Peace, health and the environment: challenging a conspiracy of silence

By Dorothy G Rosenberg | 1995-11-01 12:00:00

Since the Second World War scientists and military strategists have developed thermonuclear weapons, chemical agents to destroy jungles and the life therein, and biological warfare agents to attack the reproductive, immune, respiratory, and central nervous systems of all living things.

The waste from these products has helped create what we are now starting to recognize as a world-wide health and environmental crisis. The military machines of all nations have contributed to the destructed elements, including acid rain, ozone depletion, climate change, loss of topsoil, forest destruction, desertification, and increased radiation exposure. These combined "ecopathologies" have resulted in loss of species, increases in the rates of cancer, allergies, asthma, and congenitally-damaged children. They have contributed to poverty and environmental refugees.

Rosalie Bertell predicts that "by the year 2000, weapons-related environmental radiation will produce 90,000 cases of cancer, two million miscarriages and infant deaths, 10.4 million children with genetic diseases, and another 10 million who are physically deformed or mentally retarded.... There is no safe exposure level of radiation. Cancer and other diseases can be caused by any amount of radiation no matter how low the dose. Radioactive contamination is adversely affecting public health by damaging the gene pool."

The military is the single largest polluter and waster of resources in the world. According to the Research Institute for Peace Policy in Starnberg, Germany, an estimated 10 to 30% of all global environmental degradation is due to military-related activity. Michael Renner of the World Watch Institute wrote, "The world's armed forces are quite likely the single largest polluter on earth...modern warfare entails large-scale environmental devastation as conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Central America, the Persian Gulf, and Russia amply demonstrate. Even in "peacetime," in preparing for war, the military contributes to resource depletion and environmental degradation as the production, testing, and maintenance of the conventional, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons generate enormous quantities of toxic and radioactive substances, contaminating the earth's soil, air, and water."

Today one in three people will get cancer and one in four will die from it. For women, over 40% of these are cancers of the female reproductive organs. One in nine will get breast cancer, up from one in 20 a few decades ago. There are also rapidly declining sperm counts, increases in testicular cancer, undescended testes, smaller penises in males, as well as other immune deficiency and endocrine disruption conditions. These problems mirror a growing trend of environmental contamination by synthetic chemicals, specifically those that are toxic, radioactive, persistent, bioaccumlative, and hormonally active.

In 1994, the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes (IJC) called for "zero discharge" of all persistent toxic chemicals, including radionuclides. The same body also called for the adoption of the principle of "reverse onus." That is to say that the polluter should have to prove a substance safe before it is allowed to be discharged into the environment, rather than allowing it to be used until it is declared dangerous by the state.

In 1964, the World Health Organization stated that 80% of cancers were due to synthetic carcinogens. In 1979, the U.S. National Institute of Health Report stated that environmental factors were thought to be the major causes of most cancers.

Many people believe that if they live a healthy lifestyle, they will be healthy all their lives, but the factors over which we have personal control account for only part of the problem. The other part is largely environmental. The environmental degradation, to which the military makes such a contribution, is beyond our personal control and must be challenged through our social and political institutions. Any solution requires major policy changes at the national and international level.

Canadian uranium makes its contribution to nuclear proliferation and the attendant environmental damage. Not many peace activists realize that Canada is the largest exporter of uranium in the world, much of it going to nuclear weapons nations. There is Canadian uranium in the nuclear weapons of all the Security Council countries; it is exported for so called "peaceful purposes" but gets mixed with weapons grade material during the enrichment processes. France is one of our biggest uranium customers. The French nuclear corporation, Cogema, now owns uranium mines in Saskatchewan. Because of the recent resumption of French nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific, peace and justice groups should demand that all French uranium contracts be cancelled, at least until France stops its testing program, which blatantly disregards the rights and health of people in the South Pacific, and indeed of all species on the planet.

In defiance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Chinese government also continues to test nuclear weapons as well as export nuclear weapons components to other countries, such as Iran. During the recent Team Canada business trip to China led by Prime Minister Chretien, the first item in the news was a Candu nuclear reactor deal, the Candu being one of the most efficient reactors from which to produce weapons-grade fuel because of its on-line refueling feature. The Canadian commitment to the NPT is undermined when it sells reactors to China. The NPT states that nuclear countries should be reducing their weapons, not increasing their capacity, as China and France are doing with our assistance. However, for Atomic Energy of Canada, now led by Robert Nixon, a nuclear supporter of the former Ontario Liberal government and a close friend of Jean Chretien, this is just one more business deal, even if nuclear proliferation means radiation proliferation.

Peace educators and activists need to call for zero discharge of all persistent toxic chemicals, including radionuclides. On the consumer side, we need to endorse safe, efficient, practical alternatives to dangerous technologies. We need to call attention to the military/environment/health relationships and create political pressure to stop polluters and their protectors in governments, industry, the military, academia and other institutions of power. Peace and justice activists can join with those engaged in advocacy on issues of health, safe food, safe energy, and alternative economics. In future planning, we should be aware of these links in our analysis, education, and political campaigns. A safe and healthy planet will promote healthy lives on it--our lives.

Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg is an environmental, peace, and health activist living in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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