Thursday, May 7, 2015

Alzheimer's I: No It's NOT Just Because There's More Old People!

Since there has been so much fuss over the correlations in Swanson et al., I thought, why not take the dodgiest-looking of those correlations and look into it a little more closely.  For instance, what about their correlation between glyphosate/GMO increases and the growth of Alzheimer’s, suggesting that one could cause the other?  Surely that’s a no-brainer!  As commentators on pro-GMO blogs have already noted, Alzheimer’s is a disease of old age, older Americans are increasing, so naturally there’s an increase in Alzheimer’s—isn’t there?

But wait.  If a growing number of aged was sole or even main cause, then the increase in numbers of old folk should equal (or not much increase) the increase in the number of Alzheimer’s deaths.  If however there turned out to be a discrepancy, with the second figure substantially higher than the first, then some new factor or factors must be causing that increase.

I took age 65 as the cutoff point, partly because it’s a division found in census data but mainly because 98% of Alzheimer’s deaths occur after 65.  And the conclusions were stunning.  From 2000 to 2010, the over-65s increased by 13.1%.  But in the same period, deaths from Alzheimer’s increased by 39.1!   In other words, Alzheimer’s deaths increased three times as much as would have been predicted by a mere increase in the elderly population.

Clearly, some environmental factor that is both new and widely-distributed must be causing that increase.  But why should glyphosate be blamed?  There are several good reasons.

Of all toxic chemicals, glyphosate is the one whose use has increased most dramatically over the last quarter-century.  GMO advocates often state that the growing of GMO crops has reduced the quantity of pesticide sprayed.  That is a half-truth, and, as in every half-truth, the part that isn’t true is false.  “Pesticide” is a blanket term for herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.  It is true that insecticide use has been reduced.  But that is not true for herbicides.  You can make plants toxic to insects, but you can’t make them toxic to weeds.  All you can do is make them resistant to herbicides and then spray indiscriminately, crops along with the weeds.  And that process eventually produces herbicide-resistant weeds, so you have to spray more.  Not to mention the recently-introduced practice of spraying crops, GMOs and non-GMOs alike, with pesticide (mostly glyphosate) so as to dry them out immediately before harvest.  The lie that GMO crops have reduced pesticide use is repeated ad nauseam on GMO sites, but in fact any reduction in insecticide use is more than offset by the increase in herbicide use.  Here’s the truth:

“Herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogram (527 million pound) increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011, while Bt crops have reduced insecticide applications by 56 million kilograms (123 million pounds). Overall, pesticide use increased by an estimated 183 million kgs (404 million pounds), or about 7%.”  Glyphosate is by far the commonest herbicide because it was the first for which crop-resistance was originally engineered.  In the U.S. the use of glyphosate went from 27 million pounds in 1996 to 250 million pounds in 2009.

Of all toxic chemicals, glyphosate is perhaps the most multivectorial.   It can enter the human body via air, water, or food.  Since the vast majority of corn, soy and sugar-beet are now glyphosate-resistant, most processed food will carry residues of glyphosate, which--however infinitesimal each one may be—can accumulate over time in the human body.  It follows that there are very few people in the US who have not ingested glyphosate, a fact that makes epidemiological studies difficult, for the following reason.

The best way to perform an epidemiological study is by dividing populations into two groups: those that have been affected by the presumed pathogen and those that haven’t.  Tobacco was a classic case.  There were people who smoked and people who didn’t.  If tobacco caused lung cancer, you should find significantly more cases in the second group than in the first.  And you could refine the search—those groups that smoked more should have more cancers than those who smoked less, and the same with lifelong smokers versus those who gave it up.  That’s because smoking a cigarette is a conscious, deliberate choice.

But because there are so many vectors and because none of them involves a conscious decision (in the absence of labeling laws, we have no idea whether what we’re eating has been sprayed with glyphosate or not, whatever our attitude towards GMOs), it’s not possible to determine which sections of the population might be affected and which might not.  But what about areas where there’s been spraying against those where there hasn’t?   Surely there should be some difference between these, if glyphosate was involved.  

There are two good reasons why there shouldn’t be.  One, spraying isn’t just farmers in rural areas—it’s golf courses in suburbs, and municipalities in parks, and householders in their own yards.  Two, even if the rural-urban distinction could be made, there’s no reason to believe—contra the facts of tobacco-smoking—that greater exposure to glyphosate would correlate with higher incidence of Alzheimer’s.  Glyphosate is an endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC), and as I showed in ‘Unsafe at Any Dose?” EDCs can cause damage at doses as small as one part in a billion.  Moreover, an EDC harmful at these levels may be completely harmless at far heavier doses.  The reason’s simple: chemicals can harm you in more ways than one, at more levels than one, and the two different effects can occur at very different dose levels.

That’s why Swanson et al. could deal with the glyphosate/ Alzheimer’s correlation only by taking figures for the whole population.  Which is what leads pro-GMO folk to think that they can explain away the data by repeating their mantra “Correlation is not causation” and drawing phony graphs between rising diseases and any other factor that happens to have gone up in the last couple of decades.  Like this, for example:

“There’s a plethora of items whose prevalence or use has increased during the past 20 years: the number of electronics we own, the number of pedicures women get, the amount of coffee we drink, etc., and each would make an equally convincing graph…” 

So says Layla Katiraee, “a Senior Scientist in Product Development at a biotech company in California”.  A similar-looking graph, sure.  But “equally convincing”?  To “a Senior Scientist”?  I doubt if anyone with an IQ above room temperature would think that something meant to beautify your feet would be as likely a cause of death as something designed to kill living organisms. 

But how could glyphosate hurt us, when its makers assure us that “Glyphosate inhibits an enzyme that is essential to plant growth; this enzyme is not found in humans or other animals, contributing to the low risk to human health.”  That’s another GMO lie, and it’s already the subject of a California lawsuit.  More on this next week, when I’ll write about the only link still missing from our chain of causal evidence connecting glyphosate to Alzheimer’s: exactly what glyphosate can do to humans, and how it can do it.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why There's Nothing "Extraordinary" In Claims Of GMO/Pesticide harm

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

No shit, Sherlock?  This saying of Marcelo Truzzi has become a mantra for GMO advocates, to be used reflexively whenever anyone produces a substantive piece of empirical anti-GMO evidence.  And at first blush it sounds like a no-brainer.   OF COURSE extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!  And so far as I know, no-one has tried to deconstruct the adage.

Specifically, nobody seems to have pointed out the presupposition in the minor premise—that any claim of actual or potential damage from GMOs is of its very nature an extraordinary claim.  It is a presupposition devoid of any rational support.  Indeed ignoring this fact invokes another well-known adage: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The rationale for believing that claims of harm from GMOs are “extraordinary” lies in repeated statements by both government bodies and scientific organizations that GMOs are “safe”.  People apparently cannot remember that DDT, cigarette smoking, thalidomide, diethylstilbestrol and Agent Orange were all declared to be safe, often by the same organizations that have declared GMOs and the spraying of herbicide resistant plants to be safe--e.g. the FDA, which has consistently approved these, also approved thalidomide (1941) and diethylstilbestrol (1947).   The company that made Agent Orange, Monsanto, is the company that pioneered the use of glyphosate and that originally manufactured Agent Orange, whose supposedly less lethal component, 2, 4D, is now allowed to be used on pesticide-resistant crops produced by Dow AgroSciences.  And bear in mind that only two of the five cases noted (DDT, Agent Orange) involved substances that, like GMO pesticides, were actually intended to destroy living organisms.

I’ve had personal experiences with three of these cases, so I remember.  I smoked until I was forty, as a direct result of which I have severe emphysema, and several members of my wife’s family died from smoking-related conditions; they were all lifelong, heavy smokers.  I remember having a violent argument with an old friend, a well-known and highly respected geneticist, who swore by all that was holy that Agent Orange did no harm to humans; she, with all her credentials, was wrong, and I was right.  My beloved mother-in-law was killed in less than two years by doctors who, believing in the FDA’s assurance that diethylstilbestrol was appropriate for the treatment of menopausal symptoms, prescribed it and gave her cervical cancer.

If we look beyond the bland reassurances of industrial and government organizations, we see that the scientific work supposed to guarantee the safety of GMOs and pesticides is hopelessly out-of-date and unreliable.  The mantra on which such studies are based is, of course, “The dose makes the poison”, a doctrine originated by a sixteenth-century alchemist and astrologer.  How people who consider themselves scientists and regard their opponents as unscientific or actively anti-science can embrace a six-hundred-year old doctrine by a practitioner of two pseudo-sciences is a total mystery to me.  Do they also believe in Ptolemaic epicycles, the four humors, spontaneous generation?  That would be logical, since these equally formed part of cutting-edge sixteenth-century science.

The only reason for continuing to believe that “the dose makes the poison” is that this piece of pseudo-science supports the pro-GMO case and the real science doesn’t.  For what real scientists think, here’s the Endocrine Society’s take on it:

“Over the last two decades there has been burgeoning scientific evidence based on
field research in wildlife species, epidemiological data on humans, and laboratory
research with cell cultures and animal models that provides insights into
how EDCs cause biological changes, and how that may lead to disease. However,
endocrinologists now believe that a shift away from traditional toxicity
testing is needed. The prevailing dogma applied to chemical risk assessment is
that “the dose makes the poison.” These testing protocols are based on the idea
that there is always a simple, linear relationship between dose and toxicity, with
higher doses being more toxic, and lower doses less toxic. This strategy is used
to establish a dose below which a chemical is considered “safe,” and experiments
are conducted to determine that threshold for safety. Traditional testing involves
chemicals being tested one at a time on adult animals, and they are presumed
safe if they did not result in cancer or death.

“A paradigm shift away from this dogma is required in order to assess fully the
impact of EDCs and to protect human health. Like natural hormones, EDCs
exist in the body in combination due to prolonged or continual environmental
exposures. Also like natural hormones, EDCs have effects at extremely low doses
(typically in the part-per-trillion to part-per-billion range) to regulate bodily
functions. This concept is particularly important in considering that exposures
start in the womb and continue throughout the life cycle. A new type of testing is
needed in order to reflect that EDCs impact human health even at the low levels
encountered in everyday life."

And who or what is the Endocrine Society?  Some soft-on-science, anti-vaccine activist group, doubtless?  Well, as a matter of fact, no.

The Endocrine Society is a professional, international medical organization in the field of  endocrinology and metabolism founded in 1916 as The Association for the Study of Internal Secretions. The official name of the organization was changed to The Endocrine Society on January 1, 1952. It is a leading organization in the field and publishes four leading journals. It has more than 17,000 members from over 100 countries in medicine, molecular and cellular biology, biochemistry, physiology, genetics, immunology, education, industry and allied health. The Society's mission is: ‘to advance excellence in endocrinology and promote its essential and integrative role in scientific discovery, medical practice, and human health’.  It is said to be ‘the world's oldest, largest and most active organization devoted to research on hormones and the clinical practice of endocrinology.’”

So, to sum up: the GMO/pesticide nexus is just one of a series of cases within the last century where not only scientists but government agencies tasked with consumer protection have assured us certain products were safe until mounting death-tolls proved to everyone that they were wrong.  Now one of the world’s largest organizations in the relevant scientific fields has demonstrated that the grounds on which the “safety” of GMOs and their associated pesticide use are invalid.  Endocrine-disruptor doses “in the part-per-trillion to part-per-billion range” are unavoidable when “an estimated 85 percent of all food consumed in the United States now contains genetically modified organisms”.  For many pesticides used routinely on GMO crops, including what is by far the commonest, glyphosate, are endocrine disruptors.

Now can you please explain to me exactly how and why the claim that GMOs and pesticides may be damaging to our health is an extraordinary claim?

Because of course it is NOT an extraordinary claim.  In light of both the regulatory history of recent decades and the latest scientific findings in the most relevant field, it is, to the contrary, an extraordinarily ordinary claim.  And ordinary claims require only ordinary evidence—nothing more.  Like the kind of epidemiological evidence that blew the whistle on the smoking-lung cancer link.  Like the epidemiological evidence in Swanson et al., against which I am still waiting to hear a single substantive negative argument.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Betrayed By Your Favorite News Source--NPR LIED!



March 24, 2015 3:48 PM ET
By Dan Charles.

Glyphosate residues on food, however, are not of great concern. The chemical is typically used in the early stages of growing crops like soybeans, corn, and canola. Those crops, if they even reach human consumers at all, are heavily processed first, destroying any glyphosate residues.


Clarification of Pre-harvest uses of glyphosate: The advantages, best practices and residue monitoring.

In several north western European countries glyphosate can be applied before crop harvest for weed control, to enhance ripening on non-determinate crops to reduce crop losses, and to help manage determinate crops in wet seasons… Glyphosate is absorbed by the leaves and stems of plants and is translocated throughout the plant… Glyphosate is slower acting but tends to reduce pod shatter, while helping the crop stems dry out to help harvest... Pre-harvest use of glyphosate started in 1980 (O’Keeffe, 1980) and revolutionized perennial weed control.

FROM: Arregui, M. C., Lenardón, A., Sanchez, D., Maitre, M. I., Scotta, R., & Enrique, S. (2004). Monitoring glyphosate residues in transgenic glyphosateresistant soybean. Pest Management Science, 60(2), 163-166.

In soybean leaves and stems, glyphosate residues ranged from 1.9 to 4.4mgkg and from 0.1 to 1.8mgkg in grains.