The greatest human impact of all
3dbrained_ToxicChemicals_iStock.jpg
These man-made toxic chemicals are now pervasive throughout the Earth System and are moving relentlessly round the planet in our water, air and soil.
Image: 3dbrained/iStockphoto

While climate change has grabbed the media and policy limelight there is another, far larger, human impact on ourselves, on Planet Earth and on all life in it.

Humanity currently produces more than 83,000 different chemicals, a third of which are known or suspected of causing cancer, mutations and birth defects and most of which are toxic. Current global output of chemicals is around 30 million tonnes a year, in an industry which the UN Environment Program says will be worth $6.4 trillion by 2020, and will triple in size by 2050.

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

What is new about this, apart from the sheer scale of chemical output, is the discovery that man-made substances are now pervasive throughout the Earth System and are moving relentlessly round 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 now being routinely found by researchers in birds, fish, mammals and other life-forms which have never had any contact with humans, as well as in our food chains.

Testing shows that almost every individual is now a walking contaminated site. The US Centers for Disease Control in a regular survey finds certain industrial ‘chemicals of concern’ in the blood of 90-100 per cent of American population.  The Environmental Working Group, a US NGO, 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 new-born 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 that even when dead and buried, people re-release their toxins back into groundwater and the environment, giving them back to future generations.

Chemicals now 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 now 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 like malaria) - yet this does not include cases where chemicals are implicated in common diseases like 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 the UNEP. At least 1317 nanochemicals have now been commercially released, without health testing, in a development that risks repeating on a larger scale the asbestos tragedy now 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 now 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 now being found in the global food chain.

Aluminium processing alone has yielded 3 billion tonnes of harmful ‘red mud’ and a recent study of the world’s top ten 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 over 400 ‘dead zones’ to appear. From this it can be seen that the release of carbon into the atmosphere is in fact 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 like Alzheimers, Parkinsons, various mental disorders and cancers, whose modern upsurge is now 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 single 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 all 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 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 things.  They do great good, save many lives and much money. But all this may be for nothing if the current 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 now 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.

Editor's Note: This feature was first published in The Canberra Timesand was reproduced with permission.