Still Silent Spring: A Book Before Its Time

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

silent spring

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.

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.

Consider Compost Tea

One way to avoid using pesticides is to know how to prevent problems in the first place. 

You can find detailed instructions for making compost tea, the elixir of life for plants of all types, on the Organic Gardening website.

It’s not that complicated.


Compost tea is an effective, low-strength, natural fertilizer for seedlings and garden plants, and it can suppress fungal plant diseases. The tea-brewing process extracts, and in some cases grows and multiplies, nutrients and beneficial bacteria and fungi from compost and suspends them in water in a form that makes them quickly available to plants.

Making compost tea doesn’t require any special equipment. Here’s how to do it:

1. Place compost and water (10 pounds mature compost for each 10 gallons of water) in a 40-gallon barrel. Protect the barrel from cold and heat.

2. Stir with a stick daily for a minimum of 5 days.

3. Strain the liquid from the compost after 5 days, using cheesecloth or burlap. There should be no bubbling or off odors. Use the compost tea immediately, without further dilution.

When you brew compost tea, be sure to use mature, sweet, earthy-smelling compost. If your compost smells unpleasant, it could be anaerobic, and few beneficial microbes survive in this environment. One way to achieve tea-worthy compost is to sustain pile temperatures at 135° to 155°F for a week or more by turning the pile often. Or, a well-built pile that has composted for at least a year will produce tea-ready compost even if it did not heat up to the ideal temperature range.

Keep in mind that E. coli can be present in the raw ingredients of a compost pile. Minimize the risk by maintaining a hot compost pile or allowing the compost to mature fully. And don’t apply compost tea to any vegetable within 3 weeks of its planned harvest date.

For more information, visit Happy Gardening!

Gasland: Review


According to Josh Fox’s Gasland, there are more than 596 chemicals, including some known carcinogens and many unidentified or untested chemicals, used in fracking. One to seven million gallons of water are used each time a well is fracked. There are 450,000 wells, so this works out to be 40 trillion gallons of water (2010). I was shocked at how ruined the landscape looked where fracking wells had been drilled. And while I was aware how many chemicals were injected into the ground, and that they were dangerous and often kept secret, I was shocked at how many people were made very ill with brain tumors, asthma, migraines, peripheral neuropathy – outright holes in their brains – from the fumes from the wells, unregulated, unsupervised, beyond the law and even commonsense restrictions.  All this, while officials claimed there were no credible claims of contamination, much less health effects.  Notably, every official asked refused to drink samples of water from affected people’s wells.   If, after watching this film, available on Netflix, you are also appalled at the horrors of fracking, you can help online activists oppose the worst abuses in Illinois at

I was not surprised, however that there was a disconnect between what science is telling us and what corporations and politicians are doing. In fact, that now seems the norm, which is so discouraging to scientists who have dedicated their lives to pursuing important and useful truths. Consider climate change: the science is absolutely conclusive, yet few politicians are willing even to admit this inconvenient truth because they are afraid of offending corporations financing their campaigns and because the people who elected them are not yet willing to hear it. President Obama’s recent move to regulate carbon emissions are the exception, and though it may be too little, too late, it took considerable political courage to take even this minimum, obvious step. If you’re curious about his stance on climate change, you can find a quite reasoned, frank expression of it at   On the issue of environmental chemicals, too, there is a huge disconnect between the conclusions drawn by scientists and the actions of regulators and politicians. I’ve described this thoroughly elsewhere on this blog. At the same time the President’s Cancer Panel is assigning huge excesses of cancer to environmental causes and the highly credible American Academy of Pediatrics is stating in no uncertain terms that environmental chemicals like pesticides are causing higher rates of cancer, autism, and asthma in children, some politicians are working to weaken even the incredibly toothless regulations we have now rather than reforming them to better protect children – and the rest of Americans. If you look at almost any environmental issue, not only are we far behind the rest of the developed world; our anti-intellectual politicians are systematically ignoring scientists, kowtowing to corporations, and poisoning the constituents who elected them. The entire system is broken, and most politicians are operating in bad faith.

Likewise, I was not surprised to see how the EPA was exposed in this movie: disappointed, but not surprised. The EPA is not protecting us on a number of issues. The agency was terribly dismissed, contradicted, and gutted during the Bush administration, and has not really made significant progress protecting Americans since the 1970s. I think it must be very unpleasant to be an EPA scientist – I have communicated with some of them for my book and blog, and I don’t think they are bad people so much as bogged down in Catch-22s. They are legally bound, for instance, to only look at animal studies, not the much more compelling and accurate epidemiological studies, in reviewing pesticide registration.  EPA determinations about climate change were unethically edited by politicians under George Bush. Elizabeth Kolbert is excellent on this subject (2006).  EPA scientists are understaffed, immersed in a cumbersome bureaucracy, and mostly out of touch. It’s a hazard of such bureaucracy that one works very hard doing a good job at something that is not worth doing. That’s the converse of the saying that anything worth doing is worth doing well; anything not worth doing shouldn’t be done at all.  I have dealt with cumbersome bureaucracies myself, but take my word for it: there is something about losing a child to a horrible injustice that sharpens your perceptive abilities quite quickly.  It shouldn’t take so much, however.  Everyone should admire the whistleblower featured in the film, Weston Wilson, not only for his courage, but for his incisive intellectual ability, the ability to discern what is really occurring and what really needs to happen. So few people question the why and wherefore. He says the following of the special exemption to the clean air and water act in 2005: “Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton. He formed the industry task force – they only met once and formed the Energy Policy of 2005 – it allows injection of known hazardous chemicals right adjacent to drinking water.  All science stopped. We were appalled at burying this secret, one that was known to us. When the President says to the bureaucracy ‘do not investigate, expedite it for the industry,’ we can do that well too. This entire industry purchases those they contaminate with an agreement of secrecy. This is America. We should assume that industries will keep secrets. Don’t assume that since Obama got elected, something has changed at the EPA so far. Even if the allegations were not true, they [those affected] are citizens of the U.S., and they certainly should not be exposed to secret chemicals. I understand your frustration, and maybe it’s a pattern repeating itself. But so far, we’re not on duty. We’re not present as a government agency to answer your legitimate questions” (2010, emphasis added). This is harsh criticism indeed, but it’s consistent with everything I know to date about the EPA. They are deluded about how well they are doing. The EPA needs to stop and sharpen the saw: assess the abysmal state of our nation’s health and environment and launch new and effective protection programs. Perhaps that is what will now occur with climate change. I hope so. I should express a caveat, too, that non-profit environmental organizations like Green Peace, NRDC, EWG, EDF, Beyond Pesticides, and Midwest Pesticide Action Network are acting, for the most part, completely differently, but only because they are not under the thumbs of corrupt politicians. Those organizations are funded by the people, and they  tend to act in the interest of the people. It’s atrocious that the same cannot be said for our own government, which we also fund.

Much of the drilling in the movie occurs on public land.  It is a national shame that The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) now works so much in contrariety to its stated goal “to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Of course gas drilling does not cooperate with its mandate or practice sustainability. But I must say, knowing for a long time that our national lands were being exploited for fossil fuels, I still did not feel it so strongly as now, having seen it. Why do these individuals get to rape our national lands for profit? Because we let them. We do not boot out the politicians who change laws in favor of corporate interests because those corporations donate unbelievable amounts of money to them.  Human health is integrally tied to the health of our political system, which is in absolute tatters, particularly since the recent Supreme Court Decision on Citizens United and McCutcheon, which have allowed unfettered purchase of our political process by corporations, who are now classified as individuals exercising free speech. As many others before me have said, I will believe these corporations are persons when some of them (perhaps all the people involved in decision-making) go to jail for manslaughter for the deaths they have caused by polluting. As one man said in the movie, a man whose well blew up, natural gas exploding out for three days, right into the atmosphere, and who had to get a judge’s injunction to get the well capped with cement, and for whom the County now fills up two cisterns, “If nothing is wrong, why are they bringing it [the water]?” He hired a hydrogeologist who said that with the fracking, they intermingle everything under the earth, including oil deposits. “The water that comes out is only good for brain altering activities – like turpentine. It’s criminal. What if I took it to the big boss and dumped it in his well? But they can do what they want to. There’s no democracy. I have never seen such lying. Around here, if your word is no good, then you are no good, and for what? For money.” This crusty, perspicacious old rancher speaks words of wisdom, and Josh Fox’s documentary is golden if only because it gives voice to individual Americans whose lives and health have been ruined in the name of cheaper gas for us all. The man takes a blowtorch to his water and creates plastic right on film, a better way to test, perhaps, for the glycol ethers that contaminate it.

We are absolutely not safe from fracking in Illinois, which only recently arrived in the state. Just last year, the State passed regulations that are supposed to limit damage, but it is very unlikely they will significantly help. I am from downstate, Fulton County, which still lies ravaged from the previous run on fossil fuels – strip mining. The damage done to the land is permanent.  Though I grew up only marginally aware of the fact that those long thin lakes were not natural to the prairie, I clearly remember the smokestacks, the open, ruined land, and the high rates of cancer in my town.

I beg everyone who reads this to join in with the unfunded, overworked Quixotic activists who are trying their best, against the richest corporations and most corrupt politicians in the U.S., to lessen the damage done now to our health and the health of all future generations. They do it for the same reasons you should – because no one else is working to protect you or your children. It just takes a minute at

At one point in the movie, Fox says, “I had tried to keep anger and sorrow at bay….” He accomplishes this by doing something – a significant something, if you ask me, to make things better. Even so, the harsh realities he experiences were sometimes overwhelming. This is a movie that should shock, that should make us angry and sorrowful. But it’s essential not to stay there, but to pick ourselves up, and set out to change things. If we do not, I can assure you, no one else will.



Fox, J. (Producer), Winger, D. (Producer), Gray, H. (Producer).  (2010). Gasland. [Motion picture]. U.S.: Independent. (Available from Netflix).

Kolbert, E. (2006). Field notes from a catastrophe: Man, nature, and climate change. New York: Bloomsbury.

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

Roberts, J.R., Karr, C.J. (2012). Pesticide exposure in children. American Academy of Pediatrics 130 (6): e1765-e1788.

Lead Poisoning: Still a Problem?

The systematic lead poisoning of American citizens, and particularly of children, is a national shame and tragedy. Lead is a naturally occurring element, a heavy, soft metal with the atomic number 82, that has been used for millennia for such purposes as bullets, cosmetics, and plumbing, the Latin etymology of which provides the elemental symbol Pb. Lead is inherently toxic to humans, legendarily so. It has been blamed for the fall of the Roman Empire. This seems a dreadful irony, considering how it has undermined the intelligence of the population of the United States, which many people consider an inheritor of the Roman empiric legacy.

Lead poisoning causes a multitude of symptoms, not all of which are immediately apparent. Lead primarily causes neurological problems like learning disabilities, IQ deficits, and hyperactivity. But it can also cause anemia, hearing problems, and slowed growth. In extreme cases, lead poisoning can cause seizures, coma, and death (EPA, 2014). My dog from childhood died this way – horribly – after ingesting paint chips when we repainted the porch on our 1914 house in 1982. Apparently, lead paint has a sweet taste that made this appetizing to our dog – Razzmatazz. I will never forget going off to school on a beautiful day during my Freshman year in High School in Canton, Illinois as my dog lay dying, in convulsions from the lead. She was dead by the time I arrived home.

But lead exposure in the United States is also a success story, a story told by the CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta – that offers the most important and most encouraging counterpoint to the issue of toxic contamination. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words in this case, as seen below. From 1976 to 1980, during our own childhoods, 88.2% of children 1-5 years old had above the level of lead in the blood then thought to cause harm to the brain (≥10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood). When lead was banned from gasoline and paint, blood lead levels dropped precipitously. The most recent data show only 1.4% of children at that level. Think about that! Even in Roman times, there were anecdotes about the dangers of lead; safety concerns were raised about lead almost as soon as it was put in gasoline and paint. Though the League of Nations took lead out of paint in 1922, it was not until 1976 that lead was banned in U.S. paint; phase-out of lead in gasoline began in 1972, though it was not completed until 1991. Immediately as these changes were made, blood lead levels changed as well. The moral of this story is that we can make different policies and save children’s lives. Better decisions do indeed lead to dramatically better outcomes. The economic benefits of decreased lead levels have been estimated at $110-319 billion per birth cohort in the 2000s, compared to the 1970s (Grosse et al. 2002). There were huge gains in IQ as well. The graph does not show the personal impact of this decision, however, and it would be impossible for it to do so in a positive way: there is no way to tell the story of children not disabled for life by lead poisoning now. Aside from the occasional poisoning via lead jewelry, like the child who died recently in Minnesota from swallowing a small metal charm, the accounts of the children who were killed or disabled by lead in the past are mostly relegated to the dust of historical obscurity. Of course, children in Nigeria still die from lead poisoning by the hundreds, a result of gold mining in the area (Plumlee 2013). But the important point is that public policy and the actions of corporations and individuals have real effects on others, particularly on vulnerable children. In ten years, I hope to see a similar graph for pesticides and other environmental chemicals, with the concomitant decline in childhood leukemia and other maladies. At the moment, while the harms of lead are widely recognized, people systematically poison their children by treating their lawns and homes with a multitude of toxic chemicals.

Lead Levels

Figure 1. Percentage of children 1-5 years old in the U.S. population

with elevated blood lead levels (≥ 10 μg/dL) (Jones et al. 2009).

The same lesson is repeated with nicotine. Blood levels of cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine, have been reduced 70% in non-smokers over the last 15 years, a result, no doubt, of the public health campaign against smoking and laws that restrict smoking in public places (CDC 2009). Again, public policy and individual action do make a difference. Non-smokers decided that they had a right to breathe clean air, and though we will never be able to put names to those who evaded death by lung cancer or emphysema or low birth weight, we know, statistically, that many lives were indeed saved. At one time, those who asked not to be contaminated by second-hand smoke were seen as presumptuous and rude; now, such expectations are usual and accepted. Now it is the smokers who are seen as rude if they blow their carcinogens in others’ direction. People are felt to have a right to clean air, at least when it comes to smoking; it is hard to overstate the importance of this cultural change, which went hand-in-hand with increased regulation. Restaurants and bars no longer allow smoking inside. People who use pesticides outside that leave their private yards and go into other people’s yards and affect other people’s health – or workplaces or schools or cities that impose this burden without permission or notification – are exactly analogous.

Another important plot point in this story is that the harms caused by lead and tobacco were known long, long before companies putting lead in children’s toys or manipulating nicotine levels would admit to what they were doing. Tobacco and paint companies complained about regulations, obfuscated the truth, pressured regulators, and even paid researchers to construct misleading or false science. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, in Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, show how intentionally this was done, in some cases by the same individuals over a period of years, on issues ranging from acid rain to pesticides to climate change (2011). In an effort to absolve themselves from blame, manufacturers argued that it was the choice of the consumer whether to use the paint or to smoke cigarettes. For some people, there was a free choice to smoke, or to be exposed to lead paint, but that was not true for everyone; it was not true for the children. And look at the consequences.

While the graph above does seem to show a success, there has been another plot twist. Lead is xenobiotic – foreign to and hostile to life – and ideally, no person should have any lead in their bodies. Whereas damage was once thought to occur above 10µg Pb/dL blood, recent studies show that harm occurs at only 5µg Pb/dL blood, or even less (EPA, 2014; Schnur, 2014). The legacy of lead continues to haunt us. Research shows that chronic but low (1.02-5.00 µg Pb/dL blood) levels of lead are associated with obesity (Kim et al. 1995) and neural deficits. By contrast to the 10µg Pb/dL blood level, 2.6% of children were measured at 5µg Pb/dL blood in the 2007-2010 NHANES (CDC, 2013).

Everyone should take these stories to heart.   Recently, I began to think about our family’s lead exposure. We have always carefully considered routes of exposure. We live in a much older home – 1843 – and so we knew it could be a problem, but we never have painted the house while we were in it and thought we had everything under control. We had our children tested several times while they were young, and everything seemed fine, though we were not told their exact levels. One thing I did not think about was our chickens.


We raise our own chickens – for the fun of it and to have healthier, more delicious eggs. I built our own coop, and it’s been a marvelous adventure. I recycled old doors from our garage, carefully scraping them on tarps in case there was any lead, and I thought that was enough. It turns out that they were still chipping, and when I looked it up online, there were accounts of other families who got lead exposure because their chickens pecked up lead specks from soil (UrbanMommas, 2009). I took my children for testing right away, and in the meantime, I scraped the doors again – repeatedly – and repainted them.  Particularly during the difficult three weeks waiting for results, I found myself with a terrible mix of guilt for not thinking about this – when I try so hard to consider all health risks to my children – and anger that the industry was allowed to carry on poisoning not only most children before 1978, but so many children still, and on into the future.  It turns out that my children were below 5 µg/dL, but they weren’t zero.  And some children are not so lucky.  When the planet is poisoned, children are also poisoned as a necessary consequence. We are still haunted by a burden imposed on us by generations in the recent past – our parents and grandparents. Let us be sure not to impose such burdens or worse ones onto the future – our own children and grandchildren.



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2009). Fourth national report on human exposure to environmental chemicals: Executive summary. CDC. Accessed 18 July 2013.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2014). Learn about lead. EPA. Retrieved from

Grosse, S.D., Matte, T.D., Schwartz, J., Jackson, R.J. (2002). Economic gains resulting from the reduction in children’s exposure to lead in the United States. Environ Health Perspect 110 (6): 563-9.

Jones, R.L., Homa, D.M., Meyer, P.A., Brody, J.F., Caldwell, K.L., Pirkle, J.L., Brown, M.J. (2009). Trends in blood lead levels and blood lead testing among U.S. children aged 1 to 5 years, 1988-2004. Pediatrics 123 (3): e376-e385.

Kim, R., Hu, H., Rotnitzky, A., Bellinger, D., Needleman, H. (1995). A longitudinal study of chronic lead exposure and physical growth in Boston children. Environmental Health Perspectives 103 (10): 952-7.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2013). Blood lead levels in children aged 1-5 years – United State, 1999-2010. Morbidity and mortality weekly report (MMWR) 62 (13): 245-248.

Oreskes, N., Conway, E. (2011). Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. New York: Bloomsbury.

Plumlee, G.S., Durant, J.T., Morman, S.A., Neri, A., Wolf, R.E., Dooyema, C.A., Hageman, P.L. et al. (2013). Linking geological and health sciences to assess childhood lead poisoning from artisanal gold mining in Nigeria. Environmental Health Perspectives 121 (3): 744-750.

Schnur, J., John, R. M. (2014). Childhood lead poisoning and the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for lead exposure. J American Association Nurse Pract 25 (5): 238-247.

UrbanMommas. (2009). Backyard chickens, eggs, and lead. Urban Mommas: Word on the Street. Retrieved from


Mercury in Seafood, Disease in Children

Cheery FDA warnings about mercury in fish:

By following these 3 recommendations for selecting and eating fish or shellfish, women and young children will receive the benefits of eating fish and shellfish and be confident that they have reduced their exposure to the harmful effects of mercury.

  1. Do not eat
    •                         Shark
    •                         Swordfish
    •                         King Mackerel
    •                         Tilefish

They contain high levels of mercury.

  1. Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
    • Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.
    • Another commonly eaten fish, albacore (“white”) tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
  1. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas.
  If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don’t consume any other fish during that week.

Follow these same recommendations when feeding fish and shellfish to your young child, but serve smaller portions. (USFDA, 2004)

It is no secret that most of this mercury comes from coal-burning coal plants.  As is the case with cancer prevention, the responsibility for avoiding mercury is all placed upon the consumer.  Not only must consumers know how much and what kind of fish to eat, women must predict with absolute accuracy when they might become pregnant. It is indeed important for consumers to be educated so that they can do the best they can to protect themselves, but protection should not ultimately be the responsibility of individuals: it should be placed on industry, government, and society as a whole. We are making a decision to poison our children by burning mercury-containing coal, and it is reprehensible that we place the onus on our most vulnerable citizens to avoid a risk that is, really, as things now stand, unavoidable. It would be completely avoidable if we put coal-burning power plants out of business and changed a few other manufacturing processes.

Mercury has for a very long time been known to be harmful to the brain – recall Alice’s mad hatter. Hat makers in the nineteenth century often went insane after exposure to high levels of mercury in their profession. Heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and mercury, along with other toxic chemicals, are classified as xenobiotic, or alien to all life. They are terrible poisons indeed. Children exposed to mercury in the womb have higher rates of autism, and children exposed during babyhood have been reported to show regression into autism at a later age (Geier 2010). Mercury has been known since ancient times and in common use since the time of the alchemists, though never so pervasively as now. While in the past, people might occasionally encounter high levels of the metal, even applying it to their bodies as medicine or cosmetic, now every person on Earth is exposed to some level of mercury through exposure in the air and food sources. Because of coal-burning power plants that release mercury from trace amounts in coal over a very broad area, we breathe it in the air, we drink it in the water, and we consume it in our food. Children and women of childbearing age are warned not consume more than one wild-caught fresh-water fish per month, even from the unspoiled boundary waters of Wisconsin.  And they are wise to heed these warnings.  Because of the biological principle of bioaccumulation, mercury levels that are low in water are magnified through the food chain. Fish are at the top of the food chain in lakes, but we are higher on the food chain than fish. Babies in utero or drinking breast milk are highest of all, and most susceptible to damage. And unfortunately, mercury is cleared from the body only very slowly, over a period of years. Throughout the world, fish, though a perfect food containing proteins and Omega-3 fatty acids good for brain development, also contains high levels of mercury. Not surprisingly, autism rates are higher in close proximity to coal-burning power plants since those children have higher levels of exposure through the air (Palmer et al. 2008). Drugs, vaccines, high fructose corn syrup, and food colorings are additional sources of mercury (Dufault 2012). Mercury levels do not have to be as high as they were during the infamous Minamata mercury poisoning, when many died or were permanently crippled as a result of industrial dumping of mercury into a Japanese bay; mercury at any level is harmful to brain development. The Chisso company persisted in their poisoning of Minamata’s waters for 36 years, as thousands of people, dogs, cats, and other animals were afflicted and died, as the affected families were blamed and ostracized, all the while denying there was a problem. In the same way, our society persists in contaminating water and land on a massive scale, all the while ignoring climbing levels of brain damage in our children or placing the responsibility on the families.

The picture below from the Minamata tragedy is a modern pietà, an expression of maternal sorrow that continues today, every day, because of the children we are sacrificing to convenience, and to industrial profits. You can see that this mother loves her daughter – so much. A slight smile shades her grieving face, a smile for her beautiful, lost child’s sake, while her own heart is breaking. Most such tragedies go undocumented, unremembered. The losses are private, though the causes are public. But perhaps there is something to be gained in sharing those moments, particularly when something can be done to prevent future deaths.  I remember holding my own daughter in just this way, as she died from a preventable, environmentally-inflicted disease, the causes of which were imposed by others and beyond my most desperate and well-educated efforts at protection. The meaning behind the pietà is that Jesus suffered and died to save all sinners. No one was saved and no one was benefitted by this child’s suffering and death – or by my Katherine’s.  The benefits of contamination can never be worth the tragedy of poisoning children.  And it should not be left to sorrowing mothers to fix an entire corrupt system — if they can.  Unfortunately, that has often been the case.


Minamata Poisoning Victim.  Retrieved from .


Michelangelo. Pietà. Retrieved from

Because FDA warnings are necessary but certainly not sufficient, that is not where we should concentrate our energies in combatting this problem. Instead, we should focus our efforts on the political system that permits this systematic poisoning – as well as on the companies actually responsible. The FDA should listen to outside groups, but they should take careful precautions against listening to the advice of those who have an economic stake in the game. Industry advocates should not have more influence than they already do through lobbyists, money, and political capital. Not-for-profit environmental groups and consumer advocates are the real heroes, and they, along with ordinary citizens, should have a greater voice in the process. In a video about another national shame and sorrow, a mother of four lead-contaminated children is a clarion of truth in saying that “we are a nation of fools to allow this to happen to our children” (Lead Safe America, 2014). Ultimately, we all pay a huge price for this, and only those who are motivated by selfish profit would advocate against tighter restrictions. That said, there should be prominent signs posted where seafood is sold, much as with cigarettes, warning consumers about the hazards of this delicious food. It is a crying shame, however, that something as healthy as seafood has been poisoned to the extent that it has. We have lost the health benefits of the seafood, as well as gaining the hazard of the mercury exposure. The benefits of the few polluters are being systematically placed ahead the needs of the many who consume seafood.



Dufault, R., Lukiw, W.J., Crider, R., Schnoll, R., Wallinga, D., Deth, D. (2012). A macroepigenetic approach to identify factors responsible for the autism epidemic in the United States. Clinical Epigenetics 4:6-18.

Geier, D.A., Kern, J.K., Geier, M.R. (2010). The biological basis of autism spectrum disorders: Understanding causation and treatment by clinical geneticists. Acta Neurobiol Exp 70:209-226.

Lead Safe America. (2014). MisLEAD Trailer. Retrieved from

Palmer, R.F., Blanchard, S., Wood, R. (2008). Proximity to point sources of environmental mercury release as a predictor of autism prevalence. Health Place 15:18-24.

U.S. Food and Drug Association (USFDA). (2004). What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish. Retrieved from

Notes on Pollution, Population, Poverty

In my Environmental Public Health class, we’ve been talking about pollution, population, and poverty and how these problems intertwine. It made me think about two distinct interrelations between the three P’s, as they are called: Barry Commoner’s argument about the relationship between population and pollution and the ties between poverty and pollution in the field of Environmental Justice.

Although it is true that humans have impacted their environments for millennia, Barry Commoner was among the first to articulate the sense environmentalists gained in the 1960s and 1970s that the circle of life was broken in a fundamentally new way.  In his book The Closing Circle, after a long list of the many possible explanations for our out-of-control pollution, ranging from population and affluence to religion and technology, Commoner finally describes the problem of the broken circle at length:

Why, after millions of years of harmonious coexistence, have the relationships between living things and their earthly surroundings begun to collapse? Where did the fabric of the ecosphere begin to unravel? How far will the process go? How can we stop it and restore the broken links? Understanding the ecosphere comes hard because, to the modern mind, it is a curiously foreign place. We have become accustomed to think of separate, singular events, each dependent upon a unique, singular cause. But in the ecosphere every effect is also a cause: an animal’s waste becomes food for soil bacteria; what bacteria excrete nourishes plants; animals eat the plants. Such ecological cycles are hard to fit into human experience in the age of technology, where machine A always yields product B, and product B, once used, is cast away, having no further meaning for the machine, the product, or the user. Here is the first great fault in the life of man in the ecosphere. We have broken out of the circle of life, converting its endless cycles into man-made, linear events: oil is taken from the ground, distilled into fuel, burned in an engine, converted thereby into noxious fumes, which are emitted into the air. At the end of the line is smog. Other man-made breaks in the ecosphere’s cycles spew out toxic chemicals, sewage, heaps of rubbish – testimony to our power to tear the ecological fabric that has, for millions of years, sustained the planet’s life. (Commoner, 1980, p. 4)

Commoner goes on to assign our broken circle – and planet – not so much to increased population and affluence, as to the way in which we meet our increased needs, to our modes of production: “What happens to the environment depends on how the growth is achieved” (1980, p. 139). He faults the manufacture of products like non-recyclable soda bottles, synthetic fibers, pesticides, and mercury used for chlorine production; and he argues that people had equally good lives before the recyclable, compostable equivalents lost out: returnable beer bottles, wool, natural soap, and animal labor. In other words, it was not so much the amount of products used as the kind of products; synthetic organic chemicals are much at fault for the pollution we endure.   The amount part of this formula has changed significantly in the decades since Commoner wrote, as has the population, but the kind argument still holds: “the tendency of the productive technology to pollute” (1980, p. 166). So while population is clearly tied to pollution, it is a complex relationship, not a simple linear one. Even with our enormous world population of 7 billion, we could be polluting a lot less if we were smarter about what and how we consumed. Of course, that is not to say that Americans in particular should not cut down on our flagrant wastefulness as well. But we could at least choose less toxic consumption, consumption that does not kill our children and others’.  If you haven’t already seen it, Annie Leonard’s short video Story of Stuff is an excellent synopsis of this premise.

Environmental justice is a hot topic in Environmental Health, and certainly it deserves to be (Friis, 2012). Sylvia Hood Washington, author of the Newberry Award –winning Packing Them In: An Archeology of Environmental Racism in Chicago, 1865-1954, has sometimes taught as an adjunct at Benedictine. She works full-time with the UIC School of Public Health and is a dynamic, engaging person; I wholeheartedly recommend her book. One thing she and many others argue about environmental justice: chemical plants and coal-burning power plants and the like are not located in poor and predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods just because property values are lower.   That does not capture the full exploitiveness of these decisions. They are also disproportionately located there because the industries know that the residents have neither the money for lawyers, nor the social capital to make a fuss, nor, perhaps, the expectation that they should not be so oppressed. Industries opportunistically piggyback on the already oppressive power structures of the majority and of the wealthy in order to get away with more than they otherwise could. They utilize and propagate the historical legacy of racism. So this is another way in which pollution relates to poverty – it’s not just that poor people cannot afford healthy conditions, though this may be true. Economically or socially disadvantaged people are actively chosen as the victims onto which industries offload their externalized costs – death, disease, disability – so that we can have cheap electricity and inexpensive pesticides, plastic bottles, flame retardants, you name it. Sky-high asthma rates, particularly among Black children in Chicago, are just one example of this (Paul, 2008; Africk, 2011). Tapped: The Environmental Impact of Bottled Water alsohas a very good section on precisely this kind of environmental injustice (Soechtig, 2009). Of course, I would argue that no one should pay with their lives for our choice of toxic products. But it is doubly unjust that we unduly burden the poor, and not just those in this country but in other countries as well, where we are increasingly offloading our toxic processes, both production and waste. The primary literature showing the health consequences of burning our e-waste is absolutely appalling, for instance.

            The connections among pollution, population, and poverty are manifold, the source for multiple book-length projects, and I look forward to exploring them in the future at greater length.


Africk, J., et al. (2011). Asthma in Chicago: Disparities, Perspectives and Interventions. 2011 Report. Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. Retrieved from

Commoner, Barry. (1980). The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology. New York: Bantam Books.

Friis, R.H. (2012). Essentials of Environmental Health. 2nd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning.

Leonard, A.  (2007).  Story of Stuff.  Retrieved from 

Paul, M. (2008). Childhood asthma varies by neighborhood: New study finds that asthma prevalence in Chicago varied widely based on the child’s neighborhood. Northwestern University. Retrieved from

Soechtig, S. (Director) & Lindsey, J. (Director). (2009). Tapped: The Environmental Impact of Bottled Water. United States: Atlas Films.

Washington, Sylvia Hood. (2004). Packing Them In: An Archeology of Environmental Racism in Chicago, 1865-1954. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Protecting Our Pollinators


Many of us grew up loving certain insects: brilliant monarch butterflies hovering over the milkweed, bees whose lazy buzzing around the flower bed heralded the coming of Summer. But these gorgeous insects are not just for decoration: bees and butterflies perform an essential ecological function. They pollinate our food crops. Without them, the total world agricultural output would be reduced 3-8%, and it is doubtful that humans could compensate for that loss, particularly in the developing world (Aizen 2009). The economic value of their ecological services is estimated at $57 billion in the U.S. alone (Losey 2006).

Because of our actions, however, their numbers are dropping precipitously. The population of monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico has declined to record lows, to less than 35 million from the usual number of about a billion only 20 years ago (Robbins 2013).   U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics on bees are equally grim: every year for the past five years, approximately 30% of all bee colonies have been lost (Newitz 2013). At Benedictine University in Lisle, faculty and students are traveling to China to study this phenomenon; in China, many crops are already hand pollinated by human beings because of pollinator loss. A very recent review describes the unprecedented effect on pollinators, lays out the case against pesticides as a key factor in bee colony collapse, and calls for efforts to protect pollinators given the huge effect they could have on agriculture. “Of all flowering plants on earth, 87.5% benefit from animal pollination. Globally, 87 of the leading food crops (accounting for 35% of the world food production volume) depend on animal pollination” (van der Sluijs et al. 2013).  As close as we currently are to food production maximums, decreasing agricultural productivity by systematically killing bees and butterflies is a terrible idea. 

The loss of pollinators is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to species loss. Many scientists believe we are at the beginning of the sixth major extinction event. But this time, the comet is us. A recent article in Scientific American affirms this: “This [finding that diversity increases abundance of life] suggests ‘no level of diversity loss can occur without adverse effects on ecosystem functioning. That is the reverse of what numerous studies had previously found, largely because those studies only looked at short-term outcomes…. The planet as a whole is on the cusp of what some researchers have termed the sixth mass extinction event in the planet’s history: the wiping out of plants, animals and all other forms of life due to human activity….” (Biello 2012).

What can the ordinary person do to help pollinators? Lots, it turns out. Anyone with a backyard is contributing to or helping to destroy the habitat of Northern Illinois. Here are some ideas for being a good neighbor to bees and butterflies:

1) Grow native plants. Native plants are beautiful as well as environmentally sound choices. According to entomologist Doug Tallamy, non-native plants are like a food desert for native insects and birds ( ). This Chicago Wilderness Habitat Project document lists “Host Plants and Habitat for Butterfly Species of Concern”: The Wild Ones have a local chapter and provide wonderful information on their website about using native plants in the typical yard (

2) Don’t use pesticides. Pesticides cause broad and massive diversity loss, even at levels thought to be safe (Oosthoek 2013). Round-up and other herbicides have been chiefly responsible for destroying the milkweed on which monarchs depend across the entire United States. Imidacloprid and pesticides like it, in the class called neonicotinoids, are highly toxic to bees and other valuable pollinators.  In just the past 20 years, neonicotinoids have appropriated 25% of the global market for insecticides.  Neonicotinoids work by mimicking acetylcholine, an essential neurotransmitter, resulting in both immediate death and sub-lethal effects in bees, and leading to bee colony collapse, where whole hives of bees simply disappear without explanation, dead hives without dead bodies (Cox 2001; Koshlukova et al. 2006).  Neonicotinoids are routinely found in the hives of honeybees and persist in soil and water.  Unlike the United States, Europe has temporarily banned neonicotinoids while research continues. 

3) Put up bee nests, or create areas for nests. You can find information about how to do this at

4) Join BeeSpotter to help researchers learn about bees at

Bees and butterflies face diminishing habitat, pesticide attack, and the completely novel environmental conditions caused by climate change. Any help we can give them will be richly repaid in fruit, flowers, and food, as well as the fleeting grace of their presence.



Aizen MA, Garibaldi LA, Cunningham SA, Klein AM. 2009. How much does agriculture depend on pollinators? Lessons from long-term trends in crop production. Ann Bot 103(9):1579-1588. Available at

Biello D. 2012. How biodiversity keeps Earth alive. Scientific American. Available at

Cox C.  2001.  Insecticide factsheet: Imidacloprid.  J Pesticide Reform 21.1: 15-21.

Koshlukova SE et al.  2006 February 9.  Imidacloprid: Risk characterization document: dietary and drinking water exposure.   California EPA.  Accessed 21 January 2008.

Losey JE, Vaughan M. 2006. The economic value of ecological services provided by insects. BioScience 56(4):311-323. Available at 

Newitz A.  2013.  Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.  New York: Doubleday.

Oosthoek S. 2013. Pesticides spark broad biodiversity loss. Scientific American. Available at

Robbins J. 2013. The year the Monarch didn’t appear. New York Times. Available at

 Van der Sluijs JP, Simon-Delso N, Goulson D, Maxim L, Bonmatin J-M, Belzunces LP.  2013.  Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 5:1-13.




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