Posts Tagged 'review'

Bring on the mind control, please

You don’t expect to find anything funny in a book with a title like this: Breeding Bio Insecurity: How US Biodefense is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk and Making Us All Less Secure (Chicago, 2009). In the London Review of Books Thomas Jones writes that “Lynn Klotz and Edward Sylvester make a compelling case for a radical and immediate change in America”s biosecurity policy.”  Foreign Affairs says “the authors make a plausible and disturbing case.” Other reviewers have called it “forceful and provocative,” even “indispensable.”

The book argues that the conditions of research in bioweapons and biosecurity pose a greater risk to the health and security of Americans than do bioterrorist attacks, but that this risk can be countered and defeated with greater efforts against infectious diseases and greater international oversight and transparency. It also raises the question about the moral and legal issues around the billions spent since 9/11 on R&D into bioweapons counter-measures like antibiotics, antivirals, antidotes and vaccines. Testing them clearly requires ready availability of the bioweapons agents themselves, something that contravenes the Biological Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, and stockpiling of microbial or other biological agents or toxins.

Ever since Hannibal’s forces threw clay pots full of snakes onto the decks of enemy ships in an ancient naval battle against the Pergamenes, nations have turned to biological warfare when it has suited them – especially when it can be claimed that massive reserves of anthrax, smallpox, plague, ricin, botulinum and ebola serve to defend the homeland. Despite the extreme unlikeliness of a large-scale biological terrorist attack, the United States, for example, has 219 labs studying anthrax alone. The number of people working in biodefence has increased twentyfold in the past decade.

A review in Science claims that the authors’ argument deserves serious attention:

Klotz and Sylvester spotlight the huge sums of money invested by the U.S. government in biodefense research. Here, they claim, secrecy is having corrosive effects. They also argue that the money pouring into biodefense research is out of proportion to the level of threat. In addition, they contend, this massive investment has backfired to create more risk because now more scientists are working with dangerous pathogens, thus increasing the chances of accident, theft, and deliberate misuse.

All weighty stuff. But, as Thomas Jones in LRB notes, Klotz and Sylvester also get carried away by what sounds like Cold War paranoia. At one point they bring up the subject of “the scariest weapons of all: mind-control agents.” These are largely the realm of science fiction, but apparently white-ruled South Africa carried out research into the use of MDMA for crowd control. Given the apartheid regime’s usual methods – attack dogs, tear gas, beatings, and shootings – a plan to use Ecstasy to suppress a revolt sounds positively benign.

“Ecstasy or smallpox: I know which I’d rather be attacked with. Bring on the ‘mind-control’, please.”

Photo credit: Flickr creative commons licence, uploaded by ClevelandSGS

Slow death by rubber duck: how the toxic chemistry of everyday life affects our health

“When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.”  ~ James Whitcomb Riley

We consume hundreds of toxic chemicals from the things we use day to day to keep ourselves sheltered, fed, clothed and healthy. So say authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie in their recent book Slow death by rubber duck: how the toxic chemistry of everyday life affects our health (Knopf Canada, 323 pages, $32). But they are hopeful that things can change for the better, noting a recent European ban on noxious flame-retardant chemicals in television sets, Canadian legislative changes to end toxic baby bottles, and a new U.S. law to restrict hormone-mimicking ingredients in the plastic of children’s toys.

Almost everything we use, recline on, sleep in, eat off, wash with, or rub into our skin is a source of pollution. “For most people belching smokestacks, sewer outfalls, and car exhaust are the first images that come to mind when the word ‘pollution’ is mentioned,” the authors observe. Pollution is still seen as “an external concern, something floating around in the air or in the nearest lake. Something that can still be avoided.” But research makes it clear that pollution is so pervasive “it has become a marinade in which we bathe every day.”

Pollution is actually inside us all. It’s seeped into our bodies. And in many cases, once in, it is impossible to get out.

Toxic chemicals are now found at low levels in countless appliances, in everything from personal care products and cooking pots and pans to electronics, furniture clothing, building materials, and children’s toys. They make their way into our bodies through our food, air, and water.

From the moment we get up from a good night’s sleep under wrinkle-resistant sheets (which are treated with the known carcinogen formaldehyde), to the moment we go to bed at night after a snack of microwave popcorn (the interior of the bag being coated with an indestructible chemical that builds up in our bodies), pollution surrounds us … It has been estimated that, by the time the average woman grabs her coffee, she has applied 126 different chemicals in 12 different products to her body.

The authors advise readers on which products to choose in order to avoid the ones that are most dangerously polluting. But these are only short-term solutions. “For the long-term fix,” they warn, “only improved government regulation and oversight of toxic chemicals is the answer. It’s critical that we address this problem, not only as consumers, but also as engaged citizens demanding better of their governments.”

Rick Smith, one of Canada’s leading environmentalists, is director of Environmental Defence, a non-profit organization known for its innovative work on environmental issues.

Bruce Lourie started one of Canada’s largest environmental consultancies. He works closely with governments, businesses, foundations, and non-profit organizations. He is president of the Richard Ivey Foundation, which supports environmental and other beneficial projects.

This is a modified version of a review by Roy LaBerge which appeared in the September 2009 issue of The CCPA Monitor.


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