As a basketball fan who grew up rooting for the Knicks of Willis Reed, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, and soon-to-be Senator Bill Bradley, it’s been fun witnessing the emergence of Jeremy Lin. Coming out of nowhere to star in the NBA is a rare accomplishment, but sadly there are emerging threats to our health all too often. Following are some lesser known but potentially soon-to-be starring players in the pantheon of environmental health risks
- Nanotechnology: Nanotech poses risks to workers, communities and the environment, and also perhaps most alarmingly to consumers who may be ingesting engineered nanoparticles in food. Nanoparticles can have different (often unexpected and potentially harmful) properties than the same materials at larger scales, and they can be more reactive and more mobile in the body. Two studies in the news just this week made the specter of nano-food danger even more chilling: a lab study showed that absorption of nutrients was inhibited when chickens were fed certain nanoparticles that were expected to be non-toxic; three days later, a new study showed that other nanoparticles are already ubiquitous in our food.
- Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: Many people have heard about bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical once widely found in plastics used for baby bottles, sippy cups, teethers, and many other products. BPA can disrupt the body’s natural hormones, potentially causing infertility, cancer, and other health problems. Because of the health controversy, many producers have eliminated BPA from children’s products – but a study last year showed that they may be using similar endocrine-disrupting chemicals in place of BPA. This is a toxic shell game that puts all of our children at risk.
- Cadmium: For decades we’ve known about the hazards, especially to children, from lead poisoning. Most people know about lead in paint, but when CEH found high levels of lead in dozens of children’s products (and helped create the first-ever federal law banning lead in all products for kids), it came as a surprise to many. Now we have a new toxic metal of concern: cadmium. Two years ago, reports began to surface suggesting that some makers of children’s jewelry were eliminating lead but substituting cadmium. Now, a report this month asked if cadmium is “the new lead,” as a recent study showed children with high levels of the metal are three times more likely to have learning disabilities.
- GMO animals and cloned food: The first genetically manipulated (GMO) animal for food consumption may soon be sold unlabeled in supermarket stores. The FDA is considering an application for selling GMO salmon, despite widespread consumer opposition and concerns by scientists, wild salmon fishing communities, environmentalists, and health advocates. Meanwhile, news reports repeatedly crop up about the possibility that stores are already unknowingly selling food from cloned animals and their offspring – despite concerns about food safety, animal cruelty, and consumers’ right to know what is in our food.
- Synthetic biology: Sometimes called “extreme genetic engineering” or GMOs “on steroids,” synthetic biologists hope to create artificial life forms in order to produce new products, including pharmaceuticals, biofuels, and many others. The Lawrence Berkeley Labs recently announced it will open a second campus in Richmond, CA, while downplaying the prominent role that synbio research will have there. Synbio poses unprecedented health threats to workers and the public. As a recent report questioning safety at the new lab noted, the technology could change harmless microbes into deadly pathogens, or make already dangerous ones more infectious, more virulent, and/or resistant to treatment. Synthetic microorganisms, if released into the environment, could proliferate out of control and cause massive damage and/or threaten public health. Despite the massive risks, there are virtually no regulations specific to protect the public from synthetic biology. As a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist recently told the New York Times, “Nothing currently written into law, treaties or scientific codes of ethical behavior anticipated the synthetic biology revolution.”
I think I’ll go back to watching basketball now (better Linsanity than this insanity!).