Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Water pollution

The UK Environment Agency is kicking up a stink over continuing pollution incidents, leading to court cases against big companies, often major utilities. The agency is demanding tougher penalties for those in breach of regulations.

However, the number of serious pollution incidents has been falling for years, and fell by a fifth in 2002 compared to the previous year.

Which tends to suggest that actually, the problem is coming under control. Still, what are regulators for except to bang on even more about the need for regulation?

UK's big polluters 'fail to learn', BBC News, 30 July 2003

Dodgy eco-statistic

On Sunday's Heaven and Earth Show on BBC1, there was an item about ethical tourism in which a statistic was quoted: a single trip from the UK to Miami would generate the same amount of greenhouse gases as a year's use of a car. It sounds a lot, but it needs to be remembered that that is for the whole plane. You get a lot of people into a plane, and it travels a long way.

The page linked to below indicates that fuel usage per passenger per mile is much the same for planes and cars. Only if we all travelled by train could considerable savings be made.

Round trip travel from Tokyo to New York consumes 5,000 eu.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

It's summer. Truly, the silly season is upon us.

This is an abridged transcript of the item this morning on BBC Radio 4's Today programme about barbecues. Professor Desmond Hammerton is a retired marine biologist.


I think it is well-known that dioxins are one of the most toxic chemicals today and there is enormous public concern at any time that a public incinerator, or a commercial incinerator or a hospital incinerator is proposed, and there are always objections to that. But it has turned out that in France, research that was carried out by the French equivalent of the Friends of the Earth - it's called Robin Des Bois, which is the French for 'Robin Hood' - their research has shown that in the course of a two-hour barbecue party, including the grilling of four steaks, followed by the cooking of four portions of turkey and finally the grilling of eight large sausages, this could release 12-22 nanograms of dioxins. Which is the equivalent to 120,000 to 220,000 cigarettes...


Gosh, put like that it sounds terrifying.


And they found that the average concentrations in the vicinity of a barbecue ranged from 0.6 to 0.7 nanograms per cubic metre, which is six to seven times the level authorised for public incinerators at the point of discharge from a chimney.


And what does all of this do to the food that you cook on barbecues?


Well, that's another thing. The French Food Safety Agency, is also doing research. They haven't looked into the question of the dioxins released. Their research is looking at the carcinogenic risks as a result of the carbonisation of fish and meat products as a result of cooking by barbecuing and they find that a lot of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are known to be carcinogenic, are incorporated in the food. But they haven't given any detail of, they're still studying, in some detail. But I think it is of more concern at the moment, bearing in mind the growing popularity of barbecues, which I always thought were a nice thing to do except I personally find the smoke extremely unpleasant to breathe,and I try to keep well away from these, to find that this actually produces these deadly dioxins, at these levels.

After a bit of conversation with a shocked Australian chef, the conversation turns again to the good professor...


Professor Hammerton, there isn't any doubt is there about the quality of this research, is there? It does come, as you say, from the French equivalent of Friends of the Earth, who might 'have a view', as it were.


What is of interest is that I have seen nothing published in the British press. I think we need a sense of proportion about this. I served on a government committee which was setting standards for releases into the aquatic environment, and I think the same is true for releases into the atmosphere, that in general the policy was for toxic substances, if you found the lowest level at which they caused harm to fish life in waters and similar aquatic organisms, you set the safety level ten times lower, so there was a factor of ten in safety. But if human health was involved, it was a factor of one hundred times lower. So, it doesn't mean to say that if you reach the level authorised for a discharge into the atmosphere that immediately above that is dangerous. It's a big safety factor.

But I think we need to have a sense of proportion. So, just the odd barbecue during the summer is not going to have any effect but if you have a barbecue regularly, perhaps one or two times a week through the summer, and you all crowd round it and inhale the fumes, then maybe over ten or twenty years maybe that would do something. More research is required into this, and certainly I think warnings should be included on the sale of barbecues, advising people to keep away and not inhale the fumes.

Cancer death rates falling in Europe

That's the headline being given to a report in Annals of Oncology. In fact, deaths from cancer are actually rising. But because death from cancer is associated with age, the age-adjusted cancer rates are falling - not surprising given that treatment for cancer continues to improve, smoking is decling overall (but going up among women), and people lead relatively easier, wealthier lives.

The report is, however, a piece of self-justification. 'Cancer deaths in the EU were expected to rise from 850 194 in 1985 to 1 033 083 in 2000. It is estimated that there will be 940 510 cancer deaths that year, due to the decline in risk observed since 1985. The Europe Against Cancer programme appears to have been associated with the avoidance of 92 573 cancer deaths in the year 2000. With few exceptions, most countries are experiencing declining trends in cancer death rates, which seem set to continue, at least in the near future. Renewed tobacco control efforts are clearly needed for women, and there is a strong case for the introduction of organized breast and cervix screening programmes in all member states. Continuing to emphasize prevention within cancer control will help to promote the continuing decline in death rates in the future.'

It is hard to see here any evidence that Europe Against Cancer, a inter-governmental initiative started in 1985, has necessarily had any effect at all. Certainly, it is rather cheeky to ascribe the entire fall in expected deaths to this initiative. Would smoking rates have remained the same without public health warnings? It may well be that their decline has as much to do with changing fashions as anything else. Breast and cervical cancer screening have been criticised elsewhere as a pointless and frequently distressing waste of money.

Measuring progress against cancer in Europe: has the 15% decline targeted for 2000 come about?, Annals of Oncology, May 2003

Monday, July 28, 2003

Hyper diagnosis

Opponents of the MMR vaccine point to a rise in levels of autism over the past few years as a strong piece of circumstantial evidence in their favour.

Yet, Professor Priscilla Alderson of the Institute of Education in London argues that this is a case of misdiagnosis. For example, she visited one school where 27 children had been diagnosed as autistic, she found only two that properly met the criteria for the condition. She believes a similar process has been in evidence with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The result is the medicalisation of behaviour previously regarded as normal. Professor Alderson lays the blame at the tendency of parents to keep their children indoors, and at a money-grabbing mental health industry. In fact, the entire field of mental health is ever-expanding, and the notion of a distinction between 'normal' and 'abnormal' is increasingly blurred. However, the reassurance of a label to explain behaviour also has the effect of reinforcing it, and often denies the possibility of doing something about it. And, as in the case of MMR, we get a panic about a new epidemic that probably does not exist.

Hyperactivity 'just high spirits', BBC News, 28 July 2003