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January 19, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 3

  • An ugly misnomer
  • Not so hot
  • Countering counterfeiting
  • Selling a cure

An ugly misnomer

Jean-François Tremblay's article on Taiwan's banning thin plastic bags is generally accurate and balanced (C&EN, Oct. 27, 2003, page 28). Due to its political isolation, Taiwan is usually ignored unless something bad happens. Therefore, it is refreshing to read about Taiwan's leadership role in curbing plastic bag usage.

However, the statement that Taiwan is "nicknamed a 'toxic island' because of its heavy pollution" is unwarranted--not only because Taiwan has no such nickname, but also because it is an unfair description. When the Dutch East India Co. captain and mapmaker Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1562–1611) sailed past Taiwan, he christened the island "Ilha Formosa" (that's Portuguese, the lingua franca of the time, for "beautiful island"), no doubt taken by the grandeur of verdure the subtropical island presented. Today, 58.4% (2002 data) of the island is forested area, one of the highest among all nations. It is all the more remarkable when Taiwan's population density, also among the highest in the world, is taken into account.

The term toxic island was coined by political dissidents decades ago to inveigh against the serious pollutions caused by rampant industrialization when Taiwan was still under one-party dictatorship. It served as a warning about the future outcome if the environmental degradation was allowed to continue unabated.

In the interim, many good things have happened. Taiwan has become a genuine democracy. Tighter regulations and heightened awareness made the life of the reckless polluters increasingly difficult, so they moved their operations to neighboring countries like China. With democracy also comes openness. Many nongovernmental groups such as the Taiwanese Environmental Action Network (TEAN) have been formed to ensure the deleterious practices of the past will never return. There are some distances to go to remedy the damages. TEAN is now focusing on Taiwan's thriving electronics industry and has raised several issues like capacity overload of incinerators and deficiencies in sludge farms. But it and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also report that the wastewater treatment technology at several of the semiconductor plants they visited is in some ways more advanced than those at companies in Silicon Valley.

Surely, Taiwan still faces the pollution problems that also plague other nations. There are efforts at mitigation through legislation, technology, and activism. Day by day, the island nation is working hard toward restoring its Ilha Formosa image. And there are many promising signs that it is getting there.

Charng-Ming Liu
Lexington, Mass.

Not so hot

I greatly enjoyed reading the "What's That Stuff?" by Rick Mullin titled "Red-Hot Chili Peppers" (C&EN, Nov. 3, 2003, page 41). The article did, however, leave out a few interesting tidbits that might be of interest to C&EN readers.

As the article points out, the hot-tasting ingredient of chili peppers is capsaicin (a substituted vanillin). Capsaicin works by exciting so-called nociceptors, specifically a heat-activated ion channel of the pain pathway [Nature, 389, 816 (1997)]. These receptors are normally excited by temperatures exceeding 43 °C, and this is why capsaicin-containing foods taste "hot." The action of capsaicin on these receptors appears to be quite specific to mammals, and mice lacking them display an amazing tolerance toward capsaicin [Science, 288, 306 (2003)].

Thus, birds will happily eat even the hottest chili peppers. Indeed, some varieties are popularly known as "bird peppers" because of the voracity with which birds consume them. These include what is (arguably) the very hottest pepper of all--hotter even than the dreaded habañero--wild tepín (Capsicum annuum v. aviculare) peppers, which are only one-quarter-inch across and are harvested from wild stands in the dry desert mountains of northern Mexico. The consumption of chili peppers by birds is a distinct advantage to the pepper plant, as this provides a valuable mechanism for seed dispersal [Nature, 412, 403 (2001)]. On the other hand, consumption by mammals is a big disadvantage, because the seeds do not survive passage through the more aggressive mammalian digestive system (ibid).

Insects are apparently not bothered by capsaicin because chili peppers are hosts to the same insect pests as their close relatives, the sweet peppers (calling into question the value of organic insecticides based on chili peppers). Thus, the hotness of "red-hot chili peppers" is very likely an evolutionary adaptation to prevent mammals from ingesting the fruit.

Graham N. George
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Countering counterfeiting

Bette Hileman's article titled "Counterfeit Drugs" is timely and highly important (C&EN, Nov. 10, 2003, page 36). To be sure, it is a disgrace that U.S. companies entrusted with our drug supplies would stoop to the antics revealed by you. Hopefully, the Food & Drug Administration will promptly get on top of this unacceptable method of operation.

In my opinion, we are facing a much more serious situation with respect to the prescription drugs that Congress is moving to allow us to buy from 25 foreign countries, including, I believe, India and Pakistan. To my complete dismay, both Republican and Democratic members of Congress are backing such a bill. One need only look at the adulteration problems we currently face with some herbal and prescription drug products from various foreign countries to have insight into what we can expect if prescription drugs can be purchased from unregulated companies around the world.

It seems to me that the most logical conclusion regarding the action of our Congress is that its objective is to garner votes because they will be seen as "helping to reduce" the cost of expensive medications. Why not simply direct FDA to reduce its standards to those of the most poorly regulated of the 25 countries on their list? That would drop the prices of drugs in the U.S., and, since the quality of the foreign drugs does not seem to bother Congress, its members can argue that there will be no safety problem.

Can there be any doubt about the reaction of the U.S. public to such an unacceptable move? This message must continually be preached to the general public, and your article is to be applauded.

Charles G. Smith
Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

Selling a cure

I am writing in reference to William Schulz's Insights article "A Prescription To Treat Drug Abuse," which takes the pharmaceutical industry to task for their lack of interest in the substance abuse area (C&EN, Sept. 15, 2003, page 16). Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, expresses her frustration that we have learned so much recently about the neurochemistry of addiction, but the information is not being used to develop new treatments. It is right to feel anger and frustration, but this article directs it at the wrong group.

Several drugs have demonstrated potential for alleviating the scourges of alcohol and substance abuse. Yet naltrexone (ReVia for alcohol problems or Trexan for narcotic problems) remains the only drug approved in the past 20 years. Clearly, a drug such as amperozide that in animal models can both reduce the consumption of alcohol [Pharmacol. Biochem. Behav., 45, 741(1993)] and the reward of cocaine [Pharmaceut. Sci., 1, 471 (1995)] would be a great aid to the substance abuse counselor. Yet this drug and others like it will never reach the market.

The problem resides with the delivery of treatment. Naltrexone was demonstrated to be safe and effective [Arch. Gen. Psychiat., 49, 876 and 881 (1992)]. FDA rapidly approved the drug for use in alcoholism, and DuPont invested millions of dollars promoting the drug. Nobody would write a prescription. After two years of heavy promotion and no sales, DuPont gave up and no longer actively promotes the drug. A sales representative for DuPont told me that he had never experienced anything like the utter failure of that drug. This failure did not go unnoticed by the rest of the pharmaceutical industry. Why invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the development of a drug when no one will write a prescription for its use?

Nonmedically trained personnel deliver alcohol and substance abuse treatment in this country. Many are themselves members of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous and use these programs as the mainstay of intervention and treatment. The idea of using a drug to assist sobriety is anathema to this group. Many treatment sites do not have a licensed physician on-site, and so there is no one to write a prescription to begin with.

It is sad. There are several good drugs out there and more that could be developed. However, if there is no market, no major company will invest the money to develop one of these drugs. Volkow would spend her money most wisely on the education of providers instead of drug development. Once a market is created, then the industry will invest in the development of drugs.

Brian A. McMillen
Greenville, N.C.


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