls. Because dioxin so often rides the coattails of other carcinogens, confounding factors abound. U.S. military personnel exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, for example, were simultaneously exposed to 2,4-D and dioxin-contaminated 2,5,5-T, as noted in Chapter Three.

Animal studies provide a complex set of clues. In the laboratory, dioxin is an unequivocal carcinogen. As the dioxin researcher James Huff once noted, “In every species so far exposed to TCDD….. and by every route of exposure, clear carcinogenic responses have been found.” These include cancers of the lung, mouth, nose, thyroid gland, adrenal gland, lymphatic system, and skin. Dioxin also causes liver cancer in rats and mice, but it does so more often in females. Female rats whose ovaries have been removed, however, tend not to develop liver cancer when exposed to dioxin. On the other hand, they are far more likely to succumb to lung cancer. Clearly, an organism’s own internal hormones modulate dioxin’s carcinogenic powers, but through some unclear means.
(Portions from pages 215 – 223)

The use of burn pits as a military waste disposal method should immediately be banned and current burn pit sites closed to pubic. An assessment of the current health situation of employees who have worked, and are currently working in the burn bits, as well as the communities surrounding burn pits needs to be conducted.  Groundwater testing must occur to determine if water supplies are currently contaminated.

Joseph Hickman’s book, The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers currently contains more than sufficient documentation of health impacts many are already experiencing.

In the opening chapter of this new book, Joseph Hickman, a former U.S. Marine and Army sergeant, shares the brief and tragic life story of one Iraq War veteran. In a nutshell, a healthy young man shipped off to Iraq, was stationed at a U.S. military base where he was exposed to a constant stream of toxic smoke, returned home with horrible respiratory problems, was denied care by the VA, developed brain cancer and died.

Thousands of soldiers have suffered similar fates since serving in the vicinity of the more than 250 military burn pits that operated at bases throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. Many who haven’t succumbed to their illnesses yet have passed along the legacy of their poisoning to their children. “The rate of having a child with birth defects is three times higher for service members who served in those countries,” according to the book.

Currently at the US Department of Veterans Affairs states, “At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.”

The science of incinerators is known and those serving in the military services in the past have had more than enough experience with the uphill battle to cover the health costs of injuries they’ve sustained from Agent Orange and Camp Lejeune. It’s time to prevent the injuries from occurring in the first place or this nation is no longer deserving of having a military force.  The Iraqi citizens deserve to live in a healthy environment where their children can grow up without cancer and birth defects from our military contamination. Vietnam is still reeling from generations of birth defects from our war there. It’s time to stop the continued generational holocaust of people here and abroad.

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Inhibition of progenitor cell proliferation in the dentate gyrus of rats following post-weaning lead exposure.

Schneider JS1, Anderson DW, Wade TV, Smith MG, Leibrandt P, Zuck L, Lidsky TI.
Author information

Abstract
Although lead is a potent developmental neurotoxin, the effects of postnatal lead exposure on progenitor cell proliferation in the hippocampus has not been examined. Postnatal day 25 rats were fed a lead containing diet (1500 ppm lead acetate) for 30-35 days and administered bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU, 50 mg/kg, i.p.) during the last 5 days of lead exposure. Animals were killed 24 h after the last BrdU injection. Proliferation of new cells in the subgranular zone and dentate gyrus was significantly decreased in lead-exposed rats compared to control animals that ate a similar diet devoid of lead. These results suggest that postnatal lead exposure can have significant deleterious effects on progenitor cell proliferation and thus the structure and function of the hippocampus.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15527882

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Documentary “Asbestos”

Dr. Irving J. Selikoff (1915-1992), a New York physician based at Mount Sinai Hospital, was the leading American medical expert on asbestos-related diseases between the 1960s and early 1990s. This is clipped from the 1982 documentary film – Asbestos : the way to dusty death – by ABC News. It was an updated version of an earlier ABC film from 1978. The film focuses on the dangers of asbestos, one of the biggest industrial killers in history. This is the final day of Global Asbestos Awareness Week (April 1-7), to raise public awareness about the dangers of asbestos exposure and to work towards a global asbestos ban. Support the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), the largest independent asbestos victims’ organization in the U.S.

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This article was referenced in Chasing Molecules in the chapter, Swimmers, Hoppers, and Fliers.


Dust Storms Overseas Carry Contaminants to U.S.
Scientists Study Whether Diseases Are Also Transported

By Doug Struck

Washington Post
February 6, 2008

Seventy-five years ago, aviator Charles Lindbergh turned the controls of his pontoon plane over to his co-pilot, wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, while flying above Iceland. He thrust a makeshift metal arm holding a sticky glass plate from the cockpit. He wanted to see if the winds high aloft the Earth were as clean as they seemed.

They were not.

Now, with NASA satellites and sampling by researchers around the world, scientists know that great billowing clouds of dust waft over the oceans in the upper atmosphere, arriving in North America from deserts in Africa and Asia.

Researchers have also found that the dust clouds contain not only harmful minerals and industrial pollutants, but also living organisms: bacteria, fungus and viruses that may transmit diseases to humans. Some say an alarming increase in asthma in children in the Caribbean is the consequence of dust blown from Africa, and predict they will find similar connections in the Southeast and Northwest United States.

Scientists are beginning to look at these dust clouds as possible suspects in transcontinental movement of diseases such as influenza and SARS in humans, or foot-and-mouth disease in livestock. Until recently, epidemiologists had looked at people, animals and products as carriers of the diseases.

“We are just beginning to accumulate the evidence of airborne dust implications on human health,” said William A. Sprigg, a climate expert at the University of Arizona. “Until now, it’s been like the tree falling in the forest. Nobody heard, so nobody knew it was there.”

The World Meteorological Organization, a science arm of the United Nations, is alarmed enough to set up a global warning system to track the moving clouds of dust and to alert those in the path. Sprigg is heading the project.

He foresees a system soon in which forecasters can predict “down to the Zip code” the arrival of dust clouds. That forecast could prompt schools and nursing homes to keep their wards inside, and help public health doctors predict a surge of respiratory complaints.

Analysis of soil samples has long shown that minerals picked up from barren deserts reach distant shores, for good or bad. The Amazon rain forest in South America, for example, gets phosphate nutrients from dust blown in from northern Africa’s Sahara Desert.

Industrial development has added heavy metals and toxic chemicals to that airborne mix. Korea and Japan periodically chafe as storms of “Yellow Dust” wash over from China, bringing a caustic mix of sand and industrial pollutants.

Even natural minerals can be harmful to humans, and dust-borne particles have been linked to annual meningitis outbreaks in Africa and silicosis lung disease in Kazakhstan and North Africa. The Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s in the United States brought graphic descriptions of choking sediment getting into the lungs of people and felling livestock.

But the advent of satellite images gave scientists a sobering look at how even faraway storms can reach us.

Traveling for a week over the Pacific from the Gobi and Taklimakan deserts in Asia, clouds carrying hundreds of millions of tons of dust regularly reach the northwestern United States. From the Sahara and Sahel deserts in Africa and the East, they roll across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and reach the southeastern United States in three to five days.

Authorities in Los Angeles estimate that on some days, one-quarter of the city’s smog comes from China.

“There is plenty of evidence from space observations of the Northern Hemisphere that there is a persistent ring of industrial emission dust and other pollutants in the air. You can actually see this bathtub ring around the Northern Hemisphere,” said Stanley A. Morain, who heads the Earth Data Analysis Center at the University of New Mexico and collaborates with Sprigg.

“If something breaks out, it can move very quickly into other areas,” he said.

Dust storms may be increasing as global warming and desertification expand arid areas. The dust swirls into the atmosphere containing plant pollens, fungal spores, dried animal feces, minerals, chemicals from fires and industry, and pesticide residues.

Asthma in the Caribbean increased just as an African drought increased the amount of dust washing over the islands. Asthma has increased in Barbados 17 times since 1973, when the African drought began, according to a national study there, and researchers have documented an increase in pediatric hospital admissions when the dust storms are worst.

Scientists previously had thought bacteria and viruses picked up by the dust storms would die on long flights, when they are exposed to ultraviolet radiation and extreme temperatures. But three-inch African locusts have been found alive in the Caribbean after dust storms.

In the late 1990s, Eugene Shinn, who was studying the widespread die-off of Caribbean coral reefs for the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida, began wondering if smaller living organisms came with the dust. He eventually linked live microbes brought from Africa to sea fan disease, which was infecting the coral.

Shinn enlisted USGS microbiologist Dale Griffin. They and other colleagues devised a method of collecting air samples, using a contraption built with a vacuum pump from Home Depot drawing air through a two-inch round sterile filter.

In the first test, collected during a dusty day in 2000 over the Virgin Islands, Griffin said he thought they might find evidence of four or five different microorganisms growing colonies on the filter. Instead, he found 30 colonies, each with billions of cells.

“I did not expect that many,” he said. “And we know that whatever grows on the filter represents only about 1 percent of what’s really there. People just don’t think about microorganisms moving around the atmosphere, at least that far.”

Griffin said that “in Florida in the summer, when the dust storms are pulsing across, if you walk outside and breathe, 50 percent of the particles you breathe come from Africa,” more than 4,000 miles away. They contain mold spores and bacteria that increase allergies and respiratory diseases.

Shinn, who is now retired, said that there has not been enough response to these findings.

“No one in authority really wants to hear about this problem, even when it is known that African dust sporadically exceeds EPA air standards in places like Miami during the summer months,” Shinn said in a letter recently. “No government agency wants to face this problem because no one knows what to do about it.

“In my opinion, nothing will change regarding either African or Asian dust until we have a catastrophe such as a large-scale avian flu, West Nile virus, or some other deadly outbreak that cannot be explained away by the usual suspects,” he said. “Meanwhile we will continue to employ agents to check for fruit in baggage and dirt on tourists’ shoes while hundreds of millions of tons of soil dust carrying live microbes continue to be transported unchecked overhead.”

Unchecked, perhaps, but not unwatched. The early warning system being devised by Sprigg will track those storms, integrating the data with weather forecasts, so that local authorities have notice of one to three days to take precautions. Parts of the system have already been set up in China and Europe.

In addition to medical precautions, police can be warned about deteriorating driving visibility and airports can plan to reroute planes, Sprigg said. He said he hopes the next step will be more aggressive medical research to determine the composition and human health threats of what is in those dust clouds.

“I really see some practical applications here,” he said. “We are just getting started.”

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Dust Storms Overseas Carry Contaminants to U.S.


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