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Republicans Attack Fed Scientist for Linking Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals to Health Effects
The Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Linda Birnbaum, PhD, is being criticized by some Republicans for authoring an article that describes linkages between endocrine disrupting chemicals and the onset of disease, as well as the need to understand and monitor the effects of these chemicals. Instead of encouraging efforts for greater understanding of these chemicals, the members of Congress instead blasted the article as a potential breach of National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy. NIEHS, a program of NIH, seeks to reduce the burden of human illness and disability by understanding how the environment influences the development and progression of human disease.
The short article, When Environmental Chemicals Act Like Uncontrolled Medicine, published online May 7 in Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, lays out the case that environmental chemicals can produce unwanted endocrine effects, leading to an increase in certain diseases.
“In the same way as physicians endeavor to understand and monitor the effect of medicines on endocrine pathways, we ought to achieve the same understanding and control of the effects on environmental chemicals,” states Dr. Birnbaum in her article.
“The proliferation of inadequately tested chemicals in commerce may be contributing to the skyrocketing rates of disease ... A new protocol to detect endocrine disruption in early stages of chemical design may provide a useful tool to remove hazards from future chemicals ... [and] A population-based, public health approach may provide the best perspective in understanding the effect of this problem.”
Endocrine disruptors can change the function(s) of the body’s hormonal system, increasing the risk of adverse health effects. Chemicals with endocrine disrupting properties linked to disease outcomes in laboratory studies have been identified. Many pesticides, industrial solvents, flame retardants and other chemicals found in electronics, personal care products and cosmetics have been identified as endocrine disruptors.
Dr. Birnbaum’s article echoes that of a 2013 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) that also identifies endocrine disrupting chemicals as having significant health implications for the global population and calls for more research and collaboration. This UN report, which is the most comprehensive report on endocrine disruption to date, highlights some association between exposure to endocrine disruptors and health problems, including the potential for such chemicals to contribute to the development of non-descended testes in young males, breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, developmental effects on the nervous system in children, attention deficit/hyperactivity in children and thyroid cancer.
However, in a surprising attack on Director Birnbaum, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) and Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) target her article as a potential breach of NIH policy.
In a letter sent to NIH Director Francis Collins, they argue that Dr. Birnbaum should attach a disclaimer to the article clarifying that it expresses her personal views and not those of the administration. They write, "[S]ome of Dr. Birnbaum’s statements sound less like a presentation of scientific data and more like an opinion—which may be construed as a position of NIH.”
Rep. Broun is chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. In their letter, Reps. Broun and Bucshon argue that Dr. Birnbaum’s recent article makes “broad and general statements” that are opinion, not fact. Her assertion that chemicals are inadequately tested, they write, implies that NIH does not think U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is doing its job. The lawmakers also say that the lack of a disclaimer on Dr. Birnbaum’s article calls into question NIH’s commitment to transparency. “We expect Dr. Birnbaum to be accurate and transparent in the presentation of scientific data and in describing peer reviewed studies.”
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However, what these representatives fail to recognize is that while EPA is mandated to screen chemicals for potential endocrine disrupting effects, the agency has yet to finalize its screening and testing procedures since mandated by Congress to do so in 1996. The tests to be used by EPA were first recommended in 1998, but since then the science has made progress and become more sophisticated, while EPA’s toxicological testing protocol has not been updated, according to some critics.
Unlike the European Union, which as a matter of precaution categorizes chemicals for endocrine disrupting potential, the U.S. has failed to do so. Therefore, Dr. Birnbaum is correct in stating that many chemicals in use today in the U.S. are “inadequately tested” for endocrine disruption. Dr. Birnbaum's article not only echoes the call by the UNEP and WHO for greater understanding of how these chemicals impact the human body, but also suggests a need for preventative action to control the onset of disease.
Similarly, a 2012 study from a group of renowned endocrinologists finds that even low doses of endocrine disrupting chemicals can cause certain human disorders, highlighting various epidemiological studies that show that environmental exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals are associated with human diseases and disabilities. The authors here conclude that the effects of low doses cannot be predicted by the effects observed at high doses, and therefore recommend fundamental changes in chemical testing and safety determination to protect human health.
Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticide-Induced Disease Database features a wealth of studies that have linked pesticide exposures to adverse impacts on the endocrine system. These studies explore outcomes and mechanisms for several health effect endpoints including cancer, developmental and learning disorders, Parkinson’s disease and reproductive health.
For more on endocrine disrupting chemicals, Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticides and Endocrine Disruption brochure is available for download, or read Beyond Pesticides special report, Pesticides That Disrupt Endocrine System Still Unregulated by EPA.
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A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade / Twitter
At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.
The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.
Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.
"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."
Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.
Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.
"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.
"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.
Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.
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