Category: Sci general

General science.

Was COVID-19 human made?

Regarding ‘engineered COVID-19’, people putting the idea forward are speculating based the expectations of people raised on movie science. I do have training and experience in this area and have read the technical discussion of the nature and origin of COVID-19.

There is no existing capacity in the world to create a bepsoke virus, made to have particular properties. I could design a research program to do so, and it would require a moonshot level effort–years, talent, many dollars. Along the way it would require hundreds of small scale human trials. Biology is a tinker’s science, it isn’t physics, the closest thing is materials science.

The understanding of human immunity, of viral stability and transmission, of cell biology, of every aspect of the what makes a virus a disease, and the particulars of a disease are all poorly understood. Biologists can’t cure asthma, can’t prevent organ rejection, don’t have a full understanding of any viral disease, even the ones that have been studied for a hundred years.

What I’m saying is, biologists can’t do the easy things yet. Nearly every tool of molecular biology is something biologists found in the wild and took home, tweaked a bit, cut the thorns off. Every one of the millions of animals, microbes, viruses is a miniature clockwork, a computer chip. Biologists have created or designed basically nothing themselves, only a few paper airplanes, a crappy happy meal windup toy or two.

The nanotech equivalent is diamond. Nanotech is a suite of tools to build and make things on the scale of atoms and molecules. If this tech has developed to point where practical applications are at hand, diamond will become common and inexpensive. Diamond is a particular crystalline arrangement of carbon atoms, it would be a pretty easy application of a nanotech toolkit. I’ve read many news stories about nanotech, predictions that it will soon mature enough to reshape the world. But no cheap diamonds, so nanotech is no where near that point today.

Maybe COVID-19 isn’t that dangerous? (and the country should mostly ignore it)

JP Sears is an irreverent comedian. He made a video poking holes in the mainstream story of COVID-19. He claims:

1. You should do what you think is best based on your own assessment and accept the consequences of your decision.

2. Original estimate of death rate of 4.5%. LA County study shows incidence is 25X-40X higher, so the actual death rate is lower. New estimate of death rate is between 0.1% - 0.2%.

3. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 and dies is labeled a COVID-19 death, so the death count is over estimated. The treating physician doesn't determine the cause of death.

4. Mandatory vaccination is offensive. If a vaccine is developed, it will be approved for use without long term safety testing.

5. Pharmaceutical companies have a track record of recklessly pushing dangerous drugs.

6. Be afraid of any tracking--RFID, phone apps.

7. Rant about Bill Gates not having medical training. He controls the WHO, which is setting US COVID-19 policy. He is using his non-profit foundation to gather power.

I’ll address claims out of order, because “YOU CANT TELL ME WHAT TO DO, I’M A REBEL!”.

2. 26,000, or 1 in 700 (0.14%), of New Yorkers have already died of COVID-19, which provides a floor to estimates of the death rate. Estimates of incidence in New York range from 21% (New York city) to 3.6% upstate to 13% expectant mothers in New York, to 13.9% statewide incidence from antibody testing. Estimate that 20% of people in the state have had COVID-19, gives a death rate of 0.14% x 5 = 0.7%. But the confirmed death count is known to be an under count. The true death rate can be estimated by looking at how many people have died in NY this year and comparing it to a typical year. This gives an estimate that the COVID-19 mortality that is ~50% higher in NY than the confirmed death toll. So 0.7% x 2 = 1.4% mortality rate. A death rate of ~1% +/- 50% (0.5-1.5%) with good hospital care seems like a reasonable estimate.

In Iceland, testing a random sample of people gave an estimate that 2100 – 2800 people in the country had COVID-19, with 10 deaths, giving an estimated mortality rate of 0.36% – 0.48%.

So the incidence of COVID-19 is higher than reported with many people having mild disease. The US isn’t testing all symptomatic people, population surveys are only starting to report results.

Illinois reports 3,111 deaths and 70,873 cases, a death rate of 4.4%. But no one thinks that 4.4% is the death rate. A more reasonable estimate would be 50% more deaths, 4666 and 10X more cases, 710k, giving a mortality rate of 0.66%. The number of undiagnosed cases is where most of the uncertainty lies.

No one was reporting a mortality rate of 4.5%, that is bullshit. The early March results were all over the map, but no one took them seriously, they were early reports. And everyone knows the number of cases is higher, a lot of people with mild or asymptomatic disease, though there still is a lot of uncertainty as to how many people have had COVID-19.

It is still possible that the best estimates today are off, and that the mortality rate is lower. Let’s say it is 0.25%. Given that there is no vaccine, no one had any immunity to the virus a few months ago, and how easily it spreads, it would infect 2/3 of the country in a few months if it wasn’t slowed down. 2/3 of the US is 200 million people, 0.25% mortality would be 500,000 people. 2.5 million people would require hospitalization, but the US only has hospital beds for a small fraction of that number, so mortality rate under conditions of uncontrolled spread would be much higher.

Here are graphs of excess mortality, NY, UK, US state estimates, and CDC (NCHS) reporting:

3. This is a conspiracy theory that grew out of an interview Minnesota State Sen. Scott Jensen, a family physician, did with Fox News host Laura Ingraham on April 8. This turned into a meme, “hospitals get an extra $13,000 if they diagnose a death as COVID-19!”. There is no evidence for this, and Jensen now says his statements were misconstrued.

COVID-19 deaths are being reported by doctors using the existing practices. That there are *lots* of COVID-19 deaths can be seen from the rise in overall mortality this year. The CDC estimates disease prevalence and mortality using multiple lines of evidence–death certificates, testing of hospital samples, etc. This is how the yearly flu mortality figures are assembled by the CDC. It takes 1-2 years for these estimates to get finalized.

4. It will be interesting to see whether this blows up if a vaccine is developed. I could see the anti-vax movement colliding with the ‘taking COVID-19 seriously is a Democratic attack on freedom’ being pushed already by the President.

If a vaccine is developed, every sensible person will go out of their way to get it. Middle aged people who get COVID-19 end up in the hospital 2-3% of the time. Who wants to risk that? Also, widespread vaccination would allow us to open up the country again without triggering a new wave of cases. Will vaccination be mandatory for school children, or for people visiting nursing home or attending concerts? Maybe.

If a vaccine is approved, it will have gone through safety and efficacy testing. It will most likely *not* have been tested as thoroughly as a typical vaccine, because this is a crisis, and every day of delay costs lives. And costs people billions in lost income.

6. Until a vaccine is available, the best way to control the spread of COVID-19 is testing and track & trace. Identify and quarantine infected people, and identify and quarantine people that came in contact with them. There have been proposals to use tech–a phone app, or phone location data, to help identify contacts. Other countries are already using this successfully.

The fear that this will be used in the US to set up a permanent regime tracking everyone’s whereabouts all the time for… some sort of bad purpose is crazy.

1., 5., 7. The idea that a person shouldn’t take drugs made by pharmaceutical companies because they are keeping you sick to sell you drugs is, again, nuts. Disease exists, and before effective treatments, people suffered and died. Before modern medicine, people got lots of fresh air and exercise, many people ‘exercised’ all day long, and ate ‘all natural foods’ from the local farms, and they still got sick and died. This point seems unrelated to the COVID-19 rant.

Bill Gates has spent the last ~20 years working on public service projects–education and infectious disease. Not much has come of the education projects, but his funding of infectious disease projects has been very productive and is well-regarded. He knows more about epidemiology than almost everyone without a PhD in the subject. He’s been reading this stuff for years, for ‘fun’. Why are we hearing from him? He knows a fair amount about it, and America loves CEOs and rich guys. The WHO is an organization that coordinates efforts of world governments to fight disease. Like all UN efforts, it has little power and runs on cooperation and donations by member countries.

The idea that you should do what you think is best for yourself and screw everyone else is a very American idea. When it comes to skydiving and shooting heroin, I’m all for it. But this is a case where the behavior spreads disease and puts everyone at risk. A good analogy is drunk driving. Freedom, but never responsibility! Public health measures like quarantine, banning large gatherings, and mask wearing reduce disease and save lives. These are measures taken to fight a disease endangering the country, temporary measures directly aimed at stopping the spread of disease. I think it is reasonable to enact and enforce public health guidelines.


With the recent discoveries from planet searches–Kepler, etc.–it is clear that habitable planets are fairly common. The parameters of the Drake equation are filling in, and making it look likely there are many planets with life in the galaxy. So how to resolve the Fermi Paradox?

One possibility is that while life is common, intelligent life or technological civilization is rare. Certainly, there are no good estimates for this. But let’s assume that this is not the barrier, that say, 1:1000 planets with life develop a technological civilization.

Going past the existence of intelligent life, space is quite big. Likely FTL is impossible. Slower than light travel is expensive, slow, and difficult. So let’s assume everyone stays close to their home star.

How difficult is communication? Reception is fairly easy, but how expensive is transmission? How strong does a signal have to be to get received at 1000 light years, 100k light years? How much energy does it take? Also, the only stars that ‘count’ as communicating are those that can keep it up for a long time–100k, 1M years. Long enough for extended back and forth messaging.

The only potential communication partners we have–stars we can find by searching for messages (SETI)–are those with an active Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) program. That is, technological civilizations that have a long term program sending messages to all the nearby stars

You can run the Fermi numbers and get a reasonable chance there is a communication partner within 10k light years, but the conversation would still be slow, so the effort required is great.

Quid pro quo with a turn around time of 2X light years is very slow. So what form of communication is the most reasonable strategy? I doubt star ‘A’ wants to send a short message, and wait for a reply, leaving the channel closed 99.99%+ of the time. And yet if the star ‘B’ on the other end stops reciprocating, you don’t know for a long, long time.

Carbon capture

The basic problem with carbon capture is energy, and energy is cost. When coal or oil is burned, heat and CO2 are produced. CO2 is a pretty low energy form of carbon. Turning it into something solid (calcium carbonate, graphite or coal) requires a lot of energy. Also, when CO2 is made by burning fossil fuels it disperses, and re-concentrating it requires energy. That’s why carbon capture proposals often include using exhaust gas, grabbing the CO2 before it disperses. The other main type of capture I’ve seen proposed takes the CO2, concentrates it to high pressure, and pumps it underground (and hopes it stays there). Compressors take a lot of energy, and so do pumps if the CO2 needs to be piped hundreds of miles to a place where it can be pumped underground.

The key number for carbon capture is, how much energy is required relative to the amount generated by burning the fossil fuel? I’ve never seen articles about it touting this number. A quick look shows one assessment being 30% – 35% of the energy (Zhang et al, 2014), another figures the production cost of electrcity with carbon capture being 62% – 130% higher (White et al, 2012, Table 6) Another article looks at the harder case, CO2 capture from air, and estimates the cost at $1000/ton CO2 (link). Burning the coal to generate a ton of CO2 (1/3 of a ton coal) generates about $80 of electricity.

So the best case cost of carbon capture–from power plant exhaust gas–is dismal, 25%, 75%, maybe over 100% of the value of the electricity. This number will translate directly to increased fossil fuel energy costs (+30%, +100%, etc.) if fossil fuel companies are required to capture the majority of the CO2 pollution they generate.

All the carbon capture projects are basically stalling actions. The fossil fuel companies pay small $$ to put together a pilot plant (or better yet, get the govt to fund it), run tests for years, but never implement CO2 capture on a coal or gas energy plant. This had been a very successful approach for the fossil fuel industry, they’ve managed to stall things for 50 years already!


The CRISPR gene editing system is a major technical advance. It does open up the near term possibility of making a few small changes to a human embryo’s DNA, but I don’t find that particularly interesting or alarming.

What makes CRISPR better than previous tech for gene modification is that it works at high efficiency–1% to 60% with very high specificity. I read a recent paper testing CRISPR on human embryos that reported 50% effectiveness. Given a handful of embryos to work with, there is a very good chance of making a single change in one embryo.

We have very little knowledge or technology for making positive changes to animals which is a huge limitation to genetic ‘engineering’. Mostly what is understood are disease causing (or predisposing) genetic variants. So a single change (maybe in a few years, a handful of changes?) can be made to a human embryo. There are other limits to modifying human embryos apart from lack of knowledge. The more time an embryo or human embryonic stem cell is cultured, the more it is manipulated, the greater the chance of something going wrong, and the child being born with problems. This tech is great for manipulating animals in the lab. If many or most of them have the genetic change, great! If some are born with defects, cull them, or breed another generation and use those in experiments (often the first generation has non-genetic defects that breed away). But these are huge problems if you are working on humans, because things that increase the risk of getting a damaged child are not desirable.

Long term (100-1000 years), when increases in understanding of biology make improvements (or significant changes of any sort) in humans possible, I think what we’ll see is that the people with the least concern for child welfare will be the most willing to experiment on them.

The really exciting possibilities CRISPR opens up is in genetic treatment of human disease in the tissues of kids and adults. There is delivery tech (well tested viral vectors, and a host of other methods) that can get CRISPR into a good percentage of cells (10% to 50+%) in many tissues, and once there, CRISPR will edit a good fraction of those cells. For many diseases, fixing a genetic defect in 1%, 10% or 20% of cells is enough to treat the disease, so genetic treatment of host of diseases is now possible. Things like hemophilia, some muscular dystrophy, maybe Huntington’s Disease, metabolic diseases, Parkinson’s disease, and on and on. There will be a lot of exciting advances turning that ‘possible’ into actual treatments for different diseases over the next decade or two.

The other major effect of CRISPR tech is that it makes animal experimentation faster and cheaper, and will accelerate basic biological research. We still don’t know what the majority of indivdual genes do, let alone how they work in complexes and networks in cells.

Protein in dinosaur fossils, new paper

A second group has found protein preserved in dinosaur fossils. I wouldn’t call this solid yet, but it is encouraging. This hit the news in September 2009

Fibres and cellular structures preserved in 75-million–year-old dinosaur specimens

Exceptionally preserved organic remains are known throughout the vertebrate fossil record, and recently, evidence has emerged that such soft tissue might contain original components. We examined samples from eight Cretaceous dinosaur bones using nano-analytical techniques; the bones are not exceptionally preserved and show no external indication of soft tissue. In one sample, we observe structures consistent with endogenous collagen fibre remains displaying ~67 nm banding, indicating the possible preservation of the original quaternary structure. Using ToF-SIMS, we identify amino-acid fragments typical of collagen fibrils. Furthermore, we observe structures consistent with putative erythrocyte remains that exhibit mass spectra similar to emu whole blood. Using advanced material characterization approaches, we find that these putative biological structures can be well preserved over geological timescales, and their preservation is more common than previously thought. The preservation of protein over geological timescales offers the opportunity to investigate relationships, physiology and behaviour of long extinct animals.
Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7352, 09 June 2015

Future bloging, because the future is in full text

OK, this is quite annoying. It was plenty annoying when I was at a univerisity and 90% of the articles were available at publication, but that 10% always included a handful of important articles so it has always been a PITA. So now I’ll start future blogging!

I’ll tag interesting articles when they get published and follow up when I can actually read them. Many journals now are open access, but some release an article six months or a year after publication. Or sometimes the pdf gets posted. So I’ll tag intertesting articles when they hit the news and write a follow up when I can read them. Because titles and abstracts aren’t enough for articles with useful information!

Duration of urination does not change with body size. Patricia J. Yanga, Jonathan Phama, Jerome Chooa, and David L. Hu. PNAS vol. 111 no. 33p11932–11937.

BTW, PNAS used to release articles at publication. When did they go dark?!

Book review: Parasite Rex

Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures by Carl Zimmer.

Great book. About parasites. What they are, the recent discovery of how big a role they have in ecosystems, how they live, how they have jumped from animal to animal, and of course, which ones afflict people.

Several chapters describe a range of human parasites in amazing and often frightening detail. From botfly larvae to liver flukes, malaria’s Plasmodium to the nematodes that parasitize humans. There is some discussion of microbial parasites, but most of the book covers metazoan parasites. Zimmer tells the stories of some of these parasites–how they find their way to people, what they do once they arrive in a new host, how they escape detection, and the course of the disease. The story of how several parasites were discovered, how they were identified and followed through their changes of form and host are told. And there are pictures!

Word cloud of Parasite Rex by Carl_Zimmer


Notes on water fluoridation and the Fluoride Deception video

I’d heard of the great water fluoridation fight but never looked into it. In the 60’s the John Birchers were saying it was a Commie plot to weaken America’s vital fluids or something of the sort. And it was parodied in the movie Dr. Strangelove…

Let’s start by bracketing things. Fluoride in water can’t be highly dangerous or people would have noticed. Not putting fluoride in water is not a risk-free choice–it prevents cavities. Cavities don’t just make your teeth fall out, they also increase risks of bacteria related heart disease, and the occasional person dies of a tooth abscess. So the question is, is there disease caused by fluoridation, and is it worse than the diseases caused by no fluoridation?

OK, let’s look at the video.
5:42 Suggests that the idea of adding fluoride to water supplies was to hide the dangers of for fluoride pollution or avoid responsibility for damage due to fluoride pollution. Doesn’t really make sense so far. Ah, reading in the history, when government regs made industry stop dumping fluoride in air and water, one thing they did with it was process out fluoride for water fluoridation. Doesn’t sound that damning, after all it would have been cheaper to dump it in a landfill.

~7:00-20:00 Fluoride air pollution can be bad. Some of the early fluoride researchers also worked on and perhaps had a part in the worst cover ups regarding industrial pollutants. What I’ve read of the tetraethyl lead story is appalling. The connection with the lead story is tenuous. Fluoridating water wasn’t a gold mine, I don’t see there being much pressure to push fluoridation back when it started.

21:30 The NRC report (below) discusses Waldbott’s results, concludes that some people are sensitive to typical water concentrations of fluoride and that it appears to be fairly rare.

From the NRC report, it doesn’t appear that the safety of water fluoridation was well-established, certainly nowhere near today’s standards, back when it began. It was safe by 1940’s standards, and had a clear benefit. I’ve probably got an extra tooth in my mouth due to it.

25:00 The NRC report discusses the Mullenix study. Calls it inconclusive, calls for more studies.

The video didn’t have much info. Here are the establishment reference sources:

CDC recommendations

Fluoride reduces cavities by 15-40%, depending on the study. The low figure is an estimate of the benefit of water fluoridation in a population that already uses fluoride toothpaste.

2006 National Academy report (the greybeards)

Here’s the meat! Water fluoridation is 1 mg / L, when the level hits 4 mg / L studies start seeing negative health effects. That’s a pretty narrow window between benefit and danger level, the smallest one for an environmental exposure I’ve run into. YMMV, I’m not an environmental toxicologist.

What hasn’t really been studied are neurotoxic effects of low level exposure. A few studies have turned up disturbing results. Check out the summary on page 205.

Interesting take on differences between Europe and US fluoridation, Pizzo et al. 2008

The bit about Europe in the video is misleading. Europe hasn’t avoided fluoride, it’s just mostly not in water, it’s in salt or toothpaste.

Internet rumors that aspartame is deadly

Many internet sources claim aspartame is dangerous to human health. This is an example:

Aspartame has been renamed and is now being marketed as a natural sweetener

Friday, February 12, 2010 by: Ethan Huff, citizen journalist

(NaturalNews) In response to growing awareness about the dangers of artificial sweeteners, what does the manufacturer of one of the world’s most notable artificial sweeteners do? Why, rename it and begin marketing it as natural, of course. This is precisely the strategy of Ajinomoto, maker of aspartame, which hopes to pull the wool over the eyes of the public with its rebranded version of aspartame, called “AminoSweet”.

Yeah, tell it to the slimehead (aka, orange roughy) or to rapeseed (aka, canola).

Over 25 years ago, aspartame was first introduced into the European food supply. Today, it is an everyday component of most diet beverages, sugar-free desserts, and chewing gums in countries worldwide. But the tides have been turning as the general public is waking up to the truth about artificial sweeteners like aspartame and the harm they cause to health. The latest aspartame marketing scheme is a desperate effort to indoctrinate the public into accepting the chemical sweetener as natural and safe, despite evidence to the contrary.

Aspartame was an accidental discovery by James Schlatter, a chemist who had been trying to produce an anti-ulcer pharmaceutical drug for G.D. Searle & Company back in 1965. Upon mixing aspartic acid and phenylalanine, two naturally-occurring amino acids, he discovered that the new compound had a sweet taste. The company merely changed its FDA approval application from drug to food additive and, voila, aspartame was born.

G.D. Searle & Company first patented aspartame in 1970. An internal memo released in the same year urged company executives to work on getting the FDA into the “habit of saying yes” and of encouraging a “subconscious spirit of participation” in getting the chemical approved.

Of course they wanted their new product approved. Pet peeve of mine: Unsourced quotes of a fraction of a sentence. Often misleading, or copied from somewhere else, and so on leading back to who knows where.

In 1976, then FDA Commissioner Alexander Schmidt wrote a letter to Sen. Ted Kennedy expressing concern over the “questionable integrity of the basic safety data submitted for aspartame safety”. FDA Chief Counsel Richard Merrill believed that a grand jury should investigate G.D. Searle & Company for lying about the safety of aspartame in its reports and for concealing evidence proving the chemical is unsafe for consumption.

A claim! Let’s google around. Here’s some info:

The History of Aspartame by Ashley Nill

This law article has more details of the aspartame approval process. This section is relevant:

The first obstacle that Searle met came from Dr. John W. Olney, M.D., psychiatrist and Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University of St. Louis, and James S. Turner, author of The Chemical Feast, and co-founder of the Center for Study of Responsive Law.[30] Olney and Turner formally objected to the regulation that authorized the marketing of aspartame as a sweetener in foods.[31] Dr. Olney had performed research in animals regarding the toxic effects on the brain of certain Amino acids, including asparatic acid. Both parties objected to the use of aspartame in foods, especially those consumed by children. They asserted that aspartame might cause brain damage resulting in mental retardation, endocrine dysfunction, or both. Turner and Olney also argued that aspartame could be dangerous to persons with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU), a disorder that prevents the metabolism of phenylalanine, one of the amino acids in aspartame.[32]

These along with other concerns and allegations necessitated a FDA hearing provided for by 21 U. S. C. 348.[33] Instead of having a full evidentiary hearing, which was customary at the time, the parties waived their right and accepted a hearing before a public board of inquiry instead.[34] This was the first time that the FDA had ever used this type of hearing in place of a full evidentiary hearing. Searle agreed to delay marketing of aspartame temporarily, pending resolution of the safety questions.[35]

Before the board could hold a hearing regarding the safety of aspartame as a food additive in response to Olney and Turner’s allegations, however, Searle’s quest for aspartame approval hit another snag. Preliminary results from an audit of the records of certain animal studies conducted by or for Searle, including studies on aspartame, indicated a need for a comprehensive review of the authenticity of the aspartame research data. Apparently, the audit of Searle’s clinical methods revealed “sloppy” research, including some research that was being done on aspartame.[38] The negative publicity that surrounded Searle’s clinical methods bolstered consumer criticism of aspartame, and further clouded the safety issues that had not yet been addressed. Alexander Schmidt, then FDA commissioner, noted that the FDA audit revealed “different discrepancies of different kinds.”[39] Pursuant to 21 U. S. C. 348(e), FDA formally stayed the regulation authorizing the marketing of aspartame.[40]

G.D. Searle & Company submitted its first petition to the FDA in 1973 and fought for years to gain FDA approval, submitting its own safety studies that many believed were inadequate and deceptive. Despite numerous objections, including one from its own scientists, the company was able to convince the FDA to approve aspartame for commercial use in a few products in 1974, igniting a blaze of controversy.

So, the FDA was cautious. Good to hear they don’t let companies put untested new chemicals in the human food supply. G.D. Searle & Company’s safety studies were sloppy, and this delayed the approval of aspartame until 1981, a delay probably costing the company at least tens of millions in lost profits.

It looks like G.D. Searle & Company did what it could to push and influence the approval process through means fair and foul. The worst case interpretation of the company’s actions is put forward here. It’s initial approval application in 1973 was crap but by the time 1981 rolled around enough other studies had been done for aspartame to squeak by to approval.

Wikipedia usually is a poor source for controversies and alt-med claims but its aspartame controversy article at least shows the shape of the debate.

Despite the myriad of evidence gained over the years showing that aspartame is a dangerous toxin, it has remained on the global market with the exception of a few countries that have banned it. In fact, it continued to gain approval for use in new types of food despite evidence showing that it causes neurological brain damage, cancerous tumors, and endocrine disruption, among other things.

OK, let’s look at evidence of:
“cancerous tumors”: As I wrote before 10:1 no cancer:cancer so far. Either not a carcinogen or a very weak one.

“endocrine disruption”: No evidence. The claim traces back to a hypothesis made by Olney in 1975. Basically large doses of MSG can cause stunting and he suggested the aspartic acid in aspartame would have the same effect. There was never much evidence for this idea, and by the time of this 1988 review article it was known to be false. While MSG can make a person head buzz a bit (it has this effect on me), aspartame doesn’t–so it must have a much weaker effect than MSG.

“neurological brain damage”: No evidence I can find.

This claim was rejected during the FDA approval process. Again from the History of Aspartame article:

The board had its first meetings on January 30, 31 and February 1, 1980.[65] On the first question, whether the ingestion of aspartame poses a risk of contributing to mental retardation, brain damage, or undesirable effects on the neuroendocrine regulatory system, the board found that aspartame did not pose an increased risk of brain or endocrine dysfunction.[66]

The Humphries et al., 2008 article I mentioned in the previous post is the recent source for most of these claims on the internet. But the claims in the review article are all hypotheses and maybes and don’t have any evidence behind them. In fact, aspartame’s neurological effects have been studied extensively since the controversy over its approval thirty years ago and there’s still no evidence it causes any damage to the brain.

What countries have banned aspartame? As far as Wikipedia knows, no countries have banned aspartame, certainly not US/Canada/Europe.

The details of aspartame’s history are lengthy, but the point remains that the carcinogen was illegitimately approved as a food additive through heavy-handed prodding by a powerful corporation with its own interests in mind. Practically all drugs and food additives are approved by the FDA not because science shows they are safe but because companies essentially lobby the FDA with monetary payoffs and complete the agency’s multi-million dollar approval process.

From the Wikipedia article: “In 1987, the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that the food additive approval process had been followed properly for aspartame.” As the discussion above notes, it was a bumpy approval, but the FDA did scrutinize it.

FDA review and approval is a barrier, the main barrier, to companies selling dangerous or ineffective products. It was designed to work in the face of corporate opposition and evasion. And it works OK–there are only a few cases where the FDA has approved something later shown to be dangerous, and while it is expensive to do the studies to prove a product safe, the FDA makes approval decisions pretty quickly.

That the FDA is a barrier to selling crap is apparent in how happy the alt-med product companies were to get Congress to exclude them from FDA oversight and how hard they lobby to keep their special status (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994).