“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Really? It is worth revisiting these cornerstones of our democracy.
Recently, three farm-worker families in a neighborhood of Immokalee, Florida gave birth to severely deformed children — one without arms or legs, one without the capacity to keep his tongue from sliding back into his throat, and one without a nose, an ear and with no visible sexual organs. The story was reported in the Palm Beach Post, “Why was Carlitos born this way?”
These three families share the same neighborhood, work with the same agricultural chemicals, and they are from the same deeply religious community devoted to the living lessons of Christ.
More infants than we care to acknowledge are being denied the fundamental liberties asserted by our democracy because of the exposure of the fetus to toxic chemicals.
Why isn’t it the first priority of government to ensure that Creation is cared for and that toxics don’t strip fetuses of their fundamental liberties? Every moment of life is equally valuable, but if the cell division in the fetus a mother carries is deformed by toxics, equality is impossible. For these stricken families, happiness, liberty and choice are illusions.
A few years ago, Lori Glenn’s extent of involvement in the environment was helping to protect a local park. One of her employees — she runs a small business in Lee County supplying roses to restaurants — was stricken by incurable cancer. A 5-year-old niece was dying of leukemia.
Out of the blue, she was approached by someone who suspected that, because she cared for a park, maybe she would be the right person to ask if she knew about the people dying of cancer in Cape Coral.
Glenn hadn’t, but she was worried. She had the health of two small children to think about, too. Her first thought was for the Caloosahatchee River, which drains hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland.
Glenn started making phone calls to government agencies to see what testing is done for pesticides in drinking water. In 1998, the U.S. Geological Survey had studied heavy metal concentration and pesticides in the river and found chlordane, among other pesticides, at several times higher than the probable biological effect.
She began asking questions that made Florida environmental agencies uncomfortable. The state Department of Health told her that the cancer cluster in Cape Coral was inconclusive: “People move around a lot.” It is very complicated, the state’s environmental agency told her — and it is.
Glenn believes that government regulation of toxics is a web of interlocking systems designed to fail. Precaution is never a bright line because the legislative and executive branches of government lean in favor of polluting industries that can afford to lobby and contribute heavily to political campaigns.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has broad authority to regulate chemicals that present an “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.” But the EPA can request data from industry only when it can provide evidence that the substance may present an unreasonable risk of injury, or can lead to significant or substantial human exposure. Without additional data from industry, the federal agency can generally not produce this evidence.
The EPA recently abandoned its plan to take funds from the American Chemistry Council to collaborate with industry to produce data by giving families that regularly used pesticides indoors in a low-income neighborhood of Duval County $970 plus a camcorder and children’s clothing.
Benjamin Franklin was 81 at the time delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia sought his blessing. Only a few years earlier — roughly the span of time between the first Clinton administration and today — he had helped Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence.
Although he agreed to support the Constitution, his view was dim: “I believe further that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”
Maybe on that day, Benjamin Franklin was cranky. Maybe the man who invented bifocals had binoculars into the 21st century.
But more likely, with a lifetime of experience behind him, Franklin had seen enough revolutions born of moral enthusiasm to know which was the greater threat to democracy.
ALAN FARAGO is a special contributor to the opinion page of the Orlando Sentinel, where he writes on the environment and politics. From 1988 to 1992, he lived in Key West where he was involved in many environmental issues. As director of Everglades Defense Council, Inc., he is involved in the Hold The Line campaign in Miami-Dade county. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.