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A Poisonous Influence

Health & Wellness  (tags: disease, children, death, cancer, ethics, environment, government, health, illness, medicine, prevention, protection, research, risks, safety, science, society, study, treatment, warning )

- 1949 days ago -
Man-made chemicals are saturating the planet and doing untold damage to life on earth.

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JL A (281)
Saturday January 19, 2013, 11:50 am
Canberra Times
A poisonous influence

January 17, 2013
Julian Cribb

Man-made chemicals are saturating the planet and doing untold damage to life on earth.

28 July 2008 generic orica chemical plant at botany sydney. climate change, carbon emissions, carbon trading, pollution, greenhouse gas, globe warming, offset. Pic Sasha Woolley

TOWER POWER: The Sydney plant of multinational chemical producer Orica.

While climate change has grabbed the media and policy limelight, another problem has a far larger impact on humans, our planet and all life on it.

Humanity produces more than 83,000 different chemicals, a third of which are known to cause or suspected of causing cancer, mutations and birth defects and most of which are toxic. The global output of chemicals is about 30 million tonnes a year, and the United Nations Environment Programme says the industry will be worth $6 trillion by 2020, and triple in size by 2050.

This makes the world output of toxic or carcinogenic chemicals about 1.4 kilograms a person a year globally, and 5.6 kilograms in the US. Australia is probably somewhere between the two. To put this in perspective, it contrasts with 2.5 kilograms a head a year to which Vietnamese rural people were exposed during the Agent Orange phase of the Vietnam war (and which is documented as having killed or maimed 400,000 people and deformed 500,000 babies).

What is new about this, apart from the scale of chemical output, is the discovery that man-made substances are pervasive throughout earth's system and are moving relentlessly around the planet in water, air, soil, animals, fish, food and trade.

Scientific studies have found toxic man-made chemicals from the stratosphere to the deep oceans, from the peak of Mt Everest (where fresh snowfalls are too polluted to drink, by Australian standards) to the remotest of Pacific atolls, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Industrial chemicals are routinely found by researchers in birds, fish, mammals and other life-forms which have never had any contact with humans, as well as those in our food chains.

Testing shows almost every individual is a walking contaminated site. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, in a regular survey, finds certain industrial ''chemicals of concern'' in the blood of 90 per cent to 100 per cent of the American population. The Environmental Working Group, a US non-government organisation, in independent tests reported the finding of 414 industrial toxins in 186 people ranging in age from newborns to grandparents. In a further disturbing piece of research it found 212 substances, including dioxins, flame retardants and known carcinogens, in the blood of newborn babies, who had been contaminated while in the womb. Tests from China to America to Europe have discovered industrial toxins in the breast milk of nursing mothers.

Groundbreaking Australian research has found even when dead and buried, people release their toxins back into groundwater and the environment, giving them back to future generations.

Chemicals reach people in the air they breathe - especially indoors where they are surrounded by volatile chemical vapours from plastics and furnishings - the food they eat, the liquids they drink and things they touch. Groundwater beneath most of the world's big cities is so polluted as to be undrinkable, scientists have found. UNEP estimates 4.9 million people die and 86 million are disabled yearly by chemicals directly, making it one of the world's leading causes of death (far exceeding diseases such as malaria) - yet this does not include cases where chemicals are implicated in common diseases such as cancer or heart disease.

At the same time, hundreds of new chemicals are being developed and released worldwide without health, safety or environmental testing, says UNEP. At least 1317 nano-chemicals have been commercially released, without health testing, in a development that risks repeating on a larger scale the asbestos tragedy claiming an estimated 43,000 lives a year. Yet regulation has so far banned only 18 out of 83,000 chemicals, in a handful of countries - and this has not prevented their illegal use. The chemical industry is rapidly moving out of the developed world and into developing countries (especially in Asia) to escape the law, regulation and costs.

In addition to deliberately produced substances, the planet is immersed in toxins released by the mining and energy sectors, coal especially. In Australia, for example, coal pollution is estimated to kill four times more people than motor vehicle accidents. The electronics sector produces 40 million tonnes of highly toxic e-waste a year, which is being found in the global food chain.

Aluminium processing has yielded 3 billion tonnes of harmful ''red mud'' and a recent study of the world's top 10 miners found they were releasing 180 million tonnes of toxic tailings into rivers and lakes a year. Around 120 million tonnes of elemental nitrogen and 9 million tonnes of phosphorus are released by agriculture and transport into the world's oceans and lakes yearly, where they have caused more than 400 ''dead zones'' to appear. From this it can be seen that the release of carbon into the atmosphere is only a fraction of the combined human chemical impact on the planet.

Doctors are reporting many unexplained new diseases, especially in young children, as well as dramatic increases in certain uncommon ''old'' diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, various mental disorders and cancers, whose modern upsurge is being increasingly linked by medical science to multiple chemical exposure. For example, a recent US report links BPA, a chemical found in plastic drink bottles and almost all people, with increased heart risk. The toxic effects of most of the 83,000 chemicals in use today remain unknown, their thresholds undefined - and more seriously still, the effect on human health or the environment of chemical mixtures remains completely unknown to science. Yet everyone encounters chemical mixtures, every day.

It took half a century of legal argument for regulation of tobacco, a product that kills half its users, to reach today's limited effectiveness. From this it can be seen that the chances of restricting tens of thousands of individual chemicals globally are, therefore, ''Buckley's''. Possibly the only thing that can prevent the worldwide poisoning of humanity and life is consumer concern and refusal to buy polluting products or to tolerate babies being born pre-contaminated.

The world has been conscious of chemical pollution since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, but has regarded it as a limited issue, restricted to particular sites, chemicals or user groups. This is no longer the case: it is universal. Yet we remain largely oblivious to the sheer scale of today's toxic release, to the fact that it will triple within a generation and to the implications of this not only for human health, but for all life.

Chemicals are valuable and extremely useful. They do great good, save many lives and much money. But all this may be for nothing if the uncontrolled, unregulated and unconscionable mass release and planetary saturation continues. Most people know it is not a good idea to foul the place we live: that lesson must be applied in the case of these invisible substances, before universal and irreversible harm accrues to life on earth.

>> Julian Cribb is a Canberra-based science writer.


Kit B (276)
Saturday January 19, 2013, 12:06 pm

The problem is people don't know what to "not buy", and our entire consumer economy is directly and indirectly based on the chemical industry. Controls and regulations would help, but also heavy fines that get serious attention from all the various industries that are slowly and continuously destroying our planet.

JL A (281)
Saturday January 19, 2013, 12:20 pm
Thanks for providing some of how this story relates to us as individuals Kit, You cannot currently send a star to Kit because you have done so within the last week.

Terry V (30)
Saturday January 19, 2013, 6:05 pm
Let us NOT forget how they love to continue to hide behind cigarettes as the REAL problem..........


JL A (281)
Saturday January 19, 2013, 6:10 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Terry because you have done so within the last week.

Elizabeth M (65)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 11:16 am
Thank you for posting J.L. - It is just as I have thought for years that we don't have to be threatened with chemical war fare - we are already using it on ourselves. We will have to fight the chemical industry hard to get anything done.
I agree with Kit, about heavy fines - but to get attention they will have to be Big. Big Fines- like hit them where the money is.

mar l ene dinkins (264)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 11:25 am
notato Jl .ty for the posting!!!!! ciao

Christeen A (368)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 11:27 am
Thanks for an informative article. Good post.

Lin Penrose (92)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 11:56 am
Thanks J.L. Having read Rachel Carson's books many years ago, and other since then regarding human made pollutants, I'm truly astonished so many of us have disregarded the disasters this portends for the entire world and all components. Then, I must keep in mind, that we humans seem to believe there is some type of "force field" (a god?) that prevents retribution for all the nasty stuff we've done to this planet. Somehow, we refuse to believe that we are Part of this planet, not Apart from it. Too late now. We've each become toxic waste sites.

The earth, superb at recycling and reusing, will come up with some very interesting (not healthy) new products/life forms and some non-living. Wonder if our species will evolve to be living combinations of plastics and poisons with pesticides, herbicides and drugs, far beyond what we each carry now. Scientific & tech. mutated nightmares.

JL A (281)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 3:38 pm
You are welcome Elizabeth, Marlene, Christeen and Lin. Green star headed your way Elizabeth and I tried but:
You cannot currently send a star to Lin because you have done so within the last week; thanks to both of you for your worthy contributions helping us connect this to other relevant factors.

Aaron Bouchard (158)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 3:44 pm
Noted thanks

JL A (281)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 4:37 pm
You are welcome Aaron

greenplanet e (155)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 4:37 pm
It's disturbing that we don't know all the chemicals we are exposed to, including in clothing.

JL A (281)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 4:43 pm
You cannot currently send a star to greenplanet because you have done so within the last week.

Mitchell D (87)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 6:03 pm
I find Lynn Penrose's point to be on target, and have oftimes, myself, in a black humor, ironic way, thought that with the radioactive waste, and possibly some nuclear war, we are just pushing ourselves to some next, possibly strange, stage of evolutiuon. But, here, we have a more subtle, and already quite advanced process of poisoning going on, by which not just us (myopic me), but the entire range of life will be impacted.

JL A (281)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 6:05 pm
Thank you Mitchell for that excellent sequel to Lyn's comment! You cannot currently send a star to Mitchell because you have done so within the last week.

Aditya n (8)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 10:28 pm

Marie W (67)
Sunday January 20, 2013, 10:59 pm
No escape.

JL A (281)
Monday January 21, 2013, 7:31 am
You cannot currently send a star to Marie because you have done so within the last week.

paul m (93)
Monday January 21, 2013, 9:14 am


paul m (93)
Monday January 21, 2013, 9:19 am

Governments allow this to happen , them they attend meetings about global warming ect,,all talk ,, no action.
What a waste of time and money .

JL A (281)
Monday January 21, 2013, 9:24 am
You cannot currently send a star to paul because you have done so within the last week.

Melania Padilla (122)
Monday January 21, 2013, 9:43 am

S S (0)
Monday January 21, 2013, 11:49 am
Thank you.

JL A (281)
Monday January 21, 2013, 11:53 am
You are welcome Melania and Shanti.

. (0)
Monday January 21, 2013, 2:03 pm
Our world, our world's governments -welcome to it.

catherine Buchanan (113)
Monday January 21, 2013, 2:33 pm
the people of the united states is the largest hazardous waste disposal facility. all one has to do is read the ingredients on many of the products that are used on an everyday basis. the reason for the all of the cruel animal experiments in cosmetics is they are testing for the minimal amount of toxin they can put in a product that will not cause a NOTICEABLE severe reaction. the chemical industry creates numerous toxic by-products and to dispose of the billions of gallons properly would cost them so much money that there would be no profit in the business. therefore, to make money from the toxic by-products, they test it to see how much can be passed on to an individual. why else are the cases of cancer so out of control in this country, including childhood cancer?

JL A (281)
Monday January 21, 2013, 2:36 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Allan because you have done so within the last week.

Mary Donnelly (47)
Monday January 21, 2013, 3:04 pm
Thanks J.L.--excellent post and comments.

JL A (281)
Monday January 21, 2013, 3:28 pm
You're welcome Mary; I agree. You cannot currently send a star to Mary because you have done so within the last week.

Theodore Shayne (56)
Monday January 21, 2013, 6:03 pm
It might be the US but I think China comes a close second in many respects. It's all about profit and these myopic sociopaths can't see and refuse to see that we are killing the planet and everything in, on and above it. Of course sooner or later it will become their problem and then what will they do?

JL A (281)
Monday January 21, 2013, 6:05 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Theodore because you have done so within the last week.

Diane K (134)
Monday January 21, 2013, 6:21 pm
Noted. thanks

JL A (281)
Monday January 21, 2013, 6:29 pm
You're welcome Diane
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