Industry hacks have long testified to glyphosate’s innocuous nature, protesting that it is safer than aspirin (Williams 2000) and even ingesting it to prove lack of harm, at least in the short term. Even very recently, The Huffington Post reported one of these people on the French cable channel Canal+ offering to drink a quart. However, when the reporter proposed getting Patrick Moore a glass of it from back stage, he retorted that he was “not an idiot” and stormed off stage (Visser 2015). I remember claims like these and even believed glyphosate (Round-Up) was probably not the worst thing around.
However, all along there was plenty of information in the literature implicating glyphosate in everything from kidney damage to cancer. Caroline Cox was writing about its acute and chronic toxicity in 1995: “It is striking that laboratory studies have identified adverse effects of glyphosate or glyphosate-containing products in all standard categories of toxicological testing. Two serious cases of fraud have occurred in laboratories conducting toxicology and residue testing” (1995). I have seen a steady stream of articles detailing the health hazards of glyphosate over the years.
Recently, an article in the journal Entropy pieced together abundant evidence implicating this most widely used herbicide. Glyphosate is now used in the U.S. 250 times more than in 1974, from 0.4 million kg to 113 million kg in 2014 (Landrigan & Benbrook 2015). One reason for its increase is the reprehensible practice of using glyphosate as a crop desiccant right before harvest, ensuring that much of the chemicals stays on the food right into production (Samsel & Seneff 2013). While the mode by which glyphosate affect plants, the shikimate pathway, used in the synthesis of certain amino acids, is absent from animals, it is present in gut bacteria, and certainly a great number of modern diseases have been linked to changes in gut bacteria, particularly obesity and Crohn’s Disease, but also including autism, which now afflicts 1 in 68 children born in the U.S. Gut bacteria are also involved in the immune system and detoxifying xenobiotics, or substances hostile to life (Samsel & Seneff 2013). Contrary to the common trope that glyphosate is less toxic than other pesticides, Samsel & Seneff argue that “glyphosate may rather be the most important factor in the development of multiple chronic diseases and conditions that have become prevalent in Westernized societies” (2013, p. 1443). Of course, it is not the only environmental toxin contributing to increased chronic disease, but it is one that should receive a great deal more attention.
Philip Landrigan, a Harvard-educated pediatrician at Mount Sinai, has repeated his call to stop allowing our children’s brains to be harmed by increasing exposure to various pesticides, including glyphosate, because of the harm it caused to cells. He describes the potential hazards of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) because, as the National Academy of Sciences noted in reviews in 2000 and 2004, there is the potential to create allergens or toxins that were not inherent in the original food; the call for further assessment has gone unheeded (Landrigan & Benbrook 2015). But the ubiquitous use of the herbicides that accompany many of these crops, particularly glyphosate and 2,4–D, is a more likely threat than the GMOs themselves. Enlist Duo, developed to address the pesticide resistance developed by so-called “Frankenweeds,” uses both these toxic pesticides together. As Landrigan & Benbrook argue, the EPA’s determination that the two chemicals were not carcinogens was based on toxicological reports from the manufacturers themselves that were not peer-reviewed and did not include epidemiological data, endocrine studies, or studies that looked at epigenetic effects, all research that has emerged since the original studies were conducted in the 1980s and 90s (Landrigan & Benbrook 2015). There was also no consideration of the effects on children (Landrigan & Benbrook 2015).
As the science journal Nature, notes, Monsanto protested the exclusion of studies showing no harm from IARC’s review; but in fact, these studies were excluded because they were not peer-reviewed, were in fact produced by the industry itself (Cressey 2015). Research sponsored by industry, as with the tobacco industry, has shown a consistent bias in favor of – surprise, surprise – keeping that industry’s products on the market (Brown & Grossman 2015).
Finally, there is something being done about this. California recently required glyphosate to be labeled as “known to cause cancer” in the state’s database after it was declared a probable human carcinogen (the second highest category of risk) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (Guyton et al. 2015). The National Academy of sciences has – finally – convened a panel to assess the health hazards of GMO foods and the pesticides used to treat them. Considering that glyphosate is found in blood, urine, and breast milk, it is about time we started asking questions about the biological effects of this chemical. In defiance of the industry’s initial promise that genetically-modified plants could reduce such exposures, GMOs have only increased total pesticide use. Many countries in Europe have banned GMO foods and the toxic chemicals that usually accompany them. In fact, in Europe, the burden of proof on toxic chemicals is reversed from what it is in the U.S., where enough people must die and develop disease to show an elevated risk in the epidemiological data, where the chemicals, not the people, are considered innocent until proven guilty. Computer modeling by toxicologists in the U.S. has recently been shown to be rigged in the interests of industry, so whole categories of research are unlikely ever to show harm (Brown & Grossman 2015).
Glyphosate, the brainchild of Monsanto, is so widespread because it must be used lock-step with Monsanto’s genetically engineered “Round-Up Ready” corn and soybeans. Monsanto has launched a concerted campaign again GMO labeling, likely because their products – both genetically modified seeds and the chemicals used to treat them – depend on people not questioning the toxicity of either. It’s not just that Monsanto is resisting states labeling their products as GMO; they are also trying to get laws passed that would prohibit organic producers from labeling their products GMO-free. They worry, perhaps with some reason, that they may lose market share because of increasingly savvy consumers. Truth in labeling is supposed to be a basic consumer protection in this country, a protection we are steadily losing. This severe limitation on free speech will only enable an industry I would say is justly called “the evil empire” to continue to put others’ health at risk unopposed, without warning or notification. Because our Congress is in the pockets of Monsanto and other large agribusinesses, they passed this summer the perversely named “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” (H.R. 1599), which actually prohibits states passing safe food labeling acts. Like chemical industries I have actually seen in action, going after little old me, Monsanto is stomping out grass-root activism to try to protect their products from regulation that is in the interest of consumers.
All of this is of course aside from ecological harm like the accidental decimation of the monarch butterfly population, as Bill Nye describes it. The widespread use of Round-up Ready Corn and Soy has had a terrible unpredicted consequence, resulting in the loss of 90% of the monarch population over the last few decades, and this from an intended effect of the chemicals, that they should kill as much milkweed as possible. This does not include the sizeable impact of other pesticides on other pollinators, like honeybees, neonicotinoids the chief culprits there.
What is most important right now it to act, and there are many groups that can help you do that, like Organic Consumers, which is helping sponsor the first validated public LC/MS/MS glyphosate testing of human urine, blood, and breast milk to establish rates of exposure, testing the USDA has said is too expensive (Organic Consumers 2015). Many scientists have called for the re-review of glyphosate in light of the new evidence. If glyphosate goes up for review and comments are possible, we need to act fast, since the comment period is often open for only 30-90 days. Otherwise, glyphosate will not likely be reviewed again until today’s toddlers are grown. A lawsuit and protests from scientists and activists recently resulted in the revocation of registration for Monsanto’s Enlist Duo. One of the very best things we can do to fight those systematically poisoning our children is to support those environmental groups working together to protect them: Earthjustice, Beyond Pesticides, Environmental Working Group, and the Pesticide Action Network North America, and the Midwest Pesticide Action Center, among others. These organizations now receive at least half of the charitable dollars my husband and I give because they are doing the same work we would do if we could start a non-profit. Direct action should also not be underestimated. You can also submit a comment directly to the EPA by searching pesticide names at http://www.regulations.gov/#!home The EPA even provides advice on writing effective comments at http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-04/documents/making-your-voice-heard.pdf Please, at least make some comment, where you can, in favor of protecting our children and ourselves.
How has it come to this? How is it that we allow industries to routinely poison our children on such a scale that childhood cancer is now the #1 disease killer of children, and autism affects 1 in 68 of our children? This travesty of justice testifies in part to the domination of our lives by enormous corporations, and to the unthinking allegiance and wealth we have rendered unto them. It also betrays a kind of perverse denial on our part; we would rather not know and hope for the best; we would rather suffer the health consequences than to bring those who systematically poison us out into the light.
Brown, V., & Grossman, E. (2015). Why the United States leaves deadly chemicals on the market. In These Times, November 2. Retrieved from http://inthesetimes.com/article/18504/epa_government_scientists_and_chemical_industry_links_influence_regulations
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2015). Asthma surveillance data. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/asthma/asthmadata.htm
Cox, C. (1995). Glyphosate, Part 1: Toxicology. Journal of Pesticide Reform 15 (3): 14-19.
Cressey, D. (2015). Widely used herbicide linked to cancer. Nature, March 24. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/widely-used-herbicide-linked-to-cancer-1.17181
Guyton K.Z., Loomis, D., Grosse, Y., El Ghissassi, F., Benbrahim-Tallaa, L., Guha, N., … Straif, K. (2015). Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate. The Lancet Oncology 16 (5): 490-91.
Landrigan, P.J., & Benbrook, C. (2015). GMOs, herbicides, and public health. New England Journal of Medicine 373: 693-95. Retrieved from http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1505660?rss=searchAndBrowse
Organic Consumers Association. (2015). World’s first public testing for Monsanto’s glyphosate begins today. Organic Consumers, April 21. Retrieved from https://www.organicconsumers.org/press/world%E2%80%99s-first-public-testing-monsanto%E2%80%99s-glyphosate-begins-today
Samsel, A., & Seneff, S. (2013). Glyphosate’s suppression of Cytochrome P450 enzymes and amino acid biosynthesis by the gut microbiome: Pathways to modern diseases. Entropy 15: 1416-63. Retrieved from http://content.ebscohost.com.libweb.ben.edu/ContentServer.asp?T=P&P=AN&K=87326137&S=R&D=a9h&EbscoContent=dGJyMMTo50SeqLU4zOX0OLCmr02ep7RSsKe4SLCWxWXS&ContentCustomer=dGJyMPGuskquqLVMuePfgeyx44Dt6fIA
Visser, N. (2015). Monsanto advocate says Roundup is safe enough to drink, then refuses to drink it. The Huffington Post, March 27. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/27/monsanto-roundup-patrick-moore_n_6956034.html
Williams, G.M., Kroes, R. Munro, I.C. (2000). Safety evaluation and risk assessment of the herbicide roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate, for humans. Regulatory Toxicology Pharmacology 31: 117-65.
I think often in our culture, which is increasingly dominating the globe, there is an emphasis on individual choices because it seems like that is what we can control, rather like looking for lost keys under the streetlight because that is the only place the street is visible, regardless of where the keys may have been lost. But my experience has been that the worst health effects tend to come from those influences we cannot control; at least those are the most unjust because the person is in no way at fault. For instance, 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. 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 the 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. It is not right that the default modus operandi is on the side of toxic chemical producers and not on the side of the children – and the rest of us. Parents have to constantly battle default decisions made for them and actively choose for their children not to be exposed. In fact, free choice to protect our children is continually taken away. In our case, despite all the things we did to protect our babies – filtered water, purified air, organic food, non-toxic cleaning agents – our precautions were nullified because of decisions made at the corporate or governmental level: none mattered compared to the chlorpyrifos being sprayed for mosquitoes straight in our windows without our knowledge or permission. We knew what caused cancer, particularly in children. But that knowledge, which we pursued in order to protect our children, as all good parents do, was largely ineffectual, pitted against the enormous money and political influence of corporations.
Individual choices are constantly taken away by the plutocratic giants of our society. Louisiana, for instance, was poor before it became cancer alley, but is even poorer in some ways today, now that more people have health problems from the pollution caused by industry and now that wild food sources, like fish and game, are no longer safe choices. Pesticide use in India and China is increasing dramatically, to the detriment of those exposed, mostly poor farmers and their families; suicide among farmers in India by means of pesticides has become epidemic. Not long ago, 23 disadvantaged children in Gandamal, India were killed by toxic levels of the pesticide monocrotophos in their free lunches. While these appalling poisonings make the news, low-level poisoning, like that experienced by farm families everywhere, is much more widespread. The percentage of industrial chemicals used in the developing world is increasing, year by year; the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has estimated it at 33% in 2020, compared to 23% in 1995 (2008). Regulation of dangerous chemicals is more difficult in the developing world. One study in India found seven times as much endosulfan, a pesticide that is dangerous but highly effective against the Tea mosquito bug, in the bone marrow of children with leukemia, compared to children in a matched control group; endosulfan is the most widely used pesticide in India, despite aerial spraying being banned by court order (Rau et al. 2012). Another study describes the millions of tons of pesticides sprayed in the valley of Kashmir and links exposures in farmworkers with high rates of brain cancer (Bhat et al. 2010). Given the lack of infrastructure to protect public health and the environment, increasing attention needs to be paid to protecting children in the developing world (Trasande 2011). As the President’s Cancer Panel points out, much, perhaps most, of cancers in the United States and elsewhere could be prevented if we reduced just a few sources of environmental exposures: industrial pollution; agricultural and landscape chemicals, particularly pesticides; excess medical radiation; military sources; and possibly, cell phone radiation (2010).
Even the idea that individuals are responsible for their own obesity seems somewhat illusory when one considers that we are all forced to ingest obesogens and that the built environment makes it difficult to exercise, while government-subsidized soy and corn crowd our diets with unwanted calories. When I was younger, I believed that by making the right and best choices for my family, I could protect them, almost single handedly, without the aid of society and government. I learned how wrong that was in the worst way imaginable.
Bhat, A.R., Wani, M.A., Kirmani, A.R., Raina, T.H. (2010). Pesticides and brain cancer linked in orchard farmers of Kashmir. Indian J Medical and Paediatric Oncology 31(4): 110-20.
Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. ( ). Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming.
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2008). OECD environmental outlook to 2030: Summary in English. Paris: OECD. Retrieved from: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/29/33/ 40200582.pdf
President’s Cancer Panel. (2010). Reducing environmental cancer risk: What we can do now. Retrieved from http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf
Rau, A.T.K., Coutinho, A., Avabratha, K.S., et al. (2012). Pesticide (Endosulfan) levels in the bone marrow of children with hematological malignancies. Indian Pediatrics 49 (2): 113-17.
Transande, L., Liu, Y. (2011). Reducing the staggering costs of environmental disease in children, estimated at $76.6 billion in 2008. Health Affairs 30 (5): 863-70.
Genetics and Environment perform a delicate contrapuntal dance in disease causation that is only just beginning to be understood. For many years after the advent of the human genome project began and as genetic counseling became more possible, genetics were over-emphasized as a cause of disease. For instance, only 5-10% of breast cancers can be accounted for by genetics (Breastcancer.org 2015). Moreover, much of the genetic susceptibility to cancer may only operate in an environment filled with toxic chemicals, as ours is. Why are we surprised that we are seeing an increase in cancers when we have filled our environment and ourselves with chemicals that are known to cause it?
One recent study found an association between these kinds of pesticides, brain tumors, and the kinds of genetic differences that result in a poor ability to metabolize, or process and expel, these chemicals (Nielson et al. 2010). Results showed more than a doubled increase in risk for children with the poor metabolizer genes, although children with these very same genes, if not exposed to insecticides, showed no increase in risk. This is so important: it shows how we are now selecting against a large proportion of our population, which has never had to defend against these novel chemicals before in evolutionary history. These genes are not necessarily bad in themselves; they are only damaging in the context of a pesticide-filled environment. We have evolved for intelligence, and ability to defend against bacterial infections, and kindness towards others; but we are evolutionarily unprepared to fend off damage by these chemicals, most of which nature had never seen before humans created them. Evolution does not work to create the best creatures, but those most fitted for the environment around them. In selecting against these genes, not only are we going to kill many more innocent people; we are changing our future as a species, and not necessarily in a good way. Why should we expend our collective energies adapting to a filthy planet when we could just choose not to pollute? Furthermore, this study shows what many other studies show as well, that lack of metabolizer genes is a risk factor for cancer, and other diseases linked to environmental toxicants (Yang et al. 2009; Autrup 2010; Chokkolingam et al. 2012). Conversely, genes that promote carcinogen metabolism convey protection (Yeoh et al. 2010). Enzymes produced by these genes, like Paraoxonase 1 (PON1), which is responsible for metabolizing various organophosphate pesticides, are at their lowest level in newborns and young children. Children reach adult levels of organophosphate pesticides at age three, exposing them precisely when they are most vulnerable to the effects (Nielson et al. 2010; Huen et al. 2012). Some early geneses of cancers that are diagnosed in adults are actually begun in childhood. Studies looking at breast tissue in rats show that the tissue is fundamentally different when the rats are exposed at very early stages. Genetics and environment work together in surprising ways; sometimes, the genetic weak link is not primary, but secondary, in the immune system or detoxification system, for example. Those weaknesses, keep in mind, are only uncovered in combination with a toxic environment. People with a genetic disposition to produce less PON1 therefore suffer more from the effects of toxicants. Its activity is lower in children with autism, which means they can’t clear it from their bodies and are more susceptible to harm from the pesticide (Deth 2008; Pasca et al. 2006). Damage to the PON1 gene, which produces the enzyme, is more common in Americans than Italians, which is likely a result of the much higher levels of pesticides in the U.S. (D’Amelio et al. 2005). In a study conducted in agricultural communities, higher levels of PON1 in pregnant mothers are linked with lower levels of organophosphates in blood and urine in both mothers and children, which affects cancer rates quite directly.
However, although environmental exposures are probably most important to a risk of cancer, a woman with a family history of breast cancer should almost certainly be tested for the BRCA genes, and if she has them, many people would offer the alternative of prophylactic bilateral mastectomies. This issue is much in the news lately. Angelina Jolie elected to have such a surgery, and hey – if she can get rid of her breasts…. This week, there was a quite convincing article in the New York Times arguing that all Ashkenazi Jewish women, who are more likely to have the BRCA gene (1 in 40 vs. 1 in 400), should be tested, and arguing that all women who are positive should consider mastectomies. Elizabeth Wurtzel, the author, first got cancer and then the double mastectomy, and she advises for the surgeries: “I wish I had done what I did anyway, except without the whole cancer part. I am not sure why anyone with the BRCA mutation would not opt for a prophylactic mastectomy” (2015). She quotes an expert who says the testing is not for everyone: “’The test sounds simple enough,’ she said, ‘but understanding what to do with the results can be a complicated, gut-wrenching journey.’ Yes, it can. But not nearly so much as cancer” (2015). I am with Wurtzel when the genetic predisposition is as clear as the BRCA gene, though no one can afford not to minimize their toxic body burden in an effort to minimize cancer risk; and this can be much better done on a societal level than an individual one. The way we are going, with rampant worldwide pollution, and with 1 in 2 men and more than 1 in 3 women developing cancer in their lifetimes, there may come a time when most women choose prophylactic mastectomies.
The problem is that we are all at risk for cancer, and it is very hard to avoid exposure to toxins in our world now; it is absolutely impossible to avoid them entirely. According to the Environmental Working Group, even newborn babies are now born pre-contaminated with in excess of 200 toxic chemicals, every single one of them, though the level of contamination varies by country (2012).
And my title? All these women chopping off their breasts to fight cancer, choosing life, braving death, remind me of the mythical Amazons, warrior women who reportedly would cut off their right breasts in order to better shoot an arrow in battle. Though grotesquely heroic, it seems a shame anyone would have to go so far.
Autrup, H. (2010). Effects of genetic and environmental factors on biomarkers of exposure. Abstracts: Toxicology Letters 196S: S1-S36.
Breastcancer.org. (2015). Genetics. Retrieved from http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors/genetics
Chokkalingam, A.P., Metayer, C., Scelo, G.A., Chang, J.S., Urayama, K.Y., Aldrich, M.C., … Buffler, P.A. (2012). Variation in xenobiotic transport and metabolism genes, household chemical exposures, and risk of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Cancer Causes Control 23: 1367-1375.
D’Amelio, M., Ricci, I., Sacco, R., Liu, X., D’Agruma, L., Muscarella, L.A., et al. (2005). Paraoxonase gene variants are associated with autism in North America, but not in Italy: possible regional specificity in gene–environment interactions. Mol Psychiatry 10: 1006–16.
Deth, R., Muratore, C., Benzecry, J., Power-Charnitsky, V.A., Waly, M. (2008). How environmental and genetic factors combine to cause autism: A redox/methylation hypothesis. NeuroToxicology 29: 190-201.
Environmental Working Group (EWG). (2012). 10 Americans. Retrieved from http://www.ewg.org/news/videos/10-americans
Huen, K., Bradman, A., Harley, K., Yousefi, P., Barr, D.B., Eskenazi, B., Holland, N. (2012). Organophosphate pesticide levels in blood and urine of women and newborns living in an agricultural community. Environmental Research 117: 8-16Nielson et al. 2010.
Pasca, S.P., Nemes, B., Vlase, L., Gagyi, C.E., Dronca, E., Miu, A.C., et al. (2006). High levels of homocysteine and low serum paraoxonase 1 arylesterase activity in children with autism. Life Sci 78: 2244–8.
Wurtzel, E. (2015). The breast cancer gene and me. New York Times, Sept. 15. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/opinion/sunday/elizabeth-wurtzel-the-breast-cancer-gene-and-me.html
Yang, Y., Tian, Y., Jin, X., Yan, C., Fan, J., Zang, Y., Tang, J., Shen, X. (2009). A case-only study of interactions between metabolic enzyme polymorphisms and industrial pollution in childhood acute leukemia. Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology 28: 161-166.
Yeoh, A.E.-J., Lu, Y., Chan, J.Y.-S., Chan, Y.H., Ariffin, H., Kham, S.K.-Y., Quah, C.T. (2010). Genetic susceptibility to childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia shows protection in Malay boys: Results from the Malaysia-Singapore ALL study group. Leukemia Research 34: 276-283.
This coming Wednesday, we at Benedictine are hosting an all-day reading on the Quad of Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Laudato Si‘, as well as a symposium, 7-9 p.m. with introductory remarks by the President and four brilliant faculty members from four different disciplines:
Everything is Connected: Perspectives on Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’
Wednesday, September 30th, 7-9pm
Location: Presentation Room, Krasa
Free and open to the public
“Perspectives on Teaching Environmental Science Using the Papal Encyclical.”
“Pope Francis on the Environmental Crisis: Its Nature, Causes, and Remedies”
“Who Is He to Judge? Weighing Papal Influence on US Policymaking,
Public Opinion, and Political Campaigns.”
“Everyone is Connected: Pope Francis’ Inclusive Encyclical”
The Pope’s Encyclical is probably of greatest importance in regards to climate change. But that is not the only environmental problem the Pope tackles. He also explicitly condemns the systematic poisoning of our common home and all the world’s inhabitants.
Quoting Patriarch Bartholomew, Pope Francis says “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation;… for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”  (Francis 2015, 8). In his own words, Pope Francis indicts chemical contamination of this sort: “Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected” (21).
Pope Francis goes on to describe the world as interconnected with humans: everything is connected. This is both literally true and symbolically important. For too long our science and our worldview has been reductive, compartmentalized. Everything is connected, and therefore, every problem must be approached from an interdisciplinary view, as we are doing at the symposium. For too long, science has been divorced from ethics, from a final cause, from a natural law: “Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes” (114). Now, we are seeing natural law in the limits we are reaching as we swell to fill the world, destroying everything else on it. The health of human beings cannot be considered separately from the health of the planet: “Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (49).
Benedictine is positioned to make the most of a Pope who is changing the world for the better every day; our new President, Dr. Michael Brophy, ranks environmental and health issues as one of the most important ways we can contribute as an institution: “He [Brophy] is beginning to form a methodology for his goal of molding Benedictine into a thought leader on globally significant topics such as health care and the environment — topics important to Catholics as influential as Pope Francis….So how does the environment connect with business or with community health, morals, the poor, the way we treat others, the dignity of the person? These questions matter, and involving as many faculty members as possible to answer them for a wide audience is part of what Brophy says he envisions for Benedictine.”
Read more about Benedictine’s Symposium on the Encyclical in the Daily Herald: http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20150923/news/150929577/
To read Pope Francis’s beautifully written encyclical, visit http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html
The Symposium is sponsored by Benedictine’s Center for Mission and Identity (CMI). Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
How well I remember the infectious disease folks at the hospitals where my daughter was sick; theirs was an exciting job: to determine as quickly as possible what the infectious agents preying on her much-impaired immune system were before they killed her. There were very different antibiotics to use depending on whether the bacteria were gram-positive or gram-negative, for instance. Getting the cultures in time to save her from, at various times, meningitis, pneumonia, and e coli, sometimes came down to a matter of hours. If it sounds like I am oddly nostalgic, well … Katherine survived those battles. Infectious Disease gets all the attention, all the glamour. Want a page-turner that is pure science? Try reading Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague. In it, she describes how the always-existent threat of infectious disease is in many ways exacerbated by common modern practices like inappropriate antibiotic use, overpopulation, ecological collapse, infringement on other species’ territories, and global air travel. I am interested to read her more recent tome, Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health. Infectious disease, we learn in her books, is not for the faint of heart. Many of the heroic scientists pursuing emerging diseases around the world succumb to these diseases themselves, as we saw in the recent ebola outbreak. Heck, infectious disease even gets a turn on the big and little screens in various zombie movies and TV series; the CDC themselves are portrayed in The Walking Dead, World War Z, Z Nation, and I am Legend, as well as many plainer movies of mere raging infection, like Outbreak.
Noninfectious diseases like cancer and autism get much less attention, particularly in dramas, yet in fact, they are facing increases really equivalent to many very serious outbreaks of infectious disease. Right now, 1 in 2 men and more than 1 in 3 women will develop cancer in their lifetimes; many will die of it (PCP 2010). Right now, 1 in 58 children – and 1 in 42 boys – will get autism, with catastrophic consequences and huge losses to society. Other diseases caused at least in part by changes in environment, and particularly chemical exposures, include birth defects, obesity, ADHD, diabetes, and auto-immune disease. A recent study found IQ losses of 7 points among those children in the highest quintile for exposure to chlorpyrifos, a common organophosphate pesticide, the same one responsible for our daughter’s death (Bouchard et al. 2011). Average on the IQ scale is 100; genius is 140, and disability begins at about 70. We believe our son David, though still bright, may have lost IQ points and suffered some learning problems from exposures we know he had at crucial developmental stages. An estimated one fourth of all American children lose IQ points to pesticide exposures – an estimated 16 million IQ points total (Bouchard et al. 2011). Other studies have shown similar results (Engel et al. 2011; Rauh et al. 2011). In a way, these environmentally triggered diseases and disabilities are also communicable, in that they are spread by chemical agents one person imposes on another – or in the sense that they are culturally caused, and I would argue that culture is contagious. Let me explain.
As the President’s Cancer Panel has shown, much of the increase in cancer rates has to do with cultural practices, some of them perfectly needless, like using cosmetic pesticides to prevent dandelions, using excess medical imaging, and allowing industry to wantonly pollute our air, water, and land (PCP 2010). In one sense, the substances that cause these diseases are themselves infectious in the sense that contact with them causes the disease, and they can spread from person to person. The latter occurs in the bioaccumulation that builds in mothers that is then passed on to infants through gestation and breastfeeding. The contamination is also communicated up the food chain through other organisms bioaccumulating – and biomagnifying, as Rachel Carson showed over 50 years ago – toxins that we then ingest. In another sense, the cultural practices are contagious. One person with a “perfect” sprayed lawn pressures another to poison their dandelions, never mind that they are simultaneously poisoning their children. Companies like ChemLawn (or TruGreen as they ironically call themselves now) deliberately spread the infection of lies – that the practice is safe, that eliminating dandelions is necessary – resulting in disease and death in thousands, likely hundreds of thousands. Cultural practices like advertising have results — both in dollars and in deaths, as Devra Davis has shown in her Secret History of the War on Cancer. Why is this important? There is a tendency to think of noninfectious diseases as also non-preventable, or at least preventable only through lifestyle changes like diet and exercise. Actually, many more cancers are caused by environmental causes than has previously been recognized (PCP 2010), and if lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and smoking are included, some scientists estimate environmental, preventable causes as responsible for 80-90% of all cancers (Alberts et al. 2002). Obviously, a huge portion of autism cases and many cases of lower IQs and learning disabilities are likewise preventable, if only we would stop poisoning our children.
The previously mentioned comparison with movies and TV shows may seem trite, but in fact communication via fictional or semi-fictional genres may not be as ridiculous as it sounds. We should influence the broader culture because culture influences disease. The very best example of a Public Health Institution doing this that I know of, and one I would like to see done in other areas, is the CDC webpage on preparing for zombie apocalypse. What began as a joke became, in fact, a tongue-in-cheek yet somewhat serious set of instructions of preparing for zombie apocalypse – or many other emergencies everyday Americans might face. There are posters, a blog, and even a novella, right on the CDC website (2015). The CDC links specific shows like The Walking Dead to transferable lessons about emergency preparedness, while having fun with their own role in the show: “Being true zombie fans, we love The Walking Dead on AMC, so much so that we’ve looked past the fact that they blew us up at the end of the first season and we assure you that our work here at the CDC continues” (2012). Despite some snarky troll comments about tax money being spent on something that may seem frivolous, most responses were enthusiastic, and surely this approach drew people to the topic of preparedness who would never normally frequent the CDC. And I bet most of this was done on some nerdy CDC researchers’ own free time. I would love to see done for environmentally caused diseases what this page has done for emergency preparedness, though I’m not sure what the equivalent would be yet – maybe a hook-in to Wall-E or Avatar? I have to admit already harnessing this kind of popularizing strategy to publicize a symposium on the health hazards of lawn chemicals on Benedictine’s Lisle campus. The symposium actually fell on Halloween – it was the only possible date – and so I made up a very attractive (if I say so myself) zombie poster with the following motto: “Want to know what’s really scary? Not zombie apocalypse: Pesticides!” In smaller print, I gave some details: “Don’t be a pesticide zombie. Did you know that some pesticides lower IQs and may lead to learning disabilities?” So in conclusion, although standard public health outlets like PSAs, pamphlets, and websites should definitely be promoted and funded well, we should also think of fun and creative ways to express what are very serious messages. In my experience, people sometimes need the edge taken off what is a really harsh reality in order to begin to actually address the problem.
Alberts, B., Johnson, A., Lewis, J., et al. (2002). The preventable causes of cancer. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th ed. New York: Garland Science.
Bouchard, M.F., Chevrier, J., Harley, K.G., Kogut, K., Vedar, M., Calderon, N., … Eskenazi, B. (2011). Prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides and IQ in 7-year-old children. Environ Health Perspect 119(8): 1189-1195.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2015). Office of public health preparedness and response: Zombie preparedness. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies.htm
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2012). Teachable moments – Courtesy of The Walking Dead on AMC. Retrieved from http://blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2012/02/thewalkingdead/
Davis, D. (2009). The secret history of the war on cancer. New York: Basic Books.
Engel, S.M., Wetmur, J., Chen, J., Zhu, C., Barr, D.B., Canfield, R.L. (2011). Prenatal exposure to organophosphates, paraoxonase 1 and cognitive development in childhood. Environ Health Perspect 119:1182-1188.
Garrett, L. (1995). The coming plague: Newly emerging diseases in a world out of balance. New York: Penguin.
The President’s Cancer Panel (PCP). (2010). Reducing environmental cancer risk: What we can do now. Retrieved from http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf
Rauh, V., Arundjadai, S., Horton, M., Perera, F., Hoepner, L., Barr, D.B. (2011). Seven-year neurodevelopmental scores and prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos, a common agricultural pesticide. Environ Health Perspect 119:1196-1201.