Category Archives: public health

The Nightmare: Sabotaging 20 Million Nuclear Shipments

Nuclear and other radioactive material is hardest to protect when it is transported from point A to point B — more than half of the incidents of theft of radioactive material reported to the IAEA between 1993 and 2019 occurred while it was in transport.

Around 20 million shipments of nuclear and other radioactive material are regularly transported within countries and across borders each year. These materials are used in industry, agriculture and medicine, as well as in education. Some of them are also radioactive sources that are no longer useful, known as disused sources.

The aim of nuclear security during transport is to ensure that the material is secured throughout and that it is not used for criminal or malicious purposes. While the level of security differs depending on the sensitivity of the material, the fundamental elements of secure transport include physical protection, administrative measures, training and protection of information about the transport routes and schedule. In some cases, escort personnel may also need to be armed

“During conversion of our research reactor from high enriched to low enriched uranium fuel, we had to transport highly radioactive spent reactor fuel from the site to the airport to be sent back to the original manufacturer, and we had to transport the new low enriched uranium fuel from the airport to the facility,” said Yusuf A. Ahmed, Director of the Centre for Energy Research and Training in Nigeria, who was involved in the conversion project. “Although the transport time is only a few hours, there is a lot that can happen during that time, from simple traffic accidents to malicious interventions and sabotage of shipments.”

While only around 30 countries use nuclear power and therefore have significant amounts of nuclear materials to transport, almost all countries use radioactive sources.

Excerpts from Inna Pletukhin, A Moving Target: Nuclear Security During Transport, IAEA Bulletin, Jan. 24, 2020

Left to their Own Bad Devices: the Future of Ogoni Land in Nigeria

The decades-overdue clean-up of Ogoniland, after years of oil spills from the pipelines that criss-cross the region, is finally under way. But the billion-dollar project — funded by Nigeria’s national oil company and Royal Dutch Shell — is mired in allegations of corruption and mismanagement.  “We are not pleased with what is going on,” said Mike Karikpo, an attorney with Friends of the Earth International and a member of the Ogoniland team that negotiated the creation of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (Hyprep), the government body running the clean-up… 

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer, pumping out about 1.8m barrels per day. It provides roughly 90 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange and more than half of government revenues.  The clean-up began only the summer 2019, about a year after the first of an expected five tranches of $180m in funding was released to Hyprep. Mr Karikpo complains of a lack of transparency, alleging that planning, budgeting and awarding of contracts took place behind closed doors. Work started at the height of the rainy season, washing away much of the progress as contaminated soil collected for treatment was swept back into the environment…

Ogoniland, like the broader Niger Delta, has become more polluted and development has stalled, with little to show for the billions of dollars in crude that has been extracted. Critics have now accused Hyprep of being, like much of Nigeria’s oil sector, a vehicle for political patronage and graft. This year 16 companies were awarded contracts for the first phase of the clean-up, which — to the consternation of critics — focuses on the least contaminated parts of Ogoniland.

An investigation by the news site Premium Times found that almost all the companies were set up for other purposes, including poultry farming, car sales and construction, and had no experience of tackling oil pollution.  Meanwhile, insiders have questioned Hyprep’s capacity to handle such a massive project…

Shell and Hyprep have rejected the criticism.  Shell, which closed its Ogoniland operations in 1993, said it accepted responsibility “for spills arising from its operations”, but that some of the blame for the pollution must go to thieves who illegally tapped into pipelines and makeshift refining operations in the Delta’s creeks

Excerpts from Craft and Mismanagement Taint Nigeria’s Oil CleanUp, Financial Times, Dec. 29, 2019

540 Katrina Oil Spills Equal an Exxon Valdez Disaster

The federal agency overseeing oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico after hurricane Katrina reported that more than 400 pipelines and 100 drilling platforms were damaged. The U.S. Coast Guard, the first responder for oil spills, received 540 separate reports of spills into Louisiana waters. Officials estimated that, taken together, those leaks released the same amount of oil that the highly publicized 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound — about 10.8 million gallons…

While hurricanes gain speed due to the effects of climate change, the push for oil leasing in the Gulf of Mexico shows no sign of slowing down. In 2014, the Obama administration opened up 40 million new acres in the Gulf for oil and gas development. Four years later, the Trump administration announced plans to open up most of the rest, in what would be the largest expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. history. Many of these 76 million acres are to be offered at reduced royalty rates to encourage additional near-shore drilling in Louisiana waters…

“In the Gulf, storms are predicted to be less frequent but more intense when they do come,” said Sunshine Van Bael, an ecologist at Tulane University who evaluated damage to marsh ecosystems from the BP oil spill. “One thing that storms do is, if oil has been buried underneath the marsh because it wasn’t rehabilitated, a storm could come along and whip that back up to the surface. So, the aftereffects of the oil spills might be greater [with climate change] since the storms are predicted to be more intense.”…

In 2009, a class-action lawsuit against Murphy Oil Corp. ended in a settlement requiring the company to pay $330 million to 6,200 claimants, including owners of about 1,800 homes in St. Bernard Parish. The damage occurred when one of Murphy’s storage tanks floated off its foundation during Katrina and dumped over a million gallons of crude oil into a square-mile segment of Meraux and Chalmette….

To date, more than $19 million has been paid out from the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to reimburse at least two oil companies for costs they incurred cleaning up oil they spilled during Katrina…

“We don’t normally penalize [companies] for act of God events,” Greg Langley of the Department of Environmental Quality said. “We just get right to remediation.”

Excerpts from Joan Meiners, How Oil Companies Avoided Environmental Accountability After 10.8 Million Gallons Spill, ProPublica, Dec. 27, 2019

Electronic Waste: The Death of Your Phone and the Duty to Resuscitate It

E-waste is the fastest-growing element of the world’s domestic waste stream, according to a 2017 report by the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor. Some 50m metric tonnes will be produced annually in 2020 — about 7kg for every person in the world. Just 20 per cent will be collected and recycled.  The rest is undocumented, meaning it likely ends up in landfill, incinerated, traded illegally or processed in a substandard way. That means hazardous substances spilling into the environment, poisoning the ground and people living nearby.

Heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium — commonly found in LCD screens,  refrigerators and air-conditioning units — as well as chemicals such as CFCs and flame retardants  found in plastics can contaminate soil, pollute water and enter the food chain.  Research last year by Basel Action Network, an NGO, linked toxic e-waste shipped from Europe to  contaminated chicken eggs in Agbogbloshie — a Ghanaian scrapyard where 80,000 residents subsist by retrieving metals from electrical waste. Eating just one egg from a hen foraging in the scrapyard would exceed the European Food Safety Authority’s tolerable daily intake for chlorinated dioxins 220-fold.

Some appliances are more likely to be recycled than others. The recycling rate for big appliances, such as fridges and cookers, is about 80 per cent. That is because they are harder to dispose of and eventually get picked up, even when they are dumped by the kerb. Of small appliances, however,  barely one in five makes it to the recycling centre.  Across the world, governments are trying different ways to reduce e-waste and limit the amount that ends up in landfill.

For some time, EU countries have operated a one-for-one take-back system — which means that distributors need to take back, for free, an older version of any equipment they sell you. But since the rapid rise of online retailers, this has been harder to implement

In the end, all e-waste needs to be reduced to core metals. “It’s a bit like a mining activity.” In certain recycling  plants robots have been programmed to dismantle flatscreen TVs, extracting  precious metals such as cobalt or lithium, whose deposits are limited and increasingly valuable.  “One of the hardest things about recycling is that you are not sure how [the manufacturers] made  it.”   Companies are encouraged  to include this information on their devices. It could be a  file with instructions readable by robots that could then proceed with the dismantling, making the process “easier, cheaper and more circular”. However, manufacturers have so far kept a close guard on the design of their products.

Many pressure groups and lawmakers have concluded that improving recycling rates will not be  sufficient to tackle the global e-waste problem. Increasingly, they are advocating for the right to repair. In October 2019, the EU adopted a package of design measures to make household appliances more repairable.  Starting from March 2021, manufacturers selling certain household appliances will have to ensure  that spare parts are available for a number of years after their product has launched; that their  items can be easily disassembled (and so use screws not glue); and that they provide access to  technical information to repair professionals.

The rules cover appliances including refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers and televisions.  But they do not extend to IT equipment such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones.  “The road to a new product is very easy, and the road to a successful repair very difficult,” says  Martine Postma, founder and director of Repair Café International Foundation, which celebrated  its 10th anniversary last year. Since its first repair event in Amsterdam in 2009, the organisation  has grown to nearly 2,000 repair groups in 35 countries around the world.  Now, it wants to collect more data about electronic gadgets, to see if it can plot “weak points” in  design that could help manufacturers make them more repairable.

Excerpts from Aleksandra Wisniewska, What happens to your old laptop? The growing problem of e-waste,, Jan. 10, 2020

Swept Under the Rug: Radioactive Dust and Brine in the Oil Industry

A salty substance called  “brine,” is  a naturally occurring waste product that gushes out of America’s oil-and-gas wells to the tune of nearly 1 trillion gallons a year, enough to flood Manhattan, almost shin-high, every single day. At most wells, far more brine is produced than oil or gas, as much as 10 times more. Brine collects in tanks, and workers pick it up and haul it off to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of by being shot back into the earth

The Earth’s crust is in fact peppered with radioactive elements that concentrate deep underground in oil-and-gas-bearing layers. This radioactivity is often pulled to the surface when oil and gas is extracted — carried largely in the brine…

Radium, typically the most abundant radionuclide in brine, is often measured in picocuries per liter of substance and is so dangerous it’s subject to tight restrictions even at hazardous-waste sites. The most common isotopes are radium-226 and radium-228, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires industrial discharges to remain below 60 for each. Some brine samples registered combined radium levels above 3,500, and one was more than 8,500. “It’s ridiculous that those who haul brine are not being told what’s in their trucks,” says John Stolz, Duquesne’s environmental-center director. “And this stuff is on every corner — it is in neighborhoods. Truckers don’t know they’re being exposed to radioactive waste, nor are they being provided with protective clothing.

“Breathing in this stuff and ingesting it are the worst types of exposure,” Stolz continues. “You are irradiating your tissues from the inside out.” The radioactive particles fired off by radium can be blocked by the skin, but radium readily attaches to dust, making it easy to accidentally inhale or ingest. Once inside the body, its insidious effects accumulate with each exposure. It is known as a “bone seeker” because it can be incorporated into the skeleton and cause bone cancers called sarcomas. It also decays into a series of other radioactive elements, called “daughters.” The first one for radium-226 is radon, a radioactive gas and the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. Radon has also been linked to chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Oil fields across the country — from the Bakken in North Dakota to the Permian in Texas — have been found to produce brine that is highly radioactive. “All oil-field workers,” says Fairlie, “are radiation workers.” But they don’t necessarily know it.

The advent of the fracking boom in the early 2000s expanded the danger, saddling the industry with an even larger tidal wave of waste to dispose of, and creating new exposure risks as drilling moved into people’s backyards. “In the old days, wells weren’t really close to population centers. Now, there is no separation,” says City University of New York public-health expert Elizabeth Geltman. In the eastern U.S. “we are seeing astronomically more wells going up,” she says, “and we can drill closer to populations because regulations allow it.” As of 2016, fracking accounted for more than two-thirds of all new U.S. wells, according to the Energy Information Administration. There are about 1 million active oil-and-gas wells, across 33 states, with some of the biggest growth happening in the most radioactive formation — the Marcellus. …

There is little public awareness of this enormous waste stream, the disposal of which could present dangers at every step — from being transported along America’s highways in unmarked trucks; handled by workers who are often misinformed and underprotected; leaked into waterways; and stored in dumps that are not equipped to contain the toxicity. Brine has even been used in commercial products sold at hardware stores and is spread on local roads as a de-icer

But a set of recent legal cases argues a direct connection to occupational exposure can be made… Pipe cleaners, welders, roughnecks, roustabouts, derrickmen, and truck drivers hauling dirty pipes and sludge all were exposed to radioactivity without their knowledge and suffered a litany of lethal cancers. An analysis program developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined with up to 99 percent certainty that the cancers came from exposure to radioactivity on the job, including inhaling dust and radioactivity accumulated on the workplace floor, known as “groundshine.”

“Almost all materials of interest and use to the petroleum industry contain measurable quantities of radionuclides,” states a never-publicly released 1982 report by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s principal trade group, passed to Rolling Stone by a former state regulator. Rolling Stone discovered a handful of other industry reports and articles that raised concerns about liability for workers’ health. A 1950 document from Shell Oil warned of a potential connection between radioactive substances and cancer of the “bone and bone marrow.” In a 1991 paper, scientists with Chevron said, “Issues such as risk to workers or the general public…must be addressed.”

“There is no one federal agency that specifically regulates the radioactivity brought to the surface by oil-and-gas development,” an EPA representative says. In fact, thanks to a single exemption the industry received from the EPA in 1980, the streams of waste generated at oil-and-gas wells — all of which could be radioactive and hazardous to humans — are not required to be handled as hazardous waste. In 1988, the EPA assessed the exemption — called the Bentsen and Bevill amendments, part of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — and claimed that “potential risk to human health and the environment were small,” even though the agency found concerning levels of lead, arsenic, barium, and uranium, and admitted that it did not assess many of the major potential risks. Instead, the report focused on the financial and regulatory burdens, determining that formally labeling the “billions of barrels of waste” as hazardous would “cause a severe economic impact on the industry.”…

There is a perception that because the radioactivity is naturally occurring it’s less harmful (the industry and regulators almost exclusively call oil-and-gas waste NORM — naturally occurring radioactive material, or TENORM for the “technologically enhanced” concentrations of radioactivity that accumulate in equipment like pipes and trucks.”…

In Pennsylvania, regulators revealed in 2012 that for at least six years one hauling company had been dumping brine into abandoned mine shafts. In 2014, Benedict Lupo, owner of a Youngstown, Ohio, company that hauled fracking waste, was sentenced to 28 months in prison for directing his employees to dump tens of thousands of gallons of brine into a storm drain that emptied into a creek that feeds into the Mahoning River. While large bodies of water like lakes and rivers can dilute radium, Penn State researchers have shown that in streams and creeks, radium can build up in sediment to levels that are hundreds of times more radioactive than the limit for topsoil at Superfund sites. Texas-based researcher Zac Hildenbrand has shown that brine also contains volatile organics such as the carcinogen benzene, heavy metals, and toxic levels of salt, while fracked brine contains a host of additional hazardous chemicals. “It is one of the most complex mixtures on the planet,” he says…

“There is nothing to remediate it with,” says Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemist. “The high radioactivity in the soil at some of these sites will stay forever.” Radium-226 has a half-life of 1,600 years. The level of uptake into agricultural crops grown in contaminated soil is unknown because it hasn’t been adequately studied.

“Not much research has been done on this,” says Bill Burgos, an environmental engineer at Penn State who co-authored a bombshell 2018 paper in Environmental Science & Technology that examined the health effects of applying oil-field brine to roads. Regulators defend the practice by pointing out that only brine from conventional wells is spread on roads, as opposed to fracked wells. But conventional-well brine can be every bit as radioactive, and Burgos’ paper found it contained not just radium, but cadmium, benzene, and arsenic, all known human carcinogens, along with lead, which can cause kidney and brain damage.

Brine as dust suppressant

Ohio, because of its geology, favorable regulations, and nearness to drilling hot spots in the Marcellus, has become a preferred location for injection wells. Pennsylvania has about a dozen wells; West Virginia has just over 50. Ohio has 225. About 95 percent of brine was disposed of through injection as of 2014. Government scientists have increasingly linked the practice to earthquakes, and the public has become more and more suspicious of the sites. Still, the relentless waste stream means new permits are issued all the time, and the industry is also hauling brine to treatment plants that attempt to remove the toxic and radioactive elements so the liquid can be used to frack new wells.

Excerpts from America’s Radioactive Secret, Rolling Stone Magazine, Jan. 21, 2020

The Global Experiment with Malaria Vaccine Starts in African States

Thirty years in the making, RTS,S, the malaria vaccine, also known by its brand name, Mosquirix, targets Plasmodium falciparum, the most common and most lethal of four malaria parasite species. It is an answer to a dire need. After decades of declining numbers of cases and deaths, the fight against malaria has stalled. Parasites resistant to the most widely used treatment, called artemisinin-based combination therapy, are spreading, while malaria mosquitoes are increasingly resistant to insecticides. And yet the rollout in Malawi and in two other African countries, isn’t quite the breakthrough the field has been waiting for. Mosquirix’s efficacy and durability are mediocre: Four doses offer only 30% protection against severe malaria, for no more than 4 years. Some experts question whether that is worth the cost and effort

The biggest concerns, however, are about the vaccine’s safety. In the largest trial, children who received Mosquirix had a risk of meningitis 10 times higher than those who received a control vaccine. Mosquirix may not have triggered the meningitis cases—there are other possible explanations—but the possible risk worried the global health community so much that, rather than rolling out the vaccine across Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) has decided to set up a pilot in Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya in which the vaccine will be given to hundreds of thousands of children.

The Malaria parasite  is a challenging target for a vaccine. It has a complex life cycle that begins when an infected female mosquito bites a human and spits Plasmodium cells called sporozoites into the bloodstream. They multiply in the liver, emerge as another cell type named merozoites, invade red blood cells, and continue to multiply. The blood cells burst, causing fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, and often anemia. (They also flood the blood with gametocytes—the parasite’s reproductive cells—ready to be picked up by the next mosquito.) Along the way, the parasite frequently changes its surface proteins. That makes it an elusive target for the immune system, and for a vaccine.

Mosquirix, developed in the 1980s by a team in Belgium at SmithKline-RIT, now part of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), stimulates an immune response against a protein that occurs only on the sporozoites’ surface. To bolster the response, the research team fused the vaccine protein with a hepatitis B surface protein and added an adjuvant….

A relative outside, Danish anthropologist and vaccine researcher Peter Aaby of the Bandim Health Project in Guinea-Bissau, offered another argument against introduction. After reanalyzing the data from the biggest trial, Aaby discovered that although the vaccinated children had malaria less often, they did not die less often. Among girls, overall mortality was almost doubled, Aaby told his colleagues at the meeting. “This vaccine is killing girls,” he recalls saying. Whereas WHO expects the vaccine to save one life per 200 children vaccinated, Aaby believes one in 200 will die as a result of it; he predicts “a nightmare.”

Aaby and Christine Stabell Benn, a global health professor at the University of Southern Denmark, have an explanation. The married couple has studied routine vaccinations in Africa for decades and believes vaccines can “train” the immune system in ways that don’t affect just the target disease. Vaccines that contain a living, weakened pathogen—such as the vaccines against measles and tuberculosis—strengthen the immune system generally, Aaby and Stabell Benn say, making recipients better able to fight off other infections. But vaccines that contain a killed pathogen or only bits of it weaken the immune system, their theory goes—especially in girls, because their immune systems seem to respond more strongly to vaccines in general.

Excerpts from Jop de Vrieze, A Shot of Hope, Science Magazine, Nov. 29, 2019, at 1063

Does Fracking Cause Cancer? The Right to Know and the Duty to Protect

An increase in the number of teens and young adults diagnosed with a rare cancer in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania has caused the state to look for a link between fracking and the disease.The investigation was sparked by a spate of Ewing’s sarcoma cases in and around Washington County, which has more Marcellus Shale gas wells than any other county in the state. In April 2019 state Department of Health found that the cases didn’t constitute a statistically significant cancer cluster. But affected families and other residents lobbied the governor for an investigation.

 The region is home to coal mining, oil drilling, chemical plants and a former uranium-processing facility.  Each year, about 250 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer of the bone or surrounding soft tissue, according to the National Institutes of Health.  In four counties in southwest Pennsylvania, 31 people were diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma from 2006 through 2017, according to state cancer data. That is a roughly 40% increase from the period from 1995 through 2005, when 22 people in the same area were diagnosed, according to state data. Residents point to two additional cases in 2018. Most troubling to many local residents is that the six cases in Washington County since 2008 occurred in one school district.

Other communities are studying potential health risks of fracking. In October 2019, Colorado regulators said they would tighten regulation of drilling after a state-funded study found that people living within 2,000 feet of oil-and-gas wells could have, in worst-case scenarios, an elevated risk for infrequent, short-term health effects such as nosebleeds and headaches from emissions.

Evelyn Talbott, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, said Pennsylvania investigators should look at residents’ potential exposures to chemicals and to radiation from natural-gas sites. She said they also should look at the sealed waste site of the defunct uranium-processing plant…Since Pennsylvania’s first Marcellus Shale well was drilled in Washington County in 2003, more than 1,800 wells have been fracked there. Compressor stations, processing plants and pipelines have followed. Some residents worry that pollutants such as benzene from air emissions or radium from wastewater could affect people’s health.

Kris Maher, Cancer Cases Raise Fracking Fears, WSJ, Dec. 21, 2019

See also Shale gas development and cancer incidence in southwest Pennsylvania