Author: Brittany Mountjoy

How Climate Change Might Affect Your Health

On March 16, 2017, President Trump released a preliminary 2018 budget proposal, which outlines some of the changes that the President would like to see. Among those changes, President Trump has proposed a 29% cut to the State Department, which includes the elimination of climate-change prevention programs, including pledged payments to U.N. climate-change programs. The budget also suggested a 31% cut to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which would include the elimination of more than 50 programs and 3,200 jobs and would discontinue funding for international climate-change programs.

Just one day before the budget proposal was released, a group of family physicians, pediatricians, obstetricians, allergists, internists and other medical experts launched the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. More than half of all U.S. doctors are members of one of the participating groups, which include the American College of Physicians (ACP); American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, Immunology (AAAAI); the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP); the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP); and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), among others. The mission of the Consortium is to “inform the public and policymakers about the harmful health effects of climate change on Americans, as well as about the immediate and long-term health benefits associated with decreasing greenhouse gas emissions (i.e., heat-trapping pollution) and other preventive and protective measures.”

They presented a new report, “Medical Alert! Climate Change is Harming Our Health,” which includes scientific evidence and accounts from doctors who believe that climate change is creating or worsening a wide range of health issues, including: heart and lung diseases; heat-related health dangers; the spread of infectious disease; and physical and mental health problems. The Consortium is working to raise awareness of the health risks that climate change poses to Americans, especially vulnerable communities who experience a disproportionate impact from climate change. In addition to raising awareness of the impact of climate change on human health, these medical societies are educating and working with policymakers and industry to reduce emissions, promote effective interventions, and strengthen public health infrastructure.

Given the proposed budget changes, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s history of rejection of established science of climate change, and President Trump’s view on climate change, it is unclear what the U.S’ involvement in fighting global warming will look like. In 2016, the U.S signed the Paris Agreement, building upon the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to fight climate change and to support developing countries in this endeavor.  However, it has yet to be seen whether we will honor our commitment, but if we do not, we possibly risk devastating changes to our environment and also to human health.

Labelling It Healthy

What does the word “healthy” mean? The word is almost ubiquitous and is on every food, drink, or clothing label. However, there is little consensus on what the word “healthy” actually means. Does “healthy” mean low fat, low sugar, and low salt? While the word will likely still be used to describe a list full of foods and drinks, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is planning to create some clarity and redefine the word. FDA published a Federal Register (FR) notice announcing that the agency will be receiving information and comments on the use of the term “healthy” in the labeling of human food products. Currently, the FDA defines the term “healthy” when used as an implied nutrient content claim in labeling human food products at 21 C.F.R. §101.65(d)(2).

The FR notice comes a year after the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Nutrition (CFSAN) issued a Warning Letter to KIND LLC, a producer of ‘Kind’ bars and other fruit and nut snacks, because the labels and labeling of KIND’s nutrition bars bore a variety of nutrient content claims, including “healthy,” but the products did not meet the requirements to make such claims.  KIND LLC subsequently sent a citizen petition to the FDA Commissioner requesting that the FDA update the FDA’s existing requirements related to food labeling to become consistent with current federal dietary guidance as set forth in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and with the latest scientific evidence discussed in the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (2015 DGAC Report).

As stated in KIND LLC’s letter to the FDA, the FDA’s current regulatory approach for food labelling is inconsistent with the DGAC recommendations. With obesity rates in the United States continually increasing at alarming rates, educating consumers about how to carry out a “healthful” diet is essential to public health. KIND LLC requested in the letter that the FDA take a holistic approach when reviewing the healthfulness of foods, instead of identifying and demonizing one food ingredient or nutrient.

The health label on packaging is an easy, but possibly misleading, tool that food companies can use to help educate consumers and give them easily accessible information about the food that they choose. A food may be low in salt, sugar and/or fat, but it doesn’t mean that it has the nutrients to create a healthful diet, which is why it is so important for the FDA to properly address this issue. It is likely that there will be an increase in regulation or scrutiny around food labels in order to create a more transparent food system, as well as attempt to stifle the upward trend of obesity.

Just a Weed Killer?

Earlier this month, a federal court ruled on whether Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide is capable of causing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma must be first determined before proceeding in a personal injury suit (Giglio v. Monsanto Co., 2016 BL 251362, S.D. Cal., No. 15-cv-2279, 8/2/16). The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California bifurcated the trial and limited the first round of pre-trial discovery to whether Roundup can cause harm, such as cancer. If causation can be shown, then the court will weigh specific injury to plaintiff. The plaintiff, Emanuel Richard Giglio, owned and operated a turf installation business and used Roundup on a regular basis in his work. Giglio alleges that his exposure to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, caused him to develop stage three non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Glyphosate is an active substance used for the production of pesticides and is the most frequently used herbicide worldwide. The term “pesticides” refers to a broad class of crop-protection chemicals: insecticides, which are used to control insects; rodenticides, which are used to control rodents; herbicides, which are used to control weeds; and fungicides, which are used to control fungi, mold and mildew. Glyphosate-based pesticides (i.e. formulations containing glyphosate and other chemicals) are used in agriculture and horticulture, primarily to combat weeds that compete with cultivated crops.

However, the United States is not the only country considering the health effects of the commonly used weed killer. Glyphosate has been thrust into the middle of a heated dispute between EU and US politicians, industry leaders, regulators, and activists. In 2015, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was in the process of reviewing glyphosate, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—which independently gathers health data for the World Health Organization—declared glyphosate a “probable human carcinogen.”  Then in May 2016, U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) stated glyphosate was unlikely to pose a risk to people exposed to it through food.

The contradictory findings have spurred debate and have delayed the license for glyphosate, which expired June 30, 2016. EU member states failed to reach agreement on the renewal of the herbicide, and the European Commission were forced to temporarily grant an 18-month extension to glyphosate’s authorization in the EU.  Furthermore, new rules which restrict the conditions around the use of glyphosate in the European Union are to come into effect. These new restrictions around the use of the herbicide will apply for the duration of the 18-month extension until the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) issues its opinion on the herbicide.

Glyphosate will continue to be at the center of debate for the next couple of years, as the EU and US await further studies on its likely impact on human and environmental health.

The End of Antibiotics?

Antibiotic resistance is upon us and affects both human and animal health. In a May 2016 report commissioned by United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister David Cameron, Jim O’Neil, economist most widely known for coining the term BRICs for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China and Commercial Secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury in the UK, pointed out that 700,000 people each year die from bacterial infections that do not respond to antibiotics, and even more recently a new National Academy of Medicine (NAM) paper, conducted by six experts, outlines the evidence that there is a connection between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in people.

For almost fifty years, antibiotics have been approved for use in animal agriculture and human medicine to treat illness, and they have had a remarkable impact on our ability to improve the health of humans and animals alike. However, there are real concerns about the overuse of antibiotics in human and animal medicine, specifically as it relates to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in the US and around the world. The use of antibiotics has been the center of discussion in the US, European Union (EU), and other public forums, such as the World Economic Forum (WEF). In September 2016, there will be a United Nations high-level meeting on antimicrobial resistance at the General Assembly in New York. Global leaders will meet to commit to leading the fight against antimicrobial resistance. The EU has even proposed to include an article on Anti-Microbial Resistance within the SPS Chapter of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade agreement between the US and EU representing more than forty percent of global trade, addressing steps to mitigate resistance.

In recent years, the animal agriculture industry has placed a high importance on antibiotic stewardship to ensure these critical drugs continue to be effective at fighting bacterial diseases. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued guidance on the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, with the goal to phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. All of the affected drug sponsors have committed in writing to making the changes described in the guidance by the end of 2016. Additionally, the FDA wants to ensure the judicious use of antibiotics when used to treat and prevent animal diseases by requiring that antibiotics be administered under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Even with the changes made by the FDA and industry, there is a call to introduce legislation that would more stringently regulate the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and allow only the use of antibiotics to treat illnesses and not for prevention. California passed the first law in the nation in October 2015 that will require a veterinarian’s prescription for therapeutic antibiotic uses in livestock, ban other uses (including low-dosage levels used to prevent diseases), and require that data be collected on antibiotic use. With the issue on the global stage, it is possible that we will see more advances in both state and federal legislatures to regulate the use of antibiotics in either animal or human health.


NAS Study on GMOS: End of Debate?

NAS Study on GMOS: End of Debate?

Agricultural biotechnology (commonly referred to as “GMOs,” “genetic engineering,” or “biotech”) has been the topic of much debate over the past few years, and most of the discussion has been about whether companies should be required to label products containing GMOs. Congress is currently working to create bipartisan legislation that would require mandatory nationwide labeling, fixing the issue of patchwork individual state labeling laws, such as the one going into effect in July in Vermont, which requires labels on products containing genetically engineered ingredients. The Vermont law – Act 120 –will take effect July 1, 2016. Consumers and legislators have pushed for a GMO label on foods made through biotechnology due to fear of unknown health and environmental effects and the right to know what is in our food, such as infertility or cancer in humans and resistance in plants.

In order to address some concerns and rhetoric around biotechnology, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report, “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” on May 17. The NAS conducted a retrospective examination of the alleged positive and adverse effects of biotech crops in order to anticipate what emerging genetic-engineering holds for the future. The NAS panel, which was comprised of 200 independent experts with no direct ties to the agriculture industry, reviewed 900 studies comparing the US and EU and found that there is no evidence to suggest  GMOs pose any adverse risks to human health or the environment. The report discusses several uncertainties about the economic, agronomic, health and safety impacts of biotech crops and food, while also making recommendations to fill gaps in safety assessments, increase regulatory clarity, and improve innovations in and access to GMO technology.

While the NAS found no adverse environmental or health risks, the study is not meant to end the discussion about biotechnology or its effects on the environment and human health. While there are a couple of varieties of GMOs currently in the marketplace, such as corn, soybeans, and papayas, many biotech traits have not yet left the laboratory. The NAS study stated that, “available in fewer than 10 crops as of 2015, varieties with G.E. herbicide resistance, insect resistance, or both were grown on about 12 percent of the world’s planted cropland.”  The NAS, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other research agencies will need to continue to conduct and review studies regarding the health impact of food biotechnology, as well as its impact on the ecosystem.

As the world population and obesity continue to increase and water supply and farmable land further decrease, researchers and companies will look towards science to help us solve some of these monumental issues. However, it is essential that systems and regulations are put in place to help us continue to assess the safety of scientific innovations, such as food biotechnology, and help consumers better understand what is in their food and help them make informed choices.