The CDC reports that 1 in 38 children have measureable levels of lead. That’s almost 3%. Lead, as I’m sure you know, poisons nerve tissue. It also poisons the kidneys, heart and blood vessels, and reproductive organs. There is essentially no safe dose.
The shocking thing is that this is good news. When the CDC started tracking lead poisoning in children 30 years ago, the figure was 8 in 10 children with measurable levels: 80%. Elimination of lead in gasoline and paint is credited with that dramatic change. Currently, attention is focused on substandard housing with vestiges of lead-based paint.
This sunny portrait, if it can be called that, makes it look like we’re dealing with what’s left from our past. Oh, but wait: batteries used in cars and in photovoltaic energy systems use lead. So we’re still adding lead to the environment because eventually the lead has to be mined, processed, and disposed of one way or another. More importantly, the children of the people who work in the factories that produce those products have higher levels of lead in their blood than other children. On top of that, abandoned lead plants and disposal sites provide continuing exposures to those who live nearby.
To close this thought on lead exposure, substandard housing where lead-based paint thrives, working in lead factories, and proximity to abandoned lead plants are associated with low income. In other words, yet another health impairment imposed by income inequity.
There is no technical reason why this health problem can’t be solved. And yet it is not.
Take another example of a toxin that’s allegedly been eliminated from our environment: asbestos. The US imports over 1,000 metric tons of asbestos each year. How can the EPA allow this? Because the chlorine industry needs asbestos for its production process.
This isn’t a case of corruption. The EPA has the authority to make exceptions to environmental laws when the cost of preventing the use of a toxic substance has too great an effect on commercial enterprises. This is the case with the chlorine industry. For EPA, keeping the wheels of commerce in motion can outweigh the health risk from a known toxin.
Now consider an emerging toxin: nano-silver. For over a decade, concerns have been raised about nano-particles released into the environment. Nano-silver is now added to exercise clothing in order to eliminate body odor: you exercise, you sweat, God forbid you smell.
The small silver particles kill bacteria that cause smelly body parts. Little is known about the health effects on people or the environment, yet EPA gave nano-silver a so-called conditional registration so that it can be used in a growing number of products.
Is there reason for concern? Yes. Nano-silver washes out of clothes and is widely dispersed throughout the environment. Since it’s designed to kill odor-causing bacteria, a reasonable person might conclude that it also kills microorganisms in the soil, organisms necessary for the health of the soil and the plants (including, food) that grow there. A reasonable person might even conclude that these microbe killers affect our own microbiome, both on our skin and in our gut and impair, for example, our immune response.
Isn’t EPA supposed to protect us from this kind of potentially harmful exposure? Yes, they are. But they, like all other government agencies, are supposed to maintain social order.
There might be some kind of corruption at EPA, but that’s not the source of the problem we face. Maintaining the social order means maintaining the very relations of production that the ruling class works so hard to sustain and develop in its interest. EPA and virtually all other regulatory agencies exist to make sure the capitalist mode of production works smoothly.
When EPA hears that income inequality leads to lead poisoning, it is powerless to act because it hasn’t the authority to do anything about it—and besides, that’s not its job. If it hears that chlorine manufacturers need asbestos, EPA’s duty is to maintain the orderly production of that necessary industrial ingredient. If a clothing manufacturer wants to prevent body odor, EPA must let it until there’s proof (and not just reasonable concern) that there’s a problem,
What’s called for isn’t better information or smarter shopping. What’s called for is seizing the means of production and turning it toward the satisfaction of human not commercial needs.
But the lesson for me in all this is not just that our health is at risk because of the way we produce things. The lesson is that the mode of production and its social relations are the actual cause of illness.
I’m not speaking metaphorically. We are conditioned to think of agents such as bacteria or chemicals or traumatic events as the cause of illness. In my view, the cause of an illness is the social relations that permit or even encourage exposure to individual agents and so cannot be separated from them.