JUNE 2000 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 6


BEHIND THE LINES

 

The Miners' Dirty Data
The hardrock mining industry emitted more toxics in 1998 than any other industry in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's latest  toxic release inventory (TRI) report.

This is the first year that TRI data are available for seven industries, including the mining industry. The Community Right-to-Know Act requires polluters to report their air, water and land  toxic emissions to the EPA.

Mining eclipsed the chemical manufacturing industry as the nation's number one polluter. Kennecott Utah Copper (KUC), a subsidiary of multinational Rio Tinto, is the top polluting facility on EPA's 1998 list, the most recent year for which data is available. Kennecott reported emitting over 14 million pounds of lead, 8 million pounds of arsenic and 296 million pounds of copper.

Bill Williams, KUC's vice president and general manager of environmental and engineering services says that "for 1998, Kennecott's total 'release' of all toxic materials was approximately 439 million pounds, a dramatic increase over the 24.3 million pounds reported in 1987. That would make the company appear to be one of the nation's largest emitters, according to the new TRI requirements." Williams explains that more than 99 percent of the company's reported emissions went to controlled and permitted tailings impoundment or waste rock repositories. "Our concern is that, taken out of context, the TRI information will give a false impression -- the numbers do not reflect any increased danger to public health or the environment."

But environmentalists say the new data in fact reveals serious ecological hazards previously concealed. "Bingham Canyon is a major Superfund site in part because of the types of waste Kennecott has emitted," says Alan Septoff, reform campaign director at the Mineral Policy Center. "These wastes do represent a threat to public health or the site would not be on the Superfund list."

Neem Tree Freed
Chemical giant W.R. Grace and the U.S. Department of Agriculture found their patent for a process to extract oil from the neem tree, a tree native to India, pulled in May by the European Patent Office (EPO).

Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva and two other parties filed an objection to the patent, originally granted in 1995, claiming it amounted to "bio-piracy." The patent was also challenged by Green Party politicians.

The neem tree is widely grown in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and has been used for centuries to make medicines, insect repellants, cosmetics and contraceptives.

"Basmati, neem, pepper, bitter gourd, turmeric. ... Every aspect of the innovation embodied in our indigenous food and medicinal systems is now being pirated and patented," says Shiva. "The knowledge of the poor is being converted into the property of global corporations, creating a situation where the poor will have to pay for the seeds and medicines they have evolved and have used to meet their own needs for nutrition and health care."

Around 70 patents have been taken out on products from the neem tree alone. A few were filed by Rohm and Haas. The EPO withdrew the USDA/Grace patent after the manager of an Indian agricultural company proved he had been using an extract of neem tree oil for the same purpose as described in the patent years before it was filed.

A spokesperson for W.R. Grace, which originally filed the patent, says the company sold it to Thermo-Trilogy in 1996.  Neither Thermo-Trilogy nor the USDA could be reached for comment.

Costs of Corporate Science
Pharmaceutical companies are forcing researchers to suppress unfavorable results in numerous industry-sponsored drug trials, charged a scathing report in the May New England Journal of Medicine.

The author, Dr. Thomas Bodenheimer of the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine, cites six cases in which a sponsor actually halted publication or altered a report's content. One investigator, who found adverse reactions to a drug he was investigating, was told by the sponsor that it would never fund his research again.

"What is at issue is not whether researchers can be 'bought,' in the sense of a quid pro quo," the journal says in an editorial which accompanied Bodenheimer's report. "It is that close and remunerative collaboration with a company naturally creates goodwill on the part of researchers and the hope that the largesse will continue. This attitude can subtly influence scientific judgment in ways that may be difficult to discern."

Jeff Trewhitt of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) replies that "the article and the editorial overlook many safeguards built into the system, including the fact that the FDA reviews all study data. The FDA also carefully monitors new financial disclosure rules that came out a year and a half ago, to help avoid conflict of interest."

Within two weeks of the journal's publication, Harvard Medical School, widely acknowledged to have among the toughest conflict of interest rules for academic research, dropped a proposal to loosen the school's rules on researchers' ability to accept money for work with private industry. Dean Joseph Martin announced on May 25 that "our review showed great variability in conflict of interest policies nationwide," and called for a national dialogue on the issue. The next day, Health and Human Services  Secretary Donna Shalala ordered the National Institutes of Health to clarify the conflict of interest rules for university researchers who receive federal funds.

-- Charlie Cray