Saturday, February 21, 2004

MTBE & the NIH Budget Cuts 

In the past I've been hesitant to politicize Alex Update for fear of offending anyone, but recent events have changed my mind. You may ask what events I'm referring to. They are the following:

A) The Bush administration seeking to protect MTBE manufacturers by including a provision in the Bush energy bill to prevent lawsuits against them. And after failing to get this flawed piece of legislation passed, pressuring the EPA to reverse the nationwide ban on MTBE that was enacted in 2002. (Read more about this story)

B) The cutting of the 2005 National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Cancer Institute (NCI) budget by the Bush administration.

C) The Bush administration's position of restricting stem cell research to a limited number of pre-existing stem cell lines, which has significantly slowed down research in this country. Read more about this story

D) The general lack of concern for the environment and the health of the American people (particularly children) shown by the Bush administration.

In today's blog I'm going to cover my thoughts on the first two items:

A) MTBE (Methyl tertiary Butyl Ether):

The Bush Administration (w/ help from the Republican Congress) is pushing legislation to strictly limit oil company liability for contaminating groundwater in at least 35 states with MTBE. As many of you know MTBE is a gasoline additive that was used throughout the United States over the past 20 years. MTBE was added to gasoline to make it cleaner burning and reduce air pollution in cities with severe smog problems, as mandated by The Clean Air Act of 1990. The EPA did not specify that MTBE was to be used by the oil companies to achieve this reduction, but they did approve its use by the oil companies. The oil companies while initially reluctant, changed their mind when they found that:

1) Putting MTBE into gasoline reduces your gas mileage which meant higher profits for them.

2) MTBE is actually cheaper than gasoline, so adding it actually saved them money, while at the same time they claimed otherwise and raised gas prices in California to a nationwide high. In California the oil companies not only used MTBE, they used twice the level actually deemed necessary for cleaner air.

Soon after MTBE was introduced in California, the state government decided that it could benefit all parts of California. Instead of just being used in the cities with severe smog problems (as mandated by the Clean Air Act), it was used in every single gas station in California.

Now for the ironic part. After five years they determined that MTBE had done absolutely nothing to clean the air in California. They also discovered a few other things about MTBE:

1) Animal testing had shown it to cause Leukemic tumors in rats. The EPA did not look at any human studies of MTBE exposure before approving its use by the oil companies, because there were none. It has also been linked to an increase in pediatric Asthma.

2) MTBE had leaked into several water sources throughout the state including all of the city wells in Santa Monica and several public and private wells in Lake Tahoe. MTBE contamination in the water supply was even found in small Sierra Foothill towns with one gas station. To date MTBE has contaminated 1515 public water systems in 28 States that service 15 to 40 million people. Click here to see if your water system is contaminated with MTBE.

3) It was determined that MTBE had entered into the groundwater through holes in older tanks at gas stations. One component of MTBE is oxygen which meant that it is very lightweight and moved swiftly through the ground to water sources. It also sped up the spread of benzene (another carcinogen) into the groundwater.

4) Once MTBE arrived at the water source it actually bonded with the water since water is also part oxygen. This meant that it was extremely hard to remove the MTBE from the water. With no way to remove the MTBE contamination the wells in Santa Monica, Lake Tahoe, etc... were closed.

In the state of California alone 127 Water systems servicing 30 million people have been contaminated with MTBE, including the city of Vallejo where we were living when Alex was conceived, born and diagnosed. Vallejo did not start testing for MTBE until February 1999 (3 months after Alex's diagnosis w/ AML) and at that time they found a level of 22 ppb (parts per billion) of MTBE in the water system. The city of Vallejo had one of the highest MTBE levels in the state at that time. All of the other water systems with higher rates (and some with lower rates) were permanently closed due to MTBE contamination. We will probably never know for sure what caused Alex's Leukemia, but MTBE is definitely a possibility.

It's hard for me to believe that the Bush Administration and the majority of Congressional Republicans want to protect these firms, especially when the oil companies knew as early as 1980 that MTBE posed a threat to the water supply. Click here to find out just how much the Oil Companies knew about the danger of using MTBE and how they hid it from the public for almost 20 years.

I'm asking all of you to contact your senators and representatives (especially Republicans) to find out where they stand on this issue. If they are against legislation to strictly limit oil company liability for MTBE contamination, let them know you support their position. If they are for it, let them know what you think about their lack of concern for the American people!

You can read more about MTBE on the EWG website.


Congress demonstrated its strong support for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by essentially completing the promised doubling of funding between 1999 and 2003. This level of funding has allowed the NIH to advance basic, translational, and clinical research that may yield life-saving breakthroughs in the treatment of serious illnesses.

In order to foster further progress in biomedical research and to ensure that the progress made in basic research findings are translated into new treatments, the momentum created by this success must be sustained with continued funding support. Unless Congress maintains the momentum of discovery, the biomedical research effort may suffer serious dislocations and critical research opportunities may be lost.

If the Bush administration's proposed NIH budget increase of barely more than two percent for fiscal year 2005 is realized, research authorities fear the gains made over the past several years will rapidly evaporate. The nominal growth in funding will affect tens of thousand of scientists who depend on NIH grants to find cures and will also affect the millions of Americans who are counting on those new treatments to reach the bedside.

Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced a resolution to triple the NIH budget from its 1998 level by the end of the decade. To achieve that goal, funding increases of 8.5 percent would have to be made over the next five years.

The President's budget actually cuts the total funding for public health - including not only the NIH but also the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), and other public health agencies and activities - by $298 million in FY 2005 versus FY 2004. The last time this ever happened was in 1982. A few things to think about:

1) If the President's budget recommendation to increase NIH and NCI by just over two percent is adopted, it will be the second year in a row that funding has barely kept up with inflation.

2) According to NCI, because of cost-of-living adjustments and other centralized NIH activities, it will effectively have $2.7 million less in FY 2004 than in FY 2003.

3) The average size of research grants would actually decrease - which impacts the ability to attract quality researchers.

4) At this rate, the doubling that took place between 1999 and 2003 will be eroded in just a few years.

I support the goal of an 8.5 percent increase in the budget of the National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2005 in support of:

1) A research program that balances basic, translational, and clinical research.
In order to foster the translation of basic scientific discoveries into better therapies, enhanced preventive strategies, and improved quality of life for all Americans, NIH must support basic, translational, and clinical research.

2) Predictability in funding for NIH.
With increased funding, NIH is able to award more investigator-initiated research grants and expand certain high-priority research efforts. If funding increases are not sustained, NIH may be unable to honor its multiple-year commitments and important research may be disrupted.

Everyone should urge their senators and representatives to sustain the pace of medical research and accelerate the search for cures by providing the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute with a minimum of an 8.5 percent increase for fiscal year 2005.

I'll cover my thoughts on Stem Cell Research, the Environment and the 2004 election in future blogs. Take care.

-- Todd

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