Loss of Health

Chellis Glendinning

 (Chapter excerpt from Chellis Glendinning's When Technology Wounds)

Eventually I collapsed at work and had to be rushed to the emergency room.

-Michael Wagner, New Jersey homeowner exposed to formaldehyde in foam insulation'

All the Thule workers who were in the cleanup, they're all old men now. My husband is only 49, but he's an old man now.

-Sally Markussen, wife of cleanup crew member, 1968 hydrogen bomb accident in Greenland2

Always, we notice the powder of the pesticides on the leaves. I was working in the fields from the beginning of my pregnancy. I was groggy from the Caesarean when the doctor told me, "I have bad news." He simply said Felipe was born without arms or legs. His father was crying. And my mother even more. When we first saw him we felt a great sadness. The doctors told me it was because of the pesticides.

-Ramona Franco, grape picker, Delano, Califbrnia3


The first loss, and the one that precipitates all others, is bodily. Although the diseases caused by different technologies are different and the medical effects of a single technology can vary from person to person, what is universal is loss of health.

Atomic veteran Gilberto Quintana has endured a typical lineup of physical maladies he believes stem from exposure to radiation: prostate cancer, sterility, seizures, and bone deterioration. He describes his experience as "hell." Now over sixty years old, he has a pronounced limp, and on his face he displays the fatigue of a man overwrought by a lifetime of internal stress. "I was just thirty-eight when it all started," he says. "Since then I haven't lived one day without pain. I am always tired, always depressed. I do everything from the gut."

At the peak of her IUD-induced infections, Wendy Grace's physician said she was "as close to death as anybody I have seen." She remembers that time as one of helplessness and pain. After several surgeries, she could endure no more, and the doctor told her to lie in bed for nine months so the abscess festering in her belly could bleed through the skin.

After regulation termite spraying of her house with the chemical chiordane, Bliss Bruen suffered the miscarriage of "a stillborn little fetus," a child she and her husband wanted dearly and mourned for years.

Loran Calvert got asbestosis after working as a machinist and test specialist at a naval shipyard. Today his breathing is heavy and hoarse, and every day he worries that the disease will turn into lung cancer. "I do the best I can now," he says. "It could happen to me overnight."

The health effects caused by many technologies are still not understood. The slow march of laboratory studies and the quickly rising numbers of very sick people provide the material for research conducted by government agencies, industry, independent researchers, universities, and survivors themselves. As more technologies are proving dangerous, some causes and effects are emerging.

The principal biological effect of radiation exposure is the break-down of cell structure. Oddly, radiation damage can be more serious at low levels than at high ones. Drinking contaminated milk or breathing background fallout can be more harmful than getting an X ray. High doses kill the body's cells, and for disease to develop, cells must be alive. Rarely killing a cell outright, low-level radiation scrambles cellular chemistry, rearranges genetic information, and leaves the cell vulnerable to the invasion of viruses, from common flus to more serious pathogens, like those associated with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome. Depending on the location of mutation, cellular disorganization can lead to rheumatic arthritis, leukemia, cancer, premature aging, sterility, premature births, congenital defects, cataracts, and death.4

Then there are chemicals and metals. At a 1971 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a symposium attempted to rank nineteen major environmental stressors as to their effects on human health. Each technology was scored according to the persistence, range, and complexity of its threat. At the top of the list stood pesticides, followed by heavy metals.5

Exposure to pesticides and metals in water, food, and air can permanently disrupt nervous system functioning and cause brain damage.6 Pesticide exposure is linked to hypertension,7 Parkinson's disease,8 epilepsy,9 and cardiovascular disorders.  It can induce allergic sensitivities11 and possibly liver disease.'2 The common apple-preserving chemical daminozide, if ingested over a lifetime, can cause cancer.13 The pesticides captan, chlorothalonil, permethrin, acephate, parathion, dieldrin, methomyl, and folpet~etected by the Food and Drug Administration in apples, carrots, cauliflower, cherries, grapes, and peaches-are also carcinogenic. 14

Dioxins, the herbicides known for their use in Vietnam, are also used in the United States on farms, national forests, urban parks, and lawns. They can be a potent immunosuppressant, leaving the body open to secondary infections, allergies, and autoimmune disease,15 and a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association links use of dioxin by Kansas farmers with an eight-fold increase in non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.16

Industrial solvents are also extremely health-threatening. Chemicals like trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, and l,2-transdichloro-ethylene are found in electronics plants and dry cleaning factories, as well as in the water supplies of industrial communities like Woburn, Massachusetts. They can cause recurrent infections, immunologic deterioration, leukemia,'1 and neurological disorders that can result in panic attacks, personality imbalances, and spinal cord lesions. 18 Health studies of Woburn residents over a fifteen-year period after documented exposure to trichloroethylene, dichloroethy-lene, tetrachloroethylene, and trichioroethane show a twofold and threefold increase in birth defects and infant deaths. 19

Exposure to the common air pollutants cadmium, lead, and carbon monoxide is linked to respiratory disorders, asthma, high blood pressure, and heart disease,20 while contamination by many toxic chemicals can lead to a decrease in sperm density21 or chromosome aberrations.22 Exposure to benzene in gasoline products,23 lead in air pollution,24 PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in electrical trans-formers and plastics,25 and ozone from automobile exhaust26 can result in the deterioration of one's immune response, as well as cancer, leukemia, and birth defects.

The flame retardant PBB (polybrominated biphenyl) can cause suppression of the all-important T-lymphocytes in the blood, weakening one's immune capability and increasing susceptibility to illness.27 The new field of subliminal toxicology, which detects subtle changes in neurological function, reveals that people exposed to PCBs and dioxins can show memory loss, impaired mental acuity, and loss of coordination-all of which may be precursors to more serious disease.2'

Formaldehyde is a gas used in insulation, particle board, plywood, furniture sealants, and carbonless carbon paper. It is inserted into carpets, cotton bedsheets, and deodorants and used in disinfectants and fumigants.   According to recent studies, formaldehyde is linked to nasal cancer,29 neurological disorders, respiratory disease, and immunologic deterioration.30

Asbestos has been used in pipe covering, brake linings, plaster, insulation, roofing, textiles, cement, paper, and felt. When the microscopically small fibers of asbestos enter a person's lungs, the body encases them in scar tissue, which, if pronounced, blocks the lungs from transferring oxygen into the bloodstream. The result is asbestosis. Other possibilities include mesothelioma (tumors on the membrane lining of the lungs) and cancer of the stomach, large intestine, kidney, larynx, and rectum. Exposure to asbestos can also affect the human immune response, leaving one open to secondary infections, allergies, and autoimmune disease.3'

The overall effect of the introduction of vast quantities of chemicals and metals in the biosphere becomes evident when we compare cancer statistics. In 1900, cancer accounted for only 3 percent of the total deaths in the United States: that is, one in every thirty4hree people. Since the introduction of thousands of new chemicals beginning in the 1940s, one in three people now contracts the disease, and according to the U.S. Toxic Substance Strategy, 8~9O percent of these may be induced by environmental contamination.32

Statistics on environmental illness also offer perspective. Environmental illness is the deterioration of the immune system to the point of susceptibility to allergies, viruses, bacterial infections, and imbalances of internal flora. By all accounts this condition has been on the rise in recent decades in the United States and other industrial countries. The Board of Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the National Research Council estimates that 15 percent of United States citizens are now hypersensitive to chemicals found in common household products.33 Government research in West Germany indicates that one out of every four people in that country is sensitive to some food, chemical, or insect, and allergic reactions are appearing earlier in life than ever before.34

Adding to the dangers posed by chemicals and metals are other technological contaminants. Some researchers have found that exposure to the nonionizing radioactive pulses of video display terminals, electric blankets, and water bed heaters can lead to heart disease, male reproductive failure, miscarriage, birth defects, and depression.35 Chronic exposure to the electromagnetic fields spawned by high-voltage power lines may result in disturbances in human biological cycles and diminished immune response-and a lessening of resistance against infectious diseases, leukemia, and cancers. Exposure to electroradiation can also cause birth defects and genetic diseases like Down's syndrome.36

Overdoses of antibiotics can disrupt the healthy balance of bacteria in and on the body, leaving a person open to infection by disease-carrying microbes or the overgrowth of internal flora like candida.37 Oral contraceptives are thought to cause thromboembolic diseases like phlebitis, stroke, and heart attack; liver tumors;38 bypertension;39 and cancer.40 New research suggests that artificial hormones, which include DES, steroids, and estrogen replacement therapy as well as birth control pills, can also contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases like lupus erythematosus, Graves' disease, and arthritis as well as lowered immune response.41

DES sons face an increased risk of infertility, structural abnormalities of the testes, and testicular cancer.42 Daughters are two to four times as likely as nonexposed women to develop cervical carcinoma,43 while some of them contract clear cell adenocarcinoma. Many DES daughters also sustain structural alterations of their reproductive organs, predisposing them to infertility, miscarriage, ectopic pregnancies, and premature births.44 Mothers who took DES are 40 to 50 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than those who did not.45

Technologies added to what we eat and drink can also be health-threatening. Synthetic flavorings and food dyes constitute about 80 percent of all additives, and they have been linked to learning disabilities and hyperkinesis in children.46 Animal studies show that the sweetener saccharin47 can lead to cancer. The meat preservative nitrite can contribute to cancer,48 as can the artificial hormones like DES, estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone that are used to raise farm animals in the United States.49

Vegetable gums like guar, carrageenin, and carob bean gum50 and preservatives like sodium benzoate,51 sulfur compounds,52 and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT53 (butylated hydroxytoluene) can cause allergic reactions-from hives and coughing to bleeding into the skin, migraine headaches, and mental illness. When molecules of the plastic packaging vinyl chloride chemically interact with foods, they can lead to cancer.54 The chemical styrene, found in polystyrene-based disposable cups as well as in exhaled cigarctte smoke and drinking water, can contribute to insomnia, nerve conduction abnormalities, chromosomal aberrations, and lymphatic and blood cancers.55

These are the known and suspected health effects of just a few modern technologies.

1. Quoted in "The Danger Within," aired on ABC News 20/20, New York, February 4, 1982.

2. Quoted in Peter de Selding, "A Broken Arrow's Dark Legacy," Nation (June 25, 1988), p.890.

3. Quoted in Lonny Shavelson, "Our Children Are Our Canaries," Cai~~rnia Tomorrow (Fall 1988), p.27.

4. Abram Petkau, "Effect of 22 Na + on a Phospholid Membrane," Health Physics Vol.22 (1972), p.239; Abram Petkau, "A Radiation Carcinogene~ sis from a Membrane Perspective," Acta Physiologica Scandinavia, Suppi. Vol.492 (1980), pp.81-90; Charles Waldren, Laura Correll, Marguerite Sognier, and Theodore Puck, "Measurement of Low Levels of X-ray Mutagenesis in Relation to Human Disease," Proceedings of the National Academy ofSciences, Vol.83 (1986), pp. 4839A843; United Nations Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, Ionizing Radiation: Levels and Effects (New York: United Nations Publications), 1972; National Research Council Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation, National Academy of Sciences, The Effects on Populations ofExposure to Low Levels oflonizing Radiation (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1980); and John Gofman, Radiation and Human Health (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1981).

5. Harrison Wellington, Sowing the Wind (New York: Grossman, 1972), p.188.

6. P.R. Metcalf and J.H. Holmes, "EEG, Psychological and Neurological Alterations in Humans with Organophosphorus Exposure," Annals ofNew York Academy of Sciences, Vol.160, No. 1(1969), pp.357-365; and Raymond Singer, "Proving Damages in Toxic Torts," Trial (November 1985).

7. J.L. Radomski et al., "Pesticide Concentrations in the Liver, Brain, and Adipose Tissue of Terminal Hospital Patients," Food and Cosmetics Toxicology, Vol.6 (1968), pp.209-225.

8. K.L. Davis, J.A. Savage, and P.A. Berger, "Possible OrganophosphateInduced Parkinsonism," Journal of Nervous Mental Disorder:, Vol.166 (1978), pp.222-225.

9. D. Nag, G.C. Singh, and S. Senon, "Epilepsy Epidemic Due to Benzahexachiorine," Tropical and Geographical Medicine, Vol.29 (1977), pp.229-232.

10. V.S. Gumenniyi and L.F. Kach, "Findings on Incidence of Diseases of the Cardiovascular System and Respiratory Organs in Areas with Intense and Limited Use of Pesticides," Pesticide Abstracts, Vol 10, No.77-0802 (1976).

11. T.H. Milby and W.L. Epstein, "Allergic Contact Sensitivity to Malathion," Archives of En vironmental Health, Vol.9 (1964), pp. 43~37.

12. Radomski et al., "Pesticide Concentrations," pp.209-225.

13. Cited in Philip Shabecoff, "Hazard Reported in Apple Chemical," New York Times (February 2, 1989).

14. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Unfinished Business:Comparative Assessment of Environmental Problems (Washington, D.C.:U.S. EPA/Office of Policy Analysis, February 1987), pp. 8~86; and Lawne Mott and Karen Snyder, "Pesticide Alert," Amicus Journal, Vol.10, No.2 (Spring 1988), p.28.

15. M. Loglen et al., "Role of the Endocrine System in the Action of 2,3,7,8-TCDD on the Thymus," Toxicology, Vol.15 (1980), p.135; R.D. Hinsdill, D.L. Couch, and R.S. Speirs, "Immunosuppression Induced by Dioxin (TCDD) in Feed," Journal of Environmental Toxicology, Vol.4 (1980), p.401; and J.G. Vos, "Dioxin Induced Thymic Atrophy and Suppression of Thymus-Dependent Immunity," in Bradbury Report: Biological Method ofDioxin Action (Cold Springs, Maine: Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory) pp.401410.

16. Sheila Hoar et al., "Agricultural Herbicide Use and Risk of Lymphoma and Soft-Tissue Sarcoma," Journal ofAmerican Medical Association, Vol. 256, No.9 (September 5, 1986), pp.1141-1147; Mary Moses, "Cancer in Humans and Potential Occupational and Environmental Exposure in Pesticides," AAOHN Journal, Vol.37, No.3 (March 1989); Patricia Breslin et al., "Proportionate Mortality Study of Army and Marine Corps Veterans of the Vietnam War" (Washington, D.C.: Office of Environmental Epidemiology/Department of Veteran Affairs); Han Kang et al., "Soft Tissue Carcinoma in the Military Service in Vietnam," Journal of the National Cancer Institute (October 1987); and Leonard Hardell, "Association Between Soft Tissue Sarcoma and 17. V.S. Byers et al., "Association Between Clinical Symptoms and Lymphocyte Abnormalities in a Population with Chronic Domestic Exposure to Industrial Solvent-Contaminated Domestic Water Supply and a High Incidence of Leukemia," Cancer Immunology Immunotherapy, Vol.27 (1988), pp.77-81.

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21. Ralph Dougherty et al., "Sperm Density and Toxic Substances: A Potential Key to Environmental Health Hazards" (Unpublished paper), p.3.

22. Robert Knapp, Danta Picciano, and Cecile Jacobson, "Y-Chromosomal Iondisjunctional in Dibromochloropropane-Exposed Workers," Mutation Research, Vol.64 (1979).

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34. Oar Smith, "Ebb and Flow," Earth Island Journal, (Fall 1987), p.3.

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