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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
Voices / Column

Cell phones are only part of modern risks

Saxtons River

The current hoopla over the risk of brain cancer that cell phones might pose is almost comical. Not because it’s silly; the risk might be real, and the issue calls for more empirical evidence. It’s laughable because of all the other carcinogenic and other health threats out there to which we pay so little attention.

Take, for example, air pollution. Ample evidence exists about the effects of short- and long-term exposure to filthy air, yet we do little to curb harmful emissions, clean up industrial waste, or take seriously the kind of global climate changes that affect pollution.

Studies in Germany, Scotland, and Mexico have revealed that people who breathe in traffic fumes regularly have a higher chance of getting hardening of the arteries, and that high levels of polluted air reduce lung function and curb growth in children. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that about two million premature deaths occur annually because of air pollution in cities across the world.

Physicians also recognize the increased likelihood of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular problems from air pollution. Researchers suggest that living in a major city for an appreciable length of time can place people at higher risk for cancer than if they lived in the radioactive zone near Chernobyl.

Then, there’s the water we drink.

Increasingly, around the world, it’s polluted. WHO estimates that one-sixth of the world’s population more than a billion people don’t have access to safe water.

Most water in industrialized nations is now considered to be polluted to some degree by toxic bacteria and potentially carcinogenic chemicals. Even bottled water has been found to be unsafe in many instances.

* * *

Now comes the issue of “fracking” to extract natural gas from the earth, a frightening process exposed in the documentary Gasland.

Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals into deep wells to create pressure fractures that release natural gas.

According to the organization ProPublica, a report by Congressional Democrats released in April revealed that “gas drillers have injected millions of gallons of fluids containing toxic or carcinogenic chemicals into the ground in recent years.”

An astounding 750 chemicals and compounds were used by more than a dozen oil and gas service companies between 2005 and 2009 to extract natural gas from the ground. Twenty-nine of them are “either known or possible carcinogens, or are regulated by the federal government because of other risks to human health.” The congressional report itself notes that “the permanent underground injection of chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing is not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.”

In 2005, to prevent companies like Halliburton from having to disclose what chemicals they were using during fracking, former Vice President Dick Cheney pushed through an energy bill that exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act, a law that had been in place since 1974. Obviously, fracking hadn’t reached his neighborhood yet.

* * *

Then there’s the issue of genetically engineered (GE) foods.

They are worrying because, according to the Alliance for Natural Health, “GE organisms actually become part of the bacteria in our digestive tracts and reproduce continuously inside us.”

To date, there are no human clinical trials of GE foods, so we don’t know exactly what that does to our bodies, but I’m among those who would like to find out before ingesting too many genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

For one thing, it’s a little worrying to know that the Institute for Responsible Technology has said that “the genetic engineering process creates massive collateral damage, causing mutations in hundreds or thousands of locations throughout a plant’s DNA.”

One of the things worrying scientists, as well as anti-GE activists who monitor the issue, is the possibility of creating antibiotic-resistant diseases. Allergies have also skyrocketed in the U.S. and in the U.K.; when GE soy was introduced, soy-related allergies rose by 50 percent. And certain toxins inserted into genetically modified food crops to kill pests have been found in 93 percent of women and 80 percent of fetuses because of consumption of meat, milk, and eggs from livestock that have consumed GE corn.

GMOs are causing genetic changes in mammal offspring. Birth defects, high infant mortality rates, and sterility have been documented in livestock-fed GMO soy and corn. Some hamster offspring have been found with hair growing in their mouths.

In a worrying new development, the Organic Consumers Association reported recently that companies like Whole Foods Market and Stonybrook Farm have “surrendered to Montsanto” by giving the go-ahead to the USDA to approve “conditional deregulation” of a genetically engineered herbicide used on alfalfa.

Opponents say this is bound to contaminate alfalfa fed to organic animals and to lead to “the destruction of the essential soil food web.” For this reason, consumers will have to be hyper-vigilant about the difference between “natural” and “organic” foods.

Why are companies capitulating?

One reason is that CEOs are growing tired of activist pressure. They may also think the battle against GMOs has peaked.

But the main reason they’re giving in is that they want the controversy to disappear. They know that a huge amount of their annual sales comes from so-called “natural” products that are, in fact, contaminated with GMOs.

If any of this troubles you, contact your legislators. Just be sure to call them on a land line.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #109 (Wednesday, July 13, 2011).

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