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December 22, 2008

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Integrity in Science Watch

Week of 12/22/2008

Mutagenic Sweetener Could Be in Soda Soon

In a midnight gift to the soda pop industry, the Food and Drug Administration last week granted rebaudioside A, a sweetener extracted from the herb Stevia, "generally recognized as safe" or GRAS status. The ruling ignored testimony by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and two University of California, Los Angeles toxicologists that rebaudioside A is inadequately tested in terms of cancer and caused mutations in some laboratory tests. CSPI called on Congress and the Obama Administration to strengthen the law that allows companies to simply declare on their own that new additives are "generally recognized as safe."

Interior: No Impact from Exploring Fla. Coast for Oil

The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) last week began paving the way for oil and gas drilling off the east and Gulf coasts of Florida by issuing environmental assessments claiming seismic exploration will have no environmental impact, even though both assessments showed the areas are home to turtles, whales and other species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The scientific analyses – called Findings of No Significant Impact or FONSIs – claim that exploratory ships can mitigate any potential harm to marine mammals by using shipboard “protected species observers” to monitor for sightings. Visual monitoring, though, typically is not effective during periods of bad weather or at night, and even with good visibility, is unable to detect marine mammals when they are below the surface or beyond visual range, the National Marine Fisheries Service has said.

The incoming Obama administration may want to scrutinize these latest FONSIs in the wake of a recent court ruling that found MMS had violated environmental laws by leasing an area 10 miles off the north coast of Alaska to Shell Oil. In that case, the agency also said that the oil-drilling project would have no significant environmental impact. But in a suit filed by the Alaska Wilderness League and other environmental groups, a federal appeals court ruled that a “number of agency experts expressed concern about the potentially significant impacts the drilling would have on bowhead whales, polar bears, and the Inupiat subsistence harvest.” The court ordered MMS to redraft its environmental assessment for the Alaska project. Late last week, MMS expanded its efforts to increase oil and natural gas drilling when it issueda 2,314 page Environmental Impact Statement that laid the groundwork for leasing an additional 73,387,333 acres in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Navy Plans Weapons Training off Florida Coast

Despite opposition from environmental agencies, the Navy wants permission to build a weapons-testing complex off the east coast of Florida that could harm marine mammals, according to a notice published in the Federal Register. The Navy program will train soldiers to use air-to-surface weapons. The Navy requested the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) permission to “take” up to two dolphins per year as a result of the training exercises. The Environmental Protection Agency criticized the plans because several endangered whale species use the region. It also fears hazardous waste will be left in the area, and possibly harm sea turtles. The Marine Mammal Commission, an independent agency created by Congress under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, also criticized the proposal, saying the Navy’s approach “fails to meet the standards of” the law. The Commission questioned the scientific validity of the Navy’s arguments and requested that the Navy conduct more thorough review of potential biological impacts in coordination with NMFS.

Species Decisions Product of Meddling Says OIG

Political interference by former Interior Department official Julie MacDonald inappropriately influenced 15 endangered species decisions, according to the latest report by the department’s inspector general. The Endangered Species Act and the Conflict between Science and Policy also named Bush administration appointees Craig Manson, Randal Bowman, and Thomas Graf as having enabled MacDonald’s misconduct. The Center for Biological Diversity challenged three of the decisions in a lawsuit filed in November 2007. A previous OIG report forced the agency to reconsider or withdraw seven decisions influenced by MacDonald.

Graf, an Interior Department attorney, was also recently exposed in documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request as having allowed industry lawyers to manipulate a study analyzing oil drilling in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility reported that Graf worked with the Canadian firm Lexam to alter the environmental assessment of drilling exploratory wells in the refuge to exclude the impact of long-term development. He also allowed the Lexam attorney to line-edit an internal draft and discussed circumventing public comment on the study. Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service used the assessment to rule that drilling in Baca would not significantly impact its 92,500 acres, which are adjacent to Grand Sand Dunes National Park and protect the largest concentration of wetlands in the Southwest. Conservation groups have asked a federal court to block drilling pending a more thorough scientific assessment.

Sponsors Sit On Cell Phone Study Results

An international coalition of environmental scientists is charging that the sponsors of a 13-country, industry-funded study of the health effects of cell phone use are deliberately withholding the results. The Interphone study, funded in part by the Mobile Manufacturers' Forum and GSM Association, is the largest study to date of the potential contribution of cell phone use to a number of cancers. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, which is coordinating the study, initially said that the final results would be released in 2006. Preliminary results from several of the participating countries have suggested there is a link between cell phone use longer than 10 years and malignant tumors on the side of the head on which the phone is held.

Scientists associated with the BioInitiative Working Group claim that there are “serious public health concerns ... over exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) from powerlines and cell phones” and have urged investigators in countries that have not yet released their Interphone results to do so without delay. "There is a lot of data that's been obtained, but not all of it, and the people sitting on it are being obstructionists for a particular reason," charged Martin Blank, a professor of cellular biophysics at New York’s Columbia University and a member of the group that signed the letter.

EPA Eases Hazardous Waste Incineration Rule

As part of its midnight regulations push, the Environmental Protection Agency exempted hazardous fuel wastes from the special incineration requirements in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The so-called comparable fuels exclusion will allow companies to send hazardous wastes that are currently burned in specially-designed incinerators to regular industrial boilers or municipal incinerators. Last year the EPA allowed a scientist associated with ExxonMobil, which would benefit from the eased disposal requirements, to peer review the proposed rule.

Odds and Ends

Citing “sound policy considerations,” EPA administrator Stephen Johnson issued a memo that states carbon dioxide is not a pollutant to be regulated when approving power plants, the New York Times reported last week. “The current concerns over global climate change should not drive EPA into adopting an unworkable policy of requiring emission controls” in these cases, Johnson said. ... The Department of Agriculture proposed new rules for managing misconduct in extramural research sponsored by its various agencies. The rule would require agencies managing extramural grantees to “foster integrity in research activities, respond to allegations of research misconduct, and remedy findings of research misconduct.”... A Food and Drug Administration study found that the printed consumer medication sheets - commonly called package inserts - that are provided with new prescriptions by retail pharmacies do not always provide easy-to-read, understandable information about the use and risks of medications.

Cheers and Jeers

  • Cheer: Cheer to the Philadelphia Inquirer for its series, “Smoke and Mirrors: The Subversion of the EPA,” which highlighted how under administrator Stephen L. Johnson, “the EPA created pro-industry regulations later thrown out by the courts. It promoted a flawed voluntary program to fight climate change. (And) it bypassed air pollution recommendations from its own scientists to satisfy the White House.”
  • Jeer: to Gina Kolata of the New York Times for failing to disclose that Douglas Rex, a professor of medicine at Indiana University, received funding from Given Imaging. Rex suggested in the article that improper bowel cleansing may be responsible for colonoscopy tests missing some pre-cancerous colon polyps. Given Imaging manufactures endoscopes.