Chemicals: Our champions, our killers

Ihave leukemia. Those must be among the most frightening words in the English language. My particular form of the disease, called acute myeloid leukemia, was diagnosed a few weeks ago. It was a shock but not a complete surprise. About a year ago, I was found to have a rare blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome, which attacks red blood cells, causing anemia. My form of that disorder had only about a 5% chance of morphing into AML. It beat the odds.

Leukemia was once a death sentence. No more. Through a combination of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, it now is actually curable. Sometimes.

It’s a surreal experience, one day having dinner with friends, the next in a hospital bed for Thanksgiving, hoping to stay among the living. But that’s where I am writing this, while having some of the most toxic chemicals known to man pumped into my bloodstream. Voluntarily.

There is some irony to this. You see, I am an environmental lawyer, and I have spent much of the last 25 years doing battle with the chemical companies, including seeking to ban (sometimes successfully) various toxic chemicals, some strikingly similar to those I am now ingesting. Timing is everything.

There is no organic chemotherapy. In fact, I think of these chemicals as my soldiers in a war going on in my blood. A war on cancer, if you will. The old industry slogan was right: Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.

I also think of myself as a zucchini in my garden, being attacked by fungus. That’s because fungus, like leukemia, works at the cellular level. It eats away at a plant’s cells, eventually killing it. Fungicides, such as the ethylene bisdithiocarbamates (or EBDCs, which I tried unsuccessfully to get banned as potent carcinogens), attack the fungus and save the plant. Sometimes. But the fungi fight back and become resistant to the chemical. So do cancer cells.

Chemicals. They are everywhere. They have enormous benefits (see above). Those benefits come with enormous risks. Those of us who have complained about the latter are often referred to by the industry as “chemophobes.”

Rachel Carson, when she wrote “Silent Spring,” was probably the first chemophobe, and the industry launched a massive and eventually unsuccessful campaign to defame her. They are back, by the way, attacking again some 50 years after her premature death from breast cancer. That’s one reason why it is still hard for me to think of them as my champions.

Since World War II, we have experienced a petrochemical revolution in the United States and around the world. Chemical use has exploded, and we are exposed to numerous substances every day -- in the drugs we take, the toothpaste we use, in the places we work, the toys we buy our kids, the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breath. Benzene, one such substance -- a known human carcinogen and air pollutant in Los Angeles -- causes leukemia. It makes you wonder.

Some chemicals, like benzene, have been discovered over time to be carcinogenic, but contrary to popular belief, except for pharmaceuticals and to some degree pesticides, the vast majority of the approximately 50,000 commercial and industrial chemicals currently being used are not subject to any pre-market approval or testing for long-term health effects. No one is checking first to see whether they cause cancer, birth defects or genetic mutations that might lead to cancer in future generations. They are simply out there by the billions of pounds (last year, 4 billion pounds of pesticides were added to our environment, some but not all tested for health and environmental effects).

This is what is charitably called the “data gap” -- a paucity of information about the toxicity of these products and the effects of our exposure to them. Without such knowledge, all efforts to effectively regulate them are doomed to fail.

These “gaps” are not a secret. They were supposed to be filled more than 30 years ago when Congress passed a woefully inadequate law called the Toxic Substances Control Act. Guess what? It didn’t control the toxic substances.

A high priority for the Obama administration should be a fundamental rewrite of the Toxic Substances Control Act -- perhaps along the lines of the European REACH pact that the U.S. has opposed. The REACH pact mandates testing of the suspected worst actors among chemicals and then phasing them out -- without the full-blown trials the substances control act now requires in the United States.

All in all, it’s hard for me to feel warm and cuddly about the chemical companies that have resisted reform for decades. And yet here I sit (or lie), counting on them to save me from leukemia.

Al Meyerhoff died Dec. 21, at age 61, of complications from leukemia. He was a prominent Los Angeles environmental and labor lawyer, and a former director of the public health program of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He was also a frequent contributor to The Times’ Op-Ed page.