.           RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #536           .

.                      ---March 6, 1997---                      .

.                          HEADLINES:                           .

.                     IMMUNE SYSTEM TOXINS                      .

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In 1987, about 45% of Americans were living with one or more

chronic conditions (a term that includes chronic diseases and

impairments).  In 1935, the proportion was 22%, so chronic

conditions have approximately doubled during the last 60 years.

The majority of people with chronic conditions are not disabled,

nor are they elderly.  In fact, one out of every four children in

the U.S. (25%) now lives with a chronic condition.[1]

Chronic conditions can often be "managed" (helping people to live

with the condition), but they usually cannot be cured.  The cost

of chronic conditions in 1990 was estimated to be $659 billion

--nearly three quarters of all U.S. health care costs.  (To get

this huge number into perspective, it may help to know that the

entire U.S. military budget is $250 billion per year.)

Perhaps it is time we looked seriously at prevention as an

approach to chronic conditions.

Humans and other vertebrates (animals with a backbone) come

equipped with a complicated "immune system" which PREVENTS

diseases that might be caused by pathogens (bacteria, viruses,

fungi, and parasites) or cancerous cells.  We are constantly

exposed to hundreds of pathogens in daily life, but our immune

system recognizes them as dangerous and swiftly isolates them and

removes them from our bodies.  The immune system is a built-in

disease-prevention mechanism that works hard to keep us healthy

so long as we keep our immune system healthy.

If the immune system is damaged in certain ways, it can allow

pathogens to overwhelm our defenses and make us sick.  Under

other circumstances (which are poorly understood), the immune

system goes haywire and attacks its host, causing major damage of

a different kind, known as "autoimmune" diseases.  These

"autoimmune" diseases include insulin-dependent diabetes,

multiple sclerosis, lupus erythematosus, schleroderma, rheumatoid

arthritis, and about a dozen others.[2]  In these diseases, the

immune system attacks and breaks down the host organism, causing

prolonged misery and death.

A third class of immune disorders is "hypersensitivity

reactions," or allergic reactions, such as asthma, hay fever

(allergic rhinitis), and food allergies (to milk, egg whites,

peanuts, fish, soy and other foods), some of which may be minor,

others of which may be fatal.

As early as 1984, the U.S. National Toxicology Program [NTP]

(within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

observed that chemical damage to the immune system could result

in "hypersensitivity or allergy" to specific chemicals or to

chemicals in general.  NTP said damage to the immune system can

have far-reaching consequences for an individual, leaving him or

her vulnerable to attack by bacteria and viruses, at heightened

risk of cancer, and even predisposed to develop AIDS.[3]

Unfortunately, during the past 50 years, corporations have been

permitted to release more and more industrial chemicals and

consumer products that damage the immune systems of birds,

amphibians, reptiles, fish, and mammals, including humans.  The

immune system itself has only been fully recognized since the

1950s, and it wasn't until the 1970s that all the major

components and activities of the immune system were identified.

Many of these are not well understood even today.[2]

Partly as a result of this ignorance, public health authorities

have still not established consistent criteria for measuring

damage to the immune system,[4] which of course allows corporate

polluters a lot of "wiggle room" when they are asked to stop

releasing --or to clean up past releases of --immunotoxic

chemicals such as PCBs, cadmium (see REHW #179), and mercury

(REHW #462).  (PCBs are a class of industrial chemicals outlawed

in the U.S. in 1976 because of their dangerous properties.

Unfortunately, large quantities of them persist in the

environment to this day, affecting wildlife and humans.[5])

A new study of immunotoxic chemicals affecting mammals appeared


publication of the American Chemical Society.[6]  Since 1987,

large numbers of dolphins, seals, and sea turtles have been

killed by disease in the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the

North Sea, and the Mediterranean.  (See REHW #399.)

In this new study, researchers examined carcasses of bottlenose

dolphins found dead on Atlantic and Gulf coast beaches in

Florida, 1989-1994.  They found elevated levels of tin, a toxic

metal that has been used for the past 40 years to paint the

bottoms of boats and ships to prevent the growth of barnacles and

slime.  (The specific tin compounds are tributyl tin, dibutyl

tin, and monobutyl tin, together called organotin compounds.

Tributyl tin is added to paint to prevent growth of organisms on

ships' bottoms; it slowly degrades into the other two compounds.)

The tin found in bottlenose dolphins was compared to the tin

found in spotted dolphins, and pygmy sperm whales, which spend

their lives far offshore.  The bottlenose dolphins had higher

levels of tin, presumably because they spend their lives close to

shore, where anti-fouling paint from boats and ships has

contaminated bottom sediments and local food chains.

The researchers conclude that the tin compounds --which are well

established immunotoxins --combined with PCBs and the pesticide

DDT, which are also found at high levels in dolphins and which

are also well-established immunotoxins --together may have

deprived the dolphins of their main defense against disease,

their immune systems.  They then succumbed to bacteria and

viruses that they had previously been able to live with.

Other common agents and environmental contaminants known to harm

the immune system include:

** Ultraviolet light from the sun --the kind of light that is

increasing in the northern latitudes of the Earth because

chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have damaged the planet's protective

ozone shield 10 to 30 miles in the sky. (See REHW #246, #441.)

Ultraviolet sunlight striking the inhabited portions of the

planet has increased 5% to 10% in recent years.  In sum, we are

now all taking a bath in a moderately immunotoxic agent.[7]

** Dioxin and PCBs.  As mentioned above, PCBs are a class of

industrial chemicals now outlawed in the U.S., but still present

in many parts of the environment at toxic levels.  Dioxins are a

class of chemicals created as unwanted byproducts of

incineration, metal smelting, and the manufacture of many

pesticides.  Dioxins and PCBs are carcinogenic and powerfully

immunotoxic in many animals, including humans.  (The

International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC] --part of the

World Health Organization --announced February 14, 1997, that the

most potent dioxin, 2,3,7,8-TCDD, is a now considered a Class 1

carcinogen, meaning a "known human carcinogen.")[8]

In monkeys (marmosets), changes in white blood cells associated

with the immune system can be measured at dioxin levels of 10

ng/kg (nanograms of dioxin per kilogram of body weight) --25%

below the dioxin level already found in average Americans.  Mice

with body burdens of 10 ng/kg --25% below the amount already

found in you and me --display an increased susceptibility to

infections by viruses, presumably because their immune system has

been damaged. (See REHW #463 and #414.)

** Agent orange --the chemical used by the U.S. in Vietnam to

defoliate the jungle, damages the immune system.  Furthermore,

Vietnam veterans have an above-average likelihood of being struck

by diabetes --a serious immune system disease. (REHW #463.)  In

the general population in the U.S., the incidence (occurrence) of

diabetes doubled between 1964 and 1981.[9]  It is worth noting

that Agent orange is composed of two pesticides, 2,4,5-T and

2,4-D.  Though 2,4,5-T was banned in the U.S. in the early 1980s

for fear of birth defects, 2,4-D is still most the popular

herbicide used to kill broad-leaf weeds, such as dandelions, in

lawns today.  After people spray 2,4-D on their lawn, it is

carried indoors on the family dog and on children's feet.  Once

indoors, it contaminates rugs and carpets and persists for a very

long time. (REHW #436)

** Many pesticides damage the immune system. In 1996, a study of

pesticides and the immune system, published by the World

Resources Institute (WRI), examined a growing body of literature

from around the world, showing that many common pesticides

degrade the immune systems of laboratory animals, wildlife, and


WRI examined studies of all major classes of pesticides

--organochlorines such as DDT, organophosphates such as

malathion, and carbamates such as aldicarb.  All three classes

were immunotoxic.

** Living near a toxic dump damages the immune system in some

people, though these effects have been rarely studied. (REHW #272)

** Exposure to fibers of asbestos and fiber glass damages the

immune system. (REHW #444.)  These effects may be more common

than, and perhaps more important than, cancer caused by exposure

to such fibers, but have been largely ignored in favor of cancer


** Organochlorine chemicals, including those known as "endocrine

disrupters," damage the immune system.  The endocrine (hormone)

system strongly influences the immune system, so chemicals that

mimic hormones may disrupt immune functions.[11]  In addition,

common chlorine-containing chemicals such as perchloroethylene

(dry cleaning fluid), trichlorethylene (a common industrial

solvent), and chloroform (created in drinking water when it is

chlorinated to kill germs) can damage the immune system. (REHW

#279, #365, #399)

Since 1970, the U.S. has spent 98% of its health dollars trying

to cure diseases, and only 2% trying to prevent them.[12]  During

this same period, many diseases connected to the immune system

such as asthma (REHW #218, #374) and diabetes have increased

dramatically, and deaths from infectious diseases (not including

AIDS) have increased 22%. (REHW #528)  These seem to be strong

indications that immune disorders are increasing.  Perhaps all

these immunotoxins are having a cumulative effect.

The U.S. government does not seem prepared to cope with these

problems. To prevent damage to the immune system would require

strong action to curb the release of immunotoxic chemicals into

the environment. This would require a government that is

independent of, and stronger than, the corporations releasing the

chemicals.  At present we do not have anything close to that kind

of government.

                                                --Peter Montague

                (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Catherine Hoffman and others, "Persons With Chronic


276, No. 18 (November 13, 1996), pgs. 1473-1479. The data

describe the non-institutionalized population.


IMMUNITY (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).  Clark lists

autoimmune diseases on pg. 123.

[3] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health

Service, National Toxicology Program, FISCAL YEAR 1984 ANNUAL

PLAN (Research Triangle, N.C.: National Toxicology Program [P.O.

Box 12233, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709], 1984), pg. 157.

[4] Anna Fan, Robert Howd, and Brian Davis, "Risk Assessment of


TOXICOLOGY Vol. 35 (1995), pgs. 341-368.

[5]  See, for example, Andrew C. Revkin, "New Studies Show PCB's

[sic] Persist in Hudson, and Are Entering Air," NEW YORK TIMES

February 22, 1997, pg. A1.

[6] K. Kannan and others, "Elevated Accumulation of Tributyltin

and Its Breakdown Products in Bottlenose Dolphins (TURSIOPS

TRUNCATUS) Found Stranded along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf


(1997), pgs. 296-301.

[7] And see A.J. McMichael and others, editors, CLIMATE CHANGE

AND HUMAN HEALTH (Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization,

1996), Chapter 8, especially pages 167-170.

[8] According to the press statement, the new IARC finding on

dioxin will be published in Volume 69 of IARC MONOGRAPHS ON THE


contacted at: IARC, 150 Cours Albert Thomas, 69372 Lyon, France.

[9] National Diabetes Data Group, DIABETES IN AMERICA [NIH

Publication No. 85-1468] (no place of publication [Bethesda,

Md.?]: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public

Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute

of Arthritis, Diabetes, and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, August

1985), Table 2, pgs. VI-4, VI-5.

[10] Robert Repetto and Sanjay S. Baliga, PESTICIDES AND THE


Resources Institute, 1996).  Available for $14.95 from WRI

Publications, P.O. Box 4852, Hampden Station, Baltimore, MD

21211. Telephone: 1-800-822-0504, or (410) 516-6963.  Fax: (410)

516-6998.  E-mail: chrisd@wri.org.


IMMUNITY (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), Chapter 8.

See also: Phyllis B. Blair and others, "Disease Patterns and

Antibody Responses to Viral Antigens in Women Exposed IN UTERO to

Diethylstilbestrol," in Theo Colborn and Coralie Clement,



Environmental Toxicology Vol. XXI] (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton

Scientific Publishing Co., 1992), pgs. 283-288.  And, in the same

volume, see Phyllis B. Blair, "Immunologic Studies of Women

Exposed IN UTERO to Diethylstilbestrol," pgs. 289-294.

[12] Speech by Gilbert Omenn, Dean, School of Public Health and

Community Medicine, University of Washington, given at the

meeting of Grantmakers in Health, Fort Lauderdale, Florida,

February 27, 1997.

Descriptor terms:  chronic diseases; immune system; children;

health care costs; prevension; diabetes; multiple schlerosis;

lupus erythematosus; schleroderma; rheumatoid arthritis;

arthritis; hypersensitivity reactions; allergies; national

toxicology program; cancer; bacteria; viruses; fungi; parasites;

corporations; dolphins; marine mammals; gulf of mexico; atlantic

ocean; tributyltin; tin; pcbs; ddt; uvb; ultraviolet radiation;

cfcs; chlorofluorocarbons; dioxin; carcinogens; iarc;

international agency for research on cancer; world health

organization; who; agent orange; vietnam veterans; 2,4,5-t;

2-4,d; herbicides; perticides; world resources institute; wri;

toxic dumps; landfilling; asbestos; fiberglass; endocrine

disrupters; endocrine system; perchloroethylene;

trichloroethylene; chloroform; asthma; infectious diseases;



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                                        --Peter Montague, Editor



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