Remember when cancer was a disease that very few people contracted? Or when the outcome of a pregnancy was almost certainly a healthy baby?
In 1985, six months after the birth of my daughter, my father died of kidney cancer. Cancer was less common then – and birth defects, according to our obstetrician at the time, occurred in only 1 out of every 200 births, and that included aesthetic issues such as birthmarks.
Today, men face a 50 percent chance of getting cancer in their lifetime. Childhood maladies – asthma, birth defects, cancer, developmental disabilities – continue to rise. Infertility affects more than 1 in 6 couples, and male reproductive health in industrialized nations is deteriorating. Like Rip Van Winkle, we’ve awakened to a changed world, but unlike Rip, we weren’t asleep. The damage that has been done to the environment in which we grow our food and raise our families has happened with our eyes wide open. In trusting that government agencies will put our interests ahead of the interests of the industries they regulate, we have been asleep at the wheel – lulled into a false sense of security by believing that our government’s was protecting our health.
In 1997, then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner noted that the “probable cause” of the decline in children’s health since 1980 was “environmental toxins,” which were inflicting damage during fetal development.
In 1997, several local farmers and I exposed the illegal use of hazardous wastes in Washington State (see the Seattle Times’ investigative series, “Fear in the Fields: How Hazardous Waste Becomes Fertilizer”). At the time, I was the mayor of Quincy, Washington, a small agricultural town. I was simply trying to protect my citizens. But the EPA and the State of Washington did not stand with me; they chose to stand with industry. Rather than enforce state and federal laws, the EPA remained mute while the State of Washington legalized the use of hazardous waste in fertilizer through a regulation known as the Commercial Fertilizer Act of 1998.
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) requires that an affirmative finding of safety be made before a method of disposal is allowed, but in this case, the EPA hurriedly crafted a risk assessment after the fact, and concluded that there was little or no risk to human health or the environment from waste-derived fertilizer. Keep in mind that while more than 110 billion pounds of fertilizer are used annually in the US, half of this widely sold product (55 billion pounds) consists of non-nutrient material not essential for plant growth, an unknown amount of which may be toxic. The EPA acknowledged at the time they wrote the risk assessment that they didn’t know how much of the fertilizer market was waste-derived or what the soil-to-plant uptake of toxins and heavy metals might be.
The same agency that only two years earlier admitted that environmental toxins the cause of children’s health problems, not only failed to consider plant-uptake factors, but also failed to consider the risks to children exposed to waste-laden fertilizers, including their lifetime cancer risks, exposure during fetal development, and ingestion and inhalation of the waste-derived product.
These omissions are unconscionable given that the EPA’s primary mission is to protect human health and the environment. Under Executive Order 13045 – Protection of Children from Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks – the agency is specifically required to consider the unique vulnerabilities of children, including fetuses.
“Rogue” seems an appropriate adjective for the EPA. What is the cost of their incompetence in human lives?
“According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, nearly half of all pregnancies today result in the loss of the baby or a child born with a birth defect or chronic health problem” (National Research Council, 2000). In 2001 – 2002, the infant mortality in the US was the highest it has been since 1958. Whether or not this is a trend remains to be seen.
Environmental damage is seen first in sentinel species – remember the deformed frogs and the hermaphroditic fish? – and in the most vulnerable of a species. In the case of humans, this would include sperm, eggs, and developing fetuses.
In 1997, just after “Fear in the Fields” was published, I received a phone call from a gentleman in Connecticut who read to me Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem “First They Came for The Jews,” regarding what happened in Nazi Germany:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
At the time, I did not fully understand why he would choose this poem to read to me, but I do now. Updated for today’s issues, the poem might read like this:
First I noticed that some of my friends were getting sick – diabetes, M.S., Parkinson’s, cancer – but I figured it was just their time, so I didn’t question what was happening.
Then I started seeing more children with special needs, and my neighbor had a stillborn child, but my children are grown and healthy, so I didn’t question what was happening.
Then the cancer rate exploded in adults and autism in children, and my friends had to care for sick spouses and parents, or autistic children, and I didn’t question what was happening.
Then I got cancer, and since we’ve been taught to expect it, no one questioned what was happening.
Ten years ago, I predicted that what we were seeing in the way of health problems was just the tip of the iceberg and that things were going to get worse before they got better. Today, I can only predict that things are going to get still worse. In the past four years, while we have been forced to focus our attention on the war in Iraq, the EPA has been steadfastly weakening federal regulations as they pertain to the recycling, reuse, and reporting of hazardous waste. These actions will take years to repair. The EPA can loosen more regulations in a single ruling than any lawsuit can rectify by challenging it.
The EPA’s mission under RCRA is first and foremost protection of human health and the environment, followed by reduction of hazardous waste generated in the first place. As long as the EPA continues to draft rules that grant exemptions and exclusions to hazardous waste recycling – in glaring opposition to the mandate of Congress – risks to our health through degradation of our environment will continue to rise.
Testifiying before Congress in support of the RCRA in 1976, the Council of Mayors warned that, left unregulated, hazardous wastes would be transported, buried, and would enter our food chain unnoticed until evidence of its presence is seen in persons or the environment. The state of our health today vindicates that warning from 1976, but rather than merely accept what is happening, I choose to question it. Rather than become a statistic, I’ve become an activist fighting back the only way I know how – within the rules of law.
We can’t continue to release toxins into the environment and expect that our air, food, and water will not be affected, that our health will not suffer. We can’t escape the effects of heavy metals by choosing organic foods if the inputs onto organic farms can be derived from non-organic sources (e.g. manures and compost from non-organic farms) and as long as conventional farms can be converted to organic without consideration for metals that may have accumulated in the soil. Like it or not, we are all in this together. We either stand while we can, or take the chance that there may be nobody left to catch us when we fall.
Don’t accept things at face value. Ask questions. For example: What do pet food and fertilizer have in common? Why is industry pushing GMOs and cloning animals? Why are we importing more foreign food?
When I broke the news to my mother in 1997 that the government she trusted was allowing hazardous waste to be disposed as fertilizer, she replied, “Who said I trusted the government? The government is made up of people, and people are fallible and corruptible. I believe in our form of government; there’s a difference.”
A very big difference, indeed.
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