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Study Says Carbon Nanotubes as Dangerous as Asbestos by Larry Greenemeier | May 20, 2008

Inhaling carbon nanotubes could be as harmful as breathing in asbestos, and its use should be regulated lest it lead to the same cancer and breathing problems that prompted a ban on the use of asbestos as insulation in buildings, according a new study posted online today by Nature Nanotechnology.

During the study, led by the Queen’s Medical Research Institute at the University of Edinburgh/MRC Center for Inflammation Research (CIR) in Scotland, scientists observed that long, thin carbon nanotubes look and behave like asbestos fibers, which have been shown to cause mesothelioma , a deadly cancer of the membrane lining the body’s internal organs (in particular the lungs) that can take 30 to 40 years to appear following exposure. Asbestos fibers are especially harmful, because they are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs yet too long for the body’s immune system to destroy.

The researchers reached their conclusions after they exposed lab mice to needle-thin nanotubes: The inside lining of the animals’ body cavities became inflamed and formed lesions.

Carbon nanotubes are generally made from sheets of graphite no thicker than an atom—about a nanometer, or one billionth of a meter wide—and formed into cylinders, with the diameter varying from a few nanometers up to tens of nanometers. (They can be hundreds or even thousands of nanometers long.) There is a greater concern about “multiwalled” nanotubes consisting of several reinforced cylinders, because they are able to retain their pointy shapes better than thinner nanotubes.

Scientists have been noting the similarities between carbon nanotubes and asbestos for the past few years, says study co-author Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, based in Washington, D.C. Maynard, who has been researching and warning of the potential health and environmental risks of carbon nanotubes since 2003, says that there has been no coordinated effort to date to analyze the findings of carbon nanotube toxicity studies. He notes that technology companies have not found that the risks of using carbon nanotubes outweigh the benefits—they are excellent conductors of electricity.

Carbon nanotubes can also be used to reinforce polymers to create very strong plastics. University of Michigan at Ann Arbor researchers are scaling the strength of nanosheets and a nanoscale polymer resembling white glue. Visually, it looks like a brick wall, in which clay nanosheet “bricks” are held together by water-soluble polyvinyl alcohol “mortar”. The result, according to the researchers, is a composite plastic that is light and transparent but as strong as steel.

IBM has identified carbon nanotubes as important for studying electrical and optical phenomena on the nanometer scale, and the company has high hopes for the technology. Carbon nanotubes show promise as building blocks for computer chips that are “smaller, faster and lower power” than those made of silicon, Phaedon Avouris, an IBM fellow and lead researcher on the company’s carbon nanotube efforts, wrote in the March 2007 issue of Physics World. “One of the most exciting developments in carbon nanotube research is the recent discovery that nanotubes can emit light,” he added. “That finding opens the door to circuits in which standard copper interconnects are replaced by optical waveguides made from nanotubes—allowing the possibility of fully integrated optoelectronic circuits.”

Nanotubes are likewise being developed for use in new drugs, energy-efficient batteries, electronics and other products under the assumption that they are no more dangerous than graphite. But some scientists and environmentalists like Maynard caution that they harbor hidden dangers. Compounding this concern is the prediction that the market for carbon nanotubes will grow from $6 million in 2004 to more than $1 billion by 2014, according to studies by a number of firms, including the Freedonia Group. A 2006 report from Lux Research projected that nanoscale technologies will be used in $2.6 trillion worth of manufactured goods by the year 2014.

The Edinburgh CIR study, which will also appear in the June issue of Nature Nanotechnology, was very specific, looking only at nanotubes that emulated fiber behavior and their potential to cause a certain type of cancer; other types of nanotubes could affect the body differently—for better or worse, researchers say.

Maynard and his colleagues focused their attention specifically on the hypothesis that long, thin carbon nanotubes could have the same impact as similarly shaped asbestos fibers. “If you get these things into the lungs,” he says, “they form scarlike tissue, and the body sees them like a scaffolding, building new cells over them and thickening the walls of the lungs.”

The study is not intended to keep nanotechnology from developing further but rather to flag potential dangers of nanotubes in places at manufacturing and disposal sites, the researchers wrote in their paper.

“There is an immediate need to examine how carbon nanotubes are being used and see if there’s any chance that [people] are being exposed to dangerous materials,” Maynard says, adding that no one paid attention to the dangers of asbestos until it was too late for a lot of people.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/carbon-nanotube-danger/

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The Lake Effect by Nancy Nichols

By the time the PCB problem was isolated in January 1976, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency believed that Outboard Marine was delivering approximately nine to ten tons of PCBs to the harbor each day. The PCB content of the sludge at the bottom of the harbor ranged from 240,000 to 500,000 parts per million depending on when and where the sample was taken. That means that either one in two or one in four grains of sand or silt at the bottom of the harbor was not actually sand or silt, but was a PCB instead. page 43

Waukegan would take its turn on the national stage two years later, in 1984,when a U.S. Environmental Protection official, Rita Lavelle, was accused of secretly meeting with lakefront polluters in an effort to strike a cleanup deal that heavily favored industry… In the aftermath of the scandal, the full extent of Waukegan’s chemical contamination was revealed… Eventually, three separate Superfund sites, named after the 1980 federal legislation that allocated funds to clean them up, were designated in Waukegan. Two of the sites are adjacent to the lake… In addition, more than a dozen other sites form what federal and state regulators call an expanded study area, which stretches along the lakefront from one end of town to the other. These smaller sites contain the waste products from a tannery, a steel company, a paint factory, a pharmaceutical company, and a scrap yard. Together these sites contain not just PCBs, but an alphabet soup of pollutants. “Just about every chemical we know to be dangerous to human health is in one of those sites,” Says Margaret Quinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who specializes in human exposure assessment. In addition to PCBs, these chemicals include benzene and other volatile organic compounds, arsenic. lead, asbestos, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins, vinyl chloride, and ammonia. Various chemicals among these have been associated with reproductive diseases, learning and attention deficits in children, birth defects, immune system deficiencies, and some forms of cancer.

Was there a relationship between my sister’s cancer and the toxins of our childhood? My sister certainly thought so. And many other people have suspected, often correctly, that elements in their environment have had an effect on their health. Yet because of the long time it takes for a cancer to develop and because of relative mobility of our lives today, it can be challenging to establish a casual link between a disease and its origin.

pages 5 -6

“Ovaries are approximately three centimeters long by one and one-half centimeters wide by one centimeter thick,” writes Ethel Sloan in, “The Biology of Women.”… Whichever edition you consult will tell you that the ovary is about the size of an almond and that it produces the female hormone estrogen. During the monthly menstrual cycle, each ovary forces an egg through a wall of tissue and afterward repairs that rupture in a process called ovulation. “The ovary is no beauty,” writes Natalie Angier in “Woman: An Intimate Geography, “It is scarred and pitted, for each cycle of ovulation leaves behind a blemish where an egg follicle has been emptied of its contents. The older the woman, the more scarred her ovaries will be. It is this continual bursting and repairing–part and parcel of the ovarian life cycle–that makes the ovary vulnerable to cancer.

Scientists have long theorized that as cells multiply each month to repair the breach in the ovarian wall, more opportunities are created for mistakes in the DNA copying process, which in turn increases the chances of a malignant mutation. More ovulations, in other words, mean more chances for mistakes.

Risk factors for the disease therefore include never giving your ovaries a break by being pregnant or having a child. The other risk factor is having a close relative with the disease. That would be my sister, of course, and that would bring our story back home….

Doctors at this hospital and elsewhere have long speculated that there were significant environmental factors associated with ovarian cancer. The vagina provides a runway to the ovaries not simply for sperm but for many other substances as well. Significantly, women who have their tubes tied experience a lower rate of ovarian cancer than those who do not. Some have theorized that this may be because the pathways to the ovaries has been blocked, keeping outside agents at bay.

For example, some researchers have found a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer–though several other studies have produced conflicting results. Some early forms of talcum may have contained asbestos and thus given researchers their positive findings. Indeed, at least one retrospective study found a much higher disease rate among women who used talc prior to 1960 than those who used is after–giving at least some credence to the idea that the use of asbestos-laden talc increases a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer.

My sister speculated that asbestos had contributed to her illness. A group of naturally occurring fibrous materials that are fire-resistant, asbestos has been thought to cause adverse health effects since the first century. Yet, as writer Paul Brodeur tells us in his book on asbestos, Outrageous Misconduct, its role in causing the disease asbestosis, a noncancerous condition in which the lungs scar so badly that they won’t expand and contract properly, was not well established in medical literature until the 1970s.

In the years before my sister died, when I was an editor for the Harvard Business Review, I worked on a piece written by Bill Sells, the man who had run the Johns-Manville plants in Waukegan in the early 1970s–a time when deaths from asbestosis and other asbestos-related diseases were beginning to occur in the workforce at an alarming rate. After noting that his job included the unenviable task of visiting his sick and dying employees at the local hospital, he offered this description of his first visit to the factory: “The plant lay at the back of a sprawling complex built in the 1920s. Its view of Lake Michigan was obscured by a landfill several stories high. A road wound through this mountain of asbestos-laden scrap, and as I drove through it for the first time I stopped to watch a bulldozer crush a 36-inch sewer pipe. A cloud of dust swirled around my car.” Inside the plant, he said, he found “asbestos-laden dust coating almost every visible surface.”

An EPA official charged with overseeing the cleanup of the Johns-Manville plant, Brad Bradley, has a similar recollection. Standing at the edge of the 350-acre Superfund site that overlooks Lake Michigan, Bradley recalled his first visit there in 1982. He remembers asking an asbestos expert where he thought they would find the fibers. “I think they are everywhere,” said the expert. Indeed, virtually anywhere on the site that Bradley scuffed the ground with his boot, he found the telltale fibers.

People are more likely to connect the fiber with asbestosis than with ovarian cancer. However, a thirty-year study of nearly two thousand women who worked with asbestos while manufacturing gas masks during World War II showed these women to be seven times more likely to die from ovarian cancer than a control group. My sister’s medical history seems to tell a different story, though, and the link between asbestos and ovarian cancer in general does not appear to be a strong one. The ovarian cancer specialist I saw at the clinic was quick to point out that my sister’s record indicated that her cancer was preceded by endometriosis.

The phrase “painful periods” does not begin to describe the torture that my mother and sister endured during menstruation. White and sweating, doubled over with pain, they retreated to the bed or the couch until the pain and the bleeding passed. When I recounted my mother’s experience, the ovarian cancer specialist suggests that my mother also likely suffered from endometriosis.

Endometriosis is a once rare disease that is now common. When the disease was first named and discovered in 1921 by a New York physician, there were only twenty reports of the illness in the medical literature. Today, the National Institutes of Health estimates that roughly 5.5 million women suffer from the disease in the United States, and as many as 89 million women may have it worldwide. An exact number is hard to come by, since the disease can only properly be diagnosed during surgery. Still, about one-third of women of childbearing age suffer some symptoms–including pelvic pain and infertility–and in the United States at least, the average age of onset has been declining…

Endometriosis is a complex condition, and no one is certain what causes it. Some scientists believe it is an immune system disorder. Others believe that women with endometriosis lack the ability to shed cells that have migrated and are growing where they should not be. Other scientists have focused on a genetic component of the disease since it can run in families. A woman with a sister or mother with endometriosis, for example, is three to seven times more likely to get the disease.

The mechanisms of endometriosis are not that different from those that create cancer: they involve cell proliferation, the migration of cells, and a change in their cellular nature. Endometriosis grows unchecked and invades surrounding tissues, and the body’s immune system fails to rid itself of the misplaced lesions. In the same way, the body fails to rid itself of cancerous lesions.

It is often but not always the case that the kind of cancer my sister suffered from, ovarian clear-cell adenocarcinoma, is preceded by endometriosis, and many believe that there is a relationship between the two diseases. Some scientists believe that endometriosis–in certain cases–is a kind of precancerous condition, and others believe that the two diseases spring forth in unison. Other experts theorize that the endometrial cells themselves drive the proliferation of cancer once it has started by producing their own estrogen. Each lesion is capable of increasing the local production of estrogen, so that once the disease takes hold it is capable of feeding itself.

In my sister’s case, cancerous growths arose within her endometrial lesions. Whatever the exact mechanism of disease development, women with the type of ovarian cancer that my sister suffered from have higher rates of endometriosis that the general female population. In one study, about 70 percent of the women with clear-cell ovarian cancer also had endometriosis.

Scientists have long suspected that chemicals of the type found in Waukegan–dioxins, PCBs, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)–play a role in human endometriosis.

pages 75 – 81

Carson died in 1964, but her work and her life serve as a warning to everyone who struggles with cancer. “As we pour millions into research and invest all our hopes in vast programs to find cures for established cases of cancer,” she wrote, “we are neglecting the golden opportunity to prevent, even while we seek to cure.”

Carson’s favorite quote, from Abraham Lincoln, can be found snuggled into her almost daily letters to Freeman, where she explains what keeps her going through her treatments and on to finish her groundbreaking book. It reads: “To sin by silence when they should protest, makes cowards of men.”

page 122

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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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Retirement Heist by Ellen E. Schultz.

Death Benefits: An Insurable Interest

Over time, life insurance began morphing from a tax shelter into a finance tool for executive pay. For decades, if an individual or company wanted to buy life insurance on someone, they had to have an “insurable interest in the person,” that is, the beneficiary of the policy would be directly affected by the insured’s death. This rule existed for obvious reasons: a skydiver, race car driver, or coal miner–and profit from his demise. And if he didn’t die soon enough, the policyholder would have an incentive to push him over a cliff.

Initially, companies bought policies to protect them from the deaths of certain executives, or “key” employees. It made sense for partners in law and accounting firms to buy life insurance on each other. But encouraged by insurance brokers, companies began buying it on broad swaths of their employees, because by insuring thousands of employees, not just “key men,” the companies can place greater sums in life insurance contracts.

Dow Chemical, the Midland, Michigan, company known for its manufacturing of napalm, breast implants, and Agent Orange, was initially skeptical. An internal memo noted that, except for top-paid executives, it was “doubtful that Dow has an insurable interest in any of its employees.” But it overcame its qualms and by 1992 had purchased life insurance policies on more than 20,000 employees.

Congress had no idea how widespread this practice had become until someone ratted on them. In 1995, a brown envelope was left on the desk of Ken Kies, chief of staff at the Joint Tax Committee. The envelope contained a list of companies that had bought life insurance on employees–along with the calculations showing that a company might take in $1.2 billion over ten years by insuring 50,000 of its employees. It also noted that from 1993 to 1995, Wal-Mart had taken out insurance on 350,000 workers.

Lawmakers did the math and were appalled. They weren’t concerned about whether Wal-Mart had an insurable interest in its stock clerks and store greeters, but they did care a lot about the loss of tax revenue. Companies were borrowing money from policies and deducting the interest. The IRS deemed that the leveraged COLI (corporate-owned life insurance) taken out by seven hundred companies were sham transactions with no business purpose other than to score tax breaks. It filed a flurry of tax court cases, and companies subsequently took big charges for the disallowed deductions for interest on policy loans; among them were American Greetings, the Brooklyn, Ohio, maker of Tender Thoughts brand greeting cards and owners of Holly Hobbie and Care Bears licenses, and W.R. Grace, the Columbia, Maryland, manufacturer of building materials, which took out life insurance policies on its workers while defending thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits.

Within minutes of the interest-deduction phase-out, companies found a way around it. Instead of borrowing money from insurance companies, they simply borrowed it elsewhere. This was called “indirect leverage.” The practice was especially appealing to banks, which can borrow money cheaply. Banks bought fresh policies on employees and in 1997 were floating the idea that they could buy life insurance on depositors and credit card holders as well. Fannie May, the giant mortgage buyer, proposed to insure the lives of home-mortgage holders, but the plan didn’t go far. Congress nixed those ideas and tried to plug the indirect-leverage loophole in 1998. The Joint Tax Committee’s Ken Kies, in classic revolving-door fashion, had quit his government job and was now lobbying for the COLI industry, which led a campaign that blanketed Congress with more than 170,000 letters and faxes and ran a radio and newspaper ads targeting lawmakers as anti-business. The effort to close the loophole failed. Former House Ways and Means chairman Bill Archer, who had criticized janitors insurance as a tax shelter in 1995, joined the board of Clark/Bardes, the most influential COLI provider, in 2001.

pages 123

If the investments weren’t wrapped in an insurance policy, the company would have to sell the investments, then pay taxes on the gains, if it wanted to be able to report the income. Bottom line: Even though companies aren’t supposed to get tax breaks for funding executive deferred comp and pensions, they get essentially the same tax breaks—and accounting benefits—by taking out life insurance on workers.

TO DIE FOR

Though the investments are essentially locked up in the insurance policies, companies receive tax-free cash when employees and former employees die whether in car accidents, in plane crashes, or from illness. Even people who are murdered or accidentally killed at work produce death benefits for their employers.

Companies report the death benefits as income, though they usually refer to them by opaque terms. The St. Louis–based Panera Bread Company calls them “mortality dividends” and refers to a death benefit as a “mortality income receivable” in its filings.

Banks have the largest obligations for executive pay and pensions, so it’s not surprising that they are also the biggest buyers of life insurance on workers, which they call “bank-owned life insurance,” or BOLI. Industry consultants estimate that over the coming decades, banks will receive more than $400 billion in death benefits as their retirees and former employees die. Financial filings occasionally disclose income triggered by deaths. Pacific State Bancorp, of Stockton, California, reported $2.6 million in income from a death benefit in 2008. A subsidiary of Conseco, Bankers Life and Casualty, bought life insurance on employees in 2006 and got an almost immediate payout of $2.7 million that year after an employee died.

Most families have no clue that their relatives are covered. Irma Johnson certainly didn’t. Her husband, Daniel, had been a credit-risk manager for Southwest Bank of Texas, which was a predecessor to Amegy Bank. He was diagnosed with two cancerous brain tumors in 1999 and underwent two surgeries and radiation treatment that initially impaired his speech and left him unable to walk. He eventually returned to work, but in 2000 the bank criticized his communication skills and job performance and demoted him.

Despite the demotion, in May 2001, a manager took Daniel aside and told him that the compensation committee of the board of directors had selected him to be eligible for supplemental life insurance of $150,000. All he had to do was sign an agreement to receive the coverage, and a consent form authorizing the bank to purchase an insurance policy on his life. Four months later, the bank fired him. When Daniel died in August 2008, his family received no life insurance death benefits, because the company had terminated the family’s policy when it fired him.

Irma Johnson says her husband didn’t have the “necessary capacity” to make financial decisions when he signed the agreement in 2001, and that the bank should have told him how much it would get when he died. She sued in state court in Houston in February 2009; under Texas law, material omissions can constitute a form of fraud. During the proceedings, Irma learned that the bank, which maintained that it had bought the policies to offset the cost of providing “employee benefits,” had received $4.7 million when her husband died…

DEATH AND TAXES

Initially, insurance agents touted the death benefits as the most appealing feature of their plans, and some employers were disappointed when employees didn’t die quickly enough to generate the anticipated “mortality dividends” for that year. In a confidential memo in 1991, an insurance agent wrote to Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co. that American Electric Power (20,441 employees covered), American Greetings (4,000), R.R. Donnelley (15,624), and Procter & Gamble (14,987) were “acutely aware” that mortality was running at only 50 percent of projected rates.

The Procter & Gamble plan covered only white-collar employees, which might explain its poor death rate (34 percent of projected mortality), the memo noted. But the disappointing death rate at card maker American Greetings was a puzzle, since the plan covered only blue-collar employees, who are expected to have higher mortality rates. (The white-collar employees were covered by a separate policy with Provident.)

Diebold, the agent wrote, had been expecting $675,300 in death benefits since adopting the plan; so far, it was expecting only one “mortality dividend” of $98,000. “Do you think that a mortality dividend of that size relative to their current shortfall will give them comfort?” the memo said.

A company the agent called NCC had a better death rate, he noted: People were dying at 78 percent expected mortality. “However, this includes three suicides within the first year which is highly unusual”—NCC had not had one suicide in twenty-five years until 1990. “Without these suicides, NCC would be running at 33% expected mortality. This fact highly concerns me.”

To keep track of when employees and retirees die, employers regularly check the Social Security Administration’s database of deaths. That’s how CM Holdings monitored its dead former employees. Page after page of a 1990 document called a “Death Run” lays out the names, ages, and Social Security numbers of more than 1,400 who would be worth more dead than alive. Also included was the amount of money the company was to receive when each employee died, even if the death occurred long after he or she left the job. Older workers would bring the company about $120,000 to $200,000 each, while younger workers would generate $400,000 to almost $500,000 each, the document said. (Younger workers yield bigger payouts because, based on actuarial calculations, they are less likely to die soon, so the premium amount buys more coverage for them.)

One of these workers was Felipe M. Tillman. Born in 1963, Tillman was an unlikely source of revenue for CM Holdings. A music lover whose taste ran from opera to jazz and even country music, he played keyboards and drums, sang, and was choral director at his Tulsa, Oklahoma, church. To make ends meet, he took part-time jobs in record stores, including a brief stint at a Camelot Music outlet owned by CM Holdings. As a minimum-wage, part-time employee, he didn’t have health coverage or other benefits. But CM Holdings nonetheless took out a policy on his life. It didn’t have to wait long for a payoff. Tillman died in 1992, of complications from AIDS. He was twenty-nine years old.

CM Holdings used the $168,875 death benefit it received when Tillman died to pay for executive compensation, among other things. Company documents also show that $280 went to Star County Children’s Services to help cover child support payments owed by a nephew of Camelot Music’s founder, who was working at the company at the time.

Another name on the company’s “Death Run” was Margaret Reynolds, of Uniontown, Ohio, born in 1936. Margaret was an administrative assistant and buyer for CM Holdings, making $21,000 a year. In the 1990s, she began deteriorating from the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In her final years, her adult children, who took turns caring for her, begged the company to provide $5,000 to pay for a special wheelchair so they could take their mother to church. “They said it wasn’t covered,” her son John Reynolds recalled bitterly. His mother died in 1998 at age sixty-two. Her family received a $21,000 benefit from a life insurance policy provided to employees by the company; CM Holdings received a death benefit payout of $180,000.

 

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