My best day at work — and I have had many great days — was not actually at work. I was replying to emails from President Bill Carroll from my vacation in a 1930’s cabin on the Wisconsin River. This was the day that, after many years of gathering evidence and speaking to various groups on campus, Benedictine University took a leadership role on a very important issue of sustainability: natural lawn care. This would never have happened without the cooperation of Campus Services; the active support of the Faculty, Student Senate, and the Center for Mission and Identity; and the unflagging campaigning by the student leaders of SEEDs, our student environmental group. From now on, like the Chicago Park District and a growing number of school districts in the area, weeds will be controlled only by mowing. It’s important for everyone to share the information about health and environmental concerns so that the public understands that dandelions are a sign that the lawns at Benedictine are safe for everyone to enjoy.
Even those who were not able to attend the Healthy Lawn Symposium last week at Benedictine can enjoy the presentations by accessing documents on Dropbox at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/1sjv48tgiwlw30r/AAAGIqI7IUzN9mpj2FZJHJtma?dl=0. The presentations approached the problem of lawn chemicals in particular and toxic contamination more generally from a wide range of disciplines: science, public health, anthropology, advocacy, social sciences, and ethics. It would be impossible to convey the richness of the discussions that resulted, but I hope you will be able to enjoy a taste of what it was.
Healthy Lawn Community Forums
March 10, 2015
Presentation Room, Lisle Campus
April 22, 2015
Presentation Room, Lisle Campus
Devra Davis’s book was so devastating in its indictment of the chemical and tobacco industries that I had to take it in small bites, to prevent the bile of it overwhelming me: not Davis’s bile, mind you, but the bitter pill of industrial and governmental complicity in the illness and deaths of millions. Of course, not everyone would take it so personally. The systematic refusal to acknowledge the real causes of the cancer epidemic cost me my darling Katherine. It was like reading the detailed confessions and court transcripts of her murderers. It was that, in fact. To say that these industries do not have my daughter’s blood on their hands, and the blood of uncounted innocents, would be merely specious.
With experience as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services and authorship of nearly 200 books and articles, only a few people would have been as well poised as Davis to reveal the truth of this War on Cancer: that from the beginning, even those supposedly on our side, like the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, were complicit in the toxic war waged against us by the chemical and tobacco industries. Davis describes the systematic cultivation of a climate of doubt about scientific evidence, and a terrible hardening of assumptions about the evidence required to show that a chemical is harmful and subject to ban. She was there for much of the assault on public safety: “I watched the maturing of the science of doubt promotion – the concerted and well-funded effort to identify, magnify and exaggerate doubts about what we could say that we know as a way of delaying actions to change the way the world operates” (15-16). The callousness with which companies whose chemicals were implicated delayed protections by calling for more research is stunning: “From the very first reports that vinyl chloride could dissolve the finger bones of workers, cause cancer in animals and deform babies, the industry had a simple response: more research is needed. Let’s keep studying whether there really is a problem, while releasing enough information that people would feel assured the problem if it exists is trivial” (393).
This is a war in which the casualties have been legion: “I believe that if we had acted on what has long been known about the industrial and environmental causes of cancer when this war first began, at least a million and a half lives could have been spared, a huge casualty rate that those who have managed the war on cancer must answer for. This book explains how I have come to that reckoning” (22). Davis supports her claims, uncovering damning evidence from many different quarters. In some cases, she brought forth personal communications, in others, documents that show that scientists knew virtually everything about the link between cancer and smoking, radiation, and workplace exposures by 1938. But these findings did not see the light of day because of the many tobacco and chemical company executives in places of power, on the board of the American Cancer Society, for instance. Instead, all energies in the War on Cancer were diverted to treating the cases created by those industries. Davis describes the legal toxic onslaught against people everywhere in the United States, in chapters ranging from cigarettes to chemicals to cell phones.
Davis shows how all of us face a barrage of toxic exposures from a variety of sources, most of which we do not even think about. And not thinking about it is definitely part of the problem:
It is not simply that cancer is one of the diseases that afflicts the survivors of these polluted towns or those along China’s poisoned rivers in disproportionate numbers. What afflicts them more is that the very place they lived in – the air they breathed, the ground they walked on – was toxic. The real failure of the Superfund law, like the failure of the war on cancer, has only a little to do with bloated bureaucracies or scheming lobbyists or unfortunate yokels with trucks full of the wrong stuff. Ultimately, it’s a failure to look clearly at what’s right in front of our faces.
Davis’s book may be hard to stomach – because it looks at what’s right in front of our faces – but the effort is salutary, honest, and important to changing the world for the better. Her book is a call for action. She is frank about the barriers to truth-telling. She says in an afterward that her “own freedom to talk about avoidable cancer risks may suffer as well.” She names researchers who were fired or threatened with firing because their research impugned the chemical industry. Research funds were routinely withdrawn when results did not correspond with industry desires. Davis reveals how the secret war she refers to in her title was never as secret as she had thought: “Tobacco money paid for some of the best science in the world, yielding thousands of papers and years of delays in dealing with this important cause of poor health” (478). It is counter-intuitive but true that more science in this case resulted in worse health, not better, because of these deliberate, self-interested delays.
Despite the brutality of the subject matter, Secret History is very readable, and no doubt for someone with less at stake in the matter, would seem like a well-written mystery novel, or a true crime narration, more like. On the other hand, how many of us have less at stake in the causes of cancer when half of all men and a third of all women will develop the disease in their lifetimes? This is not the kind of book to bore readers, despite informing them and arming them against the duplicitous techniques of our industrial overlords. I recommend it above any other book I have read recently. Davis’s work may give more people the courage to stand up and say that it is not too much to ask that evil corporations – and I’m sorry, but no other word is sufficient – be prevented from polluting our bodies without our knowledge or permission. It is not too much to ask. Environmental Injustice is too pale a term when one person is indirectly and legally killing another, in our case, a beloved child. Other individuals’ economic interests should not come at the expense of dead loved ones, or our own diseased bodies. A clean environment should be a human right – in the United States and everywhere.
Davis, D. (2009). The secret history of the war on cancer. New York: Basic Books.
A True Opt-Out: Evaluating Health Effects in Smart Meters
Smart Meters are coming to my town, as they may be to yours. Smart Meters, which send WiFi signals back to mission control, will likely become more popular in future years since they save utility companies money and enable people to optimize energy savings if they so desire. But there has been controversy over the non-ionizing RF-EMF radiation they give off. After investigating these claims, I have found that some concern is warranted. I have recommended to my Environmental Advisory Commission proceeding with the program but maintaining a true opt-out for citizens who continue to be worried after reading informational literature. It is not unreasonable to charge some modest amount for the additional work required to check meters, perhaps $25/ month. But at no time should citizens be arrested in their own homes, as they have been in Naperville, IL, for refusing to have meters installed. We find that this is too great a violation of civil rights, particularly when the homeowners have done nothing wrong beyond working to protect their families from risks of cancer or other ailments.
Every person who objects should be supplied the report from the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), an independent scientific research group that advises the State of California on technological policy issues. Their measured assessment of the problem presents Smart Meters as potentially a health threat, but only on the order of many other well-accepted conveniences of modern life, like microwaves and cell phones. There are people who try to protect their children even from these ubiquitous devices, and these are the people for whom the opt-out should be available. Many other people, when reassured that the risk is in line with their current level of comfort, may decide that the opt-out is not worth the small financial penalty.
One of the key findings of the report is that “Wireless smart meters, when installed and properly maintained, result in much smaller levels of radio frequency (RF) exposure than many existing common household electronic devices, particularly cell phones and microwave ovens” (CCST, 2011, p. 1). We should note two things about this statement. First, consider the caveat that the meters be properly installed and maintained, which the group later says should be monitored and followed up on, which seems really quite unlikely. A parallel example is the case of CT imaging, which can expose patients to up to 350 times more radiation than a chest x-ray, and which can vary tremendously from facility to facility and machine to machine (Lafall & Kripke, 2010, p. v). Calibration with technologies like this can be notoriously uneven. Second, the data do seem to suggest that the Smart Meter exposure is on a similar level as cell phone usage. But recent research suggests that cell phone usage is indeed tied to cancer risk, and particularly for children, whose skulls are not as highly developed, whose systems are immature, and who will live a long time during which long-latency risks may manifest in disease. Finally, the panel concluded that “Consideration could be given to alternative smart meter configurations (such as wired) in those cases where wireless meters continue to be concern [sic] to consumers” (CCST, 2011, p. 1).
The comparison with cell phones is apt, as some scientists warn against allowing unfettered use by children, despite clever marketing to them (Davis, 2009). The graph in the CCST report shows that the Smart Meter at one foot is about equal to a microwave oven at one foot, and about one fifth of a cell phone at the ear, as measured in microWatts/cm2. However, there is potential for the Smart Meter to be much more frequently on than a cell phone. The President’s Cancer Panel reviewed the literature on cell phones and cancer risk in a report published in 2010. What they found is preliminary but sobering. “Sharp controversy exists in the scientific community as to possible adverse health effects from exposure to low frequency electromagnetic energy. The use of cell phones and other wireless technology is of great concern, particularly since these devices are being used regularly by ever larger and younger segments of the population” (LaSalle & Kripke, 2010, p. iv). In addition, some studies have suggested a link to brain tumors on the side of the head where the phone is held by long-term users. Considering how hard it is to establish a control group with most people using cell phones to some degree, these findings are ominous. The trend line of more recent research continues to implicate cell phones in cancer risk. In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the WHO’s highly regarded international professional panel, categorized the RF-EMF from cell phones as a possible human carcinogen, with odds ratios of 1.71-2.55 for various diagnoses, or in other words, an about doubled risk of brain cancer (Hardell et al., 2013). A review article of the evidence confirms these findings of doubled risk after ten years of cell phone use (Khurana et al., 2009). Hardell et al. note that the IARC findings have not spurred any governmental regulation to protect public health from this ubiquitous source of radiation (Hardell et al., 2013). Frankly, they are in too deep to do so. So it is not necessarily comforting that the Smart Meters could have a cumulative effect like that of cell phones, along with all the other sources of RF-EMF in modern life.
Keep in mind that many advances of modern life were advertised as perfectly healthy and safe when the reverse was true, and known to be true. Lies were sold to the public for decades. Smoking was advertised by doctors, and medical x-rays were touted as absolutely safe. Lead paint was advertised as healthful for nursery walls, and the ban on asbestos still cannot hold up in court (Davis, 2009). There is a reason that the public does not trust a technology that is being mandated in their home, without their consent, when that device emits RF-EMF radiation that is potentially linked to health effects. Although this risk is only commensurate with that of cell phones, families that wish to protect their children even from risks like that should be allowed to do so. After all, many risks like this – from pesticide exposures, medical radiation, and industrial pollution – are both unavoidable and cumulative. This should be one exposure that citizens have control over. Some people will want to employ the precautionary principle, and wait for evidence that a suspicious new technology does not cause ill effects. Indeed it would be in the interest of society as a whole to move more slowly before building an entire infrastructure based around RF technology. The inertia and investment once a system is built will influence many stakeholders to understate risks, as we have seen done with tobacco and chemical industries. People should have a choice before they and their children are subjected to an uncontrolled experiment with unknown outcomes.
Without endorsing all views expressed therein, I recommend you visit the website for those opposed to Smart Meters at http://www.napervillesmartmeterawareness.org
California Council on Science and Technology (CCST). (2011). Health impacts of radio frequency exposure from smart meters. Sacramento: CCST. Retrieved from http://www.ccst.us/publications/2011/2011smart-final.pdf
Davis, D. (2009). The secret history of the war on cancer. New York: Basic Books.
Gostin, L. O. (2005, April). Jacobson v Massachusetts at 100 years: Police power and civil liberties in tension. American Journal of Public Health, 95(4), 576.581.
Hardell, L. Carlberg, M., & Mild, K. H. (2013). Use of mobile phones and cordless phones is associated with increased risk for glioma and acoustic neuroma. Pathophysiology 20 (2), 85-110.
Khurana, V.G., Teo, C., Kundi, M., Hardell, L., & Carlberg, M. (2009). Cell phones and brain tumors: A review including the long-term epidemiologic data. Surgical Neurology 72 (3), 205-214.
Leffall, L. D. & Kripke, M. L. (2010). “Environmental cancer risk: What we can do now.” President’s Cancer Panel. USDHH, NIH, and NCI. Retrieved from http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf
Mariner, W. K., Annas, G. J. & Glantz, L. H. (2005, April). Jacobson v Massachusetts: It’s not your great-great-grandfather’s public health law. American Journal of Public Health, 95(4), 581-590.
 There is precedent set for this method of preserving civil liberties while imposing modest financial penalties for not contributing to the common good in the Public Health record, regarding vaccinations in particular. See Mariner et al. (2005) and Gostin (2005).
I am currently reading Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2009). Its main idea is so important, for health issues as well as for many other issues surrounding societal structuring: the idea that you can nudge people towards the best choices without violating their liberty, a principle already well known to advertisers, after all.
This ethical approach is called libertarian paternalism: while allowing people free choice, governments and others can promote the social welfare by structuring choices so that the default choice is the best for most people (Faden and Shebaya, 2010). Because in modern society, people do not have the time or resources to research every little choice they make in their lives, it is important to use the work of experts to make the lazy or default choice the best one. There are many examples of this, but the one I am reading about at the moment is Part D, or Medicare coverage of prescription drugs. Although the coverage was a very good thing for many, many people, it was not viewed favorably because instead of offering a few good choices, and perhaps a full list for those choosy few, it offered everyone enrolling a list of more than forty plans, without making any recommendations about which were best: “In November, 2005, just as seniors were getting their first taste of forty-plus plans, half of eighteen hundred seniors surveyed had an unfavorable view of the program, compared with 28 percent who viewed it favorably” (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009, p. 232). Once participants got past the time-consuming labor of selecting a plan, they had a more positive opinion of the program, but unfortunately, there was very little evidence that people had made good choices. Doubly bad is the fact that when people do not have the information to make good choices, free markets do not work as intended because the market does not receive signals needed to function properly. In other words, people are not able to choose according to their rational interests, so bad companies or choices are not weeded out because they have caused harm or not functioned as well.
The choice structure for environmental chemicals is much, much worse than that.
The default choice on the societal level is that chemical companies are allowed to freely poison people, with only the barest patina, the minutest gloss of regulation. Every single person on the face of the earth, including every newborn that enters the world, is contaminated with a toxic stew of hundreds of carcinogens, neurotoxins, mutagens, and endocrine disruptors. This choice is not a rational choice for the body politic; it is made this way because of the financial interests of just a few people.
The default choice individually right now is to let one’s children and oneself be poisoned. In order to protect their children, parents have to thoroughly research each of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals in production in the U.S., most of which have not been tested at all, and then try to choose not to expose their children to each one. This is impossible. I know because I’ve tried. Devra Davis has shown how the regulatory system, in cahoots with chemical companies, including Johnson’s baby shampoo, has placed all the burden of research and proof on parents (2009). Not only are we exposed willy-nilly through the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and nearly every consumer product we buy. If we wanted to ban these chemicals, the burden of proof is all on us. We would have to have many people die from only that one toxicant – when most of these chemicals have synergistic effects – and then we would have to do a complex, expensive, nearly impossible epidemiological study of it that establishes harm. Even now that some of the heroes of public health – and here I am thinking of researchers, particularly at the National Cancer Institute – have done just that, it is still not possible to get the chemicals banned. So we have no choice, only the illusion of one. What regulation there is gives the impression of a choice, while foisting on us a choice we would never rationally make. Under the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), only six substances have ever been banned, and the ban on asbestos was overturned in court despite the absolutely conclusive evidence against it. Because of this, one in two men and one in three women will get cancer, and rates of childhood cancer, autism, learning disabilities, and auto-immune disease are climbing rapidly. Most people do not realize the degree to which these diseases are caused by environmental exposures.
We need to frame the choices we are making as a society much better because we are not picking the best ones in many, many cases. The problem is that, with environmental chemicals, the architects of the choice framework, as Sunstein and Thaler would put it, are the chemical companies themselves, with the help of ingenious marketing. And apparently, they do not care if their profits cost people their lives. They may have the effect of exerting paternalistic control over people – but it is also malevolent control, not interested in liberty at all – not what one usually hopes for in a father. Perhaps we should call it fascist homicidal paternalism. Just sayin.
Davis, D. (2009). The secret history of the war on cancer. New York: Basic Books.
Faden, R. & Shebaya, S. (2010). Public health ethics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/publichealth-ethics/
Thaler, R. & Sunstein, C. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New York: Penguin.
It is in everyone’s interest to argue for the tolerance of lawn eco-diversity with Condo Boards, Home Owner Associations, Cities, and Villages, but if need be, here are some tips for preserving that green swath:
- Mow at 3″. This allows grass to remain strong and shade out some weeds. And water infrequently, but deeply, to promote root growth; early in the morning is best.
- Do a soil test. If there are problems with pH or other imbalances, those can be corrected organically.
- Clover is not a weed and should not be treated as such. Have you heard of the phrase “in clover”? Because it fixes nitrogen in the soil and supports grass growth, clover was originally considered the ideal lawn. Only when it was found that the chemicals used (2,4-D) to kill dandelions killed clover did the marketers begin branding it as a weed.
- For dandelions, I recommend tolerance, hand-weeding, or 11% vinegar, squirted right on the dandelion. Excellent results have also been obtained from a new product called Avenger, which is citrus oil-based. http://avengerorganics.com/Products/AvengerWeedKillerOrganicHerbicide/tabid/66/Default.aspx A handy hand-weeding tool is available at Lee Valley Garden Tools.
- Some people recommend the use of organic fertilizers like composted manure, compost, compost tea, corn gluten, or milorganite, which is processed human waste. Others recommend the use of gypsum for aeration, or physical aeration with a machine or other device.
- It is a good idea to overseed regularly. Lawn grasses are rarely allowed to propagate by seed, so reseeding may be necessary.
For more information, visit http://midwestpesticideaction.org/what-you-can-do/in-your-home/ , www.energyandfacilities.harvard.edu/facilities-services/landscape-maintenance, and http://www.pureprairieorganics.net/
The Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) was recently on the list for my MPH Environmental Health as “ensuring a safe environment in the U.S.” In actuality, it has done the reverse, creating an illusion of protection where no protection really exists. Under TSCA, only six substances have ever been banned among the myriad carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors known to contaminate every human being in the United States, including newborn babies. Of those six, one, asbestos, had that ban overturned in court. That is how hard it is to protect ordinary citizens against toxic chemicals under this law. Given the levels of pollution in every body in the U.S., it can be said with confidence that this Act is a complete regulatory failure. How much worse could it be? One might read that as a rhetorical question, but as I write, a new bill, The Chemicals in Commerce Act, is being shopped around the House of Representatives. This terrible piece of legislation, backed by chemical industry lobbyists, would actually be worse than the current law! Thousands of new chemicals would be rubber-stamped as “safe” without any testing at all.
The USEPA requirements for registration of pesticides may seem stringent: “Potential registrants must generate scientific data necessary to address concerns pertaining to the identity, composition, potential adverse effects, and environmental fate of each pesticide” (USEPA, 2013). But most of the data is generated using a single substance in animals, an experimental design that is not able to model chronic health hazards accurately. In addition, animal studies are not a perfect model for human systems, which can be much more complex, and keep in mind, humans live much longer and can therefore bio-accumulate greater amounts of chemical exposures from various sources. The elaborate review standards actually forbid the EPA from reviewing epidemiological data, which is the much stronger mode for connecting exposures to disease. Not long ago, I spoke with Shelia Zahm, one of the National Cancer Institute scientists most responsible for the epidemiological research on pesticide exposures and childhood cancer, which have been abundantly linked by numerous studies. She pointed out many of the well-known problems with the regulations as they exist today, in material that has only been previously published on my blog.
This is what she would do if she had control of the regulatory agencies:
I think the most important thing is to change the burden of proof. Things should be proven to be safe before they are introduced rather than waiting to find they are harmful after the horse is out of the barn. There were so many chemicals that were grandfathered in when toxic substances were regulated in this country, and they’ve never gone back and researched the chemicals. We should also change access to information. For example, pesticide companies only have to reveal “active” ingredients, meaning those with pesticidal activity. Many of the other ingredients in pesticide formulations are not biologically inert, but they are not considered a pesticide, so they don’t have to be listed. That information is protected, proprietary. The information needs to be public for research on safety.
Regulators also need to increase consideration of exposures across the lifetime, not just consider exposure as adults. We need to know what happens if one is exposed prenatally, in childhood, at menarche, before the first birth, during pregnancy, etc., across the lifespan. We should conduct animal and in vitro testing taking into account populations that have special susceptibility, like children and those with impaired immune systems. Regulators need to think of the exposures and susceptibilities of the most vulnerable populations, not just the “average adult” in testing.
Historically, most carcinogen testing was designed to identify direct carcinogens. What if the substance just changes immune function, and that changes the ability to fight disease? Will the testing regimens detect those changes? In general, the regulatory system has been designed using data from animal studies. The agencies don’t really know what to do with epidemiological studies. Often the exposure assessment may not be detailed enough to use in the risk assessment models the agencies use, and there is often concern about confounding or other bias. If the human studies are positive, but animal studies are not, usually nothing happens.
The US regulatory landscape also needs more post-marketing monitoring particularly for drugs but other newly introduced compounds as well. Without well-designed follow-up studies, we can miss detecting modest increases in common outcomes. An “alert clinician” may notice an extremely unusual outcome caused by an exposure, but cannot detect a small increase in a common disease. (Zahm, 2014).
If only scientists like this, who actually seem to care about the impact of chemicals on human health, had control of our regulatory system, so many people would not have died miserable deaths from cancer or suffered from life-altering conditions like autism, ADHD, diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, and auto-immune illnesses of all kinds.
Much of the pesticide safety research that is done is sponsored by the companies seeking registration and is not published in peer-reviewed journals. Most chemicals were grandfathered in under TSCA (Toxic Substance Control Act), and once registration is granted, chemicals are rarely re-reviewed, even given substantial evidence of harm. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, TSCA
- has failed to deliver the information needed to identify unsafe — as well as safer — chemicals,
- forbids the federal government from sharing much of the limited information it does obtain,
- imposes a nearly impossible burden on government to prove actual harm in order to control or replace a dangerous chemical and
- thereby perpetuates the chemicals industry’s failure to innovate toward inherently safer chemical and product design. (EDF, 2014).
In April 2013, Senators Frank Lautenberg and Kristen Gillibrand introduced a bill, the Safe Chemicals Act, that would update this antiquated law and provide a greater measure of safety for every U.S. citizen. In May, 2013, Lautenberg and David Vitter introduced an updated bill called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act with partisan support. The comment period for this bill has passed, but many other rules governing pesticides and other toxic chemicals are on the docket. For instance, there were several petitions by pesticide companies to increase the allowances for pesticide residues on certain foods, as well as agricultural products fed to food livestock, like alfalfa, for instance. I commented on all of these petitions with the following paragraphs:
Dear EPA Scientists, I hope you will reconsider before loosening tolerances on any food items, imported or domestic, or agricultural products destined for food animals. You list those concerned as being involved in crop or animal production, food or pesticide manufacturing, but you seem to forget the most important party concerned: the American citizens you are supposed to be protecting. I refer to a small assemblage of Pesticide Petitions with the following docket numbers: EPA-HQ-OPP-2013-0662-0002, EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0114-0002, EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0153-0002, EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0230-0001, EPA-HQ-OPP-2013-0644-0002, EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0225-0002, EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0297-0001, EPA-HQ-OPP-2013-0255-0011, EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0161-0001, EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0210-0001, EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0238-0001, and EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0207-0001. These petitions address many different pesticides (a term that includes insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.) and many different products. I am making an argument that regulations of these dangerous chemicals – all of them – should be significantly tightened. It is an issue of environmental justice that our youngest citizens – our children – are disproportionately exposed to health risks.
The President’s Cancer Panel (PCP) Report of 2010 and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2013 assign much of the blame for rising cancer rates in children to virtually unregulated pesticide exposures. The CDC Biomonitoring Project shows that every American is contaminated with hundreds of toxic chemicals, even before birth (CDC, 2005). The very conservative AAP has this to say about the data:
The past decade has seen an expansion of the epidemiologic evidence base supporting adverse effects after acute and chronic pesticide exposure in children. This includes increasingly sophisticated studies addressing combined exposures and genetic susceptibility…. The evidence base is most robust for associations to pediatric cancer and adverse neurodevelopment. Multiple case-control studies and evidence reviews support a role for insecticides in risk of brain tumors and acute lymphocytic leukemia. (AAP, 2013).
It would be unconscionable to continue ignoring the epidemiologic data, which is superior to animal studies in assessing harm.
The President’s Cancer Panel is even more explicit. The President’s Cancer Panel, appointed by President Bush, whose 2008-2009 Annual Report reviewed 454 sources and found that many cancers, perhaps most, could be prevented by cleaning up the environment in just a few high-impact ways. In the letter to the President that precedes the report, they could scarcely have stated the alarm their findings raised more strongly:
The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread…. The grievous harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the National Cancer Program. The American people – even before they are born – are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures. The Panel urges you most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.
The lack of regulation has devastated our lives. Our eight-year-old daughter Katherine died in 2002 of leukemia we have every reason to believe was caused by her unwitting exposure to chlorpyrifos. We thought she was protected when chlorpyrifos was banned for residential use in 2001, but there was a loophole for mosquito spraying, which we did not realize had occurred from her infancy onwards. There is always a loophole, and these pesticide petitions are some of them. We know your hands are partly tied by the weakness of TSCA. The Safe Chemicals Act, sponsored by Frank Lautenberg, would be a step in the right direction; but in the meantime, you at the EPA are all that protects our children, and you have largely failed to do so, not just by our accounting, but according to the PCP and AAP. You must do what you can where you can. Having an Environmental Protection Agency gives people the illusion that they are protected from environmental exposures, when nothing could be further from the truth. Registration implies to most people that the chemicals in question have been thoroughly researched and have negligible human health risks. That is simply not the case.
Jean-Marie Kauth, PhD
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (2012). Policy statement: Pesticide exposure in children. Pediatrics 130 (6):e1757-e1763. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/6/e1757.full
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2005). Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Atlanta (GA). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/
Infante-Rivard, C., Weichenthal, S. (2007). Pesticides and childhood cancer: An update of Zahm and Ward’s 1998 review. J Toxicol Environ Health, Part B 10:81-99.
President’s Cancer Panel (PCP). (2010). Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf
It’s amazing how much regulatory activity occurs, without it being effective. What has happened, I think, is that chemical companies lobby and bully regulators and politicians until the laws are basically useless, but those politicians and regulators are still gainfully employed in making those laws, pushing paper (figurative or literal) around, fidgeting with half-measures and token, though detailed, procedures. No one seems to care at all about the many people killed by our loose chemical regulatory environment, and in fact, perhaps they fool themselves into thinking that they are doing something significant. Results say otherwise.
Even if we are pessimistic about our ability to protect our children and ourselves and make a difference, however, we have an obligation to cry out against systematic poisoning by chemical companies and the agricultural industry, sanctioned by our government, lest we be complicit in our own ill health and premature deaths.
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). 2012. Policy statement: Pesticide exposure in children. Pediatrics 130(6):e1757-e1763.Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). 2014. Chemicals policy reform. Retrieved from http://www.edf.org/health/policy/chemicals-policy-reform
U.S. EPA. (2013). Test guidelines for data requirements. USEPA. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/science/guidelines.htm
Zahm, S.H. (2014). Personal Communication.
It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge. If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.
–Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, p. 32
Rachel Carson’s writings were so important that they launched the all-out warfare of the anti-environmental, corporate elite against her. She has been accused of the deaths of millions, when the exact opposite is true. They accuse her of things that are patently false: that DDT was banned worldwide; that the reason there are malaria deaths is that DDT was banned, rather than that mosquitoes acquired resistance; that DDT is largely innocuous. Carson’s Silent Spring is one of those rare things: a nexus where the forces of good and evil meet and battle.
Carson argues that the pesticides used willy-nilly after World War II to control pests were causing untold damage to the natural world, including wildlife, soil health, general ecological communities, and humans themselves. She substantiates her evidence carefully, with scientific sources meticulously noted at the end, and it’s amazing how many of her claims have been borne out over the years by further research. Her claims that pesticides are responsible for widespread death and destruction have only been vindicated in the years since she wrote. If only we had heeded her warning.
Carson really assumes very little in readers – only that they would not wish wildlife and livestock to die – and that they would not wish to risk their own lives – for nothing. The book is an excellent primer in ecological principles. Her argument has held up so well over the years that I think there is not one person who would not benefit to some degree from reading Silent Spring; and the book has more to offer than expected for those already inculcated with ecological principles and familiar with her argument.
We have experienced first-hand in our family the consequences of the failure of the general public to accept Carson’s findings. Our daughter Katherine died because of mosquito spraying with chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate. We never thought anyone would be so stupid as to spray pesticides up and down residential streets. Everyone we knew viewed the antiquated newsreels of trucks spraying children with DDT with a sort of condescending pity at their ignorance. Hadn’t we realized that with Carson? Silent Spring roused consciousness of the horror of killing all living creatures in the name of assassinating some bugs. In fact, the practice of mosquito spraying remains surprisingly widespread.
There is no question that women of childbearing age, children, and babies in utero continue to be exposed to pesticides and many other toxic chemicals, at rates that dwarf that of the 1960’s, when Carson was writing. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has made a superb video called 10 Americans illuminating this issue, easily found with a Google or YouTube search. Updated in 2012, the video discusses testing for 413 different toxic chemicals that EWG performed on the blood of 10 Americans in 2004. Says Ken Cook, President of EWG,
None of these ten Americans were exposed to these chemicals by virtue of the air that they breathe, even though we found some of these very chemicals in these 10 people. It could have also been the water they drank,…but we know for a fact that it wasn’t the tap water. Of course, it could have been food that was the route of exposure, but we know for a fact that none of these 10 Americans were exposed to the chemicals we found as a result of food that they bought at the grocery store…. These 10 Americans weren’t farmworkers, they weren’t factory workers,… And when the results had come back from the laboratory, we had found 287 of these chemicals in just those 10 people, an average of 200 chemicals in each one.
The punch line is that the 10 Americans were newborns. The blood tested was umbilical cord blood. The exposures were all prenatal, and this was the first time that someone had bothered to sample cord blood for these toxicants. As Cook points out, babies before they are born do not have a blood-brain barrier; there is no protection for the fetus’s brain from these chemicals. Previously, it had been thought that the placenta might have provided protection, but the EWG test showed that no significant protection exists. One of those tested was Ken Cook’s own infant, and he chokes up on camera at that fact, though as far as we know his child is still perfectly healthy. Students who watch this video and read Carson are shocked and appalled, as they should be, and they always want to know if the babies who had been surveyed in the video were OK, as though only these particular babies were at risk. This is a more complicated question than it sounds, and I’m not always sure how to answer. None of the children, as far as we know, has been diagnosed with cancer, though it is true that babies are sometimes born with cancer, most likely from in utero exposures (Goncalves et al. 2010; Katic et al. 2010; Emerenciano et al. 2007; Ferreira et al. 2013). Babies with AML (acute myelogenous leukemia) are more than five times more likely to have the disease if exposed to pesticides in utero and seven times more likely to have AML if their mothers were breast feeding and exposed (Ferreira et al. 2013). I will never forget baby Maggie with leukemia, getting a transplant down the hall from Katherine. But the point of this is that while none of these babies were yet diagnosed with disease, they are not really OK either, and neither is any child now born, if by OK you mean unaffected and likely to remain unaffected by the toxic exposures throughout their lifetimes. The fact is, we just don’t know, but it seems likely that the children are much less OK than if they had been born without these toxic exposures, as Carson surmised decades ago.
The link between pesticides and other environmental chemicals and autism is more recent, but increasingly a stronger correlation than mercury, particularly with organophosphate or organochlorine pesticides (Roberts 2007; Landrigan 2010; Schwartzer 2013). It is early days for considering mechanisms by which these chemicals change a fetus’s brain, but the best guess right now is that the chemicals affect either detoxification systems (Woodward et al., 2001), the ways by which the body naturally clears itself of toxic substances, or the signaling systems neurons use to talk to each other (Stamou et al. 2013), or both. Organophosphate pesticides have long been known to be ruinous to the nervous system. Indeed, they were developed during the World Wars precisely for that purpose: they were initially meant to be used as weaponized nerve gas. It must have seemed pretty handy that they could be retrofitted as pesticides; certainly, the companies involved would have wished to continue making money from processes they already had set up. Because they were imagined first as weapons, these substances were never tested for safety. Carson showed long ago how really toxic pesticides like DDT were, yet the use of these chemicals has only gone up by volume. In the most recent year for which there is data, 2001, 73 million pounds of organophosphate pesticides were used, in the United States alone (Kiely et al. 2004). That’s about a quarter pound of this one type of chemical for every man, woman, and child in the country. Over a billion pounds of pesticides total are used every year in the United States, not including pesticides used in paints, plastics, or preserved woods. If these applications were included, the total would be 4 billion (Goldman 2000). Yet people are sensitive to very low levels. Organophosphate pesticides have been found in the blood and urine of nearly every child tested in the U.S. (Barr et al. 2005), which, as with so many of our synthetic chemicals, makes a control group impossible. This information is publicly available through the CDC Biomonitoring Project online. Everyone should read the executive summary.
Not so much is new in the science since Rachel Carson, though much has been confirmed; nor have our practices changed for the better. But I’ll tell you what is new since 1962, when Silent Spring was published: my babies, and millions more like them. Our sweet Katherine will never get another chance at life, just like the thousands of other children who have died of cancer or dealt with debilitating disease – cancer, autism, ADHD, asthma, diabetes, autoimmune disease – since that time. Her story is not singular, but representative. Nothing has changed during that time, not for lack of solutions, but for lack of will, or perhaps because those few corporations who make money off externalizing the costs of these chemicals fiercely buttress business as usual and have perverted the political process and diverted the stream of scientific knowledge along the way.
Carson, R. (2002). Silent spring: Fortieth anniversary edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Emerenciano, M., Koifman, S., Pombo-de-Oliveira, M.S. (2007). Acute leukemia in early childhood. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research 40: 749-760.
Environmental Working Group (EWG). (2012). 10 Americans. http://www.ewg.org/news/videos/10-americans
Goldman, L.R., Kodurum S. (2000). Chemicals in the environment and developmental toxicity to children: A public health and policy perspective. Environ Health Perspect 108 (3): 443-448.
Goncalves, B.A.A., Vasconcelos, G.M., Emerenciano, M., Koifman, S., Pombo-de-Oliveira, M.S. (2010). NQ01 polymorphism, maternal exposure and the risk of infant leukemia. EJC Supplements 8 (5): 5-81.
Katic, J., Fucic, A., Gamulin, M. (2010). Prenatal, early life, and childhood exposure to genotoxicants in the living environment. Arh Hig Rada Toksikol 61: 455-464.
Kiely, T., Donaldson, D., Grube, A. (2004). Pesticides industry sales and usage: 2000 and 2001 market estimates. Washington DC: US EPA.
Landrigan, P. (2010). What causes autism? Exploring the environmental contribution. Current Opinion in Pediatrics 22: 219-225.ß
Roberts, E.M., English, P.B., Grether, J.K., Windham, G.C., Somberg, L., Wolff, C. (2007). Maternal residence near agricultural pesticide applications and autism spectrum disorders among children in the California Central Valley. Environ Health Perspect 115 (10): 1482-1489.
Schwartzer, J.J., Koenig, C.M., Berman, R.F. (2013). Using mouse models of autism spectrum disorders to study the neurotoxicology of gene-environment interactions. Neurotoxicology and Teratology 36: 17-35.
Stamou, M., Streifel, K., Goines, P., Lein, P. (2013). Neuronal connectivity as a convergent target of gene x environment interactions that confer risk for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Neurotoxicology and Teratology 36: 3-16.
Woodward, G. (2001). Autism and Parkinson’s disease. Medical Hypotheses 56 (2): 246-249.