We moved back to New Jersey six months ago, and it's great to
be back. The move interfered with our publishing schedule a
bit, but we'll soon get caught up.
To my way of thinking, Turnpike Exit 9 is a little slice of
heaven. New Jersey is the Garden State, where activists grow
like flowers. It's a state where you see tee shirts
proclaiming, "Union and proud of it!" -- and because of those
unions, wages in New Jersey exceed the national average. As a
result, many people have some breathing room to worry about
their neighborhoods and their children's health, and even to
get nosy about their government. (Yes, folks, unions are
essential to the success of every democracy. Unions are also
the foundation-stone of public health: inequality is our
biggest killer disease by far, and labor unions are our best
defense against inequality. When unions grow weak, the
corporados roll you on the ground and have their way with you.
Take a look around. But I digress.)
New Jersey is a state with a growing Environmental Justice
Alliance, a statewide Environmental Federation with 80
organizational members, and a Work Environment Council with 60
organizational members where labor, community, and
environmental activists develop strategies together. See
http://www.njwec.org . To top it off, New Jersey sports a
unique information service that keeps everyone informed: Garden
State Environews reprints essentially every environmental story
that appears in any of the state's newspapers, day after day,
week after week. What phenomenal commitment, and what a
phenomenal resource! See http://www.gsenet.org . Now we just
need a similar service for labor news, to get more traffic
flowing across the labor-environment bridge.
But of course there's a reason for all this energy, activism
and commitment. Everyone in New Jersey lives within 10 miles of
a toxic dump. There are at least 12,648 active contaminated
sites in the state, and more are being created as we speak.
Yes, there's real trouble here. Two reports released recently
revealed that the streams and the tap water in much of New
Jersey are contaminated with toxic metals, pesticides,
antibiotics, flame retardants, deodorants, artificial colors,
caffeine, benzene, pain killers, perfumes and fragrances, fuel
additives like MTBE, anti-depressants, blood-pressure
medicines, birth control pills, insulin, sunscreen, gasoline,
and hormones that were injected into cows but soon leaked into
the nearest stream. A low-level toxic brew indeed. Drink up!
A lot has changed since we left New Jersey in 1990 to go to
work for Greenpeace -- a stint that lasted only 2 years but
took us away from New Jersey for 12. Unfortunately, one thing
hasn't changed -- New Jersey (like the 49 other states) is
still bogged down in a "risk assessment" mentality.
Until that risk assessment mentality changes, New Jersey will
never be able to protect its environment or its communities, it
will never be able to achieve environmental justice, and it
will continue to sicken and kill its workforce at an appalling
rate. Worse, state government will pretend to champion justice
and public health while doing the exact opposite, thus eroding
people's trust in government and eventually in each other. When
trust erodes and we find ourselves "bowling alone," the
corporados cannot be held in check. That's why risk-based
thinking is the corporations' best friend.
How does a "risk assessment mentality" manifest itself? Let me
count the ways.
For instance: When university scientists released their
shocking report listing 600 industrial chemicals in the state's
waters, a reporter wanted to know what it all meant. The chief
research scientist answered the question this way: "The
question is, 'Is this something the body deals with at low
levels, metabolizes, and there's no problem? Or is this
something that accumulates in the body? To be honest, we are
just starting to deal with that question." In other words, what
it all means is "scientific uncertainty" but trust us, we can
"deal with that question" eventually. Until then, sit tight.
The take-home message was clear: scientists will have to
determine the combined effects of all these chemicals on humans
and wildlife before we can conclude there's a problem worth
solving. We need scientific proof of harm before we can justify
action to protect ourselves. That is the essence of a
risk-assessment approach, and it is rampant throughout New
Jersey (and the 49 other states). It is the main operating
principle of the New Jersey Department of Environmental
Protection, and even of many well-meaning environmentalists. No
wonder New Jersey is a toxic quagmire and getting worse.
Let's examine the university's risk-based approach for a
moment. Scientists now know that very low levels of some
individual chemicals are biologically active in humans --especially
humans in the womb. Some chemicals interfere with
hormones at levels measured in parts per trillion, others in
the low parts per billion. Furthermore, a handful of studies
have now shown that harmless levels of several individual
chemicals can combine together to produce harm. But testing
to measure the effects of mixtures of chemicals is extremely
expensive and time-consuming -- so testing mixtures will remain
a scientific curiosity but will probably never become routine.
We'll never be able to determine the precise effects on the
offspring of a pregnant woman who drinks (and breathes) a toxic
brew of mercury, PCBs, manganese, dry cleaning fluid, benzene,
birth control pills and who knows what else. Lastly, if we're
drinking (or breathing) these chemicals every day, it doesn't
matter if they build up in our bodies or not; even if we
excrete all of them every day, we get a fresh new load every
day, so our bodies are continuously awash in exotic industrial
toxicants. Can this be good for babies? Is this what we want
for our babies? Do we really need scientists to answer these
questions for us? Ask any Mom.
No, the risk-based approach would study a problem like New
Jersey's contaminated waters (and air) for 100 years and still
never reach scientific consensus on the nature of the danger.
Corporations, of course, love this risk-based approach because
it allows them to do their business in our water without ever
taking any responsibility for the dangers they create. They
never get called to account or brought up short because the
problem always has to be studied further.
A much smarter approach says, "All this crap in our environment
is probably not good for babies, or for fish, and we could set
specific goals for cleaning our waters and then take real steps
to reach our goals. We could measure our progress each year. We
could continue to study the harms of individual chemicals and
spread that knowledge far and wide so people know exactly how
and why their tax dollars are being spent. We do need the best
possible scientific information. But delaying action until we
have scientific consensus on the hazards posed by combinations
of 600 industrial poisons is a recipe for endless trouble."
Some would call this "precautionary action." Others would call
it common sense. But it is not how the New Jersey Department of
Environmental Protection thinks, and frankly many strong
environmentalists (and journalists) still don't think this way
Here's a recent story from GARDEN STATE ENVIRONEWS Dec. 27,
"Eleven organizations, including fishing and environmental
groups, sent a letter to N.J. Department of Environmental
Protection (NJDEP) Commissioner Campbell, urging the state to
put public health first when updating PCB consumption
advisories for certain saltwater species (striped bass,
bluefish, eel, lobster, and blue crabs) caught in N.J. waters.
Though the State is moving toward being more protective of
human health, there is a debate regarding how protective the
advisories should be and how to present the cancer risks to the
"The groups recommend the state issue public health advisories
based on a 1 in a million cancer risk (a lower risk of getting
cancer), and say advisories based on 1 in 100,000 (a moderate
risk of getting cancer) is the absolute minimum. The current
advisories are based on a 1 in 1000 cancer risk (a higher risk
of getting cancer)."
This news story gives the impression that PCBs are the only
chemical of concern in N.J. fish, and cancer is the only
disease to worry about. However, if anyone takes the time to
look, they'll find dozens -- perhaps many dozens -- of
industrial poisons in New Jersey fish. The combined effects of
those poisons on fish-eaters will never be nailed down to a
scientific certainty. At a minimum we know that almost all the
fish in New Jersey have mercury in them in addition to PCBs
(plus many of the industrial chemicals listed earlier) -- so
anyone who eats their catch in New Jersey is playing Russian
roulette with cancer, subtle brain damage, reproductive
problems, impaired immune systems, and harm to their hormones
-- plus the very real danger of passing these problems along to
the next generation. Go fishing in New Jersey? Sure, but it's
got to be "catch and release." Let's be blunt: Only a fool
would eat fish this contaminated. And only a scoundrel would
hide these dangers from the public by pretending that the only
contaminant of concern is PCBs and the only danger is cancer.
This is the risk-based approach at its worst because it
doubtless harms some people while pretending to protect them.
Here's another example:
At a meeting the other day, I ran into Jane Nogaki, one of New
Jersey's most wonderful activists, an environmental and
community leader who puts the rest of us to shame with her 25+
years of committed service, and her patient smile as she slips
the knife to the corporate polluters. To give but one example
of Jane's prowess: Back when Christie Todd Whitman was New
Jersey's governor and environmental and worker protections were
permanently stalled at the state level, Jane went from town to
town and convinced 87 separate communities to adopt a
precautionary, least-toxic pesticide ordinance to protect
students and staff in their schools. Shortly after Christie
Whitman fled New Jersey (leaving $5 billion in red ink as her
legacy) to apply her "voluntary compliance" philosophy as head
of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], Jane Nogaki's
precautionary approach to school pesticides quietly turned into
New Jersey state law.
Anyway, Jane says to me, "New York has passed a law banning the
use of arsenic in new playground equipment. Don't you think
N.J. could use a law like that?" I start to answer when a
gentleman standing nearby chimes in. I believe his work is
partially funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a
lumbering agency in every sense of that word. Immediately he
steers the conversation into familiar risk-assessment
Gentleman: "I've been looking at this, and the only place you'd
expect to find arsenic is in the soil immediately around the
posts holding up the play set. It won't harm anyone there," he
says in classic risk-assessor fashion.
Jane, smiling: "Actually, they're finding arsenic all over the
play sets, where the children can get it on their hands.
Arsenic causes cancer and it's a danger to the children."
Gentleman: "From what I read, it's only freshly-treated lumber
that has arsenic on its surface. As play sets age, the arsenic
is no longer measurable, so there's little or no hazard," he
says, in best risk-assessor style.
"Actually," says Jane, smiling, "I've been reading just the
opposite. It's the older play sets that have the most arsenic
on the wood." The gentleman goes silent. Jane has nailed
I speak for the first time. "This is a risk assessment
conversation," I say. "Maybe a precautionary approach would
help. A precautionary approach would ask, What are our
alternatives? What are the different ways of providing play
sets for children?"
Jane smiles broadly. "Yes, there are non-arsenic wood
preservatives, there are different kinds of wood that don't
need preservatives, there are plastics, and there are metal
play sets," she says.
Gentleman: "The exotic woods cost at least 20% more than
arsenic-treated yellow pine and they don't have the necessary
strength." A lumber guy to the end.
I say, "The play set at my early school could easily be in use
today, 50 years later. It was made of sturdy metal."
At that moment the meeting is called to order and our
conversation ends. I reflect that the gentleman has been using
a risk-based approach to defend the status quo, doing his best
to prevent people like Jane and me from asking the most basic
precautionary questions: (a) What are our goals for our
children and the quality of our environment? (b) What are our
options for getting there? (c) How can we prevent problems
before they start? (d) Shouldn't corporations have to test
their products before they are allowed to market them?
Those questions are fundamentally different from, "How much
arsenic-treated wood is safe for children at play? How much
PCB-mercury-Viagara-contaminated fish can a pregnant woman eat
without damaging her unborn baby's brain?"
The true answers to the precautionary questions can be known
through a process of democratic debate. On the other hand, the
true answers to the risk questions are forever unknowable,
subject to endless scientific uncertainty. So long as we allow
uncertainty to paralyze us while we search for the Holy Grail
of scientific consensus, the corporados will rule the day and
our children will get sick: cancer, asthma, reduced IQs,
attention deficits -- all the things that afflict New Jersey's
children now and are getting worse.
It was risk-assessment thinking that created New Jersey as it
is today: dangerously contaminated by unaccountable corporate
decisions, aided by governments and scientific risk assessors.
The best hope of turning things around is starting to think and
speak in a precautionary way. We can do this. It is starting to
happen. So long as we retain the right of free speech, this
surging sea change is something that the
Enron-Halliburton-Monsanto gangbangers simply cannot stop.
 See Rachel's #497, #584 and #654 and see Richard Wilkinson,
UNHEALTHY SOCIETIES: THE AFFLICTIONS OF INEQUALITY (New York:
Routledge, 1997; ISBN: 0415092353); and see the bibliography in
D. Raphael, INEQUALITY IS BAD FOR OUR HEARTS: WHY LOW INCOME
AND SOCIAL EXCLUSION ARE MAJOR CAUSES OF HEART DISEASE IN
CANADA (Toronto: North York Heart Health Network, 2001). And
see, for example: Ana V. Diez Roux and others, "Neighborhood of
Residence and Incidence of Coronary Heart Disease," NEW ENGLAND
JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol. 345, No. 2 (July 12, 2001), pgs.
99-106. And: Michael Marmot, "Inequalities in Health," NEW
ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol. 345, No. 2 (July 12, 2001),
pgs. 134-136. And see the extensive bibliographies in the
following: M. G. Marmot and Richard G. Wilkinson, editors,
SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH (Oxford and New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999; ISBN 0192630695); David A. Leon, editor
and others, POVERTY, INEQUALITY AND HEALTH: AN INTERNATIONAL
PERSPECTIVE (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press,
2001; ISBN 0192631969); Norman Daniels and others, IS
INEQUALITY BAD FOR OUR HEALTH? (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000;
ISBN: 0807004472); Ichiro Kawachi, and others, THE SOCIETY AND
POPULATION HEALTH READER: INCOME INEQUALITY AND HEALTH (New
York: New Press, 1999; ISBN: 1565845714); Alvin R. Tarlov,
editor, THE SOCIETY AND POPULATION HEALTH READER, VOLUME 2: A
STATE PERSPECTIVE (New York: New Press, 2000; ISBN 1565845579).
 "Greening the Garden State [Editorial]," New York Times
Nov. 16, 2002, pg. A16.
 Evan van Hook, Assistant Commissioner for Site Remediation,
N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, speaking at a
"Brownfields Roundtable" held at the Work Environmental
Council's Trenton office Jan. 10, 2003. A 1200-page list of New
Jersey's active contaminated sites is available at
 Alex Nussbaum, "NJ Water Contains Traces of Daily Life,"
Bergen Record March 5, 2003. And see Peter Hall, "Of 923
Private Wells Tested in New Jersey, 84 Percent Fail to Meet
Standards," [Easton, Pa.] Express-Times January 26, 2003. And
see Chris Gosier, "Water Detectives Search for Poisons,"
[Parsippany, NJ] Daily Record March 3, 2003. And see "Analyzing
the Ignored Environmental Contaminants," Environmental Science
and Technology [ES&T] April 1, 2002, pgs. 140A-145A.
 Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone; The Collapse and Revival
of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000; ISBN
 Anyone who believes this characterization of the Garden
State is inaccurate or unfair needs to read the eight articles
on groundwater contamination by Matthew Brown and Jan Barry
published in the Bergen Record Sept. 22, 23 and 24, 2002.
 See for example Frederick vom Saal and others, "A
Physiologically Based Approach to the Study of Bisphenol A and
Other Estrogenic Chemicals on the Size of Reproductive Organs,
Daily Sperm Production, and Behavior," Toxicology and
Industrial Health Vol. 14, Nos. 1 and 2 (1002), pgs. 239-260.
 David O. Carpenter and others, "Understanding the Human
Health Effects of Chemical Mixtures," Environmental Health
Perspectives Vol. 110 Supplement 1 (February, 2002) pgs. 25-42.
 Jonathan Schuppe, "Poison-Fish Delays Have DEP on Hook,"
Newark Star-Ledger August 13, 2002.
 See Renee Sharp, Paul Bogart and others, THE POISONWOOD
RIVALS (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Working Group, 2001).
And see Sean Gray and Jane Houlihan, ALL HANDS ON DECK
(Washington, D.C.: Environmental Working Group, 2002). Both
available at http://www.ewg.org/issues/home.php?i=7.