Casaubon's Book

I’ve got a class and Eric’s got a final today, plus kid stuff, so I won’t have time to read through the President’s Cancer Panel Report today, but I do think it is worth noting that the recommendation that we start thinking more seriously about environmental factors and the health consequences they have has reached the mainstream. We know appallingly little about the chemical experiments we are enacting upon ourselves – we know very little, for example, about how they affect develping fetuses, despite the heavy prenatal exposure all our kids get. We know very little about the aggregate effects of chemical exposure – about not what the safe dose of one chemical is, but what all of the ones we are exposed to together do.

From Nicholas Kristoff at the New York Times

The report blames weak laws, lax enforcement and fragmented authority, as well as the existing regulatory presumption that chemicals are safe unless strong evidence emerges to the contrary.

“Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” the report says. It adds: “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.”

That the report calls for us to eat food grown with no or minimal pesticides and chemical fertilizers is quite remarkable in and of itself, because this is such a mainstream landmark. More importantly, if we were truly to take reducing exposure to chemicals and pollutants seriously, we would have to come to the conclusion that this requires a shift in way of life as profound as our energy depletion and climate change do – indeed, require the same shift that those things require of us.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Margaret
    May 6, 2010

    Today one of my best friends told me she has stage 4 cancer that has spread from her breast to her lymph nodes and liver. She has never smoked and, at least for the last five years or so, has made a big effort to eat well, exercise and avoid chemical exposure.

  2. #2 mpatter
    May 6, 2010

    Re “we know appallingly little” – doesn’t the state of public health today count as evidence? Americans don’t seem especially like short-lived disease-ridden mutants.

  3. #3 Greenpa
    May 6, 2010

    This is already a stellar example of how to spin science.

    Here’s the headline from the LA Times:

    “Cancer risk of chemicals in the environment uncertain”
    http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/05/science/la-sci-cancer-20100505

    And here’s the headline from ABC News:

    “Cancers from Environment ‘Grossly Underestimated’ ”
    (I can’t put the URL here because putting 2 in one post results in comment limbo here…)

    For those in any doubt- ask who’s speaking. Industry experts? You’d have to be certifiable to listen to them.

  4. #4 eulenspiegel
    May 6, 2010

    mpatter- I’m very curious as to where you are getting the impression that the US public is considered to be satisfactorily, or even adequately – healthy. Seriously- who is saying this?

    Granted, the media will provide a downish view, just because bad news is so much more tasty; but the only stories/studies I remember in the last decade have to do with metastasizing obesity, sleeplessness, allergies, ADHD, autism; etc; and the downward slide of many US health statistics from 20 years ago, and in relation to other countries.

  5. #5 Brad K.
    May 6, 2010

    @ Greenpa,

    The problem I have with the report is the entire and complete reliance on government intervention to make everything all right. This sounds like the introduction to that “Food Safety Enhancement Act” bill, that wants to regulate gardens, farmers markets, and roadside stands at the federal level, as well as Skippy Peanut Butter and Hy-Vee. Oh, and don’t forget the transporters an storage facilities – anyone handling, transporting, or storing food, that isn’t regulated as a restaurant, will get the benefit of federal audits, record requirements, and $10k fines for paperwork errors. As I read the bill, this includes the store room at my movie theater, where extra bags of popcorn and coconut oil are stored.

    I can’t disagree with the facts of the cancer report, except that it is all written to justify government intervention, not to inform and motivate the citizenry. Writing their report this way makes the report look like the opening rounds of Cap and Trade – funnels of funds and lots and lots of government union jobs.

  6. #6 Greenpa
    May 7, 2010

    Brad- what! You don’t think Policy is the answer to everything?? They’ll burn you at the stake.

    Keep in mind that the people on the President’s Panel are not, themselves, “herders”. What they’ve done here is to produce a new “shepherd’s crook” – which any actual shepherds may or may not pick up, or use- well, or badly.

    As sheep, it would be a good idea for us to not count on the shepherds too much right now. Try not to graze where the grass is glowing in the dark.

  7. #7 mpatter
    May 8, 2010

    @eulenspiegel: Sorry for the late reply. My impression was that the people of the US (at least the subset of them that have health insurance) don’t do badly compared to the developing world. It is a privilege to die of cancer at 75, rather than of diarrhoea, malnutrition or malaria at 5.

    I love evidence-based policy and I hope your government collects more evidence and thinks deeply about how chemicals from agriculture and manufacturing affect health. But any such concerns should be weighted by how bad the effects actually are. If people are living long and healthy lives in a country which has been industrialised for many years, then that is evidence in its own right. If you think the average American suffers *substantially* more disease and a shortened life compared to if chemical industries disappeared, and can back that up up with evidence, then send me a banner and I’ll start waving it. Otherwise it is a true but minor issue.

    Besides, in a future deindustralised world that Sharon devotes much time to discussing, if there is a crowded population where infectious diseases evolve fast and spread easily coupled with no industrialized medicine, life expectancy will be short and there will be much bigger threats to health than the long-term cumulative effects of pesticides.

  8. #8 eulenspiegel
    May 9, 2010

    mpatter- I like your answers.

  9. #9 Sharon Astyk
    May 10, 2010

    Mpatter, it is certainly true that life expectancy is fairly high in the US compared to much of the poor world – but that’s not the only measure. For example, we’re starting to see actual declines in life expectancy in some poor areas of the US – the first time we’ve seen declines in life expectancy in a very long time in the US. US infant mortality is appalling, and rates of childhood cancers are equally appalling. 41% of the US population can expect to develop cancer at some point.

    I agree with you that in some measures, this is a secondary issue – but it won’t necessarily remain that way. The chemical contamination of our waterways, in concert with much less good access to cancer treatment in a poorer society is not a good thing. High chemical exposure in breast milk and a possible autism connection does not make children better able to survive in a post-industrial world – I have an autistic son, and his survival, quite literally will depend entirely on mine and my husband’s. So yes, I think all this matters – the lingering multi-generational effects of chemical exposure on a poorer society with fewer ways of dealing with them are likely to present their own difficulties. Moreover, the case for the use of most of those pesticides is extremely poor – we’ve seen pest losses increase substantially with the rise of pesticide use, not be reduced.

    Sharon

    Yes, dying of cancer at 75 sucks much less

  10. #10 mpatter
    May 10, 2010

    Sharon, thank you very much for your reply. I will try to note your great points as I share my view.

    I don’t know what figures you have on US infant mortality (I would be interested to read them), but I doubt they can be appalling when compared to any undeveloped country. It may be worse than in other developed countries, and some of this will come down to the level of economic and social inequality that has developed in the US (you note that it is the poor areas that suffer decreasing life expectancy.) But on the other hand, you are preparing for the realities of an oil-less, low-energy world where the markers of economic and social development (high life expectancy, good healthcare etc) will be gone – so we’ll all be in the same boat soon enough.

    I would like to note that cancer, while a horrible source of boundless suffering, is a part of the human experience which can never be totally eradicated. Cancer is the decision by our cells to stop cooperating and go back to the ruthless replication they spent billions of years honing, and each of the many cancers can be triggered by a wide array of environmental causes, or simply because our genetic makeup allows it. Cancer is especially likely as we grow old, frankly because we’ve never had such long lives in the past, and there was little evolutionary pressure on our bodies not to succumb to cancer once we get to 60 or 70. So, a high cancer statistic is partly just a byproduct of our high life expectancy, although I would never ignore the supplementary role of carcinogens in our environment.

    Regarding autism as a possible effect of chemical contaminants – I will almost certainly never know the struggles and pain of raising a child with autism, and for what it’s worth I have enormous respect for you and every other family who goes through it. But whatever the extent of damage to us from chemicals, a lot of it has already done and cannot be reversed as it will linger around regardless – and we know our high-technology society has only so much mileage left, so the finiteness of our resources is in this case a mercy.

    regards,

    mpatter

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