New Internationalist

This toxic life

Issue 415

Our world is awash with petro-chemicals. From plastics to pesticides they are integral to modern life. Wayne Ellwood argues that we are all paying the price for the release of these hazardous substances.

Photo by <b>Wayne Ellwood</b>
Aamjiwnaang activist and ‘toxic tour’ guide Ron Plain (right). The Chippewa community’s cemetery flanked by petro-chemical plants (centre). A warning sign (left) beside a pond on the native reserve – the land is laced with poisons from decades of pollution and spills. Photo by Wayne Ellwood

‘Every time I come here my body gets sad and angry at the same time,’ says Ron Plain. ‘You can’t put into words what it means to me.’

We’ve just tumbled out of Ron’s jeep near the end of a three-hour tour of Sarnia, Ontario’s ‘chemical valley’. Ron calls it his ‘toxic tour’. He’s done it dozens of times so the patter is easy and familiar. Sarnia is a gritty blue-collar community of 70,000 people at the top of the St Clair River, on the Canadian side, about a 100 kilometres north of Detroit. The river is wide and fast-flowing here, a natural link from Lake Huron, south to Lake Erie and east to Lake Ontario.

Ron is a member of the Chippewa First Nation of Aamjiwnaang and we’ve stopped at his community’s cemetery, a quiet patch of land ringed by a high steel fence. He’s 46 years old but tells me he doesn’t expect to make it to 60. Ron points out the graves of his parents, his grandparents and great grandparents, his aunts and uncles. Carbon dating shows his ancestors have been living in this area of southern Ontario for 6,000 years. It’s a warm day in early spring and the trees are just starting to leaf out. But nothing can hide the looming petro-chemical plant which abuts the graveyard. A tall chimney burns with an orange flame in the bright sun. To the east, a few hundred yards away, is a parking lot and another chemical complex. The cemetery is a microcosm of the whole reserve. Aamjiwnaang is literally surrounded by dozens of chemical plants. The community of 900 souls on the southern edge of Sarnia sits in the middle of the densest collection of petro-chemical industries in Canada and one of the densest in North America. There are 62 plants within a 25-kilometre radius, 40 per cent of the country’s total. The players include some of the word’s biggest and most powerful corporations – Dow, Shell, Nova, Bayer and Imperial Oil (Exxon) all operate within five kilometres of the reserve, most of them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Gender bending

In 2005, according to a study by the environmental NGO Ecojustice, these factories released more than 131,000 tonnes of pollutants into the air – a toxic load of 1,800 kilograms for every resident of Sarnia and the Chippewa reserve.1 There is growing evidence that both Aamjiwnaang and the local townspeople are suffering a range of serious health problems as a result of this rain of toxic chemicals. A community-wide survey carried out with the Sarnia Occupation Health Clinic in 2004-05 found widespread cancers, kidney and thyroid problems. Asthma is ubiquitous (40 per cent of Aamjiwnaang residents use an inhaler) and 23 per cent of children aged 5 to 16 had learning and behavioural problems.

But two of the survey’s findings were particularly unsettling and sparked worldwide attention. The first was an unusually high miscarriage rate – 39 per cent of women on the reserve had experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth. The second was a significant shift in the sex ratio of live births. Starting in the late 1990s the number of boys being born on the reserve began to plummet. Fewer than 35 per cent of live births were male compared to the normal average of just over 50 per cent.  No-one knows for sure what is causing this skewed birth pattern. But there is a strong suspicion that gender-bending pollutants are at the root of the problem.

Research by pioneering scientists like Dr Theo Colborn in the early 1990s showed that common synthetic chemicals introduced into the environment over the past half-century could mimic natural hormones, alter sexual and neurological development and impair reproduction. Dozens of studies have documented the impact of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on animals, frogs, fish and birds with deformed genitals, brain damage, cancers and damaged reproductive systems. EDCs have also been linked to declining male testosterone levels and declining male birth rates in areas with concentrated chemical industries.

Many of the animal studies were in the Great Lakes bioregion where Aamjiwnaang is also situated – an area with a history of polluting heavy industries.

Jim Brophy, Director of the Occupation Health Clinic for Ontario Workers in Sarnia, knows the district well. His centre helped map the pattern of illness and disease in Aamjiwnaang. ‘Millions of tons of reproductive toxins are spewed out by these facilities year in, year out. Their effect on animal life has been well documented throughout the Great Lakes. To think these poisons would affect everything else and not the human population is bizarre.’

Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring launched the environmental movement nearly 50 years ago, would have been outraged but not surprised by the findings at Aamjiwnaang.

‘The chemical war is never won and all life is caught in its violent crossfire,’ she wrote. It was Carson who first promoted the notion of ecology, the complex web that binds human life to the natural world. ‘The serious student of earth history knows that neither life nor the physical world that supports it exists in little isolated compartments… harmful substances released into the environment return in time to create problems for mankind… We cannot think of the living organism alone; nor can we think of the physical environment as a separate entity. The two exist together, each acting on the other to form an ecological complex or ecosystem.’2

Carson’s warnings about the toxic nature of industrial society were prescient. Weight of evidence is building that the millions of tons of chemicals released into the environment are altering the basic foundations of life. Male fertility in the West has dropped by an estimated 50 per cent since 1940; breast cancer, testicular cancer and prostate cancer have jumped by 200 to 300 per cent. More and more male babies are being born with genital abnormalities.3

Families tested

We are living in a stew of toxic chemicals, most of which did not exist before modern synthetic chemistry was born in the crucible of World War Two. Estimates vary – there are more than 80,000 chemicals in industrial production today with hundreds added each year. Few have been tested for their effect on human health or the environment. And, critically, there is almost no knowledge of how chemicals interact with each other to affect our health or the wider environment. When the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed in the US in 1976, more than 62,000 chemicals were ‘grandfathered’ into the market – ie no testing, no questions asked. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits that 95 per cent of all chemicals in the US have not undergone even minimal testing for toxicity. In the European Union (EU) it’s estimated that two-thirds of the 30,000 most commonly used chemicals have not been vetted. The EPA has banned just five chemicals in the past quarter-century.4

All of us live with this toxic burden. The poor, the marginalized, people of colour, those who are cheek-by-jowl with industrial plants, suffer the most – the Chippewa of Aamjiwnaang are a case in point. But, as Rachel Carson understood, where the environment is concerned we all live downstream.

Detailed analyses across Europe, Canada and the US have found hundreds of dangerous chemicals in the blood and urine of ordinary citizens. In Europe, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) tested three generations of women and found everything from banned pesticides like DDT to deadly PCBs. When the Environmental Working Group in the US tested the umbilical cords of 10 infants in 2005 scientists discovered more than 280 chemicals. Greenpeace came up with similar numbers in Europe.5 In Canada, the NGO Environmental Defence tested five families from British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. Those included seven children, five parents and one grandparent. On average, 32 chemicals were in each parent and 23 in each child. Of the 46 chemicals detected in total: 38 were cancer-causing substances; 38 were chemicals that can harm reproduction and child development; 19 can harm the nervous system; 23 can disrupt the hormone system; and 12 chemicals were linked to respiratory illnesses.6

The Canadian study found that children were less polluted than their parents by PCBs and organochlorine pesticides, most of which were banned before the children were born – an indication that regulatory action can make a difference. But the study also found that some children were more polluted than their parents by chemicals still in use. These included PFCs (used as stain and water repellents in clothing and furniture and for non-stick cookware) and PBDE flame-retardants.

Photo by <b>Wanye Ellwood</b>
Sorted, crushed and ready to go, a bale of plastic bottles awaits delivery to the recycling plant: ‘Abnormal puberty changes, breast cancer, prostate cancer. All of these trends parallel the onset of the plastics revolution...’ Photo by Wanye Ellwood

‘Safe’ household items

Many of these chemicals are linked not just to the petro-chemical industry but to the toxins that infuse our daily lives: solvents, detergents, cosmetics, herbicides, pesticides – plastics. As the Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center concluded in its recent study of chemical contamination: ‘much of our exposure may be from products we have assumed to be safe for use.’7

Recent concern has focused on plastic, perhaps the most ubiquitous material of the modern age. The profusion of plastic has peppered the world with potentially deadly chemicals. One of the most powerful is bisphenol A (BPA), the lifeblood of the plastics industry. Nearly three million tons of the stuff is manufactured every year. It’s used to make polycarbonate plastic, a rigid hard plastic used in everything from baby bottles and sports water bottles to CDs, DVDs, dental sealants and the resin lining food and drink containers. Polycarbonate plastic can be clear or coloured and usually has the number ‘7’ marked on the bottom. The problem with BPA is that it doesn’t stay put. As plastic ages or when liquids are heated or stored in BPA containers the chemical migrates into our bodies. In 2005 the CDC in Atlanta found BPA in the urine of 95 per cent of Americans sampled. In November 2006, 38 leading scientific experts on BPA warned of ‘potential adverse health effects of exposure’ to polycarbonate plastic.

BPA was first identified as an estrogen mimic in 1936. Hundreds of animal studies have shown that low-dose exposure to BPA could lead to a range of human health problems including reproductive tract abnormalities, breast and prostate cancer, spontaneous miscarriage, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

The evidence is not conclusive. Frederick Vom Saal of the University of Missouri, a leading researcher on the health effects of BPA, admits as much. ‘We don’t know for sure,’ he says. ‘Some of these trends are so prevalent they almost seem normal: abnormal puberty changes, fertility difficulties for both men and women, breast cancer, prostate cancer. All of these trends parallel the onset of the plastics revolution… Part of this is just connecting the dots.’5 

The tide is turning

Although the plastics industry continues to deny the risks of BPA, the tide is turning. Industry officials brushed aside critics of BPA, claiming that the amounts found in humans were so small as to be insignificant. But hormone-mimicking chemicals like BPA don’t work that way. In fact researchers have found that endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are more dangerous at lower doses, a notion which overturns the traditional pharmacological view that ‘the dose makes the poison’.  ‘At low doses hormones stimulate their own receptors,’ says Vom Saal. ‘At higher doses they inhibit their responses.’8

In April 2008 Canada became the first country to limit BPA exposure, labelling the chemical ‘a dangerous substance’. Polycarbonate plastic baby bottles were banned and strict targets set for BPA migration from infant formula cans. Within days major BPA manufacturers threw in the towel, including Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and Playtex.

BPA is one of hundreds of synthetic chemicals that alter gene behaviour, what writer Pete Myers calls ‘gene hijacking’.9  Other plastic additives with the same gender-bending properties include phthalates and brominated flame-retardants (BPDEs). Phthalates are an essential ingredient in one of the most common of all plastics, PVC. They are used to make vinyl soft and pliable. You can find them in thousands of products, from squishy children’s toys and vinyl shower curtains to medical tubing. The chemical is also found in personal care products – shampoos, soaps, fragrances, and as a coating on some pills. ‘Phthalate syndrome’ is the term scientists coined to describe the constellation of symptoms found in animal studies. These include reduced penis size, lower sperm count, incomplete male genital development, infertility and testicular cancer. The EU has banned phthalates in children’s toys and the state of California has followed suit.

The third major group of plastic toxins are BPDEs. Half of these flame-retardants are used in the casings of myriad consumer electronics – computers, cell phones, printers, TVs, you name it. BPDEs are both persistent – they don’t break down easily in the environment – and bio-accumulative. They build up in the bodies of animals and humans through the food chain.  They also pass easily across the placental barrier in the developing foetus. BPDEs can act as endocrine disruptors and they can harm the brain of developing infants, disrupting learning and memory. They’ve also been linked to thyroid malfunctioning, reproductive problems and increased risk of testicular cancer. North Americans have levels of flame-retardants in their blood up to 40 times higher than people in Europe or Japan. ‘These compounds have the same properties as PCBs and DDT,’ says Ake Bergman, head of environmental chemistry at Stockholm University. ‘It’s just a matter of time before we have a toxic effect. We knew less about PCBs when they were banned than we know about BPDEs today… Didn’t we learn from PCBs?’10  Proven carcinogens, PCBs were banned in the 1970s. But because they bio-accumulate they are still found in the environment and in the bodies of animals and people.

Tomorrow’s tobacco

Sweden has been one of the main countries pushing the ‘precautionary principle’, a common-sense notion which the chemical industry, driven by a blinkered concern with profits and growth, has fought tooth and nail. The concept is simple: if a chemical looks like it may cause problems, let’s think twice about using it. Better safe than sorry, even if the science is not 100 per cent certain. The chemical giants (in league with Big Oil) reason differently: if it kills someone then it’s time to do something.

The US EPA approves 700 new chemicals a year on the assurance of the industry that they are safe. Meanwhile, there is growing public unease about the toxic storm that engulfs us. In June 2007, the EU adopted its REACH legislation (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals) despite a full-throttle attempt by corporate lobbyists (especially from the powerful German chemical industry) and the Bush Administration to derail the law. The result is a compromise: companies have 11 years to prove safety and chemicals produced in volumes of less than 10 tonnes a year are exempt. But the basic principle of producer responsibility is firmly in place.  Companies can no longer sell a chemical without first providing information about its safety – an important breakthrough which should have global repercussions. Elsewhere environmental and citizens’ groups are advocating ‘right to know’ legislation so polluters can no longer hide their actions from public scrutiny. Power is slowly shifting. There is a growing consensus that the current model is bankrupt. Critics predict that in 10 years the fallout from the petro-chemical and plastics plague will rank with tobacco and pesticides as a major global public health issue.

Back in Aamjiwnaang, Ron Plain would be the first to agree. He’s not about to give up his fight to force industry to clean up its act.

‘Every one of these people tells me to keep going,’ he says, gesturing to his ancestor’s graves. ‘I won’t allow them to be forgotten. This is our connection, this is who we are.’

  1. E MacDonald, S Rang, Ecojustice, ‘Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley’, Toronto, October 2007, www.ecojustice.ca
  2. JB Foster, B Clark, ‘Rachel Carson’s Ecological Critique’, Monthly Review, New York, February 2008
  3. Robert Allen, The Dioxin War, Pluto Press, London, 2004
  4. Mark Schapiro, Exposed: the toxic chemistry of everyday products, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont, 2007
  5. Libby McDonald, The Toxic Sandbox, Penguin, New York, 2007
  6. ‘Pollution in Canadian Families’, Environmental Defence, Toronto, June 2006, www.toxicnation.ca
  7. Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center, ‘Is It In Us? Chemical Contamination in Our Bodies’, Bolinas, California 2007, www.isitinus.com
  8. Martin Mittelstaedt, ‘Inherently toxic chemical faces its future’, Globe & Mail, 8 April 2007
  9. Pete Myers, ‘Good genes gone bad’, American Prospect, April 2006
  10. Maria Cone, ‘Cause for alarm over chemicals’, Los Angeles Times, 20 April 2003.

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