Eye on Public Health: Our Toxic Test


Georgica Pond is toxic and could make you sick, according to a new report from Group for the East End. Studies like this get dismissed all too often, but this one was hard to ignore. It was released around the same time a nearby property owner’s dog got sick and died, allegedly from going in the water.

So how did this happen and who is responsible?

Typically when we hear about chemical spills or contamination some major company is behind it, either because of an accident or negligence or worse. We want them to be held accountable. We expect apologies and demand they clean it up.

But this time the perpetrator is us. Every time we treat our lawns with fertilizers and spray pesticides, overuse outdated septic systems, or use seemingly benign products like household cleaners or make up with certain chemicals, we contribute to the problem.

So the question is, what will it take for us to hold ourselves accountable? At what point do we issue an apology to each other and clean up our act? It requires a culture shift, to be sure. For one thing, we need to stop seeing trophy lawns as a badge of honor and instead see them for what they are: chemical-laden carpets destroying our local waterways.

This kind of culture shift is possible. It took place in Seattle after the salmon industry witnessed their spawning beds being destroyed. Lawn chemicals were killing fish and local jobs. As one Seattle resident told me, “Everyone knows what a lush green lawn really means and it’s frowned upon here.”

In the Hamptons, the Perfect Earth Project is working to educate our community about the importance of going organic. Sag Harbor realtor Simon Harrison has been a one-man band about the importance of keeping our waters clean. In other words, it’s not just about your health; ensuring our waterways are safe to work, live, and play also affects the value of your home.

Getting people to wake up is a major challenge. One of the biggest problems, according to some of the world’s leading environmental health scientists at Harvard, Columbia, and University of California, San Francisco, is that most people assume what they buy is safe. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case.

Just think tobacco, asbestos, and lead. For each of these, you are probably thinking, “of course they’re bad.” But before we got to “of course” there was a lot of corporate denial and industry-sponsored research designed to obfuscate the dangers.

One of the worse examples, according to historians David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, co-authors of “Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children,” is when lead manufacturers literally blamed children and parents for getting lead poisoning due to the lead paint in their homes. Do you remember the Lead Boy puppet? Or coloring books painting a happy picture about lead? They were part of an effort to market lead to children, say Mr. Rosner and Mr. Markowitz.

If you’re thinking “that was then, this is now,” consider synthetic turf fields. They are marketed to schools, parents, and athletes as a better alternative to grass. Many parents and children think they look “professional” and there are now thousands of them in schools across the country. Here’s the rub, the professionals don’t want them. Professional football, baseball, and soccer all tried them – and they’ve dumped them. In soccer, the women’s teams have complained about being forced to play on synthetic turf, while the men get to play on grass. One soccer coach has compiled an alarming number of goalies who have gotten cancer. Goalies are the players who come into contact with turf the most. Coincidence?

Questions about the safety of synthetic turf led the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to roll back its safety assurances on the product earlier this year and a new federal review of the research is underway. Meanwhile, the state of Maryland held hearings earlier this year on legislation to mandate warning signs on synthetic turf fields; a representative from Field Turf testified in opposition to the warning signs while also admitting that his company’s product contained lead. There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, according to the CDC.

When asked about synthetic turf, Philip Landrigan, MD, one of the founders of Mt. Sinai’s global center on children’s health said, “We don’t have to wait until children develop cancer as a consequence of playing on these fields. The simple fact that they’re playing on a field with a carcinogen ought to be a red light. It ought to be a stop sign. It ought to persuade school boards and elected officials that they need to go in a different direction.”

The question is, will we?

Susan Lamontagne is president of Public Interest Media Group, Inc., focusing on public and environmental health. She is also a member of the Sag Harbor School Board of Education and any opinions expressed here are her own and not made on behalf of the board of education.