Thanks to the honesty and integrity of this whistleblower we're given an insight into the extraordinary gap that may exist between the claims made to regulators by biotech companies and the reality.
As we reported previously, Hawaii's state Board of Agriculture voted 6-3 against the company's request to bring this genetically engineered algae to the islands for large-scale "contained" cultivation.
Subject: Statements concerning Mera Pharmaceuticals... [via Prof Joe Cummins]
Date: Wed, 25 May 2005 22:50:34 -1000
Hello, My name is Mark Bilan, an ex employee of Mera Pharmaceutical when it was known as Aquasearch Inc. and I wish to offer some comments on the proposed introduction to our island of a GMO algae to be grown at Mera Pharmaceutical. I have done a little researching about this algae and in it's natural form it is a very hardy and prolific strain in nature, able to survive in it a fresh or salt water environment.
I read in the article in West Hawaii Today about the assurances by Mera that it will be safely grown in their enclosed growth modules. I helped to design and built those modules. In my 5 years of employment at Aquasearch my job as a lead technician and maintenance person involved me in helping design and build every aspect of the facility including the growth modules and the processing plant. I worked directly with all the scientists and engineers who proposed a design and then gave it to me to build so please trust me when I say that I know what I'm talking about as far as their system capabilities andlimitations.
In my opinion, there is no way for Mera to guarantee that they can grow anything there and it will absolutely not end up in the groundwater, out in the nearby shore or carried away by unknowing employees to who knows where. Let me tell you about a few of the biggest concerns. The growth module end sections are made of Schedule 40 PVC plastic. The polyethylene tubing that makes up the length is joined to the ends by means of foam tape as a seal and then the outer layer of the polyethylene tubing is wrapped with duct tape to keep it fromtearing and then held on with stainless steel clamps. The system is sterilized after building with a sodium hydrochloride solution and rinsed before being filled with culture. This same sterilizing procedure is used after harvest. A module may be used for up to 4 timesbefore it is disassembled. When it is, the ends are cleaned and the tubing is discarded.
A major concern during the development and design of these moduleassemblies is to ensure that there are no pockets that algae canaccumulate, die and cause bacteria or other contaminates to grow. This problem has never been fully solved but at least reduced to a point of acceptability for the growth of the product we had then. This of course means that as of now Mera cannot claim that when a module is taken apart, all remaining algae cells will be dead. This is a minor concern, a few pockets of living cells that may end up in a landfill somewhere and maybe work their way into the ground water table.
What is a bigger and more serious concern is that during the growing cycle, the module sits on the module pad semi submersed in aconstant bath of cold sea water used for temperature control. When amodule springs a leak (which is often enough as the tubing is only polyethylene and can be punctured by tiny lava rocks or any pointy object) the only way it is known is if someone noticed the volume ofthe module is much lower or if they happen to spot the leak while tending to the module's shade cloth or whatever. In the meantime, gallons and gallons of culture have run into the drainage system which leads directly to an untreated hole in the ground not more than 100 yards from the shore and is below sea level. Mera may tell you this is not really a problem because this same hole is used for the dumping ofthe sodium hydrochloride mixture used to sterilize all the systems. I seriously doubt there is always chlorine in that hole especially at night when there is no one there but the module may still be leaking.
Another major concern is the harvesting and processing of the algae. When harvested, the culture is sent to a large holding tankwhere the algae is allowed to settle out. Most of the algae will sink to the bottom and then the top water is drained off to reduce the volume to be centrifuged. This drained top water is once again sent tothe big hole in the ground still full of live cells and more will joinit as it is further processed. If the product is dried on site, even if it is ruptured first, the belt drier used can cause dried (and still alive cells) to become airborne by it's exhaust which can be carried across the street to Cyanotech and contaminate their ponds growing algae for their products Spiralina or BioAstin.
Aside from the methods mentions so far there is also the very real possibility that this algae will end up in the clothing and on the bodies of the employees and carried far off the premise. Washed cloths will then carry the algae into the local water table and water treatment plants. Remember this is a very robust strain of algae nicknamed "the cockroach" of the algae kingdom for it's survivability in adverse conditions.
Mera has in the past been dealing with growing alga's that were not a threat to the environment and were in fact natural occurring species.Now however, we are talking about a genetically modified version of something that is a nightmare to deal with in it's natural form. What precautions have been taken to ensure this will not survive on it's own and cause irreversible damage to out environment here in Hawaii? I urge you to consider the possible outcome of letting this into out home andthe permanent damage it may do. Mahalo