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Lead’s Long Shadow: What the Story of Flint, Michigan, Means for All of Us

Mar 8, 2016



Speaker presentations slides:

Dr. Lanphear: Low-level Lead Toxicity: The Ongoing Search for a Threshold

Dr. Edwards: Designing Sampling for Targeting Lead and Copper: Implications for Exposure

Dr. Hanna-Attisha: Flint Water Crisis

Tracy Swinburn: Economic Impacts of Lead Exposure and Remediation in Michigan

Lead is a confirmed neurotoxin. Children are the most vulnerable to lead’s health effects, which can include a wide range of persistent and costly challenges from lower IQ levels to increased aggressive and antisocial behaviors. It is now widely recognized by researchers that there is no “safe” level at which children can be exposed to lead without adverse effects on healthy neurodevelopment.

Lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, dominated the headlines recently when it was confirmed that residents of Flint had been drinking, bathing, and washing in water contaminated with lead for over a year. In many cases, lead levels were found to be multiple times over the amount allowed under the Clean Water Act. Despite community members voicing their concerns for months, no action was taken to protect public health until mid January. Finally, a state of emergency in Flint was declared, and the National Guard was brought in to assist in delivering bottled water and water filters to all residents. Yet, for many, the damage has already been done. Children in Flint, and their families, will now live in the long shadow of lead for years to come.

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to Flint. Many other communities across the nation — primarily low-income communities where lead can be found in paint in older homes and apartments — face similar issues. Even if landlords provide residents information about possible lead exposure, it’s simply not feasible for most tenants to pay for the lead to be removed or to move elsewhere. For some kids, this means having a harder time learning in school. For others, lead exposures early in life may predispose them to juvenile delinquency or even criminal activities. Lead is even thought to have played a role in some recent high profile cases such as Freddie Gray’s tragic death in Baltimore in 2015.

This CHE Partnership call  featured two of the remarkable people who helped bring the dire situation in Flint to national attention: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Michigan, and Dr. Marc Edwards, a nationally renowned expert on municipal water quality and an engineering professor at Virginia Tech. In addition Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University and expert on the health impacts of lead exposure on children, provided an overview of the science on lead and why it continues to be a major public health threat. Finally, Tracy Swinburn, MSc, spoke to the economic impacts of lead exposure.

Featured speakers:


Marc Edwards, PhD, MSc, is the Charles P. Lunsford Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech. In 2004, Time Magazine dubbed Dr. Edwards ‘The Plumbing Professor’ and listed him amongst the four most important ‘Innovators’ in water from around the world. The White House awarded him a Presidential Faculty Fellowship in 1996. In 1994, 1995, 2005 and 2011 Edwards received Outstanding Paper Awards in the Journal of American Waterworks Association, and he received the H.P. Eddy Medal in 1990 for best research publication by the Water Pollution Control Federation (currently Water Environment Federation). He was later awarded the Walter Huber Research Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers (2003), State of Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award (2006), a MacArthur Fellowship (2008-2012), the Praxis Award in Professional Ethics from Villanova University (2010), and the IEEE Barus Award for Defending the Public Interest (2012). His paper on lead poisoning of children in Washington D.C., due to elevated lead in drinking water, was judged the outstanding science paper in Environmental Science and Technology in 2010.

Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, FAAP, is director of Hurley’s Pediatric Residency Program and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Michigan State Univerersity. After completing her residency and chief residency at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, she earned a master’s degree in Public Health, concentrating in Health Management and Policy, at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Dr. Hanna-Attisha was an assistant professor at Wayne State University Department of Pediatrics and an associate director of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Pediatric Residency Program prior to returning to Hurley. In 2015 she was the recipient of the William B Weil Jr MD Endowed Distinguished Pediatric Faculty Award from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. She is also a faculty inductee of the Gold Humanism Honor Society, which recognizes individuals who are exemplars of humanistic patient care and who can serve as role models, mentors, and leaders in medicine, and also a faculty inductee of Alpha Omega Alpha, which recognizes and advocates for excellence in scholarship and the highest ideals in the profession of medicine.

Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH, is a Senior Scientist at the Child & Family Research Institute, BC Children’s Hospital and Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. His primary research has been on quantifying and preventing the adverse consequences of low-level lead toxicity. The long-term goal of his research is to prevent common diseases and disabilities in children, such as asthma and ADHD. To quantify the contribution of risk factors, he tests various ways to measure children’s exposures to environmental toxicants using novel biomarkers measured during pregnancy and early childhood. Dr. Lanphear also designs experimental trials to test the efficacy of reducing children’s exposures to environmental hazards on asthma symptoms and behavioral problems.

Tracy Swinburn, MSc, is former research specialist at the University of Michigan Risk Science Center and lead author of the report Economic Impacts of Lead Exposure and Remediation in Michigan, which compares the cost of four well-documented impacts of lead exposure­--increased health care, increased crime, increase in special education, and decline in lifetime earnings--with the cost of lead abatement of high-risk homes. The report was a collaboration between the University of Michigan Risk Science Center in the School of Public Health and the Michigan Network for Children's Environmental Health.

The call was moderated by Elise Miller, MEd, CHE's Director.

Are plants intelligent? New book says yes

Beech Tree, on the North Downs near Dorking, Surrey, UK. Photograph: Derek Croucher

A new book, Brilliant Green, argues that not only are plants intelligent and sentient, but that we should consider their rights, especially in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction

by Jeremy Hance
Tuesday 4 August 2015 04.43 EDT

Plants are intelligent. Plants deserve rights. Plants are like the Internet – or more accurately the Internet is like plants. To most of us these statements may sound, at best, insupportable or, at worst, crazy. But a new book, Brilliant Green: the Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, by plant neurobiologist (yes, plant neurobiologist), Stefano Mancuso and journalist, Alessandra Viola, makes a compelling and fascinating case not only for plant sentience and smarts, but also plant rights.

For centuries Western philosophy and science largely viewed animals as unthinking automatons, simple slaves to instinct. But research in recent decades has shattered that view. We now know that not only are chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants thinking, feeling and personality-driven beings, but many others are as well. Octopi can use tools, whales sing, bees can count, crows demonstrate complex reasoning, paper wasps can recognise faces and fish can differentiate types of music. All these examples have one thing in common: they are animals with brains. But plants don’t have a brain. How can they solve problems, act intelligently or respond to stimuli without a brain?


Protesters in Portland dangle from bridge in a bid to block Shell icebreaker

Environmental activists have rappelled off a Portland bridge in an attempt to block a Shell icebreaker from leaving.

By Evan Bush 
Hal Bernton 
Associated Press staff

Seattle Times enterprise producer

Trying to delay Shell’s Arctic icebreaker in Portland, 13 protesters are dangling from the St. Johns Bridge, spanning the Willamette River in North Portland.

The protesters rappelled from the bridge deck at about 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday as a group of about 50 kayakers looked on, said Michael Foster, a kayaker from Seattle and veteran of earlier protests against Shell that took place in Washington state. Foster said the protesters are now suspended from the bridge, which is about 200 feet above the water, in hammocks and bivouacs, the same gear used for rock climbing. The dangling activists have enough supplies to hang for several days and plan to re-supply, Foster said.


Water Use: 

Green – It Seems

Despite all the fine print on consumer labels, we still know very little about what goes into the products we use everyday

By Elizabeth Grossman

Walk down the cleaning products or toiletries aisle in any supermarket these days and you’ll find rows of soaps, lotions, window-cleaners and other products proclaiming their concern for the environment. “Green,” “natural,” “safe for you, and safe for the planet,” “gentle on the earth,” the product labels declare. They promise they are made with ingredients that are “98% naturally derived” and “non-toxic.” As public concern has grown in recent years about the effects of exposure to industrial chemicals, so has consumer demand for products free of ingredients that are hazardous to human health and the environment. The presence of such products now extends well beyond the confines of high-end and specialty stores.


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Seattle 'kayaktivists' protest Shell drilling rig as it leaves for the Arctic - video

Hundreds of activists in kayaks and small boats fanned out on a Seattle bay on Saturday to protest plans by Royal Dutch Shell to resume oil exploration in the Arctic and to keep two of its drilling rigs stored in the city's port. Several were detained on Monday for violating the safety zone around the vessel carrying the rig, police say

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Saying “S-Hell No!” as a Buddhist peacemaker

Puget Sound tribal canoes leading the way to the 307 foot high Shell oil rig in Seattle’s Duwamish waterway.

Our flotilla of several hundred kayaks was appropriately led into the Duwamish River waterway – Chief Seattle’s home ground – by five native canoes representing Puget Sound First Nations people. On Saturday, May 16th, I joined a flotilla of several hundred “kayaktivists” to say “S-Hell No!” to Seattle’s back room decision to provide home port facilities to Shell Oil’s fleet of Arctic oil rigs. Shell’s first rig – the “Polar Pioneer” – arrived on Seattle waterfront on Thursday. It’s progress down Admiralty Inlet past my home on Whidbey Island, under tow of several large tugs, had the feel of Mordor itself arriving in our midst.

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Slick With Denial: ‘Self-Regulation’ and the Latest Oil Spill

By Judith Lewis Mernit
May 22, 2015

On Wednesday, May 20, the day after a Santa Barbara County fire inspector discovered a stream of contaminated crude oil flowing onto a pristine segment of the Southern California coast, a group of researchers published a study linking the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to a mass die-off of bottlenose dolphins. The 46 carcasses examined for the study had suffered from “rare, life-threatening and chronic adrenal gland and lung diseases.” The researchers concluded that these diseases were “consistent with exposure to petroleum compounds as seen in other mammals.”

46 years after the first oil spill that wrecked the Santa Barbara coast, not much has changed

Hearing this, the casual observer might say duh, and wonder why such a study makes the news at this late date, a full five years after British Petroleum’s oil rig exploded and sank, gushing oil for 87 days into Barataria Bay. And indeed, the study is not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last, because there’s just no underestimating the persistence of scientific denial in the oil industry when science threatens to force responsibility upon its corporate leaders for environmental disasters. Among the defenses BP mounted against past studies is that Barataria Bay’s dolphins were already suffering from pesticides and other toxic chemicals, so there’s no way to tell for sure whether it was oil or something else that had sickened them.

The new study, as a consequence, has meticulously ruled out every other cause.

The Santa Barbara oil spill, on the shores of Refugio State Beach, has so far released only a small fraction of the Deepwater Horizon’s 206 million gallons of oil, and this time from a pipeline onshore, not a rig situated nearly a mile beneath the sea. But it has blighted an ecosystem of global importance, at the very top of the Southern California Bight, the fecund expanse of California coast that begins at Point Conception and extends into Baja California. It’s in the channel between the mainland and a chain of islands 20 miles out that dolphins assemble in schools of hundreds and migrating whales collect their krill. The coast is home to shorebirds and waders that thrive on its abundant fish. It’s also beautiful.

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Peabody Energy exploited Ebola crisis for corporate gain, say health experts

Public health experts outraged after world’s largest privately-held coal company promotes its product in the fight against Ebola in Africa as part of a PR campaign to rebrand the fossil fuel as a solution to global poverty

A nurse walks with a little girl suffering from Ebola, at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) compound in Monrovia. Peabody suggested more energy access with coal generation could have helped with the distribution of an Ebola vaccine, had there been one. Photograph: Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

Public health experts involved in the response to the Ebola crisis have condemned what they described as a ludicrous, insulting and opportunistic attempt to exploit the disease for corporate gain by the world’s largest privately-held coal company.

As part of a PR offensive to rebrand coal as a “21st-century fuel” that can help solve global poverty, it has emerged that at the height of Ebola’s impact in Africa, Peabody Energy promoted its product as an answer to Africa’s devastating public health crisis.

Greg Boyce, the chief executive of Peabody, a US-based multinational with mining interests around the world, included a slide on Ebola and energy in a presentation to a coal industry conference in September last year. The slide suggested that more energy would have spurred the distribution of a hypothetical Ebola vaccine – citing as supporting evidence a University of Pennsylvania infectious disease expert.

The World Health Organisation believes nearly 27,000 people contracted Ebola in an outbreak of the virus in West Africa last year, and more than 11,000 died – although the international agency believes that is probably an underestimate.

Public health experts who were involved in fighting the spread of Ebola were outraged at Peabody’s suggestion that expanding energy access with coal generation could have hindered the spread of Ebola and helped with the distribution of a vaccine – especially as there is no approved vaccine against the disease.

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Chevron Making a Killing with Water in California—But at What Cost?

Chevron Making a Killing with Water in California—But at What Cost?
May 12, 2015 by Klaus Marre
Categories: Earth

The Kern River Fields in California are just one area where Big Oil pumps oil in the Golden State. Photo credit: Antandrus / Wikimedia

The drought in California is bad news for residents, farmers and authorities—but not for Chevron, which is making a killing by selling treated oil-field wastewater to the state. It wouldn’t be the first time Chevron had engaged in shady environmental activity that resulted in a killing, both financially for Chevron and literally, in that case, for some Ecuadorian citizens.

The Chevron water is being sold for irrigation purposes, not personal consumption. That’s because it would likely not be safe to drink the millions of gallons that the oil giant recycles daily. But irrigation water is, of course, intimately involved with agricultural products, Which raises the question: can it be dangerous to consumers, even if it’s not consumed directly?

Toxic Chemicals and Oil Found in Chevron Water

The non-profit group Water Defense tested the wastewater and the results are alarming. The analysis revealed high levels of the potentially dangerous chemicals acetone and methylene chloride.

The water also contained oil, despite assurances that it would be filtered out.

“All these chemicals of concern are flowing in the irrigation canal,” said Water Defense’s chief scientist Scott Smith, in an interview with ThinkProgress. “If you were a gas station and were spilling these kinds of chemicals into the water, you would be shut down and fined.”
With California contemplating expanding the wastewater program to other companies, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, experts warn that the toxic chemicals used in the production of oil may eventually end up in the human food chain.

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