GeneWatch PR: GM micro-organisms released into the environment every day across the uk, says new GeneWatch UK report

Embargoed until 00.01hrs Monday 28th June 1999

In a new report, GeneWatch UK reveals that GM micro-organisms (GMMs), which are being used throughout the UK for research and to make drugs, are being released in waste from factories and laboratories into rivers and the atmosphere, unmonitored by any Government agency.

The effects these GMMs are having on the environment are unknown and the Environment Agency, which is responsible for water and air quality, has no remit to control or monitor discharges (1).

The GeneWatch report found that, according to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) public register, GM bacteria, viruses, yeasts and fungi are used at 471 sites for research and industrial purposes - 34 of which use GMMs on a large scale (2). Although the waste from these sites is treated, not all the GMMs are killed (3) and one company, Zeneca, has said it expected to release millions of living GMMs per litre of waste into the ‘water drainage/sewage system’ (4).

"The HSE’s public register only records the use of GMMs since 1992. Once registered, most companies and scientists do not have to provide any details of their activities if they decide they are of low risk - so no-one knows exactly what is going on," said Dr Sue Mayer, Director of GeneWatch UK and one of the report’s authors. "The effects of this genetic pollution are unknown and once again with a GM issue we are having to produce our own research to force the Government to acknowledge the problem and take appropriate action."

The 54-page report, ‘Leaking from the Lab’, is the result of 6 months of research. It lists the companies registered as using GMMs on a large scale, the sorts of products and research for which they are using GMMs, and examines the possible dangers of allowing live GMMs to be released into the environment.

The report shows that although the spotlight has fallen on GM foods and crops, releases of GMMs are taking place, unmonitored and unpoliced, and that GMMs in waste are falling through an enormous loophole in current regulations.

"Using GM organisms in this way is known as ‘contained use’ but this safe-sounding phrase belies the reality - that GM pollution of our air and rivers is being allowed without any knowledge of the harm that could arise," said Dr Mayer.

GeneWatch UK is seeking an urgent meeting with the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher MP, to discuss the findings of the research and the implications for Britain’s rivers and air quality.

Their key demands are:

* GMMs in waste must be brought into line with other forms of pollution control.
* Responsibility for GMM waste must be moved to the Environment Agency.
* Safety systems must be established along with effective monitoring and policing strategies.

The report’s key findings are:

Lack of information

* No comprehensive information on the use of GMMs is held by any authority.
* Companies registered as using GMMs on a large scale would not supply details of what they were producing or releasing into the environment.

The possible impacts

* Responsibility for assessing the potential risks of GMMs rests largely with the users themselves, who have a vested interest in classifying them as ‘low risk’.
* GMMs frequently contain antibiotic resistance genes.
* A GMM’s foreign DNA can be passed to other organisms and vice versa.
* Even GMMs categorised as ‘low-risk’ can survive for days or weeks in the environment.
* Transfer of genes could result in organisms becoming more infectious and could increase the likelihood of drug resistant diseases or disturb natural ecosystems.


* The regulations covering the contained use of GMMs are about to be revised following the introduction of a revised Contained Use Directive in Europe (2). This sets minimum standards so the UK can go further to protect human health and the environment, but current indications suggest that the Government is unlikely to do so.

Prosecutions to date

* Since 1992, the HSE has taken action against seven universities or institutes for failure to observe safety procedures. The HSE has only the equivalent of one person allocated to inspecting nearly 500 sites using GMMs.

- ends -

View Report Summary and Recommendations Full text

Details of registered large-scale GMM users in the UK Full text

Further Information:

Contact GeneWatch UK on:
Tel: +44 (0)1298 871898
Fax: +44 (0)1298 872531

Notes to Editors:

  1. In a letter to GeneWatch UK dated 14th December 1998, Dr Jan Pentreath - Chief Scientist and Director of Environmental Strategy of the Environment Agency - said that: "For discharges to water…there is no requirement to inform us if GM material (whether deactivated or not) is present."
  2. Large scale means that the GMMs are grown in culture volumes of 10 litres or more. This could reach 10,000 litres and contain 1014 to 1016 organisms. (106 is one million organisms.)
  3. At a consultation meeting on the regulations of GMMs at Bootle, Merseyside on 1st June 1999, HSE official Dr Paul Logan confirmed that the requirement to inactivate waste meant that the majority, but not all, GMMs would be killed before disposal in waste.
  4. Following inactivation of waste, Zeneca BioProducts at Billingham, said in their 1993 notification of a large scale use of a GMM, that it expected to be discharging millions of living GMMs per litre to the "Terrestrial, research and production site" and "Water drainage/sewage system".

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