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Transcripts: Everyday Carcinogens

Everyday Carcinogens: Stopping Cancer Before It Starts

March 26-27, 1999 at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario

Just Saying "No" to Dioxin and "Yes" to Health Care Without Harm

To Speaker Bio

Dr. Paul Connett
Co-Editor, Waste Not

Saturday, March 27, 1999

Well, they selected this time for me because they didn't want you to vomit on an empty stomach. But seriously, we are going to look at some success stories. The first success story I have to share with you is the stopping of the building of new incinerators in the United States and Canada. When they started in the late '70s this was thought to be a multi-billion dollar industry. Since 1985, we've been able to stop over 300 trash incinerators being built in the United States, many more in Canada. They haven't built one in the United States for several years now and they're not likely to build another one there. One of the most exciting moments in our campaign was when we heard that Ontario had passed this complete ban on new incineration.

The people of Ontario need solutions, not illusions. And great acknowledgement to Ruth Grier... she's terrific... fantastic. And even though the wretched new government of yours has lifted that ban, that ban had so much momentum you still have not been able to build incinerators in Ontario even with the ban off, even though they're trying very hard right now to build one in Peterborough.

The second success story I think is getting dioxin on the public agenda. And I was very moved hearing the fellow from the trade union this morning... it rang some bells. Because one of the turning points in getting dioxin on the public agenda was the organizing of a citizen's conference on dioxin on the doorstep of the 11th International Symposium on Dioxin in North Carolina. We got the local citizen activists to organize this conference, same time as this big international conference, and we got the better scientists to come along from that conference and talk directly to the citizens.

But it was more than that. We had the Vietnam vets who'd been screwed for years by the US government on the Agent Orange issue, we had them there. And we had other victims there. And one of the most meaningful experiences, a moving experience, was to see scientists cry when they heard the victims describe what they'd been through. We need more scientists to cry.

And then the other success story, or a third one, is the way that citizens and particularly victims like yourselves many of you, educate themselves on these issues, on the toxics issue, and then share that information with others, sharing it with meetings like this, with newsletters, with email and so on and that snowballing of that information is what eventually educates the media, academia and the government. As the bumper sticker says, "When the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow."

And a very good example of such a network which I'll go into more a little bit later is this thing called Health Care Without Harm in the United States. Health Care Without Harm, although it's all over the world now, is bringing together the environmental activist community with the medical community in cleaning up hospitals. Because hospitals are a major source of dioxins and mercury going into our environment. More about that later.

Now I have two laws on pollution. The first is the bad law. The bad law of pollution is - The level of pollution increases directly, community by community, state by state, with the level of corruption. The more corrupt your state, the more polluted your state would be or your town.

That's the bad law. The good law says: The level of pollution decreases systematically as the level of public participation increases. The more we are involved the less polluted and the less threatened we are by these authorities. To put it another way, polite people get poisoned; angry people get organized. And that's what this is all about, this conference. It's to take that anger and make it work for you. Instead of making you depressed, making you agitated. There's nothing wrong with anger. There's a hell of a lot wrong with cynicism. But there's nothing wrong with anger. It's very healthy.

Basically, we're fighting five things:

  • Greed. Oh boy, there's a lot of greed here. We've heard all about that from Sam (Epstein)...
  • Corruption. Yes, we've probably always fought that.
  • Incompetence. And the trouble with incompetence and corruption is that from a distance you can't tell which is which it is. They both look the same. Are they stupid or are they crooks? You can't tell.
  • But I think our biggest problem is indifference. That's our target. That's where we come in. It's indifference we have to fight. What was the title of that book? 'Who Cares'. Right. The victims care. And we the victims identify with the victims. We have to make others care, one way or the other.
  • And then what we're up against, arrogance. Oh yes! Arrogance I define as ignorance backed up with overconfidence.

Now, if we lose this battle, sometime at the end of the twenty-first century our descendants are going to come across this monolithic thing, like something from Space Odyssey 2001, this building without windows and doors; it'll probably be made out of vitrified fly ash. And when we get to it, we find this official legend written on the bottom: "They became more and more sophisticated at answering the wrong questions."

Now why do they ask the wrong questions?

And the answer is that they use the wrong end of their bodies, these high paid consultants, bureaucrats and others. They are what I call back end thinkers. Now I want to illustrate this difficult concept of back end thinking with a bathtub, ok? The back end thinker comes home, the bathtub's overflowing so you grab a cup and try to empty it. That's not fast enough so you get a bucket. That's not fast enough so you get a foot pump. That's not fast enough then you get an electric pump... power... a nuclear power station. All in an effort to empty that bathtub before it damages the floor. At this point, the man's wife, it usually is a man, the man's wife comes home. She switches off the tap. She is a front end thinker. And that's what this conference is all about. It's prevention.

And Einstein said it before Greenpeace. He said a clever person solves a problem. (You know, with all those chemotherapy treatments, and this, that and the other. That's all that stuff. Right.) A wise person avoids it. A clever person solves a problem; a wise person avoids it. And we have a big problem there with the educational system because we still haven't learnt how to produce wise people. We are very good are producing clever people to make more machines, more gadgets, more technology but not very wise people.

One of the most potentially dangerous inventions is, that we've come up with is a group of experts that all share the same value system. Because there's nobody to challenge that value. That is why you must always have a citizen, particularly a native American to ask the kind of questions that they can't possibly think of. The value system that they have looks something like that. I don't know if you recognize the planet in the middle of that hamburger but that's what they do. These people belong to the McDonaldization of society which wants to consume the planet as fast as possible and us in the process. We are living as if we had another planet to go to. In fact, our former president of the United States thought we could get to Mars and the former vice president was already on it. We are allowing multinational corporations to define what progress is. And saw the disaster and we're talking about the St. Lawrence Seaway. That was their notion of progress, multinational corporations. It wasn't the Mohawks' definition of progress...

The bottom line is - and this comes from the waste business - we can not run a throwaway society on a finite planet. Landfills bury the evidence. Incinerators burn the evidence. We have to face the problem. And, of course, as everybody's discussing, the problem is to reach a sustainable society. Move in the right direction. As Ross Hume Hall was talking about yesterday, we responded as a planet very well to one threat of chlorine, namely the CFCs destroying the ozone layer and the threat from up above. But we've had to struggle very hard. I noticed that John Valentine is in the audience who was very early on warning about organochlorines. But we have to struggle to indicate that this equally devastating threat from within from organochlorines, PCBs, dioxins and germs building up in the environment, in our foods, in our human tissues and in our breast milk. And although the emphasis has been on breast milk, even before we get to the breast milk stage the baby has been bathed with these things in the womb. The message is simple.

  • We want dioxin out of our babies.
  • We want dioxin out of our food... and I was on the train coming and I thought, what else do we want? We might as well start by making a list. We might not get 'em but we can make a list.
  • We want dioxin out of mother's milk.
  • We want PVC out of our shops because that's the major culprit in terms of generating dioxin. Not only in municipal waste incinerats, medical waste incinerats, and backyard burn barrels.
  • We need chlorine out of the chemical industry. And by the way that sounds pretty radical. But to me it's not more radical than telling a woman to limit her breast feeding. This is small potatoes compared to that fundamental change.
  • Fluoride out of our drinking water. And this is the most stupid bit of public policy that the Neanderthals that ran our... I mean this comes from the age where we spread DDT on kids at picnics, you know... Actually, we've got a few newsletters on the front on the fluoride here if you're interested.
  • Mercury out of our mouths. You know, I heard the other day, where does the word 'quack' come from? Quack. Well, I understand that it comes from the German 'quicksilver' which in Germany is 'quacksilver'. And it comes from the 1830s where you had two groups of dentists. One group of dentists said gold and silver for fillings. And the other group of dentists said no, we've got this wonderful thing called dental amalgam which contains mercury. And the one set of dentists who didn't want that, called the others quacks, because of this quacksilver. Now you might check that 'cause I haven't checked it yet but it's a good story so we might as well share it. But out of that debate in the 1830s, the group of dentists who believed in dental amalgam formed the American dental association. So this organization has been a lobby group for mercury amalgams for 160 years. And as stupid as that is, you shouldn't be surprised that they're also the lobby for fluoride in our drinking water.
  • We want pesticides out of our homes, lawns and food.
  • We want genetic engineering out of agriculture. I've just come back from England. This is top of the news in England. It is number one news item. Sainsburys is not going to use genetically engineered food, Marks and Spencers, major chain stores, government is requiring identification of genetically modified foods right the way down to the hamburger stand on the street corner. They have to tell you whether it's got genetically monitored things. Contrast that with the United States where it's zero, practically zero happening on that, that's visible to the general public at least.
  • We need corporate money out of government. Oh my God! How do you do that?
  • We want cowardice out of academia. I'm not really sure that cowardice is the right word. Silence? Indifference? But the fact that our brightest minds are tied up in universities, totally self-serving, worshipping this academic model where you spend hours and hours and hours on minutiae. How many hairs are there on spider's leg number 7 in spider number 6983 in the Amazon? And if you ask them about leg number six and it's not their specialty .. Now we do need specialists. But I don't feel we need specialists at the expense of their not taking responsibility for what our corporations and the pollution and everything else is doing to our community. You can't have this cop out!
  • We want the TV out of our living rooms at least one night a week.
  • Incinerators out of our communities. We're in a home of a ridiculous incinerator here in Hamilton. It's putting out several hundred times as much dioxin as a modern incinerator would. Essentially you've got two ways to go at this point. One is to invest the money to get that up to modern standards. Or you shut it down. My advice would be, don't waste the money trying to improve it. Instead, put your money into doing what you should have done in the first place. Source separation, reuse, repair, recycling, reduction, composting and selective landfilling. That's what you should've done. That's what you should do now. What the plan is to run it for eight or nine years, expand the amount of waste that they burn, to bring it in from other jurisdictions including the United States. This is an utter scandal! It should be closed as soon as possible. And how do you get that? You just say to the politicians are you for this incinerator? Yes? No hard feelings. I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that you are never re-elected in this community. And whilst we are talking about that, get the burn barrels out of every backyard because unfortunately as long as there's PVC and other chlorinated products in the waste stream. We're producing enormous amounts of dioxin from these burn barrels. That should be shut down. Again, if you see anybody burning anything in their backyard, try to stop 'em!

Okay, just a few words about dioxin. First of all about the chemistry. I only put this... it's not necessary... I only put it in because people are so satisfied in a few minutes time they'll understand some chemistry and the first time in their lives they didn't hate it. And it's a sense of empowerment. The only thing you need to know really to understand dioxin is essentially a thing called benzene, which is six carbons in a hexagon. If you join two of those together you get a substance called biphenyl. You could have called it bicycle but somebody already used that. Then if you substitute chlorine for those hydrogens around that ring which we can do easily then we get a family of compounds called poly, meaning several, chloro, meaning we put chlorine into that ring, biphenyls, PCBs for short. 209 of those PBCs because there's 209 ways of putting the chlorine around those rings. When you burn PCBs the products are even more toxic than you started. You get this second family of compounds called polychlorinated dibenzo furans?? All that's happened here is you put an oxygen across that gap and again you put the chlorines around. Here's 135 furans or PCDFs. If you put two oxygens between those rings you get another family of compounds called dioxins. And there's 75 of those. All 210 dioxins and furans are produced when you burn trash or anything which contains chlorine. So here's the revision. Benzene, biphenyl, PBCs, furans, dioxin. You can do it with your hands.

There's 210 of these. Seventeen are very toxic. Super toxic. And those are the ones who have chlorine at the positions which we number two, three, seven, eight, all the family members which have chlorine at the two, three, seven, eight positions. The worst of all is the one that has just four chlorines, 2,3,7,8 TCDD. That's the dioxin of Agent Orange. Etc., etc., etc.

Now, how does it work. Dioxin, being fat soluble, crosses the membrane, attaches itself to a protein called the AH receptor. And there's two remarkable things about this receptor. First of all, after over twenty years of research we still don't know what that substance is supposed to be doing. What is that protein supposed to be binding to? All we know is that dioxin avidly attaches itself to that and then that subsequent things happen. But we don't know what the natural substance is that should be binding to that.

The second thing which is even more remarkable, this protein appears in evolution at the same time as bones appear in fish. Every species above boneless fish has this protein in it. Which means that the fact that it survived all the millions of years and twists and turns of evolution says that this has vital importance. We don't know what its function is but it's a vitally important function. Dioxin co-opts it, attaches to it, then it attaches to another protein which is actually the antiprotein. And the antiprotein is also involved in the estrogen receptor. So this is what happens... and the highest doses go to our babies.

The most important paper that's been written on dioxin to date in my view is also the shortest. This was eight Dutch scientists sent this letter in to the Lancet at May the 23rd, 1992. Basically, what they did was to look at thyroid metabolism of 38 babies. They divided them up into two groups based upon whether or not mothers has high or low dioxin levels in their breast milk, giving an indicator of exposure in the womb. And at one week of age, there was a significant difference between the thyroid hormone levels in the baby between the high level and the low level. Now these differences are within the range of the normal population. However, the problem here is when you poison the whole population it's not the subtle shift you see in the average person, it's what you do to the tails. I mean this kind of thing could double the number of people that have an impaired immune system, for example. Double it. And halve the ones who are super resistant.

If you look at levels of dioxin in mothers breast milk, you see low levels in the southern hemisphere, very, very high levels in Europe and we're somewhere in the middle. Canada and the United States in the middle here at 16, 18 parts per trillion. But I think these high levels in Europe, this goes back to '89, some of them have come down. I think that's because they run their traffic, their industry and their incinerators very close to where they grow their food. More about that in a minute.

Incineration. Oh my goodness. What a dumb thing to do. To take every single material that you consume in society, convert it into tiny little pieces and then blow them out of a spout and let them settle out in our lungs, in our food and so on. And of course we do bring on the back end thinking of air pollution control devices.

In 1987 is when they first discovered dioxin coming out of incinerators. In 1985 was when they first found that dioxins were actually formed in the air pollution control devices. The engineers told us they could solve the dioxin problem simply by burning it at higher temperatures. We now know that the dioxin is actually created in the air pollution control devices if it goes hot.

Now, here's an extraordinary figure. They found that Columbus, Ohio was putting out 984 grams of dioxin a year. That's more than the whole of Germany. All their traffic, all their industry, all their incinerators. Meanwhile the EPA was telling experts in Vienna that all their incinerators combined were putting out 60 to 200 grams. So one incinerator is putting out five times more than their highest estimate. It's also the equivalent of about a half a Seveso accident. So that's equivalent to about, running for ten years, five Seveso accidents.

What did the Ohio EPA do about this? They did a risk assessment and came back and said the Ohio EPA study finds no substantial threat caused by dioxin emissions. But they only looked at inhalation!? Ohhh... he looked at inhalation... more about that in a minute.

Then the Department of Health and this is the department of Health, not the department of Monty Python. They came out with a fact sheet. You know how citizens become upset with 1000 grams of acid coming down on their heads? "Don't get so emotional about this, darling". So, come out with a fact sheet. Get the facts out. So the first thing they did was get the structures of dioxins and furans wrong... OK, we all make mistakes. Then they would try and tell their ignorant public how small a part per trillion is. One part per trillion is taking a one second vacation after working 31,700 years. Wouldn't you want a one second vacation after working 31 years? It gets worse... it gets worse. So then what they did was they converted the maximum emission rate into parts per trillion, 1341.9 parts per trillion. Let's see what they say. One part per trillion is equivalent to, hey you, a one second vacation after working 31,700 years. The maximum emission is equal to 1342 seconds or 42.4 minutes vacation taken. That's if a person works all year! If a person worked a forty hour week, it would take 173,567 years to earn 23-4 minutes vacation!! Department of Health! Trying to trivialize the fact that this community is getting 984 grams of dioxin a year on their heads.

I could go on. I could go on to how they retested that plant. "We lost our north-end trash that week. Remember the tests are very important and it's our future. We must have a good source of trash for the test." Umm... Then they got a consultant... who's since achieved great fame because he's proved that there's no relationship between dioxin coming out of an incinerator and chlorine going in. But he did this calculation in which he estimated that "all the municipal trash incinerators in the United States are putting out just 2.6 percent" of this total of 33,000 grams. But if you work out 2.6 percent of 33,000 grams, it's 850 grams per year which is less than the incinerator that he was investigating, which was 984 grams a year. That's a peculiar kind of mathematics.

Going back to food chains. One quart of milk, this is our first paper, one quart of milk is equivalent to breathing the air next to the cow for eight months. More recent figures. A cow in one day puts as much dioxin into its body as you would put into yours in fourteen years of breathing. So it's what you eat. And the EPA came out and admitted that in September of '94. This is were we get our dioxin from: beef, dairy, milk, chicken, pork, fish, eggs. Very little from breathing.

And so what you really what to know in Hamilton is how much of that dioxin, that 4 grams a year, from that stack gets into your food chain. I don't think anyone's done that calculation.

In country after country, in the '90s, it was shown that the major source of dioxin coming out, the source of dioxin was farm municipal waste incineration. I put the percentages here. In Germany, 47 percent, UK, 30 percent, Netherlands, 79 percent, Switzerland, 75 percent, United States, 33 percent. But the thing which sent shock waves in the United States was medical waste incineration at 5000 grams as opposed to 3000 grams per municipal waste incineration. And that sent shock waves through the community, particularly activists. And what it produced ultimately was the campaign Health Care Without Harm. Here is the website: Please contact them. This is the most incredible group. As I say, nurses, doctors, public officials, citizens, activists, Greenpeace, you name it. And they are making great strides. Not only in making, communicating how obsolescent incineration is. A much better technology for destroying the infectious waste, which don't create the dioxin or heavy metal problem. But they're also getting right to the front end and persuading to get PVC out of the hospitals. And you may have seen the publicity around the IV bags.

Back to the big picture. Steps towards a sustainable society:

  • We need to shift from back end solutions to front end solutions whether we're talking about medicine, crime or waste.
  • We need to replace short term economic plans with long term ecological plans.
  • We need to shift the focus from standard of living to quality of life.
  • We need to shift from being clever to being wise.
  • We need to shift from arrogant technologies to elegant solutions modeled after nature's methods. Arrogant technologies - genetic engineering, nuclear power, use of chlorine in the chemical industry, incineration, etc.
  • We need to rediscover, revitalize, small communities, small businesses, small farms, everything small.
  • Create a superfund for workers displaced from dirty industries.
  • Protect habitats of endangered species, and indigenous people who know more about sustainability than any other of God's creatures.
  • Network environmental and social justice groups worldwide, and
  • Make sure that at least fifty percent of our legislators are women.

All truth goes through three phases. First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently attacked. And third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

And finally, three messages:

  • To citizens: Don't let the experts take your common sense away. They will if they can.
  • To political leaders: Put your faith back in people. Stop trying to solve all your problems with high paid consultants and magic machines.
  • And to activists, the most important message of all is to have fun. And don't go into this battle unless you're going to enjoy it. Find a way of enjoying this. Celebrate often. Celebrate everything that you possibly can. Party whenever you can. And remember in this networking thing that we have here, we have the most precious, the most precious aspect of life on this planet that we know. And that is human beings talking to one another, liking one another, enjoying one another. And what Sandra Steingraber said this morning was absolutely on target when she talked about what the parent goes through when they first have their baby. I just took me right back to when I was waiting for my first baby to be born. Absolutely I'm sure and if you ask most people in this room why they are giving up this weekend, the answer will come back probably for my children and for my grandchildren. This is the celebration of those feelings. And it's more powerful than all the greed and all the corruption and all the other things that the other side have. We are more powerful.

We are the little mushroom that blasts through concrete.

Thank you very much.

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