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.
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 http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/compost-tea Happy Gardening!
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 http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/support-the-green-dozen.fb69?source=s.icn.fb&r_by=5675249
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 http://www.environmental-action.org/blog/obama-said-what 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 http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/support-the-green-dozen.fb69?source=s.icn.fb&r_by=5675249
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 http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf
Roberts, J.R., Karr, C.J. (2012). Pesticide exposure in children. American Academy of Pediatrics 130 (6): e1765-e1788.
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.
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. http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/pdf/FourthReport_ExecutiveSummary.pdf Accessed 18 July 2013.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2014). Learn about lead. EPA. Retrieved from http://www2.epa.gov/lead/learn-about-lead#lead
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 http://www.urbanmamas.com/urbanmamas/2009/04/backyard-chickens-eggs-and-lead.html
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.
- Do not eat
- King Mackerel
They contain high levels of mercury.
- 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.
- 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 http://www.medhelp.org/child-health/articles/Autism-and-the-MMR-Vaccine-Addressing-Parents-Concerns/328?page=5 .
Michelangelo. Pietà. Retrieved from http://www.fischerarthistory.com/uploads/1/2/0/7/12071711/1890613_orig.jpg
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 http://leadsafeamerica.org
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 http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm110591.htm.