Tuesday, October 16, 2012

IN MY VIEW: CDC's Partnership with Company that Contaminated Much of Nation's Rice Supply with Arsenic is Inexcusable and Needs to End Immediately

The nation's leading prevention agency is partnering with a company that has contaminated much of the nation's rice supply with inorganic arsenic, a proven human carcinogen which not only causes cancer but can cause neurological problems in children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has forged a partnership with Pfizer, the maker of Roxarsone - the drug containing arsenic which was fed to chickens whose litter ended up being used as fertilizer in rice fields in much of the southern U.S. As a result of this contamination, a substantial portion of the nation's rice supply contains potentially dangerous levels of arsenic.

Although Pfizer agreed to stop U.S. sale of Roxarsone after an FDA investigation and subsequent report revealed high levels of inorganic arsenic in chickens, the company is apparently still selling the product abroad and has opposed state legislation that would ban the sale of arsenic-containing drugs.

Moreover, there is evidence that the problem of inorganic arsenic contamination caused by Roxarsone was widely understood years prior to the company's action. The European Union banned the use of the drug way back in 1999 and even Tyson - the U.S. poultry giant - stopped using the drug in 2004.

Late in 2011, I revealed that according to a CDC Foundation press release, the CDC Foundation, the CDC, and Pfizer have formed a partnership, made possible by Pfizer funding, to conduct a study examining the economic impact of smoke-free bar and restaurant laws in nine states.

In addition: "The CDC Experience Applied Epidemiology Fellowship is made possible by a public/private partnership supported by a grant to the CDC Foundation from External Medical Affairs, Pfizer Inc."

The CDC is also partnering with Pfizer to study hemophilia.

The CDC's partnership with Pfizer goes much deeper than this. Pfizer boasts: "All of us at Pfizer are proud to be partners with CDC and the CDC Foundation in protecting and strengthening health throughout America and around the world. Our nearly 15-year history of partnership, spanning a dozen projects, has helped CDC train more of the world’s best epidemiologists, explore the effects of landmark public health policies, and advance disease prevention and treatment efforts. CDC and CDC Foundation are true in their desire to attack health problems from new perspectives and to share information and expertise in the search for better health, right now."

The Rest of the Story

It may be true that Pfizer is true in its desire to attach health problems and to share information in the search for better health, but not when it comes to the health dangers of its own products, where its profits may be threatened. 

Far from sharing information with the public and attacking health problems, Pfizer's definitive action did not come until 12 years after the European Union acted and 8 years after Tyson acted before it finally was caught red-handed by the FDA and forced to "voluntarily" withdraw its arsenic-laced drug from the U.S. market.

One might argue that the company simply didn't know that its organic arsenic-containing drug resulted in inorganic arsenic contamination of chickens and chicken litter. This is not a tenable explanation, however. According to an article by Tom Philpott: 

"by 2004, a Chemical Engineering News article shows, a USDA researcher was concerned enough to examine technical data kept by roxarsone producer Alpharma (later acquired by Pfizer). What she found was alarming: Roxarsone-treated chicken has "three to four times greater than [inorganic] arsenic levels in other types of poultry and meat from other animals"—levels that for heavy chicken eaters, would be "greater than the tolerable daily intake recommended by the World Health Organization."

This information was enough to get the company to withdraw Roxarsone from the U.S. market in 2011 when threatened by the FDA, but when it acquired the company earlier in the year, it was apparently not interested enough in "attacking health problems from new perspectives" to cease the sales of a drug that it presumably knew was causing inorganic arsenic contamination of chickens and poultry litter.

Keep in mind, also, that Congressional legislation had been introduced back in 2009 which would have banned Roxarsone because of concerns over inorganic arsenic contamination of chickens. 

But the story doesn't end here.

What makes matters worse, and what makes it completely unacceptable for the CDC to partnering with Pfizer, is that despite what it now knows about the dangers of Roxarsone, the company is apparently still selling the product in some countries outside the U.S., at least according to Force Change.

According to its petition urging the company to halt its international sales of Roxarsone: "In 2011, the FDA announced findings of higher levels of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens treated with the feed additive Roxarsone than in the livers of untreated control chickens.  The manufacturer Pfizer agreed to pull all of its supply from U.S. shelves, but decided to keep selling the product internationally. Inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen, and if it’s not safe enough for American consumers, it is not safe enough for consumers worldwide." ...

"Both humans and animals are eating chicken meat contaminated with arsenic, possibly risking their health and well-being.  Arsenic excreted by the chickens also poses a major health and environmental threat; feces runoff from chicken farms and fertilizer made from chicken waste may be polluting groundwater, lakes, oceans and other bodies of water."

"The FDA study findings found that Roxarsone-treated birds were found to have more than 800 times more total arsenic in their livers and 14 times more total arsenic in their meat than untreated birds.  Roxarsone-treated birds had 300 times more total arsenic in their livers and and ninefold more in their meat even after a 5 day washout period. The study also found that some Roxarsone treated birds tested fairly high for arsenic levels at 2,900 parts per billion, far exceeding the FDA tolerance level of 2,000 parts per billion.  Alpharma LLC, a subsidiary of Pfizer, voluntarily pulled Roxarsone off of U.S. shelves after the findings and should be applauded for this move. However, they are continuing to sell this product abroad, currently carrying in approximately 12 countries. ... Pfizer needs to protect all consumers, not just Americans. All human beings deserve to be protected in important issues such as the food supply. Our global neighbors should be able to trust American products and American companies, knowing that they have their best interests as heart.  Knowingly selling an additive that is tainting the food supply and damaging the environment is unconscionable and sends out a horrible message of indifference and greed."

Equally unconscionable is for a national public health agency to partner with that very company which is knowingly selling an additive that is tainting the food supply and damaging the environment.

The rest of the story is that CDC's continued willingness to partner with Pfizer under these conditions sends out a horrible message of indifference and greed.

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