Health: Toxic shock

By Mark Broatch In Health

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Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring was a klaxon call that alerted us to the deadly effects of pesticides on the environment, bringing about the banning of the persistent insecticide DDT, the kick-starting of the green movement and the setting up of the US’s Environmental Protection Agency. Yet that same agency estimated the global use of pesticides in 2007 was perhaps 30 times as large as it was five decades before: about 2.4 million tonnes a year.

We’ve known about the hazards of extracted and man-made chemicals for centuries now, says Australian science journalist Julian Cribb, ever since the Romans found that working in lead mines was a death sentence. We have learnt through the toxic tragedies of Minamata in Japan, Agent Orange, Bhopal, New York’s Love Canal and the Hinkley groundwater contamination challenged by Erin Brockovich. What surprised Cribb most during research for his latest book, Poisoned Planet, was the extraordinary scale and spread of potentially harmful synthetic chemicals in recent decades.

Cribb documents how toxic substances have been found on Everest (arsenic, cadmium), in the Amazon (methyl mercury from gold workings), in creatures in the deepest oceans (flame retardants, antifouling chemicals) and on the remotest islands (pesticides and coolants). They’re carried swiftly around the world by air, water, food, manufacturing and trade, and on to the next generations via the placenta and breast.

Cribb is particularly energised when talking about babies being born with “a cargo of carcinogens and industrial toxins” in their bodies. He quotes US paediatrician Alina Jacob: “Each time we look for the latest chemical of concern in infant cord blood, we find it.” He writes that the Centers for Disease Control found the fire-retardant PBDE in the blood of almost every American it surveyed and BPA – found in some plastic drink bottles – in the urine of 90%. He says tens of thousands of chemicals have never been tested for safety and only a handful have ever been banned. “And we’re being asked to eat them and inhale them and put them on ourselves every single day.”

Cribb writes that:

• waste from electronics tops 40 million tonnes a year, much of the valuable metal being cooked down in “toxic hells” in China, Africa and Latin America;

• global farm pesticide use could quadruple from today’s levels if the rest of the world adopts US agricultural systems;

• thousands of tonnes of mercury are estimated to be released into the air each year from coal-burning power plants; and

• millions of tonnes of toxic “red mud” are produced each year in extracting aluminium.

“We’re talking about something like 150 billion tonnes of human chemical emissions of one kind or another. That’s three or four times the size of our greenhouse emissions.”

Cribb says pollution from nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen are potentially set to double or triple as the world tries to feed 10 billion mostly middle-class citizens.

A keen fly-fisher, he has noted the spread of algae and didymo in our rivers. We are killing large patches of the ocean and lakes with chemical run-off, “as New Zealand well knows”.

Coal-burning power plant. Photo/Thinkstock

Coal-burning power plant. Photo/Thinkstock

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright’s investigation pointed out that nitrogen loads in waterways will continue to rise if more land is converted to dairy. As a Listener editorial noted last November: “We can convert increasing tracts of land from sheep and forestry to dairying or we can have clean rivers, but we can’t do both.”

All Cribb’s findings are sourced and footnoted, and potential links between industrial pollution and cancer – for instance, by way of toxic chemicals that disrupt our endocrine system and genetic expression – are less disputed.

Readers may be surprised, however, about man-made chemicals being a possible cause of autism, asthma, depression, obesity and diabetes, or what the author calls a “silent epidemic of brain damage among children”.

Sites such as senseaboutscience.org point out that we need to be cautious when reporting apparent correlations, that synthetic chemicals go through an extensive regulatory process and that everything is made of chemicals: “In terms of chemical safety, ‘industrial’, ‘synthetic’, ‘artificial’ and ‘man-made’ do not necessarily mean damaging and ‘natural’ does not necessarily mean better.”

Such tempering of alarmism is valuable, though increasingly gold-standard science is coming to the defence of the toxic whistle-blowers. Lancet Neurology reported in March on potential links between neurodevelopmental disabilities, such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia, and industrial chemicals. The study, by Harvard’s School of Public Health, identified 11 developmental neurotoxicants – including lead, methylmercury and PCBs – and postulated that even more neurotoxicants remain undiscovered. It proposed a global prevention strategy. “Untested chemicals should not be presumed to be safe to brain development, and chemicals in existing use and all new chemicals must therefore be tested for developmental neurotoxicity.”

A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives early this month found evidence that exposure to air pollution early in life produces harmful changes in the brains of mice, predominately in males, including an enlargement of part of the brain that is seen in humans who have autism and schizophrenia. The authors postulated that the effects came from ultra-fine particles entering the body.

On the subject of tiny particles, the magazine Mother Jones recently reported that more than 1600 nanotechnology-based consumer products are on the US market, including 96 food items such as Kraft’s American Cheese Singles. Many contain nano-size titanium dioxide (a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometres thick), which is used as a colour enhancer. In 2012, the FDA regulatory body released the draft of a proposed new framework, which noted: “So-called nano-engineered food substances can have significantly altered bioavailability and may, therefore, raise new safety issues that have not been seen in their traditionally manufactured counterparts.”

All told, Cribb notes, the World Health Organisation estimates that about five million deaths per year are attributable to man-made contamination.

Cribb is no neo-Luddite. He acknowledges that an advanced society without synthetic chemicals is almost unthinkable. “They solve problems, protect, adorn, kill pests, save lives, improve efficiency and enhance convenience.” But we need to do things differently.

The market is responsible for delivering this chemical load, and the market will ensure its fix, he believes, with seven billion consumers crossing social divides and sharing knowledge via the internet, on social media in particular. Consumers can ask for clean, safe and healthy products, he says, rewarding the companies that produce them and punishing others that don’t, including those that slip across borders to cheaper, less-regulated countries.

We must demand “product stewardship”, says Cribb. Batteries, for example, top one table in the book for being a toxic pollution source in terms of recycling, ahead of lead smelting, mining, petrochemical processing and pesticides. Yet gadgets are here to stay and electric vehicles may be one dose of our carbon cure. “You ask the manufacturer to take the old product when it’s finished and recycle it into new products, or you develop a sophisticated recycling process whereby one industry consumes the waste stream of another. And you do it cleanly.”

It can take a combination of people power and action from governments or industry. The US government has stipulated that its power sector must cut carbon dioxide emissions 30% by 2030. The Environmental Protection Agency says the regulations could yield over US$90 billion dollars in climate and health benefits and prevent up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children and as many as 3300 heart attacks. China is to remove five million ageing cars from the road to improve air quality. Thirteen companies recently pledged to get rid of plastic microbeads in cosmetics after recent negative publicity. Such beads end up in the guts of marine animals and carry pollutants on their surfaces.

Environmental support organisations are growing like Topsy, says Cribb, as are farmers’ markets and people growing their own food – after testing their soil.

Cribb would like us to have the right to be free of poisons. Every person has a right to life and liberty, security, equality, work and education and not to be tortured, he says.

“It’s a bit of a surprise to me that we don’t have a right not to be poisoned. Until and unless we do, there will never again be a day in our history when we are not.”

POISONED PLANET by Julian Cribb (Allen & Unwin, $35); senseaboutscience.org offers the PDF “Making Sense of Chemical Stories”.

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