Fighting Toxics

Spring 2004

Forging New Commitments to Fighting Toxics

by Sharon Tisher

More than 275 participants gathered at the University of New England in Biddeford on October 24 for the largest interdisciplinary gathering focused on environmental health ever held in Maine. Organized by UNE College of Osteopathic Medicine, Physicians for Social Responsibility/ Maine, and the newly organized Environmental Health Strategy Center (www.preventharm.org), the conference was cosponsored by a number of groups, including MOFGA, that have long been active in the toxics arena. Most notable was the significant number of physicians participating, both among the presenters and in the audience, signaling a renewed recognition that prevention is as important to good medicine as treatment.

Highlights of the conference were keynote addresses by CDC Senior Advisor Richard Jackson and author activist Sandra Steingraber, and a concluding panel including Senator John Martin, Maine Bureau of Health director Dora Mills, UNE College of Osteopathic Medicine dean Dr. Stephen Shannon, and Attorney General Steven Rowe. The day proved a veritable feast of information, expertise from around the nation, and insights about the risks of toxics, the impact of federal policies, and the potential for state and international action.

The Miracle of Lead Elimination

Senior CDC physician Richard Jackson began his keynote by describing the most dramatic U.S. success story in toxics regulation: the elimination of lead, a potent neurotoxin, from paint in 1976, from solder in 1978, and, in 1979, from gasoline. This “miracle of environmental protection” was accomplished without any “risk assessment,” simply because we “know less lead is better.” The impact of these regulatory responses was an average reduction of lead concentrations in humans’ blood by 20 micrograms per deciliter, which research suggests equates to an average rise of 5 I.Q. points. When we also consider, Jackson noted, research indicating that every one I.Q. point equates to an additional $14,500 of annual earning capacity, the dramatic benefits of this regulation are clear. Jackson recounted a meeting of Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, when the CDC provided a hand held monitor for measuring lead in blood and tested each leader’s blood: “I’m not at liberty to disclose the results, but one reading was 15 points higher than the other, and six weeks later Russia banned lead in gas.”

The U.S. Syndemics Problem

In an address accented by amusing and disturbing PowerPoint photographs and graphs, Jackson went on to describe the acute problem of “syndemics” in the United States – where one or more epidemics interact synergistically to create a “perfect storm” of health problems. An increasingly aging population interacts with a built environment and an ethic of overwork that discourages exercise, and with a food industry that encourages overeating unhealthy foods, to create a syndemic of obesity and related health problems. Jackson described major components of this syndemic as over-reliance on the automobile and development of a landscape making such reliance a necessity. “The first half of the 20th century, we built skyscrapers, and the second half, landscrapers – highway interchanges on which the average American is gridlocked two to four hours a day.” Six times as many cars are on the road as when Jackson got his license, and the average American spends 62 hours each year stopped in traffic. We have paved the equivalent of the state of Georgia. We build large, centralized schools farther from where children live, designed by the same architects who brought you the state penitentiary. Pre-1940 schools have the lowest rate of sick building syndrome, yet we are continually replacing those buildings with new, consolidated schools, despite research that smaller schools have better attendance rates, fewer dropouts and better academic performance. Fewer than 7% of children walk or bike to school today.

Physicians in the audience understand, Jackson noted, that half of every doctor’s practice is mental health, and the “awesome stupefying ugliness” of the suburban commercial landscape that blights nearly every community in the nation is a “recipe for depression.” The average 11-year-old boy is 11 pounds heavier than in 1973, and McDonalds spends $1.5 billion on advertising. Eight to 10% of the population suffers from type 2 diabetes, and at the current rate of increase, 38% of today’s boys and girls will have diabetes in their lifetime. The most rapidly growing pediatric surgery is stomach stapling, and the fastest growing line of coffins is double-wide and triple-wide. The CDC now mandates that its new buildings have attractive, day-lit staircases at the main entrance, but “in most American buildings, if you look for the stairs they think you’re a pervert.”

In response to a question from the audience, Jackson noted that the CDC is embarking on a new program of biomonitoring to detect toxics in humans and to study the relationship of those findings to disease or other impairments. In contrast to the success story of lead that led his presentation, however, Jackson noted that “we are getting a lot of pressure to do full risk assessments before any results of the environmental health studies are disclosed to the public or to doctors,” a policy that “I have violently opposed.”

Recommended: Buy Organic

Breakout policy workshops highlighted a wealth of expertise and important work going on in the toxics arena. Toxicologist Deborah Rice, Ph.D., recently joining the Maine Department of Environmental Protection after working for the EPA in Washington and co-authoring the EPA’s assessment of methylmercury exposure, reviewed the connections between pesticides, mercury, PCBs and brominated flame retardants, and chronic disease. Rice noted that the connections between Atrazine, the most widely used pesticide in the United States, and genetic mutations in frogs, while vigorously contested by industry, was now firmly believed by the toxics science community, and has been confirmed in laboratory testing. The mutations are believed to result from Atrazine’s action as an immune suppressant, which allows a common parasite to take hold and cause genetic mutations. In general, however, Rice noted that the kind of studies on health effects that have been done for lead, PCBs and mercury have not been done for pesticides, and “that’s surprising to me because pesticides are designed to be neurotoxic.” In her concluding recommendations on how the public can protect itself from environmental toxics, Rice’s number one recommendation was to “buy organic,” because “what we know [about the health effects of pesticides] is the tip of the iceberg, and is largely serendipitous.”

Respiratory Problems Among Lobstermen

Dr. Richard Donahue, a family practitioner from Vinalhaven, recounted the remarkable results of a small study he conducted, funded by the Harvard School of Public Health, of environmental health issues in lobstermen’s winter shops. After noting that his lobstermen patients appeared to have respiratory problems in the winter, even when no general viral or bacterial symptoms existed in the general population, Donahue began measuring, with state-of-the-art monitoring equipment, air quality in five workshops. He found very high concentrations of particulates and volatile organic compounds, associated with the use of oil based paints to paint buoys, with heat branding of ID numbers on Styrofoam buoys (a practice still required by law, but no longer necessary for state inspections), and with burning rope ends. He also found high concentrations of endotoxins, discharged by bacteria living on algae on ropes and dispersed into the atmosphere during winter rope maintenance. Air quality was much worse in newer, airtight shops than in older, naturally ventilated buildings. Switching to equally effective latex paints, doing rope maintenance outdoors, changing the law requiring heat branding of buoys, and opening doors and windows were all simple methods that could improve lobstermen’s health significantly, Donahue concluded.

Parkinson’s, Pesticides and Human Research Subjects

Alan Lockwood, M.D., a professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo, presented the wealth of evidence suggesting that Parkinson’s Disease is caused by exposures to pesticides and other industrial toxics early in life. Lockwood also was highly critical of the ethics and the science behind the pesticide industry’s recent push for human subject studies on pesticide risks. About 20 such studies have been conducted, mostly off-shore, with very small numbers of subjects. When the EPA in 2001 elected not to use some of those studies submitted by industry in its risk assessment, CropLife America, the industry trade group, sued the EPA and won a decision that the EPA could not rule out human studies. The EPA has now commissioned a National Academy of Sciences study of both the ethical standards and the quality of science that should apply to human subject studies.

A New Civil Rights Movement

Sandra Steingraber’s keynote address highlighted “a new civil rights movement brewing in this country … The PTA, 4-H, Girl Scouts of America … august, venerable, established groups, have become involved in environmental health, because they have child welfare in their mission.” This movement may be “flying under the radar screen of the mass media and Washington, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a growing mass movement and reason to be optimistic.” Steingraber’s remarks about the mass media were underscored by the notable lack of media coverage for the conference, despite the presence of distinguished national experts and state leaders.

Maine Sues EPA

The wrap-up panel included Attorney General Steven Rowe, fresh from the announcement that Maine was joining 10 other states to sue the Bush Administration for its failure to regulate the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as required under the Clean Air Act. Speaking as well of Maine’s pending suit against the EPA’s new rules permitting Midwestern power plants to increase their toxic emissions, Rowe noted, “I don’t think you need to make excuses to say, ‘I’m an environmentalist.’ If you can’t breathe, you don’t have a chance to think about ‘self-actualization.’” This is a “terribly important conference,” Rowe noted, since Maine is the single state most affected by air pollution emissions in the country. Maine has the highest adult asthma rate nationally and is heading toward having the highest childhood asthma rate. While Rowe said he didn’t particularly like suing his own national government, “the states are sovereign governments, and we have an obligation if our federal government is not going to enforce the laws.”

Senator John Martin cited the legislative progress made to date in reducing exposure to lead, dioxin, mercury, arsenic and environmental tobacco smoke. He noted, however, that “there are 30,000 chemicals in commerce in large amounts,” and “I don’t have 10,000 years to regulate them one-by-one.” Martin called for the state of Maine to continue its national leadership by developing a more sweeping, integrated chemicals policy to promote safer alternatives to chemicals that are known to be hazardous or poorly tested.

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