October 2013 edition

The gift of understanding

The loving portrait of Leslie’s mum’s deteriorating health due to childhood radiation exposure was a gift to us all. 

I was saddened by the story—her physician X-rayed her brain for an infection of the scalp, unaware of the harm. Outrageous today, but in that time (1932) X-ray technology was widely adopted without rigourous testing for potential long-term damage.

Once again we are hurtling headfirst into unknown territory with our brains and whole bodies irradiated with medical imaging and wireless microwave radiation from cell towers, mobile phones, tablets, “smart” meters, and other Wi-Fi exposures.

Few people or their physicians are aware of the health risks associated with digital technology, or that Health Canada’s standards are not accurate and not protecting us. Results of exposure may include: sleep disruption, ringing in the ears, vertigo, skin rashes, cancer, Parkinson’s, TIA, stroke and other cardiac symptoms. 

It’s tempting to ignore this wireless wake-up call, especially if you are unaware of the safer tech solutions. Who wants to know there’s scientific evidence that holding a mobile device against your head causes leakage of the protective blood-brain barrier; that Wi-Fi and new digital cordless phones cause damage to DNA; that the Bluetooth in your hybrid car creates two kinds of harmful exposures; and that aircraft with Wi-Fi exposes pilots to potential cognitive impairment and cardiac symptoms? And that the other price tag for smart meters could be significant cost to our health? 

We invite Focus readers to a talk in Victoria on October 23: “Protect Children’s Health in Our Wireless World” with a scientist from Columbia University and a renowned cardiologist. We urge those entrusted with public health to attend, especially those responsible for children and pregnant women. More details are at: www.safertechsolutions.org.

Kerry Crofton, PhD, Co-founder, Doctors for Safer Schools

 

Capital miscalculation

I appreciated David Broadland’s article on the sewage plan and regional growth.The  metrics and their sources he describes for the CRD’s allocation of capacity to municipalities have an Alice-in-Wonderland quality—the sort you have when asking how many angels  can dance on the head of a pin. 

Why Wonderland? Because there is an elephant in the room—it is called the disamalgamated city. The current municipal structure is incapable of dealing with infrastructure—sewage, the bridge, transit, harbour—and other major services. Instead of a metropolitan approach to planning we have an odd- ball assortment of commissions, committees, metrics, meetings, plans and planners all set up to compensate for the lack of a unified city. As long as governance in the region is in disarray Alice in Wonderland will still be there and angels will still be dancing on pins. 

Note to province: The ship is sinking, get in there and get the amalgamation process going asap! 

Note to Focus: How about an article on the elephant in the room?

John Olson


Excellent article on the handling of sewage treatment costs and the allocation of treatment capacities. The article points out, indirectly, another area where multiple municipalities, working through the CRD, are an ineffective and inefficient way to provide major public works. If the core municipalities were unified (one municipality), there would have been no role for the CRD to play. The unified municipality would have been able to obtain senior government grants and planned and implemented the treatment plan through their own engineering and public works departments. Also, there would have been no need to obtain estimated initial capacities and guesstimates of future excess capacities municipality by municipality—it would simply have been a case of a single city estimating its needs and how much future growth capacity that city determined it needed. It would also have eliminated the possibility of municipalities potentially selling extra capacity to other municipalities that had undersestimated their long-term needs. The only reason the CRD is involved is because we have so may municipalities.

Colin Nielsen

 

A young man’s complaint

The Committee to End Homelessness would like to thank Focus for the in depth article by Stephen Andrew on the Police Complaints process. It is evident from the young man’s experience that there is room for improvement. The committee often hears from street-involved people about being inappropriately approached by police officers. 

Stan Lowe, the current Police Complaints Commissioner, was the guest speaker at one of our meetings. He explained in detail the process and the criteria, outlined in their pamphlet, for the OPCC to become involved in the complaint process. It is important to Mr Lowe that he, or members of his staff, meet with community organizations such as the Committee to End Homelessness to ensure that if any person relates an experience that may involve improper police conduct to a member of a community organization, they would be able to refer that person to a place where he or she could safely report their experience and be heard.

Again, thank you for your coverage of topics that are for the greater good of the community.  

Joanna Wilkinson, Member, Committee to End Homelessness

 

Money for nothing (and the drugs for free)

I was startled to read in Rob Wipond’s otherwise excellent article a descripton of  Rx&D (aka Canada’s Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies) as a “self-regulating body for sales reps.”

That’s not how Rx&D describes themselves or their mission or their organization’s objectives. Rx&D’s stated mission is to “advocate for policies” that will bring drugs to the marketplace (patients) to “improve competitiveness” and “attract investment” in the pharmaceutical industry (see www.canadapharma.org/en/about-rxd).

Unlike associations of lawyers and doctors, which are given license by provincial governments to regulate themselves through law societies and colleges of physicians, Rx&D has no mandate from government or even within their own organization to be self-regulating of anything, much less the conduct of the marketing reps of their member corporations. 

Rx&D “offers” a complaint process, just like Macdonalds or any other corporation has in place. Their “code of ethical practices and complaints process” has no government oversight and no meaningful penalities for infractions. That’s an indication that Rx&D’s apparent “self-regulation” is merely another marketing tool aimed at achieving their real and stated purpose, lobbying for the pharmaceutical industry.

Lois Sampson, Elder Rights Advocate, Seniors at Risk    

 

Rob Wipond responds: With respect to my article about interactions between doctors and drug company sales reps, Rx&D describes part of its role in this way: “Rx&D members adhere to a strict Code of Ethical Practices that governs all interaction with healthcare professionals in Canada and is a key program of industry self-regulation.” That said, I do agree that understanding Rx&D’s broader mission is an important contribution to discussions about the ways in which Rx&D does or does not meet its alleged goals.

 

I was a pharmaceutical sales representative for 15 years, from 1988 until 2003. I believe Mr Wipond’s characterization of the relationship between physicians and pharmaceutical reps is deeply flawed.

Even though I was employed in those dark years when supposedly egregious and unethical behaviour was rampant, I never, not once, heard of a physician being sent on a trip to the sunbelt. Gifts amounted to cheap pens and coffee mugs, and even those were eliminated by the late 1990s. In the early 1990s pharmaceutical reps sometimes had entertainment budgets, allowing minor discretionary spending on say a round of golf. That ended in the late 1990s for most companies.

I was occasionally able to pay partial expenses for a small number of doctors to attend bona-fide medical conferences. Usually doctors had to work their butts off at these conferences. It certainly wasn’t a lark or vacation. No one was ever paid to attend. (Honorariums can only be paid to physicians presenting or contributing in a significant and meaningful way.) After the meetings there would be dinners, and in the very early days of my career we could treat the doctors, after a hard day’s work, to some recreational activity. Not really too corrupt, I would say.

Wipond suggests that activities like these have a major impact on prescribing behaviour. Think about that for a moment. Do we really believe that a doctor will say, “Okay, this drug is not the best choice for my patient, but heck, I’m going to prescribe it anyway, and maybe get a free pen or round of golf...”? Or perhaps the wicked pharma marketing message is so powerful and subtle that doctors get tricked into prescribing a drug. 

The pharma representative may be able to influence a prescribing decision between similar medications, but a doctor is not going to choose an inferior drug, or a more expensive drug, just because they have a business relationship with a drug rep or attended a dinner meeting. And take my word for it, it is very, very difficult to get a doctor to change prescribing behaviour, even when talking about two identical drugs.

Yes, there are sponsored medical meetings. These usually focus on a specific therapeutic area. Talks that focus on a specific drug are rare, because doctors won’t attend them—unless the drug has just been launched. But they might go to hear an esteemed expert talk about a challenging medical condition. Often, my drug would not even get mentioned at these meetings. If it did, it would be brief, in passing, something like “and the drugs you might consider here are A, B, and C.” Usually the presentation is no more promotional than that. It is primarily an educational service where physicians can learn from experts in the field and get needed Continuing Medical Education credits. Most doctors would never go to a promotional presentation on a drug; they just aren’t that gullible or stupid.

Speakers won’t usually give promotional drug talks, even when asked, since it gets them labelled as “hired guns” by the broader physician community. It causes them to lose credibility and esteem. The next time the speaker gave a talk, no one would go. This fact is well known by all drug reps and physicians.

Most physicians on Vancouver Island (and I have met most of them) are extremely ethical, dedicated to their patient’s welfare, honest and hard working. 

Pharmaceutical reps are trying to sell their products, yes, but again the vast majority are honest and ethical. They have considerable, highly advanced training in their therapeutic specialties, and can be a valued resource to doctors.

Richard Brunt

 

Rob Wipond responds: While it’s clear that different people have had different experiences, it’s difficult for anyone to be clear on the overall picture in the absence of any independent monitoring of these practices by Health Canada. For a good overview of the scientific literature, including descriptions of the types of gifts, trips, honorariums etc and their impacts on prescribing patterns, see Ashley Wazana’s “Physicians and the Pharmaceutical Industry: Is a Gift Ever Just a Gift?” in Journal of the American Medical Association (2000). For an interesting update, see Austad et al, “Medical Students’ Exposure to and Attitudes about the Pharmaceutical Industry: A Systematic Review” in PLoS Med (2011). And for some very contemporary Canadian examples about influences on prescribing, see Mintzes et al, “Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives and Patient Safety: A Comparative Prospective Study of Information Quality” in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (2013).

As for honorariums, Canadian drug companies themselves admit there are essentially no constraints on their giving them—as long as payments are in line with the “market value” of the “service” and not given with the explicit, stated intent of paying a doctor to prescribe a drug.

 

Decision-making when elders incapable

I comment on the letter in your September 2013 issue regarding “Protect Your Rights.” I write from the perspective of a lawyer who has practised in the areas of wills, estates, Powers of Attorney and Representation Agreements for some 30 years.

If a person is found to be incapable of managing themselves or their affairs, a Committee can be appointed to make financial, legal and healthcare decisions for them. The appointment is made after an application to the Supreme Court of British Columbia. Usually the appointed Committee is the spouse or child/children of the incompetent person, but it may be a close friend, or the person’s accountant or lawyer. A Nomination of Committee is only a written statement of the incapable person, made when they were competent, as to whom they would like to act as Committee. At the formal Application for Committeeship, before the Court, this Nomination would be considered and the Nominee must be appointed Committee unless there is good and sufficient reason for refusing the appointment. Having a “Nomination of Committee” form alone does not supersede, block, or override anything. 

It’s also worth noting that the need to apply to the Court for the appointment of a Committee can be lengthy and expensive. Doctor’s reports are required and any number of people may need to be given Notice of the Appointment Application. These hurdles can be avoided by a properly crafted Enduring Power of Attorney. This document can be drafted and signed while a person is competent, and then filed away for appropriate use later.

Secondly, we are all aware of scams involving seniors. Many are at risk of financial manipulation from any number of sources, including, I regret, family. Placing assets into children’s names should be carefully considered as the risks being avoided may only be replaced with others. Is the family residence exemption from capital gains lost? How will a divorce, bankruptcy, underinsured car accident and claim involving my child affect my assets now registered in their name? How do you prevent children from “borrowing” from their parent’s assets in times of financial crisis? 

There is “no one size fits all” plan for the future. At the best, everyone should have a will, enduring Power of Attorney and a Representation Agreement for Health Care Decisions. You need to carefully consider who will make decisions for you if you can’t decide for yourself. You should also realize that the advice being sought, regarding your Estate Plan, and the documents required, will cost money, and you will often get what you pay for. A do-it-yourself will kit is no substitute for professional advice.

Gerald B. Sauder, Solicitor

 

Killing the golden goose

My answer for Briony as to why clear-cutting takes precedence over tourism is that a great huge woolly bureaucracy is running the show. It spouts token concern for the environment but nothing more. Bottom-line short-term profit is king.

I copied and pasted “Timberwest” into my browser. At www.timberwest.com I clicked the “About Us” button.

Next I read: “TimberWest is privately owned by two leading Canadian pension funds, British Columbia Investment Management Corporation (’bcIMC’) and the Public Sector Pension Investment Board (’PSP Investments’).”

A couple of paragraphs later, I read: “Our definition of sustainable forest management includes consideration for our local communities...”

I clicked the “Our Values” button. Under the heading “Environment” it states, “We demonstrate our commitment to the environment by: [among other things] ensuring our forestry practices meet or exceed environmental standards, laws and regulations.”

I then clicked the “Sustainability” button, and read: “TimberWest manages its assets for long-term sustainability to assure…cooperation with its neighbouring communities…”

At the www.bcimc.com site, I clicked the “Responsible Investing” button, and then “Philosophy” and read this: “bcIMC and our clients believe that over time, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues can affect investment performance across companies, sectors, regions, and asset classes…

“bcIMC believes that if companies are aware of and responsive to the environmental and social impacts of their operations, they can reduce the risk to long-term profitability. Poor environmental and social policies can negatively influence its long-term financial performance. At a minimum, we expect our portfolio companies to comply with the laws of Canada and international standards, including meeting—or exceeding—environmental regulations.”

Here on their public website is an admission they will do absolutely nothing more than is required by law—law which is influenced by their campaign contributions.

Back at the “Responsible Investing” button I clicked the “Approach” button and read this: “Our primary concern is for the long-term value of assets; environmental, social, and governance matters are addressed to the extent that they influence risk and return...”

Next I Googled “PSP Investments”  and landed at www.investpsp.ca to read: “PSP Investments is one of Canada’s largest pension investment managers, with $76.1 billion of assets under management as at March 31, 2013. We invest funds for the pension plans of the Public Service, the Canadian Forces, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Reserve Force.”

I clicked PSP’s “Governance” button and chose “Responsible Investing” and read:

“PSP Investments has adopted a Responsible Investment Policy which embodies its belief that responsible corporate behaviour with respect to environmental, social and governance (’ESG’) factors can generally have a positive influence on long-term financial performance.”

Legal fiction has been created by section 29 of the BC Interpretation Act which says inter alia “‘person’ includes a corporation…” It is impossible for this kind of person to have a conscience and a person who has no conscience is referred to as a sociopath. Ninety-nine percent of the time this type of person will only respond to what hurts its bottom line.

Michael Hansen

 

Is LNG any better than coal?

Most people’s opinion seems to be that the Kitimat and/or Prince Rupert LNG plants are all but a certainty. I think that the widespread acceptance of these developments comes, at least in part, from the beliefs of many that:

a) the demand for BC LNG would last long enough for the investment in the infrastructure to pay off,

b) LNG is a fairly clean energy, and

c) there are no viable alternatives to fossil fuels.

I think there is still quite a list of unanswered questions about these assumptions. Here are a few:

At the rate shale gas resources are being discovered, could there be fields brought into production that are closer to the Asian markets than BC’s, and would that kind of competition hurt BC’s LNG business case?

And how green is fracked LNG really? It takes a tremendous amount of energy and emissions to collect and liquefy LNG. BC Hydro’s 2012 Integrated Resource Plan projected that the province’s Hydro consumption would jump by an astounding 21 percent if one new 24 million tonne per year LNG project was constructed up the coast. Now the plan is to frack more gas to power on-site generators for the liquefying plants, rather than use only Hydro, but the Site C dam would still be required.

Are there other ways that greenhouse gas emissions from fracked LNG differ from those of conventional natural gas? Apparently, shale gas wells don’t typically produce for very long, and there would eventually be a lot of them. The construction of well pads, the sourcing and pumping of tremendous volumes of water, and the disposal of toxic fracking fluid would create emissions. Shipping the LNG across the globe would produce still more emissions. 

Possibly the most disturbing loose end is that the jury is still out on whether methane leaks from the well casings, pipeline networks, liquefying plants, and ship transfer make the global warming potential of LNG any better than coal! Even if LNG ends up being seen as a somewhat climate-friendly “transition fuel,” would it prolong our reliance on fossil fuels, and would that eat up any reputed advantage in carbon emissions?

If BC is covered by thousands of fracking wells, and we invest in infrastructure to export LNG abroad, what will the added costs for adaptation to climate change be? Furthermore, what are the costs of the other impacts, such as: the industrialization of our forests, the air pollution, the contamination of our drinking water, and an explosion of tanker traffic (no pun intended) that will turn our ocean straits into one of the world’s busiest carbon corridors?

Granted, we cannot stop burning fossil fuels in the short term, but there are many experts who believe that viable alternatives are ready for adoption now. Is the transition to renewable energy really stalled for technical reasons, or is it the influence of those who want business-as-usual so the many trillions of dollars of remaining fossil fuel “assets” flow to the bitter end? If the global subsidies and investments that the fossil fuel industry enjoys were applied equally (or instead) to renewables, how much progress could be made in a short time? 

At the very least, shouldn’t betting the farm on LNG be accompanied by a serious and parallel move to energy efficiency and renewables—so there will be something to “transition” to when the time comes?

I hope these questions will be answered before we make a huge long-term commitment to LNG.

Bob Landell

 

Note from a subscriber

I find your investigative articles superb. Thank you to you and your journalists for providing such high quality research. In the media world where everything is controlled by vested interest and corporations, you are providing a real service to the democratic process with your refreshing, independent, and knowledgeable voice. I wish there were equivalent voices at the provincial and federal levels. There is such a dearth of news magazines in Canada that I have to rely on subscriptions from non-Canadian publications. Keep up the great work.

Denise Stocco