Environment

Post image for Encouraging News about Honeybee Health

A recently released study in Europe reports some good news about honeybee health, which should prompt public officials to reexamine a recent ban on some agricultural products. “It’s the first major study of pests and diseases that affect honeybees. A lot of it seems very encouraging,” honeybee researcher Tom Breeze, says in a Reuters news story.

The study examines honeybee populations in Europe after recent disappearances of entire bee colonies during the winter—a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder—which began in 2006 and has continued to be a problem with large losses reported after the winter of 2012-2013.

After hives suffered considerable losses in some places in Europe, the EU took a knee jerk response by banning a class of pesticides that makes food production more affordable. Ironically, the ban is supposed to ensure agricultural productivity by protecting these pollinators, but elimination of crop protection products may undermine food production, and it’s not likely to solve colony collapse disorder.

The chemicals, called neonicotinoids, are systemic products that can be applied to seeds, which eventually produce plants that systemically can fight off pests without the need for regular spraying. There are many reasons to doubt claims that neonicotinoids cause, or significantly contribute to, colony collapse disorder in any case. For more details, read Jon Entine’s superb Forbes.com series on the topic, as well as the many articles posted on SafeChemicalPolicy.org.

This latest study adds another wrinkle to the debate, indicating that the problem is not as widespread as people think, and that other factors are in play, such as cold weather. It underscores why we need to continue to study the issue rather than push rash and unhelpful bans.

Specifically, it examines bee mortality during the winter of 2012-2013 when many beekeepers reported missing colonies.

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Earlier today, Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) introduced a bill in the House that would establish federal standards for the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods and preempt a growing patchwork quilt of state action on GE labeling. The underlying motivation behind the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” (H.R. 4432) is praiseworthy, so the congressmen deserve an A for effort. However, the execution leaves more than a little to be desired.

This year, an estimated 25, or more, states will consider legislation or ballot initiatives that would mandate special labeling for many GE foods. As I’ve written before, those proposals are bad policy, make no sense scientifically, would needlessly raise the cost of producing and selling safe, nutritious and wholesome food, and are arguably unconstitutional on several grounds. Nor would they give consumers any actual knowledge about what’s “in their food” – the ostensible purpose of those state measures.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current policy requires foods to be labeled when a material difference has been made in their composition – and the labels must say what the actual change is, not simply what technique was used to make the change. So, in many ways, the FDA’s current policy does a far better job of telling consumers what’s in their food than a GE labeling mandate ever could.

By explicitly preempting state labeling laws and making clear that FDA policy on GE food labeling is the law of the land, H.R. 4432 would serve an extremely valuable function. And, because the packaged food items found in most grocery stores are the epitome of interstate commerce, ensuring that oversight of their safety and labeling be governed at the national level, rather than state-by-state, perfectly reflects the plan established by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Unfortunately, in order to attract support for this perfectly reasonable preemption measure, H.R. 4432 offers GE skeptics the enticement of increasing the FDA’s regulatory power. The proposal would grant FDA the authority to keep all new GE foods off the market until agency heads and the presidential administration they work for feel politically safe to grant approvals. Like most other “gatekeeper” regulatory agencies, the FDA would not even need to reject approval for products they don’t like. They would need only decline to make an approval or disapproval determination indefinitely.

Supporters point to a 180-day statutory deadline in the bill, which they argue will force the FDA to make timely approval decisions. But it’s worth noting that the FDA faces identical 180-day statutory deadlines for making approval/disapproval decisions on a host of other products, ranging from new pharmaceuticals and medical devices, to new veterinary drugs and new GE food animals. The agency disregards those deadlines on a routine basis because there is no triggering mechanism that automatically grants a producer the right to put safe and effective products on the market when a recalcitrant FDA refuses to act.

Want to know just how effective that 180-day deadline is? Just ask AquaBounty, the developers of a GE salmon that would help fish farmers deliver one of America’s favorite seafoods to market in a less expensive and more environmentally sustainable way. The FDA determined several years ago that the AquaBounty salmon was safe for consumers and the environment, but its approval has been held up by the Obama Administration simply because their supporters in the environmental movement object to the technology.

Reps. Pompeo and Butterfield do deserve credit for trying to resolve the growing problem of confusing, expensive, and scientifically meritless state labeling proposals for GE food. But, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” contains a serious flaw that will hopefully be corrected once the bill moves to committee.

Have a listen here.

Senior Fellow William Yeatman is skeptical of an EPA report claiming the Clean Air Act will have nearly $2 trillion in annual benefits by 2020.

Post image for Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk

Will these chemicals make me fat? That sounds like a weird question, but some consumers may actually have such worries, thanks to a constant barrage of news headlines suggesting that synthetic chemicals—an even some naturally occurring ones—are responsible for nearly every public health problem imaginable.

My website and CEI‘s recently released booklet, A Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk: Deciphering the ‘Science’ Behind Chemical Scares,” are tools designed reduce both the confusion and fear about chemicals. These tools provide consumers with some insights on the science and the politics behind the headlines.

For example, when confronted with a new claim, consumers can evaluate the underlying science by asking the following questions:

  • Is the association strong and statistically significant? Most of the studies in the news are merely statistical analyses that assess whether two factors occur at the same time. They don’t prove cause-and-effect relationships, which can only be inferred when the association is very strong. Accordingly, if researchers report a “weak association” or “suggestive” one, consumers should be suspicious of the claims.
  • Is the sample any good? Ideally, a randomly selected, large sample of a population provides the best chance of good data, but locating and developing such samples is difficult and expensive. Accordingly, researchers often work with less-than-ideal samples and existing databases that offer imperfect data, or both. Accordingly, a study with 1,000 subjects is more reliable than one with 100 subjects.
  • Are there serious confounding factors? The the possibility that a factor other than the two variables in question is responsible for the result is always present. While scientists attempt to apply “controls” in studies in an effort to negate the impact of such confounding factors, it does not always work. Consumers should be suspicious when there are other factors that more likely contributed to the result.
  • What is the potential for recall bias among study participants? Some studies require interviewing subjects about their personal behavior, sometimes expecting them to recall chemical exposures dating back decades. The subject’s failure to recall the facts accurately can so undermine the validity of the data that the final study results are completely off the mark. Be wary of studies that rely on this type of subjective data collection.
  • Does the language used by researchers suggest they are stretching the truth? Good researchers will strive to keep their biases in check, while still working toward finding something interesting. Yet others add “spin” to weak and meaningless “findings” to garner publication and media interest—and more funding. For example, researchers trying to prove that trace chemicals can make us fat have captured headlines by labeling these chemicals as “obesogens.” Their science may be weak and inconclusive, but their marketing it this way garners lots of media coverage.
  • Is the study relevant to humans? Tests on rodents involve administering massive amounts of chemicals to animals bred to be highly susceptible to cancer, and many form tumors as a result. Despite what headlines may suggest, such tests are not particularly relevant to risks associated with human exposures to trace levels of chemicals.
  • Is the exposure significant enough to matter? Many substances that are helpful or benign at low levels can sicken or kill at high levels. Accordingly, if the study involved high exposures, consumers should question whether it’s relevant to trace exposures through consumer products.
  • Is the study peer reviewed and published? Peer review is designed for an industry to self-regulate to reduce fraud and poor quality research. While it alone isn’t sufficient to assure a study is completely sound, consumers should be very skeptical of claims from studies that have not undergone any peer review.
  • Can other researchers reproduce the study results? Science is a long process of discovery that brings us closer to an answer as an issue is examined time and again. Part of that process involves repeating specific studies to see whether different scientists or teams of scientists can reproduce results of their peers’ or even their own research. If data is unavailable or other researchers have not been able to reproduce the result, the study is less compelling and may be discredited.

Find out more at SafeChemicalPolicy.org.

In their latest report on climate change, officials at the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) once again fail to address important developments in climate science that conflict with their narrative of fear. (See: Threat from global warming heightened in latest U.N. report)

Specifically, the IPCC press release ignores: (1) the growing divergence between observed global temperatures and the computer model projections on which scary climate impact assessments depend, (2) 20 recent studies indicating that climate sensitivity (an estimate of how much warming results from a given increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations) is about 40 percent less than the mean estimate of IPCC models, and (3) studies indicating that the three main climate doomsday scenarios — ocean circulation shutdown, rapid ice sheet disintegration, runaway warming from melting frozen methane deposits — are scientifically implausible (for references, see pp. 23-26 of CEI’s comment letter on the social cost of carbon).

Worse, as usual, IPCC officials say nary a word about risks of carbon mitigation policies. Those include:

  • The public health and welfare risks of carbon rationing schemes or taxes that raise business and energy costs.
  • The economic, fiscal, and energy security risks of anti-fracking climate policies that endanger the shale revolution.
  • The economic development risks of coal power plant bans and other policies that limit poor countries’ access to affordable energy.
  • The risks to international peace and stability of impeding developing country economic growth through carbon caps or taxes and carbon-tariff protectionism.
  • The risks to scientific integrity when government is both chief funder of climate research and chief beneficiary of a “consensus” supporting more regulation and higher taxes.
  • The risk to the democratic process when governments promote “consensus” climatology to justify bypassing legislatures and marginalizing opponents as “anti-science.”

sun-epaShocking as it might seem, some of us at CEI agree with environmentalists that reducing personal waste is a good idea. Voluntarily reducing our individual energy consumption and waste material can have a number of benefits, including saving your household money!

However, we also believe that the solutions to global environmental issues will not come from taxes or limitations on consumption, but rather from scientific advancement—whether it’s finding new ways to feed the world, methods of providing unlimited clean water, or by creating an energy source that is cheap, safe, unlimited, and “green.”

Researchers in California made a great leap toward creating a source of virtually unlimited energy this past year as they strive to harness the power of nuclear fusion—the same process that powers stars like our sun.

Scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) announced that in the last year “for the first time the energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel.” This is a significant step toward an energy source that would be plentiful and environmentally friendly.

Currently, nuclear energy is produced through fission, where the nucleus of an atom is split apart, releasing enormous amounts of energy. In nuclear fusion, the nuclei of atoms fuse together and create massive amounts of energy. While scientists can create fusion; for example, a hydrogen bomb which is also known as a fusion bomb uses the power of nuclear fission—so, a nuclear bomb—in order to achieve fusion. The holy grail in nuclear fusion research is to find a method of causing fusion that takes less energy than the fusion reaction creates, which they call “ignition.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, attempting to replicate the condition inside of a star has been no easy task for scientists.

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Post image for Beekeeper Speaks Out against Anti-Pesticide Campaigns

Anyone worried about honey bee survival should read the piece by Canadian beekeeper Lee Townsend in the Guelph Mercury newspaper. In recent years, beekeepers have seen some of their hives disappear without much explanation, a phenomenon referred to as”colony collapse disorder.”

Green activists have used this situation to randomly initiate bans on various pesticide products in the name of saving the bees, and their latest target is a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids. But we can’t help the bees if we continue to address the wrong causes. As Townsend points out, honey bees do just fine in many places where neonicotinoids are used, such as Canada. This suggests that neonicotinoids are the wrong target. Not only will bans divert our focus from finding the real cause or causes of colony collapse disorder, it will harm the ability of farmers to produce food.

Reading Townsend’s entire article on this topic is highly recommended, but here are some highlights that you shouldn’t miss:

No, the newest and most preventable threat comes from the mistaken alliance some beekeepers are forming with environmental activist groups who would turn farmers into enemies and drive a wedge between the farming and beekeeping communities that depend on each other for their livelihoods. …

Unfortunately, we [public officials and bee keepers] haven’t been able to work together to find out what is really happening, in part due to the insertion of special interest groups like the Sierra Club. There is no denying that neonics, like any other pesticide, can be toxic to honeybees if misapplied. But these special interest groups have scared beekeepers, the public, and the media into believing these products are far worse than actual scientific data indicates. …

In addition, these special interest groups fail to acknowledge there are colonies in Ontario and Quebec that are exposed to neonics on both corn and soy, with zero problems. And look at Western Canada. On the Prairies, 70 per cent of Canada’s colonies forage canola without issue. We are even exposed to corn and soy, and except for four beekeepers in Manitoba in 2013, there have been no issues there either.

Clearly there is need for further research, including the health status of these colonies prior to neonic exposure and clear records of the management practices of beekeepers. Most non-beekeepers don’t realize that just as farmers use pesticides to keep pests off their crops, beekeepers use pesticides inside the hive to control for infestations such as varroa mites. There is nothing wrong with this, if it is done properly. But beekeepers should keep this in mind when they link arms with activist groups with a larger anti-pesticide agenda.

Post image for Supreme Court Overwhelmingly Votes to Uphold Rights of Private Property Owners

The Supreme Court has decided an important property rights case in favor of the private property owners and against the claim of the federal government by an eight-to-one majority. Surprisingly, the Court’s liberal Justices, with the exception of Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissenting, signed Chief Justice John Roberts’s March 10 decision. In reversing the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court ruled, in Brandt Revocable Trust et al. v. United States, that a right of way granted to a railroad in 1908 did not revert to the federal government when the railroad abandoned the tracks in 2004.

The original right of way was over federal land, but 83 acres of that land were patented in 1976 in a land swap with the U. S. Forest Service. The Department of Justice argued that even though those 83 acres had been turned over to private owners, the right of way over that now-private land had reverted to the federal government when the railroad stopped running. Arguing for the Brandts, Steven J. Lechner of Mountain States Legal Foundation stated that the right of way was an easement granted for a particular use, and therefore had expired when its intended use, operation of a railroad, had ended.

The Chief Justice’s opinion relies heavily on the 1942 Supreme Court decision, Great Northern Railway Company v. United States (315 U. S. 262), in which the Court agreed with the federal government’s argument that the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 only conveyed easements. The majority opinion stated:

More than 70 years ago, the Government argued before this Court that a right of way granted under the 1875 Act was a simple easement. The Court was persuaded, and so ruled. Now the Government argues that such a right of way is tantamount to a limited fee with an implied reversionary interest. We decline to endorse such a stark change in position….

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Post image for JAMA’s Dangerous Hype: BPA and Cash Register Receipt Research Letter

This month’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) contains a “research letter” on a “study” conducted by researchers at Harvard University that says:

Human exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) has been associated with adverse health outcomes …we hypothesized that handling of thermal receipts significantly increases BPA exposure … In this pilot study,we observed an increase in urinary BPA concentrations after continuously handling receipts for 2 hours without gloves, but no significant increase when using gloves.

And given these “findings” the headlines declare:

Does this JAMA article really warrant such coverage? Not at all. It didn’t really find much of anything.

Basically, after two hours of constant handling of receipts that contain trace levels of BPA, the study subjects had slightly more trace levels of BPA in their urine. So what? Studies have shown that BPA passes out of the body quickly, before it can have any health effects.

The tiny increase of BPA and small study size make these “findings” pretty much meaningless. In the study, the mean BPA level measured in urine among 24 subjects increased from 1.8 ug/l to 5.8 ug/l before and after handling cash register receipts for two hours. That is, the increase was just 3 parts per billion! These levels are well below levels that regulators around the world have deemed safe. For example, the authors of the JAMA letter admit, “The peak level (5.8 g/L) was lower than that observed after canned soup consumption (20.8 g/L).”

The only reason, perhaps, JAMA publishes this “letter” is to attract news headlines. But lost in the resulting hype is the fact that BPA is used to protect public health. BPA resins that line food containers prevent development of dangerous pathogens that otherwise might produce deadly food-borne illnesses. Thanks to JAMA’s contribution to the anti-BPA hype, we may eventually see increased regulation of BPA and the loss of its life-saving and enhancing benefits.

Have a listen here.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a case that could determine whether or not the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. CEI Senior Fellow Marlo Lewis has written about the case for Forbes.