Archive for June, 2012

A Case of Mistaken Identity

June 24, 2012

A disturbing news story has been making the rounds about cyanide-producing grass killing cattle in Texas. Initial reports from news outlets such as CBS mistakenly described the grass as “genetically-modified” and while some subsequent reports clarified the issue this has not stopped anti-GM bloggers and activists such as our old friend Anthony Gucciardi from repeating the story in a misleading effort to whip up more fear.

Common bermudagrass on the left & Tifton-85 on the right with improved yield and quality

The grass in question, Tifton 85, is actually a conventionally bred bermudagrass hybrid that has been in use since the 1980’s largely for forage. While such an event has never been reported with Tifton 85 before, poisoning events with other forage are not unheard of and are usually driven by environmental factors such as drought. A number of forage grasses and other crops have cyanogenic potential, farmers growing forage and ranchers raising cattle have been aware of this issue for a long time and are already advised to take steps to avoid such problems. While this latest incident justifies a closer look at Tifton 85, it is not in anyway evidence against the use of genetically engineered crops. In the face of widespread public misunderstanding and fear of technologies such as genetic engineering and the anti-scientific threat of GMO labeling bills in California and elsewhere, the false framing of this news as an anti-GMO horror story is not just dishonest but is downright harmful to the public understanding of science.

Such cases of misidentification and misrepresentation are not uncommon in the anti-GMO community. It seems that anytime something goes wrong in the food system or something “scary” is discovered, “GMOs” are one of the first culprits that jump to mind. A prime example was the reporting of a 2011 study about microRNAs from rice. While GM rice is not currently on the market and the study was performed using conventional rice, not GM rice, this did not stop news outlets such as the Atlantic from presenting the study as an example of “the very real danger of genetically modified foods”. Nor have subsequent rebuttals prevented many anti-GM activists from perpetuating a misleading representation of the study. A retraction or correction of a false story generally isn’t enough, people tend to remember the myth and forget the correction, news outlets must strive the get the story right in the first place.

Some cases of misidentification may be the result of innocent (though willful) ignorance. Many people are prone to assuming that unfamiliar or “strange looking” produce is a GMO, rather than bothering to look deeper. The Grapple, a grape flavored apple, is a common example of this. Produced by soaking conventional apples in a bath of grape flavoring, Grapples are not a genetically engineered product but clear labeling of this fact has not prevented many people from spreading false assumptions. Another interesting example is the fruit salad tree. By grafting different cultivars within the same family onto different branches of the same tree, growers were able to create trees that produced multiple different fruits, in the same family (stone fruit, citrus, apple, and nashi varieties are available), simultaneously. New and foreign cultivars are often misidentified by the public as GMOs as well, Plutots, Papples, and Tangelos have all been mistakenly presented as examples of “frankenfood”. Unfortunately many cases of misidentfication appear not to be mere mistakes but rather a result of prejudicial and lazy thinking.

A good example of this was the reaction to the 2011 Listeria outbreak that was traced back to a Colorado melon farm, Jensen Farms. While most of those familiar with the food system understood the nature of relativity rare Listeria outbreaks, other more conspiratorially-minded people saw a cover-up.  One anti-GMO blogger wrote that she believes “this is probably further proof of the damages from genetically modified SEEDS” and Jensen Farms had to respond to multiple inquiries regarding the nature of their seed, repeating, “we do not use gmo cantaloupe seed.” I have no doubts about the truth of Jensen’s claim considering that GM melons are not currently on the market, and how GM cantaloupes, if they existed, would even cause Listeria is beyond me. Another case of a perceived GMO cover-up was the introduction of the Kumato, a hybrid black tomato, to the UK market. While most consumers saw no issue with the tomato, at least one blogger wrote a post titled, “Are Sainsbury’s Black Tomatoes Genetically Engineered (GMO)?“, citing her belief that the public was being duped. As evidence, the blogger quotes a patent for parthenocarpy genes in tomato,

And here’s the patent for  Kumatoes (Sainsbury’s black tomatoes):  “21. A S. lycopersicum plant according to claim 1, wherein the plant is of a commercial tomato type selected from the group consisting of cherry, cocktail, mini plum, plum cocktail, plum, round, and beef.”

Yep….what the heck is “beef” genes in there?

The misunderstanding here should be obvious, the patent does not refer to “beef” or bovine genes, rather it is referring to the name of a variety of tomato. In the end the anti-GMO crowd is so desperate to latch onto anything that might support their preconceived fears and so credulous that they can even be fooled by non-existent crops such as the mythical blue strawberry and GMO cannabis. The anti-GM community is going to have to do a lot better than this if they wish to be taken seriously. Once again, in the face of widespread public misunderstanding and fear of technologies such as genetic engineering and the anti-scientific threat of GMO labeling bills in California and elsewhere, the false framing of agricultural news as anti-GMO horror stories is not just dishonest but is downright harmful to the understanding and advancement of science.

Further Reading:
Accuracy in Reporting Matters
by R343L
GMO food: Hybrid poison grass that kills Texas cattle not genetically modified by Linda Gentile
Potential Toxicity Issues with Tifton 85 Bermudagrass from Dr. Larry Redmon, Extension Forage Specialist

Pig’s Blood in Cigarettes?

June 19, 2012

You may have heard the claim that some “cigarettes contain pig’s blood”*. While I’ve heard this claim numerous times, not being a smoker I have never bothered to look into it until more recently. The primary source of this story was a 2010 media release quoting University of Sydney Professor in Public Health Simon Chapman,

“Many devout Islamic and Jewish smokers and some vegetarians would be horrified to think they were putting a filter in their mouth which contained a pig product.”

Professor Chapman was not the only who raised the alarm. Mohammad Reza Madani, an official from the Iranian Society for Fighting Smoking, spoke out calling it a zionist conspiracy and papers through out the Muslim world reprinted the story. What is being vaguely implicated is the use of the blood protein hemoglobin, in this case derived from a pig, in some cigarette filters. Unfortunately most iterations of this new story were light on facts, leading many to be confused about how widespread this issue actually is. Of course, that may very well have been Professor Chapman’s intent.

The Bio-filter.

The issue came to light largely due to the publication of PIG 05049 by Dutch artist Christien Meindertsma. The work details the many and varied end uses for a single pig, pig number 05049, as its parts are shipped around the world. Among a number of items including medicine, photo paper,  brakes, chewing gum, porcelain, & cosmetics, cigarette filters are mentioned. This filter, The Bio-Filter (marketed as Choice filter in the US & Canada), was designed to reduce some gaseous carcinogens and be safer (though this is doubtful 1, 2, 3). This filter, created by Greek researchers, gained some popularity due to advertisements that it was healthier, though it never came to dominate the market. Its market status now is difficult to ascertain but it does not appear to be in widespread use. In the end it makes a sensational headline but is a non-issue relative to the many legitimate concerns surrounding tobacco and the tobacco industry. I find Professor Chapman’s expressed concern for vegetarians a bit disingenuous, as a dedicated anti-tobacco activist Chapman appears more concerned with advancing his cause than protecting others ethical sensibilities.

While the bio-filter may have been a well meaning (though counterproductive) attempt to reduce the harmful effects of smoking, there are other companies who appear a bit more cynical. Take for example the bio-card, this device which looks like a typical credit card is meant to be slipped into a pack a cigarettes where it will use its “13 macromolecular composite technology” to  “reduce more than 60% harmful substance in cigarette”. The vague mechanism and accompanying “evidence” for this products is laughable and hardly needs pointing out how ridiculous it is. Scam harm reduction and smoking cessation aids and claims abound and only serve to confuse the public. Tobacco is a serious public health issue intertwined with issues of personal liberty, there are no easy answers and relying on top-down regulation isn’t sufficient, the public must become informed so as to make the best decisions for themselves and society.

There is no doubt in my mind that not smoking is the safer choice, but as long as there is the desire to smoke and availability of tobacco products, people need accurate information on which to make informed choices. I don’t wish to encourage anyone to smoke cigarettes, but I also do not want to stand by misinformation even when it serves my desires. Nor do I wish people to be fooled into a “safer” way of smoking when the evidence for benefit is lacking. For those looking for science-base information tobacco and smoking cessation please visit the CDC’s Smoking & Tobacco Use page. For those who already smoke but are not yet ready to quit, you may wish to explore harm reduction, there are some options available that could improve your quality of life.

Further Reading:
Nuclear Cigarettes

*This is not the only animal product claimed to be in some cigarettes.

Fluoride & the Brain: The China Studies

June 5, 2012

Since my latest blog posts have met with objections that I might be cherry-picking poor examples of evidence, I have decided to be a little more thorough and go right to the source. While browsing the Fluoride Action Network (FAN) website I found their page on fluoride and IQ containing the claim that there were “24 published studies” associating high fluoride exposure and low IQ. The link to the list of studies was broken but with the help of the Wayback Machine I found the list. Out of the 25 studies and one letter to the editor listed, I have included 17 here, all from China. Five studies had to be excluded because they did not have an English translation available (though they were part of the meta-analysis written about in my last post), also one study from Iran, one study from Mexico, and one study from India were each excluded for being outside the geographical scoop of this review (though they will be included in a future post).

China does indeed have a fluoride problem, high levels in the groundwater and contamination from the use of coal for cooking and heating both contribute to exceedingly high dosages for the populations in various provinces and villages.

But as you can see here, while the Fluoride Action Network’s focus is on stopping community fluoridation programs in places such as the US, not a single study presented was actually about community fluoridation in developed nations. Rather, the studies presented by FAN are about the threat of endemic fluorosis among those exposed to high levels naturally occurring in the groundwater and from coal pollution in developing nations, issues on which they are not active. This is a disingenuous use of scientific research to advance a fear-based agenda. To demonstrate I’m going to take a look at the cited studies one by one.

#1. Research on the intellectual development of children in high fluoride areas.
Chen Y, Han F, Zhou Z, Zhang H, Jiao X, Zhang S, Huang M, Chang T, Dong Y.

This study compared two villages, one an endemic fluorosis area, Biji, and the other a control area, Jiaobei. Biji had fluoride levels in the water of 4.55 mg/L and IQ scores of 100.24±14.52 while Jiaobei had fluoride levels of 0.89 mg/L.

This is one of many examples of misusing studies done on the health dangers of high levels of naturally occurring fluoride in groundwater, exposure to industrial pollution, and occupational fluoride exposure as “evidence” against the controlled use of dental fluoride and water fluoridation programs.

#2. A preliminary investigation of the IQs of 7-13 year old children from an area with coal burning-related fluoride poisoning.
Guo X, Wang R, Cheng C, Wei W, Tang L, Wang Q, Tang D, Liu G, He G, Li S.

The title of this one says enough, the study concerned children from an area with coal burning-related fluoride poisoning.  Coal related fluorosis is a real problem, but it is not related to community water fluoridation programs.

#3. Research on the effects of fluoride on child intellectual development under different environments.
Hong F, Cao Y, Yang D, Wang H.

A quote from the study explains this study,

The region of China selected for this study is a high fluoride, high iodine area in the lower reaches of the Yellow River on the flood plain near the Bohai Sea. Because the residents of the region consume drinking water that has a higher content of fluoride and iodine than the national standard, the prevalence of dental fluorosis and goiter is high.

This is explicitly not evidence of harm from community water fluoridation programs.

#4. Effects of high fluoride intake on child mental work capacity: and preliminary investigation into mechanisms involved.
Li Y, Li X, Wei S.

Once again this study was carried out on children “from a coal-burning fluorosis endemic area“. Coal burning creates airborne fluoride which can be either directly inhaled and be absorbed into foods. In most studies done on fluoride pollution from coal the levels of fluoride seen in the indoor air were fairly high. Such a study is not really relevant to regulated community water fluoridation programs.

#5. The effects of endemic fluoride poisoning on the intellectual development of children in Baotou.
Li Y, Jing X, Chen D, Lin L, Wang Z.

The title of this study is self explanatory but I’ll give a quote from the study,

The endemic fluoride poisoning in the Baotou region of Inner Mongolia is mostly concentrated on the high plateau north of the Ying Mountain Range, and the alluvial plain of the Yellow River south of Ying Mountain. As part of our endemic disease prevention work, we conducted a study of the effects of fluoride poisoning on intellectual development with the children of this region as our subjects.

This study is also on endemic fluorosis and is not relevant to the issue of community water fluoridation as stated above.

#6. Using the Raven’s standard progressive matrices to determine the effects of the level of fluoride in drinking water on the intellectual ability of school-age children.
Qin L, Huo S, Chen R, Chang Y, Zhao M.

This is another study on endemic fluoride. This study involved children from 22 villages with varying fluoride levels. An interesting finding of this study was that children with the lowest fluoride intake in the study had lower IQs than children who lived in areas with fluoride levels closer to our national standard in the US. The authors even stated, “it was discovered that both high and low fluoride had an effect on child intelligence. Fluoride levels greater than 2.0 mg/L or less than 0.2 mg/L can disrupt intellectual development.

Among 141 children in villages with 2.1–4.0 ppm F in the drinking water, 34 (24.11%) had IQ scores in the top three categories (1–3) of intelligence; among 147 children in the villages with 0.1–0.2 ppm F, the number was 40 (27.21%), and among 159 children in villages with a “normal” 0.5–1.0 ppm F, the number was 92 (57.86%). For the lowest two IQ categories (4 and 5), the percentages were, respectively, 75.89, 72.79, and 42.14%.

Once again, this is not good evidence against community water fluoridation in developed nations.

#7. A study of the intellectual ability of 8-14 year-old children in high fluoride, low iodine areas.
Ren D, Li K, Liu D.

This study compared IQ scores of children in an area of high fluoride and low iodine with children of the same ages from an area with low iodine only. As with previous studies the levels of fluoride in question is from endemic sources and is above the recommendations here in the US. This is not good evidence against community water fluoridation. It is also interesting to note that the authors found harmful effect from low iodine intake. This is something to keep in mind when speaking about the opposition to iodized salt for which there is some overlap in the anti-fluoridation community.

#8. A study of the IQ levels of four- to seven-year-old children in high fluoride areas.
Wang G, Yang D, Jia, Wang H.

This study compared IQ scores of children in a low fluoride area (≤ 1.0 mg/L) to children in a high endemic fluoride area with fluoride levels in the water reaching as high as 8.60 mg/L (not accounting for coal contaminated air or food). IQ scores were higher among the former group and lower among the latter. This study simply does not support the hypothesis that community water fluoridation at 0.70 mg/L is harmful.

#9. The effects of endemic fluoride poisoning caused by coal burning on the physical development and intelligence of children.
Wang S, Zhang H, Fan W, Fang S, Kang P, Chen X, Yu M.

One again we have a study with a self explanatory title, the authors we investigating the effects of endemic fluoride poisoning caused by coal burning. The area studied was even described as a “heavily fluoride poisoned area”. This is not good evidence against community water fluoridation.

#10. Effect of fluoride exposure on intelligence in children.
Li XS, Zhi JL, Gao RO.

The authors of this study on endemic fluorosis state,

In the medium and severe fluorosis areas, it was customary for coal to be used as a domestic fuel for cooking, heating and drying grain whereas in the areas without or only slight fluorosis there was no custom of drying grain by the use of coal.

This is not good evidence against community water fluoridation.

#11. The relationship of a low-iodine and high-fluoride environment to subclinical cretinism in Xinjiang.
Lin FF, Aihaiti, Zhao HX, Lin J, Jiang JY, Maimaiti, and Aiken

The authors of this study state,

We studied a total of 769 schoolchildren of 7-14 years in three areas, characterized by intakes of (A) low iodine, high fluoride; (B) low iodine, normal fluoride; and (C) iodine supplemented, normal fluoride. Results for the following parameters for areas A, B, and C, respectively were: (a) average IQ: 71,77,96

Once more we are presented with a study on high levels of endemic fluoride. As with study #7, this study does not provide evidence against community fluoridation programs, but its does highlight the importance of getting enough iodine.

#12. Effect of high-fluoride water on intelligence in children.
Lu Y, Sun ZR, Wu LN, Wang X, Lu W, Liu SS.

The authors of this study on endemic fluorosis state,

The children in the high-fluoride area (drinking water fluoride 3.15 ± 0.61 mg/L [ppm]) (mean ± S.D.) had higher urinary fluoride levels (4.99 ± 2.57 mg/L) than the children in the low-fluoride area (drinking water fluoride 0.37 ± 0.04 mg/L) (urinary fluoride 1.43 ± 0.64 mg/L). The IQ of the 60 children in the high-fluoride area was significantly lower, mean 92.27 ± 20.45, than that of the 58 children in the low-fluoride area, mean 103.05 ± 13.86. More children in the high-fluoride area, 21.6%, were in the retardation (<70) or borderline (70-79) categories of IQ than children in the low fluoride area, 3.4%. An inverse relationship was also present between IQ and the urinary fluoride level.

While these results have meaning to endemic fluoride control, they are not meaningful evidence against community water fluoridation.

#13. Arsenic and fluoride exposure in drinking water: children’s IQ and growth in Shanyin County, Shanxi Province, China.
Wang SX, Wang ZH, Cheng XT, Li J, Sang Z-P, Zhang X-D, Han L-L, Qiao X-Y, Wu Z-M, Wang Z-Q.

This study is looking at the effects of high levels of arsenic (up to 190 ± 183 μg/L ) and high levels of fluoride (up to 8.3 ± 1.9 mg/L) from endemic sources. These levels are extremely high and the presence of so much arsenic is worrying. But once more, this does not support the hypothesis that community water fluoridation at 0.70 mg/L is harmful.

#14. Effect of fluoride in  drinking water on children’s intelligence. (& follow up letter to the editor)
Xiang Q, Liang Y, Chen L, Wang C, Chen B, Chen X, Zhou M.

The authors of this study on endemic fluorosis state,

In the high fluoride village of Wamiao (water fluoride: 2.47±0.79 mg/L; range: 0.57–4.50 mg/L), the mean IQ of 222 children was significantly lower (92.02±13.00; range: 54–126) than in the low-fluoride village of Xinhuai (water fluoride: 0.36±0.15 mg/L; range: 0.18–0.76 mg/L), where the mean IQ of 290 children was higher (100.41±13.21; range: 60–128)…The Benchmark Concentration (BMC) for the concentration-response relationship between IQ <80 and the drinking water fluoride level was 2.32 mg/L, and the lower-bound confidence limit (BMCL) of the BMC was 1.85 mg/L. Taking dental fluorosis and other sources of dietary fluoride into account, the reference value concentration (RfC) for fluoride was calculated to be 0.925 mg/L, which is very close to the current national Chinese standard of <1.0 mg/L.

The author are stating that the Chinese fluoride standard of <1.0 mg/L is safe and this study does not provide meaningful evidence against community water fluoridation.

#15.Effect of high-fluoride water supply on children’s intelligence.
Zhao LB, Liang GH, Zhang DN, Wu XR.

The authors of this study on endemic fluorosis state,

children living in the endemic fluoride village of Sima (water supply F = 4.12 mg/L) located near Xiaoyi City had average IQ (97.69) significantly lower (p < 0.02) than children living to the north in the nonendemic village of Xinghua (F = 0.91 mg/L; average IQ = 105.21).

This study is consistent with the rest that excessively high levels of fluoride are a problem but that levels similar to those used in community fluoridation programs are safe.

#16. Research on the intellectual ability of 6-14 year old students in an area with endemic fluoride poisoning.
Hu Y, Yu Z , Ding R.

Once more we have a self explanatory title. In this study researchers look at two groups of children, one with high fluoride exposure from endemic sources (7.00 ppm) and a low fluoride area (0.8ppm or less). The authors of this study describe the impact of fluoride in this study as “negligible” however.

#17. The effects of high levels of fluoride and iodine on child intellectual ability and the metabolism of fluoride and iodine.
Yang Y, Wang X, Guo X, Hu P.

This study examined the “twin contamination zone” of Lidian Village, where the well water had an “iodine content of 1,100 μg/L and a fluoride content of 2.97 mg/L”. The control area for the study, Dading village, had drinking water with an “iodine content of 128.6 μg/L, and a fluoride content of 0.5 mg/L”. Children in Dading were found to outperform children from Lidian on the Chinese Comparative Scale of Intelligence Test (though the difference was not deemed “significant”). While relevant to the situation in some locations in China, this is not meaningful as evidence against community water fluoridation.

Once again, while the FAN’s focus is on stopping community fluoridation programs in places such as the US, not a single study presented was actually about community fluoridation in developed nations. Rather, the studies presented by FAN are about the threat of endemic fluorosis among those exposed to high levels naturally occurring in the groundwater and from coal pollution in developing nations, issues on which they are not active. This is a disingenuous use of scientific research to advance a fear-based agenda. I urge my readers to join me in supporting real, meaningful efforts to protect communities from the harms of endemic fluorosis. If you enjoyed this post please donate what you can to Frank Water and their efforts to provide sustainable water filtration to some of the worlds poorest communities.

Further Reading:
Fluoride & Heart Disease?
Fluoride & Brain Damage
Fluoride & the Brain: Déjà Vu
Fluoride & the Brain: Strike 3, You’re Out!
Science by Press Release: Fluoride & IQ

Fluoride & the Brain: Strike 3, You’re Out!

June 2, 2012

I know it’s often said the “third time’s the charm”, but really it’s just getting old at this point.  Fluoridation opponents are once again trotting out the tired canard of community water fluoridation negatively impacting brain function and intelligence. In a post titled Can Fluoride Lower Human Intelligence?, Sayer Ji of GreenMedInfo, writes,

Is fluoride a potential cause of lowering of IQ in our children? Certainly those who advocate for consuming it therapeutically, without acknowledging its well-known adverse health effects, may themselves be suffering from a fluoride-induced deficiency of intelligence.
After all, is it intelligent to ignore the evidence supporting a hard and fast connection between increased fluoride exposure and lower IQ?

Accusations of low intelligence of fluoridation proponents are nothing new, but I have not seen actual evidence of this childish claim. I have, however, noted an alarming lack of reading comprehension among a number of vocal fluoridation opponents. As evidence of this “hard and fast connection” between fluoride and intelligence Ji cites a 2008 paper titled Fluoride and children’s intelligence: a meta-analysis. This paper was a meta-analysis of 16 papers published over the last 20 years in regards to fluoride exposure in China and impacts on brain development and intelligence. The paper reports,

Sixteen case-control studies that assessed the development of low IQ in children who had been exposed to fluoride earlier in their life were included in this review. A qualitative review of the studies found a consistent and strong association between the exposure to fluoride and low IQ. The meta-analyses of the case-control studies estimated that the odds ratio of IQ in endemic fluoride areas compared with nonfluoride areas or slight fluoride areas. The summarized weighted mean difference is -4.97 (95%confidence interval [CI] = -5.58 to -4.36; p<0.01) using a fixed-effect model and -5.03 (95%CI = -6.51 to 3.55; p<0.01) using a random-effect model, which means that children who live in a fluorosis area have five times higher odds of developing low IQ than those who live in a nonfluorosis area or a slight fluorosis area.

The key point Ji is ignoring here is that the authors of the study were investigating the effects of living in high endemic fluoride areas with typical fluoride levels occurring at many times the approved amounts used in community fluoridation programs. The issue of endemic fluorosis is a problem in a number of nations, especially in China, where naturally occurring fluoride in the groundwater and pollution from coal create a dangerous situation.
Fluorosis-affected provinces
As said before, the use of studies done on the health dangers of high levels of naturally occurring fluoride in groundwater, exposure to industrial pollution, and occupational fluoride exposure as “evidence” against the controlled use of dental fluoride and water fluoridation programs is a common tactic among community fluoridation opponents. I feel I must stress why this issue is so important to me. Fluoride is a social justice issue. Endemic fluorosis disproportionately affects the poor in developing nations, while fear-based efforts to stop community fluoridation programs disproportionately affect the poor in developed nations. While anti-fluoridation activists and organizations such as the Fluoride Action Network like to position themselves as “safe-water” advocates, their focus is entirely on stopping community water fluoridation in developed nations. It is nothing short of hypocritical and irresponsible when organizations such as this hold out study after study on the harms of endemic fluorosis in developing nations while doing  nothing to help the people in such situations but instead misdirect the concern to safe community water fluoridation programs in developed nations. Fluorosis is a real problem that affects real people, but these people are not the focus of the fluoride fearmongers. If fluoridation opponents really want to do some good they can support organizations such as Frank Water which help to provide “safe drinking water for the world’s poorest communities” by setting up sustainable filtration programs in areas with bacteriological and fluoride contamination. Their work in India, a fluorosis hotspot, has resulted in safe drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people who now have a brighter future. It is projects like this that are doing the real good, spreading fear and misinformation, however, helps no one. If you enjoyed this post please consider donating what you can to Frank Water or a similar charity of your choice, let’s put the focus where it really matters.

Further Reading:
Fluoride & Heart Disease?
Fluoride & Brain Damage
Fluoride & the Brain: Déjà Vu


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