Mounting evidence suggests that our environment contains many carcinogens. The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the power lines that supply us with energy may pose threats to your health. It is important for you to understand what the dangers are so that you can work to modify them. As with many carcinogens, the time be-tween exposure to the carcinogen and actual development of cancer may be quite long. Because of this, the cause of a cancer initiated by trace amounts of either airborne or waterborne carcinogens years before may be attributed to an unrelated or unknown cause at time of diagnosis. This is why we must detect and clean our environment of as many carcinogens as possible.
The American Lung Association estimates that air pollution costs the nation $40 billion to $60 billion a year. Since the mid-1950s, it has been shown that the air in large urbanized areas is a risk factor for lung cancer. (1-3) Collectively, the studies suggest that the increased incidence of cancer in cities is due to three factors: 1) more cigarette smoking by the people who live in cities; 2) increased exposure of nonsmokers to side-stream or passive smoke from lighted cigarettes; and 3) occupational exposures.
The following occupations, involved with ambient air pollutants, are risk factors for certain cancers. Gas production workers have a greater risk of getting lung cancer than those who rarely work in the gas production area, especially if they are exposed to the products of coal carbonization. Men working at coke ovens in United States steel factories have an excess of lung cancer compared to men working in other parts of the steel industry. This is directly related to the exposure to the emissions from the ovens. Roofers who work with hot pitch are exposed to large amounts of benzo(a)pyrene (BaP). They, too, have a higher risk of getting lung cancer. So the concentration of BaP is a significant factor in heavily polluted cities and contributes to the excess of cancer.
The numerous atmospheric contaminants are found in one of two forms: particulate form, in which the carcinogen adheres to small particles in the air, or vapor form, in which the carcinogen is in a gas form. A city’s atmosphere contains more contaminants than the atmosphere of a suburb or rural area. Many of these contaminants have been shown to be carcinogenic in various animals. The carcinogens found in particulate form are more important than those in vapor form because they can remain in the air from four to forty days and consequently travel very long distances. Carcinogens in particulate form originate mainly from the burning of fuels. Contaminants in vapor form are derived from the release of aerosols from industrial activities, from car exhaust, and from natural sources.
City air pollution is derived from many sources. A large amount of the particulate carcinogens comes from the burning of any material containing carbon and hydrogen, including petroleum, gasoline, and diesel fuel. A list of more than 100 different particulates containing detected carcinogens has been compiled. (4) A great many more exist, but detection of additional carcinogens in low concentrations is difficult because existing instruments are incapable of doing so.
In order to have a means of discussing carcinogenic air pollution in a standard fashion, one chemical compound, benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) was chosen as the indicator because it is a very potent carcinogen. The problem with choosing this one substance as an indicator is that there is no correlation between the level of BaP in the air and the level of other known detectable carcinogens. For instance, car emissions (gasoline or diesel fuel), coal-fired electric power plants, and oil-fired residential furnaces have low levels of BaP. But forest fires, residential fireplaces, refuse burning and coal burning in older furnaces, and motorcycle emissions produce high levels of BaP. With the new laws from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the level of BaP in cities has dropped dramatically, but permitted levels of other carcinogens have risen. Since the level of BaP does not correlate with other atmospheric carcinogens, a new standard should be devised. This new standard or index should be composed of some number of different carcinogens that would more accurately reflect the total atmospheric carcinogen level. This atmospheric carcinogen index would be much like the pollen count or the Dow Jones Average which is composed of a number of different pollens or stocks, respectively. No accurate statement can be made correlating the number of lung cancer victims and the level of BaP (currently used as the atmospheric carcinogen standard) because BaP levels have decreased while lung cancer cases have increased.
The carcinogens found in the vapor phase include benzene, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, and vinyl chloride, among others. Vapor phase carcinogens are derived from car emissions, industrial activity, burning of solid waste, forest fires, and evaporation of solvents. (6)
Asbestos, a potent carcinogen, can also be found airborne. Persons working with the following may inhale high concentrations of asbestos: asbestos roofing and flooring, car brakes and clutches, dry walls, home heating and plumbing. Family members of persons who work with asbestos or asbestos products are exposed to very high levels of asbestos also. High levels of asbestos are found near asbestos waste dumps; near asbestos mines, mills, and manufacturing plants; near braking vehicles; at demolition areas; and in buildings that were sprayed with asbestos.
Asbestos as a risk factor for lung cancer is well established for those who work with asbestos and for their family members. However, cigarette smoking acts synergistically with asbestos to greatly enhance the risk of lung cancer.
In many parts of the world, rain can no longer be regarded as a beneficial occurrence; rather it is thought to be a deadly acidic agent. Acid rain results when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are released into the atmosphere and converted into sulfuric acid and nitric acid. The evidence shows that fossil fuel combustion and power plant emissions contribute significantly to the production of acid rain. (7)
Next to carbon dioxide, acid rain ranks second as the most serious global pollution problem in modern time. Many natural habitats in the United States, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, and Canada, and some areas of the Netherlands, Denmark, and Belgium, have been reported to be severely hurt by acid rain. Acid rain has also decreased the amount of fir, spruce, and beech trees in the forests of central Europe.
Normal rain water is slightly acidic. But it is the higher acid content of acid rain that is devastating to human, animal, and plant life. During the past thirty years there has been a substantial increase in the amount of acid precipitation. Three important changes that have enhanced the production of acid rain are: 1) higher chimneys, 2) control of particulate discharge, and 3) a change from seasonal to year-round emission. Two of these were designed by environmentalists to control pollution. The tall chimneys allow the oxides of sulfur and nitrogen to stay longer in the atmosphere and thereby convert more efficiently to the acid.
Because of the increased acid in the atmosphere, there has been a decrease in the fish population and also other forms of animal life and vegetation in the lake areas of Canada, Eastern United States, Sweden, and Norway. (8) Vegetation and some animal forms are affected first; later fish suffer the harmful effects of acid increases.
The lethal effects of acid rain are due not only to the acidity but also to the aluminum and other toxic metals that are mobilized from the soil by the acid. Aluminum is toxic to fish and other life forms. (9) Zinc, nickel, lead, manganese, and cadmium are also increased in water after acid precipitation. Zinc, nickel, and mercury are toxic to aquatic forms of life. The direct toxic effects to man are still being reviewed. Aluminum poisoning is recognized in patients with impaired renal function and in patients with certain neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in Guam. (10,11) Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is prevalent in areas of Guam, where there is a high acid rain content. Consequently, there is a high aluminum concentration and low calcium level in the drinking water in Guam. Low calcium levels in the body lead to increased absorption of aluminum, which then gets deposited in the brain, causing the neurological disorder. The addition of calcium to the diet can help reverse this problem of increased aluminum absorption.
Another heavy metal of major concern is lead. Most of the lead that enters our bodies comes from food, dust, and air. Combustion of petroleum products is a main source of lead in the air and dust. Acid rain is also a culprit, leaching lead from the soil and putting it in our drinking water. Also mobilized by acid rain is mercury, which is consumed by fish that we in turn consume. And finally, acid rain reduces selenium, leading to selenium deficiencies, which is important in cancer prevention.
Acid rain may also be deposited on the human skin, but there have been no harmful consequences from this. However, people can inhale the sulfuric acid and nitric acid, which inhibit normal functioning of the lungs.
Findings of the United States National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program confirm the following:
- Acid rain adversely affects aquatic life in about 10 percent of Eastern lakes and streams.
- Acid rain decreases the number of red spruce at high elevations.
- Acid rain contributes to the corrosion of buildings and materials.
- Acid rain and other pollutants, especially fine sulfate particles, reduce visibility in the Northeastern states and in parts of the West.
There seems to be no direct correlation between acid rain and the etiology of cancer in humans; however, studies are ongoing. To control acid rain we should remove the sulfuric and nitric acids at their source by switching to fossil fuel with a low sulfur content. The key regions in the United States affected by acid rain are the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Lakes in the Northeast are being acidified by acid rain produced by the high-sulfur coal burned in the large power plants of the industrial Midwest. Low-sulfur fuel can almost completely obviate the production of acid rain, eliminating it as a risk factor for many illnesses.
Diesel Exhaust Exposure
Animal studies in rats and mice show a link between exposure of whole diesel exhaust and lung cancer. The lung cancer is associated with diesel exhaust particulates and diesel exhaust gas.
Several human studies have also been done and show an increased risk of death from lung cancer in workers who have been exposed to diesel engine emissions. (12) This, too, is another controllable risk factor, especially emissions from vehicles that are obviously polluting the air.
Depletion of Natural Upper Atmospheric Ozone
The naturally occurring upper atmospheric ozone layer is crucial to the protection of living organisms because it absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation. About 3 percent of the sun’s electromagnetic output is emitted as ultraviolet radiation, but only a fraction of this reaches the surface of the Earth. Wavelengths of 240-290 are eliminated, and only a portion of the wavelengths at 290-320 penetrate to the Earth. The lower-range ultraviolet light wavelengths destroy DNA, which is the genetic material of all life forms.
Chlorofluorocarbons, commonly known as CFCs, are chemical compounds that have been shown to damage the protective ozone layer. What is of major concern now is the appearance of an actual hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. (13) The concern here is obvious: what happens if there is a hole in the ozone layer in more densely populated areas of the globe?
Ultraviolet exposure is highly associated with melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma of the skin. People with fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes who also sunburn easily are at highest risk for the development of these skin cancers. Not only does ultraviolet exposure cause cancer, but in most people it causes severe skin damage and ages the skin dramatically. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculates that a 1 percent decrease in the ozone concentration will increase the incidence of most skin cancers by 3-5 percent. The EPA further calculates that for every 2.5 percent increase per year of chlorofluorocarbon, an additional one million skin cancers and 20,000 deaths will occur over the lifetime of the existing United States population. In fact, in 1990 the incidence of skin cancer increased markedly: squamous cell carcinoma rose 3.1 times in women and 2.6 times in men; and melanoma rose 4.6 times in women and 3.5 times in men. By the year 2000, 1 in 75 will develop melanoma.
Effects on other living organisms may be far more important than the actual risk to man. Certain organisms, in particular phytoplankton, zooplankton, and the larval stages of fish, are very sensitive to small increases of ultraviolet exposure. This decrease in the food chain and in the oxygen output from the ocean’s plants will have serious and dramatic repercussions on all human life.
Addressing the Problem
A research model indicates that the global ozone will be 6 percent lower in the year 2030 than it was in 1970. (14) This will increase the incidence of nonmelanomatous skin cancer by 12-36 percent and melanoma mortality by 9-18 percent. An assessment by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Agency indicates that ozone depletion is occurring globally and is progressing faster than previously realized. What we need to do is minimize the use of chlorofluorocarbons. CFCs are in aerosols, foam blowers for items such as hamburger cartons and drinking cups, refrigerants and cooling systems, and solvents for computer circuits. In most instances, nonchlorinated substitutes are available or can be developed. Some countries are recommending a 20 percent reduction of CFCs; the United States is recommending a 50 percent reduction. However, some CFCs remain in the air for over a century. Halones, used in fire extinguishers throughout the world, are synergistic with CFCs. Once these chemicals are stopped from being used and once the ozone depletion has been resolved, it will be many decades before any useful improvement is seen.
If pentane is used instead of chlorofluorocarbons as the blowing agent to produce foam products, ozone is produced both in the stratosphere and at the ground level. Now let’s assume that pentane is used to produce a polystyrene drinking cup. Which do you think costs more to your pocketbook and the environment, a paper cup or a polystyrene cup? No, the paper cup costs more by far. A paper cup costs more to make from the standpoint of raw materials (wood, bark, petroleum fractions), finished weight, wholesale price, utilities needed to produce it (steam, power, cooling water), waste products produced, and air emissions (chlorine, chlorine dioxide, reduced sulfides, particulates). (15) The polystyrene cup is easier to recycle and ultimately to dispose. Here again we have the proper technology, we simply need to do something about it.
We can all do something about this major problem. We can write to our senators and congressmen to encourage them to completely ban all chemical compounds that will further deplete the ozone layer. Again, the solution to this problem is totally within our control.
Ozone pollution at ground level is different from the naturally occurring protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere that shields the Earth from harmful ultraviolet rays. Ozone at ground level is the most widespread air pollutant in any industrialized country and is formed when car exhaust and other emissions from industries react with sunlight.
In a study involving children in a summer camp, researchers found that there was enough ozone pollution in the air at ground level to cause significant impairment of lung function in about 70 percent of the campers. The effects of this ozone pollution at ground level persisted for about eighteen hours after exposure, and the suspicion is that even small changes in the lungs’ capacity may lead to cell damage and ultimately to chronic respiratory illness.
Ozone pollution is a health hazard, particularly for those with respiratory illnesses and those who exercise out-of-doors. Ozone at ground level has been linked to cancer, lung disease, heart disease, and many other chronic illnesses. In healthy people, ozone impairs the ability of the lungs to absorb oxygen. Repeated exposure to ozone leads to early stages of lung damage similar to that seen from smoking. Respiratory infections are quite common in people who breathe more ozone at ground level than others. People who are asthmatic do much worse when the ozone level is high. Cardiac patients do worse because the amount of oxygen in the air is reduced. The incidence of mortality also is increased in older people who have respiratory illnesses in areas with high levels of sulfur oxides in the air.
Most cities exceed the federal ozone standard. Los Angeles has the most and other cities that have a large amount of ozone smog include New York, Philadelphia, Trenton, Baltimore, Hartford, Chicago, and Houston. Some national parks like Acadia, Shenandoah, and Sequoia National Parks have higher ozone levels than some cities because of their proximity to the major cities with smog and/or the air currents around them.
Ozone forms when certain compounds react with sunlight. These compounds include nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Nitrogen oxides are derived from motor vehicles as well as industrial plants. Volatile organic compounds come from things like backyard barbecues and dry cleaners.
Smog is derived predominantly from ozone as well as from volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxides, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and other particulates. These compounds are derived from bakeries during the fermentation process; dry cleaning chemicals; paints; wood-burning stoves and starter fluid used to ignite charcoal; and industries and motor vehicles using fossil fuels. However, ground level ozone is clearly the most widespread air pollution problem we know today.
The Environmental Protection Agency did a study involving nonsmoking men in a room where ozone was close to the federal maximum. After five hours of walking and then bicycling, 80 percent of these men began to cough and feel chest pains. In a study of men who exercised for only two hours while breathing ozone that was below the federal maximum but still above the ambient air in very rural settings, 80 percent experienced serious symptoms of the lower airways. The airways were inflamed, and biochemical changes occurred with a subsequent impaired immune response at the local sites of the lung.
Ground level ozone can be controlled. We must insist again that the fuels burned are better and cleaner so that less volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and other ozone-producing compounds are emitted. And although the 1990 Clean Air Act is thought to be the most expensive environmental legislation ever passed in terms of attaining the new standards, enforcement of these standards must also be rigorous.
There are two major forms of ultraviolet light emitted from the sun, ultraviolet-A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). The UVB is the more harmful of the two and has wavelengths between 290 and 320 nanometers, wherea j UVA has wavelengths between 320 and 400 nanometers, which is where the visible light spectrum begins.
The current package labeling on a sunscreen product states its ability to protect against UVB, the form responsible for causing sunburn and skin cancers. UVA can also cause skin cancer but, in addition, causes skin damage and premature aging of the skin. New labeling regulations by the FDA will reflect the UVA protection as well. You need to have protection from both forms of ultraviolet light.
What type of sunglasses should you use to protect your eyes from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun? People frequently ask does the cost of the sunglasses reflect the protection they afford? Thirty different makes and prices of sunglasses were tested for ultraviolet transmission. Each of the sunglasses completely filtered all UVB radiation, hence no danger to the eye would be anticipated if sunglasses were worn. With respect to transmission of UVA to the eye, the results varied greatly but had no relation to price. (16) Hence, when you see a person with a pair of sunglasses costing $200, you can laugh quietly knowing that your $2 sunglasses give you just as much protection.
Indoor air pollution has become a major problem as well, causing both specific illnesses and the minor complaints that now constitute the “sick building syndrome.”(17) Indoor accumulation of radon, passive smoking pollutants, combustion pollutants from stoves, chemi-cal emission from plastics, and insulation materials are just a sample of the indoor pollutants that are hazardous.
When radon is present in the soil below buildings, or in surface water or construction materials, particularly granite, the indoor radon concentration will exceed the acceptable standard as set by the Environmental Protection Agency at 4 psi/liter (psi are pica Curies). (18) Some homeowners have spent $1,000 to $2,000 to comply with this standard. In 1988, however, Congress passed the Indoor Radon Abatement Act, which forces the EPA to set the standard of indoor radon equal to that of outdoor radon. The average cost to homeowners to comply, with the newer standard could be close to $10,000.
Radon has now been implicated in up to 20,000 deaths from lung cancer in the United States. (l9) A person living in a house with an indoor radon level of 4 psi/liter has the same risk of developing lung cancer as a person who smokes half a pack of cigarettes per day. ° The risk of lung cancer is increased more if people smoke cigarettes and are exposed to radon, as in the case of coal miners. (21)
Freestanding stoves without chimneys increase the indoor air concentration of nitric oxide, benzo(a)pyrene, and sometimes even sulfur dioxide. These pollutants increase respiratory disease. Kerosene stoves also produce many pollutants, several of which are carcinogenic. Heat exchangers, cooling towers, and leaky shower heads provide favorable culture media for many microorganisms. These bacteria and other organisms disperse in droplets and remain airborne by mechanical or thermal air movements. Legionella (Legionnaires’ disease) and many other organisms have been detected airborne in closed indoor situations.
Passive smoking is a serious problem in indoor air pollution. Passive smoking is responsible for doubling the lung cancer rate in persons exposed to it as compared to those not exposed to passive smoking. (22) In past years it has been up to the individual to avoid such passive smoking, but things have changed. A nonsmoking Swedish office worker was awarded damages for a lung cancer he developed from breathing other people’s tobacco smoke in the office. Now in the United States there are many laws to protect the passive smoker in certain public areas and on domestic airline flights. Hopefully more and more such laws will protect us in all public areas.
Other indoor pollutants come from materials that are used in the construction of modern buildings, such as formaldehyde, isocyanates, solvents, and volatile synthetic organic compounds. These are used in the manufacture of insulin, decoration, and equipment. We know that formaldehyde is associated with human cancer.
To protect ourselves against indoor pollutants, we simply need to have adequate ventilation. Studies have been done and show that one or more air changes per hour should be provided and that the carbon dioxide concentration should not exceed 0.5 percent. As we move toward a service-oriented society in America, with more people working in offices, this problem is everyone’s concern. However, it can soon be eliminated if we work to modify the environment.
Water Treatment and Pollution
In 1960 W.C. Hueper warned that the drinking water in the United States was contaminated with natural and manmade pollutants and that some of these were potentially carcinogenic. (23) In addition, other reports in the past ten years have shown that there are carcinogens in the drinking water and that in some areas, contaminated water has been associated with an increased cancer risk and other medical problems.
There are several groups of drinking water contaminants that may be carcinogenic. Synthetic organic chemicals comprise the first group, whose carcinogenic potential is of greatest concern. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has found over 700 organic chemicals in our drinking water, (24) and that number probably represents a small fraction of the actual number that exists. Forty of these are carcinogens, and three (benzene, chloromethyl~l ether, and vinyl chloride) are associated with cancers in man. (25) Drinking polluted water is said by the EPA to be one of the top four health hazards to Americans, but enforcement of existing laws has been poor at best, and enforcement of additional laws and standards will be difficult. The standard set by the EPA allows municipalities to average their water toxicities over a year. For example, much more chlorine is added to water during summer months to hold down microorganisms. In some cities the tap water level of chlorine carcinogens exceeds the standard by 20 percent during these months. The same spike of toxicity holds true for nitrates and pesticides, both used seasonally for lawn beautification and farming.
Water chlorination produces chemical compounds called trihalomethanes, which are the most common organic compounds found in drinking water. These compounds, which include chloroform and bromohalomethane, are associated with a high incidence of gastrointestinal cancers and urinary bladder cancers. (26,27) In fact, a study involving 3,000 people from the U.S. National Cancer Institute suggests that chlorine may double the risk for developing urinary bladder cancer. The EPA’s safety limit of chlorine and its harmful associated carcinogens is based on the consumption of two liters a day, and this does not take into account increased consumption in summer, for example, or the fact that these compounds can be absorbed during bathing.
Fewer organic chemicals are found in drinking water that comes from ground water sources than from surface water sources. (28) Chlorinated drinking water from surface sources is linked with gastrointestinal cancers as well as urinary bladder cancers. (29-31)
The second group of water contaminants consists of inorganic chemicals. These are needed for normal biological processes and are found in all natural waters. Some, however, are carcinogenic. Arsenic, chromium, and nickel, each a known carcinogen to man, are found in our drinking water; these can either increase or decrease in concentration during water treatment. (32 )Nitrate ions are found in surface or ground waters, and their concentration is not affected by water treatment. Nitrates can be converted to nitrosamines, which are powerful carcinogens. Nitrates are used for fertilizers, and in the early summer, the Corn Belt states’ water supply sometimes has a 50 percent higher nitrate content than what is acceptable.
Lead also is a big problem. Lead can impair a child’s IQ and attention span. One in six people in the United States drink water with higher than acceptable levels of lead. Chicago has one of the worst lead water pollution problems in the United States. Suppliers were still using lead pipes there until 1986. Lead pipes were used in antiquity in Pompeii; those people later realized that large numbers died up until their lead pipes became calcified with calcium from the water.
The amount of calcium and magnesium in water determines water “hardness.” It appears that soft water, that is, water containing lesser amounts of calcium and particularly magnesium, is correlated with a higher incidence of all cardiovascular diseases. (33,34) Low calcium levels are also linked to osteoporosis, hypertension, (35) and even colon cancer. (36,37) No definite conclusions can be made yet as to whether all drinking water should be made “hard” with the addition of more magnesium and/or calcium to modify the risk for cardiovascular diseases and cancer, as well as other illnesses.
Radioactive materials constitute the third group of drinking water contaminants. Their concentration varies with geography, geology, industrial wastes, pharmaceutical use, and nuclear power generation. (38) So far there are no reported cases of human cancer related to different radioactive compounds in drinking water. (39) However, radon gets into ground water, especially in New Jersey, the New England states, and the Rocky Mountain states. Excessive levels of radon are seen in water supplies used for drinking and bathing by more than 17 million people.
Living organisms make up the fourth group. They include bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Water purification has been effective in removing them from our drinking water. Microorganisms are not believed to be waterborne carcinogens; however, certain viruses cause human cancers. Some microbes resist current water purification, and these are responsible for 33 percent of all gastrointestinal infections in the United States.
The last group of water contaminants is solid particulates. Clays, asbestos particles, and organic particulates comprise this group. Clays absorb and bind carcinogenic agents and hence protect them from water treatment. Asbestos fibers are found naturally in water in many regions of Canada and some parts of the United States. In addition, some asbestos fibers are found where cement and other construction products are made, since asbestos is used in their production. Asbestos fibers can also get into the water supply by release from cement pipes and by processes associated with mining of iron ore. Many studies of the association between waterborne asbestos and human cancer are inconclusive because so many other variables may be interacting. However, one study by M.S. Kanarek has shown that measured concentrations of asbestos in drinking water are associated with lung cancer, gallbladder cancer, pancreatic cancer, and several other cancers. (40)
Our drinking water contains a number of carcinogens, including asbestos, metals, and synthetic organic compounds. Asbestos and nitrates are associated with gastrointestinal cancers; arsenic is associated with skin cancer; and synthetic organic chemicals, especially trihalomethanes, are associated with cancers of the gastrointestinal tract and the urinary bladder.
Who is to blame for the shambles of the water supply? Probably everyone. The standards issued by the EPA in the late seventies double in 1992. James Elder, commissioner of the EPA, says that forty-eight to forty-nine states do not comply with existing standards, or comply by way of loopholes. For example, a loophole permits water suppliers to flush lead-filled water out of plumbing before testing tap water. This loophole will be closed, but the EPA will allow twenty years more for compliance. On the other hand, the EPA has been lax. Studies show that radon increases cancer risk, and more to the point, drinking water with radon increases the risk for certain kinds of cancers. However, the EPA just recently imposed restrictions starting in 1996 for radon in the drinking water. To monitor and remove radon is simple and inexpensive to do, but still no action will be taken until 1996.
Eighty percent of the top 1,000 superfund sites, that is, those designated as containing toxic waste and chemical contaminants, are leaching these toxic substances into the ground water. In many geographic sites in the United States, well water has been contaminated. About 10 percent of all underground tanks, which store gasoline or other hazardous chemicals, leak. Too many pesticides and fertilizers are used by farmers and homeowners. Industries dump chemicals and other harmful pollutants into our water supply, and homeowners dump chemicals into household drains.
What Can Be Done?
One of the major obstacles to our cleaning up America’s underground toxic wastes is the unrealistic requirements that have been set by state and county authorities throughout the nation. Although the intentions may often be laudable, the effect of these laws has been to create such enormous costs, for most projects, that the clean-up effort is moving at a snail’s pace. For example, a toxic site in Houston has a concentration of, say, 2,000 parts per billion. The local rules require a reduction of 99.99 percent. The problem is that there is no technology available at the present time that can accomplish this without digging up an enormous area of the earth and either processing it on the surface or moving it by rail to some remote location. These are expensive and disruptive operations which are invariably fought by the agencies that are supposed to pay for them. The result is that litigation goes on for years while the people who live in the area are left to their toxic diet. The project, even if completed, will absorb excessive funds that might otherwise be available for many other projects.
The problem is that the objectives are simply too difficult to be accomplished by existing technologies. If the requirement had been to reduce the contaminants from 2,000 parts per billion to, say, 10 parts, it is possible that an in-ground vacuuming technology could have been used, reducing the health hazard by 99.5 percent and leaving limited funds available for twenty or thirty more of the same type of clean-up projects. The trick here is to promote the use of low-cost, in-ground technologies and increase the clean-up rate by 2,000-5,000 percent of the current rate without having to wait for the seemingly impossible dream of getting more funds from government and industry. The most promising development in this area is a new patented vacuuming technology that can “clean” far greater areas than the existing vacuuming technologies for the same cost. This device will be an advance if it can reduce the toxic chemicals to 0.6 parts per billion or less. If it cannot, then we must re-examine the standards set. It is better to clean up all the toxic sites by a significant factor like 99.5 percent than only a few sites by a factor of 99.99 percent and thereby propagate endless litigation.
A number of cities refuse to build costly processing plants and instead choose to pay less expensive fines. The EPA observes that small utilities tend to violate regulations the most, to falsify documents, and even to wash away evidence because of a thirty-day window given them by the state.
Bottled Versus Tap Water
Many people want to know if bottled water is safer than tap water. Recent findings indicate that many bottled waters derived from domestic or international springs or from other water sources contain microorganisms, and/or have contaminants. If you prefer bottled water, look for water derived from such processes as reverse osmosis, distillation, or a combination of reverse osmosis and deionization, which yields the purest form of water. This combined process gets rid of everything in water except H20, therefore you should supplement your diet with appropriate nutrients.
There are documented airborne and waterborne carcinogens. As with many carcinogens, the time between exposure to the carcinogen and actual development of cancer may be quite long, and as such, the cause of a cancer initiated by trace amounts of either airborne or waterborne carcinogens years before may be attributed to an unrelated or unknown cause at time of diagnosis. This is the main reason that we must detect and clean our environment of as many carcinogens as possible.
Non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation has become very important and is generated largely through electrical and magnetic fields that surround us: household wiring, appliances, high-tension wires, radio transmitters, television screens, video display terminals, electric blankets, and even the Earth, which has its own magnetic field. This kind of radiation includes infrared rays, microwaves, radiowaves, and alternating electrical currents. All of these penetrate the body readily except for infrared rays. Beside the vague symptoms of fatigue, nausea, headache, and loss of libido associated with electromagnetism, (41) there is now great concern over whether it can cause cancer.
Many countries like the United States use alternating electric currents that flow back and forth at a frequency of 60 cycles per second. This is within the extremely low frequency range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
An electromagnetic field is created along wires when electricity flows. The strength of the electromagnetic field is measured in gauss. The electromagnetic field is made of two components: the electric field made from the strength of the charge that starts the flow, and the magnetic field that results from the motion of the alternating currents.
The energy needed to make electricity flow is called voltage. More voltage is needed to make electricity go farther. Depending on where electricity is needed to be delivered, voltage is either stepped-up or stepped-down along transmission lines by transformers at substations or on utility poles near homes. Most studies concerning the effects of electromagnetic fields on humans focus on the strength of the field.
The Earth itself has an electromagnetic field covering the largest area. In fact, this electromagnetic field is responsible for making a compass needle point in the direction of north. However, the Earth’s electromagnetic fields do a flip flop, the North and South Pole fields trading places at intervals of hundreds of thousands of years. All electrically driven products have electromagnetic fields. The closer you are to a given appliance or other source, the higher is the strength of the electromagnetic field. See Table 15.1 for the strength of the electromagnetic fields of common appliances. This table lists electromagnetic field strength from least to greatest.
Evidence shows almost a direct link between electromagnetic fields and cancer in rats. Researchers at Battell Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Richland, Washington, have shown that electromagnetic fields suppress the levels of a certain hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the central part of the brain. It is a regulatory hormone and also modifies the functioning of the immune system. Low levels of melatonin have been linked to breast cancer as well as prostate cancer. Animal studies show that electromagnetic fields produce low melatonin, which, in turn, then increases the incidence of breast cancer and prostate cancer. These animal studies have been repeated and corroborated in multiple centers throughout North America. (42)
High- And Low-Voltage Wires
Many studies of the effects of electromagnetic fields on humans have also been done. Children and adults in Colorado living close to high-tension wires had a definite increase of all cancers. The likelihood of getting cancer is twice as high for children near the power lines. (43,44) A number of other investigations have corroborated these findings and have shown that men exposed to electrical and magnetic fields at work have an increased risk of leukemia, especially acute myeloid leukemia, brain tumors, and breast cancer. (49) Researchers at the University of California in Riverside confirm these results and say exposure to common sources of low- and high-energy electromagnetic radiation from overhead power lines probably promotes the growth of malignant tumors. (50) Many of these studies involve high-tension wires with 60 Hz (60 electromagnetic cycles per second).
It had been thought that the low-voltage power lines which had low frequencies and thus low energies would be too weak to have any biological effects. However, epidemiological studies show that low frequency electromagnetic fields produce weak electric fields in our bodies, affecting such biological function as hormone levels, the binding levels of ions to cell membranes, and certain genetic processes inside the cell such as RNA and protein synthesis. Calcium ions in the cell play a major role in cell division, which, in turn, has an important role in cancer promotion.
A study done by Savitz at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill measured the proximity of homes to power lines and also the low voltage of electrical and magnetic fields within homes. There was a positive correlation between childhood cancers, including leukemias and brain tumors, and the magnetic fields generated by the power lines. This study is important because it investigated high-voltage lines as well as low-voltage lines, which are on “telephone” poles in our cities. All the childhood cancer studies are significant because they are consistent and have been corroborated. They show an increased incidence of malignancies among people with long-term exposure to electromagnetic fields.
Computer Video Display Monitors
A concern that has commanded major news media coverage in the last several years is computer video display monitors and their potential to cause health problems. The “extremely-low-frequency” magnetic fields produced by these video monitors have been linked to cancers, breast disorders, and other health problems. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recommended that the extremely-low-frequency radiation fields produced by such display monitors be categorized as probable human carcinogens. The EPA states that “the findings show a consistent pattern of response that suggests, but does not prove, a causal link” between radiation levels and cancer in people. (50) In March 1990, Dr. William Farland, director of the EPA’s Office of Health and Environmental Assessment, ordered that the researchers’ recommendation be deleted.
A study by the magazine MACWORLD of monitors manufactured by different companies found certain uses to be hazardous and suggested several precautions. Workers should sit at least two feet away from the front of the monitor and stay at least four feet away from the back or sides of a coworker’s monitor. The same precautions should be applied to laser printers. Color monitors produce more electromagnetic radiation than do monochrome monitors. The amount of radiation, it was discovered, is always higher at the sides, back and top of the monitor. The more powerful the monitor, the more radiation is emitted.
Some American computer makers already have low-radiation monitors for sale in Europe, where standards set by the government as well as their unions are very strict. IBM sells low-radiation monitors here in America but does not advertise them, perhaps fearing that these would create concern and anxiety about other terminals that the company produces. A review of sixteen studies shows that the preponderance of evidence links video display monitors with a risk of spontaneous abortion. (52)
Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scans
In the last ten years or so, there has been widespread use of magnetic resonance imaging scans (MRI scans). In many instances, MRI scans show more detail and hence give more information on a patient than conventional CT scans. Up until now, MRI scans have been thought to be without risk to the patient, that is, no radiation exposure or other harm. However, the newest and fastest MRI scanners may not be entirely safe.
Patients undergoing MRI scanning are exposed to three types of electromagnetic radiation: static magnetic fields, pulsed radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields, and gradient (time-varying) fields. Atoms of all tissues resonate at specific frequencies within an electromagnetic field and produce radiofrequency signals, which are converted into images by MRI scanners.
The newest and fastest MRI scanners rely on the time-varying fields to obtain large amounts of information in milliseconds compared to the ten minutes or more needed by the conventional MRI scanners. The tremendous speed with which the newest MRI scanners acquire information results in a clearer image-one that is not distorted by patient movement or heartbeat-and a reduction in time for the patient to be in the magnet, which may also reduce the incidence of claustrophobia. However, time-varying fields, unlike static fields used in conventional scanners, produce electric currents in the body. These currents can cause cardiac arrhythmias or peripheral nerve stimulation, the latter of which has already been reported in three patients. There is, then, a potential for problems in patients with existing heart disease or seizure disorders. Only further research will help delineate the potential for harm to the body with the use of these very fast MRI scanners.
Electromagnetic fields have been used therapeutically for years to increase cell activity and heal bone fractures. Researchers report that cancer cells reproduce faster after exposure to electromagnetic fields and that these electromagnetic waves increase the activity of a certain enzyme called ornithine decarboxylase, which is involved in DNA synthesis and cell growth. (53) Certain cancer-promoting chemicals also stimulate the activity of this enzyme, and prior exposure to electromagnetic fields potentiate this effect. Exposure to the electromagnetic fields may alter the cancer cell membranes and make them more resistant to the immune system. (54)
Electromagnetic fields have other health consequences. Microwaves affect our circadian rhythms, which in turn affect our sleep patterns, growth, and repair mechanisms. The waves also affect the results of IQ tests in animals. Still other studies show that electromagnetic fields alter cortisol output, which, when secreted in larger amounts, suppresses the immune system.
With the fixed amount of land in our country and the fact that the population is growing, the demand for electricity will increase by about 40 percent by the year 2000. The proximity between people and high-tension wires will have to lessen to accommodate the increased demand. Utility companies may also choose to increase the voltage of the power lines to meet this growing need. Larger power lines will generate stronger electromagnetic fields and
Addressing the Problem
There are some simple steps that have been taken to minimize exposure to electromagnetic fields. There is already a way to reduce electromagnetic radiation from video display terminals. There are electric blankets made with reduced electromagnetic field strengths. Or simply use electric blankets only to preheat the bed. Redesign home appliances to minimize or eliminate fields. Move electric alarm clocks as far away from your bed as is practical. Route new transmission lines to avoid developed areas and increase the distance from the lines to the houses. Some utility companies are arranging their high voltage transmission lines to reduce the magnetic fields. The problem is that little can be done to reduce the electromagnetic fields from the low-voltage lines within our cities.
Electromagnetic waves do, in fact, have health consequences and are probably associated with the development of cancer. We obviously need to be wary about where we live, avoid high-tension wires, and take other common sense precautions.
From Cancer and Nutrition by Charles Simone, © 1992. Published by Avery Publishing, New York. For personal use only; neither the digital nor printed copy may be copied or sold. Reproduced by permission.