Beware water quality ‘fix’ claims that may be blowing smoke

22 December 2012

SNAKEOIL AND PIXIE DUST: THE NEED FOR LEGITIMATE, SCIENTIFIC FOUNDATION FOR BIOAUGMENTATION PRODUCTS

 

Some will claim that their products provide benefits as obvious as those of the steam engine  (Photo Credit: Rob Hart)

To the best of my recollection, bioaugmentation “remedies” made their debut during the late 1980s. These packets of powder or bottles of mysterious liquid mainly targeted the wastewater treatment market.  In many cases wonderful claims abounded, including the ability to convert matter into just about nothing at all.  Microbiologists tended to look somewhat sceptically at the need to add mixtures of freeze-dried bacteria to environments in which naturally occurring bacteria did just that, occur naturally.  Some purveyors of these products, many without any relevant scientific experience or training, have shown both then and now that they are not going to let a little awkward science get in the way of making a fast buck.  Selling their product to consumers less informed than themselves is all they need to achieve.

While this industry has certainly gone some way to clean up its act, there are still cases of ludicrous claims.  Polluted lakes have become a target market.  Many of the products in question originated from specific, closed (e.g. laboratory) processes where the generation of natural bacterial populations was unlikely and some form of biostimulation was required.  Extrapolating from laboratory trials to lakes or even the open ocean, requires a huge leap of faith that withers in the face of practical and pragmatic considerations.

In each and every case when I am approached for an opinion of a product claimed as being beneficial for the natural, aquatic environment my response has been “when the manufacturer can provide solid, scientific evidence, based on rigorous testing of independent samples, I will have a look at it”.  I have yet to receive a response to this and in almost all cases I never hear from the salesperson again.

One particularly irksome case popped up again recently.  Here the manufacturer has managed to convince a retailer to claim that the product was as marvelous as they themselves would have us believe.  They added some extra stuff of their own making and produced a fact sheet that, as one of my colleagues put it, is  “a load of unmitigated garbage statements.  No objectively intelligent biologist could associate with several of these claims”.  Problem is that the customer (mostly) does not benefit from the advice of an intelligent biologist and takes the claims at face value.  If the claims have been promoted by advertising in a trade journal, or by a seemingly-reputable third party, they appear all the more credible.

The manufacturer of this particular product, a potion “designed” to be used in nature and to alter natural cycles and functions, is of the belief that scientific testing and rigorous, peer-reviewed examination of the findings, is completely unnecessary. I was told, in writing, that the

absence of a scientific paper is quite irrelevant to the performance [sic] [of their product]”.

This statement was backed up by the following gem:

“Gravity exists irrespective of our understanding of it.  James Watt, Thomas Edison, etc., did not publish peer reviewed papers about their inventions. They just invented and demonstrated that they work”.

OK, so quite apart from the fact that, while it is relatively easy to assess the success or failure of a steam engine or light bulbs or telephones, this company would have us believe that the values attributed to a packet of powder can be comparably assessed.  While the attributes of a large, smoke-belching monster are readily visible, those of a packet of pixie dust are considerably less so – unless backed up by objective testing and evaluation – and the onus is on the manufacturer to provide this.

In this particular case, testing of the product has been left to the end user – probably in an effort to skirt around the need to comply with the advertising laws, consumer protection policies and the environmental protection acts of various countries.  The offer is that if anyone wants to validate the product, they can do so at their own cost and then reclaim their investment from future sales (no mention is made as to what happens if the product fails to meet the claims).

Imagine if pharmaceutical companies operated like this: buy their drugs on faith and if you want to test them, do it yourself. Or aeroplane manufacturers…

Obviously of the belief that the aforementioned examples might not have been strong enough, I was informed:

It is well know [sic] and documented that smoking tobacco, cars, etc., kill people, yet it is perfectly legal to sell and use these”.

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the implications of the logic entrained in the latter…

Here is some free advice to anyone who may be considering the use of bioaugmentation additives: Caveat emptor – before you throw a whole lot of money away.

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