Week of 09/07/2008

Dear EarthTalk: What's the story with animal cloning? Is the meat industry really cloning animals now to "beef up" production?

—Frank DeFazio, Sudbury, MA

Cloning has been controversial ever since Scottish scientists announced in 1996 that they had cloned their first mammal, a sheep they named Dolly. While Dolly lived a painful, arthritic life and died prematurely, possibly due to the imperfections of cloning, industry nonetheless began seeking out ways to capitalize on the new technology. Meanwhile, critics bemoan cloning as immoral and a potential health and safety risk, given the as-yet-unknown consequences of eating foods generated in this way.

In January 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of cloned animals and their offspring for food, despite fierce opposition from animal welfare and consumer advocacy groups, environmental organizations, some members of Congress, and many consumers.

"Our evaluation is that the food from cloned animals is as safe as the food we eat every day," said Stephen Sundlof, the FDA's chief of veterinary medicine. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has asked that producers withhold cloned animals, but not their offspring, from the food supply while farmers, processors, grocery stores and restaurants decide how they will respond to the FDA's landmark decision.

In January 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of cloned animals and their offspring for food, despite opposition from animal and consumer advocacy groups, environmental organizations, some members of Congress, and many consumers. Many major food producers say they won't use cloned animals in their products.
© Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, industry groups also argue that beef and milk from cloned animals is safe to consume. They cite a 2005 University of Connecticut study, which concluded that beef and milk from cloned cows did not pose any health or safety threats to people consuming it. But critics say that the oft-cited single study was far too limited to yield any meaningful conclusions: Milk and beef was taken from just six cloned animals, and the study did not take into account whether clones were more susceptible to infection or other microbial problems, as many scientists suspect. Other researchers have noted severe deformities in many cloned animals, as well as a higher incidence of reproductive, immune and other health problems.

The Washington, DC-based Center for Food Safety, in a petition it filed in late 2006, declared: "The available science shows that cloning presents serious food safety risks, animal welfare concerns and unresolved ethical issues that require strict oversight." The group announced on September 2, 2008 that 20 leading U.S. food producers—including Kraft Foods, General Mills, Gerber/Nestle, Campbell's Soup and Ben and Jerry"s—will not use cloned animals in their products. "The move by these companies represents a growing industry trend of responding to consumer demand for better food safety, environmental and animal welfare standards," the group said in making the announcement.

Given the FDA's green light, consumers" only hope of avoiding cloned animal products may be to appeal to businesses directly not to peddle such items. The Pennsylvania-based American Anti-Vivisection Society, which opposes all forms of animal research and testing, has mounted a campaign to urge McDonald's to forego cloned animals in its 30,000 restaurants worldwide.

CONTACTS: U.S. Food & Drug Administration; Center for Food Safety; American Anti-Vivisection Society


Dear EarthTalk: I've read that household cleaners contain cancer-causing toxic ingredients. What should I do, then, to keep my house clean but also safe for my kids?

—Christine Stewart, via e-mail

Many household cleaners contain potentially dangerous ingredients. But there's no need to panic: Many safer and greener alternatives are now available from manufacturers like Gaiam, Earth Friendly Products, Citra-Solv, Ecover, Mrs. Meyers, Sun and Earth, SimpleGreen, Method, and Seventh Generation, among others.
© Getty Images

While much of the research is mixed or inconclusive, a variety of human and animal studies have linked chemicals common in household cleaning products with a wide range of health risks.

The most offensive common ingredients, according to a 2006 study by the University of California Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, are ethylene-based glycol, used commonly as a water-soluble solvent in cleaning agents and classified as a hazardous air pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and terpenes, a class of chemicals found in lemon, pine and orange oils that can morph into carcinogenic compounds when they mix with ground-level ozone.

Also, chlorine, often labeled as "sodium hypochlorite" or "hypochlorite," is almost ubiquitous in household cleaners, unfortunately for the inhabitants of many homes. Breathing in its fumes can irritate the lungs, and as such poses a serious health risk to those with pre-existing heart or respiratory problems.

According to the non-profit Cancer Prevention Coalition, some other problematic chemicals found in many household cleaners include crystalline silica, an irritant to the eyes and lungs and a likely carcinogen, and butyl cellosolve, which has been linked to kidney and liver problems and is reportedly toxic to forming cells. The group lists dozens of other potentially dangerous ingredients in household products on the "Hazardous Ingredients in Household Products" PDF available for free on its website.

Gaiam, a leading purveyor of green household and lifestyle items, reports that the average American household contains between three and 25 gallons of toxic materials, mostly in the form of household cleaners filled with petrochemical solvents designed to dissolve dirt. The company bemoans the fact that no law requires cleaning products manufacturers to list ingredients on their labels or to test their products for safety, leaving it up to consumers to make sure their homes are not only clean, but also non-toxic.

Luckily there are plenty of "greener" alternatives now widely available from manufacturers like Gaiam, Earth Friendly Products, Citra-Solv, Ecover, Mrs. Meyers, Sun and Earth, SimpleGreen, Method, and Seventh Generation, among many others. Even big players are getting in on the act. Clorox recently released a new line of home cleaning products under the Green Works label to attract a greening clientele.

For those so inclined, making your own green cleaning solutions is easy and cheap. According to The Green Guide, consumers can "circumvent the armada of commercial cleaners" by keeping handy an ample supply of eight ingredients for nearly every do-it-yourself cleaning job: baking soda, borax, distilled white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, lemons, olive oil, vegetable-based (liquid castile) soap, and washing soda.

CONTACTS: Cancer Prevention Coalition; Gaiam; Earth Friendly Products; Citra-Solv; Ecover; Clorox Green Works; Mrs. Meyers; Sun and Earth; Seventh Generation; SimpleGreen; Method Green Home Care Products