Science in Society Archive

News in Brief SiS56

SiS 56 will be available in November 2012

Ocean Fertilization Promotes Toxic Algae in Haida Gwaii

One hundred tons of an iron-rich dirt-like material was dumped into the ocean near Haida Gwaii, an island off the shores of British Columbia and Alaska, in an effort to enhance the growth of phytoplankton and improve fishery [1]. It was done without permits as part of a $2-million project, initiated by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation in the hope of obtaining carbon credits, and has sparked considerable controversy.

Previous open ocean geoengineering experiments hoping to stimulate photosynthesis and carbon fixation have shown that iron additions stimulated growth of the toxigenic diatom genus Pseudonitzschia. The sparse oceanic Pseudonitzschia community at the high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll Ocean Station PAPA (50 degrees N, 145 degrees W) produced approximately 200 pg/L of the neurotoxic domoic acid (DA) in response to iron addition. This finding raised serious concern over the net benefit and sustainability of large-scale iron fertilizations [2].

The Haida Gwaii iron-dumping [1] was done in the face of clear evidence that the procedure is likely to lead to toxic algal blooms. Even if the salmon crop survives the toxic bloom, the fish may be unfit for consumption. The killer whales and grey whales living off Haida Gwaii may not survive the dumping and the people of the Islands may become ill from shell fish and salmon carrying the toxic algae. The dumpers of iron do not appear to have been required to monitor the toxic bloom.

DA naturally produced by marine phytoplankton presents a significant threat to the health of marine mammals, seabirds and humans via transfer of the toxin through the food web. In humans, acute exposure causes a neurotoxic illness known as amnesic shellfish poisoning characterized by seizures, memory loss, coma and death. Regular monitoring for high DA levels in edible shellfish tissues has been effective in protecting human consumers from acute DA exposure. However, chronic low-level DA exposure is a concern, particularly in coastal and tribal communities that harvest shellfish. DA exposure via consumption of planktivorous fish also has a profound health impact on California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), affecting hundreds of animals yearly [3].       Joe Cummins

  1. Iron Fertilisation project stirs West Coast controversy. CBC.ca, http://cbc.sh/SbTYF6j
  2. Trick CG, Bill BD, Cochlan WP, Wells ML, Trainer VL, Pickell LD.  Iron enrichment stimulates toxic diatom production in high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll areas PNAS 2010, 107, 5887-5892; doi:10.1073/pnas.0910579107.
  3. Lefebvre KA, Frame ER, Gulland F, Hansen JD, Kendrick PS, Beyer RP, Bammler TK, Farin FM, Hiolski EM, Smith DR, Marcinek DJ. A novel antibody-based biomarker for chronic algal toxin exposure and sub-acute neurotoxicity PLoS One 2012, 7(5):e36213. Epub 2012 May 2

TEPCO Admits Fukushima Should Have Been Prevented

More than 18 months after the Fukushima nuclear explosions, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) finally admitted on 12 October 2012 that they had underestimated the risk and made inadequate preparations for a serious incident. For example, they should have diversified power and cooling systems according to best international practice and should have trained employees properly to cope with an emergency, rather than carrying out only formal drills [1].  Collusion between the Japanese government and TEPCO had allowed the company to be lax about safety.

TEPCO even admitted that they knew their safety regime was inadequate, and offered as their excuse the fear that to implement accident measures [2] “would exacerbate ... public anxiety and add momentum to anti-nuclear movements.”  So, “risk management” is coming more and more to mean reassuring the public that something is safe, rather than making sure that it actually is.

TEPCO has established a Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, led by Dale Klein, a former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to ensure that TEPCO develops practices and procedures to prevent incidents like Fukushima from ever happening again. Takafumi Anegawa, a member of the Committee and the official in charge of nuclear asset management for TEPCO, says the measures they will recommend [1] “would have saved us from the accident, if we were able to turn back the clock.” This is clearly another risk management ploy to counter the anti-nuclear movements.

Nuclear reactors are by their very nature accident prone. When a nuclear reactor explodes, the consequences can be uniquely serious and long lasting as evidence has now emerged from Chernobyl, and all the signs are that the radioactive fallout from the Fukushima meltdown is as least as big [3] (see Announcing Death Camp Fukushima Chernobyl - an ISIS special report). Furthermore, when all the costs are taken into account it is a very expensive way of producing energy ([4] The Real Cost of Nuclear Power, SiS 47), and as we can reach our target of carbon-free energy by 2050 without it (Germany has already committed itself to this [5] Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050, ISIS publication), the real lesson of Fukushima is that we should abandon nuclear energy altogether.   Peter Saunders

  1.  “Tepco finally admits nuke crisis avoidable” (AP). Japan Times Online, 14 October 2012. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20121014a1.html
  2. “Fukushima operator must learn from mistakes, new adviser says”. Adam Sheldrick. 13 October 2012. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/13/us-japan-nuclear-idUSBRE89B0XK20121013
  3. Ho MW, Greaves S & Saunders PT. Death Camp Fukushima Chernobyl, ISIS Special Report, 2012, also Science in Society 55,
  4. Saunders PT. The real cost of nuclear power. Science in Society 47,  36-39, 2010.
  5. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. Green Energies: 100% Renewable by 2050. ISIS, London, 2009. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GreenEnergies.php

UK Nuclear Ambition Struck another Blow but could Rise Again

UK’s nuclear ambition was struck another blow when French engineering group Areva, expected to table a bid jointly with China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation for the Horizon venture missed the deadline at the beginning of October 2012 [1]. It was widely believed that only Chinese energy companies had the funds to meet the estimated $30 bn needed. A winner was due to be announced within the next few weeks for the project which was put up for sale in March after Germany’s RWE and E.ON gave up plans to build nuclear reactors in Britain.

However, Japanese company Hitachi signed a £700 m deal to buy Horizon from Germany, giving it rights to build up to 6 nuclear reactors operating by 2020 [2]. The move was hailed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron as “a decades-long, multi-billion pound vote of confidence in the UK [nuclear programme].”

The question is, can Hitachi meet the estimated $30 bn needed?   Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

  1. “Favourite for UK nuclear reactor contract ends bid”, Natalie Thomas, 3 October 2012, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/9583167/Favourite-for-UK-nuclear-reactor-contract-ends-bid.html
  2. “Hitachi buys UK nuclear project from E.On and RWE”, BBC News Business, 30 October 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20134735

Bisphenol A Link to Childhood Obesity & More

Bisphenol A (BPA) is widely used in polymer products in food and beverage containers, baby bottles, shopping receipt papers, dental sealants and fillings, adhesives, protective coatings, flame retardants, water supply pipes, and compact discs, and is found in the environment and in human tissue including blood, placenta and foetal tissue.

A new study led by Dr Trasande at the Department of Paediatrics, New York University, now links this common environmental chemical to childhood obesity. The researchers analysed blood and urine samples of 2 838 children aged between 9-16, and found that higher BPA levels in urine was significantly associated with obesity. There was a dose-dependent effect; children with the highest burden of BPA showed the highest rates of obesity [1]. The study controlled for variables including race/ethnicity, age, caregiver education, poverty relative to income ratio, sex, serum cotinine level, caloric intake, television watching, and urinary creatinine level.   

Bisphenol A is a known endocrine-disrupter that mimics the effects of oestrogen and modifies epigenetic mechanisms. As such, it has been previously associated with the obesity epidemic along with fertility and reproductive problems as well as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, liver enzyme abnormalities(see [2] Epigenetic Toxicity, SiS 41, [3] Environmental Obesogens Make Children and Adults Fat, SiS 54) and very recently, neurotoxicity in the developing brain [4]. A single-dose of BPA was sufficient to induce neurotoxicity in the developing mouse brain in cognitive regions that regulate learning and memory.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have shown adverse effects of BPA to human health, with 30 showing effects at so-called ‘safe’ levels claimed by regulatory bodies in Europe. The latest publication is yet another to prove that our regulatory bodies are not getting their ‘science’ right.  Eva Sirinithsingji

  1. Trasande L, Attina, TM, Blustein J. Concentration and Obesity Prevalence in Children and Adolescents. Journal of American Medical Association 2012, 308, 1113-1121. doi:10.1001/2012.jama.11461.       
  2. Ho MW. Epigenetic toxicology.Science in Society 41, 13-15, 2009.
  3. Cummins J. Environmental Obesogens Make Children and Adults Fat. Science in Society 54, 48-51, 2012
  4. Viberg H, Lee I. A single exposure to bisphenol A alters the levels of important neuroproteins in adult male and female mice. Neurotoxicology 2012, 33, 1390-5. doi: 10.1016/j.neuro.2012.09.002. Epub 2012 Sep 12.

Corruption Rife in Pharmaceutical Industry

A total of 26 companies including eight of the top 10 global pharmaceutical giants have been fined more than US$11 bn in the past three years for criminal offences, including withholding safety data and promoting drugs for use outside their licensed conditions [1]. Trust in the industry among doctors has fallen so low that they dismiss clinical trials funded by it, even if they were carried out with sufficient scientific rigour. This was revealed in two papers published in 20 September 2012 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine [2, 3].

The largest fine of $3bn was imposed on the UK-based company GlaxoSmith-Kline in July 2012 by the US courts. Nine other companies have had fines ranging from $420 m on Novartis to $2.3 bn on Pfizer since 2009. But the largest fine amounted to only 10.8 % of the company’s revenue, and no company executives have been charged. Leading lawyers are warning it is not enough to change the behaviour of industry, as they are merely treating it as a cost of drug development, and recommend that company executives should face criminal charges.   Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

  1. “Drug giants fines $11 bn for criminal wrongdoing, Fines are not enough to reform drug industry, warn lawyers”, Jeremy Laurance, The Independent, 20 September 2012, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/drug-giants-fined-11bn-for-criminal-wrongdoing-8157483.html
  2. Outterson K. Punishing healthcare fraud – is the GSK settlement sufficient? NEJM 2012, 367, 1082-5.
  3. Kesselheim AS et al. A randomized study of how physicians interpret research funding disclosures. NEJM 2012, 367, 1119-27.

Indian Supreme Court Recommends 10-Year Moratorium on GM Food Crops

A panel of eminent scientists set up by the Indian Supreme Court has recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of all genetically modified (GM) food crops, based on safety evaluation, including a review of the data on Bt cotton and Bt brinjal. The moratorium will apply to field trials of GM herbicide tolerant crops.

Biosafety tests prior to field trials will be mandatory, including sub-chronic toxicity tests in small animals; and any conflict of interest in the regulatory bodies should be removed.

The panel calls for re-examination of all biosafety data for applications in process, and for GMOs that have been approved for release. This should be done by qualified biosafety scientists experienced in evaluating biosafety dossiers for GMOs; if necessary, “by international experts”.  This was warranted “given the findings of the technical expert committee that there have been several cases of ignoring problematic aspects of the data in the safety dossiers.”

The panel further recommended long term and inter-generational studies in rodents to be added to the tests; and performed for all products whether already approved or yet to be approved.   Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

  1. “Panel of scientists recommends ten-year moratorium on field trials of all genetically modified crops”, Economic Times, 19 October 2012 http://bit.ly/Peh1EC

Article first published 30/10/12



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There are 2 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

kenneth jankowski Comment left 31st October 2012 16:04:08
Dumping 100 tons of Iron rich,whatever in to the ocean,every one does dump into the oceans,that is no solution,these people are ignorant that the more stuff rises sea levels increasing the water warming distribution and creating in effect many problems, and nobody takes anything out except treasure sites

Desiree L. Rover Comment left 31st October 2012 22:10:00
The oil spill sabotage disaster in the Gulf of Mexico turns out to be another algae adventure: many well known names turn out to have heavily invested in the algae that are able to grow in the Corexit-induced anaeobic environment, to be sold for a profit as a new fuel source! No matter how much sea life, and human victims this has taken...

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