Rachel's Democracy & Health News #870
Thursday, August 31, 2006
From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #870 ..........[This story printer-friendly]
August 31, 2006
TAKING ON THE PENTAGON
[Rachel's introduction: Fifteen years into their fight against the Army's plan to incinerate leftover chemical weapons, citizens are proposing safer alternatives for getting the job done.]
By Peter Montague
In Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon and Utah, the U.S. Army is preparing to spend a decade incinerating 12,000 tons of leftover "mustard agent" -- a chemical weapon intended to immobilize enemy soldiers by producing painful, debilitating blisters on skin and lungs. In Tooele County, Utah, where about half the nation's mustard agent resides, incineration began last week.
The mustard agent is presently stored in aging cannisters on military bases in the four states and the Army says it is safer to incinerate it than to do nothing.
But this week a coalition of citizens issued a sophisticated engineering report arguing that there's a third alternative besides "do nothing" and incineration: chemical neutralization. The Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG) in Berea, Kentucky concluded that it seems feasible for the Army to neutralize mustard agent using warm water.
CWWG acknowledged that it lacked sufficient information to demand that the Army immediately shift from incineration to neutralization. Instead, they want the Army itself to study chemical neutralization, with citizen participation. "The purpose of the report is to try and compel the Army to perform due diligence of the fundamental questions," says Craig Williams the leader of CWWG.
Neither CWWG nor its constituent citizen groups oppose destruction of the chemical warfare agents -- they just want it done as safely as possible.
This is a classic example of citizens taking a modern approach to community protection -- setting goals (destruction of the mustard agent), examining available alternatives to find the least hazardous, and creating opportunities to participate in decision-making. And, as Elizabeth Crowe of CWWG points out, it shows that it is never too late to pay attention to new information, to heed early warnings and invoke the precautionary principle.
The Army announced new information recently -- it discovered the toxic metal mercury in the mustard agent at the level of 65 parts per million (800 pounds of mercury in 6200 tons of mustard agent). If this level of mercury were present in all 12,000 tons, the incinerator program would be releasing 1560 pounds of mercury into the environment -- a very large release of a metal that is poisonous in microgram quantities. In addition, there's a distinct possibility that the Army has underestimated the total quantity of mercury involved.
So far, the Army's response to the mercury problem has been to say it will burn the mustard agent more slowly than initially planned, so that the concentration of mercury in the incinerator's smoke stack will never exceed the air quality standards set by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of course with this approach, the mercury emitted would still total 1560 pounds -- it would just leave the stack more slowly. On the other hand, EPA announced recently that it is now re-evaluating controls for incinerators -- which could put the Army's chemical weapons incinerators out of compliance and delay the whole program. Williams says this is another reason for the Army to abandon incineration now, to avoid an unpleasant surprise later.
History of the Program
The Army decided in 1984 to incinerate leftover chemical warfare agents -- "mustard gas" (which is actually a liquid), plus far more deadly agents, VX and GB, also known as sarin, which are true gases -- at eight locations: Anniston, Alabama; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Umatilla, Oregon; Tooele County, Utah; Aberdeen, Maryland; Richmond, Kentucky; Pueblo, Colorado; and Newport, Indiana.
By 1985, opposition was growing at each location as people began wondering whether incinerating chemical warfare agents could be done without accidentally releasing deadly gases. No one opposed destruction of the chemical warfare agents -- but many questioned whether incineration was the best option.
The Army basically stonewalled the questions, insisting that it knew best. Citizens had reason to wonder whether the Army's programs always made good sense.
In the mid-1980s, the Army built an experimental incinerator for chemical weapons on Johnston Island, an atoll 700 miles southwest of Hawaii. Congress's General Accounting Office examined the test program and reported that "unplanned and unscheduled maintenance downtime problems... occurred on an almost daily basis." Still the Army insisted all was well -- a stance of denial that did not inspire confidence in communities slated for incinerators of their own.
In 1989 it was revealed that the Army owned at least 14,000 contaminated sites -- including some of the largest and most dangerous environmental hazards imaginable. For example, it was revealed that over the years the Army had fired or dumped an estimated four million rounds of ordinance into the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay near Aberdeen. Many of these rounds were unexploded bombs and rockets filled with mustard agent, nerve gas, chlorine gas, or tear gas. They have never been recovered. Nautical charts show the area as "restricted -- keep out" but people fishing in a skiff don't necessarily consult charts.
In 1991 community groups from the eight communities targeted for chemical weapons incinerators formally launched a coalition, the Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG), led by Craig Williams, a Vietnam veteran in Kentucky. Since then their coalition has grown to over 200 groups nationwide.
The same year, 1991, CWWG commissioned a study of alternative methods for destroying chemical warfare agents. That study indicated that chemical neutralization would work well for mustard agent. Mustard agent contains chlorine, which -- if burned -- would produce dioxins and furans, among the most toxic chemicals known to science. Neutralization would avoid production of these most toxic of byproducts.
The Army stonewalled and resisted, but CWWG and its constituent citizen groups went to Washington and bent the ears of their Congressional delegations. The citizens' position -- we want this done, but we want it done as safely as possible -- resonated. Eventually Congress ordered the Army to consider alternatives to incineration.
As a direct result of CWWG's member groups bringing relentless pressure on the Army at every possible opportunity, providing detailed alternatives for the Army to consider, and getting Congressional staff involved -- the Army eventually abandoned the incinerators planned for Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, and Maryland, where it proceeded to neutralize 1818 tons of mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground without mishap.
Now CWWG wants the Army to consider doing the same thing with mustard agent at all the other sites. The report released this week showed, from an engineering perspective, that it seems feasible and affordable to either retrofit incinerators with neutralizers, or to build new neutralizers near each existing incinerator.
The Army now has more experience neutralizing mustard agent (1818 tons) than it has incinerating mustard agent (67 tons) -- so the Army may have a hard time squirming out of the embarrassing position CWWG has put it in. And of course if the Army balks, CWWG has already demonstrated that it knows how turn the screws in Washington.
CWWG has demonstrated that a tiny group of citizens can take on a multi-billion-dollar Pentagon program and win. By sticking to their knitting, keeping their eye on the prize, and never, ever giving up, Craig Williams and his seasoned band of incineration fighters across the country have proven once again, as Margaret Mead famously said:
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
 Patty Henetz, "Cold war's killer gas on way to extinction," Salt Lake City (Utah) Tribune May 19, 2006.
 John M. Bull, "Army Site May be Too Hazardous to Clean," Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News Feb. 26, 1989, pg. F1. And John M. R. Bull, Phil Galewitz, and Kenn Marshall, "Nation's military has toxic embrace," Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News Feb. 26, 1989, pg. A1.
 Juliet Eilprin, "Chemical weapons disposal drawn-out," Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), July 8, 2006.
From: Institute for Responsible Technology ...............[This story printer-friendly]
August 29, 2006
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED CROPS MAY CAUSE HUMAN DISEASE
[Rachel's introduction: The biotech food industry denies the possibility that genetically engineered crops may cause human disease, but a former Monsanto scientist tells a distinctly different story.]
By Jeffrey M. Smith
Monsanto was quite happy to recruit young Kirk Azevedo to sell their genetically engineered cotton. Kirk had grown up on a California farm and had worked in several jobs monitoring and testing pesticides and herbicides. Kirk was bright, ambitious, handsome and idealistic -- the perfect candidate to project the company's "Save the world through genetic engineering" image.
It was that image, in fact, that convinced Kirk to take the job in 1996.
"When I was contacted by the headhunter from Monsanto, I began to study the company, namely the work of their CEO, Robert Shapiro." Kirk was thoroughly impressed with Shapiro's promise of a golden future through genetically modified (GM) crops. "He described how we would reduce the in-process waste from manufacturing, turn our fields into factories and produce anything from lifesaving drugs to insect- resistant plants. It was fascinating to me." Kirk thought, "Here we go. I can do something to help the world and make it a better place."
He left his job and accepted a position at Monsanto, rising quickly to become the facilitator for GM cotton sales in California and Arizona. He would often repeat Shapiro's vision to customers, researchers, even fellow employees. After about three months, he visited Monsanto's St. Louis headquarters for the first time for new employee training. There too, he took the opportunity to let his colleagues know how enthusiastic he was about Monsanto's technology that was going to reduce waste, decrease poverty and help the world. Soon after the meeting, however, his world was shaken.
"A vice president pulled me aside," recalled Kirk. "He told me something like, 'Wait a second. What Robert Shapiro says is one thing. But what we do is something else. We are here to make money. He is the front man who tells a story. We don't even understand what he is saying.'"
Kirk felt let down. "I went in there with the idea of helping and healing and came out with 'Oh, I guess it is just another profit- oriented company.'" He returned to California, still holding out hopes that the new technology could make a difference.
Possible Toxins in GM Plants
Kirk was developing the market in the West for two types of GM cotton. Bt cotton was engineered with a gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. Organic farmers use the natural form of the bacterium as an insecticide, spraying it occasionally during times of high pest infestation. Monsanto engineers, however, isolated and then altered the gene that produces the Bt-toxin, and inserted it into the DNA of the cotton plant. Now every cell of their Bt cotton produces a toxic protein. The other variety was Roundup Ready cotton. It contains another bacterial gene that enables the plant to survive an otherwise toxic dose of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. Since the patent on Roundup's main active ingredient, glyphosate, was due to expire in 2000, the company was planning to sell Roundup Ready seeds that were bundled with their Roundup herbicide, effectively extending their brand's dominance in the herbicide market.
In the summer of 1997, Kirk spoke with a Monsanto scientist who was doing some tests on Roundup Ready cotton. Using a "Western blot" analysis, the scientist was able to identify different proteins by their molecular weight. He told Kirk that the GM cotton not only contained the intended protein produced by the Roundup Ready gene, but also extra proteins that were not normally produced in the plant. These unknown proteins had been created during the gene insertion process.
Gene insertion was done using a gene gun (particle bombardment). Kirk, who has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, understood this to be "a kind of barbaric and messy method of genetic engineering, where you use a gun-like apparatus to bombard the plant tissue with genes that are wrapped around tiny gold particles." He knew that particle bombardment can cause unpredictable changes and mutations in the DNA, which might result in new types of proteins.
The scientist dismissed these newly created proteins in the cotton plant as unimportant background noise, but Kirk wasn't convinced. Proteins can have allergenic or toxic properties, but no one at Monsanto had done a safety assessment on them. "I was afraid at that time that some of these proteins may be toxic." He was particularly concerned that the rogue proteins "might possibly lead to mad cow or some other prion-type diseases."
Kirk had just been studying mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and its human counterpart, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). These fatal diseases had been tracked to a class of proteins called prions. Short for "proteinaceous infectious particles," prions are improperly folded proteins, which cause other healthy proteins to also become misfolded. Over time, they cause holes in the brain, severe dysfunction and death. Prions survive cooking and are believed to be transmittable to humans who eat meat from infected "mad" cows. The disease may incubate undetected for about 2 to 8 years in cows and up to 30 years in humans.
When Kirk tried to share his concerns with the scientist, he realized, "He had no idea what I was talking about; he had not even heard of prions. And this was at a time when Europe had a great concern about mad cow disease and it was just before the noble prize was won by Stanley Prusiner for his discovery of prion proteins."
Kirk said "These Monsanto scientists are very knowledgable about traditional products, like chemicals, herbicides and pesticides, but they don't understand the possible harmful outcomes of genetic engineering, such as pathophysiology or prion proteins. So I am explaining to him about the potential untoward effects of these foreign proteins, but he just did not understand."
Endangering the Food Supply
At this time, Roundup Ready cotton varieties were just being introduced into other regions but were still being field-tested in California. California varieties had not yet been commercialized. But Kirk came to find out that Monsanto was feeding the cotton plants used in its test plots to cattle.
"I had great issue with this," he said. "I had worked for Abbot Laboratories doing research, doing test plots using Bt sprays from bacteria. We would never take a test plot and put into the food supply, even with somewhat benign chemistries. We would always destroy the test plot material and not let anything into the food supply. Now we entered into a new era of genetic engineering. The standard was not the same as with pesticides. It was much lower, even though it probably should have been much higher."
Kirk complained to the Ph.D. in charge of the test plot about feeding the experimental plants to cows. He explained that unknown proteins, including prions, might even effect humans who consume the cow's milk and meat. The scientist replied, "Well that's what we're doing everywhere else and that's what we're doing here." He refused to destroy the plants.
Kirk got a bit frantic. He started talking to others in the company. "I approached pretty much everyone on my team in Monsanto." He was unable to get anyone interested. In fact, he said, "Once they understood my perspective, I was somewhat ostracized. It seemed as if once I started questioning things, people wanted to keep their distance from me. I lost the cooperation with other team members. Anything that interfered with advancing the commercialization of this technology was going to be pushed aside."
He then approached California Agriculture Commissioners. "These local Ag commissioners are traditionally responsible for test plots and to make sure test plot designs protect people and the environment." But Kirk got nowhere. "Once again, even at the Ag commissioner level, they were dealing with a new technology that was beyond their comprehension. They did not really grasp what untoward effects might be created by the genetic engineering process itself."
Kirk continued to try to blow the whistle on what he thought could be devastating to the health of consumers. "I spoke to many Ag commissioners. I spoke to people at the University of California. I found no one who would even get it, or even get the connection that proteins might be pathogenic, or that there might be untoward effects associated with these foreign proteins that we knew we were producing. They didn't even want to talk about it really. You'd kind of see a blank stare when speaking to them on this level. That led me to say I am not going to be part of this company anymore. I'm not going to be part of this disaster, from a moral perspective."
Kirk gave his two-week notice. In early January 1998, he finished his last day of work in the morning and in the afternoon started his first day at chiropractic college. He was still determined to make a positive difference for the world, but with a radically changed approach.
While in school, he continued to research prion disease and its possible connection with GM crops. What he read then and what is known now about prions has not alleviated his concerns. He says, "The protein that manifests as mad cow disease takes about five years. With humans, however, that time line is anywhere from 10-30 years. We were talking about 1997 and today is 2006. We still don't know if there is anything going to happen to us from our being used as test subjects."
It turns out that the damage done to DNA due to the process of creating a genetically modified organism is far more extensive than previously thought. GM crops routinely create unintended proteins, alter existing protein levels or even change the components and shape of the protein that is created by the inserted gene. Kirk's concerns about a GM crop producing a harmful misfolded protein remain well- founded, and have been echoed by scientists as one of the many possible dangers that are not being evaluated by the biotech industry's superficial safety assessments.
GM cotton has provided ample reports of unpredicted side-effects. In April 2006, more than 70 Indian shepherds reported that 25% of their herds died within 5-7 days of continuous grazing on Bt cotton plants. Hundreds of Indian agricultural laborers reported allergic reactions from Bt cotton. Some cotton harvesters have been hospitalized and many laborers in cotton gin factories take antihistamines each day before work.
The cotton's agronomic performance is also erratic. When Monsanto's GM cotton varieties were first introduced in the US, tens of thousands of acres suffered deformed roots and other unexpected problems. Monsanto paid out millions in settlements. When Bt cotton was tested in Indonesia, widespread pest infestation and drought damage forced withdrawal of the crop, despite the fact that Monsanto had been bribing at least 140 individuals for years, trying to gain approval. In India, inconsistent performance has resulted in more than $80 million dollars in losses in each of two states. Thousands of indebted Bt cotton farmers have committed suicide. In Vidarbha, in north east Maharashtra, from June through August 2006, farmers committed suicide at a rate of about one every eight hours. (The list of adverse reactions reported from other GM crops, in lab animals, livestock and humans, is considerably longer.)
Kirk's concern about GM crop test plots also continues to remain valid. The industry has been consistently inept at controlling the spread of unapproved varieties. On August 18, 2006, for example, the USDA announced that unapproved GM long grain rice, which was last field tested by Bayer CropScience in 2001, had contaminated the US rice crop (probably for the past 5 years). Japan responded by suspending long grain rice imports and the EU will now only accept shipments that are tested and certified GM-free. Similarly, in March 2005, the US government admitted that an unapproved corn variety had escaped from Syngenta's field trials four years earlier and had contaminated US corn. By year's end, Japan had rejected at least 14 shipments containing the illegal corn. Other field trialed crops have been mixed with commercial varieties, consumed by farmers, stolen, even given away by government agencies and universities who had accidentally mixed seed varieties.
Some contamination from field trials may last for centuries. That may be the fate of a variety of unapproved Roundup Ready grass which, according to reports made public in August 2006, had escaped into the wild from an Oregon test plot years earlier. Pollen had crossed with other varieties and wind had dispersed seeds. Scientists believe that the variety will cross pollinate with other grass varieties and may contaminate the commercial grass seed supply?70 percent of which is grown in Oregon.
Even GM crops with known poisons are being grown outdoors without adequate safeguards for health and the environment. A corn engineered to produce pharmaceutical medicines, for example, contaminated corn and soybean fields in Iowa and Nebraska in 2002. On August 10, 2006, a federal judge ruled that the drug-producing GM crops grown in Hawaii violated both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
A December 29, 2005 report by the USDA office of Inspector General, blasted the agriculture department for its abysmal oversight of GM field trials, particularly for the high risk drug producing crops. And a January 2004 report by the National Research Council also called upon the government to strengthen its oversight, but acknowledged that there is no way to guarantee that field trialed crops will not pollute the environment.
With the US government failing to prevent GM contamination, and with state governments and agriculture commissioners unwilling to challenge the dictates of the biotech industry, some California counties decided to enact regulations of their own. California's diverse agriculture is particularly vulnerable and thousands of field trials on not-yet- approved GM crops have already taken place there. If contamination were discovered, it could easily devastate an industry. Four counties have enacted moratoria or bans on the planting of GM crops, including both approved and unapproved varieties. This follows the actions of more than 4500 jurisdictions in Europe and dozens of nations, states and regions on all continents, which have sought to restrict planting of GM crops to protect their health, environment and agriculture.
Ironically, California's assembly, which has done nothing to protect the state from possible losses due to GM crop contamination, passed a bill on August 24, 2006 that prohibits other counties and cities from creating GM free zones. The senate is expected to vote on the issue by the end of their session on August 31st. (Check further here.)
It is yet another example of how the biotech industry has been able to push their agenda onto US consumers, without regard to health and environmental safeguards. No doubt that their lobbyists, anxious to have this bill pass, told legislators that GM crops are needed to stop poverty and feed a hungry world.
Jeffrey Smith's forthcoming book, Genetic Roulette, documents more than 60 health risks of GM foods in easy-to-read two-page spreads, and demonstrates how current safety assessments are not competent to protect consumers from the dangers. His previous book, Seeds of Deception, is the world's bestselling book on the subject.
The Institute for Responsible Technology is working to end the genetic engineering of our food supply and the outdoor release of GM crops. We warmly welcome your donations and support.
Sign up here for the Institute's monthly newsletter, Spilling the Beans.
Go to http://tinyurl.com/plzdu if you'd like to make a tax- deductible donation, or go to http://tinyurl.com/nltv3 if you would like to become a member of the Institute for Responsible Technology. Membership to the Institute for Responsible Technology costs $25 per year. New members receive The GMO Trilogy, a three-disc set produced by Jeffrey Smith (see www.GMOTrilogy.com).
 JR Latham et al., "The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation," The Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, Vol 2006 Article ID 25376 Pages 1-7, DOI 10.1155/JBB/2006/25376; for a more in-depth discussion, see also Allison Wilson et al., "Genome Scrambling -- Myth or Reality? Transformation-Induced Mutations in Transgenic Crop Plants, Technical Report October 2004, available from www.econexus.info.
 Mortality in Sheep Flocks after Grazing on Bt Cotton Fields ? Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh. Report of the Preliminary Assessment April 2006.
 Ashish Gupta, et. al., Impact of Bt Cotton on Farmers' Health (in Barwani and Dhar District of Madhya Pradesh), Investigation Report, Dec 2005.
 See for example, "Monsanto Cited In Crop Losses," New York Times, June 16, 1998; and see Greenpeace web site.
 Antje Lorch, Monsanto Bribes in Indonesia, Monsanto Fined For Bribing Indonesian Officials to Avoid Environmental Studies for Bt Cotton, ifrik Sept. 1, 2005.
 Bt Cotton No Respite for Andhra Pradesh Farmers More than 400 crores' worth losses for Bt Cotton farmers in Kharif 2005. Centre for Sustainable Agriculture: Press Release, March 29, 2006; see also this article.
 Jaideep Hardikar, One suicide every 8 hours, Daily News & Analysis (India), August 26, 2006.
 Rick Weiss, U.S. Rice Supply Contaminated, Genetically Altered Variety Is Found in Long-Grain Rice, Washington Post, August 19, 2006
 Jeffrey Smith, US Government and Biotech Firm Deceive Public on GM Corn Mix-up, Spilling the Beans, April 2005
 See for example, Christopher Doering, ProdiGene to spend millions on bio-corn tainting, Reuters News Service, USA: December 9, 2002
 See www.centerforfoodsafety.org
 Office of Inspector General, USDA, Audit Report Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Controls Over Issuance of Genetically Engineered Organism Release Permits, December 2005
 Justin Gillis, Genetically Modified Organisms Not Easily Contained; National Research Council Panel Urges More Work to Protect Against Contamination of Food Supply, Washington Post, Jan 21, 2004
From: Reuters .............................................[This story printer-friendly]
August 29, 2006
US OVERSIGHT OF BIOTECH CROPS SEEN LACKING
[Rachel's introduction: The U.S. rice supply is widely contaminated with genetically modified organisms not approved for human consumption. In 2003 and again in 2005 the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture criticized the department for allowing this to happen again and again. Perhaps it's time to admit that this technology cannot be controlled by humans, no matter how hard anyone may try.]
By Carey Gillam, Reuters
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Criticism is mounting over the US government's efforts to control experimental genetically modified crops in the wake of admissions that a discarded biotech rice has contaminated US commercial supplies.
The disclosure of the contamination of experimental biotech rice owned by Bayer CropScience, a unit of Bayer AG, coupled with statements by USDA officials that they have no idea how the contamination occurred or how extensive it may be, has outraged players up and down the food chain.
Farmers, food and beverage makers and exporters all are positioning themselves for a long, and likely costly, ordeal.
Already, Japan has suspended imports of US long grain rice because of the contamination, and Europe, a major export market for US rice, has insisted rice imports be tested and any contaminated rice excluded from shipments to the 25-member European Union.
Other US rice customers are also reportedly reviewing their planned purchases even as US rice prices have dropped sharply.
Meanwhile, with much of the US rice industry in turmoil because the extent of the contamination is unknown, an official with the USDA's Animal Health and Plant Health Inspection Service said it would likely take two to three months before the agency had many answers.
"This is real money that farmers are losing," said Arkansas Rice Growers Association executive director Greg Yielding, who said he has fielded dozens of calls from frantic rice farmers. "It is a big deal. We do not feel that USDA and APHIS have adequate funds or staff to do this job. They can't tell you where anything is even though they get permits for it."
HOLES IN OVERSIGHT
Over the last decade, the USDA has approved applications for more than 49,000 field site tests of GMO crops and APHIS has deregulated more than 70 GMO crop lines, many of which have been embraced by farmers because they are easier and/or more profitable to grow.
USDA and APHIS have touted the government's ability to oversee the growth of biotechnology in agriculture and repeatedly assured consumer groups and foreign governments that safety was a foremost concern for regulators.
But an Office of Inspector General audit of APHIS' and its biotechnology regulatory services unit found numerous holes in oversight efforts and issued a stern warning in its December 2005 report. [A 2003 report had reached similar conclusions.--DHN Editors]
It said APHIS lacks "basic information about the field test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how the crops are being grown and what becomes of them at the end of the field test."
The OIG said that even though APHIS was supposed to inspect experimental fields, it was not even requiring companies to provide site location information. The government did not require companies to document efforts to make sure GMO crops were segregated, and it didn't test neighboring fields to look for contamination during or after field trials.
The OIG also said it found widespread violations of a rule requiring experimental crops to be shipped in metal containers, instead allowing them to be shipped in boxes or bags.
Overall, the OIG audit found the APHIS regulatory system so weak that it increased the risk that experimental GMO crops would "persist in the environment."
The contaminated rice is only one example of unapproved GMO's slipping into the mainstream. Last year, Swiss agrochemicals firm Syngenta revealed that its unapproved, experimental strain of corn known as Bt10, was found to have contaminated corn supplies from 2001-2004.
Also, a biotech grass resistant to weedkiller developed in part by Monsanto Co. has been found growing in the wild, while ProdiGene Inc. had to buy back and destroy millions of dollars of grain after tainting crops with an experimental corn plant used to produce medicine.
And earlier this month, a US district judge ruled that APHIS broke environmental rules when it allowed the planting of certain biotech corn and sugarcane between 2001 and 2003 in Hawaii.
Because of the government oversight concerns, Greenpeace International has called for a ban on US GMO rice and the Center for Food Safety has said it wants a moratorium on all field tests of genetically modified crops until government oversight improves.
"There is all this stuff in writing to give you a sense of security but when you look at what they're actually doing, it's nothing," said Center for Food Safety scientist policy analyst Bill Freese.
Cindy Smith, deputy administrator for APHIS' biotechnology regulatory services acknowledged in an interview some issues with oversight, but said those problems were largely in the past and had been corrected or would be soon.
"You will likely continue to see the program evolve in different ways. As long as we're regulating this technology, we're going to have to continue to grow and expand and respond based on the nature of the technology," Smith said.
From: Medicine and Global Survival .......................[This story printer-friendly]
June 1, 2000
PESTICIDES AND PARKINSONISM
[Rachel's introduction: "As the case for an etiological [cause-and- effect] link between pesticides and Parkinson's Disease gets stronger, the need to invoke the 'precautionary principle' will become more apparent. Physicians have a special responsibility to educate and provide guidance to colleagues, the public, and policy makers charged with regulating the chemicals in our environment."]
Alan H. Lockwood, MD**
Multiple, converging lines of evidence from epidemiological, twin, and individual patient studies, as well as studies in animals, suggest that there may be a link between exposure to pesticides and the eventual development of Parkinson's disease (PD). Since PD is common and shares some features with other neurodegenerative disorders, there is a concern that long-term exposure to environmental factors, particularly pesticides, may play a role in the development of this class of disorders. Since these diseases usually develop late in life, and since the number of old people is increasing, the number of people affected by PD and the other neurodegenerative disorders is increasing and will continue to increase into the foreseeable future. As the case for an etiological link between pesticides and PD gets stronger, the need to invoke the "precautionary principle" will become more apparent. Physicians have a special responsibility to educate and provide guidance to colleagues, the public, and policy makers charged with regulating the chemicals in our environment. [M&GS 2000;6:86-90]
The publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring marked the beginning of an era . This landmark book introduced many to the idea that there are unintended consequences associated with the use of pesticides. While most of us are familiar with the arguments calling for regulations to ban or limit lead, dioxins, DDT, and other compounds that have well-described consequences, there is a lingering concern that there may be other serious, unknown, consequences associated with the use of pesticides. These concerns are heightened by several recent studies that have strengthened the hypothesis that Parkinson's disease (PD) or, more properly, parkinsonism, may be caused by environmental toxins [2,3].
Parkinson's disease was described by James Parkinson in 1817. The disease that bears his name is characterized by tremor, bradykinesia (slowness), rigidity, and a loss of postural reflexes. PD is but one of a number of conditions that are all typified by akinesia and rigidity . These conditions, which include progressive supranuclear palsy, diffuse Lewy body disease, cortico-striatonigral degeneration, cortical-basal ganglionic degeneration, and many others, are referred to as forms of parkinsonism because of their resemblance to idiopathic PD . Because of the similarities in the clinical manifestations of these disorders and an absence of clearly defined pathophysiological mechanisms that separate them into distinct nosological entities, many patients are diagnosed as having parkinsonism, or PD, until the emergence of distinguishing characteristics. This may take years. For some, a correct diagnosis may never be made or may be made only at autopsy.
Nature and Scope of Parksinson's
Parkinson's disease affects more than 500,000 Americans and costs the economy more than $20 billion per year . It is second only to Alzheimer's disease among the neurodegenerative diseases. Parkinson's disease usually begins after age 50, and the incidence increases exponentially with increasing age. Between 1.5% and 2.5% of all Americans who reach the age of 70 have Parkinson's disease. As the population of the nation ages, the number of people with PD is certain to increase. Since some patients with PD have signs and symptoms that are seen in other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and others, there is some concern that they may share common pathogenetic mechanisms.
The cause of PD is unknown. After the 1916-27 influenza pandemic, large numbers of patients developed post- encephalitic parkinsonism. Typically, the signs and symptoms of this condition began less than 5 years after the acute illness, with 85% of all patients developing the syndrome within 10 years.
Speculations about environmental factors and the etiology of PD began almost two decades ago when several patients were identified who developed what appeared to be typical PD at an extraordinarily young age . Epidemiological studies of these patients revealed that they were drug abusers who used so-called designer drugs--drugs usually manufactured in illicit laboratories designed to have structural characteristics similar to opiates. In the attempt to synthesize a meperidine-like drug, it was found that an unintended chemical reaction produced the compound 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6- tetrahydropyridine (MPTP). Further research showed that MPTP is a toxin that kills the dopaminergic neurons in the brain, producing a syndrome that is almost identical to typical PD [7,8]. It was not long before others noted that the structure of MPTP was similar to paraquat, a widely used herbicide registered by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used to treat crops, such as cotton, soybeans, sugarcane, and sunflowers.
The structural similarity between MPTP and other pesticides triggered epidemiological studies designed to evaluate risk factors for the development of PD. These studies received additional impetus from the discovery that an extract from the plant cycas circinalis L. was linked to the development of a neurodegenerative disorder referred to as Parkinson-amyotrophic lateral sclerosis- dementia complex found in people from Guam . The affected individuals appear to have eaten the seeds of the cycad, a traditional source of food and medicine among the Chamorro people. With westernization and changes in eating habits, this condition has died out.
A number of epidemiological studies have sought to define risk factors for the development of PD. Oddly, cigarette smoking reduces the risk of developing Parkinson's disease . Since PD was not described until the early part of the 19th century, many have suggested that PD is related in some way to the industrial age. This hypothesis is supported by several studies. In a 1989 case-control study in the People's Republic of China, Tanner et al. found that occupational exposure to industrial chemicals, printing plants, or quarries was associated with an increased risk of PD (relative risk range 2.39-4.5), whereas raising pigs, growing wheat, and village residence were associated with a reduced risk of PD (relative risk range .17- .57) . Since chemical use was not characteristic of the Chinese agricultural system at that time, the authors linked industrial processes to the development of PD. A similar conclusion was drawn by Schoenberg et al. who found an age-adjusted prevalence ratio for PD of 341/100,000 among black residents of Copiah County, Mississippi, which was compared to an age- adjusted prevalence ratio of 67/100,00 in Igbo-Ora, Nigeria . These studies attributed the difference to the degree of industrialization of the two sites.
Pesticides and PD
A number of studies have focused on pesticides and have linked exposure to an increased risk for the development of PD. In a case- controlled study involving 120 Taiwanese patients with PD and 240 hospitalized controls, the risk for developing PD was increased by 2.04 for living in a rural environment, by 1.81 for farming, by 3.22 for use of paraquat, and by 2.89 for other herbicide-pesticide use . In an Israeli study, the incidence of PD was increased five-fold among the residents of three adjacent kibbutzim in the Negev desert who all drew on a common aquifer, and who were all exposed to similar agricultural chemicals .
Clustering of these cases suggested strongly that an environmental factor was responsible, such as drinking well water and/or exposure to agricultural chemicals. Additional support for the link between pesticides and PD came from the study of Semchuk et al., who performed a case-control study of 130 residents of Calgary, Alberta, Canada with neurologist-confirmed PD, and 260 age- and sex- matched controls . Prior occupational herbicide use was the only consistent predictor for the development of PD. Hubble et al. formed similar conclusions, using different methods, in a study of rural and urban residents of Kansas . They did a principle components analysis of data regarding residency, occupation, medical history, social history, and diet. In a further analysis, significant predictors for the development of PD, in order of strength, were pesticide use, family history of neurologic disease, and depression, with a 92% predicted probability for PD if all three were positive (odds ratio = 12.0).
Doubts have been raised in some minds due to differences in methodology, differences in the populations studied, and differences in the criteria used to make or confirm the diagnosis of PD. Nevertheless, the weight of the evidence gathered a decade ago suggests strongly that exposure to industrial chemicals, particularly pesticides, is a significant risk factor for the development of PD.
The role of the environment as a factor in the development of PD was given new focus by a recent twin study reported by Tanner and her associates , who evaluated almost 20,000 twin pairs and identified 193 twins with PD, employing the techniques of molecular biology to establish zygosity and comprehensive neurological evaluations by specialists in the diagnosis of PD. These data were used to calculate concordance rates for monozygous and dizygous pairs, stratified by age. Among twins with PD diagnosed after age 50 years, the pairwise concordance was 0.106 in the monozygous pairs and virtually identical at 0.104 among the dizygous pairs. Among twins diagnosed with PD before age 51 years, the concordance rates were 1.00 in monozygous pairs and 0.167 among the dizygous pairs. The relative risk for concordance for those diagnosed when younger than age 50 years was 6.0 and 1.02 for those diagnosed at age 50 or greater. Thus, among twins with one member affected by PD before the age 50, the second twin was 6 times more likely to develop PD if they were a monozygous pair rather than a dizygous pair. Zygosity had no effect on the risk of developing PD in the second twin if the disease developed after age 50. This near-identity for risk after age 50 showed clearly that PD that develops after the age of 50 is not likely to be due to genetic factors. These data suggest strongly that non-genetic, i.e., environmental factors, determine the risk of developing PD after age 50, the most common time for this condition to appear .
Another recent publication described five patients who had developed reversible parkinsonism after exposure to organophosphates . These patients did not have the classical form of the disease, in that they did not improve after the administration of anti-parkinsonian drugs (typically, PD improves after pharmacological treatment, whereas other indistinguishable akinetic-rigid syndromes, such as striatonigral degeneration may not respond). Three of these patients came from the same family, suggesting a genetically determined susceptibility to these compounds. At a recent symposium on Parkinson's disease, researchers from Atlanta reported on the development of an animal model of Parkinson's disease using rotenone . Systemic administration of this pesticide caused degeneration of the neural pathways implicated in the development of PD.
Common Toxic Factor
These data demonstrate that there is increasing, credible evidence that exposure to environmental toxins, particularly pesticides, may lead to the development of PD. Because of similarities among neurodegenerative diseases as a group, and particularly because of the data implicating a common toxic factor causing the PD-demential- amyotrophic sclerosis complex in Guam, the relationship between pesticides and the etiology of PD may be an indication of a more widespread problem.
We are awash in a sea of chemicals. According to the EPA, 4.5 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the US each year. We use 77 million pounds of organophosphates: 60 million pounds are used in agriculture and 17 million pounds are used in homes, on lawns and golf courses, and for other non-agricultural purposes. According to the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, the US exported more than 338 million pounds of pesticides during 1995 and 1996. This total included at least 21 million pounds of pesticides whose use is forbidden in the US. Most of these shipments were directed to the developing world. In the 1980s more than 200,000 deaths were attributed to organophosphate poisonings in developing countries, largely among agricultural workers . Whether exposed workers will develop additional health problems, including PD, remains to be seen.
In the landmark publication Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, experts from the National Academy of Sciences showed clearly that organophosphate residues are present in easily detectible amounts in our water supply . Because children consume more water per unit body weight than adults, they are particularly vulnerable. The report found that children were frequently exposed to pesticide residues in excess of a reference dose and that, for some, these exposures were high enough to cause symptoms of acute organophosphate poisoning.
Implications for Policy
At the time of that report, pesticide tolerances were defined largely by the industry that manufactures them. These tolerances were based on agricultural practices and were not related to worker or consumer health. This is changing. As a part of the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the EPA is reviewing pesticide use to make more appropriate decisions concerning the use of these compounds. The 1996 Food Quality Protection Act further requires that uses must be "safe," in that EPA must conclude "with reasonable certainty that no harm will come from aggregate exposure" to these compounds. By aggregate exposure, the act intends that all exposures, including those in food, water, and residential sources must be considered. Cumulative effects from multiple pesticides must be considered. Exposures must account for the special sensitivity of children and infants. In another important departure from prior regulatory standards, multiple end-points must be considered, including possible endocrine effects. It will no longer be sufficient to conclude that a pesticide is safe as long as it does not cause cancer.
As a consequence of these findings, the National Institutes of Health has issued a special request for applications (RFA ES-00-002, The role of the environment in Parkinson's disease), directed at the neuroscience community, for research studies that focus on the role of the environment and Parkinson's disease. This call will be answered, but proving that there is an unequivocal link between the use of pesticides and the development of Parkinson's disease is likely to be difficult, if not impossible. It is more likely that the weight of the evidence will increase slowly. Since pesticide exposure begins early in life, a lifelong avoidance of these ubiquitous compounds may be required.
What is the responsibility of physicians? Since society as a whole derives benefits from pesticides, the debates concerning their use are likely to intensify. The best answers will not come easily. There is, as yet, no smoking gun linking pesticides and neurodegenerative disorders. Yet the evidence forging that link is getting stronger. At the present time, there are no known cures for any of the neurodegenerative disorders. The effective therapies, directed at the symptoms of PD, all have side effects and limitations. The ability to prevent PD would be welcome.
On entering into the practice of medicine, physicians subscribe to the Hippocratic Oath and its fundamental tenet "first do no harm." This principle is gaining acceptance in environmental law and practice in the form of the "precautionary principle." Briefly stated, the precautionary principle asserts that scientific proof of a causal link between human activity and its effects is not required before preventive actions should be taken. Physicians have a commitment to their patients and are obligated to collect and evaluate data that can help define the etiology of PD and other diseases linked to environmental exposures. Converting these data into educational programs and policies that inform and benefit all is a daunting, but essential, task. Opposition to the precautionary principle from those with a vested economic interest in the chemicals it would limit should not stop us from combining good science and responsible actions.
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2. Tanner CM, Ottman R, Goldman SM, Ellenberg J, Chan P, Mayeux R, et al. Parkinson disease in twins: an etiologic study. JAMA 1999;281:341-346.
3. Cummings JL. Understanding Parkinson disease. JAMA 1999;281:376-378.
4. Neurology in Clinical Practice. Boston: Butterworth- Heineman. 2000.
5. Martilla RJ. Epidemiology. In: Koller WC (ed). Handbook of Parkinson's disease. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Dekker. 1992. [Return to text]
6. Langston JW, Ballard P, Tetrud JW, Irwin I. Chronic Parkinsonism in humans due to a product of meperidine- analog synthesis. Science 1983;219:979-980.
7. Ballard PA, Tetrud JW, Langston JW. Permanent human parkinsonism due to 1-methyl-4- phenyl-1,2,3,6- tetrahydropyridine (MPTP): seven cases. Neurology 1985;35:949-956.
8. Tetrud JW, Langston JW, Garbe PL, Ruttenber AJ. Mild parkinsonism in persons exposed to 1-methyl-4-phenyl- 1,2,3,6- tetrahydropyridine (MPTP). Neurology 1989;39:1483- 1487.
9. Spencer PS, Nunn PB, Hugon J, Ludolph AC, Ross SM, Roy DN, et al. Guam amyotrophic lateral sclerosis-parkinsonism- dementia linked to a plant excitant neurotoxin. Science 1987;237:517-522.
10. Checkoway H, Nelson LM. Epidemiologic approaches to the study of Parkinson's disease etiology. Epidemiology 1999;10:327-336. [Return to text]
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12. Schoenberg BS, Osuntokun BO, Adeuja AO, Bademosi O, Nottidge V, Anderson DW, et al. Comparison of the prevalence of Parkinson's disease in black populations in the rural United States and in rural Nigeria: door-to-door community studies. Neurology 1988;38:645-646.
13. Liou HH, Tsai MC, Chen CJ, Jeng JS, Chang YC, Chen SY, et al. Environmental risk factors and Parkinson's disease: a case-control study in Taiwan. Neurology 1997;48:1583- 1588.
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15. Semchuk KM, Love EJ, Lee RG. Parkinson's disease and exposure to agricultural work and pesticide chemicals. Neurology 1992;42:1328-1335.
16. Hubble JP, Kurth JH, Glatt SL, Kurth MC, Schellenberg GD, Hassanein RE, et al. Gene- toxin interaction as a putative risk factor for Parkinson's disease with dementia. Neuroepidemiology 1998;17:96-104.
17. Bhatt MH, Elias MA, Mankodi AK. Acute and reversible parkinsonism due to organophosphate pesticide intoxication: five cases. Neurology 1999;52:1467-1471.
18. Greenamyre JT, MacKenzie G, Garcia-Osuna M, Betarbet R. A novel model of slowly progressive Parkinson's disease: chronic pesticide exposure (Abstract). Movement Disorders 1999;14:900.
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** Alan H. Lockwood is a physician with the Departments of Neurology and Nuclear Medicine, VA Western New York Healthcare System and University of Buffalo, Buffalo, NY USA. Address correspondence to: Alan H. Lockwood, MD, Center for PET (115P), VA Western NY Healthcare System, 3495 Bailey Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14215 USA; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2000 Medicine & Global Survival, Inc.
From: New York Times .....................................[This story printer-friendly]
August 28, 2006
REAL WAGES FAIL TO MATCH A RISE IN PRODUCTIVITY
[Rachel's introduction: "The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity -- the amount that an average worker produces in an hour and the basic wellspring of a nation's living standards -- has risen steadily over the same period."]
By Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhard
With the economy beginning to slow, the current expansion has a chance to become the first sustained period of economic growth since World War II that fails to offer a prolonged increase in real wages for most workers.
That situation is adding to fears among Republicans that the economy will hurt vulnerable incumbents in this year's midterm elections even though overall growth has been healthy for much of the last five years.
The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity -- the amount that an average worker produces in an hour and the basic wellspring of a nation's living standards -- has risen steadily over the same period.
As a result, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation's gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960's. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as "the golden era of profitability."
Until the last year, stagnating wages were somewhat offset by the rising value of benefits, especially health insurance, which caused overall compensation for most Americans to continue increasing. Since last summer, however, the value of workers' benefits has also failed to keep pace with inflation, according to government data.
At the very top of the income spectrum, many workers have continued to receive raises that outpace inflation, and the gains have been large enough to keep average income and consumer spending rising.
In a speech on Friday, Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, did not specifically discuss wages, but he warned that the unequal distribution of the economy's spoils could derail the trade liberalization of recent decades. Because recent economic changes "threaten the livelihoods of some workers and the profits of some firms," Mr. Bernanke said, policy makers must try "to ensure that the benefits of global economic integration are sufficiently widely shared."
Political analysts are divided over how much the wage trends will help Democrats this fall in their effort to take control of the House and, in a bigger stretch, the Senate. Some see parallels to watershed political years like 1980, 1992 and 1994, when wage growth fell behind inflation, party alignments shifted and dozens of incumbents were thrown out of office.
"It's a dangerous time for any party to have control of the federal government -- the presidency, the Senate and the House," said Charles Cook, who publishes a nonpartisan political newsletter. "It all feeds into 'it's a time for a change' sentiment. It's a highly combustible mixture."
But others say that war in Iraq and terrorism, not the economy, will dominate the campaign and that Democrats have yet to offer an economic vision that appeals to voters.
"National economic policies are more clearly in focus in presidential campaigns," said Richard T. Curtin, director of the University of Michigan's consumer surveys. "When you're electing your local House members, you don't debate that on those issues as much."
Moreover, polls show that Americans are less dissatisfied with the economy than they were in the early 1980's or early 90's. Rising house and stock values have lifted the net worth of many families over the last few years, and interest rates remain fairly low.
But polls show that Americans disapprove of President Bush's handling of the economy by wide margins and that anxiety about the future is growing. Earlier this month, the University of Michigan reported that consumer confidence had fallen sharply in recent months, with people's expectations for the future now as downbeat as they were in 1992 and 1993, when the job market had not yet recovered from a recession.
"Some people who aren't partisans say, 'Yes, the economy's pretty good, so why are people so agitated and anxious?' " said Frank Luntz, a Republican campaign consultant. "The answer is they don't feel it in their weekly paychecks."
But Mr. Luntz predicted that the economic mood would not do significant damage to Republicans this fall because voters blamed corporate America, not the government, for their problems.
Economists offer various reasons for the stagnation of wages. Although the economy continues to add jobs, global trade, immigration, layoffs and technology -- as well as the insecurity caused by them -- appear to have eroded workers' bargaining power.
Trade unions are much weaker than they once were, while the buying power of the minimum wage is at a 50-year low. And health care is far more expensive than it was a decade ago, causing companies to spend more on benefits at the expense of wages.
Together, these forces have caused a growing share of the economy to go to companies instead of workers' paychecks. In the first quarter of 2006, wages and salaries represented 45 percent of gross domestic product, down from almost 50 percent in the first quarter of 2001 and a record 53.6 percent in the first quarter of 1970, according to the Commerce Department. Each percentage point now equals about $132 billion.
Total employee compensation -- wages plus benefits -- has fared a little better. Its share was briefly lower than its current level of 56.1 percent in the mid-1990's and otherwise has not been so low since 1966.
Over the last year, the value of employee benefits has risen only 3.4 percent, while inflation has exceeded 4 percent, according to the Labor Department.
In Europe and Japan, the profit share of economic output is also at or near record levels, noted Larry Hatheway, chief economist for UBS Investment Bank, who said that this highlighted the pressures of globalization on wages. Many Americans, be they apparel workers or software programmers, are facing more comptition from China and India.
In another recent report on the boom in profits, economists at Goldman Sachs wrote, "The most important contributor to higher profit margins over the past five years has been a decline in labor's share of national income." Low interest rates and the moderate cost of capital goods, like computers, have also played a role, though economists note that an economic slowdown could hurt profits in coming months.
For most of the last century, wages and productivity -- the key measure of the economy's efficiency -- have risen together, increasing rapidly through the 1950's and 60's and far more slowly in the 1970's and 80's.
But in recent years, the productivity gains have continued while the pay increases have not kept up. Worker productivity rose 16.6 percent from 2000 to 2005, while total compensation for the median worker rose 7.2 percent, according to Labor Department statistics analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research group. Benefits accounted for most of the increase.
"If I had to sum it up," said Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the institute, "it comes down to bargaining power and the lack of ability of many in the work force to claim their fair share of growth."
Nominal wages have accelerated in the last year, but the spike in oil costs has eaten up the gains. Now the job market appears to be weakening, after a protracted series of interest-rate increases by the Federal Reserve.
Unless these trends reverse, the current expansion may lack even an extended period of modest wage growth like one that occurred in the mid-1980's.
The most recent recession ended in late 2001. Hourly wages continued to rise in 2002 and peaked in early 2003, largely on the lingering strength of the 1990's boom.
Average family income, adjusted for inflation, has continued to advance at a good clip, a fact Mr. Bush has cited when speaking about the economy. But these gains are a result mainly of increases at the top of the income spectrum that pull up the overall numbers. Even for workers at the 90th percentile of earners -- making about $80,000 a year -- inflation has outpaced their pay increases over the last three years, according to the Labor Department.
"There are two economies out there," Mr. Cook, the political analyst, said. "One has been just white hot, going great guns. Those are the people who have benefited from globalization, technology, greater productivity and higher corporate earnings.
"And then there's the working stiffs," he added, "who just don't feel like they're getting ahead despite the fact that they're working very hard. And there are a lot more people in that group than the other group."
In 2004, the top 1 percent of earners -- a group that includes many chief executives -- received 11.2 percent of all wage income, up from 8.7 percent a decade earlier and less than 6 percent three decades ago, according to Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, economists who analyzed the tax data.
With the midterm campaign expected to heat up after Labor Day, Democrats are saying that they will help workers by making health care more affordable and lifting the minimum wage. Democrats have criticized Republicans for passing tax cuts mainly benefiting high- income families at a time when most families are failing to keep up.
Republicans counter that the tax cuts passed during Mr. Bush's first term helped lifted the economy out of recession. Unless the cuts are extended, a move many Democrats oppose, the economy will suffer, and so will wages, Republicans say.
But in a sign that Republicans may be growing concerned about the public's mood, the new Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., adopted a somewhat different tone from Mr. Bush in his first major speech, delivered early this month.
"Many aren't seeing significant increases in their take-home pay," Mr. Paulson said. "Their increases in wages are being eaten up by high energy prices and rising health care costs, among others."
At the same time, he said that the Bush administration was not responsible for the situation, pointing out that inequality had been increasing for many years. "It is neither fair nor useful," Mr. Paulson said, "to blame any political party."
From: Bloomberg ..........................................[This story printer-friendly]
August 29, 2006
AMERICANS WITHOUT HEALTH BENEFITS MAY HAVE SET RECORD IN 2005
[Rachel's introduction: "The number of Americans without health insurance probably rose to a record in 2005 as medical costs increased three times as fast as wages, according to forecasts for a Census Bureau report today."]
By Matthew Benjamin and Kerry Young
The number of Americans without health insurance probably rose to a record in 2005 as medical costs increased three times as fast as wages, according to forecasts for a Census Bureau report today.
The total has climbed every year since President George W. Bush took office, a point Democrats are likely to seize on in this year's congressional election. In February Bush called the 45.8 million who didn't have insurance in 2004 "unacceptable in our country." Emory University Professor Ken Thorpe in Atlanta says Bush has done little to help these people.
"We've had absolutely no federal effort or interest in insuring the uninsured since 2000," said Thorpe, who was deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Health and Human Services from 1993 to 1995. "This has not been a priority of the Bush administration."
The government also will probably report that the percentage of Americans living in poverty dropped after reaching a six-year high in 2004, said Bob Greenstein, executive director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.
Median household income probably rose from 2004's $44,389, Greenstein said. The news on income and poverty reflects economic growth, economists say. The US economy expanded 3.2 percent and added 2 million jobs in 2005.
"Every year as you move away from a recession, you expect the growth of the poverty rate to slow and eventually reverse," says Austin Nichols, an expert on child poverty at the Urban Institute in Washington.
Al Hubbard, Bush's top economic adviser, in March called misleading the Census Bureau's 2004 estimate of the number of people without insurance. Of the almost 46 million, about 8 million don't have access to insurance, he said, while 15 million others would qualify for the state-federal Medicaid insurance program for the poor, and others are illegal immigrants.
Without having seen the 2005 numbers, Hubbard stands by his statement on the 2004 figures, White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said yesterday.
Harvard University researcher Robert Blendon and Uwe Reinhardt, a professor of health economics at Princeton University, said the number of people without health insurance probably rose. The 2004 total was almost one in six Americans. Surging costs are keeping the number from falling as the economy expands, health-policy researchers say.
The average expense of providing medical care for a family of four rose 9.6 percent to $13,382 this year, according to a survey by the Seattle-based Milliman consulting group. The cost of insurance bought through an employer increased 9.2 percent in 2005, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, California, as average hourly earnings climbed 3.2 percent.
"Due to the rising cost of health care and health-care insurance, you see a continued decline in workers accepting coverage when it's offered and employers offering it," Emory's Thorpe says.
Health Savings Accounts
Bush's attempt to expand coverage through tax-advantaged health- savings accounts helped the middle class more than the poor, researchers say. The number of uninsured Americans fell by 5.6 million during the final two years of the Clinton administration to 38.7 million in 2000.
"The media and Democrats are waiting for this kind of information, and they'll use it" in the elections, says David Mayhew, a congressional scholar at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
The Republicans now hold 231 seats in the House of Representatives, where all 435 seats are up for election this year. Republicans have 55 seats in the Senate, where a third of the 100 seats are being contested.
Frustrated by the lack of federal leadership on health care, states have jumped ahead and moved toward making sure all citizens have health insurance, said Marty Sellers, a Philadelphia-based consultant who advised Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in designing his state's program.
Massachusetts passed the nation's first law requiring all adults to have health insurance by July 1, 2007. Vermont, Illinois and Rhode Island are considering similar plans.
The fight to get more Americans insured this year united the US Chamber of Commerce, representing 3 million businesses, with some of the biggest unions, the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. The organizations joined the American Medical Association and dozens of religious and nonprofit groups in a May "Cover the Uninsured Week" campaign.
Susan Squire of Warren, Michigan, was among the thousands of people who participated in events staged across the US. Squire filed for bankruptcy in October because of $91,000 in medical bills from a January 2005 heart attack and subsequent surgery.
"I paid some off. I paid some down. I was trying to pay them off one by one," Squire said in an interview. "Some went along with me, but the bulk of them did not. They started with the daily calls, the daily notices, the daily threats."
Squire, who was making about $21,000 a year with part-time bookkeeping work, has less clout to negotiate discounts as an individual. More than half of Americans get medical coverage through plans bought by employers, which contract with insurance companies to work out prices with hospitals and doctors.
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