Scientists link ethanol plant toxins to massive deaths

For the first time in its history, more than 10,000 people have died from toxins produced by exposed corn ethanol plants, a group of leading scientists said Tuesday.

Using data provided by industry-funded corn processing companies, the scientists found 5,900 deaths from sudden liver failure linked to exposure to corn ethanol, but noted that even that rate is extremely high.

The additional deaths, which included a total of 687 that had occurred in just two days in the Canadian province of Ontario, amounted to about a third of the total number of deaths from deaths from suspected exposure to ethanol, since 2002. Scientists said the vast majority had not been scientifically diagnosed.

“The number of deaths linked to this problem continues to climb to tragic levels that are completely out of proportion to the number of deaths that ever took place,” said Heidi Herbst, a professor of human nutrition and pathology at Michigan State University, who was involved in the study, published Tuesday in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

The scientists used Canada’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which monitors the deaths in that country and is part of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Last month, scientists from the Minnesota Department of Health announced that they had confirmed 10 deaths linked to exposure to ethanol, and attributed eight of them to acute liver failure. In September, Canada recalled nearly 2 million pounds of corn ethanol that had been brought in from the United States.

Ed Mierzwinski, a senior vice president at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which helps influence public policy toward pesticides and agricultural chemicals, said that some corn ethanol companies have committed to improvements, even if the safety of some corn ethanol is still in question. One of the chemicals that come out of the corn that is put into ethanol production is 2,4-D, a pesticide.

“What we have here is an industry that is constantly arguing that it’s safe, while knowing that it’s not,” he said. “It’s time for some federal regulation, and not just a court order.”

Mr. Mierzwinski said some of the deaths are likely preventable.

“Something is going on here that we don’t know about because it’s not yet scientifically proven,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s a rush, but I would think that once we identify the problem, we should figure out how to fix it.”

CORRECTION: The date of Ms. Herbst’s visit to Wisconsin has been corrected to Florida.

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