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February 2011

National Gypsum answers its critics--finally

Michael Foreman and I (as members of the ASTM committee investigating Chinese drywall) have been calling on the domestic gypsum industry to stand up, and present information on what it knows about the Chinese drywall mess. Sadly, the official position of the industry trade association has been to acknowledge that there is a problem with Chinese board, and that the domestic manufacturers are not involved—period.

I have tried in vain to convince association management that this stance is not good enough. When the only news about a product is uniformly bad, there is going to be blowback to the domestic industry—regardless of the facts. As it happens, I was right.

National Gypsum, unique in the domestic industry, has finally launched an extremely helpful and informative website, discussing the tainted and corrosive drywall matter in detail.

Of course, they were forced to do this since they found themselves the subject of a class action lawsuit. It is clear that the allegations against National are completely groundless, and I wish them all good luck.

They should be warned that science doesn't always win litigation, and proactive PR a few years ago could have done wonders. Still...better late than never.

Craig D. Weisbruch—National Gypsum's Sr. Vice President, Sales and Marketing—is to be commended.

The Unknown

Even though this movie has many flaws, given the current competition, it's the box office champ. Liam Neeson is back as a tough guy—although this doesn't happen until the second act—and there are some good perfs by veteran character actors Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz.

A wintry Berlin is on display here, as Neeson tries to figure what in the Sam Hill is happening to him, following a terrible car accident that plunges him in the River Spree, and renders him an amnesiac. He gradually does put it all together, with the help of Ganz and Diane Kruger.

The pic features an interesting twist, even if it is clear that something extraordinary will be necessary to tie up (most of) the loose ends.

Enjoy it with plenty of popcorn, and just don't think too much.

Read my complete review.

Your brain does not have to deteriorate as you age

My latest HND piece is all about Cognitive Fitness, and how we can maintain it even as we get older. The best news for us Baby Boomers is that much of the conventional wisdom has been proven wrong. A proliferation of neuroscience research in the 1990s indicates that the brain does not necessarily diminish with age. Neither do our neurons have to die off as we add the years.

But, just as maintaining physical fitness requires physical exercise, maintaining cognitive fitness requires mental exercise.

For those willing to keep exercising their brains, the benefits can be huge. I cover the case of Richard Wetherill, who was able to essentially immunize himself from the symptoms of Alzheimer's, by working his mind to stay sharp.

Also included is an introduction to some Cog Fitness metrics, with a look at a new program from the Developmental Assessment & Intervention Center of Bedford Hills, NY

Read the complete article.

Can technology keep up with regulatory zeal?

Our friends at Interscan have prepared a nifty PowerPoint presentation entitled "Issues with low concentration gas detection in ambient air."   (1.9 MB)

While this may seem like an arcane subject, it really shouldn't be. Virtually every industry is affected by regulatory agencies that set compliance levels, and keep lowering them, for the level of toxic compounds in ambient air. Yet, the pitfalls of attempting to measure these concentrations are not well publicized—at all.

Interscan details three areas of concern:

  • Calibration issues
  • Zero gas issues
  • Interference issues

The information presented is practical and easy-to-understand. What's more, unlike so many other authors of PowerPoint content, Interscan distributes the native file, rather than a pdf version.

I mention this because, as one who does PowerPoints himself, distributing only the pdf versions has always seemed ridiculous. With the pdf, you lose all the cool formatting, and that's at least half of what makes a good presentation. Years ago, this practice could be justified since it reduced the file size, but with today's broadband speeds, it is no longer appropriate.

Interscan offers additional PowerPoint shows for free download, as well.

Check them out.

Medical identity theft: You can lose more than money

As if it weren't bad enough that identity theft is the nation's fastest growing crime, medical identity theft is a big part of this new crime wave.

In this form of identity theft, the offender will steal your personal information to line his pockets with bogus claims against your own health insurance policy, or he can fraudulently obtain medical treatment and drugs in your name. This is covered in my latest HND piece.

I point out that the losses here can go beyond financial. The perp could conceivably use up all your coverage. Even worse, his medical records could be mixed in with yours, leading to dangerously inappropriate treatments.

Of course, the perp can also be an insider at a health care provider, who steals large amounts of personal data—to submit false claims to Medicare.

I list some tips on how to make yourself a less likely target, garnered from identity theft expert Denis Kelly and the Federal Trade Commission. Kelly also has some choice thoughts on how HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) applies to this problem.

Read the complete article.

Experts skeptical of new report on infant deaths at Fort Bragg

Ace reporters Aaron Kessler and Joaquin Sapien are digging into the tragic deaths at Ft. Bragg, and won't stop until they get some definitive answers. Michael Foreman and I are honored to be part of this ongoing investigation.

Note that there were initial findings of tainted and corrosive (aka "Chinese") drywall, but these somehow melted away.

While there have been no confirmed deaths due to tainted and corrosive drywall, it is conceivable that vulnerable infants, with some respiratory issue, could be seriously affected.

However, there seems to be a very odd lack of focus here. You would think that if the goal is to establish cause of death in these babies, there would have been extensive postmortem studies, including a comprehensive toxicology panel. If this has occurred, the Government is certainly keeping quiet about it.

Instead, we are treated to a 134-page report on the drywall and indoor air quality of the affected residences, and even then, the drywall was not subjected to a definitive chamber test.

One is left to wonder just how much our leaders really care about our fighting men and women. Perhaps the Army is taking full advantage of the situation whereby the unfortunate military parents can't complain too aggressively, for fear of ruining their careers.

Kind of gives a new meaning to the old cliché "Our boys," doesn't it?

Defeating the BPA fear entrepreneurs

My latest HND piece takes a look at the so-called Precautionary Principle, and how the fear entrepreneurs have used it to propose bans on bisphenol-A (BPA).

Since BPA does appear in so many consumer products, it has become a favorite target—perhaps THE favorite target—of fear entrepreneurial and "environmental" fund-raising groups. Even though there is not a scintilla of evidence showing harm to humans at any rational level of exposure to this chemical, BPA has been a successful fund-raising scapegoat for five main reasons:

  • Minute (but harmless) amounts of BPA can leach out from polycarbonate baby bottles.
  • Trace amounts of BPA metabolites have been detected in urine.
  • Grant-awarding agencies and scientific journals tend to like sensationalistic results more than actual science.
  • The bewildered public has been sold on the notion that evil industry alone has sordid motives, while the fear entrepreneurs are simon-pure.
  • There is an appalling lack of understanding of risk assessment even among so-called scientists.

I quote noted toxicologist Julie Goodman, Ph.D., Diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology...

There is no proposed BPA ban anywhere in the world that is based on the premise that BPA causes harm. Rather, such bans are said to be based on the Precautionary Principle, which demands proof that something is not harmful—essentially demanding the inherent impossibility of proving a negative.


Many toxicologists believe that if there is not sufficient knowledge on a chemical, the Principle should apply. They would argue, though, that for compounds such as BPA, there is a mountain of data showing that it is safe, and those who still clamor for its ban will never be satisfied. (How much data is enough?)

The only trouble with this more nuanced view is that there are precious few—if any—cases in which the Principle has been fairly applied. Indeed, as I point out, the Principle only became well-known in this country in 1998, more than 27 years after EPA was founded, and all its regulatory zeal had been unleashed.

Consider the words of the Precautionary Principle, as stated in 1998 in the Wingspread Conference:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.


Thus, I lay down the gauntlet...

BPA has been used for decades with absolutely no ill effect, and any proposed alternative does not have a fraction of the research data behind it. Therefore, according to the Precautionary Principle, those who propose the ban of BPA—and not the users and manufacturers of the compound—should bear the burden of proof.

"For 'tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petard."    (Hamlet Act III, scene 4)

Read the complete article.

Michael Foreman's Chinese drywall inspection protocol is now available for free download

This is big news.

Foreman and Associates, Inc. has been leading the way in Chinese drywall (more appropriately called tainted corrosive drywall) testing and remediation since August, 2008. Bear in mind that the Consumer Product Safety Commission—the lead federal agency on this matter—officially started receiving complaints in December, 2008.

Go here to download the free protocol.

In October, 2009, I was involved in organizing an ASTM workgroup with the task of creating an inspection protocol for tainted corrosive drywall. Shortly thereafter, I recruited Foreman into the workgroup.

In January of 2010, Foreman submitted his then proprietary protocol to the workgroup, in the hopes of jump-starting our activities. Beyond modifying his document to put it in conformance with the ASTM format, little more would have been required. Yet, for a number of reasons—none of them good—almost no progress was made toward approving the protocol until November.

Suffice to say that there were a variety of political elements at play, as well crass commercial interests on the part of the so-called "technical contact" of the workgroup—who is in the business of selling certifications in various aspects of tainted drywall evaluation. Amazingly, this same individual is still a proponent of the long-discredited use of x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) as a tool in inspecting for tainted corrosive drywall.

As it happens, the progress that did occur in November was solely as a result of one member, who fashioned essentially a simplified version of what Foreman had submitted almost 11 months earlier. This simplified version was actually submitted to the workgroup in August, but inexplicably, no action was taken until an official committee meeting in November.

I will spare you the details regarding the unprecedented rancor and less than robust ASTM management oversight that has marred this workgroup from its very outset.

Frustrated with the endless delays and grotesque politics, Foreman has made his formerly proprietary document freely available to all.