by Richard Jehn
City worker near dioxin-contaminated soil at Cornwall landfill on the Bellingham waterfront. Photo: Bellingham Herald.
It was good that The Bellingham Herald headlined the waterfront dioxin problem recently.1 Unfortunately, the key issue remains largely ignored. We should be more concerned with how we define “public protection” when we often do not understand the effects that our constant use of non-natural chemistry has on us and our environment.
The cavalier approach that western society has taken to toxic substances has yielded some unhappy results.
First, this local story is significant, courtesy of Bill Taylor of the Taylor Shellfish Farms companies. As a keynote speaker at the Future of Business Conference on April 26, hosted by Bellingham’s Sustainable Connections, he explained that the Taylor Shellfish operation in Oakland Bay, Shelton was a very successful business in the early part of the 20th century, but the building of the Rayonier pulp mill in Shelton in the 1920s caused a total collapse of oyster farming in Oakland Bay by 1927. The oyster industry fought a lengthy battle that finally ended in the 1956 ruling from the Washington Pollution Control Commission (now the Washington Department of Ecology) that prohibited Rayonier from discharging industrial waste into Oakland Bay.2
At one time paper-making chemicals were not considered toxic to the environment, a belief that we find ridiculous today. We did not even consider it necessary to have a government agency charged with protection of the environment until the 1950s or later in the United States.
I remember growing up in the 1950s in Austin, Texas and seeing the DDT truck come around every spring and early summer to spray for mosquitoes. This chemical was sprayed from a moving truck as a fog that blanketed our neighborhood. Mom would run around yelling at us to shut the windows, but often we were outside playing and didn’t have any place to hide from this toxic chemistry. Again, it was believed at the time that DDT was not a harmful substance. Today, such spraying would be unthinkable.
For a more recent example of this claim of no harm, typically originating in the industry or even the company which has developed the chemistry, review Monsanto’s assertions about glyphosate and the subsequent finding that there is harm in that substance:
“Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup®, is the most popular herbicide used worldwide. The industry asserts it is minimally toxic to humans, but here we argue otherwise. Residues are found in the main foods of the Western diet, comprised primarily of sugar, corn, soy and wheat. Glyphosate’s inhibition of cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes is an overlooked component of its toxicity to mammals. CYP enzymes play crucial roles in biology, one of which is to detoxify xenobiotics. Thus, glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and environmental toxins. Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.”3
If one looks in depth, the litany of repeated mistakes with dangerous chemistry is apparent. In 2010, the United Nations added nine more chemicals to its list of banned or highly restricted substances. These chemicals were banned “because they accumulate in the tissues of living things, including humans, because they are all but indestructible once released into the natural world, and because they can spread across the globe with weather patterns and migrating animals. … they have been linked to a range of health issues, including cancer and reproductive and developmental problems.”4
A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found the presence of these “persistent organic pollutants” (POPs) across a wide range of food types. “POPs require decades to break down and they can travel the globe blowing in the wind or travelling on water (even ending up in the Arctic). Additionally, once ingested by humans or animals, POPs can sit in our fat tissues for ages, raising our risk of cancer or other diseases, altering hormones, reducing fertility, and disrupting brain development.”5
Today there are 163 cases of cancer per 100,000 people in South and Central America. The figures for the United States and Europe are 300 and 264 cases per 100,000 population, respectively. The death rate in Latin America is higher than in the United States or Europe, probably due to more effective treatments of cancer and more widespread availability of health care in the United States and Europe.6
Maybe cancer rates are so much higher in the United States and Europe than in Latin America because we have had ever increasing exposure to chemicals, coal and environmental hazards in our daily lives. The “conquest of cancer” was announced by Richard Nixon on December 23, 1971, and 210,000 people died of cancer in 1971 in the United States. Twenty-five years later in 1996, the U.S. government had spent $39 billion on cancer research and that year, 520,000 people died of cancer.7
But even today, our regulating agencies readily accept industry claims that chemicals are not harmful and approve these chemicals for widespread use on our food, on our lawns and gardens, in our households and in materials that shape our everyday environment. With the financial industry, we see industry executives make their way from the industry and lobbying into regulatory positions in government and back again. The same musical chair careers occur with regulators of the chemical industry. Do we hear anyone ask, “Isn’t that a conflict of interest?”
Returning to the covered piles of dioxin-contaminated material on the waterfront south of downtown Bellingham, this reassuring pablum comes from The Bellingham Herald article:
“Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner and Lucy McInerney, Ecology’s project manager for bay cleanup, acknowledge that the dredged sediment contains low levels of dioxin, a dangerous carcinogen. But they also say the material is safely contained now, and the site will be safe for public use once the final cleanup strategy is in place in the next couple of years.”8
Blithe assertions of safety are difficult to accept considering the long history of miscalculated chemical approvals issued by government regulators. Recall from Wendy Harris’ article about the dioxin mountain that,
“Dioxin exposure creates a higher risk of cancer than any other man-made chemical. Dioxin is a powerful hormone-disrupting chemical. It binds to a cell’s hormone receptor, changing the cell’s function and causing a wide range of harmful effects, from cancers and reduced immune system function to nervous system disorders, miscarriages and birth deformity.”9
What we desperately need after decades of detrimental or deadly exposure to this chemical stew is a policy of caution. In the absence of clear evidence of the safety of a newly developed substance, it should be banned for use by humans completely. We should make every effort to ensure that no living organisms are needlessly exposed to non-natural chemistry unless it is demonstrably necessary for survival. Set the bar extremely high for the approval of new chemicals. If a well-known (if nefarious) president had been serious about his “conquest of cancer,”10 that would have been the first action he took in his campaign.
And in the meantime, our city and port officials should be moving those two piles of toxic dirt somewhere far from here and ensuring that no one is ever exposed to the dioxin.
1. “Doubts linger about Cornwall landfill cleanup on Bellingham waterfront,” The Bellingham Herald, April 7, 2013.
2. Today, Taylor Shellfish is facing issues with ocean acidification and we expect to run an article in Whatcom Watch on this problem soon.
3. From Entropy; also see Scientific American, June 23, 2009.
4. From The Daily Green.
5. From Ecopolitology.org.
6. From the BBC.
7. From USA Today.
8. Ibid, note 1, emphasis added.
9. Bellingham’s Dioxin Mountain, Whatcom Watch, February 2013.
10. Video of the signing of the National Cancer Act of 1971.