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#726 - Science, Precaution and Pesticides, 06-Jun-2001

Lymphoma is cancer of the white blood cells, and half the people
who get it die within 5 years. Those 5 years are likely to be a
hellish combination of fear, worry, pain, and sickness caused by
standard medical therapies -- radiation treatment, surgery
(including bone marrow transplants or stem cell transplants)
and/or chemotherapy. Side effects from therapies can include
pain, nausea, vomiting, persistent mouth sores, and secondary
infections like colds and flu after cancer therapies damage the
immune system. Worse, lymphoma can go into remission, then flare
up without warning, requiring all the therapies to be repeated.
This is a disease that gives its victims a terrifying roller
coaster ride through the valley of death.

There are two main kinds of lymphoma -- Hodgkin's disease and
non-Hodgkin's lymphoma or NHL. NHL accounts for about 88% of all
lymphoma. Some 287,000 people in the U.S. are living with NHL at
any given time. About 55,000 new cases of NHL will be diagnosed
this year in the U.S. and even more will be diagnosed next year
because lymphoma is the second-fastest-growing kind of cancer.
Between 1975 and 1998, the incidence (occurrence) of lymphoma
increased at about 2.2% per year, though the rate of increase has
slowed during the past decade.[1]

No one knows what causes lymphoma, but we know that all cancers
are caused by multiple gene mutations (requiring probably 5 to 10
separate injuries) and/or by damage to the parts of the immune
system that normally destroy cancer cells. (See REHN #693.) In
the past two decades medical researchers have come to suspect
that various combinations of factors give rise to lymphoma -- a
weakened immune system, exposure to certain kinds of chemicals,
and perhaps exposure to one or more viruses. Studies seem to
implicate one particular class of chemicals -- chlorophenols.
Chlorophenols are chlorine-containing chemicals that include
dioxins, PCBs, DDT, and the so-called "phenoxy herbicides,"
including the weed killers 2,4,5-T, and 2,4-D. This last one is
the most popular crabgrass and dandelion killer in America, sold
as Weed-B-Gone, Weedone, Miracle, Demise, Lawn-Keep, Raid Weed
Killer, Plantgard, Hormotox, and Ded-Weed, among other
trademarked names.

Now the Lymphoma Foundation of America has pulled together and
summarized in a 49-page booklet all the available studies of the
relationship between lymphoma and pesticides.[2] It is an
impressive piece of work by Susan Osburn, who directed the
project, and a scientific review panel of 12 physicians and
lymphoma researchers. The booklet summarizes 99 studies of humans
and one study of pet dogs (see REHN #250) in relation to
pesticide exposures.

Of the 99 human studies, 75 indicate a connection between
exposure to pesticides and lymphomas. Twenty-four show no
relationship.[3] The one study of pet dogs indicates that the
popular crabgrass killer, 2,4-D, doubles a pet dog's chances of
getting cancer. (See REHN #250.)

Does all this "prove" that exposure to pesticides causes cancer?
No, it doesn't.

In anything as complicated as pesticide exposures or even
cigarette smoke, science can never prove beyond every possible
doubt that X causes Y. There is always room for a researcher
employed by Philip Morris or the Crop Protection Association (the
pesticide trade group) to say, "Couldn't this disease be partly
caused by some factor that you haven't taken into consideration?
Maybe it's partly caused by some factor you haven't even thought
of." And the honest answer must always be, "Yes, there's a slim
chance that it could be." Where chemicals and humans and
ecosystems are concerned, the complexity is enormous, the tools
of science are crude, and what is not known is always much larger
than what is known.

It's time we admitted to ourselves that science will never
provide definitive answers to some of the most important
questions that we face. Still, as individuals and, as a human
society, we DO need answers. We can read the hundred studies of
lymphomas and pesticides -- 75% of which tell us there's danger
lurking here -- and then we must decide:

(a) do we personally want to reduce our exposure to pesticides?;

(b) do we want to start asking, where did pesticide corporations
get the right to spread their dangerous products into the soil,
water, and air that we all depend upon?

The Lymphoma Foundation's booklet lists 12 ways that most of us
are routinely exposed to pesticides in our daily lives even if we
use no pesticides in our homes: routine spraying of apartments,
condos, offices (and the associated lawns), public buildings and
public spaces (parks, green spaces alongside highways, power line
rights of way), and in motels, hotels, and restaurants.
Pesticides can also be measured in most foods, much of the water
we drink, in the air, and even in rain water. (See REHN #660.) We
might well ask, where did these corporations get permission to
violate our well-established human right to personal security?
And why do we allow these toxic trespasses into our bodies to
occur without our informed consent?[4]

In other words, we might begin to view pesticide exposures not as
a scientific question, but mainly as a question of morals and
ethics, a question of human rights. If we view the problem in
this light, then we can review the scientific evidence without
expecting it to provide "the answer" to our questions, because
science cannot answer questions of morals and ethics and human
rights. Science can provide food for thought -- sometimes very
compelling food for thought -- but we must provide the thought.
Whether to use pesticides -- and whether we want to allow others
to expose us and our children to pesticides -- are ethical and
political questions. The answers lie within each of us and not
with some panel of scientific experts.

What does science give us for guidance? This is where the
Lymphoma Foundation's booklet is so useful:

1) The available evidence strongly indicates that people exposed
to pesticides in their work are more likely than non-exposed or
less-exposed people to suffer an excess of lymphoma.

2) There are a few studies that tell us that parents who use
pesticides are more likely (than non-users) to raise children
with an excess of lymphoma. In other words, we need to consider
the possibility that, by using pesticides, we are increasing not
just our own but also our children's chances of getting this
awful disease. (Just as pet dogs pick up pesticides from lawns
and track them into homes, so do children.)

3) We learn from the Lymphoma Foundation's booklet that
scientists employed by pesticide corporations are more likely
than independent researchers to find no connection between
pesticides and lymphoma. In other words, consciously or not, a
scientist's source of funding often influences the outcome of the
research. (See REHN #581.) Worse, there is evidence that some
scientists employed by chemical corporations conduct studies
which could not possibly reveal a relationship between pesticides
and lymphoma because they lack the "statistical power" to do so;
some of those scientists then falsely claim that their studies
provide positive evidence that pesticides are not associated with
lymphoma. Some corporations evidently require scientists to check
their ethical principles at the door when they report for work.

4) We learn from the Lymphoma Foundation's study that not only
chlorophenol pesticides, but also atrazine and glyphosate are
statistically linked to lymphoma. Atrazine is used on 96% of the
U.S. corn crop each year, is found in most drinking water
supplies in the midwest during the growing season, and has been
strongly linked to birth defects in the children of midwestern
farmers. (See REHN #665, #660, and #553.)

Glyphosate is sold as Roundup, Rodeo, Touchdown, Rattler, Sting,
and Pondmaster, among other trademarked names. (See REHN #660.)
Roundup is the first reason Monsanto Corporation got into the
business of genetically engineering food crops. Monsanto now
sells "Roundup ready" seeds for corn, soybeans, and cotton; wheat
will be next. These are seeds engineered to withstand a thorough
dousing with Roundup, which kills weeds without killing the
Roundup-ready crops. To make "Roundup ready" seeds legal, U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to triple the amount of
glyphosate residues that it allows on crops. For years, Roundup
has been Monsanto's most profitable product, and genetic
engineering has allowed it to sell -- and to spread into soil and
water -- gobs more of it. (See REHN #637, #639, #660, #686.)

As we weigh whether we want to take action against those who
expose us and our children to pesticides, we are not limited to
thinking about lymphoma.

Pesticide exposures seem to give rise to Parkinson's (REHN #635)
-- a horrible degenerative disease of the nervous system.
Pesticide exposures diminish children's memory, physical stamina,
coordination, and ability to carry out simple tasks like drawing
a stick figure of a human being. (See REHN #648.) Pesticide
exposures seem to make children more aggressive. Pesticide
exposures seem to contribute to the epidemic of attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that has swept through U.S.
children in recent years. (See REHN #678.) And, as we saw above,
pesticides are strongly linked to birth defects.

If we decide to take up the cudgel against pesticide exposures,
we should consider carefully the basis of our strategy. For 30
years the environmental movement has fought science with science,
dueling to a draw. Pesticide use has steadily climbed, despite
all the scientific evidence of harm.

No, science will not solve this problem for us. Isn't it time to
consider a human rights approach, an ethical challenge to the
poisoners? And time to find new allies -- perhaps the chemical
workers exposed to these poisons? They need good jobs, as we all
do, but do they want to leave a skull and crossbones as their
legacy? Do they want their children sick? Of course they don't.
They need our help, we need theirs.

The old science-based strategy has failed us. Perhaps a new,
precautionary path can get us where we need to go. The
precautionary principle says, "When an activity raises threats of
harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures
should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are
not fully established scientifically." (See REHN #586.) It is a
broad ethical principle. It can guide us all -- workers and
environmentalists -- in a righteous fight against corporate

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


*Thanks to Rachel Massey for research assistance.

[1] http://www.cfl.org/resources_factsheet_non-hodgkins.cfm

Available by U.S. mail from Lymphoma Foundation of America, P.O.
Box 15335, Chevy Chase, MD 20825. Tel. (202) 223-6181. ISBN
0-9705127-0-8. Available at:

[3] Not all the links revealed in these 75 studies are
"statistically significant" though the vast majority are. If a
study revealed a positive correlation between exposure to
pesticides and increased lymphomas, I counted it as "showing a
connection." Likewise, if a study revealed no connection between
pesticides and lymphomas -- even if the study was so poorly
designed that it could not possibly reveal a connection even if a
connection existed -- I counted it as "showing no relationship."

[4] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by the U.S.
in 1948, says (Article 3), "Everyone has the right to life,
liberty, and security of person." Article 4, Section 4 of the
U.S. Constitution obligates the federal government to protect the
citizenry against "domestic violence" which arguably includes
modern forms of domestic violence such as toxic assault. See

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