September 2005: What's Your Poison?

Life in a toxic environment is getting ever more precarious
September 1, 2005

Smog-alert days this past summer were more common than days when the air was marginally breathable. The death toll of people with respiratory problems soared. Ontario’s premier blamed the United States for this unwanted free-trade export, but, on a per-capita basis, factories in Ontario and the rest of Canada are belching out just as much toxic pollution--into the water as well as the atmosphere.

We’re living (and many of us unnecessarily dying) in an environment so contaminated by dangerous chemicals that maintaining our health has become a formidable challenge.

The World Health Organization (WHO), in its latest annual report, concludes that 80% of cancers are now being caused by exposure to environmental toxins. This means, at least theoretically, that they are preventable. Prevention, however, would require curbing the discharge of carcinogenic substances and the manufacture and sale of products containing them. But this is turn would mean curtailing the profits of many large corporations--something our governments and public “health protection” agencies will never willingly do.

Our public health guardians prefer to wait until the deadly effects of a chemical become so obvious--and claim so many victims--that they are forced to ban or restrict its use. The death toll from DDT and PCBs finally brought about their withdrawal, and other pesticides are also being gradually phased out, but these belated measures don’t even begin the urgently needed general clean-up.

We learned recently that dozens of toxic chemicals have been detected in household dust, in plastic toys, and in many other consumer products. The Teflon coating on pots and pans has come under so much suspicion that we are now advised to switch back to uncoated utensils.

The grim fact is that, of the many thousands of chemicals already released into the environment, fewer than 5% of them were effectively pre-tested for their effects on humans, other creatures, or the natural world. And, with hundreds of new chemicals being put into commercial use every year, the virtual lack of regulation threatens our well-being far more than any gang of terrorists.

A preventive approach would be based on the precautionary principle--putting the onus on the manufacturers of a chemical to prove it’s safe instead of waiting for the toll of sickness and death to prove it’s hazardous.

Even when a chemical has irrefutably been shown to be harmful, its immediate ban is by no means certain. In both Canada and the U.S., the government policy is then to conduct a “risk assessment” to determine how much of the chemical is “safe” to eat, drink, or breathe. Limits may then be set on the level of ingestion or exposure, but rarely will production and sale of the chemical be completely halted.

We had a horrific look at this policy in action when health authorities in both Canada and the U.S. recently decided to allow the dangerous drug Vioxx to be sold again. They had temporarily banned its use after it caused thousands of heart attacks, but lifted the ban when a “risk assessment” allegedly found that it benefited more patients than it killed. (Vioxx is a drug rather than a chemical, per se, but this decision is typical of a system in which the protection of profits trumps the protection of personal welfare--and of the planet itself.)

The numerical risk assessment method is flawed on many counts. Biologist Joe Thornton listed them in a recent article in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. His two main critiques are that this approach 1) foolishly assumes that testing of this sort can identify all the ways that every individual chemical can cause harm to humans and the environment; and 2) it ignores the centuries-long duration of many chemicals and their tendency to move from place to place.

Risk assessment assumes that damage is short-lived, local, and predictable. “But organisms and the environment are complex, interconnected, and only partly understood,” says Dr. Thornton. “No testing can detect or predict cause-and-effect in any reliable way.”

He points out that pesticides, solvents, and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) resist natural breakdown. They are fat-soluble and thus accumulate as they move up the food chain. By the time they reach our dinner table, their concentration is “tens of millions of times greater than typical environmental levels.” So even very small discharges of synthetic chemicals can build up to dangerous levels in our bodies over time.

At what stage will the extent of these toxins in our bodies trigger a cellular disorder that leads to cancer? That may depend on our genetic makeup and the strength of our immune system. Some of us--a shrinking number--will be able to withstand the chemical invasion of our lungs, kidneys, liver, lymph-glands, and other organs. But millions of us, sooner or later, will succumb to the chemical contamination to which we are overwhelmingly exposed. Many millions have already died prematurely from chemical poisoning, and millions more suffer needlessly from pollution-related ailments that seriously impair their quality of life.

Even if we were able to keep the toxins we directly ingest to a safe level (an increasingly difficult task), we may still become the victims of cumulative global pollution. So intense and pervasive has chemical discharge become that, left unchecked, it will eventually destroy the biosphere on which all life depends.

This is a dismal prospect, made all the more so by a global system run by powerful, greedy, irresponsible megalomaniacs. Still, we have no choice but to continue the struggle for social, economic, and environmental survival. Apathy is not an option. As Ronald Wright reminds us in his stirring essay starting on the front page, we still have a chance, however slim, to “get the future right.”

Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected].