Toxic Tide: No Place to Hide
Part 5: What this means - our conclusions
At the beginning of this study, we asked ourselves the questions:
- Is cancer incidence really so high in St. Lawrence and
Jefferson counties as everyone seems to think?
- If it is high, is it because of environmental pollution?
- If so, what pollutants are responsible, where do they come
from, and what can we do about it?
As we saw above, we do not have a complete answer to the first question. Incidence of some cancers are higher, some are lower. Overall cancer incidence in women is higher than the state average in Jefferson, lower in St. Lawrence County.
To the second question, we can answer definitively that cancer
incidence is high, even if it is not higher than the state average.
We can also answer definitively that this high cancer incidence is
linked to environmental pollution.
To the third question, we know in general what pollutants are
responsible, and we know where they come from. We know that there are a lot of bullets out there, and we are pulling the trigger. We are still dealing with the question of what to do about it.
Following are some of our conclusions, based on our study so far:
- The concerns of people of Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties
about cancer are justified even if cancer incidence is not above
average. One in three women and one in two men in the US will get
cancer in their lifetimes, and one in four people will die of
cancer. This is nothing to be complacent about. It is hard to think
of it as anything other than a full-blown epidemic. We should not
be lulled into complacency even if we find that incidence is our
area is not above normal. Normal is bad enough!
- Given the enormity of the problem, there appears to be a serious lack of concern on the part of the government health departments. Indeed, there seems to be a tendency to play down the problem and deny its environmental links. Along with this apparent lack of concern is a lack of readily available reliable information on
cancer incidence and trends, disaggregated by locality and
correlated to pollutants present in the environment. This lack of
information is a barrier to public understanding of the issue and
to wise action on the part of communities to create a healthy,
- Standard warnings to stop smoking, eat less fat, eat fresh
vegetables, and exercise are important, but inadequate to the
problem. Smoking clearly causes cancer. But despite the repeated
claim that eating fat causes cancer, there appears to be no
scientific study showing this. In fact, evidence from Eskimo
populations before the advent of modernization indicate this claim
may be untrue. Early studies of Eskimos, who were high fat eaters,
showed no cancer (The Ecologist, Vol.28, No.2, March/April 1998, p.94). The cancer-fat link may well be the high solubility of carcinogens in fat. The main problem then is carcinogens, not fat. As for fresh vegetables, some of their health benefits may be offset by their contamination with carcinogenic agricultural chemicals.
- Standard advice on prevention focuses exclusively on what
individuals can do to protect themselves. It does not, in general,
promote collective action to address the source of the problem, for
example, by calling for a ban on the chemicals that are causing
much of the problem in the first place.
- Almost all of the funding for cancer research goes into searching for cures after people become ill, rather than removing the source of the problem. Chemical and pharmaceutical companies, who stand to profit from both cause and cure, fund a major part of cancer research. Yet we know that prevention is always preferable to, and cheaper than, cure.
- Cancer is a disease of industrialization. The only sane way to deal with it is to ban production and use of human-made carcinogens. Toxic persistent chemicals now on the market should be banned. Before new chemicals are marketed, manufacturers should have to prove that they are safe. Public expenditures for environmental regulation should be increased, not decreased. Trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), that limit public rights to regulate corporate behavior, should be amended to restore our rights or opposed. The standards of approval of potentially carcinogenic new industrail chemicals should be "guilty until proven innocent" in order to ensure the protection of our families and communities.
- Reducing the use of toxins saves money spent on materials and waste disposal and it improves health and safety in the home and workplace. Businesses that reduced toxics reported reduced
compliance requirements and increased marketing advantage
(Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly #602). Reduced use of toxics will help curb skyrocketing health care costs for businesses and families.
- Although the problem may appear overwhelming and beyond our individual capacities to deal with, we should not retreat into
helplessness and denial. There is much work to be done. Further
research is necessary to educate ourselves and the public about the
cancer environmental links. We are all in this together, and we must work together to solve our common problems.
- Careful thought should go into whether we carry out an community health survey. The purpose of such a survey would be to identify unusual patterns in the occurrence of disease, and to trace the disease to a specific environmental hazard in the community.
Community health studies are expensive and time-consuming and are often met with opposition from local and state officials, not to
mention those who are responsible for the hazardous pollution.
Those that succeed in bring about changes require an enormous
commitment on the part of community members who become involved.
- Even if we would find a "cancer cluster" in a given community and decide to undertake a community health survey, we should not forget that "normal is bad enough!" We should not neglect action to protect ourselves against and eliminate environmental carcinogens that affect us all.
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