The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics.


Photographs by Evan Kafka

After this story went to press, the US Food and Drug Administration published a paper finding that BPA was safe in low doses. However, the underlying testing was done on a strain of lab rat known as the Charles River Sprague Dawley, which doesn’t readily respond to synthetic estrogens, such as BPA. And, due to laboratory contamination, all of the animals—including the control group—were exposed to this chemical. Academic scientists say this raises serious questions about the study’s credibility. Stay tuned for more in-depth reporting on the shortcomings of the FDA’s most recent study.

EACH NIGHT AT DINNERTIME, a familiar ritual played out in Michael Green’s home: He’d slide a stainless steel sippy cup across the table to his two-year-old daughter, Juliette, and she’d howl for the pink plastic one. Often, Green gave in. But he had a nagging feeling. As an environmental-health advocate, he had fought to rid sippy cups and baby bottles of the common plastic additive bisphenol A (BPA), which mimics the hormone estrogen and has been linked to a long list of serious health problems. Juliette’s sippy cup was made from a new generation of BPA-free plastics, but Green, who runs the Oakland, California-based Center for Environmental Health, had come across research suggesting some of these contained synthetic estrogens, too.

He pondered these findings as the center prepared for its anniversary celebration in October 2011. That evening, Green, a slight man with scruffy blond hair and pale-blue eyes, took the stage and set Juliette’s sippy cups on the podium. He recounted their nightly standoffs. “When she wins…every time I worry about what are the health impacts of the chemicals leaching out of that sippy cup,” he said, before listing some of the problems linked to those chemicals—cancer, diabetes, obesity. To help solve the riddle, he said, his organization planned to test BPA-free sippy cups for estrogenlike chemicals.

The center shipped Juliette’s plastic cup, along with 17 others purchased from Target, Walmart, and Babies R Us, to CertiChem, a lab in Austin, Texas. More than a quarter—including Juliette’s—came back positive for estrogenic activity. These results mirrored the lab’s findings in its broader National Institutes of Health-funded research on BPA-free plastics. CertiChem and its founder, George Bittner, who is also a professor of neurobiology at the University of Texas-Austin, had recently coauthored a paper in the NIH journal Environmental Health Perspectives. It reported that “almost all” commercially available plastics that were tested leached synthetic estrogens—even when they weren’t exposed to conditions known to unlock potentially harmful chemicals, such as the heat of a microwave, the steam of a dishwasher, or the sun’s ultraviolet rays. According to Bittner’s research, some BPA-free products actually released synthetic estrogens that were more potent than BPA.

Estrogen plays a key role in everything from bone growth to ovulation to heart function. Too much or too little, particularly in utero or during early childhood, can alter brain and organ development, leading to disease later in life. Elevated estrogen levels generally increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

Estrogenic chemicals found in many common products have been linked to a litany of problems in humans and animals. According to one study, the pesticide atrazine can turn male frogs female. DES, which was once prescribed to prevent miscarriages, caused obesity, rare vaginal tumors, infertility, and testicular growths among those exposed in utero. Scientists have tied BPA to ailments including asthma, cancer, infertility, low sperm count, genital deformity, heart disease, liver problems, and ADHD. “Pick a disease, literally pick a disease,” says Frederick vom Saal, a biology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who studies BPA.

BPA exploded into the headlines in 2008, when stories about “toxic baby bottles” and “poison” packaging became ubiquitous. Good Morning America issued a “consumer alert.” The New York Times urged Congress to ban BPA in baby products. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) warned in the Huffington Post that “millions of infants are exposed to dangerous chemicals hiding in plain view.” Concerned parents purged their pantries of plastic containers, and retailers such as Walmart and Babies R Us started pulling bottles and sippy cups from shelves. Bills banning BPA in infant care items began to crop up in states around the country.

Today many plastic products, from sippy cups and blenders to Tupperware containers, are marketed as BPA-free. But Bittner’s findings—some of which have been confirmed by other scientists—suggest that many of these alternatives share the qualities that make BPA so potentially harmful.

Those startling results set off a bitter fight with the $375-billion-a-year plastics industry. The American Chemistry Council, which lobbies for plastics makers and has sought to refute the science linking BPA to health problems, has teamed up with Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical—the maker of Tritan, a widely used plastic marketed as being free of estrogenic activity—in a campaign to discredit Bittner and his research. The company has gone so far as to tell corporate customers that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected Bittner’s testing methods. (It hasn’t.) Eastman also sued CertiChem and its sister company, PlastiPure, to prevent them from publicizing their findings that Tritan is estrogenic, convincing a jury that its product displayed no estrogenic activity. And it launched a PR blitz touting Tritan’s safety, targeting the group most vulnerable to synthetic estrogens: families with young children. “It can be difficult for consumers to tell what is really safe,” the vice president of Eastman’s specialty plastics division, Lucian Boldea, said in one web video, before an image of a pregnant woman flickered across the screen. With Tritan, he added, “consumers can feel confident that the material used in their products is free of estrogenic activity.”

Eastman’s offensive is just the latest in a wide-ranging industry campaign to cast doubt on the potential dangers of plastics in food containers, packaging, and toys—a campaign that closely resembles the methods Big Tobacco used to stifle scientific evidence about the dangers of smoking. Indeed, in many cases, the plastics and chemical industries have relied on the same scientists and consultants who defended Big Tobacco. These efforts, detailed in internal industry documents revealed during Bittner’s legal battle with Eastman, have sown public confusion and stymied US regulation, even as BPA bans have sprung up elsewhere in the world. They have also squelched debate about the safety of plastics more generally. All the while, evidence is mounting that the products so prevalent in our daily lives may be leaching toxic chemicals into our bodies, with consequences affecting not just us, but many generations to come.

THE FIGHT OVER THE SAFETY of plastics traces back to 1987, when Theo Colborn, a 60-year-old grandmother with a recent Ph.D. in zoology, was hired to investigate mysterious health problems in wildlife around the Great Lakes. Working for the Washington, DC-based Conservation Foundation (now part of the World Wildlife Fund), she began collecting research papers. Before long, her tiny office was stacked floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes of studies detailing a bewildering array of maladies—cancer, shrunken sexual organs, plummeting fertility, immune suppression, birds born with crossed beaks and missing eyes. Some species also suffered from a bizarre syndrome that caused seemingly healthy chicks to waste away and die.

While the afflictions and species varied widely, Colborn eventually realized they had two factors in common: The young were hardest hit, and, in one way or another, all of the animals’ symptoms were linked to the endocrine system, the network of glands that controls growth, metabolism, and brain function, with hormones as its chemical messengers. The system also plays a key role in fetal development. Colborn suspected that synthetic hormones in pesticides, plastics, and other products acted as “hand-me-down poisons,” with parents’ exposure causing affliction in their offspring. Initially, her colleagues were skeptical. But Colborn collected data and tissue samples from far-flung wildlife populations and unearthed previously overlooked studies that supported her theory. By 1996, when Colborn copublished her landmark book Our Stolen Future, she had won over many skeptics. Based partly on her research, Congress passed a law that year requiring the EPA to screen some 80,000 chemicals—most of which had never undergone any type of safety testing—for endocrine-disrupting effects and report back by 2000.

Around this time, the University of Missouri’s vom Saal, a garrulous biologist who previously worked as a bush pilot in Kenya, began studying the effects of synthetic estrogens on fetal mouse development. The first substance he tested was BPA, a chemical used in clear, hard plastics, particularly the variety known as polycarbonate, to make them more flexible and durable. (It’s also found in everyday items, from dental sealants and hospital blood bags to cash register receipts and the lining of tin cans.) Naturally occurring estrogens bind with proteins in the blood, limiting the amount that reaches estrogen receptors. But vom Saal found this wasn’t true of BPA, which bypassed the body’s natural barrier system and burrowed deep into the cells of laboratory mice.

Vom Saal suspected this would make BPA “a hell of a lot more potent” in small doses. Working with colleagues Susan Nagel and Wade Welshons, a professor of veterinary biology, he began testing the effects of BPA at amounts 25 times lower than the EPA’s safety threshold. In the late 1990s, they published two studies finding that male mice whose mothers were exposed to these low doses during pregnancy had enlarged prostates and low sperm counts. Even in microscopic quantities, it seemed, BPA could cause the kinds of dire health problems Colborn had found in wildlife. Before long, other scientists began turning up ailments among animals exposed to minute doses of BPA.

These findings posed a direct threat to plastics and chemical makers, which fought back using tactics the tobacco makers had refined to an art form. By the late 1990s, when tobacco companies agreed to drop deceptive marketing practices under a settlement agreement with 46 states, many of the scientists and consultants on the industry’s payroll transitioned seamlessly into defending BPA.

Plastics and chemical interests worked closely with the Weinberg Group, which had run Big Tobacco’s White Coat Project—an effort to recruit scientists to create doubt about the health effects of secondhand smoke. Soon Weinberg, which bills itself as a “product defense” firm, was churning out white papers and lobbying regulators. It also underwrote a trade group with its own scientific journal, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, which published studies finding BPA was safe.

The industry also worked hand in glove with the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, a think tank affiliated with the university’s school of public health that has a history of accepting donations from corporations and then publishing research favorable to their products. In the early 1990s, its founder, John D. Graham—who was later tapped as George W. Bush’s regulatory czar—lobbied to quash an EPA finding that secondhand smoke caused lung cancer, while soliciting large contributions from Philip Morris.

In 2001, as studies on BPA stacked up, the American Chemistry Council enlisted the center to convene a panel of scientists to investigate low-dose BPA. The center paid panelists $12,000 to attend three meetings, according to Fast Company. Their final report, released in 2004, drew on just a few industry-favored studies and concluded that the evidence that low-dose BPA exposure harmed human health was “very weak.” By this point, roughly 100 studies on low-dose BPA were in circulation. Not a single industry-funded study found it harmful, but 90 percent of those by government-funded scientists discovered dramatic effects, ranging from an increased breast cancer risk to hyperactivity. Four of the 12 panelists later insisted the center scrub their names from the report because of questions about its accuracy.

Chemical interests, meanwhile, forged deep inroads with the Bush administration, allowing them to covertly steer the regulatory process. For decades, the Food and Drug Administration has assured lawmakers and the public that BPA is safe in low doses. But a 2008 investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinelrevealed that the agency had relied on industry lobbyists to track and evaluate BPA research, and had based its safety assessment largely on two industry-funded studies—one of which had never been published or peer reviewed.

The panel the EPA appointed to develop guidelines for its congressionally mandated endocrine disruptor screening was also stocked with industry-backed scientists. It included Chris Borgert, a toxicology consultant who had worked closely with Philip Morris to discredit EPA research on secondhand smoke. He later served as the president of the International Society of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, the Weinberg Group-sponsored outfit, which met in the offices of a plastics lobbyist.

Members of the EPA panel say Borgert seemed determined to sandbag the process. “He was always delaying, always trying to confuse the issue,” recalls one participant. And the screening approach the EPA settled on came straight from the industry’s playbook. Among other things, the chemicals would be tested on a type of rat known as the Charles River Sprague Dawley—which, oddly, doesn’t respond to synthetic hormones like BPA.

How best to test for estrogenic activity would become a key front in the fight over plastic safety. The American Chemistry Council joined forces with an unlikely ally, PETA, to fight large-scale chemical-safety testing on animals. At the same time, Borgert and other industry-funded scientists made the case that the other common method for testing—using cells that respond in the presence of estrogen—did not necessarily tell us how a substance would affect animals or humans. In fact, a massive, ongoing NIH-run study has found that cell-based tests track closely with animal studies, which have accurately predicted the effects of synthetic estrogens, particularly DES and BPA, on humans.

Stanton Glantz, who directs the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California-San Francisco, argues the chemical industry’s real aim in challenging specific testing methods is to undermine safety testing altogether. “Like the tobacco companies, they want to set up a standard of proof that is unreachable,” he says. “If they set the standard of proof, they’ve won the fight.”
DURING THE HEIGHT of the battle over BPA, vom Saal periodically traveled to Texas and huddled around the dining table with his old friend George Bittner, whose home overlooks a walnut grove on the outskirts of Austin. Bittner, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford, is quirky and irascible. But he has a brilliant mind for science and an interest in applying it to real-world problems—in his lab at UT-Austin, he had developed a nerve-regeneration technique that had helped crippled rats walk within days. And he had taken a keen interest in vom Saal’s research on endocrine disruption. “It struck me as the most important public health issue of our time,” Bittner told me when we met at his lab. “These chemicals have been correlated with so many adverse effects in animal studies, and they’re so pervasive. The potential implications for human health boggle the mind.”

In the late 1990s, Bittner—a squat, ruddy man with thinning red hair and Napoleon Dynamite glasses who had made a tidy sum investing in real estate and commodities—began mulling the idea of launching a private company that worked with manufacturers and public health organizations to test products for endocrine disruptors. He believed this approach could help raise awareness and break the regulatory logjam—while also reaping a profit.

In 2002, armed with a $91,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Bittner launched a pair of companies: CertiChem, to test plastics and other products for synthetic estrogens, and PlastiPure, to find or develop nonestrogenic alternatives. Bittner then enlisted Welshons to design a special test using a line of breast cancer cells, which multiply rapidly in the presence of estrogen. It features a robotic arm, which is far more precise than a human hand in handling microscopic material.

But before long Bittner began butting heads with Welshons and vom Saal. Bittner wanted the researchers to sign over the rights to the test Welshons had developed, while they insisted it belonged to the University of Missouri. Eventually, they had a bitter falling out. Welshons and vom Saal filed a complaint with the NIH, alleging that Bittner had misrepresented data from Welshons’ lab in a brochure. (Bittner maintains that he merely excluded data from contaminated samples; the institute found no evidence of wrongdoing.) Bittner, meanwhile, enlisted V. Craig Jordan, a pharmacology professor at Georgetown University with an expertise in hormones—he discovered a now-common hormone therapy that blocks the spread of breast cancer—to refine the testing protocol. By 2005, Bittner had opened a commercial lab in a leafy office park in Austin. He managed to attract some big-name clients, including Whole Foods, which hired CertiChem to advise it on endocrine-disrupting chemicals and test some of its products.

At this point, BPA was among the most studied chemicals on the planet. In November 2006, vom Saal and a top official at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences convened a group of 38 leading researchers from various disciplines to evaluate the 700-plus existing studies on the subject. The group later issued a “consensus statement” that laid out some chilling conclusions: More than 95 percent of people in developed countries were exposed to levels of BPA that are “within the range” associated with health problems in animals, from cancer and insulin-resistant diabetes to early puberty. The scientists also found that there was “great cause for concern with regard to the potential for similar adverse effects in humans,” especially given the steep uptick in these same disorders.

At the same time, a new body of research was finding that BPA altered animals’ genes in ways that caused disease. For instance, it could switch off a gene that suppresses tumor growth, allowing cancer to spread. These genetic changes were passed down across generations. “A poison kills you,” vom Saal explains. “A chemical like BPA reprograms your cells and ends up causing a disease in your grandchild that kills him.”

Scientists were also uncovering links between endocrine-disrupting chemicals known as phthalates and health problems, including genital abnormalities and infertility in humans. These chemical additives were commonly found in soft, pliable plastics, such as those used in pacifiers and baby bottle nipples. In 2008, Congress passed a law banning six types of phthalates in children’s products. As concerns about BPA hit the mainstream, Congress also launched an investigation into the industry’s efforts to manipulate science and regulation, and a number of states proposed BPA bans.

In 2009, the BPA Joint Trade Association—which included the American Chemistry Council, Coca-Cola, and Del Monte, among others—gathered at the Cosmos Club, a members-only retreat in Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle. According to meeting minutes leaked to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the group explored messaging strategies, “including using fear tactics (e.g., ‘Do you want to have access to baby food anymore?’).” The “‘holy grail’ spokesperson,” attendees agreed, was a “pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA.”

Even as the industry crafted defensive talking points, some companies began offering BPA-free alternatives. But they often didn’t bother testing them for other potentially toxic compounds or synthetic hormones. Nor did they have to: Under US law, chemicals are presumed safe until proven otherwise, and companies are rarely required to collect or disclose chemical-safety data. Michael Green, the Center for Environmental Health director who worried about his daughter’s sippy cup, says this results in a “toxic shell game”: Corporations that come under pressure to root out toxins often replace them with untested chemicals, which sometimes turn out to be just as hazardous. “It’s an unplanned science experiment we’re doing on our families,” Green told me when I visited him at his Bay Area home, where Juliette, now 5, was padding around in a pink princess costume.

One of the most popular BPA-free options, especially among companies catering to families and health-conscious consumers, was Tritan, a clear, sturdy, heat-resistant plastic that Eastman rolled out in 2007. (Eastman also produces the chemical that sullied the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians in January.) A company founded by alternative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil launched a line of Weil Baby bottles made from Tritan, which it touted as “revolutionary” and “ultra-safe” material. Thermos began churning out Tritan sippy cups, decorated with Barbie and Batman. With more and more consumers demanding BPA-free products, Nalgene, CamelBack, Evenflo, Cuisinart, Tupperware, Rubbermaid, and many other companies also worked Tritan into their production lines.

Eastman, a $7 billion company that was spun off from Eastman Kodak in the 1990s, assured its corporate customers that it had done extensive safety testing on Tritan. But its methods were questionable. According to internal Eastman documents, in 2008 Eastman signed a two-year contract with Sciences International, another product defense firm that had played a key role in the tobacco industry’s scientific misinformation campaign. On Sciences’ advice, Eastman then commissioned a study that used computer modeling to predict whether a substance contains synthetic estrogens, based on its chemical structure. The model suggested that one of Tritan’s ingredients—triphenyl phosphate, or TPP—was more estrogenic than BPA.

Eastman, which never disclosed these findings to its customers, later commissioned another study, this one involving breast cancer cells. Again, the initial results appeared positive for estrogenic activity. In an email to colleagues, Eastman’s senior toxicologist, James Deyo, called this an “oh shit moment.”

Cell culture tests for estrogenic effects generally involve soaking plastic in alcohol or salt water, then exposing cells to various concentrations of the chemicals that seep out. After Deyo informed the lab that its findings must “be worded very well relative to the lack of” estrogenic activity, it issued a report that only counted data from the lowest concentrations—even though this violated the lab’s testing guidelines, and made the results appear negative when they weren’t. “The lab ignored its own criteria and misrepresented its findings,” says Michael Denison, a professor of toxicology at the University of California-Davis who evaluated the document.

Eastman wasn’t the only company testing Tritan. In 2009, Bittner’s PlastiPure, which was searching for nonestrogenic alternatives to recommend to clients, began vetting products made with it and found that some had even more estrogenic activity than their BPA-laden counterparts. PlastiPure’s CEO, Mike Usey, says CertiChem disclosed this to clients, but many chose Tritan anyway.

This was part of a broader pattern of indifference. According to Usey, hundreds of manufacturers—including most of the big baby bottle makers—contacted CertiChem to inquire about testing their BPA-free products for estrogenic chemicals, but few actually followed through. “Their position was: Until consumers are demanding nonestrogenic products, there’s no reason to be an early adopter,” Usey explains. “They want to delay as long as they can, because they know any transition will cost them.” In some cases, manufacturers paid for testing, then never collected the findings. “They didn’t want to know the results because there’s liability in knowing,” Usey says. “They’re right in the sense that you don’t want to know if you’re not going to fix the problem.”
DESPITE ITS “OH SHIT” FINDINGS, by 2010 Eastman began to produce marketing materials claiming that Tritan was free of all synthetic estrogens. One section of its website featured the tagline “Safety is our key ingredient” along with photos of smiling children eating and drinking out of plastic containers. The site claimed “third-party research” had shown Tritan to be free of estrogenic activity, but when corporate customers tried to verify this information, Eastman grew cagey. In early 2010, Philips Avent, a top producer of baby bottles and sippy cups, inquired about having an outside lab run testing on Tritan. Eastman’s senior chemist Emmett O’Brien fired off an email to colleagues, saying, “We need to [do] everything possible to convince the customer NOT to do EA [estrogenic activity] testing.” Philips was persuaded. But, according to testimony from Eastman executives, that same year Nestlé vetted Tritan, and found it leached synthetic estrogen. (Frédérique Henry, a spokeswoman for Nestlé, acknowledges the company tested Tritan but denies the results were positive.) Nestlé has nevertheless continued using Tritan in some of its water bottles.

Bittner and Usey, meanwhile, decided to go public. “As long as the consumer demand wasn’t there, product manufacturers felt we were selling them a problem rather than a solution,” Usey explains. “We saw this as the only way forward.” Bittner’s companies, which have received more than $8 million in NIH funding, began working with Jordan, the Georgetown professor, on a paper for publication. In the fall of 2010, Usey attended the ABC Kids Expo, a children’s product extravaganza in Las Vegas, and handed out flyers with a graph showing how various products that were marketed as nonestrogenic stacked up in CertiChem’s tests. The most estrogenic among them, Weil Baby bottles, were made from Tritan. (The company referred Mother Jones to a press release on its website stating that it “remains confident that Tritan is safe.”)

Soon Eastman’s customers began inquiring about CertiChem’s findings. For the most part, Eastman convinced them to disregard Bittner’s claims. At one point, O’Brien met with Whole Foods executives. They were considering replacing their polycarbonate bulk food bins with ones made from Tritan, even though Bittner had previously informed them that the product was estrogenic. According to a memo O’Brien later wrote, when the subject came up, he responded by attacking Bittner, whom he called “shady,” and his test results, which he alleged were “very questionable.” The Whole Foods executives later pressed O’Brien about the other tests carried out on Tritan.

The chemist claimed, falsely, that they were performed by independent scientists with no funding from Eastman and hadn’t turned up any evidence that Tritan leached synthetic estrogens. Whole Foods—which declined to comment for this story—plowed ahead and installed Tritan bins in many of its 270 US stores.

Eastman refused to answer questions for this story, but it released a written statement saying that it had “paid the labs for their time and expertise and not for a particular conclusion,” and remained “confident in the testing and safety of Tritan.”

In March 2011, the Environmental Health Perspectives paper by Jordan and researchers from CertiChem and PlastiPure appeared online. They’d tested 455 store-bought food containers and storage products, including several made from Tritan. The results? Seventy-two percent leached synthetic estrogens. And every type of plastic commonly used in food packaging (polypropylene and polystyrene, for example) tested positive in some cases, which suggested there was no surefire way to avoid exposure.

Other scientists have also found evidence of estrogen-mimicking chemicals in BPA-free plastics. In 2009, two German environmental toxicologists tested PET, a plastic commonly used in water bottles, on a strain of mud snails that produce more embryos when exposed to synthetic estrogen. Snails reared in PET bottles produced twice as many as those reared in a glass culture dish.

These studies don’t identify which estrogenic chemicals are leaching from BPA-free plastics, but many of these products are known to contain phthalates or bisphenol S (BPS), a chemical cousin of BPA that plastic makers frequently use in its place. Cell-culture tests suggest that BPA and BPS have similar effects.

In other cases, little may be known about the specific health effects of the chemicals involved, but a 2012 literature review by 12 prominent scientists found there is “substantial evidence” that endocrine-disrupting chemicals generally harm human health. “We know that there’s a cost when we mess with the levels of these hormones in our bodies, regardless of how we do it,” says the study’s lead author, Laura Vandenberg, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “Even small changes early in life can alter brain and organ development and set us up for disease later on.”

The month after Bittner’s study appeared, the American Chemistry Council contacted Chris Borgert, the former tobacco industry scientist who stymied the EPA’s Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program. According to internal emails, the council and the Society of the Plastics Industry offered to pay him $15,000 to write a brief letter to the journal’s editor refuting CertiChem’s study, and to enlist another scientist to sign on. Their letter argued that CertiChem’s findings were “unconvincing”; just because a substance behaved like estrogen in a culture dish didn’t mean it would do so in animals or humans.

At the same time, Eastman laid plans to sue CertiChem and PlastiPure for false advertising. Expecting that Bittner would lash out after being served papers, the company launched a preemptive PR blitz. “By proactively promoting Tritan safety,” an internal memo noted, “it will put PlastiPure in a position to have to prove Eastman wrong.” The company also paid a scientist named Thomas Osimitz $10,000 to author a research paper on Tritan. While Osimitz was ostensibly working independently, Deyo, the Eastman toxicologist, micromanaged the process, from designing the study to writing the introduction. Deyo’s study design virtually guaranteed estrogenic activity wouldn’t be found. For example, he opted to use the hormone-insensitive Charles River Sprague Dawley lab rat. Rather than testing Tritan itself, he instructed Osimitz to test only some Tritan ingredients—TPP, the one that had raised red flags in the computer-modeling study, was not included. (The European Union has since classified the compound as a suspected endocrine disruptor.)

In June 2012, Osimitz’s paper—finding that Tritan was not estrogenic—appeared in Food and Chemical Toxicology, an industry-friendly journal. Its editor, A. Wallace Hayes, was previously vice president of biochemical and biobehavioral research at R.J. Reynolds, which led the attack against science linking secondhand smoke to human health problems.

Scientific journals generally require authors to disclose any conflicts of interest. But the Food and Chemical Toxicology article made no mention of Eastman’s role in the study. According to internal Eastman emails, the company was also aiming to hire Osimitz to author a second paper, again with “no…mention of Eastman.” As Deyo noted, “credibility is somewhat enhanced if it is not ‘Eastman’ authors.”

Once its own data had been published, Eastman set out to bury Bittner’s findings. In August 2012, the company sued CertiChem and PlastiPure, which it claimed were spreading false information about Tritan to generate demand for their own services. Eastman’s lawyers asked the judge to bar both firms from ever claiming Tritan was estrogenic—or saying that cell-based tests could detect estrogenic activity, even though scientists routinely use them for this purpose. For decades, scientists have relied on the same breast cancer cell line Bittner’s lab uses, MCF-7, to screen for estrogenic activity. According to UMass’ Vandenberg, these cells have proven “remarkably good at telling us if compounds found in plastics and personal care products mimic estrogen” and their “failure rates are minuscule.”

On July 15, 2013, Bittner squared off against Eastman at a federal courthouse in Austin. The company’s attorneys went in hard. Specifically, they claimed running a company that tested products for estrogenic activity, as well as one that helped companies find nonestrogenic alternatives, created a conflict of interest. (Bittner counters that he’s no more conflicted than a doctor who both diagnoses and treats patients.) But they didn’t directly challenge the validity of Bittner’s findings. Instead, they leaned on the questionable industry claim that tests based on human cells aren’t sufficient to establish estrogenic activity.

Eastman’s star witness, Chris Borgert, made the case that animal studies—which the industry had also fought to undermine—were a more telling indicator. But even they were not “in and of themselves” definitive. For the result to be relevant, the effects had to be demonstrated “in an animal, at least, and then on to humans.” There was no mention of the ethical and legal barriers to testing on humans. And the judge barred Bittner’s lawyers from mentioning Borgert’s tobacco industry ties, which Eastman argued were “prejudicial.” This left the jury ill-equipped to gauge his credibility.

Borgert’s testimony may have done less damage than other factors. Bittner’s lawyers struggled to explain the science to jurors, and Bittner grew testy on the stand. Welshons, who’d designed CertiChem’s tests, testified in a deposition—just as he’d told the NIH—that Bittner had misrepresented some data in a brochure. Bittner’s attorneys managed to block his testimony from being introduced. But, Bittner says, his attorneys balked at presenting key evidence, such as figures on CertiChem’s NIH funding, because it might have made Welshons’ testimony admissible. Bittner also maintains that his rift with vom Saal and Welshons made it difficult to recruit witnesses.

Still, several prominent scientists testified for CertiChem, including UC-Davis’ Michael Denison, who coinvented a widely used test for estrogenic activity using human ovarian cells. Denison testified that he’d tested 27 samples of Tritan for estrogenic activity using this method and registered positives across the board.

But the most remarkable data might have come from none other than Wade Welshons. In the run-up to the trial, the University of Missouri scientist, who expected to prove Bittner wrong, began testing Tritan products in his lab. To his surprise, he wound up confirming CertiChem’s findings. “It doesn’t matter what I think of them personally,” Welshons told me. “If they’re right, they’re right, and many of my objections no longer matter.”

Welshons’ findings never made it into court, however, and when the jurors returned their verdict in late July, they found against Bittner’s companies on counts of false advertising and unfair competition. They also concluded Tritan was not estrogenic. Their rationale, according to postverdict interviews, echoed Eastman’s claims that estrogenic activity could not be established solely through cell-based tests. In his final ruling, the judge also noted that the “jury was likely unimpressed with Dr. Bittner’s combative demeanor.” And he upbraided both sides for failing to explain the science in terms jurors could understand. In the end, he barred Bittner’s companies from ever talking about their Tritan findings, at least in a commercial setting. But he refused to stop the companies from asserting that their tests could detect synthetic estrogens.

The long legal battle has depleted CertiChem and PlastiPure’s coffers—”We’ve laid off half of our staff,” Usey told me. “It has pretty much crushed us”—and emboldened Eastman. After I began raising questions about Tritan, Rick W. Harrison, an attorney for the chemical giant, inadvertently copied me on an emailabout Eastman’s damage control strategy. “If this somehow gets picked up by mainstream media—Oprah or NY media—Eastman sends Lucian [Boldea, the vice president of Eastman’s specialty plastics division] or whoever on the show prepped with the verdict, order and judgment and express surprise and indignation that these issues are still being raised after three years of litigation,” he wrote. “The court/jury has spoken and spoken loudly.”

The industry, meanwhile, has revived its campaign to downplay the dangers of BPA. A month after the Eastman case concluded, the American Chemistry Council relaunched its pro-BPA website, FactsAboutBPA.org. The section on infant health suggests that BPA isn’t harmful, even to premature babies. “They’re reverting back to exactly the arguments they were making in 1998,” says vom Saal. “It’s as if the last 15 years didn’t happen.”

US regulators also have continued to ignore the mounting evidence linking BPA and similar chemicals to human disease, even as bans have cropped up around the world. Although more than 90 studies examining people with various levels of exposure suggest BPA affects humans much as it does animals, the FDA recently announced that its research “supports the safety of BPA” in food containers and packaging. And the EPA program that was supposed to screen some 80,000 chemicals for endocrine disruption hasn’t fully vetted a single substance. In 2010, the agency sought White House approval to add some endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are commonly found in plastic—among them BPA, phthalates, and a class of compounds known as PBDEs—to its “chemicals of concern” list because it found they “may present an unreasonable risk to human health.” This would have required chemical makers to share safety-testing data with federal regulators. The proposal languished until last September, when the EPA quietly withdrew it, along with a proposed rule requiring manufacturers to disclose safety data on chemicals in their products.

Still, Bittner isn’t giving up the fight. When I visited CertiChem’s office in Austin recently, he was sitting barefoot at a conference table surrounded by sippy cups and heaps of lab notebooks. CertiChem and PlastiPure were planning to appeal the Eastman ruling (they’ve since done so) and were working with Denison on data for new papers, one on estrogenic activity in plastic resins, which are used to make plastic products and contain fewer additives that can skew results. Bittner called up a series of graphs on the overhead projector, showing the results for several new BPA-free plastics that he had tested for estrogenic activity. He raked his laser pointer over a graph displaying the results for Tritan. The line curved up steeply. “Eastman won the battle,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it will win the war.”

Medtronic CoreValve® System Obtains Early FDA Approval on Exceptional Clinical Performance.


  • Medtronic CoreValve® System Obtains Early FDA Approval on Exceptional Clinical Performance
  • Self-Expanding Aortic Valve Serves Broad Spectrum of Potential Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR) Patients Who Are Unable to Undergo Surgery

    Medtronic, Inc. (NYSE: MDT) today announced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the self-expanding transcatheter CoreValve® System for severe aortic stenosis patients who are too ill or frail to have their aortic valves replaced through traditional open-heart surgery. Untreated, these patients have a risk of dying approaching 50 percent at one year.

  • NoImageNoImage

    The FDA granted approval of the CoreValve device without an independent device advisory panel review after reviewing the clinical outcomes in the Extreme Risk Study of the CoreValve U.S. Pivotal Trial, which demonstrated that the CoreValve System is safe and effective with high rates of survival and some of the lowest rates of stroke and valve leakage reported.

    The Extreme Risk Study met its primary endpoint of death or major stroke at one year with a rate of 25.5 percent, which was 40.7 percent lower (p<0.0001) in patients treated with the CoreValve than was expected (based on a performance goal developed in partnership with the FDA). At one month, the rate of stroke was 2.4 percent, and it remained low over time with a one-year rate of 4.1 percent. Additionally, 75.6 percent of patients were alive at one-year. Contemporary results through the Continued Access Study, an extension of the U.S. pivotal Trial, demonstrated even better survival and stroke performance.

  • CoreValve in situ
    “The low rates of stroke and valve leakage with the CoreValve System – two of the most concerning complications of valve replacement because they increase the risk of death and have a dramatic impact on quality of life – set a new standard for transcatheter valves,” said Jeffrey J. Popma, M.D., director of Interventional Cardiology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, and co-principal investigator of the Trial. “The CoreValve U.S. Pivotal Trial was rigorously designed and applied clinical best practices. The trial results have redefined optimal TAVR outcomes in the areas that matter most to physicians and their patients, and the results are especially remarkable given the complex medical conditions and extreme frailty of this population.”

    In the U.S. Pivotal Trial, the CoreValve System also achieved exceptional hemodynamics, or blood flow, post-implant with results similar to the gold standard, surgical valves. Additionally, valve leakage (known as paravalvular leak or PVL) rates were low and decreased over time as the self-expanding valve conformed to the shape of a patient’s annulus – an improvement that has not been reported in other major TAVR studies.

    The CoreValve System was developed to serve the needs of the broadest range of patients with severe aortic stenosis. The FDA approved the entire CoreValve platform including the CoreValve Evolut™ 23mm, and the CoreValve 26mm, 29mm and 31mm valves. With the broadest size range available, the CoreValve System is suitable for patients with native valves of nearly all sizes. Its self-expanding nitinol frame enables physicians to deliver the device to the diseased valve in a controlled manner, allowing for accurate placement. All valve sizes are delivered via the smallest (18Fr, or 6mm) TAVR delivery system available, making it possible to treat patients with difficult or small vasculature.

    “The FDA approval of CoreValve System is important for U.S. heart teams as the CoreValve System will serve the broadest spectrum of aortic stenosis patients who are unable to undergo surgery,” said John Liddicoat, M.D., senior vice president, Medtronic, and president of the Medtronic Structural Heart Business. “By leveraging Medtronic’s history and expertise in bringing therapies to patients, we are supporting heart teams through training and education, imaging and patient evaluation programs that exemplify our safe and deliberate approach to patient access.”

    Since obtaining CE (Conformité Européenne) Mark in 2007, the CoreValve System has been supported by Medtronic’s deep TAVR expertise obtained through more than 50,000 implants outside the U.S.

    For the High Risk Study of the CoreValve U.S. Pivotal Trial, which is comparing the CoreValve System to traditional open heart surgery, the FDA determined it will conduct a separate review of the data.

    In collaboration with leading clinicians, researchers and scientists worldwide, Medtronic offers the broadest range of innovative medical technology for the interventional and surgical treatment of cardiovascular disease and cardiac arrhythmias. The company strives to offer products and services that deliver clinical and economic value to healthcare consumers and providers around the world.

     

Scientists use laser-powered mind control to make flies flirt


 Neurons treated with a heat-activated protein were activated with infrared lasers to trigger courtship behaviour

Using the ­whimsically named Fly Mind-Altering Device (also known as FlyMAD), researchers were able to trigger complex courtship behaviour in a target fly, essentially causing the insect to ‘fall in love’ with a ball of wax.

The research, led by Barry Dickson of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia, is similar to optogenetics; a method that activates neurons using light and that has previously been used to control behaviour in mice.

However, while optogenetics require fibre-optic cables to be embedded into mice skulls to activate the genetically-altered neurons, thermogenetics achieves the same effect by using infrared lasers to deliver the ‘instructions’ directly to the fly’s brain.

Scientists have previously influenced fly behaviour by adding a heat-activated protein called TRPA1 to neurons associated with certain actions. When flies modified in this way are placed in a hot box the targeted neurons activate and trigger certain behaviours.

FlyMAD, however, uses a video camera to track the fly as it moves around a box before directing an infrared laser at the insect and activating the parts of its neural circuit that control courtship.

A screenshot showing a fly controlled by FlyMAD approaching a ball of wax.

In a video from Nature, the subject fly can be seen attempting to mate with a ball of wax, circling and ‘singing’ to it by vibrating its wings. This courtship behaviour continued for 15 minutes after the laser had been shut off “suggesting that the heat had triggered a lasting, complex behavioural state”.

Another test conducted by the neuroscientists was able to instantly make flies walk backwards by activating TRPA1 that had been added to neurons associated with muscular coordination.

The paper written by Dickson and his team is currently awaiting peer review, although some neuroscientists have already welcomed thermogenetics as easier to use than current optogenetic techniques.

Speaking to Nature, Dickson said that he would like to combine the TRPA1 control method with an alternative technique that uses a different light-activated protein known as channelrhodopsin.  Scientists say they could then activate different neural circuits at the same time in order to “see which one wins”.

3D-printed ‘electronic glove’ could help keep heart beating for ever


 

Custom-fitted membrane expands and contracts with the heart, and could one day deliver electric shocks in response to a heart attack

Scientists have created a revolutionary new electronic membrane that could replace pacemakers, fitting over a heart to keep it beating regularly over an indefinite period of time.

The device uses a “spider-web-like network of sensors and electrodes” to continuously monitor the heart’s electrical activity and could, in the future, deliver electrical shocks to maintain a healthy heart-rate.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Washington University in St. Louis used computer modelling technology and a 3D-printer to create a prototype membrane and fit it to a rabbit’s heart, keeping the organ operating perfectly “outside of the body in a nutrient and oxygen-rich solution”.

The use of high-resolution imaging technology means that unlike current pacemaker and implantable defibrillator technology, the thin, elastic membrane will be custom-made to fit “snugly” over the real heart.

“When it senses such a catastrophic event as a heart attack or arrhythmia, it can also apply a high definition therapy,” said biomedical engineer Igor Efimov of Washington University, who helped design and test the device.

“It can apply stimuli, electrical stimuli, from different locations on the device in an optimal fashion to stop this arrhythmia and prevent sudden cardiac death,” Efimov told local radio station KWMU-1.

‘Cardiac socks’ of a similar design have been around since the 1980s but have previously been crude, fabric sleeves with electrodes sewn into place. This makes keeping the sensors in full contact with that famously restive organ the heart extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The innovation in this new device is the use of stretchable electronics developed by John Rogers, a materials scientists from the University of Illinois.

Although Rogers’ electronics use the same rigid materials found in normal electronics (eg silicon), the circuits are laid out in curved, s-shaped design that allows them to stretch and bend without breaking.

High resolution 3D imaging was used to scan the rabbit’s heart and create a mold.

Rogers himself compared the silicon sleeve to the pericardium, the heart’s own membrane, telling KWMU-1 that “this artificial pericardium is instrumented with high quality, man-made devices that can sense and interact with the heart in different ways that are relevant to clinical cardiology.”

Although immediate use for the device will be as a research tool allowing scientists to study how heart rate changes in response to different conditions in the future, electronic membranes of this sort could become common, monitoring at-risk individuals and safeguarding them from heart attacks.

First patient fitted with Carmat artificial heart dies


 The first patient fitted with an artificial heart made by the French company Carmat has died, the hospital that had performed the transplant in December said on Monday.

The 76-year-old man died on Sunday, 75 days after the operation, the Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris said in a statement, adding that the cause of his death could not be known for sure at this stage.

When he was fitted with the device, the man was suffering from terminal heart failure – when the sick heart can no longer pump enough blood to sustain the body – and probably had only a few weeks, or even days, to live.

Representatives of Carmat could not immediately be reached for comment.

The bioprosthetic organ product is designed to replace the real heart for up to five years, mimicking nature’s work using biological materials and sensors. It is aimed at helping the thousands of patients who die each year while awaiting a donor, and reducing the side-effects associated with transplants.

Three more patients in France with acute heart failure are due to be fitted with the device.

The clinical trial will be considered a success if patients survive with the implant for at least a month.

If it passes the test, the device will then be fitted into about 20 patients with less severe heart failure.

“The doctors directly involved in the post-surgical care wish to highlight the value of the lessons learned from this first clinical trial, with regard to the selection of the patient, his surveillance, the prevention and treatment of difficulties encountered,” the hospital said in its statement.

Climate change affects fish living in the deepest parts of the ocean, scientists claim


 

 Biologists used ultra-deep cameras and animal traps placed 7,000 metres under the ocean near New Zealand to make their discoveries
Rarely seen creatures that lurk 7,000m (23,000ft) under the surface of the Pacific Ocean could indicate that the deep sea is a “silent victim” of climate change.
In the world’s first deep sea biology expedition to the New Hebrides Trench in the South Pacific, scientists from the University of Aberdeen and researchers from New Zealand discovered that marine life is sparser and less varied than predicted.

The scientists set out to investigate whether the biodiversity seen in very deep trenches elsewhere in the Pacific Rim were mirrored in the New Hebrides Trench – which lies east of the isle of New Caledonia, 1,000 miles from New Zealand.

Voyage leader Dr Alan Jamieson, of the University of Aberdeen’s Oceanlab which carried out the expedition in collaboration with the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) in New Zealand, said: “What we found was an entirely different deepwater fish community.

“Fish were surprisingly few in number and low in diversity and not at all what we expected.”

Dr Jamieson said of his eleventh expedition into the ultra-deep trenches of the Pacific Rim: “We also stumbled across another surprise. The area in and around the New Hebrides Trench was swarming with large bright red prawns which are typically seen in very low numbers in other areas.”

“The team also obtained several extremely rare samples, of cusk eels, eel pouts, arrow-tooth eels and thousands of samples of small crustaceans which are now being curated in New Zealand and Australia.

Researchers deployed Oceanlab designed ultra-deep cameras and animal traps 27 times between 2,000m and 7,000m deep in the New Hebrides Trench, with a further nine deployments in the neighbouring South Fiji Basin.

The trip was the hundredth and last which in a seven-year series of projects called Hadeep (The Hadal Environmental and Education Partnership), which used the Oceanlab-designed remotely operated camera and bait equipment.

Dr Jamieson added: “The voyage unearthed a wealth of new video and nearly 10,000 images which are providing great insight into these deep-sea communities.

“These new finds are a stark reminder that even the deepest parts of the world are intrinsically linked to the productivity of the surface waters.

“Should the current system change, it is highly likely to have significant cascading effects on the deep sea community.

“The deep sea is potentially a kind of silent victim in the era of a changing climate,” he added.

30,000-year-old virus comes to life


Pithovirus sibericum

The virus was inactive for more than 30,000 years until it was revived in a laboratory in France

An ancient virus has “come back to life” after lying dormant for at least 30,000 years, scientists say.

It was found frozen in a deep layer of the Siberian permafrost, but after it thawed it became infectious once again.

The French scientists say the contagion poses no danger to humans or animals, but other viruses could be unleashed as the ground becomes exposed.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Professor Jean-Michel Claverie, from the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) at the University of Aix-Marseille in France, said: “This is the first time we’ve seen a virus that’s still infectious after this length of time.”

Biggest virus

The ancient pathogen was discovered buried 30m (100ft) down in the frozen ground.

Called Pithovirus sibericum, it belongs to a class of giant viruses that were discovered 10 years ago.

Pithovirus sibericum
The virus infects amoebas but does not attack human or animal cells

These are all so large that, unlike other viruses, they can be seen under a microscope. And this one, measuring 1.5 micrometres in length, is the biggest that has ever been found.

The last time it infected anything was more than 30,000 years ago, but in the laboratory it has sprung to life once again.

Tests show that it attacks amoebas, which are single-celled organisms, but does not infect humans or other animals.

Co-author Dr Chantal Abergel, also from the CNRS, said: “It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell. It is able to kill the amoeba – but it won’t infect a human cell.”

However, the researchers believe that other more deadly pathogens could be locked in Siberia’s permafrost.

“We are addressing this issue by sequencing the DNA that is present in those layers,” said Dr Abergel.

“This would be the best way to work out what is dangerous in there.”

‘Recipe for disaster’

The researchers say this region is under threat. Since the 1970s, the permafrost has retreated and reduced in thickness, and climate change projections suggest it will decrease further.

It has also become more accessible, and is being eyed for its natural resources.

Prof Claverie warns that exposing the deep layers could expose new viral threats.

He said: “It is a recipe for disaster. If you start having industrial explorations, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from.”

He told BBC News that ancient strains of the smallpox virus, which was declared eradicated 30 years ago, could pose a risk.

“If it is true that these viruses survive in the same way those amoeba viruses survive, then smallpox is not eradicated from the planet – only the surface,” he said.

“By going deeper we may reactivate the possibility that smallpox could become again a disease of humans in modern times.”

“Start Quote

Finding a virus still capable of infecting its host after such a long time is still pretty astounding”

Prof Jonathan BallUniversity of Nottingham

However, it is not yet clear whether all viruses could become active again after being frozen for thousands or even millions of years.

“That’s the six million dollar question,” said Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist from the University of Nottingham, who was commenting on the research.

“Finding a virus still capable of infecting its host after such a long time is still pretty astounding – but just how long other viruses could remain viable in permafrost is anyone’s guess. It will depend a lot on the actual virus. I doubt they are all as robust as this one.”

He added: “We freeze viruses in the laboratory to preserve them for the future. If they have a lipid envelope – like flu or HIV, for example – then they are a bit more fragile, but the viruses with an external protein shell – like foot and mouth and common cold viruses – survive better.

“But it’s the freezing-thawing that poses the problems, because as the ice forms then melts there’s a physical damaging effect. If they do survive this, then they need to find a host to infect and they need to find them pretty fast.”

Big Data: Are you ready for blast-off?


As Technology of Business begins a month-long series of features on the theme of Big Data, we kick off with a Q&A backgrounder answering some of those basic questions you were too afraid to ask.

What is big data exactly?

Good question. After all, we’ve always had large amounts of data haven’t we, from loyalty card schemes, till receipts, medical records, tax returns and so on?

As Laurie Miles, head of analytics for big data specialist SAS, says: “The term big data has been around for decades, and we’ve been doing analytics all this time. It’s not big, it’s just bigger.”

But it’s the velocity, variety and volume of data that has merited the new term.

So what made it bigger?

Most traditional data was structured, or neatly organised in databases. Then the world went digital and the internet came along. Most of what we do could be translated into strings of ones and noughts capable of being recorded, stored, searched, and analysed.

There was a proliferation of so-called unstructured data generated by all our digital interactions, from email to online shopping, text messages to tweets, Facebook updates to YouTube videos.

Man checking phone before networked society poster
As the number of mobile phones grows globally, so does the volume of data they generate from call metadata, texts, emails, social media updates, photos, videos, and location

And the number of gadgets recording and transmitting data, from smartphones to intelligent fridges, industrial sensors to CCTV cameras, has proliferated globally, leading to an explosion in the volume of data.

These data sets are now so large and complex that we need new tools and approaches to make the most of them.

How much data is there?

“Start Quote

Early adopters of Big Data analytics have gained a significant lead over the rest of the corporate world”

Bain & Company

Nobody really knows because the volume is growing so fast. Some say that about 90% of all the data in the world today has been created in the past few years.

According to computer giant IBM, 2.5 exabytes – that’s 2.5 billion gigabytes (GB) – of data was generated every day in 2012. That’s big by anyone’s standards. “About 75% of data is unstructured, coming from sources such as text, voice and video,” says Mr Miles.

And as mobile phone penetration is forecast to grow from about 61% of the global population in 2013 to nearly 70% by 2017, those figures can only grow. The US government’s open data project already offers more than 120,000 publicly available data sets.

Where is it all stored?

The first computers came with memories measured in kilobytes, but the latest smartphones can now store 32GB and many laptops now have one terabyte (1,000GB) hard drives as standard. Storage is not really an issue anymore.

NSA data centre in UtahThe US National Security Agency has built a huge data centre in Bluffdale, Utah – codenamed Bumblehive – capable of storing a yottabyte of data – that’s one thousand trillion gigabytes

For large businesses “the cost of data storage has plummeted,” says Andrew Carr, UK and Ireland chief executive of IT consultancy Bull. Businesses can either keep all their data on-site, in their own remote data centres, or farm it out to “cloud-based” data storage providers.

A number of open source platforms have grown up specifically to handle these vast amounts of data quickly and efficiently, including Hadoop, MongoDB, Cassandra, and NoSQL.

Why is it important?

Do you know your big data numbers?

1,000 bytes = one kilobyte (kB)

1,000 kB = one megabyte (MB)

1,000 MB = one gigabyte (GB)

1,000 GB = one terabyte (TB)

1,000 TB = one petabyte (PB)

1,000 PB = one exabyte (EB)

1,000 EB = one zettabyte (ZB)

1,000 ZB = one yottabyte (YB)

(Figures are decimal, not binary)

Data is only as good as the intelligence we can glean from it, and that entails effective data analytics and a whole lot of computing power to cope with the exponential increase in volume.

But a recent Bain & Co report found that of 400 large companies those that had already adopted big data analytics “have gained a significant lead over the rest of the corporate world.”

“Big data is not just historic business intelligence,” says Mr Carr, “it’s the addition of real-time data and the ability to mash together several data sets that makes it so valuable.”

Practically, anyone who makes, grows and sells anything can use big data analytics to make their manufacturing and production processes more efficient and their marketing more targeted and cost-effective.

It is throwing up interesting findings in the fields of healthcare, scientific research, agriculture, logistics, urban design, energy, retailing, crime reduction, and business operations – several of which we’ll be exploring over the coming weeks.

Thai farmer works in rice fieldBy analysing weather, soil, topography and GPS tractor data, farmers can increase crop yields

“It’s a big deal for corporations, for society and for each individual,” says Ralf Dreischmeier, head of The Boston Consulting Group’s information technology practice.

Can we handle all this data?

Big data needs new skills, but the business and academic worlds are playing catch up. “The job of data scientist didn’t exist five or 10 years ago,” says Duncan Ross, director of data science at Teradata. “But where are they? There’s a shortage.”

And many businesses are only just waking up to the realisation that data is a valuable asset that they need to protect and exploit. “Banks only use a third of their available data because it often sits in databases that are hard to access,” says Mr Dreischmeier.

“We need to find ways to make this data more easily accessible.”

Businesses, governments and public bodies also need to keep sensitive data safe from hackers, spies and natural disasters – an increasingly tall order in this mobile, networked world.

Who owns it all?

That’s the billion dollar question. A lot depends on the service provider hosting the data, the global jurisdiction it is stored in, and how it was generated. It is a legal minefield.

Facebook logo
Facebook’s logo – created using photos of its global users – adorns the wall of a new data centre in Sweden – its first outside the US. But who has rights to all the data?

Does telephone call metadata – the location, time, and duration of calls rather than their conversational content – belong to the caller, the phone network or any government spying agency that happens to be listening in?

When our cars become networked up, will it be the drivers, owners or manufacturers who own the data they generate?

Social media platforms will often say that their users own their own content, but then lay claim to how that content is used, reserving the right to share it with third parties. So when you tweet you effectively give up any control over how that tweet is used in future, even though Twitter terms and conditions say: “What’s yours is yours.”

Privacy and intellectual property laws have not kept up with the pace of technological change.

Calcium, building block for the world


Bath stone buildings -

It’s the fifth most abundant element on earth – and the world’s building block. Do we fully appreciate the value of calcium?

Most of us are familiar with the idea that our bodies need calcium. I remember being told to drink up my milk because the calcium in it would make my bones strong.

And calcium is indeed the key element in our bones. In fact, it is the most abundant metal in the human body – and in those of most other animals too.

Many organisms use calcium to build the structures that house and support them – skeletons, egg shells, mollusc shells, coral reefs and the exoskeletons of krill and other marine organisms.

And calcium is also the key ingredient in man’s most important structural material – cement.

These days virtually all our architecture, all our great building and engineering projects start with calcium, because cement is the basis of the most widely used man-made substance on earth – concrete.

Fortunately there’s a lot of calcium about – the soft grey metal is the fifth most abundant element in the earth’s crust.

There is plenty dissolved in the sea. For millennia, marine organisms have been combining it with carbon dioxide they fix from the atmosphere to make shells of calcium carbonate.

Limestone

When they die, their shells and skeletons sink down to the bottom of the sea and collect in great drifts. Over millions of years they have been compacted to form limestone, chalk and marble.

Calcium – key facts

Calcium symbol
  • Found in sedimentary rocks, including limestone, and minerals such as calcite, dolomite and gypsum
  • Comes from Latin word calx (lime)
  • Used in the making of cement and cheese
  • Pure calcium is a silvery metal, a little harder than lead

When you get the chance, take a close look at a piece of limestone. You’ll probably see the tiny fossils of the ancient marine creatures of which it is composed.

Some 10% of all sedimentary rock is limestone, which is pretty extraordinary when you consider that it represents the concentrated bodily remains of living creatures.

So how do we get from limestone to concrete?

The key is extracting the calcium from limestone. It’s a trick mankind learned very early on.

In principle the process is pretty simple – you just need to heat limestone up.

What you do is place your limestone – calcium carbonate – in a fire where the temperatures are high enough to drive out the carbon atoms as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That leaves you with calcium oxide – more commonly known as lime.

Big snail shell

Lime is the basis of most cements – the glue that hold rocks and particles of sand together to make concrete.

Recent archaeological discoveries show some prehistoric people created concrete, even before they’d discovered the first metals.

Over the last two decades, a German archaeologist working in Turkey has uncovered what he believes is the world’s first temple. It is a complex of carved stones erected about 11,000 years ago – 6,000 years before Stonehenge.

Pont de GardAn early “concrete” was used on the Pont du Gard, constructed out of soft yellow limestone blocks

The site is called Gobekli Tepe – Pot-bellied Hill in Turkish – and features floors made of very early cements.

The technology was refined over the millennia. Two magnificent Roman buildings, the Pantheon and the Pont du Gard at Nimes, showed the potential of concrete.

They used it to enclose space with an unsupported dome, and to bridge considerable spans without reinforcement.

Elementary Business

Plant, balloons and aluminium can

Nevertheless, these early concretes remained brittle and weak, which is why most buildings continued to be made of stone and brick.

The breakthrough came in the 1840s.

On a rainy February afternoon I went to see the site of this momentous advance. It could hardly be less cherished.

I had an expert guide in Edwin Trout, the chief archivist of the Concrete Society. We met outside WE Roberts’ cardboard box factory on the banks of the Thames Estuary in Kent. Our destination lay deep within the factory complex.

We were led down an alleyway between two big buildings and in through a low door.

We had to duck under a cardboard corrugating machine – a surprisingly large contraption – and then through a door in the wall of the factory.

cement kiln
Portland cement was created inside a bottle kiln

It opened out on to a small courtyard almost entirely taken up by a looming brick structure. It was hard to get a good view, because it was surrounded on all sides by the walls of the factory. Nevertheless, it was clear that Edwin was excited by what he was seeing.

“Portland cement was first developed at this site by a chap called William Aspdin,” he told me.

The brick circular structure, he explained, is one of the earliest kilns used to produce this new cement.

It is known as a bottle kiln, because of its shape, and it was here that Aspdin experimented – burning the limestone by baking it with clay at the then unthinkable temperature of 1450C. The result was a solid amalgam of the two materials known as “clinker”.

Aspdin discovered that when this was ground to a fine powder, it produced an exceptionally powerful cement. And very soon, he got the perfect opportunity to test out his new product.

It came about because of what became known as “The Big Stink”.

At the time, the Thames was essentially an open sewer. The booming population of London, the spread of industry, and the development of the flush toilet, all meant the volume of waste flowing into the river had risen dramatically.

Joseph Bazalgette created an underground complex of sewers using concrete

In the hot summer of 1858, the stench became unbearable and there was a public outcry. The London boroughs finally agreed to commission the great network of new sewers that had been proposed by the visionary engineer Joseph Bazalgette.

The builders performed rigorous tests of the various cements on the market in order to choose the very best one for their vast scheme – the greatest public works project ever undertaken.

Portland cement, Edwin Trout tells me proudly, won easily. It was, he says, “stronger, more durable and – by that stage – more widely available too”.

And it is a testament to the strength of the cement – and the power of calcium – that, 150 years later, Londoners are still using the sewers Bazalgette built to flush away their waste.

Find out more

In Elementary Business, BBC World Service’s Business Daily goes back to basics and examines key chemical elements – and asks what they mean for businesses and the global economy.

  • Indeed, the incredibly strong concrete Portland cement creates has transformed the building industry across the world – as the skyline of every major city shows.

The world produces about 3.5bn tonnes of cement a year. Given that cement is usually between 10% and 15% of the mix in concrete, that’s enough cement to produce about four tonnes of concrete for every person on earth each year.

The problem is that creating all the cement for all that concrete is doubly polluting.

You need vast amounts of energy to get your kiln hot enough to bake all that limestone, and that usually means burning fossil fuels. And the limestone itself produces vast amounts of greenhouse gases, as all the carbon dioxide fixed by those ancient sea creatures is driven into the atmosphere.

Every ton of cement produces almost a ton of CO2. That’s why the concrete industry is reckoned to be one of the most polluting on earth, responsible for up to 5% of total CO2 emissions.

‘Fewer crops’ now feeding the world


Combine-harvester working in a wheat field (image: AP)

A growing reliance on crops like wheat help feed a growing population – but at what cost?
Fewer crop species are feeding the world than 50 years ago – raising concerns about the resilience of the global food system, a study has shown.

The authors warned a loss of diversity meant more people were dependent on key crops, leaving them more exposed to harvest failures.

Higher consumption of energy-dense crops could also contribute to a global rise in heart disease and diabetes, they added.

The study appears in the journal PNAS.

“Over the past 50 years, we are seeing that diets around the world are changing and they are becoming more similar – what we call the ‘globalised diet’,” co-author Colin Khoury, a scientist from the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture, explained.

Vegetable stall, India (Image: BBC)Other crops provide the supplementary nutrients to diets that the major staple foods cannot deliver

“This diet is composed of big, major cops such as wheat, rice, potatoes and sugar.

“It also includes crops that were not important 50 years ago but have become very important now, particularly oil crops like soybean,” he told BBC News.

While wheat has long been a staple crop, it is now a key food in more than 97% of countries listed in UN data, the study showed.

And from relative obscurity, soybean had become “significant” in the diets of almost three-quarters of nations.

He added that while these food crops played a major role in tackling global hunger, the decline in crop diversity in the globalised diet limited the ability to supplement the energy-dense part of the diet with nutrient-rich foods.

Amid the crops recording a decline in recent decades were millets, rye, yams, sweet potatoes and cassava.

Infographic

The study by an international team of scientists also found that the homogenisation of the global diet could be helping accelerate the rise in non-communicable diseases – such as diabetes and heart disease – which are becoming an increasing problem worldwide.

Crop failure fears

Fellow co-author Luigi Guarino, from the Global Crop Diversity Trust, added: “Another danger of a more homogeneous global food basket is that it makes agriculture more vulnerable to major threats like drought, insect pests and diseases, which are likely to become worse in many parts of the world as a result of climate change.

‘Doomsday vault’

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Image: GCDT)

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is designed to protect the genetic diversity of the world’s food crops

“As the global population rises and the pressure increases on our global food system, so does our dependence on the global crops and production system that feeds us.

“The price of failure of any of these crops will become very high,” he warned.

Last month, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that called on EU nations to adopt measures to preserve crops’ biological and genetic diversity in order for plant breeders to provide adaptable varieties of crops that will be able to cope with projected climatic changes and the need to increase yields.

MEPs said they were concerned that the global plant breeding market was currently “dominated by just a few large multinational undertakings which invest only in a limited number of varieties”.

They added that estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggested that “the diversity of cultivated crops declined by 75% during the 20th Century and a third of of today’s diversity could disappear by 2050”.

Another study published in February warned there was a risk that the severity of some wheat disease epidemics may increasewithin the coming decades as a result of the impacts of climate change.

In order to improve the resilience of the global food system to future shocks, Mr Khoury said an expansion in the diversity of the globally important crops was needed.

“We also need to ensure the the genetic diversity is available to people,” he suggested.

“That diversity comes from old varieties and the wild species that are related to the crops.

“A good example is if you are a breeder of maize (corn) in southern Africa where the crop is the main staple, then the diversity you will want will typically come from where the crop originated, which is Mesoamerica (Mexico to Belize).

“It is important already and will be increasingly important in the future that the people producing varieties suitable for southern Africa actually have access to varieties from Mexico.”