News on Occupational Exposure to N-PropylBromide, a Neuro-toxin

Yesterday’s NY Times drew my attention with a front-page article on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and its inability to prevent harm among furniture and cushion factory workers in the U.S.  Even though hundreds of workers in North Carolina handling nerve-damaging glues have developed neurological toxicity, OSHA failed to suppress use of likely chemical culprits.

structure of n-propyl bromide (Wiki-image)

structure of n-propyl bromide (Wiki-image)

Regulating industry is complicated. The Times reporter, Ian Urbina, focuses on a compound, n-propyl bromide, aka nPB or 1-bromopropane, that’s used by “tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation.”

Problem is – it’s hard and possibly impossible, based on studies of factory workers, to prove cause and effect. He writes:

Pinpointing the cause of a worker’s ailment is an inexact science because it is so difficult to rule out the role played by personal habits, toxins in the environment or other factors. But for nearly two decades, most chemical safety scientists have concluded that nPB can cause severe nerve damage when inhaled even at low levels…

The lack of absolute proof – that a particular chemical substance has cause disease in an individual –is exacerbated by the fact that many cushion and glue workers’ symptoms, like numbness and tingling, are subjective: At one company, Royale, a ledger of employees’ illness is said to list “Alleged Neurologic Injury.” This phrase reflects the evaluators’ doubt of the handlers’ complaints and, by insinuation, adds insult to injury – some so severe the workers couldn’t button a shirt, feel a cut, bleeding foot, or stand for more than a few minutes.

The government agency that might respond, OSHA, is woefully understaffed. According to the Times:

“OSHA still has just 2,400 responsible for overseeing roughly eight million work sites — roughly one inspector per 60,000 workers, a ratio that has not changed since 1970. The federal budget for protecting workers is less than half of that set aside for protecting fish and wildlife…

Regulation of industry kills jobs, some say – it’s for this reason that some individuals most likely to suffer harm from manufacturing align with corporations. What’s more, if people lack education about chemistry and need employment, they may not choose or know what’s in their long-term best interests. This piece, like the story of Toms River, points to the unfortunate reality that many citizens tolerate and even take pride in a damaging local business, especially if the health problems it causes are insidious, affect some but not all exposed, and the facts aren’t in full view.


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Until Tuesday, A New Book About a Very Strong Person

A short note on a book party, fundraiser and warm celebration I attended yesterday evening. My first Facebook friend, Luis Carlos Montalván, an acquaintance from my experience at Columbia’s Journalism School, has published a wonderful book, Until Tuesday (Disney-Hyperion).

I received a copy of the book at the gallery, and couldn’t put it down. Luis, a seasoned veteran and former Captain in the U.S. Army, earned the Combat Action Badge, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart medal. He was severely injured during his deployment in Iraq, and came back with deep emotional and physical wounds.

His wonderful book is a tale of healing, aided by a special dog, but really it’s about human healing, and Luis’s determination to get well.

I am inspired by Luis, first that he got his book out (he beat me to it!), and also for being so brave in telling his story. It’s not an easy one, but it’s intense and will forever influence how I think about soldiers.

“Some people in the room know that every day 17 veterans commit suicide,” he mentioned to the group. I wasn’t aware, until yesterday.

For those of you who missed the party last night, you can check out this clip from CNN this morning, but of course it’s not the same as meeting Tuesday in person.

Thanks Luis, for being so forthcoming, and strong!



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A Play About the Life and Work of Dr. Rosalind Franklin

Last weekend I snagged a last-minute ticket to see Photograph 51, a new play about the work and life of Rosalind Franklin. Her data, possibly stolen, enabled Francis Crick and James Watson to decipher and model the double-helix structure of DNA.

The intimate production, enacted by the small Ensemble Studio Theatre on the second floor of a nondescript building on West 52nd Street, affords a fresh look, albeit partly fictionalized, into important moments in the history of science. Most of the scenes take place in a research lab in post-War London, at King’s College, where Franklin took on a faculty appointment.

Franklin’s story starts like this: She was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in London. She excelled in math and science. She studied physical chemistry at Cambridge, where she received her undergraduate degree in 1941. After performing research in photochemistry in the following year on scholarship, she joined the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA) and carried out basic investigations on the micro-structure of coal and carbon compounds, and so earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. She was a polyglot, and next found herself in Paris at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de l’Etat, where she picked up some fine skills in x-ray crystallography.

You get the picture: she was smart, well-educated and totally immersed in physical chemistry before, during and after WWII. Single-minded and focused, you might say –

Franklin in Photograph 51 wears a simple brown dress with large black buttons straight down the middle of her lithe frame. Her lipstick and haircut seem right, but her three inch heels, even after a few years of experiencing the joie de vivre in Paris, or just being holed up in a research institute there, seem a tad too high for such a pragmatic soul. The lab set is perfect with its double-distilling glassware, wooden pegs on racks, tall metal stools with small, flat circular seats, light microscopes, heavy metal desks with file drawers and a contentious cast of characters.

As this narrative goes, Franklin spurns socializing with most of her colleagues. They find her difficult. She spends nearly all of her time and late hours using x-rays to generate crystallographic images of DNA and making detailed notes and related calculations. Eventually a lab assistant gives her key data, Photograph 51, to her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, who is inexpert in crystallography and cannot independently interpret the structure. While Franklin continues working at a measured pace, refusing to rush into publishing a model until she’s sure of her findings and the implications, Wilkins shares the image with Watson and Crick. They move quickly, publish first in Nature and, later, win the Nobel Prize for the discovery. Meanwhile Franklin leaves Wilkins’ lab and starts a new project on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus. She dies at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer, likely caused or effectuated by the radiation to which she exposed herself at work.

It’s a sad story, but instructive, engaging and very well-done, so much that it’s haunted me for days. Hard to know what’s real –

According to a program note from Anna Ziegler, the playwright: “this play is a work of fiction, though it is based on the story of the race to the double helix in England in the years between 1951 and 1953.” Ziegler refers to several books from which she drew material: The Dark Lady of DNA (by Brenda Maddox), The Double Helix (by James Watson) and The Third Man of the Double Helix (by Maurice Wilkins).

My favorite part is Franklin’s statement at the beginning: “We made the visible, visible.”

For a (depressing) counterpoint to this play’s version of events, you can take a look at Nobel Laureate James Watson’s 2007 TED lecture on YouTube. “She was a crystallographer,” he says of Franklin, and other things, before delving into his late-life happiness and current ventures in cancer genetics and autism studies.

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Copiapó Dreaming – The Copper Miners’ Tale

This week it seemed at least half the world was captivated by the uplifting story of the Chilean miners. The 33 men – mainly middle-aged and of modest means – zoomed up in high-tech capsules from the deep, would-be tomb where they’d been waiting for 69 days underground in the southern Atacama, not far from the industrial, northern Chilean city of Copiapó.

The amazing and nearly-too-good-to-be true news is that a top-notch team of engineers, doctors including the NASA/Johnson Space Center Deputy Chief Medical Officer, nurses, psychologists and others pulled off this fantastic rescue by which each and every one of these real men were delivered to Camp Hope (Esperanza) a tent city swelling with media and enthusiastic politicians, clergy, miners’ families and, presumably, support staff – cooks, washers and others who helped people there cope with the situation.

It’s inconceivable that any human with a heart would not be gladdened upon learning of the miners’ safe arrival – all more-or-less in good shape, no less – on firm ground. A rabbi said this of the affair: we too-often take this world for granted; but after their ordeal in the darkness, the Chilean men kissed the earth and thanked god for simply returning them to what they’d had before – a place filled with sunlight, air, loved ones, friends, food, music and, well, everything they had and have again. So there’s a religious message here, if you’re open to that. At the same time, an atheist would see clear evidence in this fantastic episode for the power of humans and science, technology and coordinating resources.

The medical issues are rich, including: risk of fatigue and dehydration in an inescapable, 90 degree hot and humid environment; vitamin deficiency and possible eye damage upon exiting, from lack of sunlight; lung problems from metal dust exposure; infections like pneumonia, potentially shared in a small communal space or gut-related, if hygiene is poor and human waste is not stashed properly; emotional downers – like fear and depression – may affect men who don’t articulate those sorts of concerns.

Some environmentally-minded thinkers point out that this true tale isn’t representative, reducing the story like this: “For every miner who was rescued before the cameras this week, more than 400 others will die this year.” Indeed, the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions, estimates that worldwide, approximately 12,000 miners will lose their lives this year, while on the job. They’re right, I know – mining is a risky, under-regulated occupation.

Nonetheless, I’m thrilled by this remarkable story, at two levels: first, that the “patients” are all right, and second – what’s even more awesome – is that people around the world cared so much about the miners’ well-being. I’ve been wondering what if the outcome hadn’t been so successful. The news coverage would have been less intense, and the President of Chile would have had more difficulty maintaining his political position, and maybe there’d be more regulation of copper-mining in the future. Still, it would have been OK, good and maybe great, I think – even without the happy ending – that the engineers and international top-docs with their expertise, and miners’ families and lovers’ with their food and good cheer, did everything they could.

The outcome matters, but so does the effort, in itself. If we don’t as much as offer care to humans who need it, there’s little chance they’ll get better. This news is about health care, delivered. So the next, logical question is this: Can we take this up to another level by providing high-quality, coordinated care to every group of 33 patients with a guarded prognosis, and do whatever it takes to make them well using existent technology and medicines? This story is a fantasy, as much as it’s real.

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