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TUESDAY, MARCH 29, 2005
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EDITORIAL

Creation of clearinghouse would protect consumers

The government cannot protect us from all product hazards, but it could set up manufacturer-financed databases to support long-term research of such hazards.

Last week, studies demonstrated that 75 percent of our food includes genetically modified ingredients. Also last week, scientists reiterated their concern that cellular telephones take a toll on our health.

Neither issue is new.

GM foods first appeared in 1964 when scientists in the Philippines created a hardier version of rice.

In 1986, Monsanto developed genetically modified bacteria that, sprayed on fields of strawberries, protected against frost.

In 1994, a genetically modified strain of tomatoes became the first GM food to gain widespread consumer acceptance.

What do we know about the impact of GM on human health? Not much. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has performed some studies, but the results and methodology are disputed and provide little direction on long-term hazards.

The benefits of GM crops are enormous, and the pressure from big business, farmers and advocates for undeveloped nations has accelerated GM food production beyond governmental health evaluations.

Cellular telephones are now pervasive, despite the fact that study results have been inconclusive on the subject of their long-term dangers.

Some scientists fear electromagnetic radiation from cellular phones — 70 percent of which is absorbed by the head — may damage DNA and cause brain tumors.

What GM food and cell phones have in common is that in both cases consumer acceptance preceded careful evaluation. And in both cases, it is almost inconceivable that any U.S. agency would try to pull the popular products off the market.

We should require companies with such innovative products to finance neutral, long-term clearinghouses that are freely accessible to researchers. Doctors and consumers could post possible links between product usage and health problems.

The cost would be manageable because the database would be a mere repository, not a research agency. Researchers — be they government agencies, company employees or consumer advocates — could analyze trends over the long term.

Most governmentally required product research focuses on safety issues as a prerequisite to product marketing. The problem with this approach is it misses long-term health issues. If no negative consequences are apparent in the short term, the agency gives the product's manufacturer a green light, with few requirements for long-term follow up.

Ideally, governmental agencies would block hazardous products from consumers. The examples of GM food and cell phones suggest this does not always happen.

An information clearinghouse, permitting researchers to analyze long-term trends, is the next best thing.

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