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 V.14 No.41 | October 13 - 19, 2005 

Ortiz y Pino

Not So Sweet

The state's Environmental Improvement Board will hold hearings on the dangers posed by a household sweetener

Stephen Fox can be a real pest. The Santa Fe gallery owner is a familiar presence in legislative hallways, at public hearings of regulatory bodies and in letters to the editor sections in newspapers around the state. It is a safe bet that if New Mexico's top dozen corporate lobbyists sat down and ranked their 10 least favorite citizens in the state, Fox would make all 12 lists. We owe him big time.

He is that most valuable of citizens; the tireless, never-discouraged blower of whistles and asker of inconvenient questions. When the watchdogs at the henhouse gate start yawning and begin to lay their sleepy little heads down for a quick nap, the whistleblower makes sure they don't drowse off. We need a lot more Stephen Foxes because the fatigue level among our henhouse watch staff is always too high.

When the governmental regulatory agencies start approving drugs, additives and medicines that aren't demonstrated as safe, the asker of inconvenient questions raises an alarm we all benefit from. Vioxx, asbestos and several dozen other now-discredited “miracles of modern science” might have been kept at bay if answers to the inquiries of pests like Stephen Fox had been required before they got into our national bloodstream.

Now Fox is zeroing in on aspartame (e.g. Equal, NutraSweet), and to his everlasting credit he will not rest until the stuff is removed from stores around the country. When you realize that this artificial sweetener is now used in over 6,000 processed foods and drinks currently on the market, you begin to understand the serious challenge he faces.

You also realize the economic power of the multinational corporations that are arrayed against him. But the team of scientific skeptics from around the globe whose work on the risks entailed in ingesting aspartame is also impressive. Fox used their research and the testimony of pediatricians and scientists to persuade New Mexico's Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) to hold hearings next summer on the dangers posed by aspartame.

Just getting those hearings scheduled is a victory of major proportions.

The EIB is charged with protecting the purity of our food, air and water supplies, but this is the first time in its history that it has actually been challenged to take a look at a food additive. That they are starting with one with several decades of FDA-approved use on record is a mighty big bite.

Lawyers and lobbyists for the big soft-drink companies and the chemical giant Ajinomoto (a Japanese conglomerate that is the largest manufacturer of the substance in the world) argued to the EIB that it shouldn't spend time on the issue, because the FDA has spoken and that should be enough.

This last statement might have been the final straw; the nail in the coffin. No New Mexican appointed official worth their salt would agree that you can trust the feds. So the EIB, to most observers' surprise, will hold hearings. And it should be a fascinating process.

No corporate hired gun in the country wants hearings like this about their product. While the chances of the EIB actually doing something to stop this stuff from reaching New Mexicans' digestive systems are remote, the three-ring circus atmosphere that will surround the testimony, the stark stories from research labs about the presence of formaldehyde in aspartame and the neurodegenerative afflictions, cancers and other tumors that have been linked to this substance are a corporate press agent's worst nightmare.

So you can expect that there will be court action to prevent our state hearings into the safety and long-term effects of this chemical. The argument (and it shouldn't surprise anyone that it is being parroted by the Albuquerque Journal, that sleepiest of sentinels for public health concerns when corporate bottom lines might be affected) is that if the FDA has approved aspartame, that ought to be good enough.

Except the FDA approval itself may have been over the objections of its own scientists. Except the FDA's recent track record of protecting us from bad chemistry is far from sterling. Except the corporate donations to political campaigns of policy makers seems to carry more weight with FDA decisions than the real-world experiences of victims of dangerous substances.

I don't know enough about the chemistry involved in aspartame to say one way or another, but I think holding hearings is a good idea. Shining the light on the findings of recent investigations into the consequences of our widespread use of these sorts of artificial substances ought to be automatic.

When we have all the information out on the table we'll be able to make informed decisions. Even if the government chooses not to outlaw aspartame, if the evidence shows it entails a risk, individuals can choose to avoid it.

What we mustn't let happen, though, is for Americans to eat, drink and absorb chemicals that damage our healthand all the while be falsely reassured by the government and the profiteers that we have nothing to fear. There's a whole lot of cancer treatment going on in this country. A little emphasis on cancer prevention makes sense.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

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