Cancer Panel's bombshell; EPA ignores science; CA to approve methyl iodide, Malaria 'micro-solutions'

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Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)

A Weekly News Update on Pesticides, Health and Alternatives
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Support Panups!May 7, 2010

Report: Environmentally induced cancers 'grossly underestimated'

neuro bodyIn a landmark report so strongly worded that it stunned even the environmental health community with its findings, the President’s Cancer Panel explicitly urges President Obama to “remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.” As Marla Cone writes in Environmental Health News, the report, the first since the Panel was created in 1971 to focus on environmental causes of cancer, declares: "The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated."

According to a New York Times Op Ed by Nicholas D. Kristof, the report calls out the government’s “lackadaisical” approach to chemical regulation. A synthesis of the testimony of dozens of cancer, chemical, and environmental toxicant experts, the report cites dramatic examples of how the government has failed to prevent unnecessary exposures: out of 80,000 approved chemicals, only a few hundred have actually been tested for safety; the high body-burden of toxins in newborns (more than 300 different chemicals); and the EPA’s "innocent-until-proven-guilty" approach to toxic chemical regulation. It’s worth noting that the report comes from two members of the mainstream medical community, appointed to the Panel by George W. Bush. The second chapter, "Exposure to Contaminants From Agricultural Sources," (PDF) begins by stating that "The entire U.S. population is exposed on a daily basis to numerous agricultural chemicals." Atrazine and DDT are then listed as examples of chemical pesticides used legally that cause major health harms.  

Dr. Philip Landrigan, of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine told MedPage Today, “For the past 30 years ... there has been a systematic effort to minimize the importance of environmental factors in carcinogenesis.” In a separate blog piece, Kristof pointedly compared the situation to the influence of the tobacco lobby in the ‘60’s, saying that regulation is “inefficient, because a small number of players have a very strong incentive to lobby for approval, while the losses are diffusely felt over a large number of people who never manage to mobilize.”

EPA staff forced to ignore science

EPA logo"Environmental Protection Agency staffers have been forced to ignore relevant science, have lacked key monitoring data on human health and environmental impacts, and have worked without crucial information needed to protect the public, according to the preliminary findings of a scientific advisory board," reports Politics Daily. The board's investigation, which was launched by George W. Bush’s second term EPA chief Stephen Johnson, follows on a report by the Government Accountability Office that criticized the EPA’s toxic chemical review process, accusations by a former EPA official that Agency employees were pressured to downplay concerns about the impacts of climate change, and “stern” recommendations by the National Research Council (a division of the National Academy of Sciences). Academics, industry scientists, and non-EPA government officials conducted 73 interviews with 450 EPA employees, and found widespread agreement that toxic chemical policy enforcement has been hampered by the industry’s undue influence on Agency decisions. In the interviews, staff members cited the “chilling effect of management decisions made with the expectation that science would be ‘ginned up’ to support decisions already made,” and said that, “the science review is used to create long-term loops that keep us from getting the latest information implemented in the field.” Other major concerns were, “evaluating the latest toxicology information for high profile contaminants important to certain constituency groups where there are big financial implications” and the “glacial pace” at which decisions are made, especially on individual pollutants, some of which are seven years behind schedule.

Meanwhile, the editorial page of this week’s Wall Street Journal provides a sterling example of how alarmed the corporate establishment becomes -- and how science gets politicized -- when EPA appears to be crossing business interests. The WSJ’ s editorial characterized the EPA's re-evaluation of the herbicide atrazine as an "assault" that could cost agribusiness $2 billion annually. Naming Pesticide Action Network and NRDC, the opinion piece further posits that “There is an agenda here far more ambitious than getting one chemical. The environmental lobby wants more farmland retired to ‘nature,’ [and] also figures that if it can take down atrazine with its long record of clean health, it can get the EPA to prohibit anything.”

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Profit trumps science: CA set to approve methyl iodide

Testing strawberriesDespite significant cancer and reproductive health risk, on April 30, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) proposed the use of methyl iodide for widespread agricultural use. Methyl iodide would be used primarily to gas and sterilize the state’s strawberry fields, although the pesticide will also be used in nurseries and nut tree production. A panel of internationally–renowned scientists convened by DPR conducted a formal review of the chemical during 2009–2010, concluding that due to the high toxicity of methyl iodide, any agricultural use “would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on the public health,” adding that “adequate control of human exposure would be difficult, if not impossible.” The pesticide is promoted by the largest privately–held pesticide company in the world, Arysta LifeScience. Arysta has invested significant resources in lobbying and a communications campaign to secure registration California, the most lucrative market in the nation.

In 2007, a group of over 50 eminent scientists, including five Nobel Laureates, sent a letter of concern to U.S. EPA, stating: “It is astonishing that the [EPA's] Office of Pesticide Programs is working to legalize broadcast releases of one of the more toxic chemicals used in manufacturing into the environment.” Dr. Susan Kegley, chemist and consulting scientist for Pesticide Action Network, commented: “If DPR’s decision holds, in addition to increased thyroid disease and more cancers generally, scientific evidence predicts we will see a leap in late-term miscarriages for pregnant women who live or work near methyl iodide applications. We want them to reconsider this decision immediately.” DPR is accepting comments on the proposed registration of methyl iodide for forty-five days, ending June 14, 2010.

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Malaria's myriad 'micro-solutions' 

bednetIn the weeks since World Malaria Day, journalist Sonia Shah has published a series of articles giving lie to the notion that malaria can be addressed -- or indeed has historically been amenable to -- simple "magic-bullet solutions" like DDT. In Yale's Environment 360 Los Angeles Times and Ms. Magazine, Shah highlights how community-based approaches and eliminating the environmental conditions that give rise to malaria-carrying mosquitoes are, to date, the most successful malaria control strategies.

Examples from Mexico, China and Tanzania illustrated how malaria incidence and mortality have been reduced dramatically without reliance on toxic pesticides like DDT. A common thread in each instance was environmental management and other strategies relying upon local knowledge. Each area developed locally appropriate approaches that were suited to the nature of malaria transmission in that area. This could take the shape of clearing vegetation along waterways and around homes in Oaxaca, Mexico; manipulation of water flow in irrigation canals in Sichuan, China; to clearing drains and spreading the microbial insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis into sewers in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania. A key factor in each instance was community participation and input and results were spectacular: no deaths from malaria were reported in Mexico in 2008, the most recent year of data available from the World Health Organization; malaria rates plummeting from 4 per 10,000 in 1993 to less than 1 per 10,000 by 2004 in Sichuan, China. In several counties of the province, no malaria cases were reported at all between 2001 and 2004. Similar gains against the disease have been achieved in Dar es Salaam.

Shah also reported on the use of bednets to control malaria. Bednets have garnered widespread support from the NGO and aid communities because they can be very effective if community members use them properly and regularly. However, Shah explains that bednets sometimes do not get used effectively by communities in Africa. Donors and NGOs have to carry out extensive community outreach to ensure proper use of bednets. So the key, she observes, is not imposing top-down solutions like bednets on communities -- however well-intentioned and effective -- if they are not going to be used properly, but to empower communities to come up with their own solutions, and then help figure out how to implement them. Shah says that "Such a process might not lead to grand, magic-bullet solutions. More likely, we'd get micro-solutions, variable from locale to locale, from village to village. But we'd be supporting self-reliance and building goodwill along the way." While Pesticide Action Network strongly supports the use of bednets for combating malaria, says Dr. Medha Chandra, PAN North America international campaigner, "it is a fact that empowering communities to develop locally appropriate solutions and involving communities every step of the way in malaria control is the only way in which we can effectively tackle this disease." 

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