Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Our Human Right not to Be Poisoned


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?

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.