Archives for posts with tag: regulatory capture

From Pittsburgh City Paper, an outstanding article (the second in a series) touching on many of the themes behind Upstream

In October 1996, Lance Armstrong, then 25 and the world’s seventh-ranked professional bicyclist, learned he had testicular cancer. The cancer had spread to his lungs, brain and abdomen. He was given a 40 percent chance of survival.

“I intend to beat this disease,” he told reporters.

Armstrong survived, of course — the brain surgery, the grueling rounds of chemotherapy — and went on to seven straight Tour de France titles.

Armstrong’s recovery was received joyously. Headlines like “With Each Day, a Triumph” were standard; thousands of fan letters and emails arrived weekly. In 1999, Armstrong told Bicycling magazine, “The cancer — I owe my life to it. … I wouldn’t be married. I wouldn’t have a kid on the way. And I’m a [better] rider.”

News accounts noted everything from testicular cancer’s predilection for young men to survival tips from psychologists. But readers were rarely, if ever, informed that testicular cancer was becoming increasingly common. In the 20 years preceding Armstrong’s diagnosis, its incidence in the U.S. had risen by 41 percent. And it has kept rising: By 2007, testicular cancer was 75 percent more common than in 1975. And no one knows why.

Armstrong himself seemed disinterested in what causes testicular cancer. While his Lance Armstrong Foundation, created in 1997, has distributed countless yellow “Livestrong” wristbands, like most cancer initiatives it’s all about supporting cancer sufferers, not pursuing root causes.

Or, as Armstrong said shortly after his diagnosis: “I don’t want to waste my time saying, ‘Why me?’ I have a problem and I want to fix it.”

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It’s hard to believe we’d need to argue that preventing illness is preferable to trying to cure it. It’s as if we’d abandoned sewage-treatment systems because we have antibiotics for cholera.

And curing cancer is proving much harder than developing antibiotics.

Forty years into America’s “war on cancer,” you’re 50 percent more likely to get cancer than when it began. Childhood cancer rates have grown steadily for decades, according to National Cancer Institute statistics, and cancer is rising in people under 50. Yet the Institute’s own funding patterns emphasizes new treatments over prevention.

For instance, in 2010, the National Cancer Institute spent $364 million on prevention programs — and $1.16 billion on treatment research. (Asked about research priorities, an NCI spokesperson said “grants are awarded on a competitive basis” and research categories “[don’t] fully capture the complete range of research objectives” because some research applies in multiple categories.)

Treatment is likewise the focus of the vast majority of funds raised by your average “race for the cure” fundraiser.

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So why not put more effort into prevention?

It’s not a new question.

In his controversial 1979 book The Politics of Cancer, Samuel Epstein, a professor of environmental medicine, asserted that “cancer is caused mainly by exposure to chemicals or physical agents in the environment.” If those chemicals were removed, he argued, cancer would be “essentially preventable.” But he charged mainstream experts with downplaying the role of industrial carcinogens — and with pursuing lucrative treatments for cancer at the expense of prevention. Epstein cited ties between what he called “the cancer establishment” and the petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries; in the 1980s, for instance, the NCI Executive Cancer Panel was chaired by oil magnate Armand Hammer.

Epstein’s attacks were roundly criticized by the medical establishment. But little has changed, says epidemiologist Devra Davis, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer.

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Popular culture too prefers “beating” cancer to sussing its source: For every movie about what carcinogens do, like Erin Brockovich, there are 10 Brian’s Songs or 50/50s, celebrating cancer’s noble victims or plucky survivors.

Public officials follow suit. When President Richard Nixon was pushing the National Cancer Act, in 1971, he issued a 1,300-word statement. While it briefly acknowledged evidence that “human cancers can be prevented by avoiding exposure to certain chemicals,” just 100 words of the statement concerned prevention. (Seven years after the surgeon general’s announcement that cigarettes cause cancer, Nixon’s statement didn’t even mention smoking.) Nixon’s repeated references to a “cancer cure,” meanwhile, signaled the chief goal.

Critics say those priorities are no accident. As difficult as curing cancer might be, it could be harder to reduce the malignant growth of special interests.

More scientists are now, like Epstein, raising alarms that synthetic chemicals drive cancer. Consider testicular cancer. Studies have linked exposure to hormone-mimicking chemicals (like those found in some pesticides and plastics) to reproductive abnormalities including undescended testicles, a cancer risk factor. Meanwhile, a 2008 study suggested that a byproduct of the pesticide DDT (still found in most Americans’ bloodstreams) increases the risk of testicular cancer.

And DDT is just one of at least 84,000 synthetic chemicals. Some are known carcinogens; the vast majority remain untested for health effects.

But passing laws to reduce exposure to such chemicals is difficult, partly because of the chemical industry’s political influence. According to opensecrets.org, the industry employs nearly 500 federal lobbyists and regularly spends $50 million a year on lobbying; top spenders this year include Dow Chemical, the American Chemistry Council and DuPont Co.

Epidemiologist Davis says she and other researchers who confront industry face threats to their funding or careers. Her Secret History of the War on Cancer documents the derailing of several researchers who explored tobacco or industrial pollutants. She cites, for instance, Wilhelm Hueper, whose pioneering research into industrial carcinogens got him fired by DuPont; he later worked for the National Cancer Institute, where industry pressure hamstrung his efforts until he left, in 1968.

When concerns about chemicals do arise, Davis observes, business interests take a page from the tobacco industry: They tout bought-and-paid-for studies showing their products are safe, and question the science behind the alarm bells.

Consider BPA, a plastics additive that’s caused cancer and reproductive problems in lab animals. For years, industry fought state-level bans on BPA in products like baby bottles and sippy cups; in 2009, the American Chemistry Council said that California’s effort would “needlessly restrict consumer products deemed to be safe by scientific experts worldwide.” In fact, there was some scientific concern about BPA, and a sign-off by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was later revealed to have been heavily influenced by industry input. Then, just this past October, the ACC announced that manufacturers had quietly removed BPA from such products. “[T]hese products are not on the market. There is no need for parents or consumers to worry about them,” said an ACC spokesman.

Davis now runs the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Health Trust. “Our motto is ‘Making Prevention the Cure,'” she says. “No matter how much money we spend on finding and treating cancer, no matter how good we get at treating it … if we don’t reduce the demand, we’ll never win.”

In the meantime, mystery chemicals continue to proliferate, at a clip not even Lance Armstrong could outrace.

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More.

Image from Flickr.

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From iWatch:

One spring day in 2010, the haze hanging over this Mississippi River town was worse than usual. It billowed from the smokestacks of a corn processing plant and blanketed the neighborhood across the street. It enshrouded homes and, seen from a certain angle, looked almost blue.

Kurt Levetzow watched from his car. An inspector with the state agency that enforces air pollution laws, he’d been fielding more and more citizen complaints lately about Grain Processing Corp., known as GPC.

The company’s plant sits on the edge of the town’s South End neighborhood, where black soot and bits of corn collect on cars and homes and many residents worry about what they’re breathing. Even on an ordinary day, a pungent burnt-corn odor hangs in the air, and the haze can be seen from miles away.

But Levetzow hadn’t seen anything like this. Driving through the neighborhood near the plant, he snapped pictures and took notes for the memo he would write. “I went through Muscatine on 3-26-10,” he wrote. “I was amazed at what I saw.”

A pickup truck came to a stop next to Levetzow’s car. It was a company security guard.

“Is there a problem?” the guard asked.

“Yes, there is,” Levetzow answered. “GPC is fogging that residential area with a blue haze.” Levetzow pointed. “You see what I mean?”

The guard looked over. “Ah, they’re getting used to that,” he said, chuckling.

Many communities have had little choice but to get used to it. As the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News has reported, hundreds of communities are beset with chronic air pollution involving toxic chemicals Congress intended to rein in years ago. Here in the heart of the Corn Belt, people endure the consequences of a regulatory system that has failed them for years.

The plant’s troubles are well-known to state and federal officials, but fixes — when they have come at all — have been slow. Memos, reports and thousands of emails obtained by iWatch News detail Levetzow’s efforts, the company’s resistance and the state environmental agency’s passivity. They also highlight gaps in a regulatory system that relies on a self-reporting honor system, spotty monitoring and ambiguous rules.

Officials at the state Department of Natural Resources, known as the DNR, have allowed GPC to avoid improvements that would reduce pollution. Even when Levetzow told his bosses he thought GPC’s apparent compliance with air pollution laws was a façade and repeatedly urged them to act, they did little, emails show.

The company says it stays within the limits outlined in its permit, has followed air pollution rules and is upgrading pollution control equipment as part of a major plant improvement project, some of which is scheduled to be finished in 2014. The improvements — some required by a court order resolving a case brought by the state for environmental violations five years ago — still may fail to keep the area in compliance with air quality standards, the state says.

GPC spokesperson Janet Sichterman said other companies share responsibility for Muscatine’s air quality problems, and GPC is doing its part to clean up the skies. “We want this to be a great community with quality air, too,” she said.

While the Clean Air Act delegated enforcement duties to the states, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency keeps tabs on state agencies and sometimes steps in. The plant appeared on the September version of EPA’s internal “watch list,” which includes serious or chronic violators of the Clean Air Act that have faced no formal enforcement action for nine months or more. GPC was not on the list in October.

Now, after years on the sidelines, the EPA has started to get involved. The agency says it is conducting an ongoing criminal investigation of GPC — a rare step the EPA usually reserves for companies it feels have knowingly violated the law. In December 2009, a team of investigators led by the EPA raided the plant and seized documents. Sichterman said the company doesn’t know why it’s being investigated but is confident the probe will determine GPC followed all laws.

Some residents, no longer content to wait for official action, are organizing and building their own case. They are filing complaints and documenting health problems. Recently, they hired a lawyer. As in other communities, they face significant hurdles, from limited air monitoring and health studies that would help them make their case to wariness among their neighbors about taking on powerful political and economic forces.

More.

From The Atlantic:

The latest skirmish in the battle over bisphenol A (BPA) — the synthetic chemical used to make polycarbonate plastics, to make the epoxy resins that line food and beverage cans, and as developers in thermal receipt papers — came last week when the Breast Cancer Fund, an Oakland-based non-profit, released the results of its testing for BPA in canned food marketed to children (PDF). The report found BPA in Campbell’s Disney Princess Cool Shapes, Toy Story Fun Shapes Pasta in chicken broth, Spaghettios With Meatballs, Earth’s Best Organic Elmo Noodlemania Soup, Chef Boyardee Whole Grain Pasta Mini ABCs &123s With Meatballs, and Annie’s Homegrown Organic Cheesy Ravioli at levels that ranged between 13 and 114 parts per billion, levels that have been shown to be biologically active, meaning they’re high enough to interact with and affect our cells.

In response, the North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA), a trade association representing the food-and-beverage metal-packaging industry, fired off a press release citing a study ostensibly showing that there’s no health risk from BPA exposure through canned food.

“This comprehensive, first-of-its-kind clinical exposure study, funded entirely by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), offers definitive evidence that even the highest exposure levels of BPA from canned foods and beverages did not lead to detectable amounts in the human blood stream,” said NAMPA. “The EPA-funded study emphatically showed there is not a health risk from BPA exposure in canned foods because of how the body processes and eliminates the compound from the body, in children as well as adults,” said NAMPA chairman Dr. John M. Rost in the press release.

Trouble is, this study — by Teeguarden et al. — which was indeed funded by the EPA and conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and published in the September issue of Toxicological Sciences, shows nothing of the kind. No children were included in the study, and researchers did not measure how much BPA was in the food the subjects ate so there’s no way to tell if the BPA in their systems came from that food. But why should we care?

BPA, which has long been identified as an endocrine-disrupting chemical, has been linked in numerous studies to health effects that include adverse impacts on developmental, metabolic, reproductive, neurological, cardiovascular, and other systems. Childhood exposure is a particular concern because early life exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals can set the stage for later life health disorders, including diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers.

Concern over these effects have led ten U.S. states and several local governments to bar BPA from children’s reusable food and beverage containers, and prompted major manufacturers of baby bottles and toddlers’ sippy-cups to switch to alternate materials. Canada has added BPA to its list of toxic substances, Japan took BPA out of can linings and receipt papers in the 1990s, and China and Malaysia have now instituted bans on BPA in baby bottles, but the U.S. federal government does not bar the use of BPA in such products. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policies have been inching in that direction, though.

In 2010, after having been sent back to the drawing board by its science advisory board in 2008, the FDA issued a policy statement that supports a shift toward stronger regulation of BPA and that supports efforts to find safe alternatives to BPA for infant formula and other food and beverage can liners. Meanwhile, the EPA has issued an “action plan” for BPA that could lead to more oversight on its use.

The chemical industry, NAMPA, and other industry groups have consistently defended the safety of BPA — and lobbied extensively against its regulation. But that such a flawed study would be published and its findings so misrepresented has outraged prominent members of the scientific community. “Its conclusions are preposterous,” says Fred vom Saal, professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia whose research on endocrine hormones dates back to the 1970s. “How could a federal agency be associated with this? It is profoundly bad.”

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From Greenpeace:

A new movie has dealt yet another severe blow to the credibility of US based Monsanto, one of the biggest chemical companies in the world and the provider of the seed technology for 90 percent of the world’s genetically engineered (GE) crops.

The French documentary, called “The world according to Monsanto” and directed by independent filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin, paints a grim picture of a company with a long track record of environmental crimes and health scandals.

The story starts in the White House, where Monsanto often got its way by exerting disproportionate influence over policymakers via the “revolving door”. One example is Michael Taylor, who worked for Monsanto as an attorney before being appointed as deputy commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1991. While at the FDA, the authority that deals with all US food approvals, Taylor made crucial decisions that led to the approval of GE foods and crops. Then he returned to Monsanto, becoming the company’s vice president for public policy.

Thanks to these intimate links between Monsanto and government agencies, the US adopted GE foods and crops without proper testing, without consumer labeling and in spite of serious questions hanging over their safety. Not coincidentally, Monsanto supplies 90 percent of the GE seeds used by the US market.

Monsanto’s long arm stretched so far that, in the early nineties, the US Food and Drugs Agency even ignored warnings of their own scientists, who were cautioning that GE crops could cause negative health effects. Other tactics the company uses to stifle concerns about their products include misleading advertising, bribery and concealing scientific evidence.

More . . .

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