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Weigh the value of new ‘tools’; apply the precautionary principle

3 Jun

There is mounting evidence of unintended harmful consequences in many sectors – including medicine, pharmacology, agriculture, energy generation, finance, engineering and transport. The most widely read post on this site in May reported the Lancet’s publication of the World Health Organisation’s finding that glyphosate, a widely used ingredient in weedkiller, is probably carcinogenic.

Michael J. Coren‘s article in Quartz magazine summarised the findings of Jameson Wetmore, an engineer turned social researcher at the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Wetmore opened:

“The motto of the 1933 World Fair in Chicago was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms. Governments and companies were saying that technology can lead us out of this. It may not always be comfortable, but we have to ride it out. Household technologies were all the rage. When you hit the 1960s and 1970s, there is this shift.

“I think the hallmarks of that shift are the dropping of the atomic bomb, and then of course you have Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, and you also have Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring”.

“Whereas much of the contemporary world sees technological progress as inevitable, even a moral imperative, Wetmore finds that the Amish watch their neighbours and carefully consider how each one will change their culture before embracing it: They . . . watch what happens when we adopt new technology, and then they decide whether that’s something they want to adopt themselves.”

We don’t think about the impact technology might have on our lives beyond the initial big idea.

“The automobile was sold to us with this idea of a freedom we never had before. With that freedom came a heavy toll of injury and death. So can we anticipate unintended consequences way the Amish do, or are these systems just too complex to go much beyond first-order effects?

A more rigorous application of the EU’s Article 191 (left) would help to do this.

“Less than a mile from where I’m standing [in Phoenix, Arizona], Elaine Herzberg was killed by an autonomous Uber vehicle. I fully recognize the only way we’re going to automated vehicles is running in this world is to test them on city streets. Now, if we were to sit back and think about the values of the society here, we might say that testing those vehicles at 10 PM at night outside of a concert hall where a huge amount of alcohol had been served was not the best place to be testing. Perhaps testing in a school zone when children are present is not the best place to test an autonomous vehicle. But those are decisions that local people did not have the chance to make.”

The idea that technology is an unmitigated good is beginning to be questioned

Wetmore thinks that today Americans have a much more nuanced view of things. The number of people who think technology is an unmitigated good is continuing to shrink, but most haven’t abandoned the idea that there are a lot of problems and technology will play a role in solving them.

The precautionary principle detailed in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union aims at ensuring a higher level of environmental protection through preventative decision-taking in the case of risk. It also covers consumer policy, European Union (EU) legislation concerning food, human, animal and plant health. It has been recognised by various international agreements, notably in the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement (SPS) concluded in the framework of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).  

Jeremy Corbyn led the proposal (right) to retain Article 191’s environmental principles after exit day, narrowly defeated by 16 votes.

 

Time for change?

 

 

 

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Encouraging lack of enthusiasm for GM technology at China’s national congress

21 Oct

Those who totally oppose all GM adoption in China because of concerns about the damage caused by the herbicides and pesticides used with the crops and a loose coalition of left-wingers, environmentalists and retired officials will be encouraged by the lack of enthusiasm for GM technology at this week’s national congress of China’s Communist Party.

Lucy Hornby in Beijing, writing in the FT, says that Mr Xi has ‘historically fudged’ his position on GM — urging advocates to be “bold in research, careful in promotion”.

Ms Hornby notes that the coalition had written letters to the top leadership last year opposing ChemChina’s purchase of Swiss seeds and agrochemicals group Syngenta. Reuters put the number of signatories at 400.

Currently – despite US Dow Chemicals’ persistent and energetic lobbying – only GM papaya is planted on a small scale in China, due to domestic fears that foreign GM technology poses a security threat. In addition, at present (June 17th report) GM cotton is grown in China and GM animal feed is imported. Very few genetically modified foods are allowed on the market in China and labelling GM foods is strictly enforced there.

The safety of GMOs is widely debated in China through traditional media and the emerging online social media, where the public expresses deep concerns about the safety of GMO foods.

In 2015, there was a report of a conference on “GMOs and National Security” in Beijing, where scholars warned that the issues relating to GMOs were not just about science or technology, but also about food security, ecological security, and even national security.

A study of a GM grain carried out in China in 2012 caused great concern to the public; a US researcher and her team were accused of feeding Chinese children a GM grain, golden rice, and measuring the effects without telling their parents.

Chinese researchers are vying to promote new plant strains they have developed, while not revealing whether they are genetically modified or developed using traditional breeding practices. Many are grown in demonstration fields but have not been commercialised.

Frank Ning is the head of ChemChina’s rival Sinochem, which markets some Monsanto products. He said that the future direction of Chinese agriculture is the gradual improvement of seed quality and more targeted application of fertiliser and pesticides, which are big sources of soil and water pollution in China:

“Sinochem has transformed. We used to be just a sales operation: selling seeds, selling fertiliser. Now we are a modern agricultural platform: service oriented, promoting better seeds and teaching people to use less fertiliser.”

So far, so good.

 

 

 

 

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A three-part strategy developed to help to identify whether chemicals can have adverse effects at low doses

20 Oct

Rachel Shaffer, a PhD student of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Washington opens her article: Paracelsus, a Swiss physician known as the father of toxicology, proclaimed that “the dose makes the poison. She continues:Increasing evidence suggests that even low levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals can interfere with hormonal signals in the body in potentially harmful ways”.

As standard toxicity tests don’t always detect the effects that chemicals can have at lower levels, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked a committee of scientists to study the issue in detail. After several years, the committee’s report was released by the National Academy of Sciences in July. This landmark report provides the EPA with a strategy to identify and analyse data about low-dose health effects, as well as two case study examples. It is an evidence-based call to action for scientists and policymakers.

The committee defined a low dose as “external or internal exposure that falls with the range estimated to occur in humans.” That covers any level of chemical exposure that we would encounter in our daily lives.

It defined adverse health effects as including any biological change that impairs a person’s functional capacity or ability to handle stress, or resist other exposures.

The committee developed a three-part strategy to help the EPA to identify whether chemicals can have adverse effects at low doses which seems to the layperson to be standard scientific procedure:

  • First, actively collect a wide range of data with participation from stakeholders and the public.
  • Then analyse and integrate the available evidence in a systematic way.
  • Finally, act on this evidence to improve risk assessments and toxicity testing.

Using these strategies, the committee conducted a systematic review of two endocrine-disrupting chemicals, assessing the relevant data from human, animal and cell-based lab studies.

The first case study looked at phthalates, chemicals that increase the flexibility of plastic products such as shower curtains and food wrapping. The committee found that diethylhexyl phthalate and other selected phthalates are associated with changes in male reproductive and hormonal health. Overall, the data were strong enough to classify diethylhexyl phthalate as a “presumed reproductive hazard” in humans.

The second case study focused on polybrominated diphenyl ethers, flame retardants used for over 30 years. Though they are now being phased out, these chemicals remain a concern for humans. They are still present in older products and can persist in the environment for many years. Based on data showing the impact of these chemicals on learning and IQ, the panel concluded that developmental exposure is “presumed to pose a hazard to intelligence in humans.”

During its review, the committee encountered a variety of barriers that could impede similar investigations into specific chemicals. Two of several examples were:

  • that the committee noted a discrepancy between the concept of doses used in human and animal studies. This made it difficult to compare data from different sources.
  • that many toxicology studies focus on only a single chemical. However, as all are exposed to many chemicals, these procedures may be of limited use in the real world.

The committee suggested that toxicologists incorporate real-world mixtures into their studies, to provide more relevant information about the risk to human health.

This report demonstrated the challenges facing the field of toxicology and environmental health: How well can existing and emerging laboratory techniques predict adverse outcomes in humans?

As Rachel says, despite the imperfections of our testing methods, there’s ample evidence about low-dose effects from many chemicals. Many general readers will already have been aware of the dangers of phthalates and flame retardants for some time; the real problem appears to be the lack of political will to act on information already in the public domain.

Read her article here:https://theconversation.com/can-low-doses-of-chemicals-affect-your-health-a-new-report-weighs-the-evidence-82132

 

 

 

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The toxic avalanche

16 Apr

“Humans emit more than 250 billion tonnes of chemical substances a year, in a toxic avalanche that is harming people and life everywhere on the planet”, says Julian Cribb, author of ‘Surviving the 21st Century’ (Springer International 2017).  

He is quoted in an article published by Phys.org™, a web-based science, research and technology news service whose readership includes 1.75 million scientists, researchers, and engineers every month:

“Every moment of our lives we are exposed to thousands of these substances. They enter our bodies with each breath, meal or drink we take, the clothes and cosmetics we wear, the things we encounter every day in our homes, workplaces and travel . . . “

The European Chemicals Agency estimates there are more than 144,000 man-made chemicals in existence.

The US Department of Health estimates 2000 new chemicals are being released every year. The UN Environment Program warns most of these have never been screened for human health safety.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 12 million people – one in 4 – die every year from diseases caused by ‘air water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change and ultraviolet radiation’, all of which result from human activity . . .

Medical science is increasingly linking issues such as obesity, cancers, heart disease and brain disorders such as autism, ADHD and depression to the growing volume of toxic substances to which humans are exposed daily.

Cribb says that the poisoning of the planet through man-made chemical emissions is probably the largest human impact – and the one that is least understood or regulated. It is one of ten major existential risks now confronting humanity:

Examples of the toxic avalanche include:

  • Manufactured chemicals – 30 million tonnes a year
  • Plastic pollution of oceans – 8mt/yr
  • Hazardous waste – 400 mt/yr
  • Coal, oil, gas etc – 15 gigatonnes (billion tonnes) a year
  • Lost soil – 75 Gt/yr
  • Metals and materials – 75 Gt/yr
  • Mining and mineral wastes – <200 Gt/yr
  • Water (mostly contaminated with above wastes) – 9 trillion tonnes a year.

“Industrial toxins are now routinely found in new-born babies, in mother’s milk, in the food chain, in domestic drinking water worldwide. They have been detected from the peak of Mt Everest (where the snow is so polluted it doesn’t meet drinking water standards) to the depths of the oceans, from the hearts of our cities to the remotest islands. The mercury found in the fish we eat, and in polar bears in the Arctic, is fallout from the burning of coal and increases every year. There is global concern at the death of honeybees from agricultural pesticides and the potential impact on the world food supply, as well as all insect life – and on the birds, frogs and fish which in turn depend on insects.”

Cribb says an issue of chemical contamination largely ignored by governments and corporations is that chemicals act in combination, occur in mixtures and undergo constant change. “A given chemical may not occur in toxic amounts in one place – but combined with thousands of other chemicals it may contribute a much larger risk to the health and safety of the whole population and the environment.” 

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In the same vein, Isle of Wight reader Richard Bruce reminds us that way back in 1997 US scientists called for a ban on all OP pesticides used on food crops because of the cumulative risk to children. Read more here. The UK regulators referred to the paper as “a challenging document” but nothing was done. Some 1000 scientists wrote a letter of complaint when George W Bush refused to take action on their advice to ban all OPs.

He points out that the 2016 UK Pesticide Guide clearly states that the chemical is dangerous to the environment. For the similar chlorpyrifos methyl it states that the chemical must NOT be used on grain for seed. But both are add-mixed with the grain at harvest and there is no requirement to declare this poisonous addition on food labels “because it is a pesticide”. Often unsupervised, untrained, farm and grain store workers use methods that inevitably create “hotspots” of massive overdose. Some of those methods are no longer recommended but there is still no control over application, or the methods used. the Health and Safety Executive which is supposed to enforce the regulations all too often fails in its duty.

Prensa Latina, the official state news agency of Cuba. reports that the UN Council on Human Rights, the organization’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Food, Hilal Elve (left), warned in its yearly report that most of the population around the world is exposed to pesticides through food, water, air or direct contact with the chemicals and toxic waste. The problem is worse in poor and developing nations, but no country is immune to these harmful substances. pregnant women run the risk of abortion, premature birth and congenital malformations. There are irreversible consequences to health, such as cancer, Alzheimer, Parkinson, hormone disorders, sterility and growth disorders.

Richard Bruce also points out that we are exposed to cumulative poisons every day, adding, “and no one cares”.

 

 

 

Expensive fluoride  added to Birmingham’s water did not protect first teeth

22 Mar

Royal College of Surgeons’ dean points to ‘sweet habits’ as first teeth are removed

Today it was reported that NHS data obtained by the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) shows there were 9,206 extractions within the age group in 2015-16 compared with 7,444 in 2006-07 – a 24% rise. The figures prompted calls for parents, the government and the food industry to take action to reverse the alarming trend.

Prof Nigel Hunt, dean of the RCS’s Faculty of Dental Surgery, said: “When you see the numbers tallied up like this it becomes abundantly clear that the sweet habits of our children are having a devastating effect on the state of their teeth.

Hundreds of children are having their first teeth extracted as hospital treatments hit their highest level in six years in Birmingham.

There were 1,464 hospital admissions for teeth extractions for children from the Birmingham CrossCity CCG in 2015/16, the highest number since at least 2010/11, and up from 795 in 2014/15. In Sandwell and West Birmingham, the number of hospital admissions for teeth extractions has also hit a six year high, at 141 in 2015/16, up from 33 in 2014/15.

The numbers have increased sevenfold since 2010/11

In 2010/11 there were 208 hospital admissions for tooth extraction. Included in the admissions were 297 for children aged between one and four to have multiple teeth extracted, the highest number since at least 2010/11, as well as 730 admissions for children aged five to nine, the highest number since at least 2010/11.

Ingesting fluoride at best ‘controversial’: at worst, causing some damage to health

A report by Birmingham Professor of Epidemiology, K.K. Cheng and Dr Trevor Sheldon published in the BMJ deemed the practice ‘controversial’.

More recently, corresponding author Professor Stephen Peckham, University of Kent commented on research he and two co-authors had undertaken and published in the BMJ: “We found that practices located in the West Midlands (a wholly fluoridated area) are nearly twice as likely to report high hypothyroidism prevalence in comparison to Greater Manchester (non-fluoridated area).

Last year Ian Wylie reported that around one million people in Birmingham are supplied with artificially fluoridated water. But its average number of extracted or filled teeth is 1.17, higher than the national average. Across the West Midlands, where water has been fluoridated since 1964, there has been a 300% rise in children under the age of 10 being admitted to hospital for multiple teeth extractions in the last five years. 

 

Stop Press: today we read that a representative of leading brands including Mars, Cadbury, Kellogg’s and Nestlé (aka ‘food giants’) told The Times that they would reduce sugar content in food and drink but not to the government’s timescale.

 

 

 

An informative comment on the situation in Ireland

1 Mar

chemStats show immediate world-wide interest in water fluoridation (left) and Chris Price has commented:

“In Ireland, water supplied by local government is required by law to be fluoridated.

“However, water supplied by local community “group schemes”, or from private wells, is nearly always non-fluoridated.

“As a result, less urbanised regions of Ireland have a patchwork of fluoridated and non-fluoridated water supplies serving communities in close proximity”.

We hear about communities developing their own renewable energy schemes, taking over village shops, libraries and pubs  and this is news of another welcome initiative.

A search revealed the existence of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, the representative and negotiating organisation for community-owned rural water services in Ireland.

 

 

 

 

 

Links between exposure to organophosphate pesticides and the onset of diabetes

26 Jan

As the government’s Food Agency is diligently warning the public of possible harm from burnt toast, will it heed a new concern raised by Indian scientists?  

British governments have a poor record when there is a conflict of interest between public health and large arms related/chemical/pharmaceutical companies.

Successive governments resisted acknowledging the harm done by early nuclear tests, Gulf War medication, thalidomide, mercury in infant vaccines and infected imported blood products – even, in the 70s and 80s compelling farmers to use organophosphate-based sheep dip and to this day encouraging the addition of a toxic chemical to drinking water.  

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The number of diabetes cases in Britain is causing concern; the Medical Research Council (above, a publicly funded government agency) reported in 2015 that there are 3.9 million people living with diabetes in the UK and quotes estimates that more than one in 16 people in the UK has diabetes (diagnosed or undiagnosed).

Richard Bruce sends a link to a report from India by Pallava Bagla published on Tuesday. It records that scientists at Madurai Kamaraj University in Tamil Nadu have found links between the use of pesticides and the high prevalence of diabetes in India (65 million people, second only to China).

They found the prevalence of diabetes in people regularly exposed to insecticides was three-fold higher (18.3 per cent) than in unexposed people (6.2 per cent).

Their results were published in the peer-reviewed journal Genome Biology. They also conducted experiments on mice, in which they found that exposure to pesticides upsets the micro-flora of the gut, leading to the onset of diabetes. Read quite a detailed account here: http://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13059-016-1134-6

The team – which had been conducting the research in rural areas of South India – suggests that if people are continuously exposed to common OP pesticides like Malathion and Chlorpyrifos, they can get diabetes even when they do not have the other risk factors – obesity and high cholesterol.

ops-2-used-in-agric-india

This was a departure from traditional findings: the 3,080 people surveyed were physically active and did not have the better known risk factors for diabetes like obesity and high cholesterol.

OP pesticides are widely used in agriculture. Malathion is used even in urban areas to control mosquitoes and termites. They are known to affect memory and concentration, cause depression, headache and speech difficulties. The US Environmental Protection Agency (at risk under the new president?) publishes findings that these are amongst several classes of toxic chemicals that can harm children; researchers say OPs could be a contributing factor in learning disability and behavioural problems in children.

The scientists at Madurai Kamaraj University suggested that, in view of the high occurrence of diabetes in India, the use of OP (organophosphate) pesticides should be reconsidered.