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'Poisoned Profits': Another Look

June 22, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 25

I have long respected Bette Hileman's work and believe her critics' concerns about her review of the book "Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children" are misguided (C&EN, Jan. 5, page 34; March 30, page 4).

The recent discovery that diacetyl (2,3-butanedione) causes popcorn-workers' lung (bronchiolitis obliterans); the slowly growing concern about the patently obvious adverse health effects of nanoparticles; the recent announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency that it will (finally) order pesticide manufacturers, for the first time, to test 67 chemicals contained in their products to determine whether they disrupt the endocrine system; and the complexities and delay in dealing with the harmful effects of tobacco and asbestos suggest that "Poisoned Profits" should be taken seriously.

Dana L. Roth
Pasadena, Calif.

Letters to the editor concerning the review of the book "Poisoned Profits" provide an interesting contrast with a Government & Policy article on the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR), which appears in the same issue (page 27).

The book pretty roundly condemns the chemical industry for polluting the environment, particularly for causing adverse health effects in an enormous number of children.

The letters criticize the review and the book on a number of different grounds; namely, for advocating the use of the precautionary principle, for criticizing the power of judges to decide whether evidence is scientifically reliable, and for lacking references to the primary literature. The letter writers also dispute the authors' assertion that the incidence of childhood cancers has increased and criticize C&EN for failing to allow a representative of the chemical industry to respond to the book. All these criticisms deserve consideration.

However, the government article describes an investigation of ASTDR, which "has the important mission of preventing disease from exposure to toxic substances in hazardous waste sites." ASTDR is reported as being criticized for "its willingness to please industry by downplaying the public health effects of exposure to environmental contaminants."

Several specific examples of faulty health assessments produced by ASTDR are given. An additional criticism of the agency is the lack of peer review of its assessments.

ASTDR Director Howard Frumkin "responded that ASTDR's problems are due to a lack of resources and staff expertise that it needs to do its job." The article does not indicate any denial of the accuracy of the criticism of the agency's studies. Whether due to political pressure or inadequate staffing, it seems the public is potentially being put at risk.

"Poisoned Profits" may have its faults, but when one reads of inadequate monitoring of toxic substances by a government agency, it is hard to dismiss the concerns the book raises about environmental chemicals. President Obama asserts that he intends to have his Administration make decisions based on sound science. Remedying situations exemplified by the ASTDR case would be a place to start.

Jerome S. Levkov
Bronx, N.Y.




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