Years ago, when I was putting together a symposium on climate change at Benedictine, a top climate change scientist, when asked if he would debate climate change for a live audience, said no quite definitely, and referred me to Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway to explain why. Representing as a debate the basic science on climate change — it is occurring; we are primary causes — misrepresents the truth because the consensus of science shows that the debate is over. Now, scientists are investigating changing mating seasons of squirrels in the Canadian arctic; improved models for predicting rainfall in the Midwest; number of people killed by excess heat waves in Europe; and a million other subsidiary problems premised on established science on climate. Merchants of Doubt shows how a handful of scientists, many well funded by industry, have employed debate and doubt in the popular media to stall policy changes on issues ranging from tobacco to pesticides to ozone-layer thinning to climate change. Devra Davis makes a similar case for cancer-causing pollution like tobacco smoke and pesticides. Both these works recognize the similarities amongst different kinds of science denial — all motivated by greed. Although the New York Times just gave the movie version mixed reviews, chiefly because of its unrealistic optimism, I highly recommend the book on which it is based.
If you have wondered why, if environmental health impacts are so dire and children are dying, we are not doing more, this is one highly credible explanation.
There is a limited window of opportunity to comment directly with the EPA about the re-registration of chlorpyrifos, one of the deadliest of the organophosphates, the pesticide that we have every reason to believe killed Katherine, our beloved and brilliant eight-year-old. You can comment on the EPA notification website directly at http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0850-0200 This is the preferable option, and it is possible to upload documents; I attached my book proposal on environmental chemicals and childhood health.
You may also go through an advocacy group like EarthJustice, but the EPA does not count duplicate or near-duplicate emails, so online activism may otherwise come to nothing. When I posted, the EPA website said it had received only twelve comments on this re-registration; the EPA appears to be doing its best to stay in bed with the chemical industry and to close its ears to regular citizens. Whichever way you go, it’s important to customize your message so they know you mean it. Why do you wish to protect your children or your pets or yourself or future generations from deadly toxins? Here is what I said:
It’s not just farmers who are harmed by pesticides. Children are routinely and catastrophically exposed to these chemicals. Our daughter Katherine died of leukemia we have every reason to believe was caused by mosquito spraying with chlorpyrifos without our knowledge or permission. This exposure to deadly substances…deadly *particularly* to preschoolers…is tantamount to legal murder. Our beloved Katherine was killed just as certainly and predictably as if someone had sprayed our house with bullets. And indeed that might have been preferable, given her terrible suffering. Nearly all the scientific literature of the last 50 years supports this connection between childhood cancer and organophosphates. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared pesticides a clear and present danger for childhood health: “Children encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity…. Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems” (AAP 2012). How many such letters must the mothers of dead children write, when the substance of our knowledge about the dangers of pesticides was in place when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring more that 50 years ago?
Please take a moment to make a difference. The next life affected could be your own.
How well I remember Katherine’s last birthday, her eighth. Dressed in gauzy pink as the Queen of Hearts, she presided over a fairy-tale party with blackbird pie, a fairy scavenger hunt, and all her guests dressed in red, pink, and white. We had delayed chemo a few days to make sure she felt well; we knew it was unlikely to matter: they had only encouraged us to hope for a year after her second bone marrow transplant.
I don’t know what my beloved daughter wished for that day, blowing out the candles on her heart-shaped cake; we were a little superstitious about asking. What I do know is that because of reckless pesticide use in our city mosquito spraying program, as well as countless other chemical exposures, none of her dreams came true; none of her wishes were fulfilled. She wanted to finish learning cursive; she wanted to adopt a baby so she could watch it grow; she wanted to live to be an old lady. Every night I prayed she would have a long and happy life; not long before she died, she plaintively pleaded with me that she not have a short and sad one. But at that point, there was nothing I — or any of us — could do.
There is something you can do. Now. I appeal to you all in the name of my dead first-born child — unique, brilliant, and beautiful — to do these five things in her memory.
1) First, rid your home, lawn, and garden of pesticides and other toxic chemicals. For ideas about alternatives, please consult The Midwest Pesticide Action Center at http://midwestpesticideaction.org/
2) Call your City and find out what they do for mosquito and dandelion control. If they spray, attend a City meeting and make your case. All the evidence that these chemicals cause cancer and other dire health defects is contained in The President’s Cancer Panel and the American Academy of Pediatrics Statement on Pesticides. But if you need help, I will personally consult and supply you with all the materials needed to convince a skeptical audience.
3) Contact your legislators and ask for protections against chemicals that contribute to cancer, birth defects, autism, ADHD, and lower IQs.
4) Call schools, universities, and hotels and ask what their policies are for pesticide use. Demand pesticide-free environments for your children and yourself.
5) Eat organic. A 2006 article in Environmental Health Perspectives showed that when kids go on an organic diet, metabolite levels of pesticides in their urine fall to non-detectable levels within weeks.
I just participated in an excellent webinar on pesticides and cognitive deficits in children run by the Pesticide Action Network of North America. If you are not familiar with this organization, they provide an abundance of high-quality, well documented information on the subject. One of the best reports for a general audience out there is A Generation in Jeopardy: How Pesticides are Undermining our Children’s Health and Intelligence, available for free at http://www.panna.org/publication/generation-in-jeopardy.
Much of the webinar, which featured Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH, and PANNA activists, repeated information already posted on this blog and elsewhere. Pesticides and other environmental chemicals are responsible for dramatic increases in childhood cancer, autism, ADHD, and lowered IQs. But a few things stood out. One item is a new study (Shelton, 2014) again linking organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos to autism. Children who lived in closer proximity to sprayed fields had significantly higher rates (OR 1.6) of autism. But as Dr. Lamphear said, the cause for this and other maladies is likely multifactorial. Another figure, which I have not seen before, is the efficiency rate for preventing cognitive deficits caused by pesticide exposure: for every one dollar spent in prevention, a benefit in the amount of $17-220 is gained, in health care costs alone. That, of course, is aside from emotional and social burdens such deficits create. For reference, the gold standard for prevention in public health, vaccines, results in $60 of reduced health care costs for every dollar spent. Notably, Kristin Schaefer, PAN activist, pointed out that all regulation of pesticides evolved from laws to prevent farmers from being cheated by hucksters, in 1910. The laws are still designed only for registration and accurate labeling; they are not now and were not then meant to protect human health and the environment. Finally, I would like to quote the verdict of Dr. Lamphear in assessing the entire lack of regulation of pesticides for protection of health in the U.S. He identified the root of the problem as “sociopath” corporations, who cannot be expected to self regulate and who are now “majority shareholders in our country.” He pointed out that even though he is one of the top experts in the field, he is still not able to protect his own children from contamination. Only government regulation can do that. On a more positive note, he thinks that young people get it; perhaps we just need to “let the old guys die.” While I am all for that, I would say we cannot wait so long. New babies are born every day, every single one of them coming into this world already contaminated with scores of carcinogens, mutagens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors, their intelligence already permanently damaged and their body burdens high.
If you are willing to speak up and do something about the deplorable poisoning of our children in this country, please visit PANNA’s action center: http://www.panna.org/get-involved/action-center
My best day at work — and I have had many great days — was not actually at work. I was replying to emails from President Bill Carroll from my vacation in a 1930’s cabin on the Wisconsin River. This was the day that, after many years of gathering evidence and speaking to various groups on campus, Benedictine University took a leadership role on a very important issue of sustainability: natural lawn care. This would never have happened without the cooperation of Campus Services; the active support of the Faculty, Student Senate, and the Center for Mission and Identity; and the unflagging campaigning by the student leaders of SEEDs, our student environmental group. From now on, like the Chicago Park District and a growing number of school districts in the area, weeds will be controlled only by mowing. It’s important for everyone to share the information about health and environmental concerns so that the public understands that dandelions are a sign that the lawns at Benedictine are safe for everyone to enjoy.
Even those who were not able to attend the Healthy Lawn Symposium last week at Benedictine can enjoy the presentations by accessing documents on Dropbox at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/1sjv48tgiwlw30r/AAAGIqI7IUzN9mpj2FZJHJtma?dl=0. The presentations approached the problem of lawn chemicals in particular and toxic contamination more generally from a wide range of disciplines: science, public health, anthropology, advocacy, social sciences, and ethics. It would be impossible to convey the richness of the discussions that resulted, but I hope you will be able to enjoy a taste of what it was.
Healthy Lawn Community Forums
March 10, 2015
Presentation Room, Lisle Campus
April 22, 2015
Presentation Room, Lisle Campus
Devra Davis’s book was so devastating in its indictment of the chemical and tobacco industries that I had to take it in small bites, to prevent the bile of it overwhelming me: not Davis’s bile, mind you, but the bitter pill of industrial and governmental complicity in the illness and deaths of millions. Of course, not everyone would take it so personally. The systematic refusal to acknowledge the real causes of the cancer epidemic cost me my darling Katherine. It was like reading the detailed confessions and court transcripts of her murderers. It was that, in fact. To say that these industries do not have my daughter’s blood on their hands, and the blood of uncounted innocents, would be merely specious.
With experience as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services and authorship of nearly 200 books and articles, only a few people would have been as well poised as Davis to reveal the truth of this War on Cancer: that from the beginning, even those supposedly on our side, like the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, were complicit in the toxic war waged against us by the chemical and tobacco industries. Davis describes the systematic cultivation of a climate of doubt about scientific evidence, and a terrible hardening of assumptions about the evidence required to show that a chemical is harmful and subject to ban. She was there for much of the assault on public safety: “I watched the maturing of the science of doubt promotion – the concerted and well-funded effort to identify, magnify and exaggerate doubts about what we could say that we know as a way of delaying actions to change the way the world operates” (15-16). The callousness with which companies whose chemicals were implicated delayed protections by calling for more research is stunning: “From the very first reports that vinyl chloride could dissolve the finger bones of workers, cause cancer in animals and deform babies, the industry had a simple response: more research is needed. Let’s keep studying whether there really is a problem, while releasing enough information that people would feel assured the problem if it exists is trivial” (393).
This is a war in which the casualties have been legion: “I believe that if we had acted on what has long been known about the industrial and environmental causes of cancer when this war first began, at least a million and a half lives could have been spared, a huge casualty rate that those who have managed the war on cancer must answer for. This book explains how I have come to that reckoning” (22). Davis supports her claims, uncovering damning evidence from many different quarters. In some cases, she brought forth personal communications, in others, documents that show that scientists knew virtually everything about the link between cancer and smoking, radiation, and workplace exposures by 1938. But these findings did not see the light of day because of the many tobacco and chemical company executives in places of power, on the board of the American Cancer Society, for instance. Instead, all energies in the War on Cancer were diverted to treating the cases created by those industries. Davis describes the legal toxic onslaught against people everywhere in the United States, in chapters ranging from cigarettes to chemicals to cell phones.
Davis shows how all of us face a barrage of toxic exposures from a variety of sources, most of which we do not even think about. And not thinking about it is definitely part of the problem:
It is not simply that cancer is one of the diseases that afflicts the survivors of these polluted towns or those along China’s poisoned rivers in disproportionate numbers. What afflicts them more is that the very place they lived in – the air they breathed, the ground they walked on – was toxic. The real failure of the Superfund law, like the failure of the war on cancer, has only a little to do with bloated bureaucracies or scheming lobbyists or unfortunate yokels with trucks full of the wrong stuff. Ultimately, it’s a failure to look clearly at what’s right in front of our faces.
Davis’s book may be hard to stomach – because it looks at what’s right in front of our faces – but the effort is salutary, honest, and important to changing the world for the better. Her book is a call for action. She is frank about the barriers to truth-telling. She says in an afterward that her “own freedom to talk about avoidable cancer risks may suffer as well.” She names researchers who were fired or threatened with firing because their research impugned the chemical industry. Research funds were routinely withdrawn when results did not correspond with industry desires. Davis reveals how the secret war she refers to in her title was never as secret as she had thought: “Tobacco money paid for some of the best science in the world, yielding thousands of papers and years of delays in dealing with this important cause of poor health” (478). It is counter-intuitive but true that more science in this case resulted in worse health, not better, because of these deliberate, self-interested delays.
Despite the brutality of the subject matter, Secret History is very readable, and no doubt for someone with less at stake in the matter, would seem like a well-written mystery novel, or a true crime narration, more like. On the other hand, how many of us have less at stake in the causes of cancer when half of all men and a third of all women will develop the disease in their lifetimes? This is not the kind of book to bore readers, despite informing them and arming them against the duplicitous techniques of our industrial overlords. I recommend it above any other book I have read recently. Davis’s work may give more people the courage to stand up and say that it is not too much to ask that evil corporations – and I’m sorry, but no other word is sufficient – be prevented from polluting our bodies without our knowledge or permission. It is not too much to ask. Environmental Injustice is too pale a term when one person is indirectly and legally killing another, in our case, a beloved child. Other individuals’ economic interests should not come at the expense of dead loved ones, or our own diseased bodies. A clean environment should be a human right – in the United States and everywhere.
Davis, D. (2009). The secret history of the war on cancer. New York: Basic Books.