We’re delighted and honored to be joining the ScienceBlogs community. It’s a bittersweet occasion, because we’re starting out here just as the Reveres are folding up their stellar public health blog Effect Measure. It’s fair to say that The Pump Handle probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Reveres; they inspired us to launch our blog on WordPress (old site here) back in November 2006, and have been a constant source of support as well as actual blog content. We’re lucky that the Reveres have agreed to continue occasional posting here at TPH, so the blogosphere won’t lose them altogether.
We’re a public health blog, and our name refers to a key even in public health history: During the London cholera epidemic of 1854, John Snow examined maps of cholera cases and traced the disease to water from a local pump. At the time, the prevailing theory held that cholera spread through the air, rather than water, so Snow faced criticism from others in the science community – not to mention resistance from the water companies. He finally convinced community leaders to remove the pump’s handle to prevent further exposure.
Here at TPH, we’re interested in both the scientific discoveries about preventing and treating diseases and the systems that we humans have developed to care for each other. We start from the premise that societies can and should use their resources and ingenuity to create conditions that allow all members to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.
Since John Snow first mapped London cholera cases more than a century ago, the field of public health has learned a great deal about what we need for health, from water, sanitation, and proper nutrition to control of pollution and workplace hazards. Yet each year, 3.4 million people, most of them children, die from water-related diseases. In the US, an average of 14 workers are killed on the job every day, and dozens more are made ill or disabled by work-related hazards. Much of the work of public health is figuring out how best to translate our existing knowledge and resources into preventing harm to populations of people – and how to get more knowledge and resources for something that ought to be a top priority but often isn’t.
Here’s a bit more about our blog’s history and some notable achievements:
The Pump Handle arose in 2006 out of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP), which is housed at the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services and examines how science is used and misused in setting public policy. Over the years, we’ve been lucky to have published contributions from several public health luminaries, including Susan Wood, Dick Clapp, Les Boden, and Anthony Robbins. David Michaels, who’s now serving as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, was one of our founding members and main bloggers.
Today, Celeste Monforton and I are the primary TPH bloggers, and because we work for GWU’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health, much of our content focuses on environmental and occupational health issues. Celeste is currently serving on the independent team appointed by West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin III to investigate the April 5th explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, WV, which killed 29 miners. We’re also lucky to be bringing investigative journalist Elizabeth Grossman, author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry and many other articles and books, for a stint of in-depth writing on occupational health issues.
Perils in Popcorn
We first attracted big attention in 2007, when David Michaels posted about a case of severe lung disease in a man who consumed multiple bags of microwave popcorn on a daily basis. We had been posting for months about the failure of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to respond appropriately to reports of popcorn and flavoring workers experiencing severe lung damage (a rare condition called bronchiolitis obliterans) after exposure to the butter-flavoring chemical diacetyl. There was little widespread interest in the problem – until a consumer was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans. The Pump Handle was the first to publicize news of this consumer’s disease – which appeared online in a Food and Drug Administration docket but had gone unnoticed – and our blog became a resource for reporters and consumers seeking information.
Microwave-popcorn companies stopped using diacetyl in their bags of popcorn, and public concern largely subsided. However, diacetyl is used as a flavoring in many other products, so many workers are still at risk. (Consumers could also be at risk, but their exposures to the chemical are likely to be much lower.) OSHA is moving very slowly on the diacetyl rulemaking process that the agency began only after members of Congress started expressing concern. Meanwhile, there are indications that the chemicals manufacturers are substituting for diacetyl may also be hazardous to workers’ respiratory health. (We’ve collected several diacetyl-related posts here, for those interested in learning more.)
A Secret Risk-Assessment Rule
One afternoon in 2008 when Celeste was perusing the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs website (we know how to have fun around here!), she noticed a listing for a proposed rule, Requirements for Department of Labor Agencies’ Assessment of Occupational Health Risks. There was no information about what the proposed rule actually said, so Celeste put up a post asking if anyone had more information – and noting that when someone in the Bush administration brought up “risk assessment,” it usually meant making it harder for regulatory agencies to protect public health.
After Celeste reported on the presence of the rule on OIRA’s website, Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman George Miller began demanding answers from the Department of Labor about its proposed rule, and Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig started digging into the story. It turned out that, as Celeste feared, the rule would have put additional burdens on OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration for rulemaking, adding further delays to a process that can already stretch for several years. It seemed that the Bush administration had been hoping to get the rule in place without attracting the kinds of questions that Celeste was asking about it, so we referred to it as “the secret rule.” Once the public health community knew about it, though, the rule got plenty of attention. It wasn’t finalized before the end of the Bush administration, and in 2009 the Department of Labor officially withdrew the proposed rule. (We’ve collected posts about the secret rule here.)
We care about arcane details like FDA docket contents and proposed risk-assessment rules because they have implications for people’s lives and health. Here at ScienceBlogs, we look forward to becoming part of a community where people care about arcane details not just because they’re interesting in and of themselves (though they often are!) but because they influence our lives in important ways. We welcome all our readers, old and new, and look forward to your comments and questions!