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Floods, Mold, Cancer, and the Politics of Public Health

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At that time, Swedish toxicologist Tony Kronevi was widely quoted as warning of a potential ”cancer explosion” resulting from ”sick buildings in Sweden”.  He specifically warned of problems with ”sick schools”, urging that people take ”this problem seriously.  Now.”

It’s unfortunate that, despite such warnings, this past summer a Swedish government report revealed that those at the national level had yet to take sick schools ”seriously.”  Just months later, in December, news of the cancer cluster broke.

Was this an instance of political and economic considerations affecting health policy, was a serious health threat long “denied” or “trivialized”? 

Further h
ighlighting what some here have termed ‘indifference’, Swedish parliamentarian Jan Lindholm (Green Party) observed that, for him, it’s “totally inconceivable that the government shows no interest in finding out how over 20 people in a workplace (Strömbackaskola) came to be smitten by cancer”.  He added, “this Government is the landlord’s government.” 

Last Fall I interviewed one of America’s leading authorities on mold - Dr. Dorr Dearborn, Chairman of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.  Dearborn came to national attention in 1997, The New York Times headlining “Infants' Lung Bleeding Traced to Toxic Mold”, a revelation he was instrumental in bringing forward.  Though his findings and those of his equally courageous colleague, Ruth Etzel, became the subject of considerable debate, the EPA’s Children’s Health Initiative on Toxic Mold dutifully continues to warn: “
A cluster of cases of acute pulmonary hemorrhage/hemosiderosis was reported in Cleveland, Ohio, where 27 infants from homes that suffered flood damage became sick (nine deaths) with the illness starting in January 1993.”

In the interim since his and Dr. Etzel’s findings, animal studies continue to provide ever added confirmation of their conclusions.

During the course of my interview with Dearborn, I asked what had occurred that took the momentum from the ‘sick building’ and mold reforms which many then saw on the horizon.  Emphasizing he could just speculate upon what factors had earlier impacted America’s ‘mold debate’, Dearborn spoke of ”pressure from industrial sources – insurance companies, etc – to ‘back off’ this problem.” 

In Sweden, people have spoken of the “gigantic costs” addressing ‘sick buildings’ would entail, and this has led many to rationalize away inaction accordingly.  Of course, the costs of the widespread illnesses and property damage associated with ‘sick buildings’ is thought to be even more substantive, though, far less visible and borne mainly by individuals, not business or government.
I won’t point out that discussion of isolated cancer cases associated with sick buildings has barely begun here.  Nor will I speculate upon the fate of those living in places here like Herrgården, a large housing complex in Sweden’s southern city of  Malmö’s Rosengård area, where – contrary to the Country’s ‘squeaky clean’ image - recent news stories revealed that half of the apartments are mold infested.

An interview with a number of Rosengård’s healthcare workers recently appeared in local media. The ongoing tragedy they described isn’t pretty.

Within the last twelve months, this nation of nine million has had at least three major residential housing scandals, each involving large numbers of families.  And while roach infested slums have sadly now come to Sweden, two of the three scandals involved upscale developments – one was a community of villas on the Country’s west coast, the other was waterside condos in Stockholm.

The widespread failure to adequately enforce Sweden’s excellent safe-housing laws is an ‘open secret’.  Of course, in The States, the phrase ‘managed debate’ is used to describe the process through which better regulation of ‘sick buildings’ and mold is kept from becoming law.

Both circumstances have a cost, and public health has paid dearly.  Is Sweden’s mold-associated cancer unique, or rather, is it unique only in that this instance of mold-associated cancer was so large that it could not be rationalized away, dismissed and ignored?   

In a November article of mine - which was also published in Aftonbladet - I compared Sweden’s ‘sick building’ scandal to that of China’s melamine.  Both scandals are the product of what have been described as ‘open secrets’, but according to a 2003 Swedish survey, sick buildings are sickening a vastly higher population percentage than melamine did. 

While our globe is currently witnessing the havoc which lax regulation and unconscionable behavior meant for the financial markets, is this but one indicator of something ‘deeper’?  America’s ongoing prescription drug and food scandals, China’s melamine, and Sweden’s ‘sick building’ scandal - all suggest that our ‘crisis’ may be considerably broader than merely one of finance. 

History has long demonstrated the high price of blind and ruthless ambition, a price which our world has perhaps only begun to realize it is now paying.  Quoting Swedish parliamentarian Jan Lindholm, “totally inconceivable” well describes present circumstances. 

We have a problem, a bad problem, and it has its causes.  In example, Kronevi told me of a Swedish book he participated in on building issues, a book which might have started vigorous ‘sick building’ debate years ago.  He also provided copies of correspondence highlighting how the text had been effectively suppressed.

Of course, a passage from that book noted that a number of Swedish cities, “have noticed an unusually high number of cancer cases connected to SBS symptoms”, with other passages equally interesting.  What is also ‘interesting’ are others who have described abuses of power, the efforts to stifle critical voices.

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I am an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden, and have lived in Sweden since July 1997. My work has appeared fairly widely, including in America's Christian Science Monitor, Spain's El Mundo, Sweden's Aftonbladet, Austria's (more...)
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