The Problem of Toxins in the United States

"Since the 1950s, age-standardized cancer incidence rates in the U.S. have increased by 43.5 percent" (Epstein, 1992, p. 233). Death from cancer has increased at a similar rate. The best attempts to isolate the causes of cancer have resulted in the conclusion that environmental factors account for 60 to 90 percent of cancers. The rest are attributable to inherited tendencies and internal biochemical malfunctions (Epstein, 1987).

Studies have shown cancer effects from doses of radiation that previously were thought to be safe. In one study a distinguishing fact about children who died of cancer before age ten compared with both those who died of other causes and those who survived to age ten is that the cancer victims' mothers received on average twice as many X rays while pregnant (Stewart). Another study showed a strong statistical association between a father's exposure to external radiation while working at a nuclear-waste reprocessing plant before a child was conceived and that child's chance of contracting leukemia (Gardner).

Radiation is not the only risk factor for cancer: Pesticides and other chemicals are implicated as well. A study showed that the mammary adipose tissue of women with breast cancer contained significantly more residues of chemicals associated with pesticides than did the mammary tissue of women with nonmalignant tumors (Falck et al.). Another study revealed that among white male scientists and engineers those who were members of the American Chemical Society had significantly more deaths from leukemia and lymphatic cancer (Arnetz et al.). A study of men from Iowa and Minnesota showed a link between elevated environmental chemical exposures that resulted from living near a factory and two types of cancer: non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and leukemia (Linos et al.). Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma also has been linked to the use of certain pesticides (Weber). Foundry workers in Denmark who were exposed to elevated levels of silica dust, metallic fumes, carbon monoxide, and several organic chemicals had markedly elevated rates of lung cancer (Sherson et al.). Occupational exposure to asbestos is considered responsible for 8,000 to 12,000 deaths each year in the United States (Rauber).

Typically, years intervene between exposure to environmental contaminants and an associated cancer or death. However, in some cases the connection between environmental pollution and human mortality is more direct. The "U.S. Office of Technology Assessment estimates that the mix of sulphates and particulates in ambient air may cause 50,000 premature deaths in the United States each year— about 2 percent of annual mortality" (Postel, 1986, p. 34). Toxic chemicals released into the air in 1988 were estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cause "up to 3,000 cases of fatal cancer yearly as well as birth defects, lung disease, nervous system disorders, liver damage, and other health problems" (U.S. General Accounting Office, p. 8). When all types and sources of air pollution are considered, the American Lung Association puts the toll at 120,000 premature deaths per year (French).

There is increasing evidence that indoor air is often a health hazard. Radon in homes is believed to be a leading cause of cancer. The "sick building" syndrome is also a concern; it is the phenomenon of buildings inducing illnesses of various sorts in a large percentage of the people who spend considerable amounts of time in them. For example, chemicals in materials used to build and decorate the Dupage County Judicial and Office Facility in Wheaton, Illinois, were considered responsible for a variety of employee illnesses. As a result, a nearly new building was evacuated temporarily.

Scientists have been concerned particularly about exposure to heavy metals such as lead and mercury. Although exposure to lead has been reduced greatly, pockets of the population still are exposed to lead in peeling household paint, and everyone is exposed to lead in outdoor air pollution and food. The health effects of lead are well documented and include serious and irreversible impairment of children's neurobehavioral development (Brooks et al.). Mercury contamination also has been of particular concern. As with lead, the health effects of mercury are relatively well understood, largely because of several large-scale exposures, including the Minimata Bay disaster, in which a whole Japanese village was poisoned after eating mercury-laced fish. Methylmercury is absorbed readily by fish in polluted aquatic environments. When humans eat contaminated fish, the methylmercury is absorbed readily into the bloodstream and tissues. Mercury can cause tremors, dementia, and congenital neurological deformities (Brooks et al.).

Beginning in the 1990s, concern has intensified about a group of chemicals called persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Those chemicals include the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); pesticides such as DDT, chlordane, aldrin, and heptachlor; and industrial by-products such as dioxins. POPs are fat-soluble and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals, where they persist for long periods. Research suggests that POPs are "endocrine disruptors": They mimic hormones and may play a significant and largely unacknowledged role in altering reproduction and development. Endocrine disruptors have long concerned wildlife biologists, who believe that declines in avian and amphibian populations are linked to POPs in the environment (Colborn, Dumanoski, and Myers). The way in which these chemicals affect humans is unknown, although some research has connected exposure to POPs with diminished sperm quality and quantity, impaired sexual function, increased testicular cancer, hypospadias, and cryptorchidism (Solomon and Schettler).

10 Ways To Fight Off Cancer

10 Ways To Fight Off Cancer

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