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News

September / 2017

Federal Panel Votes to Protect Public Against Flame Retardants in Baby Products, Furniture

Huge Win for Environmental Health Advocates

On September 20, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) granted a joint petition to ban the entire harmful chemical class of organohalogen flame retardants in children’s products, furniture, mattresses, and electronics cases.

The Chicago Tribune reported  that Commissioner Robert Adler compared industry arguments against taking action to Big Tobacco’s attempts to delay government responses to the health dangers of cigarette smoking, stating, “The more evidence accumulates, the stronger we see the case against the use of these chemicals.”

JMF grantees Earthjustice and the Learning Disabilities Association of America joined with many others to submit the petition in 2015, hoping that the CPSC would act, as they have, to protect children, firefighters, and consumers from the dangerous health impacts of flame retardants.

This ruling sets a precedent of considering entire classes of chemicals with similar properties and similar hazards, rather than considering them one chemical at a time, which can lead to regrettable substitutions. The Green Science Policy Institute is doing valuable work popularizing this class-based approach to safer chemistry. Their six-minute video on flame retardants is available here.

While the new rule is being enacted, the CPSC will publish a Guidance Document in the Federal Register advising manufacturers of children’s products, furniture, mattresses, and electronics cases to decrease the unnecessary use of organohalogen flame retardants in their products. The commission also set in motion what will likely be a contentious debate about new regulations prohibiting manufacturers from adding any halogenated flame retardants to products covered by the ban.

Overall, the CPSC’s actions should go a long way toward moving the market towards healthier products.

October / 2015

Pilgrim Nuclear Plant Will Shut Down

In March 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused a power outage at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. As a result, four reactors exploded, melting down three nuclear cores and releasing radiation from a fourth.

This disaster prompted former John Merck Fund Program Officer Anna Baker to investigate the Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts. She discovered that the reactors were the same model – and had the same flaws – as those in Japan. During the Fukushima disaster, Japanese authorities evacuated a 50-mile radius around the plant. That same radius around the Pilgrim Plant is home to nearly 5 million people.

Anna, her neighbors and local advocacy organizations quickly banded together to highlight safety issues plaguing the Pilgrim plant, hoping to prevent a similar disaster in their backyards. This week, Pilgrim’s parent company, Entergy Corp, announced it would close the plant, citing in part the costs of complying with safety, public health and environmental regulations.

The nuclear reactors in question – manufactured by General Electric in the 1970s – have had safety issues since they were first produced. Three engineers even quit the company in protest of safety shortcomings on this specific model. The Pilgrim plant also has had numerous safety issues, including power outages and problems with a safety valve that prompted the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to downgrade the safety rating of the reactor, naming it one of the three least safe reactors in the country.

Anna and her neighbors created a coalition of 27 groups and more than 600 members to respond to these safety concerns. They gave cover to whistleblowers within the plant, organized opposition in local government, and monitored activities at the facility to ensure elected officials and regulators knew of ongoing violations at the plant. Without these dedicated individuals, it is hard to say if or when regulators would have confronted Pilgrim’s ongoing problems.

The coalition’s work isn’t over. The plant could potentially operate through June 2019, and decommissioning the plant and handling nuclear waste will present ongoing challenges to the community. Still, The John Merck Fund applauds the coalition for its role in decommissioning the Pilgrim plant, and we have confidence it will be an effective watchdog as this process continues.

September / 2015

JMF “Sparkplug” Gary Cohen Named MacArthur Foundation Fellow

Gary Cohen, who was the second recipient of JMF’s Sparkplug Award in 2007, was named a 2015 MacArthur Fellow, a distinction accompanied by a $625,000 grant paid out over five years.  The John Merck Fund congratulates him on this accomplishment.

Gary is a social entrepreneur and activist spurring environmental responsibility in health care both in the United States and abroad. In 1996, he co-founded Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), initially a grassroots cooperative, to bring attention to the fact that American hospitals had been major contributors to environmental pollution and had been largely ignoring the damage to local communities and environments caused by extensive use of harmful chemicals in medical devices, toxic cleaning agents, reliance on fossil fuels, and disposal of waste via incineration. Gary has led a paradigm shift in the perceived responsibility of health care providers, from a narrow, patient-centered duty of service regarding individual health to a broader obligation to also “do no harm” to surrounding communities, their residents and the global environment.

He has since expanded HCWH’s mission to engage environmental scientists, medical professionals and institutional leadership around the broader challenges of sustainability, climate change and community health. To that end, he has also founded or co-founded other organizations, including the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, a data-driven platform that guides hospitals in purchasing safer chemicals and healthy food and implementing energy efficient technologies, and Practice Greenhealth, a US­-based membership organization for hospital systems to share best practices, information and tools for environmentally responsible patient safety and care. In these ongoing strategic collaborations, Gary is repositioning environmentally conscious health care as prudent, cost-effective and easily within reach.

April / 2015

JMF Trustee Dr. Frederica Perera Receives $250,000 Heinz Award

Frederica Perera, DrPH, PhD, Founder and Director of the Columbia (University) Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) at the Mailman School of Public Health, was named a recipient of a prestigious Heinz Award for the Environment, which includes an unrestricted cash award of $250,000. Dr. Perera is being recognized for pioneering the field of molecular epidemiology and for her decades-long research to illuminate the health consequences children suffer from prenatal and childhood exposures to hazardous chemicals, for the benefit of parents, health professionals and policymakers.

February / 2013

The John Merck Fund Announces Initial Grants In Multi-Year Program to Support Translational Research into Developmental Disabilities

The Research Program Will Focus on Down Syndrome and Fragile X Syndrome,with Three Initial Million-Dollar Grants Awarded

BOSTON, MA – February 13, 2013 – The John Merck Fund announced today the first three grants – of $1 million each – through its new multi-year research program to support translational research into developmental disabilities. The Translational Research Program supports scientists in developing treatments and improving outcomes for individuals with developmental disabilities, particularly Down syndrome and Fragile X syndrome (and FX-associated disorders).

“Through this Program, the Fund is expanding its longstanding commitment to improving the lives of people with developmental disabilities and their families,” said Olivia Farr, Chair of The John Merck Fund. “The Program will make approximately 10 grant awards of $1 million each.”

“What’s especially exciting about this Program,” said Marsha Mailick, PhD, Chair of the Fund’s Scientific Advisory Board, “is that it supports research with potential game-changing impact that is within the realm of probability – not just possibility – and could be achieved within 10 years.”


 

Today’s announcement highlights the first three of those awards, and the recipients are as follows:

  • Craig A. Erickson, MD – Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (Cincinnati, OH)

Project Title: Acamprosate in Fragile X Syndrome

Project Summary: There is strong evidence to suggest that acamprosate – a drug that has already been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in treating alcohol dependence – could be a safe and efficacious drug treatment for youth with Fragile X syndrome (FXS). This research project will provide the first double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of acamprosate in youth with FXS. In doing so, it will lay the groundwork for future potential acamprosate research across a broad spectrum of developmental disabilities.

  • David R. Hessl, PhD – Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry,UC Davis MIND Institute (Sacramento, CA)

Project Title: Cognitive Training for Fragile X Syndrome

Project Summary: Extensive research focused on animal models of Fragile X syndrome shows that targeted pharmacological agents can reverse some cognitive and behavioral deficits. This work has led to multiple controlled trials now underway in humans with FXS; however, there are no empirically validated cognitive or behavioral treatments of FXS. This research project will provide the first non-pharmacological, controlled trial for FXS and will evaluate the efficacy of Cogmed, an online cognitive training program proven to enhance working memory and executive function – but not yet with FXS. Demonstration of effective Cogmed training for FXS would represent a major advance in the field, one that may also generalize to other forms of intellectual disability.

  • Jeanne B. Lawrence, PhD – Interim Chair andProfessor of Cell and Developmental Biology & Pediatrics, University of Massachusetts Medical School (Worcester, MA)

Project Title: Accelerating Down Syndrome Progress by Translating Dosage Compensation to Trisomy

Project Summary: Where most people have two copies of Chromosome 21, those with Down syndrome (also known as trisomy 21) have all or part of a third copy of this chromosome. This project will pursue a unique approach to Down syndrome translational research based on the concept of functionally correcting the over-representation of Chromosome 21 genes, by de-activating one of the three copies of Chromosome 21. The Lawrence lab has long worked on uncovering basic mechanisms whereby the expression of normal genes is controlled during development, through a process termed epigenetics (changes to how DNA is packaged). The overall goal in this project is to translate recent developments in understanding these basic epigenetic mechanisms to a new research frontier in chromosome pathology that accelerates clinical translational progress in Down syndrome.


 

These grant awards were made through a competitive review process that began with 100 preliminary proposals and was narrowed down to 17 full proposals.

Future Grants: Applications for future grant awards under this Program can be submitted through the process described on the Fund’s website. Initial submissions for the next round of grants (including the title of the project, a 200-word abstract, a two-page narrative description of the research activities and plans for the future, and the NIH biosketches of the Principal Investigators and all members of the team) are due on May 15, 2013. From the preliminary proposals, a limited number of full proposals will be requested for submission by September 16, 2013.

For this Program, the Fund is advised by a Scientific Advisory Board, chaired by Marsha Mailick, PhD, Director of the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and composed of such other distinguished experts as Guoping Feng, PhD (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Daniel Goldowitz, PhD (University of British Columbia), Michael Guralnick, PhD (University of Washington), Charles Nelson, PhD (Children’s Hospital Boston/Harvard Medical School), Joseph Piven, MD (University of North Carolina), and Brad Schlaggar, MD, PhD (Washington University in St. Louis). George Jesien, PhD, Director of the Association of University Centers on Disability, is an ex-officio member.

The John Merck Fund has had a longstanding interest in people with intellectual and developmental disorders since its inception in 1970. In October 2011, the Fund announced that it will spend all of its assets over the next 10 years to spur progress in four topic areas: treatment of developmental disabilities, clean energy, environmental health, and development of a New England regional food system. The Translational Research Program is part of that ongoing commitment.

For more information, contact Nancy Stockford, Developmental Disabilities Translational Research Program, The John Merck Fund, 2 Oliver Street, 8th Floor, Boston, MA 02109; nstockford@jmfund.org; telephone: (617) 556-4120.

October / 2011

Coal and Health Report Available

The John Merck Fund and the Growald Family Fund commissioned the Environmental Health Fund and Coming Clean to prepare a report, “Health Messengers and Coal Plant Campaigns: New Investment Opportunities and Lessons Learned from the Chemicals Reform Movement.” Click here for a PDF copy of the report.

October / 2011

The John Merck Fund to Spend Out, Refocus Programs

The John Merck Fund has announced it will spend all of its assets over the next ten years to spur progress in clean energy, environmental health, development of a New England regional food system, and treatment of developmental disabilities.

The Boston-based foundation, established in 1970 by the late Serena Merck and now in its third generation of family leadership, currently holds $80 million in assets. Under a plan approved by its board of trustees, The John Merck Fund will begin the spendout in January 2012, award its last grants in 2021 and close its doors in 2022. Allowing for investment income earned during the ten-year period, the foundation estimates that total grantmaking could approach $100 million.

“The challenges posed by oil dependence, exposure to chemicals, unhealthy foods and developmental disabilities are enormous, but so are the opportunities for progress,” said George Hatch, The John Merck Fund’s board chair and a grandson of the founding donor. “Our board feels the Fund should contribute all it can to help propel extraordinary initiatives taking shape in these issue areas. We believe extra effort today will boost the odds of dramatic improvement down the road.”

In conjunction with its spendout plan, The John Merck Fund is revamping its four grant programs, developing cross-program synergies, and preparing to make complementary mission-related investments in order to achieve maximum impact during the next decade.

Two of the programs, Clean Energy and Regional Food Systems, will focus exclusively on New England, while the Health and the Environment and Developmental Disabilities programs will remain national in scope.

Clean Energy Program grants will promote the development of a clean-energy economy in the six-state New England region. Specifically, the program will seek improved air quality and a ten-year, region-wide greenhouse gas emissions reduction of 20 percent by supporting projects to boost energy efficiency, reduce use of coal and other fossil fuels, and expand the New England’s clean energy market.  One of the Fund’s objectives is that the region becomes coal-free within ten years.

Regional Food Systems Program grants will help strengthen innovation and entrepreneurship in New England’s expanding market for regionally and sustainably grown food by funding initiatives to develop institutional demand and the regional supply network.

Health and the Environment Program grants will support development and implementation of market signals and government policies that encourage a transition away from petroleum-based chemicals linked to preventable diseases.

The Developmental Disabilities Program, the Fund’s original grantmaking area, will shift its focus from basic research to clinical and translational research, with primary emphasis on children who have Fragile X or Down syndromes.  The goal is to help these children and their families by encouraging research collaborations that bridge basic and clinical science, more rapid translation of findings into treatment settings, and promulgation of best clinical practices.

“The board and staff of The John Merck Fund have spent almost a year developing what we believe to be an ambitious yet realistic set of goals and funding strategies,” said Ruth Hennig, the foundation’s executive director. “We are all excited about embarking on the next decade with a sharpened purpose and focus.”