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Sue KogerSue Koger

Sue Koger: The Toxic Avenger

"I used to watch my neighbor spray weed killer in his garden with his child in a carrier on his back," marvels Sue Koger, associate professor of psychology at Willamette.

This neighbor, whom she calls "an educated, thoughtful man," didn't realize that he was exposing his child to highly toxic chemicals.

Just as more Americans are aware of the dangers of smoking or eating too much fast food, Koger is trying to raise public awareness about the health risks of common household chemical agents. She says many substances widely found in home and garden stores are directly carcinogenic - cancer-causing. Some pesticides have been linked to developmental disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder - ADHD - and learning disabilities, and they may also increase the risk of autism or Asperger's Syndrome.

Koger's passionate concern about this issue is the result of many years as an environmental activist and an educator. With a Ph.D. in physiological psychology from the University of New Hampshire, Koger is all too aware of how the external environment can affect human brain development and mental function. She believes psychologists are in a prime position to contribute to interdisciplinary research efforts, inform the public of the dangers, and influence public policy.

Recently, Koger and her colleague, Deborah Winter of Whitman College, presented their research at the American Psychological Association's 2004 annual convention. They discussed a National Academy of Sciences' estimate that as many as 25 percent of neurological deficits are caused by the interaction of genetics and toxic substances. Koger has also recently co-authored a book with Winter called The Psychology of Environmental Problems, which explores how psychological theory and research can be applied to help solve environmental problems.

The research Koger collected for this work revealed both the power of the chemical lobby in Washington, D.C., and the inadequacy of the government's attempts at regulation. Essentially, she says, substances are "innocent until proven guilty." That is, they have to be "proven harmful before being taken off the market" rather than proven safe for consumers prior to marketing. With more than 85,000 chemicals listed with the EPA, there is good reason to be concerned about exposure.

What can the average person do about this problem? Koger believes that each of us can make a positive difference by buying organically grown produce, limiting the use of pesticides and other chemicals in our own homes and gardens, and voting for candidates who will work for stricter environmental protections. Koger has spread this doctrine far and wide in the Salem community by working with organizations like the Salem Citizens for Alternatives to Pesticides - SCAP - and the Willamette Environmental Sustainability Team - WEST.

Koger notes that the chemical industry has worked hard to influence the U.S. government to avoid stricter regulations because of the potential fiscal damage. She says this position is ironic because those companies end up paying more in the long run through rising medical premiums and a less productive work force. The bottom line, however, is that the "dollars lost" isn't the issue. "You can't put a price on having an autistic child," says Koger. "You can't put a price on losing someone to cancer. It is not a monetary issue. It is about how our government should be protecting our citizens."