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March 21-27, 2007

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The Byrne Report

Two-Necked Goose

By Peter Byrne


It was a balmy evening in late February at the Sausalito Cruising Club. Inside the shiplike restaurant, a political organizing group called Democracy for America-Marin was holding a forum, "presenting evidence of a direct link between breast cancer and the environment." About a hundred people, mostly women, attended the informative event.

The panel sported an array of environmental experts, including Barbara Brenner of Breast Cancer Action, Deborah Raphael of San Francisco's Department of the Environment, two Marin County supervisors and several activists, among them, Peter Coyote, the movie actor. Although the speakers focused on the chemical causes of breast cancer, many other cancers were implicated in the sad story of how our watery bodies are infused with toxic cocktails mixed from 100,000 industrial chemicals.

Coyote was vastly entertaining. The lanky baritone actor, who drove a vegetable-oil-combusting car to the Cruising Club, addressed the question of why people living in green-leafed, ocean-breeze-swept, affluent Marin County should care about the environmental degradation of less fortunate demographic zones. He recounted, "A wise old Indonesian peasant once told me the tale of a goose with two necks, one short and one long. The mouth on the long neck was able to reach the greenest and cleanest of leaves and find the healthiest of bugs to eat. The short neck ate only poison filth lying on the ground. The goose died, of course. Here in Marin, we are the long-neck goose."

Coyote went on to excoriate our corporate-run government for putting the profit of capitalists before the health of the planet. "It will only get worse before it gets better," he remarked. "It makes me feel homicidal, and I am a practicing Buddhist for 32 years."

Brenner made a PowerPoint presentation showing the correlation between cancer and xenoestrogens, which are industrial chemicals that mimic estrogen in our bodies. These compounds are found in many household cleaning products, pesticides, herbicides and ubiquitously licked, sucked and fondled plastic artifacts, including chewable toys tendered to infants. Brenner presented State of Evidence, a collection of facts, scientifically informed essays and political analysis produced by Breast Cancer Action and the Breast Cancer Fund, both headquartered in San Francisco. I learned from this zine that professional journalists are at a particularly high risk for contracting the Big C. Yipes!

Other at-risk groups include dental hygienists, librarians, farmworkers, social workers, nurses and radiologic technologists. Mammograms, which are ionizing radiation, can cause breast cancer. The fatty tissue of most newborn babies is laced with carcinogenic chemical traces; eating barbecued meat is a very bad idea; certain brands of sunscreen can ignite skin cancers. The appendix of the report lists hundreds of chemical sources of cancerous pain, including urethane, the cancer-curing pharmaceutical tamoxifen, alcoholic beverages and (sigh) wood dust.

Raphael's presentation was sharp. She talked about how San Francisco has legislated use of the precautionary principle, which means not asking if a possibly unhealthy product or chemical substance is legal or safe, but asking if it is necessary and, if not, banning it. San Francisco did that with plastic grocery bags and immediately got hit with a lawsuit by the American Chemistry Council. "They want to keep their right to put known carcinogens in teething rings," says Raphael.

Activist Sandy Ross spoke about the struggle to mandate integrated pest management in Marin, which would use the precautionary principle to regulate the use of insecticides. Trade groups from the agricultural industry oppose this reasonable approach, naturally. Their friends in the California Legislature passed a law that allows state agencies to preempt local environmental-protection ordinances in favor of the state's looser standards. Plus, federal law tends to preempt state environmental rules--and we all know what Bush-Cheney did to environmental protections at the federal level: eviscerated them. Worse, the pollution-loving World Trade Organization has the power to preempt the scarred stumps of those castrated protections.

Marin County supervisors Susan Adams and Charles McGlashan were articulate and greenish. Adams bragged about wetland restoration and getting rid of junk-food vending machines in county offices. Those are steps forward, but too little and too late to save us. McGlashan, who has worked with the Natural Step Foundation, was more profound. He laid out several principles for fixing our world. Do not pull anything out of the earth's crust that does not belong in the biosphere, like coal, oil, mercury, etc., he counseled. If you must, keep it contained in closed loops. Allow no artificial chemicals to build up in the biosphere. Keep habitats natural by not pushing nature away. Create an equitable society.

Those laudable goals will require the long necks to do more than invest in socially responsible mutual funds, which was one of the solutions proffered by Coyote. I wonder what our short-necked brethren have to offer?


Contact Peter Byrne or send a letter to the editor about this story.