Thursday, May 31, 2007

Cancer Revolution

May 27, 2007, marked the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson. It also marked the launch of a revolution.

Unlike most good revolutions that start with a slow smolder and then burst into flame, the birth of this revolution was carefully timed to coincide with Carson's birthday. It had been meticulously nurtured and planned to culminate in the events that took place last Sunday morning. As the revered founder of the modern environmental movement, Carson would have most likely applauded the occasion that so deliberately marked her centennial.

What distinguishes this new revolution is that is it as much about mindset as it is about action. This revolution marks the end of the war on cancer, and the beginning of the battle to prevent it from happening.

Under the banner, Prevent Cancer Now, a movement has begun based on the belief that cancer, once unleashed, is a difficult enemy to defeat. The warriors of this new revolution are mostly middle-aged academics, activists, scientists and health care professionals, many of whom are also cancer survivors. Like Carson, they believe that the current cancer epidemic is caused by our relentless chemical pollution of the environment. Also like Carson, they face considerable opposition from the cancer establishment, drug companies and chemicals corporations that stand to make billions by maintaining the status quo.

What makes this new revolution particularly poignant is that Carson herself died of cancer in 1964, two years after her book, Silent Spring, was published. For those unfamiliar with Carson's famous work, she carefully documented the health hazards of man-made chemicals and nuclear radiation and warned that we should work to eliminate these carcinogens from our food, water and air, or face a cancer epidemic. To date, more than 75,000 chemicals have been registered for use, only 1,500 of which have tested for their safety.

"For the first time in the history of the world," she wrote, "every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death." The year she died, cancer struck one in every four North Americans, and killed one in five.

According to the new book, Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic, "Cancer (now) strikes nearly one in two males, and over a third of all females, and one in four will die." The book, which was co-authored by Liz Armstrong, Guy Dauncey and Anne Wordsworth, was released last week as part of the celebration that marked the official start of the Prevent Cancer revolution. The book launch, in turn, marked the opening a landmark conference, "Cancer: It's About Prevention. It"s About Time!" that was held at the University of Ottawa. To bring events full circle, it was at this conference on Sunday morning where the audience of 200 activists and academics celebrated Carson's 100th birthday.

The message heard throughout the conference was loud and clear. Our government has lost the political will to protect the health of Canadians and it is not likely to regain that will by accident. As Dr. Michele Brill-Edwards, a pediatrician who spent 15 years with Canada's Health Protection Branch, said, "The government exists to serve the forces that propel it." She explained that in the face of opposition, government bureaucracies invoke the four "Ds" - deny, delay, divide and discredit. Dr. Brill-Edwards resigned from the Health Protection Branch in 1996 due to repeated irregularities with the drug approval process she believed were jeopardizing public health.

Speaker after speaker called upon the delegates present at the conference not to be defeated or accept the status quo, but to recognize the need to rise up and fight for our health and for the health of our children.

"Don't normalize, organize," advised Mae Burrows, Executive Director of the Labour Environmental Alliance Society (LEAS). Burrows' passion, intelligence and almost encyclopedic knowledge were indicative of all of the conference speakers.

At the conference closing on Sunday morning, Carson's birthday, poet, scientist, author and cancer survivor, Dr. Sandra Steingraber called the delegates, "The Committee Against Mass Poisoning", much to everyone's delight.

For me, the most inspiring slogan of the conference didn't come from a PowerPoint presentation, off the pages of a book, or out of the mouth of one of the many revered speakers present. It came off the T-shirt of a retired nurse and simply read, "Older, wiser, stronger ... and just a little bit dangerous."


All of the remarkable presentations heard at the Cancer Prevention Conference will be available online at

Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic, is published by

The Silent Spring Institute is a partnership of scientists and activists dedicated to identifying the link between the environment, women’s health and cancer. Go to .

For more on the life and legacy of Rachel Carson, visit

Labour Environmental Alliance Society.


Plastics are Forever

Like a lot of Canadians, I divided my Victoria Day weekend between garden centres and dallying in our flower gardens at home. Aside from the perennials that we've inherited from our mother's and grandmother's gardens, up until now most of our flowers have been annuals. This year we decided to invest in expanding our perennial stock. At the end of the weekend, as I stood admiring our handiwork, I began wondering exactly how long each purchase would last. As I was cleaning up the leftover plastic pots and bags that remained, I got my answer. Seasons and flowers, even perennials, come and go, but plastic is forever.

My revelation comes on the heels of the Ontario government's announcement that it wants to reduce the number of plastic bags that consumers use by half over the next five years. If the voluntary program, (launched through a partnership with the Recycling Council of Ontario, grocery and retail associations), doesn't work, then the province is promising everything from charging for bags to an outright ban.

And so they should. Many other jurisdictions have already placed everything from heavy tariffs to bans on plastic bags. Last month, Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, became the first municipality in Canada to enact a complete ban. Retailers who ignore the ban risk a fine of up to $ 1,000.

Ontarians, who currently use about seven million plastic bags per day, should be taking notice. Plastic bags, like all other plastic products, are made from oil, a non-renewable resource. The fact that we have created these single use carry-alls solely for the purpose of being thrown out is criminal. The use of plastic bags, packaging and wrapping should be banned, or at least heavily taxed. Packaging, most of which is plastic, makes up a whopping one-third of our waste stream.

Unfortunately, we can manufacture these plastic disposables so inexpensively that on the surface it appears to be cheaper to throw most of them away than it does to create systems to recycle them. The plastic items that we currently put in our blue boxes make up a small fraction of the total plastic waste that we discard every day. For example, the plastic plant pots that I threw out could have been reused many times over. Unfortunately, they aren't accepted in curbside recycling programs, and any garden centre that I’ve tried to return them to won't take them back. It's cheaper and faster to buy new ones.

At least for now. Scientists are just beginning to understand how truly permanent these temporary items are. Alan Wiseman writes in The World Without Us, the long-term prognosis for plastics is simply that, long-term. With the exception of plastics that have been destroyed by burning, every bit of plastic that has been manufactured in the last fifty years remains somewhere in the environment.

"That half century's total production now surpasses 1 billion tons. It includes hundreds of different plastics, with untold permutations involving added plasticizers, opacifiers, colors, fillers, strengtheners, and light stabilizers," wrote Wiseman. "The longevity of each can vary enormously. Thus far, none has disappeared. Researchers have attempted to find out how long it will take polyethylene to biodegrade by incubating a sample in a live bacteria culture. A year later, less than 1 percent was gone."

The tragedy, according to Wiseman, is that contrary to popular belief, only a small fraction of the plastics that we discard end up in our landfills. Eventually, they are blown into streams and lakes where ultimately they end up in our seas and oceans. Charles Moore, founder of the Algita Marine Research Foundation, estimates that 80 percent of what's floating in our oceans originated on land, the majority of which is plastic. Something to think about the next time you go shopping.


Polymers are Forever, by Alan Weisman, is an abridged excerpt from his book The World Without Us, published by St. Martin's Press (July 2007). The article is featured in the current (May/June) issue of Orion Magazine. This thoughtful, visually beautiful and commercial-free magazine is produced by the Orion Society. To read Weisman's (and other equally thought-provoking articles), join an online discussion group, or subscribe to the magazine, visit

For more information on the Recycling Council of Ontario, go to

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hope Returns

Looking outside my window it is patently impossible to believe that there is anything wrong with the environment. Branches that appeared to be little more than dead sticks a few weeks ago are now a rich riot of green. The earth, very recently cold and seemingly barren, is now home to a dozen different spring flowers - each one dancing joyously in the spring breeze.

And then there are the trees. The silent skeletons that stood like sentinels through months of cold, damp, wind and rain are suddenly adorned in gentle canopies of green. Still so virginal, not completely mature, waiting like young maidens at a dance to spread their foliage wide open and join in the frenzy dance of life renewed.

I have to admit that late May is probably my favourite time of year. There are so many shades of green visible, that it's virtually impossible to begin to name them, let alone drink in their beauty. The soft green of a new leaf, the crisp green of a tulip leaf unfolding to reveal its crimson guest, the electric green of new grass made even more vibrant by a late afternoon rain, the lemon-lime of willow trees as they hang their sweet branches down, almost to scrape the earth, creating magical tents in the process.

There is another reason why I love spring so much. Both our boys, now young men, were born in May. When they were little, my husband Brian taught our two boys, that their birthdays would arrive when the leaves came back on the trees. This idea particularly fascinated our oldest son, Matthew. As a young child, Matthew would begin watching the trees as soon the snow had melted, waiting for the very first buds of life to appear.

"Is it my birthday, yet?" Matthew would ask his Dad.

"Are the leaves back on the trees, son?" Brian would reply.

When the boys were little we hung a swing from one of the trees. Matthew in particular loved being pushed up into the mighty branches of the tree, where thousands of leaves would tickle him.

"Push me up into the leaves, Daddy!" Matthew would squeal with delight.

As I sat looking up into the trees last weekend, reveling in their new birth, I realized that while I am impressed at their tremendous girth, what a mazes me most is the tiny branches at their tips. It is this new fragile growth that reaches the furthest and extends the life of the trees into the heavens above. It was these branches that sparkled most in the afternoon sun, dancing lightly in the breeze and capturing my heart.

Like our children, trees are magnificent gifts of creation that enrich our lives beyond comprehension. Their magnificent canopies reduce the heat of a summer's day and provide shelter and warmth from the winter's wind. Trees are the lungs of the planet, providing life-giving oxygen and absorbing the carbon dioxide that threatens the very stability of our climate. They are sanctuaries for the human spirit and provide a compact between generations. Like our children, trees keep us rooted to the ground and yet they encourage us to look skyward to the heavens and to possibilities we can only imagine.


This weekend, celebrate the return of spring and the miracle of new life by planting a tree. Make sure that you pick an indigenous variety that won’t threaten other plant life.

In one year, a single tree can offset the carbon dioxide produced by a car driving 41,600 kilometers. In addition, trees also filter toxic pollutants from the air with their leaves and from ground water with their roots. Three trees strategically planted around your home can reduce heating costs 10 to 30 percent, and cooling costs by 10 to 50 percent. To find out more about environmental and economic value of trees, visit the following websites:

Most people can name their province's official flower, but did you know that each province and territory has its own tree, too? To find out more, visit the Canadian Forestry Association.

The Global Forest Science website offers a comprehensive guide to the most common trees of Canada.

Tree Canadais a charitable organization dedicated to encouraging Canadians to plant and care for trees in our urban and rural environments.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Gaia Women

They are called Gaia women, named after the planet that they fight to protect. But unlike traditional warriors, their weapons neither kill nor maim. The weapons of the Gaia women are letters, emails, phone calls, research papers and meetings. Some are held in public, in community halls and churches across the planet, while others are impromptu affairs held in kitchens, living rooms, or wherever women gather.

And while Gaia warriors share many of the strengths that are characterized by military fighters, such as courage and strength, these Gaia women temper these characteristics with humility, compassion and diligence. They are for the most part unpaid for the thousands of hours that they devote to their cause. They balance the needs of their own families with the needs of the planet, the Mother that gives life to us all.

I know these women. I'm proud to call them friends, sisters-in-arms and heroes. This Mother's Day I celebrate who they are, and honor all that they so unselfishly do. I thank them and I name them. And for every name on this list, there are a dozen more I have forgotten and apologize for forgetting. What makes these women even more remarkable is that those I forget to name will forgive me, because they do not work for recognition or honor. They have seen that there is work to do be done, and they do it.

And so here is my partial list - names of women who work tirelessly to save the planet, to save the Mother that nurtures us all. They are, in no particular order: Janet McNeill, Liz Armstrong, Linda Gasser, Libby Racansky, Marion Odell, Anne Rochon Ford, Sue Larsh, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Monica Willard, Lesley Forrester, Mavis Carlton, Deb Vice, Maureen Riley, Ruth Grier, Dorothy Golden-Rosenberg, Anne Hansen, Gail Lawlor, Justine Merritt, Loretta Michaud, Anna Edwards, Larraine Roulston, Miriam Wyman, Helen Break, Elizabeth May, Mary Drummond, Dr. Theo Colborn, Susan Antler, Gail Cockburn. Remember these names: they are the champions of our age.

There are others too, dear sweet ones who have been taken from us way too soon, but whose work continues to inspire us. Irene Kock, Jessica Markland, Evylin Stroud, Marg Wilbur and so many notable others. These were women of such remarkable strength and vision and that even in death they inspire us.

To celebrate who these remarkable women were, and continue to be, is to understand that it is within each and every one of us to make a difference. Through the gift and vision of yet another woman, I recently discovered a story that explains the magic of the power of one. And the story begins like this,

"On a buffety, blustery early summer day, when the news was bad and the sky turned yellow, a strange thing happened in the town where I live."

As The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering, by Sharon Mehdi continues, two grandmothers take a stand in a local park with the single goal of saving the world. They don't speak, they don't act, they merely stand silently all day until people begin to ask what they are doing. While some laugh, other begin standing with them, until across the country thousands upon thousands of women - grandmothers, mothers and daughters, stand together. United and silent.

In a remarkable example of life imitating art, a new website,, inspired by The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering, is calling women to stand together on this Mother's Day:

"We are standing for the world's children and grandchildren, and for the seven generations beyond them. We dream of a world where all of our children have safe drinking water, clean air to breathe, and enough food to eat. A world where they have access to a basic education to develop their minds and healthcare to nurture their growing bodies. A world where they have a warm, safe and loving place to call home. A world where they don't live in fear of violence - in their home, in their neighbourhood, in their school or in their world. This is the world of which we dream. This is the cause for which we stand."

Join in the stand. On May 13th at 1:00 pm, stand in your local park, schoolyard or any place you deem appropriate. Invite your children, your men, the people who matter in your life, to join you. At exactly 1 p.m. ring a bell, clap your hands or make a sound to signify the beginning of the five minutes of silence. During the silence think about what you and those you love can do to bring peace and hope to Mother Earth. Commit to her protection and celebrate her beauty at this most glorious time of year, and remember to say, "Thank-you."

Happy Mother's Day!


For more information on Sharon Mehdi's remarkable book, visit is the creation of Deborah Ballam, Ph.D., Provost for Women's Policy Initiatives at Ohio State University.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Plight of the Bumblebee

To play the popular family game Jenga, players lay wooden blocks in rows of three. Each subsequent row is laid down on top of the one below it at a 90-degree angle, until all the wooden blocks are in place. Once the tower of blocks is complete, players each take a turn removing one of the blocks from the centre of the pile, and placing it on top. The goal of the game is to avoid being the one to make the tower fall.

It's a simple game, but it also serves as an effective metaphor for the game we are playing with the environment. Thanks to human development, the chemical pollution of land, sea and air, over fishing, global warming, genetic engineering, and a myriad of other unsustainable human activities, we are removing species from the stack, one bird, one tree, one insect at a time. Like the game Jenga, we will never know exactly what piece is critical to the integrity of our ecosystem until its removal triggers the collapse. Tragically for us, unlike the game Jenga, if our ecosystem does collapse, we won’t be able to stack the blocks back up and start over again.

Those who don't think this is a reasonable metaphor for our interdependence with the environment should consider the recent plight of the lowly honey bee. In recent months, billions of bees have vanished from across the U.S. One estimate puts the losses at between 50 and 90 percent. While the total number of losses in Canada has yet to be determined, beekeepers in British Columbia and Ontario's Niagara Region are also reporting losses of up to 90 percent.

What's even more alarming is that nobody seems to know why the bees are disappearing. In the U.S. a team of experts led by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, University of Montana and Penn State, are studying the mystery of the disappearing bees, and have dubbed the phenomenon "Colony Collapse Disorder"or CCD.

"We believe that some form of stress may be suppressing the immune systems of bees, ultimately contributing to CCD," said Caird E. Rexroad of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. Investigators are exploring a range of possibilities, including pesticides, viruses, poor nutrition and even that great 21st Century pandemic - stress.

One theory is that bees are being driven off from the hive and are dying of exhaustion or cold before they can return. A German study has linked cell phone radiation to the disappearance of millions of bees. The study showed that bees refused to return to hives when cell phones were placed in the vicinity. Whatever the cause, bees are apparently dying before they reach maturity, without any noticeable sign of disease.

Anyone who has run screaming from a bee in a schoolyard or family picnic, or is forced to carry an epi pen as a precaution against the potentially fatal allergic reaction to a bee sting, might be tempted to say, "Who cares?"

The answer is that we all should care very much. In our game of Jenga, bees might very well be that block that topples the tower of our existence.

"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left," wrote Albert Einstein, arguably one of humanity's greatest scientific minds. "No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

Einstein wasn't exaggerating. It's estimated that bees are responsible for pollinating plants that provide as much as 30 percent of our food. In the US, that translates into $14 billion worth of seeds and crops. In addition, 75 percent of flowering plants require pollinators, such as bees, to bear fruit. Many of these flowering plants produce biological materials that are used in the production of fuel and medicines.

Until scientists can provide us with a definitive explanation as to why bees are disappearing, we should all do those things that make ecological sense anyway. Don't use pesticides, reduce the use of other household chemicals and respect the other species in our tower of Jenga, before that tower falls.


Canadian Honey Council

For more of Einstein's magical, insightful and sometimes frightening wisdom, visit, and search for Albert Einstein.