The controversy explained over Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide – as far as definitions go, anyway

This week, the World Health Organization managed to inject even more confusion into an already confusing question: whether glyphosate, the common weed killer popularized as Roundup by Monsanto, causes cancer.

Glyphosate poses no cancer risk, according to a report just out from a joint United Nations and WHO meeting on herbicide residues. But just a year ago, another group in the WHO, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, concluded glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Is anyone not confused at this point?

There is a path to clarity, but it goes through the weeds of public health policy. Here is the takeaway though: The IARC studies whether chemicals can cause cancer under any possible situation — realistic or not — while the joint meeting’s report looks at whether glyphosate can cause cancer in real-life conditions, like if you eat cereal every morning made from corn treated with glyphosate. One of these reports is, by design, much more relevant to your life than the other.

The IARC is also, by design, not supposed to make recommendations to the public. It assesses “hazard,” which in scientific jargon, means something very different than “risk.” David Eastmond, a toxicologist at the University of California, Riverside, uses sharks to illustrate the difference. If you have people gawking at sharks swimming around a tank in an aquarium, the sharks are a hazard, but they pose little risk. If you have a surfer on the beach with a shark waiting offshore, now that shark is both a hazard and a risk.

To the IARC, a shark has sharp teeth and powerful jaws, and the agency doesn’t care if you’re at the beach or at an aquarium…For the real world, regulatory agencies determine “risk” by studying whether consumers or farm workers actually encounter glyphosate at levels that cause cancer. So far, the answer has been no, with the draft summary from the joint meeting this week and the European Food Safety Authority’s reassessment of glyphosate last November…

When the IARC was set up in 1965, its monographs were supposed to be resources for scientists at regulatory agencies. Exposure to potential carcinogens like sunlight or alcohol or chemicals in food might differ from country to country, and the logic was local authorities are in a better position to make local recommendations…It should let national regulatory agencies do the research,” Paolo Boffetta, a cancer epidemiologist…told me back when the agency put out its monograph on red meat.

They went through the same viral public response last year over bacon. They revisit barbecue every now and then. The point remains the same. The IARC evaluates hazard – not risk. The difference is more than semantics.

Solar storm hits Earth with increased aurora activity

After a weekend filled with great auroral activity in Northern Canada and Scandinavia thanks to a strong gust of solar wind coming off the Sun January 19th, the Earth is about to get hit again – by the biggest blast of solar radiation in 7 years. Talk about a one-two punch on the cosmic scale!

Late last night…a giant, long lasting, solar flare erupted off the face of the Sun, sending a giant Coronal Mass Ejection – cloud of plasma and charged particles – squarely towards the Earth. Detected by NASA’s sun-monitoring satellites SOHO and STEREO, the solar blast was determined to be an M9 on the Richter scale of solar flares – just shy of an X- class flare which is ranked as the most powerful. Space weather forecasters at NOAA – who keep watch for any hazardous, incoming solar storms – are expecting the brunt of the CME to slam into Earth’s magnetic field Jan.24 around 9 am EST (2 pm UT) +/- 7 hours…

Already the front of the storm is now being felt as space radiation (energized protons) speeds by Earth, states the website. The high influx of charged particles hitting the magnetic field poses a hazard to everything from GPS signals, polar radio communications, power grids and circuit boards on orbiting satellites.

What does this mean for chances of seeing Northern Lights? If the geomagnetic storm becomes moderate to strong then auroras may creep down to southern latitudes like Texas and Georgia – but that’s pretty rare. Exactly how intense and widespread the sky show will be depends on how our planet’s magnetic field is oriented at the time when the storm arrives.

Best time to go outside will be between local midnight and pre-dawn hours. Face the northern sky and look for green or red glows to start near the horizon. Catching auroras with your camera is not hard. All you need to have is a tripod mounted DSLR camera with a wide angle lens, capable of taking exposures of up to 20 seconds with a timer.

You don’t even need it to be a DSLR – just a decent camera that can handle a 20 second exposure. My “big” camera has a wireless remote that will let me open and then close the shutter for any time period I feel like counting off.

But, I don’t expect to see any aurora at this latitude. Yes – I will go outside and look, though.

The FDA is the FEMA of American food

President Barack Obama has said the US food safety system is a “public health hazard” and in need of an overhaul.

He sounded the warning during his weekly radio and video address, as he appointed a new head of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). New York Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg has been named for the post.

Mr Obama cited a string of recent food safety scandals including a salmonella outbreak in peanut products this year that has been linked to nine deaths.

The president said recent underfunding and understaffing at the FDA had left the agency unable to conduct annual inspections of more than a fraction of America’s 150,000 food processing premises. “That is a hazard to public health. It is unacceptable. And it will change under the leadership of Dr Margaret Hamburg,” Mr Obama pledged.

Mr Obama said when he learned of the [recent peanut butter] recall, he immediately thought of his seven-year-old daughter, Sasha, who eats peanut butter sandwiches several times a week.

No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch,” he said.

Our government’s only concern – for decades – has been profits for farmers, food processors and retailers.

Anyone who ever read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair – who knows the history of decades of struggle that finally won our our first food standards – must look with contempt upon the bureaucrats and Congress- critters who turned their back on the health of this nation.