A veritable arsenal of chemical and biological weapons disguised as beneficial pesticides, herbicides, cleansers and other household products imperils public health in Indiana and across the country.

Pete Myers, co-author of Our Stolen Future, urged participants at HEC's 2003 "Fatal Harvest: What Is Happening to Our Health?" program to "look at how we can prevent diseases from emerging by narrowing the gap between science and the public's understanding of how to regulate chemicals."

Myers said toxins were previously thought to work by brute force to overwhelm the body's defenses. It's now understood that biologically active components in toxins have an ability to affect gene expression or suppression — in effect, hijacking control of development. Moreover, these toxins are harmful in extremely small amounts, he said. Many consumer products made of plastic and wood release such toxins through normal use.

Research studies now look at the effects of so-called "background levels" of chemicals on children and developing fetuses, Myers said. Scientists are looking at a greater number of chemicals in the environment, he added, and they are watching "long latencies" instead of immediate cause and effect.

Studies also reflect the fact that people may absorb a number of chemicals at one time. "The impact of mixtures can be dramatically greater than the effects of chemicals one by one," he noted. "Yet all regulatory standards to protect people are based on considering one chemical at a time."

Companies will need to use new scientific knowledge to design products in a way that avoids these inadvertent effects, Myers said. "We also need to avoid persistent bio-accumulative compounds because once they are in the environment, you can't take them back — they'll never degrade."

His troubling contentions have been borne out by "Chemical Trespass," a study released in May 2004 by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). The report reveals that many Americans are exposed to pesticides at levels "well above officially permitted thresholds established by government health and environmental agencies."

Analyzing data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its January 2003 "Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals," PANNA found that the "body burden" — the pesticides humans carry — is most pronounced in children, Mexican-Americans and adult women, including those of child-bearing age who unwittingly and unwillingly pass on a toxic legacy to their offspring in the womb.

"Many of the pesticides we carry in our bodies can cause cancer, disrupt our hormone systems, decrease fertility, cause birth defects or weaken our immune systems," the authors state, adding, "Almost nothing is known about the long-term impacts of multiple chemicals in the body over long periods."

The "Chemical Trespass" report was issued nationwide with the help of affiliates and supporters, including HEC. Dr. Indra Frank, a medical doctor and HEC board member, announced the report's findings during a press conference at the Indiana Public Health Association's (IPHA) Spring Meeting in West Lafayette. "It should be of concern to everyone that children are susceptible," Dr. Frank said in a phone conversation after the conference. "I really am concerned that if our society continues in the mode we're currently in we're going to see increasing health effects — we're hurting ourselves."

The mother of two elementary school children, Frank has worked as a pathologist for the past 14 years. She is in the process of leaving the medical profession to devote herself to environmental activism. "In pathology our job is to diagnose. I would prefer to prevent disease," she said.

Dr. Frank was joined at IPHA by Rae Schnapp, HEC's Wabash Riverkeeper, who earned her Ph.D. from Purdue's agriculture school. "The scientific community is really sort of arrogant in acting as if they fully understand the implications of using these compounds when they have only been around a few short years," she said, "There are still a lot of unknowns about these chemicals that we're spreading all over the landscape. Who knows what the long-term effects are?"

This question is at the heart of "Chemical Trespass." "No one ever asked us whether we wanted pesticides in our bodies," the report's authors state. "They are there without our consent."

One of the report's recommendations is to "initiate an aggressive transition to a precautionary approach to pest management and pesticide regulation."

One of the Precautionary Principle's most important aspects is that it shifts the burden of proof to manufacturers. Instead of the public having to prove health risks, manufacturers must first demonstrate that a given product does not harm human health before releasing it into the marketplace.

Members of the Science & Environmental Health Network (SEHN) are helping groups like HEC form proactive policy initiatives based on sound science to safeguard public health. One of the most significant tools is the Precautionary Principle.

'Better safe than sorry'

Ted Schettler, science director for SEHN, said in a recent phone interview, "The Precautionary Principle is not prescriptive in the sense that it tells you what to do but it is prescriptive in that it tells you how to go about something — what you ought to consider."

"We have a system that has not required a comprehensive look at what the effects of exposures [to chemicals] are on the general population before those things are either introduced or have been allowed to contaminate our food and water," he said.

Schettler says the Precautionary Principle prompts consideration of the various kinds of harm as well as benefits before a company proposes a product or process. "Look at where the scientific uncertainties are and ask how easy it would be to reduce them," he said.

Schettler's colleague, SEHN Communications Director Nancy Myers, calls the Precautionary Principle a "better-safe-than-sorry" approach to dealing with widespread pollution.

"The Precautionary Principle says we should be trying to think ahead," she said. "That means we should try to plan, to anticipate, and that means we need to decide what it is that is important to us. We can no longer be just reactive, we need to be proactive."

Myers, Schettler and SEHN Executive Director Carolyn Raffensperger were integral participants in the 1998 Wingspread conference, which brought together scientists, doctors, environmentalists and politicians, including conservative Hoosier environmentalist Gordon Durnil, to create policy options like the Precautionary Principle to stem the flow of persistent toxic substances.

"We started explaining this as a simple idea that was a different way to look at how we make environmental regulations," Myers recalled. "Instead of using the risk assessment process that demands that you prove a certain level of harm connected to a specific cause before you make any sort of decision to change the way you operate or make regulations, we said if there is likelihood of harm, then you take a precautionary approach — whatever that approach may be."

The Precautionary Principle developed further as participants considered the effects of plans, policies and decisions based on scientific uncertainty. "It turned out to be quite a revolutionary idea because you need to look not only at how you make regulations but how you do things from the very beginning — how you plan," Myers said.

The kind of planning Myers and others envision was almost ontological. "For planning to be an important aspect of the decision-making process, you have to think ahead and that means deciding what kind of goals you want to set, what kind of society you want," Myers said.

"We are a society that doesn't believe much in that kind of planning, that kind of thinking ahead," she said. "In fact everything we've been doing has been geared to taking care of problems after the fact. We just go ahead and make technological progress, make economic progress and deal with the problems afterwards."

Schettler agrees. "When you begin to look at things at the regulatory level you're really looking at things at the end of the pipe."

U.S. EPA director Michael Leavitt recently announced he was going to "consider" stricter pollution regulations for coal-burning power plants. Schettler notes that Leavitt's consideration will be whether to require those power plants to use pollution control devices, and to what extent and over what period of time. Schettler observed, "A more upstream conversation is, How do we generate energy with cleaner techniques?"

He says moving the conversation about pollution prevention further upstream leads to a broader conversation: "What does sustainable design mean? How do we introduce green chemistry and sustainably produced products into the public discourse?"

This kind of conversation is desperately needed, Schettler says, since the public is woefully uninformed about the full extent of persistent pollutants.

"I think the general public is not aware there is a public health threat," he says. He says most people get their news from network TV, and it is not common for network news to regularly cover stories about power plants, contaminated waterways and persistent pollutants. "The problem of mercury in fish may make its way onto the network news in a 30-second or one-minute spot somewhere along the line but won't go into the depth that describes how somewhere around 10 to 12 percent of women of reproductive age have mercury levels that may put their developing fetuses at risk," he said.

Precaution's critics

The Precautionary Principle is not without its critics, who charge that it would stifle innovation and research and limit progress.

Myers agrees it does pose an inconvenience "to science practiced with a very narrow vision — commercial interest only — without a view of side effects, without a view of consequences for public health and the public interest."

Schettler adds, "Many critics assume that the only outcome of the precautionary approach is to say no to something. Whereas we try to make the point that on the contrary, what the precautionary approach does and can do is be used to say yes to many things."

SEHN's Carolyn Raffensperger says that while the Precautionary Principle is not economically neutral, it actually stimulates innovation. "Many businesses and industries are arising out of the ecologically sound approaches to chemistry and engineering," she said. "What we're seeing across the board is that there is a new way of thinking about doing business."

While she agrees that some things are going to be more expensive up front, in the long run she believes it will save money. "Do people want to commit the money up front?" she asks. "Maybe, maybe not. But then the question is, who pays the cost down the road?"

Under current conditions, taxpayers pay the costs to clean up hazardous waste sites that never should have been created in the first place. And with more public involvement in the decision-making process, Schettler thinks public health will benefit.

"When people advocate for introducing products or processes that affect a large population of people or species, there needs to be open, transparent and public involvement rather than decision-making behind closed doors by a handful of people where not all affected parties have a seat at the table," he said.

SEHN's contribution to the discussion, he says, is to draw bigger conclusions from analysis of the science of and the uncertainty about specific chemicals and specific health outcomes in order to help the decision-making process reflect a broader constituency than merely narrow economic interests.

This is reflected in Schettler's work to promote public health with groups such as Healthcare Without Harm and Physicians for Social Responsibility. He noted that on a square-foot basis, hospitals and related facilities are second only to manufacturing in electricity use in the United States and medical facilities generate incredible amounts of waste.

"In the medical industry there's as much ignorance about some of these things as there is in the general public," he said. "One of the thrusts of our work has been to try to make the medical industry more aware of the public and environmental health impacts of their activities."

Specialization has taken over the medical profession and the effects on public health are not encouraging. "The disconnect between clinical medicine and public health has been well-recognized for and goes back at least 100 years," he said. "And it's reflected in medical education. "When I attended medical school I had virtually no training in public health."

Things have changed a little bit but not a whole lot since then, he said. "You get a little bit of stuff on infectious disease and sanitation; that' s about it. This is an area that's largely ignored because of a very full medical curriculum." So Schettler is in favor of trying to reintegrate some public health approaches into medical education.

"I think it's useful to ask what truly is our interest in future generations," he said. "I see too many throw away lives. I see too many people who will stand up in front of a crowd and pay lip service to that notion and then propose policies that just don't back it up. What's the evidence that we really care much at all about the world we are leaving our children?"

Thomas P. Healy is a journalist in Indianapolis. This article appears in the Hoosier Environmental Council's Summer 2004 issue of the Monitor. For more information, visit ...