Humans haven't just poisoned the planet with potentially dangerous chemicals, we've also poisoned ourselves. So why is no one talking about it, asks Julian Cribb.
Image: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock
Something more sinister than climate change stalks the human future – and it is high time we gave it the same attention. Few people have any idea of the universal chemical deluge to which we are now subject, daily, and of the growing peril which we—and all our descendants—face.
Humanity currently produces more than 140,000 different chemicals, around a third of which are known or suspected of causing cancer, mutations and birth defects or are toxic in some way. Global output of industrial chemicals is around 30 million tonnes a year, which the UN Environment Program (UNEP) thinks could triple by the mid-century.
But industrial chemicals are just the tip of the iceberg. Each year humanity also release 130 million tonnes of nitrogen and phosphorus (mainly from food production or poor waste disposal), 400 million tonnes of hazardous wastes, 13 billion tonnes of fossil fuels, 30 billion tonnes of mineral wastes, 35 billion tonnes of carbon, and 75 billion tonnes of topsoil. This is, by far, our biggest impact on the planet and all life on it, including ourselves. Yet most citizens and governments seem unaware of its true scale.
Scientific evidence shows these substances are now moving relentlessly round the Earth in water, air, soil, animals, fish, food, trade, in people and in our very genes. Researchers have found 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, by Australian standards) to remote Pacific atolls, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Toxic chemicals are now being routinely found by researchers in birds, fish, mammals and other life-forms which have never had contact with humans. They occur throughout our food chains.
Tests reveal that the modern citizen is a walking contaminated site. The US Centers for Disease Control’s regular survey find industrial ‘chemicals of concern’ in the blood of 90-100 per cent of Americans. The Environmental Working Group, a US NGO, in independent tests reported finding 414 industrial toxins in 186 people ranging in age from newborns to grandparents.
EWG also found 212 chemicals of concern, including dioxins, flame retardants and known carcinogens in the blood of new-born babies, who were contaminated while still in the womb. Tests from China, America and Europe have revealed pesticides in the breast milk of nursing mothers – and most loving parents now immerse their children in petrochemicals of known and unknown toxicity – toys, clothing, furnishings, bottles, tableware, food, the home itself, the car, scents and cleansers. Australian research has found that even when dead and buried, people re-release some toxins back into groundwater. Groundwater beneath many of the world’s big cities is now so polluted from this and from industrial emissions as to be undrinkable.
Complex mixtures of chemicals now reach us in the air we breathe, the food and drink we consume, and the things we touch every day. We are passing their effects on to our children and grandchildren in our genes, ensuring they lead less healthy lives. This has all happened in just a few decades, and especially in the last 25 years. No previous generations of humans were so exposed, or so polluted.
UNEP estimates about 5 million people die and 86 million are disabled yearly by chemicals directly, making it one of the world’s leading causes of death – yet this does not include millions more cases where chemicals are implicated in common diseases like cancers, heart disease, obesity, autism, depression and other life-threatening mental disorders.
These chemicals – intentional and unintentional – interact with the tens of thousands of others in our environment and daily intake to create billions of potentially toxic mixtures. The eminent Harvard medical Professor Philippe Grandjean, in recent 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’.
Every year up to 1000 new chemicals are released onto markets worldwide, mostly without proper health, safety or environmental testing. Regulation has so far banned just eighteen out of 143,000 known industrial chemicals in a handful of countries. At such rates of progress it will take us another 50,000 years to assess and ban all the substances that may be harmful, country by country – so national regulation holds few answers.
Furthermore, the globalised chemical industry is rapidly moving out of the developed world (where it is generally well-regulated and ethical) and into developing countries, mainly in Asia, where it is largely beyond the reach of the law. Its toxic emissions are already returning to citizens well-regulated countries in wind, water, food, wildlife, consumer goods and people – and there is little done to stop this.
Doctors report the emergence of ‘new’ conditions, like ADHD and certain childhood cancers in young children, as well as unexplained increases in once-uncommon diseases like Alzheimers, Parkinsons, depression, autism and other mental disorders, obesity, diabetes and cancers, whose modern upsurge is now linked in thousands of medical research papers to humanity’s multiple chemical exposure.
The issue to consider is that most, if not all, of these conditions are preventable. Nobody has to suffer or die from chemical exposure.
The world has been aware of chemical pollution since Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring’ haslf a century ago - but has regarded it as local issue, restricted to specific sites, chemicals or end uses. This is no longer true: chemotoxicity is now universal and represents a challenge at the species level. An Australian-led scientific effort to assess the full extent of our risk is now under way – the Global Contamination Initiative (GCI).
Chemicals and minerals are valuable and extremely useful. They do great good, save many lives and much money. Nobody is saying they should all be banned. But something must be done about the current uncontrolled, unmonitored, unregulated and unconscionable mass release and planetary saturation.
If governments cannot stem the toxic flood, the task must fall to millions of individual citizens, acting in their own best interests and those of their grandchildren. In a globalised world only we, the people, are powerful enough, as consumers, to send the market signals to industry to cease poisonous emissions – and to reward it for producing clean, safe, healthy products or services. For the first time in human history, the means exist to share a universal understanding of a common threat and what we can each do to mitigate it – through the internet and social media. This will be an expression of people power and global democracy like none before.
Finally, as I argue in the book Poisoned Planet, we need a new human right: a right not to be poisoned. Without such a right, and its universal observance, there will probably never again be another day in our history when we are not.