Sustained Outrage

C8 update: About that new WVU study …

The Parkersburg-area media had an interesting take on last week’s new WVU study about the potential impacts of the toxic chemical C8 on the early onset of menopause among women.

The first paragraph of the story summarized the WVU study, but the article didn’t get to any further details about what the scientists studied or reported until much later in the piece. Instead, the next few paragraphs were simply quotes from a prepared statement issued by DuPont:

“This paper does not actually report an association between early menopause and exposure to PFOA. The authors do not present any data in this study that would suggest any associations at all between PFOA and endocrine disrupting effects. The study does not demonstrate a statistical correlation between PFOA exposure and the onset of menopause in women between 18 and 42 years of age. If early onset of menopause were to occur, it would be observed in this age group. The authors neither present data nor make such a claim in the paper,” said Robin Ollis Stemple, external affairs, Washington Works spokesperson for DuPont.

“The authors state that additional caveats include the fact that information about menopause comes from survey data and was not independently confirmed, nor was it possible to establish the exact age of menopause. Further, the authors reported no association between PFOA exposure and levels of estradiol in any age group,” said Janet E. Smith, Global public affairs leader, DuPont Chemicals and Fluoroproducts, DuPont spokesperson.

Huh?

The Gazette was the first media outlet to report the findings of this study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & MetabolismIn our story, we explained the findings this way:

Women exposed to higher levels of the toxic chemical C8 were more likely to have experienced menopause, according to a new West Virginia University study that offers some of the strongest evidence to date that such chemicals disrupt the human body’s natural hormone system.

The study found an association between chemicals called perfluorocarbons, or PFCs, in women’s blood and the onset of menopause. It also found that higher levels of the chemicals appeared related to lower levels of estrogen.

A story by ABC News explained it in a similar way:

Chemicals found in everyday products such as non-stick pans, clothing, furniture, carpets and paints have been associated with the early onset of menopause, according to a new study from the West Virginia University School of Medicine.

But that Parkersburg paper’s report got me wondering if maybe I misunderstood something here, especially the part where a DuPont publicist said:

This paper does not actually report an association between early menopause and exposure to PFOA.

So I circled back to Sarah Knox, the WVU researcher who was the study’s lead author, and asked about the DuPont comments … Dr. Knox told me:

The study found that women with higher levels of two PFCs, perfluourooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perflourooctane sulfonate (PFOS) were more likely to have experienced an early menopause.

The conclusion was that the two PFC are associated with this outcome. In addition, one of the PFCs (PFOS) was also associated with lower estradiol (an estrogen level).

Of course, no one study proves something this complicated, and as Dr. Knox pointed out:

These results add to and are consistent with other animal and human studies suggesting endocrine disruption. However we were clear in the published paper and in intereviews that this single study was short of proof that PFOA and PFOS are the cause of the earlier menopause.

Time for a fresh batch of stories that we appreciated this week:

After a 10-month investigation of the New Orleans Police Department, federal authorities released a report last week that detailed what the New York Times called “a department that is severely dysfunctional on every level: one that regularly uses excessive force on civilians, frequently fails to investigate serious crimes and has a deeply inadequate, in many cases nonexistent, system of accountability.” And this does not include a series of shootings by officers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which the investigators avoided as they are the subject of federal criminal probes.

As authorities in Japan struggle to reduce the radiation coming from nuclear plants damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, a “legion of grunts” is shouldering much of the burden, the Wall Street Journal reported. Many plant workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex have been performing manual labor that exposes them to radiation while working for their regular wages. The companies say they haven’t considered higher pay or extending extra health benefits for these workers because they are too busy dealing with the crisis, according to the article.

U.S. Army Spc. Jeremy Morlock pleaded guilty Wednesday to murdering three unarmed Afghan villagers while serving as a member of the 5th Brigade (Stryker), 2nd Infantry Division, which is based in Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Seattle Times reported. As part of his plea deal, Morlock is expected to testify against four other members of his platoon alleged to have been involved in the killings, which were then staged to look like legitimate combat fatalities. Murlock — who also admitted that he conspired to commit the murders, regularly used drugs and assaulted another soldier who threatened to expose his drug use — said he lost his moral compass, and admitted that there was a concerted plan to kill people during his unit’s tour in southern Afghanistan, which lasted from the summer of 2009 to the summer of 2010.

Time for another round of reporting we admired this week:

After a decade of widespread abuse throughout Appalachia, the negative effects of addiction to “hillbilly heroin,” as opioid narcotic painkillers have been called, are being felt in a wider and wider area, McClatchy Newspapers reported. Part of the problem, as the Gazette’s Alison Knezevich has previously chronicled, is that drug traffickers have created an “OxyExpress,” transporting pills prescriptions issued and filled in Florida to other states to feed the growing demand. Congressmen from Kentucky and Florida are pushing for legislation that will impose harsher penalties on those who run “pill mills.”

A federal judge has ruled that the University of Illinois must release information to the Chicago Tribune about hundreds of applicants who appeared to get preferential treatment because of their political connections, the paper reported. The Tribune used hundreds of pages of information that the university had disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information Act request to produce its 2009 “Clout Goes to College” investigation. But the school refused to release applicants’ names, grades or ACT scores, as well as the names of (possibly influential) parents. The university wrongly applied the 1974 federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act to the state FOIA law, the judge concluded. FERPA “does not specifically prohibit Illinois from doing anything, so the university may not use the federal law as authority to withhold the records,” U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall wrote in her opinion.

Sports as the ticket out of poverty is a powerful myth that sometimes becomes reality, but what happens when the successful athlete returns home? The Boston Globe took a deeper look at an incident in South Apopka, Fla., that happened when New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather hosted a charity event in his hometown last month. Details are still vague, but two men with Meriweather were shot in the head when gunfire broke out during a fight at an early morning after-party.

If it’s Thursday, then it’s time for another round of stories that we appreciated this week.

For years, the pharmaceutical industry has cited extensive research costs to justify its, er, healthy profit margin of 25 to 50 percent of revenues, Slate.com reported. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Health Economics put the cost of developing a new drug at $1 billion (in 2011 dollars), but a new study published in BioSocieties — which attempted to correct for flaws in the earlier study’s methodology, such as not accounting for government funding, tax breaks, and including returns on investments not made because capital was tied up in research — puts the cost per drug at around $55 million (with an “m”).

In part because of recent developments in Wisconsin, public employees’ pension plans have come under heightened scrutiny. But those who claim that such “unfunded mandates” will explode states’ budgets may be overstating the issue, according to this article by McClatchy Newspapers’ Kevin G. Hall. “A close look at state and local pension plans across the nation, and a comparison of them to those in the private sector, reveals a more complicated story. However, the short answer is that there’s simply no evidence that state pensions are the current burden to public finances that their critics claim,” Hall wrote.

Was the computer virus Stuxnet the opening salvo in a new cyber war? In a fascinating look at how the computer security world pieced together information about the elusive virus, which some believe was designed to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program, Vanity Fair examined the cloak-and-dagger speculation that has followed in the virus’ wake. Stuxnet is the Hiroshima of cyber war, the piece concludes, a watershed moment: “Cyber-conflict makes military action more like a never-ending game of uncle, where the fingers of weaker nations are perpetually bent back. The wars would often be secret, waged by members of anonymous, elite brain trusts, none of whom would ever have to look an enemy in the eye.”

Here’s another look at stories we particularly admired this week.

In November 2010, 2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly, a Marine platoon leader in Afghanistan, stepped on a land mine and was killed. Kelly’s death — one of 1,461 American soldiers who have lost their lives during Operation Enduring Freedom so far — made his father, Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, the highest ranking American officer to have lost a son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan, as this devastating account in the Washington Post noted. Four days after his son’s death, Lt. Gen. Kelly delivered a powerful speech in St. Louis, in which he worried that the American public had largely forgotten the war in Afghanistan and the ongoing dangers faced by servicemen and women, and the immense sacrifices made by a relatively small number of families. Robert Kelly, who was promoted posthumously to 1st Lt., enlisted in 2003, and served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where he participated in the fierce urban fighting in Fallujah in 2004.

The city of Portland recently settled lawsuits filed by two men who were tasered by members of the Portland Police Bureau after they had surrendered for more than $138,000, the Oregonian reported. “In each incident, the men were on their knees with their hands locked behind, or on their heads when they were tased,” the article noted. Although officers involved in both incidents later admitted that they had violated the department’s policy regarding the use of tasers, none of the officers were disciplined.

A police department memo in Bell, Ca., the city whose top officials have been accused of looting the public coffers by paying themselves outrageous salaries, indicates that officers may have played a kind of baseball, where minor infractions counted as singles and a “felony arrest on an observation” was a home run, the Los Angeles Times reported. Bell residents have complained that the city was wrongly towing cars then charging exorbitant impounding fees to boost revenues, according to the article. “City records show Bell levied nearly $1 million in impound fees in fiscal year 2008-09 alone. Bell charged $300 for unlicensed motorists to retrieve their cars, triple what Los Angeles County and neighboring cities charge,” wrote Reuben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb, whose Bell coverage recently earned the paper a prestigious Polk award.

This Sunday’s New York Times had a major story on the oil- and gas-drilling boom that concluded:

While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.

The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.

The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.

But the E.P.A. has not intervened. In fact, federal and state regulators are allowing most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity. And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008.

In other words, there is no way of guaranteeing that the drinking water taken in by all these plants is safe.

Here’s another look at stories we’re reading this week:

The presentation of “scientific facts,” or forensic analysis, is coming under heightened scrutiny in courtrooms across America, Newsweek reported. A number of “elite crime labs” have faced scandals involving mishandled evidence or overstated forensic testimony, including the FBI’s conclusions during the investigation of anthrax sent via mailings in 2001. (West Virginia faced its own scandal when State Police trooper and serologist Fred Zain exaggerated and falsified test results in numerous cases in the 1990s.) “Part of the problem is what social scientists call ‘context bias,'” Beth Schwartzapfel wrote. “Most forensics labs are located within police departments, so analysts may see themselves as working ‘for’ the prosecution.” Also, many of the scientific standards cited are highly subjective, rather than scientifically valid and reliable.

As scientists struggle to determine the effects of the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a lack of an overarching plan may be causing a “fog of research” akin to the fog of war described by soldiers who struggle to get a comprehensive understanding of a battlefield, according to this piece by NPR. But unlike in the military, where there are generals, there is no command structure for the work being done in the Gulf, so scientists may not identify gaps in their research until it’s too late. Additionally, much of the work is hidden from public scrutiny by the Oil Pollution Act, making it difficult for the work to be peer-reviewed in the larger scientific community.

The U.S. Department of Justice has invoked national security to keep details of its dealings with a computer programmer who claimed his software could identify coded messages in Al Jazeera broadcasts, the New York Times reported. Dennis Montgomery also claimed that his programs could identify terrorists using footage from Predator drones and single out the sounds of enemy submarines, but some maintain that he was simply a con man who hoodwinked the government, which is now hiding its embarrassment behind classified information. Montgomery’s assertion that he had found information about international flights hidden in the crawl at the bottom of Al Jazeera broadcasts led to the grounding of flights from England and France, but the intelligence was never verified, and a secret French report concluded that the technology was bogus.

Time for our weekly look at stories that we read with interest this week:

Officials in Clark County, Nev., are considering asking for reimbursement from the retirement plan for firefighters who pre-planned their sick days so that their colleagues could maximize their overtime hours, the Las Vegas Sun reported. The county has e-mails and “sick rosters,” and has changed its sick-leave policy, but proving that firefighters were not actually sick on days they had pre-arranged could prove to be difficult, Assistant County Manager Ed Finger told county commissioners.

Inmates scammed $39 million in bogus refunds from the Internal Revenue Service in 2009, according to USA Today. Typically, cons use Social Security numbers and other identifying information of fellow inmates to file false returns, sometimes resulting in refunds worth thousands of dollars. One prisoner in Florida generated more than $58,000 in refunds by filing at least 14 returns, using family members’ addresses to collect the refunds. He was caught in part because a bank official spotted an upside-down stamp on a power-of-attorney document used by his daughter.

In a rare glimpse into the mysterious workings of the U.S. Secret Service, The Atlantic Monthly examined the behind-the-scenes efforts to protect visiting diplomats — including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — during the 2009 United Nations General Assembly in New York City. The piece also describes little-known assassination attempts against President Bill Clinton in Manila in 1996 with explosives under a bridge and President George W. Bush in Tbilisi in 2005 when someone threw a live grenade at him.

Once again, we present stories that captured our interest this week.

One in five soldiers who served in the Iraq War indicate that they have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression, and that jumps to to almost 30 percent for those who have served more than one tour of duty, New York Magazine reported in a poignant story about the toll that soldiers are paying. Pharmaceutical prescriptions to service members have skyrocketed, and drug and alcohol abuse and criminal activity by active-duty soldiers have increased. Three years ago, the rate of suicide in the Army overtook the rate in the general population, reversing the historical trend.

The Afghan government is drafting new rules that may require women to appear before an eight-member panel to justify their need for services at women’s shelters, according to The New York Times. Possible consequences of failing to qualify include jail or being sent home, where they could face beatings, and women may be forced to submit to virginity tests. “The new rules speak to the suspicions that women’s shelters still generate in this deeply conservative society, where the shelters have come to symbolize the competition between modern values and traditional Afghan ways,” the article notes.

In fascinating medical whodunnit, the Newark Star-Ledger looked at doctors’ and scientists’ race to find the proper antidote for thallium, a rare lethal drug. When the head of New Jersey Poison Control received a call from doctor asking for help treating a case of thallium, he replied, “It’s either attempted suicide or homicide.” The patient died before authorities could track down the antidote, “Prussian Blue,” and his wife has been charged with murder.

New report details drilling damage to Fernow forest

Foliar injury of trees damaged by aerial release of drilling fluids on May 29, 2008, from the B800 well. Pit containing drilling fl uids is shown in the foreground. Photo taken June 11, 2008. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

We’ve written before about the problems at the Fernow Experimental Forest related to a drilling gas drilling operation conducted there by Berry Energy (See previous posts here, here and here).

Now, a new report by U.S. Forest scientists details the damage that was done.  ProPublica’s Nicholas Kusnetz first reported on the findings on Friday:

The report traces the construction and drilling of a single well and an accompanying pipeline on a sliver of the 4,700 acre forest that federal scientists have been studying for nearly 80 years. It found that the project felled or killed about 1,000 trees, damaged roads, eroded the land and—perhaps most important—permanently removed a small slice of the forest from future scientific research.

The report said the drilling didn’t appear to have a substantial effect on groundwater quality. The scientists did not monitor the forest’s most sensitive ecosystems, including extensive caves, and did not evaluate the operation’s impact on wildlife. The authors also did not test for any of the chemicals added to drilling and hydraulic fracturing fluids.

The report, and the well in question, hints at a larger story of the tensions that have emerged as drilling expands across federal lands in the eastern United States. The B800 well, as it’s called, drew controversy [2] within the Forest Service when it was planned and approved in 2007. In a letter [3] obtained by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, three Forest Service scientists criticized the decision to approve the well, saying it threatened endangered bats and the interconnected caves where they live. The scientists also said the well threatened the long-term research performed in the forest. The employees requested a legal opinion on the matter, but were reportedly rebuffed by their superiors.

The report, whose authors include the three scientists who criticized the decision, notes that some of the scientists’ worst fears, including that turbid water would fill the area’s caves, did not occur. Instead, the greatest impacts of drilling were unexpected. A planned release of wastewater killed scores of trees, and drilling trucks proved much more damaging to the roads than normal logging traffic.