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13 March 1997 Edition

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The deadly chemistry set

Studies show that chemicals in the environment are causing disease and death. It is too high a price to pay for inward investment, argues Robert Allen


In July 1991, 21 scientists, led by zoologist Dr Theo Colborn of the World Wide Fund, got together at Wingspread, Wisconsin in the USA to discuss how the manmade chemical compounds we know as pesticides and industrial chemicals affect sexual development in wildlife and humans.

Dr Colborn and her colleagues agreed that when these chemicals enter the body, largely though the food chain, they mimic hormones, specifically the body's natural sex hormones. This, many scientists now believe, is the cause of the 50% drop in the male sperm count since 1940, the two-fold increase in breast cancer since 1960, the three-fold increase in testicular cancer and two-fold increase in prostate cancer since the 1940s, the phenomenal rise in endometriosis (a disease virtually unknown outside the 20th century) which now affects five million American women, and the increasing number of children born with abnormalities. And this is only one bunch of scientists out of a Christy Moore sized audience of them who have been saying that chemical pollution is responsible for a range of illnesses from asthma to cancer. (For more on Colborn's gathering of the scientists, see Our Stolen Future, published last month.)

But we don't need science to tell us that toxic pollution is harming the planet's ecosystem, altering the climate and gradually poisoning us. We can talk to the communities which live amidst our chemical industry or listen to the lamentable stories young mothers tell their friends of their children's respiratory problems or hear farmers moan about the crazy weather or refer to the statistics which show 20,000 deaths annually from exposure to pesticides and three million cases of acute poisonings.

Until US chemical giant Merrell Dow decided not to locate a pharmaceutical factory in the pastoral heartland of east Cork in the late eighties, the anti-pollution/pro-ecology/pro-non-exploitative indigenous industry debate in Ireland had been filed under subversives, cranks, greens, communists, anarchists, dreamers and dodgy republican farmers.

Merrell Dow's decision was regarded as an expedient business consequence. The sensible people in Cork knew better. Merrell Dow's failure to locate in a high food-producing region was an Irish watershed for social resistance to the US-dominated toxic industry and the 26 County state would not be allowed to forget it.

Not that they would have forgotten. Some time ago in conversation with the environmental director of one of our industry federations the subject of Ireland as an post-industrial, post-modern, semi-colonial state came up. I made a remark about environmental standards and enforcement and he replied: ``Do we want to be organic farmers or waitresses or do we want to get on with it?''

The problem is: What is it?

Before you tell me I'd like to venture a few suggestions.

It is encouraging foreign investment from the chemical industry so that a minority of Irish people can enjoy a higher standard and quality of living.
It is encouraging this industry to set its own agenda to the detriment of the wellbeing of every person living in the 32 Counties.
It is ignoring the environmental damage this particular industry has done and is doing to this country.
It is dismissing those who believe that this industry is not only a law unto itself but is belligerent in the face of criticism, ignorant of scientific studies which show conclusively that there is a problem with man-made chemical compounds, arrogant to the point that you get the impression that only what they say is true, that everyone else is talking nonsense.
Although there is a forty-tonner load of contemporary studies out there about pollution and health, the precise effect of pollution on human health is a contentious issue despite evidence that virtually every species on the planet is in danger of extinction.

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