Piling onto the seemingly ever-multiplying scandals plaguing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, emails obtained through a public records request revealed this week that the agency intervened to withhold a federal health study on water contamination to avoid the “public relations nightmare” that it was anticipated to cause.
The study, conducted by an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), looked at toxic chemicals that had contaminated drinking water near military bases and chemical plants in states including New York, Michigan, and West Virginia. The analysis, according to emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists and reported on by Politico, revealed that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — a group of chemicals used in products like Teflon and fire suppression foam — pose a danger to human health at much lower levels than previously thought.
Two years ago, HHS published a voluntary health advisory warning that exposure to the chemicals above 70 parts per trillion could be harmful. But the updated assessment, which HHS has said is no longer scheduled for release, would have found that levels less than one sixth of that amount could pose a danger for infants, pregnant mothers, and other sensitive populations. Research has shown that exposure to two classes of these chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — can cause low birth weights, immune system effects, thyroid problems, and cancer.
Ironically, the EPA last December announced a cross-agency initiative to address PFAS, which the agency recognizes as posing a risk to human health. And a press release published about the effort then even noted the importance of expanding “proactive communications efforts with states, tribes, partners and the American public about PFAS and their health effects.”
On Wednesday, just a few weeks after his appearance before two House committees, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt faced questions from the Senate about the blocking of the drinking water report, which Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy called “unconscionable.”
Still, the revelation likely doesn’t come as a complete surprise, as Pruitt has moved to include more industry voices on the EPA’s scientific advisory panels, limit the types of research that can be used to consider the health effects of pollution, and ease the path for companies to obtain safety approval for new chemicals.
Also in the news:
• As the Ebola virus outbreak continues to spread — one case has been confirmed in a major city in the Democratic Republic of Congo — the World Health Organization is now considering whether to issue an international health emergency alert. So far, there are 44 confirmed, probable, or suspected cases of the virus and 23 deaths, but almost all of those have been reported in rural areas of the DRC. The discovery of the virus in the city of Mbandaka, an urban center of some 1.2 million people, has raised concerns of an ever more rapid spread to other cities connected by mass transit and major waterways. Ebola is considered among the most lethal of the hemorrhagic fever viruses, and it spreads fairly easily through contact with bodily fluids or contaminated objects. A 2013-2016 outbreak in western Africa sickened more than 28,000 people, according to CDC estimates, and killed more than 11,000. As a result, the WHO has responded far more aggressively to this outbreak and is deploying use of a recently developed vaccine as one of the strategies to stop its spread. (STAT)
• What makes a man attractive? It’s got a lot to do with the legs — at least that’s what a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge in the U.K. concluded in a study published this week. Using the body metrics from 9,000 American military men, the scientists generated varying computer models of the male physique and showed them to 800 heterosexual women recruited using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an increasingly popular resource for researchers looking to do convenient and (reasonably) representative sampling. Previous work had already suggested that women prefer a man with a leg-to-body ratio that is roughly symmetrical or slightly long-legged — possibly a hard-wired inclination toward physical indicators of good health, researchers have reckoned (no overly short or long legs, please). But the Cambridge team wanted to test whether arm-to-body relationships, or even symmetry within individual limbs, mitigated things. The answer: Not much — though the researchers cautioned that the results should not be over-generalized, given the narrow scope of their sample (all women, all heterosexual, all American). “Future work should also test whether our findings generalize across changes in cultural, social, and design conditions,” the authors noted. (Royal Society Open Science)
• It’s getting hot, hot, hot. In a report published on Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed that this April was the 400th consecutive month in which global temperatures have been higher than average. Land temperatures across the globe averaged 2.36 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the last century. Despite the persistence of climate change denial within the federal government, scientists say the warming trend is undeniably tied to climate change. “We live in and share a world that is unequivocally, appreciably and consequentially warmer than just a few decades ago, and our world continues to warm,” NOAA climate scientist Deke Arndt told USA Today. The planet also reached another 400-related milestone last month, as carbon dioxide hit 410 parts per million — its highest level on record. (USA Today)
• “It feels like I’m way out on a limb, frankly.” That’s David Glanzman, a professor of neurobiology at UCLA who has studied memory for over three decades, and who is an author of a futuristic sounding study published this week in the journal eNeuro. His research involved extracting RNA from snails that had been shocked and injecting the material into unshocked snails. Ultimately, the snails who were injected behaved as if they remembered the trained snails’ experiences. In other words, memories were transferred from one living thing to another. If correct, the finding hints at the potential for new RNA-based treatments to one day restore lost memories — but those days are likely still far off. The experiments haven’t yet been replicated, and would need to be performed in animals with more complex brains. “I expect a lot of astonishment and skepticism,” Glanzman acknowledged. “I don’t expect people are going to have a parade for me at the next Society for Neuroscience meeting.” (The New York Times, STAT)
• A certain chlorofluorocarbon, one of a group of chemicals banned under the 1987 Montreal Protocol for its ozone depleting impacts, has made a surprising and mysterious comeback in recent years. An international group of atmospheric scientists led by NOAA reported Wednesday that emissions of CFC-11 have risen 25 percent since 2012. The effect of the Montreal Protocol is widely understood to dramatically aid in the recovery of the ozone layer, a region above the Earth’s atmosphere that protects the surface from harmful ultraviolet radiation. The researchers concluded the emissions originate from a new industrial-related source, and that someone is producing CFC-11 in violation of the treaty. A spokesperson for the U.N. Environment Program that oversees the Montreal Protocol said that if and when the person breaking the treaty is discovered, negotiations would take place to bring them into compliance. (Washington Post)
• And finally: Here’s another reason, if you needed one, to put away your smartphone before bedtime. A British study has found that people who keep up their daytime activities into the night are at higher risk of mental health disorders. The researchers tracked a week’s worth of daytime and nighttime activity levels in more than 90,000 volunteers who wore wrist monitors like the Fitbit, then correlated those measurements with mental health questionnaires they had filled out before the study. Those with a healthy contrast during the 24-hour sleep-wake cycles known as circadian rhythms — highly active during the day, quiet at night — were significantly happier and less lonely than “people who have very poor sleep hygiene,” as the lead researcher, Daniel Smith, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Glasgow, put it — “people on their mobile phones at midnight checking Facebook or getting up to make a cup of tea in the middle of the night.” (The Guardian)