“Benefit of the doubt goes to the children, not to chemicals.” (P 118--in reference to parts of Canada banning pesticide use for cosmetic reasons)
Sandra Steingraber’s book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, weaves a personal journey—that of a cancer survivor—with the rise and distribution of environmental contaminants and how science, policy, and society respond to the risks inherent in (especially) purposeful release of contaminants into the environment. As a form of science communication—and by a scientist—Steingraber’s book does a beautiful job of creating an engaging story grounded in science and why different societies come to different solutions in regulating their contaminants. I find this story interesting on a personal front because Tazwell County, Illinois is where my mother’s family is from and where most of them still live—not only for this reason, but this is also a book that I think some of them might be interested in reading (perhaps the very first of them in the seminar this semester) because of its readable prose and because contaminant exposure is something they must think about living amid the corn. So, of course, now I’m extra worried about myself and my family, pondering the contaminant load that we may all carry. But, of course, Tazwell County is not an exceptional county—it is nearly Any County. And Steingraber is not an outlier (although we could argue that she is exceptional in her talents)—she is Every Woman. We all bare the risks of a nation and world that is profligate in its contaminant use.
Living Downstream makes a number of very good points: that it is difficult to link clusters of cancer to local environments for a number of reasons including having a good control group, the problem of being spatially confounded, the lack of a federal cancer registry that tracks people and place throughout a lifetime, and the latency between exposure and effect which may span decades. When contamination was listed a potential cause for amphibian population declines, a research area that I was focusing on, it was clear that even if contamination did contribute to declines, the link between declines and contaminants was going to be challenging to make because (1) thousands of contaminants are purposefully released into the environment and any one of them could be the cause or any combination of them may be necessary to elicit the effect; (2) effects of environmental contaminants typically do not cause direct mortality, but they can have more subtle effects that could be missed, such as death during overwintering or increasing susceptibility to disease or reproductive impacts that decrease fertility; (3) measuring contaminant loads in the field and in organisms is typically cost prohibitive on a large scale especially if you do not know which contaminant you are targeting; (4) timing of exposure can be important in determining the effect it has, for instance exposure early in life may have profound effects, while exposure at later life stages does not; and (5) exposure may have occurred, but it may not be detectable since many pesticides are relatively short-lived. All of this plays to the advantage of industry and chemical manufacturers when the regulatory system assumes a chemical is “innocent” unless other, often unfunded independent researchers, can demonstrate that there is ample evidence of harm.
So, it is particularly interesting to read that parts of Canada have banned pesticide use for cosmetic reasons—no chemical lawn care (which should be a low hanging fruit solution)! The European Union member states revised their policy because it failed to protect people and the environment and their new policy is one of precaution that gives the government “a freer hand to restrict chemicals and compels substitutions of toxic chemicals with safer ones.” (They have for instance, banned the herbicide atrazine based on the available evidence, something that the US regulatory agency seems unlikely to do in any reasonable time frame.) In contrast, industry plays a large role in the regulatory process in the US, which may explain why few chemicals in recent times have been banned, despite indications that they can cause harm not only to natural systems, but humans as well.
A childhood friend just shared this morning that she has metastasized breast cancer. We have all, undoubtedly, lost people we love and care about to cancer—or if we are lucky, we have watched friends and family survive cancer but have seen the toll that is paid to be a survivor. Some of us will get cancer—any living life form is at risk. When we do the cost-benefit analysis, how do you put a price on human suffering not to mention the ecological changes that result? There are certainly times when pesticides are needed (or contaminant release may be necessary), but because of the inherent risks, the bar should be reasonably high. Instead, the bar is set woefully low. It’s why Silent Spring remains relevant over 50 years after its publication, although *most* of the biocides she refers to have been banned or are more limited in use. Sandra Steingraber makes a compelling argument in the 21st century, and demonstrates that scientists can relay the data in meaningful and beautiful ways. I am cheering for her (despite my disposition against cheering in general)…on multiple fronts.