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An Alaskan's fight to ban the chemical that poisoned her childhood
Alaska Dispatch News
Author: Charles Wohlforth
Pamela Miller boarded a plane Wednesday morning bound for Geneva, Switzerland, where she hopes the world will ban a chemical she believes may have killed five members of her family.
She grew up next to a plant in Ohio that produced vast quantities of short-chain chlorinated paraffins, called SCCPs. Now she is deeply involved in the international process to stop the chemical's manufacture and other persistent organic pollutants, called POPs, that especially hurt Arctic people.
Thursday, a report she co-authored with the help of an international team will be released with test results that found SCCPs in children's toys, such as rubber duckies and Mickey Mouse slippers, and in baby bibs and a hand blender for baby food, items purchased all over the world.
The chemical, used to soften plastic, has already been banned in many countries because it harms neurological development in children, as well as disrupting the endocrine system and causing liver and kidney disease and cancer.
"It's a chemical that nobody has ever heard of, yet it is produced in huge volume and it's in many products we use every day," Miller said.
Miller grew up near the Dover Chemical Company plant in Ohio, which produced the vast majority of SCCPs in the U.S., according to EPA documents. Throughout her childhood she gathered strawberries at a farm nearby and pulled them in a red wagon to her neighborhood to sell, eating a share along the way.
Now that farm is closed. Its soil was contaminated. The area around the plant is an EPA Superfund site. Miller may have carried poisoned berries in her wagon.
Her father died of cancer when she was a toddler. Her mother, a nurse, believed he died because of exposure to nuclear tests when he was in the Navy.
Miller said her mother was a feisty woman, aware and asking questions. But Pamela didn't intend to be a crusader. Her first love was water and nature. A beloved uncle taught her to snorkel and study animals and she became a marine biologist.
In conversation she is calm and often has a slight, bemused smile. But she's tough. She fell in love with Alaska as a fisheries observer on a Japanese boat working in midwinter in the Bering Sea. If you could love Alaska there, you really love it.
She began living here soon after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, when she got a job with Greenpeace.
She had an impact quickly. Bob Shavelson said Miller led a Clean Water Act lawsuit against oil companies polluting Cook Inlet. The companies settled by paying a fine and providing $875,000 to start Cook Inletkeeper, the organization Shavelson now runs.
They have probably regretted it every day since. Shavelson is known as an unrelentingly aggressive fighter for his environmental cause. Unlike Miller.
Shavelson called her, "Quiet and tireless and brimming with conviction. She inspires me with her quiet conviction. We're such different people."
Pamela Miller at her Anchorage office on Tuesday. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)
She quietly changed lives. For years in the 1990s she researched the radiation leakage and exposure of workers from the Amchitka Island bomb tests — like the test her mother thought killed her father.
Digging through thousands of pages of documents, she helped find proof that the government had tried to conceal. Ultimately, 645 workers received $100 million in compensation and medical care for their radiation-caused cancers.
By the time that work was done, Miller had started her own environmental organization, Alaska Community Action on Toxics. Originally she was a lone woman in an office but now has a staff of 11.
ACAT works on local issues around Alaska — on April 11, a pesticide ordinance it supported passed the Anchorage Assembly — but the issue of pollutants in the Arctic made it an international organization.
Research over the last three decades showed that long-lasting pollutants called POPs accumulate in the Arctic. Weather patterns bring them here, cold stores them here, and the fat of animals in traditional Native diets concentrates them in human beings.
Tests found extreme concentrations of chemicals made for manufacturing plastics, retarding fires and industrial processes in the blood of indigenous people and their breast milk — chemicals that hurt human health in many ways, including disrupting developing brains.
Miller decided to go to the source. ACAT became an international nongovernmental organization, lobbying diplomats for a world ban. The Stockholm Convention on POPs went into force in 2004 and now has 182 members in its mandatory system, although the U.S. had never joined.
Last year a technical committee of the convention recommended banning SCCPs and two other pollutants. Miller's flight Wednesday was taking her to the meeting where that decision will be made.
She is co-chair of a group of 500 NGOs from around the world. She brings Alaska Natives who can talk about the industrial chemicals in their blood and in the wild food they eat, a counter to more numerous chemical industry representatives who lobby the delegates.
"I have a sense of the terrible injustice of people being exposed without their consent," she said.
We are bathed in these chemicals, but we can't know how many have died from their cancers. How many children lost intelligence they should have developed or grew up with other mental problems because of SCCPs? Also unknown.
But Miller points out that after lead was removed from gasoline and paint, children's IQ rose measurably in affected areas.
Only last year, Congress passed a law requiring testing of chemicals we use every day. It hasn't been implemented yet — that will rely on President Trump's administration.
Meanwhile, Miller thinks of her poisoned berries.
Were SCCPs responsible for her father's cancer? And for her mother's cancer — she died six years ago? And for her brother Jerry's cancer, who died four years ago? And for her two sisters-in-law, who died last year? And for the cancer of her other brother, Larry, who is still beating it?
"This is a chemical that has followed me to Alaska and I'm bound and determined to rid the world of it," she said.