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Wednesday, July 7,2010

A reactionary approach to chemicals

by Dave Dempsey

When the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year conferred personhood on corporations for the purpose of spending money on political campaigns, it was only doing what has been done for decades with commercial chemicals. The umbrella of the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution shields these roughly 80,000 chemicals.


In layperson’s terms, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. It’s the burden of government to show they’re harmful in order to keep or pull them off the market, not the job of the chemical manufacturers to show they’re safe.


What does that mean for the rest of us persons?


If a little-noticed report of the President’s Cancer Panel released in May is accurate, it means a great deal for our health.


The panel consists of three members (two of whom, both physicians, were serving at the time of the report) “exceptionally qualified” to appraise the nation’s cancer program and in this case appointed by former President Bush. The panel said, “The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated” and recommended action to reduce our exposure to carcinogens. It also urged President Obama “to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”


The panel called the current domestic approach to chemical policy “reactionary rather than precautionary,” adding that a hazard must be “incontrovertibly demonstrated” before official action is taken to abate it. Maybe the most memorable line of the report is the panel’s statement that “babies are born ‘pre-polluted’” because they’re exposed to some of 300 chemicals that have been found in umbilical cord blood.


That has resonance in Michigan, where environmental health advocates have been trying to win a state ban on a chemical called BPA (for bisphenol-A) from products like sippy cups and baby bottles to protect children. Exposure to low doses of BPA has been linked to breast and prostate cancer, abnormal behavior, diabetes and heart disease, infertility and developmental and reproductive harm.


Although some say the science is not yet absolutely clear that BPA causes cancer and other childhood health problems, plenty of evidence does, and a precautionary approach would support taking the stuff out. But why did we let it into children’s products anyway? Who said yes to BPA? No one, really. Only the manufacturers had a voice in that.


The question now is who will say yes to taking BPA out of baby products sold in Michigan. East Lansing State Rep. Mark Meadows has proposed legislation (H.B. 4522) to ban the manufacture and sale of products aimed at children age 7 and under that contain BPA.


In Michigan, according to state Department of Community Health data, 1,713 children under age 15 suffered various cancers between 2002 and 2006. The statewide incidence was 16.5 cases per 100,000 kids. The rates in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties were 21.0, 16.4 and 15.6 — 84 kids in all. That’s 84 heartbreaking stories for real families.


The American Cancer Society bristled a little at the cancel panel’s report, objecting to the adverb “grossly” and saying the report gave short shrift to known causes of cancer like tobacco, obesity, sunlight and alcohol. It’s interesting that with the exception of tobacco, these causes are not linked to corporations.


The Cancer Society’s reservations do make sense in the short run. Locked up by lobbyists, bills at the federal and state level to reset chemical policy and ban potentially cancer-causing products are likely to go nowhere fast. What is controllable is individual action. This summer, that means not going out in the sun during peak hours for ultraviolet radiation (roughly noon to 4 p.m.) without protection like a wide brimmed hat, long sleeves and sunglasses.


The risk of incurring the deadliest skin cancer, melanoma, rises with repeated exposures during these peak UV hours, but sunscreen manufacturers offer a false sense of security that their products will fully protect your family.


Other suggestions come from the cancer panel, perhaps most important choosing toys, garden products and foods that have fewer toxins to protect pregnant women and young children.


All of these ideas are good, but they’re a supplement to, not a substitute for, a healthy change in the policies the nation uses to manage commercial chemicals. The change is simple: strip the chemicals of their personhood, and elevate the rights and health of children above theirs.


(Dave Dempsey was environmental adviser to former Gov. James Blanchard. Dempsey@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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