Saturday, July 4, 2009

Time for another revolution: Against corporate irresponsibility

Fireworks NYE2005Image by Mr Magoo ICU via Flickr

Native Oregonian Nick Kristof's alarming column in the NY Times makes clear that the revolution we need now is against corporate-controlled science that urges us to keep producing and eating, drinking and breathing new chemicals --- unique molecules created in laboratories --- without a care in the world.

The corporations that rule politics in the US are unique entities --- devices for generating private profit while avoiding private liability for harm caused to others. Thus, they enjoy the right to keep spreading pollutants and hormone-mimics that disrupt cell biology until there's an airtight scientific case against them AND the political will to force those pollutants off the market, which often takes decades.

In other words, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty, and the onus (the burden of proof) is on us to force these dangerous molecules off the market -- which requires that the bodies and deformities pile up first, while the companies profits' pile up, giving them the resources to fog the issues and protect their "right" to keep on manufacturing and releasing toxins to hurt others.

As we celebrate Independence Day, it's time for another revolution, this time to throw off the shackles of an outmoded way of thinking about corporate privileges and responsibilities. We must shift the onus off us and put it back on those corporations who create and peddle compounds that kill and maim.

It's long past time for a revolution in regulation, one that says that molecules not found in nature are not innocent until proven guilty. Rather, molecules created in laboratories must be considered as suspect until they are scrutinized closely and cleared, just like people the national borders. It's astonishing how much we spend in response to fear of terrorists from abroad when we have huge sectors of US industry that are merrily poisoning us right here at home without a second thought.

The consequence of this revolutionary idea is that corporations will no longer be able to put a product or material into commerce until they show that it is safe for human exposure and for release into the environment. No more making victims first and then making the survivors fight to abolish the compounds that kill and deform.
. . . Now scientists are connecting the dots with evidence of increasing abnormalities among humans, particularly large increases in numbers of genital deformities among newborn boys. For example, up to 7 percent of boys are now born with undescended testicles, although this often self-corrects over time. And up to 1 percent of boys in the United States are now born with hypospadias, in which the urethra exits the penis improperly, such as at the base rather than the tip.

Apprehension is growing among many scientists that the cause of all this may be a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors. They are very widely used in agriculture, industry and consumer products. Some also enter the water supply when estrogens in human urine — compounded when a woman is on the pill — pass through sewage systems and then through water treatment plants.

These endocrine disruptors have complex effects on the human body, particularly during fetal development of males.

“A lot of these compounds act as weak estrogen, so that’s why developing males — whether smallmouth bass or humans — tend to be more sensitive,” said Robert Lawrence, a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s scary, very scary.”

The scientific case is still far from proven, as chemical companies emphasize, and the uncertainties for humans are vast. But there is accumulating evidence that male sperm count is dropping and that genital abnormalities in newborn boys are increasing. Some studies show correlations between these abnormalities and mothers who have greater exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy, through everything from hair spray to the water they drink.

Endocrine disruptors also affect females. It is now well established that DES, a synthetic estrogen given to many pregnant women from the 1930s to the 1970s to prevent miscarriages, caused abnormalities in the children. They seemed fine at birth, but girls born to those women have been more likely to develop misshaped sexual organs and cancer.

There is also some evidence from both humans and monkeys that endometriosis, a gynecological disorder, is linked to exposure to endocrine disruptors. Researchers also suspect that the disruptors can cause early puberty in girls.

A rush of new research has also tied endocrine disruptors to obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes, in both animals and humans. For example, mice exposed in utero even to low doses of endocrine disruptors appear normal at first but develop excess abdominal body fat as adults.

Among some scientists, there is real apprehension at the new findings — nothing is more terrifying than reading The Journal of Pediatric Urology — but there hasn’t been much public notice or government action.

This month, the Endocrine Society, an organization of scientists specializing in this field, issued a landmark 50-page statement. It should be a wake-up call.

“We present the evidence that endocrine disruptors have effects on male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid, metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology,” the society declared.

“The rise in the incidence in obesity,” it added, “matches the rise in the use and distribution of industrial chemicals that may be playing a role in generation of obesity.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is moving toward screening endocrine disrupting chemicals, but at a glacial pace. For now, these chemicals continue to be widely used in agricultural pesticides and industrial compounds. Everybody is exposed.

“We should be concerned,” said Dr. Ted Schettler of the Science and Environmental Health Network. “This can influence brain development, sperm counts or susceptibility to cancer, even where the animal at birth seems perfectly normal.” . . .

Kristof is really on a roll lately. This second piece is repeats a point made by many, often hilariously (that we're evolved to face hazards that appear out of the bushes, with big teeth, and we have a hard time dealing with or even recognizing far graver hazards that only appear as scientific data . . . until it's too late) but it's great to see this idea being discussed in the archaic media.

1 comment:

jom139 said...

Hey Walker,

I really enjoyed your article about corporate irresponsibility. It's irreverently well-written about a topic that needs greater coverage and collective activism.

If you're looking to get involved, I suggest checking out some watchdog non-profits. Corporate Accountability International is one worth investigating (and you can vote for which company is the worst of 2009 here ). Good luck with your endeavors and keep on writing!