Saturday, March 16, 2013

A few of my favorite things, III: Bromine and Lead and Lewis Powell

Hey did you know that if you add bromine to stuff the stuff gets thicker?  True.  This has come to the attention of many people recently because of a Facebook meme/ petition to get PepsiCo to remove brominated vegetable oil or BVO from soft drinks, where its used in Mountain Dew and Gatorade.  BVO is on a kind of permanent watch-list in the US, where it was dropped by the FDA at the high-water-mark of regulation achieved in US, before Lewis Powell's forces of darkness started the rollback; in Canada you can dump it wherever you want.  BVO in particular is added to soda - and the Times story at the link names a number of other sodas and sugary drinks - to "stabilize" the liquid, which is to say give it "mouth feel" or the feeling you're actually drinking something more substantial than water.  Most sodas use sugar or high-fructose corn syrup to accomplish mouth feel, but some use vegetable oil in solution.  And to keep the vegetable oil in solution, and from going bad, you add bromine to the oil.

Bromine is also used in flour to artificially pump up the utility of low-grade wheat.  It facilitates the gluten action in wheat that makes bread rise and stick together, allowing companies to use cheaper wheat while still providing the same tasty fluffy-yet-chewy quality we've come to love in our cheap empty-calorie snack cakes.  As Wikipedia emphasizes, under the right conditions the bromine is used up in the cooking process, which means that if the cooking happens under less than ideal conditions then the bromine remains.  Use of brominated flour was prohibited in Canada, the EU and a number of other enlightened countries during the 90s, and even in China in 2005.  Its still legal for use in the US, however, although California requires a warning label.
You see these everywhere you go in California, including pools, schools, office buildings and hospitals. Perhaps that makes them of limited value.
Bromine is also, sadly, used extensively in the production of those fat, delicious strawberries now making their way from California all across the land.  Methyl Bromide is used to fumigate the soil - as in, destroy all living things in the soil - to ensure those strawberries come out firm, unbruised and resilient enough to handle two weeks in a tractor-trailer truck making its way from Watsonville to Tea Neck or Brandon.

And of course let's not forget the flame retardant in your kids jammies!

Indeed, we have a friend in bromine.  Given that its everywhere, maybe we should ask what harm could possibly come from consuming bromine?

Before we explore that, let's consider the case of Lead.  Lead is also a friend, although maybe not as good a friend as bromine.  Lead is more like one of those friends that hit on your spouse, drink all your liquor, scare your kids and then steal your car and commit vehicular homicide while driving minors across state lines.  It appeared that lead was a great friend for many years.  And then, eventually, the evidence began to convince people who didn't have a monetary stake in the sale of lead, and the many people who just went along with them because it was conventional wisdom, that adding lead to gasoline was in fact a very bad idea, that while you could theoretically improve the performance of low-octane gasoline by adding lead to it, you were also destroying your civilization.  Along the way the Lead industry had to smear a lot of people and spend a lot of money fighting back and hiding those original documents showing lead wasn't really necessary and acknowledging that there were negative effects.  (Is it any wonder poor Associate Justice Powell had to work so hard to defend the American free enterprise system?)  Then lead was finally removed from its most obvious pollution vector, and we all moved on.

Except, of course, that the hangover from lead continues, in two forms.  First, there are hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people who suffered ill effects from lead exposure.  If personal-injury lawyers ever took up the cause mesothelioma lawsuits would look like small-claims court stuff held in front of Judge Judy by comparison.  Because lead is almost certain to have caused enormous cognitive damage and a near-perfect correlation in an increase in criminal misbehavior caused by that cognitive damage, across the planet.  Lead is still widely prevalent in soil in major urban centers literally everywhere, especially in areas close by major roads and intersections.  If you could thus prove that General Motors et. al. knew that adding lead to gasoline would pollute those areas, which is a no-brainer, and that lead would cause massive and irreparable cognitive damage, then you'd have a legal responsibility larger than the one faced by the tobacco companies.

Its the second consequence of lead pollution, though, that in some ways is more fascinating.  So the civilization poisons itself; big deal.  Like that hasn't happened before.  But there's a consequent rise in criminal misbehavior resulting from the cognitive damage caused by lead as well as a general rise in negative health effects, such as Alzheimers, reproductive issues, and liver problems (to name just three that pop to mind).  And the rise in criminal misbehavior has lots and lots of follow-on effects that are simply taken for granted.  Kevin Drum makes the point that the spectacular drop in crime we've seen in the last twenty years is assumed to be the result of better policing, and more generally I would add of the triump of conservative policies with respect to social welfare and education.  And yet it can nearly all be attributed, our current safe environment, to the prohibition of lead additives in gasoline.

So here we have a very clear example of a modern assumption about what appears to be a prevalent phenomenon, namely, the criminal misbehavior of certain groups of people, particularly in certain poverty-stricken areas with lax zoning regulations, their concomitant cognitive insufficiency for participation in modern society or success at the more abstract professions, and the futility of remediating or mitigating the decades-long inferiority exhibited by these groups.  In other words, the black and hispanic people who've lived on the wrong side of the tracks since the Irish and German immigrants moved up and out of those neighborhoods in the 20s are clearly just incapable of pulling themselves up, the argument goes, and that's because they're just naturally inferior.  No amount of government handouts will help these people, who may or may not be dumb to begin with but certainly don't seem to be all that smart.

Well, it turns out, not so much.  And not predisposed to pickpocketing more than their Irish forebears, either.  Because if the rise of the permanent criminal underclass is caused by the introduction of lead into gasoline, which coincides with the arrival of freeways, major intersections and various light-industrial generators in poor neighborhoods, then where the Irish and German immigrants had coal smoke to contend with on their way into the middle class, the people who escaped Jim Crow in the south or death squads even further south ran into a lead fog that destroyed several generations of inhibitions and initiative.

The long and the short of it is: All of this talk about crime misses the point.  Crime at the rates that have terrified generations of conservatives, that leads the head of the NRA to rail about gangs of criminals terrorizing neighborhoods, is caused by unremitting exposure to lead, and not even by poverty, or race, or the coddling tendencies of the bleeding-heart liberals in the nanny state.  Its lead that's been behind much of the paranoia that's infected politics in the OECD in the last fifty years, in more ways than one.

Bromine is an endocrine disruptor, similar to lead, and has significant cognitive effects as well.  But bromine appears to be replacing the body's uptake of iodine with bromide, triggering negative effects in the thyroid gland.  This isn't necessarily the bromism caused taking too much bromo-seltzer or excessive consumption of soda - although maybe it is.  But in chronic doses?  And the GI impact of bromism would cause significant allergic reactions to the gluten the bromine is bound to in bread, leading to Celiac disease.  There's a strange rise in Celiac disease in the last fifty years, and also hypothyroidism, and the clusters of energy and attention-related disorders grouped roughly as "autism." 

There is no direct evidence linking bromine with celiac disease and hypothyroidism.  But then no one has ever looked for it; all we have to go on is the introduction of bromine into the food supply in various components that then appear to have a direct effect on the physiological systems you'd expect them to impact, if they were going to impact.  So maybe bromine in soda doesn't affect the thyroid by mimicing iodide and triggering an allergic reaction that kills the relevant parts of the gland, and the bromine added to gluten in flour doesn't cause an allergic reaction to gluten that triggers the body to kill off the relevant enzymes.  The specific causes are, of course, underdetermined.  But they're sufficient to cause those reactions, even if we haven't demonstrated necessity and sufficiency.  In other words, adding bromine to soda and bread would probably do something to trigger allergic reactions, so we probably shouldn't do that.

I'm not sure if there's a bromine-industry lobby group as strong as the Lead lobby was through the 50s and 60s, or the tobacco companies.  It seems absurd that an element would have its own lobby group.  But a quick Google search demonstrates that yes, in fact, the Bromine industry (which just sounds laughable) spent many years trying to ensure bromine was a critical component in flame retardants.  And they used pretty much the same tactics as the lead industry and the tobacco companies.

My point here is not so much to claim that, hey, here's another chemical which has both insidious, damaging social and physiological effects and happens to be pervasive, to the point of being dumped into our food and clothing without regulation and defended as safe by people willing to lie for years - genuinely lie, because they know the substance they're defending and the use they're advocating cause public health crises.  My point is that we have made assumptions about the causes of social phenomenon that do not account for these very simple additives.

Consider how much ink has been spilled over the issue of crime and so-called minority populations.  Whole forests in British Columbia have been felled explaining the connection between the color of someone's skin and their predilection for violence, or arguing against it.  Vast majorities of white, middle- and upper-class people have justified their choices on schools, taxation, politics, urban policy, all based on the idea that there's an unfixable problem with brown poor people and their propensity for self-inflicted violence.  And hey, it turns out that the cause of all that problem was actually lead poisoning, and the lead poisoning could have been prevented decades prior to its actual end if not for the obfuscation of the relevant industry.  We consigned generations of people to violence and poverty so that a GM subsidiary could continue to profitably pollute.  And then we made policy that effectively blamed those people for their poverty and violence, in fact oriented our social-welfare politics around it since at least Reagan.

What does that tell us about our ability to draw conclusions?  Its embarassing, is what it is.  It makes conservatives look like deluded fools, and liberals look like patsies, and companies look evil, and while that's a pretty accurate reflection of reality it forces us to reconsider a host of other common chemical additives and our lack of concern for their use.

But at least, thank God, fluoride is safe.  Right?


No comments: