The following transcript is protected under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY
Nelson, B.C. Canada
October 12, 2006
Title: Chemical Food I
Producer/Host - Jon Steinman
Transcript - Pat Yama
Jon Steinman: And welcome to another broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. My name's Jon Steinman. This weekly radio program and podcast is heard on radio stations across Canada and is one that while critical of the food we grow and the food we buy, is ultimately a program that celebrates food. As with anything any of us are concerned about whether it be our jobs, our families, our friends, these concerns can only arise from the value that we place upon these components of our lives.
While food is of course a major component of our lives. But what certainly makes each of us so unique is how the value each place on food can be drastically different from one another. And even those of us who never quite think about what we're putting into our bodies, we are still nevertheless, valuing food as those moments of the day are in the end, being put aside for eating. So regardless of how food is a part of our lives, we all show concern for those special moments of eating.
Today's broadcast is perhaps one of the most startling reasons why Canadians, North Americans, and really every person on this planet should be deeply concerned for this integral part of our lives - food. And the title of today's broadcast is "Chemical Food". As many of us use chemicals on a daily basis whether they be dish soaps, shampoos, window cleaners or deodorant, there are many chemicals we don't recognize located in the plastic casing of our televisions, on the clothes we wear, and in the food we eat.
This will be the first of an ongoing series that will explore this very topic of chemical food. And joining me for today's broadcast will be Sarah Winterton of Environmental Defence located in Toronto and Kathryn Knowles of the European Ramazzini Foundation located in Bologna, Italy.
And so, as is done on each broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner, let's celebrate food by showing concern for it.
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JS: One of the more frequent questions I receive regarding this program, Deconstructing Dinner, is asking how much time is spent researching each show. And of the course the answer varies from show to show but for this particular broadcast there is little doubt that researching chemicals in food could very well be an ongoing and never-ending process that really could become the basis for an entire radio program in itself. And so in narrowing down how this broadcast titled "Chemical Food" could best illustrate the political and economical process of how chemicals end up in the food supply, we will explore one of the most controversial chemicals ever granted approval as a food additive. And that of course, is aspartame.
While aspartame, otherwise known as NutraSweet or Equal pops in and out of the media radar from time-to-time, the most recent exposure of this additive has been the result of the published findings of the most comprehensive study ever conducted on this chemical. A chemical that makes it way into thousands of products around the world. The uncertainty surrounding aspartame is a rather explicit example of how many potentially dangerous ingredients and processes end up as part of the food that is most available to humans on this planet. And we will hear some very powerful comments from a spokesperson for this most recent study but that will be later on today's broadcast.
And first we will hear from Sarah Winterton of the Toronto-based group, Environmental Defence. The not-for-profit organization strives to protect the environment and human health and as they state in their mission, "they research, they educate, they go to court when they have to, all in order to ensure clean air, safe food, and thriving ecosystems nationwide."
The group has received a notable amount of attention since their recent study titled "Toxic Nation." A study that analyzed the level of chemicals inside the body of 11 Canadians - one of those Canadians being a well-known artist and naturalist Robert Bateman. As a follow-up to the Toxic Nation study, Environmental Defence released yet another report titled "Polluted Children" which released in June of this year 2006, took a close look at the chemical composition of individual families across the country. And as the findings indicate, children are much more vulnerable to the chemicals that surround us on a daily basis. While food additives like aspartame were not part of the Toxic Nation study, the results of North America's obsession with using vast quantities of chemical pesticides on our food is one that was assessed.
Around the world, Canada has always been viewed as a leader in natural preservation but this visually beautiful country of ours is one of the planet's biggest polluters. And while some countries step up to tackle toxic pollution, Canada is far behind. As Sarah Winterton, the Programme Director of Environmental Defence points out, the opportunity exists now to bring the regulation of toxic chemicals up to international standards. And a key deadline has just recently passed on September 14th. And Sarah explains what this deadline means for Canadians and those around the world who are exposed to our polluted country.
Sarah Winterton: Well, it is significant to us because we hope it's the beginning of real action on controlling pollution emissions in Canada. September 14th was the day that the federal government was suppose to complete the review of the 23,000 chemicals that are currently in use in Canada, and make a list of the most hazardous substances. So, they announced that they have completed the list - it took them I think around seven years. At this point we don't know what chemicals are on it but we're expecting some action to be announced under the Green Plan 2 that the Harper government has been promoting.
JS: As it may come as a surprise to many Canadians that only now does our federal government seem to be taking steps to manage the thousands of chemicals used in this country, Sarah describes how these chemicals were managed up until now.
SW: Well, they weren't managed effectively at all. The 23,000 chemicals have been on this list for quite a number of years and in our view, they've never been subject to adequate safety testing. They were put on the list by the federal government because there was some concern, there are still questions that haven't been answered about their toxicity, their affect on human health, how they're being emitted into the environment. So what we're hoping now is that we'll start to see some real action on them - quick action on some of the most hazardous substances. We've had some recent action on a class of chemicals called Perfluorinated Compounds and we're hoping that a couple of them have made it onto the toxic substances list so that therefore, this will precipitate some action. It all sounds very process-oriented and it is. We've seen other jurisdictions like Europe where they have started to act on these chemicals so they're ahead of us and we're at the point of playing catch-up here in Canada.
JS: One of the troubling findings of the research that went into producing this broadcast with Deconstructing Dinner was discovering the ease at which industry convinces Federal Health authorities to approve potentially dangerous chemicals from entering into the environment and into our food. And while an approval and regulatory process does certainly exist for such products. It is the moments when products get removed from the market that we can then see how inadequate our government has been in protecting the health of Canadians.
SW: Industry will say that they've done adequate safety testing. A lot of questions are left out or have been left out. And they relate to questions such as chronic toxicity, how early endocrine disruption, developmental neural toxicity, not enough questions have ever been asked of these toxic chemicals. The risk assessment for exposure, so in order to set so-called safety limits on them have largely been based on an adult, there's not even an adult male exposure. So leaving out a whole section of the population like kids, people who may be more vulnerable. Most of the chemicals that we've had to take off the market because they've shown up as having terrible affects, like DDT, all of those have happened once the problem has started to arise out their either in wildlife or in people. So it's always been after the fact. We're not looking at rigorous testing that has shown up any potential problems in advance.
JS: While DDT provides an example of how chemicals are only removed from the market when a noticeable danger is then discovered, this particular chemical has yet again made headlines in recent weeks. First jumping back to post World War II era, DDT was most recognized for the aggressive marketing campaign that used the slogan, "DDT is good for me". But it was this chemical pesticide that fueled Rachel Carson's 1962 book, "Silent Spring" which alleged that DDT caused cancer and harm to bird reproduction. It was this book that is said to have spawned the modern environmental movement and DDT was subsequently banned for agricultural use in many countries.
But what is now being billed as yet another example of corruption among the chemical industry in the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the World Health Organization announced on September 15th a new approach to fighting malaria. And at the centre of the approach is DDT. And you can stay updated to this controversial news by visiting the Pesticide Action Networks North American website, panna.org. But here in Canada the federal approach to the many chemicals used in our food and other industrial and commercial applications is also under pressure. And Sarah Winterton takes a look at Environmental Defence's first study released in 2005 titled, "Toxic Nation". A study that looked at the chemical composition of individual Canadians.
SW: Well we've had a couple of ways to look at this issue and it's been quite interesting because we initially started to look at what kinds of things are showing up in food by getting a hold of Health Canada's Total Diet Study program results. And this is a study they have been conducting at sort of infrequent intervals on Canadian food that's just bought generally in the grocery store and cooked, you know as you would cook it. So they've gone out, bought food, cooked it up like any Canadian family would and then tested it. So we through Freedom of Information got the results of those studies. The most recent one that we know of conducted from 1992 to 1996, so we're able to get a good glimpse of what kind of substances are showing up in the Canadian diet. Then, consequently, we've done some blood and urine testing on Canadians to see what kinds of toxic chemicals are showing up in us. So we've had the kind of the preview and then the after-view of the issue. And I have to emphasize this but they are glimpses of what is going on out there.
When we looked at the first set of data on what can be found in food, we found a wide range of things. You know, heavy metals, pesticides. Within the heavy metals we've got lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury showing up. Lots of different pesticides are showing up in food. And this happens because, you know, we use pesticides on food; we use them when the crops are growing; we put them on food, we want to prevent food from going bad while being shipped. So plants, they can take up toxic chemicals from the soil, from the water, from the air. So there's deliberate application of chemicals to our food products and then just inadvertent uptake of chemicals because they are present out there in the environment.
JS: As has been the approach by Canadian government when assessing the risks of chemicals used in this country, these risks have only been examined on a chemical-by-chemical basis. And as Sarah points out, that leaves out the risks of being exposed to multiple chemicals every day.
SW: As part of the whole food industry, the whole process of us getting food from fields to table and then into us, there's chemical contact that goes on through food preparation and then through storage. So some of the chemicals that we are really concerned about belong in the perfluorinated compound category. And this is the chemical that's found in non-stick cookware. It's found also in food wrap fast food packaging. So for example, if you are cooking up something in your non-stick pan, the chemical can migrate into the food. If you're eating microwave popcorn then that same chemical is applied to the inside of the microwave popcorn bag and then it can migrate into, possible it can migrate into popcorn.
Another example would be a chemical called Bisphenol A which is found in the plastic wraps, plastic drinking bottles, and in the insides of cans in that little plastic liner of cans. And this is a chemical that can also migrate into food. And these chemicals are associated with health affects like cancer, neurodevelopmental disorders, endocrine disruption. So they're linked with serious health effects.
But what we're talking about, in the data that we have found through our studies, we're not talking about acute exposures - so something that is going to affect you immediately. We're talking about small amounts of toxic chemicals from many different sources every day of your life. We're concerned with the total exposure - so all the accumulative exposure from many different sources. The safety data that is put out they're on chemicals, refers more to exposure to one single chemical. So for example, Health Canada will set an exposure limit for a chemical that's based on you only being in contact with that chemical. It doesn't consider the fact, that well, through the course of your day and night, you're in contact with many different chemicals from many different sources. So it's accumulative impact that we're concerned about, day after day after day after day.
JS: Following up Environmental Defence's first report, they released yet another Toxic Nature study in 2006 titled, "Polluted Children". Where they instead of studying individual Canadians, looked at families across the country and how toxic each family was. One of the most startling statistics and one where the future outcome can only be predicted is that children have been found to have higher levels of toxins in their bodies than adults. While adults have been exposed to chemicals over a longer period of time, how could children be more toxic?
SW: In the study that we conducted we tested 13 people - so six adults and seven children. The adults were all parents of the children. So we tested them for 68 chemicals and in some cases for particular chemicals we found children have higher levels. And that was specifically for the chemical Perfluorinated Compound that I mentioned earlier - the non-stick chemicals, flame retardants, and then a chemical known as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons which are the result of incomplete burning of coal, gas, oil, garbage, that kind of thing.
Kids have a special vulnerability to toxic chemicals and this relates to their growth rate and their exposure to their per kilogram of body weight. So for example, if you have an apple and the adult eats the apple they'll get whatever, you know if there are toxins in the apple they'll ingest those toxins. Then a kid eats the same apple and they're getting the same amount of toxins from the apple but because they have a lower body weight they're getting a relatively higher exposure to the toxin. Because the allowable exposure that is set by Health Canada is based on a per kilogram per body weight ratio. So kids are smaller, their relative exposure is greater to a toxic chemical.
There are other factors that make kids more vulnerable. For example, in utero, what crosses the placenta goes directly into the developing child. And they found through studies conducted in the United States by an organization called Environmental Working Group, they tested for chemicals crossing the placenta and they found over 200 in the developing child. And these were the toxic chemicals that we've been finding in our own studies like heavy metals, flame retardants, the non-stick chemicals, pesticides, the whole gamut of chemicals are crossing the placenta and getting into the fetus.
Also, the blood brain barrier which will partly protect an adult from exposure is not fully developed until a child is six months, roughly six months of age. And then similarly in children up until age one, the digestive tract, the skin and the lungs, they are still quite permeable and so they absorb substances more readily than an adult might. There's also a question of behaviour. Kids roll around in the ground, dust has actually a lot of toxic chemicals in it. They put stuff in their mouths. There's a whole question of behaviour as well on how kids can differ their behaviour from adults. There are a number of chemicals that are airborne that also hang out at different levels of the atmosphere. So for example, they'll be more concentrated at a lower level to the ground where kids are versus a taller adult. So it's quite complex and there are many different factors but it all points to a special vulnerability of children.
JS: And you're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner, a weekly radio program and podcast produced at Kootenay Co-Op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. Today's broadcast titled "Chemical Food" is exploring how potentially dangerous and proven to be dangerous chemical are making their way into our food supply. We are currently hearing clips from an interview I conducted with Sarah Winterton, the Programme Director for Environmental Defence, a not-for-profit group based in Toronto, and the recent orchestrators of the Toxic Nation study. One that took a closer look at the chemicals in Canadians. One of the chemicals that Sarah has referred to, are flame retardants which are chemicals that prevent many products that exist in our homes from catching fire. These chemicals can be found in televisions, home appliances, computers, furniture, and even clothing.
This class of chemicals has been receiving quite a bit of opposition in recent years. So much so that there is now a slow move by both industry and government regulators to limit their use. But of interest, is how flame retardants are very similar in composition to PCBs, the class of compounds that were banned in the 1970s. PCBs were used in agriculture and as flame retardants. But of interest is one of the companies who produced and marketed PCBs between 1930 and 1977 under the trade name Aroclor. And that company was Monsanto. And I bring this up because never on this program has there been an attempt to expose the practices of what is arguably the most influential company in the world of food - Monsanto. And instead, this company just seems to appear whenever a dangerous product or practice is discussed on this program. And without any strategic planning on the part of this radio program, Monsanto was also very involved with the chemical aspartame - the focus of the next part of today's broadcast. And as this company is allowed to continue making money off of almost every person on this planet, their PCBs can still be found in the bodies of Canadians. And Sarah Winterton explains.
SW: In both of our studies, we looked at Canadians from coast to coast. And in our first study we tested First Nations' Chief from Whapmagoostui, which is halfway up James Bay. In that first study, actually he turned out to be the most toxic, to have the highest exposure of all the participants. In the second study, we tested, as I said, 13 people in total - so six adults and seven children. So, Vancouver family, we had a family in Toronto, a family in Montreal, and a family in New Brunswick.
What we found, we had a similar result from the first study. The kids had lower levels of PCBs, generally speaking, and pesticides than the adults. And PCBs, they were banned in the 70s so this could set you to thinking - oh well if we ban these substances, it will actually make a difference to future generations there'll be less exposure. And you know that could be true, we'd need more study to really bear out that conclusion. But at the same time, PCBs, these were banned before any these kids were born. In the first study they were young women in their 20s and then in the second study, the youngest participant was 10. So PCBs have been banned long before these people were born and they're still showing up. So that speaks to how long these things persist, how long that they can potentially affect our health.
With the kids in our study we found that generally speaking, they had higher levels of the perfluorinated compounds and the flame retardants and also higher levels of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. And the Vancouver family in particular, the kids had higher levels than any of the other kids in the study. So for example, the Vancouver family had a daughter aged 15 and a son aged 13. This is one case in which the daughter had more PCBs than her mom. In the terms of flame retardants, the daughter was the only person n the study to have all five flame retardants we tested. Under the category of flame retardants we tested five different types. She had all five. And she and her brother each had higher levels of different flame retardants than their mother. And both kids had higher levels of PAHs than their mom and the son had the highest concentration of PFCs, so the perfluorinated compounds in the family. And this surprised them because they've been fairly careful. They've eaten primarily organic diet their whole lives, they've grown up in the Gulf Islands and they now live in Vancouver and so, you know, it kind of makes you think well, that's a pretty natural area - the Gulf Islands are seen as quite pristine and beautiful. So it really leads you to wonder where do all these things come from? How do you protect yourself from them?
JS: One observation that may come out of hearing of how such dangerous chemicals are tested, approved, and then removed from the market is the cyclical nature of the process. Since the industrial revolution some of the very same companies who promoted chemicals that are now proven to be dangerous are using the very same methods to push even newer chemicals and new technologies into our food supply. The measures of safety that have been used by health authorities in both Canada and the United States are the very same methods of safety assurance that industry uses. And what is this method? Science. Is perhaps this cycle that our culture continually goes through when addressing dangerous products a symptom of our trust and faith in science? Science after all is not static. And the more scientists study a subject, the more they learn.
SW: Certainly we find that in any study that we've looked at when they've been really, really examining a chemical closely. I haven't seen a study that increases the amount of a chemical that you can be exposed to so they're always finding that they have to go to lower and lower levels for a chemical we considered safe. So the more we find out about these chemicals it seems we're finding that they are more toxic than we initially thought. And I think part of that comes from the fact that a lot of the studies are looking for the extreme results. So for example say they are looking for cancer - is it going to have that kind of direct effect. And what hasn't been explored to a great extent are the more subtle affects and that would be on the endocrine system so when you are looking hormone disrupters and how chemicals can affect that very delicate process of when our hormones get turned on in our bodies as we grow, how we produce them and in what quantity. We haven't done very many studies in terms of how low levels of chemicals can affect key points in our neurological development, in utero and then you know when a kid is little and the brain is just developing rapidly.
Right now we're looking at results and trying to come up with policy based on studies that are really inadequate - they don't ask the right questions and they don't go into the right kind of detail. You know the environmentalists, the precautionary principle is something that we espouse for many different issues. So when we are demanding action from the federal government on regulation of toxic chemicals, included in that action we want the worst ones just phased out. Let's get rid of them. But at the same time we want to shift the burden of proof to industry to prove that they are safe before they go on the market so we are not playing catch-up when an affect starts to show up in wildlife or in people. Currently, the federal legislation - the Canadian Environmental Protection Act focuses on chemicals that industry uses or manufactures and releases.
JS: Sarah Winterton is the Programme Director of Environmental Defence. A group that is putting pressure on the government to take immediate action in removing the most dangerous chemicals currently approved for use. But while this pressure is certainly an important step to protect the health of Canadians, our government's close relationships with industry and with the American government which has proven time and time again to not be trustworthy, leads us to an equally if not more important step, and that is to utilize our power as consumers. As consumers we are also creators and what we choose to purchase is one tool to promote change. And our choice to buy foods that are grown and produced using dangerous chemicals is perhaps the most concrete example of how our food choices impact our planet.
SW: And along that road of increasing commercial applications of this chemical, nobody's ever has been told about it, about its potential health affects; nobody's ever been told that the perfluorinated compounds are probably one of the most persistent chemicals ever made. So once it's out in the environment nothing breaks it down. And this is like the big feature of it - hey, great, get this chemical that will never break down, but that quality is actually a big warning signal from an environmental perspective if you're putting chemicals out into the environment that persist and do not break down. Because it means that once they're out there they're out there forever and you just keep adding more and more.
So now we are looking at finding this chemical all around the world in many different species of wildlife that have been tested. You know going down to sort of the south finding it in albatrosses; going up into the north and finding it in polar bears. You know, so it has circumnavigated the globe fairly quickly through all of the different applications both industrial and commercial. So these kinds of chemicals do become a global issue quite quickly. And how they may affect trade and how food gets shipped from place to place, and under what agreements the issues of how they persist and act and threaten the environment have to be up there in that discussion.
JS: In wrapping up my conversation with Sarah Winterton, she explained yet another project of Environmental Defence and that is their Food Watch website, a tool that takes advantage of an incredibly important series of studies. Studies that since they were first conducted in 1969 have never been shared with Canadians. It was more than likely a result of the Environmental Defence's formal request for the results of these studies that these results have since been made public on the Health Canada website.
SW: We launched Food Watch because we wanted to give Canadians access to a database that's been produced by Health Canada for a few decades, which is the Total Diet Study. And nobody has seen it before, nobody has been able to look at it. And it took us I think, 15 months through Freedom of Information to get this database. We finally got it in February 2002 and we were able to put it up on our website under the Food Watch program and make it interactive so people could search and take a look at the kinds of things that could show up in the food that they might be eating. Now this data that's up on our site now it's based on testing that was done from 1992 to 1996. And the Total Diet Study is not something that Health Canada does frequently. It gives us a snapshot. This snapshot doesn't include the perfluorinated compounds for example. They didn't test for those in ‘92, ‘96. So I think it speaks to the need for further study, further identification of the kinds of things that are showing up in our food.
Go on the site you can…we call it the "Toxic Tracker" so you can identify your gender, your age and find out what kind of things that you might be exposed to based on your gender and age and typical eating patterns. You can also go in and search by "food category" so you can find out what kind of chemicals show up in dairy, what kinds of chemicals show up in meat products. You can refine it further and select for specific classes of chemicals. So you can look for only heavy metals or you can look for only herbicides, that kind of thing. So you can get a broad picture or you can get a more specific picture depending on what you're interested in learning.
JS: And that was Sarah Winterton of Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based organization that strives to protect the environment in human health across the Canada. Their website is environmentaldefence.ca. And their Food Watch website is foodwatch.ca. All of this information is also available on the Deconstructing Dinner website. And that website cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.
JS: For those of you just tuning in, this is Deconstructing Dinner a syndicated weekly one hour radio program and podcast. Today's broadcast is the first of an ongoing series titled "Chemical Food". And as the first part of this broadcast explored chemicals that inadvertently end up in our food, the next part of the broadcast will explore a chemical that is intended for food.
Probably the most controversial chemical ever added to processed foods, chewing gum, toothpaste, and pharmaceuticals is aspartame. Since it was first approved for use in both Canada and the United States in 1981, this food additive better known under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal, has received a notable amount of attention from conspiracy theorists, consumers, and health authorities.
But attention on aspartame has risen once again since the European Ramazzini Foundation published the result of the most comprehensive study ever conducted on the chemical sweetener. The study has concluded that aspartame is indeed, a cancer-causing chemical at levels far below those set as recommended intakes by Health Canada, the FDA, and the European Food Safety Authority. The primary author of this study was Dr. Morando Soffritti, of the European Ramazzini Foundation located in Bologna, Italy. And we will shortly hear clips from an interview I conducted with the Director of Resource Development for the foundation who spoke on Dr. Soffritti's behalf.
But to better understand the significance of such a study, it is first important to look at the history of aspartame, a food additive that being 100 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, is now used in over 6,000 products worldwide as a low calorie alternative. Like with many chemical sweeteners, aspartame was discovered by accident. And it was in 1965 that a chemist working for G.E. Searle & Co. stumbled upon it while developing anti-ulcer medication.
Now preliminary studies pointed to the chemical causing cancer in laboratory animals and as a result aspartame was not approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, the FDA. And this where the story gets interesting and where conspiracy theorists get very excited because between 1977 and 1985 the current Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was the President and CEO of G.E. Searle. Rumsfeld pushed very hard to get aspartame approved and some key personnel adjustments at the FDA led to the chemical getting the green light. And this was to the disapproval of a number of key scientists. One instance of this disapproval is even documented on the FDA website.
As mentioned during the beginning of this broadcast, one company that always seems to come up when speaking of the questionable nature of certain foods and agricultural practices, is Monsanto. And yes, Monsanto is connected to the story behind aspartame. Because in 1985, Monsanto purchased G.E. Searle and their aspartame product, better known as NutraSweet. NutraSweet was then purchased from Monsanto by a Chicago-based company in 2000.
And so, moving along to the focus of the aspartame issue, we will now hear clips from my conversation with Kathryn Knowles, the Director of Resource Development for the European Ramazzini Foundation based in Bologna, Italy. The Foundation's recently published findings from their study on aspartame point to the chemical as carcinogenic. And Kathryn spoke to me on behalf of Dr. Morando Soffritti, the primary author of this study. As the vast majority of aspartame studies have been industry-sponsored, Kathryn first explained who funds the Ramazzini Foundation. And I will first note that the sound quality of this recording is not ideal and I do hope that the content will make up for this technical circumstance.
Kathryn Knowles: The European Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences B. Ramazzini, which I will refer to as the European Ramazzini Foundation, is a non-profit private institution in Bologna, Italy. And its facilities include Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center located in Bentivoglio where one of the world's largest and longest existing programs of carcinogenicity bioassays is conducted. In terms of accomplishments, carcinogenicity studies on more than 200 compounds has been in the work and general environments have been performed in the laboratories of the European Ramazzini Foundation. Compounds demonstrated to be carcinogenic here include vinyl chloride, benzene, formaldehyde, gasolines, some pesticides, and of course aspartame.
Funding for our research is raised from a variety of sources including international, national, and local governments, private bank foundations and most importantly from the 18,000 members of the National Ramazzini Institute which is a social cooperative that supports the work of the Foundation.
JS: One of the key features of the Foundation's aspartame study was their use of what is called a, "lifespan mega-experiment". And Kathryn Knowles describes the advantages of such a method.
KK: The European Ramazzini Foundation conducts what are known as lifespan mega-experiments. And this means that large groups of rodents are allowed to live out their natural lifespan and are examined for histopathological changes upon spontaneous or natural death. This model is in contrast with most laboratories where rodents are sacrificed at 110 weeks of age, representing about two-thirds of their lifespan. The Ramazzini designs closely mirrors the human condition in which persons may be exposed to agents in industrial and general environments from embryonic life until natural death. So why is this important? Well we know that since 80% of cancer is diagnosed in humans over the age of 55, it is of paramount importance to observe how an agent affects laboratory animals in the last third of their lives. Had we stopped the experiment at 110 weeks of age we would most likely never have demonstrated the carcinogenicity of important industrial compounds such as xylenes, mancozeb, vinyl acetate monomer, etc.
JS: As the European Ramazzini Foundation's mission is to prevent cancer, they focus much of their work on sweeteners such as aspartame and do so in response to what they refer to as the globalization of the industrialized diet.
KK: Well, sure, globalization just to clarify, is not the reason that we conduct work on sweeteners. But, rather, the presence of artificial sweeteners in thousands of products both in the industrialized and developing world means that a large part of the population is now exposed or will be exposed to what may represent what we call potential diffused carcinogenic risks. So what is a diffused risk? That's a risk that's represented by agents which are slightly carcinogenic at any dose or a low or extremely low doses of a carcinogenic agent of any kind, or of course, mixtures of small doses of carcinogenic agents at any kind. So, here when we talk about the importance of globalization, we're talking about how these diffused carcinogenic risks, which are currently present in industrialized countries are slowly becoming diffused also in the developing world.
JS: As prior long term studies on aspartame were conducted by G.E. Searle, the company that developed aspartame, Kathryn speaks to the validity of such a study. A study that to this day has provided the foundation for the approval of aspartame.
KK: Prior to the commercialization of aspartame in the 1970s, the manufacturers of the compound conducted various experimental studies on rats and mice to test for carcinogenicity. When taken together the results of these studies were considered negative with regard to the carcinogenicity of aspartame. Doubts were raised by some of the scientific community about the conduct of the experiments and the fact that some cases malignant brain tumours were found among animals treated with aspartame while none were found among the control group. And given the location of these studies and again, the ever growing use of aspartame throughout the years, the European Ramazzini Foundation decided in the late 1990s to plan and perform an experiment that would, based on the total number of animals used, the number of dose level studies and most importantly, the conduct of the experiment, provided adequate evaluation for the first time of the potential carcinogenic risks of aspartame.
I should also add that the previous studies were of course conducted by the manufacturer of aspartame and again, that the European Ramazzini Foundation is an independent non-profit foundation.
JS: There are many influential organizations that condone the use of aspartame. And many of them refer to the over 200 studies that have been said to prove that aspartame is safe. But as Kathryn Knowles indicates, this number is misleading.
KK: I can confirm that the number 200 is very misleading when we are talking about carcinogenicity. We need to ask the questions - what type of study was conducted; how was the study conducted. Prior to our study on aspartame, only four, four long-term carcinogenicity bioassays had ever been conducted on aspartame. And indeed, all four of these studies were industry-sponsored. So, our study which involves the carcinogenicity, there were only four studies prior to ours and 100% of those were industry-sponsored.
JS: If you are just tuning in, this is Deconstructing Dinner where we are currently listening to Kathryn Knowles of the European Ramazzini Foundation. The Foundation just recently published their findings from the most comprehensive study ever conducted on aspartame, better known under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal. I recently spoke with Kathryn from her office in Bologna, Italy. And to better understand how the Foundation went about conducting such a large study, Kathryn explains the basics.
KK: The long-term bioassay on aspartame conducted by the European Ramazzini Foundation is indeed the largest most comprehensive carcinogenicity study ever performed on aspartame, both in terms of the number of rodents and the dose levels tested. So, to be more specific, the study used 1,800 Sprague-Dawley rats, that was 900 males and 900 females, of the colony used in the same laboratory for over 30 years. In order to stimulate daily human intake, aspartame was added to the standard rat diet in quantities of 5,000, 2,500, 100, 500, 20, 4, and 0 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Treatment of the animals began at eight weeks of age and continued until spontaneous death - a long-term mega-experiment. After the animals died, a complete necropsy and histopathological evaluation of all tissues and organs was then performed and over 34,000 slides were examined by microscope.
JS: As is the reason for featuring aspartame on today's broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner, Kathryn explains the key findings of the study.
KK: The results of the study demonstrate that aspartame, administered at varying levels in feed causes a statistically significant dose related increase of lymphomas, leukemias, and malignant tumours of the renal pelvis in female rats and malignant tumours of peripheral nerves in male rats. The results demonstrate for the first time that aspartame is a carcinogenic agent capable of inducing malignancies at dose levels lower than the current acceptable daily intake for humans which the European Union is 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight and in the U.S, 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
JS: Here in Canada, the current acceptable daily intake of aspartame is the same as that of the E.U. - at 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. For those perhaps unfamiliar with scientific research and methods used, Kathryn explains the importance of using rats in studies designed to predict responses in the human body.
KK: Well, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC of the World Health Organization, results of long-term bioassays conducted on rodents are highly predictive of carcinogenic risks for humans. In fact, one third of the chemicals considered by IARC to be carcinogenic in humans were anticipated by rodent studies. Agents first demonstrated to be carcinogenic in humans on the other hand, were later were also confirmed to be carcinogenic in rodents.
JS: The Ramazzini Foundation suggests one of EFSA's major responses to their study to be rather bizarre. And that was the response to what is possibly the most important finding with the study that lymphomas and leukemias increased in rats treated with aspartame. EFSA dismisses this part of the study due to a high incidence of chronic inflammatory changes in the lungs. And Kathryn responds to this key opinion made by Europe's Food Safety Authority.
KK: Well, in examining the raw data of our study, EFSA observed a high incidence of chronic pulmonary inflammation in males and females in both treated groups and the control. And based on this information they concluded that the increase incidence of these lymphomas and leukemias was, "unrelated to aspartame given the high background incidence of chronic inflammatory changes in the lungs." In our opinion, EFSA's conclusion can only be described as bizarre for the following reasons. One, the EFSA's opinion overlooks the fact that study was conducted until the natural death of the animals and it is well-known that infectious pathologies are a part of the natural dying process in both rodents and humans. And secondly, we should point out that if the statistical significance increased incidence of lymphomas and leukemias observed was indeed caused by an infected colony as EFSA states, one would then expect to observe these lymphomas and leukemias not only in females but also males. And EFSA simply did not comment on this discrepancy in their logic.
JS: And yet another flaw that the Ramazzini Foundation points to when responding to EFSA's opinion on their study is that the panel did not review previous carcinogenic studies on aspartame. But the Ramazzini Foundation believes that this would have been integral to forming an opinion.
KK: The previous carcinogenic studies of course, form the basis for determining that aspartame was safe. So it's very difficult to understand why only the study that demonstrated aspartame to be carcinogenic was subjected to this kind of scrutiny and requests were made to review slides, have all this raw data, etc. when they were not pry the same scrutiny to the other studies. So it doesn't seem that a full evaluation on the whole aspartame picture was really conducted but rather an evaluation of the Ramazzini study.
JS: Here in North America the American FDA and Health Canada have both agreed with the opinion of EFSA. But both the FDA and Health Canada are nevertheless further analyzing the data from the Ramazzini study. But as Kathryn Knowles indicates, the FDA especially is now in a very fragile position.
KK: For the U.S. FDA this problem is even more urgent than it is for the European counterparts because of the law governing food additives in the U.S. And in particular the Delaney Clause of the Food Additives Amendment which basically says that no additive shall be deemed safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or laboratory animals. And this law was designed to protect citizens with a zero cancer risk standard. So, now that aspartame has in our study demonstrated to induce cancer in animals, it follows that aspartame is not safe as a food additive for humans. And it is the U.S. FDA that needs to make this conclusion. So they have a very large responsibility under U.S. law to review our data.
JS: While the FDA continues to look into the data, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of 100,000 citizens and scientists believe that the operations of the FDA need to be closely scrutinized. On July 20th of this year 2006, the Union released survey results that demonstrate what they call, "Pervasive and Dangerous Political Influence of Science" at the Food and Administration. Of the 997 FDA scientists who responded to the survey, nearly one-fifth, that's 18.4%, said that, "have been asked for non-scientific reasons to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or their conclusions in a FDA scientific document." Five thousand, nine hundred and eighteen scientists were sent surveys.
JS: On a number of recent broadcasts of Deconstructing Dinner the science used by industry to push their products onto the market has often been referred to as "sloppy science." This has especially been indicated in response to the science used to promote genetic modification of food. Back in 1996 the then medical consultant for NutraSweet said that aspartame could not cause a tumour. And here's a recording of that very statement.
Audio: Aspartame cannot cause any tumour including brain tumour. Why? Because aspartame per say, is completely digestive. The molecule aspartame never gets into the bloodstream, it never reaches any organs.
JS: In response to this statement, Kathryn Knowles of the Ramazzini Foundation indicates that this ignores a key stage that takes place in our bodies.
KK: Well, I can only speak to these studies that we have conducted on aspartame. And we did not conduct mechanistic studies meaning how aspartame actually affects the organism. We do know however that aspartame is metabolized aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. We also know that methanol is further metabolized into formaldehyde. So with regard to lymphomas and leukemias, that the main result of the Ramazzini study, we can only correlate cause and effect based on other studies conducted in our laboratory under the same experimental conditions, including studies on formaldehyde. Which interestingly, also causes an increase in incidence in lymphomas and leukemias in rats. So, based on the action of formaldehyde on rats, we can hypothesize that this may also play a role in the carcinogenicity of aspartame. So saying that aspartame couldn't cause a tumour because it does not reach organs intact, doesn't follow this logic that metabolized can also affect an organism.
JS: And so if the FDA relies on what is seemingly sloppy science, who is it that the FDA is relying on and with such close-knit trade and food regulations here in Canada, who is also influencing Health Canada?
With their findings published around the same time as the Ramazzini study on aspartame, the National Cancer Institute of the United States conducted their own aspartame study. While the NCI is a governmental organization they have frequently been accused of conflicts of interest springing from what have been called intimate connections with corporate America. Former NCI Director, Samuel Broder was once heard saying this, "The NCI has become what amounts to a governmental pharmaceutical company." And Kathryn responds to the NCI study on aspartame. One that is currently being promoted as enough of a reason to continue using this chemical in food.
KK: As I mentioned previously, it's always important to ask what kind of study and how is it conducted. So the study conducted by the U.S. National Cancer Institute was actually a large diet questionnaire survey in which self-reported aspartame consumption over the last year in persons from age 50 to 69 showed no increases in either lymphomas or leukemias or in brain cancer. So basically by asking retired persons to fill out a survey in which they indicated their own memory of aspartame consumption in the previous year, the paper declared that aspartame is not carcinogenic. However, without specific information on individuals consumption rates and duration, it's certainly difficult to assess the surveys actual power despite the large number of participants.
Of course, there's another issue here, that is whether aspartame is an early or late stage carcinogen. If it is an early stage initiator of cancer then reporting the lack of affects in older individuals - this study was on retired persons who have not consumed aspartame since early childhood, would be expected to show little or no increases in cancer.
JS: Additional support for aspartame comes from a number of other influential organizations, all of whom are heavily funded by corporate interests. Here in Canada, the Canadian Cancer Society of whom heavy aspartame user Coca Cola has been a major donor stands by their statement, "Aspartame, also known as NutraSweet does not cause cancer." The Canadian Diabetes Association also supports aspartame. Aspartame is of course a seemingly ideal substitute for sugar. As former radio host and former British Columbia Cabinet Minister Rafe Mair who is a diabetic contends, "you either buy into the Canadian Diabetes Association which gets funding from the chemical companies, listen to propaganda, or you do your due diligence on the internet - a daunting task."
And in wrapping up my interview with Kathryn Knowles, she left me with the following comment. One that re-emphasizes the importance of rodent studies when predicting human responses.
KK: Rodent studies have helped in the identification of numerous carcinogenic agents. But really, the characteristics of the Ramazzini study, in particular the dimension of the experiment and the fact that it was done on 1,800 animals, really reduces the uncertainties that are usually raised with extrapolating the dose specific cancer risks from rats to humans. And in conclusion I would just say that the precautionary principle calls for caution when there is a perception of danger. And here we are far beyond the perception of danger. We have experimentally demonstrated the carcinogenicity of aspartame in 1,800 laboratory animals. So, keep in mind that a rodent study is in fact a very powerful tool and a predictive tool for carcinogens in humans.
JS: And that was Kathryn Knowles of the European Ramazzini Foundation located in Bologna, Italy. Kathryn as you may have noticed is not Italian but originally from San Francisco, California. The Foundation's recent study can be found from a link on the Deconstructing Dinner website under the show title, "Chemical Food." And that website is cjly.net/deconstructingdinner. There will also be a wealth of information on this subject including of course, all the resources and studies referred to on today's broadcast.
And if aspartame is only one substance that remains highly questionable as a food additive, its presence on almost every table in restaurants or coffee shops is perhaps a reminder of how questionable many of the processed foods that fill grocery stores and restaurants are.
In wrapping up today's broadcast, we can refer back to mention of one of the key individuals who pushed aspartame on to the market back in 1981. And that was of course, the current Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld. Now to many Rumsfeld does not come across as an authoritative figure and his role in American defence overseas is for many, highly questionable. So where does the trust of the global population lie when drinking low calorie beverages or chewing sugarless gum? Well, it lies partially in the hands of Donald Rumsfeld. The former President and CEO of G.E. Searle & Company, the creator of aspartame.
In researching today's broadcast, I did come across one reference to a study that indicated this - that aspartame otherwise known as NutraSweet or Equal is known to erode intelligence and affect short-term memory. And here's Donald Rumsfeld.
Series of clips from Donald Rumsfeld:
Some things neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so I suppose, as Shakespeare said.
I believe what I said yesterday. I don't know what I said but I know what I think and I assume that's what I said.
I am shocked, sort of.
The message is that there are no knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns - that is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know if we don't know. And each year we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.
And if I know the answer I'll tell you the answer and if I don't, I'll just respond cleverly.
Stating what might be preferable, is simply stating what might be preferable.
The dumbest thing anyone can do would be to stand up here and start previewing things that somebody's thinking about or not thinking about or starting to disabuse you of each thing somebody tells you that we're thinking about because then the first time we don't disabuse you you'll say, "aha, that's what they're going to do."
I normally would not come down in my vest but they just redid me and it's wet. So I can't put my coat on.
I would not say that the future is necessarily less predictable than the past. I think the past was not predictable when it started.
JS: And that was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner produced and recorded at Nelson British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman.
I thank my technical assistant Diane Matenko. The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident, Adham Shaikh.
All of those affiliated with this station are volunteers and financial support for this station is received through membership, donations, and sponsorship from local businesses.
Should you have any comments about today's show or want to learn more about topics covered, you can visit the website for Deconstructing Dinner at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.