Monday, January 30, 2006

Toxic Testing

Maybe it's the only the fair way to do things. After all, we've been polluting the environment, mutating wildlife and forcing species into extinction for a half a century now. Maybe it's time we turned the tables (and the toxins) on ourselves. Perhaps this is the rationale behind the US Environmental Protection (EPA) agency plan to establish criteria for the testing of pesticides, by pesticide makers, on human subjects.

Susan Hazen, the EPA's deputy assistant administrator added that the new rules wouldn't allow, "...intentional pesticide dosing studies of children and pregnant women." So what about unintentional exposure?

More to the point, the new regulations don't ban human testing; they are simply to allow the industry to submit its testing data to the EPA. The criteria are being established as a result of a 2003 ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which states that the EPA cannot refuse testing data from industry-sponsored tests on humans until it develops regulations.

In response to the release of the draft criteria, Senator Barbara Boxer, who had lead the call for outlawing the testing of pesticides on women and children said,

"The fact that the EPA allows pesticide testing of any kind on the vulnerable, including abused and neglected children, is simply astonishing." Boxer and fellow senator Bill Nelson demanded the ban after it was disclosed that an industry-backed pesticide study was providing clothes, camcorders and cash rewards to the families of 60 children in Florida in return for being test subjects.

All this comes at the same time that a new medical study by Dr. Florence Menegaux was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The study, "Household exposure to pesticides and risk of childhood acute leukemia", concludes that children who are exposed to pesticides in the home (such as fungicides and garden insecticides) either in the womb, or as a small child, are twice as likely to develop acute leukemia. Perhaps Dr. Menegaux should send a copy of her study to the US EPA.

Meanwhile back in Canada, the movement to ban the cosmetic use of pesticides is sweeping the country. To date, more than 70 communities across Canada have passed bylaws restricting the use of pesticides. Many of these municipalities are facing considerable opposition from the pesticide industry in the form of lawsuits.

Talking to industry reps, it's clear that they believe in the safety of their products. This is consistent with my experience in dealing with many highly trained professionals who are dedicated to particular industry or science. They often view any legitimate concerns about their industry as a personal attack, and will turn a blind eye to any critical scientific evidence that is presented to them.

I am reminded of a speech that I heard many years ago by Canadian engineer Bruce Small. Small used to suffer from 20th Century disease, an acute illness brought on by exposure to pesticides and other man-made chemicals. He said that it was important to remember that it is engineers who establish the recommended maximum exposure to chemicals. Small joked that it was these same engineers who as students could often be found in local drinking establishment testing exactly how much alcohol they could drink before passing out. He added wryly that perhaps it was this same mentality that lead to the establishment of acceptable exposure limits to hazardous chemicals.

All this leads me to conclude that if the pesticide industry is so bent on testing their products on humans, perhaps they should volunteer to be their own guinea pigs.


Dr. Menegaux's study appears in the current issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (Note: Site registration is required.)

Environmental Health Perspectives is a monthly journal of peer-reviewed research and news on the impact of the environment on human health

The Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia is an excellent source of information about environmental illness, multiple chemical sensitivity and less toxic living.

The Children's Environmental Health Network is a Washington-based, multi-disciplinary organization whose mission is to protect the fetus and the child from environmental health hazards and promote a healthy environment.

The Canadian Institute of Child Health is dedicated to improving the health of children and youth in Canada.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Think Twice, Canada.

In December 2005, Canada led the world at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Montreal. Despite George W. Bush's efforts to derail the Kyoto Protocol, the countries in attendance passed 40 regulations that will slow the rate of catastrophic climate change, the single greatest global threat to life on the planet.

Calling the Kyoto Protocol unachievable, last week Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said that if elected, his government would set their own targets and work toward establishing an agreement with the US, the world's largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Almost immediately there was a shift in automobile advertising. Gone were the television ads promoting fuel efficiency that flooded the networks after last fall's hurricane season played havoc with US oil production. In their stead, viewers saw a return to the promotion of gas-guzzling monster trucks and SUVs.

A quick check of The Conservative Party of Canada's official website makes Harper's position on Kyoto perfectly understandable. The environment doesn't even appear on the top seven "Key Issues" listed on the site.

This isn't just about consumer preference or political choice. What Canadians need to understand is that the decision we make on January 23rd will not only affect Canada, but ultimately have an impact on the rest of the world. What those who put their faith in economic growth over environmental protection fail to recognize is that it is in our economic best interests to protect the environment. The word "economy" and "ecology" both come from the same Greek word, "oikos" meaning house. Without a balanced consideration of both, we have neither.

Consider the economic impact of last year's violent hurricane season. Scientists have since stated that the severity of the storms was a direct result of climate change. The resulting tens of billions of dollars in insurance claims and health costs, as well as the immediate dramatic increase in gas and oil prices have affected the bottom line of every corporation on the planet, and ultimately the budget of every consumer.

In an eleventh hour attempt to educate voters about the dangers of a Conservative majority government, a group of respected environmental, health, social justice and labor leaders have formed the Think Twice Coalition. The group includes such notables as Elizabeth May, Officer of the Order of Canada, and Maude Barlow, 2005 recent recipient of the prestigious Right Livelihood Award (considered to be the alternative Nobel Peace Prize). What May, Barlow and others are asking is for Canadians to take a sober second look at what could happen following a Conservative win on January 23rd.

"We believe Canada is at risk. We are in danger of electing a Bush-like Conservative party that will undo social programs, gut environmental legislation and devolve powers to the provinces in a way that will destroy the fabric of the country," the group stated in a January 12th news release. "We are standing up for Canada. We need more than just a vote for change. We need to vote for a Canada with strong social programs and environmental protections and fairness for everyone."

The members of the Think Twice Coalition steer clear of endorsing other parties or political platforms and state that they are not making a personal attack on Harper. To the contrary, they consider Harper, "Very intelligent with a coherent and deeply held philosophical orientation." The issue is that Harper's orientation, indeed the orientation of all political leaders, needs to be examined and understood.

Unfortunately, far too many Canadians don't even bother to vote, let alone take the time to understand the issues, and then exercise their democratic right. Voter turnout has declined steadily since 1984 when 75 percent of Canadians turned out to the polls. In 2004, only 60 percent of Canadians voted. In the 18 to 24 age group, a mere 38 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot in the last federal election. To quote Anne Hansen's timeless essay, Democracy is Not A Spectator Sport, "Imagine the unprecedented impact on governmental policy if every citizen woke up and exercised the right and the responsibility to speak and act for positive change."

Imagine, indeed.


Canadian voters have a responsibility to fully understand the platforms of all of our major political parties, and to vote with their conscience, not just for the party that the latest poll predicts is likely to win. Exercise your constitutional rights and check out:

The Conservative Party of Canada
The Green Party
Liberal Party of Canada
The New Democratic Party

The Think Twice Coalition

Monday, January 16, 2006


When I was in Grade 10, my high school organized a day trip to the Stratford Festival. School buses shuttled us to Toronto's Union Station, where we boarded the train for Stratford. Sitting with my three best friends, far away from my Scarborough home, I felt completely grown up and independent. When the train had safely pulled out of the station, one of the girls produced a pack of cigarettes that she'd borrowed from her mother. Naturally, I lit up.

The very first drag made my head spin. The second made me want to throw up. I watched as my friends had similar reactions, and yet we persevered. By the time we got to Stratford, we had managed to make it halfway through the pack. The dizziness had been replaced by a foul taste in my mouth and a burning in my stomach, but it didn't matter. The boys in the seats in front of us had started to take notice of our otherwise conservative little group. Smoking had made us cool, and we weren't about to give that up.

It was several months before I tried smoking again. This time it was at a school dance. The reaction was a little less severe, and with the encouragement of my friends, I was soon joining them outside at lunch everyday for a quick smoke. My parents, both anti-smokers, had begun to notice the undeniable stench of tobacco on my clothes, and yet I was in denial. They all knew that most of friends had parents who smoked, so I blamed it on them. By the time I graduated from high school, I was hooked.

The terrible thing about a cigarette addiction is that it is easily fed. Thirty years ago when I first became a tobacco junkie, a large pack of cigarettes cost less than a dollar. Cigarettes could be purchased anywhere, by virtually anyone, and you could smoke anywhere you wanted - movie theatres, airplanes, even the grocery store. My mother once joked that I couldn't even drive a car without a cigarette in my hand.

She was right. Smoking became an integral part of just about every activity in my life - driving, talking on the phone, working, watching a movie, enjoying a meal, a good book or a friendly conversation.

For a dozen long years I was addicted to nicotine. I used to joke that is was easy to quit smoking. I had done it hundreds of times. Every night before I went to bed I would vow that the cigarette that I extinguished as I turned out the light would be my last. Every New Year's Eve, every birthday, every Sunday, every holiday, was marked as another occasion to take the pledge. Sometimes my promise would last several weeks or even months, but invariably if I lit just one cigarette, I would be back to my pack and a half a day habit. I would play games with myself, promising special treats if I managed to go just one day without a cigarette. The Catch-22 was that the one special treat that I wanted more than anything else was a cigarette.

We've come a long way since then. Tobacco has finally been recognized for the environmental poison that it is. Each cigarette contains 4,000 chemicals and poisons, and 50 known cancer-causing substances. Thanks to public smoking bans, an individual's right to smoke has been replaced by the public's right to clean air.

Sadly, smoking is still the leading cause of preventable illness, disability and death. One in two lifetime smokers will die from their habit. Half of these deaths will occur in middle age. According to the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC), over 47,000 Canadians die each year from smoking. The AADAC also reports that smoking is the cause of one-fifth of all deaths from cancer, heart disease and stroke.

I was one of the lucky ones. Before I became pregnant with our first child, my husband and I made a pact to quit smoking. Knowingly polluting our bodies was one thing; damaging our unborn child was another. I find it ironic that in giving life to my son, he gave me mine back.

Nicotine is more addictive than heroin. I believe that cigarettes should be illegal and inaccessible. Until then, if you don't smoke, don't start. If you have children, do whatever you can to prevent them from starting. Their lives depend on it.


January 15 to 21 is National Non-Smoking Week in Canada. For more information, check out:

The Canadian Cancer Society

The Truth About Tobacco

Monday, January 09, 2006

The New Wealth

Since the beginning of history we have accumulated wealth as a means of ensuring our survival. In earliest times, that wealth was measured by our ability to hunt, which in turn provided food and warm pelts for our families. As we moved from hunter/gatherer to farmer, land became the new standard by which we measured our affluence. The more land we possessed, the greater our ability to provide for our children, thus enabling them to reach adulthood and repeat the cycle from generation to generation.

The industrial revolution brought a new kind wealth and money became the newest tool of measurement. Wealth was accumulated by transforming natural resources into commodities. The more stuff we had, the wealthier we were deemed to be.

Until now. Despite all evidence to the contrary, rampant consumerism will soon go the way of the hunter/gatherer's club. We are currently devouring our natural resources at an unsustainable rate. Those who currently have, have way more than their fair share. According to the United Nations, a mere 20 percent of the world's population currently consumes 86 percent of the world's resources. This isn't just unsustainable from a resource perspective, it is also dangerous. As history will attest, such dramatic inequities invariably lead to war.

Even as our oil-based consumer society sputters and gasps, a new measurement of wealth is emerging. Intangible as the electrons that transmit it, this wealth also promises, for the first time in human history, to create an equal opportunity for all.

This wealth is called electronic information and thanks to the worldwide web and micro technologies, it will soon be within the grasp of anyone with access to a computer and a communications link. Unlike virtually every previous quantifier of wealth, information technologies have already demonstrated their ability to smash through the traditional barriers between the haves and the have-nots and level the playing field.

Enter Nicolas Negroponte, the Wiesner Professor of Media Technology at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founding chairman of MIT's Media Laboratory. In January 2005, Professor Negroponte announced his plan to design, manufacture and distribute personal, portable and connected computers to every child in the world, thereby providing them with access to knowledge and modern forms of education. In order to accomplish this, Professor Negroponte, along with other MIT faculty members, created One Laptop per Child, a non-profit organization with the goal of creating a $ 100 hand-cranked laptop. The machines will include a feature called Mesh networking, which will allow multiple machines access to the Internet from one connection.

Negroponte's dream came one step closer to reality on November 16th, when he and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan unveiled the first working prototype at the World Summit on the Information Society. The computers will not be available for sale, but rather given directly to schools through large government initiatives in the same fashion as textbooks are currently distributed. Governments in China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria and Thailand are currently in discussion with One Laptop per Child.

The $ 100 laptops are being made possible by simplifying computer technology and lowering the unit cost by mass production. Two-thirds of the software that is currently being used to run high priced laptops is used to manage the other third. Eliminating any software redundancy and installing an ultra low-cost, dual-mode black and white display monitor will help keep the price within target. About the only thing that the $ 100 laptop won't be able to do is store large amounts of data.

Quantas Computer Inc. of Taiwan has been given the initial design contract for the computers and manufacturing will commence once 5 to 10 million prepaid orders have been received. It's expected that the first load of laptops will be ready for shipment by early 2007.

It's important to note that these laptops only represent one part of the information equation. In order to access the Internet there first has to be a point of entry, either through a satellite connection or high-speed land line. To that end, MIT is currently exploring ways to connect the laptops to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost. In addition, as this initiative matures and more and more people attain the ability to connect to a knowledge base, this will create a viable market to create a backbone where none currently exists.

While it may take time to put the infrastructure to support these laptops in place, Professor Negroponte's vision has put us all one step closer to sharing the wealth.


$100 Laptop

MIT's Media Lab

Monday, January 02, 2006

Top Environmental Stories of December 2005

While most of us were busy finishing our holiday shopping, three major environmental stories broke in December. Unfortunately, between the upcoming federal election and the pre-Christmas rush, they have largely gone unnoticed. These stories are important because they reflect a clear shift in governing policy ~ some dramatic, some less so. Nevertheless, they are each the result of years of research and negotiation, to say nothing about courage and determination, and therefore are worth repeating.

#1 ~ The United Nations Conference on Climate Change

Despite the concerted efforts of U.S. President George W. Bush to derail the Kyoto Protocol, the UN Conference on Climate Change made substantial progress when in closed in Montreal on December 10th. Of note, the adoption of more than forty decisions that will strengthen efforts to fight climate change.

The official word on the success of the Conference came from to Conference President, Canadian Environment Minister Stephane Dion who said: "Key decisions have been made in several areas. The Kyoto Protocol has been switched on, a dialogue about the future action has begun, parties have moved forward work on adaptation and advanced the implementation of the regular work programme of the Convention and of the Protocol."

Elisabeth May, Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada, was even more enthusiastic with her assessment. "The goal of the Bush Administration was to kill Kyoto," May wrote in her blog documenting the Conference's progress. "Instead, we have launched Kyoto Phase Two. This is huge! It means climate negotiators will be working between now and the next COP (Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention) to make real progress."

May cautions that this progress will only be meaningful if Canada lives up to its initial commitment to reduce our greenhouse gas emission to 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 and if the second phase reduction targets are meaningful. Now that it has been clearly demonstrated that the process can move forward without the participation of the US, the world's single largest producer of greenhouse gases, May emphasized the importance of getting the next US administration on board.

#2 ~ Canada's Supreme Court backs Toronto's pesticide ban

On December 17th the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear an appeal made by the pesticide industry to challenge Toronto's bylaw restricting the cosmetic use of pesticides. The industry's previous challenge to both the Ontario Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Appeal had been unsuccessful.

The Supreme Court decision means that the pesticide industry, which is represented by the Urban Pest Management Council and CropLife Canada, has finally exhausted all legal avenues.

Toronto's bylaw, which was passed in 2003, came a dozen years after the town of Hudson, Quebec (in 1991), passed Canada's first municipal ban. An exhaustive ten-year battle ensued, culminating in a 2001 Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of Hudson to ban the use of pesticides. Since Hudson's David and Goliath victory, 70 communities across Canada have passed bylaws restricting the use of pesticides, many of which have faced opposition from the pesticide industry. Now that Canada's largest municipality has defeated the pesticide industry, it's likely that even more municipalities will follow.

# 3 ~ The Great Lakes~St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement.

On December 13th, Ontario, Quebec, and the eight US states bordering on the Great Lakes signed an agreement to protect the world's largest source of freshwater. The agreement marks a significant departure from the original Annex Agreements drafted by the group, which were designed to give access to areas outside the immediate Great Lakes watershed, but within the state and provincial boundaries of border jurisdictions. In doing so, the original Agreements would have commodified the otherwise protected watershed, and removed any protection against unrestricted water removals under the terms of the WTO.

The new agreement isn't without its critics, however. The Council of Canadians argues that the protection of the Great Lakes should remain a bi-national responsibility regulated by the International Joint Commission (IJC), in which Canada and the U.S. are equally represented.

Related Websites

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Sierra Club of Canada

The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) has been a primary voice in the fight to restrict pesticide use in Canada and was one of six intervenors involved in the Supreme Court pesticide case.

The Council of Canadians