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There are fewer male babies being born.

There are fewer male babies being born.

Contrary to cultural assumptions that boys are stronger and sturdier, basic biological weaknesses are built into the male of our species.

These frailties leave them more vulnerable than girls to life’s hazards, including environmental pollutants such as insecticides, lead and plasticizers that target their brains or hormones.

Several studies suggest that boys are harmed in some ways by these chemical exposures that girls are not.

First of all, human males are disappearing. Mother Nature has always acknowledged and compensated for the fragility and loss of boys by arranging for more of them: 106 male births to 100 female newborns over the course of human history. (Humans are not unique in this setup: Male piglets, as an example, are conceived in greater proportion to compensate for being more likely than female piglets to die before birth.)

But in recent decades, from the United States to Japan, from Canada to northern Europe, wherever researchers have looked, the rate of male newborns has declined. Examining U. S. records of births for the years between 1970 and 1990, they found 1.7 fewer boys per 1,000 than in decades and centuries past; Japan’s loss in the same decades was 3.7 boys.

Boys are also more than two-thirds more likely than girls to be born prematurely – before the 37th week of pregnancy. And, despite advances in public health, boys in the 1970s faced a 30 percent higher chance of death by their first birthday than girls; in contrast, back in the 1750s, they were 10 per cent more likely than girls to die so early in their lives.

The nine-month transformation from a few cells to an infant is a time of great vulnerability. Many chronic illnesses are seeded in the womb.

Once they make it to childhood, boys face other challenges. They are more prone to a range of neurological disorders. Autism is notoriously higher among boys than girls: now nearly five times more likely, as tallied by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They are more susceptible than girls to damage from very low-level exposure to lead. Yet another problem: Boys also suffer from asthma at  higher rates. There’s also a stronger link between air pollution and autism in boys.

Why do boys face such a burden of physical challenges?

The answer is that the male’s problems start in the womb: from his more complicated fetal development, to his genetic makeup, to how his hormones work.

In our species, the female is the default gender, the basic simpler model: Humans start out in the womb with female features (that’s why males have nipples). It takes a greater number of cell divisions to make a male; with each comes the greater risk of an error as well as the greater vulnerability to a hit from pollutants.

Females have a stronger immune system because they are packed with estrogen, a hormone that counteracts the antioxidant process.

If the balance of hormones is out of whack in males, what made that happen? Researchers are coming up with some clues, among them:

  • Prenatal exposure to chemicals such as insecticide chlorpyrifos
  • Pregnant mothers’ exposure to phthalates – used in making some vinyl products and toys as well as some personal care products
  • Exposure to bisphenol A, an estrogenic substance used to make polycarbonate plastics as well as some thermal receipts and the linings of food and beverage cans

Some of these chemicals act like fake estrogens, others like fake testosterone, but both types seem to disrupt normal development. Animal tests show that a dose of these chemicals inflict the most damage when it hits a fetus. And, because of their biological vulnerabilities, it’s boys who may experience the most effects.

While not forgoing the push for fairness and equality, it seems wise to accept the scientific reality of male weaknesses. This likely won’t mean the end of men, but their vulnerability to environmental contaminants and diseases could have serious ramifications for the future of the entire human race unless we find ways to protect them from harm.

Alice Shabecoff is the coauthor with her husband, Philip Shabecoff, of Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, Random House 2008, Chelsea Green, 2010.

Source: Environmental Health News

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Mold produces certain odors and VOCs that may affect health and well-being.

Mold produces certain odors and VOCs that may affect health and well-being.

As a specialist in mold toxins, Joan Bennett didn’t believe in sick building syndrome.

Then Hurricane Katrina struck, Bennett’s home was flooded, and she evacuated.

A month later, she returned to the house to sample her home for mold. Her house smelled horrendous and even with protective gear, she felt awful – dizziness, headache, malaise. She walked outside and felt better.

Then it struck her: “I think there’s something in this terrible mold I’m smelling.

But she still believed in her old arguments against the theory. She knew how much mold toxin we ordinarily get exposed to from mold in food, and she still knew that it was far greater than any we could breathe from spores in the air.

But the smell of mold was another matter. Most things we can smell are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and some VOCs are known to make people sick.

“I knew that a minor theory was that sick building syndrome might be caused by the VOCs that make fungi smell moldy,” Bennett says.

And then she thought, “Ta da! Maybe there is such a thing as sick building syndrome, and maybe it has nothing to do with the fungus toxins I’ve been studying all my life!”

That moment transformed her research career.

The Sniff Test

She focused on a VOC called “mushroom alcohol” that is the primary component of the typical smell of mold. It’s formed especially when molds eat linoleic acid, which occurs both in many biological cells and in building products like oil-based paint.

When fruit flies breathed in the mushroom alcohol, she found that they started moving strangely. They trembled, moved slowly, fell over, lacked coordination. They looked like insectile Parkinson’s patients.

Bennett knew that Parkinson’s could be caused by exposure to chemicals like pesticides. So could mushroom alcohol be doing the same thing? Could these fruit flies in fact have their own version of Parkinson’s?

To find out, Bennett and her collaborators gave the stricken flies L-dopa, a medication that reverses the effects of Parkinson’s in humans. And indeed, the flies moved more naturally, indicating that the mushroom alcohol was operating on a similar pathway.

It’s a long way from a fruit fly to a human, so Bennett and her team tested human cell lines as well. A human cell in a test tube can’t tremor with Parkinson’s disease, of course, but Bennett found that the mushroom alcohol was toxic to the cells, killing some of them off. She published her findings recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Thus, Bennett says, VOCs from mold may be an important contributor to Parkinson’s disease. It would explain a long-standing mystery:

Every known toxin that causes Parkinson’s is man-made and relatively recent, but Parkinson’s has existed for thousands of years. Bennett says that a variety of natural neurotoxins – mushroom alcohol as well as other VOCs – may lead to the disease.

Elliott Horner, an indoor air quality researcher at Atlanta-based company UL, says that he wasn’t surprised that a fungal VOC affects the physiological functioning of animals.

Moldy buildings, he says, have long been suspected to make people sick through VOCs as well as through mycotoxins, small particulates, and allergens. But he says that it’s a “huge step forward” to have an animal model that will allow researchers to study the impacts of these VOCs.

Source: Discover Magazine
This article has been edited for length.

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Airborne particles from wildfire smoke can cause health problems.

Airborne particles from wildfire smoke can cause health problems.

As the American West, parched by prolonged drought, braces for a season of potentially record-breaking wildfires, new research suggests these events not only pose an immediate threat to people’s safety and their homes, but also could take a toll on human health, agriculture and ecosystems.

The study, appearing in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology, could help societies map out a plan to mitigate these effects in wildfire-prone regions.

Matthew D. Hurteau and colleagues point out that wildfires naturally occur in many areas around the globe.

In response, human societies have harnessed the power of fire to better control wild blazes and minimize damage. But climate change also can impact the number and severity of wildfires.

Understanding how these factors influence each other is crucial so that people can better prepare for the future and perhaps lessen the effects of the blazes.

Previous studies have estimated the effect of climate change and population growth on wildfire patterns and the risk of damage to buildings and homes in California. Hurteau’s team wanted to expand on those findings and investigate six possible future climate scenarios.

Using several different models, they estimated that by 2100, emissions from wildfires in California will grow by 19 to 101 percent. They found that climate, not population growth or development, will likely be the driving force behind these increases.

However, a rise in wildfires still will mean significant societal challenges, such as higher pollution levels, which can affect human health and aggravate respiratory conditions. Poor air quality also can lower crop yield, and forest health could suffer.

Source: American Chemical Society via AAAS

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Living close to a chemical company may be a health hazard, residents charge.

Living close to a chemical company may be a health hazard, residents charge.

The neat, modest homes of Cannon’s Campground and Bellview Acres conceal tales of sickness and death.

Carcinoma, leukemia, kidney tumors — dozens of homes have a story, and very few have happy endings.

After decades of suspecting the nearby Hoechst Celanese polyester manufacturing site and its various occupants of spewing toxic chemicals into the environment, the community filed a class action lawsuit in federal district court.

The lawsuit alleges known carcinogens used at the plant have leached into ground and surface water that flows through the communities, resulting in dozens of cancer cases.

The suit seeks an injunction of all pollution-causing activities on the site as well as an order to identify and treat existing contamination and to prevent any further migration beneath private property.

The plaintiffs also seek a health monitoring program for community members to be administered by the court and paid for by the defendants. They are seeking reimbursement for lost property values and civil penalties.

In an emailed statement, Celanese spokesman Travis Jacobsen said there is no connection between contaminated groundwater at the site and the groundwater in the communities because the areas are separated by streams acting as discharge boundaries.

“Simply put, the environmental conditions at the Spartanburg plant site have not caused adverse health effects or a loss of property values in the nearby residences,” Jacobsen wrote.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studied cancer data after residents suggested a pollution link, but in a 2011 report said a cancer cluster did not exist.

The study examined the entire ZIP code the plant is located in and not the specific area near the plant where chemicals could have migrated, critics say.

The primary plaintiff is Jay Easler, but the suit was filed on behalf of all residents living in a two-mile radius of the site at the intersection of Interstate 85 and the Pacolet River. Easler owns property abutting a stream known to locals as “polluted creek.”

At a community meeting in 2011, a Celanese spokesman said Hoechst Celanese was never cited for pollution and always adhered to existing environmental controls.

DHEC’s website states many current regulations were not in place when the plant began operations in 1966. Soil and groundwater contaminants were discovered in 1990 and mitigation efforts began in 1996.

A series of wells were installed along the border of the property to pump groundwater to the surface for treatment. Several years later, when evidence of contamination remained, solutions were pumped into the ground in an attempt to dissolve or disperse the chemicals.

Despite mitigation efforts, DHEC documents cited in the lawsuit reveal rising toxicity in the contaminated soil and groundwater beneath the site and an expanding plume of contaminants reaching off the site. In 2011, the first-ever DHEC testing of private wells confirmed contaminants found at the site were also in the drinking water supply.

The chemicals were found only in trace amounts in the wells, but many people could have been exposed over prolonged periods of time. Many residents no longer use well water and have switched to the city water.

This article has been edited for length.

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