Paving the Road to Hell

BY Terry J. Allen

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Whether it's the environment or the economy, fools--with intentions good or greedy--rush in.

Find the common thread and win a free Prozac prescription: Treating cattle for lameness and fever drives vultures to the brink of extinction; planting biofuel crops fuels forced labor and sickness; drilling wells for the poor poisons a country.

Not so long ago, millions of vultures swirled in dark, majestic clouds above the Asian subcontinent and performed a vital role: By eating carrion and waste–everything from ritually laid out human corpses to dead livestock–the scavengers cleansed the environment and checked infectious disease. Then, in the ’90s, the birds began mysteriously disappearing, until today, when 99.9 percent of them are dead.

Scientists finally linked the massive die-off to the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, widely used to keep lame or fevered livestock on their feet. Alive, South Asia’s cattle and other livestock provide milk and labor. Dead, owing to lack of disposal alternatives and religious proscriptions against eating beef, they are abandoned to vultures. Diclofenac residues, mostly in cattle corpses, caused fatal kidney disease in the vultures that feasted on them.

“[Diclofenac] seems to be effective, very safe, very cheap,” J. Lindsay Oaks, a veterinary professor at Washington State University, told the veterinary newsletter JAMVA News in 2004. “It just has this unexpected environmental consequence: … the first clear case of pharmaceutical product causing major ecological damage.”

Several knock-on effects of the die-off are under investigation. With the vultures’ ecological niche empty, rat and feral dog population may be expanding in South Asia, along with the diseases they carry. In India alone, rabies, spread primarily by the country’s estimated 5.5 million feral dogs, kills 25,000 to 30,000 people a year, mostly rural, often children.

Rabies is also metaphorical in Burma, renamed Myanmar by the mad-dog junta, formerly known by the deliciously sinister acronym SLORC. Its belief in astrology led the regime to move the country’s capital–locks, stocks and thumbscrews–to a remote mountain location. Its reliance on numerology bankrupted much of the population by voiding decimal-based currency and printing new “lucky” nine-based bills.

More serious than this superstitious insanity are the junta’s disastrous human rights and developmental policies, including a scheme that combines both: raising energy self-sufficiency, export income and carbon credits by planting the oil-rich jatropha plant on 8.36 million acres (an area the size of Maryland).

The junta deployed its army to oversee forced and prison labor, and to confiscate land for the biofuel. People were “fined, beaten and arrested for not participating,” the Ethnic Community Development Forum documented in its 2008 report Biofuel by Decree.

Around the world, the precipitous switch from food crop to biofuel has raised food prices and undermined supply. In Myanmar, the jatropha scheme exacerbated the post-typhoon famine, and was so ill-planned that up to 75 percent of the plants died, and the small amount of oil processed sometimes damaged its machinery.

The unintended effects are not confined to starvation and damaged engines. Jatropha yields a ricin-like poison that a competent chemist can extract. Ricin makes the U.S. Homeland Security list of potential terrorist weapons and is so deadly that 1 gram can kill 36,000 people. Washington should know. During World War II, it tested but did not use bombs spiked with the neurotoxin, codenamed “Compound W.”

Reports have surfaced from Burma that hungry or curious children have become sick after eating the sweet jatropha nuts. The infectious disease watchdog organization ProMED recently posted a report, still unconfirmed, that people have been dropping dead after being bitten by a worm-like organism that feeds on jatropha.

And one more example of vast unintended consequences: Aid organizations, seeking to provide clean water, dug tube-wells in impoverished Bangladesh. Now, most of the country’s 130 million people use 8 million to 12 million shallow wells, and most of the population is being slowly poisoned by the naturally occurring arsenic that the wells inadvertently tapped into. Arsenic poisoning starts with sores, progresses to gangrene and ends with cancers.

So whether it’s the environment or the economy, fools–with intentions good or greedy–rush in. Without long-term planning, regulation, follow up and oversight, unintended consequences will range from worrying to catastrophic.

Go ahead and take that Prozac – but don’t forget, the residue you pee will survive water treatment and end up in your neighbors’ drinking water. 

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Terry J. Allen, an In These Times senior editor, has written the magazine's monthly investigative health and science column since 2006.

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