Pesticides: Just How Bad Are They?

Aug 3, 2015

By Harriet Hall

I think everyone would agree that it would not be a good idea to put pesticides in a saltshaker and add them to our food at the table. But there is little agreement when it comes to their use in agriculture. How much gets into our food? What are the effects on our health or in the environment? Is there a safer alternative?

Where should we look to find science-based answers to those questions? One place we should not look is books written by biased nonscientists to advance their personal agendas. A friend recently sent me a prime example of such a book: Myths of Safe Pesticides by André Leu, an organic farmer whose opinions preceded his research and whose bias is revealed in the very title.


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18 comments on “Pesticides: Just How Bad Are They?

  • This article debunks an amateur attack on pesticide use, as a strawman distraction, before making misleading diversionary assertions to further distract from the real issues.

    @link – This article was originally published on the Science-Based Medicine blog on December 9, 2014

    It is a BLOG promoting pesticide use, which ducks most of the environmental and health issues! – Nothing to do with reputable studies!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-33641646

    The government has temporarily lifted a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in certain parts of the country.

    An EU-wide moratorium was put in place after some studies showed the pesticide caused significant harm to bees.

    But following a second emergency application by the National Farmers Union, two neonicotinoid pesticides can now be used for 120 days on about 5% of England’s oilseed rape crop.

    Environmental and wildlife groups have called the decision “scandalous”.

    We have fully applied the precautionary ban on the use of neonicotinoids introduced by the EU

    Defra spokesperson

    The areas where farmers will be allowed to use neonicotinoids has not yet been decided. According to the NFU, it will be those areas where there are records over the last season or so that the pests – primarily the cabbage stem flea beetle – have inflicted most damage on oilseed rape crops.

    Farming Minister George Eustace MP told BBC’s Farming Today that it was “predominantly farmers in Suffolk” who would now be able to use neonicotinoids. He said that the government was approaching the issue “with an open mind” and that there was “a lot of ambiguity” about the evidence.

    NO! The science is clear! The ambiguity is in the minds of pliable stooge ministers, open to the doubt-mongering industry lobbyists, but closed to the scientific studies.

    The temporary relaxation of the ban will cover an area of about 30,000 hectares.

    This is the second time that the NFU has applied to the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD). The first application was rejected on the basis that it was not limited enough.

    ‘Too late’ – The NFU has welcomed the decision, but argues that it will come too late for many farmers.

    Dr Chris Hartfield from the NFU said: “It is very nip and tuck. There is a lead time involved for the farmer. They will have to get hold of the seed, have to treat it, and have to apply it. For some it will come too late. For others, they fall outside the area, which is mainly in the east of England.”

    Two products from Bayer and Syngenta will be allowed to help protect crops from the flea beetle.

    Bees and other pollinators are vital for the majority crops but are in decline due to habitat loss, the use of pesticides, and disease.

    Friends of the Earth campaigner Paul de Zylva said: “It’s scandalous that the government has caved in to NFU pressure and given permission for some farmers to use banned pesticides that have been shown to harm our precious bees.

    “Ever more scientific evidence shows just how dangerous these chemicals are to bees and other pollinators – they should have no place in our fields and gardens.”

    This is utterly scandalous, using a chemical damaging to insect pollinators on an insect pollinated crop such as oil-seed rape, – simply because the system of extensive monoculture has produced a plague of beetles!

    The UK government denial of this science is nothing new.

    The government says it accepts the EU ban on the use of some pesticides linked to bee deaths, but it rejects the science behind the moratorium.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24024634
    10 September 2013
    However the chair of the EAC, Joan Walley, MP says she is not happy with the government’s ongoing wrangling over the science.

    “I am disappointed that the government has not accepted the great weight of scientific evidence that points to the need for the ban on these pesticides in line with the precautionary principle,” she said.



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  • @OP link – Conclusion

    Pesticides are meant to harm weeds and insects, but are they also harming us? Leu demonizes pesticides as “poisons” and argues that the precautionary principle should make us eliminate their use entirely. I think he exaggerates the dangers, especially considering that evolution has equipped the human body to thrive while eating foods with levels of natural pesticides several orders of magnitude greater than the levels of artificial pesticides in today’s foods. I certainly agree with him that there is a need for more research. He says safe pesticides are a myth, but I have to wonder if any evidence of safety would ever satisfy him; he seems to be demanding “perfect” safety like some anti-vaccine activists do. There is a danger to invoking the precautionary principle before ensuring that the alternatives are not worse.

    Regardless of if the unspecified “alternatives are worse”, this unevidenced crap has no resemblance to science!

    This is what typically happens when a layman with an ax to grind ventures into the scientific arena looking for evidence to support his prior beliefs.

    This gem is a classic example of psychological projection, providing a description of the the nature of the whole blog article!

    Meanwhile back with the real scientists:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/widely-used-herbicide-linked-to-cancer/

    .What evidence is there for a link between glyphosate and cancer?

    The IARC review notes that there is limited evidence for a link to cancer in humans. Although several studies have shown that people who work with the herbicide seem to be at increased risk of a cancer type called non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the report notes that a separate huge US study, the Agricultural Health Study, found no link to non-Hodgkin lymphomas. That study followed thousands of farmers and looked at whether they had increased risk of cancer.

    But other evidence, including from animal studies, led the IARC to its ‘probably carcinogenic’ classification. Glyphosate has been linked to tumours in mice and rats — and there is also what the IARC classifies as ‘mechanistic evidence’, such as DNA damage to human cells from exposure to glyphosate.

    Kathryn Guyton, a senior toxicologist in the monographs programme at the IARC and one of the authors of the study, says, “In the case of glyphosate, because the evidence in experimental animals was sufficient and the evidence in humans was limited, that would put the agent into group 2A.”

    Monsanto — a member of the task force — said that relevant scientific data that showed no risk was excluded from the review, and the IARC “purposefully disregarded dozens of scientific studies”, specifically genetic toxicity studies.

    But Guyton strongly defends the IARC process and insists that there is a set of clear rules that lays out which studies can be considered by the experts convened by the IARC. These are broadly limited to peer-reviewed publications and government reports, leading to the rejection of a number of industry-submitted studies.



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  • I think everyone would agree that it would not be a good idea to put pesticides in a saltshaker and add them to our food at the table. But there is little agreement when it comes to their use in agriculture. How much gets into our food? What are the effects on our health or in the environment? Is there a safer alternative?

    Harriet Hall agrees with you in her first paragraph. Why are you so upset? It doesn’t come up in her article but I’m sure she’d share concerns about pesticide use killing populations of pollinating bees.



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  • Melvin
    Aug 3, 2015 at 8:44 pm

    I think everyone would agree that it would not be a good idea to put pesticides in a saltshaker and add them to our food at the table. But there is little agreement when it comes to their use in agriculture.

    This is pure strawman!

    Harriet Hall agrees with you in her first paragraph.

    She doesn’t! She just doubt-mongers and spouts mis-information based on her own ignorance of the subject.

    Why are you so upset?

    I’m not! I’m just debunking an article which is utter drivel – as is illustrated by the ridiculous “conclusions” I quoted. Pesticides ARE poisons, albeit selective ones, and there is absolutely no reason to assume some human evolved resistance to SOME natural poisons, confers ANY immunity to manufactured ones.

    It doesn’t come up in her article but I’m sure she’d share concerns about pesticide use killing populations of pollinating bees.

    She is probably too ignorant to even recognise the problem. The whole article is based on assertions from ignorance and incredulity with the fallacious thinking thrown in that if she debunks some book on organic cultivation, this in some way validates her ridiculous views by default.

    http://www.biobees.com/library/research_other/insecticides/nicotinoidinsecticidesresidues.pdf
    An analytical method for the routine simultaneous determination of four nicotinoid insecticides (acetamiprid, imidacloprid, thiacloprid and
    thiamethoxam) in commercial multifloral honey was developed.

    I don’t know how valid the points were in the book she criticises, but the crass assumptions in this article are utterly irrelevant to any informed debate about agricultural or horticultural practices.

    Dangerous drivel in the OP link –

    @OP link – Conclusion

    Pesticides are meant to harm weeds and insects, but are they also harming us? Leu demonizes pesticides as “poisons” and argues that the precautionary principle should make us eliminate their use entirely. I think he exaggerates the dangers, especially considering that evolution has equipped the human body to thrive while eating foods with levels of natural pesticides several orders of magnitude greater than the levels of artificial pesticides in today’s foods.

    “Natural” foods containing poisons MUST be properly prepared and cooked, before they become edible – some never do.
    Vast numbers of plants , fungi and animals are poisonous if eaten – or in some cases even if touched.

    If I was being brutal, I would suggest that this reckless idiot has a shower of Parathion, while eating a Nightshade salad with Death-Cap sauce, while rolling in stinging nettles!

    http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/x2570e/x2570e06.htm
    Bioaccumulation indicates the tendency of a compound to accumulate in organisms. The most useful index for quantifying pesticide bioaccumulation is the partition coefficient KOW.



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  • Perhaps Dr. Hall is trying to avoid polarizing the issue into irrational extremes . No one would deny cases where pesticides kill some individuals, mostly handlers and innocent bystanders, with fatal doses or more frequently cases involving longer-term exposure that cause chronic illness. The role of carcinogens is sometimes clear and sometimes ambiguous. The questions Dr. Hall asks seem pertinent to finding remedial solutions as needed: How much gets into our food? What are the effects on our health or in the environment? Is there a safer alternative?

    The necessity of feeding 7 billion going on 8 billion Homo sapiens, a ravenous organism, requires the huge crop yields produced by industrial farming and mass control of crop-devouring insects through pesticides.

    We humans have chosen to procreate a 4 billion increase in our numbers since we reached adequate global saturation around the period 1960 to 1965 (3 to 3.5 billion). Worse, another 3 billion to 4 billion swarm is accumulating for the rest of the century. We are the 800 pound gorilla governing the world’s ecosystems. We’re going to do whatever we want to gorge ourselves. The damage we do to land, water, and atmosphere subsequent to meeting urgent (or excessive) needs be damned.



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  • Melvin
    Aug 4, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    Perhaps Dr. Hall is trying to avoid polarizing the issue into irrational extremes

    My point was that she IS presenting an irrational extreme, from a viewpoint of ignorance from what appears to be a pseudo-science blog which is pontificating on science.
    The ability to criticise the low-hanging fruit of other people’s pseudo-science, is no qualification for understanding or presenting real science. Honest scientists should be able to recognise when they are going outside there areas or personal experience and expertise where they have done no study whatever!

    This article, is rubbish of the “too irrelevant to even be wrong” variety.

    The questions Dr. Hall asks seem pertinent to finding remedial solutions as needed: How much gets into our food? What are the effects on our health or in the environment? Is there a safer alternative?

    All of which have at least some readily available science based answers for specific foods and pesticides, for those bothering to do even basic investigations into available evidence and research. Some answers have been available for decades!

    All this article offers is personal ignorance and fallacious thinking.

    Only an idiot with no understanding of immunology or poisons, would suggest that some human immunity to mild poisons in foods, evolved over thousands or millions of years, confers immunity to totally different manufactured poisons, invented in recent decades.

    The necessity of feeding 7 billion going on 8 billion Homo sapiens, a ravenous organism, requires the huge crop yields produced by industrial farming and mass control of crop-devouring insects through pesticides.

    The demand for instant crop-yields and instant profits, has NOTHING to do with the question of: “is a particular substance poisonous to humans or other organisms in the environment?”.
    Physics, chemistry and biology, don’t care about human wishes, human needs, or commercial profit targets. They work on the laws of nature.

    She may be a retired doctor, but she clearly knows little or nothing about research on agriculture or pesticides.
    https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/editorial-staff/harriet-hall-md-associate-editor/
    Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician

    During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52.



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  • Dr. Hall is merely writing a book review of “Myths of Safe Pesticides by André Leu, an organic farmer whose opinions preceded his research and whose bias is revealed in the very title.” She debunks what she believes are the unjustified claims or “myths” that Mr. Leu propounds in his book. Inevitably she supports the position that pesticides are not as toxic or dangerous to humans as Leu would argue. Granted that she includes uncited other “books of this kind”, the generalization is easily understood in the context of her critical review.

    The ability to criticise the low-hanging fruit of other people’s pseudo-science, is no qualification for understanding or presenting real science.

    By “real science” I presume you mean specialized science which “presents’ both detailed and comprehensive research on pesticides and their use from peer-reviewed experts in medicine, chemistry, toxicology, biology, entomology, botany and many other specialized fields. In a modest book review in a popular publication I don’t see how Dr. Hall is obligated to “understand and present” voluminous specialized information on the topic. She delivers an informed opinion supported by a range of experts and stakeholders whom she credibly believes are also informed on the subject. Had she offered a favorable review stating, “Andre Leu makes a compelling case for banning all pesticides today,” the criticism that she lacked the technical knowledge to reach such a conclusion would have been equally valid. And irrelevant.



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  • Melvin
    Aug 4, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    She debunks what she believes are the unjustified claims or “myths” that Mr. Leu propounds in his book. Inevitably she supports the position that pesticides are not as toxic or dangerous to humans as Leu would argue.

    Pesticides ARE toxic and have decades of historical record showing them to be much more toxic and persistent in the environment, than manufacturers have claimed. The question is “how toxic”? and she demonstrably as no idea as to the answers to that question provided by reputable research.

    She delivers an informed opinion supported by a range of experts and stakeholders whom she credibly believes are also informed on the subject.

    No she doesn’t! She presents ill-informed ideology about environmental issues and ecology, which is contra to the readily available scientific research.

    She has done some useful work debunking various forms of quackery, but on this subject, she is presenting her own form of ideological quackery in denial and ignorance of the available evidence.

    Had she offered a favorable review stating, “Andre Leu makes a compelling case for banning all pesticides today,” the criticism that she lacked the technical knowledge to reach such a conclusion would have been equally valid.

    As I said earlier, the whole article is irrelevant to any informed understanding of the subject. It is like Ken Ham criticising Eric Hovids’ “science”!

    And irrelevant.

    ????

    From what I gather (not having read his book), his claims and hers are both quackery – irrelevant to any useful understanding of the subject of pesticide safety, although his quoted suggestion of taking a precautionary approach while seeking reliable information, is the intelligent option. She seems to hold some reckless right-wing ideological anti-science views on environmental issues, which she only understands in terms of polarised left – right politics. Not biology.

    I do not care if pseudo-science comes from right-wing retired military personnel, dubious marketing departments, or from left-wing hippy-greens.

    Cheer-leaders for these camps have nothing useful to say.

    Duffers at ecology and biology who make assertive howlers demonstrating their ignorance of the subject, are still duffers at biology with opinions which are of no value to science or anyone else, regardless of if they have some science qualifications in some other area of science which they HAVE studied!

    She is quoted as having worked as a a medical administrator and medical doctor treating immediate conditions and injuries in the short term for the military – obviously to the neglect of any study or research on agrochemicals.

    Myths of Safe Pesticides have been around since the first marketing of DDT, and that is solidly evidenced history – despite on-going denials even today!

    A prime example, DDT, which was first marketed by Monsanto in 1944 with outlandish safety claims: – It wasn’t until 1972 that our government agencies finally caved to the independent science on the extreme toxicity of DDT and completely banned its use.



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  • Pesticides ARE toxic and have decades of historical record showing them to be much more toxic and persistent in the environment, than manufacturers have claimed. The question is “how toxic”? and she demonstrably as no idea as to the answers to that question provided by reputable research.

    Fair enough. Let the reputable research settle it. Pesticide use implicitly has no trade off value for increasing crop yields, and consequently the global food supply. Let’s stop spreading pesticides on fields and ramp up organic farming methods swiftly on an economy of scale. India would be an ideal place to start because the country has the largest agrarian population in the world and will soon become the most populous country on earth. A ban on pesticides in the “world’s largest democracy” would hasten the decline in rates of poisoning, death and disease from pesticide use while putting those lying manufacturers out of business. Finding a person brave enough to deliver the message to a billion ignorant though considerably irate peasants should not pose much of a problem. Volunteers?



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  • Melvin
    Aug 4, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    Fair enough. Let the reputable research settle it.

    For many products, the reputable research has settled it long ago, but as with global warming, the “liars for profit” and their stooges (like the one who wrote this article), make determined efforts to keep people and decision makers in ignorance, in doubt, and in denial.

    Pesticide use implicitly has no trade off value for increasing crop yields, and consequently the global food supply.

    But it does increase crop yields – in the short-term – at great environmental cost, and by risking the health of the human population.

    Let’s stop spreading pesticides on fields and ramp up organic farming methods swiftly on an economy of scale.

    The underlying problem is the one you regularly bring up. – The food demands from unaddressed expanding over-population.

    Organic methods are environmentally sustainable, but at the short-term cost of slightly reduced harvests (and profits – unless environmental costs are included in competitors’ products).



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  • For many products, the reputable research has settled it long ago, but as with global warming, the “liars for profit” and their stooges (like the one who wrote this article), make determined efforts to keep people and decision makers in ignorance, in doubt, and in denial.

    You seem to buy into conspiracy theories on complex issues with unrealistic distinctions between good people and bad people. It’s not credible to imagine that despite the expanding mix of conscientious scientists, agrarians and concerned citizens weighing in on the problem with clear simple solutions that “liars for profit” and their stooges dominate policies and practices regarding pesticide use worldwide. Otherwise we’d have to assume that no one in decision making positions is smart enough to advocate for abundant overwhelming scientific evidence, and for technology invented and waiting on the shelf to be disseminated on a global scale to clear up pollution whether from chemical pesticides or carbon emissions. It’s not that simple. If it were, the decent informed scientific establishment, educated leadership and responsible citizenry would have jumped on golden opportunities to clean up the toxic mess by now.

    First to clear the table, the pollution from pesticides is horrendous especially from toxic runoff into rivers and oceans. (Not all inputs are synthetic chemicals. Natural fertilizer in the form of manure also contributes to toxic runoff and methane gas emissions. Over two billion domestic livestock are slaughtered for food each year). The ominous consequences of global warming become more certain with each passing year. Older leadership and special interests do resist innovative changes which could ameliorate environmental problems at an unwelcome cost to the status quo.

    Now here is what I believe is going on. We humans developed a complex technological infrastructure over the last 300 years to meet unimaginable demands of a current population of 7 to 10 billion over the next 50 years rooted in fossil fuels in the energy sector and pesticides in the green revolution. We satisfy our day-to-day needs from this infrastructure as a matter of necessity. In any economy, cost is the principal driver of supply and demand but plays a stronger role among poorer populations which constitute the global majority. Simply put people will satisfy their needs with what is available if innovative alternatives are more expensive, unaffordable or bordering on the unaffordable. The typical global citizen, whatever his environmental concerns, cannot calculate abstract longer-term environmental costs, apart from what he pays out of pocket for goods and services today. In a period of technological transition, progress is slowed by environmentally friendly alternatives which cannot yet compete in price, convenience or efficiency. The future time frame for clean technology to reach a critical mass for displacing established, current practices is the crucial unknown.



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  • Melvin
    Aug 5, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    We satisfy our day-to-day needs from this infrastructure as a matter of necessity. In any economy, cost is the principal driver of supply and demand but plays a stronger role among poorer populations which constitute the global majority.

    The majority of the “poorer majority” ran their lives without chemical pesticides, or technical infrastructure for centuries, and only recently under the influence of foreign interests, have moved from sustainable to exploitative methods.

    The typical global citizen, whatever his environmental concerns, cannot calculate abstract longer-term environmental costs, apart from what he pays out of pocket for goods and services today.

    Yep! – with a bit of help from disinformation from commercial interests.

    Just like yeast in a barrel of fruit juice, they will exploit the resources available, until there is nothing left to exploit, and then die – pickled or suffocated in their own waste products.

    The question is: – Do humans have the collective brain power and will power to behave with more intelligence than a yeast culture?



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  • Just like yeast in a barrel of fruit juice, they [commercial interests] will exploit the resources available, until there is nothing left to exploit, and then die – pickled or suffocated in their own waste products.

    We’ll never find peace on this point because I don’t place much emphasis on the theory of the immiseration of the working classes by the ruling class. All societies evolve into hierarchical structures with a small[er] upper elite enjoying disproportionate wealth, power and status. While societies function more productively, prosperously and humanely when disparities are kept in efficient balance, the hierarchy itself will not, cannot be worked out of our socio-evolutionary dynamic.

    For me, the “they” in your “they will exploit” more comprehensively includes “all 7 billion of us”. There will always be class conflicts with crucial consequences for peoples living at a certain ephemeral places and times. Let history take care of those conflicts. Our principal threat is a worsening population crisis; our principal challenge for the future is bringing down our numbers or “we” will continue to support the resources available at an increasing pace with fatal consequences.



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  • Melvin
    Aug 4, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    Dr. Hall is merely writing a book review of “Myths of Safe Pesticides by André Leu, an organic farmer whose opinions preceded his research and whose bias is revealed in the very title.”

    My opinions about myths of safe pesticides also precede the present time, – having studied the scientific reports of environmental damage and human health problems caused by pesticides, since the 1960s, while also reading the manufacturers’ Myths of Safety, on the labels of the products I had been using before they were banned!

    She debunks what she believes are the unjustified claims or “myths”

    Nope! She deludes herself and just parrots the denials of the disreputable commercial interests, which are still causing health problems in the third-world countries which fail to enforce the bans, applied and enforced by more competent authorities.



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  • Toxicity also depends on the person.
    I’m not familiar with this particular area but have there been any large-ish medium-term (at least 1+years) studies conducted on the consumption and health average 9-5 families? I’d like to see that sort of info if it’s available.

    The 2A carcinogenic does certainly mean it may be carcinogenic to people with prolonged exposure and a physical propensity for cancer. Anyone with prolonged or repeated exposure to chemicals may develop health problems.

    What concentration of intact-pesticide molecules is left on the bowl of garden salad I make for a family dinner, after the separate ingredients have been harvested, packed (are they washed before initial packing?), transported, unpacked, maybe washed again, displayed, touched by a few people before being bagged by me, washed thoroughly by me before being chopped and eaten? Are the pesticides incorporated into the flesh of a tomato or on the outside? (hmmm I’ll into the chemical reactions/breakdown involved)… Has anyone taken samples of each vegetable consumed in their household over a year to get quantitative data?

    I’m guessing the amounts are fairly low and have minimal effects on the majority of people. I’ve no doubt been consuming small amounts for 40 years with no linkable health issues, same with everyone I know. How prevalent are moderate and severe adverse reactions among everyday consumers to date?

    Is the argument against pesticides more of an emotional one, as it is with GMO crops?



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  • Having said all that, her blog is terribly opinionated and falls far short of presenting scientific information.

    I’m disappointed with this (www.richarddawkins.net) site… the last time I read some articles I found another unnecessary, poorly written, almost-alarmist opinion piece.



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