The first car my parents carted me and my siblings around in, in the 1950s, didn’t have seatbelts. Not one of us was ever strapped into a car seat. No kid I knew donned a helmet before hopping on her bike.
When I was a kid, there were no government-regulated safety standards for cribs or playpens or strollers. There were no “choking hazard” warnings on the packages containing the toys we played with, regardless of how many small, potentially detachable parts came with those toys.
After decades marred by child deaths in car accidents, and what were determined to be preventable deaths if only baby equipment manufacturers had thought to make this crib safer, or that stroller less dangerous, the federal government stepped in.
Taxpayer-funded government agencies, like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, founded in 1972, told corporations they had to make products safer. They had to take responsibility for the products they profited from, and for keeping kids safe.
Meanwhile, over this same time period, chemical companies brought more and more chemicals to market, including pesticides and herbicides. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), in place since 1906, was already supposed to be keeping our food safe. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which didn’t come along until 1970, was supposed to keep our air and water safe.
Yet of the more than 80,000 chemicals used in the U.S. today, most haven’t been adequately tested for their impact on human health, much less on the health of children.
That’s bad enough. But this is worse: Despite being “regulated” by the EPA, and despite being linked to a host of human health issues, agricultural chemicals like glyphosate and chlorpyrifos that pollute our air and water, and whose residues contaminate our food, continue to be widely used. Even though cancer kills more children in the U.S. than accidents do.
It begs the question: Why have we come so far on protecting our kids from some harms, only to allow chemical companies to poison them?
A toxic, deadly soup
Sometime in the near future, a 12-year-old boy will take on Bayer-Monsanto in a U.S. courtroom. Jake Bellah has non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer linked to exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller. He and his parents allege that exposure to Roundup caused his cancer.
An article in the Guardian this week featured the story of Oliver Strong, who died from acute myeloid leukemia in June 2015, at age 12. Concerned that their otherwise healthy, athletic son’s cancer was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, Oliver’s parents set up a foundation that is working with Texas Children’s Hospital and the Baylor College of Medicine to study the correlation between exposure to chemical toxicants and childhood cancer.
Citing statistics from the National Cancer Institute, the Guardian reported that cases of pediatric cancer in the U.S. surged by almost 50 percent from 1975 to 2015. The institute predicted that in 2018, up to 16,000 children, from birth to age 19, would receive a new cancer diagnosis.
Are all these cancers caused by exposure to chemicals? Probably not. But most are, says Dr. Zach Bush, a former cancer researcher. Bush, who said he was taught that cancer was a genetic disease, says his research now supports the theory that most cancers can be tied to exposure to chemicals.
Bush specifically blames Monsanto’s Roundup:
“This one tiny molecule is now gumming up the gears of life, it’s stopping, on so many levels, all normal functions of resilience, and we’re becoming a very unresilient species and damaged species, and we’re dying very quickly.”
Vilma Short, Oliver's mother, subscribes to the same theory. She told the Guardian:
“I, like most people, thought it’s just bad luck and dodgy genes, and you discover we’re quietly encouraged to think that. “[But] I found a paper published by the World Health Organization … it’s [cancer] always triggered by external agents that damage to our DNA and the body’s ability to deal with that damage.”
For decades, glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup have been under fire for harming human health and the environment. The 2015 decision by the World Health Organization that glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen” led to heightened scrutiny. It also led many countries —though not the corporate lobbyist-loving U.S.—to ban the chemical.
Today, there are more than 18,400 lawsuits pending against Bayer, by people who believe exposure to Roundup caused their cancer.
It isn’t just glyphosate making us sick. And it isn’t just cancer that’s harming our kids. The EPA recently overturned a ban on chlorpyrifos, an agricultural chemical known to cause birth defects and neurological damage in children.
Writing about the EPA’s chlorpyrifos decision for the Washington Post, Joseph G. Allen, assistant professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, posed this question:
Do you think that a chemical cousin of nerve agents used in World War II that alters the brain function of children should be used as a pesticide? I’d hazard a guess that most people think this is a bad idea. The Trump administration, on the other hand, thinks this is just fine.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) doesn't think it's just fine. In its preliminary review of DowDupont's renewal application for chlorpyrifos, which expires in 2020, the agency said there can be "no safe exposure level" set for chlorpyrifos:
EFSA has identified concerns about possible genotoxic effects as well as neurological effects during development, supported by epidemiological data indicating effects in children. This means that no safe exposure level—or toxicological reference value—can be set for the substance."
Caution to the wind
How is it that chemical companies are able to unleash more than 80,000 unregulated chemicals into our environment and food supply? And how do we protect our children from the toxins we know—like glyphosate and chlorpyrifos—and those we don’t even know exist, much less where they lurk?
An article pubished this week by CBS Marketwatch, covering Organic Consumers Assocation’s lawsuit against Twinings Tea, and a similar lawsuit by Children’s Defense Fund against Beech-Nut baby food, included this quote by Dr. Aparna Bole, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health:
“Ultimately it should not be the job of consumers to try to purchase their way out of the fact that we in this country don’t take a precautionary approach to chemical safety.”
Bole was no doubt referring to the Precautionary Principle, a principle that government agencies routinely and recklessly ignore.
In a 2001 paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a team of scientists wrote:
The precautionary principle, proposed as a new guideline in environmental decision making, has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making.
That was in 2001. Yet here we are, in 2019, with an EPA that clearly has no intention of following these guidelines—no matter what the scientists say or the public demands. And no matter how many children suffer through surgeries and painful, debilitating treatments—only, in many cases, to die anyway.
The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics issued a statement this week calling for the “removal of glyphosate from global usage.”
Meanwhile, we’re stuck with an EPA that won’t ban glyphosate or chlorpyrifos, and that earlier this year proposed tripling the amount of perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket fuel, allowed in our drinking water supplies. And it's a known fact that 99 percent of Americans have C8, the key chemical in Teflon™ (made by DuPont and 3M) in their blood, even though, for years, 3M and DuPont (now DowDuPont) were well aware of the chemical's potential to harm human health. C8 is linked to birth defects and six diseases, including cancer.
My three siblings and I were lucky. We survived, minus the seatbelts and carseats and helmets that provide protection for today’s kids. But I worry for my 2-year-old grandson and 6-year-old granddaughter. Though they travel surrounded by high-tech protective gear and play with safety-tested toys, when it comes to cancer-causing chemicals, they're at the mercy of our government “protection” agencies.
And those agencies consistently place a far higher value on corporate profits than they do on the Jakes and Olivers of the world.