A New Biotechnological 'Fix' for Environmental Health?: Examining the Environmental Genome Project

Article excerpt

THE LATEST ADVANCES IN GENETIC research and the development of new genetic technologies promise to revolutionize our approach to understanding and improving environmental health. Drawing on these new scientific achievements, many public health scientists and policymakers in the U.S. have called for a redoubling of research efforts on the mechanisms underlying how our genes respond to exposures to hazardous substances that we might encounter in the home, the workplace, or the environment. At the same time, a growing number of women environmental justice activists are turning a critical eye to the flurry of activity and excitement surrounding the sequencing of the human genome. Central to their concerns is a thorough examination of the real benefits and potential liabilities of genetic research for those communities most seriously burdened with the health hazards of living and working side by side with polluting facilities and industrial wastes.

This article discusses a new human genomic research initiative that claims to be on the path to solving environmental health problems at their core: the Environmental Genome Project (EGP). Launched in 1996 and sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the EGP aims to identify the "environmental disease genes" that, when defective, may increase a person's susceptibility to environmental diseases such as breast cancer, asthma, and Lupus, or may increase a woman's chances of suffering miscarriages or birth defects. Women environmental justice activists such as Debra Harry from the Indigenous People's Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB), Rose Marie Augustine from Southwest Network for Economic and Environmental Justice (SNEEJ), and Julie Sze from West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT), express misgivings about the rhetoric and scientific practices already underway in the EGP. A number of concerned geneticists and developmental biologists also add to the chorus of voices raising questions about this most recent foray into high-tech solutions to environmental problem solving. 1 The essential issue for these activists and scientists is whether the quest for the "flawed gene" is the most useful research direction to pursue in the interests of solving environmental health problems, many of which, like breast cancer, have assumed epidemic proportions. 2 For these critics, the logic of "genetic reductionism," that is, the single-minded focus on the defective gene as the root cause of environmental illness, obscures other factors that cause disease, such as exposures to dangerous chemicals and other environmental toxins. Moreover, critics argue, a significant proportion of these exposures to hazardous substances can be prevented through more effectual environmental regulations and precautionary practices. So, why then, the preoccupation in environmental health research with developing the high-tech biotechnological "fix"?

Cataloguing Genetic Disadvantage:

The EGP seeks to understand at a precise level human variation in sensitivity or resistance to disease. 3 Researchers are developing a catalogue of all the genetic variances, or what are known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), that exist in human populations, and that make some of us susceptible to environmental toxins and others of us resistant to the harmful effects of those toxins. To determine the range of variations and frequencies of the so-called "environmental disease" genes in the U.S. population, researchers in Phase I of the EGP have begun to collect blood samples from American citizens representing what are referred to as the five racial/ethnic subpopulations in the country; Asian American, African American, Hispanic, Caucasian, and Native American. NIEHS director, Kenneth Olden asserts that this path-breaking research will help his office identify socalled "susceptible subgroups" and will "provide more precise information for regulators, such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. …