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Unpredictable Dangers of Mining; Interview with Ken Cook

Aired April 10, 2010 - 07:30   ET


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

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

We've been talking a lot about mining towns this past week. What are the real risks of living in one of these towns even if you're not working in the mines?

And this man over here, Ken Cook -- I spent some time with him down in Louisiana. He says we're exposed to hundreds of toxic chemicals in our every day lives. And no one truly does know the risks.

And, finally, a real life medical mystery involving parents and the mysterious disappearance of their critically-ill baby. It is an amazing story. It's one of perseverance.

Let's get started.


GUPTA: This week, I spent sometime in West Virginia, at the site of that tragic mining disaster. You know, a lot of people are paying attention now, but I can tell you the impact of what's happening to this community has been going on for a very long time.


GUPTA (voice-over): Lorelei Scarbro is still waiting. In fact, Lorelei is waiting and worrying for decades.

LORELEI SCARBRO, WIDOW OF MINE WORKER: You're always concerned, every time they walk out the door, about a roof fall, about an explosion, about the danger, you know, that exists there. There are so many things that can go wrong.

GUPTA: So many dangers, some intense and unpredictable and others that some creep into miners' lives over time.

Lorelei's husband went to work at the mines for 30 years.

SCARBRO: Going a couple of miles underground in a very, very dark hole where it's dark and damp, and like I said before, if the mountain starts falling in on you, there is nowhere to go. And when the lights go out, you don't have any idea where to go or what to do.

GUPTA: That's in a case of an explosion. But Lorelei is also talking about something else, slower deaths: black lung -- coal dust killing off your lungs and literally turning them black. Over the past decade, 10,000 miners have died of lung disease. Kidney disease affects about 20 percent of miners and there's neurological complaints as well.

SCARBRO: My daughter called me very early this morning and she was -- she was very, very upset because she said, one of the hardest thing that she had to do was to send her husband to work today.

GUPTA (on camera): Today?

SCARBRO: Today. He is terrified. We all are. We all are because -- I mean, this could happen again today. And we're disposable commodities here. And, you know, the -- this is the only game in town. We live in a model (ph) economy.

GUPTA (voice-over): The waiting did end for Lorelei a few years ago.

(on camera): This is your husband's gravestone.

SCARBRO: Yes, it is.

GUPTA: What happened to him?

SCARBRO: My husband was diagnosed with black lung, totally disabled with black lung by the time he was 51-years-old.

GUPTA: Well, what does that -- I mean, what was he experiencing?

SCARBRO: Extreme shortness of breath. I was really surprised the first time that I saw an X-ray of his lungs. Kenny was -- he was a little guy. But his lungs were -- were, when I saw the X-rays, they filled up the whole chest cavity. They looked like these balloons that have been blown up with black lung. He really, really suffered.

GUPTA: This was definitely due to coal mining?

SCARBRO: Absolutely.

GUPTA: There's something else that Lorelei wanted to show me as well. This is her family cemetery. And you just see gravestones everywhere, just about everyone here has died of a mining-related cause.


GUPTA: You know, Lorelei said something else to me as well. She said, every time you turn on the light, every time you use power, think of us. I told her I will.

I wanted to dig deeper on this, you know? Even if you don't live in this type of community, are you breathing in hundreds of chemicals every day, you may not even know it. What are your real risks? That's later on the show.

But, first, living in a community where it's easier to buy a gun than a piece of fruit. A true story. One woman's fight to change her neighborhood -- that's ahead.


GUPTA: And every week at this time, I'm going to be answering your questions. Think of this as your own appointment. No waiting. No insurance needed.

And Richard asked this question, "How dangerous is food containing aspartame? And should we be avoiding it?" Richard from Ontario.

You know, first of all, there's a lot of suspicion on aspartame. Some believe it could cause cancer. It is in over 6,000 products, including soda, chewing, yogurt and pudding. We probably all had it at some point.

From a medical perspective, this is very interesting. In the early '90s, researcher noted that brain cancer rates seemed to increase around the same time that aspartame was introduced in this country. Later studies suggested aspartame could cause leukemia or lymphoma in rats and that even fuelled the fire more.

I'll tell you, though, current evidence does not seem to support this idea that aspartame could cause cancer or that it's unsafe. The FDA has weighed in on this. They say, up to 50 milligrams of aspartame per kilogram of body weight per day is acceptable.

So, say, for example, your only source of aspartame is diet soda and you're an adult weighing about 150 pounds or 68 kilograms, you could drink 15 12-ounce diet soda drinks in a day before reaching the maximum level of aspartame.

And I know some producers who get pretty close, by the way. But, seriously, though, as with everything, moderation is key.


GUPTA: You know, as much as we talk about health care and the problem of obesity on this program, it does really come down to individuals taking personal responsibility. There's no question about that. And the woman you are about to meet, well, she did just that. She saw this problem in her own community and she decided to take charge.


GUPTA (voice-over): LaDonna Redmond is on a mission. We met her two years ago right here in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago. It's a last place you'd expect to find a garden, but that's exactly what she showed me.

(on camera): What are -- what are we growing in here? LADONNA REDMOND, URBAN FOOD ACTIVIST: You know, any number of things. There's -- those are collard greens on the far aisle there.

GUPTA (voice-over): Redmond led an effort to start what she calls urban farm sites. Why? Because no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't find any fresh produce in the neighborhood.

REDMOND: If you wanted to, you could buy illegal drugs. You can get access to a variety of illegal drugs. If you wanted to buy a gun, you could buy a gun in this community. But if you wanted to find an organic tomato in this community, if you didn't want to come to the urban farm site, you wouldn't be able to buy one.

GUPTA: With few grocery stores nearby, most people do their shopping at convenience stores like this one, except they're full of chips, sugary drinks and candy.

And according to a new study from "The Journal of Pediatrics," shopping at these convenience stores is part of what's making our kids fat. Researchers talked to more than 800 kids outside convenience stores and found that, on average, they were eating 356 empty calories at every stop.

(on camera): What are you guys buying in there?


GUPTA: Chips?

KIDS: Candy.

GUPTA: I see.

(voice-over): But in lower income minority communities like this one, where high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity run rampant, Redmond says we can't afford to ignore the issue.

REDMOND: There has to be an insistence that healthy living and a healthy lifestyle is a must.

GUPTA: So, now, two years after we first met her, LaDonna's adding store owner to her list of professions.

REDMOND: And our project, Graffiti and Grub, really tries bring healthy life styles to the hip hop generation.

GUPTA: All in the hope that she can change the tide in the ever- growing storm of obesity.


GUPTA: LaDonna, great, great job.

There's a new study out there that casts some doubt on the cancer preventing properties of fruits and vegetables. I have some facts on that. Also, living on the fence line -- that's the best way to describe it. A fascinating conversation about chemicals, your health, and where you live. Why this man says we're all being exposed to chemicals every single day.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

You know, every week on this program, we're going to be taking you into the lives of some really fascinating people.

This week, I met up with Ken Cook. He's the co-founder and president of the Environmental Working Group. Now, this is an environmental advocacy organization. The goal of this nonprofit organization is to use the power of public information to protect the public health and the environment.

Now, I met up with Cook in Mossville, Louisiana. This is remarkable place -- in part, because it is surrounded by 14 chemical plants.


GUPTA: Where are we right now?

KEN COOK, ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP: Well, we're in one of the most heavily industrialized parts of the country, chemical plants all around, refineries. It's a place where you would expect a huge amount of air pollution.

GUPTA: When you look at a plant like this one behind us, do you worry when you see something that close to where people live?

COOK: Yes. I always worry when I see facilities like that because when you look at the statistics, when you look at the numbers behind a facility like that, the ones that are reported, what you see is tremendous amounts of air pollution coming out of those facilities. And anyone who's living nearby and breathing those fumes day in and day out is exposed.

GUPTA: How many Mossvilles are there out there? How many?

COOK: There are -- there are hundreds and hundreds of communities. They may not have as many facilities in such a dense concentration as Mossville, but there are communities all around the country where there's a chemical facility that's producing very valuable jobs, very important products but, also, producing emissions that affect their neighbors -- whether it's Parkersburg, West Virginia, whether it's St. Louis, Missouri, Anniston, Alabama, on and on and on.

So, in effect, we're standing in an example of the kind community of that's scattered throughout this country, often times, it's low income areas where the plants are located. Oftentimes, it's been very little government vigilance. Oftentimes, the state and local authorities side with the industry more often than with the people who are being exposed. The concerns of the community often aren't heard.

And the truth of the matter is that all of us in effect live on a fence line, when you think about exposures through consumer products, food, water, air. Because these chemicals know no boundaries, they certainly don't stop at the fence line, we're all, in effect, being exposed at various levels to various combinations of these chemicals every day.

GUPTA: So, people will say, look, this is -- you know, it's just the way it is now. You have plants like that. This is -- this is the world we live in.

COOK: It's modern live.

GUPTA: It's modern life. Can you really do anything about it?

COOK: Well, you know, we can. And the reason I say that is we've done it before. When we took lead out of gasoline, lead levels in the U.S. population plummeted. We took DDT off the market. Again, DDT levels measured in the blood of the American people dropped dramatically.

When you take that kind of action, you can reduce exposures and reduce the, in fact, internal dose that people receive of those toxic chemicals. We also know that when we did that, we didn't end gasoline production. Lead with -- gasoline without lead is -- we found substitutes that worked. We found different ways to control pests.

So, there are plenty of jobs to be had, plenty of industries to be flourishing without these toxic chemicals. We just need a system that moves us that way, in that direction.


GUPTA: And coming up now, exposed to some of these chemicals even before you're born. More of my conversation with Ken Cook.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

More of my interview now with Ken Cook. He's head of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy organization.


GUPTA: I live in a big town. You know, I think I live a pretty normal life.

If I were to be tested, what do -- what sort of things do you think would be found and what would I do about it?

COOK: It would -- it would depend on what we tested for and how much money we spent. If we spent several thousand dollars, we might find hundreds of toxic chemicals in you.

GUPTA: In me?

COOK: In you. Absolutely, yes.

Just because you live in a different area that looks very different from this, you live a normal life, go to work every day, go to a hospital, go to CNN and do your job, doesn't mean you wouldn't be exposed to hundreds of chemicals by virtue of the food you eat. Our food is contaminated with a lot of these chemicals, the air you breathe, the water you drink.

We would find household chemicals that you clean your sink and your countertop with. We would find chemicals that are in your television, in your telephones. We would find chemicals that are in the food that you eat.

Testing in some cases, umbilical cord blood. And we found over 200 toxic chemicals in just 10 samples. Some of them have been banned 30 years before, but still exist in the environment -- PCBs, DDT breakdown products.

GUPTA: You have an 18-month-old child.

COOK: I have an 18-month-old.

GUPTA: A beautiful little baby girl.

COOK: A very active guy.

GUPTA: And you and your wife -- based on everything you know what do you do differently?

COOK: When my wife was pregnant, we spent a lot of times on Web sites, including my own Web sites, trying to figure out what personal care products should we buy, what kinds of toys, what kinds of baby bottles. You can do a lot to reduce your own exposures and your family's exposures to toxic chemicals. There's no question about.

But it's just as clear that we can't shop our way out of this. We really shouldn't expect someone who's pregnant, a family that's expecting a new baby in the world, to have to spend as much time as you have to spend to eliminate all of these exposures. The government has more responsibility than it's taken on so far.

GUPTA: How do you -- how do you ultimately measure success? What puts you EWG out of business?

COOK: What puts out of business is when levels of chemicals in people start going down. What puts us out of businesses is when we see that the companies are making green chemicals, chemicals that don't last a long time in the environment. We know then that the economy is moving in the direction that we want it to move in, where we're enjoying the amenities of modern life but we're doing so without these toxic chemicals and the exposures to them.



GUPTA: Now, we've all heard that we should be eating five a day. You heard that phrase before? Five serving of fruits and vegetables? Why? Because it's good for you.

But it's also been thought that antioxidants and other good things in these foods could help prevent cancer. There's a new study out of Europe suggesting that the anti-cancer affect of such a diet rich in fruits and veggies may be a little smaller than we first thought. Maybe a 3 percent cancer risk reduction compared to 20 percent or 30 that was touted by some earlier studies.

Experts do agree still, of course, that you should eat your carrots, your tomatoes, your spinach, et cetera, it's good for your heart. It's good for your waistline as well. And, by the way, keeping the fat off is also a good thing because the estrogen in fat can fuel some cancers.

Also, a baby just two months before the earthquake, imagine that. Just two-months, her whole life really determined by the earthquake. She was critically injured. She was thought to be an orphan. Now, reunited with her parents after a tumultuous road of red tape. That's straight ahead.


GUPTA: A real life medical mystery now, this one involving parents and the mysterious disappearance of their critically ill baby. The mystery is now solved and I can tell you, it's an ordeal no parent wants to experience. They feared their baby daughter was dead. And after so much heartbreak and trauma, Baby Jenny and her parents are reunited.

Senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has the story.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The story of Baby Jenny starts here in this collapsed apartment building in Port-au-Prince. When the earthquake hit, two-month-old Jenny was with her mother, Nadine Devilme, who was knocked unconscious and taken to the hospital. Every day, Nadine, told her husband to, Junior Alexis, to go back to their home and search for Jenny in the rubble. And every day, for four days, Junior came back with the same answer, "I can't find Jenny."

The couple started to give up all hope of ever finding their daughter alive, until what the parents call a miracle happened.

(on camera): On the fifth day, somebody else found her alive and whisked her off to the hospital.

(voice-over): Jenny was brought to the field hospital where I was stationed.

DR. ARTHUR FOURNIER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI PROJECT MEDISHARE: She got a depressed skull fracture and something called a flail chest, broken ribs.

COHEN: Doctors said Jenny would die within hours if she didn't get to a real hospital in the United States.

(on camera): I thought the State Department wasn't allowing Haitian patient.

FOURNIER: I don't care what the State Department cares about.

COHEN: Defying the law, doctors put Jenny in an ambulance to get on to the plane to Miami. They assumed she was an orphan and told the driver, if you can get to the plane on time, we'll name the baby after you. The driver's name was Patricia. And for months, that's what the baby was called until it was learned that Jenny was her real name.

(on camera): Jenny was let into the United States and taken straight here, to Room 16 of the pediatric intensive care unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Now, by the time her parents found out she's been taken here, it was too late. They weren't allowed into the United States. They had no passport, no visa. They didn't even have proof that Jenny was their baby.

(voice-over): For nearly two months, Nadine and Junior tried to get Haitian and U.S. authorities to believe them that this was their child. I visited them in their home in a tent city.

(on camera): So, you say this is your baby?


NADINE DEVILME, BABY JENNY'S MOTHER (through translator): Yes. Jenny's my daughter.

COHEN: I mean, how does it feel as a mother to know that your baby has just flown off without to you another country?


DEVILME (through translator): I have a lot of problems that I can't sleep.

COHEN (voice-over): Meanwhile, back in the United States, lawyers arrange for a DNA test. It took weeks, but finally approved that Nadine and Junior were truly Jenny's parents. Several more weeks of legal work later, Nadine and Junior were allowed to come to the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Today is the day.

COHEN: At the Port-au-Prince Airport, Nadine and Junior thanked the doctors who saved their daughter's life and boarded a plane to Miami, to the foster home where their baby has lived for months.

A happy reunion for parents who once thought their daughter was dead in the rubble of Haiti's earthquake.

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Miami.


GUPTA: Such a cute baby. And I can tell you, Elizabeth says that the family is going to be staying in the United States for a year, because you saw there, Baby Jenny does need more physical therapy and medical care. Also, the International Rescue Committee is helping them find work and find a place to live.

If anyone wants to donate to help this group and others working to help the victims of Haiti, go to our "Impact Your World" Web site. That's at

Great stuff, Elizabeth.

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

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.