6 March 2010

We’ll be talking with Dr. Paul Blanc of the UC San Francisco about his book, How Everyday Products Make People Sick. Not only does it describe some everyday perils, but it explores the history of toxic materials and raises serious doubts about the ability of the responsible government agencies to protect us from them.

Background on Toxins at Home and the Workplace

We’ll begin our background on toxins tonight with an article from the Food Consumer dot org website, that relates to a topic we took up two weeks ago on Ecotopia: Monsanto’s genetically engineered “roundup ready” crops.  An interview with Jeffrey Smith, author of Deceptive Seeds, begins:

Corn chips, or tortilla chips, are quite pervasive. Perhaps you’ve had some yourself this week? Well, let’s see how you feel about buying them again once you realize what you’re risking by eating them.

In the only human feeding study ever published on genetically modified foods, seven volunteers ate so-called Roundup-ready soybeans. These are soybeans that have herbicide-resistant genes inserted into them in order to survive being sprayed with otherwise deadly doses of Roundup herbicide.

In three of the seven volunteers, the gene inserted into the soy transferred into the DNA of their intestinal bacteria, and continued to function long after they stopped eating the GM soy!

There are serious medical implications to this finding. However, the GM-friendly UK government, who funded the study, chose not to fund any follow up research to see if GM corn — which are engineered to produce an insecticide called BT toxin — might also transfer and continue to create insecticide inside your intestines.

These kinds of studies are sorely needed, and fast, because as of right now, about 85 percent of the corn grown in the US is genetically engineered to either produce an insecticide, or to survive the application of herbicide. And about 91-93 percent of all soybeans are genetically engineered to survive massive doses of Roundup herbicide.

The Food Consumer interview with Jeffrey Smith concludes with a scathing indictment of the Food and Drug Administration’s failures to protect consumers and possible conflicts of interest within government regulatory agencies.

Back in 1992, the FDA authority responsible for the decision of whether or not to label GM foods turned out to be a former attorney for none other than Monsanto. His name is Michael Taylor.

He went from being Monsanto’s attorney to serving as their vice president, and after that he became a policy maker at the FDA…

[Michael Taylor was named deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in January 2010. He is the first individual to hold the position, which was created along with a new Office of Foods in August 2009.]

Taylor [has] claimed that [in 1992] the agency was not aware of any information showing that GM foods were significantly different than conventional foods, and therefore no testing and no labeling were required….

In fact, the overwhelming consensus among the FDA’s own scientists were that genetically modified foods were inherently dangerous and could create allergies, toxins, new diseases and nutritional problems, and of course they should be labeled because they are a food additive and new food additives must be labeled.

However, [Jeffrey] Smith explains, the FDA was directed by the White House to promote the biotechnology industry, and they knew that if they labeled GM foods, most Americans would avoid it like the plague. So, true to form, they supported the economic interests of the biotech companies at the cost of long-term human and environmental health.

You can read the full interview online at :


Our central focus tonight with our guest, Dr. Paul Blanc, will not so much be possible genetically engineered toxins but with the increasing number of chemicals, often very sophisticated, lab-created molecules, that are used in everyday products and endanger the health of users. He’s also concerned with the lack of consumer protection by government agencies.  Here’s a related article from the March 30 New York Times by reporter David Leonhardt, who writes:

For 14 years until just last month, GlaxoSmithKline sold a denture cream called Super Poligrip that contained high levels of zinc.  The zinc helped with adhesion and was probably safe so long as people used moderate amounts of cream. Indeed, the human body needs small amounts of zinc to function. But some people ended up using much larger amounts, and the began to develop the kind of nerve damage associated with excess zinc.

Johnny Howell of Winston-Salem, N.C., who was using a tube of Poligrip a week, had to quit his job as a car mechanic and now needs a walker to get around his house. He is 53 years old. Rodney Urbanek, another Poligrip customer, began using a walker in 2007, at age 63. He died a year later, apparently a result of a copper deficiency from “zinc overload,” according to his autopsy

Now, the science here still is not completely clear. One researcher I interviewed said he wanted to see more evidence before being confident that Poligrip was the problem. Other researchers said they thought the causal chain was clear. Poligrip has a lot of zinc. Too much zinc causes copper deficiency. A lack of copper causes nerve damage.

Either way, the evidence has become strong enough that last month GlaxoSmithKline — which also makes Tums, Nicorette and the country’s top-selling asthma drug — stopped making the version of Poligrip with zinc, after having previously resisted just such a move. In Japan, responding to regulators’ concerns, the company has also recalled from stores any remaining zinc-infused cream.

All of which makes you wonder: did it have to come this?

[The] United States clearly [is] not taking toxic risks seriously enough.[…] Companies don’t have to release much of their internal safety data. And regulators face a terribly high burden of proof. They can often take action only after they have demonstrated that a substance is harmful — a task that corporate secrecy can make impossible.

[…] The story of denture cream and zinc is a good example. A dentist in the Navy noticed the link between zinc and copper deficiency in the 1950s, according to Dr. Harold Sandstead of the University of Texas in Galveston. Studies in later years confirmed the relationship. Early last decade, researchers made the connection from excess zinc to copper deficiency to neurological problems. “It’s nothing new,” [says] Peter Hedera, a Vanderbilt University neurologist,[…]. “If you researched the field, you would find out.”

Yet, even after those studies [and numerous others] appeared, GlaxoSmithKline continued to sell Poligrip. The company simply inserted a small piece of paper into the product’s box containing some mild statements that barely even seemed to be warnings. The headline on the insert was, “For Best Results Start With a Small Amount.”

[…] GlaxoSmithKline didn’t take more aggressive action because it “did not want to cause alarm,” said Nick Kronfeld, the company’s medical director. “The product has been safe and effective when used according to the label’s directions.” GlaxoSmithKline halted manufacturing as soon as it considered the science to be persuasive, he added.

But given the vagueness of the instructions, the reality of how closely people read fine print and the levels of zinc involved […] the companies sure seemed to be taking a risk with their customers’ health.

[…]  Fortunately, there are some reasons for optimism. Lisa Jackson, the E.P.A. administrator, appears to take toxic risks more seriously than recent predecessors.

Congress also plans to take up a bill this year that would update toxic regulations. As my colleague Charles Duhigg has reported, recent court rulings have helped neuter the existing regulations. The chemical industry seems less opposed to a regulatory overhaul, in part because lax regulation may help low-cost Chinese chemical companies more than American firms.

Needless to say, new regulations have their drawbacks. They could deprive us of products that would have made life better or cheaper and that, despite some early indications to the contrary, turned out to be perfectly safe. Think for a minute about all the Poligrip users who liked the product, were using it without problems and can’t do so anymore.

On the other hand, if you have a friend or family member with dentures, don’t you wish GlaxoSmithKline […]  had been more up front about the apparent risks?


Our Questions for Paul Blanc

Dr. Paul Blanc is a Professor of Medicine and holds an Endowed Chair in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at UC San Francisco.  His book, now in its second edition, is How Everyday Products Make People Sick: Toxins at Home and in the Workplace, published by the University of California Press.

Part I: Everyday Toxins

  • You have been in the field of environmental and occupational medicine for several decades. Please tell us how you became engaged with this field and the path that led you to this book.
  • You begin the book by emphasizing that we need to know the history of dangerous chemicals and profits.  And you are critical of what you call a “revisionist history” that seems to think that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring “invented” concern for environmental toxins. How far back does this history really go?
    • Perhaps you could give us an example from one of the histories cited in your book, e.g.
      • sick building syndrome and the Black Hole of Calcutta
      • carpal tunnel syndrome and seamstress cramp
  • You have chapters in the book on a range of chemicals and problems. One that particularly interested us was the story of chlorine, “which led the way to the 20th century’s first mass poison and environmental threat.”  Please tell us a little about chlorine in its various iterations—bleach, WWI poison gas, accidental household gassing.
    • At the close of that chapter, you note that better labeling is needed, but that often people do not believe the labels.  Why don’t people believe the labels? What’s the alternative?
  • We wonder if you could tell us a little about one or two of the other intriguing topics in your book, e.g.:
    • popcorn lung
    • superglued nails—superglue in general

Part II:  Protecting the Consumer

  • You argue that the discovery of new toxins often goes through stages by those responsible: denial, blaming the victim, stalling, and leaving solutions to the marketplace. Could you please talk about or illustrate these stages?

[Earlier in the program we read from a recent New York Times about zinc levels in Poligrip, where, as you seem to predict, the company denied or ignored the research and then blamed consumers for not following instructions.]

  • Your book is awash in acronyms for federal agencies that are charged with protecting the consumer—the more familiar ones being FDA, OSHA, and EPA. And you argue that these agencies are, in general, failing us miserably. Please explain a little of the hows and whys.
  • How do politics enter into the processes of consumer protection?  Do you see any changes in attitudes or policy with the current administration?
  • A powerful theme running through your book is that we need to hear the stories of victims of environmental poisoning. Why haven’t these stories been heard? How can/will they be told in the future?
  • Where can listeners go for more information or to monitor these complex issues?

Stories from the Victims

We were impressed by Dr. Blanc’s concerrn throughout the book that the stories of individuals affected by these toxins need to be told.  Some are told through music, and our plalist includes some songs tonight that tell victims’ stories. Another way in which those stories are told is through poetry, and we want to read a few poetry excerpts from Dr. Blanc’s book.

Here’s Eldridge Cleaver’s poem “Toxic Waste and Acid Rain”:

We were a closeknit Company Town

Built during World War Two,

In very great haste

On a landfill site

Stuffed with toxic waste.

I’m known throughout the world,

As the Original Toxic Clown

I glow in the dark

And my breath is so bad

I can blow a stone wall down.

From a less well known writer, William Dodd, who was disabled as a child because of an industrial accident, an excerpt from his 1847 poetry collection, A Voice from the Factories:

What is it to be a slave?  Is’t not to spend

A life bowed down beneath a grinding ill?—

To labor on to serve another’s end,–

To give up leisure, health, and strength, and skill—

And give up each of these against your will?

And here is poet Muriel Rukeyser, from her 1938 Book of the Dead:

those carrying light for safety on their foreheads

descended deeper for richer faults of ore,

drilling their death.

Those touching radium and the luminous poison,

Carried their death on their lips and with their warning glow in their graves

These weave and their eyes water and rust away,

These stand at wheels until their brains corrode,  these farm and starve,

All these men cry their doom across the world,

Meeting avoidable death, fight against madness, find every war.

Playlist for Ecotopia #80: Everyday Toxins

1. Poison In The Well (LP Version)        3:09        10,000 Maniacs  Blind Man’s Zoo

2.  Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)        5:24        Joan Baez  Bowery Songs

3.  Industrial Disease        5:50        Dire Straits  Love Over Gold

4.  Silicosis Is Killing Me        3:02        Josh White  Best Of        Blues

5.  Slower Than Guns (LP Version)        3:50        Iron Butterfly  Metamorphosis

6.  Weave Me the Sunshine        4:28        Peter, Paul And Mary  The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7.  Poison Trees        4:00        The Devil Makes Three  Do Wrong Right

8.  Metal Fume Fever        2:01        Juliana Hatfield   Juliana’s Pony: Total System Failure