Risky business

Culture | 3M reacts to controversy in a can; government recommends condoms to prevent what antibiotics can't cure; and a scientist believes he's found the next fat gene

Issue: "Who'll be king of the Hill?," Oct. 7, 2000

Scotchgard is strong enough to repel oil and water, but not a potential health and environmental controversy. Manufacturer 3M pulled its successful stain fighter ($300 million in annual revenue) and is rolling out reformulated versions out of concern that the original Scotchgard may-may!-pose health risks. Some of the new formulas, starting with consumer products to protect carpeting, are expected on the market by December. Some wonder if this move means the return of the plastic slipcover. The problem? The perfluoro-octanyl chemistry that keeps oil and water from sinking into fabrics tends to persist in the environment after use. It doesn't decompose easily, accumulating in animal and human tissues. No health risks have ever been found after over 40 years of use. 3M reported that only extremely small traces were ever found and concluded there was no danger to human health or the environment. Still, company executives decided to head off potential trouble last May by announcing the phaseout of the formula. They unveiled new versions of Scotchgard last month. Environmentalists say this is an uncommon example of corporate social responsibility, but is this really necessary? Why pull a product that has shown no side effects? Western civilization is swimming in Scotchgard. If people don't buy the product themselves, much of the furniture in circulation was treated with it. Everything from carpets to car upholstery is treated with it without a second thought. Contrarian Elizabeth M. Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, said in a statement that such a precedent could wipe out ordinary products from shampoos to sunscreens. Dr. Whelan said the action sets new "health and environmental standards which are not only unnecessary, but unattainable." 3M clearly considered it easier to quietly give up its stainfighter than battle to show that its formula is safe. If the new Scotchgard is not as effective, then one of the great 20th-century inventions would be lost over a slight maybe. ... UNDERREACTING TO BIG RISKS
As if AIDS weren't enough of a terror, an old-time venereal disease is coming back with a vengeance. New strains of gonorrhea are becoming harder for doctors to treat because they have built up resistance to two frequently used antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered strains of the sexually transmitted disease in Hawaii and Kansas City that do not respond to penicillin and tetracycline treatments. Gonorrhea causes painful, burning urination and a puslike discharge. It can cause pelvic inflammation and infertility in women. The disease is potentially life-threatening and makes people more susceptible to HIV infection. The more resistant cases are still a small number of the 650,000 annual infections in the United States. According to the CDC, anyone who is "sexually active" can be infected. Three-fourths of American infections are found in people aged 15 to 29 years, especially 15- to 19-year-old women and 20- to 24-year-old men. The CDC also reports that the infection rate in the United States dropped for a dozen straight years until turning up in 1998, the last year for which data are available, partially because of improved testing. "There does seem to be some real increases in the overall number of gonorrhea cases due to unsafe sexual behavior," said Debra Mosure, a CDC epidemiologist. Naturally, with the AIDS scare subsiding, some people are less fearful about promiscuous sex. Still, the CDC's advice to young people on how to avoid the potentially deadly plague is typically skewed. It recommends using latex condoms, even though it admits they "do not provide complete protection from all STDs." Abstinence, the CDC says, is only one of several options. ... AND JUST PLAIN OVERDOING IT
Are your jeans getting tighter? It might have something to do with your genes. Or so says an Australian scientist who believes he's found a new genetic link (the third thus far) to obesity. Melbourne microbiologist Greg Collier's discovery of a gene responsible for controlling appetite in humans could lead to powerful new drugs. Mr. Collier nicknamed the new fat gene "Beacon." He was researching diabetes in Israeli desert rats and found that the gene could crank up an appetite. The breed was chosen because of its similarity to humans in developing diabetes. The sand rats lived in the desert eating what cactus they could find. In Israel, they were healthy. When they left home and ate lots of rat chow, some ate a lot, got fat, and developed diabetes. He examined the fat rats' genes and came upon Beacon. A matching gene is found in humans. It creates too much appetite-stimulating protein in the obese rodents. When it was injected in the lean rats, they gained about 5 percent of their own body weight in a week. Now Mr. Collier is looking for a chemical that can block the protein's action. From that could be found a potential drug, which would be again tested on rats and eventually given to humans. Diabetes, which is closely tied to obesity, rose drastically through the 1990s. The share of the population diagnosed with the disease jumped 33 percent nationally, to 6.5 percent, between 1990 and 1998, according to a study in the September issue of the journal Diabetes Care. The number of Americans considered obese soared from about one in eight in 1991 to nearly one in five in 1998.

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