We Are All Chemically Contaminated
By Andr Cicolella
Wednesday 12 October 2005
July 22, 1719, the ship Grand-Saint-Antoine left Marseille for the calls of the Levant (as they were described at the time). In Syria, the ship took on a Turkish passenger who died two days later, a victim of the plague that afflicted the region at that time. Eight sailors and the surgeon on board had died when the ship reached Livorno. Nonetheless, the Italian authorities allowed it to return to Marseille, where it arrived May 25, 1720.
Capitan Jean-Baptiste Chataud was in a hurry to deliver his cargo of fabric worth 100,000 ecus before the Fair at Beaucaire. On his arrival, the ship-owners played on their relationships to obtain a "soft" quarantine from Marseille's municipal magistrates. They wanted to avoid a "hard" quarantine that would isolate the ship and its precious cargo in the middle of the ocean for forty days.
The sailors, therefore, were enclosed only in a lazaretto. They gave their dirty linen to laundresses and on June 20, a 58-year-old laundress, Marie Dunplan, died of the plague. It was the beginning of an epidemic that would cause 50,000 deaths among the 100,000 inhabitants of Marseille, 220,000 deaths in Provence, and which would only be over two years later.
A story that belongs to the past? No, the battle surrounding the proposed European regulation, Reach, recalls this tragic history. The issue for Reach, an acronym for Registration Evaluation Authorization of Chemicals, is the risk evaluation of chemical substances.
Seven years ago, the European Council decided to reform the regulations in force regarding marketing of chemical substances. Three years later, a White Book was published. It proposed a change of logic in the management of chemical risk, the principle of which is "no data, no market," a rupture with decades of a rigorously opposite procedure.
Now, European Commission Vice President G nter Verheugen, responsible for companies and industry, has, in the latest version, proposed to backtrack on this principle and to return the burden of proof back to governments, just as the European Parliament was in the process of examining the initial text.
As in Marseille in 1720, economic interests arrogate the right of coming before the interests of public health to themselves, with the connivance of certain politicians.
The health stakes of Reach are considerable: at issue is mastery of the modern epidemics of cancers (up 63% in France the last twenty years), effects on reproduction (one couple out of seven is infertile), allergies, kidney and neurological diseases ...
When one out of two men, one out of three women, today is affected by cancer, it's no exaggeration to talk about an epidemic. Certainly, it's not as visible as the epidemic of the plague. The victims don't die on the street, but the tribute exacted is heavy, with 150,000 deaths a year in France. Risk factors other than chemical substances are implicated (diet, tobacco use ...), but with the evaluation of chemical substances, we know for certain that we can dry up a part of the source of these chronic illnesses. Moreover, it is unacceptable that this public health imperative not be imposed upon the chemical industry.
The volume of chemical substances at a global level has gone from 1 million tons during the 1930s to 400 million tons today! The chemical industry has thus put on the market - without evaluating them - substances that will sometimes be withdrawn once the damage to the population's health is assessed. That's the "proof by people" to demonstrate toxicity that was the rule at the end of many long years. Still, that's only the case for a minority of substances, since for 97% of the substances data is incomplete or nonexistent.
Today, virtually the entire population is impregnated with a certain number of substances, some of which are toxic to development or carcinogenic. Numerous epidemiological and toxicological data show the link between this generalized chemical pollution and the growth of modern epidemics.
As in 1720, in Marseille, what's at stake concerning Reach is perfectly irresponsible and even suicidal, since, just as with Marseille's municipal magistrates, neither politicians nor industrialists can personally escape this modern plague, since they are also contaminated, as was shown by the results of the tests conducted on the blood samples from Environment Ministers - including Serge Lepeltier, then French Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development - published on October 19, 2004.
Up until now, the European Union has played a big role in the protection of its citizens in the face of climate change. European citizens expect a Europe that will effectively protect them against the plagues of our own era rather than a Europe that panders to merchants.
The European Parliament's Environmental Commission refused to follow the Commission and has, on the contrary, voted for a strengthened proposal. We must hope that European citizens' pressure will be sufficiently strong and clear so that the health perspective wins the day.
Andr Cicolella is a researcher in environmental health and in charge of the [French] Greens' health commission.