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Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, persistent organic pollutants, and the achievable utopias
  1. Miquel Porta
  1. Institut Municipal d’Investigació Médica (IMIM), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain, and School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor M Porta, Institut Municipal d’Investigació Médica, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Carrer del Dr Aiguader 80, E-08003 Barcelona, Spain;

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Does it make much sense to ask your butcher whether a piece of beef contains the bovine spongiform encephalopathy prion protein? I doubt it. Essentially—but not solely, as explained below—because it is unlikely that any prion would be found, even if an efficient test to detect it was available for use on a daily basis. By contrast, it is perfectly sensible to ask your butcher, grocer, or supermarket manager how much the meat, fish, or milk you buy harbour environmental chemical agents such as the pesticide residue DDE, polychlorinated biphenyls, hexachlorobenzene, or hexachlorocyclohexane, which comprise the bulk of persistent organic pollutants in humans.1 We largely absorb such chemicals through a wide variety of foods, and most of us store them in fat tissues.2–9 Ubiquitous throughout the planet, persistent organic pollutants are a true symbol of “globalisation”: they travel through the airs and waters as fast as through the global goods’ distribution channels. And they travel through our blood.

That doesn’t mean we should not care about bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Sure, serious encephalopathy related issues remain unsolved; notably, the potential link between prion contaminated food and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. However, while persistent organic pollutants exposure is widespread throughout the Earth (firm evidence, see references1–6), exposure to bovine spongiform encephalopathy prions seems much lower on that scale (evidence indeterminate). And …

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