Posts tagged ‘environment’

EPA Takes a Closer Look at Flea and Tick Treatments

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced it will increase restrictions on topically flea and tick products because they recently documented “a significant increase” in the number of cats and dogs suffering adverse reactions to these products. Dermal, gastrointestinal and neurological effects were the reactions most commonly reported.

Over the last five years, the deaths of at least 1,600 pets related to topical flea and tick treatments were reported to the EPA. Because this was a dramatic increase in such events, the EPA recently conducted an intensive review of these products.

The Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) collaborated with EPA. The combined group studied incidents involving cats and dogs, looked at active and inert ingredients and evaluated product labeling. Data was collected from the manufacturers (or registrants) and other available sources.

The evaluation was somewhat problematic because each company collected different data on adverse reactions and information reported by pet owners was sometimes inconsistent. Incidents that weren’t included in the EPA’s evaluation were those from products without EPA registration numbers (I assume these are herbal products, but I’m not sure about this); those from other countries; reports that were considered to be  ambiguous; those that involved other pesticides or drugs (because the reaction couldn’t be definitively tied to the product); and incidents that involved multiple animals (because many of these included ambiguous data).

EPA stated that their evaluation indicated that additional restrictions should be applied to these products, though they didn’t provide much information on what these restrictions might be and they didn’t state whether restrictions will apply to over-the-counter products, prescription products or both.

They reported that small breed dogs were affected more often than medium and large breed dogs. This effect was especially pronounced in products containing cyphenothrin (the active ingredient in TriForce, Sentry Pro and Sargeants Gold) and permethrin (the active ingredient in K9 Advantix, Bio-Spot On and Vectra3D ).

They noted that thinner skin and a larger skin area to body volume in small dogs may be a factor in these reactions. However, EPA also stated that dosage ranges for many products appear to be too broadly defined on the lower end of the scale. They noted that pet owners who overestimate their dog’s weight and subsequently overdose their dogs may also be a factor. Attempts to save money by purchasing large doses to split between small dogs were believed to cause some problems as well. EPA emphasized the importance of following the manufacturer’s directions carefully, as misapplication may have been related to many incidents.

I was frustrated to see that while the EPA stated that they believe that the “inert” ingredients in these products are an important factor in adverse reactions – they aren’t discussed in the report because most of them are proprietary ingredients.

It was also disappointing to see that the EPA stated that the data currently required to assess the safety of these products don’t provide an adequate picture of the potential risks they pose to pets and pet owners. Apparently we should be a bit more cynical about the trust we put in the agency to protect us from chemical hazards.

Because most reactions occurred in dogs that were less than three years old, EPA encouraged pet owners to monitor their pets carefully for adverse reactions the first time a product is used. This is likely a factor, but I wonder if the fact that there are more young than old dogs and the strong possibility that young dogs are more often out in places where they’re exposed to pests and are therefore get treated more often, may be important too.

EPA notes that “a comparison of the absolute numbers of incidents among the different spot-on products in this report are not appropriate.” Ironically, they do not provide information on the number of incidents for each product – so I guess we just won’t worry about that (after all, we don’t want to stress out manufacturers). Problems in direct comparison include the fact that some products are used more frequently than others; some products have different market niches (which may affect usage and reporting); the relative ease of product use may affect incidents; data were collected and recorded by different entities; negative publicity about a product can have an effect on reporting; and as noted above, some incidents were not evaluated. While these are valid points I think that the consumer’s right to see this data outweighs the potential harm to manufacturers and vendors.

I couldn’t review the data but EPA noted that deaths and adverse incidents were reported for all the products included in the study.

In the end, the EPA recommended that pet owners get a veterinarian’s advice before using any product — especially if you are treating a weak, geriatric, sick, pregnant or nursing pet; a pet that is on prescription medication; or a pet that has previously had  a reaction to similar products.

The agency is inviting public comment on how to implement new measures to safeguard our pets from these products. A Federal Register notice announcing the opening of a docket was published on March 19, 2010. The docket number is EPA-HQ-OPP-2010-0229. Go here to comment.

Tips for safe use of topical flea and tick treatments

Weigh your pet before applying any treatment. Especially if you have a small dog. Overdosing is preventable!

Keep records of the products you use and the dates you treat your pet. This helps prevent over-dosing and can also be helpful information to your vet (and the reporting agency) in the event of an adverse reaction.

Read the label and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Pay attention to prohibitions against using a product on weak, elderly, sick, pregnant, or nursing pets. Follow all age restrictions. Only use a product on the species it is listed for (i.e. don’t put a product made for dogs on your cat and vice-versa).

Don’t put a product on your pet right before you leave for work or at bedtime – especially if this is the first time you’ve used this product on your pet or if the pet has had adverse reactions to products before. Keep an eye on your pet for a few hours so you can catch an adverse reaction quickly if it happens.

Keep the package the product came in. Don’t throw it out after you use it. Lot numbers and other product data are vital information if your pet has an adverse reaction.

Consult your veterinarian before using any product on a weak, elderly, sick, pregnant, or nursing pet; on a pet that has had adverse reactions to flea and tick products; or a pet that is on a prescription medication.

If your pet has an adverse reaction – call your vet immediately. If your regular clinic is closed, call an emergency clinic or the Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435. Have the product information ready and keep your pet in a quiet area where you can watch him.

Reporting adverse reactions

EPA recommends that veterinarians use the National Pesticide Information Center’s Veterinary Pesticide Adverse Effects Reporting portal to report incidents. This page is ONLY accessible by vet clinic staff. Please encourage your vet to use this service.

You can report adverse reactions to the company that manufactured the product. When you do, they are required to report it to the EPA. You should be able to find contact information on the product package.

You can also report adverse reactions to the EPA via their “ask a question” page. To do this go to the Pesticides Frequent Questions Web page and select “flea and tick” in the drop-down box. Then click on the “ask a question” tab and use the fields there to submit information on the product and reaction instead of asking a question.

March 24, 2010 at 10:00 pm 5 comments

Unintended Consequences

The earth’s vegetation is part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and animals. Sometimes we have no choice but to disturb these relationships, but we should do so thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place.
— Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

There are widespread reports that Merial’s topical flea and tick treatment Frontline has become ineffective in a disturbingly short period of time. The active ingredient in Frontline is fipronil, an insecticide in the phenyl pyrazole family. Fipronil blocks g-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors and interferes chloride passing through GABA-gated channels in non-mammalian species. At low concentrations, it disrupts nervous system function and at higher doses causes death.

Fipronil has been used in flea and tick preparations around the world since the mid-1990’s. As Heather noted in comments to the previous post, widespread problems with counterfeit Frontline have been documented.  (So much so that I strongly recommend you go to this link to an EPA page that provides information on how to identify counterfeit Frontline.) While I’m sure that the sale of counterfeit product is part of the issue with Frontline, I’m not convinced that it’s the only problem — or even the most troubling one.

Pesticide resistance occurs when a species adapts over a series of generations to have a decreased susceptibility to a specific chemical. Since no pesticide is completely effective in the natural environment, there will always be some organisms that survive exposure. Organisms can receive sublethal doses for a variety of reasons, but because only the most resistant organisms survive to pass their genes on to offspring, resistance can increase exponentially in a population. As Rachel Carson predicted in Silent Spring, problems related to pesticide resistance are increasing all over the world.

My friend Heather quite understandably professed skepticism that exposure to fipronil products applied to our pets would be sufficient to create an environment where widespread resistance could occur. If this was the only route of exposure, I suspect she would be right. But pet products only represent a very small percentage of fipronil use.

Fipronil is active against a wide array of pests other than fleas and ticks, and it is used in a number of different applications. Products containing fipronil were first marketed in 1993 and they are sold under a variety of brand names including Frontline, Regent, Termidor, Combat and Maxforce and they are used:

  • As flea and tick sprays for indoor and outdoor use.
  • In turfgrass management programs at parks and golfcourses.
  • As a termite preventative in some plywood products.
  • To control parasites on livestock in South and Central America.
  • As a replacement for the pesticide Dursban which was de-listed for on lawns and public areas.
  • In baits and other ant control products.
  • As a termite treatment.
  • As a cockroach treatment.
  • As a seed coating
  • As a broad spectrum insecticide treatment on potatoes, corn, cotton, sweet potatoes, bulb onions, cotton and vegetables.

As you can see, there are a lot of places where fleas and ticks can be exposed to fipronil. And in many cases, they’re inadvertently exposed to ineffectively low doses of the compound.

Not only is fipronil used in a wide range of environments, it also has an unfortunate tendency to stick around the environment for a long time. Pesticides like fipronil that break down slowly and remain on soil or vegetation can contribute to selection for resistant organisms for a long time after they are applied. Fipronil degrades slowly on vegetation and relatively slowly in soil. It is listed as being highly persistent on land with a terrestrial field test half life of 75 days.

Fipronil is phototransformed to a variety of breakdown products. One of these breakdown products, fipronil-desulfinyl, is more toxic and more persistent than fipronil.  The persistence of this breakdown product and its high neuroactivity, suggest that it may be a significant contributor to the effectiveness of fipronil. Unfortunately, it’s probably also a significant contributor to the development of fipronil resistance.

It’s possible that less effective (diluted) couterfeit fipronil containing products (especially those that are land applied) may be part of the problem as well. As we see in antibiotic resistance, exposing target organisms to ineffective doses of an pesticide will wipe out some, but not all, of the organisms. The surviving organisms may then become more resistant to the product and spread increased resistance to their offspring.

The low-dose effect may be a problem even when products are used at full potency because pests are exposed to lower doses of the product at the boundaries of the application area. Dilution, diffusion and breakdown effects also create situations where lower doses of persistent products can remain in and adjacent to sprayed areas for weeks or months after application.

I’m not the only one who believes that the indiscriminate use of acaricides (tick-killing agents) all over the world is leading to the selection of acaricide resistant tick strains. And fleas and ticks aren’t the only species that fipronil has had a significant effect on. Regent (a fipronil containing pesticide listed for agricultural use) is effective against a variety of pests, but there are increasing concerns about its environmental and human health effects. It was demonstrated to be responsible for a precipitous drop in bee populations in France. This occurred because fipronil causes bees to become disoriented and unable to return to their hives.

Fipronil provides us with a rather sobering example of the law of unintended consequences — the hubristic belief that humans can control the environment around us. It’s a reminder that management will always eventually fail — and Mother Nature will always bat last.

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes — nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the “good” and the “bad,” to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil — all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides.”
— Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

March 10, 2010 at 12:46 pm 8 comments

Pit Dog


The Auditor was an eccentric lone-wolf with a talent for showing up when and where he was least expected.  The old hermit was quite well-liked in spite of his taciturn nature.  In fact, this one of a kind pit dog became a local celebrity. As reported last summer in the High Country News:

The mysterious, mostly wild mongrel has survived for 16 years in a 5,000-acre moonscape, the acidic, heavy metals-laden confines of the Berkeley Pit and the town’s only remaining active mine. Ironically, the dog’s only help in hanging on has come from the compassion of active and retired miners.

“He really is a neat dog,” says Steve Walsh, operations president of Montana Resources, whose employees have adopted the dog as their mascot — as much as the dog will allow, anyway.

The Auditor was first seen roaming the mine in 1986 after he was reportedly dumped at the mine’s viewing stand by a heartless owner.  He died in his doghouse November 19, 2003 after surviving nearly 17 years on his own in one of the least hospitable places this side of the moon.

Not a single blade of grass, nary a tree, shrub or weed can survive on the sickly yellow and burnt-orange crust that dominates the dog’s home. Reeking of sulfur and acidity, this is the kind of soil that eats men’s boots, let alone the paws of any normal dog.

Butte Montana’s Berkeley Pit is an enormous open pit copper mine. A mile long, a half mile wide and almost 1,800 feet deep, it contains toxic levels of a veritable smorgasbord of heavy metals.  It’s the second largest open pit mine in the world and the largest Superfund site in the US.  Most of the site’s environmental problems are caused by acid mine drainage.  Pyrite and other minerals in the ore and wall rock are only chemically stable in anaerobic environments like those they form in. When mining actiities expose these minerals to water and oxygen they break down and release acid. Water in the Berkeley Pit has a pH of about 2.5, roughly the same as gastric acid.  These acidic waters are excellent solvents for metals. In fact, the water filling the pit contains such high dissolved metal concentrations that copper is recovered directly from it.  The toxic stew also contains elevated quantities of arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, iron, manganese and zinc. 

It’s incredible that a dog was able to survive for nearly two decades in such an inhospitable environment.  The Auditor’s success in avoiding acute heavy metal poisoning was likely related to the very strong and long-lasting effects of tatse-aversion learning. Taste-aversion learning is a type of classical conditioning where an animal associates the taste of a specific item with nausea or vomiting. Taste aversion is a valuable survival mechanism that allows animals to learn to avoid a poisonous substance in as little as a single exposure. Unlike most other classically conditioned responses, a strong association will be acquired even if the unconditioned respose (i.e. illness) occurs several hours after the neutral (but soon to be conditioned) stimulus. This innate ability to associate the taste, smell and appearance of a potentially harmful item ingested long before the illness occurred allows the animal to anticipate — and thus avoid — the problem in the future.

The Auditor’s ability to survive life on a Superfund site caught the attention of Holly Peterson, a professor of environmental engineering at Montana Tech of the University of Montana.  Peterson had conducted a study where she compared metal concentrations in hair samples collected from pet dogs living in Butte and Bozeman. Her study indicated that dogs that lived in Butte were exposed to much higher levels of arsenic, lead and cadmium than Bozeman dogs were. When she heard about the Auditor, she couldn’t help but wonder what kind of metal concentrations she’d find in his hair.

The report indicated elevated levels of everything imaginable, the professor says. To date, she has sampled more than 400 dogs with the help of her graduate students at UM/Butte. She hopes to use the data they’ve collected to develop a new method of using domestic pets as ways to evaluate health risks in the environment.

Pets are increasingly being used as domestic indicator species. They ingest pollutants in tap water, romp on pesticide treated lawns and lick trace amounts of cleaners, surface treatments and other trace contaminants off paws, toys and floors. Their compressed lifespans seems to make them develop health problems from exposure more quickly than we do.  In his own small way, the Auditor helped advance this kind of research.

RoadsideAmerica reports:

Even before he died in 2003, money was raised to build a monument to the dreadlocked dog. The larger-than-life, 300 pound bronze statue with a copper patina (the Berkeley Pit was a copper mine) has been displayed in a local coffee shop, then a shopping mall, and currently the Butte-Silver Bow Chamber of Commerce. The statue will eventually be put on permanent display at the Berkeley Pit Viewing Stand, along with a plaque telling Auditor’s story. The dog no doubt would use it as a urinal.

March 17, 2009 at 7:27 pm 4 comments

It’s a Poopy Job

But somebody has to do it.

From the Chicago Tribune:

Sable’s job stinks, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

The German shepherd mix is a sewage-sniffing dog. He works out of Lansing for Tetra Tech, an environmental engineering and consulting business.

Scott Reynolds, a former law enforcement K-9 officer, has trained the dog to sniff out the scent of human sewage and surfactants, some materials used in household detergents.

Reynolds uses Sable to detect illicit and failing septic connections that flow from homes into rivers and streams.

Illicit sewage discharges include raw sewage discharges, failing septic systems and the connection of sanitary sewer discharges to storm drains or open waterways.  These discharges have a large adverse impact on surface and groundwater quality.  Not only are the bacteria and viruses in these discharges are harmful to humans, animals and aquatic habitats; but excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the untreated waste can lead to excessive aquatic plant growth that depletes the dissolved oxygen needed by fish and other aquatic species.  These discharges may also contain other contaminants like paints, solvents, cleaning products, motor oil and antifreeze that also adversely impact surface water and groundwater.

Sable’s job is an important one.  Illicit sewage discharges pose a significant threat to water quality in many parts of the country.  He provides an accurate, energy-efficient way to detect potential discharges.

The dog wears a fluorescent green vest when he’s working, identifying him as a “Sewage Sniffing K-9,” part of Tetra Tech’s “Illicit Discharge Detection Unit.”

So far, Sable is 87 percent accurate, based on his barks and the results of about 200 lab samples, his handler says.

The dog is trained to bark at human sewage and ignore animal feces, and is best at detecting subtle scents that people don’t notice, Reynolds said.

Reynolds also wisely takes precautions to maintain Sable’s health:

Reynolds stressed that he cares about his dog’s health and has taken steps to make sure Sable isn’t adversely affected by his job.

He said he’s consulted with veterinarians, has blood work done regularly and gives the dog a bath at least once a day.

“He lives with me, so that’s important,” Reynolds said.

October 8, 2008 at 3:39 am Leave a comment

Children as “Indicator Species”?

Apparently I was caught up in an odd fit of presentiment when I wrote that post three weeks ago about pets as indicator species for the domestic environment.  This week, as reported widely on the web, the results of a study published by the Environmental Working Group revealed that young children have three times the blood levels of fire-retardant chemicals as their mothers.  Linda Birnbaum, PhD, a senior toxicologist with the EPA was quoted in an article on WebMD as saying:

The gap between mothers and their children was a surprise finding. Because of typically similar diet and exposures in the same household, “we would have expected similar levels,” says Anila Jacob, MD, MPH, a senior scientist at EWG. “What we found was, kids on average had three times the levels of toxic retardants polluting their blood compared to their moms.”

The chemicals are hormone-disrupting and potentially hazardous, especially to young brain development, Jacob and her colleagues say. But a spokesman for the flame retardant industry countered that the levels of chemicals, known as PBDEs or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, found in the study are quite low, in the parts per billion range.

I can not help but question Dr. Jacob’s understanding of the word “exposure.”  According to the EPA, an exposure assessment is defined as: “Identifying the pathways by which toxicants may reach individuals, estimating how much of a chemical an individual is likely to be exposed to, and estimating the number likely to be exposed.”  In most human adult populations exposure pathways like direct ingestion of dusts, particles and coatings are negligible.  But in toddler and pet populations – creatures who spend much of the day crawling around on all fours and putting things into their mouths – these represent major exposure pathways.

It is even more ironic that EWG missed this parallel to pets’ and childrens’ potential exposure pathways when one considers that the levels of PBDEs found in children who participated in the study were comparable to those “found harmful in laboratory animals:”

There is no established standard for safe blood levels, according to Jacob and Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst at EWG and a co-author of the report. “These findings raise concern about the effect of PBDEs on children’s brain development,” Lunder says. “These levels are uncomfortably close to doses found harmful in laboratory animals.”

Although there are no human studies, Jacob and Lunder point to studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others finding that PBDEs can be especially toxic to the developing brains of animals, with even a single dose of PBDEs causing ill effects.

What levels of PBDEs in blood or tissues DO cause “ill effects” – no one knows.  According to WebMD:

The EPA has set a “reference dose” for Deca, she says, which states that a daily oral dose of 7 micrograms per kilogram of body weight is believed to be without appreciable effects. But translating that to “safe” blood levels is not easy, she says, because the oral dose is different than what is stored in the body.

So now you ask, just exactly what are PBDEs? Well – generally speaking – PBDEs are a class of relatively large, artificially created molecules consisting of 209 possible congeners that contain 1-10 bromine atoms each. There are three common commercial mixtures of PBDE: Pentabromodiphenyl Ether (PeBDE or penta), Octabromodiphenyl Ether (OBDE or octa) and Decabromodiphenyl Ether (DBDE or deca). 

Why the heck do we use them?  Well, PBDEs are used as flame retardant additives in many common polymers, foams, plastics, upholstery, adhesives, sealants and coatings.  They are added to the materials treated, not chemically bonded with them. This makes them more susceptible being separated and lost from the materials they were added to. According to a report published in June 2006 by Environment Canada:

It has been estimated that approximately 90% or more of PeBDE produced globally is used in polyurethane foams in office and residential furniture, automotive upholstery, sound insulation and wood imitation products. OBDE produced globally is added to polymers (mainly acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), which are then used to produce computers and business cabinets, pipes and fittings, automotive parts and appliances (WHO 1994; European Communities 2003). DBDE is used as a flame retardant, to a large extent in high-impact polystyrene and other polymers, with broad use in computer and television cabinets and casings, general electrical/electronic components, cables and textile back coatings

Penta BDE and Octa BDE, were banned in Europe and their use has largely been discontinued in the U.S. because of their persistence, toxicity, and tendency to bioaccumulate. As a group, PBDEs have a low vapor pressure, low water solubility and a high octanol / water partition coefficient.  In common English this means that they have a tendency to remain as solid particles in the environment where they will preferentially bond to organic constituents. 

Deca PBDE is still used and produced in the US today.  Penta and Octa PBDEs, though no longer involved in most manufacture, are still present in older materials in nearly all modern homes. A further concern is the creation of potentially toxic breakdown products as these materials decay. Because they are rare and are not created in a controlled manner, little is known about these breakdown products. According to a July 22, 2008 web release from the American Chemical Society:

An EU ban on Deca BDE’s use began on July 1, and it has also been banned in some U.S. states. If the BDE-209 molecules that make up the majority of the Deca BDE formulation are conclusively shown to debrominate in the environment to produce the lighter-weight PBDE compounds, or congeners, associated with these discontinued formulations, the finding would increase pressure to end Deca BDE’s use in North America. Toxicology research has linked PBDEs to liver and thyroid toxicity and to learning, behavior, and memory problems.


La Guardia … notes that both he and Stapleton have detected in environmental samples what he calls “oddball congeners,” such as BDE-179, BDE-184, and BDE-202, which contain seven or eight bromine atoms; these congeners are not found in any commercial mixture. In fact, Stapleton says that many studies now demonstrate significant formation of the so-called oddball congeners under environmentally relevant conditions.

How common are PBDEs (and their breakdown products) in the environment? A report published in June 2006 by Environment Canada reports that:

PBDE concentrations have increased exponentially in arctic biota over the past two decades and have been measured in Arctic air. This suggests efficient long-range atmospheric transport of PBDEs.

PBDEs have been detected in all environmental media as well as sewage sludge, and there is evidence that their levels in the North American environment are increasing.

Measured data indicate that tetra-, penta- and hexaBDE are highly bioaccumulative and satisfy the criteria for bioaccumulation in the CEPA 1999 regulations. Concentrations of PBDEs in herring gull eggs have increased exponentially between 1981 and 2000 at Lake Ontario, Huron and Michigan sampling sites. Concentrations of PBDEs (predominantly tetra- and penta BDE congeners) have also increased exponentially between 1981 and 2000 in Arctic male ringed seals. 

I can’t help but wonder what kind of PDBE concentrations we’d find if we tested house pets.  I suspect that since they appear to be subject to exposure pathways that are similar to our young children, that we’d see levels that were similar – if not higher – in their blood and tissues.

I hope that the increasing incidence of cancer seen in our pets isn’t a harbinger of what we can expect for our children. Given that many dog breeds suffer from significantly higher incidences of certain types of cancers than others; inbreeding, founder effects and related genetic problems are likely a factor; but our pets’ much higher exposure to the thousands (millions?) of trace additives found in modern household products may also be an important factor.

 How important a factor?  Well – until further research is done the answer, once again, is “We don’t know.”

September 7, 2008 at 5:54 pm 7 comments

Wild Wolves Return to Germany

Until recently, the European gray wolf was thought to be extinct in most central European countries, but Deutsche Welle World reports that:

The mournful howling of wolves is echoing these days through the forested woodlands of eastern Germany for the first time in centuries.

According to experts, one reason for the return of the cunning canine is that all its natural enemies have disappeared.

Odd.  I was under the impression that the primary natural enemy of the wolf was humans – and last I heard there were about 82 million people in Germany…

Regardless, I’m pleased to hear that, in recent weeks, wolves have been sighted in forests between Berlin and Hamburg — Germany’s two most populous cities. And it sounds like conditions in this part of Europe may support further increases in populations.  Again from Deutsche Welle World:

“It is only a matter of time before wolves spread all across northern Germany in their move ever-westward,” said Josef Reichholf, a biology professor at the University of Munich.

“Northern Germany is the perfect habitat for the wolf,” Reichholf said. “Aside from two large cities, Berlin and Hamburg, the region is sparsely settled. There are vast areas of woodlands, lakes and dark forests.”

Northern Germany will be a turning point for the wolf population, he said.

“This is the region where we shall see whether the wolf spreads further westward and, if so, in what numbers,” he added.

The populations of other wild creatures including foxes, weasels, otters, raccoons and moose-elk are also on the rise in Germany.  According to Reicholf:

Many of the smaller mammals, such as raccoons and foxes are encroaching on urban areas, and are bringing wolves in their wake. Reichholf said it is not the food that humans eat which interests foxes so much as the animal companions of humans — rats, mice, pigeons — and also the plentiful and often overflowing garbage that humans generate. Raccoons thrive on human garbage.

This does not mean that wolves will be moving into cities, however. He pointed out that wolves are shy creatures who avoid humans whenever possible.

Based on what I read in this article, the Germans seem to have a pragmatic approach to increasing wildlife populations.  The head of the state hunting association was quoted as saying:

“Wolves are certainly welcome here as they enrich the local wildlife assortment,” he said. “Of course, if they become a pest, hunters will have to go after them to keep their population number in check as we do with red foxes.”

It’s refreshing to hear a story where human hunters are considered to be part of the natural ecosystem, and viewed as a healthy way to control animal populations (now let’s just hope they do it correctly by culling inferior animals instead of hunting for trophies…)  According to the story, many Germans also appreciate the benefits of wild predators:

They decimate not only mice but also other small mammals and snakes and other egg thieves,” said Torsten Reinwald of the German Hunting Association.

“We actually get appeals from residents to kill more foxes, because they are eliminating too many predators in some nature wildlife preserves,” Reinwald said.

Health experts say the large canines are helpful in eliminating road kill and other cadavers which can pollute rivers and ponds.

Many of the wolves live in areas humans avoid.  These include a region called the Spreewald (a former Russian military training area littered with corroded bombs and landmines) and an active military training area in Saxony.  Ironically, these seem to be the safest places for them.

As populations increase, the goverment provides advice to those who raise livestock (primarily sheep) on how to limit losses to predation.  Farmers who lose stock are compensated by the government.

European Grey Wolves
click on image to donate
to the WWF wolf fund

August 27, 2008 at 2:35 am 3 comments

Common Odorants Not People- or Pet-Friendly

Today’s 60-Second Science podcast from Scientific American exposes some eye-opening information on the odorants added to products like detergents and air fresheners.  Apparently, the manufacturers of these products are not required to list all the ingredients in their them.  So — instead of listing all the odorant chemicals in the product, the labels often simply state that they contain a “mixture of perfume oils.”  Thanks FDA!

After hearing that many people reported feeling sick when exposed to strong scents in many of these products (count me in as one of those people – I DETEST artificial odorants), Dr. Anne Steinemann of University of Washington analyzed several of the products.  From SciAm:

According to her report in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review, plug-in air fresheners, scented sprays, dryer sheets and detergents all contained a mixture of volatile organic compounds.

(…) five out of the six products Steinemann tested emitted one or more so-called hazardous air pollutants, which are carcinogens determined to have no safe exposure level by the EPA.   While the study did not test for any human health risk from exposure to these chemicals, Steinemenn says the next time the air in the house smells stale, maybe you just open a window. reported that:

Steinemann decided to do the study, she tells WebMD, after receiving more than 200 consumer complaints about side effects from fragranced products.

“I actually witnessed someone having a seizure when exposed to an air freshener,” she says. She picked six fragranced products — laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, and air fresheners in solid, spray, and oil form.

In a laboratory, she put each product in an isolated space at room temperature. Then she analyzed the surrounding air for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — small molecules that evaporate from the surface of the product into the air. She used advanced methods called gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify the VOCs.

Thank you Dr. Steinemann for reminding my why I gave up fabric softeners and now make my own laundry detergent and air freshener spray.  Also big thanks to bff Audrey who made me a couple of batches of laundry detergent (one liquid and one dry), gave me a kit and some recipes and got me hooked on the best, cleanest — and cheapest — way to clean clothes. reports that:

In the current study of the six products, Steinmann found almost 100 different VOCs emitted by the products under scrutiny.  None of the products listed any of the toxic ingredients on their labels.  Of the six products, five of them emitted at least one carcinogenic substance classified as a “hazardous air pollutant” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and for which there is no known safe level of exposure.

Of all the VOCs revealed in Steinmann’s analysis, 58 of them tested above the 300 micrograms per cubic meter mark, a level considered hazardous or toxic for them all, according to EPA standards.  The plug-in air freshener alone emitted more than 20 VOCs.  The product’s label listed these toxic VOCs as simply a “mixture of perfume oils.”

There are no regulations in the United States that require ingredients labels to list all substances used in the manufacture of personal care and grooming products, laundry products, and air fresheners.  The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires an ingredients list for cosmetics but no federal agency requires a list of the chemicals required to produce the fragrances the cosmetics or other products emit.

So, let’s get this straight.  If I am buying a personal care or grooming product, a laundry product, or an air freshener — the FDA doesn’t care what kind of toxic waste ingredients the manufacturer puts in it?  Lovely.

In a bit of unfortunate (for the manufacturer, Proctor & Gamble) timing, Febreze issued a PR release last week announcing their new “pet-friendly collection.”  The release states that:

Febreze, the leading line of home freshening products and a favorite among pooches and purrs, is extending its revolutionary Pet Odor Eliminator technology into a complete pet-friendly collection. Febreze Fabric Refresher and Air Effects Pet Odor Eliminator offerings will be joined this summer by Febreze Candles Pet Odor Eliminator and Febreze NOTICEables Pet Odor Eliminator, delivering breaths of fresh air to pet-loving homes across the country.

Unlike many air fresheners that just cover up pet odors with a heavy perfume, Febreze Pet Odor Eliminator products eliminate pet odors in the air while at the same time delivering a light, fresh scent. Febreze has come full circle with the entire line, now offering pet owners a wider array of tools to de-stink and freshen up, while maintaining a happy and healthy home for their furry loved ones.

Happy maybe.  Healthy — now that’s debatable.  Given the results of Dr. Steinemann’s research, I think I’ll either open my windows to blow bad odors out of my home, or I’ll use a home-made essential oil spray to cover them up.

August 15, 2008 at 5:00 pm 3 comments

If I Had a Dog House

I’d want one of these:

The Greenrrroof Animal Home from Sustainable Pet Design.  It’s a thing of great beauty.  According to the manufactuer, it “smells good, grows plants, attracts butterflies, filters water, insulates and repels fleas – naturally.”

Green roofs are constructed from a system of layers including waterproofing, drainage, a growing medium and vegetation.  Most people think that they’re a new idea, but green roofs have been used for centuries in Iceland and Norway and they were also an integral part of prairie sod houses.

Green roofed houses in Iceland

It’s almost enough (almost!) to get me to kick the beasties out.  Heck, maybe I’ll just get one for the pure aesthetic joy of it.

According to a recent story in the LA Times:

Landscape architect Stephanie Rubin and her partner, sculptor Chris Isner, sell doghouses with rooftop gardens for $1,000 to $4,000. Your homemade version will cost a lot less — and the dog in residence will appreciate a plant-topped refuge that is cooler, in every sense of the word, than anything else around.

Incredibly cool.  Glacially even.  And – just in case you’re handy – Rubin and Isner have thoughfully provided detailed instructions on their website so that you can build your own! 

The primary structure consists of a gently sloped roof constructed a lot like a giant sandbox. Drainage spouts at the lower end of the roof remove excess water and divert it away from the dog house.  The folks at Sustainable Pet Design coat the roofs of their houses with beeswax or a low-VOC rubberized roofing compound.

The roof surface is then covered with a gravel drainage layer and landscape filter fabric.  A planting medium is installed over the fabric and pet-friendly, low-maintenance, nonpoisonous plants complete the system.

Wonderful.  I wonder how a tallgrass prairie version would look out in my yard?  I could cover it with big bluestem, milkweed, bergamot, clover and violets.  Or maybe I should go with the southern boreal version with meadow rue, bedstraw, gooseberry, bracken and trilliums?

What a lovely dream…

July 14, 2008 at 3:38 am 2 comments

How Holistic Are You?

A couple of days ago Christie Keith over at the Pet Connection Blog wrote a great post about what holistic pet care is – and what it isn’t.

Christie summed it up beautifully when she wrote:

Which is why it comes as such a shock to so many of my holistic brethren when I go on one of my semi-patented diatribes against people who won’t do diagnostic testing or use antibiotics. “Christie,” they mutter darkly, “isn’t holistic enough.”

But you know what? I think I’m more holistic than they are. Because holistic isn’t about the substances you use; it’s about how you think.

It’s about looking at the whole animal and his or her whole environment, genetics, and lifestyle. It’s about making the best, most informed decision possible using all available resources, the one that relieves suffering and illness without doing harm. Balancing risk and benefit. Not seeing the animal as a collection of parts, but as a living creature in a dynamic environment.

‘Holistic’ is currently the buzzword of choice to market anything natural, edgy, new age or outside the norm.  Holistic sells.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. I think a holistic approach is great. In fact, I believe that I am a holistic dog trainer.

But using a holistic approach doesn’t mean that I only use the latest, hottest, hippest, natural and organic approaches.  In a true holistic approach we look at the whole system instead of focusing on individual parts (no matter how fascinating those parts might be).  And, as we are beginning to discover (yet again) in the new science of emergence – the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

Emergence can be described as a property or phenomena of a system that can’t be predicted from the properties of its constituent parts.

A simple example of an emergent system is a cake. Considered separately, none of the ingredients we use to bake this tasty concoction has the properties of “cakeness” (frosted, light-textured, sweet, solid and yet crumbly) however, when we mix those ingredients mix together and bake them, the properties of “cakeness” emerge.

We can see emergence at lower level of organization in our “cake” system.  Individual molecules of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen have no flavor whatsoever.  But mix them together in the specific formula C12H22O11 and the taste of sugar emerges.

Like cakes and sugar, most systems exhibit emergence not only several different scales but also with respect to many different properties.

So, what does this have to do with dogs, dog health and dog training?


Behavior problems emerge from the systemic effects of improper diet, health problems, lack of exercise, lack of mental stimulation, improper socialization, stressful living environments and more.

Spinal problems can make a dog dislike being handled by the neck or collar.  Being carried everywhere and never learning to develop proprioceptive skills can make a dog nervous and insecure.  Allergies can make dogs restless and irritable.  Some foods, like corn, seem to make dogs feel hyperactive and nervous.  Too much noise, action or other stimulation can make a dog crabby or even aggressive.  Spinal problems can make a dog dislike being handled by the neck or collar.  Being carried everywhere and never learning to develop proprioceptive skills can make a dog nervous and insecure.  Allergies can make dogs restless and irritable.  Some foods, like corn, seem to make dogs feel hyperactive and nervous.  Too much noise, action or other stimulation can make a dog crabby or even aggressive.

Health, diet, confidence-building exercises and mental and physical exercise are all valuable parts of a good behavior modification program — but if we focus on just one piece and ignore the rest we’re not going to see a broad-based, emergent change occur.

Your dog’s health, diet, exercise regimen (including both the type and amount of exercise he gets), living environment and early socialization experiences are all part of his training regimen – whether you consciously guide and control them or not.

It’s food for thought. 




April 15, 2008 at 4:24 am 6 comments

Sled Dogs and Sniffers Help Study Mercury

Scientists are using dog hair to study mercury contamination in the environment and to assess how levels of the contaminant in food supplies may affect human populations.

“The foods sled dogs are eating are scraps left over from people in the villages,” said Peter Bowers, an archaeologist at Northern Land Use Research, an Alaskan consulting firm, who contributed to a study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment in October.

Sled dogs eat a diet rich in fish, similar to that partaken by Alaska’s indigenous population.  Scientists hope to use data from sled dog populations to find out how much mercury humans are eating and determine where contaminants enter the food chain. Fish accumulate varying levels of mercury depending on their habitat and diet.  Scientists hope that mercury levels in dog hair from different husky populations will provide information on mercury levels in the native fish they eat.

The study included samples of hair collected from dogs in five regions of Alaska as well as from a sample collected from sled dog remains dating back to 780 A.D.  Another study also included samples collected from dogs living in the states of New York and Alaska who were fed a commercially-prepared diet.


The highest levels of mercury were detected in modern dogs living in a village near the Bering Sea. The lowest levels of mercury were detected in the archaeological group and modern dogs in New York who were fed a commercial diet.  Dogs fed a commercial diets or who ate native diets but lived in areas farthest from the sea had the lowest levels of the modern day Alaskan group.

Salmon eat mercury-contaminated plankton and algae. The metal accumulates in their bodies and is passed on when a dog or other animal eats them.

The study focused on mercury levels in sled dog fur because people don’t often want to participate in research studies.  Hair analyses are used because collecting hair samples is far less invasive than testing organs or blood, and hair samples provide a good indicator of mercury levels in an organism.

Interested in getting your dog’s hair tested for mercury levels?  You can do it here:  HairAnalysisLab (Though I am more than a little concerned about a laboratory group that can’t spell the word ‘analysis’ correctly….) 

Another way dogs help us study mercury in the environment is by working as detection dogs.  Clancy, a Labrador retriever mix employed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), has been trained to sniff out mercury in schools and laboratories.


In the last five years, Clancy (who was adopted from the humane society) has helped rid schools of more than 1,500 pounds of mercury.  He and his handler are tested for mercury every 3 to 12 months.  

Because they could potentially be exposed to high levels of the toxin, they have their blood tested instead of their hair as this provides for a greater level of short-term accuracy in detection.

March 23, 2008 at 6:39 pm Leave a comment

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