I remember when the bug truck would come down our road in Macon spraying for insects, momentarily interrupting our wiffle ball game at the dead end. There was that sickening smell. But I didn’t worry that it would hurt me. It just stunk. And we would pause to let the insecticide truck pass before we resumed the game.
I think about that now, how I’d react if my children were running and laughing in that toxic mist. I’d be really upset. I’d want to know who authorized the spray. What kind of spray was it? How much was being released? How thoroughly had it been tested?
When it comes to my children’s health, it’s extremely easy for me to get wrapped up in worry. So I often remind myself that there are many things out of my control. I understand that if you allow every potential worry to consume you, there won’t be much left of you to enjoy life. I think that’s one of my most important self reminders. Simply living in this world is hazardous to your health. There’s no way around it.
But I can’t help but get ticked off when I hear of people and industries, who could impact my family’s health, who haven’t acted in good faith or who have shown real carelessness. For instance, I recently checked all the code numbers on our children’s Tylenol and Motrine pain medicines, realizing that it all had to be tossed, since it could have tiny metal specks in it. It burns me up to think that I could have been soothing my infant son’s teething pain with medicine laced with tiny metal fragments.
I realize that so much is out of my hands. How could I have known about that risk prior to the recall? I have to trust that the manufacturer is following safety rules, and that the rules are actually there in the first place. If you eliminate safety rules and simply trust in the market, then you must recognize that the true free market fix for such things is for some kids to get really sick or die from such medicine — then people will quit buying that medicine. No, thank you, I’d prefer we have a tightly regulated market for such things so that we avoid as much of that tragedy as possible. Who wants their child to be part of the market correcting itself?
I write this thinking about the Relay for Life and all the sad things we know about cancer. When cancer strikes, we often don’t know why. Someone may have smoked. They may have family members who had the same ailment. But those things are often not the case. And cancer seems to hit with horrible randomness. Two in five people will get cancer at some time in their lives. When it does, we are left to wonder whether the disease is somehow genetic, or was there some exposure to something? “Why” is such a difficult word for so many grieving people.
I don’t know that such things can be answered clearly. It’s often too complex. We want some simple comfort. And I think the Relay’s focus on remembrance, on fund-raising, and on positive stories of survivorship are very good things, a way to connect something positive to something so terribly negative in our lives.
Beyond that, I feel our society — no matter our politics — should have an aggressive attitude toward cancer research. And part of that is identifying what carcinogens are in our everyday lives, and how we can either eliminate or at least reduce our exposure to them.
For instance, two medical doctors assigned by President George W. Bush released a President’s Cancer Panel report last week that claims that cancer cases from environmental carcinogens are “grossly underestimated.”
The report blames weak laws, lax enforcement and fragmented authority, as well as the existing regulatory presumption that chemicals are safe unless strong evidence emerges to the contrary, according to a news report on the study.
“Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” the report says. It adds: “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.”
Strangely, the American Cancer Society, which sponsors the Relay, responded to the President’s Cancer Panel report, saying the study overstated the risk of chemicals and draws attention away from primary carcinogens, such as cigarettes.
“There is no doubt that environmental pollution is critically important to the health of humans and the planet,” wrote David Sampson on the American Cancer Society website. “However, it would be unfortunate if the effect of this report were to trivialize the importance of other modifiable risk factors that, at present, offer the greatest opportunity in preventing cancer.”
But do you have to do one at the expense of the other? Yeah, you need to fight to reduce cigarette smoking and other poor health habits. But studying carcinogens around us makes sense, too, doesn’t it?
Think of how asbestos and lead were commonly used without understanding of their cancer-causing potential. I think of all the plastics in our lives, all the strange ingredients listed on food packages. I tend to trust that what is in the food I eat is OK. But there’s a voice in my head that tells me differently. “You just want to believe it’s all fine,” the voice says. And that’s true. Actually, I don’t really want to spend much time thinking about such things. Do you?
But if you’re like me, you want some assurance that we have folks employed to study the cancer-causing elements in the chemicals around us. I’d like to think that we have the sense to find these things and force them out of common use.
Otherwise, I feel like we’re the kids in that long ago wiffle ball game. We see the bug truck, but we’re oblivious to what it could mean.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.