Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#417 - Big-Picture Organizing -- Part 1: Some Good News Amid The Bad, 23-Nov-1994

First the Good News

Since 1975, grass-roots action at the local level has brought important
successes. It was grass-roots action that killed the civilian nuclear
power industry in the U.S., principally by making radioactive waste
disposal difficult and therefore expensive, and by turning every
nuclear power plant into a fight and therefore into a public relations
nightmare for its electric-utility owner.

Grass-roots action at the local level crippled the municipal solid
waste incinerator industry. Since 1985, 70 incinerators were built, but
during the same period at least 280 incinerators were killed.[1] The
municipal incinerator industry is on the ropes.

Grass-roots action killed expansion of the industry that buries
hazardous wastes in shallow pits in the ground. Since BFI opened the
appropriately-named "Last Chance" dump in Colorado in 1991, no new
hazardous waste dumps have even been proposed. (After getting a license
for its "Last Chance" dump, BFI abandoned the hazardous waste dump
business entirely.)

Most importantly, grass-roots action forced the International Joint
Commission (IJC) to recommend an entirely new philosophy of chemical
regulation --one that assumes chemicals are harmful until proven safe,
and one based on the principle of precautionary action. The
precautionary principle says that, to avoid irreparable harm to the
environment and to human health, wherever it is acknowledged that a
practice (or substance) could cause harm, even without conclusive
scientific proof that it has caused harm or does cause harm, the
practice (or emissions of the substance) should be prevented and
eliminated. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1994 rejected the
IJC's recommendations, but the handwriting is on the wall now,
officially.)[2]

And Now the Bad

Despite these important successes, chemicals released into the
environment are still decimating wildlife, making people sick, and
killing people. In this sense, despite thousands of successes in local
battles, grass-roots activists are losing the war.

Consider these facts:

** The incidence rates for 5 kinds of cancers are decreasing, but the
incidence rates for 19 kinds of cancer are steadily increasing. The
death rates for 12 kinds of cancer are dropping, but the deaths rates
for 12 other cancers continue to rise.[3] Among the fastest-growing is
breast cancer. In 1960, a woman's chance of getting breast cancer was 1
in 20; today it is 1 in 9, moving toward 1 in 8.

** Increasingly, couples in their prime child-bearing years are
sterile; this may be due in part to a 53% decline in sperm count that
has been documented among men in all industrialized countries over the
past 50 years, a decline that is apparently continuing.[4]

** Ectopic pregnancy rates have quadrupled in the last 20 years.[5] An
ectopic pregnancy is one that occurs outside the uterus, in one of the
fallopian tubes; if not treated, such a pregnancy is fatal to the
mother. Even when treated properly, it can result in sterility.

** The prevalence of endometriosis (a painful disease of the tissues
lining the uterus, which often results in sterility) is steadily
increasing and now afflicts somewhere between 5 and 9 million American
women;[6]

** Immune system disorders (such as asthma and diabetes) are
increasing. In 1990 the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION
(JAMA) observed that death rates from asthma have been increasing in
the U.S., Canada, England, France, Denmark and Germany.[7] Other
sources report increasing death rates from asthma in Wales and
Australia.[8] In the U.S., the increase has been rapid. Asthma death
rates increased 31% between 1980 and 1987 (from 1.3 per 100,000
population to 1.7 per 100,000). The biggest increase occurred among
children between the ages of 5 and 15.

The prevalence of asthma is also increasing, especially among young
children. Among children ages 6 to 11, the prevalence of asthma
increased from 4.8% in 1971-74 to 7.6% in 1976-1980, a 58% increase in
a short period. More recent studies indicate that the increases are
continuing.

Another immune system disease, diabetes, is also increasing rapidly in
the U.S. The prevalence of IDDM (insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus,
also called Type I diabetes) doubled between 1964 and 1981.[9] A 1993
study says, "[W]e are undergoing an epidemic of IDDM with the rapid
increase in the number of cases seen recently."[10]

** The prevalence of nervous system disorders (Lou Gehrig's disease,
and Parkinson's disease) is increasing;[11]

** A new disease has emerged called "multiple chemical sensitivity,"
characterized by extreme sensitivity to low levels of various
chemicals, sometimes including odors from new carpets, perfumes, and
the fragrances in commercial products such as waxes and detergents.
Paints and solvents can set off an allergic-type reaction. Symptoms of
MCS range in severity from an itchy rash to coma. An estimated 10% to
15% of the U.S. population now suffers from this disease in one form or
another, and the prevalence appears to be rising.[12]

** Birth defect rates are steadily increasing. The federal Centers for
Disease Control in 1990 summarized the trends in 38 types of birth
defects; they found 29 increasing, 2 decreasing, and 7 remaining
unchanged.[13]

** Eight studies of air pollution in U.S. cities have now shown that
fine particles (the invisible soot emitted by incinerators,
automobiles, power plants and heating units) are presently killing
about 60,000 Americans each year.[14] More than a dozen studies have,
in one way or another, confirmed this relationship. Furthermore, there
appears to be no threshold, no level below which effects disappear.
This means that people are being killed by air pollution levels well
within existing federal standards.

** In 1990, the American Public Health Association (APHA) estimated
that each year 50,000 to 70,000 Americans die of diseases developed
from toxic exposures on the job. Furthermore, APHA estimated that
350,000 new cases of occupational disease develop each year from toxic
exposures.[15]

Good News Amid the Bad

It seems clear that the opportunity is ripe, and steadily growing, for
a major political organizing campaign with health as the centerpiece.
Everyone cares about their health and the health of their children. A
health-centered organizing campaign offers a clear entryway into the
much larger question, "What has gone wrong with America?" Addressing
this question would require what we call "Big-Picture Organizing."

[To be continued.]

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Ellen Connett, "Since the 1980's a Minimum of 280 Proposals to
Build Municipal Waste Incinerators in the U.S. Have Been Defeated or
Abandoned," WASTE NOT #283 [from: Work On Waste, U.S.A., 82 Judson St.,
Canton, N.Y. 13617: phone 315/379-9200] (July 1994), pg. 1. The 280
figure is an underestimate; several incinerators have been defeated
since July 1994, according to Ellen Connett, personal communication to
Maria Pellerano November 22, 1994.

[2] See Peter Montague, "Our Greatest Accomplishment: Grass-roots
Action has Forced a Major Shift in Thinking," THE WORKBOOK [from:
Southwest Research and Information Center, P.O. Box 4524, Albuquerque,
N.M. 87106; phone 505/ 262-1862.] Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer 1994), pgs.
86-90.

[3] Incidence rate means occurrence of cancer per 100,000 population,
age-adjusted; death rate means deaths from cancer per 100,000
population, age-adjusted. The 5 cancers with decreasing incidence are
mouth and pharynx; uterus; stomach; cervix; and esophagus. The 18
cancers with increasing incidence are: colon/rectum; larynx; testicles;
bladder; Hodgkin's; childhood cancers; leukemia; thyroid; liver;
pancreas; ovaries; lung; skin; female breast; prostate; kidney; brain;
non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; and multiple myeloma. Death rates are dropping
for mouth and pharynx; uterus; stomach; cervix; colon/rectum; larynx;
testicles; bladder; Hodgkin's; childhood cancers; leukemia; and
thyroid. Death rates are increasing for esophagus; liver; pancreas;
ovaries; lung; skin; female breast; prostate; kidney; brain; non-
Hodgkin's lymphoma; and multiple myeloma. Source of information: Barry
A. Miller and others, editors, CANCER STATISTICS REVIEW 1973-1990
[National Institutes of Health Publication No. 93-2789] (Bethesda, Md.:
National Cancer Institute, 1993), Table I-3, pg. I.[27].

[4] Increasing infertility among Americans in their prime reproductive
years is discussed in Appendix A, "Reproductive Dysfunction in the
Population," pgs. 341-346, in Office of Technology Assessment,
REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH HAZARDS IN THE WORKPLACE [OTA-BA-266] (Washington,
D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, December, 1985).

[5] Increases in ectopic pregnancies are documented in MMWR [Morbidity
and Mortality Weekly Report] CDC SURVEILLANCE SUMMARIES Vol. 39 No. SS-
4 (December, 1990), pgs. 9-19.

[6] David E. Larson, editor, MAYO CLINIC FAMILY HEALTH BOOK (N.Y.:
William Morrow, 1990), pgs. 1101-1102. Sherry E. Rier and others,
"Endometriosis in Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta) Following Chronic
Exposure to 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-P-dioxin," FUNDAMEN-TAL AND
APPLIED TOXICOLOGY Vol. 21 (1993), pgs. 433-441.

[7] A. Sonia Buist and William M. Vollmer, "Reflections on the Rise in
Asthma Morbidity and Mortality," JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL
ASSOCIATION October 3, 1990, pgs. 1719-1720. Kevin B. Weiss and Diana
K. Wagener, "Changing Patterns of Asthma Mortality," JOURNAL OF THE
AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION Vol. 264 (1990), pgs. 1683-1687.

[8] Peter J. Gergen and others, "National Survey of the Prevalence of
Asthma Among Children in the United States, 1976 to 1980," PEDIATRICS
Vol. 81 (1988), pgs. 1-7.

[9] National Diabetes Data Group, DIABETES IN AMERICA [NIH Publication
No. 85-1468] (no place of publication [Bethesda, Md.?]: U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National
Institutes of Health, National Institute of Arthritis, Diabetes, and
Digestive and Kidney Diseases, August 1985), Table 2, pgs. VI-4, VI-5.

[10] Ingrid Libman and others, "How Many People in the U.S. Have IDDM
[insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus]?" DIABETES CARE Vol. 16, No. 5
[May 1993], pgs. 841-842.

[11] Increases in Parkinson's disease and in amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease) are documented in Office of
Technology Assessment, NEUROTOXICITY; IDENTIFYING AND CONTROLLING
POISONS OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM [OTA-BA-436] (Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Government Printing Office, April, 1990); see Figures 2-2 and 2-3 on
pg. 55.

[12] See Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, National
Research Council, MULTIPLE CHEMICAL SENSITIVITIES (Washington, D.C.:
National Academy Press, 1992). Multiple chemical sensitivity afflicts
10% to 15% of the American public, and appears to be increasing, says
Bette Hileman, "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity," C&EN [Chemical &
Engineering News] Vol. 69 No. 29 (July 22, 1991), pg. 34. This emerging
disease has been subject of two excellent book-length studies: In 1990
the New Jersey Department of Health published a report by Nicholas
Ashford and Claudia Miller, CHEMICAL SENSITIVITY, which is distributed
by National Center for Environmental Health Strategies (NCEHS), 1100
Rural Ave., Voorhees, NJ 08043; phone (609) 429-5358. $17.00. See also
Nicholas Ashford and Claudia Miller, CHEMICAL EXPOSURES: LOW LEVELS AND
HIGH STAKES (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990).

[13] Larry D. Edmonds and others, "Temporal Trends in the Prevalence of
Congenital Malformations at Birth Based on the Birth Defects Monitoring
Program, United States, 1979-1987," MMWR [Morbidity and Mortality
Weekly Report] CDC SURVEILLANCE SUMMARIES Vol. 39, No. SS-4 (December
1990), pg. 22.

[14] Seven studies are reviewed by Joel Schwartz, "Particulate Air
Pollution and Daily Mortality: A Synthesis," PUBLIC HEALTH REVIEWS
1991/1992 Vol. 19 (1992), pgs. 39-60. The 8th is Douglas Dockery and
others, "An Association Between Air Pollution and Mortality in Six U.S.
Cities," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol. 329 (1993), pgs. 1753-
1759; see also pgs. 1807-1808. The 60,000 figure is taken from "Air
Pollution in Typical U.S. Cities Increases Death Risk," press release
dated May 13, 1991, from the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston,
Mass. describing findings later reported in Joel Schwartz and Douglas
W. Dockery, "Increased Mortality in Philadelphia Associated With Daily
Air Pollution Concentrations," AMERICAN REVIEW OF RESPIRATORY DISEASE
Vol. 145 (1992), pgs. 600-604. Two million deaths occur in the U.S.
each year; according to Schwartz and Dockery, fine particles account
for 3%.

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

Descriptor terms: citizen activism; civilian nuclear power;
incineration; msw; landfilling; dumps; hazardous waste; ijc;
regulation; reverse onus; burden of proof; precautionary principle;
wildlife; human health; morbidity; mortality; studies; statistics;
cancer; breast cancer; sterility; reproductive disorders; ectopic
pregnancies; endometriosis; immune system disorders; diabetes; type I
diabetes; asthma; nervous system disorders; lou gehrig's disease;
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; parkinson's disease; mcs; birth defects;
air pollution; fine particles; american public health association;
occupational safety and health;