Taking a deep breath on melamine

We’ve been hearing a lot in the news about melamine ever since it was directly implicated in the deaths thousands of pets. The latest news is that melamine has apparently entered the human food supply in the United States. As a result, there have been calls to give the FDA new enforcement powers and even suggestions that this could lead to a trade war with China. While the melamine contamination/adulteration of gluten and vegetable protein from China is a very serious issue, I believe that it’s past time that someone inject some perspective into this debate.

The toxicity of melamine in humans has not been determined. Because of tests on rodents (mostly rats), we know that melamine is toxic and causes kidney cancers at very high doses, but we don’t know what the equivalent doses are for humans. In addition, there is a chance that melamine and it’s metabolic byproducts are absorbed to some extent by the edible tissues of poultry, pigs, and cattle, but again we don’t know how much melamine the edible tissues absorb, so we don’t know how much melamine humans who eat those tissues might be exposed to.

In other words, we don’t know anywhere near enough to justify freaking out over this. That’s not to say we shouldn’t engage in some common-sense sorts of precautions, like eating more real food instead of highly processed foods packed fully of vegetable protein and gluten. But we should all take a deep breath and calm down. After all, melamine is just one more toxin we get exposed to (via inhalation, contact, or ingestion) every day.

Until we have more information, I’d prefer to worry about the known toxins in my environment. Things like benzene, arsenic, lead, mercury, pthalates, polychlorinated biphenyls, herbicides and pesticides, bovine growth hormone, dioxin, radon, antibiotics, formaldehyde, styrene, silicone, asbestos, silica….

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12 replies »

  1. On the plus side, the Chinese realise that they are actually part of an international trading PARTNERSHIP. It is one thing to produce cheap clothing and electronics that causes havoc on your own environment, it is quite another to export toxic food to outsiders.

    In other words, since the US is an important trade PARTNER to China, you buy their food but, in exchange, export your food standards. This should benefit both of you and scare the Chinese into realising that PARTNERSHIPS take work.

    soto voce: and vice versa.

  2. Melamine and benzine isn’t an either/or issue. It’s a both/and issue. And as I’ve said, I’m not lobbying for widespread public panic. But your stance here is that let’s not worry until it’s proven that we should worry. My stance is that we have all the evidence we need to get serious about getting this out of the system – today.

    So no, let’s don’t panic needlessly. But yes, let’s assume that it’s at least as bad as we have every reason to believe it is and act in a direct and timely manner.

  3. Melamine has an acute toxicity LD50 of 3161 mg/kg body weight (the amount that kills 50% of the animal it’s given to within 48 hours, in this case a rat). Benzene, because it usually has other nasty things around it, is generally more toxic (1500-2500 mg/kg body weight). Formaldehyde is even more toxic, at 600-700 mg/kg body weight. Dioxin is VERY toxic, taking 0.01 mg/kg body weight.

    For a little perspective, let’s talk legal chemicals that we eat all the time, namely ethanol (ie booze), caffine, aspirin, and salt. Ethanol is about 13,000 mg/kg, caffine kills at 200-400 mg/kg, aspirin at 1,700 mg/kg, and salt at 3750 mg/kg body weight.

    Yep, your coffee or cola drink is more acutely dangerous than melamine, and melamine is only slightly more acutely dangerous than salt.

    Now, this says nothing about the chronic and carcinogenic effects of melamine, and this is the area where, IMO, we SHOULD be most concerned. We’ve got real data on compounds like ethanol, caffine, benzene, polyvinyl chloride, etc. but have almost nothing on melamine. What this means to me, though, is that we have the time to let the FDA, CDC, NIH, et al do their work and give us real data on just how dangerous melamine is over the long run.

    I’ve got no problem holding China’s feet to the fire over this one. I’ve got no problem demanding peoples jobs and company’s dissolution over it either, just becaue it’s illegal to screw around with food. And I hope that companies like Menu Foods go bankrupt of it, if not because of the legal ramifications of their pet food killing pets than because of the consumer outcry and wholesale abandonment of their products. What I have a problem with is the media frenzy over something that isn’t highly toxic. We’re so whipped up over melamine right now that we’re second-guessing the experts instead of backing off to the (IMO appropriate) level of oversight.

    We need to step back and let the experts do their jobs.

  4. Brian,

    I appreciate your well reasoned stance on this issue, and I certainly bow to your scientific expertise (compared to mine, anyway). 🙂

    But I’m haunted by the closing statement of your reply to Sam: “We need to step back and let the experts do their jobs.”

    Given the politicization of every kind of scientific research by this administration, I feel zero confidence that FDA, CDC, or NIH will BE ALLOWED to “do their jobs” if their findings don’t meet administration criteria for economic expediency.

    Any thoughts?

  5. First, I have direct knowledge from an inside source that the “politicization of every kind of scientific research” is not as widespread as it has been reported. I know of at least one situation where an environmental group lied and said that an office had been unduly influenced by the Bush Administration simply because they didn’t like the outcome of meetings and negotiations on an environmental issue. So please, consider the political motives of the people claiming politicization of science just as you look at the political motives of the people supposedly involved in said politicization.

    Second, this was why I said we needed the media and citizens to step back to an oversight level. Keep the government organizations’ feet to the fire, but give them a chance to do it right. I also suggest that we make sure that non-government associated researchers do some of the work or a parallel effort. Academic research into toxicology has given us a LOT more information over the years than federal research has, and duplication of effort in this case serves two purposes – it provides an independent verfication of the data from the FDA, CDC, NIH, et al, and it gives us a means to perform some oversight.

  6. Jim is right, and if you look at everything I’ve written on the subject, my problem is less about melamine per se and more about the fact that we’re not really being protected. I used the term “E coli conservatives” a couple times, and for good reason – the mission of the “pro-business” right is to gut government’s ability to hinder the Warp 6 profit engines of DubyaCo’s rich buddies.

    Okay, so I’m painting broadly here. But look at the facts as you know them – wouldn’t you agree that we have every reason to be concerned about the effectiveness (and will) of our increasingly captive regulatory bodies?

  7. Absolutely, and I don’t think I’ve said we shouldn’t be concerned. But there’s a difference between reasoned concern and hysterical over-reaction. Some of what I’ve read here (not necessarily from anyone in particular) and some of the stuff I’ve read over on HorsesAss, as well as a significant portion of what I’ve read in the media and in comments around the blogosphere, qualifes as hysterical over-reaction instead of reasoned concern.

    There’s a continuum, and I’m trying to drag everyone back closer to the “reasoned concern” end of it.

  8. Brian,

    This is an administration who have changed scientific reports with which they don’t agree. I have a close friend at CDC – he regularly reports on “oversight” by non-scientists, i.e., political hacks for this administration.

    And this is an administration that pays NO attention to criticism of its scientififc positions by people as insignificant as SCIENTISTS.

    And given that way too many Americans get their news – and views – from Faux News Channel, I’m not sanguine about media/citizen oversight.

  9. Jim, I’ve seen the documented proof of tampering. That it happens is incontrovertible. But tampering does not happen as much as the media seems to think it does. There are organizations that have as little interest in scientific truth as the Administration does (there is documented proof that PETA lies outright, for example).

  10. Brian,

    I don’t doubt that the media overhypes the tampering issue- hell, they overhype every issue, so there we are….I guess that partly explains our existence here…? 😉

    But citing PETA? They’re well documented nuts, as we both know.

    But I expect PETA to be excessive and to lie. I expect the government to act to do those things stated explicitly in the Constitution such as “promote the general welfare.” The fact that they are systemically tampering with scientific research (see this link from Union of Concerned Scientists I shared with Rori in a comment) is, to me at least, a clear violation of the trust bond that the Preamble lays out between the people and their government.

    here’s the UCS link:

  11. Jim, I’m starting to think we’re talking past each other a little. I’m not denying that the government is supposed to “promote the general welfare,” and that tampering with scientific research runs contrary to the government’s role in national life.What I’m trying to point out is that some groups complaining about tampering have agendas that have led them to lie about tampering when it hasn’t actually occurred. Groups similar to the Sierra Club, WWF, Greenpeace, etc.

    All I’m asking is for you, and everyone else, to read reports instance of research tampering with a little skepticism. Ask for verifiable proof of tampering instead of automatically assuming that the tampering occurred simply because it has occurred somewhere else in the government previously.