Is cancer something we did to ourselves? Are we poisoning ourselves with the chemicals we use? New studies strongly suggest that cancer is a new phenomena, that ancient humans did not get cancer. The scientists’ conclusion: we created cancer.
How did we do this to ourselves?
There are roughly 8,000 chemicals in common use in the USA. Europe has roughly 800 or one tenth as many chemicals in common use. Why the difference?
The rule governing the use of new chemicals in the USA is that they can be introduced into manufacturing processes or products unless there is strong evidence that they are harmful. The European approach is the opposite: a company wanting to introduce a new chemical must first show that it is unlikely to cause harm.
The USA approach would not be so bad if we had a comprehensive way to assess the danger of these chemicals but we do not. The FDA, our main watchdog for chemicals, has tested only a small fraction of these 8,000 commonly used chemicals. We have no idea what the rest of them are doing to us.
Nicholas Kristof wrote the following on one class of particularly worrisome chemicals.
How Chemicals Affect Us
Published: May 2, 2012, The New York Times
Scientists are observing with increasing alarm that some very common hormone-mimicking chemicals can have grotesque effects.
A widely used herbicide acts as a female hormone and feminizes male animals in the wild. Thus male frogs can have female organs, and some male fish actually produce eggs. In a Florida lake contaminated by these chemicals, male alligators have tiny penises.
These days there is also growing evidence linking this class of chemicals to problems in humans. These include breast cancer, infertility, low sperm counts, genital deformities, early menstruation and even diabetes and obesity.
Philip Landrigan, a professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says that a congenital defect called hypospadias — a misplacement of the urethra — is now twice as common among newborn boys as it used to be. He suspects endocrine disruptors, so called because they can wreak havoc with the endocrine system that governs hormones.
Endocrine disruptors are everywhere. They’re in thermal receipts that come out of gas pumps and A.T.M.’s. They’re in canned foods, cosmetics, plastics and food packaging. Test your blood or urine, and you’ll surely find them there, as well as in human breast milk and in cord blood of newborn babies.
In this campaign year, we are bound to hear endless complaints about excessive government regulation. But here’s an area where scientists are increasingly critical of our government for its failure to tackle Big Chem and regulate endocrine disruptors adequately.
Last month, the Endocrine Society, the leading association of hormone experts, scolded the Food and Drug Administration for its failure to ban bisphenol-A, a common endocrine disruptor known as BPA, from food packaging. Last year, eight medical organizations representing genetics, gynecology, urology and other fields made a joint call in Science magazine for tighter regulation of endocrine disruptors.
Shouldn’t our government be as vigilant about threats in our grocery stores as in the mountains of Afghanistan?
Researchers warn that endocrine disruptors can trigger hormonal changes in the body that may not show up for decades. One called DES, a synthetic form of estrogen, was once routinely given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriage or morning sickness, and it did little harm to the women themselves. But it turned out to cause vaginal cancer and breast cancer decades later in their daughters, so it is now banned.
Scientists have long known the tiniest variations in hormone levels influence fetal development. For example, a female twin is very slightly masculinized if the other twin is a male, because she is exposed to some of his hormones. Studies have found that these female twins, on average, end up slightly more aggressive and sensation-seeking as adults but have lower rates of eating disorders.
Now experts worry that endocrine disruptors have similar effects, acting as hormones and swamping the delicate balance for fetuses in particular. The latest initiative by scholars is a landmark 78-page analysis to be published next month in Endocrine Reviews, the leading publication in the field.
“Fundamental changes in chemical testing and safety determination are needed to protect human health,” the analysis declares. Linda S. Birnbaum, the nation’s chief environmental scientist and toxicologist, endorsed the findings.
The article was written by a 12-member panel that spent three years reviewing the evidence. It concluded that the nation’s safety system for endocrine disruptors is broken.
“For several well-studied endocrine disruptors, I think it is fair to say that we have enough data to conclude that these chemicals are not safe for human populations,” said Laura Vandenberg, a Tufts University developmental biologist who was the lead writer for the panel.
Worrying new research on the long-term effects of these chemicals is constantly being published. One study found that pregnant women who have higher levels of a common endocrine disruptor, PFOA, are three times as likely to have daughters who grow up to be overweight. Yet PFOA is unavoidable. It is in everything from microwave popcorn bags to carpet-cleaning solutions.
Yes, there are uncertainties. But the scientists who know endocrine disruptors best overwhelmingly are already taking steps to protect their families. John Peterson Myers, chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences and a co-author of the new analysis, said that his family had stopped buying canned food.
“We don’t microwave in plastic,” he added. “We don’t use pesticides in our house. I refuse receipts whenever I can. My default request at the A.T.M., known to my bank, is ‘no receipt.’ I never ask for a receipt from a gas station.”
I’m taking my cue from the experts, and I wish the Obama administration would as well.
Now back to my commentary …
History is instructive.
Tobacco’s deadly effects were well documented several decades before the government was able to overcome Big Tobacco’s disinformation campaign and begin to regulate it.
Thirty five years ago, one of my students (a biochemist working for the FDA), told us about the practice of routinely adding antibiotics to animal feed. It was immediately obvious that this practice would lead to superbugs that would slaughter lots of humans. Thirty five years later the superbugs are here and are taking a serious toll on humans, and the government has taken a few baby steps to regulate the practice … but has not outright banned it as should have happened 35 years ago. The Ag industry lobbyists are still prevailing.
Another example of corporate disinformation campaigns is the war on the climate scientists. Tens of millions of dollars are being spent annually by the energy and transportation industries to discredit the climate science findings. Meanwhile, roughly 97% of the world’s climate scientists are warning that we are on the cusp of climate change so severe that it threatens the survival of civilization. And the entire Republican Party is totally committed to denying any danger from climate change.
Kristof’s article on the “endocrine disruptors” provides another chapter in this sad history: the pharmacological lobbyists prevail over the common good and human health.
What can we do?
First, vote against any idiot, Democrat or Republican, who suggests that our problems are in any way caused by too much government regulation. The opposite is true in almost every area having to do with health, nutrition, and safety.
Second, contribute to getting big money out of politics. The current system amounts to legal bribery … Corporate America has the finest congress that money can buy. Support the constitutional amendments to strip corporations of personhood and therefore the first amendment freedom of speech. Support any and all measures designed to limit the influence of mega-corporations on government.
Third, insist that our politicians be moderates who believe in learning, flexibility, and compromise. The Republicans are currently in thrall to the Tea Party whose mantra is (and I kid you not, this is really what they are saying):
- Science is nonsense and should be ignored,
- Compromise is evil,
- Anyone who disagrees with me in any particular is evil,
- I will never learn anything new,
- I will never change my mind, and
- Our policy is always the opposite of whatever Obama proposes
Grover Norquist’s “no new tax” pledge is the most obvious formulation of this mindset and almost all congressional Republicans have taken the pledge: no new taxes, ever, no matter what the situation. Norquist has publicly stated that his purpose is to starve the federal government until it is so small that it can be strangled. This is in my opinion a mindset and a strategy that in the long run guarantees the self-destruction of the party embracing it, but in the meantime it does terrible damage to the entire country.
Fourth, buy organic food and shun products like air fresheners to avoid as much of the chemicals as you can.
It seems to me that people are waking up to these dangers, but our time for avoiding catastrophe grows short.
Contact me: I love to hear from readers. Email me at cyberneticapress at gmail dot com. Thanks, Barry Clemson