Tipping Points 11: The Chemical Madness Maze

Tipping Points 11

The Chemical Madness Maze

  

Three events in the past few weeks are swirling around in my mind. 

First, blueberries made the “dirty dozen” produce list.  At position 5, blueberries join apples (4) and potatoes (11)—all major crops for Maine farmers.  Being on the “dirty dozen” list is not good for business. 

Second, The President’s Cancer Panel (PCP) released its 2008-2009 report entitled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk:  What We Can Do Now.”  Consumers, especially parents, are urged by the Cancer Panel to “buy food that has not been sprayed or grown with chemical fertilizers,” a message that is increasing in frequency and volume these days. 

Nicholas D. Kristof called the President’s Cancer Panel “the Mount Everest of the medical mainstream.”  And, former President George W. Bush appointed the Cancer Panel’s current members:  an oncologist and professor of surgery at Howard University and an immunologist at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.  The Cancer Panel’s report is available on-line:  http://pcp.cancer.gov .  I urge you, especially if you are a parent or are involved in chemical applications, to read it. 

Third, Maine’s Pesticide Control Board (PCB) has scheduled a series of public meetings (May 14, June 24 and 25, and July 23) to discuss the public’s right-to-know about chemical spraying.  Existing law concerning the pesticide registry, where people could register to be notified of spraying, was seriously weakened last year. 

The seven members of the PCB are appointed by the Governor and approved by the Legislature.  Because the constitution of this board obviously was designed for political and perceived economic reasons, board members are expected to defend their particular turfs, which includes chemical farming and forestry and chemical spraying businesses. 

The Cancer Panel report states that our regulatory system for chemicals is deeply broken; that we are putting ourselves and, more importantly, our children at great risk; and that we must adopt precautionary measures rather than using reactionary measures (waiting until sufficient maiming and killing has occurred) with regard to the more than 80,000 improperly tested chemicals we are allowing to be dispersed with impunity. 

 In 2009, the Cancer Panel report discloses, 1.5  million people were diagnosed with cancer and 562,000 people died of cancer.   Today, some 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their life times.  From 1975–2006, cancer incidence in U.S. children under 20 years of age has increased. 

The Cancer Panel directly connects cancer and environmental toxins:  “a growing body of research documents myriad established and suspected environmental factors linked to genetic, immune, and endocrine dysfunction that can lead to cancer and other diseases.”  The Cancer Panel is “particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated” and that human “exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.” 

The Cancer Panel sums up current problems with our regulatory systems.  Included among the problems are “undue industry influence,” “weak laws and regulations,” and “inadequate funding and insufficient staffing.”  What results is “agency dysfunction and a lack of will to identify and remove hazards.”

For instance, the Cancer Panel determines that the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) “may be the most egregious example of ineffective regulation of environmental contaminants.”  TSCA “grandfathered in approximately 62,000 chemicals; today, more than 80,000 chemicals are in use, and 1,000–2,000 new chemicals are created and introduced into the environment each year.”   Yet, writes the Panel, “TSCA does not include a true proof-of-safety provision”—which means “neither industry nor government confirm the safety of existing or new chemicals prior to their sale and use.”

TSCA allows chemical companies, reveals the Cancer Panel, to avoid discovering worrisome product information, which must be reported, by simply not conducting toxicity tests.  And, as the “EPA can only require testing if it can verify that the chemical poses a health risk to the public,” the “EPA has required testing of less than 1 percent of the chemicals in commerce and has issued regulations to control only five existing chemicals.”  Additionally, “chemical manufacturers have successfully claimed that much of the requested submissions are confidential, proprietary information.”  So, “it is almost impossible for scientists and environmentalists to challenge the release of new chemicals.”  

In addition, the Cancer Panel notes that the U.S. “does not use most of the international measures, standards, or classification structures for environmental toxins that have broad acceptance in most other countries,” which makes meaningful comparisons difficult.  Further, U.S. standards are “less stringent than international equivalents.” 

In the chapter on agricultural chemicals, the Cancer Panel reports that “the entire U.S. population is exposed on a daily basis to numerous agricultural chemicals, some of which also are used in residential and commercial landscaping.  Many of these chemicals have known or suspected carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting properties.”  For instance,” pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides)” approved for use by the EPA “contain nearly 900 active ingredients, many of which are toxic.  Many of the solvents, fillers, and other chemicals listed as inert ingredients on pesticide labels also are toxic, but are not required to be tested for their potential to cause chronic diseases such as cancer.”

The Cancer Panel states that agricultural chemicals do not stay put.  Sprayed chemicals migrate on the air and into the water, creating toxic trespass into other peoples’ lives.  Indeed, Dr. Sandra Steingraber, who is quoted in the report, writes in her book LIVING DOWNSTREAM, that “in general, less that 0.1 percent of pesticides applied for pest control actually reach their target pests, leaving 99.9 percent to move into the general environment.” 

Farmers, their families, their workers, and chemical sprayers (including crop dusters) bear the highest health risks, according to the Cancer Panel.   Farm children, especially those living near pesticide use, have consistently elevated leukemia rates.  Exposure to the nearly 1,400 EPA-registered pesticides “has been linked to brain/central nervous system (CNS), breast, colon, lung, ovarian (female spouses), pancreatic, kidney, testicular, and stomach cancers, as well as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma.”  

It is very clear that we cannot continue using untested chemicals.  It is very clear that we are massively harming our children.  It is very clear that we must develop a political will for change and that we must devise ways to help the people caught in the chemical madness maze to escape it without undue financial penalty.       

Therefore, it follows that we must all understand that the problem at hand is not how to organize a chemical spraying registry.  It follows that we must all understand that the problem for individual PCB members is no longer how to protect present chemical practices.  The problem that we must all now face is how to stop the use of untested, toxic, dangerous chemicals. 

Statements to the PCB can be sent to the Director, Henry Jennings, henry.jennings@maine.gov.        

Write the PCB members and tell them that you recognize that they now have an incredibly difficult task.  Tell them that they must understand now that their primary responsibility must be to protect us and to protect themselves and their loved ones.  Tell them that this duty must supercede all other considerations.

Tipping Points 2: Winning the Cancer War

Tipping Points 2

April 2, 2010

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Winning the Cancer War

In June 2001, my niece and godchild Catherine, at twenty-seven years of age, died.  An aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma took her down in thirteen months.  She left behind her eighteen-month old daughter; a not-yet-thirty-year-old husband; and an extended family and a network of friends who all had tried, as she had, to move heaven and earth to preserve her life. 

Catherine’s death created a black hole in the fabric of the lives of those who loved her.  And, her death was most likely a casualty of the careless, heedless pollution of the land, water, and air on the rural Eastern Shore of Virginia where she lived.  There, the commercial chicken industry grows, slaughters, and dumps waste onto the fields and into the Chesapeake Bay.  There, large commercial agriculture grows vegetables for nearby urban markets, using, of course, the full array of agricultural chemicals.   

Catherine’s cancer and death is a metaphor for what is wrong in our society.  It was not until my early forties in the 1980s that I started noticing how many people around me were dying of cancer.  How many Americans, I now wonder, have to experience the kind of horrible death Catherine endured before we wake up, stop calling cancer “normal,” and insist that the poisonous practices causing cancer be stopped? 

But, when will this BIG tipping point arrive?

Catherine’s death produced a fork in the road for me.  I could continue to live life as usual.  Or, I could realize that life is precious and sometimes much shorter than we expect, and I could answer a deep longing to return to a quieter,  rural life lived closer to the earth, to its seasons, to nature.  That’s how I got to Maine. 

And, once in Maine, some time after I passed out at her dinner table from a food reaction, my neighbor recommended I read Dr. Sandra Steingraber’s book, LIVING DOWNSTREAM.  Steingraber is a scientist (biology) and an heir to Rachael Carson, who died of lymphoma.  Steingraber’s life choices have been made from the “watchful waiting” platform of one who had bladder cancer in her twenties.  She studies, and now shares, what she has learned about cancer and the connections between cancer and environmental degradation.

Steingraber demonstrates that we have no comprehensive national cancer registry.  The National Cancer Institute (NCI) “does not attempt to record all cases of cancer in the country, but instead samples about 14 percent of the populace” (37).  This sampling comes from five states and five specific metropolitan areas and has only been in place since 1973.  Other factors further complicate this sampling:  different states collect data differently, some are years behind in analysis, and the data cannot account for people who move around the country.  Some states, like Vermont, not in the NCI registry, have only had cancer registries since 1992 (41-42). 

Regardless of this vexed statistical terrain, Steingraber says it is possible to determine that “the incidence of cancer in the United States rose 49.3 percent between 1950 and 1991,” that “40 percent of us…will contract the disease sometime within our lifespans,” and that lymphoma is one of the cancers that has “escalated over the past twenty years” (41-42).  Indeed, the cancer that killed Catherine, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is one of three cancers “ascending most swiftly in the United States,” tripling since 1950 (47, 51).  Lymphomas are “consistently associated” with the phenoxy pesticides and herbicides which are used widely on crops, lawns, gardens, timber stands, and golf courses (52).  And, lymphomas occur in higher rates in agricultural areas (52, 64-65).  

My mother died in July 2009 from the same type of cancer that killed Catherine.  She lived in rural Georgia across the road from a young peach orchard posted with scull-and-crossbones poison signs and still reeking of chemicals many weeks after spraying occurred.  Even walking down the road next to the orchard drenched our clothes with the chemical odor.  Steingraber explains that when a chemical is sprayed, “less than 0.1 percent” stays on the target; the rest, or 99.9 percent, drifts “into the general environment (179).”  So, it is logical that lymphoma cancer rates are growing.

Now, in Georgia, where once there were dozens of peach farms in every little town, only about five companies control the commercial production of peaches—which means the connection between peach growers and those who live with their poisonous practices is broken.  This kind of distance is occurring all across the terrain of food as consumers, too, are distanced from the production of their food, which allows heinous practices to occur, from the spraying of poisonous chemicals, to the torture of animals, to the production of fake foods.      

Steingraber traces the history of the shift from a carbohydrate-based economy to a petrochemical-based economy after World War II when the chemical industry needed a new use for stockpiled war-produced chemicals.   After 1945, “between 45,000 and 100,000 chemicals” came into common use and only “1.5 to 3 percent” or “1,200 to 1,500 chemicals” have ever been “tested for carcinogenicity” (99).  These petroleum-derived synthetic chemicals “easily interact” with our bodies and, thus, interfere with our life processes.  Many are soluble in fat and collect in animal tissues high in fat, like human brains, breasts, bone marrows, and livers, all of which are sites where cancer is increasing.  Additionally, many of these synthetic chemicals are often not biodegradable, so they do not decay as does organic matter.  But, they are not static:  many shed, or, “off-gas,” the “smaller, more reactive molecules from which they are made,” producing new chemicals that remain largely uninvestigated, let alone monitored or regulated.  Further, when burned, many of these substances can create new reactive chemicals, like dioxin, which is poisonous (91-100).          

In totality, American industries and we, ourselves, are, every day, putting tons of chemicals into our environment without considering the implications for humans or for the earth itself.  In the early 1990s, in Steingraber’s home state of Illinois alone, “54 million pounds of synthetic pesticides” went onto agricultural fields annually and in 1992, Illinois industries “released more than 100 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment” (5-6).  We are, Steingraber argues, “running an uncontrolled experiment using human subjects” (270)—an experiment that has had deadly consequences since the World Health Organization has concluded that “at least 80 percent of all cancer is attributable to environmental influences” (60).  Thus, cancer cells, Steingraber argues, are “made, not born” (241).    

So, cancer is NOT caused by having bad genes or not getting enough exercise.  Cancer is being caused by the cocktail we have created, which includes at least the following ingredients:  environmental poisons; fake, highly processed foods; the overuse and mixing of dangerous prescription drugs; and the stress of modern life. 

Cancer is a creature of corporatism, of unregulated industries which are not held accountable for the harm they do.  Cancer is the blowback from a society that puts profit ahead of people and individuals ahead of community.  Cancer itself is an extremely profitable industry.  Cancer is a metaphor we can and must change.

We can start by strengthening ties in our own community.  Begin buying local products from those who follow sustainable practices.