Archive for the 'Environmental hazards' Category

Concerns are Mounting Over Deadly Fungus in Northwest U.S. and British Columbia

Trees and soil in the Pacific Northwest are thought to be the source of the fungusA new deadly strain of an airborne fungus, called Cryptococcus gattii, is infecting both animals and people in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, according to Duke researchers. 

Although rare so far, this airborne fungus has been highly virulent with a mortality rate of about 25 percent. It typically only infects immunocompromised patients, but this new strain is genetically different and is a threat to healthy people as well.

Treatment of this highly lethal infection requires months to years of antifungal medications. Surgery is often necessary to remove the large masses known as cryptococcomas that can develop in various parts of the body.  There is no known method of prevention or vaccination at this point.

C. gatti has historically been a tropical fungus normally found in South America, Australia and Papua New Guinea. In these areas, it tends to favor eucalyptus trees with rates of infection among people being relatively low.

However, in 1999, the fungus emerged as a new strain on the east side of Vancouver Island where it is thought to have infected certain areas of soil, water, and local trees. From 1999 through 2003 the outbreak was confined to the island, but since 2003 the infection has also been found in the mainland of British Columbia, Washington state, California and Oregon.   Given this path, as well as the fact that C. gattii potentially can be dispersed through export of trees and woody products, air currents, water currents, and biotic sources, such as birds, animals, and insects, the researchers predict further spread of the fungus into the U.S. 

The disease is not contagious from person to person or person to animal.  It is thought to spread through the air to both humans and animals by inhalation of spores released by the fungus from the trees, soil, water or air.  

“The primary site of infection is the lung; C. gattii can lead to pneumonia or formation of cryptococcomas. The infection can disseminate to most other organs, notably the central nervous system (CNS), where it causes meningoencephalitis or brain cryptococcomas”, according to a February 2010 article in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Most people never develop symptoms, but the spore-forming fungus can cause symptoms in people and animals two weeks or much longer after exposure.  Symptoms in people include a cough that lasts for weeks, sharp chest pain, shortness of breath, headache, fever, nighttime sweats and weight loss. 

 Cats, dogs and a wide range of both domestic and wild animals have been infected.  In animals the symptoms are a runny nose, breathing problems, nervous system problems and raised bumps under the skin.

Although the occurrence of this infection is rare, the CDC warns residents and even tourists in these areas to be aware of suspicious symptoms such as those described above, which should be reported to their physicians. 

SOURCE: “Emergence and Pathogenicity of Highly Virulent Cryptococcus gattii Genotypes in the Northwest United States”, PLoS Pathogens 2010.

SOURCE: “Potentially deadly fungus spreading in US, Canada”, Reuters Health, April 23, 2010

SOURCE: “Cryptococcus gattii Risk for Tourists Visiting Vancouver Island, Canada”, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol 13, No. 1, January 2007

SOURCE: “Epidemiology of Cryptococcus gattii, British Columbia, Canada, 1999–2007″, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Volume 16, Number 2–February 2010 

SOURCE: “Projecting Global Occurrence of Cryptococcus gattii”, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Volume 16, Number 1–January 2010


Trichloroethylene Linked to Parkinson’s Disease

Trichloroethylene (TCE) has once again been linked to increased rates of Parkinson’s disease.  In this recent study from the Parkinson’s Institute in Sunnyvale, California, Parkinson’s disease developed in individuals with occupational exposure to TCE at more than five times the rate seen in those without such exposure.

More Information: ToxFAQs for Trichloroethylene (TCE) from the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Source:  Goldman S, “Parkinson’s Disease Risk is Increased in Discordant Twins Exposed to Specific Solvents” AAN 2010.

Source: “AAN: Industrial Cleaner Again Tied to Parkinson Risk”,  MedPage Today, February 07, 2010

Many Long-Term Smokers have Chronic Lung Disease, But Don’t Know They Have It

the lungsLong-term smokers are at high risk of developing a chronic lung condition called COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), but many are not even aware they have it during the early stages.  In a recent Canadian study of long-term smokers, about one in five were found to have COPD, but only a third of them knew they had the condition.

COPD causes a slow damage to the lungs. The destruction is irreversible, making it the leading cause of death and illness worldwide.

COPD develops slowly, and it may be many years before symptoms become noticeable. The severity of the following symptoms depends on how much of the lung has been destroyed. If you continue to smoke, the lung destruction will be more extensive than if you stop smoking.

  • Shortness of breath, especially with exercise
  • Chest tightness
  • Cough (A cough that doesn’t go away and coughing up large amounts of mucus are common signs of COPD)
  • Sputum (mucous) production
  • Wheezing

Most COPD is caused by long-term smoking and can be prevented by not smoking or quitting soon after you start. Damage to your lungs can’t be reversed, so treatment focuses on controlling symptoms and minimizing further damage.

Breathing in other kinds of lung irritants, like pollution, dust, or chemicals over a long period of time may also cause or contribute to COPD.

If you think you might be at risk of having COPD, ask your doctor to order a simple breathing test called spirometry.

More Information: Quitting Smoking, About COPD

Source:  Hill K, et al “Prevalence and underdiagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among patients at risk in primary care” CMAJ 2010. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.091784. 

Source: “Undiagnosed COPD Common”, MedPage Today, April 6, 2010  

The Industrial Cleaner TCE Linked to Parkinson’s

Dry Cleaners have used TCE in the pastThe industrial cleaner trichloroethylene (TCE) has been linked to an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease, according to researchers from the Parkinson’s Institute in Sunnyvale, California.

TCE exposure occurred in jobs such as dry cleaners, electricians, machinists and mechanics. The chemical was once a popular industrial solvent used in dry cleaning and to clean grease off metal parts.  Because of safety concerns, TCE is no longer widely used. 

Source: American Academy of Neurology, News Release, Feb. 7, 2010

Can You Get Bad Germs From a Toilet Seat?

A toilet seat can harbor a variety of germsYes, a toilet seat can harbor a variety of germs. MRSA, pinworms, and viruses that cause diarrhea and vomiting are just some of the pathogens that can be transmitted to you by the toilet seat.   

Researchers are now describing a new wave of irritating and itchy rash on the upper thighs and buttocks of children.  Harsh chemical cleaners on toilet seats and/or exotic wooden toilet seats appear to be the main culprits causing this problem.  A recent study from Johns Hopkins Children’s Center documents recent cases of toilet seat dermatitis in children, some of whom suffered for years before being diagnosed.

Toilet seat dermatitis was first documented and described in 1927 when varnish, lacquers, and paints were used on wooden toilet seats.  In the 1980s and 1990s, plastic toilet seats replaced wooden ones and sanitary seat covers came into use.  These changes were associated with a dramatic decline in the condition.

Recently, however exotic wooden toilet seats, as well as harsh toilet seat detergents have made a resurgence in popularity.  Cleaners with ingredients such as didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride and alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride, are being used as toilet seat cleansers although they have previously been documented to cause severe skin irritation.

To prevent any of these conditions, avoid sitting directly on a toilet seat or use a protective barrier in public restrooms.  Avoid harsh cleansers at home and replace all wooden toilet seats with plastic ones.

Read more about the Super Bug, MRSA 

Source: “Toilet Seat Dermatitis Making a Comeback”, MedPage Today, January 2010
Source: Center for Disease Control


Pollution Linked with Liver Disease

Pesticides being sprayed on a crop by a planeEnvironmental pollution may be contributing to the growing incidence of liver disease in the general U.S. population, according to researchers from the University of Louisville in Kentucky.  Their analyses found that at least some of this hazardous exposure may be attributed to banned organochloride pesticides and heavy metals such as mercury and lead.

Source: “DDW: Pollution May Explain Some Liver Disease in the U.S.”, MedPage Today, May 29, 2009
Source: Patel M, et al “Pesticide and heavy metal exposures are associated with ALT elevation in American adults: NHANES 2003-2004″ DDW 2009; Abstract 289.

Secondhand Smoke Can Damage the Brain

Passive Smoke is HarmfulPassive smoking, also known as secondhand smoke, has been found to impair cognition according to British researchers from the University of Cambridge. In their recent study, nonsmokers with the heaviest secondhand smoke exposure were at a 44% higher risk of scoring in the bottom 10% on cognitive testing, compared with those with the lowest level of passive smoking.  

People over fifty were included in this clinical trial, but other studies have also connected secondhand smoke exposure to impaired cognition in both children and adolescents.

Passive smoking has also been found to be a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, tuberculosis,  breast cancer, psoriasis, glucose intolerance, and other chronic medical conditions.

The results from a number of studies affirm that public interventions which prohibit smoking can have an enormous impact on public health.  In fact several studies have provided evidence that smoking bans have not only reduced respiratory symptoms among workers in service industries, but hospitalizations for acute myocardial infarction in the general population have significantly decreased.

Source: “Secondhand Smoke Linked to Adult Cognitive Impairment’, MedPage Today, February 15, 2009
Source: Llewellyn D, et al “Exposure to secondhand smoke and cognitive impairment in non-smokers: national cross sectional study with cotinine measurement” BMJ 2009; DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b462.
Source: Menzies D et al. “Respiratory Symptoms, Pulmonary Function, and Markers of Inflammation Among Bar Workers Before and After a Legislative Ban on Smoking in Public Places.” JAMA. 2006;296:1742-1748

Living Close to Power Lines Linked to Alzheimers Disease

High-Voltage Power LinesPeople living within 50 meters of a 220-380 kV power line are more likely to die of Alzheimer’s disease than those living at least 600 meters away from these lines, according to Swiss researchers from the University of Bern.  The longer people lived close to the power lines, the higher their risk.

Electric and magnetic fields (EMF) are invisible lines of force that surround any electrical device that is plugged in and turned on. These electromagnetic fields are everywhere, in fact the cell phones, laptops, microwaves, hair dryers, electric blankets, and other appliances we surround ourselves with everyday emit an electromagnetic field in varying degrees.  

The dangers of electromagnetic fields have long been a subject of discussion, controversy and research. Although there has been no conclusive evidence of a link between disease and EMF exposure, the World Health Organization has stated that these magnetic fields are possible human carcinogens.  Some studies have found an increased risk of  childhood leukemia in children living next to high-voltage power lines. Most recently, a study from 2005 found that children living within 200 meters of high-voltage power lines have a 70-percent increased risk of developing leukemia.

 In your home there are a number of common-sense ways to reduce exposures to the EMFs that surround you during the day:

  •  Magnetic fields from appliances drop off dramatically in strength with increased distance from the source.
    • Stand back from an appliance when it’s in use.  A microwave, in particular, emits a considerable electromagnetic field within several feet of it during operation.  Standing five-feet away from it during use will greatly reduce any EMF exposure.
    • Keep at least an arm’s length away from computer monitors.
    • Avoid using a laptop directly on the lap.  There is no documented health hazard from using a laptop on the lap, but laptops do emit a small amount of radiation.
    • Don’t let children play directly under power lines or on top of power transformers for underground lines. 
  • The duration of exposure is a factor of EMF exposure as well:
    • Alarm clocks that sit next to your head for eight hours every night should be moved away from the head of the bed. 
    • Electric blankets that surround your body all night expose you to eight hours of low-dose EMF.
  • Children are more susceptible to any potential dangers from EMF and parents might want to consider limiting cell phone use as a precautionary measure.  Talking for hours on end, for instance, is a problem for a number of reasons, but the full breadth of the hazards of cell phone use by children is not completely understood yet.
  • Correct any household wiring problems.  This is also worth doing just for general safety reasons.

World wide, scientists who study the biological effects of radiation continue to do research on this issue. 

Source: American Journal of Epidemiology, January 15, 2009.

Source: Draper G, Vincent T, Kroll ME, et al. Childhood cancer in relation to distance from high voltage power lines in England and Wales: a case-control study. British Medical Journal. 2005;330;1290-1294

Drywall Made in China Emitting Sulfide Gas

CarpenterSulfide gases being emitted from Chinese-made drywall have been detected in some Southwest Florida homes, according to a series of articles from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Foul odors, similar to that of rotten eggs, have been reported by people living in the homes and the residents are claiming health problems as a direct result of the gases being released from the drywall. 

The drywall was manufactured by Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd., a Chinese subsidiary of a German-based manufacturer. A second manufacturer was Taishan Gypsum.

According to the Herald-Tribune, “the amount of Chinese-manufactured drywall imported into the United States since 2006 was potentially enough to build more than 60,000 homes nationwide.”

via Sarasota Herald-Tribune:


Salmonella found in King Nut peanut butter

Peanut butter sandwichThe likely source of the national salmonella outbreak has been identified in a container of peanut butter at a Minnesota nursing home.  The 5-pound container of King Nut peanut butter, which tested positive, appears to be manufactured for sale in large containers to institutions such as nursing homes, cafeterias, etc.

Salmonella Typhimurium has been reported in 43 states since Sept. 3. The infections have been linked to 400 illnesses and three deaths — two in Virginia and one in Minnesota.

The distributor of King Nut peanut butter has taken voluntary action to withdraw its peanut butter products from the marketplace. The FDA, CDC, and state health agencies are continuing to investigate whether these products are the source of the national outbreak. 

via FDA, January 12, 2009