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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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Is the balance of nature being adversely affected by pesticides?

12 Oct

In May this year, Horticulture Weekly and other sources reported that most ‘insect-friendly’ plants sold in garden centres and supermarkets are laced with chemicals that could be killing bees.

More than 70% of ‘pollinator-friendly’ specimens from B&Q, Homebase, Aldi & Wyevale, studied by scientists at Sussex University led by Professor Dave Goulson, tested positive for pesticides after screening pollen, nectar and leaves. One type of heather bought from the Wyevale chain contained five insecticides as well as five fungicides. Every retailer sold plants containing the EU 2013 ‘banned’ neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam or clothianidin.

Quartz updates us: reporting that a study published on Oct. 6 in the journal Science found that a significant amount of the world’s honey contains traces of neonicotinoids,, a class of commonly used pesticides, at levels strong enough to cause brain damage in bees – but not (yet?). human beings.The chemicals are meant to attack the nervous systems of pests and keep them from eating crops.

American environmentalists have expressed concern, since president Donald Trump appointed Scott Pruitt – who has prioritised business interests – to head the US Environmental Protection Agency.

In the past, Pruitt, who has been described by some as being especially friendly with pesticide manufacturers and an ‘ally’ of the fossil fuel industries, has vigorously opposed environmentally beneficial legislation.

What will be the long-term effects of bees, birds,  bats and frogs, butterflies, houseflies, crane flies and other insects dying from chemical pollution?

 

 

“Playing with poison” – pesticides in India and Europe

11 Oct

The report on the sustainable use of pesticides adopted today by the Commission takes stock of progress made by the EU Member States in applying measures to reduce the risks and impacts of pesticides. It covers a wide range of topics such as aerial spraying, information to the public or training of professionals. The report indicates insufficient implementation of the Directive on the sustainable use of pesticides and Integrated Pest Management systems, in which various control methods are combined to limit the use of chemicals.

Commenting on the report, Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said: “I know first-hand that citizens are concerned about the impact of the use of pesticides on their health and the environment. We take these concerns into consideration and we are working with the Member States to achieve sustainable use of pesticides in the way we grow and produce our food. I will continue encouraging and supporting Member States in their task of implementing the measures to reduce risks derived from the use of pesticides”.

A few days earlier Devinder Sharma (New Delhi), writing in the Orissa Post, remembered a field trip in the 1980s, organised by the Pesticides Association of India:

“Taking me around the crop fields, they showed me the protective gear that the pesticides industry was providing to farm workers engaged in pesticides spraying. It was so reassuring to see farm workers spraying the crop dressed up in protective clothing – hand gloves, face mask, a cap and in gumboots”.

Nearly 40 years later, he has been shocked to read a news report of 50 farm workers dying of suspected pesticides poisoning and another 800 admitted to various hospitals in Maharashtra. About 25 have lost their eyesight, and an equal number are on life support system. After activists highlighted the tragedy, the Maharashtra government has belatedly launched an inquiry. It has also announced an ex-gratia grant of Rs 2 lakh to the nearest kin of the deceased.

 Sharma: the next time you see a farm worker spraying the crops, just stop your vehicle and watch. Chances are you will see him without any protective gear/clothing

The Maharashtra tragedy primarily occurred because the Bt cotton crop had failed to resist the dreaded bollworm pests for a couple of years now as a result of which farmers resorted to sprays of deadly cocktails to curb the insect menace.

“This poisoning adversely affects the poorest of the poor, often leading to fatalities or permanent disabilities, and society is not even remotely bothered”, Sharma comments.

Since the sprays are invariably done by daily wage workers, very few farmers ensure that the labourers take precaution. They push the labourers to complete the job as quickly as possible, and are least bothered about the safety and health of the workers. The pesticide residues that seep into the body take time to show the harmful impact, and by that time the labourer has finished the job, taken his money and gone. Most of the time, pesticides poisoning is not even considered as a possible cause when these labourers have to be taken to the hospital.

After describing the most favourable times and conditions for administering pesticides and advocating that companies which already provide hand gloves, should also place a cap and protective face mask in every package. Sharma adds that farmers should be directed to purchase gum boots for the labourers. And that pesticides companies and agricultural departments should be directed to jointly organise training camps every fortnight on the use and application of harmful pesticides.

International standards recommend three grades of full body protective clothing (left), to suit the danger levels of the pesticide being applied.

Most importantly he believes that agricultural scientists must now shift the focus to crops which require less or no application of chemical pesticides.

For example, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, considered to be a Mecca for rice research, has established that “pesticides on rice was a waste of time and effort in Asia“ and has gone on to suggest that farmers in the Central Luzon province of the Philippines, in Vietnam, in Bangladesh and in India have shown that a higher productivity can be achieved without using chemical pesticides.

He ends by asking, in view of these findings, why haven’t agricultural universities recommended a complete end to the use of chemical pesticides on rice, commenting that this failure to act defies any and every scientific logic.

 

 

 

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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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The effects of agro-chemicals have been largely ignored by regulatory systems

22 Sep

Richard Bruce has drawn attention to news of an article published in the journal Science, which records the findings of Prof Ian Boyd, a chief scientific adviser to the UK government’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and his colleague Alice Milner, who also works there on secondment. They find:

“The current assumption underlying pesticide regulation – that chemicals that pass a battery of tests in the laboratory or in field trials are environmentally benign when they are used at industrial scales – is false. The effects of dosing whole landscapes with chemicals have been largely ignored by regulatory systems. This can and should be changed.”

Spraying pesticides near homes and gardens: the Ecologist, Georgina Downes’ February article.

The scientists’ article also criticises the widespread use of pesticides as preventive treatments, rather than only when needed.

The UK government has repeatedly opposed increased European restrictions on widely used insecticides that are linked to serious harm in bees, but a partial ban was backed by other nations and introduced in 2013. However, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, said in July that changes to pesticide regulation were being considered: “Certainly, it is the case that anyone who has seen the [recent] scientific evidence must inevitably contemplate the need for further restrictions on their use.” After Brexit, he said: “Informed by rigorous scientific analysis, we can develop global gold-standard policies on pesticides and chemicals.”

A March UN report which denounced the “myth” that pesticides are necessary to feed the world was severely critical of the global corporations that manufacture pesticides

It accused them of the “systematic denial of harms”, “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and heavy lobbying of governments which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions”.

Research also indicated that 78% of farms would be equally or more profitable when using less pesticide of all types

Prof Dave Goulson, at the University of Sussex, led research published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Plants, which analysed the pesticide use, productivity and profitability of almost 1,000 farms of all types across France. By comparing similar farms using high or low levels of pesticides, the scientists found that 94% of farms would lose no production if they cut pesticides and two-fifths would actually produce more. The results were most startling for insecticides: lower levels would result in more production in 86% of farms and no farms at all would lose production.

Prof. Goulson said: “While we have a system where farmers are advised by agronomists, most of whom work on commission for agrochemical companies, then inevitably pesticides will be massively overused. Even the few independent agronomists struggle to get independent information and advice to pass on to farmers . . . The UK has no systematic monitoring of pesticide residues in the environment and gives no consideration to safe pesticide limits at landscape scales; the lack of any limit on the total amount of pesticides used and the virtual absence of monitoring has meant that it can take years for the impacts to become apparent. This can and should be changed”.

Alice Milner concludes: “We want to start a discussion about how we can introduce a global monitoring programme for pesticides. It can take years to fully understand the environmental impact.” Many readers would welcome more urgency – to put it mildly. Richard comments, “Many readers would welcome more urgency; Richard comments: “A bit late in the day to spot the obvious, surely?”

 

 

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Out in the open: Monsanto’s involvement in the retraction of the Séralini paper

22 Sep

Claire Robinson reports that internal Monsanto documents released by attorneys leading US cancer litigation show that Monsanto attempted to suppress a study showing adverse effects of Roundup herbicide. The full report may be read here.

She writes: “The study, led by Prof GE Séralini, showed that very low doses of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide had toxic effects on rats over a long-term period, including serious liver and kidney damage. Additional observations of increased tumour rates in treated rats would need to be confirmed in a larger-scale carcinogenicity study”.

The New York Times has published some of the emails mentioned by Claire. In the documents released by the American law firm, Monsanto scientist David Saltmiras admitted orchestrating a “third party expert” campaign in which scientists who were apparently independent of Monsanto would bombard the editor-in-chief of the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT), A. Wallace Hayes, with letters demanding that he retract the study. In one document, Saltmiras reviews his own achievements within the company, successfully facilitating numerous third party expert letters to the editor which were subsequently published, alleging numerous significant deficiencies, poor study design, biased reporting and selective statistics employed by Séralini. Another Monsanto employee, Eric Sachswrites in an email about his efforts to galvanize scientists in the letter-writing campaign.

Sachs refers to Bruce Chassy, a scientist who runs the pro-GMO Academics Review website (and has ‘form’)

Sachs writes: “I talked to Bruce Chassy and he will send his letter to Wally Hayes directly and notify other scientists that have sent letters to do the same. He understands the urgency… I remain adamant that Monsanto must not be put in the position of providing the critical analysis that leads the editors to retract the paper.”   Chassy (left)was the first signatory of a petition demanding the retraction of the Séralini study and the co-author of a Forbes article accusing Séralini of fraud. In neither document does Chassy declare any link with Monsanto. But in 2016 he was reported to have taken over $57,000 over less than two years from Monsanto to travel, write and speak about GMOs.

The disclosed documents show that the editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology, A. Wallace Hayes, entered into a consulting agreement with Monsanto in the period just before Hayes’s involvement in the retraction of the Séralini study.

Clearly there was a conflict of interest between Hayes’ role as a consultant for Monsanto and his role as editor for a journal that retracted a study determining that glyphosate has toxic effects. The study was published on 19 September 2012; the consulting agreement between Hayes and Monsanto was dated 21 August 2012 and Hayes is contracted to provide his services beginning 7 September 2012.

A Monsanto internal email confirms the company’s intimate relationship with Hayes (right). Saltmiras writes about the recently published Séralini study: “Wally Hayes, now FCT Editor in Chief for Vision and Strategy, sent me a courtesy email early this morning. Hopefully the two of us will have a follow up discussion soon to touch on whether FCT Vision and Strategy were front and center for this one passing through the peer review process.” Monsanto got its way, though the paper was subsequently republished by another journal with higher principles – and, presumably, with an editorial board that wasn’t under contract with Monsanto.

Some regulatory bodies have backed Monsanto rather than the public interest. In fact, the EU is considering dispensing with the short 90-day animal feeding studies currently required under European GMO legislation.

Now that Monsanto’s involvement in the retraction of the Séralini paper is out in the open, FCT and Hayes should issue a formal apology to Prof Séralini and his team. FCT cannot and should not reinstate the paper because it has been published by another journal. But it needs to draw a line under this episode, admit that it handled it badly, and declare its support for scientific independence and objectivity.

 

 

 

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