Our Right Not To Be Poisoned: On the Dangers of Our Chemical World

Julian Cribb warns of an environmental danger that looms larger than climate change in terms of its immediate threat to human health - the deluge of chemicals we are all now subject to, 24/7.

Image by Pavel P./Flickr.

Something larger and more dangerous even than climate change stalks the human future – 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 about the universal chemical deluge which we are all now subject to, 24/7.

Earth, and all life on it, is being saturated with human chemical emissions in an event unlike anything which has occurred in all four billion years of our planet’s story.

At almost every moment of our lives, from conception to death, we are exposed to thousands of man-made substances, some known to be deadly in even minute doses and most of them unknown in their effects on our health and wellbeing, or upon the natural world.

These enter our bodies with every breath, each meal or drink, the clothes we wear, the products we adorn ourselves with, our homes, workplaces and furniture, the things we encounter every day.

There is no escaping them.

Most chemicals not tested for health or safety

Ours is a poisoned planet, its whole system infused with the substances we deliberately or inadvertently produce in the course of extracting, making, using, burning or discarding the many marvellous products on which modern life depends.

This has all happened so fast that most people are still unaware of its extent or of the danger it poses to us and our grandkids.

Currently humans produce around 143,000 different chemicals, around a third of which are suspected of causing cancers, mutations and birth defects or brain damage — or are toxic in some way.

However, the United Nations Environment Program warns that 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 is on track to triple by the mid-century.

However, these deliberately made chemicals are just the tip of the iceberg.

Each year, for example, we also emit:

· 130 million tonnes of elemental nitrogen and phosphorus (mainly in food production and waste disposal)

· 400 million tonnes of hazardous wastes, including 50 million tonnes of old computers and phones

· 13 billion tonnes of coal, oil and gas

· 30 billion tonnes of mineral wastes

· 35 billion tonnes of carbon, and

· 75 billion tonnes of topsoil.

Not to mention other things like nuclear and chemical weapons, illicit and legal drugs, cement, vehicle and industrial fumes, nanoparticles and so on.

This chemical outpouring – around 150 billion tonnes a year — is, by far, humanity’s greatest impact on the planet and all life on it.

What effect is it having?

The impact of this chemical flood

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.

Because these reports are scattered across hundreds of journals and dozens of scientific disciplines in scores of countries, the big picture is still missing for society as a whole. We see a few trees, not the forest.

In Poisoned Planet, I have attempted to piece it all together to understand the chemical impact humans are having on the Earth system — and on ourselves. And to propose a practical solution to it.

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 chemicals from the stratosphere to the deep oceans; from the peak of Mt Everest (where fresh snow is too polluted to drink) to remote Pacific atolls; from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

These substances are routinely found by researchers in birds, fish, mammals and other life-forms that have never had contact with humans, as well throughout our food chain. Tests show that the average modern citizen is a walking contaminated site.

‘Chemicals of concern’ in the blood of most Americans

The US Centers for Disease Control does a regular survey which finds 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 being replicated across 700,000 infants in seven countries in an attempt to understand the lifelong chemical burden we now all carry – and its effects on our health and wellbeing.

Mother’s milk is contaminated with pesticides and industrial chemicals in America, in 15 European countries and in China. This is probably the case in every country in the world which bothers to look.

UNEP says about 5 million people die (and 86 million are disabled) as a direct cause of chemicals every year. This makes chemical contamination one of the world’s leading causes of death – yet this does not include the tens of millions more cases where chemicals are implicated in cancers, heart disease, obesity and mental disorders.

These chemicals — intentional and unintentional – interact with tens of thousands of other compounds in our environment and daily intake to form billions of potentially toxic mixtures. The full impact of this universal chemical suffusion is not yet clear, though suspicions are rising.

Global ‘silent epidemic’ of brain disorders

Eminent Harvard medical professor Philippe Grandjean, in an article in The Lancet, 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’.

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 implicated by more and more laboratory studies, and that the scale of the problem is probably underestimated.

Falling sperm counts in males, reduced fertility in females, genital deformities, changes in gender and sexual orientation are all now thought to be linked to man-made chemicals.

There are two important points. First this chemical assault is quite new. Most of it has occurred in just the last 50 years. It is something our ancestors never faced. Second, its impacts are for the most part preventable and avoidable. The big question is: does society wish to prevent them?

Each year around 1000 new chemicals are released onto world markets, most of them without proper health, safety or environmental screening.

Regulation has so far banned just 18 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 generally well regulated and observes ethical standards) and into developing countries, mainly in Asia, where it is largely beyond the reach of the law.

However, its toxic emissions are returning to citizens in well-regulated countries in wind, water, food, wildlife, consumer goods, industrial products and people. For instance, ABC Four Corners investigators found dioxins (banned in this country since the 1980s) in herbicides imported from China, on sale at Australian garden centres.

Pesticide use increased thirty-fold since Silent Spring

The world awoke to the risks of chemical contamination when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring half a century ago, in 1962, where she warned specifically about pesticides in agriculture.

Since her book came out, the volume of pesticides in use worldwide has increased thirty-fold. Chemicals and minerals are valuable and extremely useful. They do great good, and save many lives and much money. No one is suggesting they should all be banned.

But their value may count for little if the current uncontrolled, unmonitored, unregulated and unconscionable mass release and planetary saturation of chemicals 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 – most recently Fukushima and the Indian school lunch tragedy.)

The one thing all these events have in common is that the victims are invariably forced, by the combined might of industry and governments, to prove they have been harmed. Industry and government are seldom required to prove that chemical processes are safe or harmless. There is now a pattern of unproductive confrontation between angry citizens and industry and regulators, which usually ends in long, drawn-out legal battles that deliver justice to nobody. An important point in my book 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.

Those consequences, in all likelihood, are now causing a casualty toll larger than that of World War II.

In a sense, we are all getting away with murder.

This uncomfortable thought is essential to modern society taking effective action to clean up the Earth and protect our children into the future.