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Eugene Weekly : Views : 12.08.05

Holes in the Brain

A peculiar, and not so sweet connection.


Last month I was preparing for a speech in Washington, D.C., on our relationship to "emerging contaminants." Emerging contaminants are toxic chemicals like nanoparticles, pharmaceuticals, and brominated fire retardants that start turning up in places like umbilical cord blood and fish. While the speech was on my mind, an e-mail arrived about a recent National Toxicology Program review of scientific studies on the artificial sweetener aspartame, which is in about 5,000 products under brand names such as NutraSweet and Equal. The review concluded that aspartame is a "multipotential carcinogen," meaning it causes numerous types of cancer. I poked about on the web a bit to find when we first had hints that aspartame causes cancer.

The story I found brought me full circle from toxics to the war on Iraq to home.

In December 1965, a researcher at the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle was testing aspartame as a possible ulcer drug when he accidentally discovered how sweet aspartame tastes. To be precise, 180 times sweeter than sugar, with no calories. One drawback is that aspartame is a third methanol which is transformed into the toxics formaldehyde and formic acid inside your body.

By spring 1967, Searle began safety tests that are necessary for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of a food additive such as aspartame. By fall 1967 (when I arrived at University of Wisconsin), a biochemist at the university was conducting aspartame safety tests on seven infant monkeys. One died and five had grand mal seizures.

By spring 1971, neuroscientist Dr. John Olney (whose research on MSG was responsible for its removal from baby foods) told Searle his research showed aspartame was causing holes in the brains of infant mice.

In February 1973 Searle submitted 100 aspartame studies to the FDA and by March 1974 the FDA had approved aspartame for restricted use in dry foods. Dr. Olney and attorney Jim Turner (who had been key in the withdrawal of the artificial sweetener cyclamate from the market because it was a carcinogen) filed an objection to aspartame's approval. This triggered an FDA investigation of Searle's laboratory practices. The investigators found Searle's testing procedures full of inaccuracies and "manipulated" test data, and reported they "had never seen anything as bad as Searle's testing."

In 1976 the FDA requested the U.S. Attorney's office to begin grand jury proceedings to investigate whether indictments should be filed against Searle for "concealing material facts and making false statements" in aspartame safety tests. Searle's law firm promptly began job negotiations with Samuel Skinner, the U.S. attorney in charge of the investigation.

In March 1977 G.D. Searle hired a new CEO: Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of defense under President Gerald Ford. Samuel Skinner joined Searle's law firm, and the statute of limitations ran out on the grand jury investigation.

In 1980 an FDA Public Board of Inquiry concluded that aspartame should not be approved pending further investigations of brain tumors. Three of the FDA's six in-house scientists reviewed the tumor studies and advised against aspartame approval.

In January 1981, Searle CEO Rumsfeld told a sales meeting he was going to "call in his chips" to get aspartame approved within the year. That same month, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president with Rumsfeld part of Reagan's transition team. The team picked Dr. Arthur Hayes of the Defense Department to be the new FDA commissioner. Hayes' first official decision was to approve full use of aspartame in dry food products, overruling the FDA's Public Board of Inquiry and scientists. Hayes' last official act before he resigned over controversy about taking unauthorized General Foods jet rides, and before he joined Searle's public relations firm as a consultant, was to approve aspartame for use in beverages.


Sono, aspartame isn't newly emerging as a carcinogen, and Rumsfeld's behavior as Searle CEO brings three thoughts to mind: First, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's leap over lack of WMD evidence, his own military's advice, and UN process to get President Bush's Iraq War underway is a well-practiced move.

Second, a child or soldier who dies in Iraq from a bomb and an adult who dies in the U.S. from aspartame-caused cancer share at least one person in common who contributed to their death.

Third, whenever politically positioned people, whether nationally or locally, regard law and evidence as mere hurdles to leap over to get what they want, it's our job as citizens to keep those laws in place, that evidence in the open, and those people in line.

Mary O'Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at mob@efn.org