Green Grab Bag

Published on November 14th, 2011 | by growwny

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A Sepulcher of Profit: Part 1

OPINION / COMMENTARY

One of the fundamental environmental injustice stories of our times, Our Stolen Future, is the first part to a two part series of the Green Watch Special Report entitled A Sepulcher of Profit”  The article was originally published in Artvoice on October 20, 2011.  The author is founder of GreenWatch and the Learning Sustainability Campaign. Click here to visit GreenWatch on Facebook.


Part 1: Our Stolen Future

In the early autumn of 2011, life on earth continues to be assaulted by and exposed to a wide variety of manmade toxins.  The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 languishes before an inept and hostile Congress.  The act, an overhaul of the ancient Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, would both protect Americans and allow the United States to join three important international treaties based around the Stockholm Convention of Persistent Organic Pollutants signed by 174 nations.  According to the Healthy Families Coalition, the passage of this act would allow the United States (US) to lead international efforts rather than stand by while allies and trading partners make important decisions.

Why is this act languishing and why is Congress hostile?  One can assume that it is an economic decision based on conservative politics that promote profit for the few above all other principles.

Next June it will be 50 years since Rachael Carson wrote and published Silent Spring.  This authoritative book linked the creation of poisons and pesticides to widespread animal mortality.  Carson accused the chemical industry and public officials of creating an abomination of disinformation and the public of a lack of critical thinking.  This deadly mix of poisons for profit and the gaming of the systems by industry and public officials has only gotten worse.

In more recent years other books and studies have backed up what Carson called irresponsible economic and public policies.  In 1996, Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival?, written by a team of authors led by Dr. Theo Colborn, introduced us to some of the terrible consequences of our chemically infused society.  Colborn is an environmental health analyst known for her work in endocrine disruption.  Our Stolen Future is essentially a detective story detailing how man-made chemicals in our environment are causing catastrophic human health effects.  Consequences include endocrine disruption, birth defects, reduced disease resistance, diminished fertility, and compromised intelligence and behavior.  This book shook society when it was first published, and if you have not heard of it, you should check it out online: www.ourstolenfuture.org.

More recently another extraordinary book, Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, has been published by Chelsea Green Publishing.  In it, former New York Times chief environmental reporter Philip Shabekoff and his wife, the widely accomplished family and consumer activist Alice Shabekoff, investigate and chronicle how our economic policies have submerged our planet in a thickening haze of toxic soup.  It tells of how most of these poisons that have been made for profit come into our bodies from little studied exposure routes.  The statistics in this book are shocking.  It tells us that today in the US one in three children are born sick.  Most of these children will endure lifelong consequences of disease.

The book identifies sources of these illnesses by comprehensively describing the health effects of exposure to industrially “produced for profit” toxics.  Like Our Stolen Future, the book details health consequences that include a widening array of birth defects, cancers, asthma, obesity, diabetes, mental and behavioral abnormalities, and other serious illnesses.

The author’s research shows that the blood of newborns contain traces of nearly 300 synthetic chemicals.  Milk from virtually every mother on the planet contains high levels of dozens of man-made poisons.  Breast milk by almost all accounts is superior to other infant food, but the increase of toxins in breast milk is alarming.  Other researchers have estimated that each human on the planet may contain traces of at least 700 human made toxins.

According to the National Cancer Institute, half of all men and women living today will have cancer at sometime in their lives.  One-eighth of all women will be diagnosed with breast cancer.  These diseases are strongly linked to human made toxins and environmental exposures.

Poisoned for Profit describes how these toxic products enjoy a complicated and dense web of legal protections.  It details how private sector money has purchased highly paid lobbyists, scientists for hire, politicians, and policy makers to trick the public, often working secretly and behind the scenes, and almost always providing no accountability.  It shows how legal and marketing strategies of gaming of the regulatory and safety systems has allowed the modern plague of profitable poisons.

Unless you are tuned in, you don’t hear much about this. Instead we hear the loud shouts that there is too much regulation and that environmental and other regulations hurt growth, hurt the economy, hurt jobs, and hurt our future.  Most regulatory agencies are on the chopping block.  This is just one of the ways that our political leaders are feeding the hidden hands that underpin and undermine our economic health.

Rachael Carson focused a great deal on the consequences of pesticides on both human health and on the lives of birds and insects.  Her work is often considered one of the founding points of modern environmentalism.  Unfortunately, in the decades since, industry has established new ground, created new products, and has continued almost unchallenged in developing a toxic legacy that we may not be able to escape.  Critical environmental thinking today brings into focus the dual challenges of climate change and the ever-increasing loss of biological diversity that underpins life on earth.  Whether or not humans can survive either or both is the scientific, ecological, economic, and social challenge of ours and the next generations.

The Vanishing of the Bees

In August 2010, a Buffalo-based not-for-profit hosted a seminar at Alfred State College focused on colony collapse disorder (CCD), a disease affecting commercial honeybees.  CCD, as it is known, has swept across the planet and has resulted in the death and destruction of up to 80 percent of commercial honeybee colonies.  According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the US has been hard hit.  These pollinators service 90 percent of our plant-based food crops, and the services are worth approximately $15 billion annually.

The New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NYSAWG) partnered with Alfred, the Penn State University Center for Pollinator Research, and the USDA Agricultural Research Services Honey Bee Pollination Lab in Tucson and invited Western New York beekeepeers, honeymakers, and others interested to come and hear the most recent findings regarding why the bees are vanishing.

Judy Einach, executive director of NYSAWG, told us that Western New York agriculture reflects the national statistics.  Agriculture is still one of the most significant areas of regional wealth and the impact of honeybees and pollinator services is an issue here as it is elsewhere.  In 2007, New York’s 36,350 farms had combined sales of $4.4 billion.

The conference focused on updating attendees on current scientific knowledge about CCD.  The main message is that widespread man-made toxins are underlying the decline in health and ultimate disappearance of domesticated bee colonies.

This is controversial because the creation and use of these toxins have become the backbone of agriculture worldwide.  The manufacture of just about every product on earth is dependent on the use of man-made chemicals.  Industry and government regulators do just about anything they can to justify the use of chemicals.  The US is a leading nation in the manufacture and approval of chemical poisons, sometimes hiding behind a curtain of industry-justified “proprietary ingredients” that do not bear up under scientific and public scrutiny. Sometimes these chemicals hide behind the misleading label “inert ingredients.”  You would think that inert ingredients mean “safe.”  They are anything but.

Penn State researcher Mary Anne Frasier and her team have scrutinized the impact of these toxins on honeybees.  “These bees are testing for multiple chemicals, and we are just learning that the many and often complicated biological interactions that are stimulated by these toxins are seriously impacting the health of individual bees and colonies.”

“For instance, we are finding that it is not just the active ingredients that cause damage.”  The other ingredients, or “inerts,” are not as well studied.  Inerts can include solvents, preservatives, and other substances and can be highly toxic.

“The inerts and the combinations of the ingredients, and in combination with other toxins pose significant dangers,” said Frasier.  “Multiple exposures to combinations of both active and inactive ingredients and other chemicals that bees are exposed to may be a central reason behind CCD.”

I asked about other sources of these chemicals.  “They are everywhere,” she said.

Indeed they are.  We live in a world saturated with man-made toxins.  Water, soils, cultivated plants and wild plants, even the air is full of toxins.  These man-made toxins affect the biology of all living things, including beneficial insects and other pollinators, birds, fish, plants and on up the food chain to humans.  The honeybees are but a shocking harbinger of the kind of biological effects that life on the planet is experiencing.  Just read Silent Spring, Our Stolen Future, and Poisoned by Profit.

Rust never sleeps

With a tip of the hat to Crazy Horse and Neil Young, it is important to realize that we are subsumed by toxics.  There must be a resurgence of our own self- renewal and relevancy.  Toxics currently are us.  Toxics infest our biological world, have changed our bodies, and there is no known escape.  It may seem to be a political externality but our culture is absolutely transformed by economic strategies that promote our complete immersion.  Agriculture and food fueled by “Monsantoized” best practices represents just the tip of the iceberg.  Virtually every product produced and consumed comes with a toxic legacy that we are only beginning to understand.  This endless list of products includes cleaners, cosmetics, clothing, furniture, soaps, paints, paper, plastics, medicines, clothing, dyes, foods of all sorts, and especially the systems that we employ to produce products—energy, transportation, storage, marketing, and our waste and disposal systems.  All come wrapped up in a toxic load that bodies absorb.

The air we breathe, the food that we eat, the waters that we drink, the land that we live on, and the buildings that we live and work in are virtual fountains of man-made toxins.  Regulatory systems have become feeble, institutionalized foxes guarding the henhouse.  Consumer, banking, health, and environmental overseers are a vanishing species, just like the honeybees.

The assault on these even moderately responsive regulatory institutions continues to be championed by industry mouthpieces.  Pundits, public officials, and politicians are often backed up by cash and well funded “think tanks” producing perfunctory talking points.  They have vowed not to stop until there are no regulatory rules left in the United States.  Writing in the conservative National Review in late July, Jim Lacey pontificates that bureaucrats for whom no one voted make decisions for which no one is holding them accountable, and that the resultant costs to business exceeds the national debt in the form of hidden taxes.

Regulatory agencies have lost the power and will to protect the public’s greater interest.  Instead they standby as guardian over the industries economic interests.  US environmental regulators almost always act on behalf of industry, espousing the “what’s best for the economy” argument.  This is a bitter and often convoluted argument that has its political genesis in the growing economic divide between the haves and the have-nots.

While it has been argued that unregulated economic development and growth is in the public’s greater interest, it is also argued that unregulated growth is unsustainable.  Why aren’t we having this public discussion?

The precautionary principle

In many countries, regulators act on what is known as the “precautionary principle.”  If a product is possibly dangerous, or human health effects are predicted or potential, the product is not given a green light until the danger has been proven to be remediated by the manufacturer.  Many pesticides and other chemicals in use in the US are banned in other countries.

In the US the regulatory process is exactly the opposite.  The manufacturer always offers its own conclusions that a product is safe.  Opponents such as consumer groups and other watchdogs must prove that the product is dangerous.  Consumer groups rarely have the financial resources to go against a well funded industry.  For us, it is buy and maybe die.  Buy first.

Following in a long line of regulatory decisions, in June of this year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the use of a new pesticide to treat “nuisance” insects.  The active ingredient of the product, Dinotefuran, is a broad-based insect killer that has long been linked to CCD.  Industry scientists say the product is safe and industry profiteers say that the product is good for the economy.  Growing scientific evidence, outside of industry science, is showing that this toxic is a problem for honeybees.  Despite that potential economic impact on food production, it is now legally used in at least seven Northeast states.  Add this to a long list of killer pesticides, miticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and other toxins approved by the EPA and used by agriculture that industry and regulators want you to oxymoronically consider “safe.”

The decline of this accountability in the name of profits and economic growth is continuous and off the radar of most people.  Our culture has become the enabler that allows the gaming of the system, and the proliferation of poisoned products.  How do you argue that unlimited economic growth based on unregulated profit is the best course for humanities future considering the abuses?  How do you say that to the one in three children born today with lifelong disease associated with  profitable, man-made chemicals?  How do you tell that to your mother or sister with breast cancer?  How do you tell that to your father or grandfather with prostate cancer?

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