Commentary – Cancer in Children

  • Peter Montague is the editor of Rachel's Environment and Health News, which is available free online at

Many people think pollution is as inevitable as death and taxes. ButGreat Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Peter Montague tells us that anew philosophy of environmental protection has sprung up around theGreat Lakes:


To me, one of the most important measures of human health is the rising rate of cancer
in young children. Young children aren’t exposed to the major causes of cancer — they don’t
smoke tobacco; they don’t breathe toxic chemicals on the job, and their lives aren’t subject
to great stress.

Children’s lives today aren’t much different from the lives of children 50 years ago —
and yet there’s a lot more cancer in children today than there was 50 years ago. What this means is that there’s something in the environment causing cancer in children — something in the air, the water, the soil, the food. This is a bad sign, and it’s happening in every industrialized country.

The good news is that a small government agency located on the Great Lakes is trying to do
something about the situation. It is called the International Joint Commission, or IJC. Fifteen years ago, scientists working for the IJC became convinced that Great Lakes pollution was making people sick, and the IJC began to develop a new philosophy of environmental protection. To me, this new philosophy is one of the most exciting developments of the 20th century.

The first principle is that persistent toxic chemicals should be eliminated from the
ecosystem. The IJC said the proper philosophy is “Zero discharge.” If a chemical is toxic and persistent, then the only acceptable amount to discharge into the environment is zero.

The second principle is called reverse onus, or “reversing the burden of proof.” As things
stand today, the burden of proof is on the public to show that industrial pollution is harmful. The IJC says the burden should be shifted onto industrial polluters: before they are allowed to dump anything into the Great Lakes– or anywhere else — they should have to show that they are not going to harm wildlife or humans.

And lastly, the IJC recommends a precautionary approach: if you have reason to believe that what you’re doing is harmful, you should stop doing it even before you’ve got scientific proof of harm.

Together these 3 principles add up to something entirely new. As you might imagine,
industrial polluters think the IJC was sent here by the devil, so the IJC needs all the help it can get from the public.

To get involved, check out their web site: