andrew schneider investigates

June 11, 2009

Health risks from silver nanoparticles a growing threat to consumers and workers.

Silver nanoparticles, untested for safety, are being used in a growing number of children’s toys, babies’ bottles, cosmetics, dishwashers, underwear and hundreds of other items.
A report issued today says that consumers and workers who make the products may be at risk.

Silver nano particles   Photo ACA

Silver nano particles Photo ACA

The report, authored by Friends of the Earth and Health Care Without Harm Europe, details what they call “the growing public health threat posed by nano-silver particles in consumer products.”

“What we’ve learned is alarming,” said Ian Illuminato, one of the report’s authors.

“Major corporations are putting nano-silver into a wide variety of consumer products with virtually no oversight, and there are potentially serious health consequences as a result. The workers who manufacture these products, the families that use them, and the environment are all at risk.”

Human consumption of silver is not new and medical historians have traced its health benefits back

Ian Illuminato, Friends of the Earth

Ian Illuminato, Friends of the Earth

more than a century. At that time, the literature reports, people had ready access to beneficial silver in their diet because it was plentiful in surface and ground waters.

“What we’re concerned about is when the silver is scaled to nano size because evidence shows that it is far more potent. That potency – the impact on human health – is what is we don’t yet know,” Illuminato told me.

His concern is shared by other scientists who also worry that nanosilver doesn’t distinguish between good and bad bacteria. It kills all bacteria, even the good bacteria that humans and animals need to survive.

“We are playing with fire, especially at a time when anti-bacterial resistance is an ever increasing medical problem globally,” said report co-author Dr. Rye Senjen, of Australia.

“Do we really need to coat cups, bowls and cutting boards, personal care products, children’s toys and infant products in nano-silver for ‘hygienic’ reasons?” he asked.

The  Korean manufacturer Samsung made the first clothes washer with a nanosilver-coated drum and said it would kill over 600 different bacteria.

Nanoparticles are one billionth of a meter in size or, as one scientist told me at a nano-in-food conference this week in California, “Slice a human hair lengthwise into a 100 slivers and a single one of those is what we’re dealing with. We are manipulating single molecules and atoms.”

Andrew Maynard

Andrew Maynard

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, one of the best known centers for nanotech policy research, presented testimony before Congress last year and cautioned that hundreds of products with nano particles are on the market, with three to five new ones added every week.

Andrew Maynard, the lead scientist for the Project, told me in an telephone interview from the Regulating Nanotechnology in Food and Consumer Products conference in Brussels yesterday, that the report raises some uncertainties that must be addressed.

“There is no indication that silver at the nano scale goes wild in the body. However, it is known that silver becomes more toxic at the nano level,” Maynard explained, adding, “That does not mean it always does more damage.

“More research must be done.”

A coalition of consumer protection, public health and environmental groups filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency demanding the agency halt the sale of consumer products containing silver nanoparticles

The petition called for the EPA to:

* Determine the potential human health and environmental hazards from nanosilver with nano-specific toxicity data requirements, testing and risk assessments.

* Clarify that nano-silver is a pesticide and thus must undergo the rigorous and extensive testing process involved in registering a pesticide. Moreover, products with nano-silver must carry a pesticide label.

* Take immediate action to prohibit the sale of nano-silver products as illegal pesticide products with unapproved health benefit claims.

The authors of the report say that EPA is not “doing near enough” to address the hazard.

“This report should be a kick in the pants to EPA to start fining companies that use nanosilver without going through the registration process,” Dr. Jennifer Sass, senior scientist and nano specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who is also speaking at the Brussel’s meeting told me in an email.

EPA says it is ready to take action if asked.

“The EPA is prepared to address the nanosilver issue but nobody has applied to the EPA with a product. It hasn’t happened,” said Dale Kemery, an agency spokesman.

Nanoized silver is not the only metal that worries regulators and the public health community. Carbon nanotubes, nano zerovalent iron, cerium oxide and others are on some government hot lists.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control has ordered all manufacturers who manufacture, import, sell or use nano material with those metals to supply the department with extensive information on their source, use, transport, and disposal.

According to the EPA and FDA, they have no plans  to collect similar information.

The debate, to some extent, centers on semantics. Pesticides kill bugs and other things and their use is controlled by the government.

The Nanotechnology Industries Association and other trade groups insist that nanosilver is antimicrobial – it goes after germs – and is not a pesticide.

May 14, 2009

Pesticide is too dangerous for use in the U.S., but apparently it’s just fine to use in other countries.

Carbofuran, an extremely dangerous pesticide that will be banned in the U.S., can still be sold and used overseas.

This raises concerns among food safety experts that farm workers and their families in Latin America and Asia can continue being exposed to the neurotoxin, and it may still end up on food exported to this country.

FMC Corp., the manufacturer of the pesticide, told the Charleston (WV) Gazette’s top gun reporter Ken Ward that the ban imposed Monday by the EPA “won’t affect production of the pesticide at the Institute’s chemical plant because most of the product is shipped overseas.”

Food safety activists denounce what they call a double standard for safety.

“The continued export of a pesticide determined too hazardous to be used in the US (shows a) hideous disrespect for millions of people and the environment around the world,” Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America, told me today.

“There is simply no reason to continue its use and many reasons to ban its use altogether.”

photo-jsass

Senior Scientist Jen Sass

It was three years ago, after years of bickering among EPA pesticide experts, public health activists and the chemical manufacturers that the agency finally said publicly that the use of the pesticide must be ended.

EPA said it was beyond dispute that significant dietary, environmental and farm worker risks existed from exposure to carbofuran.

Dr. Jennifer Sass, chief scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that initial word from EPA was that although uses of the pesticide in the U.S. would be cancelled, it would still be allowed as a contaminant on imported coffee, sugarcane, rice and bananas.

This, Sass said, would have meant that the manufacturer could still sell carbofuran in other countries that grow these foods for U.S. markets, thus putting at much greater risk those foreign workers, their families and their environment.

But apparently the restrictions issued by EPA on Monday also slash the amount of carbofuran residue limits (tolerances) permitted on all food imports.
“EPA’s decision will prevent all food contamination, including imports,” Sass said on her well-read blog.

However, the company is not going to sit quietly and allow this to happen.

FMC Corporation strongly disagrees with the EPA’s announcement to revoke all U.S. food tolerances for carbofuran, and the company plans to file objections to the agency’s actions and seek an administrative hearing, said Dr. Michael Morelli, Director of Global Regulatory Affairs for the company, on FMC’s website.

“President Obama has committed EPA to regulate on the basis of sound science, and FMC is confident that a fair hearing based on sound scientific principles will prove carbofuran’s safety to the satisfaction of all,” Morelli said.

If you care about the technical language, here is a link to EPA’s cancellation notice.

May 5, 2009

Testimony in W.R. Grace trial ends as defense fails again to prove that EPA’s top emergency response wizard was a cowboy who made bad decisions.

Cutting two expert witnesses they had earlier said were vital to their case, the defense in the W.R. Grace criminal trial rested today at 3:10 p.m. and judge Donald Molloy quickly headed to chambers with the lead lawyers to discuss the upcoming public debate over the final instructions to the jury.

The last witness in the 10-week-long ordeal went to one who deserved the honor of having the last word– Paul Peronard. He started and headed the EPA’s emergency response in Libby and had the integrity to push for the criminal investigation that led to this trial. He also started the trial as the prosecution’s lead-off expert.
uncivil-action1

What was bizarre today was that Peronard was called by the defense. The prosecution had wanted to call him back to the stand to address a few points raised last week by Grace’s top spokesman, William Corcoran.  Grace’s top lawyer, David Bernick, first opposed the idea, then made it his own.

At one point Tuesday,  Bernick was rubbing his hands together in anticipation.  He was going to take another shot at discrediting Peronard, showing him to be a cowboy who was scorned by his EPA bosses in Washington.

Bernick first tried to get Peronard to admit that he thought of himself as a “king,” a statement attributed to him during earlier testimony.

Peronard had been asked, cajoled and pressured – nicely and often — to return to Libby after his initial stint there as on-scene coordinator to try to sort out the disputes and non-stop peeing matches over the cleanup of homes and property that had erupted after his departure.

Not one to blow his own horn, all Peronard would tell Bernick was that he wanted to ensure that he would have enough authority to get the job done.

Bernick let it drop and went on to the issue he thought would blow the on-scene coordinator out of the water.

Waving them like a flag, Bernick held up copies of email from John Malone, a member of EPA’s headquarters’ staff,  criticizing the actions and recommendations of Peronard and his teammates, Dr. Aubrey Miller and toxicologist Chris Weis.

Malone didn’t like the Libby team  and did not have much good to say about EPA Region 8 in Denver, where the Libby operation came from. He repeatedly denounced plans to remove dangerous Zonolite Attic Insulation from Libby homes and charged that Miller and Weis were using bogus science.

Bernick was almost lustful as he tried to get Peronard to admit that Malone’s e-mails were proof that headquarters opposed the team’s plans.
Not so, Peronard said again and again as Bernick repeated the same question.  Malone, Peronard said, did not speak for headquarters

What Peronard did not explain (probably because it’s not his style) were the reasons underlying Malone’s efforts to stifle the Libby operation. Peronard and his colleagues knew that Malone had headed the crucial, and embarrassing, 1982 and 1985 EPA studies of the tainted vermiculite from Libby. Rather than take actions to order Grace to stop exposing it workers, their family members and the town to lethal levels of asbestos, Malone stuck the reports on a shelf.

No one knows if lives could have been saved if Malone had paid attention to the very real dangers clearly flagged in the studies he babysat.

Peronard also didn’t tell the jury that at the same time that Malone was writing e-mails denouncing his team, EPA’s administrator was awarding Miller, Weis and Peronard for their outstanding work.

Peronard was permitted to leave and the judge told the jury: “I believe you have heard all the testimony you’re going to hear in this case.”

Smiles lit up the faces in the jury box.

W.R Grace defense lawyer says plagiarism proves prosecution witness has lied.

The last day of testimony in the W.R. Grace criminal trial began with the defense calling a former Libby city attorney and an ex-Grace accountant. Both were quickly questioned and dismissed.

But drama surfaced soon after Defense Attorney Thomas Frongillo began questioning Melvin Parker, the owner of the nursery he built on the site of the former Grace screening plant at the base of the road to the mine.

Frongillo, who represents former Grace Senior VP Robert Bettacchi, said his intent was to show that Parker “flat out lied” when he said he didn’t know that the mine was contaminated with asbestos that was harmful to humans.

This was a path that other lawyers had tried to go down with little or no success.

Frongillo, who served 10 years as a assistant United States attorney in the dog-eat-dog legal swamp of Boston, pressed Parker hard about when he learned about the asbestos.

The nurseryman said it was in the PI series on Libby in November 1999.

“Not so, Frongillo said, and he showed the jury 1993 report from Patrick Plantenberg, a Montana State official who worked on the mine reclamation. The lawyer also read a paragraph from a lengthy report that specifically outline the risks from asbestos.

Plantenberg said he had spoken to Parker in Sept. 1993 and sent him a copy.

Parker insisted he had never received the document.

Frongillo, who had kept his cool over the past 10 weeks was getting hot and Parker was  unbending and loud in his denials.  Sparks were flying.

The defense lawyer said he knows that Parker received it because he had plagiarized the language describing the asbestos danger and used it in a management plan he had submitted to Grace when Parker and his wife wanted to buy the old mine.

The words were almost identical but Parker vociferously and repeatedly denied that he lied.

Frongillo slowly shook his head and returned to his seat.

May 4, 2009

Truth be damned. Some watchers of the W.R. Grace criminal trial say two little words from defense lawyer “special relationship” could sway the jury’s verdict.

There is a slight lingering stench in the Missoula courtroom where the criminal trial of W.R. Grace is two days from going to the jury.

Many blame it on the odorous performance of Grace’s star lawyer David Bernick and his repeated assertions that a Robert Marsden, an EPA criminal investigator had a “special relationship” with discredited witness Robert Locke.

The old photo of Grace's top legal gun David Bernick came from his firm's website.

The old photo of Grace's top legal gun David Bernick came from his firm's website.

With a theatrical delivery, feigned disgust, that a Shakespearian player would covet, Bernick read from innocuous emails between the agent and the witness as if they were confessions of drug dealings, or payoffs, or selling little children or possessing WMDs.

Few dispute that the prosecution screwed up its obligation under law to get information and documents on Locke — a former Grace official and crucial witness — promptly to the defense, and they’ve been punished for it. But that has nothing to do with the deceptive picture Bernick has painted for the jury on the spurious “special relationship.”

I shared some examples of language from some the emails that the enormously successful corporate lawyer used as the basis of his accusations with  seven lawyers or law professors and past or current federal investigators.

All concluded that the electronic correspondence indicated that Marsden’s actions were appropriate, completely professional and just the way investigators routinely work to maintain contact with a witness. There was nothing “special” about it.

Some legal observers say it won’t matter in the end and that the jury will see through Bernick’s ploy.

Maybe.

I have greater concerns. While I know that the sometimes distasteful Bernick is considered by the business press to be among the best there is in defending corporations like Grace, tobacco companies and makers of breast implants, I am amazed that an experienced jurist like Judge Donald Molloy didn‘t yell foul  at the “special relationship” ploy.

His honor has referred to the phrase from the bench — both verbally, and I’m told, in writing. Some people who say they have known or appeared before the judge for ten or more years say that with Molloy’s knowledge of how investigators function, they can’t believe that the judge permitted Bernick’s charade.

Molloy repeatedly insists that all of his rulings and action are based on law and not something he cobbles up behind the closed doors of his chamber.

W.R. Grace’s top PR executive says he didn’t lie, he just never saw studies showing vermiculite insulation was dangerous.

For me, it was surreal to see W.R. Grace Vice President William Corcoran on the witness stand in the Missoula courtroom in the criminal trial last week.
He is the boss of public and regulatory affairs for the world wide company, which means he deals with the press and congress and he’s well suited to do both. He and I both became involved with Grace in 1999, and that’s when we met.

uncivil-action1

He told the jury on Thursday that neither he nor Grace’s new CEO had ever heard about the problems in Libby, Mont. until a Seattle newspaper wrote about them just before Thanksgiving of that year. That paper would have been the now-deceased Seattle PI.
Off and on for much of the last decade Corcoran and I would often thrust and parry over what his company had done and what I was writing about it — the mine, fireproofing in the World Trade Center, a declaration of a Public Health Emergency — different topics written for different newspapers.
Corcoran had several things going for him. One, he knew the hot points of environmental regulation because he’d served in top positions on both House and Senate committees handling some of the thorniest environmental issues of the day.   The other thing in his favor was that he isn’t a lawyer.
The interesting thing about our “relationship” (to me) was that I  knowingly only caught him in one lie, half-truth or misleading statement during all those years, which is a hell of a record for most top public relations practitioners.
That deception (in my view) was in his now famous letter of April 10, 2002, to then-EPA Administrator Christy Todd Whitman.   He told the EPA leadership that Zonolite Attic Insulation, which was made from asbestos-tainted vermiculite from Grace’s mine in Libby, was not dangerous.   According to Grace shipping papers, the ZAI was installed in somewhere between one million and 35 million homes and businesses across North America.
In his letter, Corcoran wrote that the insulation poses no risk to human health or the environment and contains “biologically insignificant amounts” of asbestos fibers.
But according to tests and studies run by Grace and later confirmed by the EPA, the insulation can be dangerous as hell.
To a point, Corcoran is correct, ZAI presents minimal risk if it’s never touched or disturbed. However, but if the vermiculite is disturbed by a child playing in the attic, a cable or telephone installer or anyone doing even minor renovations, high levels of asbestos fibers will be released.
The government obviously thought it was untrue also as the criminal indictments cited direct quotes from Corcoran’s letter to support the prosecution’s Obstruction of Justice charges.
When Prosecutor Kris McLean showed Corcoran copies of the studies Grace had done that confirmed the hazard, the company spokesman said he had never seen them before.

Well, I don’t know whether McLean was happy with the answer, but it looks like Corcoran may be batting .1000 in the straight-shooter department. Or maybe not.

Corcoran offered another example of his candor when Grace lawyer David Bernick was questioning him and mentioned the head of EPA’s emergency response team and Grace’s arch villain Paul Peronard.

Not only did Corcoran admit that he knew Peronard but that he’d first meet with the EPA emergency response expert on a cleanup in Georgia years earlier when the Grace executive represented another company. Several Grace lawyers winced when Corcoran volunteered that they’d gotten along and the Peronard had done a good job.

It was good finally seeing the official voice on the phone and email in person. But like others in the courtroom, I too am puzzled why Mr. Corcoran wasn’t named in the indictments.

Speaking of dissembling, the final witness of the day, was magnificent in his performance.

Dr. Suresh Moolgavkar, a Seattle epidemiologist and bio-statistician, earned his money from Grace in attempting to discredit the work of Drs. Aubrey Miller, Alan Whitehouse and Jim Lockey. The trio of government witnesses all have hands-on experience   in Libby and with its people. Grace’s witness doesn’t.

Moolgavkar, who has been a paid expert witness for   Bernick and Grace for years, said he had only recalculated the work of Lockey and other scientists and concluded: “There is . . . no evidence of an increased risk at Libby from environmental exposure,” he said.

His statement kind of makes you wonder about the dozens of people in Libby’s cemetery and hospitals with asbestos related disease who never worked at the mine or lived with miners. Or about the almost 2,000 who showed some level of lung impairments when the government tested 10,000 or so townsfolk from Libby and nearby Lincoln County years ago.

April 29, 2009

An excitement-filled day as prosecution rests and defense for W.R. Grace calls its first witnesses.

A lot happened in the Missoula courtroom of Judge Donald Molloy Tuesday. I’m just not sure what it all means.

I’m going to bow to learned lawyers, reporters smarter that I am and just about anyone else to try to sort out the winners and losers in the criminal trial of W.R. Grace.

Here’s what I do know.

Molloy began the day two hours before the jury was seated with prosecutors Kris McLean and Kevin Cassidy defending their case to the judge who had been asked to toss it out for lack of merit and proof.

“This case looks like a complex matter, but at its essence it’s really quite simple. It’s a matter of right and wrong,” said McLean.

They had shown Grace’s wrongs, or at least as many as they could with Molloy’s severe restrictions on case he’d permit. McLean said there are 100 acts that support the charges of conspiracy, and the government has proven 82 of them.

Grace lead lawyer David Bernick interrupted and tried to get Molloy to hurry up the prosecutor’s presentation, if not shut it off completely. “It’s just a bunch of documents,” he told the judge, who overruled him.

And with precision and straightforwardness that was missing though much of the past eight weeks, the prosecutors methodically flashed through a tick-tock of Grace documents that covered 30 years.

Maybe the gang from Grace just had gas, but a couple of the defense lawyers winced as McLean adroitly laid one document upon another, showing documents that had been presented before but now offered in a more telling manner.

Before calling in the jury, Molloy made a blitz of brief announcements and shocked many in the courtroom by announcing first that he had decided that he would not dismiss the case for prosecutorial misconduct as Grace’s defense team had requested.

I had always believed that judges always tipped the players in their cases about major decisions they were about to make. But most of the lawyer and defendants whose faces I could see looked bewildered or stunned.

In the ruling on the decision that he released last night, Molloy said, “The parties have put before the court a range of remedial options.”

– The most drastic is to dismiss the charges, either with or without prejudice. But “dismissal on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct is not warranted here,” the judge wrote.

– The next option is for the court to declare a mistrial. “The defendants have shown no interest in a mistrial, as it would allow the government the opportunity to start anew and, in essence, benefit from its failure to fulfill its disclosure obligations by receiving the proverbial second bite at the apple,” his honor explained.

– The third possibility is to strike the testimony of prosecution star witness Robert Locke in its entirety as a remedy for the government’s alleged violations of full disclosure requirements of Congress and the Supreme Court.

Molloy passionately believes that Locke lied while testifying, and information about him was withheld from the defense until late in the trial.

The judge said that the defense would be given another shot at Locke for a very limited cross examination, and he would tell the jury that it must ignore much of Locke’s testimony on senior Grace vice president Robert Bettacchi, who Molloy believes was “targeted” by Locke.

With the jury seated, Molloy told them a bit of what they’d missed earlier Tuesday and all day Monday, and at 10:18 on the second day of the eighth week of testimony, the prosecution rested.

Bernick wasted no time bringing the first defense witness, former Grace executive VP Elwood “Chip” Wood.

Wood was a good witness, got few laughs, played well to the jury, but rarely looked at them. Bernick directed him well as he walked the jury through a list of actions Grace had done involving its tremolite asbestos problem.

He asked about the government’s charges, but Wood denied that there was any conspiracy.

“I can’t imagine that I would not have been aware of some such conspiracy if it were happening,” he said.

Wood vigorously denounced and discredited a key memo from Locke, which talked about how Grace would stall or thwart an investigation of the Libby mine by NIOSH, the federal worker safety experts.

Wood said he learned of Locke’s memo, “did a slow burn” for weeks and added, “It corrupted everything we were trying to do.”

Bernick then guided the former top boss into explaining that Grace had notified the federal government of the health problems at the mine.

Wood said that the study was “hard evidence that you have an asbestos related problem.”

In his cross-examination, prosecutor Cassidy skillfully regained some of the lost ground when he showed that 10 years after Grace learned that 41 percent of its Libby miners – who had over ten years on the job – had asbestosis, the company was still telling EPA that it had no data to document there was a health problem.

He also got Wood to admit that he had hired Locke for another job when Wood was made a president of another Grace operation, and he volunteered that Locke did good work.

When Locke was called to the stand for the questioning ordained by the judge, Bernick was ready and far too eager. His grilling of Locke was merciless.

He pushed Locke until he admitted that he was wrong when he had testified weeks earlier about the number of meeting he’d had with the prosecution team over the past five years.

He repeatedly hammered away trying to get Locke to admit that he had a “special relationship” with the prosecution. Four, six, eight times. More. And Locke wouldn’t be forced to use Bernick’s pet phrase.

Locke and the jury were both dismissed.

After the jury left, defense lawyers for Bettacchi and William McCaig petitioned Molloy to free their clients because of the lack of evidence since much of Locke’s testimony was stricken.

The guess is that by the end of today, the number of defendants will be reduced again. The judge says he has several pending motions to address.

The last surprise of the day was when the defense said it should rest its case by next week.

April 16, 2009

Is an asbestos fiber by any other name a get out of jail card? W.R. Grace says yes.

With the deadline for wrapping up its part of the trial just three court days away, the prosecution continues to try to prove its conspiracy charges against W.R. Grace by bringing in another expert on workers sickened by exposure to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby, Mont.

Dr. James Lockey, an authority in occupational medicine and a specialist in pulmonary diseases, walked the jury through two studies he did on workers from O.M. Scott, a quarter of a century apart.

But first Lockey, a professor of environmental health and pulmonary medicine at the University of Cincinnati, painlessly explained the anatomy of an asbestos fiber and why tremolite and other Libby fibers are more toxic than the traditional, and far more commonly found commercial asbestos – chrysotile. He told the jurors the Libby fibers stay in the lungs longer, penetrate deeper, and their structure, long and very thin, means a single fiber embedded in the lungs can, over time, break into 50 or 100 fibers.

He described the two studies of workers in the lawn and garden chemical company, and Grace’s largest customer for Libby vermiculite. There are many facets to the study, and even Grace chief lawyer, David Bernick, said it was well done. Take that to the bank.

The bottom line was Lockey’s work showed that even low doses caused bloody plural effusion in workers’ lungs.

During his cross examination, star defense lawyer David Bernick set up his drawing boards on easels, grabbed a fist full of colored pens and spent an hour or more playing teacher and student with Lockey.

Bernick began by trying to draw a human lung and had the doctor walk him through the various sites of asbestos-related disease. He endlessly drew wiggles and graphs on the boards and tried to argue with Lockey about what the physician’s studies showed.

Repeatedly Bernick tried to get Lockey to say his research proved that low exposure to tremolite cannot cause asbestos-related diseases. And repeatedly the doctor told the lawyer he was wrong.

The Grace big gun finally got to where he was heading all afternoon, or so it seemed. All that was missing was a drum roll.

Bernick showed that the first Scott study talked about tremolite fibers, but in the second study, 25-years later, where many of the same workers were reexamined to show progression of the disease, Lockey referred to the Libby fibers as Winchite, richterite and tremolite.

Bernick beamed widely, and he continued hammering away at the same old canard that Grace has been flogging for years.

When it was his turn, defense lawyer Thomas Frongillo jumped on the – fiber by any other name – issue. It is a favorite topic of his and he has done dramatic readings from four or five different laws showing that Winchite and richterite aren’t listed as official asbestos by the government.

Some of my readers have said I should ask him if he thinks it matters that they all sicken and kill?

Lockey, as many other witnesses have tried to say before him, began to explain that it didn’t matter what they called the fibers. They were all, long, thin and lethal.

But objections flew.

Fortunately, this issue will get complete review on Monday when Greg Meeker, a geologist from the U.S. Geological Survey, testifies as one of the two last prosecution witnesses. I believe that it was Meeker’s work that showed singe fibers from Libby contained Winchite at one end, richterite in the middle and tremolite at the other end.

I wonder what Bernick and Frongillo will have to say about that.?

April 13, 2009

Asbestos found in Chinese talc used in hundreds of medicines. What about our meds?

Here’s something that if it doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it should at least make you wonder.

First some background.

For decades, talc, the finely ground white powder, has been used in a multitude of ways from dusting surgical gloves, condoms and balloons to a sculpting material for artists, baby and body powder and cosmetics. But a use for talc that touches more people than anything else is its function as an excipient, the inactive ingredient carrying the actual medication in thousands of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

A valued friend and mentor of mine works in Hong Kong. He’s an American public health specialist and part of a product safety team advising the Chinese on the safety of its consumer products. He sent me clippings from two Korean newspapers — the Joong Ang Daily and the Chosun.

Both publications quoted officials at the Korean Food and Drug Administration reporting several Korean pharmaceutical companies voluntarily halted the sale of drugs that contain talc, which is suspected to be contaminated with asbestos.

Another story quoted the Korean agency as reporting that more than 1,000 specific medications have been ordered off the shelves.

The American safety consultant said that as many as 400 Korean companies purchase talc used in their medication from a single company that import its talc from China.

The news reports identified the company as Duksan Pure Chemicals and said, “The banned items will range from drugs for minor ailments like cold and anemia to those for chronic diseases including high blood pressure and diabetes.”

Most large pharmaceutical firms import talc material from Japan and the United States where rules on asbestos are stricter, a news agency said and then added, “that in the European Union and the United States, manufacturers have been regulated to refine talc thoroughly to remove all asbestos since 2005 and 2006 respectively.”

I’m glad the Koreans believe that. But, according to the news reports, they also believe that that the small amount of asbestos in the medication “isn’t harmful.”  This is hard to believe because no one, to my knowledge, has ever determined a threshold dose for asbestos – the amount that will cause disease.

I shook an FDA friend out of bed last night and, after he stopped cursing, he said, “Of course, we check all medication for dangerous contaminants. Don’t we? We should.”

Some of you who may have been following my ramblings on asbestos for way too many years, might remember that after the Seattle PI broke the Libby – W.R. Grace story, we looked at other operations where workers were dying from exposure to asbestos contaminating the talc, taconite and other minerals they mined. One operation was the country’s largest talc supplier in upstate New York.

We wound up on their doorstep after we identified asbestos in the talc that the world’s largest crayon makers added for strength.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission was dragged kicking and screaming into doing something only after ABC News and school boards across the country confirmed our finding.

We gave a list of U.S. products that contained talc to the CPSC, which, according to a congressional investigator, did nothing, reportedly because the Office of Management and Budget thought any CPSC action would be an undue burden on the manufacturers.

I’ve sent a query this morning to the FDA asking the same question I asked my sleepy friend. Hopefully, I’ll get an answer from someone I can quote without endangering his or her job.

I also emailed several addresses at the Duksan chemical company asking whether they shipped the Chinese talc to companies in the U.S. and Canada.

I’ll let you know if either group replies.

March 31, 2009

New technique uses color and 3-D to identify asbestos-caused disease faster and more accurately.

Traditional x-ray

Traditional x-ray

Over the years I have been seated in scores of hearing rooms and courtrooms – from worker’s comp cases to the ongoing W.R. Grace criminal trial – watching physicians trying desperately to explain to jurors that this or that gray blur on the X-ray clearly shows disease in the lung.

They’re almost always followed immediately by doctors paid by the defense insisting that the same vague shadows are benign.
But the difficulty of accurately reading x-rays and CT-scans is of even greater importance when physicians are trying to determine the cause of a patient’s illness.

Dr. Michael Harbut

Dr. Michael Harbut

Color has finally come to the murky gray world of scans, x-rays and chest radiography, and workers exposed to asbestos, coal dust, silica, beryllium and other heavy metal are among those with lung diseases who may immediately benefit.

This past weekend, Dr. Michael Harbut, co-director of the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Mich. gave the world its first peek at the new radiographic technology.
The announcement was made at the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s annual conference in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

It was the ideal audience before which to unveil the technology. The 200-plus in attendance were physicians, public health specialists, nurses, patients and family members of those who have died from asbestos-related disease both in the U.S. and abroad.

This process allows “us to visualize lesions caused by asbestos exposure in three dimensional detail and often at a much earlier stage than that of the current standard radiographic techniques,” said Harbut, who has decades of experience in diagnosing and treating asbestos-related illness.

New technique

New technique

As Harbut flashed through slides, which vividly showed the ease of identifying lung disease with the 3-D, color technology, he spoke of the benefits of the new approach. In addition to earlier diagnoses, he said that the technology permits differentiation between patients with scarring on the lungs and other diseases and assists in determining why some people have uncontrolled, unrelenting pain.

Harbut worked with Dr. Carmen Endress, Associate Professor of Radiology, Wayne State University School of Medicine, who developed the technology.

Harbut explained that the new diagnostic tool could also have a significant public-health impact.

“If we can identify the ‘sentinel’ or first cases of asbestosis or lung cancer at an early stage, then we can help identify asbestos exposures in places where it might not have previously been suspected,” said Harbut, who is also chief of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Wayne State University.

Furthermore, the use of the new chest radiography in the identification of the abnormalities could help to reduce the death rate from asbestos-related diseases, Harbut said. The technology also may explain the disparity in pain levels between those suffering from lung cancer and those with mesothelioma. The enhanced view of the abdominal cavity shows contact with the rib cage that could significantly increase the level of pain suffered by those with mesothelioma.

Dr. Endress added, “It’s my sincere hope that with this new approach and enhanced technology we will help reduce the death rate caused by asbestos-related diseases, reduce the suffering by patients and their loved ones, and make a significant contribution to medicine.”

The word of the new technology will soon be spread throughout the medical community as Harbut and Endress have five journal articles waiting to be published.

This is not the first major medical advance by the Karmanos Cancer Institute. The center, which is located in downtown Detroit, is heavily involved in both clinical and basic research on asbestos-related cancers and has been credited with several major accomplishments in the diagnosis and treatment of mesothelioma.

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