An imminent truth

Environmental concerns are pressing matters of life and death, not abstract, long-term considerations

By Emily Kaiser

Part of me is not surprised when an issue as globally resounding as environmentalism falls to the wayside time and time again. Today’s political climate seemingly requires about a decade of unfocused, mis-intentioned blather before any agreements are reached. Yet the painfully obvious grounds of popular environmentalism—our activities are clearly having an effect on the Earth and we should probably do something about it—are repeatedly lost in the logistical details of cap and trade, carbon footprints, and the “exaggerated” science of global warming. The annual report of the President’s Cancer Panel, released last Thursday, should hopefully bring our divergence back home.

The President’s Cancer Panel oversees the activities of the National Cancer Program and tends to render a snapshot of mainstream medical opinion. That’s why it’s especially significant when, for the first time, they warn in their report of the “unacceptable burden of cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposures” to chemicals and other carcinogens. Research in these causes is shockingly behind, as institutions such as the American Cancer Society tend to focus on preventable cancers from tobacco use, alcohol, and poor diet, and the genetic roots of cancers.

On the contrary, the Panel believes the “true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated,” and the numbers are very much there. When the Environmental Protection Agency began testing chemicals for commercial use in 1976, the 62,000 chemicals on the market were exempt from such testing. In the years since, the EPA has gone back and tested only 200 of those chemicals, and of the chemicals tested, banned just five. The report outlines just how widespread our exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is. Americans are chronically exposed to 124 airborne toxins, 80 of which are known carcinogens. About two million Americans have elevated cancer risks just from living in known “hotspots”, the largest of which are, not surprisingly, in our major urban centers – Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. An investigation of the US water supply identified 260 different contaminants in samples taken from all over the country; 141 of those have no safety regulations at all, while 40 of them are found in samples from water sources that serve at least one million people. The Panel tops it all off by noting researches have found up to 300 contaminants – everything from industrial chemicals and pesticides to consumer product ingredients and fossil fuel pollutants – in the umbilical cord blood of new born babies.

Despite these astonishing facts, environmentalism as a movement stays lodged in an abstract ideology primed for our political prattle. The narrow focus of climate change and carbon emissions justify “going green” in order to save the planet for future generations. Think of the polar bears, the ice caps, New Orleans. When faced with massive global debt and the immediate need for cheap and efficient energy, however, the future generations inevitably lose out. Ever-escalating hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes remain isolated in our minds from the “first causes” like driving a car and buying bottled water, and it’s unsettling to hear beliefs that the “natural” cycle of these phenomena, even rising global temperatures, stymies any worthwhile efforts we could make to stop it. Good thing we have reusable grocery bags, “green” light bulbs, and the organic label to conveniently market moral good-feelings without the annoying burdens of actual, effortful change.

Our effect on the environment is far from a back-burner consequence we can easily avoid or abide by at our convenience. 1.5 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer last year and it is the second largest cause of death in the United States after heart disease. Yet while we’re getting better at curing it – death rates have seen decline with new treatments and earlier detections – we’re most certainly getting better at causing it as well. According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will develop cancer at some point in his or her lifetime. These numbers go far beyond smokers, the obese, or defenseless victims of their own DNA. In fact, cancer-risk for immigrants of all races skyrocket upon arrival to the United States, merely because of how we live. It is so alarmingly clear that the chemicals and emissions we add to our environment are killing us – not the ozone layer, not the polar bears, not the rainforests – but our mothers, our fathers, our children, our friends, ourselves.

The scale of the problem intimidates most individual environmental action. We may filter drinking water into glass containers, but we can’t shower and wash our dishes with a Brita pitcher. One of the foremost recommendations to prevent cancer is to avoid foods that are exposed to pesticides, fertilizers, and hormones, yet inaccurate or nonexistent labels make even honest attempts nearly futile. The high expense of organic-chic makes abiding by such a diet wholly impossible for the majority of poor Americans, and cancer is dangerously close to becoming a class-based killer.

Part of the reason for such severity of the problem is an outdated law – the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 – which puts the burden of proof on the EPA to show a chemical is hazardous rather than on the production company to prove that it is safe. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), seeks to reverse this relationship appropriately, and will hopefully find encouragement in the Panel’s report. This bill is not seen as a progressive green initiative, however, and mainly receives criticisms for its limits on productivity and blows to technological innovations that would result from the new testing burdens. But when we’re spending $118 billion to clean up oil spills that continue to leak, and billions upon billions to provide healthcare for those inflicted with the diseases of our modern lifestyles, cheap manufacturing, energy, and consumer product innovations are not as evidently worthwhile or efficient.

In fact we’ve proved ourselves outlandishly innovative time and time again, but it’s time to reconsider why we’re being innovative in the first place. We’ve made our world bigger, stronger, faster, more portable, more disposable, in mere decades. For the technologically innovative generation emerging, let’s redefine “better” as safer, not for the sake of the environment that exists somewhere else, but for the one that is very much lived, breathed, and consumed by us on a daily basis, and is very much affecting the health of those we love. Environmentalism needs to move out of the scope of morally proprietary actions for a better tomorrow and a philosophical ethos of a natural world. It needs to, quite literally, be seen as urgent and drastic combat against the second largest killer of Americans today.

Emily Kaiser is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Sociology.