Health impacts of the environment

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Whatever the difficulties may be in trying to reveal new truths by studying nature, it is even harder to get them accredited” – Lamarck

In 1975, Doctor Higginson, then director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, maintained that 80% of all cancers had an environmental origin. Back then, such a statement gave rise to much scepticism, if not vicious comments. In 2004, thirty years later, Professor Dominique Belpomme initiated the Paris Appeal (1). It questioned the health impact of the growing number of chemical molecules on the markets as well as pollution as being the origin of numerous diseases, particularly cancer.

While the chemical load in the environment is not just to blame for the growing number of diseases today – lung disease, asthma, allergies, male sterility, neonatal malformations in male infants and of course cancers among them – their rapid rise must still be assessed while keeping in mind that the global production of chemical substances, most of which did not undergo pre-sale testing, increased from 1 million to 400 million tons between 1930 and 2004. Among these new diseases, cancer particularly deserves pondering. While deaths from cancer increased from 125,000 to 150,000 between 1980 and 2000, the number of new cancers diagnosed increased from 170, 000 to 278, 000 over the same period. This steep increase is all the more disturbing given that progress in medicine is still only able to cure almost 1 cancer in two. The REACH project (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals) adopted by the European Union in December 2006, intends to test a substantial number of chemical molecules on the market, especially those sold before 1981 which escaped toxicology testing. The IARC believes or suspects many of these molecules to be carcinogenic. They are therefore likely to disappear and be replaced by products whose safety is proved by producers and accredited by experts from the Union.

Among those molecules, pesticides are already undergoing thorough scientific research before being used. Yet, we know today that the harmful effects following their use are multiplied. Most of them are endocrine disruptors that can copy female hormones, estrogens. The gradual impregnation of the elements, waters, soils, has been going on for over half a century and is contaminating animal organisms leading to their feminization. As Théo Colborn’s work “The end of mankind” which was fore worded by Al Gore, describes how this has been observed in many animal species in the United-States: Whether it be fish, reptiles, birds or mammals, all observations lead to the same disturbing conclusion. Cases of transexuality in males are increasingly detected, as in the amazing episode in Florida where the fats and blood of Lake Apopka alligators contained high level of pesticides, and where most male lost all interest in females.

Danish Professor, Skaekelbek, first warned regarding effects on our own species. It is well known today that human sperm has lost almost half of its sperm cells in Europe, as well as elsewhere, since pesticides were introduced in agriculture. Cases of azoospermies (motionless sperm cells) are increasingly common. These 2 factors both contribute simultaneously to a noted increase in male infertility of about 1% per year. For his part, Professor Charles Sultan of the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier, demonstrated the disturbing increase in cases of congenital malformations in male infants in his maternity clinic; he has managed to link this genital impairment, at least partially, to usage of pesticides in these children’s’ families (especially horticulturists and viticulturists). One can measure the scope of risk when we know that one apple sold in a supermarket has been treated with pesticides 20 to 30 times over. Now almost all of surface water and about two thirds of ground water are contaminated with pesticides as are human blood and lipids. The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) demonstrated this by revealing the presence of an average of several dozen suspect molecules in the blood of environment ministers of the European Union but also of members of the European parliament. Even more disturbing is the fact that these suspect and omnipresent molecules can be transmitted from the mother to her fetus through the umbilical cord so that the newborn is contaminated from his birth and will remain so unless severe measures are taken to limit pesticide usage products in agriculture and gardening, which is thought to be way too liberal. In this respect, Northern European countries such as Denmark and Scandinavia have significantly reduced the use of pesticides in the last ten years. Unfortunately, our country hangs back fearing hostile reactions from the farming population. But it is this farming population which needs protection from the harmful effects of these products which could be radically reduced by modifying agricultural practices without yield collapsing, as the Danish illustration shows.

Unfortunately, as put forward in Lamarck’s quotation as an epigraph to this text, the awareness process is slow, when regarding environmental nuisance and decision making is even slower. […] And as an old Indian saying relevantly comments “not in the air, nor in the ocean, nor deep down in the mountains, nor in any parcel of this vast world, is there a place where the human can escape the consequences of his acts” […]

We now know that our children’s future and that of the earth we shall leave to them will be closely linked to the precautions we take to promote a quality environment and from that, quality of life.

(1) The Paris Appeal may be downloaded online

Jean Marie PELT

Declaration to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, 5th February, 2007.

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