Obama vs. Romney: On Protection from Toxic Pollutants

           We’ve now had two conventions and three presidential debates to familiarize ourselves with the candidates running for office of U.S. president.  Having said that, and given that Election Day is just around the corner (Tuesday, Nov. 6th don’t forget!!), I thought I’d dedicate this brief blog to comparing the two candidates’ proposed policies and track records as they relate to preventing toxic pollution and in turn protecting human health.  While the candidates differ in many other ways with respect to domestic and foreign policy, here are their key differences solely in terms of their impact on pollution in the United States.


  • Has passed what are currently the strongest regulations enacted against toxic mercury, lead, soot, and arsenic emitted from dirty power plants
  • Has invested in and expanded clean wind-energy
  • Signed key land-protection legislation, safeguarding a million acres around the Grand Canyon from uranium mining
  • Implemented new standards to double average fuel efficiency of new vehicles, in turn saving twelve billion barrels of oil from combustion


  • Opposes various regulations for protecting against toxic pollutants
  • Proposes to dismantle parts of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act
  • Wants to end wind energy Production Tax Credit, bringing growing wind industry to a standstill
  • Wants to overturn fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles
  • Will approve the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, extending from Canada to Texas

What Will this Mean?

           Under Romney’s plan, weaker pollution standards translate to higher levels of pollution in the United States and therefore a greater health risk to the population.  If you’re wondering why it would make sense to lower pollution standards, it’s because the energy plan proposed by Romney favors fossil fuels such as coal and oil.  Since these fuels produce a high amount of pollution, it’s difficult to expand the industry without lowering pollution standards.  Unfortunately, however, these standards were put in place for a reason, that is, to protect our health.  Lowering these standards is essentially prioritizing dirty energy (when other options exist) over the health of our population.  Other proposals by Romney, such as lowering fuel efficiency standards and permitting the Keystone pipeline similarly prioritize the fossil fuel industry at the expense of human health.  If you’ve forgotten how fossil fuels directly affect human health, refer to my earlier blog entitled Conserving Energy for Better Health at:
            On the other hand, by increasing automotive fuel efficiency, investing in clean energy, and enacting stringent pollution emission standards, Obama’s plan will continue to establish a much cleaner environment for us to live in.  If you think the health effects of air pollutants are overstated, keep in mind an estimated 60,000 American deaths each year are associated with inhaling particulate matter such as that produced by fossil fuel combustion.  Furthermore, by investing in green technology early on, we’re not only reducing pollution, but in fact securing our energy independence in the long run; especially given that fossil fuels are a finite resource and that global political pressure to mitigate climate change is inevitably shifting the energy industry towards green technology.

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                                                                                           - Shahir Masri, MS


Disappearing Honeybees: What’s Happening and Are We at Risk Too?

          Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, struck the United States during 2006-2007 and other countries soon after.  Characterized by the sudden disappearance of honeybees from their otherwise healthy beehives, CCD emerged as an unexpected and highly alarming phenomenon.  Before long, CCD was making headlines as beekeepers in 24 U.S. states were reporting honeybee losses of up to 80%, occurring sometimes overnight!  The importance of honeybees stretches well beyond preservation for the sake of preservation or even for the sake of honey production.  Rather, because they can pollinate a wide variety of crops, can persist throughout the growing season, and can be concentrated in large numbers when needed, honeybees have become the dominate pollinators of a number of major crops including apples, avocados, almonds, pears, sunflowers, melons, etcetera, and are therefore critical to the agriculture industry. 
            Though stressors such as pathogens, malnutrition due to monoculture food sources, insecticide exposure, and stress due to commercial migration have been identified as potential causes of CCD, these are unsound explanations as such stressors existed long before widespread colony collapse was observed.  In the last year, however, a key study conducted by Dr. Lu and colleagues at Harvard University finally succeeded in not simply identifying the likely culprit of CCD, but in fact demonstrating its impact on bee populations.  The implicated culprit, imidacloprid (IMD), is a pesticide introduced by Monsanto some years ago.  To understand how this pesticide is suddenly affecting bees, one must first understand that for cost-effectiveness, bee keepers have in recent years been replacing the honey within bee hives with high-fructose corn syrup.  This allows keepers to profit from the honey while still keeping their pollinators alive throughout the year. 

          Though IMD as well as corn syrup substitution has existed for some years, historically IMD application consisted of spraying the chemical over corn fields, in which case the corn itself was protected by the corn husk from direct contact with the pesticide.  As of 2005, however Monsanto introduced a new method of integrating IMD into corn production.  Rather than spraying the chemical, the industry now soaks these corn seeds in highly concentrated solutions of IMD such that the chemical is dispersed throughout the entire corn plant during the growing process.  This means that the corn itself contains a considerable amount of IMD.  It is when this corn is made into corn syrup and subsequently fed to honeybees that bees are ultimately exposed.  Through Lu’s study in which 20 hives spanning 4 locations were fed IMD-dosed corn syrup, the phenomenon of CCD was demonstrated to occur, and to occur increasingly in hives containing higher doses of IMD.
            If you’re wondering if IMD is present in corn products served to humans, the answer is "yes."  If you’re wondering what impact this might have on human health, the answer is far less certain.  Having said that, France has suspended the growing of seeds soaked in a pesticide similar to IMD so as to avoid continuing losses of honeybees, potential human health effects, and agricultural repercussions. The U.S. has yet to take such action.  To avoid the negative publicity associated with IMD, the agriculture industry has reassured the public that over 90% of its corn crops are not treated with this pesticide.  However, this is only because the industry has cleverly defined the term “treatment” so as to include spraying, but not to include seed soaking.  I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Lu about his study and experience in dealing with reps of the agricultural sector.  Not surprisingly, there appears to be tremendous resistance by industry to accept anything from health scientists that would damage company profits. 

To read Dr. Lu's study, visit:

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                                                                                                -Shahir Masri, MS


Broken Bulbs: Avoiding Mercury Exposure

            I am a strong advocate of using compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs given their high energy efficiency, and therefore reduced impact on the environment.  If you don’t know them by their name, CFL bulbs are simply the twisted light bulbs you see everywhere these days.  As great as they are, however, CFLs do contain mercury vapor and are therefore important to dispose of properly if broken.  In the event that you break one of these bulbs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends the following: First, open a window and leave the room for at least 15 minutes.  This will allow for proper ventilation.  Also, make sure to shut off your central heating/air conditioning systems if you have one. Upon reentering the room you’re then instructed to use stiff cardboard or paper to scoop up the large glass fragments.  Make sure to not use a broom or vacuum to clean the debris as this will contaminate them.  Sticky tape is then recommended to remove small glass fragments or visible powder.  Finally, a wet cloth or paper towel should be used to wipe the area clean.  
            Note, all of the contents (broken glass, cardboard, wet cloth, etc.) are to be sealed in a glass jar or plastic bag following each step of the cleanup process.  If you must use a vacuum at any point, as might be the case for cleaning carpet, be sure to dispose of the vacuum bag in the same manner used for the other contents.  The sealed bags/jars containing the contents are then to be placed in an outside garbage can for the next local trash pickup.  Note that some states do not permit such trash disposal, instead requiring that the toxic waste be taken to a separate waste or recycling center. Simply check with your local or state government about disposal requirements for info on this.  Following the cleanup of the broken light bulb, be sure to wash your hands.  The detailed procedures that have been written to aid in broken CFL cleanup underscore the importance of avoiding mercury exposure and, in turn, the importance of this blog! 

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                                                                                                -Shahir Masri