Decades ago when a strong link was uncovered between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, there were those who said that until some absolutely irrefutable study proved the connection, they would continue their tobacco habit. Many of these “stalwarts” have become statistics in the epidemic of lung cancer.
Likewise, today there are many who consider the movement to eliminate toxic chemicals from our environment – pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc. – mere hysteria whipped up by a few leftover 60’s zealots who don’t understand the realities of life in our advanced industrial society. They claim there exists no definitive research proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that a single chemical pollutant can cause cancer. They claim that the trace amounts of thousands of chemicals that are found in our food, air and water that accumulate in our bodies over time, and affect the more vulnerable members of society (the young, the elderly, etc.) disproportionately – are of “negligible risk.”
But for others, the writing is on the wall. Every day we hear stories in the press and broadcast media from which to glean that something extremely sinister has been set in motion by the chemical onslaught of the last 50 years – level of pollution for which the human body was never designed and has never before experienced in the history of the earth. Let’s look at just a smattering of these stories.
For years residents of Nassau County, New York have been pressing health officials to figure out why their area has breast cancer rates way above the national average – 112 per 100,000. vs. 94.7 nationally. Grass roots groups finally exerted pressure to get officials to explore the cancer/environmental link and the results show a significant relationship. One study found that women living near chemical plants between 1965 and 1975 had a 60% higher chance of developing breast cancer after menopause. The findings have ignited demand for more research on industrial pollution in other Northeastern states which as a region has the highest breast cancer rate in the nation.
As to be expected, health officials tried to point up the inconclusiveness of the study. A New York Times article (April 1994) quoted one such functionary: “Here’s a case where we see an association and that’s an important piece of research, but it doesn’t translate to any one individual needing to be concerned at this point.”
From Israel a report from the Dec. 1991 newsletter of the Environmental Research Foundation: “Recently, conditions in Israel have shown that chlorinated chemicals (in this case, pesticides) may be an important cause of breast cancer. In Israel in the 1960’s and 1970’s, breast cancer in young women was increasing.” When it was found that three carcinogenic pesticides were measured in cow and human milk, a crescendo of public protest brought a ban in 1978, and thus rapid reduction in all these contaminants. During the decade 1976-1986, the death rate from breast cancer dropped sharply among Israeli women 44 or younger. The death rate among older Israeli women, however, continued to rise, a fact scientists attributed to exposure to earlier contamination.
The same newsletter in 1992 mentioned a Washington, D.C. symposium in which scientists discussed evidence that tissue biopsies of women with cancer showed elevated levels of DDT, DDE, and PCB ‘s – chlorinated hydrocarbons from pesticides. These chemicals mimic or alter reproductive hormones in the human body which can lead to a host of problems – suppressed immunity, infertility, birth defects, etc. Dr. John McLachlen, director of the Laboratory of Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said researchers are now certain that, these chemicals act like estrogens in animals. (Estrogen dominance – and therefore, according to Dr. John R. Lee, progesterone deficiency is now a recognized risk factor for breast and endometrial cancers.) Lest nay sayers forget: human beings are part of the animal kingdom.
Evidence of havoc wreaked by these hormone mimicking pesticides is flooding the scientific highway. Science News reported that exposure to PCB’s during fetal development “can turn animals that should have been males into females (SN:1/22/ 94, p. 56).
From the same issue of Science News: a study administered vinclozolin a systemic fungicide used to protect fruits, vegetables, ornamental plants, and turf to pregnant rats. The offspring exhibited a wide range of reproductive abnormalities such as undescended testes, a cleft phallus, infertility, hypospadias (a partially unfused phallus). The most exposed males developed a “vaginal pouch”a characteristic female structure.
To calm the tumult a study, reported in the New York Times (April 20, 1994), claimed to have found “no evidence that breast cancer is caused by pesticide residues that accumulate in body fat.” In a letter to the editor of the Times Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., professor of environmental and occupational medicine at U. Illinois School of Public Health, wrote that the study was seriously flawed. He noted, for instance, that DDE and PCB levels were measured in blood samples taken as long as 25 years before the diagnosis of breast cancer!
The Baltimore Sun reported (Jan. 1992) that an unusually high occurrence of children near the Texas/ Mexican border were born without brains – a very rare defect known as anencephaly. Unable to explain this as some statistical fluke, the Centers for Disease Control and other state agencies along with groups of doctors and scientists have launched a full investigation into a possible pollution link. It appears that many of these border towns may be feeling the effects of years of unchecked industrial growth. Open sewers have been found to contain toxic wastes and human refuse, while factories continue to spew fumes and leak chemicals into the atmosphere.
According to a study cited in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, dogs whose owners used 2,4-D (a commonly used herbicide) on their lawns 4 or more times a season were twice as likely to get malignant lymphoma as dogs whose owners did not use the poison. Earlier studies of farmers using herbicides have consistently linked its use to “higher rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which the National Cancer Institute says has had the second fastest increase in incidence of all human cancers in the US over the last 15 years.”
Not even trees can escape the effects of chemical contamination. A New York Times article (Aug. 1994) noted that the death rate of some of our oldest, most majestic trees in Eastern US forests – some over 300 years old – is three times the natural rate. Dr. Loucics, an ecosystem scientist at Miami University in Ohio speculates that pollution – from auto exhausts, industrial waste, acid rain – is corning from as far away as Dallas, Houston, St. Louis and Chicago.
If pollution is killing our heartiest and most beautiful trees, what lies ahead for other forms of life? And what of all the other great “advancements” in modern science now touted by industry and sanctioned by our government “watchdog” agencies (FDA, EPA, USDA, et al.): fruits and vegetables gene-engineered to withstand the assault of ever more toxic pesticides; Bovine Growth Hormone (or BST) given to cows to increase mi& production despite the rise in mastitis and other health problems to the animals; irradiated foods to extend shelf life while creating in the process new lethal compounds untested by time?
There is a great chemical experiment going on and earthly beings are the prime guinea pigs. Perhaps, the effects we’re seeing now are just the tip of a colossal iceberg – the beginnings of a vast disfigurement and weakening of all living species. Evidence thus far certainly seems to indicate that something is horribly shortsighted about the way our great industrial society is functioning. History teaches that the sooner we acknowledge our mistakes, the better.
If these “news bites” disturb you, let your voice be heard! Stay informed about legislative environmental initiatives (or: lack thereof) and express your opinion to your Congress. Join consumer and grass roots groups to apply pressure to companies that manufacture toxic chemicals and stores that sell the products contaminated by them. Support sustainable agriculture and organic produce. Question every blanket statement of “New, safe and effective” or, in the face of the facts, “No cause for concern.”
To use a very tired but apt refrain: “The writing is on the wall!”