Philip and Alice Shabecoff: Environmental Toxins and Our Children
01 Nov, 2010
Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill by Philip and Alice Shabecoff is an amazingly comprehensive work on the subject of environmental toxins. It details specific chemical, heavy metal and radioactive pollutions, diseases that run parallel to them, and who is responsible. It also makes an impassioned plea for changes needed in our system to create a safer world in which our children can grow up.
How the book came to be is an illustration of the way that conscience can lead someone to profound and influencing actions.
On the Trail of the Truth
For many years, Philip Shabecoff has been driven to help save the environment. As a New York Times reporter for 32 years, he strove to cover important aspects of the environment—and was fought most of the way by editors who considered topics such as labor, the national economy and the White House more of a priority. Inspired by the very first Earth Day in 1970, Philip covered environmental issues for the last 14 years of his career with the New York Times.
Upon his retirement, he founded Greenwire, a daily online digest of environmental news, which is still going strong today. He also began his career as an environmental author and has recently released his fourth book, co-written with his wife, Alice, a freelance journalist and former executive director of the National Consumers League.
Poisoned for Profit came about as an observation made in the couple’s very own day-to-day life. “When our grandchildren were being born, we happened to notice a high rate of disease around their neighborhood,” Alice Shabecoff told Organic Connections.
“A quarter of the male kids in the neighborhood of one of our grandsons alone had some sort of neurological behavioral problem,” Philip said. “So we started looking into it. We saw that it wasn’t just neurological problems but also a huge increase in asthma cases, in birth defects, and certain types of cancers were rising as well. I was an environmental reporter for many years and I had known that there was an increase in a number of chemicals being produced by industry and put into the environment by commerce. When we began looking deeper into it, we saw what to us was an inescapable correlation between the tremendous expansion of toxic substances in the environment—chemicals, metals and radioactive pollution—and the rising number of sick children. When we came across startling data that one of every three American kids today has some sort of chronic illness, we decided we’d better really look into this in depth. And that’s how we came to do the book.”
Their research led to some shocking revelations. Of America’s 73 million children, almost 21 million—nearly 1 out of 3—suffer from one chronic disease or another: 58,000 are threatened by cancer; nearly 2.5 million live with disfiguring or debilitating birth defects; 310,000 are poisoned by lead; approximately 6 million suffer from asthma; and 12 million have some form of developmental disorder, from autism to ADHD and serious learning disabilities.
These epidemic statistics can be viewed alongside the massive toxification of our environment. According to Dr. David Wallinga, director of the Food and Health Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, “We’ve created a society with around 80,000 industrial chemicals, most of which have not been tested for safety. Many of those chemicals end up in the food chain one way or another, through drinking water or because they are intentionally put into food packaging or because they are pollutants that accumulate up the food chain. Being at the top of the food chain, we often get the most exposure to these pollutants.
A Question of Values
The Shabecoffs not only report facts and figures but analyze the problem down to an assessment of core values—on governmental, corporate and personal levels.
On a corporate plane, the widespread use of chemicals has been motivated by the bottom line. If a corporation can maximize its profits by using certain toxic or questionable chemicals, it will, until expressly stopped from doing so. Unfortunately, the current system allows for chemicals to be “innocent until proven guilty”—meaning that unless a direct threat is shown to exist, a factory or plant can continue releasing them into the environment. And as the book clearly shows, it most certainly will.
“Economist Milton Friedman proclaimed some years ago that business has no social responsibility other than to increase its profits,” Philip and Alice write in Poisoned for Profit. “Unfortunately for our children, and for all of us, this is the prevailing—although by no means universal—ethos in corporate America at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”
The Shabecoffs provide an example of General Electric (GE), which operated a factory complex in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, until the 1980s, when the company pulled up stakes and moved out of the area. Up till the 1970s, GE (as well as many other manufacturers of electronics and electrical goods) used PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in their processes. PCBs are fire resistant and are good insulators and were widely in use from the 1920s through to the late 1970s, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) barred their further manufacture.
While PCB manufacture ceased in the 1970s, they are highly persistent in the environment. They are classified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen and a cause of damage to the liver, kidneys, thyroid, stomach and skin. They have also been found in numerous studies to cause intellectual impairment in children.
GE left the Pittsfield area—but also left behind an environment badly polluted with PCBs. The Housatonic River that flows through the town is one of the most contaminated in the nation. A local resident interviewed by the Shabecoffs described the high number of residents in the town still suffering illnesses, and the grossly polluted state of the town’s groundwater.
The end of the story is that GE (after years of negotiation with the EPA) agreed to clean up some of their former properties as well as the river—but has still never acknowledged the serious health effects associated with its PCB wastes.
The Shabecoffs argue that a change is needed in order to bring these types of situations under control. “There’s only one entity that is strong enough to stand up to corporate power and that is government,” Philip said. “And it can’t be government that is really an extension of industry. What is needed is sort of a veto-proof Congress and a president who is willing to fight, to take on the corporations and do all kinds of things in terms not only of legislation that would restrict the activities of polluting corporations but also of changing corporate governance in this country, which is almost nonexistent.”
In the long term, manufacturing methods will have to change. One solution offered in the book is a process that is fortunately already starting to take hold—that of “green chemistry.” This means replacing the toxic chemicals with environmentally friendly ones.
“We know that there have to be ways of making industrial types of products,” Alice said. “We’re not going to go back to candles and producing everything from scratch. So green chemistry and alternative energy are ways to save kids’ health, without all the byproducts of the kind of fuel that is driving our economy right now. There are a number of universities that have fabulous green chemistry initiatives. I’m not sure whether the corporations have begun loading the amount of money into those initiatives that they should, but we do point out in the book that this would be an awfully good way for America to spearhead a new economic revolution, which we would be leading for a change instead of following.”
Changing Personal Values
Of course, it comes down to all of us as well, on a personal level, changing our system.
According to the book, “Most Americans would not dream of exposing their children to poisonous chemicals or criticizing neighbors who were trying to protect their children. Their values would not permit it. But it is probably safe to say that, by and large, people running the daily marathon of life and work give little thought to the dangers that surround their children.”
“Parents have to become educated consumers,” Philip said. “They can’t believe that what they buy in the stores is safe because somebody is taking care of it—you know, the government or the companies—because that’s not true. Therefore, they have to look at what they’re buying and make sure that it is safe for their kids. Our book has an appendix that addresses this—some things parents can do.”
In the end, conscientious parents will also have to take on some kind of role in steering the government—through their votes. The Shabecoffs point out that government representatives are elected and must listen to their constituents. “People really need to empower themselves,” Alice advised. “We did it in the civil rights movement. We did it in the women’s movement. The Tea Party people are figuring out how to do it with their issues. It’s in the hands of the parents next. If we would really pull together parent-led groups, we could possibly get some kind of a national movement of active parents underway. If we end up with a hundred thousand parents on the Capitol mall, they’re going to have to listen.”
Depth of the Problem
Part of the problem in cleaning up our toxic environment is that unless direct causation can be established linking a certain chemical to a particular disease, the companies and their legal teams won’t take action.
“As we point out, it’s almost impossible to prove that a particular chemical caused a particular disease at a particular time, in a particular individual or group of individuals, in that place,” Philip said. “That’s what the industry—the perpetrators—use as their line of defense.”
The Shabecoffs point to the town of Dickson, Tennessee, in which 19 cases of children born with cleft lips and palates occurred within two years. Under normal circumstances, 2 such cases might be expected with that population sample within that period of time. Other birth defects were occurring there also—brain malformations, inverted urethras, heart defects and leukemia. One of the parents researching the problem actually placed the cases on a map and discovered that most of the families with cleft-palate babies lived near the Dickson County Landfill. The landfill had violated recommendations by the local department of public health and had accepted liquid chemical wastes over a period of several years. The pollutants included trichloroethylene (TCE), a solvent known or suspected to cause several forms of cancer and birth defects. There is even limited evidence that it can be a specific cause of cleft palates.
Unfortunately, no one could trace any of the diseases to specific chemicals beyond a reasonable doubt—and, according to the Shabecoffs, this has been the problem with virtually every such case that ever
comes to court. Due to publicity, companies tend to settle with victims’ families—but such settlements never amount to an admission of guilt required to set precedents for the overall scene to change.
The Shabecoffs argue that the rules of evidence in such cases should be turned around to be made similar to what is used in criminal cases, in which circumstantial evidence is allowed. “You can’t prove it but you have a huge weight of evidence suggesting that that is the case,” said Philip. “It only makes sense that, when there is such evidence but no direct proof, you should go with the weight of evidence and protect the kids rather than the companies.”
Plea for Change and Action
In their book, Philip and Alice make it clear “The first line of defense for the children is, of course, their families. Parents can do much to shield their children, including providing them as toxic-free an environment as possible. They can remove poison-containing products from their homes and not use them on lawns or gardens. They can give their kids a nourishing, balanced diet of unadulterated food, starting before they are conceived.”
There are a number of books containing precautions parents can take to minimize toxic threats. Poisoned for Profit also includes a healthy list of such actions; within the appendixes, there is advice on choosing a clean community and how to get many chemicals out of the home environment. In addition, there are plenty of recommendations on choosing foods.
“But given the overwhelming momentum of our technology-based, consumption-driven economy, our industrial agriculture, the sea of chemicals already out there, the new ones pouring into the environment every day, and the dearth of information about the nature of threats to the children and how to deal with them, there is only so much parents and local communities can do on their own—and that is not remotely enough,” Philip and Alice write.
“We will have to change the way the world now works, and this will be an immensely challenging task. But if we lift our eyes a bit, we can see that our man-made environment was once, not so long ago, a much safer place for our children to inhabit. As a democratic society, we have it within ourselves to make the necessary reforms in our science, our medicine, our industry, our economics, and our politics to re-create a safer, healthier, fresher environment. The effort will be met with determined resistance. But we believe it can be done.”
Poisoned for Profit is available at the Organic Connections bookstore.