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Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture

Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture

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Published by: TheGalileoGroup on May 15, 2010
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05/21/2012

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Rachel Carson is the guiding light for all of us who care about the health of the planetand the people who live on it. With the pub-lication of 
Silent Spring
, Carson provided usfour decades ago with a comprehensiveexhaustively researched biological argumentin simple lyrical language that anyone withor without training in the sciences could readand understand. And everyone did read it. Iwas less than five years old when that book was published in 1962. My father whotaught high school used it as a textbook, andhis students all read it. But more than that, Iremember hearing the bus driver talk aboutthat book. It was a book that reached acrosssocio-economic lines and truly did changethe way people thought about their relation-ship to the natural world.The book takes a four-part argument.First, Carson says we are all being contami-nated without our consent to inherently toxicchemicals in the form of pesticides.Secondly, that the risks to our health and thehealth of other species are really needlessbecause there are many non-toxic alterna-tives, if we only looked about us and soughtthem out. And then third, these alternativesare more effective than toxic chemicalsbecause besides all of the unintended conse-quences of pesticides, the truth is that thesechemical poisons don’t really work verywell in controlling pests. And finally – andthis is the message I would like to elaboratebecause it is in the book and in her lastspeeches before Congress, but it is not thepart that people really remember – she saidwe have the right to know about the risksthat we are being compelled to endure, andonce knowing we have the obligation to act.Carson died eighteen months after
Silent Spring
was published. Breast cancersilenced her voice. She was in her midfifties; she was the mother of a young sonand a writer with ideas for many morebooks. We had a few things in common.Both of us were formally trained as wildlifebiologists and went on to make our livingwriting about the environment. Both of usare mothers balancing motherhood withresearch and writing. And both of us hadcancer. The important difference is thatCarson had to live in fear that her cancerdiagnosis would be made public, and thather enemies in industry would use herenduring the disease of cancer to discredither scientific objectivity. I cannot imaginethe burden that that must have placed on her:having to swear the few friends she confid-ed in to utter secrecy; enduring the rigours of a book tour and addresses before Congresswearing her wig; trying to hide the effects of the mastectomy and the radiation treatments.Thirty years of feminist thinking span herlife and mine. At this point in history,women’s experiences and the way they livetheir lives are considered to be a valid wayof understanding the world. When I blendthe voice of a cancer survivor with theobjective dispassionate voice of a biologist,I have not had to be criticised that my sci-ence was ‘off’because of my experience of undergoing cancer treatment.
Bhopal disaster horrified worldand led to Right to Know Act inUnited States
At the mid point between Carson’s death in1964 and today, 3 December 2003, cameBhopal. It was a wretched enactment of Carson’s idea. The pesticide plant in Bhopalreleased the raw ingredient for a pesticide,methyl isocyanate, into the air. Eight thou-sand people immediately died. Anothertwelve thousand would die in the years tofollow. No one knew what had happened tothem, not even the doctors treating thepatients knew what had happened becausethere was no right to know. The chemistry of what that pesticide plant was using was atrade secret. And so people died withoutknowing what kind of poison gas hit them.Their doctors struggled to treat them notknowing what antidotes might be possible.That so horrified the world that two yearslater in 1986 the United States passed a com-prehensive Right to Know Act on the basisthat toxic chemicals used within factorywalls or released into the environment thatwe all share – either by a terrible accident orthrough routine emissions into air, food, soilor water – form a public gesture and the pub-lic therefore has the right to know aboutthem. That is now enshrined in the US legis-lation because anyone, including my stu-dents at University, has the ability to dial upa website, type in their zip code and withinthirty seconds have a read out of all the toxicreleases in their home community, fromwhat industry, in what amounts. You canclick on the names of those chemicals andfind out the health effects of being exposed.It is a very powerful tool for social activismand it was the dead of Bhopal who gave usthat.
Steingraber used new law tofind out what was in her ownback yard
In 1994 while at Harvard University I beganwork on the book 
 Living Downstream
. Itried to do two things at once: summarise allthe evidence I understand as a biologist,focusing on environmental contaminants onthe one hand and risk of cancer on the other.Interwoven with the scientific analysis is thestory of my return to my hometown to inves-tigate my own cancer diagnosis as well asthe cancer cluster that was alleged to haveoccurred there. I made use of Right to Knowdata by investigating the toxic emissionsinto the river, into the ground water wells inwhich the drinking water is gathered. I wasable to find out what went on at the pesticidefactory right near my high school, and whatkind of toxic waste is imported to the haz-ardous waste land fill near the house where Igrew up. The knowledge that I gained indoing so and my ability to write about it inmy book 
 Living Downstream
was only madepossible by the twenty thousand dead inBhopal. And my analysis and my languageand my words were made possible becauseRachel Carson wrote
Silent Spring
before Idid. So I would like you to join me in amoment of silence for the death of RachelCarson, who lost surely about twenty yearsof her life to breast cancer, and the death of 
12
Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture
 Pesticides News 63
March 2004
Contaminated without Consent:
Why our exposure to chemicals in air, food and water violates human rights
For its first Rachel Carson memorial lecture, Pesticide Action Network UK invited the renowned American campaigner 
SandraSteingraber
to talk about her experiences with pesticides and other toxic pollutants. This is an edited version of her speech in London.
 
the many thousands of victims in Bhopal.Who knows what stories they might be ableto tell us, what they might be able to writeand explain to us had they not died. And inthat silence perhaps we can each think of away that in our own life we might use ourown voices to speak out against those kindsof human rights abuses.
When I became pregnant at the brink of forty, I had already spent twenty years as achildless adult ecologist and my work wasdevoted mainly to studying the ways in whichorganisms interact with their environment.
My first personal experience of pregnan-cy took me back to the embryology that Ihad studied at university years ago and Ibecame very interested in understanding thethreats to this internal environment. Whatkind of toxic chemicals, what kind of dam-age might be happening to this environmentand what risks to this life form that livedinside me did those exposures create, a lifewhose body was just being assembled forthe first time. It seemed to me that the risksmight be unique and so my interest in thistopic and my pregnancy led me to CornellUniversity where I spent four years studyinga field called foetal toxicology.
Book summarises findings onfoetal toxicology and tellspregnancy story
The book 
Having Faith
, like
 Living Downstream
, is really two books in one. Itrepresents my best attempt to summarise thefindings of foetal toxicology and what itmeans for us, but it also tells the story of myown, very joyful pregnancy with my nowfive-year-old daughter, Faith. It is premisedon an idea first coined by a native Americanmidwife named Katsi Cook who lives in myhome state of New York. She said a woman’sbody is a first environment for all of us.The findings that come out of the field of foetal toxicology are mounting a veryimportant challenge to the historical waysthat we in the US and you in England andalso in the EU have looked at toxic chemi-cals and thought about the ways in which tomanage them. So I will give away my thesisstatement right up front and then would liketo guide you through some of the windowsof vulnerability of human development. Iwill be talking mostly out of my book 
 Having Faith
but will include as I go someof my new research on adolescence, pubertyand old age so we will be going through awhole life span and looking at certain risksto human health.Here is the idea: the old belief was calledthe ‘dose makes the poison’, a phrase origi-nally used by a mediaeval physician namedParacelsus who noticed when treatingsyphilis with mercury, the treatment of choice, that too much would kill the patient.‘The dose makes the poison’is still the prin-ciple upon which chemotherapy drugs aregiven to cancer patients. The hope is to givea dose the patient can tolerate, but largeenough to poison the cancer cells. This is avery powerful notion in medicine and in tox-icology. When a chemical is discovered tobe inherently toxic – perhaps because itcauses miscarriage or infertility, perhapsbecause it is a neurological poison thateffects the brain, perhaps because it is relat-ed to cancer – instead of moving immediate-ly to divorce our economy from dependenceon such a chemical the regulatory systemrequires instead laboratory studies (mostlyon animals, but also on possible humanexposure) to decide on the maximum doseallowable in the environment. Exposureroutes could be as a residue in food if it is apesticide, levels allowable in drinking wateror ground water, or how much air pollutioncan we allow. Regulators set these so-calledsafe threshold levels. The idea is that abovethese levels there might be human harm, butbelow that the harm is mostly negligible.The new science is showing that the tim-ing of exposure makes the poison as much ormore than the dose. This draws on the reali-sation that we are not all middle-aged adults;we all begin our lives as embryos and gothrough a life span; and we are not the sameindividual biologically or physiologicallyduring that entire life span. We go throughimportant changes during our life and enterwindows of vulnerability when we areexquisitely sensitive to the effects of toxicexposures – far out of the proportion that thedose might predict. Embryonic and foetallife is one of those times, and so is infancy.For example, all of us have somethingcalled the ‘blood brain barrier’that workspretty well to keep out any pesticide.Insecticides operate on the principal of chemical electrocution. They are all neuro-logical poisons. The blood brain barrier willwork pretty well to ensure that insecticideresidues consumed with your dinner will notleave your blood stream and enter the brainmatter where they can do some more dam-age. However we do not get a blood brainbarrier until we are six months old. Anyoneyounger than six months is missing the suitof armour that surrounds the brain and offerspretty good protection against the neurolog-ical damage of insecticides. So tiny, vanish-ingly small exposures of insecticides tosomeone younger than six months can createdisproportionate risks to the brain, and canbe a terrible saboteur of that brain comparedto similar or even much larger exposures forolder humans.
The human rights implications of thisnew science need to be fleshed out, and letme offer an overarching observation. We arenot providing under the law equal protectionagainst toxic chemicals to all citizens. Thenew science shows that we are discriminatingby age against particular groups of people,not only the very young but also I hope todemonstrate to you that adolescence, affectedby the hormonal effects of puberty, representsanother window when tiny exposures cancreate disproportionate risks to health. Andold age represents another period when weare exquisitely sensitive to toxic chemicalsbecause we start losing defence mechanisms.The blood brain barrier becomes permeableagain. It starts to fall apart. Liver enzymes are
13
Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture
 Pesticides News 63
March 2004
What these data show is that women exposed to pesticides, either because they work in farming,nurseries or greenhouses during the window of time in early pregnancy have excess rates of particular kinds of birth defects.
PANstaff with Sandra Steingraber (far right) at the Rachel Carson lecture on the Day of No Pesticides, December 3 2003.
 
no longer as efficient. The kidneys are notdetoxifying as effectively. The immune sys-tem becomes compromised. So the very oldand the very young physiologically resembleeach other to a large degree and then in themiddle you have the experience of pubertyand adolescence which for very different rea-sons also represents a vulnerable window of time. I argue that our current model of regu-lation does not sufficiently protect these threegroups: the very young, teenagers and theelderly.
Chemicals causing miscarriageis a violation of human rights –a kind of chemical abortion
Now comes the time where I explain wherebabies come from. Let us start when an eggand a sperm find each other at the upperreaches of the fallopian tube. You mightknow it takes about five days to a week forthat little gondola boat to float down thecanal of the fallopian tube where it opens outinto the delta of the uterus and implantsitself. So about a week between the fertilisa-tion and the period of implantation occurswhen that embryo actually buries itself intothe wall of the uterus. We start off as a one-celled organism; by the time the fertilisedegg floats out into the uterus it is 58 cellsbig. Those 58 cells are arranged in a littleball called the morula which buries itself inthe uterine lining. Morula is the Latin formulberry because it’s exactly what it lookslike. The lining grows right up over the topof it and then long siphoning tubes are sentout from the morula into the blood filled lin-ing of the uterus and those long siphoningtubes break open the tips of the spiral arter-ies as they snake through the uterus. Thosearteries begin to gush blood, so even beforethe placenta and the umbilical cord and thelife support system of the embryo is estab-lished, life begins in a pool of blood. Thisbloody lagoon created by the breaking openof these arteries nurtures the new life formuntil the life support system develops in theweeks to follow.Before we continue the story let us look at threats to human life right at the very start:the stage of egg and the sperm. Women whosmoke go into menopause on average two tothree years earlier than women who do not.Something about smoking shortens the fer-tile life span of a woman: we now know theagent behind this is a chemical in tobaccosmoke called benzo-a-pyrene that circlesaround in the blood, gets into the chromo-somes of the eggs, flips certain geneticswitches, and programmes cell death. So weknow that cells can commit programmedsuicide. The threat is called apoptosis.Sperm also are not immune to theseeffects. Men exposed to pesticides throughdrinking water in some agricultural areas inthe United States have lower sperm quantityand lower sperm quality. These men are notfarmers, but are simply living in farmingareas and drinking the water in rural com-munities. We also know that males who haveexposure to certain kinds of industrial chem-icals, such as diesel and kerosene, fatherchildren who are at much higher risk for cer-tain kind of paediatric cancers.Let us assume that there is a viable eggand sperm. Fertilisation occurs, grows into amorula and begins to implant itself in thelining of the uterus. The risk of exposure atthis point in our story is not infertility butspontaneous abortion. Here we have animportant human rights issue and a possibleconversation with the right to life communi-ty. I am not a member of this community. Iam very much in the other camp. I believevery strongly that motherhood is the hardest job in the world. It is a lot harder to be amother than it was to write my doctoral dis-sertation and I entered into it joyfully andthrough my own choice. I do not think anywoman should be forced into it against herwill. But whatever your thoughts or opinionson that topic, we might agree that if youbecome pregnant wilfully and with great joy,and then experience a spontaneous miscar-riage because of a chemical that you wereexposed to earlier on in your pregnancy, thisis a violation of human rights, a violation of foetal protection and a violation of awoman’s ability to choose to have a child. Itis a form of chemical abortion. Evidencesuggests that solvents and pesticides thatenter into the story of pregnancy in the firstfew weeks raise the risk of interfering withthe chemical cascade that has to occur: theseare chemical messages that flow from onecell to another in the morula and as themorula turns into embryo with the extraembryonic membranes such as a chorion,amnion, allantoic sac, placenta, umbilicalcord. All these require a choreography of messages being sent back and forth betweenthe cells in the embryo and interference willcause this new life form to be flushed fromthe system because implantation does nottake place properly.Let us assume that a miscarriage doesnot occur, that implantation successfullyhappens. Now we are at about week five of a human pregnancy as midwives and obste-tricians would date it. What happens next isa period called organogenesis. This takesplace between weeks five and ten of ahuman pregnancy and during this time theentire human body is assembled, developing
14
Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture
 Pesticides News 63
March 2004
Having Faith
The needle is out.Were done.Themood is still upbeat.The obstetricianhands the pair of vials to the technician,who holds them up to the light like glass-es of fine wine.‘Nice colour,she says.‘Do you wantto hold them?’And she passes the vials,hot as blood, into my hands.The fluidinside is pale gold, it seems to glow.‘Well, it’s like liquid amber!’I sputter,‘Like an amber jewel.It occurs to methat amniotic fluid might be the loveliestsubstance I have ever seen.The obstetrician touches my arm,‘That’s baby pee,she says, smiling.‘Welike it yellow.It’s a sign of good kidneyfunctioning’.I look at the vials again, Ohright.The obstetrician is finishing up, shereminds me to drink plenty of watertoday.Drink plenty of water.Before it isbaby pee, amniotic fluid is water.I drinkwater and it becomes the blood plasmawhich suffuses through the amniotic sacand surrounds the baby – who alsodrinks it.And what is it before that? Before itis drinking water, amniotic fluid is the creeks and rivers that fill reservoirs.It is theunderground water that fills wells.And before it is creeks and rivers and ground water,amniotic fluid is rain.When I hold in my hands a tube of my own amniotic fluid, I amholding a tube full of rain drops.Amniotic fluid is also the juice of oranges that I hadfor breakfast, and the milk that I poured over my cereal, and the honey I stirred intomy tea.It is inside the green cells of spinach leaves and the damp flesh of apples.Itis in the yoke of an egg.When I look at amniotic fluid and I am looking at rain fallingon orange groves, I am looking at melon fields, potatoes in wet earth, frost on pasturegrasses.The blood of cows and chickens is in this tube.The nectar gathered by beesand humming birds is in this tube.Whatever is inside humming bird eggs is also insidemy womb.Whatever is in the world’s water is here in my hands.
‘Having Faith’is published by The Perseus Press, PO Box 317, Oxford OX2 9RU, www. thep-erseuspress.com, 2001, 342 pp, #11.99

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