Chemical Exposure a Bigger Threat than Climate Change?
June 8, 2014
Julian Cribb / Australia Broadcasting Company
In our polluted world, even fresh snow at the top of Mount Everest is too polluted to drink. About one third of the 143,000 known chemicals are suspected of being dangerous to humans. One study found newborn babies are contaminated with an average of 212 different chemicals. Some claim the deluge of chemicals we are subjected to daily is a bigger threat to human survival than climate change.
(June 3, 2014) – Something more ominous even than climate change stalks the future of humanity, and it is time we gave it the same attention.
Most of us know that some chemicals are not good for us, but few people have much idea of the deluge to which we are all subject now, 24/7. Earth and all life on it are being saturated with human chemical emissions in an event unlike anything which has occurred in the four billion years of our planet’s story.
Almost every moment of our lives, from conception to death, we are exposed to thousands of man-made substances whose effects on our health and the environment are largely unknown.
They enter our bodies with every breath, each meal or drink, through or clothes and the products we adorn ourselves with, our homes, workplaces and furniture.
There is no escaping them. Ours is a poisoned planet, its whole system now infused with substances humans produce in the course of extracting, making, using, burning or discarding the many marvelous products on which modern life now depends.
This has all happened so fast that most people are still unaware of the extent of the problem or of the danger it poses to us and our grandchildren.
Currently we manufacture around 143,000 different chemicals, around a third of which are suspected of causing cancers, mutations, birth defects and brain damage, or are toxic in some way. As the United Nations Environment Program warns, most of these chemicals have never been properly tested for health or safety.
Global output of industrial chemicals alone is 30 million tonnes a year, and number on track to triple by the mid-century. This chemical outpouring is, by far, humanity’s greatest impact on the planet and all life on it, and we are yet to grasp the effect it’s having.
Thousands of scientific reports are now piling up which document in disturbing detail the impact of this chemical flood on our health and on our future. But because these reports are scattered across hundreds of journals and dozens of scientific disciplines in scores of countries, society as a whole has missed the big picture.
The science shows human chemical emissions are now moving relentlessly round the Earth in water, air, soil, wildlife, fish, food, trade, in people and in our genes.
Researchers are finding toxic man-made substances from the stratosphere to the deep oceans; from the peak of Mt Everest (where the fresh snow is too polluted to drink) to remote Pacific atolls; from the Arctic to the Antarctic.
Toxic chemicals are routinely found by researchers in birds, fish, whales, squid and other life-forms which have never had contact with humans, as well throughout the global food chain.
The US Center for Disease Control do regular surveys which find certain industrial ‘chemicals of concern’ in the blood of the vast majority of Americans.
In independent tests the US Environmental Working Group found 414 industrial toxins in 186 people ranging in age from newborns to grandparents.
It found 212 chemicals, including dioxins, flame retardants and known carcinogens in the blood of newborn babies, who were contaminated while still in the womb.
These tests raised such concern among medical scientists that they are now testing three 750,000 infants in seven countries around the world to understand the chemical burden we now all carry and its effects on our future health and wellbeing.
Mother’s milk is contaminated with pesticides and industrial chemicals in America, in 15 European countries and in China. The same is probably the case in every country in the world that bothers to look.
Australian research finds that even when dead and buried, we release our toxins back into the groundwater. Indeed groundwater beneath many of the world’s big cities is now so polluted as to be undrinkable.
UNEP says about five million people die and 86 million are disabled yearly by chemicals directly, making them one of the world’s leading causes of death—yet this does not include the millions more cases where chemicals are implicated in cancers, heart disease, obesity and mental disorders.
A particular concern is how chemicals—intentionally and unintentionally—interact with the thousands of other compounds in our environment to form billions of potentially toxic mixtures.
In an article in The Lancet, eminent Harvard medical professor Philippe Grandjean called on all countries to ‘transform their chemical-risk assessment procedures in order to protect children from everyday toxins that may be causing a global “silent epidemic” of brain development disorders’.
Medical research is reporting unexplained increases in once-rare conditions whose modern upsurge scientists are now increasingly linking to humanity’s continual multiple chemical exposure.
Disturbingly, the effects of this contamination are now being found in the genes of parents and their offspring across several generations.
In a recent report on endocrine disrupting chemicals, the World Health Organisation and UNEP warned that reproductive and other hormonal disorders are on the rise globally, that man-made substances are increasingly implicated by laboratory studies, and that the scale of the problem is probably underestimated.
Falling sperm counts in males, reduced fertility in females, genital deformities and changes in gender are now all linked to endocrine disrupting chemicals.
Each year around 1000 new chemicals are released onto world markets, most without proper health, safety or environmental screening.
Regulation has so far banned just eighteen out of 143,000 known chemicals in a handful of countries.
At such a rate of progress it will take us at least 50,000 years to clean up the world, country by country. Clearly, national regulation holds few answers to what is now a global problem.
Furthermore, the chemical industry is relocating out of the developed world (where it is well regulated and observes generally high ethical standards) and into developing countries, mainly in Asia, where it is largely beyond the reach of the law.
However its toxic emissions are still returning to citizens in well-regulated countries via wind, water, food, wildlife, consumer goods, industrial products and people.
The world awoke to the risks of chemical contamination when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, about pesticides in agriculture, half a century ago.
Since her book came out, the volume of pesticides in use worldwide has increased 30-fold.
Chemicals and minerals are valuable and extremely useful. They do great good, save many lives and a lot of money. No-one is suggesting they should all be banned.
But their value may be for nothing if the current uncontrolled, unmonitored, unregulated and unconscionable mass release and planetary saturation continues.
Since the poisoning of the people of Minamata in Japan with toxic mercury in the 1950s, there has been a string of high profile chemical scandals, and many lesser ones: The Love Canal, Serveso, Bhopal, Erin Brockovich and more recently Fukushima and the Indian school lunch tragedy.
There is now a pattern of unproductive confrontation between angry citizens, industry and regulators, involving drawn-out legal battles that deliver justice to nobody.
An important point in my book, Poisoned Planet, is that blaming industry and calling for tougher regulation is not going to solve the problem of the poisoned planet.
We need to find much smarter ways to protect society and all future generations from the toxic flood. This starts with recognising that we are the real ones at fault.
We are the ones who generate the market signals that lead to the mass production and ill-considered release of toxins. Every act of consumption on a crowded planet has chemical consequences. In a sense, we are all getting away with murder.
This uncomfortable thought is necessary if modern society is to take effective action to clean up the Earth and protect our children. If we have given rise to the problem by demanding goods which are toxic or made with toxic processes, then we alone have the power to correct it.
It is already clear that governments do not have the capacity or will to regulate a global toxic flood. If we rely on rules alone to protect our children the evidence is that they will not succeed.
In a globalised world, only we are powerful enough as consumers to send the market signals to industry to cease toxic emissions and to reward it for producing clean, safe, healthy products and services.
Around the world, tens of thousands of concerned citizens, parents and consumers are already joining hands, to share knowledge, advice and ideas about how to protect our children and clean up society.
There are many promising technologies available to do so, including ‘green chemistry’.
Far from being disadvantageous to industry, a universal demand for clean products will open fresh markets, generate more jobs, built new companies and greater prosperity.
I am proud to note that Australian scientists are at the forefront of the push to clean up the world. The Global Contamination Initiative is the brainchild of Professor Ravi Naidu of CRC CARE in South Australia.
Every person in the world has a right to life, liberty, personal security, marriage and family, equality, work, education, to freedom of belief, to freedom from torture.
These are available to each of us under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
It is more than a little disturbing to find there is no human right not to be poisoned.
Until we have one, there will probably never again be a day when we are not.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.