Return to Transcripts main page


Oil Disaster Health Concerns; Interview with Dr. Francis Collins; Toxic Produce?

Aired June 12, 2010 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Good morning. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Welcome to the place to learn how to live longer and stronger. I'm your doctor. I'm also your coach.

We start with the oil disaster. More people are sickened. We know that. What are the possible health implications to the cleanup workers?

You know, there are some who's saying that after 9/11, people got sick years later. Could that be happening again?

We'll speak with Senator Gillibrand about that. She believes it might be so.

And also, this man over here, Francis Collins. Ten years ago, he helped identify the genetic blueprint of human beings. He's now in charge of the National Institute of Health.

He's a born again Christian who tinkers with the building blocks of life. What impact does it have for us today and in the future, as well? We'll talk about that.

And we have a lot of this in the refrigerator. You should. Produce, could it also be loaded with pesticides? What can you do about it? It's our "Medical Mystery."

Let's get started.


GUPTA: You know, the oil and the gas continue to erupt 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. It's now the biggest environmental disaster in our nation's history. You've heard that by now. But also, oil sickness is spreading.

This week, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals reported more than 71 cases of oil spill-related illness. Twenty-one of those weren't citizens of the area.

Now, fishermen in contact with the oil and dispersants are complaining of nausea, headaches, burning eyes, scratchy throats. BP continues to say the workers are safe, but many of the fishermen simply aren't convinced.

So, what's going on here? Who's responsible? What needs to be done to put the cleanup workers' health first?

We're digging deeper on this morning with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. She's very concerned about the health of cleanup workers and the fears that many of them may face the long-term health effects like 9/11 workers did, as well. She joins us from Washington.

Thanks so much for being on SGMD. Appreciate it, Senator.


GUPTA: You know, this is -- I was down in the Gulf. This is obviously something that a lot of people are thinking about. Are we ready to say that these fishermen-turned-cleanup workers are getting sick as a result of this job, as a result of breathing in this oil dispersant mixture?

GILLIBRAND: Well, I certainly have concerns, Sanjay. What I'm most concerned about is that these workers need to have the protections in place to stay healthy during this cleanup and to make sure they don't have any long-term health effects because of the chemicals that are being used as dispersants and that are part of the cleanup.

So, it's very important to me that we have better oversight, more review, to make sure the processes that BP has put in place are adequate.

GUPTA: Who should really be in charge of that safety issue?

GILLIBRAND: Well, right now, BP is in charge of the cleanup, but my concern is that a lot of workers would like to be using protective equipment. And I think there should be a way that they can use protective equipment, as long as it doesn't put them at risk. These workers should be able to wear protective gear if they want to.

And I think that both OSHA and the federal government needs to do a top to bottom review of BP standards to make sure they're adequate, because we've been through this before, Sanjay. You know, when our workers were cleaning up after the 9/11 attacks, when those buildings c came down, enormous numbers of toxins were released into the environment. And we have workers, health workers and families living in the region and firefighters and construction workers who are now suffering grave respiratory illnesses and some have even died.

So, we want to make sure we don't repeat this by not knowing what's in these chemicals, at what levels. And what is the appropriate amount of protection that these workers need.

GUPTA: You know, it's just fascinating and I just worked on an entire documentary about this for some time, basically talking about this idea that it's hard to find proof, it's hard to draw a line between cause and effect. You know, you hear from BP, they say it's -- the air is safe. We've have tested it.

They said the same thing, as you just pointed out, after 9/11. Ultimately, you know, the culpability is difficult to establish. Is this just, you know, saying, look, let's just be cautious or is this saying, you know, we are simply potentially being, you know, just malicious in not protecting people who clearly are going to have health problems?

GILLIBRAND: Well, in the first instance, we need more information. We have to call on BP to even release the chemicals that were in this dispersant. Now, we want to know the amount of chemicals and the strength of the chemical and the toxicity.

There's also been studies done that have not been released. So, we want to make sure that the producer of this chemical releases all of their studies because these workers are entitled to basic information about whether they are at risk at all in not having any protective gear and any protective equipment while they do this cleanup. So, the workers need much more information. The public has a right to know. And then we need the federal government to do another round of oversight and accountability to make sure what BP has put in place is adequate.

GUPTA: It's really important. And you know, I was really struck by the fact that 21 people, who aren't even cleanup workers, also getting some of the same illness. So, stay tuned.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us. We're going to stay on this as I know you will, as well.

GILLIBRAND: Thank you, Sanjay.

GUPTA: Appreciate it.

And up next, what about the rest of us? You know, we want to do right by our bodies, certainly. But could we also be exposing ourselves to toxins?

Stay with SGMD.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

You know, every week at this time, I'm going to be answering your questions. Think of this as your appointment. No waiting. No insurance necessary. Let's get right to it.

The question from Twitter -- the question is: "Does anyone know of a miracle treatment for ovarian cancer?"

Well, miracle, it's not a word that we use very often and, unfortunately, there's still no miracle treatment for ovarian cancer. Think of the numbers first of all -- approximately 22,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer annually. About 15,000 of them die from the disease every year, as well.

You know, ovarian cancer has such a high mortality rate because the symptoms are vague early on and there's no proven screening test that really works. Fewer than 20 percent, about one in five women are diagnosed with early stage ovarian cancer. But here's where it's interesting. New research is presented at a major conference, cancer conference this week, tells us that adding an existing drug to standard therapy can slow the spread of this cancer pretty dramatically. There was a study involving nearly 1,900 women and researchers found that when patients with advanced disease were given chemotherapy plus the drug Avastin and then stayed on the Avastin after the chemo was over, it took about four months longer before the cancer started to grow and spread compared to the chemo alone.

Now, Avastin was first approved for kidney cancer. It blocks the growth of new blood cells and those blood cells, if you block them, the tumor simply cannot grow as fast.

Cancer experts believe these results could change how doctors treat women with advanced ovarian cancer.


GUPTA: All right. Let's shift topics a little bit now.

I have taken on a challenge to race this July in the New York City Triathlon. I could tell you, I'm a little nervous, had some ups and downs. So, I invited six CNN viewers to join me. And we're going to zero in on the hometown of one of them today, Springfield, Ohio.

Her name is and Angie Brouhard. And I can tell you, Angie was diagnosed with breast cancer just over a year ago. She beat it. And now, with five weeks to go before the race, her focus is on staying healthy. She's taught us a lot.

Let's take a look at how she's doing.


ANGIE BROUHARD, FIT NATION PARTICIPANT: Hi, this is Angie Brouhard. I wanted to give you an update regarding my training and my getting ready for the Fit Nation triathlon. It's been just over a year since my diagnosis of breast cancer, and as I look back over that year, I just can't believe the changes in my life.

I can bike further and swim further than I ever thought that I could. I'm getting ready to run in a 5k with some of my family members.

CROWD: Two, one --


BROUHARD: One thing that Lance Armstrong told us when we met him is the people that are there to support you when you are going through something like cancer are the same people that will be there to support you when you're going through other things, as well. And I have really seen that to be true.

I'm here at the pool with my friend Karen and we're doing our morning swim. I feel stronger now than I did even before I had my diagnosis. I'm in much better shape. I feel like I'm making a stronger, healthier life style for my family, as well.


GUPTA: And I can tell you, thanks to Angie's influence, lots of her friends and her co-workers have started working out, as well, for the first time, and that was sort of the point of Fit Nation.

Keep it up, Angie. I'll see you in the Hudson River on race day.

Up next, Francis Collins, he's master of mapping the human genome. He's going to tell us means for us right now and the future of medicine. He also taught me about spirituality. I'll explain.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: Welcome back to SGMD.

You know, 10 years ago this month, history was made when we learned that scientists had sequenced the genetic blueprint for human beings. The man that led the public effort, he's Francis Collins. He's a former teacher of mine and since last year, he's also been director of the National Institutes of Health.

I recently sat down with him recently to talk much more about what we have learned from all of this and whether troublesome in any way that all, that one in five genes right now is patented by a private company.


GUPTA: When you try to explain to Human Genome Project, how do you explain what it means to people right now? We can -- we can do this. And now, several years later, we can do it faster and more efficiently -- my understanding is -- than ever before.

What -- to the average person, what does that really mean?

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, DIR., NATL. INSTITUTES OF HEALTH: Well, the human genome is an instruction book. I mean, it's a book written in a funny language that we're just really beginning to understand and learn how to read, and each one of our instruction books are different, although, 99.5 percent of it is the same. That half percent is pretty interesting.

If we knew how to read that book and all of the details that are hiding in there, we would know a lot about what causes diseases and how to keep people healthy. In 2003, we finished that first complete genome and that was an effort that took 13 years and cost about $400 million just for the sequencing part, not to mention all the technology, development and everything else that added up to about $3 billion. Now, here we are in 2010, and to sequence your genome right now costs about $10,000 -- just a phenomenal change in our ability to collect that information and a considerable change in our ability to understand it, although we still have a long way to go.

GUPTA: Is there going to be anything that you think comes out of this that's going to really shatter some of that or completely change the way that we live our lives?

COLLINS: A lot of our prescription for staying healthy is pretty generic, in terms of, you know, eat right, exercise, don't smoke, take advantage of various medical surveillance programs. But it is pretty generic. It doesn't get individualized on the basis of what your specific risks might be. And one of the problems is that people tend to ignore them, because they don't feel very specific to them, most of the time.

Imagine a time -- and it may come in the next five or 10 years -- where DNA sequencing gets so cheap that your genome and mine can be determined for less than $1,000. I think we're on that trajectory quite clearly. It will then become part of all of our medical record. It will drive a lot of the decision-making about prevention and about treatment.

GUPTA: Are we ever going to get to the point where we can say with confidence that you're going to get something or you're not?

COLLINS: There are some instances where you'll have that kind of precision. There already are. Huntington's disease, if you have that mutation and you live to be 70 or 80 years old, you're going to get Huntington disease.

But most will not be like that. They'll be more like your serum cholesterol. When it's high, you're at risk. When it comes down, you're at lower risk. But it's not a yes/no answer.

GUPTA: Who owns the genes? I mean, I have my own genes. You have your genes. Who owns them?

COLLINS: It seems rather astonishing that, in fact, something like 20 percent of the human genes had had patents issued on them. Many people are amazed --


GUPTA: It's a multibillion dollar industry.

COLLINS: Well, it is. The argument that has been used in justifying that is that the genes are not being patented in their natural form. They're genes that have been purified.

Now, has that been a good thing? Again, I think that's the question we ought to ask. Does this benefit the public? Are these patents actually producing something the public benefits from?

I think when it comes to some patents that have been used to inspire therapeutic development like, for instance, erythropoietin, Amgen would say they would not have really invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing erythropoietin to treat anemia if they had not have a patent on the gene because they were afraid -- otherwise, somebody else would swoop in and take over their market after they'd done all the work.

So, perhaps in therapeutics, these patents have actually benefitted the public. In diagnostics on the other hand, like the BRCA1 and BRCA2 patent, there's a much tougher argument there about whether this really has been beneficial or whether it's actually gotten in the way of competition and of improving the cost curve because costs are still pretty high.


GUPTA: You know, there's much more to Francis Collins than just science. He's also a devout Christian. We'll talk about that balance. That's next on SGMD.



GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD and my conversation with Dr. Francis Collins. He's head of the NIH, the National Institutes of Health.

You know, in the world of science, he stands out. He's a motorcycle enthusiast. He's an amateur musician. Like that's him with Joe Perry from Aerosmith.

And maybe most strikingly, he's also a deeply devout born again Christian.


GUPTA: I'm curious what your religious community thought when you decided to take this job.

COLLINS: I think the religious community is obviously very diverse. There are certainly lots of people in the religious community who were delighted to see somebody who is a person of faith also stepping forward into a scientific leadership position, emphasizing by that the existence of that person that these world views need not be in conflict.

There's certainly people from the very conservative part of the evangelical church, particularly those who see evolution as an enemy, who aren't happy with me because of my clear statements in the past about how evolution is about as well-define scientifically as gravity and we should kind of get used to that and not see that as an enemy of the faith.

GUPTA: I say it doesn't have to be a house of cards. I mean, you could not have -- you could believe in evolution and still not have the entire rest of your faith sort of crumble it around. COLLINS: I get e-mails almost every day from young people in crisis, and they're usually people who are raised in conservative homes, taught a younger creationist perspective as the only acceptable one and then they get to university. Maybe they've been protected from the evidence in going to a Christian high school.

They get to university and they see the data, and they see how all of the dating of the universe adds up to the fact that the universe is 13.7 billion years old and that the earth is 4.55 billion years old and they look at the biology part of this, especially coming from DNA. And they see that the conclusion is inescapable that we humans are part of this amazing tapestry of relatedness between living things. And they go into crisis, because they can see this scientific proof is impossible to ignore, and yet, they feel their whole faith foundation is in ruins at that point, because if the church was wrong about origins, were they wrong about the whole thing? That is a terrible tragedy. That's a terrible position to put people in, and an unnecessary one.

If God decided to create the universe, and decided the mechanism of evolution was the way to do it, maybe the only way to do it, who are we to say, we don't like that answer? It's a pretty amazing answer.

GUPTA: Is there a scientific rationale for belief?

COLLINS: I think there is. It's not a proof. Let's be clear: we're not going to be given proof of God's existence. I don't expect that as part of the plan.

But you can look at pointers, (INAUDIBLE), the Big Ben. In fact, the universe had a beginning. What about that? Nature hasn't been observed to create itself. So, how did this all get started?

The fact the universe is so finely-tuned so that things like the gravitational constant or the speed of light, if there were just a tiny bit different, there'd be no possibility of any complexity here, much less life in our universe.

GUPTA: And now you get to play with the building blocks of life quite literally, finding in God in your work there, or at least the mind, as you put it.

COLLINS: And, indeed, and I find it a great privilege to be a scientist who's also a believer, because it does add something to the experience. Every time we discover something new that wasn't known before, it's a little glimpse of God's mind.


GUPTA: All right. Thanks, Professor.

Fascinating discussion there with Francis Collins, Dr. Francis Collins.

Veggies, fruits and toxins. Could you be putting yourself at risk when you're simply trying to eat healthy? It's our "Medical Mystery" and it's coming up next.


GUPTA: Welcome back to SGMD. Our "Medical Mystery" this week.

Now, you know, we're all supposed to eat our fruits and vegetables and stay healthy, right? I mean, I tell people this all the time. I had my apple this morning. Apple a day, you know how it goes.

But could our foods actually be harming us in some way as well? New report out there suggests that many healthy foods could be covered with pesticides.

I wanted to investigate this, so I went shopping in a grocery store to find out what might be toxic. Take a look.


GUPTA: When you hear the term pesticides, a lot of people think about being outdoors, things that you find in your grass, perhaps your flowers, especially in the summertime. What if I told you that you were likely eating pesticides as well?

Look, I'll admit, I tell people all time, you should be eating five serving of fruits and vegetables every single day. But a new study shows that if you're doing that, you're probably eating up to 10 different pesticides a day as well, which is why they've come up with this list of the dirty dozen, which we'll put on our Web site.

There are some foods that they say you should buy organic. For example, peaches over here, or some of the vegetables that you find over here. Celery, for example, they say you should buy organic. Lettuce, all kinds of different berries -- they say those are good candidates to buy organic. Apples as well.

Now, one thing that people immediately bring up is the cost. It simply costs more to buy organic. It's true. Well, maybe not as much as you think.

Celery, for example, is about 50 cents more. You look at apples. That's 10 cents more per pound. On this day, the lettuce was actually 20 cents cheaper.

There are some foods that they also say, you know what, save your money. You don't necessarily to buy these foods organic. Pineapples, for example. Pineapples are a good candidate for that.

Watermelon, again, you can buy these non-organic. Cantaloupe is another good thing.

Corn on the cob. I love corn on the cob. Again, especially in the summertime. You can peel this off. You don't need to buy this organic.

You may see a theme emerging here, and that is that those are all foods that you can peel, simply peeling away the outer skin, I can get rid of a lot of those potential pesticides.

Now, one thing I want to point out is that when they tested for pesticides, that was after these foods had already been power-washed. So, even if you wash this at home a non-organic apple, they're probably still going to have the pesticides.

So, good rule of thumb, if you don't buy organic, make sure to peel this first, then wash it. That's going to be your best bet.

I want to be clear: the evidence about the relationship between pesticides and adverse effects on human health, it's not clear. There are some studies suggesting that it may cause birth defects for pregnant women, may cause nerve damage, even cancer.

But simply by following these rules, you could rid your body of about 80 percent of the pesticides you might be taking in on any given day.


GUPTA: And as I mentioned, we put that list of the so-called dirty dozen fruits and veggies on our Web site. Just go to We are committed to this issue.

Remember, this is the place for the answers to all of your medical issues. Thanks for watching.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

More news on CNN starts right now.