Due for a Reminder
Note: This article is written in memory of my friend, Tim Heimann, a person I deeply respected and from whom I learned many valuable lessons.
Three related things occurred in my life over the last few weeks which alerted me to how important it is to be regularly reminded about how chemically-saturated our world has become. First, a friend of mine passed on at much too young an age — cancer got the better of him. Second, while walking door-to-door on the west part of Galesburg, I was struck by the large number of homes that had their lawns treated with chemicals. Third, I reread Sandra Steingraber's amazing book, Living Downstream—my fifth time through it.
What do all of these things have to do with one another? Well, all three elicit questions that may be connected. My friend: Why did he die? Was he exposed to some carcinogen at some point in his life? Did his cancer stem from exposure to synthetic chemicals? The Lawns: Why do people think that putting killer chemicals on their lawn is okay (i.e., ethical) or safe? Why do so many still choose to do this? Steingraber: How much longer will we continue to spread known toxins throughout our environment? When will we realize that we are not being protected as much as we might think by our governmental agencies? At what point will the carnage appear so great that we will act and say, "Enough is enough"? When will we realize that safe alternatives exist?
In light of these questions, I remind myself (and others) of the following eight sequential propositions. Taken collectively, they clarify how much we need to change our ways and restore health to our environment.
1. We need clean air, water & food in order to live healthy and productive lives. Though this is probably the least controversial proposition, it still must be said. The fact that the human body is ~70% water by mass, that we eat about 3 pounds of food per day, and that we breathe in about 10 liters of air per minute illustrates how dependent we are on these three resources. Furthermore, not only do we need them but we need them to be clean and free of pollutants and other biologically-damaging substances. Failure to access sufficient quantities of these resources greatly diminishes one’s life and one’s ability to be productive because malnutrition and unclean water and air can cause widespread disease as well as inhibit cognitive development among children.
2. Human-derived chemicals are everywhere. While most are likely willing to accept this, many people don’t realize how widespread they really are. Believe it or not, yearly, each of us (on average) is responsible for the use of nearly nine thousand pounds of both coal and oil and over two thousand pounds of rock/stone. We don’t see most of this because it is brought from far off lands and most is burned/used outside of our line of sight. We are also responsible for huge amounts of toxic chemical releases. In the Galesburg area alone, nearly 86,000 pounds of n-hexane and 5,000 pounds of creosote was released in 2002 (see scorecard.org). If you think this is bad Peoria’s emissions dwarf these figures—16 million pounds of zinc compounds and 1.4 million pounds of lead compounds, just to mention two of them. In Illinois, we now spray nearly all our food crops with pesticides; in 1995, we put an ungodly 54 million pounds of pesticides on these crops (that is more than 4 pounds per state resident) (Steingraber).
There are so many synthetic chemicals produced now that it is easy to lose track; estimates range from 75,000-90,000 in use during the last sixty years. Not surprisingly, when we test humans we find many industrial chemicals and pesticides in their blood and urine; in many cases, we find more than 100 such compounds per person.
There are several important physical and biological reasons why these chemicals are found nearly everywhere we look. Some have very long half-lives (the time necessary for half a sample of a chemical to break down within the environment); some last several years (e.g., DDT’s is about 7 years). Some compounds are lipophilic (meaning, “soluble in fat”) and thus store in the breast, brain and liver for long periods of time. (They often get passed down to subsequent generations through breast milk.) Other chemicals aerosolize (meaning, “become vaporous”) at room temperature. Don’t you remember the potent smell of a newly opened shower curtain? And, perhaps most disturbing, many synthetic chemicals make their way to the poles by way of the process of distillation. These chemicals pile up in the Arctic and Antarctic because they keep getting carried into the atmosphere (due to sunlight and heat available in lower latitudes) until they reach less energetic zones. This process results in many Eskimo women have the most toxic breast milk in the world.
3. They do a tremendous amount of harm.
Beginning at least as far back as Rachel Carson in the early 1960’s, we have known that synthetic chemicals do not belong in the biosphere (meaning, “life” zone). Humans, and other organisms, haven’t evolved proper defenses to these chemicals.
There are many ways for chemicals to do damage. Their toxicity (i.e., the causing of adverse health effects) can stem from their cancer-causing potential (carcinogens), their birth defect potential (teratogens), or their ability to disrupt immune and neurological functions. Not all of the 70,000+ chemicals have these properties but many that have been tested do and many of these appear to have multiple detrimental effects. For instance, about 5-10% of tested chemicals have some indication of being carcinogenic. (Beyond Pesticides is a non-governmental organization that keeps track of the health implications of many pesticides; see: www.beyondpesticides.org).
The continued increased usage of so many dangerous chemicals is apparently taking its toll. The incidence of many cancers is up sharply in the past 50 years, and our ageing population and improved tools of detection doesn’t fully account for this rise. The World Health Organization comments regularly on how serious cancer has become now, both in the developing world (where it was once rare) as well as the industrialized countries. But cancer is just one disorder. Lots of other disorders (such as birth defects) aren’t carefully monitored but there is reason to believe that many neurological problems are becoming more prominent.
4. Some people are hurt by these chemicals more than others. In particular, children are more greatly exposed because they “live near the ground” and they absorb more water, air and food (pound for pound) than adults. Asthma rates for kids are dramatically up; according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, rates went up 160% between 1980-1994. A lot of neurological damage to kids is due to exposure to lead (in drinking water, old paint, soils, as well as some toys). Greater exposure today is also probably linked to greater disability and shortened life expectancy in the future.
People of color (POC) and poor people are also disproportionately affected by synthetic chemicals. Scholarship in the fields of environmental justice and environmental racism over the past 20+ years has confirmed this fact again and again. An up-to-date examination of available data, entitled, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007, concludes some very disturbing things, especially in terms of the affording of civil and human rights to all our nation’s people, including, “POC make up the majority (56%) of those living in neighborhoods within 3 kilometers of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste sites.” Consider as well, the formaldehyde-laden trailer homes that were provided to survivors of Hurricane Katrina by FEMA.
5. These chemicals and the harm they do result from specific forms of political and economic activity. So why do we continue to produce chemicals we know are harmful and deadly in such large quantities? There are many reasons of course. Our political and economic system treats waste with a great deal of disregard. Currently, most large companies are only required to report how much toxic material they release. Yet, there is rarely any attempt to control what (or how much) is released. Our economic system rewards short-term profits. This often results in fast (and environmentally-thoughtless) methods of extraction and processing of natural resources. Our political representatives are too beholden to polluting corporations (via huge lobbying groups and sizable campaign contributions) to speak resolutely about changing the status quo. One of the most powerful economic players in our current economy, then World Bank vice president Lawrence Summers, argued, in what is now a notorious memo from 1991, that our hazardous waste should be shipped to poor countries in Africa, because economically this makes the most sense. The economics on which his position is based (and which dictate most accepted economic transactions in the world today) treats African people as less valuable than Americans, and therefore considers them worthy recipients of our toxic waste.
6. We act as if we don’t know (or don’t care) about any of the above (1-5). Rachel Carson warned us of the "harmless aspect of the familiar." That is, we have spread so many synthetic chemicals throughout our environments (and bodies) that we treat them as if they belong. They don’t. We don't talk about being sick, especially from cancer, given that there are “codes of silence” that permeate our society. Silence can also be found in the specific chemicals that are used in various processes and for many materials, in cases where their existence is considered “secret” or proprietary. Scientists who report on the dangers of these chemicals are often ridiculed or have their credibility attacked—Rachel Carson and Herbert Needleman (with lead) are two great examples. A lot of information just isn’t available because so few tests have actually been done on the chemicals. Also, we have only recently been keeping good records on cancer in our country; the national registry began in 1992.
There are also serious cultural problems at work here. Children are clearly not important to us. If they are, how do we explain that we don’t do much to stop them from drinking lead-tainted water, eating excessive amounts of high fructose products, or breathing in contaminated air in urban environments? We also tacitly accept that some people (the poor or the “pigmented”) must live next to the waste heaps of toxic materials, or the train horns, or the congested highways or any other LULUs (Locally Undesirable Land Uses) that our modern society produces. Rather than making the environment safe for all, we play NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) and allow others, less powerful and more vulnerable, to absorb the products of our profligate affluence.
7. There are alternatives that are much safer. This comes as a surprise to many, but so much of the harm that we do is unnecessary. We can grow food without pesticides and growth hormones, and we can grow enough of these safer varieties to feed everyone on the planet (rather than leaving nearly a billion people hungry as we now do). We can clean our homes and our clothes without toxic chemicals. Lemon juice, baking soda and vinegar all hold tremendous untapped possibilities in these areas. We can design public transportation systems that are efficient, clean, fun, and affordable. We can access wind, solar, and geothermal energy to a much greater degree which will greatly reduce our current dependence on coal, oil, and radioactive (i.e., nuclear) resources. We can weatherize our homes so they don’t heat the outside when we are trying to heat the inside. We can turn our televisions off and thereby begin to forget the mantra, “I must consume more stuff in order to be sociable and happy,” as advertisers command us to think. We can begin talking to our neighbors and realize that lots of fun activities are very compatible to a healthy earth—such as, board game playing, neighborhood garden development, music and art making, bird house building, star gazing, etc.
8. People are fighting back. Not everyone in the world is so willing to accept things as they are, or as they are told they should be. Throughout the world, so many are working for positive change. Europeans have been fighting for banning many of the worst chemicals through the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Farmers from Zambia, a very poor African country, don’t want genetically-modified organisms (i.e., food crops) within their borders. Kenyans, through the Green Belt Movement, are continuing to plant trees in order to save water and maintain healthy soils (necessitating less use of fertilizer). Victims of the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984 (from which over 15,000 people ultimately died due to the release of toxic methyl isocyanate fumes from a Union Carbide plant) are still marching for the banning of Dursban (a pesticide once widely used in the U.S.—22 million pounds applied annually—but now largely phased-out) from being sold in India. This list could go on for pages. People are standing up — are you?
Peter Schwartzman (email: email@example.com) is associate professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Studies at Knox College. Father to two amazing girls, Peter hopes that their lives will be lived on a less-toxic, more just, more loving planet. A nationally-ranked Scrabble® junkie, he is also the founder of a website dedicated to peace and environmental well-being (onehuman.org) as well as cofounder of The Center (thecenteringalesburg.org).