|Up to now, I’ve avoided writing about the impact of untested chemical poisons on people (especially children) and the environment. After all, we grew up in an even less regulated environment — lead toothpaste tubes and Matchbox toys, thermometers full of mercury that we broke open and played with as kids, creosote-treated wood in the fireplace, DDT and 2,4 D on dandelions, and so on. And we’re OK, right? Kids today just don’t have the same hardy constitution we did. We ‘built up immunity’ to these substances from heavy early exposure. Today’s kids are just overmedicated wimps. There are more reports of problems because we’re more aware of the problems, that’s all.
That, of course, is what the chemical industry would like you to believe. Truth is, we can’t possibly be very aware of the problems and causes because there is simply no data on most of the chemical substances in everyday use. None. There are so many new chemicals being introduced each year, in raw form or as ingredients in new or reformulated products, and as waste and byproducts of petrochemical and mineral processes, that even the US government has cried ‘uncle’ and put a floor level in place for any testing. If production of a chemical is below that threshold, they just don’t test it at all. The regulators just don’t have the resources. And even when it does test, the EPA does short-term testing only. They feed massive amounts of these poisons to laboratory rats, to dogs and to one wild animal, as a surrogate for its effect on ‘pests’, ‘domestic animals’ and ‘animals in the wild’ respectively — and as a surrogate for its impact on humans. They measure the diseases and symptoms from these artificial tests, and if they are not too bad, they deem the product safe for human use. If the resultant diseases and symptoms are bad, the regulators indicate what safety warnings must be put on the label when it is applied. They disavow responsibility for assessing any longer-term impact, which they never have adequate time to assess. For example, in their product testing report on Deet, the product so many of us are slathering all over our skin in record amounts this year to protect ourselves from West Nile-carrying mosquitos, the EPA says:
Scientists have gathered no evidence that indicates harmful reproductive effects to human users. No direct relationship between DEET use and carcinogenity in humans has been established. The EPA needs further animal testing data to completely evaluate DEET.
They do admit it causes birth defects in chicks and “increased mortality rates” in baby rats. Of course, although we can torture millions of helpless animals to come up with this wisdom, we really don’t know what the impact would be on humans because it would be unethical to subject humans to the type of savagery that we inflict on other animals to come up with these informative reports. Bottom line: We don’t have the faintest idea how dangerous this, or any chemical is. And this product is a “level 4” product — one of the very few chemicals deemed safe enough, after extensive animal cruelty, to approve it for contact with human skin.
Let’s look at what its manufacturer, Monsanto Pharmacia, those swell guys who brought us Agent Orange, PCBs and undisclosed, privately patented GM foods, say themselves about a somewhat more dangerous chemical, Roundup, the top-selling herbicide in the world, which it encourages you to spray on walkways and driveways to get rid of those pesky weeds in the cracks:
KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. CAUSES EYE BURNS. May be harmful if inhaled. Avoid contact with eyes, skin or clothing. Wear long sleeved shirt and pants, or coveralls, chemical-resistant gloves and eye protection. Wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling. Avoid direct applications to any body of water. Do not contaminate water by disposal of waste or cleaning of equipment. Spray solutions of this product should be mixed, stored and applied only in stainless steel, aluminum, fibreglass, plastic and plastic-lined steel containers. DO NOT MIX, STORE OR APPLY THIS PRODUCT OR SPRAY SOLUTIONS OF THIS PRODUCT IN GALVANIZED STEEL OR UNLINED STEEL (EXCEPT STAINLESS STEEL) CONTAINERS OR SPRAY TANKS. This product or spray solutions of this product react with such containers and tanks to produce hydrogen gas which may form a highly combustible gas mixture. This gas mixture could flash or explode, causing serious personal injury, if ignited by open flame, spark, welderís torch, lighted cigarette or other ignition source. Avoid contamination of seed, feed, and foodstuffs. Make the empty container unsuitable for further use. Dispose of the container in accordance with provincial requirements. For information on the disposal of unused, unwanted product, contact the manufacturer or the provincial regulatory agency. Contact the manufacturer and the provincial regulatory agency in case of a spill, and for clean-up of spills. Do not apply this product using aerial spray equipment. AVOID CONTACT WITH FOLIAGE, GREEN STEMS, OR FRUIT OF CROPS, DESIRABLE PLANTS AND TREES SINCE SEVERE INJURY OR DESTRUCTION MAY RESULT. Do not allow spray mist to drift since even minute quantities of spray can cause severe damage or destruction to nearby crops, plants or other areas on which treatment is not intended, or may cause other unintended consequences. Do not apply when winds are gusty or in excess of 8 kilometres per hour or when other conditions, including lesser wind velocities, will allow drift to occur. When spraying, avoid combinations of pressure and nozzle type that will result in fine particles (mist) which are more likely to drift. DO NOT USE IN GREENHOUSES.
Yes, I know, this wording is all written by lawyers to protect poor Monsanto from frivolous litigation by unscrupulous consumers. In fact, for the benefit of farmers who don’t want to go through all this bother, Monsanto has now developed, and will sell you each year, genetically modified seeds that are resistant to Roundup (in other words, they sell both the disease and the cure), so you can ignore these warnings and just drown your crops in this toxic poison, secure in the knowledge that the Frankenstein crops Monsanto has sold you are the only thing that will live through it. Meanwhile, in public pronouncements Monsanto Pharmacia has described this product as “as safe as table salt”. And the US National Forest Service, in an attempt to make its life easier, has started spraying National Forests with massive doses of Roundup “to reduce the frequency of forest fires”. There has been no study of the impact of this chemical dumping on forest ecosystems. Meanwhile, after years of aerial spraying of tons of Roundup on suspected coca-growing areas of Colombia, destroying the ability of much of that country’s soil to support any plant life, the drug growers have simply genetically engineered a new coca plant that is Roundup-resistant, so US taxpayer dollars are now going to be providing these drug-growers with free herbicidal spraying that will make cocaine growing simpler and maintenance-free. Thank you, Monsanto! No wonder so many people love you.
If only Roundup were the only product we had to worry about. But there are over seven million chemicals commercially available, and most of them have undergone no testing whatsoever. Even the testing that is done is heavily dependent on the industry’s own test findings, which are inevitably biased and self-serving: Monsanto and most of its competitors have been convicted of concealing and falsifying test results. And they pay cash-strapped universities handsomely for ‘objective’ tests supporting their arguments that their products are safe.
These chemicals are used in many commercial applications: food and cosmetic additives to provide colour, texture, taste or extend shelf life, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, plastic products and plastic containers, building materials, insulation, paints, wood preservatives, rubber, and many others. Many of the most dangerous chemicals aren’t used in any commercial applications at all — substances like dioxins are merely hazardous byproducts of the chemicals that are produced for commercial use.
AIG Insurance, one of the largest insurers of chemical companies, lists the many dangers that the production, disposal and use of chemical toxins give rise to, which they of course insure. The descriptions of these dangers make interesting consumer reading, coming as they do from an organization that makes its living understanding risk and has no vested interest in understating them. Here are just a few of the groups they insure, showing the many health and environmental dangers their products and processes are responsible for:
Cleaning product manufacture
Lumber and wood production
Paper and pulp production
Plastic and Polymer manufacturing
The CDC, in a marvellous example of understatement, says:
Children are uniquely vulnerable to toxicants in the environment. Pound for pound, children eat more food, breathe more air, and drink more water. Their hand-to-mouth behaviors and their activities close to the ground increase their chances for exposure to hazardous substances. Their metabolic pathways are immature, so they detoxify and excrete pollutants less efficiently than adults. In addition, children are growing and developing rapidly, which can be disrupted by hazardous substances in the environment. After childhood exposure, they can get diseases that can take many decades to develop. The use of some hazardous substances to meet social and economic goals often prevails over environmental health concerns. Lack of effective policy and regulations to prevent exposures to hazardous substances often stems from a lack of scientific information necessary for accurate risk assessments and from the general public’s lack of education about environmental health effects. Globally, disadvantaged populations are more exposed to hazardous substances as a result of exposures in the workplace, environmental contamination, unregulated disposal in garbage dumps, and a lack of knowledge about how to avoid exposure.
New York’s organic farming association has pulled together a depressing analysis of the quantity of pesticides that we each consume daily, and some indication of the health consequences. In Canada, a physicians group, alarmed at lack of government regulation in the face of overwhelming evidence of their hazards, has documented that evidence and called for an all-out ban on pesticides except in health emergencies.
Most of us have no idea just how often and to what degree we’re exposed to chemicals that we really don’t know the dangers of. The known dangers include: birth defects, alterations in sexual and functional development, neurologic disorders, diabetes, allergic reactions, immunologic and immune deficiency disorders, cancers, leukemia, respiratory disorders, endometriosis, structural abnormalities in the reproductive, prostate and pituitary system, thyroid disorders, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, organ damage, skin diseases, reduced physical stamina, developmental, behavioural and mental disorders, anger, inattention, decreased mental capacity, learning disabilities, dyslexia, hyperactivity disorders, autism, propensity to violent behaviours, reduced motor skills, and deterioration in gross and fine eye-hand coordination. The incidence of infant and childhood cancers in particular is rising at an astronomical rate.
Here’s a day in the life scenario of a typical child:
The child sleeps in a bed made of plastic, covered with synthetic sheets that are treated with fire-retardant, and washed in harsh detergents containing toxic synthetic chemicals. Sheets are dried at high temperature creating dioxin from the chlorine bleach residue. The mattress cover’s flexibility is from plasticizers and it’s treated with an antibacterial agent. The room’s new synthetic carpeting and freshly painted walls offgass toxins. Snugly fitting disposable diapers contain toxic ingredients such as sodium polyacrylates, and ethylvinylacetate-based glues, resins, softening agents and antioxidants. His skin lotion contains phthalates, which are known to mimic and damage hormones. His drinking and bathing water contains high levels of chlorine, fluorine, toxic metals, nitrates and possibly coliform. His food has been drenched in a variety of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, then wrapped in plastics, coated with sealants, or canned. It’s heated in, eaten from and eaten with plastic. Warm leftovers are saved in plastic and refrigerated. While being driven about town, the child sits in a car seat made of several types of plastic in a car that has that new car smell, which is off-gassing of plastics. Dry-cleaned clothes, perfume, hand cream, deodorant, hairspray, nail polish, lipstick, and perhaps indirect cigarette smoke are also part the car’s air. Driving behind a diesel truck, fine particulate matter carrying carcinogens and endocrine disrupters are forced deep into the child’s lungs. They drive through factory fumes to pick up the father, who does auto body repair, and has just finished using paints and plastic filler. They stop to fill up the car’s gas tank and the fumes flow through the open window along with the odour of the degreaser the mechanic uses. During the summer ozone levels are high and smog is thick. In the winter, oil, gas, coal, and/or wood combustion byproducts permeate the air. When the child goes to school by diesel bus he is exposed to 23 to 46 times the cancer risk considered “significant” by EPA and under federal environmental laws. The air in rural areas will be laced with pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, dust, and diesel fumes. Jets fly overhead, sometimes dumping jet fuel at high altitudes, which vaporizes before reaching the ground. At school, the child will sit at a plastic desk, on a synthetic floor covering, within walls covered with a vinyl material, under vinyl covered ceiling tiles and fluorescent lighting. The school has air conditioning with no fresh air supply, recycling stagnant air through dusty, damp, mould ridden ducts. Old insulation flakes from the ceilings and walls into the air. The teacher’s perfume mixes with the accelerants of the whiteboard markers. Many surfaces are treated with pesticides, bleach and antibacterial liquids. The grounds are covered with pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers that can contain just about any kind of toxic waste. Dozens of potent chemicals are used in the swimming pool. For lunch, the child eats and drinks highly processed, pesticide-ridden, irradiated foods with synthetic preservatives, colourings, and a score of unnamed substances whose only purpose is to extend the food’s shelf life. The food is often prepared at another location miles away, transported in plastic, served on, and eaten with plates and utensils made of polystyrene. Before eating, the child’s hands are washed using a soap that is antibacterial/antimicrobial, using chlorinated/fluoridated water.
What’s the answer? There’s one solution that’s quite simple, and utterly radical. It’s called the Precautionary Principle, and it says: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
This principle shifts the onus of proof from citizens (who must today prove conclusively that a chemical caused personal injury to them) to producers (who would have to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, the safety of a chemical before it could be produced or marketed commercially). Better safe than sorry, in other words. If you think this would be unduly onerous or economically catastrophic, please read the FAQ in the link above. It was crafted by scientists and lawyers to be simple and yet practical. It can work. In fact, San Francisco has already legally adopted the principle, and other municipalities have or are considering following suit.
Another answer is to just say no: Refuse to buy products with chemicals in them. Use natural alternatives to chemical cleaners, pesticides and herbicides (there are many, many websites listing such alternatives). Buy local, organically-produced foods. Avoid dangerous plastics like polycarbonate, polystyrene, BPA and PVC. And never flush chemicals into toilets, sinks or septic systems.
A third answer is political activism. This is most effectively done within your own community. Lobby your municipal government to ban “cosmetic spraying” of lawns and other large areas with pesticides and herbicides, as many municipalities have already done. Find out who the big polluters are in your community: Just type your zip code into the Environmental Defense website in the US, or your postal code into the Pollution Watch site in Canada, to see what’s being released into your local air and water supply, and by which companies, and lobby to have these companies cleaned up or shut down.
The fourth answer is awareness and vigilance. Learn the facts about chemicals — how they’re used and how they’re dangerous: If you know, for example, that Bisphenol A (BPA) is a dangerous chemical found in many plastics, including baby bottles, you can take appropriate action. Stay abreast of what we’re starting to learn every day about chemical dangers by subscribing to aggregators like Environmental Health News. If you have to use chemical pesticides, study the dangers first before you choose.
We’ve let the chemical pollution of our world get out of control. It’s time to take that control back, for the sake of future generations, and for our environment.