Two books I’ve read recently have led to my musings on the fallout from humanity’s favorite pastime—and I don’t mean the obvious stuff like thousands of deaths, more thousands with absent limbs or battered brains, and still more with PTSD and other anti-social maladies. I’m talking about the lovely by-products of war which shape our societies for years afterwards. Jaron Lanier in his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget, for example, points out that modern computers were developed to guide missiles and break secret military codes. He lumps chess and computers as having derived from violence and competition. Even more specific, however, is Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (first published 1997; recently expanded and reissued). There she points out the often-direct relationship between war innovations and the chemicals that cause cancer. In commenting about the steep rise in lymphomas, for example, she writes that they seem to be correlated with exposure to synthetic chemicals, “especially a class of pesticides known as phenoxy herbicides.” And where did these originate? They were “born in 1942 as part of a never-implemented plan by the U.S. military to destroy rice fields in Japan” (52). Never implemented, of course, because we dropped two atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead. Nonetheless, the chemicals referred to are the now-infamous 2,4,5-T (2,4,5 trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4-D (2,4, dichlorophenoxyacetic acid). In combination, they are known as Agent Orange, which the military was finally able to use in Vietnam between 1962 and 1970, and which contributed to uncounted deaths among Vietnamese, and a still rising incidence of non-Hodgkins lymphomas and lesser ailments among American veterans of Vietnam. The combination was outlawed in 1970, but one of the pair, 2,4-D is still in use, having become one of our most popular domestic weed killers for lawns, gardens, golf courses and farm fields. Its use on lawns may be one of the reasons why so many of our dogs—rolling happily in our chemicalized lawns--have been contracting lymphomas.
More generally, war provides industry, including the chemical industry, with a wonderful testing ground for all kinds of products. And when the war is over, those products find a new home in our homes. Steingraber again points out that after 1940,
…synthetic organic chemical production [doubled] every seven to eight years. By the end of the 1980s, total production had exceeded 200 billion pounds per year. In other words, production of synthetic organic chemicals increased 100-fold between the time my mother was born and the year I finished graduate school. Two human generations (90.)
These “synthetic organics” are marvelous little concoctions, perfectly designed, because of their similarity to our natural body chemicals, to react with us, but different enough to be hard to excrete. And what they do? “Some interfere with our hormones, some cripple the immune system, and some overstimulate the activity of certain enzymes.” And they are associated with what the World Health Organization concluded are the “80% of all cancers attributable to environmental influences.” Yes, you read that correctly: 80%.
Why don’t we know this? Why isn’t someone investigating this stuff? That’s the job Steingraber assumed. And her conclusions are not encouraging. First of all, cancer is not some random misfortune; it is specific in that fully “one-half of all the world’s cancers occur among people living in industrialized countries…especially North America and Northern Europe. Breast cancer rates are 30 times higher in the U.S. than in parts of Africa.” The places, in other words, where the fallout from two world wars and countless smaller ones has been greatest. Among them are those chemicals we’ve been hearing about recently, the estrogen mimickers which, “at a low level inside the human body mimic the female hormone estrogen.” Regarding this estrogenic fallout of war, Steingraber then gives us this zinger:
Many of the hypermasculine weapons of conquest and progress are, biologically speaking, emasculating (109.)
Read that again. And then consider further facts: In 1939 (i.e., pre-WWII) there were a mere 32 pesticidal active ingredients registered with the federal government, while
At present, 860 active ingredients are so registered and are formulated into 20,000 different pesticidal products. Current U.S. annual use is estimated at 2.23 billion pounds….82% of U.S. households use pesticides of some kind….Between 45,000 and 100,000 chemicals are now in common commercial use…Of these only about 1.5 to 3% (1200 to 1500 chemicals) have been tested for carcinogenicity. (95 & 97).
You get the picture. We are being bathed in a chemical soup (much of our drinking water is also contaminated; worse, the effects of bathing and showering in such water may be as bad or worse than drinking it, so don’t count on bottled water) whose effects are unknown to us because governments pass laws that sound good, but lack implementation. For example, in Illinois, Steingraber’s home state, the legislature passed a Health and Hazardous Substances Registry Act but though the State Cancer Registry compiles cancer deaths, it does nothing to try to correlate these deaths with exposure to hazardous substances: the state funded the cancer registry, but not a hazardous substances registry. In fact, from the data that Steingraber compiles, it is clear that a concerted effort has been made to keep the environmental causes of cancer out of the public’s consciousness.
This is clear from Steingraber’s rundown of the information on cancer prevention. There’s the much-heralded “war on cancer.” There are marches on behalf of funding for breast cancer and other cancer research. But with regard to causes, the onus is placed on—your guessed it—the victims. DNA, we are told, will solve the cancer puzzle because cancer is hereditary (you got it from your parents.) Or it’s your lifestyle that’s at fault: eat less fats, eat vegetables, don’t smoke, get lots of exercise. After that, if you still get cancer, it’s your own fault. But what Steingraber points out (with some suppressed fury, for she herself got bladder cancer in her teens), is that hereditary cancers are rare: “Collectively, fewer than 10% of all malignancies are thought to involve inherited mutations.” That leaves 85 to 90% unaccounted for; and thus likely due to environmental influences. It also leaves 30% to 40% of Americans due to get cancer in their lifetimes.
What are those environmental influences? Consider the class of chemicals called “triazines.” These must be some of the most diabolic substances ever conceived. Why? Because some of these emissaries from hell actually “strike directly at the process by which plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen.” That is, they block the most fundamental process in life—photosynthesis—the process whereby earth produces plants not only to eat, but to be used as food by herbivores upon whom we depend for meat and dairy products as well. In short, the entire food chain. Imagine this! Aside from the question (which is all the pooh-bahs would like to consider) of whether such chemicals cause cancer, consider, as Steingraber puts it, “the wisdom of broadcasting over the landscape (atrazine is one of the top two most widely used pesticides in U.S. agriculture) chemicals that extinguish the miraculous fact of photosynthesis—which after all, furnishes us our sole supply of oxygen” (160). I mean, if this be not madness, what is? Soluble in water, traces of atrazine have now been found in ground water, 98% of surface waters in the Midwest, and in raindrops. Meanwhile, the EPA dithers and delays, no doubt influenced by mega-farmers and the chemical industry, to the point that 30 years from the time they were introduced, we still do not know the cancer risks of triazines coating our corn, our peaches, our plums, our apples, our cherries, peaches, cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, grapes and pears. Not to mention the long-term effects of interfering with photosynthesis (algae are also affected).
There’s more in this courageous, disturbing book, and I haven’t even looked at the updated edition. Read it if you dare. And the truth is, we all need to dare, or have our lives controlled by the conscienceless hucksters who now drive our agriculture, our household cleaning habits, our drinking water, our immune systems, our entire way of life. DuPont used to have a commercial slogan: “Better things, for better living…through chemistry.” We don’t hear that too much anymore. I wonder why.