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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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Toxic pesticides: will Hawaiians get a better deal than Brits?

24 Mar

As a 2015 post on a related website said, Self-regulation is not effective: reconsider. From the recent horsemeat scandal, to the frequent withdrawals of harmful medicines and the banking collapse, it can be seen that self-regulation of food, pharmaceutical and banking corporates is not working. Many other sectors are failing – notably accountancy and the trade in illicit armaments. To these sectors we now add the agrochemical industry.

Earlier this month a post was prompted by Richard Bruce who drew attention to a case reported by Reuters in February; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had won a settlement from Syngenta, after dozens of workers at Syngenta Seeds’ former research farm on Kauai, Hawaii were exposed to the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos in 2016 and 2017.

Readers learnt that Hawaii is now considering bills in the state’s House and Senate (above) to ban chlorpyrifos, as well as a proposal to require farmers to notify the public when they use certain pesticides and to create buffer zones around some schools.

Richard commented, (based on personal experience), “Interestingly in the UK there is no requirement to post warnings after spraying crops – and most of us never get warnings before use either!”

This assertion is confirmed by two answers in the online FAQs section of The Health and Safety Executive, part of the DWP responsible for the encouragement, regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare, and for research into occupational risks in Britain:

  1. Does the local farmer have to tell me when he is going to spray pesticides?

It is good practice, but except in some circumstances it is not a legal requirement to notify neighbours of an intention to spray pesticides (see section 3.7 of the ‘Code of practice for using plant protection products’ for further information on when members of the public should be informed). It would be difficult for farmers or other pesticide users to notify neighbours of planned pesticide use on all occasions because weather conditions play a significant part in determining when spraying takes place. It is not uncommon for spraying to occur at short notice or at times which seem unusual. Equally, it is not uncommon for spraying to be cancelled or postponed at short notice if the weather changes suddenly.

  1. How do I find out what pesticides a local farmer has been spraying?

By law, all professional users must keep records for at least 3 years of all the pesticides applications they undertake. The ‘Code of practice for using plant protection products’ explains how they might record this information. You can ask the farmer about what pesticides they have been using. They will usually just tell you, although they do not currently need to by law (Ed: a scandal!).

The Good Neighbour Initiative

Government ministers asked the National Farmers Union to collaborate with industry partners and interested stakeholders to draw up a ‘good neighbour’ guide to advise and assist farmers and crop sprayers using pesticides where people are living or working nearby.

As a result the NFU published the Best Practice Leaflet (opp) which may be read here.

Explicit sanctions advocated

Years ago, the Academy of Management Journal published  Industry Self-Regulation Without Sanctions: The Chemical Industry’s Responsible Care Program (A.A. King, New York University). The findings of this study highlighted the potential for opportunism to overcome the pressures of powerful self-regulatory institutions; they suggested that effective industry self-regulation is difficult to maintain without explicit sanctions.

This country has a shameful history of denying the reality of the damage to health inflicted by government agencies and wealthy and powerful agro-chemical and pharmaceutical industries. They delay this for as many years as possible before they acknowledge faulty and compensate the victims. Many GPs, for a variety of reasons, conclude that these patients have a psychological condition rather than a physical one – as Richard Bruce says sardonically:

“Of course we in the UK are a different human species and cannot be poisoned – we only imagine the symptoms out of a fear of chemicals!”

Britain’s organic market has had six years of steady growth and is now worth £2.2 billion, growing 6% in 2017. The amount of farmland in conversion to organic rose 22% last year, as farmers responded to the rise in demand for organic produce. 

In time will this trend, reported in a related website, drive out bad practice which is injuring and killing British citizens?

 

 

 

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Probe launched into dengue fever vaccine

29 Dec

Dengue Fever Swept Southeast Asia in 2013 and in February 2016 Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of France’s Sanofi SA, made Dengvaxia, its vaccine for dengue fever, widely available in the Philippines. Sanofi said the vaccine had later been launched in ten other countries: Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Guatemala, Salvador, Peru, Singapore, Paraguay and Thailand.

Dengvaxia was said to have been recommended for use by the World Health Organization in April 2016 – but WHO denies this.

In a July report, the World Health Organization noted that the vaccination “may be ineffective or may theoretically increase the future risk of hospitalized or severe dengue illness” in those who have not had dengue at the time of vaccination.

After a fast-track approval process more than 730,000 people, mostly children older than nine, were given the vaccine, manufactured by the vaccinations division of French pharma giant Sanofi SA.

However, Jake Maxwell Watts, writing in the Wall Street Journal on December 4th, reports that the Philippines has suspended the Dengvaxia dengue fever vaccine. An investigation has been launched, after evidence showed it could worsen symptoms in some cases.

Representative of Paris based pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Pasteur, Thomas Triumphe Head for Asia Pacific, answers questions during the senate inquiry on the Dengvaxia vaccine

Sanofi said new data found the vaccine was effective for people who had already had dengue, but not for those who hadn’t. Regulators have now been asked to change the vaccine label to recommend that people don’t take the vaccine if they haven’t been infected previously to avoid developing a more severe form of the disease.

The government has suspended its vaccination program. Though no deaths or cases of severe dengue have been definitely linked to the vaccine, some politicians have pointed to cases of children who have died since receiving it.

Philippine Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told local media that the government would assess responsibility for the vaccine, which was approved under the previous administration, and consider charges against its manufacturer.

 

 

 

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Valproate: rely on self-regulation?

29 Sep

The advisory European Medicines Agency – which has no legal power – is examining the effectiveness of Valproate warnings

Valproate is an anti-epilepsy drug first licensed in the UK in 1975. Taking the drug during pregnancy had – for some years – been suspected by epilepsy experts to have a strong link with the development of ‘dysmorphic features’ – such as eyes set wider apart and a thinned upper lip – in children born subsequently. They also suspected that valproate use in pregnant mothers might lead to longer term developmental problems – but the evidence for this was anecdotal at the time. More evidence emerged throughout the 1990s. In 2005, UK patient information leaflets included concerns about delayed development in children.

In 2004 the New Scientist reported that a study (BMJ reference: Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (vol 75, p 1575), led by Dr Naghme Adab from the Walton Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Liverpool, UK, showed that children born to mothers who were on valproate when pregnant were eleven times more likely to have a verbal IQ score of 69 or below, compared with children born in the general population. To read the statistics and percentages click on the link above.

The researchers added that their results could have been partly skewed because only 40% of the mothers contacted for the study actually responded – mothers who cooperated might be more likely to believe their children were harmed by anti-epilepsy drugs. They added, however, that even if it is assumed the other 60% of children all had normal IQs, the children of valproate users would still be twice as likely to have a low IQ (below 79) than the general population.

“Epilepsy is the second most common cause of maternal deaths,” Tim Betts, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of Birmingham UK, told New Scientist. He warns that women should not stop taking prescribed anti-epilepsy drugs during pregnancy without consultation, and adds that safe alternatives are available. “When we see women before pregnancy we invariably try to get them off valproate,” he says.

Instructions for doctors – and, more recently, patient leaflets – say valproate should not be used during pregnancy unless there is no safer alternative and only after a careful discussion of the risks. The medicines regulator said warnings had been updated as more information had become available. Many women whose babies were affected say nobody warned them of the extent of the dangers. Warnings were only added to the outside of valproate pill packets in Britain last year.

Humane French politicians put Britain’s business friendly government to shame

In France, 1,200 families are preparing to sue the drug manufacturer, accusing it of failing to sufficiently inform women of the risks. The French government is supporting the legal action and has put aside about £9m (€10m) to compensate the families.

By contrast in 2010, families in England and Wales had to abandon a court case when their legal aid was withdrawn three weeks before the case was due to begin. They signed letters promising never to sue again, and in return were not billed for Sanofi’s multi-million pound legal costs. They are now calling for a judge-led public enquiry. An article on a BBC website this month adds that about 20,000 babies in the UK alone have been left with disabilities since valproate was introduced in the 1970s.

It also reports that women whose children have been harmed by the epilepsy drug sodium valproate are giving evidence to a European-wide safety review in London. The European Medicines Agency will examine whether warnings about risks to unborn babies are strong enough. Reuters reports that a  final recommendation is expected in December.

 

 

 

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An ‘epidemic’ of childhood tooth decay in the fluoridated Republic of Ireland

28 Feb

Background information: Ireland, the only country in the European Union with a nationwide mandate for water fluoridation -via the Health (Fluoridation of Water Supplies) Act 1960, which mandated compulsory fluoridation by local authorities. 3,250,000 Irish people receive artificially-fluoridated water.

Geren Island Water Treatment FacilityThe agent used is hydrofluorosilicic acid. Corrosive to most metals it eats through concrete and Hazmat suits (impermeable whole-body garments must be worn to handle it as a gas may be released which damages the lungs. This and other adverse health effects are listed by NIOSH (US government agency).

private member’s bill to end fluoridation was defeated in the Dáil on 12 November 2013. It was supported by Sinn Féin and some of the technical group and opposed by the Fine Gael-Labour government and Fianna Fáil.

Early in 2014, Cork County Council and Laois County Council passed motions for the cessation of water fluoridation. In Autumn 2014, Cork City Council, Dublin City Council and Kerry County Council passed similar motions.

irsih-jda-coverToday, Aaron Rogan in The Times reports that a study by University College Cork published in this month’s Journal of the Irish Dental Association found that 60% of the 347 Irish children who required dental treatment under general anaesthetic before they turned five needed teeth extracted.

Michaela Dalton, president of the HSE dental surgeons group describes it as an ‘epidemic of tooth decay’. “Juices and yoghurts are rotting babies’ teeth but are being sold as replacements for fruit. Sugary cereal bars are sold as healthy snacks. They’re labelled as no-added sugar and all-natural but they have concentrated fruit sugars, which are really acidic and rotting teeth” Dr Dalton said.

Another significant finding was that despite a long-established link between economic disadvantage and dental problems, there was no significant class difference for preschool children requiring treatment under general anaesthetic.

“Disadvantaged children have a higher risk of requiring a dental general anaesthesia in their lifetime; however, this is not occurring in isolation, with their equivalents in the higher social group also placing a strain on the system,” the study said.

The programme for government explicitly mentioned that preschool oral health intervention would save the taxpayer money – but the expensive water fluoridation programme already compulsory in Ireland is universally ‘sold’ as an oral health intervention. 

 

 

 

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.  

msc-header

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.

 

 

 

Science, precaution, innovation: learn tragically ‘late lessons from early warnings’

30 Jul

 

Glyphosate herbicides, harmful pharmaceuticals, infected blood transfusions, mercury preservative in infant vaccines, organophosphate insecticides, GM technology and fluoridation of the water supply . . . the damage to human and environmental health has been incalculable.

pprof mcgladeAs Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Chief Scientist and Director of the Division of Early Warning and Assessment of the United Nations Environment Programme, said in her preface to Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation:

“There is something profoundly wrong with the way we are living today. There are corrosive pathologies of inequality all around us — be they access to a safe environment, healthcare, education or clean water. These are reinforced by short-term political actions and a socially divisive language based on the adulation of wealth . . .

“One thing that has become clearer over the past decade is that certain chemical substances are highly stable in nature and can have long-lasting and wide ranging effects before being broken down into a harmless form. The risk of a stable compound is that it can be bio-accumulated in fatty tissues at concentrations many times higher than in the surrounding environment . . . So exposure to toxic chemicals and certain foodstuffs are at risk of causing harm, especially to vulnerable groups such as foetuses in the womb or during childhood when the endocrine system is being actively built. Even with small dose exposures, the consequences can in some instances be devastating with problems ranging from cancer, serious impacts on human development, chronic diseases and learning disabilities”.

chemical exposures coverProfessor McGlade points out that well-informed individuals and communities would ‘more properly’ set ‘the power to act’, than current political systems which have become ‘silted up by vested interests and a determination to protect assets’ – and, we would add, to accumulate profits. She calls for “a more ethical form of public decision-making based on a language in which our moral instincts and concerns can be better expressed . . .”

Above, a book by Claudia Miller, M.D., M.S., a tenured Professor in Environmental and Occupational Medicine and Vice Chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA), who has written extensively on the health effects of low-level chemical exposures.

One simple measure could be adopted. Every scientific report or review should be prefaced by a declaration of the researcher’s competing financial interests

From the Nature/ British Dental Journal’s declaration of the authors’ competing financial interests Critique of the review of ‘Water fluoridation for the prevention of dental caries’ published by the Cochrane Collaboration in 2015, we learn that – out of 17 – these authors had such an interest – see footnote, with names added to the initials in the list.

The Cochrane review noted- amongst many other findings – that only two studies since 1975 have looked at the effectiveness of reducing cavities in baby teeth, and found fluoridation to have no statistically significant impact – and within the ‘before and after’ studies none showed the benefits of fluoridated water for adults.

In view of the authors’ competing interests it is not surprising that they cast doubt on the validity of the unfavourable findings of the Cochrane Review, which is ’unconstrained by commercial and financial interests’.

Footnote:

  1. A. J. Rugg-Gunn: AJRG was a member of the MRC (UK) working group on water fluoridation and health and is a trustee of The Borrow Foundation (long associated with milk fluoridation).
  2. A.J. Spencer: AJS is a member of the Australian Government Department of Health, Nutritional Reference Values Fluoride Expert Working Group and the National Health and Medical Research Council Fluoride Reference Group.
  3. H.P. Whelton: HPW is Principal Investigator of the FACCT study funded by the Irish Health Research Board and is an evaluation of the impact of changes in the policy on children’s oral health in Ireland. She is an independent advisor to the British Fluoridation Society.
  4. C.Jones: CJ is a member of the British Fluoridation Society, the Cochrane Oral Health Group and commented on the Cochrane review protocol.
  5. J. F. Beal: JFB is vice-chairman, British Fluoridation Society.
  6. P.Castle: PC is a communications adviser to the National Alliance for Equity in Dental Health and the British Fluoridation Society. 
  7. P.V. Cooney: PVC was Chief Dental Officer for Canada.
  8. J. Johnson: JJ is President, American Fluoridation Society. 
  9. M.P. Kelly: MPK is co-investigator on the CATFISH study of a water fluoridation scheme in Cumbria.
  10. M.A. Lennon: MAL was a member of the Advisory Panel for the York Review, a member of the MRC Expert Group and formerly Chair of the British Fluoridation Society.
  11. J. McGinley: JMcG is manager, Fluoridation Activities, American Dental Association.
  12. D. O’Mullane: DO’M is a member of the Irish Expert Body on Fluorides and Health.
  13. P.P. Sharma: PPS is the President, Ontario Association of Public Health Dentistry. 
  14. W.M. Thomson: WMT was a member of the panel which produced the Royal Society of New Zealand report on community water fluoridation.
  15. S. M. Woodward: SMW works for The Borrow Foundation.
  16. S.P. Zusman: SPZ is Chief Dental Officer with Israeli Ministry of Health.