Can we survive a toxic world?

By Linda Weltner
Copyright 1998 Boston Globe
September 17, 1998

We spent a morning last weekend, marking trees at the edges of our property in Vermont. My daughter, Julie, was wielding a spray can of fluorescent paint, but a broken nozzle leaked the paint over her hand and down her arm. As we stood deep in the woods, Julie read the label: "This product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm." I did some research when I got home. Toluene, the poison in question, is so widely used in paint products, stain removers, dyes, nail polish, and cosmetics that in some places it has made its way into the water supply. According to "Generations at Risk," a report by the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, toluene increases the risk of spontaneous abortion by two to fivefold in those exposed at workplace levels, causes birth defects, and may disrupt hormones, particularly in men.

I sat in my office, stunned. Must we distrust everything?

Who reads the warning on spray paint? Who imagines that it contains a poisonous solvent that you can inhale or absorb through the skin. Who wants to believe that commonplace objects can set in motion forces that will result in cancer or a child damaged for life?

It's hard to look at this world without turning away, sickened. We can't trust manufacturers to use only harmless ingredients. Corporations routinely wage campaigns to convince us that life-threatening products, like tobacco, won't hurt us. Unless we cultivate a constant, unswerving wariness, a moment of inattention in a hardware store can end up exposing your daughter to an alarming hazard.

We're lucky Julie wasn't pregnant.

I hate questioning the wonders of technology. Every time I'm alerted to a new danger, my first response is to protest that I'm resisting too many things already. Still, I feel this urgent desire to protect, not only myself, but all living things. Why else fill my head with all this stuff?

I used to think only crazies feared invisible electromagnetic fields. Cell phones a threat? Power lines a danger? Isn't that for paranoids?

Maybe not. I'm familiarizing myself with the research findings on the effects of electromagnetic radiation.

The scientific studies sitting 2 inches high on my desk offer compelling evidence that radio frequency radiation at non-thermal levels can cause biological disruption in cells in animals and in humans, leading to brain function changes, attention deficit, sleep disruption, reproductive problems including miscarriage, DNA breakage, and immune system impairment leading to cancer (by suppressing our body's production of melatonin, a powerful antioxidant which inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells).

This is what struck me most powerfully. In 1990, the Evironmental Protection Agency prepared a report classifying extremely low frequency radiation, as a "probable human carcinogen," and other radio frequency and microwave radiation as a "possible human carcinogen." That report was never released, supposedly because of budget cuts.

In 1996, Congress delighted the telecommunications industry by passing the Telecommunication Act, which prohibits state and local government from regulating wireless facilities on the basis of their environmental effects. Soon satellites will have every inch of the earth in the beam of digital cellular antennas. All this in the absence of any standards, except thermal limits, for human health and safety.

Human beings are bioelectrical systems. The activity of our cells is governed by the flow of electromagnetic fields. For the first time in history, we are being bombarded by manmade background radiation which has risen by factors of millions since World War II.

How long will corporate America repeat the pattern of irresponsibility that marked the early handling of asbestos, DDT, thalidomide, and radioactivity? Is it rational always to market in haste and regret in leisure? The Gloucester City Council recently denied a company permission to mount three cellular towers atop a hospital, despite threats of litigation. As evidence mounts, a citizen-led worldwide revolt against the wireless revolution is in the making. According to the American Cancer Society, the risk of getting cancer in your lifetime is now 1 in 2 for men, 1 in 3 for women, up from 1 in 20 in my grandparents' generation.

Will we wait to take precautions until the rate is 1 in 1?

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