Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Our Human Right not to Be Poisoned

CSA-Printstock/iStock

Credit: CSA-Printstock/iStock

By Julian Cribb

Thousands of new chemicals are released each year, and the toxic effects are mounting. What can we do about it?

Earth, and all life on it, are being saturated with anthropogenic chemicals and wastes in an event unlike anything in the previous four billion years of our planet’s story. Each moment of our lives, from conception to death, we are exposed to thousands of substances, some lethal, many toxic, and most of them unknown in their effects on our health or on the natural world.

This has mainly happened in barely the space of a single lifetime. Collectively humanity manufactures around 144,000 different chemicals, and the US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 1000–2000 new ones are released each year. Many of these are untested for safety.

These are the mere tip of the iceberg. Each year we also generate:

  • 150 million tonnes of nitrogen and 11 million tonnes of phosphorus, mainly from farming, burning fossil fuels and waste disposal;
  • 400 million tonnes of hazardous wastes, including 50 million tonnes of old computers and phones;
  • 15 billion tonnes of coal, oil and gas, contributing the lion’s share of 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide gas;
  • 72 billion tonnes of minerals, metals and materials;
  • up to 100 billion tonnes of rock, soil, tailings, overburden and slags from mining; and
  • 75 billion tonnes of topsoil, mainly from farming and development.

These substances move constantly in both space and time. They travel on the wind, in water, attached to soil, in dust, in plastic particles, in wildlife, in food and traded goods, and in (and on) people. They combine and recombine with one another, and with naturally occurring substances, giving rise to generations of new compounds – some more toxic, others less, and many completely unknown. They leapfrog around the planet in cycles of absorption and re-release known as the “grasshopper effect”.

Many of these substances, especially heavy metals, last for generations, creating a cumulative toxic load in the environment – and in ourselves. Their effects are, even now, being passed on to future generations of people through our genes.

Tests show that most people in modern societies now carry a lifelong chemical burden (tinyurl.com/mooul6r), that unborn babies are contaminated with industrial chemicals (tinyurl.com/ndyls8b) and that mothers’ milk in 68 countries is contaminated with pesticides and other noxious substances (tinyurl.com/oj3mwgl). Around 4000–6000 chemicals – mostly pesticides, preservatives, additives and dyes – are regularly used in the growing, processing and packaging of our food.

The World Health Organisation and UN Environment Program have estimated that one in 12 people die from these environmental toxins, and around 86 million are maimed each year (tinyurl.com/o96pbo6). This toll is greater than for HIV, malaria or car crashes. One in five cancers – about two million fatalities per year – are attributable to our exposure to carcinogens in our living environment (tinyurl.com/

njkzkmf). Medical scientists have warned of a silent pandemic of childhood brain damage caused by the global release of neurotoxins due to human activity, and health officials have cautioned that reproductive and gender disorders caused by endocrine-disrupting chemicals are on the rise worldwide.

Above all, health researchers are concerned at the potential impact of billions of mixtures of thousands of different substances combining in our diet and living environment, which they now increasingly link to conditions including developmental disorders, sexual dysfunction, obesity, cancers, heart disease, and nerve and brain diseases including autism, depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Current human life expectancy figures are based on historical data, and on medical successes gained with vaccines, anti­biotics and sound public health. The impact of the toxic flood may be temporarily masked by this success, but many scientists fear this will not last long because “lifestyle” diseases and society’s toxic burden are on the rise.

We cannot afford to wait until death rates rise. We must act now to prevent them doing so.

The Stockholm Convention has so far banned just 19 out of our 144,000 chemicals, and appears powerless to stem the global flood of new releases, especially as the bulk of the world’s chemical output is now shifting to poorly regulated Third World locations. From Minamata to Bhopal to Tianjin, a string of toxic disasters has demonstrated the futility of legal action against individual companies to stem global contamination. However, blaming industry and calling for tougher regulation will not solve the problem of the poisoned planet.

We need a smarter way to protect society and all future generations from the toxic flood. This starts with recognising that we are the ones who generate the market signals that lead to the mass production and ill-considered release of toxins. Every act of consumption on a crowded planet has chemical consequences. Every dollar we spend sends a signal to a string of industries to produce, use or emit a mass of chemicals. Those innocent signals, in all likelihood, are now killing more people per year than in World War II.

In a sense we are all getting away with murder. This uncomfortable thought is essential if modern society is to take effective action to clean up the Earth and protect our children in the future. If we have given rise to the problem by demanding goods that are produced using toxic substances or with toxic processes, then we alone have the power to correct it. It is already clear that governments do not have the capacity or the will to regulate a global toxic flood. Regulation is important, but if we rely on rules alone to protect our children, the evidence indicates they will not succeed.

In a globalised world only we, the people, are powerful enough – as consumers – to send the market signals to industry to cease toxic emissions. And to properly reward it for producing clean, safe, healthy products or services. For the first time in history we have the means to share a universal understanding of a common threat and what we can each do to mitigate it.

Through the internet and social media, concerned citizens and parents are already mobilising around the world – reaching out to one another across cultural, ethnic, religious, linguistic and economic borders. Concerned citizens and parents are joining hands at lightspeed to cleanse our poisoned planet. This is an expression of people power and global democracy like never before.

Many exciting new technologies and approaches are being trialled to clean up our planet, like green chemistry, industrial ecology, product stewardship and zero waste. But we have to find ways to encourage industry to adopt, and the most effective of these are consumer-generated market signals.

Far from being harmful to industry, this universal demand for clean, safe products will open fresh markets, create more jobs, built new companies and generate greater prosperity and better health.

There are many ways in which we can all contribute to detoxifying our world:

  • form a partnership of concerned citizens, industries and regulators;
  • demand a new human right not to be poisoned;
  • eliminate coal, oil, gas and fossil fuels as the primary sources of most contamination;
  • eliminate toxins from the food chain through regulation;
  • institute worldwide preventative healthcare to replace the “get-sick-and-treat-with-more-chemicals” approach);
  • incorporate the teaching of ethics with chemistry in order to train young scientists, like doctors, to “first, do no harm”;
  • educate children to choose non-toxic products;
  • reward industry by buying green;
  • implement zero waste, green chemistry and product stewardship in our consumption patterns. lives and occupations; and
  • test all new chemical products for health and environmental safety.

Every person in the world has a right to life, liberty, personal security, marriage and family, equality, work, education, freedom of belief and freedom from torture. These rights are available to each of us under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It is more than a little disturbing that there is no human right not to be poisoned – a privilege enjoyed by all our ancestors until recent times.

Unless and until we have such a right, there will probably never again be a day in history when we and our children are free from man-made poisons.

Julian Cribb is the author of Poisoned Planet (Allen&Unwin). This article is based on his keynote address to the CleanUp 2015 Conference in Melbourne.