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Precaution Reporter

Rachel's Precaution Reporter #128 "Foresight and Precaution, in the News and in the World" Wednesday, February 06, 2008printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

Workers Harmed by Inhaling a Mist of Pig Brains. Who Knew?
This is a test. In this story, please identify the moment when the precautionary principle was first invoked, and then consider when it should have been first invoked.
Pesticides Linked To Childhood Cancer, Local Physician Says
"The province should invoke the precautionary principle and ban cosmetic pesticides, a local physician urged the standing committee on environment Thursday."
PBDE: The Health Costs of Fire Safety
There is a price living organisms pay for the fire safety flame retardants provide. The precautionary principle warrants more investigation into the use of flame retardants. While the chance of a fire is slim, the chance of exposure to PBDEs is much greater.
Chemicals in Cosmetics Concern Some Consumers
Professor Bonnie Spanier is pushing for governments to adopt the precautionary principle when it comes to chemicals, essentially preventing their use in personal products until proven safe.
George Mason University Hosts Global Warming Teach-in
"There's something in environmental science and medicine called the precautionary principle, [which] says that basically if there's any chance that not acting will cause disaster, it is morally required for you to act. And, that is where I believe we stand as a university," Storm said.
Face To Face with Toy Safety: Understanding An Unexpected Threat
"The European Union, the state of California, and the city of San Francisco have banned 6 phthalates from toys largely on a precautionary basis."
Food Politics, Half-baked
"What are the limits of modern society's precautionary principle? In other words, knowing that it is impossible to prove a negative, when should a society agree to accept a technology with proven benefits and potential dangers?"

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From: The New York Times (pg. F1)
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WORKERS HARMED BY INHALING A MIST OF PIG BRAINS. WHO KNEW?

By Denise Grady

AUSTIN, Minn. -- If you have to come down with a strange disease, this town of 23,000 on the wide-open prairie in southeastern Minnesota is a pretty good place to be. The Mayo Clinic, famous for diagnosing exotic ailments, owns the local medical center and shares some staff with it. Mayo itself is just 40 miles east in Rochester. And when it comes to investigating mysterious outbreaks, Minnesota has one of the strongest health departments and best-equipped laboratories in the country.

And the disease that confronted doctors at the Austin Medical Center here last fall was strange indeed. Three patients had the same highly unusual set of symptoms: fatigue, pain, weakness, numbness and tingling in the legs and feet.

The patients had something else in common, too: all worked at Quality Pork Processors, a local meatpacking plant.

The disorder seemed to involve nerve damage, but doctors had no idea what was causing it.

At the plant, nurses in the medical department had also begun to notice the same ominous pattern. The three workers had complained to them of "heavy legs," and the nurses had urged them to see doctors. The nurses knew of a fourth case, too, and they feared that more workers would get sick, that a serious disease might be spreading through the plant.

"We put our heads together and said, 'Something is out of sorts,' " said Carole Bower, the department head.

Austin's biggest employer is Hormel Foods, maker of Spam, bacon and other processed meats (Austin even has a Spam museum). Quality Pork Processors, which backs onto the Hormel property, kills and butchers 19,000 hogs a day and sends most of them to Hormel. The complex, emitting clouds of steam and a distinctive scent, is easy to find from just about anywhere in town.

Quality Pork is the second biggest employer, with 1,300 employees. Most work eight-hour shifts along a conveyor belt -- a disassembly line, basically -- carving up a specific part of each carcass. Pay for these line jobs starts at about $11 to $12 an hour. The work is grueling, but the plant is exceptionally clean and the benefits are good, said Richard Morgan, president of the union local. Many of the workers are Hispanic immigrants. Quality Pork's owner does not allow reporters to enter the plant.

A man whom doctors call the "index case" -- the first patient they knew about -- got sick in December 2006 and was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic for about two weeks. His job at Quality Pork was to extract the brains from swine heads.

"He was quite ill and severely affected neurologically, with significant weakness in his legs and loss of function in the lower part of his body," said Dr. Daniel H. Lachance, a neurologist at Mayo.

Tests showed that the man's spinal cord was markedly inflamed. The cause seemed to be an autoimmune reaction: his immune system was mistakenly attacking his own nerves as if they were a foreign body or a germ. Doctors could not figure out why it had happened, but the standard treatment for inflammation -- a steroid drug -- seemed to help. (The patient was not available for interviews.)

Neurological illnesses sometimes defy understanding, Dr. Lachance said, and this seemed to be one of them. At the time, it did not occur to anyone that the problem might be related to the patient's occupation.

By spring, he went back to his job. But within weeks, he became ill again. Once more, he recovered after a few months and returned to work -- only to get sick all over again.

By then, November 2007, other cases had begun to turn up. Ultimately, there were 12 -- 6 men and 6 women, ranging in age from 21 to 51. Doctors and the plant owner, realizing they had an outbreak on their hands, had already called in the Minnesota Department of Health, which, in turn, sought help from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though the outbreak seemed small, the investigation took on urgency because the disease was serious, and health officials worried that it might indicate a new risk to other workers in meatpacking.

"It is important to characterize this because it appears to be a new syndrome, and we don't truly know how many people may be affected throughout the U.S. or even the world," said Dr. Jennifer McQuiston, a veterinarian from the disease centers.

In early November, Dr. Aaron DeVries, a health department epidemiologist, visited the plant and combed through medical records. The disease bore no resemblance to mad cow disease or to trichinosis, the notorious parasite infection that comes from eating raw or undercooked pork. Nor did it spread person to person -- the workers' relatives were unaffected -- or pose any threat to people who ate pork.

A survey of the workers confirmed what the plant's nurses had suspected: those who got sick were employed at or near the "head table," where workers cut the meat off severed hog heads.

On Nov. 28, Dr. DeVries's boss, Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist, toured the plant. She and the owner, Kelly Wadding, paid special attention to the head table. Dr. Lynfield became transfixed by one procedure in particular, called "blowing brains."

As each head reached the end of the table, a worker would insert a metal hose into the foramen magnum, the opening that the spinal cord passes through. High-pressure blasts of compressed air then turned the brain into a slurry that squirted out through the same hole in the skull, often spraying brain tissue around and splattering the hose operator in the process.

The brains were pooled, poured into 10-pound containers and shipped to be sold as food -- mostly in China and Korea, where cooks stir-fry them, but also in some parts of the American South, where people like them scrambled up with eggs.

The person blowing brains was separated from the other workers by a plexiglass shield that had enough space under it to allow the heads to ride through on a conveyor belt. There was also enough space for brain tissue to splatter nearby employees.

"You could see aerosolization of brain tissue," Dr. Lynfield said.

The workers wore hard hats, gloves, lab coats and safety glasses, but many had bare arms, and none had masks or face shields to prevent swallowing or inhaling the mist of brain tissue.

Dr. Lynfield asked Mr. Wadding, "Kelly, what do you think is going on?"

The plant owner watched for a while and said, "Let's stop harvesting brains."

Quality Pork halted the procedure that day and ordered face shields for workers at the head table.

Epidemiologists contacted 25 swine slaughterhouses in the United States, and found that only two others used compressed air to extract brains. One, a plant in Nebraska owned by Hormel, has reported no cases. But the other, Indiana Packers in Delphi, Ind., has several possible cases that are being investigated. Both of the other plants, like Quality Pork, have stopped using compressed air.

But why should exposure to hog brains cause illness? And why now, when the compressed air system had been in use in Minnesota since 1998?

At first, health officials thought perhaps the pigs had some new infection that was being transmitted to people by the brain tissue. Sometimes, infections can ignite an immune response in humans that flares out of control, like the condition in the workers. But so far, scores of tests for viruses, bacteria and parasites have found no signs of infection.

As a result, Dr. Lynfield said the investigators had begun leaning toward a seemingly bizarre theory: that exposure to the hog brain itself might have touched off an intense reaction by the immune system, something akin to a giant, out-of-control allergic reaction. Some people might be more susceptible than others, perhaps because of their genetic makeup or their past exposures to animal tissue. The aerosolized brain matter might have been inhaled or swallowed, or might have entered through the eyes, the mucous membranes of the nose or mouth, or breaks in the skin.

"It's something no one would have anticipated or thought about," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist who is working as a consultant for Hormel and Quality Pork. Dr. Osterholm, a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota and the former state epidemiologist, said that no standard for this kind of workplace exposure had ever been set by the government.

But that would still not explain why the condition should suddenly develop now. Investigators are trying to find out whether something changed recently -- the air pressure level, for instance -- and also whether there actually were cases in the past that just went undetected.

"Clearly, all the answers aren't in yet," Dr. Osterholm said. "But it makes biologic sense that what you have here is an inhalation of brain material from these pigs that is eliciting an immunologic reaction." What may be happening, he said, is "immune mimicry," meaning that the immune system makes antibodies to fight a foreign substance -- something in the hog brains -- but the antibodies also attack the person's nerve tissue because it is so similar to some molecule in hog brains.

"That's the beauty and the beast of the immune system," Dr. Osterholm said. "It's so efficient at keeping foreign objects away, but anytime there's a close match it turns against us, too."

Anatomically, pigs are a lot like people. But it is not clear how close a biochemical match there is between pig brain and human nerve tissue.

To find out, the Minnesota health department has asked for help from Dr. Ian Lipkin, an expert at Columbia University on the role of the immune system in neurological diseases. Dr. Lipkin has begun testing blood serum from the Minnesota patients to look for signs of an immune reaction to components of pig brain. And he expects also to study the pig gene for myelin, to see how similar it is to the human one.

"It's an interesting problem," Dr. Lipkin said. "I think we can solve it."

Susan Kruse, who lives in Austin, was stunned by news reports about the outbreak in early December. Ms. Kruse, 37, worked at Quality Pork for 15 years. But for the past year, she has been too sick to work. She had no idea that anyone else from the plant was ill. Nor did she know that her illness might be related to her job.

Her most recent job was "backing heads," scraping meat from between the vertebrae. Three people per shift did that task, and together would process 9,500 heads in eight or nine hours. Ms. Kruse (pronounced KROO-zee) stood next to the person who used compressed air to blow out the brains. She was often splattered, especially when trainees were learning to operate the air hose.

"I always had brains on my arms," she said.

She never had trouble with her health until November 2006, when she began having pains in her legs. By February 2007, she could not stand up long enough to do her job. She needed a walker to get around and was being treated at the Mayo Clinic.

"I had no strength to do anything I used to do," she said. "I just felt like I was being drained out."

Her immune system had gone haywire and attacked her nerves, primarily in two places: at the points where the nerves emerge from the spinal cord, and in the extremities. The same thing, to varying degrees, was happening to the other patients. Ms. Kruse and the index case -- the man who extracted brains -- probably had the most severe symptoms, Dr. Lachance said.

Steroids did nothing for Ms. Kruse, so doctors began to treat her every two weeks with IVIG, intravenous immunoglobulin, a blood product that contains antibodies. "It's kind of like hitting the condition over the head with a sledgehammer," Dr. Lachance said. "It overwhelms the immune system and neutralizes whatever it is that's causing the injury."

The treatments seem to help, Ms. Kruse said. She feels stronger after each one, but the effects wear off. Her doctors expect she will need the therapy at least until September.

Most of the other workers are recovering and some have returned to their jobs, but others, including the index case, are still unable to work. So far, there have been no new cases.

"I cannot say that anyone is completely back to normal," Dr. Lachance said. "I expect it will take several more months to get a true sense of the course of this illness."

Dr. Lynfield hopes to find the cause. But she said: "I don't know that we will have the definitive answer. I suspect we will be able to rule some things out, and will have a sense of whether it seems like it may be due to an autoimmune response. I think we'll learn a lot, but it may take us a while. It's a great detective story."

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From: The Guardian (Charlottetown, PE, Canada)
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PESTICIDES LINKED TO CHILDHOOD CANCER, LOCAL PHYSICIAN SAYS

By Teresa Wright, The Guardian

The province should invoke the precautionary principle and ban cosmetic pesticides, a local physician urged the standing committee on environment Thursday.

Pesticides have been linked to childhood cancer, said Dr. John DeMarsh in a submitted video presentation to the legislative committee.

He submitted two recent medical reviews of pesticides, both of which looked in detail at numerous studies.

One of them in particular, performed by McGill University and published in 2007 in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, found strong associations with cancer in children, he said.

"Their conclusion," he said to the committee from the review, "At this point in time, we can confidently state that there is at least some association between pesticide exposure and childhood cancer."

DeMarsh said there has been too much emphasis on toxicology when looking at the effects of pesticides on human health. Not enough has been done to look at the epidemiology -- which is a branch of medicine that studies the cause of a disease in large populations.

"Epidemiology is the single most important tool we have in our quest for the truth involving cosmetic pesticides," he said.

DeMarsh strongly urged the committee to invite an epidemiologist with an interest in this area to make a presentation.

On the opposing side of the issue, Robert Gallant -- who owns and operates Atlantic Graduate Lawn Care Pest Control Services -- also presented his arguments to the committee.

He said the word pesticides is a general term that needs to be defined.

"There are no pesticides registered out there that are for cosmetic purposes only."

Herbicides, insecticides, fungicides all fall into that category, he said.

"We need to actively define what is a cosmetic pesticide -- because these products are being used for many, many different things, not just for controlling weeds on a lawn."

In his own lawn care and pest control business, he needs certain pesticides and uses them responsibly, he said. And although some may say there are alternatives out there, he said he's already using them.

"We do use the alternatives -- they are the rest of the toolbox, but the rest of the toolbox is no good to me without the pesticide tool."

Stratford MLA Cynthia Dunsford, who sits on the committee, said she agrees with Gallant the term cosmetic pesticide needs to be defined.

"It really isn't an accurate term, it's true," she said. "I think one of the first steps in putting forward any recommendations is to clearly define what those parametres are. I know in other jurisdictions there are even lists."

The committee will hear more speakers on this issue next Thursday as they further examine the potential impact of a provincewide ban on the use of cosmetic lawn pesticides.

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From: American Chronicle
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PBDE: THE HEALTH COSTS OF FIRE SAFETY

By Lourdes Salvador

Most people are led to believe that flame retardants are good, that they protect us from harm by reducing the chance of fire. However on deeper investigation, information published in the Lancet indicates there is more to fire retardants than meets the eye.

There is a price living organisms pay for the fire safety flame retardants provide. The precautionary principle warrants more investigation into the use of flame retardants, particularly polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). While the chance of a fire is slim, the chance of exposure to PBDEs is much greater.

PBDEs are a group of brominated compounds used as flame retardants since the 1970s. PBDEs are added to furniture, textiles, and electronic equipment as a flame retardant when these goods are manufactured.

Some PBDEs are in the process of being phased out in the United States, however many consumer goods remain in homes and workplaces that contain these PBDEs.

Human Exposure Pathways

Studies have found increasing PBDE concentrations in breast milk, showing that it not only enters the human body, but is passed on to infants through feeding. PBDEs concentrations in infants are often greater than in adults, indicating PBDE bioaccumulates and passes from mother to child.

Research has shown a strong positive correlation between the concentration of PBDEs in breast milk and that of household dust. This indicates that PBDEs from products within our homes are contaminating dust, and likely airspace as well.

Children are much more vulnerable to this exposure for two reasons. First, they have a smaller body size and the same exposure is more concentrated for their size. Second, children have an increased frequency of hand-to-mouth contact. The risk of averse affects is greater during the early stages of childhood development.

Adverse Effects

Though data is still lacking, scientists do know that PBDE toxicity affects thyroid function. It also alters neurotransmitter function in the brain, leading to cognitive and neurological deficits.

Juhasz and his colleagues concluded their review of PBDEs in the Lancet by summarizing that "the challenge for environmental health professionals is to enhance the understanding of factors that affect the fate, transport, and bioavailability of PBDEs in indoor environments, to develop biomarkers for the assessment of exposure to PBDEs, and to elucidate the effect of such exposure in susceptible populations." In the meantime, doesn't common sense indicate we should avoid PBDEs?

Reference

Juhasz, AL, Smith, E, & Weber, J. Brominated flame retardants-safety at what cost? The Lancet. December 1, 2007 -- December 7, 2007;370(9602):1813,

Lourdes Salvador volunteers as a writer and social advocate for the recognition of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). She was a passionate advocate for the homeless and worked with her local governor to provide services to the homeless through a new approach she created to end homelessness. That passion soon turned to advocacy and activism for people with MCS and the medical professionals who serve them. She co-founded MCS Awareness in 2005 and went on to found MCS America in 2006. She serves as a partner for Environmental Education Week, a partner for the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), and a supporter for the American Cancer Society: Campaign for Smokefree Air.

Copyrighted 2008 MCS America

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From: Kansas City Star
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CHEMICALS IN COSMETICS CONCERN SOME CONSUMERS

By Stephanie Earl, Albany (N.Y.) Times Union

Like their counterparts in elementary and middle schools everywhere (and Egyptians 5,000 years ago), sisters Kylie and Katherine Small loved their lip products. Especially lip gloss... the flavored kind that tastes like dessert.

Put it on, lick it off. Repeat. Yum.

One day about a year ago, though, Katherine checked out the ingredients listed on the packaging. Chemicals, preservatives, numbered dyes and things she couldn't even begin to pronounce. It scared her.

"I thought, 'I can't believe I put this stuff into my body,' " said the 12-year-old Alplaus, N.Y., resident.

On any given day, the average woman uses as many as 25 products, containing hundreds of chemical compounds.

After World War II, a boom in synthetics production (fueled by the pin-up and Hollywood culture) made self-care products -- makeup, perfumes, lotions -- ubiquitous, said Bonnie Spanier, associate professor in women's studies at the State University of New York at Albany.

And while the Food and Drug Administration was charged with cracking down on companies that sell poisonous, unsafe or dangerous products, or those falsely marketed, the federal agency does not routinely test or approve makeup before it hits the market.

A fact, say chemical-free cosmetics advocates, that opens wide the door for industries to use the newest chemicals, preservatives and colors. Spanier pointed to research that shows some of the popular chemical ingredients in personal care products -- including phthalates, which make plastics flexible; toluene, a solvent used in nail polish; and paraben, a preservative -- have been shown to cause birth defects or increase cancer risks. Hysteria du jour?

Very much so, according to the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association. According to its Web site, the trade group contends that its products are among the nation's safest available to consumers. It dismisses arguments to the contrary, namely the ones coming from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit public health and environmental consumer group (ewg.org). The industry is self- regulated by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, established by the CTFA and funded by cosmetics research companies.

The industry group contends that "no credible research has ever shown that any cosmetic or personal care products cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. We don't use ingredients that would be harmful for use in cosmetics or personal care products. Ingredients and products must be substantiated for safety before they are marketed."

Organic advocates, however, say cosmetics companies are baby feeding carcinogens to the general public mostly unchecked, a tiny poison at a time.

"Technically," Spanier said, "what they're saying may be valid, but not because there's no evidence pointing to the toxicity of thousands of these chemicals. The claim may be valid, but it's misleading."

Some popular chemicals work as "endocrine-disruptors," which are structurally similar to the body's natural hormones, Spanier said. The body can mistake these imitation hormones for the real thing, which can lead to a range of abnormal responses, including cancer.

Spanier is pushing for governments to adopt a "precautionary principle" when it comes to chemicals, essentially preventing their use in personal products until proven safe.

Julie Ann Price, 36, founder of Beauty With a Cause, was spurred by a traditional makeup epiphany. The former nail technician took a closer look at what she was putting on her face. She turned to the Web site cosmeticdatabase.com, which provides a "hazard score" for thousands of products. Price was appalled with what she found.

Turned off by the prices of true organic products, she was determined to find and offer an alternative for those like herself who wanted healthy, affordable products and one-stop shopping. Price makes some of her own products; others she buys and resells from companies she has researched and verified. Her products are available at beautywithacause .com.

For Kylie and Katherine Small, after discovering the ingredients in their lip gloss, the siblings also went in search of affordable all- natural alternatives.

The girls began experimenting in the kitchen with organic bases: canola oil, organic soy wax, fractionated coconut oil. By last fall they'd perfected, bottled and packaged their own organic creations. With some help from mom Sharon, they'd also started their own company, Aphrodite's Elements, and set up a Web site, organic-girls.com.

BOTH SIDES NOW

For two often opposing looks at cosmetics and ingredients see the industry Web site cosmeticsinfo.org and the Environmental Working Group's cosmeticdatabase.com.

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From: Crosswalk.com
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GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY HOSTS GLOBAL WARMING TEACH-IN

By Evan Moore, Correspondent

Fairfax, Va. -- George Mason University hosted a teach-in on global warming Tuesday, where school officials pledged to do their part to mitigate carbon emission and instructed students that humanity is responsible for warming the earth.

The "Teach-In on Global Warming Solutions" was sponsored by Focus the Nation, an environmental advocacy group, which, as Cybercast News Service previously reported, was set to sponsor similar teach-ins at a thousand U.S. colleges on Jan. 31.

Lenna Storm, coordinator of GMU's Sustainability Office, said that we are living in a "critical time which requires decisive action and commitment" to confront global warming.

The Sustainability Office was formed after GMU President Alan Merten signed the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment.

Universities signing this pledge commit to conducting an inventory of greenhouse gases that they produce, devise an action plan to reduce or offset their emissions, and then achieve "climate neutrality," meaning the university will make no net contribution to greenhouse gases.

Storm told Cybercast News Service that GMU would achieve "climate neutrality" by reducing emissions as much as financially feasible, and then offset the remainder through carbon and renewable energy credits.

The Sustainability Office will also continue to educate and engage the GMU community on environmental issues and measures to improve GMU's impact on the planet.

Storm said the office was considering programs to reduce the university's paper use, increasing the amount of material recycled and reducing material that is thrown away, reducing water waste, and the use of "green buildings" to be more energy-efficient.

Regarding criticism from segments of the general public and scientific community that the warming of the earth may be a product of natural processes, Storm said, "Being a scientist means that you do need to be skeptical, so I understand where people are coming from. Actually, our [university] president is very emphatic about making sure that the debates continue and that George Mason contributes to that act of discussion.

"I don't think that anything can be discounted," she said. "All the scientific evidence and perspectives have to be taken into consideration.

"There's something in environmental science and medicine called the precautionary principle, [which] says that basically if there's any chance that not acting will cause disaster, it is morally required for you to act. And, that is where I believe we stand as a university," Storm said.

Storm concluded, "I want to just be clear that we intend to encourage a continuing dialogue about these issues, but it's important that the precautionary principle is taken into consideration. We know enough to know that if we take no action, we're as culpable as anyone else for potential disaster, and we want to try to mitigate that."

Barry Klinger, an associate professor in GMU's Department of Climate Dynamics, presented the scientific case for human activity causing global warming in the day's first event.

Saying that humanity had a "fist order effect" on the chemistry of the atmosphere, he showed data indicating that the earth's mean surface temperature has increased, the net mass of polar ice has decreased, sea levels are rising, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has dramatically increased since the Industrial Revolution.

"In a democracy," he said, "we have a tension on complex issues, where you need experts to give you information on, and the fact that in the end, it's not the experts who are going to decide what to do about it.

"So, I think... the experts have to have the humility that even when we are talking about something that we're an expert on, we entertain the possibility that occasionally we could be wrong, and generally the public has to have the humility that, when they entertain opinions on something, you might want to actually listen to the experts before they come to a conclusion."

Campus reacts

Some GMU students were skeptical of the claim that global warming is real and man-made.

Monica Block, chairman of the GMU College Republicans told Cybercast News Service that her organization believed "that the 'global warming crisis' is a hot fashion trend in the academic world and should be ignored as such."

Katie Bowen, communications director for the GMU College Democrats told Cybercast News Service: "We believe that global climate change is caused in part by human activity but also in part by a natural cycle of the environment. It seems as though human activity is speeding up the process through industrialization, etc. I do not believe that the scientific evidence is incorrect, but perhaps it is incomplete."

Rob Piston, a libertarian GMU undergraduate alumnus and current graduate student, concurred with Block and Bowen, telling Cybercast News Service, "I don't believe that the entire scientific community believes that 'man' caused global climate change. I believe warming is occurring but that we still don't know why."

Piston saw a constructive purpose to the teach-in. "I believe in order to have a free and open forum, you must explore all sides of the issue ... not just [say] 'this is truth,' when the truth is yet to be decided," he said. "I believe GMU to be a great academic institution and, as such, issues of the day should be discussed, but both sides should be presented."

Bridgett Graham, a sophomore, said global warming was "real" and "probably man-made," and that the event was "a good thing." She was told by her English professor to attend and did not know why the teacher asked his students to attend an event outside the class's curriculum.

Mark, a junior who asked not to be identified by his last name, was also told by a public relations professor to attend the event. In lieu of class, Mark said, the professor told students to analyze the event from a communications perspective and determine how effective GMU and Focus the Nation were in advancing their position.

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From: Foodconsumer.org
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FACE TO FACE WITH TOY SAFETY: UNDERSTANDING AN UNEXPECTED THREAT

By Charles W. Schmidt

Until March 2007, thousands of kids around the country could be found playing with toy trucks, helicopters, and soldiers sold under the "Elite Operations" brand name. The toys were fun, and they looked great with their thick coat of glossy paint. Trouble was, that paint was loaded with 5,000 ppm lead, a potent developmental neurotoxicant with no known safe exposure level.

When the high lead levels were detected during a routine inspection, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a recall, the first for a lead-contaminated toy in 2007. Lead-triggered toy recalls were rare, but not unheard of in the United States, with just a handful issued in the last decade. Eventually, nearly 130,000 Elite Operations units -- made by a Hong Kong company called Toy Century Industrial and imported by Toys R Us -- would be recalled.

The $22 billion U.S. toy industry sells about 3 billion toys each year. In 2007 there were 81 toy recalls for a variety of reasons. Half of these, involving nearly 6 million toys, were related to lead paint.

In a typical year, the recall would have barely ruffled the $22 billion U.S. toy industry, which sells 3 billion units annually. But 2007 was far from typical as far as import recalls were concerned. Contaminated pet food, cough syrup, toothpaste, and other products -- mostly made in China -- were being yanked off store shelves under the full glare of the media. Given that most of its wares are made in China, the toy industry ramped up its inspections for lead, and found that high levels were a lot more common than they had assumed. By year's end, 42 recalls involving nearly 6 million toys had been issued because of excessive lead levels.

Lead-contaminated toys became one of the biggest environmental health stories of recent times. It was shocking to think of children being poisoned while playing, and by lead no less, a toxic metal that consumers assumed had been purged from products long ago. Now lead was back, sparking a furor over toy safety.

Looking for Answers

"The 'toxic toy' issue really exposed holes in safety testing procedures," says Sally Edwards, a researcher with the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. "The CPSC has responsibility for over fifteen thousand products, but it's underfunded, understaffed, and dependent on voluntary testing by industry. What's more, the toy industry is highly competitive; consumers expect low prices, and that forces manufacturers to look for low-cost materials. When you externalize the cost of production, you're going to pay the price somewhere."

Who can you trust? Ramped-up safety inspections in recent months revealed that even trusted brands of toys could contain potentially unsafe levels of lead. Many experts cite the shifting of manufacturing overseas -- which makes monitoring more difficult -- as a reason why hazardous materials are turning up in consumer products.

Years ago, most toys sold in the United States were produced domestically. Now, 87% are produced abroad, according to Santa's Sweatshop: "Made in D.C." with Bad Trade Policy, a December 2007 report issued by the nonprofit Public Citizen, and of those, 74% are manufactured in China, where it would seem lead paint is used plentifully. A study led by Scott Clark, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati, found that 50% of the paint sold in China, India, and Malaysia had lead concentrations 30 times higher than the CPSC standard. That finding was published in Environmental Research in September 2006.

With manufacturing shifting overseas, U.S. toy importers have come to rely increasingly on test results from foreign suppliers. But overseas testing has been problematic for companies to monitor, and growing evidence suggests it's more sporadic than one might assume. In congressional testimony given on 19 September 2007, Mattel's chairman and chief executive officer, Robert A. Eckert, conceded that "a few [overseas] vendors, either deliberately or out of carelessness, circumvented our long-established [testing] standards and procedures." As a result, Mattel wound up with 3 lead paint-triggered toy recalls in 2007.

Jeff Gearhart, campaign director for the Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, emphasizes that Chinese toys are not the only culprits. The center's investigations have shown lead-containing toys originate from numerous countries in addition to China, including Canada, Mexico, Thailand, and the United States. "There's nothing pristine about the U.S.'s regulatory structure or its production practices that would prevent toxic toys from being produced here," Gearhart says.

The Ecology Center recently completed the most far-reaching analysis of chemical hazards in toys yet. Their results, published 5 December 2007 on the Consumer Action Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Toys website (www.healthytoys.org), found lead in 35% of 1,200 children's products tested. Smaller numbers of toys -- numbering less than 5% of the total number evaluated -- also contained trace amounts of arsenic and/or cadmium. The site now hosts what the Ecology Center says is the most comprehensive public database of toxic hazards in toys in existence, which includes both its own test results and those of other researchers [for more information, see "Consumer Action Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Toys," p. A69 this issue].

High-risk adornment. This child's bracelet was found by the California Environmental Protection Agency's Department of Toxic Substances Control laboratory to contain unsafe levels of lead. One-third of the children's jewelry tested so far by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control contained excessive levels of lead. Moreover, studies by the Ecology Center have shown jewelry to contain some of the highest lead content of all children's products tested.

Unregulated Lead Sources

Among the toys tested by the Ecology Center, 17% had lead concentrations exceeding the CPSC paint standard of 600 ppm. Lead levels in these toys typically ranged from 1,000 to 2,000 ppm. Some of the highest levels weren't in paint, however, but in vinyl and jewelry, which aren't regulated by the CPSC. A vinyl Hannah Montana Pop Star Card Game, for instance, contained 3,056 ppm lead.

CPSC spokesperson Julie Vallese says the agency would recall a vinyl toy on account of lead only if children were found to interact with it in ways that could lead to an oral lead dose of at least 175 micrograms/day. That's the amount that, according to the agency's investigations, could cause blood levels to exceed 10 micrograms/dL, the level at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises medical intervention. Vallese says that because children typically don't chew or "mouth" vinyl, the toys aren't likely to raise blood levels to that concentration, however. Hence, the Hannah Montana Pop Star Card Game can be sold legally, even though its lead content is more than 5 times higher than the enforceable paint standard.

This raises some obvious questions: Are children really less likely to mouth vinyl toys than painted ones? And if they do, will lead leach from vinyl into children's bodies at rates any different from that at which it leaches from paint? "We don't find that lead leaches from vinyl," responds Vallese, adding that the CPSC's legal mandate -- as articulated in the Federal Hazardous Substances Act -- requires it to consider exposure in addition to toxicity when evaluating risk; in other words, manufacturers can sell potentially toxic products as long as the exposure pathway is unlikely to be completed.

But Ted Schettler, science director with the Science and Environmental Health Network, a nonprofit group in Ames, Iowa, counters that lead actually can leach from vinyl under conditions that include higher temperatures and low pH. "If a small vinyl toy were swallowed, you can bet the lead would come out; stomach acids would extract it," he says. Schettler also points to a 25 June 1993 MMWR Weekly Report article documenting lead poisoning in a man whose only known exposure was through habitually chewing on lead-impregnated vinyl -- in this case, the coating on electrical wires.

Meanwhile, some vinyl toy parts are small enough to swallow. The Chicago Tribune on 18 November 2007 reported that vinyl shoes from a Jammin' Jenna doll made by Ty had lead content averaging 1,980 ppm (however, there is no known case of one of these shoes being consumed).

Vallese responds that an item like a lead-contaminated vinyl shoe, which could possibly be harmful if swallowed, might be subject to additional risk analysis. "We're working with the Ecology Center now, trying to find out more about the products they analyzed," Vallese says. "But [apart from paint levels above 600 ppm, which do trigger recalls] we aren't required to take enforcement action unless the exposure justifies such a measure. We enforce laws, and that's how the law is written."

According to Vallese, the CPSC may change its regulations concerning children's jewelry, which was found by the Ecology Center to contain the highest lead levels of any children's product on the market. According to the Ecology Center's investigations, some charms, bracelets, earrings, key chains, rings, and other inexpensive jewelry marketed to children are made entirely of lead. The New York Times reported on 29 September 2007 on 2 cases involving children who had swallowed jewelry containing lead. In one, a 4-year-old boy died with blood lead levels of 180 micrograms/dL after swallowing a heart-shaped charm that came with a pair of Reebok children's shoes. In another, a 5- year-old girl who ate part of an ankle bracelet was saved by treatment, but not before her blood lead reached 79 micrograms/dL.

The CPSC acknowledges that children's jewelry is a problem. "The agency has made it a priority to deal with this issue," Vallese asserts. "I know kids will put these things in their mouths. We're trying to get manufacturers to use nonhazardous metals. There's an exposure risk here that we want to address through the rule-making process."

Yet even as CPSC's regulations aim to keep blood lead levels under 10 micrograms/dL, growing evidence suggests far lower concentrations can produce cognitive problems in children. An investigation by Bruce Lanphear, director of the Cincinnati Children's Environmental Health Center, which pooled results from 7 studies around the world, found no evidence of a threshold for lead toxicity; IQ impairments that persisted were identified at blood lead levels below 5 micrograms/dL. Those results were published in the July 2005 issue of EHP. "Since then, several studies have confirmed these results," Lanphear says. "They all found proportionately larger decrements at the lowest levels [of exposure]."

On the basis of these data, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently concluded that the CPSC's enforceable standard for lead in paint should be dropped from 600 ppm to 40 ppm, which is the upper limit for lead in uncontaminated soil, according to congressional testimony given on 20 September 2007 by Dana Best, an assistant professor of pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine.

Vallese says the CPSC is currently bound by law to its existing standard, but pending legislation could change that. A bill passed on 19 December 2007 by the House of Representatives -- HR 4040, the Consumer Product Safety Modernization Act, sponsored by Bobby Rush (D- IL) -- proposes to gradually reduce the CPSC standard to 100 ppm over 4 years, a level Vallese says would be the strictest in the world.

Not Just Lead

The lead debacle stunned a toy industry already smarting from ongoing efforts to ban its use of phthalates, vinyl-softening chemicals added to rubber bath toys and teething rings, as well as to cosmetics and medical devices. After more than 50 years of industrial use, phthalates -- which cause hormonal changes and reproductive effects in rodents at high doses -- can be found in almost all human blood samples from industrialized countries.

Both the toy industry and the CPSC say that phthalates in toys do not put children at risk, but skeptics counter that children's mouthing behaviors make them uniquely vulnerable to harm from these chemicals. The European Union, the state of California, and the city of San Francisco have banned 6 phthalates from toys largely on a precautionary basis.

Both the toy industry and the CPSC say that phthalates in toys do not put children at risk, claiming that the amounts absorbed by exposure to commercial products are too low to be harmful. Skeptics of that view counter that children's mouthing behaviors, and also their comparatively more sensitive developing bodies, make them uniquely vulnerable to harm from phthalates and other chemicals. Spurred by activist campaigning, the European Union (EU), the city of San Francisco, and most recently California banned 6 phthalates from children's products. Both the Toy Industry Association (TIA) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) -- trade groups based in New York and Virginia, respectively -- have appealed the San Francisco ban, which is already in effect (the statewide California ban, set to go into effect in 2009, has not been challenged).

It's not clear how many toys contain phthalates, in part because manufacturers aren't required to disclose the chemical contents of their products to the public. Sarah Janssen, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says soft, flexible bath toys and cosmetics contain some of the highest concentrations and therefore the greatest potential for exposure. Marian Stanley, a senior director at the ACC, says phthalates typically make up 15-20% of the toy's entire composition. "That's the amount required for phthalates to do what they do, which is make vinyl soft," she explains.

According to TIA spokesperson Frank Clarke, toy manufacturers use a single member of this class of chemicals, a compound called di- isononyl phthalate (DINP). Still, studies have found trace amounts of other phthalates in toys. In its own investigation, published on 19 November 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle had 16 toys analyzed and found di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) -- a suspected human carcinogen and reproductive toxicant -- in a rubber bath toy sold at Walgreens. Other phthalates were also detected, all of them at levels of less than 2%.

Children's advocates and industry disagree over where the non-DINP phthalates came from. Stanley suggests the reagents and test equipment used during the analysis may have been contaminated with DEHP. Andrew Igrejas, a campaign director with the National Environmental Trust, a Washington, DC-based environmental group, dismisses that view, and insists other phthalates wind up in toys "by mistake" during manufacturing. "It isn't too farfetched to assume that what this testing reveals is that DEHP continues to be used for some toy applications," Janssen says. "The source [of the DEHP] should be identified."

In any case, DINP toxicity is heavily debated. Echoing industry conclusions, the CPSC insists the human risks are nonexistent. In 2002 the agency issued what many cite as the definitive DINP risk assessment. Following that effort, the CPSC performed an extensive exposure assessment, during which mouthing behavior among 169 children aged 3-36 months was recorded by trained observers. DINP "migration" (i.e., leaching) rates from soft plastic toys also were quantified. These measures were used to estimate a maximum daily dose of 2.4 micrograms of DINP per kg body weight per day. By comparison, the CPSC's Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel set an acceptable daily intake of 120 micrograms/kg/day on the basis of histological liver changes in rats, which was the first effect noted.

Lack of Human Data Breeds Uncertainty

Unfortunately, no comparable data are available on the effect of DINP in humans. Children's advocates and others who favor phthalate bans typically point to research published in the August 2005 issue of EHP by Shanna Swan, a University of Rochester professor of obstetics and gynecology who has shown that phthalate exposure in utero is associated with a shortened anogenital distance (the distance from the anus to the base of the penis) in boys aged 2-36 months. These results support findings in male rodents, which show that high-dose phthalate exposures limit the anogenital distance, reduce sperm counts, interfere with testosterone regulation, and impair genital development. However, these findings were based on 9 phthalate metabolites (measured in maternal urine during pregnancy) that Swan concedes are chemically and toxicologically different from DINP.

The whole issue of phthalate toxicity is further complicated by questions surrounding cumulative exposure. Janssen asserts the CPSC's risk assessment was issued before new evidence of phthalate additivity came to light. Generated in part by Earl Gray, a research biologist at the Environmental Protection Agency, these findings imply that different phthalates act on the same biological pathways such that their effects build on each other. The National Academy of Sciences recently launched a cumulative risk assessment for phthalates, coordinated by project director Ellen Mantus, which is expected to yield a report within 15 months.

In Janssen's view, the possibility that phthalates may be toxicologically additive further justifies banning them from children's products. But others insist that doing so will make little or no difference in terms of children's real-life exposure. Phthalates -- produced globally at annual volumes of more than 1 billion pounds -- are ubiquitous; indeed the largest source of human exposure is food, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Two of the most common alternatives to phthalates are acetyl tributyl citrate and DINCH, which is derived from DINP and has a very similar chemical structure. But Stanley counters that while 50 years of use show phthalates to be a relatively sure bet in terms of safety, the alternatives are a roll of the dice. "We don't know enough about these new plasticizers," she says. "There still isn't much data available on them." To support that position, Stanley cites a 20 April 2000 memo from the CPSC to David Miller, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America (now the TIA), which states that CPSC staff "are concerned that manufacturers not substitute for DINP in children's products... . [E]xisting data are insufficient to determine if acetyl tributyl citrate has any chronic toxic effects that may be relevant to humans." Stanley confirms the CPSC has no current information on DINP alternatives.

Meanwhile, phthalates have yet to produce a single documented human illness. Schettler concedes we may never know if, or how, early phthalate exposures affect human health. "I don't know how we could figure that out," he says. "Animal studies suggest links with reproductive health, but that only becomes manifest when people reach child-bearing age. We'd have to quantify exposures during fetal and early childhood years, and we'd also have to account for other known environmental factors that influence reproductive health -- for instance, nutrition."

Schettler dismisses critics who say it's unreasonable to remove phthalates from toys if ongoing exposures will still occur from other sources. "My own view is that if you have the opportunity to reduce exposures, then why not do it," he says. "We do not need vinyl toys that kids will mouth." Ultimately, says Schettler, the decision to avoid phthalates is a precautionary one, based on the notion that it's better to be safe now than sorry later.

Proposed Solutions

The European Union invoked the precautionary principle in 2005, when it banned 6 phthalates from children's products despite objections from its own scientific advisory panel, which felt the documented risks weren't high enough. In addition to California, 5 other states -- Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, and Maryland -- have introduced legislation to remove phthalates from toys and other children's products.

With respect to the lead issue, a number of pending bills now aim to boost the CPSC's power to regulate product testing. Like HR 4040, a Senate bill -- SB 2045, sponsored by Mark Pryor (D-AR) -- proposes mandatory safety testing (for all relevant elements, not just lead) by third- party inspectors, a measure the CPSC wholeheartedly supports.

Just how the bills will fare in the coming year remains to be seen. President Bush has signaled his support for CPSC reforms, but both he and the agency reject SB 2045's proposal to make safety violations punishable by a fine of up to $100 million. Vallese emphasizes that a fine of that magnitude would saturate the process with lawyers and inundate the CPSC with paperwork from companies trying to document safety during manufacturing. "We need more safety inspectors, not more attorneys," Vallese says. The House version proposes a fine of $10 million, which appears to be more palatable to the agency and industry alike.

The CPSC has also begun to address lead paint hazards from imported toys. Whether the amounts in Asian paint have dropped since the toy recalls started last year is unknown. According to Vallese, the CPSC is addressing that issue now. "We need to deal with the problem at its source," she asserts. "So we've entered into agreements with the Chinese government to address safety in production; we signed those agreements in September [2007]." [For more information on these agreements, see box insert this page.]

For parents, lead and phthalate avoidance is easier said than done, given that the chemical components of toys are not usually made publicly known. Gearhart emphasizes that cheap jewelry should be avoided at all cost. Parents can search healthytoys.org, where test results on specific toys are posted as they emerge. Toys made with nontoxic paints and materials present another increasingly widespread option. Ultimately, though, the toy recalls of 2007 are in some ways more a wakeup call for industry and federal regulation than a trigger for excessive parental anxiety. Over time, they are certain to spur some beneficial changes.

CPSC: In Search of Safety

The extraordinary number of lead-contaminated toy recalls in 2007 has put the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) under growing public scrutiny. The CPSC's primary mandate is to help industry develop voluntary safety standards and to issue mandatory standards when the agency deems those produced voluntarily by industry to be insufficiently protective. But the CPSC is also directed by Congress to conduct routine product inspections to ensure that harmful wares don't reach the marketplace.

Don Mays, senior director for product safety at the Consumers Union (CU), the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, says there are just 15 CPSC inspectors monitoring all 300 ports in the United States (the agency has traditionally rotated from port to port, making its presence at any given location intermittent). The CPSC has traditionally not measured for chemical exceedances at the borders, leaving that responsibility with importers, who are liable for any harm caused by products they sell.

Thanks in part to a dwindling budget -- which has not kept pace with annual inflation -- the CPSC's full-time staff has fallen from a high of 890 in 1973 to roughly 400 today, according to Martin Bennett, a retired CPSC inspector. Martin says the number of field inspectors has fallen due to staff attrition, a point that CPSC spokesperson Julie Vallese affirms is true. Advocacy groups assert that staff losses have severely diminished the CPSC's ability to keep up with rising imports from global trade. "They just don't have the resources they need to keep up with screening," says CU spokesperson Ami Gadhia.

For fiscal year 2008, Congress added $17 million to the CPSC's 2007 budget of $63 million, the first real increase since 1981, Vallese says. Some of that money will be used to hire border inspectors and to purchase 10 handheld X-ray fluorescence devices at roughly $30,000 apiece. These devices are used to analyze the chemical content of products.

The CPSC has also initiated new measures to boost port inspections. A newly expanded Import Surveillance Division, announced on 7 January 2008, will establish a tracking system at ports of entry throughout the United States. The system will generate real-time information about U.S.-bound shipments even before they leave foreign ports. Although the system will bolster efforts to ensure product safety, Mays points out that full-time staff will be posted at only 2 ports (Long Beach and Seattle). Moreover, the tracking system will not be operational until 2011, he says.

Vallese emphasizes the real thrust of the CPSC's expanded efforts to block hazardous toys from the market won't take place at the borders or the ports. "We have to go to the source," she says. Along those lines, the CPSC has been holding ongoing meetings with representatives from the Chinese government. In agreements signed in September 2007, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine of the People's Republic of China, which is the CPSC's regulatory counterpart in China, agreed to ensure that Chinese manufacturers adhere to U.S. safety standards, Vallese says. They also created a paint certification system that guarantees paint lead levels meet CPSC safety standards and agreed that manufacturers who violate safety standards will be stripped of their export licenses.

Mays says the CPSC has signed similar agreements with at least 10 other countries. Most of these agreements were signed before the dramatic rise in lead paint-related recalls began during 2007. "The bottom line is that the CPSC needs more port inspectors," he says. "And they have to start levying fines against violators." As it currently stands, the CPSC is authorized to fine those who violate safety standards up to $1.8 million. According to Mays, none of the toy importers subjected to lead-related recalls were fined.

Copyright 2004-2008 by foodconsumer.org

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From: New York Times
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FOOD POLITICS, HALF-BAKED

By James E. Mcwilliams

Last month the Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to food made from cloned cows, pigs and goats, with the agency's top food-safety expert, Dr. Stephen Sundlof, declaring, "It is beyond our imagination to even have a theory for why the food is unsafe." Opponents of biotechnology immediately let out a collective groan of disapproval -- among them Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's ice cream (who has called cloning "just weird"). Cloning, after all, will now join genetically modified crops as yet another threat to organic agriculture. I, too, let out a groan, but for a different reason.

It was because of the tone. "It is beyond our imagination to even find a theory ...." The hubris here highlights the saddest aspect of our perennial food wars. Like abortion and capital punishment, biotechnology inspires knee-jerk rhetorical passion rather than rational debate. Dr. Sundlof's remark was the equivalent of an uppercut to the anti-biotech camp, one offering an open invitation to fight back.

One need look no further than the battle over genetically modified crops starting in the 1990s to understand how this language undermines the qualified benefits of biotech innovation. Without a hint of doubt, pro-biotech forces insisted that genetically modified crops would end hunger and eliminate the need for pesticides. Genetic modification was supposedly a harmless panacea that would save the planet. Industry not only promoted this fiction, but it scoffed at the prospects of product labeling, insisting that it was the product, not the process, that mattered.

This arrogant attitude spurred the anti-biotech forces to promote their own distortions. "Frankenfoods" became the term of choice for genetically modified crops. Chemical companies engaged in "biopiracy"; they were killers of monarch butterflies, engineers of future "superweeds," and according to Jeremy Rifkin, the prominent biotech opponent, monopolizers of an insidious technology that posed "as serious a threat to the existence of life on the planet as the bomb itself."

Lost in this rhetorical battle was a quiet middle ground where the benefits and drawbacks of genetically engineered crops were responsibly considered. What emerged from this investigation -- undertaken by population experts, plant biologists, farmers, conservationists, nonprofit foundations and agricultural scientists -- was cautious optimism for a new technology. These specialists recognized that such crops could reduce deforestation by increasing crop yields on less land, moderate overuse of synthetic insecticides, decrease dependence on irrigation through drought-resistant crops, and greatly reduce soil erosion through no-till farming. They also looked at the hundreds of studies finding that this technology was relatively safe.

But the middle ground also confronted the dangers that could arise through genetically modified crops. Indeed, it is possible for cross- pollination to "contaminate" wild varieties of food, decreasing biodiversity. Likewise, it is possible (if very unlikely) that animals fed modified crops could pass genes to humans that render antibiotics ineffective.

That patents of transgenic methods are controlled by a few deep- pocketed corporations is also unsettling. One need not be an anti- biotech radical to have problems with a "terminator gene" that prevents crops from producing second-generation seed. Rather than dismiss these concerns (as Monsanto does) or grossly overstate them (as Greenpeace and Mr. Rifkin do), people like Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the former director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, have asked a profoundly productive question: what are the limits of modern society's precautionary principle? In other words, knowing that it is impossible to prove a negative, when should a society agree to accept a technology with proven benefits and potential dangers?

Dr. Pinstrup-Andersen, for one, decided that the benefits of modified crops outweigh the drawbacks. The public, however, was distracted by the rhetorical crossfire, which had no use for this reasoned, and necessarily imperfect, response to a complex technology.

I hope that the same situation does not play out on cloning. After all, our collective failure to grapple with genetic modification on its own terms been accompanied by the equally unfortunate failure to bring its benefits to cultures that might gain the most from it -- insect-resistant cassava or drought-tolerant maize could be a boon to subsistence farmers in Africa. Cloning technology, too, has many possible benefits. It has the potential to produce products that are safer, healthier and tastier -- bacon that has heart-protective Omega 3's, say, or milk produced by cows that are stronger and thus need fewer antibiotics. It might seem "just weird," but cloning deserves a fair hearing, one in which impassioned language yields the floor to responsible discourse.

James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of the forthcoming "American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT."

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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