Fouling The Nest

new internationalist
issue 157 | March 1986

POLLUTION[image, unknown] How it happens
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Illustration: Peter Wingham

Fouling the nest
Individually and collectively we deface the earth with our plastics,
chamicals and garbage. Here are some of the ways we go about it.

What is done to you
Nuclear Waste

Potentially the most dangerous waste of all - after 28 years of trying no one has come up with a safe disposal system. Plutonium from a nuclear reactor is still lethal after 240,000 years. Until 1984 the world dumped between three and seven thousand tonnes of nuclear waste in one Atlantic site, in 'safe' containers. Nuclear power produces 14 per cent of the UK's electricity and eight per cent worldwide. Nuclear waste is also discharged into the sea from coastal reprocessing plants at The Hague in Holland and Sellafield (Windscale) in the UK. The waste contaminates the fish we eat, the water we drink and the sea we swim in. Nearby grazing animals ingest radioactivity and pass it on to us in their milk and meat and there is risk of cancer for workers and locals near power stations.

Decreased consumer demand may make nuclear power uneconomic: in the US it costs 65 per cent more than coal-fired power and 25 per cent more than oil-fired power. Encouraging conservation/insulation measures and developing alternative sources of energy hold the key to a safer future.


What goes up must come down

Industrial countries emit nitrogen oxide and some 100 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide pollutants into the air each year - the waste from smelters, boilers, cars and from burning fossil fuels in power stations. These pollutant gases are dissolved by rain and come down again as sulphuric and nitric acid which eat into trees and deaden our lakes. Worst hit areas are Canada - fish have died in half the lakes in Ontario - Scandinavia, central Europe and parts of the US, with Australia and Brazil showing signs too. Even the railway lines in Poland are being corroded.

Although lakes can be treated with lime, it is better to attack acid rain at source by improved technology and reduced emissions. The US found benefits derived from a 20 per cent reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions in 1978 outweighed the costs of control by some $4.8 billion. But major exporters of acid rain such as UK and France stiII drag their feet!


Pesticide pie

Every year half a million people are poisoned by pesticides says the World Health Organization. Killers like DDT can easily enter the food chain, becoming progressively more concentrated. In Brazil DDT levels in mothers' milk were four times higher than the safety level.

Pesticides are an $8 billion business in the US and some of the nastiest are exported to the Third World. But they often return as imports to the rich world - half of US coffee from Latin America contains such residues.


Hazardous wastes

Developed countries manufacture over 70,000 chemicals every year, many untested. The US alone produces some 250 million tonnes of toxic industrial waste - one tonne per person per year. The waste includes heavy metals like mercury, lead. cadmium and titanium. The effects of these on people include brain, liver and kidney damage. Other vicious chemicals are the highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which are industrial chemicals. All these wastes are hard to get rid of. Sometimes businesses employ 'cowboy' firms to dispose of the drums of noxious substances - as Hoffman la Roche did after the Seveso disaster. Dumped wastes trickle through to the groundwater or are leaked into the topsoil. The US landfills 90 per cent of its toxic waste. Of some 10.000 American waste sites, up to 2,000 are thought to be a threat to public health.

Try : for all these hazards, piecemeal protest and radio can be helpful. But for long-term answers you will have to vote for the political party(s) which address these issues head-on.


What you do
Electrical turn on

Pause before you push the button on the home computer or flick the switch on the washing machine. Each electrical gadget increases the amount of coal burned in a conventional power station adding to the acid rain fall. Demand for electricity is rising: production in the UK has more than doubled in the period 1970-79.

Try: Keeping down your electricity consumption: use fewer appliances, less often, and at lower temperatures if appropriate.


Spent energy

Most homes in the West waste more energy than they use, for instance through inadequate insulation after central heating has been installed. There has been a 14 per cent decrease in oil consumption worldwide since 1979 and use of coal has also gone down. Yet commercial world energy consumption rose by 34 per cent between 1970-79, because of increased use of gas and nuclear power. The average American uses as much energy as 221 Bangladeshis.

Try: Insulating your roof space, turning down the central heating, wearing warmer clothes.


Shopping around

Shoppers concerned about waste can steer clear of products that pollute such as aerosols whose spray propellant destroys the protective ozone layer in the atmosphere which protects us from the sun's harmful ultra-violet rays. They can also avoid household cleansers and garden chemicals which contain an array of dangerous substances, including 2.4,5-T (found in brushwood killers) whose component dioxin can cause birth defects.

Try: Using cleaners that don't contain harmful chemicals (available from health shops), using natural insecticides and predators in the garden.


Rubbish dumped

The average UK household throws away about one tonne* of rubbish a year, including around 290 lbs of food. Nearly a third of this garbage is from packaging and the rest of the rubbish comes from bottles, cans and plastic containers. The fast food industry has made its own special contribution to the litter problem as people eat 'on the hop' and drop wrappings in the street. Only about 25 per cent of the world's paper, aluminium and steel is recycled. The West could learn a lot about waste from the developing countries where garbage is seen as a resource.

* 1 tonne (metric) = 1.000 kilos (2.240 Ibs).

Try: Avoiding goods that are overpackaged, saving containers for children/playgroups, re-using plastic bags, taking bottles back, seeing if there's a paper-recycling facility nearby, clearing up your own litter and asking others to do the same.


Driving danger

We pump some 450,000 tonnes of lead (added to petrol to improve engine performance) into the atmosphere each year, half of which is from cars. Lead poisoning can result in brain damage and learning difficulties: children absorb it more quickly than adults because of their higher metabolic rate. The number of cars on the roads has increased ten times in some countries in the last 20 years, adding a hefty dose of noxious chemicals to the air. Petrol consumption in the UK has risen to 83 gallons per person per year compared with 60 gallons in 1972. While the US. Australia and Canada expect to reduce petrol use by about 30 per cent between 1978 and 1985, the UK's reduction will only be nine per cent. Leadfree petrol, common in the US and increasingly in Australia is not yet the norm in the UK.

Try: Using a smaller car, using it less, campaigning for leadfree petrol and increased public transport facilities.

Compiled by John Spayne and Martin Stott with additional information from
The User's Guide to the Environment
by John McCormick (Kogan Page 1985).

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