International Women’s Day 2018
Today my thoughts are centered on my brave beautiful daughter who is just recovering from breast cancer surgery. She has excellent prospects for a full and happy life, but I think of the many women who do not have such excellent care. I also am so thankful that the understanding and treatment are so much more advanced than when Rachel Carson faced a tragic encounter with this disease. In only a few decades the diagnosis of cancer has gone from a stigma and certain death sentence to a treatable condition.
I think of Rachel Carson who wrote much of Silent Spring while in serious suffering from the advanced
stages of breast cancer. She faced not only the lack of technology for diagnosis and treatment but also the difficulties of dealing with a male oriented medical establishment. Her courage in the face of her private and ultimately losing battle with cancer qualifies her as a heroine not only for the environmental movement but also for the millions of women who suffer the affliction of breast cancer.
“FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, EVERY HUMAN BEING IS NOW SUBJECTED TO CONTACT WITH DANGEROUS CHEMICALS, FROM THE MOMENT OF CONCEPTION UNTIL DEATH.”
So many people deal with cancer now. Many have multiple tumors over a lifetime. Some explain the higher incidence of cancer to the longer life span in modern times. Others draw a strong correlation with the chemical stew that penetrates our bodies from birth to death. The average newborn child in America has over 200 synthetic chemicals in his or her body at birth, 79 of which are known mutagens and carcinogens.(1) While scientists continue to explore the causes of cancers, and some are better understood than others, there is a sinister accumulation of man-made materials that play a role in our collective vulnerability.
To make cancer a less prominent feature of our health expectations, we need to reduce the flow of toxic synthetic materials. The entire regulatory system is designed to try to limit the amount of toxics that can be released into the air or water. However, the additive effect of even permitted levels yields millions of pounds of toxic releases a year. (2) A better approach would limit the hazard of products by design. This is the exciting field of Green Chemistry which can limit the amount of carcinogenic and mutagenic material in the air, water and land by designing materials that are benign and biodegradable by design. Prevention rather than dilution will produce better materials with less impact on the living Earth.
If we are to take a serious effort to control cancer and endocrine disruption for the next generation, we must begin by redirecting our materials supply chain away from fossil based precursors and toward biologically benign materials. The process of converting fossil based raw material to products and then to trash as quickly as possible is killing the living Earth. And as part of the creatures of the living Earth we are killing ourselves too. Green chemistry and bio-based materials as well as processes to remove and destroy synthetic hydrocarbons from water supplies holds great promise for a much more healthy and sustainable world.(3) Technology will not save us unless we add the Ethical element of choosing to pursue technologies that support and preserve the life support system of the Earth.
As I am now facing my fourth tumor, all of independent origin over two decades, I wonder about the many exposures I have experienced in my life. The technician at the MRI lab sternly telling me to control my breathing said there are many people with multiple tumors as they reach advanced years. She seemed to think it was a normal thing to accumulate cancers with age. I do not accept that as normal! I think of the many years I spent as a child living in a community where every house burned
coal for heat, and we played in the coal pile, looking for fossils, and finding many! Of course we were covered in coal dust. Then, the skies were full of smoke, with cinders actively falling to coat everything with a foul, oily and gritty blackness from the steel mills and coke operations that defined Pittsburgh. Beyond that, DDT was sprayed on everything from trucks that coursed through the neighborhoods, especially on the compound we lived in in Manilla, Philippines in the ’50s. And, I worked in a biology laboratory as an undergraduate, in times when scintillation fluid was washed down the sink, and I stood over the toluene fumes for hours at a time cleaning the vials. And what of the open air testing of nuclear weapons that filled the air with radioactivity around the globe? Or the teflon frying pans everybody thought was so wonderful? I have reverted to well-used cast iron but nobody alive is immune from the plastics and preservatives and additives in our food. It is a wonder we survive at all!
The worst horror of my nightmares is not my own saga of assault by out of control cells, but the thought that my children will suffer from something in my life of chemical exposure and environmental mutagens. This is the motive that propels my purpose and my advocacy for reform. I have such fears for the next generation as the evidence that the “Fable for Tomorrow” Rachel Carson described in Silent Spring is already upon us.
- Sara Goodman. “Tests Find More Than 200 Chemicals in Umbilical Cord Blood. Scientific American. December 2, 2009. Accessed 8 March 2018. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/newborn-babies-chemicals-exposure-bpa/
- US Environmental Protection Agency. Toxic Releases Inventory (TRI) 2016- Executive Summary. Accessed 8 March 2018. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-01/documents/2016_tri_national_analysis_execsumm.pdf
- Terry Collins. Green Chemistry. Science and Society.July 27, 2012. Accessed 8 March 2018. http://scienceandsociety.net/2012/07/27/dr-terry-collins-–-green-chemistry/