Letters for the Week of August 20

Readers sound off on incense, bagels, and Barack Obama.

“Toxic Incense,” News, 8/3

Incense Is Illegal, Too

Most people aren’t aware that incense is actually covered under Oakland’s sweeping anti-smoking ordinance, which bans “inhaling, exhaling, burning, or carrying any lighted cigar, cigarette, weed, or other combustible substance” in any enclosed place of employment, or in unenclosed recreational or common areas. Taken literally, this would outlaw even the burning of candles in restaurants. Of course, everyday air pollution from cars poses a far greater public health risk. It’s time to put some common sense back into the law and let owners and renters establish designated areas where people are free to light up what they please.

Dale Gieringer, Oakland

No Escape

It’s about time more people knew about the dangers of incense, which many of us have known for decades. Scented candles also are toxic, as well as smelling horrible. It’s ironic that some “health food stores” are extremely toxic and bad-smelling because of the amount of incense, candles, and other scented products they sell. There is almost no escaping this crap. It is not spiritual to damage other people’s health.

Bev Jo, Oakland

“Sound Walls Bound for Rockridge?,” Eco Watch, 8/3

Sound Walls Aren’t a Solution

Sound walls do not reduce noise — they send it to people further away. We could not hear Highway 24 from my neighborhood (just north of Moraga Avenue) until the construction began. Now we do. Sending the noise pollution to others is a lot like putting pollution into the air to disperse to those downwind.

Jon Adams, Oakland

“Obama’s Big Sell Out,” Seven Days, 8/3

Obama’s True Constituency

Obama’s not a sellout — he’s been loyally serving his true constituency: the Wall Street crowd. That whole “change you can believe in” and “hope” nonsense was purely for consumption by the gullible masses, who drank his swill wholeheartedly.

Naturally, after Bush, the country yearned for a change. Just as predictably, the powers that be trotted forth an apparently more acceptable candidate, who lulled the masses with meaningless platitudes, while keeping the essential power structure intact.

Here’s something for cognitive-dissonance fans: receive a Nobel Peace Prize, then begin bombing Libya in the name of “Democracy.” O, brave new world that has such people in it.

Jim Mellander, El Sobrante

“Cut the Music, Bring the Noise,” Music, 7/27

Boycott the Solano Stroll

I am disgusted once again to see that musicians are not respected in their profession, particularly in this country. People like Carol Denney, who have the guts to stand up for what is right, should be commended. The musicians should have been told before applying that they would not be paid. It is reprehensible that they were not told.

Cuts should have been across the board. Not just the musicians. Thinking that musicians as so desperate to play that they should play for free makes me sick.Saying that they “gain exposure” for future gigs is just bull.

That band that plays for free hoping to get other jobs should be named “The Bend Over Band.” They could have at least paid a stipend to each musician.

The Solano Stroll has become overcrowded and lots of people benefit in profits. Everyone eats and pays for food. The musicians have expenses, such as gas and parking, not to mention all the hours of rehearsal that are unpaid.

I live in Napa and have come to this event every year. I am boycotting the event this year. Musicians deserve to get paid.

I wish the other musicians would have the strength to stick up for each other and walk away from this event. Without the music it would be a sad event, indeed.

Debra Sherman, Napa

A Merchant Responds

I am on the board of the Solano Avenue Association, but only for about six months, so my comment is from a personal perspective, as I may not know all the details from the past. I’d like to clarify some of the misstated accusations and address some of the slanted perspectives of the reporting:

1. Musicians were told on the application, in advance, that pay could be zero. And nobody is being forced to participate — they choose to, or not.

2. Vendor fees did go up.

3. The board has made cuts in other areas.

4. Allen Cain is our only paid employee; the board of directors is all-volunteer. I know that some of the members have been generously volunteering many hours for years. Speaking just for me, Cain does a lot for the street in addition to his job responsibilities. He contributes his time. It’s no small thing — Allen actually picks up garbage on Solano every weekday morning between San Pablo and The Alameda.

5. The merchants on Solano (not all merchants on Solano are members, but they all benefit from the Solano Avenue Association) are not “making money off their [the musicians’] music.” For most shops, the Stroll interferes with our normal business, but it’s a day for the community and visitors to have fun, and it’s free to those who attend.

As for the article:

1. Terrible headline, there is no cut in music.

2. Why wouldn’t the Express have a picture of one of the bands who will be performing instead of one of the two who chose not to?

3. None of the nearly one hundred bands who will be playing were interviewed. How do they feel?

Lastly, come enjoy the 2011 Solano Stroll, tip the bands, and check out our lovely street!

David Krebs, Albany

“Reform Bagelism,” What the Fork, 7/27

Accept No Imitators

So, wait a minute …. You’re telling me that certain people and companies have been selling a non-boiled bread product that they label as a bagel? Wow. Now I’m afraid to ask about various “pretzel” products floating around.

Thomas Lord, Berkeley

Miscellaneous Letters

A Synthetic Biology Lab in Berkeley

In April of this year, UC Berkeley researchers announced the creation of the UC Berkeley Synthetic Biology Institute (SBI), which will ramp up efforts to “engineer” cells and biological systems. Part of its research will include experiments that insert manufactured stretches of DNA into existing organisms to create new, self-replicating artificial life forms — experiments that pose implications for worker safety, public health, and environmental safety. A collaboration of university and industry, the SBI enterprise is designed to catapult basic research into profit-making applications. From a press release: “SBI will be an important link in a constellation of research centers focused on synthetic biology at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), both of which have made the field a research priority. SBI is unique in its planned collaborations with leading companies, designed to translate leading research on biological systems and organisms efficiently into processes, products, and technologies.”

Where this extensive new research will take place is a matter of some speculation. LBNL, managed by UC Berkeley but funded by the Department of Energy, is seeking to open a second campus somewhere in the East Bay. The new facility hopes to combine three existing facilities presently scattered throughout the cities of Berkeley and nearby Emeryville: the Joint BioEnergy Institute, the Life Sciences Division, and the Joint Genome Institute. Potential sites for a new campus include a number of locations in the City of Berkeley itself.

What do residents make of this idea? Lawsuits have stymied LBNL’s effort to expand into the region’s Strawberry Canyon watershed, described by activists as “a rich repository of wildlife.” Now concern over second campus proposals, which include targeted locations along the West Berkeley shoreline, has centered on issues of job creation, tax revenues, zoning, and predictions of rising sea levels. It remains to be seen whether health and safety issues uniquely associated with this research also will be raised. Do adequate safety protections exist? Or are entirely new safety assessment and reporting methodologies for this research required in order to safeguard worker, public and environmental well-being?

Biosafety level (BL) containment labs are ranked from 1-4 according to the risk of harm they pose, with increasing levels indicating increasing danger. Typically, BL1 labs perform research on non-human infectious agents; BL2 labs use biological agents that could infect humans but are assumed to cause only “moderate harm”; BL3 labs experiment with biological agents capable of killing humans but for which there are known antidotes (like anthrax); and BL4 labs conduct research using agents that could kill humans and for which there is no known antidote.

Which safety lab levels will the new campus house? What constitutes “moderate harm?” Will the citizenry of this densely populated urban area know what pathogens are being used for research? Since academic and private interests operate under different safety, liability, and oversight restrictions, which research safety guidelines will apply? What remedies will apply in the event of lab worker injury, or environmental or public safety hazard? Will there be a public safety infrastructure facilitating transparency and accountability? Is the patchwork of voluntary regulatory guidelines from existing agencies adequate?

A brief review of just a few incidents of lab worker exposure to hazards suggests that even current biolab regulation and oversight is not adequate. These include Dr. Jeannette Adu-Bobie, who after visiting a New Zealand lab suffered a meningococcal infection from a laboratory strain causing loss of both legs and an arm; Ru-ching Hsia, a Department of Agriculture scientist who became infected by laboratory E.coli strain and lapsed into a coma for a month; and University of Chicago scientist Malcolm Casadaban, who died after unknowingly being infected with a laboratory plague bacterium. One of this essay’s co-authors, molecular biologist Becky McClain, won a whistle-blower suit against pharmaceutical giant Pfizer after reporting public health and safety concerns. She fell ill after an untrained lab worker used a human infectious genetically engineered virus, without suitable biocontainment, on McClain’s personal workspace. She began experiencing periodic paralysis and spinal pain, a result consistent with the DNA-coded effects that had been engineered within the pathogen. Recently, researchers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that a University of Illinois laboratory worker was infected by a genetically engineered cowpox laboratory virus, one with which she had never worked. CDC investigators not only found cowpox DNA in many areas around the lab, they also discovered that supposedly harmless stocks of viruses had been contaminated. Problematically, releases of laboratory bio agents are difficult to track since exposures often are not visible to a worker who succumbs to a mystery illness. Scientists can become ill from dangerous biological exposures without knowledge of having suffered an exposure.

Public health also is a serious consideration. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) killed nearly 800 people in 2003. Lab versions of the SARS pathogen are known to have escaped BL3 and BL4 labs via infected lab workers. And a few years ago, at Berkeley itself, workers handled deadly Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (which spreads in the air) without containment when it was mislabeled as harmless. The United States’ 2001 anthrax scare and the unknown source of the virulent, antibiotic-resistant strain of E.coli that has recently infected thousands in Europe and, so far, killed 27, raise serious questions about the effectiveness of tracking, as well as accountability.

There is no central authority that coordinates research and planning on synthetic biology. Even though synthetic biology poses serious risks, there are no specific standards for determining threat levels to humans, animals, plants, microorganisms or the environment. Experiments involving the synthesis of completely novel synthetic DNA sequences can make a harmless microbe into a new pathogen with dangerous and far-reaching consequences. There are very real concerns that synthetic biology research could result in enhanced virulence, the ability to infect a wider range of organisms, and resistance to antimicrobials, antivirals, vaccines and other treatment or containment responses. As Jonathan Tucker and Raymond Zilinskas explained in “The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology,” in the journal New Atlantis, because synthetic microorganisms are self-replicating and capable of evolution, they could proliferate out of control and cause environmental damage and, if they escape from a research laboratory or containment facility, threaten public health. For this reason, they pose a unique risk unlike those associated with toxic chemicals or radioactive materials. Synthetic biology research also raises new issues regarding the degree to which laboratory workers are prepared to engage in such research. Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field, involving the activities of chemists, engineers, physicists, and computer scientists as well as biologists. Many practitioners in these fields have never had training, let alone professional experience, in biosafety.

The most recent issue of GeneWatch featured Lynne Klotz’s report on Boston University ‘s feeble risk assessment efforts, undertaken to assure Boston citizens that its lab, which is likely to be conducting research on SARS and the deadly 1918 flu virus, is acceptably safe. The university and the NIH claimed that emergency simulations supported moving ahead with the desired research. The National Research Council did not agree, concluding that “the model did not appear to recognize biological complexities and reflect what is known about disease outbreaks and other biological parameters.” In other words, both Boston University and the NIH had conducted a risk analysis that ignored the most basic information actually needed to assess the lab’s risks. This cautionary tale should provoke additional public scrutiny of any new biolab facility. Berkeley’s City Council, as well as the governing entities of the other Bay Area cities who want the lab, may want to keep track of what unfolds in Boston — remembering that Boston, unlike the San Francisco Bay Area, is not even on a major earthquake fault line. Considering the current limitations of oversight and the problems of accountability of the various public and private partners involved in the project, it is less than clear what steps they are prepared to take in order to ensure the safety of any new facility engaged in synthetic biology research.

Boosters have heavily promoted the theoretical benefits of synthetic biology to the public and local officials. They need now to be much more forthcoming in detailing the very real dangers attendant to such research, including broadly publicizing comprehensive risk assessments. Potential neighbors, and others who stand to be impacted by any facility conducting synthetic biology research, deserve better from the university and its partners, and from government representatives charged with protecting public health and safety.

Tina Stevens and Becky McClain

Board members of Alliance for Humane Biotechnology

And Jeremy Gruber

President of Council for Responsible Genetics.



In our August 3 feature, “How Safe Is Your Soil?” we misstated the availability of free soil tests in Alameda County. The county provides garden soil lead test kits only to owners of pre-1978 residential properties in the cities of Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Oakland.


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