Health & Fitness (205)
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The chemical spill that contaminated water for hundreds of thousands in West Virginia was only the latest and most high-profile case of coal sullying the nation's waters.
For decades, chemicals and waste from the coal industry have tainted hundreds of waterways and groundwater supplies, spoiling private wells, shutting down fishing and rendering streams virtually lifeless, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal environmental data.
But because these contaminants are released gradually and in some cases not tracked or regulated, they attract much less attention than a massive spill such as the recent one in West Virginia.
"I've made a career of body counts of dead fish and wildlife made that way from coal," said Dennis Lemly, a U.S. Forest Service research biologist who has spent decades chronicling the deformities pollution from coal mining has caused in fish.
"How many years and how many cases does it take before somebody will step up to the plate and say, `Wait a minute, we need to change this'?"
The spill of a coal-cleaning chemical into a river in Charleston, W.Va., left 300,000 people without water. It exposed a potentially new and under-regulated risk to water from the coal industry when the federal government is still trying to close regulatory gaps that have contributed to coal's legacy of water pollution.
From coal mining to the waste created when coal is burned for electricity, pollutants associated with coal have contaminated waterways, wells and lakes with far more insidious and longer-lasting contaminants than the chemical that spilled out of a tank farm on the banks of the Elk River.
Chief among them are discharges from coal-fired power plants that alone are responsible for 50 percent to 60 percent of all toxic pollution entering the nation's water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Thanks to even tougher air pollution regulations underway, more pollution from coal-fired power plants is expected to enter the nation's waterways, according to a recent EPA assessment.
"Clean coal means perhaps cleaner atmosphere, but dirtier water," said Avner Vengosh, a Duke University researcher who has monitored discharges from power plant waste ponds and landfills in North Carolina.
In that state, Vengosh and other researchers found contaminants from coal ash disposal sites threatening the drinking water for Charlotte, the nation's 17th-largest city, with cancer-causing arsenic.
"It is kind of a time bomb that can erupt in some kind of specific condition," Vengosh said. The water shows no signs of arsenic contamination now.
In southeastern Ohio, tainted water draining from abandoned coal mines shuttered a century ago still turns portions of the Raccoon Creek orange with iron and coats the half-submerged rocks along its path white with aluminum.
Public drinking water systems in 14 West Virginia counties where mining companies are blasting off mountaintops to get to coal seams exceeded state safe drinking water standards seven times more than in nonmining counties, according to a study published in a water quality journal in 2012. The systems provided water for more than a million people.
The water quality monitoring in mining areas is so inadequate that most health violations likely were not caught, said Michael Hendryx, the study's author and a professor of applied health at Indiana University.
The EPA, in an environmental assessment last year, identified 132 cases where coal-fired power plant waste has damaged rivers, streams and lakes, and 123 where it has tainted underground water sources, in many cases legally, officials said.
Among them is the massive failure of a waste pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in 2008. More than 5 million cubic yards of ash poured into a river and spoiled hundreds of acres in a community 35 miles west of Knoxville.
Overall, power plants contributed to the degradation of 399 bodies of water that are drinking water sources, according to the EPA.
There are no federal limits on the vast majority of chemicals that power plants pipe directly into rivers, streams and reservoirs. The EPA just last year proposed setting limits on a few of the compounds, the first update since 1982. More than five years after the Tennessee spill, the EPA has yet to issue federal regulations governing the disposal of coal ash.
Experts say the agency is playing catch-up to solve a problem that began when it required power plants in the 1990s to scrub their air pollution to remove sulfur dioxide. An unintended consequence was that the pollutants captured were dumped into landfills and ponds, many unlined, where they seeped into underground aquifers or were piped into adjacent rivers, reservoirs and lakes.
"As you are pushing air rules that are definitely needed, you need to think of the water. And they didn't," said Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement official. "Now they are running after the problem."
He now heads the Environmental Integrity Project, a group whose research has uncovered previously unknown sites of contamination from power plant waste pits.
The federal government has in recent years issued the first-ever regulations for mercury released from power plant smokestacks, the largest source of mercury entering waterways. The EPA has stepped up its review of mountaintop mining permits, to reduce pollution.
"Coal-related pollution remains a significant contributor to water quality pollution across the United States," said Alisha Johnson, an EPA spokeswoman. "The EPA's efforts have yielded significant improvements, but significant work still remains."
On the mining side, a review of federal environmental enforcement records shows that nearly three-quarters of the 1,727 coal mines listed haven't been inspected in the past five years to see if they are obeying water pollution laws. Also, 13 percent of the fossil-fuel fired power plants are not complying with the Clean Water Act.
Many mines don't even report their discharges of selenium, although researchers have found the chemical near mines at levels where it can cause deformities and reproductive failure in fish.
A study in the journal Science in 2010 found that 73 of 78 West Virginia streams in mountaintop mine removal areas had selenium levels higher than the official threshold for fish life. Higher levels of selenium - a natural component of coal that seeps from rock when water runs through it - often means fish don't reproduce or have deformed, even two-headed, offspring, Lemly said.
University of Maryland environmental sciences professor Margaret Palmer spent much of the weekend that Charleston was without water testing the Stillhouse Branch stream near Clay, W.Va., just below a mountaintop removal coal mine. She said her tests showed the water was too salty from the rocks from the mine.
"It's like a desert with a few water rats in it," Palmer said. "The organisms that do live in (these streams), you think of them like water rats. Only the really hearty ones survive."
Efforts by the EPA to ease the problem, by requiring mine permits to be judged by a measure of the saltiness in downstream water, have been vacated by a federal court. That decision is under appeal.
A spokesman for the National Mining Association said the industry operates in accord with extensive and rigorous permitting guidelines.
Pollution still enters the environment from coal mined decades ago.
The EPA estimates 12,000 river miles are tainted by acid mine drainage from long-shuttered coal mines. One of them is Raccoon Creek in southeastern Ohio.
"These mines have been abandoned for a hundred years," said Amy Mackey, Raccoon Creek's watershed coordinator. "There is no one to fall back on."
States take the lead on the water pollution front. But advocacy groups from at least three states in coal country - Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana - have asked the EPA to step in, arguing that state officials aren't doing enough.
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NEW YORK (AP) -- Middle-aged men risk a faster mental decline as they age if they've been drinking heavily for years, new research suggests.
The study of about 5,000 British civil servants found that over a decade, the added decline was the equivalent of about two extra years of aging for a combined measure of mental abilities like reasoning, and about six years for memory. The heavy drinkers' abilities were compared to those of men who drank moderately or abstained.
It's no surprise that heavy alcohol consumption can affect the brain, but the study focuses on an age range that has received much less attention from alcohol researchers than the elderly and college students.
The work was published online Wednesday by the journal Neurology. Researchers found no such effect in women, but the study included too few female heavy drinkers to test the effect of drinking the same amount as in men, said Severine Sabia, a study author from University College London.
In an email, she said it was not possible to identify a specific minimum level of consumption at which the risk begins in men.
Her study used data from over 20 years. Using questionnaires, researchers calculated the men's average daily intake of alcohol for the decade up to when they were an average of 56 years old. Then, they tracked decline in mental abilities over the following decade from tests administered every five years.
Accelerated decline was seen for the heaviest-drinking group, which included 469 men with a wide range of alcohol intake. The minimum amount was the equivalent of about 13 ounces of wine a day or about 30 ounces of beer. The maximum was about three times that.
Men drinking that minimum amount are not necessarily at risk for accelerated mental decline, since the results pertain to the category overall, said Sara Jo Nixon, a substance abuse researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who did not participate in the work.
She also said that the study shows a link between drinking and faster mental decline but not proof that alcohol intake was responsible. And she said that because of the sensitive mental tests used in the study, the extra declines in performance may be too subtle to make a difference in daily life. Sabia said she believed the difference would eventually be noticeable.
Still, Nixon said, the study "does suggest that middle-aged to young-old individuals do need to pay attention to what their drinking habits have been, and are."
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STOCKHOLM (AP) -- Nine women in Sweden have successfully received transplanted wombs donated from relatives in an experimental procedure that has raised some ethical concerns. The women will soon try to become pregnant with their new wombs, the doctor in charge of the pioneering project has revealed.
The women were born without a uterus or had it removed because of cervical cancer. Most are in their 30s and are part of the first major experiment to test whether it's possible to transplant wombs into women so they can give birth to their own children.
Life-saving transplants of organs such as hearts, livers and kidneys have been done for decades and doctors are increasingly transplanting hands, faces and other body parts to improve patients' quality of life. Womb transplants - the first ones intended to be temporary, just to allow childbearing - push that frontier even farther and raise some new concerns.
There have been two previous attempts to transplant a womb - in Turkey and Saudi Arabia - but both failed to produce babies. Scientists in Britain, Hungary and elsewhere are also planning similar operations but the efforts in Sweden are the most advanced.
"This is a new kind of surgery," Dr. Mats Brannstrom told The Associated Press in an interview from Goteborg. "We have no textbook to look at."
Brannstrom, chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at the University of Gothenburg, is leading the initiative. Next month, he and colleagues will run the first-ever workshop on how to perform womb transplants and they plan to publish a scientific report on their efforts soon.
Some experts have raised concerns about whether it's ethical to use live donors for an experimental procedure that doesn't save lives. But John Harris, a bioethics expert at the University of Manchester, didn't see a problem with that as long as donors are fully informed. He said donating kidneys isn't necessarily life-saving, yet is widely promoted.
"Dialysis is available, but we have come to accept and to even encourage people to take risks to donate a kidney," he said.
Brannstrom said the nine womb recipients are doing well. Many already had their periods six weeks after the transplants, an early sign that the wombs are healthy and functioning. One woman had an infection in her newly received uterus and others had some minor rejection episodes, but none of the recipients or donors needed intensive care after the surgery, Brannstrom said. All left the hospital within days.
None of the women who donated or received wombs has been identified. The transplants began in September 2012 and the donors include mothers and other relatives of the recipients. The team had initially planned to do 10 transplants, but one woman couldn't proceed due to medical reasons, university spokesman Krister Svahn said.
The transplant operations did not connect the women's uteruses to their fallopian tubes, so they are unable to get pregnant naturally. But all who received a womb have their own ovaries and can make eggs. Before the operation, they had some removed to create embryos through in-vitro fertilization. The embryos were then frozen and doctors plan to transfer them into the new wombs, allowing the women to carry their own biological children.
The transplants have ignited hope among women unable to have children because they lost a uterus to cancer or were born without one. About one in girl in 4,500 is born with a syndrome, known as MRKH, where she doesn't have a womb.
Lise Gimre, 35, who was born without a womb, said she thought many women with MRKH would be interested if the operation proves to be safe and effective. Gimre runs an organization for women with the syndrome in Norway.
"If this had been possible when I was younger, no doubt I would have been interested," she said. Gimre, who has two foster children, said the only option for women like her to have biological children is via surrogacy, which is illegal in many European countries, including Norway and Sweden.
Fertility experts have hailed the project as significant but stress it's unknown whether the transplants will result in healthy babies.
The technique used in Sweden, using live donors, is somewhat controversial. In Britain, doctors are also planning to perform uterus transplants, but will only use wombs from dying or dead people. That was also the case in Turkey. Last year, Turkish doctors announced their patient got pregnant but the pregnancy failed after two months.
"Mats has done something amazing and we understand completely why he has taken this route, but we are wary of that approach," said Dr. Richard Smith, head of the U.K. charity Womb Transplant UK, which is trying to raise 500,000 pounds ($823,000) to carry out five operations in Britain.
He said removing a womb for donation is like a radical hysterectomy but it requires taking a bigger chunk of the surrounding blood vessels to ensure adequate blood flow, raising the risk of complications for the donor. Smith said British officials don't consider it ethical to let donors take such chances for an operation that isn't considered life-saving.
Smith said the biggest question is how any pregnancies will proceed.
"The principal concern for me is if the baby will get enough nourishment from the placenta and if the blood flow is good enough," he said.
All of the women who received womb transplants will need to take anti-rejection medicines, but Smith said data from women who have received kidney transplants doesn't suggest their babies are at any increased risk from the drugs.
Brannstrom said using live donors allowed them to ensure the donated wombs were functional and didn't have any problems like an HPV infection.
Doctors in Saudi Arabia performed the first womb transplant in 2000, using a live donor, but it had to be removed after three months because of a blood clot.
Brannstrom said he and his colleagues hope to start transferring embryos into some of their patients soon, possibly within months. The Swedish researchers and others have previously reported successful uterus transplants in animals including mice, sheep and baboons, but no offspring from the primates were produced.
After a maximum of two pregnancies, the wombs will be removed so the women can stop taking the anti-rejection drugs, which can cause high blood pressure, swelling and diabetes and may also raise the risk of some types of cancer.
Other experts said if the operations are successful, womb transplants could be an alternative for women who have few choices.
"What remains to be seen is whether this is a viable option or if this is going to be confined to research and limited experimentation," said Dr. Yacoub Khalaf, director of the Assisted Conception unit at Guy's and St. Thomas' hospital in London, who was unconnected to any of the womb transplant projects.
Brannstrom warned the transplants might not result in children but remained optimistic.
"This is a research study," he said. "It could lead to (the women) having children, but there are no guarantees ... what is certain is that they are making a contribution to science."
Cheng reported from London.
NEW DELHI (AP) -- India marked three years Monday since its last reported polio case, putting the country on course to being formally declared free of the disease later this year.
India has made great strides against polio in recent years through a rigorous vaccination campaign. But for many in India, where polio victims with withered, twisted limbs are a common sight on the streets, these advances have come too late.
"My parents were very poor and couldn't afford medical treatment for me," said Sonu Kumar, 24, who contracted the disease when he was 10. Paralyzed from the waist down, he begs outside a temple in central Delhi and uses a wheelchair to move around.
Polio is a vaccine-preventable disease that has been eradicated in most countries. But it still causes paralysis or death in some parts of the world, including Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Polio usually infects children under age 5 when they drink contaminated water. The virus attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and, in some cases, death.
"India was once thought to be the most difficult country in which to achieve polio eradication," Global Polio Eradication Initiative said in a statement.
Monday's milestone was significant, but the World Health Organization stills need to confirm there are no undetected cases before making the official declaration that India is polio-free in March.
Still, Junior Home Minister R.P.N. Singh sent a triumphant message on Twitter: "Proud day for all of us as Indians ... India is polio free for three years."
Widespread poverty, dense population, poor sanitation, high levels of migration and a weak public health system made the task of reaching out to every child under age 5 that much more difficult.
An army of nearly 2.5 million volunteers, doctors and medical workers carried out a campaign across the country to vaccinate children over three years to wipe out the scourge. The number of polio cases came down from 741 in 2009 to 42 in 2010.
The last case of polio was reported in eastern India in 2011.
In 2012, WHO removed India from a list of countries with active endemic wild polio transmission after it passed one year without registering any new cases.
Health officials remained concerned about the possibility of the virus entering the country from neighboring Pakistan. Indian health authorities have set up polio immunization booths at the two border crossings with Pakistan and all children who enter by road and train are being given vaccines.
Mithlesh Devi, 27, who contracted the disease when she was 1 year old, said she has never known a normal life in India but has hopes for her family's future.
"I have ensured that my daughters do not meet the same fate," said Devi, who begs for money outside Hindu temples in New Delhi. "I got them polio drops at the right age. I am not happy with my tough life. But I have no choice."
Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma contributed to this story.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Some of the nation's largest food companies have cut calories in their products by more than 6.4 trillion, according to a new study.
The study sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found between 2007 and 2012 the companies reduced their products' calories by the equivalent of around 78 calories per person per day. The total is more than four times the amount those companies had pledged to cut by next year.
Seventy-eight calories would be about the same as an average cookie or a medium apple, and the federal government estimates an average daily diet at around 2,000 calories. The study said the calories cut averaged out to 78 calories per day for the entire U.S. population.
The 2010 pledge taken by 16 companies - including General Mills Inc., Campbell Soup Co., ConAgra Foods Inc., Kraft Foods Inc., Kellogg Co., Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Hershey Co. - was to cut 1 trillion calories by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation signed on to hold the companies accountable, and that group hired researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to painstakingly count the calories in almost every single packaged item in the grocery store. To do that, the UNC researchers used the store-based scanner data of hundreds of thousands of foods, commercial databases and nutrition facts panels to calculate exactly how many calories the companies were selling.
The researchers aren't yet releasing the entire study, but they said Thursday that the companies have exceeded their own goals by a wide margin.
Dr. James Marks, director of the Health Group at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said the group is pleased with the results but the companies "must sustain that reduction, as they've pledged to do, and other food companies should follow their lead."
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a nonpartisan philanthropic and research organization that works to improve the nation's health.
Even though the companies that made the commitment represent most of the nation's most well-known food companies, they sold only around a third of all packaged foods and beverages at the beginning of the study. Missing are many off-label brands sold under the names of retailers, and it's unknown whether those products have changed.
It is also unclear how the reduction in calories translates into consumers' diets. When the companies made the pledge in 2010, they said one way they would try and reduce calories would be to change portion sizes in an attempt to persuade consumers to eat less. The companies also said that they would develop new lower-calorie options and change existing products so they have fewer calories.
Evidence of those efforts are visible on any grocery store shelf. Many products now come in lower calorie versions, are baked instead of fried, or sold in miniature as well as larger versions.
Marks says he believes that companies' efforts to package smaller servings - 100 calorie packs of popular snacks, for example - and smaller cans of sugary drinks may have contributed to the reduction in calories. He says the main contributors most likely were the public's increasing willingness to buy healthier foods and companies responding to those consumers.
The companies involved are all part of an industry coalition of food businesses called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation that has organized to help reduce obesity. The foundation pledged to reduce the calories as part of an agreement with a group of nonprofit organizations and made the 2010 announcement as part of first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign to combat childhood obesity.
Lisa Gable of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation says the study's findings "exceeded our expectations."
She said the companies achieved the goal by coming together and also competing to make new lower-calorie foods. Market studies have shown that many of the healthier foods have outperformed other products, she said.
"This is a very significant shift in the marketplace," Gable said.
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