Commentary Sexual Health

STOKING FIRE: Study Finds Persistent PCB Contamination Linked to Infertility

Eleanor J. Bader

Back in 1979, the U.S. government banned Polychlorinated Biphenyls [PCBs] after adverse health effects, including cancer, heart disease, and adrenal and thyroid problems, were linked to the chemical compound. Three-and-a-half decades later it turns out that PCBs are even worse than scientists initially thought, and have demonstrated effects on fertility.

Back in 1979, the U.S. government banned Polychlorinated Biphenyls [PCBs] after adverse health effects, including cancer, heart disease, and adrenal and thyroid problems, were linked to the chemical compound. Three-and-a-half decades later it turns out that PCBs are even worse than scientists initially thought, lingering in air, water, and soil and continuing to pollute the environment.

Since PCBs don’t degrade naturally, scientists have concluded that they can persist for decades and accumulate in human and animal tissue. Worse, the Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility and the Environment, a four-year survey conducted by the National Institutes for Health—study results were published in Environmental Health Perspectives in late 2012—has conclusively tied them to infertility.

Dr. Peter deFur is an environmental consultant and president of Environmental Stewardship Concepts LLC, a Richmond, Virginia company that assists community groups, government agencies, and businesses with environmental clean-up. He notes that, “every state has a PCB contamination problem from a river, an old Superfund site, or buildings that were constructed before the PCB ban went into effect. Most of us carry some body burden of these chemicals, substances that we now know impact pregnancy as well as the brain growth and development of fetuses and children.”

According to the National Institutes for Health, between 20 and 37 percent of women under the age of 30 become pregnant within three months of trying to conceive. If, however, a year goes by and pregnancy does not occur—or the woman has miscarried at least twice—the couple is classified as having a fertility problem. Approximately 15 percent of those trying to reproduce fall into this category. Experts state that there are many possible reasons for this—from endometriosis or polycystic ovaries in women to low sperm count in men—nonetheless, the discovery that PCBs contribute to infertility was a startling revelation since the toxin is so ubiquitous.   

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DeFur reports that hundreds of rivers throughout the U.S. are polluted by PCBs and quickly rattles off a roster of waterways that need prompt or continued attention: The Housatonic, Hudson, James, Neuse, Potomac, and Saginaw, among them. At the same time, he cautions that launching a clean-up effort is not as simple as it sounds. “PCBs can be moved into the air by activity of the sun—warming them—or stirring them up during dredging,” he says. “This means that the people doing the clean-up always need to be sure to take measures, including regular checks of air quality, so that human and animal exposure is not increased.”

Waterways, deFur continues, are just one source of PCB contamination. From the early 1950s until 1979, he continues, PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in electrical transformers and as non-flammable insulators. They were also used in oil-based paint, caulking, plastic, floor finishes, adhesives, and in the ballasts of fluorescent light fixtures.
Yes, those hated fluorescent lights that we continually sit underneath might, in fact, be poisoning us. In New York City alone, fixtures containing PCBs have been found in 772 public schools, all of them constructed between 1950 and 1978. When news of this incipient crisis broke, everyone—from the City’s Department of Education, to the teacher’s union and parent groups—agreed on the necessity of cleaning affected sites as quickly as possible. The issue, however, has been cost, projected at $380 million, as well as timing.  For example, do you close a school completely for however long the removal takes, work exclusively during the summer months, or clear only those ballasts showing visible signs of crumbling or erosion?

The Lederle Graduate Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, a facility constructed in the early 1970s, began grappling with these questions after its 900 windows were discovered to be contaminated by PCB-laden caulking. Administrators and EPA officials formulated a plan—finalized in the Fall of 2012–that is expected to run $3.5 million. What’s more, remediation will move from one sealed-off section of the building to another and is expected to take 15 years.

And what of the U.S. as a whole, you ask? The EPA estimates that cleaning PCBs from every contaminated building in the 50 states will cost between $150 and $200 billion. It’s a staggering sum and cash-strapped cities and towns have indicated that they will raise the money to replace tainted fixtures and windows by selling bonds.

Cleaning waterways, however, is an entirely different matter. Unlike painting or construction crews that had no idea that the supplies they were using posed a danger, most rivers were willfully poisoned by corporate polluters. “General Electric knew it was not appropriate to tell its staff to take that barrel of stuff and dump it in the Hudson River,” deFur says, and while he commends the company for funding the ongoing clean-up, he says that much more is needed to stem the rampant debasement of the nation’s lakes and rivers more generally. “Here we are in 2013,” he continues, “and our clean-up options are fairly limited because we have not put in the research to develop new methods. At the same time, we know that certain grasses and vines can be used to extract PCBs and reduce their concentration in the soil. We need to plant them. I also think that people in Research and Development at the Defense Department should be challenged to do some of this work because the military has contributed a great deal to the toxic environment.”


Still, this long-term plan offers little comfort to couples who want to have a baby and can’t. For them, chemical contamination has become the ultimate right to life concern. Needless to say, it demands the attention of politicians, activists, and all people concerned with the future of the planet.     

Roundups Politics

Presidential Candidates Finally Begin to Speak Up on Flint Water Crisis

Ally Boguhn

Flint, Michigan, has been in a state of emergency for more than a month as residents deal with highly lead-contaminated water, yet the field of presidential candidates didn’t start talking about the issue until recently.

Read more of our articles on Flint’s water emergency here.

Flint, Michigan, has been in a state of emergency for more than a month as residents deal with highly lead-contaminated water, yet the field of presidential candidates didn’t start talking about the issue until recently.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) apologized to residents of Flint in a State of the State address Tuesday evening, in which he promised to tackle the problems plaguing the community after state officials switched its water supply source to the Flint River in an effort to save money. When the state Department of Environmental Quality failed to properly treat the water, lead leached into it from pipes and fixtures.

Pointing to failures within his own administration to properly address the emergency, Snyder expressed regret that the government hadn’t done more.

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“No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe. Government failed you—federal, state and local leaders—by breaking the trust you place in us,” said Snyder. “I’m sorry most of all that I let you down. You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me.”

The governor’s comments came just after news broke that the EPA had blamed “failures and resistance at the state and local levels” for the lack of proper response to contaminated water in Flint.

For weeks, Snyder has faced growing criticism—and calls for his resignation—over charges that he and his administration are to blame for the public health emergency in Flint. Yet even as the National Guard arrived in Michigan to help distribute water to the 30,000 homes, many presidential candidates remained surprisingly silent on the situation.

As the seriousness of what is occurring in Flint became more apparent and garnered more national news, Democratic candidates began to express their outrage over the government’s failures.

Clinton offered one of the more robust responses to the crisis, having spent much of the last two weeks speaking out on the issue and directly criticizing Gov. Snyder’s failure to properly respond.

Last week, Clinton dispatched two of her aides to Flint to meet with Mayor Karen Weaver, a move that earned her the mayor’s endorsement for president.

Speaking on a conference call set up by the campaign, Weaver said that Clinton was the only candidate from either party that had directly reached out to the city.

“As far as what Hillary Clinton has done, she has actually been the only—the only—candidate, whether we’re talking Democratic or Republican, to reach out and talk with us about, ‘What can I do? What kind of help do you need?'” Weaver explained, according to the Huffington Post.

Clinton’s decision to send her aides directly to the area was preceded by a series of statements demanding action be taken to help Flint’s residents.

“There is no excuse for what’s happening in Flint. A city of 99,000 people—a majority of them African-American, 40% in poverty—spent nearly two years drinking and bathing in water that we now know contained dangerous amounts of lead,” Clinton said in one statement on the matter. “I’m calling on the state of Michigan to finance water purchases from Detroit until safe drinking water is fully restored in Flint.”

In Sunday’s Democratic debate, Clinton brought up Flint during her closing statement after the moderators failed to mention it. “I think every single American should be outraged,” Clinton said. “We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care.”

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, meanwhile, first addressed the crisis in a series of tweets on January 15, calling the matter heartbreaking and blaming elected officials who made “reckless decisions and “did nothing” to help the children of the city:

O’Malley took his criticism even further in a video posted Monday by NowThis News. When asked whether Gov. Snyder should resign, the Democratic candidate replied, “It would appear that somebody sure as hell should.”

“Lead poisoning is something that has plagued poor communities in cities and people of color, and the notion that … our own government or that a local municipal government would be knowingly trying to cover something like this up is really appalling,” O’Malley went on, asserting that whoever knew about the situation and failed to stop it should resign.

Bernie Sanders also pushed back against officials in Michigan over the weekend, releasing a statement on Saturday urging Gov. Snyder to step down.

“There are no excuses. The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint’s water,” said Sanders. “He did nothing. As a result, hundreds of children were poisoned. Thousands may have been exposed to potential brain damage from lead. Gov. Snyder should resign.”

Sanders doubled down on his call the next day during the Democratic debate, telling viewers, “A man who acts that irresponsibly should not stay in power.”

In contrast, Republican presidential candidates have failed to address the issue at all until this week.

When asked for comment on Flint by a reporter at a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) claimed that it wasn’t something he knew enough about to speak on.

“It’s just not an issue we’ve been quite frankly fully briefed or apprised of in terms of the role the governor has played and that state has played in Michigan on these sorts of issues,” said Rubio, who also noted his belief that “the federal government’s role in some of these things [is] largely limited unless it involves a federal jurisdictional issue.”

Donald Trump similarly evaded addressing the crisis when confronted about it.

“It’s a shame what’s happening in Flint, Michigan. A thing like that shouldn’t happen,” Trump said Tuesday, according to the Wall Street Journal. “But again, I don’t want to comment on that.”

Ben Carson condemned local and federal officials for their response to Flint, but stopped short of casting any blame on Gov. Snyder or his administration.

“Unfortunately, the leaders of Flint have failed to place the well-being of their residents as a top priority,” Carson said in a Tuesday statement to the Huffington Post.

“The people deserve better from their local elected officials, but the federal bureaucracy is not innocent in this as well. Reports show that the Environmental Protection Agency knew well-beforehand about the lack of corrosion controls in the city’s water supply, but was either unwilling or unable to address the issue,” Carson continued.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich completely backed Snyder’s response to Flint on Tuesday, reportedly pointing out that Snyder had already moved in the National Guard and expressing confidence he “will manage this appropriately.”

Ted Cruz called the crisis “an absolute travesty,” demanding accountability for those poisoned by the water.  

“It is a failure at every level of government, a failure of the city officials, a failure of the county officials, and the men and women of Michigan have been betrayed,” Cruz said at a Tuesday press conference in New Hampshire.

“Every American is entitled to have access to clean water, and to all the children who have been poisoned by government officials, by their negligence, by their ineptitude, it’s heartbreaking,” Cruz said.

Although he didn’t specifically criticize the state’s response, Cruz called for officials to take responsibility for their mistakes, asserting, “There needs to be accountability as to why dirty water, poisoned water was given to a community that did not deserve this.”


STOKING FIRE: In Iraq, High Rates of Cancer and Birth Defects Linked to Use of Chemical Weapons in War

Eleanor J. Bader

The U.S. war ended in December 2011, but families in numerous Iraqi cities are living with a dramatic rise in birth defects and cancer from chemical weapons that were detonated near homes, schools, and playgrounds.

It’s said that wars never end for those whose lives they touch, and it’s true. Take Iraq—a place that surely proves the maxim that war is not healthy for children or other living things.

To wit: Despite the fact that the U.S. war with Iraq came to a close on December 18, 2011, families in numerous Iraqi cities are now living with a dramatic rise in birth defects and cancer from chemical weapons that were detonated near homes, schools, and playgrounds during the nearly seven-year conflict.

The cities of Babil, Basra, Falluja, Haweeja, and Najaf are cases in point. Let’s start with Haweeja, which is 30 miles south of Kirkuk and was home to Forward Operating Base (FOB) McHenry throughout the war. Yifat Susskind is executive director of MADRE, a New York-based international women’s human rights organization. Susskind says that Haweeja’s skyrocketing health problems came to the group’s attention when members of Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI)—MADRE’s partner organization in that country—began going house to house to talk about the need to establish a shelter for rape survivors.

“When they arrived, they noticed that almost every family they visited had a child under the age of 10 with stunted or paralyzed limbs, or who had been born without fingers or toes,” Susskind says. “And they found teens who had been toddlers at the time of the U.S. invasion and were now sick with cancer. The OWFI activists were shocked and wanted to know what was going on, why this was happening.”

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What they uncovered points directly to U.S. culpability. Peace Alliance Winnipeg, for one, reports that beginning in 2004, the United States “tested all types of explosive devices on Iraqis—thermobaric weapons, white phosphorus, depleted uranium.”

The upshot, discussed in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, has been a monumental increase in cancer, leukemia, malignant brain tumors, and infant mortality. In Falluja alone, The Journal concludes that the rate of life-threatening illnesses and birth defects is “significantly greater than those reported for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.”

Yes, you read that correctly—greater than the damage of an atomic bomb, a fact corroborated by a 2009 article in The Guardian newspaper. The article described a 38-fold increase in the number of cases of leukemia and a 15-fold increase in the number of newborns born with deformities during the first five years of the war, including limb malformations, neural tube defects, heart and vision anomalies, and a baby born with two heads.

Not surprisingly, the miscarriage rate  throughout the country has mushroomed, and tumor clusters have been recognized in Basra and Najaf, intense battle zones where so-called modern munitions were heavily used.

In cities like Haweeja, where U.S. soldiers at FOB McHenry routinely detonated explosive devices, it was not uncommon for children to play, and for shepherds and sheep to walk, in grass-covered fields that were adjacent to the base. As they did so, they often tracked a fine dust containing the residue of depleted uranium (DU) from place to place. Microscopic particles from the blasts were spread by wind, and subsequently inhaled. These particles found their way into groundwater and soil, polluting the air and contaminating virtually everything they touched.

DU is, of course, lethal—scientists estimate that it can remain radioactive for 4.5 billion years—but it remains in use because it increases the penetration capacity of projectiles. DU is blamed for the cancer spike in the city of Babil, south of Baghdad, where the number of diagnosed cases went from 500 in 2004 to 9,082 in 2009.

These facts point to a crisis of enormous proportions. At the same time, MADRE’s Susskind makes clear that Iraq’s problems are compounded by poverty and lack of access to affordable health care—as well as by pervasive superstitions about the causes of illness. Widely held fallacies feed bias against the disabled, she says, making the task of organizing especially grueling.

“Iraq is a place where none of the work that has been done in other countries to promote disability rights has occurred, so there is still a lot of discrimination against the disabled,” Susskind says.

“This gives us the tragic opportunity to organize to upset the stigma, to break down negative attitudes that exist, and to do community-based peer counseling to help parents overcome the fear, guilt, anger, and resentment they feel. The needs in the aftermath of this war are so huge.”

Susskind says that MADRE is is “working with OWFI on the three-pronged strategy that for now is exclusively focused on Haweeja: To raise $50,000 for direct services to begin meeting the immediate and long-term needs of the population that has been affected; to do a comprehensive public-health survey to give us hard data on the extent and range of the problems; and to explore a legal challenge to demand U.S. accountability for the crisis.”

The challenge, Susskind continues, is made even more daunting by the fact that there is only one health clinic in Haweeja, a city of approximately 100,000 people. “We are studying models that have been used in other places with limited access to mental and physical health services,” she says. “With OWFI we’re trying to find community-based models that can train moms to help their kids, get medical aid to people, and enhance the population’s awareness of the correlation between illness and the fact that their city was used as a munitions dumping ground. We want the people of the United States to understand that this crisis is a direct result of the U.S. military’s disregard for the health of the people in Iraq.”

Click here for more information about Madre’s Haweeja project.

Click here to donate to help Haweeja. 

Click here to join MADRE’s Haweeja Action Team.


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