Featured Article: Internal emails reveal how the chemical lobby fights regulation

Article repost from the Guardian reporting, link here.

Emily Holden in Washington

Wed 22 May 2019 02.00 EDT

“Jayne DePotter spent almost a decade making her Michigan jewelry studio a second home for young artists seeking direction, seniors looking to exercise their hands and minds and new immigrants in search of community.

And then she started to get sick. First came the brain fog, then the painful kidney and bladder symptoms.

“It feels like I have a bladder infection all the time,” DePotter said.

It was only after her doctor put her on cancer watch that state inspectors found a tank of toxic chemicals under the floor of a neighboring shop.

One of the chemicals, a degreaser called trichloroethylene (TCE), is dangerous enough to humans that the Obama administration sought to ban its use as a spot treatment in dry cleaning. It has been linked with the organ problems DePotter experienced, as well as cancer and birth defects. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says: “TCE is carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure”.

Donald Trump’s EPA, though, has chosen not to finalize the ban, one win among many for the powerful chemicals lobby whose former advocates have been appointed to senior jobs inside the regulator since his election.

The EPA could take years to review TCE, one of the first 10 chemicals it will consider under an update to US chemical laws. And internal emails obtained by the Sierra Club in a public records lawsuit reveal the industry wanted to go even further and to also relax guidelines for quickly cleaning up contaminated sites.

Documents analysed by the Guardian show industry lobbying against the science linking illnesses and TCE and two other controversial chemicals – formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium.”

Pushing back on stricter TCE clean-ups

In June 2017, the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) senior director Stephen Risotto in a letter asked the agency to “suspend the implementation” of a 2014 EPA memo laying out how regulators should hasten TCE cleanups.

As one of 56 lobbyists working for ACC in Washington in 2018, Risotto used an approach that non-industry chemicals experts and campaigners for stricter regulation said they encounter frequently.

Risotto criticized the science behind the rules and said the cleanups were costing companies. He contested the low dose at which EPA assumes TCE poses a risk, particularly to women of child-bearing age.

“The results on which the policy relies have not been reproduced in better conducted studies,” Risotto said in the letter.

Then deputy assistant administrator Patrick Davis, a political appointee, said no, but he suggested the EPA might revisit that decision later as part of a separate process. Under a new law meant to encourage more chemicals testing, the EPA is moving some chemical reviews from its risk assessment program to its toxics program, which is run by a former industry official.

Risotto didn’t give up, however, and a few months later, escalated the issue to Kell Kelly, a close aide to the EPA’s former administrator, Scott Pruitt. In December 2017, Kelly had a meeting with Risotto and three other industry representatives, according to emails.

ACC Spokesman Jonathan Corley, in a response to the Guardian’s queries about the lobbying effort, said the basis for the cleanup rules is “contrary to the conclusions reached by most other scientists”.

The ACC disputed claims it sowed doubt about science, saying it “worked to advance the use of rigorous, objective and peer-reviewed science as the foundation of responsible public policy and regulation of chemicals”.

For now, the TCE guidelines stand, and EPA says it does not currently have plans to review them. But that may not hold true. Manufacturers of the chemical continue to oppose the core study behind TCE regulations, which found that rats exposed to even very small amounts of the chemical in utero developed cardiac malformations.

The Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, which represents TCE users and makers, funded its own study to try to show that the rat research can’t be replicated. “A single flawed study should not be the basis for the toxicological value that serves as the basis for regulation,” the group said in 2017 comments to the EPA. Jennifer Sass, a senior chemicals expert at the environmental advocacy group the Natural Resources Defense Council, said while the study did prompt some “reasonable criticisms”, about a dozen others backed up its findings.

Sass said the industry is fighting the research because the EPA used it to assume that a developing fetus might be at risk with even very low levels of exposure for a short period of time.

In a response to the Guardian, the industry alliance argued the research has been “widely criticized,” including by the California Environmental Protection Agency. The group insisted the chemical is safe if used appropriately and does not increase the risk of cardiac malformations or other developmental problems.

Up to 4,000 ‘vapor intrusion’ sites

DePotter, who is 56, has been wracked with guilt thinking about the young women who have spent days each week metalworking in her studio in a strip mall in affluent Franklin. She was shocked to hear that the industry would try to weaken cleanup rules for the chemical. She knows one of her students had bladder cancer and another had frequent bladder infections. After the contamination was revealed, she closed the studio and refunded tuition rather than risk anyone else getting sick, she said.

“You don’t know you’re breathing them in and you don’t know later in life what kind of damage is done to your body,” DePotter said. “I think it’s ridiculous to roll back the guidelines.”

Michigan officials have said there could be as many as 4,000 so-called “vapor intrusion” sites in the state, where invisible chemicals might be seeping into the air people breathe indoors.

In one Indiana town with underground TCE pollution, parents whose children developed rare cancers accuse the EPA of “serious mismanagement.” Other states, including New York and Wyoming, are struggling with polluted sites too. Without federal restrictions, Minnesota has debated banning TCE on its own.

‘Sowing doubt’

Chemicals experts outside the industry say the lobbying efforts on TCE demonstrate the strategies that companies with toxic products have used for decades: sowing doubt about toxicology science, stalling regulation and wielding influence with political officials through campaign donations.

“The playbook repeats itself over and over,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior toxics adviser at the Sierra Club.

The US has long allowed companies to use thousands of chemicals with little or no data on whether they are safe. A 2016 update to US chemical laws is meant to require more testing, but critics say Trump’s EPA is using the new process to undermine ongoing reviews. The EPA says the changes to how it assesses chemicals will let the agency “expeditiously” regulate dangerous ones.

Lunder said the public only learns about the harmful chemicals that have unusual effects or that are discovered randomly by scientists. “A lot of the science is moving forward in a very opportunistic and chaotic way,” she said.

That has been to industry’s benefit.

But Corley said critics of the ACC are making “tired attempts to vilify the chemical industry to advance their advocacy goals.”

“ACC will continue to be a constructive participant in the discourse about these important issues,” Corley said, declining to comment on the number of lobbyists the group employs.

A long history of warnings about formaldehyd

The ACC has been lobbying the federal government to consider its own industry-funded science in reviewing two other chemicals – formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium – which have been known to be dangerous yet have been under debate for years. The EPA classified formaldehyde – used in wood products like cabinets and furniture – as a probable human carcinogenin 1987. The EPA was aware that workers who inhaled hexavalent chromium had higher rates of respiratory cancers as early as 1984.

In January 2018, the ACC sent a letter criticizing how the EPA was handling a review of formaldehyde. That summer, news broke that the federal government had been stalling the release of findings that most Americans inhale enough formaldehyde to be at risk for leukemia.

In the letter, the ACC said its formaldehyde panel had left a meeting with EPA staff “very alarmed and troubled”, that the agency might conclude that “any level of formaldehyde exposure results in some level of potential cancer risk”.

The group said EPA was relying on studies that “have been shown in recent years to have significant scientific and methodological issues,” and that ACC had “proactively supported cutting-edge research with leading scientists ... resulting in several dozen peer reviewed publications.”

Asked whether the ACC encouraged the government to delay the formaldehyde, Corley said the agency’s risk assessment program has “been plagued by serious issues for years.”

“It is no surprise that EPA leadership took time last year to reevaluate the IRIS program and how it was functioning,” Corley said.

The ACC maintains that “dozens of peer-reviewed studies” show the level of formaldehyde people inhale does not cause leukemia.

Now at the EPA: former industry representatives

The formaldehyde letter from ACC was signed by Kimberly Wise White, who was later assigned to the EPA’s science advisory board, which reviews what science the agency considers. That board isn’t currently considering formaldehyde, the EPA said, and members with a conflict of interest could be required to recuse themselves.

The formaldehyde review has been moved to a different program meant to prioritize certain chemicals, meaning it will be overseen by one of the EPA’s top chemicals officials, the former ACC executive Nancy Beck.

Other former industry representatives who now work on chemical rules at EPA include: Erik Baptist, a chemical safety appointee who worked for the American Petroleum Institute; Peter Wright, a Dow Chemical lawyer running the Superfund cleanup program; David Dunlap, a deputy in EPA’s research office who was a Koch Industries official; and Steven Cook, the head of EPA’s Superfund task force who was in-house counsel for plastics and chemical company LyondellBasell Industries.

Trump’s nominee to run the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, researcher Michael Dourson, withdrew from consideration after controversy over his close ties with industry.

The Erin Brokovich chemical still under review

The chemicals lobby has also been pushing EPA researchers to consider more industry-funded research on hexavalent chromium. Also known as Chromium-6, the drinking water contaminant was made infamous by Erin Brokovich.

In an April public science meeting, officials at the EPA said there are more than a thousand studies on the chemical that have come out since the agency’s last review, on oral ingestion, in 2010.

ToxStrategies, a consulting group that represents the American Chemistry Council and the Electric Power Research Institute, presented multiple industry-funded studies that discount some of the findings the EPA is considering and flagged problems in non-industry research.

One study that showed a significant increase in stomach cancers relied on a cohort of cement workers who may have been exposed to other chemicals, one consultant argued.

The ACC in a response to the Guardian argued “mode of action” studies show no toxicity in rodents exposed to hexavalent chromium at 10 times EPA’s limit for drinking water.

For both formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium, industry has pushed the EPA to use mode of action studies, which show the specific change at the cellular level that causes an illness.

A chemical producer might argue that although there is an association between exposure and illness, there still isn’t enough evidence to show how the illness happens and rule out other factors. Industry lobbyists will also say that the EPA isn’t considering the correct dose or means of exposure.

Sonya Lunder, of Sierra Club, said the tactics are “generally used to call for more data or to critique whether an effect is relevant on human”.

“Sometimes all this buys is a little bit more time for them to do one more study, she said.

Chemical studies in rodents are expensive and time-consuming. So the federal government is relying more on cellular-level studies conducted in petri dishes, often developed in partnership with industry, said Jennifer Sass, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. EPA argues its approach for evaluating chemicals “does not skew towards one type of study over another.”

But Sass disagreed and said the changes are “a complete disaster ”, she said. “What’s new now is that EPA is making decisions and calling chemicals safe,” Sass said, when “before there were just a whole bunch of chemicals with no decisions.”

Progress for the Environment

Article repost from the Sacramento Bee reporting, link here


dkasler@sacbee.comAugust 09, 2018 09:59 AM

Updated August 09, 2018 05:45 PM

In a rebuke to the Trump administration, an appeals court Thursday ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to ban a widely used farm pesticide that environmentalists say can damage the nervous systems of farmworkers, their children and even consumers.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals told the EPA to ban the chemical known as chlorpyrifos within 60 days. The ruling by the 9th Circuit is a major victory for environmentalists and a defeat for agricultural interests and the Trump administration,which had refused to ban the pesticide.

The use of chlorpyrifos is well established in California agriculture. In a document filed with the EPA in 2015, the California Farm Bureau Federation said the chemical is used to control pests that attack almonds, apricots, and other mainstay crops. After the appeals court ruled, the Farm Bureau’s government affairs manager Jim Houston said he anticipates a ban on chlorpyrifos will yield “significant impacts to food and fiber production.”

Lawyers for Dow AgroSciences, the largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, disputed claims that the product is unsafe and argued that a ban on the pesticide would leave many farmers defenseless.

“For many crops, chlorpyrifos is the only effective pest management product available,” the Dow lawyers wrote in a court filing. After Thursday’s ruling, the company said it’s considering its legal options and “will continue to support the growers who need this important product.”

On the other hand, the use of chlorpyrifos has fallen. California farmers applied just 900,000 pounds of chlorpyrifos in 2016, down from nearly 2 million pounds in 2005, according to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation. Agency spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe said the state has imposed certain restrictions on its application in recent years.

And farmers said they’re turning to alternatives.

“A lot of farmers are trying to find materials that are less harsh, less broad-spectrum,” said Joe Del Bosque, a prominent grower on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. In addition, Del Bosque, who occasionally uses chlorpyrifos on his almond trees, said many farmers are concerned that using the same chemical repeatedly will make the insects more resistant to it.

Marisa Ordonia, an attorney with Earthjustice, a Seattle environmental law firm that worked on the case, said EPA scientists had concluded in 2016 that the pesticide was harmful to farmworkers and their children — and could be dangerous to those eating the foods grown with the chemical. She said children ages 1 to 2 years old were particularly at risk to a host of neurological problems.

The EPA study cited data from California regulators showing that chlorpyrifos was affecting air quality in three largely agricultural communities: Salinas, Ripon and Shafter.

In the late stages of the Obama administration, the EPA was in the process of banning the chemical. Shortly after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he was “reversing the previous administration’s steps” and would allow farmers to keep using chlorpyrifos.

In a 2-1 decision, the court rejected the EPA’s arguments, saying the agency hadn’t demonstrated with “reasonable certainty” that the chemical is safe. The court declared there “was no justification for the EPA’s decision in its 2017 order to maintain a tolerance for chlorpyrifos in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children.”

Ordonia said Earthjustice and other groups have been trying to ban chlorpyrifos since 2007. The plaintiffs in the case included the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

“This is a huge victory,” Ordonia said. “The court said, ‘EPA, you have to follow the science ... and follow the law.’” 

Chlorpyrifos was introduced in 1965 by Dow as an alternative to the controversial pesticide DDT, which was banned several years later. As health concerns rose, the federal government negotiated a settlement with the chemical industry to eliminate its use in most residential settings in 2000, but it was still permitted in agriculture.

According to the EPA’s website, high doses of chlorpyrifos can cause nausea, dizziness and confusion. A 2017 report in the Journal of Neurochemistry said exposure to the chemical can lead to “neurological deficits that range from cognitive impairments to tremors in childhood.”

A 2012 study led by Columbia University said pregnant women exposed to chlorpyrifos can give birth to children with low IQs and other problems.

California officials have been in the process of tightening regulations for chlorpyrifos usage in the state. Hawaii’s legislature banned the pesticide in agriculture in June.

Featured Article: The Poison Papers

Photo by  Emilce Giardino  on  Unsplash

Post By: Molly Esselstrom, Upstream Research™ Marketing Manager

100,000 papers all pointing to the same injustice: the chemical industry is poisoning people. This particular story features Carol Van Strum, an accidental environmental advocate who lives in rural Oregon and has been fighting an uphill battle against big chemicals for 40 years.

The article (accessible below) follows Van Strum’s story, beginning with her initial discovery in 1974 that the Forest Service was spraying the land around her home with an herbicide called 2,4,5 -T.


“As in Vietnam, the chemicals hurt people and animals in Oregon, as well as the plants that were their target. Immediately after they were sprayed, Van Strum’s children developed nosebleeds, bloody diarrhea, and headaches, and many of their neighbors fell sick, too. Several women who lived in the area had miscarriages shortly after incidents of spraying. Locals described finding animals that had died or had bizarre deformities — ducks with backward-facing feet, birds with misshapen beaks, and blinded elk; cats and dogs that had been exposed began bleeding from their eyes and ears. At a community meeting, residents decided to write to the Forest Service detailing the effects of the spraying they had witnessed.
“We thought that if they knew what had happened to us, they wouldn’t do it anymore,” Van Strum said recently, before erupting into one of the many bursts of laughter that punctuate her conversation. We were sitting not far from the river where her children played more than 40 years ago, and her property remained much as it was back when the Forest Service first sprayed them with the herbicide. A mountain covered with alder and maple trees rose up across from her home, just as it did then, and the same monkey puzzle tree that was there when she moved in still shaded her dirt driveway.”

The documents are a result of Van Strum’s extensive research and dedication to fighting this cause and are now being compiled through a project called the Poison Papers, which gives everyone access to Van Strum’s life work – in the hopes of preventing use of toxic chemicals in future.


Read the full article here.

Access the Poison Papers here.

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AI & MD: What's Next?

Photo by  h heyerlein  on  Unsplash

Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash

Post By: Molly Esselstrom, Upstream Research™ Marketing Manager

A recent New Yorker piece struck me as particularly relevant amidst current news that is digging deep into and questioning the consequences of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The piece opens on a woman in the hospital for symptoms of a stroke and the author’s musings about diagnostics: Could machines could learn to do it as well as humans? And, if so, what would the consequences be?

Interestingly, the author’s own introduction with diagnostics offers a look into the powers of a doctor’s deduction, of a real human with years of experience and studies under his or her belt making rational deductions based on a patient’s symptoms and behaviors. He brings up an important distinction in knowledge between “knowing that” (factual, propositional) and “knowing how” (implicit, experiential, skill-based).

“Early efforts to automate diagnosis tended to hew closely to the textbook realm of explicit knowledge.” This, in effect, eliminates the human aspect of diagnostics – the knowing how – and only reveals one part of a complete diagnosis. The balance would be the marriage of knowing that and knowing how with AI and automated diagnoses. In other words, algorithms that had “deep learning” capabilities.

The piece goes on to profile a computer scientist, Sebastian Thrun, who “envisages a world in which we’re constantly under diagnostic surveillance. Our cell phones would analyze shifting speech patterns to diagnose Alzheimer’s. A steering wheel would pick up incipient Parkinson’s through small hesitations and tremors. A bathtub would perform sequential scans as you bathe, via harmless ultrasound or magnetic resonance, to determine whether there’s a new mass in an ovary that requires investigation. Big Data would watch, record and evaluate you: we would shuttle from the grasp of one algorithm to the next.”

An interesting thought that arises from this: “many cancers are destined to be self-limited. We die with them, not of them. What if such an immersive diagnostic engine led to millions of unnecessary biopsies?” A good question and one that rides in the balance.

Many of the interviewed clinicians in the story had similar responses to AI; they welcomed the change if it helped them diagnose with greater accuracy and improved their patient’s lives. Key word: helped.

In working together, AI and MDs can create a more complete picture of health.


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The War on Pollution

Post By: Molly Esselstrom, Upstream Research™ Marketing Manager

Today’s world and news are rife with tension and controversy. The struggle against the environment (and those who sanction it) is also not without its strife. A CNBC article from October of 2017, revealed research from a study that “in 2015, almost one in six deaths – an estimated 9 million globally – were found to relate to pollution in some form.” 9 million deaths globally, let that sink in.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, but no less sad, the research also revealed that 92% of these casualties were in poor or middle-income countries. As this is a global problem, it is important to look at some of the most polluted places in the world as both an example and a warning.


China’s self-proclaimed war on pollution is perhaps one of the most talked about areas for this global crisis. In a January 2017 piece, this war led to $63.6 million in fines and 720 arrests due to violations in environmental protection laws. China has made some progress in pollution reduction such as refusing 11 “high-pollution and high-energy consuming projects in 2016” and taking 4.05 million high emission vehicles off the road. These reductions shortly followed the ‘red alert’ on 32 Chinese cities showing that, despite progress, pollution is still a huge problem in China. Much of these problems have to do with rapid industry growth, “lack of green technologies” during this growth period, and geography in many cases. However, the county’s government has put together the 13th Five-Year Plan Period (2016-2020) for environmental improvement.


India, and specifically Delhi, is also a huge contributor to world pollution and faces similar problems to China. Delhi’s toxic air is often reported as some of the worst air in the world. An article from early 2017 said, “over 90 percent of the cities studied [in India] had pollution levels higher than the prescribed standards.” This study included 168 cities, with the problem mainly concentrated in North and Central India. Interestingly, South India “appeared to have comparably clean air” in this study, mainly due to its “mixing of sea breeze.”  Fossil fuels were found to be the biggest source of pollution and high levels of particulate matter in the country and, despite the South being relatively cleaner, pollution is considered a national issue to be addressed.


While not in the news quite as much for its pollution, Poland is considered the “China of Europe.” The Quartz piece reporting on this issue focused on Warsaw, Poland’s capitol, and its resident’s donning pollution masks. The norm of micrograms per cubic meter for pollution is 50 from EU standards, but Poland has recently reached 437. On a given day these levels are close to 176, comparable to China’s 196 and worse than London’s 71 (which is often in the news for its pollution crisis). One of the main reasons for these high levels is the fact that Poland is a coal-burning country. Even worse, “a staggering 33 out of the 50 most polluted cities in Europe are in Poland,” leading to citizen’s respiratory problems, rise is asthma and related heart issues.

The CNBC article quoted Phillip Landrigan, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine, “It [pollution] deserves the full attention of international leaders, civil society, health professionals, and people around the world.”


9 million deaths globally.

Okay, now that it has sunk in, let’s do something about it. #MoveUpstream.


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Made Safe Makes Sense

Image from Unsplash

Image from Unsplash

Post By: Molly Esselstrom, Upstream Research™ Marketing Manager

Many people can agree that diet and exercise are important for a healthy lifestyle. Most can also agree that avoiding harsh chemicals and known carcinogens (i.e. cigarettes) are contributing behaviors to overall health. And, it’s increasingly clear that the outside environment also has an impact on health. However, most would not think that toys would give a child brain cancer. Toys.

In fact, a Syracuse.com story from 2015 showed that such “toxic toys” being sold at local stores in Syracuse, NY contained toxic heavy metals and chemicals (lead & arsenic) that were leading to brain tumors in children aged 5-6 years old. An added consideration during the busy holiday season.

Parallel to the children affected by this were firefighters in the NY area with increased cancer diagnoses who had been affected by these same toys when the chemicals released during building fires. The toys were the common thread.

A toxic-free company, Made Safe, created by Amy Ziff is attempting to fix these issues. The company has raised the bar for product safety with their Made Safe seal and, according to their website, “MADE SAFE is America’s first nontoxic seal for products we use every day, from baby to personal care to household and beyond. We certify that products you use on your body, with your family, and in your home are made with safe ingredients not known or suspected to harm human health. Our goal is to change the way products are made in this country for the healthier.”

Visit Made Safe and search their products here

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A Comparison of Air Quality in the Western United States and Northern China

The following is a featured Guest Blog from Caitlin Scarpelli.

While every area of the United States has been impacted in some way from severe weather, the west coast in particular has been ravaged by fires. Most wildfires are started by humans, but with other factors at play such as extreme heat, low rainfall and low wind movement, these fires intensify at quick and deadly rates.

Image Source: ABC News

Image Source: ABC News

The National Interagency Fire Center reports that from January 1st of this year through October 31st, 8,830,898 acres of land have burned from 52,699 wildfires. A quick look at their statistics from the last 10 years shows that while less fires are occurring, more acres are burning. This means the fires are more intense and cover larger swaths of land.

Because these fires are so intense, the mitigation of them is extremely difficult for firefighters. A lack of wind helps contain the fires, but it also contains something that is hazardous for the people who live near them: smoke.

These images from NASA Earth display the lingering smoke from the northern California wildfires and the movement of smoke across the United States by a jet stream.

Image Source: NASA Earth Twitter   

Image Source: NASA Earth Twitter

Image Source: NASA Earth Twitter   

Image Source: NASA Earth Twitter

Smoke can have significant effects on human health. It can irritate eyes, worsen heart and lung diseases, and increase fatigue, shortness of breath, and headaches. A good source of understanding the effects of smoke on human health is a rating scale called the Air Quality Index (AQI). During the wildfires, this value varied from “unhealthy for sensitive groups” all the way up to “hazardous.” The higher up the rating goes, the greater the impact on human health. In the Bay Area, AQI was the worst on record, reaching a level of 404, which is “hazardous,” the worst possible ranking. The AQI was compared to China in many areas.

Elderly, youth, and those with chronic health problems experience effects earlier than those with good health. As the AQI rose in areas, the effects on children were of top priority. Many school districts did not want children to be significantly affected, so they took the initiative of canceling school and athletic practices to limit exposure.

While the smoke was an inconvenience for quite some time, it eventually went away. Normal activities presumed. Most lives went on unaffected.

However, for children in China and other places around the world, life is consistently characterized by poor air quality. It does not simply just go away. Ultimately, their everyday lives are restrained by the health of their environment.

Image Source: NASA

Image Source: NASA

Just last December, Beijing issued a “red alert” for pollution levels. This video shows a wave of smog encapsulating the city in just under 20 minutes. The air quality level was labeled hazardous for 5 days. More than 460 million people experienced “hazardous” air quality levels.

While the Chinese government has set standards on air quality, cities rarely meet them. China is a large industrial capital, so pollution levels are high in general. But, why is air quality always so poor? Recent studies have shown that climate change is playing a role. Melting sea ice is impacting large atmospheric currents which would normally redistribute pollution elsewhere.

Therefore, the pollution that is created is just sitting there, accumulating. And as pollution levels increase from more industry, the air quality levels will only get worse.

This stagnant, polluted air has detrimental effects on those who live in Chinese industrial cities. A study released by the World Health Organization attributes 1.2 million premature deaths to outdoor air pollution each year. In addition, one study found that lives in northern China are cut by anywhere between 3 to 7 years due to pollution compared to other areas.

Because they have to deal with the adverse effects of pollution most of the year, Chinese children are spending more time indoors and their health is deteriorating. While children in the United States miss a few sports practices because of air quality levels, children in China may not even play sports or do physical activity.

One of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals is “Good Health and Well-Being.” Their goal by 2030 is to “substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination.” China’s government also has its own goal to fully comply with their air quality standards by 2035.

While air quality issues occur at large scales, healthy local air quality is something that should be advocated for. Since human health is directly impacted by our environment, we need to advocate for better environments. Everyone has the right to a safe and healthy environment which does not limit the length or value of life.

All Sources Linked

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Think Dirty: A Review

Photo by  freestocks.org  on  Unsplash

Post By: Molly Esselstrom, Upstream Research™ Marketing Manager

During my time at Upstream Research, I have learned more about environmental risks than I thought existed. The water, soil, air, socioeconomic, and cancer data that drive Reports all have a slew of consequences, impacts, and corresponding actions. There isn’t a day that goes by that I am not researching something to do with these risks and possible ways to abate them. A passion project of mine that has spun off from this, and in working with Amy Ziff at Made Safe, is advocating for non-toxic products.

In that vein, this blog serves as one part of the environmental health web: personal health. Recently, I discovered an app called Think Dirty that, in my opinion, could be a game changer for anyone looking to increase their personal health. The app allows you to scan any cosmetic product that has a barcode (or look it up by name if not) and it gives a ‘dirty’ score on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being the dirtiest. The three categories for the score are Carcinogenicity, Developmental & Reproductive Toxicity, and Allergies & Immunotoxicities.

Similar to our Upstream Reports, they use green, yellow and red to indicate the risk associated with each ingredient and how these ingredients contribute to the overall score. Think Dirty even offers an “Our Picks” section where they link ‘clean’ products to sites where you can buy them. I would most liken this Upstream’s new Action Steps. Since downloading, I have thrown out 90% of my cosmetic products because of their dirty score and switched to products that I believe are better for my health. The system, like Upstream, is hyper-personal, lays out why certain things put the user at risk, and offers a direct solution for consumers. It’s a powerful mix.

Personal health is one factor of overall health with genetics and the environment of course playing a large role as well. Furthermore, these clean products do not contain the harmful chemicals and are consequentially better for the environment by way of production, use and disposal. That’s what I call a win-win. 




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Taking Action

Image from Upstream Reports

Image from Upstream Reports

Post By: Molly Esselstrom, Upstream Research™ Marketing Manager

When something is on fire in front of you, wouldn’t you throw water on the flames? What about if your child was in danger; you’d do everything in your power, right? Of course, these are extreme examples so let me put it in a slightly less-dire context.

If you knew there was something in your environment – air, water, soil, etc – putting you and your family at risk and you knew how to help, wouldn’t you?

Our Upstream Reports now provide users with Action Steps where they can view advice and further information about what they can do to improve their health and the health of their family. The risks outlined in Reports are multidimensional and can come in the form of water violations, lead risk, soil contamination, cancer in the area, air toxicity, etc. Our Action Steps help users mitigate risk based on the results of their Report, an important step in empowering users who may be shocked by what is in their personal environment. 

While some actions may be straightforward, such as using sunscreen to avoid skin cancer and having children wash their hands after playing in soil, others can be more complicated. Some even suggest users purchase DIY test kits for their water or soil and, even, to contact their local agencies to speak with them about risk in their area.

The main goal with these Action Steps, however, is to make sure people who see risk in their area are also able to see a way to fix the situation and take their health into their own hands.

See an example of these actions steps here.


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The Importance of a Healthy and Safe Environment for Refugee Populations: A Case Study in Northern Greece

The following is our first Guest Blog from Caitlin Scarpelli about her time abroad. 

Where you live matters. We all know that. But when people must flee their homes because of persecution or conflict, they often do not get a choice in where they want to live. They do not get a choice if the country they end up in speaks their language. They do not get a choice if their kids can attend school. They do not get a choice if they live in healthy and sanitary conditions. Often, their entire autonomy is stripped from them.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 1 in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. In addition, they are typically displaced from their normal lives for 20 years. Often, they never find a permanent settlement and may be subject to deplorable living conditions for a large chunk of that time. In recent years, a “crisis” of displaced people has been shown in the news, especially in Europe. However, displacement has always been present, but not often shown, as it mainly affects the global south. The UNHCR recorded the most displaced people from conflict in history in 2016. Weather disasters also increase displacement numbers. As climate change is predicted to increase both disaster intensity and frequency, human displacement is sure to be an important and concerning topic for the future of humanity and human rights.

Earlier this summer, I participated in the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights, a workshop program designed for students to engage in the topics of human rights, global conflict, humanitarian aid, and peace building. I had the opportunity to study human migration, humanitarian law and refugee policies with some of the leading experts in those fields. Then, I deepened the connection of policies to people through service learning in Greek refugee camps and community organizations. Through this program, I was able to hear firsthand the experiences which refugees and asylum-seekers have had during their journeys to safety.

During these journeys, they travelled from their home countries and many ended up in Turkey. A majority of asylum-seekers chose to pass from Turkey to Greek islands via overcrowded boats. This method is extremely risky, and as the news has often shown, these boats can capsize, plunging the passengers into the rough sea. 

Image Source: BBC

Image Source: BBC

Once the asylum-seekers landed on the Greek islands, they often had lost all their belongings during the journey, whether that was as a debt to a smuggler or simply because of the rough travel. During the Consortium, I met Ayesha Keller, co-founder of Together for Better Days, a nonprofit organization that worked both on the Greek island Lesvos and the mainland. She recalled how no one ever had shoes once they came off the boats. In addition, many passengers developed hypothermia.

When Keller first arrived on Lesvos, she was shocked by the condition of Moria, the refugee camp there. Because people did not want to stay on the island too long, no one bothered to clean it up. Trash covered the ground and people would huddle around fires fueled by burning waste for warmth. With no safe way for the smoke to be filtered, people would breathe it in.

Image Source: The Wall Street Journal

Image Source: The Wall Street Journal

Through determination and dedication, her organization helped to clean up the camp and make it more welcoming to the asylum-seekers who arrived there. They even built a sign at the entrance to the camp reading “Welcome” in over a dozen languages and “Safe Passage” in the same languages on the other side.

Once refugees moved on from the islands, they would go to the mainland and then predominantly move to Europe through the Balkan route after typically spending time in another camp. During peak passage, about 10,000 people each day would pass through towns in northern Greece which normally housed around 2,000 people. These towns could not support the new population pressures. However, this crisis was small in comparison to when the Balkan route’s countries closed their borders in early 2016. These closing borders left tens of thousands of refugees stranded in Greece. In addition, around the same time, the European Union made a deal with Turkey to stop allowing refugees to cross over into Greece. Any refugees who tried to cross the border would be immediately sent back, increasing violence along border lines.

In Idomeni, Greece, near the Macedonian (FYROM) border, a makeshift camp was created because people were bombarded by the news of the closing borders. They had nowhere to go. They set up camp in empty parking lots, along train tracks, or in field.

Image Source: BBC

Image Source: BBC

Image Source: NBC News

Image Source: NBC News

When I went to Kilkis, a town in northern Greece, I heard the testimony of a refugee who had lived near Idomeni in Cherso camp. His testimony for Cherso could be applied to many other camps, not only in Greece but also other parts of the world, especially the global south. He referred to Cherso as “the miserable place.” Sanitation was terrible, with only 4 or 5 toilets for over 2,000 people. Since they had nowhere else to play, children would play in the sewage that spread all over the ground. The tents, which provided them “homes,” were cold and flooded in the winter months. They had no beds, so they slept on the grass, even when it was soaked. The camp was also set up in a field where there was no protection from the sun during the summer. However, they could rarely go into the tent either, as the inside was about 122 ºF. He explained how, because of the conditions, “diseases were getting worse and worse,” especially for children and the elderly. In addition, many residents got depression because there was nothing to do during the day, they could barely communicate with volunteers or government workers, and the conditions were difficult. Health care was extremely limited as well. Overall, he said they “felt like animals in camp.”

As residents in northern Greece saw what was happening, they knew they needed to help out because they understood the area and that international organizations would be slow to accomplish things. An organization called Omnes, which means “all,” was dedicated to closing some of the camps and setting families up in apartment living in local Greek communities instead. By working with the Greek government, they were able to resettle 601 people in apartment living while they waited for their relocation decision, which Omnes lawyers also helped with. These apartments gave refugees privacy, autonomy, and safe living conditions. In addition, the housing project helped integrate refugees into the Greek community and likewise helped the Greek community become more accepting of refugees. Omnes is also working on providing refugees with sustainable jobs on organic farms. All of the products are produced without chemicals. Some of the products are shown below, including olive oil, herbs, flour, and body products.

Image Source: Caitlin S.

Image Source: Caitlin S.

Other refugee camps are now closing because of funding issues with the government, including Elpida Home, which I was able to visit during my trip. Elpida was dedicated to creating a community built by the residents and providing better living conditions for families. Elpida was set up in an abandoned warehouse, supplying residents with protection from the elements, private rooms, safe spaces and learning environments for children, and better food. The residents from Elpida are transitioning into apartment living as well.

While the number of displaced people from war and conflict is increasing, the international relief response to them should not remain in crisis mode. For those who flee danger, the places they go to should not also be dangerous for them. People deserve places that support their dignity and autonomy, not ones that make them feel like animals. People deserve the choice in where they live, even if they are fleeing their normal homes. Where they live matters. As organizations in northern Greece show, there are sustainable, healthy and safe ways to assist those who are in need of places to live.

– Caitlin Scarpelli


If you would like to learn more about or support organizations mentioned in this article, please see the following links:

Together for Better Days: https://www.facebook.com/betterdays.ngo/

Omnes: https://www.facebook.com/omneskilkis/


Other organizations:

Psychosocial support: Médicins du Monde: http://www.medecinsdumonde.org/fr

Medical assistance: Kitrinos: https://www.facebook.com/Teamkitrinos/

Legal assistance: Advocates Abroad: https://advocatesabroad.org/

Back to School? Here's What You Shouldn't Forget

Photo by  Scott Webb  on  Unsplash

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Post By: Molly Esselstrom, Upstream Research Marketing Manager

Back to school means many things to parents and their children. It’s the anticipation of a new year, grade, or look. The leaves changing from green to hues of yellow and red. And a never-ending checklist of things to do before the academic calendar begins once more. However, part of the checklist that often gets ignored is health. Below are four things parents should move to the top of their list this back to school season:

1) Check Air Quality: Clean air is constantly on environmental agendas on the local and international levels. A child’s symptoms are perhaps the first indication of poor air quality, including headaches, eye/nose/throat irritation or soreness, and congestion. While these are not hard and fast rules to poor air quality, when combined with widespread symptoms and sudden onset in a community, it may be time to speak with a doctor and contact your child’s school district.

2) Check Water Quality: In recent national newswater pollution has been a scare for parents sending their children to school. Besides contacting the school district to check water toxicity levels, parents can monitor their own water if it becomes discolored (rusty, green, blue), has a metallic taste, or low water pressure is combined with prolonged discoloration.

3) Asthma Risk: While often related to poor air quality, asthma deserves a bullet point of its own. Upwards of 25 million people in the US have asthma with rates often more prevalent in children than adults. Seeking an allergist to aid in the treatment of asthma will help children once again be physically active and healthy.

4) Lead Paint: Yes, even the paint in your house or child’s school should be on your checklist. Lead-based paint is a toxic metal that can pose a serious threat in and around houses, especially to young children. While many houses built before 1978 often used lead-based paint, the best way to be sure your house is free of this materials is to hire an inspector to do a risk-assessment.

For a complete environmental Report on any address, as well as Action Steps, click the button below: 


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Lead in the Right Direction

The following is the second in our Guest Blog series from a Rhode Island mother of three who is concerned about the environmental health of her area. 

As hard as it was to watch the MisLEAD: America's Secret Epidemic documentary, it is what everyone should see; especially every mother. This documentary is the embodiment of raw truth and was hard for me to watch because of how much I could relate it to my own experience with lead exposure. 

In the film, Tamara (the filmmaker and star), talks about the affects lead has had on her family and how preventable it can/should be. It broke my heart to see her son who was poisoned at a young age talk on film about the struggles he faces as a result of the poisoning. How preventable his struggles have been! 

Then my sadness turned into rage because of the lack of knowledge mothers – and everyone else – have about lead. The smallest amount of lead causes permanent brain damage. Yes! Brain damage, like going head first through a windshield. This example from the film stood out to me. I'll reiterate: lead is so toxic that the damages of its poison are compared to going headfirst through a car windshield.

Why isn't this breaking news? 

Why aren't companies practicing lead-safe procedures? Why are some products (consumer products that often include children's toys) still being made with lead as an ingredient? Why isn't lead testing more important, more urgent? And more importantly why are the dangers of lead not expressed to mothers as a part of "baby-proofing" your home?

When I was pregnant, lead in my home was never brought up. Yes, I had several lab tests done because of the nature of being pregnant but I my opinion I should have been educated on this subject. Along with lactating or child birth classes, mothers (and all parents!) should be offered a class that teaches us how to lead-proof our homes, test our homes, buy lead-free products, etc. And, if our home tests positive, we should be taught ways to make the environment safe for the newborn. 

In reality before this film, before I even heard about Upstream Reports, I wasn't worried about lead. The reason? I wasn't educated. I thought "well my kids aren't eating paint chips, licking the walls, or chewing on window sills" so I was golden. The truth to the matter is, you don't know if you're exposed until you test. Now I've learned that playgrounds could be contaminated, advertised lead-free products use the legal level (which is still unsafe), and daycares could be exposing my child.

After watching this film I was more aware, more educated, and more cautious. I ask the right questions at daycare, observe the inside and outside when my kids play to see if it's safe, I'm more cautious when buying that cutely painted toy at the dollar store, and I test my home. I have tested my home and it has came back with lead positive in the old kitchen sink and the kitchen wall. I knew to test and I took proactive action and covered the wall and use a bucket in sink. I plan on epoxying the sink soon as well. Without this knowledge I wouldn't have known! 

Mothers when this film comes out, watch it please. Be proactive and protect your children from the hidden dangers of lead!

Post by Lauren M. 

Watch the trailer below: 



If you are a parent of young children and have stories about lead or other environmental risk, please email your stories to messelstrom@upstreamresearch.com 

The Mom Test

The following is the first in our Guest Blog series from a Rhode Island mother of three who is concerned about the environmental health of her area. 

Over these past months I have learned about lead. What it is, where to find it, and how toxic it truly is! The fact that I didn't know anything about it before is a travesty. I wonder why it isn't talked about more, why it seems like hidden information. The truth is that, yes, it's 2017 but water still has lead in it, most housing in my city still contains lead in the walls, and products that we buy still use it as an ingredient. Lead is in way more places than we think. 

As most moms have, I have heard these phrases repeatedly: "Don't let your kids chew on windowsills," or " Don't let them lick the walls!" But what the phrases should be are: "Test your water," or "Test the walls for lead exposure!" Why aren't mothers being told this? 

Lead exposure is a serious deal and being a mother of three children the severity is tripled. I have tested my water and I was curious about the walls due to the fact that my apartment was built in the 1920s. 

Last Monday I took it upon my proactive motherly-self to test the walls just to feed my suspicions. After dropping my kiddos off at daycare I drove right to Walmart hoping to find the test swabs to test the paint. Surprisingly, they told me that they did not have them in-store, only online. This news was mind-blowing to me! These swabs should be accessible in every shopping market. So, then I drove to Lowes and, thankfully, they had the swabs. The swabs were $10 for two Q-tip sized swabs. $10! Again I was shocked at the price. For me to test every wall in my apartment I would have to buy more than 10 swabs, totaling $100. Being a single mom $100 is food for the week, clothes for the summer, or gas to bring my kids to daycare. So, I bought a pack of two and swabbed the wall that was most suspicious and, instantly, the swabs was pink – a clear indication of lead. 

How the test works:

Open the swabs up and take them out. The packaging says to crush the back and the front where A and B are printed. After crushing these places you shake the swab and squeeze A as you rub the surface of choice (in my case, the wall pictured below). If lead is present in the surface, the swab will turn a bright pink color and if none is present it will stay orange – the liquid in the test reacting with lead immediately. 

After rubbing the wall and getting a positive read I felt instantly anxious, worried, and helpless. I started planning my move out of my apartment (unrealistic, but a normal holy-shit reaction). If this wall has lead, have my kids been exposed? Should I call for them to be tested for lead poisoning? What do I do now? These questions bombarded my brain and I was worried about my children. After the shock subsided a feeling of strength overwhelmed me. I had to do something. These are my babies and I had to protect them! 

Being proactive is key. The best option for me was to cover the wall, conceal the toxic lead underneath and, soon after, cover it further with wall paper. 

I had a will, so I made a way! 

Post by Lauren M. 



If you are a parent of young children and have stories about lead or other environmental risk, please email your stories to messelstrom@upstreamresearch.com