Political Intelligence

Biological Sleight of Hand
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Life Blood of Hyperbole

In a committee hearing that lasted until after 5 a.m., opponents demonized embryonic stem cell research by likening it to everything from Planned Parenthood (the horror!) to ruthless scientific experiments done in Nazi concentration camps. Supporters spouted stories of family members with debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes. Promising studies involving embryonic stem cells are the main source of hope for a cure.

Of the six bills and one resolution heard on April 12, the House State Affairs Committee voted on (and passed) one-House Bill 225 by Rep. Ken Paxton, a McKinney Republican. The bill bans state funding for most embryonic stem cell research. The other proposals would have provided some legal protection, but no funding, for stem cell research.

Both sides called it a moral issue-the potential life of the embryo on one hand, the potential to relieve human suffering on the other. “There are sound moral reasons for not regarding the embryo in its early stages as a moral equivalent of a human person,” testified Thomas George, an attorney who has taught ethics. “I think it would be valid ethically to look at this early-stage blastocyst as human tissue, not as a human person,” and at its destruction as “use in the service of life and medicine.”

Ann Hettinger of Concerned Women for America disagreed: “These little embryos are not potential life; they are life with potential. If this little blastocyst is not maintained … then we are inflicting the death penalty on it.”

Embryonic stem cell research receives more bipartisan support each year, said Rep. Byron Cook of Corsicana, the committee’s lone Republican who supports embryonic stem cell research. He compared it to in vitro fertilization, which once met resistance but “has gone on to become a wonderful medical advancement.” If HB 225 makes it to the House floor, Cook said he expects amendments supporting stem cell research to be proposed. “The majority of the body is very supportive,” he said. “I think one day we’ll look back and say, why was this so controversial?”

Mine Your Manners

In early March, the Texas Railroad Commission found Uranium Energy Corp. in violation of state uranium exploration regulations at its operations in Goliad County. Shortly thereafter, the corporation’s chief operating officer, Harry Anthony, offered the Goliad Independent School District a $10,000 scholarship from the mining company.

Nothing about this is suspect, according to Anthony.

The scholarship, to be doled out to students who express an interest in science or engineering, can be distributed at the school district’s discretion so long as it goes to no fewer than four students and no more than 10. Otherwise, as Anthony puts it, “No strings attached.”

But some residents of Goliad County are concerned at the message accepting money from the corporation sends, especially given the recent inspections by the commission.

The company, which has been digging exploratory holes in Goliad County since last May, was cited on March 13 for failing to adequately plug them. The Railroad Commission requires that holes be sealed to prevent potentially hazardous drilling fluids from contaminating groundwater, according to commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye. Of the 202 holes Uranium Energy reportedly plugged, state inspectors checked 117. Of those, 74 weren’t properly filled with topsoil, and “several” showed indications that mud pits associated with the drilling had not been allowed to dry before being filled, as required by state regulations. The commission’s only action to date has been to give the corporation 60 days to fix the problems. Anthony declines to comment on any aspect of his company’s violations.

According to an April 16 story in the Victoria Advocate, January tests by the Railroad Commission revealed that three wells near the uranium exploration area came up positive for high levels of radon and radium-both radioactive elements are known carcinogens.

Luann Duderstadt, who lives about a quarter-mile from the exploration area, is concerned her well may be contaminated and is awaiting the results of tests. She says she can’t drink her well water, although she still uses it for bathing, because of mudlike sediment she says has been clogging her filters over the past few months.

Duderstadt says that when she heard of the school board’s unanimous decision to accept the donation at its April 16 meeting, she took it as an affront to residents such as herself who oppose uranium drilling. “I think it’s a message that we accept this uranium mining in Goliad County, and a message to our children that it’s OK,” Duderstadt says. “People are working day and night to oppose this, and the school system accepts money from them?”

GISD Superintendent Sam Atwood defends the school board’s decision to accept the money, saying the board didn’t take a position on mining and simply accepted the money for the students. “What have our kids done to be denied a $10,000 scholarship?” Atwood asks.

Anthony says he made the donation in hopes of educating students who can later return and apply their knowledge to the corporation’s operations in Goliad County. After all, since the company has found uranium in the area, who better to work in the mines than locals?

As for the questions surrounding the timing of his donation: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he says.

Bio-Shenanigans

Texas A&M officials, in apparent violation of federal law, waited nearly one year to report the infection of a researcher by a biological weapons agent. In February 2006, an unnamed researcher was exposed to brucella after partially climbing into an aerosol chamber to disinfect equipment after an experiment with mice, according to documents obtained in April by the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit that monitors biological weapons. The researcher was sick for several weeks before being diagnosed with brucellosis, the flulike infectious disease caused by brucella bacteria. She has since recovered. Most important, the documents show, officials knew that they were supposed to report the accident promptly, but failed to do so. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched an investigation into the incident.

“[A]ccording to the select agent guidelines we are required to report any laboratory exposures to the CDC,” wrote Thomas Ficht, an A&M professor and principal investigator of the brucella research project, in an April 25, 2006, e-mail. Yet Aggie officials only belatedly sent an accident report to the CDC this April after persistent inquiries from the Sunshine Project. Texas A&M’s Executive Vice President and Provost David B. Prior says that the university has since “strengthened our safety, training and reporting procedures following the human error involved in not reporting this.”

The project’s Edward Hammond says researchers working in the booming post-9/11 field of biodefense research operate with impunity because federal reporting requirements are insufficient and those on the books are rarely enforced. “[T]here is a serious problem with accident reporting, and specifically with the select agent rules,” Hammond says. “We need to have a national reporting system that works and is public. If it’s not public, it’s worthless.”

The A&M event occurs amidst the rise, largely unknown to the public, of an archipelago of bioweapons facilities across the United States. Texas in particular has played host to a growing number of such federally funded laboratories engaged in researching organisms such as anthrax, West Nile Virus, and Ebola. For its part, brucella was once weaponized as part of a U.S. Cold War program scrapped in 1969. By Hammond’s estimate, Texas now has 11 institutions with biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories, including labs at the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston, the University of Texas at Austin, and the privately run Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, among others.

“After six or seven years now of having the public terrified of bioterrorism, maybe we’re getting to the point where we can have a more rational discussion of whether it’s a good idea of having hundreds of these labs across the U.S.,” Hammond says.