Last summer, our extended family camped at Lassen Volcanic National Park. One day, we began a hike up Lassen Peak. By the time we got a quarter of the way up, my grandson Jimmy (11) and his cousin Sophia (12) couldn’t breathe. While the others continued on, I walked them slowly down the mountain. Hikers on their way up asked if we had made it to the top. “No—asthma,” the kids explained. When we got back down, I took the disappointed children to a nearby lake where they skipped stones, waiting for the others to return.
Later, when my 23-year old niece Seraph was talking about her surgery to remove a pre-cancerous skin lesion, Jimmy’s 16-year old brother JP told us he had a strange mole as well. A month later he was diagnosed with Stage II malignant melanoma. After one surgery that left a scar on his back from shoulder to shoulder, the doctors performed a lymphectomy. We thank God that his lymph nodes showed no further sign of cancer.
Our grandchildren are not simply unlucky. The rates of asthma and childhood cancers are on the rise. Since 1980, asthma cases in the US increased by 75%.1 Since 1950, childhood cancer rose by 1/3.2 Childhood leukemia increased by 27%; brain cancer by 40%.3 Today, 1 in 400 children contract cancer by age 15.4 Cases of malignant melanoma rose 350% between 1950 and 1991.5 Each year, 4% more people contract melanoma than the year before, and younger people are coming down with the disease.6
The rapid rise in these and other illnesses are at least partly related to our damaged environment. Clearly, air pollution can cause or aggravate asthma. Studies link exposure to these toxic chemicals to the increase in childhood cancers.7 Melanoma can be triggered by exposure to Ultraviolet (UV) rays, which bathe us more than ever because of the thinning of the ozone layer.8 Melanoma has also been linked to exposure to certain chemicals.9
Today there are 75,000 human-created chemicals in our environment.10 Over 2,000 new chemicals are introduced each year, mostly untested.11 All of us are exposed each day to far more dioxin and other toxins than the government says are safe.12 These toxins are more dangerous to children than adults. Children absorb chemicals more completely, and developing cells are more susceptible to harm. Children often play on floors or lawns, which expose them to residues of chemical cleansers and pesticides. They run their hands along various surfaces, then put their hands in their mouths. They may play with pets wearing flea collars. Children drink more fruit juice, perhaps containing pesticide residues. Some children’s toys, made from PVC, contain phthalates, plastic softeners that leach out when children play with them or put them in their mouths.
As a pastor, I have ministered to many children and families whose illnesses may have been induced by environmental toxins. A young couple I will call Sarah and Joe, after treatments for infertility, were delighted to find themselves expecting twins. Sarah lost the twins at five months of pregnancy. When they were brave enough to try again, Joe developed a huge cancerous tumor in his chest just when Sarah was due to deliver. They were in the hospital at the same time.
A little girl I will call Mary had brain cancer. She was tiny and frail and had no hair because of intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She sometimes served as an acolyte. We prayed for her for years.
I have ministered to men with prostate cancer, women with breast cancer and endometriosis, elders with neurological disorders, children with asthma and behavioral problems. Each of these diseases and disorders cause physical, emotional and spiritual suffering for whole families, for congregations, and communities. The incidence of each of these diseases and disorders is on the rise, and each of them can be caused or aggravated by exposure to toxic chemicals.
This situation presents a challenge to the church. Jesus was a healer, and the church has carried on ministries of healing, visitation, and care of the sick throughout its history. Today it is clear that the only way to protect the health of children and future generations is to clean up the environment. Whatever chemicals are spewed into the air, soil, and water come to lodge in our children’s tissues. As Chief Seattle said, “Whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves.” 13
How can we protect our children from dangerous chemicals? Coming out of denial and facing the danger is the first step. Becoming educated about these issues is the second. These steps equip us for taking action in the world.
There are ways to de-toxify our immediate surroundings and reduce children’s exposures. We can provide fresh, organic, whole foods, rather than heavily processed, chemically-laden foods and produce laden with pesticides. We can clear our cupboards and sheds of toxic cleansers, solvents, and pesticides that create fumes or leave residues, and use non-toxic alternatives. We can get rid of toys made of PVC.
But the only way to really protect our children is to work to eliminate these poisons at their source, to help create a clean and healthy environment. We can educate others in our churches and communities, and work to protect our region’s air and water. We can also work to “childproof” environmental laws, insisting on laws based on “The Precautionary Principle,” using precaution rather than proof as a standard for protecting our children.
In Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, Sandra Steingraber, herself a cancer survivor, writes about her experiences of pregnancy, giving birth, and nursing her daughter Faith. After an amniocentesis, she holds up a vial of her own amniotic fluid to the light, and ponders:
“amniotic fluid is the creeks and rivers that fill reservoirs. It is the underground water that fills wells. And before it is creeks and rivers and groundwater, amniotic fluid is rain. When I hold in my hands a tube of my own amniotic fluid, I am holding tube full of raindrops. Amniotic fluid is also the juice of oranges that I had for breakfast, and the milk that I poured over my cereal, and the honey I stirred into my teac. ... When I look at amniotic fluid, I am looking at rain falling on orange groves... The nectar gathered by bees and hummingbirds is in this tube. Whatever is inside hummingbird eggs is also inside my womb. Whatever is in the world’s water is here in my hands.”14
Some Native Americans cultures made decisions based on how they would affect the seventh generation. Our Judeo-Christian tradition also considers those who will come after, claiming that God’s steadfast love continues even to the thousandth generation. (Exodus 20:5, Psalm 105.8) God’s covenant of faithfulness and love extends to all people, to all creation, even to generations not yet born. As people of faith, we are called to be a part of that covenant. We are called to continue our ministries of healing and to work for the health and well-being of the earth as a whole. This is a holistic view of health, a direction toward the promise of abundant life for all creation.
Position of the United Methodist Church
From The Social Principles
Paragraph 160. I. The Natural world
A) Water, Air, Soil, Minerals, Plants—We support social policies that serve to reduce and control the creation of industrial byproducts and waste; facilitate the safe processing and disposal of toxic and nuclear waste and move toward the elimination of both...and assist the cleanup of polluted air, water, and soil...
From The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church
4. A Dioxin-Free Future
The EPA concluded that the levels of dioxins already lodged in human bodies are already close to levels known to cause serious health problems...
Human exposure to dioxins begins early in life, since dioxin crosses the placenta. Nursing infants take in four to twelve percent of their lifetime dose of dioxin within the first year of their lives, a period during which they are most susceptible to the effects of such toxins.
The United Methodist Church calls on cancer research organizations to move to a prevention-based approach to cancer research and funding, including more studies on the relationship between cancer and chlorine-based toxins in the environment.
We support a phase out of the production of dioxin, beginning with the immediate action on the three largest sources of dioxin: Incineration of chlorine containing wastes, bleaching of pulp and paper with chlorine, and the entire life cycle of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic...
8. Environmental Law—The Precautionary Principle
...we advocate for significant increases in efforts toward pollution prevention, for identifying goals for reducing exposure to toxic chemicals, for incentives to replace known toxic chemicals with the least toxic alternatives, and we support the practice of organic farming methods in order to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture.
We encourage government at all levels to promote and abide by the Precautionary Principle in order to protect human health and the environment.
We urge the United States to honor the Precautionary Principle during the negotiations of international agreements and to work toward the establishment of the Precautionary Principle as a guiding principle of international law.
1. Handle With Care: Children and Environmental Carcinogens and Healthy Milk, and Healthy Baby: Chemical Pollution and Mother’s Milk can be ordered through the Natural Resources Defense Council at http://www.nrdc.org.
2. Not Under My Roof - Protecting Your Baby From Toxins At Home can be ordered from the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition by calling 800-452-4789 or at http://www.checnet.org.
3. Your Health and the Environment: A Christian Perspective, a Study/Action Guide for Congregations by Shantilal P. Bhagat, available for $7.50 from the National Council of Churches. (800-762-0968)
4. Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber (Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts) 2001.
5. Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? by Theo Colborn et. al. (Penguin Books USA, New York) 1996.
6. Dying from Dioxin: A Citizen’s Guide to Reclaiming Our Health and Rebuilding Democracy by Lois Marie Gibbs and the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (South End Press, Boston, Massachusetts) 1995.
1 From the Center for Disease Control, as reported Reuter’s news service, April 16, 1998.
2 Steingraber, Sandra, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1997) page 38.
3 From the National Cancer Institute, as reported in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, September 29, 1997.
4 Steingraber, Sandra, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1997) page 38.
5 Steingraber, Sandra, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1997) page 47.
6 Steingraber, Sandra, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1997) page 47.
7 From the National Cancer Institute, as reported in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, September 29, 1997.
8 Steingraber, Sandra, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1997) page 48.
9 Steingraber, Sandra, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1997) page 48-49.
10 The Center for Public Integrity, 1996.www.publicintegrity.org.
11 The Center for Public Integrity, 1996. www.publicintegrity.org.
12 The Center for Public Integrity, 1996. www.publicintegrity.org.
13 Roberts, Elizabeth, ed., Earth Prayers from Around the World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) page 10.
14 Steingraber, Sandra, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Publishing, 2001) pages 66-67.
People working together for peace, justice and sustainability.