Tackling Toxics

Spring 2004

Toki Oshima illustration
Toki Oshima illustration.

Tackling Toxics: Go Beyond the Personal

By Alice Torbert

When my parents were young hippies, their rallying cry was: “The Personal is the Political!” This concept has become innate to progressive thinking: Almost any environmental pamphlet ends with a bulleted list titled “What You Can Do at Home.” However, the individualist approach to instigating change seems to be on its way out. On November 22, the Environmental Studies department at Colby College in Waterville hosted the fourth annual Toxics Action Conference. The Toxics Action Center (TAC) is devoted to helping local groups protect their neighborhoods from exposure to toxic substances. Because the organization was formed not to achieve any particular environmental goal but to help others influence decision-makers, the organization has kept on the vanguard of what works and what doesn’t in environmental politics – and the rallying cry at this year’s conference was not “the Personal is the Political!” but “Organize!”

The conference was introduced by TAC director Matt Wilson. He presented three “lessons” he had learned as an expert on environmental action. First, many chemicals that “leak” from economic activities into our living environments are harmful to human health; second, those responsible for harmful chemicals avoid responsibility at all costs; third – and most importantly – residents affected by harmful chemicals can change their situation only by joining together politically. “We can’t protect ourselves by taking individual actions like buying bottled water and organic food,” he said. “We have to go beyond consumer self-help and cross into public policy to affect how polluters and government officials act.”

To expand his first “lesson,” Wilson pointed out that while early toxics activists tended to focus on the carcinogenic properties of pollutants, “Chemicals do a lot more to us than cause cancer.” Other maladies of communities with severe exposure to toxics include developmental problems, such as learning disabilities (processes that begin in the womb), reproductive disorders (especially lowered sperm counts), and a general breakdown of the immune system that tends to worsen asthma and allergies. Even though Maine is rural and does not have a large industrial economy, many of its citizens are exposed to toxics. For example, trash incinerators built to relieve the pressure on landfills emit mercury, and aerial spraying of blueberry fields has contaminated water supplies with hexazinone.

Bush’s “Clear Skies” Bill May Rain Mercury

Maine’s first district representative, Tom Allen, had been engaged to deliver the first keynote address of the day. Allen reliably opposes environmentally harmful legislation, and he was in large part responsible for eliminating loopholes in the Clean Air Act that allowed “grandfathered” coal plants to disobey emissions standards. Fortunately for our nation’s environmental policy, but unfortunately for the conference audience, Allen canceled his keynote the day before the conference to remain in Washington for the House of Representative’s heated argument over Bush’s Energy Bill.

He did, however, send a short address on video, in which he denounced the “Clear Skies” bill as a complete misnomer, a “triumph of marketing over content,” because it includes loopholes in the emissions standards for old coal-fired power plants and does not require maximum achievable control technology for preventing mercury emissions, which are deposited in water and bioaccumulate in fish. The bill also exempts the manufacturers of MTBE, the gasoline additive that leached into innumerable water sources, from liability for their product. Allen congratulated the “activists who got up and did something” for their triumph over the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge: For all its faults, the Energy Bill does not include provisions for drilling for oil in the refuge. He concluded by encouraging the environmental community not to give up hope, despite an unsympathetic government: “Don’t get discouraged by the rollbacks … this administration will pass.”

The conference offered a variety of educational opportunities in its 11, two-hour-long workshops led by representatives of various environmental organizations and universities. Most sessions focused on the mechanics of successful local environmental politics, such as “Fundraising in Your Community” and “Making Public Hearings Work for You.” Others discussed issues relating to toxics, such as “Toxic Body Burden: The Persistent Pollutants in People,” or more general environmental subjects, such as “Hydrogeology 101.”

Some workshops discussed regional or global problems that did not seem appropriate for a conference aimed at activists working on local emissions of toxic substances. However, Mark Hays of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, who led a workshop titled “Climate Change 101,” pointed out that “Climate change is pertinent to toxics action because the political landscape is the same – many local people are concerned, the governmental leadership is bad, and there are economically powerful opponents to change.” Also, broader environmental phenomena often affect levels of toxics or vice versa: One primary concern about poor air quality is its effect on human health, and one participant in the “Climate Change 101” workshop pointed out that if global warming caused oceans to inundate inhabited areas, toxics that were otherwise stable could be washed into the seawater and find their way into human bodies via local fisheries.

Pay Attention to Possibilities

Hays might also have noted that climate change issues resemble toxics action issues because in both cases such uncertainty exists that many people are content to do nothing. Just as high cancer rates in an area are more or less ignored if preliminary research does not discover an obvious cause, many policy makers would rather ignore the potential risks of global warming precisely because they are only potential. As Hays points out, turning a blind eye to the possible damages of climate change is “like playing a game of craps with long odds and high stakes.” For Maine agriculture, the stakes are certainly high: Potential risks include sugar maple die-off, more extreme weather, longer droughts, and a reduction of up to 23% in potato yields.

Hays mentioned home-scale measures against climate change, such as using compact fluorescent bulbs and energy-efficient refrigerators, but he placed more faith in the Clean Energy Fund, which helps power generators with the high capital costs of installing clean technology. “I don’t want to emphasize personal action – not because it’s not important, but because it needs to be connected with something systemic,” he said.

Citizens’ Awards for Environmental Successes

The first round of workshops was followed by TAC Maine Field Director Maggie Drummond’s “favorite part of the conference”: the citizen awards. Each year TAC recognizes citizen groups that have worked with TAC to resolve a local environmental issue with notable success. This year two citizen awards were presented.

The first went to Ann Birmingham and Gina Pratt, residents of the Griffin Park housing complex near the Bangor International Airport. Since operations began in Iraq, Air Force travel through the Bangor airport has become heavy, and the airport’s irresponsible practice of dumping volatile de-icing agents on the ground could no longer be ignored. Propylene glycol became so concentrated in a stream close to the runway that the fumes caused respiratory problems for nearby citizens. Birmingham and Pratt contacted TAC, organized their neighbors and ultimately forced the airport to divert the propylene glycol to sewage treatment plants.

The second award went to a group with the creative appellation “Sabattus Hill-Huggers.” A company engaged in gravel mining in the area was leveling prominent hills, causing erosion near pond margins, and piling discarded asphalt near town wells. Grieved at the destruction of landscape and worried by the potential contamination of their water supply, the Sabattus Hill-Huggers sought advice from TAC and money from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, a funding collective that gives small grants to local environmental groups. Despite a policeman’s threat to arrest a Hill-Hugger for the “crime” of walking on public land in the course of his investigations into the company’s activities, in the end one of the larger hills was reconstructed and the piles of asphalt were moved to a safer location.

Breast Cancer as a Marketing Tool

Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, delivered an eloquent and candid keynote speech on “Following the Money: Corporations, Breast Cancer, and You.” She began by asking those who knew someone with breast cancer to raise their hands; over three-quarters of the audience did.

Brenner lamented the corrupting influence of corporate money on breast cancer research and treatment. Breast cancer is not an issue that suffers from a lack of general awareness, thanks to Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October and the Pink Ribbon campaign, but this very awareness is colored by the corporations that involve themselves in these events. Brenner claims that most corporate sponsors of Breast Cancer Awareness events are simply pursuing “cause marketing,” capitalizing on the “pretty, feminine and comforting” symbol of the pink ribbon. “No one does this with colon cancer!” Brenner pointed out, who prefers the candid slogan “Cancer Sucks!” to the pink ribbon as a banner for breast cancer awareness. Many corporate pink ribbon efforts are useless: American Express’s “Charge for the Cure” donates a mere cent per transaction conducted at participating retailers during October (which means that the consumer would have to make credit card purchases at an average of three stores every day to donate $1 to cancer research). Others are downright hypocritical: during BMW’s “Ultimate Drive” in October, one can donate $1 to cancer research by test driving one of their cars, but BMW opposed stricter standards for the emission of PAH, a carcinogen.

Despite all the attention paid by government, corporations and consumers to breast cancer, funding from and research efforts by seven federal agencies, seven state agencies, the American Cancer Society, the Komen Foundation, and innumerable commercial companies are almost completely uncoordinated. “No one knows exactly how much money is being spent on breast cancer research,” said Brenner. “That’s a scandal.” Her organization, Breast Cancer Action, aims to remedy that situation by demanding transparency and accountability of breast cancer research funding, using media advocacy, postcard campaigns, direct engagement with company representatives, and shareholder activism.

At a wrap-up reception at the Colby College Museum of Art, participants could question TAC representatives and network. This important and pertinent part of the conference represented the purpose of TAC: sharing knowledge and resources among grassroots environmental groups. This networking lets successful political groups do what they do best: “Organize!”

For more information, please visit www.toxicsaction.org. Those who live in Maine’s second district can contact Mike Michaud at [email protected] or at (207) 942-6935. Other resources are: The Natural Resources Council of Maine, www.nrcm.org/ or (800) 287-2345; The New England Grassroots Environment Fund, www.grassrootsfund.org or (802) 223-4622; and Breast Cancer Action, www.bcaction.org or toll-free at (877) 278-6722.

About the author: Alice is a student at Colby College and a member of MOFGA’s Public Policy Committee.

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