Photo by Jeff Vanuga, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
In 1935 the DuPont Corporation ran an ad campaign under the slogan “Better Things for Better Living… Through Chemistry.” Many of the vast number of synthetic chemicals introduced by industry and agriculture during the ensuing hundred years have indisputably made life far more comfortable for a considerable fragment of the world’s population. Although the origins of the discipline of toxicology date back to antiquity, little thought was given during the first half of the 20th century to the downside of the gathering tide of anthropogenic chemicals in which our world is now awash. The cumulative effects of chemical exposure remain largely un-charted territory. As UN EP’s 2013 Global Chemicals Outlook report points out, only a fraction of the more than 140,000 chemicals estimated to be on the market today has been thoroughly assessed for adverse effects on human health and the environment.
It was, of course, the convincing evidence of the deleterious impact of pesticide use, and especially DDT, on the health of humans and animals adduced by Rachel Carson which helped galvanize the modern environmental movement. Since the publication of Silent Spring more than five decades ago there has been a steady expansion in the production, application and disposal of potentially toxic chemicals — petrochemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, solvents, adhesives, dyes, plastics, pharmaceuticals, and the stew of hazardous compounds from arsenic to zinc associated with electronic waste (now the fastest growing waste stream in North America) — with a corresponding multiplication of the risks to the environment and human health.
Looking only at recognized toxic hotspots across the world, a 2013 report by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, The Poisoned Poor: Toxic Chemicals Exposures in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, estimates that exposure to toxic chemicals from industry, mining and agriculture affects the health of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
Those calculations do not even take into consideration the vast toxic output of the world’s military industries and operations, in the form of chemical warfare agents, weapons testing and toxic waste, for instance, which is typically shrouded in secrecy.1
And levels of contamination in the global South are expected to rise with what UN EP refers to as “chemical intensification,” a shift in the production, use and disposal of synthetic chemicals to developing economies where fewer safeguards exist.
Even in wealthy countries with stricter regulations, revelations about the sheer number of toxic chemicals actually present in our bodies at any given time, whether just passing through or permanently residing in our blood, organs, tissues and bones, cannot fail to shock. They are inhaled, swallowed in our food and water, absorbed through our skin, and transmitted in our mothers’ breast milk.
What is called body-burden testing or biomonitoring has been publicized in North America by journalists such as Bill Moyers and Anderson Cooper in the U.S. and Wendy Mesley in Canada, who all volunteered to undergo such screening. Dr. Michael McCally, the lead researcher on the team that tested Moyers, warned in a 2002 paper for Public Health Reports that “Current ‘normal’ body burdens of dioxins and several other well studied organochlorines in humans are at or near the range at which toxic effects occur in laboratory animals.”
One of the first Canadian body-burden studies conducted 10 years ago by Environmental Defence tested the blood and urine of 11 volunteers for 88 industrial and agricultural chemicals including heavy metals, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), organochlorine pesticides, organophosphate insecticide metabolites, and volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
The study showed that “on average, 44 chemicals were detected in each volunteer, including 41 carcinogens, 27 hormone disruptors, 21 respiratory toxins and 53 reproductive/developmental toxins.”2
Naturally, none of these types of studies documenting the mere presence of pollutants in people can draw any conclusions about the short- or longterm health impacts. But the mounting evidence of the scope and levels of contaminants in humans should be enough to give us pause, especially given how little is known about possible interactions between the combinations of toxic chemicals we harbour.
We should also be very alarmed by new research pointing to the dangers of chronic low-dose chemical exposure for developing brains and bodies and the elevated risks for children in general and poor children in particular.3
In our chemically congested world, kids are tragically becoming the canary in the mineshaft.
1. See for example H. Patricia Hynes, “Military Hazardous Waste Sickens Land and People,” TruthOut, 4 August 2011.↩ 2. “Toxic Nation: A Report on the Pollution in Canadians,” environmentaldefence.ca↩ 3. See for example James Hamblin, “The Toxins That Threaten Our Brains,” The Atlantic, March 18, 2014.↩