Poison, Poison Everywhere

by Michael Livingston

Anyone paying the slightest attention in the last few months should be scared out of their socks. The EPA recently reported that the incidence of mercury exposure in utero is at least twice that of previous estimates and affects one in every six babies born each year (New York Times, February 10, 2004). Mercury, a heavy metal, is a potent neurotoxin that harms brain development in utero and as a baby grows into adolescence. The EPA and FDA have downplayed the threat, plagiarizing much of their report, as a Washington Post article revealed, from utility company memos. Forty percent of mercury in the environment comes from utility emissions and utility companies have a powerful need to avoid the regulations that would cut 90% of these emissions.

Mercury is just one of the common neurotoxins that are produced by capitalist industry and steadily build up in the environment, accumulating in greater and greater quantities as you move up the food chain. This process, known as bioaccumulation, makes humans especially vulnerable.

PCBs are another potent neurotoxin. A recent study (New York Times, January 9, 2004) showed that farm-raised salmon, which accounts for over 90% of the salmon eaten in the U.S. each year, have PCB levels of 36.63 parts per billion (ppb) compared to wild salmon which contains on average 4.75 ppb. Farm raised salmon are fed ground up fish that often contain higher levels of contaminants than fish consumed by wild salmon. PCBs are also carcinogens (most neurotoxins also cause other diseases, the most common being cancer) and cause hyperactivity, learning disabilities, attention disorders, and mental retardation.

Many experts have recommend cutting down on fish consumption, an important source of protein for most of humanity. These recommendations are often pooh-poohed by government agencies and industry PR flaks. The fact is that we have to eat something, and most food available is now poisoned. Organic foods are a sensible choice, but expensive and not widely available. In addition, the widespread dispersion of these chemicals in the environment means that even organic food will have some poisons in them. There is no place to hide. Our only choice is to fight back.

A good place to start is with the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility report “In Harms Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development.” The report can be downloaded or ordered at their website.

Growing up in Michigan in the 1950s and 1960s, I ate lots of fish, as did most people in my neighborhood. In the early ’70s I learned that the fish were heavily contaminated with dioxin and PCBs. I stopped eating fish from the Great Lakes and mostly ate farm-raised fish. I guess I can’t win for losing.

Capitalism thirsts for profits. That thirst, as Marx showed in his analysis of bread making in London, transforms how food is produced and made in the interests of capitalism. The poisoned food we eat is a direct consequence of capitalist production. Some of the poisons, such as pesticides and herbicides, are introduced in the production process by agribusiness. Other poisons are introduced into the environment by other industries, such as power utilities, get into our air, our soil, and our water. Eventually, these poisons, too, end up in concentrated doses in our food.

February 18, 2004