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genetic engineering

Somethings wrong with the kids: chemical industry vs. precaution

This past May, an array of doctors, scientists, activists, and public
health professionals presented such evidence to a subcommittee of the
Massachusetts state legislature, in support of a proposed bill. The bill,
S-1115, would establish a commission to comprehensively study and recommend
action on children's health issues. ... .. Chemical industry fights the bill
February 06, 2002
> By A.J. Chien
>
> Something's wrong with the kids.
>
> Childhood asthma incidence has doubled in the past decade. For children
> under five it increased by 160 percent between 1980 and 1994. Asthma is now
> the leading chronic disease in children, affecting 5 million kids in the U.
> S.
>
> Learning disabilities are increasing dramatically. One child in six is
> afflicted by autism, aggression, dyslexia, or attention deficit disorder.
> In New York, cases of learning disability rose 55 percent between 1983 and
> 1996, from 132,000 to 204,000. In California there were 11,995 reported
> cases of autism in 1998, up 210 percent from 1987.
>
> The rate of genital birth defects in boys has soared. Between 1968 and
> 1993, incidence of hypospadia (in which the urethra exits near the base of
> the penis instead of the end) doubled in the U. S., and now affects one in
> every 125 boys born in the country, an astonishing rate.
>
> Girls are reaching puberty at startlingly young ages. According to a 1997
> study, some 15 percent of white girls were budding breasts and growing
> pubic hair by age 8, and about five percent by age 7. For African Americans
> girls almost half were developing breasts or pubic hair by age 8.
>
> Childhood cancer rates are rising. According to the National Cancer
> Institute, the age-adjusted incidence of cancer in children under 14
> increased by almost 21 percent between 1975 and 1998. During this time,
> bone and joint cancers rose by almost 66 percent, gliomas by over 38
> percent, nervous system tumors by 30 percent, and acute lymphocytic
> leukemia by over 25 percent.
>
> As Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine puts it, these
> are "ominous trends." What's behind them? In some cases a genetic component
> is suspected, but population-level genetic change comes much too slowly to
> explain recent trends.
>
> In contrast, the number and volume of synthetic chemicals introduced into
> the environment and marketplace has exploded over the postwar decades, and
> there is suggestive evidence for a range of consequent health problems.
> Solvents in paint, gasoline, strippers, and dry cleaning have been
> associated with miscarriages, birth defects, and child leukemia and brain
> cancers.
>
> Pthalates, found in cosmetics and many plastic products including toys,
> have been correlated with lung, liver, and heart problems, and with
> premature puberty in a study of Puerto Rican girls. Sulfur dioxide and
> other air pollutants can trigger asthma, a possible explanation for the
> existence of "asthma clusters" in polluted areas.
>
> Various pesticides found on food, no-pest strips, lawns, and other sources,
> have been linked to leukemia and other cancers. Mercury-contaminated fish
> eaten by pregnant women is a contributing cause of the more than 60,000
> children born every year at elevated risk for learning disabilities,
> according to the National Academy of Sciences.
>
> Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), ubiquitous worldwide, have been linked to
> deficits in intellectual performance, memory and attention span for kids
> exposed before birth, even at what are considered "normal" levels of
> exposure. Cadmium released from incineration, energy plants, sewage, and
> other sources has been linked to various neurological disorders.
>
> A component of plastic which leeches into food from the lining of tin cans,
> food containers, and baby bottles has been linked in animal studies to
> early puberty, reproductive disorders, and breast cancer risk. Dioxins
> emitted by incinerators and numerous industrial processes, and pervasive in
> meat and dairy products because like PCBs and other toxins they accumulate
> in animal fat, are probable carcinogens which have also been linked to
> developmental and learning disabilities.
>
> This past May, an array of doctors, scientists, activists, and public
> health professionals presented such evidence to a subcommittee of the
> Massachusetts state legislature, in support of a proposed bill. The bill,
> S-1115, would establish a commission to comprehensively study and recommend
> action on children's health issues.
>
> Why a special effort for kids? Because, the subcommittee heard, they are
> more vulnerable to toxins as they breathe, eat, and drink more per pound of
> body weight than adults. They encounter contaminants in dust, dirt, and
> carpets as they crawl and stumble, and often ingest them when they suck
> their thumbs or put objects in their mouths.
>
> Nursing children are exposed to contaminants accumulated in breast tissue,
> receiving their total lifetime "safe" limit of dioxin in the first six
> months of nursing.
>
> Children's immune systems, brains, and reproductive systems are immature
> and susceptible to permanent damage, at the same time that they are not
> fully capable of detoxifying alien chemicals. Damage can occur even at low
> levels of exposure.
>
> As the book Our Stolen Future first comprehensively discussed, timing can
> be more important than dosage: at early ages, even small disruptions of the
> hormone messages that instruct development can result in lifelong damage.
>
> But current regulations on toxic chemicals are based on research which
> gauges effects on a 155-pound adult male, with children regarded simply as
> "little adults." In March of 1998, the EPA's Scientific Advisory Panel
> warned that current guidelines for developmental neurotoxicity testing did
> not cover the full window of children's vulnerability.
>
> The regulatory system also has many other problems. For non-pesticide and
> non-pharmaceutical chemicals, no pre-manufacturing toxicity tests are
> required by the EPA.
>
> For pesticides, a number of tests are required but none for the endocrine
> system, immune system, or nervous system. Such omissions partly explain
> why, of the nearly 3000 high-volume chemicals which are produced at over a
> million pounds per year, basic toxicity data is lacking for 75 percent. It
> is almost entirely lacking for combinatory effects, as testing proceeds on
> a chemical-by-chemical basis.
>
> One might have thought that an advisory commission dedicated to protecting
> children would be uncontroversial, particularly since no funding was
> requested. But in fact the subcommittee heard considerable opposition.
> Representatives of the biotechnology and chemical industries argued that
> the commission is unnecessary, expressing satisfaction with the regulatory
> status quo.
>
> The lightning rod for industry opposition was the "Precautionary Principle"
> (PP), formulated in the bill as "the responsibility of all persons,
> agencies and legal entities in the Commonwealth to take responsible
> precautionary measures whenever there is a potential for harm to health or
> the environment...even when the nature or magnitude of the harmful effects
> are not fully understood."
>
> The wording closely follows the 1998 Wingspread consensus of a panel of
> scientists, activists, and government researchers, as well as statements
> issued from the UN Earth Summit Conference, the Kyoto protocol, and
> European environmental ministers.
>
> Essentially it's just "better safe than sorry," as for example when the
> Surgeon General's warning for cigarettes was mandated at a time when
> smoking's links to lung cancer were suspected but not yet proven.
>
> Reasonable people may disagree on precisely how to state the PP and apply
> it in specific cases. As Jean Halloran of the Consumers Union remarks, "In
> the case of bovine growth hormone, with zero benefits to consumers, there's
> no reason to tolerate any risk, no matter how farfetched or small. With a
> new cancer drug, we'll tolerate a lot of risk.
>
> With beef hormones, we can imagine two different societies coming to
> different judgments, but we can also imagine the beef industry in one of
> those societies distorting science to exaggerate or underestimate a risk in
> order to influence how society ends up feeling."
>
> But the industry representatives had no interest in advancing the
> discussion. They aimed rather to dismiss the PP entirely, by attacking its
> least plausible version. Thus the Massachusetts Chemistry and Technology
> Alliance testified that the PP tolerates no risk, and would have ruled out
> water purification, seat belts, and polio vaccination - contrary to the
> bill's actual proposal, that proponents just must prove an activity to be
> "the least harmful feasible alternative."
>
> Another tactic was to call the PP "anti-science," a flaw that somehow
> escaped the scientists testifying in favor of the bill. But the charge does
> seem to apply to industry groups' influence on the direction of research,
> their privatization of scientific results, and their suppression of
> findings that they don't like.
>
> (For details see Rampton and Stauber, Trust Us We're Experts, and Fagin and
> Lavelle, Toxic Deception.)
>
> The PP is anyway not just about science. It's for scientists to discover
> evidence of safety and harm, evidence which comes in degrees. But it's for
> the public to determine what actions to take given what degrees, and the PP
> just means acting sooner than later.
>
> Under the veneer of its professed concern for public safety and sound
> science is industry's fear of what the PP could mean to profits. As Rampton
> and Stauber note, the PP "is revolutionary because there are tens of
> thousands of chemicals that have already been introduced into common use
> without careful testing for long-term health effects.
>
> For the biotechnology industry, the principle is dangerous because
> thousands of products in development involve genetically modified foods,
> medical treatments, and other processes that they believe are safe but
> whose safety cannot be proven except in practice. For the automobile,
> fossil fuel, and mining industries, the [PP] is dangerous because growing
> evidence of global warming threatens to impose substantial changes on the
> way they do business."
>
> This is why industry spends large sums on public relations. For example in
> December 1994, two months after being advised by a consulting firm to
> "mobilize science against the precautionary principle," the Chlorine
> Chemical Council (CCC) increased its budget to $12 million for lobbying and
> public relations.
>
> Much of it was devoted to challenging an incriminating EPA report on
> dioxins and similar compounds. In 1999, industry groups organized two
> forums devoted to attacking the PP, including one hosted by the
> industry-funded Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (which testified against
> the proposed child health commission) and whose sponsors included the CCC,
> Chemical Manufacturers Association, and Koch Industries (which recently
> agreed to pay a record $35 million for hundreds of oil leaks in six states).
>
> Through these and many other efforts, industry continually influences
> policymakers, the media, scientists, and professional associations, and is
> effectively present in government itself through a "revolving door" -
> including EPA advisory panels, as recently reported by the General
> Accounting Office.
>
> So the fierce opposition to the Massachusetts bill was to be expected. It
> was also successful, at least for the time being. According to John McNabb,
> State Legislative Director for Clean Water Action, the bill would have been
> killed but for a last-minute intervention by Senator Susan Fargo.
>
> After McNabb alerted her, Fargo persuaded Chairman Robert Koczera and
> Senator Marc Pacheco to instead place the bill in "active study," meaning
> that there will be another session to consider it sometime before the end
> of 2002. (Governor Jane Swift also has the power to create a child health
> commission on her own, though as yet there are no indications she'll do so.)
>
> The chemical industry and its allies have not yet won, but their
> determination will have to be matched by an ongoing collective response
> from those who want to see a decent future for our kids, and everyone else
> too - not just in Massachusetts.
>
> Postscript: Concerned citizens of Massachusetts can help by contacting
> their state representatives about S-1115, and by joining the Alliance for a
> Healthy Tomorrow, at  http://www.healthytomorrow.org.
>