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Deadly White Gold

When you’ve got a bargain, do you think about who’s paid for it?

When I buy underwear, I ask myself  “is the cotton used to make this organic cotton?” If it isn’t organic, I follow up with a series of sub-questions tripping around “what permanently debilitating condition does the farmer who grew this have?” and “which pesticide gave it to him?”

Actually, I don’t. And nor, I suspect, do you. I give the style a cursory glance, determine if I would be proud to have it hanging around the house to dry, and check the price tag. And check if my bum would look big in it.

The source, the origin, whether a farmer has a debilitating condition or if he got paid a fair price for his hard labour…that matters little when I’m choosing a triangular piece of cloth I hope won’t show me up when I next pull. Pesticides? The last thing on my mind when I have Visible Panty Line to consider.

Shruthi, an endosulfan victim in Kerala

Shruthi, an endosulfan victim in Kerala

Pesticides are toxic chemicals sprayed on crops to kill “pests”…or any other living thing that can damage those crops. Insecticides kill insects, herbicides kill weeds. So on. So forth.

Hazardous chemicals associated with global cotton production also kill little fishies and get into the drinking water. Chemicals are known to contaminate freshwater rivers in America, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa.

Despite a ban across 62 countries and a pledge by its primary manufacturer, Bayer, to cease its distribution, a ‘persistent organic pollutant’ known as endosulfan is in widespread use on crops from cotton, soy, coffee, tea, and vegetables. Its ban is due to its high toxicity to humans (among other living organisms) and its knockweed-like knack of not just keeping pests away, but everything else that may do the environment a bit of good.

On humans, endosulfan can cause “convulsions, psychiatric disturbances, epilepsy, paralysis, brain oedema, impaired memory and death.” Spend too much time around it – like cotton growers in India and West Africa – and you run the risk of immuno suppression, neurological disorder, birth defects, chromosomal abnormalities, and significantly decreased mental capacity.

Aldicarb, a nerve agent, is one of the most toxic pesticides applied to cotton. A teaspoon on the skin is enough to kill an adult. Yet it is the second most used pesticide in cotton production.

Despite pesticide prevalence among non-organic cotton growers, chances are you won’t be able to detect it in your underwear or t-shirt. All traceability gets lost at the spinning level of production…the bit where various cotton sources are spun into fabric. So cotton ginned from Mali could end up in the same cloth as cotton ginned in India (ginning – where seeds are separated from the cotton boll – is the process that comes before the fabric is spun). This lack of traceability makes it difficult to identify which retailers import the most non-organic cotton.

For you and I, there are few if any horrific side-effects to those who wear cotton grown using pesticides, though studies show that hazardous pesticides can be detected in cotton clothing. Instead, a brown person who works with pesticides in a far flung country will get it in the neck. And in the chest. And in the bowels. And on the skin. And in the blood.

Pesticide manufacturers and distributors insist they are safe if used with the proper equipment and stored in the recommended way.

“The majority of farmers working with pesticides like endosulfan live in one room huts with their families. In that one room, the family eats, sleeps, lives,” explains Pesticide Action Network’s Damien Sanfilippo. “Everything is stored close together and it is not uncommon to see pesticide bottles next to food. Furthermore, the bottles carry a financial value. Empty bottles are sold in markets for one euro and people use them to store things like water and cooking oil. They’ve not been properly cleaned and cross contamination is common.”

Up to 99% of the world’s cotton growers live and work in the developing world. Cotton is grown as a smallholder crop by the rural poor and few can afford the protective chemical suits pesticide manufacturers say should be used with their products. Even if a suit is acquired, working for ten hours in a field in 40-degree heat and humidity in what is effectively a plastic bag doesn’t make for a happy farmer.

According to the World Health Organisation, 1 – 5 million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year. Of that, 20,000 agricultural workers die and over a million require hospitalisation. Over 200,000 commit suicide.

Other culprits in the pesticide family include monocotophos and deltamethrin. Disgustingly, the former was withdrawn from the US market in 1989 as it can cause paralysis in children, but is still widely used in developing countries. The latter is another nerve agent used in over half the world’s cotton producing countries. Medical analysis in a South African village near cotton farms found traces of deltamethrin in human breast milk.

Organic. A word impregnated by images of armies of yummy mummies mowing prams through Broadway Market. A mot scented by a pale indigo, Cath Kidston prints and Birkenstocks. A bit nouveau hippie, a bit aspirant middle class, a bit Womad. Not what you think of when you want to conjure the sharp, forward angles of high fashion, the slick ambient electro soundtrack of air kisses and champagne. Dahlink.

Your typical £20 t-shirt will earn a non-organic farmer 15p, 9p of which will have to go towards buying pesticides. Going organic and learning how to manage beneficial insects in the field (the ones who kill the insects nasty to cotton crops) will eliminate the need to spend that 9p. These farmers are also encouraged to grow farm system crops that not only help maintain a healthy biodiversity on the farm but offer another means to increase their incomes.

“You can look good and save the world,” insists Pants to Poverty’s Ben Ramsden. Pants to Poverty was set up as part of the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005. They make underwear. Organic underwear. And have successfully campaigned to get Bayer Crop Sciences, the world’s largest producer of endosulfan, to withdraw the pesticide from international distribution by 2010 in countries where it is still legally available. “The point behind choosing organic cotton is not to take the fun out of fashion. Clothing manufacturers make money because cotton yield increases when farmers go organic. Farmers make money because corporations pay more for their crop. And they’re healthier. It’s win win. And the best part is that the consumer is driving this ethical economy.”

UK consumers spend £23bn per year buying clothes and campaigners say it’s clear that people want organic cotton. Demand currently lies somewhere near £!bn and outstrips supply.

Designers such as Katharine Hamnett have been producing work using ethically and environmentally sourced fibres since the late 1980s. “Conventional cotton kills thousands of people every year and by using organic cotton, I can make clothes without having blood on my hands”.

Hamnett has said that although consumer demand for organic cotton is high, the market is small due to the fashion industry’s apathy and reluctance to change their production process. “The problem is that the fashion industry doesn’t care. I think the industry is more callous than the consumer. And it’s taken me a long time to find anyone interested in manufacturing clothes ethically in organic cotton. They saw it as inconvenient, they’d have to source their supply chain from scratch…. Everyone was going along happily making money without having to make any changes.”

Though there are changes afoot. Howies is a high street firm pushing for total transparency in the fashion market. They acknowledge that it’s good to do organic shirts, “but the dyeing process isn’t so nice…we’re looking to find lower impact ways of doing that.”

Supermarket chains such as Tesco and Marks and Spencers have committed to including organic cotton in their clothing ranges.

“Playing with these major corporations can be seen as a grey area as far as activists are concerned but it is the only way to ensure organic cotton is spread out as much as possible,” says PAN’s Damien Sanfilippo. “Ultimately, the farmer benefits and the environment benefits.”

In a world where 26 million tonnes of cotton is produced, its little wonder why cotton is called “white gold”. Worldwide organic cotton production increased by 152% in 2008 to just under 150k metric tonnes according to an Organic Cotton Farm and Fibre Report released by the Organic Exchange. The question of how best to dye cotton is one that stings organic campaigners in the tail. The use of dyes and their disposal, especially the ones used to make black, is still an issue that needs to be resolved.

But consumers are on message. Fashion designers are on message. Even Tesco is on message. The fashion industry, however, will have to undergo an overhaul and a rethink. If the reams produced organically can be cut and shaped into stylish designs as well as reams produced conventionally and the profits made by going organic outstrip conventional farming, the onus is on the bulk of the fashion world to pull their manicured finger out and make organic the convention.

Despite Bayer’s capitulation to a campaign group featuring a character known as the Panteater, other pesticides are still in use around the world and they still kill. Furthermore it’s bloody stupid to carry on with a method that not only impoverishes and harms communities and the environment if a more financially viable and healthier alternative is available.

Ben’s right. You can look good, and save the world.

UPDATE: A week after this article’s deadline, I received a call from Bayer Crop Science’s Dr Julian Liddle. “We stopped the manufacture of endosulfan because it was no longer financially viable. A more efficient, and safer, alternative has emerged and we are focusing on that.”

Which is?

“Genetically modified cotton.”


This article was originally published in Who’s Jack Magazine, September 2009.


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Poet Keats’ Home To Reopen

The public has waited and we’ve urned it. It took around two years and half a million pounds, but the London home where poet John Keats composed On a Grecian Urn, On Melancholy, and La Belle Dame Sans Merci is set to reopen this Friday. The Grade I listed house in Hampstead (a museum since 1925) is also where Keats (the man who knocked up the girl next door) wrote Ode to A Nightingale in the garden. Now schoolchildren around the world know where to direct their molotov cocktails of ire.

Miserable young lad who wrote a bit and coughed to death.

Miserable young lad who wrote a bit and coughed to death.

Keats House has been restored to its original 19th century decor and will house various artifacts such as the engagement ring he gave Fanny Brawne (the aforementioned girl next door with whom he had a less than amicable split). It will also house Keats’ life mask, prints, drawings and other poetic tat English Literature teachers can hum and haw to in deference.

Having lived in the Regency villa yards from Hampstead Heath between 1818-1820, he then set off for Rome, had his portrait done staring pensively askance with his chin on his hand, and died of tuberculosis at the age of 25.

The City of London has been responsible for the house since 1997. The restoration project involved the City’s London Metropolitan Archives team and a £424,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Michael Welbank, chairman of the City’s Hampstead Heath management committee, said: “The house and garden have been been beautifully restored to a living environment that John Keats would have recognised almost 200 years ago.”

Sure. Until you GoogleEarth the fucker. Or try to explain to him what electricity and a Dyson hand dryer is. Still, Welbank is confident that the house will be a “relevant and powerful landmark” and looks forward to “welcoming even more people from around the world”. Great. More Americans.

The house, which Keats shared with his friend Charles Armitage Brown, was last renovated in 1976.

I’m expecting deferential crowds rubbernecking over cordons. Not the “insight into Keats’ life and loves” the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Wesley Kerr is hoping for. After all, where’s the negative capability in that?


Republished on the Who’s Jack Magazine Blog. All rights reserved.

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Letter From Tehran (Dude…Where’s My Election?)

Lounging langourously on a Sunday afternoon, I received the following on my BlackBerry. It’s a letter from a friend in Tehran who asks their name and profession not be published. Having subsequently spoken to other friends in Tehran (social networking, SMS, and other tricks of youth have been shut down…unless you know a hack or two), the anger on the streets is as thick as the smog on the motorways.

Whether they feel this is a “revolution” is an issue for debate. Do they want to overthrow Ahmadinejad or the Ayatollah? What is clear is that they feel the democracy they were offered was ersatz. That the powers that be (in this case, the incumbent) held an election they’d already determined the result for and took the people along for a ride to make it look good.

Opposition candidate and reformist Mir Hossein Musavi has launched a formal appeal to cancel the election results announced in favour of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the Interior Ministry. His appeal was lodged with the Guardian Council, a group appointed by the Supreme Leader whose remit is to interpret and implement Iran’s constitution.

Meanwhile, Musavi’s wife Zahra has called for peaceful demonstrations across 20 cities from 1600h local time on Monday and a national strike on Tuesday.

Given reports of deaths, beatings, and missing from anti-Ahmadinejad protests in Rasht, Qom, Tehran and other Iranian cities, nobody is sure how many people will answer her call.

As one pro-Musavi voter said “I’m very angry with myself for being fooled so easily. They got us to vote, which gives them legitimacy. Then they manipulated the results.”

My friends in Iran are of the literati – artists, writers, journalists, teachers. They fear chain murders – murders and disappearances of those critical of the religious regime. The last time such killings came to the fore was as a reaction to the election of pro-reform president Mohammad Khatami in 1997.

Their fears are real. Almost all of them have been either under official surveillance, arrested on bogus charges, detained for indeterminate sentences, bullied by the Basij, received death threats etc etc.

What my friend has written isn’t much, but it is a voice among many that is crying out for something new… even though those voices aren’t clear what form that reform should take. As another friend said, “Anything. Anything but this.”


Yesterday, after coming back to my studio from the street revolts, we saw that they blocked all satellite TV. All the internet sites like YouTube, Facebook and… and maybe more. All blocked.

Internet speed was reduced from 128k to 12k. I tried to send you a video of streets to publish on YouTube and… but it is impossible.

They bit and hit people and young on the streets. They fear our power. We trusted them but they abused our votes. We could never imagine such pig minds.

I just sent you this and hope you try spreading this news. Not just from me but from all Iranian freedom seekers. They are banning us. They make us fear and keep us silent.

I cannot be associated with this letter. Or with anything else I send you. Have you heard of chain murders? This is what I fear. Some Muslims. Individuals. The Basij. They call around, find a person easily and cut his neck at night.

Even the person we voted for [Musavi, Karroubi] told us to “be silent because this government has no fear to tear your breasts and spill your blood in all of Persia’s rivers”. The person we voted for asked us to be silent. To forget. He said these people are not Muslim. They are liars.

The police here are like wolves. Religious people in neighbourhoods laugh at and disrespect us as non-Iranian. It is hard.

The government blocked YouTube to stop many Iranians from publishing videos of dangerous streets. We have our ways around this. For now.

The police and the basij  set fires and broke into banks at night to say we, the people, did this. But the people are doing nothing wrong, nothing criminal. We are shocked. We are angry. We just want to know where our votes went. We elected one man and they empowered another. The only people who don’t agree with this are the liars who are scared to lose their regime and their control.




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Death By Acronym

Common sense dictates that drinking an industrial solvent found in wheel cleaner is a stupid thing. Yet clubbers across the UK are ignoring the “Toxic: Do Not Drink” warnings and are necking back litres of the stuff for shits and giggles.

After a couple of hours I think I’m straight enough to communicate with the outside world. I’m not. I babble incoherent nonsense on the phone, post worse on Twitter. Having ingested a dose of the latest nightclub drug sensation GBL, I’ve lost nearly three hours of my life, my loins are turning over in stimulus and my head feels like a tar pit. I can’t breathe and have probably relied on my asthma inhaler more than I ought to. And I’ve lost my glasses. Hester Stewart, a 21-year-old molecular medicine student and cheerleader at Sussex University, lost more than that.
Hester died after taking GBL at a party in Brighton in April 2009.
“She was attending an awards ball then was meant to meet her brother for a drink,” recalls Hester’s mother Maryon. “All we know is that she went off with another group, ended up at someone’s house, probably went to sleep and never woke up. Two policemen turned up at my door when I was making brunch.”
Maryon, a nutritionist, insists her daughter wasn’t part of a drugs scene and that reports of a bottle of GBL found near her body were untrue.
“In France and Germany they have posters in clubs that read GBL + Alcohol = Death. Hester had a blood alcohol level 1.5 times over the driving limit, but none of her friends nor I knew what GBL was until she died.”

GBL, or gamma-butyrolactone, is an agent used in industrial cleaners and solvents. Think nail varnish remover, bike chain degreaser, enamel stripper. You can buy quantities of it off the Internet for £50 per litre. In a club, it comes in a glass vial, which you shake up and drink. It looks like water and tastes like flat fizzy water with a penny in it. You go giddy, you sometimes hallucinate. When mixed with alcohol, whatever drowsiness you experience is enhanced.  It can also lead to shortness of breath, a constriction of the chest, unconsciousness, coma, death.
Increased use of GBL came after the Home Office amended the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to classify its cousin GHB, gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid, as a Class C substance. Some clever clog worked out that GBL converts to GHB when it hits the bloodstream. Similar effects without the jail time.
Typical clubber arguments for taking GBL echo “It’s like ketamine, you should only take it according to your body weight”. Therefore assuming the bigger you are the more you can take.
Prominent toxicologist Professor Alexander Forrest insists that there is no “safe dose. GBL is used to remove nail varnish and super glue. It has no physical benefit to the human body. If you are naïve and take it in large quantities or with alcohol or other depressants, the effects are potentiated. It kills.”
So if there is no safe dose, why take it? “I love it,” says clubber Woody. “I get really horny and the feeling’s fabulous. It’s kind of being in it and out of it at the same time.”

The Home Office has opened a public consultation over GBL, BZP (1-benzylpiperazine), and 24 anabolic steroids which closes on 13 August 2009. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has said that she is “determined to respond to the dangers of these drugs and that is why I have committed to controlling them…this is the next step in tackling the unregulated market of so called legal highs.” She vows to continue adapting the UK drug policy according to the  “changing environment of substance misuse.”
In this case, the use of GHB broke its medical remit as treatment for narcolepsy. Bodybuilders took it in the hopes of bulking up and it joined ecstasy and ketamine on tapestry of euphorics available on the nightclub scene. The UK government restricted it as a Class C drug, carrying with it a two-year jail term for possession following a successful conviction. GBL, its precursor, suddenly emerged as the legal alternative.
“We’re working to have the government ban GBL for personal use,” says Maryon Stewart. “We also want the Home Office to start a legal highs awareness programme in universities, schools, bars, everywhere. People should know that legal doesn’t mean safe.”
Online merchants who sell GBL for industrial purposes say they “cannot be held responsible if the product is misused in any way”. My batch came from a conventional drug dealer as a 250ml bottle with handy pipette.
“One of those should equal a dose,” my dealer advised. “But there is no real way of measuring. Just don’t go overboard.”
My dealer has been in his trade for nearly 20 years. He’s also spent time running a “head shop” – a store that sells drug paraphernalia, legal highs, joss sticks and awful hippie clothing. According to him, restricting further substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act could lead users to seek out other legal, potentially more dangerous, ones to take.
“Restricting isn’t going to help anything. In fact, it tends to make people curious and want to try them,” my dealer continues. “People are going to find other things to use whether the Home Secretary likes it or not. I have noticed a spike of interest in these legal highs but I’ve found they’re more of a novelty. Customers try them for a time but always go back to cocaine, ecstasy, dope. It’s what they know and trust.”
“Has anyone died on you?”
“Not yet. I don’t think so. I warn people off speedballs (cocktails where users mix different drugs to take at once) but what they do with what they get is up to them.”

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is the consulting body in charge of keeping the Home Secretary up to date with the latest drug trends. It’s made up of 31 doctors, professors, consultants who compile reports, draft proposals and nag government ministers about what the kids have been taking when their parents are away.
Under their microscope this year are ‘legal highs’ – a catch-all phrase that takes in everything that hasn’t yet been classified and restricted under the Misuse of Drugs Act. GBL is part of this. BZP is part of this. Herbal preparations with added synthetic cannabinoids known as “Spice” are part of this. In a letter to the Home Secretary dated 31 March 2009, the ACMD said they were forming a working group to look into Spice.
However, users are always ahead of the game.
“We’ve not had any Spice in stock for a while now. You’ll find most of the major UK wholesalers have stopped selling it,” says Rolly at my local head shop.
A popular alternative goes under the name of “Magic Silver”, an “exceptionally strong incense” with a vanilla and honey flavour. At around £25 pounds a go, the cost is comparable to the going rate for its illegal cousin skunk weed. Other products such as “Dream” or “D-Raw” offer similar numbing, giggly effects – but you’ll be smoking damiana, blue lotus, or something more chemical that’s usually not added to the list of ingredients.
You can also import the Spice component, JWH-018, from fine chemical producers in China. Online. Just Google it.

A good number of legal highs are imported from New Zealand. One of the bigger manufacturers is London Underground. Speaking to an importer of their products under the condition of anonymity, I asked if trading in legal highs serves to encourage users to take unnecessary risks.
“Quite the opposite. The feedback we get from users is that our products keep them away from harder drugs.”
Professor Forrest is less forgiving. “It’s not an issue of hard or soft. The only difference between something like BZP and MDMA is legislation. One is legal and the other isn’t. They’re both very potent and they’re both potentially dangerous.”
I took BZP in the form of a legal high sold as “Smileys”. It’s 160mg of benzylpiperazine mixed with 200mg of piperazine blend called TFMPP. Your pupils dilate, your jaw clenches, and you dance like a lunatic. Erroneously called “Natural Ecstacy”, BZP is appearing on the public radar thanks to the death of a 22-year-old mortgage broker from Sheffield called Daniel Backhouse. He was found dead in May 2008 after taking a cocktail of BZP and Ecstasy.
A study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal finds the combination of BZP with TFMPP promotes “the release of neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin…thereby simulating the known effects of MDMA”. Not only does it promote seizures in rats, but humans. Taken with MDMA, it forces the heart to beat erratically and forces contractions. Not bad work for something you can pick up as soil fertiliser.
One substance that’s yet to entertain government scrutiny is mephedrone. A pale powder with similar effects to amphetamines, cocaine and MDMA.
After snorting around 1000mg of it, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. My fingers went slightly blue and my lips lost their colour. It keeps you pepped up and makes you chat shit. Knowing what I know about the casual drugs scene, it seems the only thing stopping mephedrone from becoming the new ketamine is its availability. At £15 per gram, it’s certainly cheap enough.
Somebody once joked that with a recession on, people can’t afford cocaine or pure MDMA anymore. Legal highs and pharmaceuticals are being sold as “the poor man’s this and that”. And because there are so many variants and compounds, regulation will always be a step behind and education never up to scratch. Prosecution is like “a nasty suck by a toothless poodle”.
Professor Forrest is keen to point out that regulating legal highs will have a very small impact on overall substance abuse.
“GBL, BZP or any other substance that the government is looking at to control aren’t the biggest issues. Though controlling them would be a step in the right direction, the biggest issues are substances that have widespread use and kill people. Alcohol and tobacco. The government will never crack down on booze and fags. The lobbies are too strong, there’s too much money in them, and they’re very sexy.”

Having started this article with the idea of trying a few things I’ve never taken before to boost my street cred, I’ve finished it feeling like I’ve put my organs through torture last seen in Nazi death camps. Placing further restriction on legal substances used as recreational drugs may force users to seek out the bleach under the kitchen sink in a terminal effort to get off their tits. If you apply Darwin’s theory of evolution, here’s hoping.


This article was first published in Who’s Jack Magazine, July 2009. All rights reserved.


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