Rachel's Precaution Reporter #24
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

From: Truth About Trade & Technology ..................[This story printer-friendly]
February 2, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "The authorities called to make decisions concerning health and environmental risks sometimes find themselves facing a situation in which available scientific data are contradictory or quantitatively scarce. It may then be appropriate to base evaluations on the precautionary principle." -- Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace]

By Tony Barber

[RPR introduction: This article originally appeared in the Financial Times (London, UK) Feb. 1, 2006.]

If the Vatican were to endorse genetically modified organisms, it would have a profound impact on global discussion of the issue. With a flock of 1.1bn faithful, the Roman Catholic church's ethical messages penetrate the whole world.

But GMOs are a divisive issue in the church, pitting clergymen sympathetic to their use (who have enthusiastic support from the US embassy to the Holy See) against others who express opposition.

Perhaps for this reason, the Vatican under Benedict XVI, who was elected Pope last April, has yet to take a definitive stance.

Some African and South American bishops have doubts about GMOs because they worry that control of world food supplies will rest with a few giant companies. GM crop use in developing countries may exacerbate the poverty and vulnerability of poor farmers, they say.

But advocates of GMOs in the church contend that there is a moral obligation to eradicate hunger if the technology exists to do so. By 2025, half the world's population will be living in regions with severe water shortages, so higher-yield crops that need less water must be developed, they argue.

The most authoritative Vatican statement on GMOs appeared in a 2004 publication, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, prepared by the Holy See's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In a passage devoted to safeguarding man's environment, the council pleased supporters of GMOs by stating: "In effect, nature is not a sacred or divine reality that man must leave alone... The human person does not commit an illicit act when, out of respect for the order, beauty and usefulness of individual living beings and their function in the ecosystem, he intervenes by modifying some of their characteristics or properties."

However, opponents seized on another pair of sentences in the compendium that said: "The authorities called to make decisions concerning health and environmental risks sometimes find themselves facing a situation in which available scientific data are contradictory or quantitatively scarce. It may then be appropriate to base evaluations on the precautionary principle."

In other words, the jury is still out as far as the Vatican is concerned. This conclusion seems reinforced by the fact that the compendium was reviewed before publication by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the Vatican organ that enforces theological discipline and that Benedict ran for 24 years before he became Pope.

Cardinal Renato Martino, the 73-year-old Italian prelate who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is seen as one of the Vatican's highest-level supporters of GMOs. He organised a scientific conference on the matter in 2003, describing the stakes involved as "high and delicate" but stressing the Vatican's view that it was a field of inquiry "subject to evolving research".

On one point, the Vatican seems certain not to budge. Those who support contraception as a way of limiting families and thereby improving access to food find no support at all at the Holy See.


From: Bloomberg News .....................................[This story printer-friendly]
February 7, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "The case is a test for the EU's 'better-safe- than-sorry' food policy, known as the precautionary principle, which has kept hormone-treated beef from the U.S. and Canada out of the EU even though the WTO ruled in 1998 that the bloc hadn't scientifically proven a cancer risk to consumers from the treatments."]

[RPR introduction: We have added explanatory links within this article. --Editors.]

The World Trade Organization ruled against the European Union in a dispute over genetically engineered crops from companies such as Monsanto Co., people familiar with the ruling said, aiding U.S. efforts to limit worldwide regulation of the technology.

The Geneva-based WTO concluded that the EU discriminated against biotech seeds without adequate scientific evidence, the people said. The decision stems from a complaint filed in 2003 by the U.S., Canada and Argentina, which accounted for 80 percent of the area planted to biotech crops globally last year and accused the EU of maintaining an unlawful ban on the seeds.

While today's confidential ruling won't open markets in Europe -- where some governments are fighting EU-wide rules that the European Commission says will allow such crops -- it may set a precedent for nations including China, India, Brazil, Japan, Indonesia, Russia, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. Those countries all have rules stipulating strict consumer labeling and tracing of goods containing bio-engineered ingredients.

The U.S. insists that the crops are safe and shouldn't be distinguished from conventional seeds. The administration of George W. Bush said the EU violated WTO rules because its approvals process wasn't based on science and was subject to "unnecessary delays."

'Strong Signal'

"I hope this will send a strong signal to countries around the world that no measure can be taken unless it's based on sound science," Christian Verschueren, director general of CropLife International in Brussels, which represents companies including Monsanto and DuPont Co., said in an interview.

The 1,047-page WTO decision also condemns national bans on marketing and releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment, imposed by governments including Germany, France, Austria and Greece, said the people, who declined to be identified before the EU and U.S. comment publicly on the trade body's decision.

The refusal of those governments to approve new seeds began the moratorium in 1998, because the EU's barrier-free trade rules mean a product sold in one member nation can be marketed in all the others.

U.S. industry groups say the EU ban has cost their exporters $300 million a year in lost sales to the 25-nation EU. The bloc counters that consumers were already buying fewer biotech products before 1998.

New Legislation

The commission says new laws since 2004 allow biotech seeds to be planted, traced and labeled and points to more than 30 gene-altered products approved for marketing in the bloc. The EU's executive blames national governments including France and Austria for continuing to obstruct new approvals in an environment where more than half of the region's 450 million consumers consider gene-engineered foods to be dangerous.

The commission has separate cases under way against those two countries as well as Luxembourg, Germany and Greece for refusing to lift bans on biotech products, including Basel, Switzerland-based Syngenta AG's Bt11 pest-resistant corn.

Today's decision against national bans "is a direct attack on democracy," said Adrian Bebb, a campaigner at environmental group Friends of the Earth. "EU governments only last year voted to maintain their bans and now the WTO has called them into question."

Lack of Majority

All EU governments have a say over biotech decisions because the bloc's barrier-free trade rules mean a product sold in one member can be sold in the others. Since imports of GM products resumed in 2004, the commission has approved just three varieties, including Monsanto's MON863 corn. The commission can make decisions unilaterally because there's no majority among EU governments either to approve or dismiss new approvals.

With 98 million hectares (242 million acres) under arable production in the EU, second only to the U.S., the 25 nations grow less than 1 percent of the world's genetically modified crops. Global biotech sales in 2006 will amount to $5.5 billion.

Switzerland, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, Algeria, Ghana, Benin, Zambia and Georgia are among countries that prohibit the planting of genetically engineered crops.

Today's report, under WTO rules, is designed to remain confidential in an effort to give the governments involved a chance to make any amendments or to negotiate a last minute solution. The substance of a confidential decision has only been altered twice at the final stage -- in cases over U.S. steel duties and South Korean paper -- in more than 130 disputes that have reached this stage.

EU Food Policy

"We're not going to say anything tonight, under no circumstances," Peter Power, a commission spokesman, said by telephone from Brussels. Monica Meda, a spokeswoman for the Argentine agriculture secretary, also declined to comment, saying the government hadn't yet received a copy of the ruling.

The case is a test for the EU's "better-safe-than-sorry" food policy, known as the precautionary principle, which has kept hormone- treated beef from the U.S. and Canada out of the EU even though the WTO ruled in 1998 that the bloc hadn't scientifically proven a cancer risk to consumers from the treatments. The EU has been paying $126 million a year in sanctions as a result and is working to get the retaliatory duties lifted on the grounds that it now has enough evidence.

GM varieties are engineered to resist specific herbicides or pesticides, letting a farmer spray his field with products that kill everything except his crop. Some have genes that act as insecticides, prevent fungal growth or withstand drought.

Advocates, Opponents

Advocates say the technology boosts yields and cuts the number of times chemicals must be sprayed, meaning the soil is less compacted and limiting rainwater run-off and erosion.

The U.S. accounted for 55 percent of the global area planted to biotech crops last year, or 49.8 million hectares, Argentina 19 percent and Canada 6 percent, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. Brazil became the third-biggest grower last year with just over 10 percent of the total area and worldwide, sowings rose 11 percent to 90 million hectares.

Opponents say there are no proven health or environmental benefits to GM crops. They argue that they're no cheaper, nor have they helped alleviate hunger in Africa, because the crops are mostly for animal feed. They also say that engineered genes can't be contained, once released into the environment.

The crops have increased the use of herbicides and pesticides over the last decade, environmental group Friends of the Earth says, and have contributed to deforestation and soil erosion.

To contact the reporter on this story: Warren Giles in Geneva at wgiles@bloomberg.net .

Copyright 2006 Bloomberg L.P.


From: BBC News ...........................................[This story printer-friendly]
February 3, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "On balance, there is sufficient uncertainty regarding the negative health impacts to apply the 'precautionary principle approach' -- which would not allow mining to proceed in such close proximity to residential areas."]

A health study on opencast mining [strip mining] at Margam [in Wales] says it is badly affecting the well-being of people living nearby.

Celtic Energy wants to extend mining at the site between Port Talbot and Bridgend for 10 years, but opponents hope planners will turn it down.

The report said that while ill-health could not be directly linked to the site, there was "sufficient uncertainty" to justify refusal.

Celtic Energy has been asked to comment but has so far not responded.

The health impact assessment was carried out by Cardiff University's Welsh Health Impact Assessment Support Unit -- a body supported by the Welsh Assembly Government and the National Public Health Service.

The unit promotes the use of and understanding of health impact assessments for planning and other purposes by local authorities, voluntary agencies and other groups.

Stress related illness

It was approached by residents and asked to examine the impact of the proposed extension on the communities most affected by the plan to extend opencast mining -- Cefn Cribwr and Kenfig Hill in the Bridgend area and Aberbaiden, Bryndu and Pen y Bryn on the Port Talbot side.

The authors drew upon published research and monitoring data, but a lot of the work was based on feedback from six focus groups with people living in the area.

Mining at Margam is currently set to end in 2007. Celtic Energy, which told the report authors that the mine employs 65, wants to extend it westward with the aim of extracting a further 2.4m tonnes of coal.

The report said residents raised many different health concerns with respiratory, cardiovascular and stress related illness mentioned most frequently.

It said emissions from the current site complied with present guidelines, but these were being reviewed.

It was not possible to present evidence of ill-health in adults that could be directly attributed to Margam.

But it said residents presented evidence that asthma in children was more prevalent closer to the present mine and this finding was supported by the public health literature.

It concluded there was strong evidence "regarding the negative impact on general well being" of living near the mine.

"Data from the focus groups showing the distress this is causing indicates that there are profound impacts on psychological wellbeing.


"On balance, there is sufficient uncertainty regarding the negative health impacts to apply the 'precautionary principle approach' -- which would not allow mining to proceed in such close proximity to residential areas."

Copies of the report have been forwarded to both Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend councils. They have no statutory obligation to take the report into account when looking at the application but campaigners hope it will influence the decision.

Gaynor Ball of the campaign group Pact said: "I think it's a powerful report and the conclusion definitely comes out in our favour.

"If you complain about the dust, the noise or the blasting we are told it's all within the limits of the law.

"But we know we are suffering. We are just fed-up as a community."

Copyright 2006 BBC


From: Baltimore Sun ......................................[This story printer-friendly]
February 6, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Risk assessors study one chemical at a time to determine the health effects. But new studies show almost all children are now born with Teflon chemicals in their blood. What is the effect of a particular chemical PLUS Teflon? No one knows. But risk assessors give an answer anyway, by pretending that the Teflon isn't there. This is the opposite of a precautionary approach. Is it ethical?]

By Tom Pelton

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital drew blood from the umbilical cords of 300 newborns and discovered something that would be deeply unnerving to many parents:

Ninety-nine percent of the babies were born with trace levels of an industrial chemical -- suspected as a possible cancer-causing agent - that is used in the manufacture of Teflon pans, computer chips, cell phones and dozens of other consumer products.

Now Dr. Lynn Goldman, Rolf Halden and their colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are working with other scientists to determine whether the toxic chemical has harmed the infants, possibly by interfering with their thyroid glands and hormone levels.

Previous studies, some funded by industry, have found perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, in the bloodstream of most Americans. But the Hopkins study, supported by the federal and state governments, is the largest independent research project to examine the compound's effects on newborns, who may be more vulnerable to endocrine- disrupting chemicals.

"It's very clear that PFOA is being released into the environment, and it's pretty much ubiquitous," Goldman said. "But we don't know if it's toxic to people at these levels."

DuPont, which manufactures Teflon and has used the chemical for more than 50 years, says there is no evidence that PFOA is harmful to humans.

"The chemical does have an effect on animals that are fed high doses of it. But animals respond differently to PFOA than people, and there is no evidence that there are any health effects in people," said David Boothe, a DuPont manager.

The Hopkins study comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working with industry to try to reduce PFOA emissions into the environment.

The EPA announced last month that DuPont has voluntarily agreed to reduce its use of the chemical, although not eliminate it, and take more steps to halt emissions from its plants. In December, the company agreed to pay a $10.25 million civil penalty -- the largest ever levied by the EPA -- for withholding information about the potential health and environmental impacts of the compound.

An EPA scientific advisory panel released a draft report in the spring that said the chemical has caused tumors when fed to rats and is a "likely carcinogen in humans." But the same panel said last week that more research needs to be completed before the EPA concludes whether PFOA causes cancer.

"It's a mystery right now," said Dr. Frank Witter, medical director of labor and delivery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a partner in the research. "At some point, with more research, we may be able to say something more than 'it's just there." But we have not finished that analysis yet."

PFOA is a highly durable, man-made chemical used since the 1950s in the manufacture of Teflon nonstick pans, rain-repellent clothing, aerospace equipment, computer chips, cables, automobile fuel hoses and numerous other products.

"We make a lot of chemicals that are extremely persistent, and we mass-produce them, but we never consider the life cycles of these chemicals," Halden said. "It's kind of a tragedy. In some instances, it takes years or decades before we learn of their toxicity" to people.

The research project at Hopkins began in late 2004. Over five months, Goldman and her colleagues collected blood samples from the umbilical cords of 300 newborns. The researchers used an instrument called a liquid chromatography mass spectrometer to analyze the blood, and they found that 298 of the samples contained PFOA, Goldman said.

Now the scientists are working with other researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a commercial lab to further scrutinize the samples and find out whether the babies' thyroid hormone levels are normal, Halden said. The researchers are also comparing PFOA levels to the birth weight of the babies, and looking at whether they were born full term. The study should be finished in a few months and then will be offered for publication in a scientific journal, Halden said.

It's not clear how PFOA gets into the environment and, eventually, into people's bloodstream. The chemical can be found in many places around the planet and has even been detected in polar bears.

Researchers with the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization, believe the chemical may be released through the breakdown of fast-food packaging and stain-proof carpets, furniture and clothes, ending up in food, house dust, air and drinking water.

But Susan Hazen, an EPA acting assistant administrator, said this is speculation. "We have no evidence at this time that routine use of consumer products is a source of exposure," Hazen said.

DuPont agreed last year to pay a settlement of more than $100 million after residents living near a company Teflon plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., filed a class action suit claiming that PFOA escaped from the factory and contaminated local waters.

Boothe, the DuPont manager, said PFOA clearly had leaked from the Parkersburg plant. But he said there are probably "quite a few" other sources of the chemical's escape into the environment.

He said DuPont is working hard to stop all leakage of the chemical from factories. The firm has installed water discharge filters and air pollution control equipment at the Parkersburg plant and two others in Fayetteville, N.C., and Deepwater, N.J.

"The EPA is working with the industry to find out what the sources of exposure are," Boothe said.

Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group, is among critics who say PFOA is dangerous and should be banned. It is disturbing, she said, that the Hopkins researchers have found the chemical in newborns.

"The fact that PFOA can cross the placenta from the mother to child is very troubling, given that this is a chemical that is broadly toxic and linked to birth defects in lab animals," she said. "The time in the womb is a time of particular vulnerability to environmental chemicals."


Copyright 2006, The Baltimore Sun


From: Environmental Science & Technology .............[This story printer-friendly]
February 2, 2006


The 2005 ES&T environmental science paper of the year finds that perchlorate is everywhere.

[Rachel's introduction: The rocket fuel, perchlorate, has been measured in water and in vegetables all across the country. Now it turns out that perchlorate isn't just an industrial chemical -- it also occurs widely in nature. So risk assessors now need to ask themselves, what are the health effects of Teflon PLUS perchlorate PLUS any other single chemical? The honest answer: no one knows. But risk assessors will give an answer anyway, by pretending perchlorate isn't there even when they know it is. This is the opposite of a precautionary approach. Is it ethical?]

By Alan Newman

"The Origin of Naturally Occurring Perchlorate: The Role of Atmospheric Processes" by Purnendu K. Dasgupta, P. Kalyani Martinelango, W. Andrew Jackson, Todd A. Anderson, Kang Tian, Richard W. Tock, and Srinath Rajagopalan, Texas Tech University, 2005, 39 (6), 1569-1575.

It began with a phone call in 2003 from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The commission was investigating a case of perchlorate contamination in West Texas groundwater: Could Texas Tech University (TTU) help out? W. Andrew Jackson, an associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, fielded the call and said yes.

But the staff soon ran into a problem with the samples that they were collecting. The U.S. EPA's method for measuring perchlorate in drinking water was not sensitive enough for some of the high-salinity Texas groundwater samples. Kang Tian, a staff scientist with TTU's Institute of Environmental and Human Health, who had been charged with the analysis, turned to his Ph.D. mentor, Purnendu K. "Sandy" Dasgupta in the department of chemistry and biochemistry. With the help of Todd A. Anderson, an associate professor at the institute, the two developed a better method for perchlorate analysis which delivered the results they needed.

Meanwhile, TTU researchers were discovering that the perchlorate contamination was spread over almost 60,000 square miles. Where was it all coming from? This is an arid region with no munitions plants producing perchlorate-containing explosives. Jackson considered the possibility of perchlorate-laced fertilizer, but even the most generous calculations couldn't account for the contamination levels through an entire aquifer. "From that work, we realized that we couldn't come up with a reasonable anthropogenic source of perchlorate," recalls Jackson. However, the area had been irrigated since the 1940s; could the perchlorate have had a natural source?

The discussions included Richard W. Tock, currently an emeritus professor. Tock, whom Dasgupta describes as an "indomitable spirit", decided to conduct the ultimate quick-and-dirty experiment. Filling a 5-gallon plastic bucket with seawater, he hiked over to TTU's Center for Pulsed Power and Power Electronics and zapped the sample with a 10-gigajoule bolt of lightning. "There was a sound like a cannon going off, and the water jumped," laughs Jackson. "It is questionable whether anything happened [other] than a big bang, but it encouraged us to look at [the effect of lightning on common chlorine compounds] in depth." The researchers began more controlled experiments with spark plugs used as a safer and quieter source of lightning.

With data coming in that supported the idea of naturally occurring perchorate, which is the basis of the award-winning ES&T article, the researchers began to consider the implications. "Perchlorate is an iodide transport inhibitor," points out Dasgupta. "Does perchlorate at environmentally meaningful exposure levels inhibit iodide transport?" In two additional papers in ES&T, Dasgupta and his colleagues have shown that perchlorate is in Texas cow's milk and, more dramatically, in human breast milk.

Dasgupta thinks that the perchlorate findings could point to a serious health issue. The World Health Organization "wants to put the U.S. on a list of borderline iodine-deficient countries. One study from Boston Medical Center found that 15% of pregnant women were acutely iodine- deficient," he points out. As a result, some of the scientific focus should be on iodine nutrition, says Dasgupta. "Perchlorate is just making it worse for some people."

Anderson agrees that a new health focus is needed. "Do people get their exposure through drinking water or food? Should perchlorate in food be factored into the equation to a greater extent before setting the exposure limits?" he asks. It all suggests that regulators need to take a second look at perchlorate.

Meanwhile, the search for naturally occurring perchlorate in the environment continues. "We find perchlorate in pretty much everything," says P. Kalyani Martinelango, who is finishing up her Ph.D. under Dasgupta. The TTU researchers have, with the help of now- Ph.D. Srinath Rajagopalan, measured perchlorate at parts-per-trillion levels in precipitation, in the ocean, and at locations as diverse as Greenland, Hawaii, and Alaska.

Other areas of study are opening up. "There are hundreds of papers on atmospheric chlorine chemistry that never looked for perchlorate, probably because they couldn't look for it at low enough levels," points out Jackson. Moreover, the TTU researchers are finding that arid regions are storehouses of perchlorate and probably bromate. "These unsaturated zones have been understudied, and with urbanization and land-use changes and possibly climate change, the effect on groundwater is going to be more important," adds Jackson. "These overlooked species are going to gain importance in the future for long-term cycling and water quality."

With so many new avenues of research, it is not surprising that Dasgupta advocates that more environmental studies of perchlorate are needed. Citing arsenic in groundwater, he warns, "Being natural doesn't make it good."

Copyright 2006 American Chemical Society


Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary principle -- or the need for the precautionary principle -- please Email them to us at rpr@rachel.org.

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