Leaderless in Ottawa

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen April 30, 2002

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more! – Eric Idle – Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Recent reports in the National Post and Ottawa Citizen about Health Canada’s failure to disclose to Canadians in the mid 90’s the lead risk in Turkish raisins is another example of political correctness intruding into scientific inquiry. Despite the fact the United State’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned these raisins, Health Canada traveled to Turkey to convince the grape growers not to use a fungicide contaminated with lead.

The growers ignored the request and continued to use the pesticide. Yet Health Canada’s response over a three year period was to inform foreign health organizations but not Canadians. Given the grower’s refusal to cooperate, Health Canada should have banned the raisins until the growers acquiesced to the request. Instead the raisins kept on coming landing up in the hands of children.

Minister of Health Anne McLellan told the House of Commons, “The conclusion of the risk assessment was that there was no unreasonable risk to health. That is why no consumer alert was issued. There have been no raisins imported into this country since November, 1995, that exceeded that established level.”

Indeed, if Health Canada’s determination “that there was no unreasonable risk to health”, why bother informing other countries of the problem. Further, why travel to Turkey to dissuade pesticide use if there was no appreciable health risk?

It seems the United States and United Kingdom concluded otherwise. Advisories were released to the public. The FDA’s acceptable limit for lead in raisins is 250 parts per billion (250 ppb), Health Canada’s, 500 ppb. In fact, the FDA measured lead levels approaching 1000 ppb in early 1996. Other sample screenings of shipments from Turkey found levels in the range of 830 to 980 ppb. These levels far exceeded the 500 ppb Canadian limit. Despite the contention that shipments to Canada ceased in late 1995, it is not unreasonable to assume the lead limit in these raisins did indeed exceeded 500 ppb.

What does lead do to children? It can damage the brain by interfering with the chemicals (neurotransmitters) the brain’s nerve cells use to communicate with each other. This can lead to long-term cognitive and behaviour disorders, reduced IQ levels and decreased fine and gross motor (movement) skills. It can cause heart arrhythmias (irregular heart beat), kidney damage, anemia and hypertension. It accumulates in bone acting as a reservoir for lead.

Children absorb about 50% of ingested lead compared to about ten to 20% in adults. It is for this reason that lead exposure in children is so hazardous. Parents need full disclosure of products that have the potential to harm their children. Only then do they have the opportunity to choose how to protect their children.

What would be the reaction if a doctor did not fully disclose potentially important medical information to their patient? Failure to do so would compromise the patient’s right to make an informed treatment decision. It is also malpractice. The patient has recourse to ensure the physician is accountable for their actions. In some cases the physician has to provide financial recompense. They can also lose their license to practice medicine.

The same rules of conduct do not seem to apply to our politicians and bureaucrats. The complexity of the bureaucracy seems structured so that accountability never sticks to any individual. The Federal Health Minister is ultimately responsible for Health Canada’s public health decisions. Yet why is it so difficult to admit that a mistake may have been made? By defending the status quo at Health Canada, public confidence in the government’s ability to ensure public safety suffers. In fact, admitting fallibility and taking action to rectify the problem increases confidence.

Instead we get a Monty Python skit. Minister of Silly Walks anyone?

© Dr. Barry Dworkin 2002

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