Neonicotinoids in the crossfire

Regulatory wrangles

From Mike Welch

Paul Leonard’s statement – ‘the notion that science is biased if it is funded by industry is offensive’ caught my eye. 

As a former industrial chemist, I am disappointed, but not offended. While I don’t know enough to comment on the particular case Leonard uses to demonstrate his concern, looking at it more widely I am not surprised that there is distrust. Speaking personally, I have been frustrated and ashamed at the approach taken by the companies involved. So I do agree with his call for transparency, which sadly has been lacking in relation to the controversy about neonicotinoids and bees.

It seems to me that the institutional researchers have been entirely straightforward in presenting their work, but this has largely been dismissed by the neonicotinoid producers on the grounds that the conditions used were not representative of those in the field. The last time I asked, details of the producers’ tests and their results had not been made available to the academics conducting this research, and the only interview I have seen on this with a senior executive of one of the companies was remarkable for his evasive and dismissive attitude.

Perhaps Leonard could get together with the neonicotinoid producers and be afforded the space to write an article on the studies made on his company’s product (which I understand is not a neonicotinoid) and theirs so that we can form a more balanced view in respect to bees. In particular, how the conditions and results presented to get the original registration to use the products differ from those subsequently used by academics and why these are more representative than those used in subsequent studies.

I must say that over my 40 years in the chemical industry I am pleased that we have become much more open about our activities and products so I am disappointed when I see lapses of this kind. We should not now be defensive, least of all offended, but rather think through why this has occurred, put the situation right and avoid the same mistakes in the future.

M Welch CChem FRSC

Warwick, UK 

From David Snodin

Having made a career in regulatory toxicology over the last 35 years, I cannot allow Martin Pigeon’s remarks to go unchallenged. 

It is generally acknowledged that regulatory toxicology was originally developed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the mid-1950s, not by industry. The FDA and other bodies have developed standardised protocols for various types of toxicity test that must be followed by industry in order to achieve authorisation. Within this framework there is much officially sanctioned guidance on appropriate dosing regimens and other precautions to avoid false-positive and false-negative results, along with the need for good laboratory practice (GLP) to maintain the integrity of data. 

Scrapping GLP and encouraging the use of non-validated study designs is a recipe for mayhem. If such studies were given any credibility, we could well lose access to numerous useful chemicals employed as medicines and food additives. With regard to data confidentiality, competent authorities have open access to all information submitted by industry, and reports by bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority and the European Medicines Agency provide detailed summaries of the critical evidence. 

In general, there is not full disclosure of industry data, which is a pity, but owing mainly to issues of commercial confidentiality and difficulties in publishing negative data. In summary, let us hope that Pigeon’s pleas to overturn the current carefully constructed and controlled regulatory regime fall on deaf ears; otherwise we could suffer all manner of adverse consequences.

D J Snodin FRSC

Bristol, UK 

Fracking’s hidden cost?

From John Davis

As someone who implemented the UK New Substances Regulations on a daily basis, which required a whole raft of toxicological and environmental tests to be done on any industrial chemical new to the EU, I remain staggered that there is still so little information available on the chemicals used in fracking. 

Now, several months after some of us raised the issue following an RSC seminar in 2013, we see from Frank Smith’s letter that we still know precious little about the chemicals sent down the wells. 

Secrecy breeds suspicion, and inevitably we outside the industry know even less about the composition of the fluid returning to the surface for treatment prior to disposal.

Meanwhile, an editorial in the Daily Telegraph waxes lyrical on the advantages of the fracking process, based on the ‘sizeable majority’ (in fact, 57%) of the public responding in its favour in an industry-sponsored survey. One wonders to what extent any of them had the scientific literacy to make such judgements: an ongoing task for the RSC, I suggest.

In any event, fracking can only be a stopgap measure on the way to decarbonising electricity.

J B Davis FRSC

Harpenden, UK

Minerals and microbes

From Jack Barrett and Martin Hughes

The article ‘Microbial miners’ is a welcome addition to the description of bacterial oxidation as applied to the extraction of metals. The method is only very slowly being adopted by industry, although it is an alternative to roasting ores and the consequent impact upon the environment. 

We have previously described contributions to the science made at King’s College London (Chemistry in Britain, June 1997, p23). There is very little ‘mystery’ surrounding the mechanism of bacterial action, as indicated by the literature. The oxidation of Fe(II) released by bacteria occurs outside the cell by interaction with dissolved dioxygen. The bacteria oxidise the sulfide sulfur to S(VI) and any arsenic is oxidised to As(V). Both species are removed from solution by treatment with limestone. 

The thermophilic bacteria are well characterised, and are capable of mineral oxidation over a temperature range of 30–55°C. 

The work at King’s was developed in Australia by Bactech, which has now developed into two Canadian-based companies: Bactech Environmental and Aquila Resources, the former carrying out the extraction of base metals, the latter using the method to free gold from ores and mineral deposits.

J Barrett CChem MRSC 

Poling, UK

M N Hughes CChem FRSC 

Rickmansworth, UK

Let’s stay together

From John Steggles

Full marks to Mark Peplow for speaking up for Europe and encouraging the rest of us to do the same. But it is not only science that would lose out by following the UK Independence Party lead in British politics. 

I remember the late Margaret Thatcher saying that nothing good ever came out of Europe; what nonsense. Indeed many politicians on the right now advance the myth that people who voted for Europe in the 1975 referendum thought of the European Economic Community as a purely trade organisation. As an industrial chemist, I campaigned for it then as a way of improving international standards in industry, but more than that has been achieved: counter-pollution standards across the board, the uniform patent system and safety standards to name a few. 

When Edward Heath first proposed that the UK should join, newspapers talked about the price of butter and the future of the British sausage, and this same narrow vision has dominated political thinking. Let us sweep it away.

J Steggles FRSC

Bury St Edmunds, UK

Science and religion

From Sam Logan

In response to Stephen Cohen’s letter, it never occurred to me that a member of the RSC would find fault with Andy Extance’s mention of the Old Testament. I note that this member is fully aware of what was meant by that term, whereas the Torah, which he would have preferred, would probably not have any clear connotation to a large number of RSC members. 

It would seem that the question of religious diversity in the RSC membership is a bit of a red herring. I think Andy Extance was writing to be understood and, apparently, he was.

S R Logan CChem FRSC

Portstewart, UK

Lord Lewis 

From Bill George

The tribute to Jack Lewis reminded me of his many outstanding contributions. 

I recall him examining an MSc student, asking ‘I see you are interested in vibrational spectroscopy – tell me about Hooke’s law,’ leading to the response: ‘Hooke’s law is physics not chemistry.’ This opened up a fascinating discussion on understanding infrared and Raman spectra by classical ball and spring models. Vibrational spectroscopy is unique in being understood by a majority of users in classical terms. Many features, particularly rotational structure in small molecules, require quantum theory of rotational and vibrational energy levels for a full appreciation. 

One of Jack Lewis’s many other contributions was to host an annual meeting of the parliamentary links scheme through his membership of the House of Lords, including memorable lunches on the terraces of parliament at which parliamentary and RSC colleagues were able to forge valuable links. 

B George CChem FRSC

University of South Wales, UK

Need for nuclear

From Barrie Skelcher

I found Sarah Houlton’s article about the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) thought provoking.

When I got my MSc in 1956 for research on fuel cells, I was taken on by the UK Atomic Energy Authority. I was one of many graduates put to work on a variety of tasks using our basic understanding of the relevant science and drawing on the wealth of knowledge and expertise already in the industry. Chemists were researching radiation induced chemical reactions, plutonium chemistry and commissioning plants to reprocess enriched fuel. Physicists and engineers were developing a fast reactor. None of us had to be sent away for months to be taught the technology. We simply got on with the job.

That the NDA now has to sponsor graduates shows how politicians have destroyed our world leading nuclear industry with short-term thinking. 

Until such time as green energy systems can cope with national demand, we will need nuclear, but not what is currently on the table. Building Sizewell C and the others like it will take too long, be too expensive and make our electricity vulnerable to disruption. Instead we should have small reactors generating near to the areas of demand. My novel The day England died shows how the present plans would leave our country open to destruction. 

B Skelcher CChem MRSC

Leiston, UK