We need a new human right: a right not to be poisoned. Without such a right, there will probably never again be another day in our history when our children are not constantly exposed to danger, says Julian Cribb.
Something more sinister than climate change stalks the human future – and it is high time we gave it the same attention. Few people have much idea of the scale of the universal chemical deluge to which we are now subject, daily, and of the growing peril which we – and all our descendants – face. Humanity currently produces more than 140,000 different chemicals, around a third of which are known or suspected of causing cancer, mutations and birth defects or are toxic in some way. Global output of these industrial chemicals is around 30 million tones a year, which the UN Environment Program (UNEP) thinks could triple by the mid-century.
But industrial chemicals are merely the tip of the iceberg. Each year humanity also releases 130 million tonnes of nitrogen and phosphorus (mainly from food production or poor waste disposal), 400 million tonnes of hazardous wastes, 13 billion tonnes of fossil fuels, 35 billion tonnes of mineral wastes, 36 billion tonnes of carbon, and 75 billion tonnes of topsoil. These emissions collectively are by far our biggest impact on the planet and all life on it.
A growing pile of scientific evidence shows these substances are now moving relentlessly round the Earth in water, air, soil, animals, fish, food, trade, in people and in our very genes. Researchers have found toxic manmade chemicals from the stratosphere to the deep oceans, from the peak of Mount Everest (where fresh snow is too polluted to drink, by Australian standards) to remote Pacific atolls, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Toxic chemicals are now being routinely found by researchers in birds, fish, mammals and other life-forms which have never had contact with humans. They occur throughout our food chains.
Tests reveal that the modern citizen is a walking contaminated site. The US Centres for Disease Control’s regular survey found industrial "chemicals of concern" in the blood of 90-100 per cent of Americans. The Environmental Working Group, a US NGO, in independent tests reported finding 414 industrial toxins in 186 people ranging in age from newborns to grandparents.
EWG also found 212 chemicals of concern, including dioxins, flame retardants and known carcinogens in the blood of newborn babies, who were contaminated while still in the womb. Tests from China, America and Europe have revealed pesticides in the breast milk of nursing mothers – and most loving parents now immerse their children in petrochemicals of known and unknown toxicity – toys, clothing, furnishings, bottles, tableware, food, the home itself, the car, cleansers and so-called "personal care" products. Australian research has found that, even when dead and buried, people re-release their long-lived toxins back into groundwater. As a result of this and industrial emissions, groundwater beneath many of the world’s big cities is now so polluted as to be unfit to drink.
The real issue is that complex mixtures of thousands of chemicals now reach us in the air we breathe, the food and drink we consume, and the things we touch every day. We are passing their effects on to our children and grandchildren in our genes, ensuring they lead less healthy lives. This has all happened in just a few decades, and especially in the past 25 years. No previous generations of humans were so exposed, or carried such a body-burden of toxins.
UNEP estimates about 5 million people die and 86 million are disabled yearly by chemicals directly, making it one of the world’s leading causes of death – yet this does not include millions more cases where chemicals are increasingly being implicated by science in common diseases like cancers, heart disease, obesity, autism, depression and other life-threatening mental disorders. In all probability the toll from chemicals now far exceeds the annual toll of World War II.
In particular it affects children whose developing nervous and reproductive systems are especially vulnerable. The eminent Harvard University neuroscientist Professor Philippe Grandjean, in a recent article in The Lancet, called on all countries to "transform their chemical-risk assessment procedures in order to protect children from everyday toxins that may be causing a global ‘silent epidemic’ of brain development disorders".
Every year up to 1000 new chemicals are released onto markets worldwide, mostly without proper health, safety or environmental testing. Regulation has so far banned just 18 out of 143,000 known industrial chemicals in a handful of countries. At such rates of progress it will take us another 50,000 years to assess and ban all the substances that may be harmful, country by country – so national regulation holds few answers.
Furthermore, the globalised chemical industry is rapidly moving out of the developed world (where it is generally well-regulated and ethical) and into developing countries, mainly in Asia, where it is largely beyond the reach of the law. Its toxic emissions are already returning to citizens of wellregulated countries in wind, water, food, wildlife, consumer goods and people – and there is little done to stop this.
The issue to consider is that most, if not all, of these problems are preventable. Nobody has to suffer or die from chemical exposure. The world has been aware of chemical pollution since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring half a century ago – but has regarded it as local issue, restricted to specific sites, chemicals or end uses. This is no longer true: chemotoxicity is now universal and represents a challenge at the species level. An Australian-led scientific effort to assess the full extent of our risk is now under way – the Global Contamination Initiative (GCI).
Chemicals and minerals are valuable and extremely useful. They do great good, save many lives and much money. Nobody is saying they should all be banned. But something must be done about the current uncontrolled, unmonitored, unregulated and unconscionable mass release and planetary saturation. If governments cannot stem the toxic flood, the task must fall to millions of individual citizens, acting in their own best interests and those of their grandchildren. In a globalised world only we, the people, are powerful enough, as consumers, to send the market signals to industry to cease poisonous emissions – and to reward it for producing clean, safe, healthy products or services.
For the first time in history, the means exist to share a universal understanding of a common threat and what we can each do to mitigate it – through the internet and social media. This could become an expression of people power and global democracy like none before.
Finally, as I argue in the book Poisoned Planet, we need a new human right: a right not to be poisoned. Without such a right, there will probably never again be another day in our history when our children are not exposed.
Chemicals and minerals are valuable and extremely useful. They do great good, save many lives and much money. Nobody is saying they should all be banned. But something must be done about the current uncontrolled, unmonitored, unregulated and unconscionable mass release and planetary saturation.
Julian Cribb is an Australian author and science communicator. He is principal of Julian Cribb & Associates who provide specialist consultancy in the communicationof science, agriculture, food, mining, energy and the environment. His published work includes over 8,000articles, 3,000 media releases and eight books. His internationally acclaimed book.The Coming Famine (2010) explored the question of whether we can feed 10 billion humans this century. His latest book, Poisoned Planet (2014) looks at the contamination of the Earthsystem and all humanity by man-made chemicals and what we can do about it.http://www.amazon.com/Poisoned-Planet-Constant-Exposure-Chemicals/