Monday, October 09, 2006

Bham News Op-ed : Cancer Risk and the Environment

Below is an Op-ed I wrote for the Birmingham News. It appeared on October 1, 2006.

ADEM Strategic Plan Means Less Cancer Risk

By: Pat Byington

When I first met Stevie some 13 years ago, he was about as old as my 3-year-old daughter Whitney is today. He was like all of Whitney's little friends - full of joy, wonder and mischief.

About five years later, I saw Stevie again, this time at Children's Hospital in Birmingham. The doctors had saved his life from cancer, but not his leg.

A few years later, I invited Stevie and his mother to the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College. We were waiting for him to slide down the hands-on museum's famous "toilet slide" when we were startled by a clanging noise rolling down from the top of the slide. It was Stevie's artificial leg! Stevie soon followed it down the slide with a broad, infectious smile on his face. He thought it was funny.

Unlike smiles, cancers aren't infectious, but because of an Alabama policy decision, a person is more likely to get cancer here than in many of our neighboring states. There's nothing funny about that.

In 1991, the Alabama Environmental Management Commission adopted a cancer-risk level for rivers and streams in Alabama. The commission was asked to make a simple, but far-reaching, life-or-death policy decision: How many people will the state allow to get cancer as a result of the toxic pollution that industries discharge in the water under permits issued by Alabama Department of Environmental Management? Should we choose 1 cancer in 100,000 people or 1 cancer in 1 million people? One boy like Stevie or 10?

Despite being given the opportunity by the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt a more stringent risk level, the commission, with the support of the Alabama Department of Public Health, adopted a cancer-risk level that was the least stringent. Today, Alabama still has the same 1-in-100,000 cancer-risk level it adopted 15 years ago. Mississippi, Florida and Georgia have all adopted the 1-in-a-million level.

Common sense tells us we should not stand by and let this continue. To better understand these policies, I met with Dr. Jeffrey Roseman, UAB professor emeritus in epidemiology. Roseman taught risk assessment for 20 years and served on the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry's Board of Scientific Counselors, a federal agency that studies the health effects of pollution. We discussed cancer and pollution, to which he reminded me that along with Alabama's cancer-risk level, many of our environmental and health standards do not address sufficiently chronic diseases, such as birth defects, asthma, and diabetes. They also do not adequately take into account the cumulative health impacts of toxic pollution.

Last July, in response to this issue and many others, the Environmental Management Commission's Strategic Planning Committee unanimously recommended a new draft environmental management strategic plan for the state. One of the cornerstone goals within the plan is to "ensure regulatory standards are most protective of health and environment in the nation based on science and ecological conditions." This goal was developed by commission committee members Dr. Kathleen Felker, a radiologist and a passionate advocate for breast cancer awareness; and Ken Hairston, general counsel for Alabama A&M University, who has been a champion within the commission on behalf of environmental justice.

This Friday, the Environmental Management Commission has an opportunity to move forward the strategic plan and the "most protective" goal, to set into motion a re-evaluation of Alabama's health-based environmental policies, standards and regulations. If adopted, the result will be fewer cancers; cleaner air, land, water; and, most importantly, overall healthier Alabamians.

Now, that would be something Stevie, Whitney and all of us could smile about.

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