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#369 - Chemicals and Health -- Part 1, 22-Dec-1993

Each year some 3.5 billion pounds of industrial toxins, and an
additional 1 to 2 billion pounds of pesticides are intentionally
released into the environment of the U.S., according to U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency.

During the early 1990s it has became fashionable for the mass media to
portray these chemicals as having little effect on human or
environmental health.[1] However, in scientific and medical journals,
the evidence linking chemicals to ill health has continued to

Writing in the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH in 1992, Philip J.
Landrigan, chairman of the department of community medicine at the
Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, said, "Disease caused
by toxic chemicals in the environment is a substantial... cause of
morbidity [illness] and mortality [death] in the United States and
around the world."[2] He went on to say, "Public health workers and the
makers of public policy must recognize that toxic chemicals in the
environment are important, widespread, proven causes of human disease.
Each year preventable exposures to chemical toxins sicken and kill
thousands of persons of all ages in the United States and around the
world. These hazards must be confronted. They cannot be wished away.
Reduction of exposures to chemical toxins will prevent thousands of
deaths and will improve the quality of hundreds of thousands of lives."

Is there any evidence that these claims are true?

LEAD POISONING: "Lead poisoning is epidemic among young U.S. children,"
Landrigan writes. "The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that
3 to 4 million American pre-school children have blood lead levels
above 10 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl). Blood lead levels in this
range in young children have been shown to cause depression of
neurological and psychological function, effects that appear to be

(In 1993, the National Research Council of the National Academy of
Sciences published the estimate that 6 million American children and
400,000 fetuses, at any given time, have 10 mcg/dl lead in their blood,
or more, and that this level of lead "places them at risk of adverse
health effects"--including reduced IQ and reduced ability to

ASBESTOS: "Asbestos in the workplace has created an absolute disaster,"
says Landrigan. By the year 2000, an estimated 300,000 American workers
will have been killed by exposure to asbestos. Deaths will continue to
occur well into the 21st century. With the overseas spread of asbestos-
containing building materials, the pandemic [wide epidemic] is now
extending to the third world."

OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE: "Studies conducted in New York state have
estimated that 50,000 to 70,000 workers die each year from chronic
occupational diseases resulting from past exposures to toxic
substances," Landrigan writes. "Included are lung cancers and
mesothelioma [cancer of the lining of the chest cavity] from asbestos
exposure; bladder cancer among dye workers; leukemia and lymphoma in
workers exposed to benzene and ionizing radiation; chronic bronchitis
in workers exposed to dusts; disorders of the nervous system (including
possibly dementia, Parkinson's disease, and motoneuron disease [Lou
Gehrig's disease]) in workers exposed to pesticides, solvents, and
certain other neurotoxins; renal [kidney] failure in workers exposed to
lead; and cardiovascular disease in workers exposed to carbon monoxide
and carbon disulfide."

In addition to what is known, millions of American workers are being
exposed to chemicals whose effects are unknown because 80% [or 48,000]
of the 60,000 chemicals now in use have never been tested for their
carcinogenic [cancer-causing], neurotoxic, immunotoxic, or other toxic
effects, Landrigan says.

In addition to the 50,000 to 70,000 deaths cause by toxic exposures in
the workplace each year, an estimated 350,000 new cases of illness
occur among workers each year from toxic exposures on the job,
Landrigan says.

CANCER: Between 1950 and 1988, for U.S. whites, age-adjusted incidence
[occurrence] for all forms of cancer rose by 43.5% and age-adjusted
cancer mortality [deaths] increased by 2.9%.

"Explanations for these increases do not exist," says Landrigan. "They
do not appear to be attributable solely to changes in cigarette
smoking." Several of the cancers for which increased incidence at all
ages (and mortality above age 55) have been noted in a number of
industrialized nations are not known to be related to smoking: these
include multiple myeloma [cancer of the bone marrow], brain cancer,
cancer of the breast, testicular cancer, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"Changes in competing causes of death, improved access to health care,
and alterations in diagnostic technology also do not appear to account
entirely for the observed changes in cancer incidence and mortality,"
says Landrigan.

* * *

During 1993, the relationship of toxic chemicals to breast cancer came
into sharp focus. Cancer of the female breast has increased 58% during
the past 35 years. Even when better diagnosis (mammography) is taken
into account, it appears that breast cancer is increasing at a steady
one percent per year. In 1940, an American woman's lifetime risk of
getting breast cancer was one in 16; today it is one in 8--a rate that
warrants the term "epidemic." A review of recent studies, by Devra Lee
Davis and others, appearing in ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES in
1993, offered many lines of evidence linking breast cancer to
"xenoestrogens"--xeno from the Greek word for "stranger or
foreigner."[4] Xenoestrogens are common toxic chemicals that mimic, or
interfere with, the body's natural estrogen. Estrogen is female sex
hormone--the chemical in blood that gives rise to a woman's monthly
cycle. In the 1990s, it has been discovered that many common industrial
chemicals and pesticides mimic hormones and thus can interfere with
fundamental bodily processes. (See RHWN #365.) DDT, methoxychlor,
chlordecone (kepone), PCBs, atrazine (and other triazines), benzene,
and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAHs], among others, can act like
sex hormones and interfere with fundamental biological processes, such
as reproduction, in wildlife and humans. PAHs are produced by
automobiles, by burning of fossil fuels, and by incinerators.
Pesticides and other xenoestrogens are manufactured by firms such as
DuPont, Monsanto, and Dow.

Davis and her colleagues revealed that xenoestrogens stimulate the
growth of cells in the breast, very possibly giving rise to cancer.
From studies of humans and laboratory animals Davis and her colleagues
found compelling evidence that estrogens lie at the heart of the breast
cancer problem, and that xenoestrogens very well may be causally
related to the epidemic.

From epidemiological studies, there is evidence that exposure of
females to xenoestrogens while in the womb can increase their risk of
breast cancer as adults. And in 1993, several studies raised the
possibility that exposure of males to xenoestrogens while in the womb
reduces their ability to produce sperm after they mature. The average
male today produces only half as much sperm as his grandfather did, and
exposure to environmental toxins may well be the cause of this decline.
[5] (If this decline were to continue at historical rates, humans in
industrialized countries would have difficulty reproducing themselves
by about the year 2020.) Furthermore, there is now evidence that
prostate cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths in U.S. men
(after lung cancer) is linked to xenoestrogens.

Journals published by the American Association for the Advancement of
Science, and the American Chemical Society, as well as the American
Public Health Association, in 1993 took official notice of this new
information about chlorinated chemicals and human health. Prime Time on
ABC TV aired an exploratory program on breast cancer and DDT. But for
the most part the mass media in 1993 continued to promote the view that
the connection between chemicals and ill health is imaginary and that
the public suffers from "chemophobia."

Without public understanding of current scientific and medical views,
public policy cannot very well protect public health. As Philip
Landrigan said in 1992, calling for a policy of "containment:"

"The tragedy of environmental diseases is that they are highly
preventable. Toxic environmental diseases arise as a direct consequence
of human activity and can therefore, in theory, be prevented through
modification of that activity. The control of toxic disease does not
require changing the behavior of millions of addicted or habituated
individuals, only the containment of common sources of exposure to
chemical toxins. Such containment is demonstrably achievable through
legislation, regulation, and other well-understood mechanisms of
communal action. Children must be protected from exposure to lead.
Automotive and industrial atmospheric emissions must be curbed.
Dangerous chemicals in the work environment must be replaced with safe
substitutes; hazardous processes must be enclosed and ventilated; and
workers and consumers must be provided with knowledge, training, and
protective equipment. Premarket testing of new chemicals and processes
constitutes a very effective approach to the prevention of toxic

--Peter Montague


[1] For example, Keith Schneider, "New View Calls Environmental Policy
Misguided," NEW YORK TIMES March 21, 1993, pgs. 1, 30.

[2] Philip J. Landrigan, "Commentary: Environmental Disease--A
Preventable Epidemic," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 82 (July
1992), pgs. 941-943.

[3] Bruce A. Fowler and others, MEASURING LEAD EXPOSURE IN INFANTS,
Academy Press, 1993), pg. 13.

[4] Devra Lee Davis and others, "Medical Hypothesis: Xenoestrogens As
Preventable Causes of Breast Cancer," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES
Vol. 101 (October 1993), pgs. 372-377.

[5] Elisabeth Carlsen and others, "Evidence for decreasing quality of
semen during past 50 years," BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL Vol. 305 (1992),
pgs. 609-613. And: A. Giwercman and N.E. Skakkebaek, "The human testis-
-an organ at risk?" INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ANDROLOGY Vol. 15 (1992),
pgs. 373-175. And: Richard M. Sharpe and Niels E. Skakkebaek, "Are
oestrogens involved in falling sperm counts and disorders of the male
reproductive tract?" THE LANCET Vol. 341 (May 29, 1993), pgs. 1392-
1395. And: R. M. Sharpe, " Declining sperm counts in men --is there an
endocrine cause?" JOURNAL OF ENDOCRINOLOGY, Vol. 136 (1993), pgs. 357-

Descriptor terms: toxic chemicals; production; statistics; pesticides;
epa; american journal of public health; philip landrigan; mt sinai
school of medicine; lead; children; national research council; national
academy of sciences; asbestos; occupational safety and health;
developing world; cancer; lung cancer; mesothelioma; bladder cancer;
leukemia; lymphoma; benzene; dust; air pollution; particulates;
radiation; chronic bronchitis; parkinson's disease; lou gehrig's
disease; motoneuron disease; solvents; cardiovascular disease;
mortality statistics; morbidity statistics; testing; breast cancer;
devra lee davis; environmental health perspectives; estrogen; ddt;
methoxychlor; chlordecone; pcbs; atrazine; triazines; benzene;
chlorinated hydrocarbons; chlorine; pahs; automobiles; fossil fuels;
oil; natural gas; coal; incineration; xenoestrogens; sperm count;
prostate cancer; aaas; american chemical society; prime time tv; abc
tv; containment; pollution prevention; regulation; keith schneider;