It is day 52 of my 365 Days of Living Deliberately blog, and I attended the first day of the 19th Annual Tulane Summit On Environmental Law & Policy, which is “an opportunity for students, attorneys academics, scientists, developers, government employees, and other interested in the medley of current environmental issues to come together and pool their experience and resources.”

Those who organized the Summit tried to “integrate differing points of view into the discussions and presentations detailed in the Summit” and to “present controversies either  currently in or heading toward litigation” while “others grapple with issues that escape easy answers and generate significant challenges to lawyers and policy-makers.”

I decided to attend a panel discussion titled: “Cancer Alley: Rethinking the Term.”  I wondered if rethinking it had anything to do with the self-fulfilling prophecy syndrome, the idea that if you tell yourself something long enough, it will become true. It wasn’t long into the session that I realized that my conjecture was completely wrong. In fact, what I learned was that the term Cancer Alley, which refers to the section of the Mississippi River corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, is inappropriate because the term is not comprehensive enough and does not reflect the high incidences of cancer across the state of Louisiana.

I listened to Dr. Patricia Williams, who is Associate Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Louisiana and Coordinator for Toxicology Research Laboratories, and she works with the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences, University of New Orleans.  Her experience is extensive, including her previous work as director of the Occupational Toxicology Outreach Program, Department of Medicine, LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, LA , and as Co-Director, of the Center of Excellence for Clinical and Forensic Toxicology, Department of Medicine, LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, LA.  

Dr. Williams described how scientific data is manipulated, how specifically, the Louisiana Tumor Registry is interpreted differently by looking at the data (that comes from hospitals) according to parishes (counties) and regions.  She said that the Louisiana Chemical Association and the federal government say that the Louisiana Tumor Registry reveals that Louisiana residents don’t generally have a greater cancer risk than people elsewhere.  They look at the data by region instead of by parish, which makes it look as if there is much less cancer.  Dr. Williams said that Cancer Alley should encompass much of Louisiana, not just the corridor along the Mississippi where there are more than 153 petro-chemical and other polluting industries.

Dr. Williams explained how children are “environmental indicators.”  Children don’t have destructive habits such as drinking alcohol and smoking, and they breathe and eat more for their body weight, so when they are exposed to toxic and radioactive contamination, they are affected more than adults are.  She described how children are, in effect, the canary in the mine, showing us what dangers are present before the dangers to adults are apparent.  Yet even as children are indicators of exposure to carcinogens, Dr. Williams described how the Louisiana Department of Health continues to ignore the cancers that are known, for instance, ignoring a cancer cluster found in a second grade classroom where five children had cancer.

Dr. Williams also described how most cancers are not genetically but environmentally caused. She said that about 80% of all cancers are environmentally caused and that when cancer seems to run in a family, often it’s not a genetic cause but an environmental cause that has affected a number of family members.  She said that many childhood cancers are embryonic in that they begin in the womb.  In fact, I recently read “Low-Level Doses of Radiation can Cause Big Problems,” and I am including the following excerpts:

“The idea that a threshold exists or there is a safe level of radiation for human exposure began unraveling in the 1950s when research showed one pelvic x-ray in a pregnant woman could double the rate of childhood leukemia in an exposed baby. Furthermore, the risk was ten times higher if it occurred in the first three months of pregnancy than near the end. This became the stepping-stone to the understanding that the timing of exposure was even more critical than the dose. The earlier in embryonic development it occurred, the greater the risk.

A new medical concept has emerged, increasingly supported by the latest research, called “fetal origins of disease,” that centers on the evidence that a multitude of chronic diseases, including cancer, often have their origins in the first few weeks after conception by environmental insults disturbing normal embryonic development. It is now established medical advice that pregnant women should avoid any exposure to x-rays, medicines or chemicals when not absolutely necessary, no matter how small the dose, especially in the first three months.

“Epigenetics” is a term integral to fetal origins of disease, referring to chemical attachments to genes that turn them on or off inappropriately and have impacts functionally similar to broken genetic bonds. Epigenetic changes can be caused by unimaginably small doses – parts per trillion – be it chemicals, air pollution, cigarette smoke or radiation. Furthermore, these epigenetic changes can occur within minutes after exposure and may be passed on to subsequent generations.

The Endocrine Society, 14,000 researchers and medical specialists in more than 100 countries, warned that “even infinitesimally low levels of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, indeed, any level of exposure at all, may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities, particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window. Surprisingly, low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses.” If hormone-mimicking chemicals at any level are not safe for a fetus, then the concept is likely to be equally true of the even more intensely toxic radioactive elements drifting over from Japan, some of which may also act as endocrine disruptors.

Many epidemiologic studies show that extremely low doses of radiation increase the incidence of childhood cancers, low birth-weight babies, premature births, infant mortality, birth defects and even diminished intelligence. Just two abdominal x-rays delivered to a male can slightly increase the chance of his future children developing leukemia. By damaging proteins anywhere in a living cell, radiation can accelerate the aging process and diminish the function of any organ. Cells can repair themselves, but the rapidly growing cells in a fetus may divide before repair can occur, negating the body’s defense mechanism and replicating the damage.”