Jewish law going back centuries has recognized the importance of respecting both the environment and its impact on the health of the community.
“Going back to the Mishna, we learn that even our earliest sages understood in a community we all had to be responsible for one another, and those responsibilities include being very careful about industry and capitalist enterprises that will affect all community members,” said Rabbi Rebecca Soliellel Epstein of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple.
On Nov. 1 the New Brunswick synagogue hosted a panel discussion with medical researchers and religious leaders focusing on modern environmental cancers.
The program was cosponsored by the Center for Environmental Exposures and Disease of Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and by Greenfaith, a statewide interfaith organization promoting environmental awareness in the religious community.
Even in ancient times, Epstein said, religious leaders forbade a tannery or graveyard from being located near a residential area because it could have a serious effect on the health of the community.
“For one thing, we know each person was created in the image of God, and therefore human life should be respected and taken care of,” said Epstein. “There is also a notion in our tradition that you cannot do God’s work and be able to serve God to your fullest potential if you ignore your health and basic needs.”
Panelists from the medical school’s department of environmental and occupational medicine spoke and answered questions about research into preventing cancer and identifying carcinogens.
Dr. Brian Buckley, whose work includes analyzing contaminants in water, said that while all bottled water he tested was clean, the same could be said of regular tap water.
“I’m not afraid to drink the water anywhere in New Jersey,” he said.
Dr. Daniel Wartenberg, whose research centers on environmental risk factors for cancer and the identification and management of disease clusters, said radiation from microwaves and televisions “is not at all a concern.”
However, he warned, cell phones remain “a complex issue” with “somewhat inconclusive” data. He cited studies that “suggest an increase in brain cancer” among some cell phone users depending on a wide variety of factors. He did recommend the use of a head set apart from the cell phone itself.
Wartenberg added it is sometimes difficult to convince people of even proven dangers.
“People get smoking, but don’t get radon,” a naturally occurring gas that can build up in homes, he said, as an example. The Environmental Protection Agency “has been crying for years it is a major contributor to lung cancer.”
Lifestyle can also come into play as a risk factor for cancer.
Dr. Helmut Zarbl, a breast cancer researcher, said those who perform nighttime shift work have been shown to have increased risk of breast cancer because their schedules disrupt mammary cells’ response to estrogen.
“Our biological clocks get synchronized by light,” he explained, a phenomenon which also helps explain jetlag from long-distance travel.
Zarbl estimated about 40 percent of cancers are caused by such risky behaviors as smoking, lack of exercise, eating too much red meat, and not getting regular screenings such as colonoscopies.
Dr. Howard Kipen, who specializes in air pollution research and is currently measuring the carcinogenic effects of exposure to traffic pollution on the New Jersey Turnpike, said governments regularly pass laws intended to save lives. However, the question is how far they should go.
“You have to be really careful when you tell people where they can work or live,” he said. “As a society we have to decide whether we…as a society, should let people take these risks.”