Acts of Courage

Our schoolyards, food, and drinking water may be giving kids cancer. One mom suggests ways to fight back

The girls show off their new shoes and braided hair; they wear skirts with shorts underneath so their underwear won’t show when they do cartwheels on the playground. The boys are in the same T-shirts and cargo shorts they’ve worn all summer, already counting the minutes until recess. They gather by the wall ball game, scanning the yard for the girls they like to chase. My daughter and her friends taunt their favorites; soon, they’re racing over the grass.

I peek through the courtyard window into my daughter’s brand new third-grade room. I spot her desk. Soon, she’ll be standing beside it, pledging allegiance to our flag. The school bell rings, their day begins, I make my way back home. As I pass by the chain-link fence, I see a little sign. NOTICE OF APPLICATION OF PESTICIDES: Roundup, SpeedZone, Dyne-Amic, FoamBuster, and Surflan A.S. Dates of application: August 21–28. Today is the first day of school. Today is September 5th.

September is—in addition to time for back-to-school and the beginning of a long soccer season—National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. It’s also Gynecologic Cancer, Leukemia, Lymphoma, Multiple Myeloma, Ovarian Cancer, Thyroid Cancer, and Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. So many cancers to highlight in only twelve short months. That’s a lot of ribbons to wear, especially in September. Which one to choose? Childhood Cancer is the golden ribbon, in case you didn’t know.

I’m finding this out now, as I sit at my computer, looking up the names of pesticides that have just been applied to the fields of our school. Some of them contain carcinogens. How’s that for a third-grade spelling word? Carcinogen. C-A-R-C-I-N-O-G-E-N. Carcinogen.

This is a familiar word to me. Before I became a mother, I was an environmental scientist. I worked for the State of Connecticut, in the remediation section of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, addressing the messes underground: what remains when the downtown dry cleaner has spilled its solvent, say, or when one of the tanks at the corner gas station is leaking fuel into the ground. Or when, thirty years ago, the head of some manufacturing plant didn’t want to pay for waste disposal. It was a simple economic decision: why pay to have it hauled when the woods behind the warehouse accepted barrels just as well?

I spent my first month on the job reading EPA reference manuals on the chemicals we would find. I learned about chemical fate and transport—which is just a fancy way of saying what compounds are likely to do when they are released into the world. How they behave in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil beneath our feet. And I learned about toxicity, their (mis)behavior inside our bodies.

Every business has a story and leaves an imprint at its site. I began to anticipate contamination from certain industries, the way a doctor might be wary of the liver in a patient who drinks too much. After a while, you begin to view certain types of commerce with a cynical, jaded eye: I’ll do better, Doc, I promise. Sure you will, Mr. Machine Shop. Sure you will.

Loading docks are notorious hot spots. So are chemical storage areas, painting booths, septic tanks and leach fields, production area floor drains, outfalls and drainage ponds—and, of course, the woods out back. In the soil, we’d find chemicals, which, depending on their properties, would migrate through the porous space to join the water underground.

The plumes are never static. They move like cancer, silently spreading and changing, expanding their reach until—if we’re lucky—symptoms start to show. Someone notices the kitchen faucet suddenly has a funny smell. Or someone in the family develops a rash every time he takes a shower. In one of my cases, the owner of the dog-training academy on the edge of town watched in horror as his dogs began to seize and collapse.

But symptoms often fail to show. Contamination sneaks up quietly, the way kids do when they’re playing Ghost in the Graveyard on a lazy summer night. You don’t see unless you look, and you won’t look unless you have to—like when the property changes hands or the business is sold. Then suddenly, there it is, and there are neighborhoods nearby. You sample people’s wells and find toxic compounds with cumbersome names, things like tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE), 1,2-dichloroethene, vinyl chloride, 1,4-dioxane, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes. I have found all of these compounds in people’s drinking water. Some of them cause cancer, and some of those people had little kids.

Have you ever known a child with cancer? When I was in the second grade, my family and I took a trip to visit some old neighbors who lived near Detroit. My mother let me take a friend because my old friend, Megan, the girl who had lived next door to us, was sick. Leukemia, diagnosed shortly after we had moved. She was still being treated with chemo; my mother figured she might not be well enough to play.

Before the trip, my mother took great care to prepare my friend and me for Megan’s condition. She may be tired, she said. She may not want to play. And as an aside, my mother mentioned she might not have any hair. We nodded and assured her we would be okay with that, that we would be polite. But preparations in etiquette matter little to eight-year-old girls when the starkness of reality presents itself. When we arrived at my old neighbor’s house, we saw a pallid girl with only a few transparent wisps of blonde hair remaining on her scalp. We gawked at her appearance, widened eyes fixed upon her alien head.

After some time, I began to see the Megan whom I remembered—in her eyes and in her smile—but my friend didn’t have that advantage. She could not get past Megan’s baldness, couldn’t even venture to look directly in her eyes. My friend cowered next to my mother while I followed the ghost of Megan’s former self out into the yard to play.

But you would never call a child with cancer a ghost. You would call her a hero—at least, if you were using the language that advocates for childhood cancer victims use. To them, cancer stories are empowering, celebrated through awareness campaigns like the American Childhood Cancer Organization’s (ACCO) Gold Ribbon Heroes Program. Officially, Gold Ribbon Heroes are people—patients, parents and siblings, hospital staff and volunteers—who have made a positive impact on the lives of others. But let’s be honest: we know who the heroes are. The ACCO posts pictures and stories of these children on Facebook so the rest of us can “like” or “share” them. Their narratives are peppered with words like battle and fight, strong and brave. Like soldiers. Like combat.

They are symbols of the quest for a cure, like the golden ribbon itself. Go to the online gift shop; buy something to support the cause. Since September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, you might consider getting yourself an Awareness Kit: a canvas tote, some magnets and stickers, and metal lapel pins for the children at war.

I’m looking for the bumper sticker that asks: Why do kids keep getting cancer?

Do you know where metal lapel pins are made? They’re made in machine shops. Connecticut used to have an abundance of these shops, filling orders for nuts and bolts and screws, tiny components for Pratt & Whitney and for the submarines at Electric Boat. They were my least favorite sites. Ugly releases: cutting oils, heavy metals, acids, bases, and solvents.

One of my former sites was a warehouse on a hill, where metal eyelets had once been made. The manufacturer was careless and left behind an enormous plume of PCE beneath the footprint of the building. It was heading downhill, toward a neighborhood served by wells, and had morphed into a complex stew of “free product”—dissolved PCE and its daughter products, including carcinogenic vinyl chloride. The contamination was so severe in the shallow ground water that fumes from the plume traveled up through the pore space of the overburden soil and back into the air of the warehouse. You needn’t even touch the water to be exposed. All you needed to do was stand in that warehouse and breathe.

But all of this was invisible, of course, and our noses weren’t sensitive enough to detect what was there. The owner of the building had converted the space for his new tenants, and by the time I was assigned to the case, it had become a gymnastics and cheerleading school. Which meant that just as we were finding out about the toxic potion beneath that space, there were school-aged girls in leotards, running and jumping and doing cartwheels there, breathing in that solvent air. And doing it close to the ground because they’re shorter, those gymnasts, you know.

These experiences have made me an anxious parent. I fret over prior land use. I feed my children organic foods, try to be careful about the products we use. My brother sometimes makes fun of me. At his house, when he cooks for his family, he wraps ears of corn in Saran Wrap then places them in the microwave to cook. I cringe, imagining what’s leaching from the plastic into their food. My brother rolls his eyes and shakes his head.

“I’ll let you know if my kids get cancer,” he says in a mocking tone.

But why should I be mocked? Cancer is the most common cause of death by disease for children and adolescents in America. Every year in the United States, approximately 13,400 children between birth and the age of nineteen are diagnosed with cancer. About one in 300 boys and one in 333 girls will develop cancer before their twentieth birthdays.

My soccer coach in college had a little boy with cancer. He was seven or eight years old when I knew him. He’d had surgeries and chemotherapy; he had missed a lot of school. The children’s hospital had become his second home.

Every year, as thanks for saving his son, my coach volunteered our team to help with the hospital fundraising gala. Right before the event, he took us on a tour of the oncology wing. He wanted us to meet the people who were saving children’s lives. He wanted us to see the kids whose lives were still in peril.

The children’s oncology wing is a strange and frightening dimension of youthful innocence and weary subjection. Brightly colored walls seem clouded by the presence of pain and fear. We passed gaunt children with bald heads and sunken eyes, clutching teddy bears and wearing hospital smocks adorned with cheerful prints, like rainbows and monkeys wielding bananas. Cartoons blared from suspended TVs, and IV bags hung like perverted balloons, dosing medicines into the veins of bedridden kids, simultaneously curing and hurting them with each little drip. The contrast was too much for some of us to bear.

Coach shook hands and talked with the hospital staff, and Sara—our six-foot-tall freshman goalkeeper, with a foul mouth and tattoos on her back—suddenly turned and ran down the hall. I later found her ducked into an alcove by the stairwell, angrily wiping tears from her mascara-smeared eyes.

“It’s not fair,” she whispered. “I can’t take it.”

And yet, increasingly, we do. The incidence of children diagnosed with all forms of invasive cancer has steadily risen over the past thirty years. Between 1975 and 2004, incidence rates grew from 11.5 cases per 100,000 children to 14.8. The overall incidence of childhood brain tumors has also risen significantly, and although brain tumors are more common in adults than in children, if a child is diagnosed with a brain tumor, it is almost twice as likely to be malignant.

A math exercise: If today’s childhood cancer incidence rates were as low as they were in the early 1970s, how many fewer children would be diagnosed with cancer every year? Thousands, as in more than the combined enrollment for five of the elementary schools in the town where I currently live.

Our town, our school. NOTICE OF APPLICATION OF PESTICIDES: Roundup, SpeedZone, Dyne-Amic, FoamBuster, and Surflan A.S. Dates of application: August 21–28. I stew over this question: why did they have to do it then?

I think of my daughter running over those fields, laughing with her friends. They don’t know not to roll around in the grass, not to rub their eyes or wiggle loose teeth without first washing their hands. They don’t know about toxicity, about chemical fate and transport.

Am I being much too anxious? I’ll try to think of something else. I’ll imagine my daughter in music class instead, standing on the risers with her hand upon her heart, singing “America the Beautiful,” just like I did when I was her age.

Science Lesson, Part 1. Required reading: EPA Report on the Environment, 2008. Over the past forty-five years, the combined use of chemical fertilizers—including nitrogen, phosphate, and potash—on our land has increased nearly threefold, with nitrogen accounting for the steepest increase in application rates. Twenty-one percent of shallow aquifer wells sampled in agricultural areas were found to be contaminated with nitrate above the federal drinking water standard.

Nitrates have been detected in fresh produce and are also present in preserved meat products. Nitrate accumulates in breast milk. Maternal and childhood exposure to nitrates and nitrites has been tentatively linked to some childhood cancers, including leukemia, brain tumors, and nasopharyngeal cancer.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
for amber waves of grain.

Science Lesson, Part 2. In annual surveys conducted since 1994, 42 to 71 percent of food samples (including fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, and dairy) have shown detectable amounts of pesticide residue. That’s nearly half of the shiny apples in our children’s lunch boxes or the baby carrots saved for after school.

Sixty percent of shallow aquifer wells sampled in agricultural areas contained detectable concentrations of at least one pesticide. Of those, 9.5 percent had detectable concentrations of five or more pesticides. All streams sampled in agricultural watersheds had at least one pesticide compound detected in the water; in 86 percent of the streams, five or more chemical pesticides were present. Pesticides are not naturally occurring.

For purple mountains majesty,
above the fruited plain!

History Lesson. The original chemical pesticides—lead arsenate, DDT, aldrin, and dieldrin—have long been suspected of causing cancer in humans and were banned by the EPA in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet because these chemicals bind so tightly to soils and sediments, and because they “bioaccumulate,” or are absorbed by organisms at rates greater than they can be metabolized, we still find them in our foods.

Since the removal of these chemicals from the market, the agriculture industry has turned to a newer class of chemicals: organophosphates. These pesticides were derived from military nerve agents used in chemical warfare, and they target the nervous system of insect pests by deactivating enzymes needed for essential nerve function. They have been recently implicated in the increased incidence of neurodevelopmental conditions (such as Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder) and are now drawing additional scrutiny in light of the increasing incidence of childhood brain cancer.

America, America,
God shed His grace on thee . . .

Science Lesson, Part 3. Nationwide, 37 percent of coastal sites sampled by the EPA showed moderate to high fish tissue contamination. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were the contaminants most frequently responsible for fish tissue contamination, with 19 percent of sites above EPA guidelines. Other chemicals present above EPA guidelines were mercury, DDT, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

And crown thy good with brotherhood,
from sea to shining sea!

Homework. Our land—including the land we use for playgrounds and schools—has been impregnated with synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. Our aquifers and watersheds are contaminated, and we’re finding chemicals in our food. These are the makings of a scientific experiment. What would your hypothesis be?

In middle school, I did a project for the seventh-grade science fair. I called it “Are No Tears Really No Tears?” For my experiment, my teacher took me to the rotary phone in the teacher’s lounge and helped me order microscopic hydra from the Carolina Biological Supply catalog. They arrived a week later, floating in a three-inch screw-cap jar. I promptly took them home, where I mixed up various solutions of water and shampoos from our family bathroom: Head & Shoulders, Prell, Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. My hypothesis was that the tiny, tender creatures wouldn’t mind the baby shampoo.

Using a pipette, I carefully suctioned the hydra into the diluted shampoo then watched them through the microscope I had borrowed from school. They waved their tentacles like the dancing inflatable air men you see swaying at car dealerships—except that my hydra waved only briefly. As I watched through the lenses, they quickly crumpled upon themselves and floated around the petri dishes like little specks of dirt.

Back when I worked in Connecticut, I used to sample water from a little ranch house on Lyman Drive. It was autumn the first time I went to collect a sample: leaves rustled across the driveway, and pumpkins huddled on the step by the door. When the woman answered her doorbell, I could hear water running behind her. “Sorry,” she said as she let me in, “I’m pouring my son a bath.” She led me to her kitchen and disappeared to help her son.

I stood alone at their kitchen counter, running cold water in the sink and filling out labels for my sample. The little boy’s bowl of soggy Cheerios sat lopsided in the sink, milk diluted to a cloudy gray, like when kids play with soap in the bath and the water turns opaque. After some time, I lowered the flow on the faucet and collected water into little glass vials. I could hear his bath time singsong the entire time I was there.

A week later, I got the results: they had PCE in their well.

I had wanted to do a more elaborate project for that seventh-grade science fair, involving goldfish or maybe frogs, but my science teacher told me it was illegal to experiment on vertebrates without special permission from the government.


A few years ago, a coalition of environmental and health groups, called the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, conducted independent testing of children’s bath products for toxic chemicals. Twenty-three of twenty-eight products tested contained formaldehyde, which is considered by the EPA to be a probable carcinogen. It turns out that the formaldehyde is released as preservatives break down in the product container.

Many of the products tested also contained 1,4-dioxane, another probable carcinogen. In fact, 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct of a chemical process used to make petroleum products gentler to the skin. Nearly two-thirds of tested products—including Johnson’s Baby Shampoo—contained both of the harmful compounds.

I’m not even going to mention the latest news on chemical flame retardants, but it seems that wearing pajamas and snuggling on the couch could be considered another risk behavior.

What are children’s risk behaviors? Children do not smoke. Children don’t drink alcohol. Children don’t take birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, and they don’t work in high-risk occupations. Instead, children eat, sleep, play, go to school and after-school activities. They run down hills and roll in the grass. They ride their bikes and wade in creeks. They eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with dirty hands and lose their teeth in shiny red apples. They breathe air in our cities, drink milk from our dairies, eat food from our factories and fields. At the end of the day, they bathe their bodies and brush their teeth with water from our reservoirs and aquifers. Then we kiss their cheeks, wish them sweet dreams, and watch over them as they sleep in their beds. And still, our children get cancer.

In the 1970s, when children were diagnosed with cancer, their chances of survival were a little less than 60 percent. Today, the five-year survival rate for childhood cancer has improved to nearly 80 percent. Indeed, these are hopeful figures. But how does the rising incidence of childhood cancer factor into our calculation of progress? Or what about the fact that survivorship itself comes with a myriad of burdens? Heart damage, lung damage, second cancers, infertility, cognitive impairment, depression. . . .

I do not wish to trivialize the importance of improving cancer survival rates, but when I think of cancer, I’m not just thinking about preventing death. I’m thinking: I hope nobody I know gets cancer.

Especially not my children.

I found this wonderful thing online called the Beads of Courage Program, where children fighting cancer can celebrate their cancer treatment milestones. Young cancer patients get beads for every cancer hurdle they cross: beads for needle sticks and hospital stays, spinal taps and blood transfusions. White beads for chemotherapy, glow-in-the-dark ones for radiation. Just imagine the strings of beads these children earn through their courses of treatments—ten feet, twenty feet, even thirty-five feet long. A glaring, growing reminder of how brave these children are.

Consider: what if we got rid of the beads and replaced them with acts? What if, instead of expecting little kids to be brave warriors and endure needle sticks and blood transfusions and chemotherapy, we adults could employ some courage ourselves and remove the carcinogens from our children’s lives? How brave would we need to be to take the formaldehyde out of their shampoo? Or to remove the organophosphates from the grapes they eat at lunch—would that make a Gold Ribbon Hero? I’m willing to concede that removing these chemicals from our homes and parks and schools may seem like a monumental task, but we are unjustly asking our children to furnish the evidence of harm. We need to place value in the precautionary principle over the principle of wait-and-see. There are things we can do today.

Let’s start with not spraying the playground with pesticides a week before the first day of school.

About the Author

Mary Heather Noble

Mary Heather Noble’s writing is influenced by environmental issues and informed by her former career as an environmental regulator. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Minerva Rising, The FEM, Quartz, and Utne Reader, among others, and has been honored with the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, sponsored by Ashland Creek Press.

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