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Environmental cause of the cancer epidemic

“Why poison ourselves?,” Anne McGinn asked in a Worldwatch Institute report on synthetic chemicals. Through their usefulness in many products, these now surround us in many ways in our daily life. Their industrial manufacture, starting in the early 20th century, followed chemists’ discovery of a process to produce them “directly from oil.” It took only a few decades before Rachel Carson would detail how the earth was being poisoned through them and the “voices of spring” silenced. In 1984, a gas leak from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, made clear their acute danger potential for humans directly: 16,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were injured in that night’s accident. In 2001, an international treaty, acknowledging long-term health effects – various forms of cancer, hormonal-system disruption and interference with fetal development – from even very low levels of exposure banned some of the most dangerous synthetics with aim to spur safer alternatives.
As recently reported, the World Health Organization projects that, this year, cancer will become the world’s leading cause of death. Death certificates in the United States ranked cancer eighth as killing disease in 1900; it now surpasses heart disease as the No. 1 killer. Its ever higher incidence, age adjusted, and steep increases in childhood cancers have had many health researchers point to the spread of synthetic chemicals as prime reason for the epidemic.
A May 2010 report by the President’s Cancer Panel, like an earlier presidential panel report three decades ago, affirms such conclusions. “The American people,” it states, “even before they are born are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures.” The burden of “cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposure” afflicts 41 percent of Americans at some point in their lives, though this could have been prevented through appropriate national action. The report urges President Obama to “use the power of [his] office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water and air that needlessly devastate American lives.”
In a highly encouraging development, a “Safe Chemicals Act” (S.3209), introduced in the US Senate in April would curb the commercial introduction of new synthetics, now exceeding a thousand a year, unless there is knowledge of what they might do to people’s health and safety, or the environment. Now available for only about 200 of more than 80,000 registered synthetic chemicals, the bill would require of manufacturers a minimal set of data on each chemical, within five years. It would place the burden of proof on the producer, rather than on the Environmental Protection Agency after evidence of harm from a substance has become strong. It would also establish an incentive program to encourage companies to use or produce safer alternatives to some chemicals.
“Roughly a century after the synthetic revolution began,” McGinn noted, “it’s still common to synthesize first and ask the hard questions later.” This trouble-laden approach would cease should S.3209 become law. One hopes that Tennessee’s Senators, especially Lamar Alexander who must help shepherd the bill through the environment committee, will lend it their hearty support.