Industry Versus Precaution In Massachusetts

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 ascribe to the proposed commission extraordinary powers, also absent from the bill. Another 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 < < >>.

Leave a comment