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 21, 2009

Government is sending money to care for asbestos victims in Libby. Will W.R. Grace keep picking up medical bills as it promised?

People in Libby, Mont. are through licking their wounds and are working to put the acquittal earlier this month of W.R. Grace and its executives behind them.

But many say they live in fear that the innocent verdict offered up by the jury will give the former owner of the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine the chutzpa to end the insurance coverage they’ve promised to provide to the hundreds of miners and townsfolk sickened by the lethal fibers the corporation pulled out of the ground.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus today passed some good news on to the tiny town in the state’s northwest corner. He says he got the Department of Health and Human Services to free up $6 million to provide health care for people with asbestos-related illness.

“It’s really great news, and we can use some of that up here,” said Dr. Brad Black, who runs the Center for Asbestos-Related Diseases clinic in town.

Dr. Brad Black. (c) Photo a. schneider

Dr. Brad Black. (c) Photo a. schneider

“Everyone was scared to death that Grace would stop paying the little it does pay of the medical expenses of the people here,” Black told me today.

With the high cost of medication, oxygen and hospitalization, the $6 million won’t go very far to provide screenings and health care services to the hundreds of people battling asbestos-related illnesses.

However, the senator says that major help may be on the way as he believes he can get a Public Health Emergency declared for Libby.

Battles had been fought throughout the Bush Administration, by OMB and EPA for years over those three little words.

Paul Peronard, Chris Weis and Aubrey Miller – the trio of EPA emergency response and public health specialists who were the first to arrive in Libby a decade ago –  had their careers threatened repeatedly because they saw the need to declare the emergency.

They fought for the designation because it would permit EPA to do the complex cleanup the unique tremolite asbestos demanded, the town needed and would make the government responsible for ensuring the delivery of adequate health care.

The Bush Administration fought the effort because it was trying to force an industry-sponsored asbestos litigation reform act through Congress and wanted no attention brought to the devastation asbestos could impart.

The Democratic lawmaker lambasted the decision to not declare a public health emergency at the time, calling it an “outrage.”

Baucus said a public health emergency would authorize cleanup work in homes and other structures as well as require the federal government to provide screenings and health care for Libby residents with asbestos-related disease.

The public health emergency would be declared by the Environmental Protection Administration.

“I’ve talked with the head of HHS, Kathleen Sebelius and the head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, and they both know how important it is to help the folks in Libby,” Baucus said

“We all have been working for months together to figure out how to best help folks affected by this tragedy.”

Baucus holds senior positions on oversight committees for both HHS and EPA.

He described his action as a step to bring justice to folks in Libby “who were poisoned at the hands of Grace.

“We expect this Administration to make decisions based on sound science and to right the sins of the last Administration.”

The Internet will protect us from dangerous food? It’s a start, the White House says.

Two of President Obama’s cabinet officers today launched a government website as a step in improving the nation’s food safety system or, at least, giving the public a way to see whether the White House is making any progress with a problem that each year sickens tens of thousands and kills hundreds.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and Kathleen Sebelius, the head of HHS, were named by the president in March to run the White House Food Safety Working Group.hhs_seal_bl_thmb

Vilsack says the group will be an important tool for strengthening the food safety system, making it more accountable and accessible to the public and flexible enough to quickly resolve new food safety challenges that emerge.
USDA logo
“Families have enough to worry about. You shouldn’t have to wonder if the food you buy at the grocery store is safe,” said Health Secretary Sebelius.

Here is a link to the site which the government says will allow people to stay apprised of the group’s progress, learn about food safety tools and practices, and share their views on how to improve the food safety system.

When Obama announced the formation of the group, he told the agency head that it must “ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them.”

Enforcement has long been a problem in the food safety arena as shown by the massive, disjointed, recall of salmonella-tainted peanuts which took months to reach a meaningful level.

The White House group says it will use a public health approach that focuses resources according to risk, applies the best available science and fights, what may be the most difficult battle: cooperation between federal, state, local and international groups.

May 18, 2009

Nanoparticle use grows in consumer products; safety testing inadequate, experts say.

Filed under: FDA,Nanotechnology,Public health legislation,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 12:21

The exciting and potentially benefit-laden world of nanoparticles continues to expand at rates that surpass the growth of any technology in history. Many public health leaders plead for caution and additional research into the widespread human and environmental hazards that could exist with use of nanotechnology. They worry that far too little is being done.
Many of you have written to ask how many products based on nanotech are on the market now or are close to being released for sale. It is almost impossible to know with great accuracy.
Most corporations decline to comment, citing proprietary or competitive concerns. The federal government keeps no tally, and a friend of mine in the Food and Drug Administration says that’s a major mistake that someday will “bite us in the butt.”
There is one group that is watching nanotechnology more closely than anyone else. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is a partnership between the Pew Charitable Trust and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The project was formed in 2005 to address the social, political, and public safety aspects of nanotechnology.
The experts at the partnership acknowledge that their tallies are far from comprehensive, but they offer the best picture out there of what industry is doing with nanoparticles. And they offer the only inventory of consumer products around.

nano products
Here is one of their graphs and some of their facts:

The Consumer Products Inventory today lists 807 products, produced by 457 companies, located in 21 countries.

The inventory is growing fast: from 212 products when it was first released in March 2006, to 803 products in August 2008.

The largest category is health and fitness, including 126 cosmetics, 115 items of clothing, 153 personal care items, 83 types of sporting goods, 33 sunscreens and 40 water filters.
The inventory now includes products from many countries, including the United States, Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, Taiwan, Australia, Israel, Finland, Mexico, Switzerland, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, Sweden, Singapore, Canada, and Italy.
The Washington –based researchers say U.S. based companies are marketing the most products (426), followed by companies in Asia (227), Europe (108), and elsewhere around the world (38).
I will try to post updates often on this topic. But here is a link to browse the project’s inventory database:

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.

March 25, 2009

The use of nanotechnology in food and packaging soars enormously, but Europe beats the U.S. when it comes to demanding safety in using the technology.

Filed under: Nanotechnology,Public health legislation — Andrew Schneider @ 11:39

Food scientists that I’ve interviewed recently say that every major manufacturer of food products in the U.S. has either its own in-house team evaluating the use of nanotechnology or has contracted with outside experts for the knowledge.

The race is on to create these manmade nanoparticles – the size of atoms and molecules – and modify them to enhance the safety, taste, color, texture, nutritional value and shelf life of food.

Many food scientists are working on nanoparticles that will kill microbes that spoil or taint food, and I’m told that at least three labs in Europe and Japan are reportedly pursuing similar technology to signal the presence of salmonella, listeria and even E.coli.


My acquaintances in the Food and Drug Administration and on various Congressional committees say the government is doing little or nothing to ensure the safety of this technology.

I was at a conference two years ago when Mitchell Cheeseman, then-deputy director of FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety, said the agency needed help in identifying potential safety concerns from nanotech food additives and dietary supplements. One researcher in the food additive office told me today “not much has happened because the nanotech wheel is not squeaking.”

The rest of the world appears to be taking it seriously.

For instance, food products using nanotechnology will not be permitted for sale in Ireland until the risks to consumers is better known, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland recently told our FDA.

Just this week, the European Parliament called for caution to be used before food being produced using nanotechnology processes marketed.

According to a statement from the European Parliament, the European Food Safety Authority has been ordered to ensure the safety of all food produced with nanotechnology processes, and “specific risk assessments” must be approved and completed before the products can be sold.

In addition, the organization ordered labeling instructions that I won’t live long enough to see in the U.S.

They require that: “all ingredients present in the form of nanomaterials shall be clearly indicated in the list of ingredients. The names of the ingredients shall be followed by the word ‘nano’ in brackets.”

On the other side of the world, Australian food safety activists call for increasing “scant regulations governing the use of potentially harmful nanotechnology in food and food packaging,” reported the Australian Associated Press.

A new report from the consumer group “Choice,” quoted  by the Australian news agency, says an estimated 150 to 600 nanofoods and 400 to 500-nanofood packaging applications are in use around the world.

Nanotechnology involves structures as small as molecules, 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, which can have new and unexpected properties because their small size brings quantum effects into play and their larger relative surface area makes them more reactive.

Choice said there is also a lack of research into how nanoparticles in food react once inside the human body.

The government agency Food Standards Australia New Zealand does not require manufactured nanoparticles to be specifically labeled, the food safety group said.

March 20, 2009

New government study on possible health hazards from nanoparticles shows much more research is needed and quickly.

Filed under: Nanotechnology,Public health legislation,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 13:08

Those who care about public health and fear that our government isn’t paying enough attention to the potential hazards spawned by the massive explosion of nano technology have something to cheer. But also something that shows that a lot more research is needed into the new technology — and quickly.

The comfort should come from the knowledge that scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have completed the agency’s second study into the health effects of nanomaterial. The concern lies in the fact the research shows that the material moved easily from inside the lungs of test animals into the pleura, which is the tissue that surrounds the lungs.nioshicn

The findings are the first to demonstrate that carbon nanotubes aspirated by laboratory mice can actually migrate from the tiny structures in the lung called alveoli, which are critical for gas exchange, through the lungs to the pleura.

“This is important because the pleura is the tissue that can develop a form of cancer, malignant mesothelioma, after asbestos exposure, and multi-walled carbon nanotubes are durable fiber-like particles that share many features with asbestos fibers,” Dr. Ann Hubbs, one of the four scientists on the project told me today.

Research into commercial applications of nanoparticles is being pushed at an intensity never seen with any other technology, but examination of the health and safety implications to workers and the public has lagged significantly, especially in the U.S.

What worries many who have studied the new technology is that because of their infinitesimal size, nanoparticles can and do pass through the body’s traditional barriers and defense mechanisms. They are easily transported through the bloodstream, respiratory and gastrointestinal pathways into all organs, the brain and even individual cells.

Add to this the fact that nanoparticles are often more toxic than traditional products of the same chemical composition that have been used for decades.

There are thousands of unique nanostructures being developed by industry today. The material that the NIOSH team investigated is called multi-walled carbon nanotubes, or MWCNTs. These structures, according to NIOSH, show promise for various applications ranging from creating stronger, more durable building materials to improving cancer therapies.

However, as with other types of engineered nanomaterials, the potential occupational health implications of MWNCTs are not well understood.

In the testing at NIOSH’s Morgantown, W.Va. Laboratory, mice inhaled a small drop of liquid containing the nanotubes in a manner that closely resembles inhalation of the same material suspended in the air, such as an exposure that a worker might encounter.

Other investigators, overseas, have reported inflammation and mesothelioma of the abdominal lining after nanomaterial was injected into the lining of the abdominal cavity.

All of these studies reinforce the need to adopt a rigorous approach to controlling occupational exposures among workers during the production and use of the nanomaterial, NIOSH says.

NIOSH’s pioneering research was presented before the Society of Toxicology this week because of the importance of its findings, but the authors’ stress that the preliminary scientific findings demand that more work be done.

As the only government agency tasked with research on workplace illness and injury, NIOSH is leading the way in health studies on nanotech material.

In addition to Hubbs, who is a veterinary pathologist, the research was conducted by Drs. Vincent Castranova, chief of the Pathology and Physiology Research Branch in the Health Effects Laboratory Division; Hubbs; Dale Porter, a pulmonary toxicologist; and Robert Mercer, a bio-engineer.

For more information, here is a link to a NIOSH document Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology.

For updates Twitter: asinvestigates

February 11, 2009

A look at a real victim of the peanut butter poisoning

Members of Congress who repeatedly huff and puff over the treacherous deficiencies in the government’s protection of the nation’s food supply came face-to-face today with a 3-year-old boy who nearly died because his favorite snack was filled with salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

When Rep. Henry Waxman gaveled his House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing into action this morning, the parents of Jacob Hurley were there to describe how they came close to losing their son last month. And according to Waxman, it happened because of the apparent greed of the owners of Peanut Corp. of America and the Food and Drug Administration’s inadequate food-inspection system.

Waxman opened the hearing to a packed room by waving documents that he said showed that the Peanut Corp. of America was “a company that was more concerned with its bottom line than the safety of its customers.”

The California Democrat said the company was notified last September by a private lab that its products had tested positive for salmonella.

“In response, the president of the company, Stewart Parnell, sent an e-mail complaining that positive salmonella tests were ‘costing us huge $$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice,’ ” Waxman saidf.

As the Seattle P-I reported today in its story on the “Peanut scandal’s weakest victims,” peanut and peanut products from the company, tainted with salmonella, have made at least 604 people sick, sent 187 to the hospital and killed eight.

Three-year-old Jacob was one of those sickened. His father, Peter, a veteran Portland, Ore., police officer, tells the committee that not only was his child brought down by the salmonella, but, because of FDA’s failure to order a mandatory recall of all products using the dangerous peanut butter from the Georgia plant, Jacob also continued to be fed his favorite snack crackers that contained the salmonella bacteria.

Seattle lawyer William Marler was asked to submit written comments to the committee. He had been involved in the aftermath of the 2007 poisoning of 400 people by Conagra’s Peter Pan Peanut Butter, which carried the same strain of salmonella as found in the Peanut Corp. of America products.

Marler told the committee what he had been urging for years: that the three main federal agencies responsible for food safety — the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the inspection arm of the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — be merged and adequately funded.

“The present system is trifurcated, which leads to turf wars and split responsibilities. We need one independent agency that deals with food-borne pathogens,” he wrote.

February 9, 2009

Flavoring maker fights on to keep safety inspectors out

At times like these I think I should change the name of my blog to “Tales of the Absurd.”

This example centers on a year-long court battle between an Indianapolis flavor manufacturer and the government’s top occupational safety investigators. The fact that the company has gone to federal court to keep the federal health and safety wizards from protecting the workers from a sometimes lethal chemical strikes many as well beyond absurd.

At the heart of the dispute is the health of 200 workers at Sensient Flavors International and a chemical mixture that they use called diacetyl, which has killed several and sickened hundreds of workers in plants across the country that use the synthetic butter flavoring. That would include thousands of candies, cookies, baked goods, prepared food products and cooking oils and sprays.

On the other side of the courtroom are the feds – physicians, toxicologists and industrial hygienists – who work for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Their battle to control exposure to his chemical concoction soared into prominence in August —-2000 when the NIOSH team was called to investigate an outbreak of bronchiolitis obliterans in former workers of Missouri microwave-popcorn plant.

Within months, they found the same irreversible lung disease in other workers at popcorn plants in the Midwest.

The fight with Sensient began almost a year ago when the local Teamsters union representing the plant’s workers asked NIOSH, the worker-safety research arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to inspect the plant, which it did.

But when I interviewed Teamster health and safety officials last year they said the company had altered the production process while the feds were inspecting and taking air samples and that the investigators failed to get an accurate idea of the conditions.

NIOSH told Sensient that it wanted to return and take more samples and interview additional workers because “pulmonary abnormalities” uncovered during its first inspection demanded a “second and more extensive examination,” an agency official told me.

The- Indianapolis Business Journal said that Sensient acknowledges federal law gave NIOSH authority to conduct the first inspection. But it says no new information had emerged that would give the feds the right to go through the “highly invasive process” again.

“NIOSH is attempting to use Sensient’s facility as its own personal laboratory,” the company complained in a federal lawsuit filed in July. The company demanded in the lawsuit that the second inspection be blocked.

Dr. David Egilman, a occupational medicine specialist and Clinical Associated Professor at Brown University, who has been examining patients harmed by diacetyl since the first popcorn cases, calls Sensient’s position absurd and dangerous.

“If any one is experimenting, it is Sensient and the guinea pigs are their workers. It is just outrageous that this company that has never tested the toxicity of any of the chemicals it puts in our food has gall to block government researchers efforts to determine if they stuff they are adding to food will kill or injure us,” said Egilman, who has testified on behalf of the injured workers in many of the lawsuits they brought against flavoring companies.

The legal game playing continues in federal court with both sides battling whether discovery requests are too broad or too narrow and other courtroom tactics.

Meanwhile, the workers continue to mix the diacetyl into flavorings that are being shipped to scores of food-processing plants where other workers will be exposed to the faux butter flavoring.

In related news, after Senate and House hearings, union demands and insistent bellowing of safety activists, OSHA has taken the first step in actually doing something to prevent workers from having diacetyl destroy their lungs.

The agency has asked for public comments on issues related to occupational exposure to diacetyl and food flavorings containing diacetyl. Someone has already submitted the P-I story from 2007 of diacetyl exposure to professional and home cooks from butters, sprays and oils containing the food flavoring. This is a link to the PI’s story on diacetyl.

There is no indication that the Food and Drug Administration, which approved the use of diacetyl years ago without any agency testing, will order any testing of the food flavoring.

February 3, 2009

Medical helicopters and bad peanut butter — we know better.

I’m back in Washington this week, the one on the Potomac. It didn’t take me long to remember that the person staffing the Oval Office may not have a lot to say about how the government really functions.

The absurdities of how agencies do their jobs continues to stun the new president’s team, especially when it comes to how the Food and Drug Administration has, and is, handling the salmonella-contaminated peanut butter products.

Congressional offices were fielding hundreds of calls and e-mails from constituents who were angered or incredulous when they learned that the FDA wasn’t permitted to order the enormous recall of thousands of products that used peanut butter or paste from the Peanut Corp. of America without permission of the company.

Let’s try this again. The federal food safety authorities who are trying to crack down on the tainted products that have sickened 550 people and killed at least eight can’t just shut the villain down?

No. Not even when the FDA can show that PCA has knowingly sold salmonella-contaminated peanut butter 12 times in the past two years.

Further, the company even gets to pick and choose the wording that FDA uses in the recall.

“It’s has been this way for years. The company’s feelings come before the health of the public,” an investigator who fought the battle in the field and in headquarters for years told me Tuesday.

“It’s stupid and painful to have to stand there with our federal hat in our hands waiting for the company’s approval of the language we use and whether or not we even send the damn recall out.”

Yesterday, both Congress and President Barack Obama said there would be a top-to-bottom review of FDA operations.

Meanwhile, 11 miles away from the FDA, the National Transportation Safety Board was working its way through four days of hearings on why med-evac helicopters were falling out of the sky across the country.

Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the safety board, said many of the nine fatal accidents could have been prevented and several of the almost three dozen fatalities could have been eliminated.

It looks as if we’re in another cycle of crashes, deaths, recommendations from the NTSB and failure of the Federal Aviation Administration to actually do anything.

The board says it will listen to more than 40 witnesses but has no plans to make recommendations.

“Why bother,” one accident investigator told me. “No matter what we say needs to be done, the FAA will again bow to the air ambulance industry and demand nothing.”

I have a troublesome perspective on why this NTSB expert is correct.

Twenty-three years ago, while at the Pittsburgh Press, two photographers and I investigated dozens of med-evac crashes and found many similar causes. Included were that hospitals that owned or leased the helicopters demanded or pressured air crews to fly in severe weather or greatly limited visibility, all to get the patients and their wallets back to their facilities. We were able to document that flight nurses, physicians, paramedics and patients were often killed when they struck their heads on sharp-edged emergency equipment attached to the ceilings and walls, or their spines and necks were broken when the flimsy seats collapsed. Meanwhile, up forward, pilots in helmets and strapped into crash-attenuating seats often survived the impact.

The NTSB confirmed many of our findings and issued a long list of recommendations for the FAA to make into laws and enforce.

Few, if any improvements were made, so again, hearings are being held on why livesavers were dying.

You think about it.

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