New Internationalist

Toxic planet

Issue 426

Melting ice-caps and rising sea-levels tell us the writing is on the wall. But the poisons in our bodies tell us that it is also written in our blood. The air, water, land – and consequently our bodies – are suffused with deadly chemicals. Zoe Cormier argues that the solution to toxic pollution, like climate change, is not technology but sustainability.

We live in a sea of toxic chemicals. Every single person on earth carries in their bodies minute quantities of hundreds to thousands of hazardous chemicals: polyaromatic hydrocarbons from smokestack and vehicle exhaust; pesticides, fungicides and herbicides from industrialized agriculture; methyl mercury from coal-fired plants; dioxins and furans from garbage incineration; hormone-mimicking plasticizers and plastic softeners from polycarbonate bottles, the lining of tin cans, soaps and cosmetics; perfluorochemicals from stain-resistant coatings and non-stick cookware; flame retardants from electronics and furniture. The list goes on.

This chemical contamination is part and parcel of our wasteful use of resources and energy. At its core it’s a sustainability issue, but it is never addressed as such – and this is the problem.

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‘Biomonitoring’ tests measuring chemicals in the US population are carried out by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the results are freely available online. The latest results, released in 2005, cover 148 chemicals.1 Canada is doing similar population-wide testing; those figures will be available in 2010.

Tests consistently flag the same chemical contaminants in the atmosphere, water, soil, animals and people the world over.

Here are a few choice selections:

Lead – known for thousands of years to be toxic to the brain and nervous system and which we now know lowers IQ and causes learning difficulties.

Dioxins – some of the most carcinogenic chemicals known, released by waste incineration.

Phthalates – used to soften plastics, found in thousands of products from shampoo to blood bags. Interfere with testosterone, have been linked to reproductive defects and cancers and are thus banned from baby toys in Europe and may soon be restricted in Canada.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) – used to make hard, clear polycarbonate plastics such as water bottles as well as epoxy resins found in the lining of tin cans. Known to mimic oestrogen, causes cancer and reproductive problems in lab animals. Banned in plastic baby bottles in Canada.

Even chemicals that we have known for decades to be dangerous and which haven’t been used since the 1970s still show up in our blood today. These include organochlorine pesticides like DDT and industrial insulators like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Some of our cleverest chemicals are the most problematic – chemicals used to stop electronics from catching fire and compounds found in grease-proof food wrap and non-stick cookware persist in the environment for decades, maybe even centuries, by virtue of the fact that they are doing what they were designed to do in the first place: never break down.

No surprise then that the fruits of our industry persist in the environment, travel around the world, linger in the soil and find their way into us before we are even born. The Environmental Working Group,2 an independent US monitoring organization, found more than 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of 10 American babies – 217 are known to be toxic to the nervous system, 208 can cause birth defects and 180 are proven carcinogens in humans and/or lab animals. Had they the resources to check for all 100,000 chemicals ever approved for use in the US, they would no doubt have found thousands more. What’s worse, the concentrations of chemicals are often higher in newborns than in their mothers. Research by Environmental Defence in Canada3 found some chemicals at levels three times higher in children than in their mothers.

Over and over the story is the same: we design the chemical, we use it and it turns up in the environment and in ourselves

We can each of us avoid canned food, bottled soft drinks and lipstick – but total avoidance to exposure is truly impossible. In fact, the highest concentration of PCBs ever detected was in the breast milk of Inuit women, decades and thousands of miles away from their production. All the money, knowledge and seclusion in the world won’t help – it doesn’t matter if you’re living in a wooden cottage on a mountain top, subsisting on twigs and berries; or in a high-tech eco-condo with a diet dictated by a nutritional specialist in Malibu.

Over and over the story is the same: we design a chemical, we use it and it turns up in the environment and in ourselves. Eventually, with enough research, it may be restricted or banned – the whole process can take decades. But even if chemicals are restricted, they persist – all the ‘Dirty Dozen’ pollutants restricted under the Stockholm Convention, including DDT and PCBs, are still a problem.

Moreover, new ones are introduced all the time. Environmental chemists are constantly playing catch-up. The companies don’t tell them what compounds they ought to be looking for. They have to guess, devise tests and hunt. They find new ones all the time, even chemicals that have already been in use for decades.

We still know very little about how these chemicals may be affecting our health, but even the most cursory survey of peer-reviewed scientific studies into the effects on lab animals and in people – even at astonishingly low doses – gives pause for thought. It is difficult to say with confidence that the chemical soup we are all exposed to plays some role in the prevalence of cancers, learning difficulties, reproductive defects and other health problems – but there is certainly good reason to suspect so.

Especially given the problem of ‘mixtures’. Diligent lab studies on mice test each chemical one at a time – even though nobody is ever exposed to just one chemical at a time. So what happens when you are exposed to dozens or hundreds of chemicals that mimic oestrogen? The question is not only scary to contemplate, it also defies statistical scrutiny. Teasing apart the combined (and often synergistic) effects of thousands of chemicals and how they interact is just too complex for our scientific tools to unravel.

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So what are we supposed to do? Consumer advocates applaud the adoption of safe alternatives devised with new chemistry. But in many cases the supposedly safe alternatives turn out to be themselves dangerous. Brominated flame retardants pose the same hazards as chlorinated flame retardants – persistent in the environment, toxic to the nervous system, amplified through the food chain. Other times, solutions come with new hazards – such as fluorescent lightbulbs which have a lower energy footprint but contain toxic mercury.

Technological innovations and ‘green’ chemistry are indispensable and provide many solutions, but ultimately can only go so far. In many cases, it may simply be impossible to create bona fide benign chemicals that can accomplish all the same feats that we desire.

The obvious solution would be to stop using all chemicals that are remotely hazardous – but even if that were possible, would we want to? Would we want to stop producing the hard plastics used for semiconductor chips and sterile medical equipment?

The only solution is this: use these chemicals only when absolutely necessary. This would mean being very careful and calculated about how we use them. But it would also mean creating less. Produce less, make less, buy less, use less. In other words: consume less.

Peruse the pages of any women’s magazine, and you’ll find anxiety-inducing articles about chemicals in lipstick, the hazards of cling film-wrapped broccoli, the perils of certain brands of diet cola, along with advice on where to find them and how to avoid them – without ever suggesting that we could opt to stop using those products altogether. News stories list suspect chemicals, where to find them and what consumer products you could buy instead.4 But seldom will you read the unspeakable: buy less.

The onus is put on government to screen, test and regulate chemicals better; on industry to be more compliant in phasing out chemical hazards; and on providing adequate advice to consumers. But none of these solutions will solve the problem.

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No matter which angle you come from, the undeniable conclusion is the same: we need to produce, consume and discard less. The more consumer products we produce, the more energy we use, the more fossil fuels we burn, the more air pollution we create and the more chemicals come back to us in the long run.

Even if we diligently recycle, those chemicals still find their way into the environment – some of the biggest producers of heavy metals are, in fact, recycling companies. Dumping your paper and plastic into the recycling bin does not make heavy metals and petrochemicals vanish into thin air, much as we’d like to believe it.

Our spending habits can have a chain reaction impact over thousands of miles. Take mercury. Coal-fired power plants are the main source of this toxic metal. But the British Government – despite claims to be committed to genuine action on climate change – still plans to build new coal plants. Even if British campaigners are successful in halting the new coal plants, China famously builds one new coal plant every week! And no small portion of what we buy is manufactured in Chinese factories using coal-fired electricity. Buying a cheap plastic hairband in Brooklyn directly fuels the release of mercury into Asian skies – which eventually winds its way into the oceans, up through the foodchain, and back to us in a maki roll.

This is not a matter of ideals, of political theory or of principle: this is a matter of common sense, based on scientific evidence. Just as climate change science tells us unambiguously that we are living beyond our means, so does research into toxic chemicals.

Buying a cheap plastic hairband in Brooklyn directly fuels the release of mercury into Asian skies – which eventually winds its way into the oceans, up through the foodchain, and back to us in a maki roll

The affluent or the indifferent may not care about changing weather patterns, crop failures or desertification in far-flung Southern nations. But they can’t escape the ubiquitous chemicals in their homes, shopping malls, drinking water, atmosphere and food.

It is equally indisputable that fossil fuels and petroleum products – though problematic – are incredible, almost magical resources. Without oil we would never have thrown satellites into space, mapped the heavens and visited the moon. Without polymer plastics we would not have recorded music, photographs and movies, semiconductor chips and computers. The 20th century and all its marvels would never have happened without plastic. But instead of preserving this incredible, finite resource for sterile medical equipment, photovoltaic solar panels and laptop computers we waste 40 per cent of it on packaging. Used once and thrown away to leach its cargo from landfills into the environment and back into us.

Every shred of science gleaned from climate monitoring, from estimates of remaining fossil fuel reserves and from ecotoxicological studies points towards the same basic conclusion: we need to consume less. ‘Buy Nothing Day’ is a nice idea, but doesn’t go far enough. This argument has been made for decades and consistently dismissed as naïve, as unfeasible and idealistic, as ignorant of the ‘realities’ of the market economy – as uninformed hippy hyperbole. But it is nothing but unbiased scientific inquiry and the logical conclusions that can be drawn from the physical realities we have measured that prove the fallacies of our economic system. We need to erase the phrase ‘retail therapy’ from our vernacular. Only when we reframe the toxics issue as one of resource depletion and economic sustainability will we start to tackle the root causes of pollution.

Zoe Cormier is a freelance science writer based in London. She also features regularly as our NIalternative science’ blogger.

  1. www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/pdf/thirdreport_summary.pdf
  2. www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden2
  3. www.toxicnation.ca/toxicnation-studies/reports/toxic-nation-families
  4. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/28/AR2009082803191.html

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