Rachel's Democracy & Health News #840
"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"
Thursday, February 2, 2006
www.rachel.org -- To make a secure donation, click here.
Featured stories in this issue...
The Failure of Chemical Regulation: The Case of Mercury
Year after year since 1953, researchers have uncovered new evidence
that mercury is harming humans and other creatures -- particularly the
developing brains of babies. Yet regulators have consistently argued
against protecting public health because risk assessments can't prove
harm beyond a shadow of a doubt. And so the devastating pollution
Study Finds Toxic Threat in Auto Interiors
The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has just released a
report showing that toxic chemicals are found in automobile interiors
at levels 5 to 10 times as high as those found in homes and offices.
We've Lost That Croaking Sound
"That's the way it happened all over the world. One year the ponds
were full of frogs, the next they were empty. Many places that very
recently held thriving populations of croaking and singing amphibians
have since fallen silent."
Chemical Mixtures Are More Toxic Than Their Parts
Pesticides and other chemicals can be more potent when added
together. University of California Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes
has found significant harmful effects on frogs given mixtures of
pesticides commonly found in agricultural runoff -- even though levels
of the individual pesticides were thought to be harmless and were 10
to 100 times below EPA standards.
Massive West Coast Seabird Die-off: Just a Blip or Future Trend?
Massive seabird die-offs up and down the west coast of the U.S. are
a symptom of a recent collapse of the base of the ocean's food web.
From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #840, Feb. 2, 2006
THE FAILURE OF CHEMICAL REGULATION: THE CASE OF MERCURY
By Peter Montague
Mercury pollution offers us a well-lit window into the failed system
of chemical regulation in the U.S.
Mercury was discovered harming humans in Japan starting in 1953 --
53 years ago. Hundreds of people were affected by severe brain damage,
blindness, and horrendous birth defects -- all from eating fish
heavily contaminated with mercury dumped into Minimata Bay by the
Chisso Corporation. Birds and cats were afflicted with the same
Ten years later, researchers in Sweden were systematically scouring
the countryside, finding dead birds with elevated mercury in their
blood. This time the culprit was seeds treated with mercury-containing
fungicides. In 1966 Swedish researchers held a conference in Stockholm
to present their findings and issue warnings -- mercury levels in the
environment were rising ominously, partly because of the use of
mercury in pesticides, and partly for reasons unknown. The U.S.
government sent representatives to the Stockholm conference, but they
returned home without making a peep.
In 1969, Environment magazine told the story of mercury in Japan and
Sweden and openly speculated that mercury would be found throughout the
environment of the U.S. if anyone took the time to look for it. No one
Then in February, 1970, the Huckleby family in Alamogordo, New Mexico
was poisoned by a batch of mercury-treated seed that they had fed to
their hogs, which provided the family's ham and bacon. Three Huckleby
children were severely injured -- one deafened, another was blinded, a
third arriving at the hospital raving mad. The story made national
news and within 24 hours the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
wrapped up "10 years" of research on the dangers of mercury and
declared mercury-containing pesticides an "imminent hazard." Within
days USDA canceled the registration of mercury-containing pesticides
and demanded that the manufacturer recall the product from store
A month later. Norvald Fimreite -- a graduate student at Western
Ontario University -- revealed that fish in many lakes along the U.S.-
Canada border were contaminated with mercury at high levels (7 parts
per million, for example). Ohio closed its portion of Lake Erie to
commercial fishing. On June 18, 1970 Secretary of the Interior Walter
Hickel declared mercury "an intolerable threat to the health and
safety of the American people" -- a statement so true and bold that it
remains the quintessential summary of the mercury problem 35 years
Later that same year, 1970, a public interest research organization in
Albuquerque, New Mexico -- Southwest Research and Information Center
(SRIC) -- arranged to take samples from the stack gases emitted from
the Four Corners coal-burning power plant and analyze them for
mercury. SRIC's staff scientist, Charles Hyder, was convinced that
burning coal was the major source of mercury in the natural
environment. The Four Corners tests proved him right. The Associated
Press reported the results -- that burning coal releases enormous
quantities of mercury -- but no one with any authority raised an
eyebrow, much less a finger. (Disclosure: I worked with Hyder on that
Meanwhile, Norvald Fimreite's lonely work around the Great Lakes had
aroused the world. Researchers began looking for mercury in fish
everywhere. Soon everyone knew that big fish -- fresh and saltwater,
both -- contain dangerous amounts of mercury: big walleye, big
swordfish, big tuna, big grouper, big pike. Obviously, mercury was
concentrating as it moved up the food chain. People began to realize
that at the top of the food web you find big bears, large birds,
Soon the U.S. Food and Drug Administration established an "interim"
standard, setting 0.5 parts per million (ppm) as the maximum allowable
concentration for mercury in fish. It seemed as if science and good
sense had prevailed to protect the public.
But then the U.S. regulatory system began to work just as it was
designed to: in 1977, the nation's swordfish distributors took the
FDA to court, demanding that FDA stop seizing swordfish that exceeded
the 0.5 ppm limit. The trial lasted four days and when it was over a
federal judge had effectively doubled the nation's allowable limit on
mercury in fish, to 1.0 ppm.
Instead of building a scientific and precautionary case to protect the
public, to prevent harm, the FDA caved in to the food distribution
industry. In 1979, the FDA announced in the Federal Register that it
was formally adopting 1.0 ppm as the new standard for mercury in fish,
based in new data provided by the Commerce Department, showing that
Americans didn't eat as much fish as the FDA had thought.
Relaxing the acceptable level of mercury in fish, the Commerce
Department said (and the FDA repeated), would "provide a significant
economic benefit to those industries most seriously affected" by the
more stringent limit and "enhance the future development of a number
of presently underutilized fisheries." Moreover, Commerce and FDA
said, a less restrictive rule "would significantly increase consumer
confidence in seafood."
As the public grew more health-conscious, the consumption of seafood
steadily rose, and the FDA turned a blind eye to questions of safety.
The FDA essentially went to sleep for 12 years until a report from
the National Academy of Sciences embarrassed it again in 1991. At
that point FDA began testing fish to see how much mercury they
contained, and the agency repeatedly promised to revisit its 1.0 ppm
limit on mercury in fish, but it never actually got around to it.
That 1979 limit still holds today.
In 1997, U.S. EPA set a mercury limit in fish that was four times as
strict as the FDA's, but EPA only had the power to inform consumers of
the danger of eating mercury-contaminated fish. In 2000 the National
Academy of Sciences endorsed EPA's findings. Once again, FDA was
being shamed into reviewing its 1979 mercury limit. But again the food
distributors had their tentacles deep inside FDA. As Peter Waldman of
the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported August 1, 2005,
"When the FDA issued a revised mercury advisory in 2001, it urged
women of childbearing age to shun four high-mercury species:
swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico.
It didn't mention tuna. Yet cumulatively, according to data provided
by the EPA, the four species it urged avoiding account for less than
10% of Americans' mercury ingestion from fish, while canned tuna
accounts for about 34% of it." And FDA concluded that it should stick
with its 1979 recommendation, outlawing the sale of fish containing
over 1.0 ppm of mercury.
Why did the FDA not mention canned tuna? The WSJ points out, "Food
companies have long lobbied to mitigate any FDA action on canned tuna,
one of the top-grossing supermarket items in revenue per unit of shelf
The WSJ reported that even some EPA scientists concluded that FDA was
coddling the fishing industry: "They really consider the fish industry
to be their clients, rather than the U.S. public," says Deborah Rice,
a former EPA toxicologist who now works for the state of Maine.
But in April 2003, FDA caved in to mounting evidence of harm to
children, announcing that it would consider adopting the EPA's
stricter guidelines for mercury in fish. Later that year FDA and EPA
proposed issuing a joint-agency advisory for consumers. The WSJ
reported what happened next:
"At the hearing, FDA scientists said they had put fish in three
categories: high in mercury, medium and low. The level for the low-
mercury group was that of canned light tuna, explained FDA official
Clark Carrington. 'In order to keep the market share at a reasonable
level, we felt like we had to keep light tuna in the low-mercury
group,' he said, according to the meeting's official transcript.
"Later, the FDA's Dr. Acheson (director of food safety and security)
reiterated that point. He told the meeting the fish categories 'were
arbitrarily chosen to put light tuna in the low category.'...
"Says Maine's Dr. Rice: 'Here's the FDA making what are supposed to be
scientific decisions on the basis of market share. What else is there
to say?,' WSJ reported.
The joint FDA-EPA advisory was finally released and it did warn
against eating too much albacore tuna but it did not identify other
high-mercury species like yellow fin tuna, orange roughy, grouper,
marlin and walleye.
In late 2005, the Chicago Tribune investigated FDA's history of work
on mercury and concluded, "The Tribune's investigation reveals a
decades-long pattern of the U.S. government knowingly allowing
millions of Americans to eat seafood with unsafe levels of mercury."
The Tribune revealed that the tuna industry often packages a high-
mercury fish (yellow fin tuna) but labels it "light tuna" which falls
into FDA's "low mercury" category (because, as we have seen, FDA
created its categories specifically to make sure "light tuna" ended up
in the "low mercury" category). So far, this yellow fin deception has
escaped the notice of the FDA.
Although FDA has the legal authority to seize fish that exceed 1.0 ppm
mercury it almost never does so because it almost never tests any fish
-- especially not imported fish, which makes up about 80% of all the
fish sold in the U.S. The Chicago Tribune tested 18 fish from each of
eight Chicago supermarkets, conducted some simple calculations using
formulas provided by FDA, and concluded, "Some samples of grouper,
tuna steak and canned tuna were so high in mercury that millions of
American women would exceed the U.S. mercury exposure limit by eating
just one 6-ounce meal in a week."
The Tribune reported,
"Many experts now believe that even tuna-fish sandwiches -- a favorite
of the American diet -- can be risky for children.
"'The fact that we poisoned our air and our oceans to such an extent
that we can't eat a damn tuna sandwich is just diabolical,' said
Ayelet Waldman, a noted mystery author whose daughter was diagnosed
with mercury poisoning at age 5 after frequently eating tuna." She was
eating one tuna sandwich per week made from albacore tuna.
It turns out that mercury poisoning far more common than you might
think. In early 2004, EPA revised its estimate of the number of
newborn babies with enough mercury in their blood to cause learning
disabilities, sluggishness, and other neurological problems. Prior to
2004, EPA thought "only" 8% (1 in 12) newborns were in danger if having
their brains damaged by mercury. Now EPA believes 16% of U.S.
newborns, 1 in 6, may be victims of mercury poisoning. In real
numbers, this means that 630,000 newborns each year (out of 4
million) may be somewhat impaired even before they start the long
journey of life.
Furthermore, a small study by Ellen Silbergeld at Johns Hopkins
University seems to indicate that adults can be harmed by mercury as
readily as children can. "Adults may be just as sensitive to mercury
as children," says Silbergeld, who studied neurological function in 52
men and 77 women living in fishing villages downstream of gold mines
In the U.S. mercury contamination is widespread, just as Environment
magazine predicted in 1969. In 2002, at least 43 states issued
mercury warnings for fish covering 12 million acres of lakes and
400,000 miles of rivers.
You might think that keeping mercury out of the natural environment,
to the extent possible, would be a top public health priority of U.S.
chemical regulators, but you would be mistaken.
Everyone now agrees with Charles Hyder that the biggest single human-
created source of mercury in the natural environment is coal-burning
power plants, which emit 48 tons of mercury each year in the U.S. This
is a technical problem -- the mercury can be removed from the coal
before burning, or it can be captured before it escapes up the smoke
stack. But of course the coal industry -- famous for claiming it is
now the "clean coal" industry -- resists every effort to try to clean
up its mercury emissions. The issue? Just money.
Early in 2005, two researchers calculated that the average reduced
IQs of U.S. babies caused by mercury in their mothers could be
translated into dollars of lost earnings over their lifetimes: $8.7
billion per year is the price tag on diminished IQs, they concluded.
When EPA considered issuing new rules to force coal-burning power
plants to reduce their mercury emissions, EPA hid the results of a
study they had commissioned by Harvard University researchers. The
Harvard study had concluded that reducing mercury emissions carried a
huge public health benefit and therefore EPA would be justified in
clamping down hard on the coal-burners. By hiding this study from the
public, EPA tried to claim that the health benefits would be minimal
and therefore the power industry shouldn't be required to spend large
sums. When asked about all this by the Washington Post in early
2005, EPA officials simply lied, saying the Harvard study had arrived
late and was flawed. Neither claim was true and EPA officials knew it
at the time they said it.
EPA had said the cost to the coal-burners would be $750 million per
year, but the health benefit would be only $5 million per year, so
cleaning up mercury emissions from coal plants wouldn't be worth it.
The Harvard crew calculated that the health benefit would be $5
billion each year -- making it well worth everyone's while to clamp
down on mercury emissions from coal.
Without apology, EPA and FDA continue to waffle, fudge and fake it --
doing their best to protect the coal industry at the expense of the
nation's children and the nation's future. That's chemical regulation,
Return to Table of Contents
From: Detroit News, Jan. 30, 2006
STUDY FINDS TOXIC THREAT IN AUTO INTERIORS
Chemical industry disputes report on dangers; Volvo cited as leader in
interior air quality.
By Jeff Plungis
WASHINGTON -- A report by an Ann Arbor environmental group that says
toxic chemicals are present in automobile interiors at levels five to
10 times higher than those found in homes and offices has sparked
protests from the chemical industry and interest from automakers.
The report, "Toxic at Any Speed," was released by the Ecology Center
on Jan. 11, amid the din of the North American International Auto Show
The report, based on samples of windshield film and dust samples from
randomly selected cars made by 11 leading manufacturers, concludes
there is a pervasive safety threat that few consumers know about: Cars
can expose their occupants to worrisome levels of toxic chemicals,
emitted from the materials used to make seating, carpets, arm rests
and wire coverings.
The Environmental Protection Agency has called indoor air pollution
one of the top five environmental risks to public health, said Jeff
Gearhart, an Ecology Center researcher who co-wrote the report.
According to the center's tests, car air quality is worse than what is
typically found in buildings and far worse than outdoor air -- at
least as far as two types of toxic chemicals are concerned.
The pattern of one of the chemicals cited in the report, a flame-
retardant named decabrominated diphenyl ether, or deca-BDE, has been
accumulating in the environment and is the subject of a growing number
of studies, Gearhart said. The chemical has been linked to health
effects in laboratory animals similar to other toxic chemicals, like
slowing brain development and causing reproductive problems and
"They could create a legacy like PCBs," Gearhart said of the flame
retardant BDE, referring to a now-banned toxic chemical that found its
way up the food chain. "They have all the lineage of that type of
environmental disaster. We think the writing is on the wall. The smart
people within the auto industry know that."
The Ecology Center cited Ford subsidiary Volvo Car Corp. as an
industry leader in following a policy to reduce flame-retardant
chemicals as concern has grown in Europe. Volvo and other well-
performing companies prove the feasibility of providing safer
alternatives, Gearhart said.
After the report, Volvo issued a statement touting its models' "best
interior air quality." The test scores were the result of a conscious
company policy to reduce interior emissions and improve air filtering,
the company said.
"In an age when many people suffer from asthma and allergies, it is
only natural for Volvo cars to offer its customers a good environment
even inside the car," said Anders Karrberg, Volvo's environmental
General Motors Corp. and BMW vehicles performed better than average
for all chemicals tested. Mercedes, Chrysler, Toyota and Subaru had
higher than average concentrations of both kinds of toxic chemicals.
Some companies had dramatically different results for different
chemicals. Hyundai had the lowest score of the 11 auto companies
tested for flame retardants -- with only a tiny trace equivalent to
what is found outdoors. But it had the highest score for a toxic
plastic softening group of chemicals called phthalates.
The Ecology Center said these chemicals have been linked to liver,
kidney and reproductive problems in lab animals. In 2003, the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention said phthalates could cause
developmental problems in children.
Hyundai officials met with the Ecology Center last week to explore
ways to reduce their use of phthalates, Gearhart said.
But not everyone is convinced the chemicals cited in the study present
The Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, the industry association
representing the four manufacturers of bromine-based flame retardants,
said the Ecology Center was asking manufacturers to abandon a proven
chemical for alternatives that may not be as effective. There were
297,000 car fires in the U.S. in 2004, the group said.
"Automobiles are significant heat sources and therefore require the
most effective flame retardants available," forum chairman Raymond
Dawson said in a statement.
And automakers have already agreed to phase out two of the three flame
retardant chemicals cited in the report, said Eron Shosteck, Alliance
of Automobile Manufacturers spokesman. The remaining chemical has been
studied by the European Union for 10 years and has been proven safe,
Even so, lawmakers and manufacturers around the world have attempted
to reduce exposure to some of the chemicals cited by the Ecology
Reach Jeff Plungis at (202) 662-8735 or email@example.com.
Return to Table of Contents
From: Toronto Star, Jan. 28, 2006
WE'VE LOST THAT CROAKING SOUND
Frog numbers keep dropping
Frog populations in serious decline around the world
Loss of habitat said to be the major cause
By Jerry Langton
"Frogs are the best bait for bass," says Max Radiff, a retired teacher
who used to run a bait shop in Kinmount, a resort town in the
"I used to catch my own frogs and eat frogs' legs too -- the big
bullfrogs were always around trying to eat the little frogs, so we'd
eat them. Some of them had legs as big as small chicken drumsticks."
Radiff has to use artificial lures now, though. "I had some ponds I'd
go to regularly and there were millions of them there -- no matter how
many you took there seemed to be the same number every year," he says.
"Then, one year it was like a curtain fell down and there were none
That's the way it happened all over the world. One year the ponds were
full of frogs, the next they were empty. Many places that very
recently held thriving populations of croaking and singing amphibians
have since fallen silent.
"I collected all kinds of frogs when I was a student in California,"
says Richard Wassersug, a biology professor at Dalhousie University in
Halifax and a renowned authority on reptile and amphibian populations.
"I was saddened to see some of them are now threatened or endangered
Canada, where almost all reptiles and amphibians are at the very
northernmost edge of their distribution, has been hit particularly
hard. Although there is no truly accurate way to determine frog
densities, the evidence that does exist is startling.
Manitoba used to have a thriving frog export business, sending whole
leopard frogs to U.S. biological supply houses for students to
dissect. In 1972, 1.2 million frogs were sent down south; in 1973, the
number fell to 270,000 and by 1976 there were none at all. There was
no change in the laws, no decline in demand -- the frogs simply
vanished. And it hasn't just been leopard frogs.
"I did my thesis in 1976 when frogs were still plentiful and have been
back to the same place pretty much every year since 1983," says
Frederick Schueler, curator of the Bishop Mills Natural History Centre
and an expert on reptiles and amphibians, particularly those of
Eastern Ontario. "Since then, I've only seen two immature frogs --
that was back in 1992."
On a recent trek around Lake Ontario, it wasn't until Schueler made it
to Presqu'ile Provincial Park halfway to Toronto, that he ran into
thriving populations of amphibians. "I heard the booming of
bullfrogs," he says. "And it had been so long since I heard it, I
actually thought it was cattle."
There's no single reason why frog populations have crashed but it has
been a worldwide phenomenon that scientists started noticing in the
1950s, but it did not become publicly acknowledged until the '80s.
Some species have become extinct, many more are endangered.
"I'm reluctant to tell you that it's habitat destruction because
people say that so often it's kind of lost some of its impact,"
Wassersug says. "But everyone accepts it as a major cause, and with
amphibians, it's more complex than the space taken up by a house or a
Because of their unique life cycle, amphibians like frogs are
particularly vulnerable to habitat loss. With very few exceptions,
amphibians must spend their larval (tadpole) stage in water. But,
because they are poor swimmers, the tadpole generally only survive to
adulthood in numbers when there are no fish present. What few clean
bodies of water remain in this country have usually been stocked with
aggressive and voracious sport fish.
'One year it was like a curtain fell down and there were none left'
"If you have fish, you won't have frogs," Wassersug says. "One woman
asked me why she didn't have frogs in her pond anymore and didn't
realize it was because she had stocked it with goldfish."
What frogs need to survive is water that's too shallow, swampy or
impermanent to sustain fish populations. Years ago, frogs could rely
on puddles and ponds created by annual flooding along rivers to lay
their eggs safely, but human settlement has put a stop to that.
"People like to live near permanent bodies of water," Wassersug says.
"And they have worked very hard to prevent flooding." A few species
have adapted to take advantage of the drainage ditches beside
highways, but they're usually so full of runoff, especially salt, that
few can survive for very long.
Radiff is sure the reason is pollution.
"The ponds are still there, but the frogs are gone," he says. "It's
got to be pollution. I've seen what acid rain and especially acid snow
can do to aquatic plants -- and frogs are especially sensitive to
Pollution has also been cited as a culprit for population declines,
but no one single chemical has been determined to be more noxious than
the others, as DDT was found to be responsible for declining raptor
populations in the 1960s. "How can you know which one is responsible?
It's a witch's brew of chemicals out there," Schueler says. "Even
organic fertilizers have been shown to burn holes through the skin of
Sometimes, human intervention can make habitat too healthy for
"When fertilizers enter a water supply, it can create an environment
we call eutrophic -- too rich in nutrients," Wassersug says. "A layer
of green scum, algae, appears and kills almost everything else in the
water." That's when things get even more esoteric for the unfortunate
"Snails feed on the algae and rapidly multiply," he says. "And there's
a parasite called a trematode that spends part of its lifecycle in
snails and has been linked to frog deaths in the U.S."
As if dying in massive numbers were not enough, remaining frog
populations have had to put up with deformities -- particularly common
on the banks of the St. Lawrence River -- and the remarkable fact that
many male frogs on the Prairies are transforming into females before
they can breed.
While the situation may appear hopeless, the few frogs left in Canada
can be protected and coaxed to breed when and where conditions are
"A friend of mine in Rochester, N.Y., has transformed her backyard
into a frog breeding area," says Schueler. "All she did was put a
little pond in there with some ground cover. She now has three species
of frogs breeding there when there were none in the area before."
Of course, not everyone can build a pond in their backyard, but there
are things people can do to ensure frogs don't become extinct in their
"People should avoid using herbicides and insecticides on their lawns,
not stock fish in every body of water they find and provide hiding
places around shorelines for frogs to hide in," Wassersug says.
Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.
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From: Oakland (Calif.) Tribune, Jan. 24, 2006
CHEMICAL: MIXTURES MORE TOXIC THAN THEIR PARTS
Studies find pesticides and other chemicals are more potent when added
By Douglas Fischer
Chemical mixtures, such as the soup of pesticides found in
agricultural run-off, can be vastly more toxic to humans and creatures
than a single chemical, suggesting current efforts to assess health
risks posed by such compounds significantly underestimate their
danger, researchers find.
The threat comes not just from pesticides: The plastic lining your
soup can, the additives used to keep nail polish from chipping and
beach balls from cracking, even the trace amounts of DDT found in your
house dust all can have an effect when mixed with others far greater
than any single chemical alone.
And that means, scientists say, that safety tests used by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration
-- where one compound is tested and regulated in isolation -- miss the
real effects of the chemical stew making up our world.
The most recent finding came Tuesday from University of California
Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes. His report, published in the online
version of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found
significant harmful effects on frogs given mixtures of pesticides
commonly found in agricultural runoff -- even though levels of the
individual pesticides were thought not to cause harm and were 10 to
100 times below EPA standards:
** Frogs treated with the mixture were, on average, 10 to 12 percent
smaller than the untreated control group.
** Nearly 70 percent of those frogs succumbed to a common pathogen
that the control group successfully fought off.
** In the control group, those frogs that spent the most time in the
water as tadpoles were the largest. But tadpoles swimming in the
treated water found the reverse -- the longer they stayed tadpoles,
the smaller they were as frogs.
** Treated frogs developed holes, or plaques, in their thymus, an
organ crucial for suppressing disease.
** Those frogs also had high levels of corticosterone -- a hormone,
similar to one also found in humans, associated with stress and known
to decrease growth and retard development.
And in a related paper, also published Tuesday, Hayes showed these
chemicals are quite efficient at switching testosterone to estrogen.
Which means the testes of exposed male frogs don't produce sperm.
They produce eggs.
"Metolachlor" -- a common herbicide -- "Doesn't do anything on its
own," Hayes said Tuesday. "But mix it with something else and it
becomes bad somehow. You add them all up and you get significant
Representatives of CropLife America, a trade group representing
pesticide companies, had no comment Tuesday on the new findings. The
group has long said, however, that there is insufficient evidence that
pesticides harm frogs.
Chemical manufacturers decry any effort to link extremely low levels
of their chemicals to harm. "The data are extensive. The exposure is
quite low. It takes really high levels (to see effects)," said James
Lamb, a former regulator who is now consulting for the American
Chemistry Council. "We don't have a lot of data on children, but with
data on adults, we don't see effects."
But what alarms Hayes is that he sees effects in frogs at 0.1 parts
per billion, far below any health threshold. The urine of a farm
worker contains, on average, 2,400 ppb of some of these compounds.
Hayes said he could dilute that urine and effectively castrate 720,000
We don't know what that means for humans, however. But Dr. Shanna
Swan, a researcher at the University of Rochester, has found an
association between low fertility in men and pesticide concentrations
in urine as low as 0.1 ppb.
"All we know is that humans are exposed to large amounts of
chemicals," Swan said. "Rodents are exposed to one chemical at a
Swan has found similar problems in baby boys born to women with high
levels of phthalates (THAAL-ates), a common additive used to make nail
polish chip-proof, to dissolve fragrances in cosmetics, and to soften
That meshes with research by the U.S. EPA in North Carolina that finds
phthalates, when added together at levels known to cause little or no
problems individually, somehow afflict upwards of a quarter of the
test animals with permanent reproductive damage.
Levels of those phthalates in the amniotic fluid of the most highly
exposed women in the U.S. are not too far from levels known to cause
harm in rats.
And, Hayes notes, a fetus in amniotic fluid is not all that different
from a tadpole in a pond.
"It's like pregnancy: The longer you're pregnant, the bigger your
baby. The longer the tadpole (stage), the bigger the frog," Hayes
But for the tadpole, at least those in pesticide-laced run-off, that
is no longer true.
"It's like, the longer she's pregnant, the smaller your baby's going
to be," Hayes added. "That says the womb is not a nurturing place."
Wire services contributed to this report. Contact Douglas Fischer at
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From: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 30, 2006
SCIENTISTS FEAR UNUSUAL WEATHER BEHIND MASSIVE SEABIRD DIE-OFF
By Robert McClure
Alone in the nest, the starving seabird chick looked a little woozy.
Then it collapsed.
Hours passed before the desperate mother bird returned, a fish tail
sticking out of her beak. Again and again she offered the fresh
morsel. But it was too late -- the baby bird was dying.
"It's an ugly, gut-wrenching thing to watch," said University of
Washington researcher Julia Parrish, who witnessed such a scene
repeatedly last summer, hidden amid the cacophony of 6,000 nesting
murres on Tatoosh Island off the Olympic Peninsula.
The murres' unusual mass starvation became a clue in a mystery
unfolding along the West Coast.
Weather, scientists know, is the key to the puzzle. For some reason,
winds and currents crucial to the marine food web just didn't happen
on schedule last year.
Seabird breeding failures in the summer were preceded by tens of
thousands of birds washing up dead on beaches in Washington, Oregon
And Washington's largest colony of glaucous-winged gulls also
sputtered: Where 8,000 chicks normally fledge, 88 did last year.
"The whole process broke down," Parrish said. "We don't know what
Earlier this month, 45 researchers met in Seattle to hash out the
Though they couldn't trace the source of the weird weather, many are
warily eyeing the coming spring, wondering: Was that just a blip, an
anomaly -- or is this what global warming looks like?
Recall that at this time last year, Seattleites were cooing about a
string of sunny winter days -- if they weren't complaining about the
lack of powder on the slopes at Snoqualmie. It was warm and dry. It
marked the third year of above-normal ocean temperatures.
Then rain started pouring in early spring. At a time when the birds
should have been making and feeding babies, a network of beachcombing
citizen-scientists run by Parrish instead found them dead.
"It was the birds that were the first harbingers of this whole
problem," said Bill Peterson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, which set up the Seattle meeting.
The dramatic downturns among certain bird species didn't happen in a
Researchers last year also recorded low catches of juvenile salmon and
rockfish, and there were sightings of emaciated gray whales. Those
findings were preceded by the first-time appearance in Washington of
thousands of squid normally not found north of San Francisco. And a
kind of plankton typically found near San Diego bloomed along
A scientist studying the longest-running set of indicators of Pacific
Ocean conditions says we can expect this kind of thing to repeat as
the planet warms and weather patterns are altered.
"There are all these unconnected reports of biological failures," said
John McGowan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla,
Calif. "It's all the way up and down the coast. ... There's a lot of
evidence there are important changes going on in the Pacific coast
'The smoking gun'
By the door to Parrish's office is a little sign: "I really need to
stop depending on birds for important information. They're cute to
look at but don't have much upstairs."
>From her perch above a courtyard at UW's College of Ocean and Fishery
Sciences in Seattle, Parrish directs the Coastal Observation and
Seabird Survey Team. About 300 volunteers scour Oregon and Washington
beaches for dead birds.
Based on monthly surveys, researchers estimated the dead birds
numbered in the tens of thousands. Dominating the toll were the
Brandt's cormorant and the common murre.
"They were clearly starving to death -- no fat, reduced musculature,"
Parrish said. "The smoking gun is no food."
Unlike migratory birds, they were stuck with what the Northwest coast
had to offer. Unlike birds with wider-ranging diets, such as gulls,
both rely almost exclusively on diving deep underwater for small
schooling baitfish that also feed whales, seals, salmon and other
At Tatoosh Island, it looked like the same story. The murres like
fatty, nutritious sand lance, herring, surf smelt and eulachon -- the
latter nicknamed "candlefish" because they're so full of oil that,
when dried, they can be placed upright and lit to burn like a candle.
For a murre, eating those fish "is like popping little energy bars,"
But last summer the murres brought back no sand lance and hardly any
herring. Catches of the other two fish also were reduced. Instead
Parrish's research team saw them toting fish like the Pacific saury,
which they had almost never seen the birds eating in 14 years of
"The steak and chicken fell out of the diet," Parrish said. "It's like
going to the grocery store and (seeing) there are only a few yucky
things in the store. You adapt by using what's there."
The phenomenon was widespread. At Triangle Island in British Columbia
and California's Farallon Islands, researchers saw a third seabird,
the Cassin's auklet, show signs of starvation, said Bill Sydeman of
the Point Reyes Bird Observatory.
The Farallon auklets started the breeding season late. Only half as
many as normal even tried. Then they abandoned the nests.
"That's unprecedented in 35 years of studying Cassin's auklets on the
Farallons" and unnoted in decades of anecdotal accounts before,
In nearby waters, researchers found a 60 percent reduction from the
last year in the birds' primary food, a tiny shrimplike crustacean
called krill. Up in British Columbia, the birds eat a different form
of plankton -- yet also had trouble raising young.
No one thinks a single year's breeding failure is a catastrophe for
overall populations of the birds. They live many years.
But it was unusual and widespread enough to spark urgent questions.
"It's something having to do with food," Sydeman said. "We're all
Weather sparks meeting
Along the coast of Washington and Oregon, researchers think they know
what happened: The wind didn't blow.
Usually in the spring, a weather maker called the Aleutian Low that
throws winter storms our way moves north. Soon strong winds blow from
north to south. Because the Earth is turning to the east, these winds
push the surface of the Pacific to the southwest, leaving a little gap
in the water near shore.
Water from deep in the ocean surges up to fill the gap. It's cold
water, loaded with nutrients from dead plankton, dead fish, fish
excrement and more.
"Basically, you can think of it as a lot of schmutz that settles to
the bottom," Parrish said.
The cold water is fertilizer to the ocean garden. No cold water, no
plankton. No plankton, no sand lance or other "forage fish" -- staples
of many fish and birds.
Last year, though, the winds from the north didn't start in March or
April as they normally do. Nary a wisp came until late May, and it
didn't really get going good until mid-July.
The scientists' meeting in Seattle was organized to bring together
oceanographers, atmospheric scientists, marine mammal experts, seabird
biologists and researchers who model ecosystems and ocean circulation.
"The weather guys didn't really know what to say other than it was
weird weather. That's not very satisfying," said Peterson, the
The term "global warming" oversimplifies a chain of coming changes --
some related to warming, some not, but happening simultaneously,
scientists emphasize. Climate change is superimposed on natural
"We're all scientists. ... We want to know why, and if it could happen
again," Peterson said.
Instead, they will write a series of scientific papers carefully
documenting their observations.
A look at the past, said Scripps' McGowan, is telling: In the last 30
years, the top 300 feet of the Pacific warmed and became more dense.
Off Southern California, zooplankton are down 70 percent, fish larvae
50 percent, and there have been massive die-offs of kelp. McGowan's
institution has studied ocean temperatures since 1919 and started a
comprehensive Pacific monitoring project in 1949.
In Puget Sound, the number of seabirds dropped by nearly half since
the 1970s. Nearly a third of seabird species are legally protected or
candidates for protection.
"All kinds of things are changing, and the biology is responding in
funny, non-linear, confusing ways," McGowan said. "Not everything has
declined, but many things have."
Gulls abandon nests
The largest gathering of nesting seabirds in Washington happens every
summer at Protection Island, between Sequim and Port Townsend off the
northeast Olympic Peninsula. It's also the state's largest colony of
There, researcher Joe Galusha of Walla Walla College has studied the
gulls for 25 years. Last year the birds began gathering as usual.
About 8,000 paired up, established nests and laid eggs -- just as
The gulls seemed to have no trouble gathering food -- unlike the
murres at Tatoosh Island.
The gulls have a much less specialized diet than the murres, which may
explain the difference, Parrish said.
Even so, most of the gulls later abandoned their nests.
Galusha thinks bald eagles may be to blame. When he started watching
the gulls in 1980, the eagles' numbers were way down. Perhaps seven or
eight harassed the 8,000 or so gulls by the early 1990s.
Their numbers grew gradually to the point that last summer, up to 38
different eagles menaced the gulls simultaneously.
Every time, the gulls had to take flight -- which burns energy. Most
simply gave up.
In the end, 88 chicks were fledged where 8,000 to 10,000 normally are.
"We classify that as catastrophic reproductive failure," Galusha said.
Simple, right? Maybe not. Galusha and others still want to know why
eagles are increasingly turning to Protection Island. Is their food
supply also in flux?
"Next summer is key," Galusha said. "This may simply have been an
The Sea Doc Society, a University of California-Davis research arm, is
about to fund a study by Parrish to investigate seabird diets in the
Puget Sound region.
Nathan Mantua, a UW scientist studying the effects of climate change
on the Northwest, said he will run climate simulations to see how
often this kind of thing could have been expected in the past and how
often we might expect it as man-made greenhouse gases alter the
"We don't know if it's just a random thing or something we might
expect to see more or less of in the future," Mantua said. "If you're
thinking this is just an unlucky roll of the dice, how often will it
Sidebar: WEIRD WEATHER
With ocean temperatures warming to unusually high levels over the last
three years, scientists noted a string of unusual happenings affecting
marine life from northern California to Alaska.
Triangle Island: Nesting success plummeted for the Cassin's auklet, a
seabird, in 2005.
Lake Washington and Ship Canal: About half the 2004 run of sockeye
salmon -- some 200,000 fish -- failed to materialize. Scientists
suspect overly warm water was the cause.
Whidbey Island: A Humboldt squid, normally found in Mexico and
southern California, turned up on the beach on Jan. 2.
Protection Island: Last summer, glaucous-winged gulls that normally
fledge about 8,000 chicks produced only 88.
Tatoosh Island: Breeding started late for common murres last spring.
Only about one-fifth fledged chicks, compared to up to four- fifths in
a good year.
Northwest Coast: Tens of thousands of common murres and Brandt's
cormorants -- emaciated at a time of year they should be flush --
turned up dead on Oregon and Washington beaches in spring 2005.
Southern Washington to Alaska Panhandle: Numerous sightings of Humbolt
squid, which normally lives off Southern California and farther south,
in summer 2004.
Northwest coast: Gray whales migrating from Mexico to the Bering Sea
had so exhausted their fat reserves that their bodies were misshapen
as they passed by last spring.
Northwest coast: Scientists trawling for young salmon found counts
extremely low in spring and fall 2005.
Northern California: Scientists trawling for young rock- fish found
counts very low in 2005.
Farallon Islands: Auklets that abandoned their nests in unprecedented
numbers. Where hundreds of chicks normally are produced, only a
handful were in 2005. Lack of food is blamed.
Monterey, Calif.: Large number of seabirds found dead on beaches in
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or
Copyright 1998-2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
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