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Health Impact of Oil Spill; FDA Investigation Prompts OTC Products Recalls; Toxic Hot Spots at Home

Aired May 29, 2010 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Good morning. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Welcome to a place we're gong to learn how to live longer and stronger. I'm your doctor. I'm also your coach.

Everyone's talking about it, the B.P. oil disaster. What impact is it having on the health of people who are trying to clean up that mess? I sat down and spoke to Lisa Jackson, the head of the EPA, about what this means for all of us.

And also, Tylenol. Right now, we have the largest U.S. recall of over-the-counter products for children in the U.S. history. We'll get a reality check here, and more importantly, what can we do to protect our own families.

And, finally, our medical mystery today is our own homes. Are there toxins in there that could be having an impact on our health? I'll show you and I'll show what you can do about it, as well.

Let's get started.


GUPTA: We begin, though, with the worst oil spill now in U.S. history, the B.P. oil spill, of course.

Let me paint this picture for you. At West Jefferson Medical Center in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, workers who have been cleaning up the spill have taken there by ambulance and medivaced to the hospital. These are the same folks who are pending their time 50 miles out in the Gulf trying to clean up this big mess. These people are now complaining of nausea, dizziness, headaches and chest pains, believing it to be due to exposure of chemicals.

Some of the same concerns incidentally were raised after the Valdez disaster. And it got me thinking, is there a connection between these types of exposures and human health?

It's one of the first things I asked when I sat down with the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson.


LISA JACKSON, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: Looking at oil, which on its own is a toxic substance and one that can affect life in the food chain. And where I'm standing here in Venice, you know that the food chain begins right here, especially for a culture built around seafood and its love to sustain the economy, as well as whole families who live off of it.

But EPA's been active since day one, trying to answer other questions as well. We've been doing air sampling. You probably heard about people worried about what maybe in the air. We haven't found anything. We continue to sample.

We're doing near-shore water sampling. We've just added additional sampling to make sure we're looking at the dispersants in air and water because that's becoming an issue, given how much of that chemical's been used out here.

GUPTA: So -- I mean, some of the knowledge exists, right, Administrator Jackson? I mean, for example, with regard to the dispersants you just mentioned. There have been studies that have come out of Europe, specifically, Britain, saying these dispersants can potentially be harmful. That data exists.

Why do we still use it then? I mean, why don't we err on the side of caution if something can potentially be harmful?

JACKSON: I'm very hesitant to recommend to taking it out of the toolkit altogether because dependent on weather and other conditions, there will be days when that's about the only thing we have to attack the oil. So, I think it needs to be used sparingly.

And I think people need to understand what's going on. And I'm very committed to long-term environmental monitoring to answer questions and if we need to, stop.

GUPTA: The -- you know, I think the point that they were making in the study was maybe there's other dispersants that may be less potentially harmful and as effective. But where do you -- you've been there all day. You said it was a heartbreaking day.

What do you think happens next and how long does this go on?

JACKSON: Dispersants, one of the reasons I'm committed to using them in a smart way is that we don't want to see this oil enter the marsh and what was so heartbreaking was seeing the reeds in the marsh almost like sentinels with oil marks on them like you would see if it was flooding in a house. In this area, just the analogy to see, you know, these dead reeds, start to see a marsh that so many people have fought to try to bring back ...

GUPTA: Right.

JACKSON: ... start to die and know that we may not be able to win that war. We have to do what we can, including using less toxic dispersants if we can find them. And EPA is going to do some testing of its own down in our labs in Florida because I'm not satisfied that we've done everything we can to get the best science on the job.

(END VIDEOTAPE) GUPTA: I tell you, I'm really fascinated by this particular topic. Over the past year, I've spent a lot of time in Louisiana investigating this exact sort of thing. In fact, in Mossville, Louisiana, folks are dying from cancer and other diseases, and they blame it squarely on the plant surrounding that particular city. They're demanding justice.

I got some answers to some questions, some tough ones, and on Wednesday night, I'll take you on a journey with me through Mossville. And Thursday night, I'm going to show you the toxic chemicals our children are being exposed to every single day.

I tell you what. What I found was pretty eye-opening. It's called "Toxic America," an SGMD special investigation starts at 8:00 Eastern.

And our other big story: The federal government is investigating reports that several popular over-the-counter medications may have made hundreds of people sick. Food and Drug Administration wants to know if it's related to the recent recall of Tylenol, Motrin and Benadryl.

CNN has learned that at least 775 serious side effects have been reported over the last two years. And get this -- seven deaths and hundreds of serious side effects have been reported just this month.

The drugs have been pulled from store shelves after reports surfaced that some of the meds may contain higher doses of acetaminophen than the labels list. That's the dose in Tylenol, the active ingredient. And also because of the bacterial contamination discovered at the facility where the drugs are made.

Now, the drug maker McNeil recalled 50 children's versions of non-prescription medicines, and they put the largest recall of children's over-the-counter medication in U.S. history. If charges are filed, that becomes a criminal investigation. And the investigation has been turned over to the FDA's crime division.

I know a lot of you have kids, like me, and you probably still have a lot of questions about the entire impact of this recall. So stick around. We'll get some answers to some of you questions. That's just ahead.


GUPTA: Before the break, I told you about the FDA's investigation into 775 serious side effects caused by dozens of popular over-the-counter medications. Your questions have been pouring in all about the drug recall and how it impacts your health.

Let's dive right in. Here's one from Twitter. Toni asks this, "How do I know if the Tylenol that I bought last summer is safe to use? I've been sick and I need to know now."

Well, Toni, it can be a little bit confusing because so many products have been recalled over the last few months. Here's the best advice -- and we went through this in our own home as well -- if you have some of these medications in your home and you're worried, go to You can check the lot number printed on your bottle. If it matches, if it's on the recall list, toss that out. Just throw it in the trash.

Good news is all the potentially contaminated medications have now been pulled from store shelves. If you go to the store right now, you should be looking at newer batches that are safe to take.

You know, Toni, also, if you're still concerned, you can pick up generic versions as well sold at the drug store, unless until you get the all clear wave from the FDA.


GUPTA: You know, less than two months from now, I'm going to be jumping into the Hudson River. It's true. It's part of the New York City triathlon called the Nautica Triathlon. It's on July 18th.

I got to tell you, I'm a little bit nervous but I'm joined by six of our SGMD viewers from all over the country, including Dean Hanan. He's from New York. There he is.

He's a New York police officer -- New York City police officer. He wants to get healthy before he starts a family, that's why he wrote to us. He's already kicked his fast food habit. He's cut way back on the cigarettes. Like a lot of people, he's still got some challenges.

Take a look.


DEAN HANAN, FIT NATION CHALLENGE PARTICIPANT: I go to the 7- Eleven over here. And I would pick up a pack of cigarettes and a coffee. And depending on the day, I would have a doughnut or I'd have a Danish. Something just, you know, just comfort food.

I'm here at my precinct right now and that is where I used to smoke and throw my butts right here.

I would say the social aspect is holding me back from quitting and that is my weakness. When there is alcohol involve, I'm never going back to buying a pack every day and smoking five or 10 or 15. Every time I see a kid, I think of me having one one day and it just reminds me of why it's important to be healthy.

So, it's 55 days to go.

Going right.

The mind-set is, any time I have a free moment, if I can go for a run or if I can jump in the water or if I can hop on the bike, that's what I want to do.

(END VIDEOTAPE) GUPTA: All right, Dean. No more smoking. No more drinking, as well -- at least not until the race. Maybe I'll buy you a beer afterwards.

Seriously, for everybody, even if you're not lighting up every day, it's still a dangerous habit. It's called social smoking. A lot of people do it. And smoking as little as once a week puts you at risk of coronary artery disease and dangers of all that secondhand smoke as well, it kills almost 50,000 people a year.

Here's a good news: if you do quit, your health starts to improve immediately. It happens fast.

So, Dean, keep up the good work. Keep up the training. I'll see you in the Hudson River.

Next up: Lead. Everybody knows that it's bad for you. But the fact is we didn't always know that. We can thank a Dr. Phil Landrigan for teaching us. He's next.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

You know, when we talk about toxic chemicals, people often say, it's probably safe or a little bit can't possibly hurt you. That's what I've been hearing for the last year while working on this documentary "Toxic Towns."

But you know what? They used to say that same thing about lead, and we know that no level of lead is safe. I can't help but think: is there another lead out there?


GUPTA (voice-over): As a young researcher with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1970, Dr. Phillip Landrigan went to El Paso to investigate possible lead poisoning in children, as a result of this smelter, extracting lead from ore, and sending tons of lead dust into the air.

DR. PHIL LANDRIGAN, MT. SINAI MEDICAL CENTER: I was the leader of a two-man CDC team that went to El Paso to look into this situation. We found an epidemic of lead poisoning.

GUPTA: When they drew the results on a map, bull's eye.

LANDRIGAN: The main finding was that in the closest circle, 60 percent of kids had elevated blood lead levels. In the next circle, 25 percent. In the third circle, 10 percent. So, it was really a bull's eye distribution of lead poisoning in El Paso, with the epicenter right at the smelter.

GUPTA: The surprise wasn't that kids closest to the smelter got sick. It was what happened to the children further away. LANDRIGAN: At lower levels of exposure, it still caused loss of intelligence, disruption of behavior, a whole spectrum of damage to the brain and the nervous system.

GUPTA: Landrigan's research helped bring about a ban on lead paint and leaded gasoline. The federal government now says there is no safe level of lead. Any exposure could cause some brain or central nervous system damage -- and there went the idea that just a little bit of lead was OK.

(on camera): When you see a child with lead poisoning, as a pediatrician, can you describe that kid who has an acute or terrible case of lead poisoning? What does that child look like, act like?

LANDRIGAN: Well, the good news is that really severe lead poisoning is vanishingly rare now in the United States because we've done such a good job of controlling lead. But still, what it looks like is frightening. The child is sleepy, sometimes comatose. Often they go into convulsions.

When the doctor used the ophthalmoscope and looks into the child's eyes, we see a condition called papilledema, which means that the optic nerve at the back of the eye is swollen and pushing forward. You get the sense that the child's brain is under great pressure and it's pushing forward.

And, those kids are very, very sick. Some of them die. And many of those who recover are left with very obvious learning disabilities. So, that's the tip of the iceberg.

GUPTA: When you think about lead now and how, you know, terrible some of these kids looked that you saw, how much of your time do you worry about what else is out there that could potentially be the same as lead or next lead so to speak?

LANDRIGAN: You know, well, I should answer that by saying that there have already been several other leads, methyl mercury, the type of mercury that's found in fish. Certainly, it causes learning disabilities analogous to those that are caused by lead.

PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyl, is another persistent pollutant found in fish, has similar effects, especially when the exposures occurs prenatally and we've done studies in children in New York City. And in those studies, we have found that early life exposure to certain organic phosphate pesticides in particular, pesticides called Peratos (ph) seems to cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems in children.

My hypothesis is that there are probably a lot of chemicals in the environment of children today that contribute to learning disabilities of various kinds that have not yet been properly studied. And clearly, there's need for research for those connections.

GUPTA: Going back to lead. It seems that for a while, there was an acceptable level of lead and I can't remember. I think it was maybe 40 micrograms per deciliter or something was considered an OK level. Now, the mantra seems to be: there's no safe level of lead.


GUPTA: Is that the way it's going to be with a lot of these other chemicals, that there's no acceptable safe limit?

LANDRIGAN: I think so. In the case of lead, back in the early 1970s, the acceptable blood level was 40 micrograms. And then we found that children who were suffering damage below 40. So, the level was lowered to 25. We found damage below 25.

In 1991, it was lowered to 10 micrograms. For the last decade, we've been finding damage below 10. And so, today, the mantra is that there's no level of lead in a child's blood that's safe.

I think you're absolutely right that we're going to find a similar trend for mercury, for phthalates, and probably other chemicals that -- whose toxicity is yet to be discovered because they've been never been properly tested.


GUPTA: All right. Stick around. That's Dr. Phil Landrigan. He's got much more just ahead. He's going to go to give us the list what you really need to do today to try to make your home as safe as it can be from dangerous chemicals.

Stay with us.



GUPTA: You said that there are things that consumers should be doing, maybe short of industry acting, consumers can do right now to try and protect themselves. What are some of those things?

LANDRIGAN: When I'm giving parents a list of the top half dozen things that they should do to protect their children against toxins in the environment, I start with lead. I say to parents: if you live in a house that was built before about 1976, assume that it has lead paint. Have it properly tested. Get rid of it.

Number two, minimize your use of pesticides, both in the home and out in the yard, in the garden.

Number three, eat organic. Get rid of pesticides in the diet.

And I would say avoiding synthetic chemicals like phthalates would come in next after that. I think they're important. Just on a relative scale not so important as lead or pesticides.

You can think about what cleaning products you bring into your home. Avoid the most toxic cleaning products and avoid cosmetics that contain phthalates, avoid toys and chewy objects that contain phthalates for little children. GUPTA: My wife uses diluted vinegar to clean our windows and mirrors. Actually, she gives me the diluted vinegar when I clean the windows and mirrors.

LANDRIGAN: And you should use newspaper, not cloth.

GUPTA: We do that. Yes, I think I read some of your papers or something.


GUPTA: Something what you're describing, you know, as a parent is, it's kind of frightening, you know, it's hard to hear a little bit. I mean, I -- first of all, with regard to the medical community, do most people know what you're describing? Has this been widely disseminated information?

LANDRIGAN: The information I'm described that all been published in the letter that appeared variously in "Lancets" and "Environmental Health Perspectives" and other periodic journals. But I think that perhaps the way that this information has been disseminated most widely and most effectively to the medical community has been through the launch over the past year of the National Children's Study. The National Children's Study is a huge longitudinal population-based supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The plan is to follow 100,000 children all across the United States, in 105 counties across the country, from early pregnancy all the way through to age 21. And the intention of the study is to discover all the exposures in the environment, the chemicals, the physical factors, the social factors, the other factors in the environment, that influence health and disease in our country's children. It's a wonderful opportunity.

GUPTA: The National Children's Study is funded in part by the U.S. government. Is that right?

LANDRIGAN: Really, in its entirety by the federal government, by the National Institutes of Health.

GUPTA: Based on the results of the children study, can folks at the EPA or the FDA eventually go and say, the results are in, you have to change, you have to stop releasing so many of these chemicals into the air and into the air and to our environment?

LANDRIGAN: That's certainly my hope. And the National Children's Study is big enough and beautifully designed and statistically powerful enough that it ought to give those kinds of answers.

GUPTA: Listen, it's an honor to meet you. And I admire the work that you're doing.

LANDRIGAN: Likewise. Thanks so much.

GUPTA: Thank you very much. (END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: When we come back, how toxic is your own home? That's our "Medical Mystery" and it's next.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

You know, your home is supposed to be the safest place on earth, right? There are things that can be hazardous to your health there, which leads to our "Medical Mystery" this week. What are some of the most toxic spots, or hot spots, in your house?

Let's start with the foyer in particular. First of all, it's easy to track harmful things all throughout your home, like workplace chemicals, garden pesticides, lawn fertilizers, road oil for cars and trucks.

These things are especially dangerous if you have babies or toddlers. Any parent knows this: they love to put everything in their mouths. They love to crawl around on the ground.

So, what do you do here? The solution is simple. Simply take off your shoes as soon as you come in the front door.

Try and travel over to the living room now. Believe it or not, this is something that surprised me, indoor air is two to five times more polluted than outside air. It's a huge concern for parents because so many kids spend so much time indoors nowadays, watching television, doing homework on the computer.

Furniture, carpets, drapes, a lot of the products that we buy give off an odor. A lot of people think of it as that new smell. But that's actually -- there's a term for this and it's called off- gassing. What you're smelling is probably, actually, formaldehyde or some other volatile organic compound. These chemicals have been linked to asthma, kidney and central and nervous system damage, and in some rare cases, cancer as well.

Now, keep in mind that even the new product -- that new smell -- does go away but it can still be toxic. And that's why it's a good idea to open all the windows, all the doors sometimes even, and air out your entire house.

I'm going to have a lot more about the potential dangerous toxins in our homes and in our entire environment as part of my special, two- night primetime special called "Toxic America." On Wednesday, I'm going to take you to one of the most toxic towns in the United States. Next night, I'm going to show you how the toxic chemicals our children are exposed to every day are impacting them. Both shows start at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

If you missed any part of today's show, be sure to check out my podcast,

Always remember, this is the place for the answers to all of your medical questions. Thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

More news on CNN starts right now.