Chemical trespass: violating human rights

Comments by John Peterson Myers, Ph.D.

at the scientific briefing organized by
The International Joint Commission
For the UN Negotiating Conference on
Persistent Organic Pollutants

Montreal, Quebec
30 June, 1998

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All of us—every person in this room—we are all carrying combinations of persistent organic pollutants at levels in our body that are unprecedented in human evolution.

What does this mean? Frankly, science does not tell us enough. We know little about the impacts of most contaminants. Some we know are quite dangerous, especially the 12 chemicals which are the initial focus of the POPs convention. Some others are most likely safe. But for the vast majority we lack even the most rudimentary data. We—all of us here in this room, as well as our children and grandchildren—are all walking experiments.

Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and I wrote a book about these issues two years ago. We called the book Our Stolen Future. Our basic thesis was quite simple in concept: That there are contaminants people have let loose into the environment which find their way into the womb, and that these contaminants interfere with the natural chemical messages that control growth and development of the fetus. Some interfere with our capacity to reproduce. Others erode intelligence. Still others undermine our ability to resist disease.

In the book we presented data from a wide ranging set of studies—of wildlife, of laboratory animals and of special cases of exposed people, which demonstrate these impacts. We then asked— given that people living in many places are exposed to these hormone disrupting chemicals within the ranges of contamination which caused known problems in wildlife and in laboratory animals— we asked whether there was evidence suggesting more broad based human health impacts than the isolated human exposures which had been well studied.

We found there was strong evidence—not all of it conclusive, but certainly consistent with the hypothesis that people were not only at risk, but already being affected.

The science that has unfolded since Our Stolen Future was published is quite remarkable and quite troubling. New results seem to pop out almost every day. Just within the last year we have learned

And in the past few weeks, news reports have carried stories

But beyond these specific findings, which come out relentlessly, week by week, let me summarize a few important trends in the research.

First, the time frame for concern has been extended to life long impacts caused by fetal exposures. We know now that while there can be acute health impacts on adults with high exposures, the most vital are low level exposures in the womb. These can have life long, debilitating impacts that erode the very essence of what a young baby can aspire to as he or she grows and matures and become a functioning—or dysfunctional—adult in society.

It is clear now that the only time for certain reproductive problems to be initiated is in the womb. It is clear now that immune system misfunctions can begin in the womb but have life-long consequences. It is clear now that brain development is exquisitely sensitive to contamination in the womb, and once mis-wired in development, the brain remains mis-wired for life.

Second, the geography of contamination has become undeniably global. No mother anywhere on earth does not carry some of these compounds in their bodies. Some have but a little exposure, some have heavy exposure, but no one has no exposure. As a result, no baby is born without first experiencing some degree of toxic contamination in the womb. And even those countries trying to implement good domestic laws remain at risk because the contaminants spread by air and water, to the very ends of the earth.

Third, ongoing research shows that the level of contamination sufficient to cause effects is much lower than we had thought, well within the range at which people are contaminated in the real world. Dr. Fred vom Saal who is the world's leading scientific authority on this issue and will address it shortly, has discovered that the levels of contamination at which effects begin to appear are thousands of times lower than toxicologists had thought.

Fourth, several epidemiological trends affecting our ability to reproduce have been confirmed, and new ones have been discovered. I mentioned several specific examples earlier—sperm counts, birth defects of the penis and altered sex ratios with fewer boys being born than expected. For none of these trends is there absolute scientific certainty linking contamination cause with human effect, but the evidence is sufficiently strong to make one or more POPs a principle suspect.

Fifth, while effects on our capacity to reproduce have remained as one core of concern, increasing attention has become focused on two other endpoints, (1) intellectual capacity, emotion and behavior, and (2) disease resistance. You will hear more about emotion and behavior shortly from Dr. Thomas Darville, but let me expand briefly on immune system effects.

New research is revealing that there are profound interactions between disease resistance and contamination. I believe this is the the sleeping giant that connects POPS to more traditional health concerns. It works this way. Contamination affects the immune system. It undermines the body's ability to resist disease. A child with an immune system degraded by contamination will fall prey to diseases—gastrointestinal, malaria, measles etc., that they would have been able to defeat, were their immune system fully competent. These children enter into the public health statistics as victims of a traditional disease agent. But in fact, their death would not have happened without contamination.

All the necessary science is not in on immune system impacts. Enough is available to know that it is a serious problem. I believe that within a few years we will have a new paradigm for the interaction between disease agents and chemical contamination. In essence, it will be that you can't understand the epidemiological impact of a disease agent, without knowing its contamination context.

Contamination, instead of being at the margins of concern of the health care system, will be front and center, because contamination is preventable, especially if the protocol you forge as a result of this negotiation process is strong and far-sighted.

At the outset of my remarks I observed that the contamination patterns we are experiencing today are unprecedented in human evolution. That we are all walking experiments—we, our children and our grandchildren.

As I have spoken about these issues and talked with people who read Our Stolen Future, I have encountered two very different types of reactions.

The first is one of dismissal. We can't deal with these problems… they are too long range, we must focus on our immediate needs, things that are causing people to die today.

I think this is wrong, for two reasons. First, because of the interaction I just mentioned between immune system suppression, contamination and infectious disease. It is likely to mean that contamination is a hidden but much larger force than we currently understand.

And second, because the choice is a false one to begin with. We haven't understood the human costs of persistent organic pollutants, until now. We haven't fully understood the risks to which we are exposing all life on earth, until now. And so we haven't looked with care and with creativity and with diligence for solutions that address short-term and long-term challenges simultaneously.

In a world society that over the past 50 years has allocated at least $10 trillion dollars to making managing and clean-up of weapons of mass destruction, surely there is the means to defeat malaria without eroding our children's potential.

And as to the second reaction, it is one of horror, that this chemical intrusion into our body, this chemical trespass, amounts to a violation of a very fundamental human right. Who, after all, asked a single mother among us for permission to suffuse her cord blood with compounds that put the future of her baby at risk. No medical ethics committee in any hospital would allow these experiments to take place, if they were proposed as part of biomedical research. Yet we allow them to occur at a planetary scale.

Health experts have told us for some time that if want the people of the world prepared to engage in development and seize the opportunities that economic growth can create for them, we have to ensure that mothers, prior to and during pregnancy, have adequate micronutrients in their diets. Adequate nutrition is not only necessary, it is a human right.

We know enough now about some of these persistent organic pollutants to know that their presence in the womb works in a polar opposite way compared to micronutrients: it undermines an individual's ability, subsequently in life, to pursue new economic and social opportunities. It erodes their potential.

A womb free of contaminants is thus also a human right, and we must engage with business, commerce and government to ensure that the rules of economic development guarantee that each baby born into this world has the opportunity to be born toxic free.

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