By Michael Jessen
"First, do no harm" is a primary medical principle. Although delegates from 127 countries formally adopted a global treaty banning 12 highly toxic chemicals last month, thousands of yet untested chemicals may still be causing cancer in homes and workplaces around the world.
The treaty signed in Stockholm covers a dozen persistent organic pollutants (POPs) including pesticides, industrial chemicals, and hazardous by-products of combustion. One of the best elements of this international agreement is the critical impact it will have on the health of individuals. Known to build up in the fats of animals, the pollutants are intimately linked to human health - this has been particularly documented in the Arctic region, where POPs are passed to children through the placenta and breast milk.
However, each country must individually ratify the treaty and 50 ratifications are required before the treaty is legally binding. Canada was the first nation to sign and ratify the POPs treaty.
Klaus Topfer, Executive Director of United Nations Environment Programme, under whose auspices the treaty was negotiated, said: "It is vital that after adopting and signing the convention governments follow-up quickly by ratifying the treaty so it can enter into force by 2004 at the latest."
In 1997, Environmental Defense published a landmark study, Toxic Ignorance (www.environmentaldefense.org/pubs/Reports/ToxicIgnorance/) which revealed that 70% of high-production-volume chemicals in the United States had never had even preliminary tests to see what their impact on human health might be. Since then, 400 companies have agreed to sponsor testing of over 2,000 individual chemicals. The participating companies will display the progress of their testing on Internet sites like Environmental Defense's Chemical Scorecard at www.scorecard.org/.
With the banning of 12 toxic chemicals and the ongoing testing of up to 2,000 more, the world still has a lot of catching up to do. Currently some 75,000 chemicals introduced over the past 50 years remain untested.
There is a need for better screening and testing of the synthetic chemicals in use today, says Theo Colborn, co-author of "Our Stolen Future" (www.ourstolenfuture.org/) and a senior scientist with the World Wildlife Fund.
"Chemicals that induce multigenerational harm should never be released in the environment," she adds.
While advances in science, technology, and pharmaceuticals are important, the first priority is that the new advances do no more harm than good. It appears to be a principle that chemical manufacturers, factories, and governments have yet to adopt.
History is overflowing with examples of chemicals gone awry. Think of Bhopal in India, Love Canal in New York State, and the Sydney tar ponds in Nova Scotia. Last month Sierra Club of Canada executive director Elizabeth May went on a hunger strike on Parliament Hill for 17 days before Health Minister Alan Rock announced a proposal for new studies into the health effects of the tar ponds.
For May, the answer is already clear. "The levels of cancer in Sydney are the highest that have been documented anywhere in Canada," May told the Vancouver Sun. "It also has a very high birth-defect rate, and very high multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and heart disease."
She termed Canada's most notorious toxic waste site "a scandal from beginning to end."
In the late 1950's and early 1960's Thalidomide was a drug prescribed to pregnant women to combat symptoms associated with morning sickness. The result: horrific birth defects in thousands of children around the world.
From 1941 to 1971, an estimated 4.8 million women in the United States and 400,000 in Canada were given DES - short for diethylstilbestrol - to help them avoid miscarriages. The result: elevated risks of breast cancer, clear-cell carcinoma, and other strange cancers. Others have been robbed of the ability to reproduce. There is growing evidence that a third generation of women may face the same problems.
"What makes me maddest is that no one ever informed mothers," Shirley Simand (who was prescribed DES) told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "GM and Ford recall cars when they have some minor flaw, but nobody ever told Canadian women that they were given a carcinogenic drug. The whole thing was swept under the carpet."
Simand has channeled her rage into advocacy. She and her daughter formed DES Action Canada (www.web.net/~desact/) the only organization alerting Canadians to the ongoing health risks of DES.
Men are not exempt from exposure to carcinogens. Last month a Yale University study showed men employed as roofers or sheet metal workers, who work with rubber and plastic products, or are employed in cleaning businesses are at higher risk of developing brain cancer. (See http://ens.lycos.com/ens/may2001/2001L-05-15-09.html)
At the conclusion of a 10-month investigation, the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a series of articles in May about more than 600 railroaders who were diagnosed with brain damage from their long-term exposure to toxic degreasing solvents they sprayed on locomotives in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. The Courier-Journal articles detailed how -- despite medical warnings -- the railroad industry allowed the continued heavy and largely unprotected use of toxic chlorinated solvents (www.courier-journal.com/cjextra/csx/day1/ke051301s22568.htm).
Research on farmers' health has shown that for decades they have exceeded the national average for certain cancers, including leukemia, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and cancers of the brain, prostate, stomach, skin, and lip. "In addition to pesticides, farmers incur chronic exposures to potentially harmful compounds, such as engine exhausts, chemical solvents, fuels, animal viruses, and sunlight," says Devra Lee Davis, a leading epidemiologist and researcher on environmental causes of cancer and chronic disease.
Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network (www.sehn.org/), is part of a global effort to replace the risk paradigm of exposure to chemicals with the precautionary principle, which basically argues that science and industry must fully assess the impact of their activities before they impose them upon the public and the environment. The principle shifts the burden of proof (and liability) to the parties promoting potentially harmful technologies, and limits their use to experiments until they are proven truly safe.
"Who can oppose taking action to prevent harm when the science is uncertain?" asks Raffensperger. "Who can oppose goal setting, performance bonds, alternatives assessment, democratic participation, reversing the burden of proof, and a general duty to act with precaution?"
A 1998 SEHN guide to the history, components, and application of the precautionary principle written by Joel Tickner, Carolyn Raffensperger, and Nancy Myers can be downloaded from www.sehn.org/precaution.html. "Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle" is a book edited by Raffensperger and Tickner and published by Island Press (www.islandpress.com) that expands on papers presented at the seminal 1998 Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle.
The precautionary principle is already in use in many parts of the world. The Los Angeles Unified School District adopted the principle with respect to pesticide use. Germany, Sweden, and Denmark have made the precautionary principle and other principles, such as substitution for hazardous materials, guides to their environmental and public health policy. The United Nations Biosafety Protocol includes it as part of new guidelines for regulating trade in genetically modified products, its first appearance in an international treaty.
The important part of the precautionary principle is that it poses new questions. Instead of asking what level of harm is acceptable, a precautionary approach asks: How much contamination can be avoided? What are the alternatives to this product or activity, and are they safer? Is this activity even necessary? It forces the initiator of an activity to address fundamental questions of how to behave in a more environmentally sensitive manner.
The precautionary principle focuses on options and solutions rather than risk and that makes Mary O'Brien an enthusiastic supporter of the principle. O'Brien is the author of "Making Better Environmental Decisions: An Alternative to Risk Assessment" and has been a staff scientist for the Environmental Research Foundation and for the U.S. office of the Environmental Law Alliance.
"Risk assessment is primarily used to defend unnecessary activities that harm the environment or human health," she writes in her book.
Because risk assessment defines an "acceptable" level of harm, Peter Montague labels it our "innocent until proven guilty" approach to destructive activities in the book's foreword. (Montague has written and/or edited Rachel's Environment and Health News (www.rachel.org/) for the Environmental Research Foundation since December 1986, when the publication first began warning the world about the dangers of chemicals.
Rachel Carson, the author of "Silent Spring" that alerted the world to the dangers of pesticides in 1962, died of breast cancer eighteen months after the book was published.
She wrote: "The choice, after all, is ours to make. If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our 'right to know,' and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us."
For Carolyn Raffensperger, Sandra Steingraber, and many others, that course is the precautionary principle. They believe it will reduce the harm and it is just common sense.
ONE SMALL STEP - Ten years ago, the BC environment ministry set a goal: a 25-percent cut in pesticide use by 2001. But during the past decade, the total quantity of pesticides applied for all purposes went up -- not down -- and the ministry has quietly abandoned its goal. Pick up a copy of "How to get your lawn and garden off drugs, Pesticide-free gardening for a healthier environment" by Carole Rubin, published by Friends of the Earth Canada and find out how to eliminate pesticides. Researchers in Arizona found that a mix of liquid dishwashing detergent and cooking oil kills sweetpotato whiteflies and common home garden pests.
There are many known risk factors for cancer. A recent estimate of the proportion of cancer deaths attributable to known risk factors suggests that approximately half of all fatal cancers are attributable to tobacco (29%) and diet (20%). Other known risk factors include occupation, family history, alcohol use, reproductive factors, sexual activity, sunlight, drugs, ionizing radiation, AND carcinogenic chemicals. Visit Health Canada's online cancer information page at www.hc-sc.gc.ca/english/cancer.htm#risk. The Waddell Project (www.cancercentre.com/trailcastlegar) is a community-based cancer prevention project in the Trail and Castlegar areas. The focus of the Waddell Project is on primary prevention, helping people make healthier lifestyle choices, thereby reducing their cancer risk.
RESOURCES - "Our Stolen Future," the groundbreaking book that first revealed that chemicals in the environment have affected human reproductive patterns in way that may threaten the survival of the species, is available in paperback from Penguin Books of Canada. Elizabeth May is the co-author -- with Maude Barlow -- of "Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada's Love Canal" and published in paperback by Harper Collins Publishers Ltd. "Making Better Environmental Decisions: An Alternative to Risk Assessment" is published in paperback by the MIT Press. "Silent Spring" is available in paperback from Houghton Mifflin Company. The Science and Environmental Health Network has an electronic newsletter called The Networker that appears several times a year (www.sehn.org/thenet.html). The May 2001 issue has an interesting article by Joel Tickner and Lee Ketelsen entitled "Democracy and The Precautionary Principle" that advocates the need for new democratic methods for making environmental and health decisions in the face of uncertainty. Some possible models mentioned are citizen juries (developed in Minnesota), consensus conferences (from Denmark), and planning cells (from Germany).
Michael Jessen is an environmental consultant and owner of toenail environmental services, which specializes in helping businesses with sustainability issues. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 250-229-5632. His firm's award-winning web site can be found at http://www.toenail.org/.
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