Magazine article New Internationalist

Toxic Planet

Magazine article New Internationalist

Toxic Planet

Article excerpt

We live In a sea of toxic chemicals. Every single person on earth carries in their bodies minute quantities of hundreds to thousands of hazardous chemicals: polyaromatic hydrocarbons from smokestack and vehicle exhaust; pesticides, fungicides and herbicides from industrialized agriculture; methyl mercury from coal-fired plants; dioxins and furans from garbage incineration; hormone-mimicking plasticizers and plastic softeners from polycarbonate bottles, the lining of tin cans, soaps and cosmetics; perfluorochemicals from stain-resistant coatings and non-stick cookware; flame retardants from electronics and furniture. The list goes on.

This chemical contamination is part and parcel of our wasteful use of resources and energy. At its core it's a sustainability issue, but it is never addressed as such and this is the problem.

'Biomonitoring' tests measuring chemicals in the US population are carried out by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the results are freely available online. The latest results, released in 2005, cover 148 chemicals.1 Canada is doing similar population-wide testing; those figures will be available in 2010.

Tests consistently flag the same chemical contaminants in the atmosphere, water, soil, animals and people the world over.

Here are a few choice selections:

Lead - known for thousands of years to be toxic to the brain and nervous system and which we now know lowers IQ and causes learning difficulties.

Dioxins -some of the most carcinogenic chemicals known, released by waste incineration.

Phthalates- used to soften plastics, found in thousands of products from shampoo to blood bags. Interfere with testosterone, have been linked to reproductive defects and cancers and are thus banned from baby toys in Europe and may soon be restricted in Canada.

Bisphenol-A (BPA)- used to make hard, clear polycarbonate plastics such as water bottles as well as epoxy resins found in the lining of tin cans. Known to mimic oestrogen, causes cancer and reproductive problems in lab animals. Banned in plastic baby bottles in Canada.

Even chemicals that we have known for decades to be dangerous and which haven't been used since the 1970s still show up in our blood today. These include organochlorine pesticides like DDT and industrial insulators like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Some of our cleverest chemicals are the most problematic - chemicals used to stop electronics from catching fire and compounds found in grease-proof food wrap and non-stick cookware persist in the environment for decades, maybe even centuries, by virtue of the fact that they are doing what they were designed to do in the first place: never break down.

No surprise then that the fruits of our industry persist in the environment, travel around the world, linger in the soil and find their way into us before we are even born. The Environmental Working Group,2 an independent US monitoring organization, found more than 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of 10 American babies - 217 are known to be toxic to the nervous system, 208 can cause birth defects and 180 are proven carcinogens in humans and/or lab animals. Had they the resources to check for all 100,000 chemicals ever approved for use in the US, they would no doubt have found thousands more. What's worse, the concentrations of chemicals are often higher in newborns than in their mothers. Research by Environmental Defence in Canada3 found some chemicals at levels three times higher in children than in their mothers.

We can each of us avoid canned food, bottled soft drinks and lipstick - but total avoidance to exposure is truly impossible. In fact, the highest concentration of PCBs ever detected was in the breast milk of lnuit women, decades and thousands of miles away from their production. All the money, knowledge and seclusion in the world won't help -it doesn't matter if you're living in a wooden cottage on a mountain top, subsisting on twigs and berries; or in a high-tech eco-condo with a diet dictated by a nutritional specialist in Malibu. …

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