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Al Meyerhoff and the Chemistry of Life and Death

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Al Meyerhoff was Big. That's a good thing for us because this formidable environmental and civil rights lawyer tackled outsized challenges on our behalf. He lived courageously and boldly and whether or not we realize it, he made our lives healthier in so many ways.

We may not have known the deep secrets about hidden pesticide residues and dangerous chemicals in common products like toys and food, or about exploited workers making the clothes we wear. But Al did. And he fought the Big Fight on behalf of our health and those workers and on behalf of basic decency.

Big Al and I worked together when we were both at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation's leading conservation organizations. In 17 years at NRDC, he relentlessly challenged the chemical and pesticide industries, believing that toxic residues have no business being in our food, in our cosmetics, in our everyday products. As we build a green clean economy, I'd like to remember that Al Meyerhoff worked his whole life to undo the dirty side of our old economy.

Here is an example of the cascading impact of his commitment. During the 1990s, he used a little known federal law to target 36 cancer-causing pesticides that showed up as residues in juices, canned fruits and vegetables and processed foods. He highlighted the successes of organic farmers to show the feasibility of chemical-free agriculture and zeroed in on some of the most widely used agricultural chemicals at the time. His legal work led to a legislative solution, the Food Quality Protection Act, that has dramatically cut the use of dozens of cancer-causing and neurotoxic pesticides and led the government to finally recognized that children need greater protections from exposure than adults.

"People should be able to eat food without poisons, farmers and farm workers should be able to grow food without being exposed to dangerous chemicals and the environment and wildlife should not be haunted by the toxins we use," he said then.

That's a bold and simple vision but as we're reminded every day, we haven't yet realized it. Many dangerous substances don't seem to really die, but to find new life in different forms in the U.S. or in parts of the world with even weaker laws than ours.

Chlorpyrifos, marketed as Dursban, for example, is an insecticide now prohibited from household use but still widely used in farming. Carbofuran, marketed as Furadan, is an extraordinarily toxic insect killer banned in the US but easily and cheaply available in East Africa, where it's tragically used by livestock owners to intentionally poison wild lions, accelerating an ecological crisis there. The herbicide alachlor, which the US agreed to phase out in the 1990s and which has been banned in Europe because of its toxicity has seeped back into use in the U.S. This kind of perverse resurrection is what happens with a powerful chemical lobby and an unknowing public.

It's why he also championed California's Proposition 65, the powerful citizen-driven law that requires a warning label on dangerous substances, letting consumers make a decision without waiting for government action.

After leaving NRDC, Al Meyerhoff joined a class action law firm that took on Enron and other companies who betrayed our trust. In perhaps his biggest act, he brought a landmark case to stop sweatshop conditions on the remote US commonwealth island of Saipan, where thousands of workers toiled to put the Made in USA label on some of America's best known brands. He fought on behalf of those workers but also, I believe, on behalf of us.

It's beneath our dignity for our closets to be filled with clothes stitched together with the hidden tears and sweat and broken dreams of unknown workers trapped in modern day bondage. That $20 million case, against the Gap, Nordstrom, Ralph Lauren and others, returned back wages to 30,000 workers and signaled a price to pay for requiring workers to toil 12 hours a day for substandard wages behind barbed wire fences in obscurely grotesque conditions.

I hope these victories last.

When I found out about his December death -- from leukemia that swiftly silenced him within weeks of his pre-Thanksgiving diagnosis -- the memory of his formidable skills, affable boisterousness, and giant heart came rushing back. We owe a lot to Al.

Even as he was in the hospital dying -- or fighting vainly to live -- he wrote about his illness, describing the dual blessing and curse of the chemicals in our lives. He saw the irony of his diagnosis. He mused about his knowledge of chemicals even as he was being treated by chemotherapy. He thought about benzene, the common air pollutant known to cause leukemia. "It makes you wonder," he wrote.

This environmental lawyer reminded us that the vast majority of the 50,000 or so commercial and industrial chemicals in circulation today are not tested for longterm health effects before being put on the market. They are simply added to the air, water, food and products in our lives. For our benefit and our detriment.

From his hospital bed, he hoped that the new Obama administration would strengthen our still weak laws. He was fond of saying chemicals have more due process than people do. Once on the market, despite his and others' tireless work, they are rarely removed, even the most toxic ones.

The Los Angeles Times published those final words after his December death at the age of 61. A memorial will be held February 28th in San Francisco. I can't imagine it including a moment of silence. Al was not silent.

Diane Dulken, a former NRDC staffer in the Washington DC office, is a communications strategist in Portland, Oregon who works with public interest organizations and businesses building a sustainable economy.

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