JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1998 · VOLUME 19 · NUMBERS 1 & 2
B E H I N D T H E L I N E S
THE FIRST DOMINO has fallen. DNA Plant Technology Corporation (DNAP) pleaded guilty in January to one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to violate the Tobacco Seed Export law. The plea is the first criminal conviction in the U.S. Justice Department's continuing investigation of the tobacco industry.
Federal officials charged the company with conspiring to send tobacco seed to several foreign countries without a federal permit.
DNAP, based in Oakland, California, is a biotechnology company that develops and improves various plant varieties through genetic engineering and advanced breeding techniques.
Federal officials said that DNAP entered into a contract with Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. to grow a tobacco that had a nicotine level of 6 percent, which is about twice the normal nicotine level of tobacco.
Federal officials allege that one of the tobacco company's goals was to develop a reliable source of high-nicotine tobaccos that it could use to control and manipulate nicotine levels in its cigarettes.
In a statement, Brown & Williamson said that the purpose of the high-nicotine tobacco was "never to manipulate nicotine in order to raise nicotine levels in commercial cigarettes." It was developed, instead, the company said, in the hopes of lowering tar in cigarettes without lowering nicotine content.
THE NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE announced in January that it was strengthening its conflict of interest guidelines governing book reviews after printing a book review by a chemical industry toxicologist without revealing the reviewer's corporate affiliation.
On November 20, 1997, the Journal published a review of the book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks At Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber.
Living Downstream argues that toxic chemicals and pesticides are a primary cause of the cancer epidemic.
The reviewer, identified by the Journal only as Dr. Jerry Berke of Ashton, Massachusetts, rips Living Downstream as "biased work" filled with "oversights and simplifications."
In fact, Dr. Jerry Berke is head of toxicology at W.R. Grace, a major chemical corporation.
In an explanatory note in a January issue, Journal Book Review Editor Robert Schwartz said that "the Journal asks book reviewers to attest that they have no association that would present a conflict of interest."
"Dr. Berke listed himself as a `Private Consultant, Occupational and Environmental Medicine' and signed our form," Schwartz explained. "After his signature, he gave W.R. Grace as his address, but this escaped my attention, and Dr. Berke subsequently deleted that address in the galley proof of his book review. We regret our error in asking Dr. Berke to review the book."
To avoid ambiguity in the future, the new conflict of interest statement adds an additional sentence to the Journal's book review conflict rules: "I do not have any commercial interest in the main topic of the book under review, nor am I associated with a company or other organization with commercial interests in the main topic of the book."
The Berke conflict follows others that have plagued the Journal, which maintains one of the strongest conflict-of-interest policies among scientific journals. These include: a 1988 editorial about the health effects of asbestos by two doctors who were paid consultants to the industry; a 1996 editorial endorsing an anti-obesity drug by two consultants -- one a consultant of the manufacturer of the drug and the other a consultant to the marketer of the drug; and a recent editorial by Steven Safe, a Texas A&M professor who is funded by the Chemical Manufacturers Association, which argues that environmental estrogens do not cause breast cancer. In all cases, the conflicting affiliations were not disclosed.
TOXIC PEACHES, apples, pears and grapes are endangering children's lives. That is the conclusion of a January report, "Overexposed: Organophosphate Insecticides in Children's Food," issued by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, which found that one million children in the United States age 5 and under consume unsafe levels of a class of pesticides that can harm the developing brain and nervous system.
Peaches, apples, pears and grapes are the most common sources of exposure to unsafe levels of organophosphate pesticides, or OPs, for young children.
"Almost one-fourth of the times a young child eats a peach, that child is consuming an unsafe level of OP pesticides and about one apple in eight will expose a child to an unsafe dose," says EWG vice president for research Richard Wiles, the lead author of the study.
The pesticide industry reacted angrily to the new report. "They're trying to scare parents into thinking they're somehow poisoning their kids," says Jay Vroom, president of the American Crop Protection Association. "The food is safe and so are their kids."
The report urges that these five OP pesticides posing the highest risk to kids be banned immediately for all agricultural use. The report also recommends a ban on all home and other structural use of OP pesticides and a ban on all OP pesticides on commodities that end up in baby food. -- Russell Mokhiber