In the year 1962, biologist Rachel Carson published her iconic book, Silent Spring, which opened people’s eyes to the dangers of chemicals in the environment. Carson evoked a world where the sound of bird song and the buzzing of bees would no longer be heard because of the agricultural industry’s systematic poisoning of earth, water and air. Carson’s work was a crucial moment in the environmental movement, which led to public outcry and eventually the banning of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) in 1972. However, we are still a long way from ridding our world of highly toxic chemicals that can cause serious damage to the environment, as well as human and animal health. These chemicals still have an enormous global footprint and can be found in the air, our homes, our water and in the food we eat.
The Stockholm Convention
In an important milestone in international law, the Stockholm Convention on Persistant organic Pollutants entered into force in 2004. The Stockholm Convention is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) that are highly toxic. POPs circulate for years and sometimes decades before degrading and have been known to cause cancers, birth defects and impact immune, development, and reproductive systems, etc amongst animals and humans.The goal of the convention is to restrict and eventually phase out the production, use, trade, release and storage of these toxic chemicals.
Are we safe now?
Although the production of almost all these toxic chemicals have been prohibited under this Convention, they continue to be present in our environment and bioaccumulate.
Several of the banned chemicals are still permitted to be used in the manufacturing of insecticides, termiticides, adhesives, etc. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) may still lurk in our homes in old refrigerators, old florescent light fittings, old paints and PVC coatings of wires. PCBs are still used in electrical transformers. Hundreds of superfund sites in the U.S. are contaminated with PCBs including 200 miles of the Hudson River in New York State. The deaths of seabirds have also been linked to PCBs. DDT, which is infamous for decimating the bald eagle, osprey, and other predatory bird populations and for contaminating nursing mothers’ milk is still used on mosquitoes to control malaria in several countries.
Dioxin, a byproduct chemical, is considered one of the most toxic substances to human beings as it is carcinogenic and can cause a host of other endocrine problems. Dioxins are present in vehicle emissions, metal smelting and refining and cigarette smoke, as well as more innocuous products like bleached paper. In 2008 Irish pork was withdrawn from sale when dioxins were discovered in animals that had eaten contaminated feed. Eating meat is a major source of dioxin ingestion in humans, dwarfing inhalation. Lindane, which was recently added to the POP list, has been exempted for use in head lice and scabies treatments.
The Good News
It’s not all acid rain and toxic sludge! Many corporations across various countries now have a toxic release registration system, and much of the information is publicly available, which has helped advocacy groups put that information to good use in naming and shaming corporate polluters. One such group, The Mid-South Peace and Justice Center in Tennessee, have compiled a dirty dozen list for the last three years that lists the types of chemicals released and how they affect the human body. Spokesperson Rita Harris says, “there is an anxiety that has been created in industry; some companies will do almost anything to keep from being on the list.” The lists have also mobilized the local community and empowered them to ask the right questions of polluters and as a consequence they have seen a massive reduction in emissions from local polluters. Harris says, “People were surprised at the amount of chemicals emitted right in their neighborhoods.”
Perhaps one of the best outcomes of heightened awareness of the toxicity of chemicals in our environment is the growing popularity of organic agriculture. Consumers are now better educated to make choices that benefit themselves and the environment.
Stay informed by finding out about pollutant emissions in your area by visiting the following sites and support organic agriculture!
- US: Toxics release inventory http://www.epa.gov/tri/
- Canada: http://www.ec.gc.ca/inrp-npri/
- Australia: National Pollutant Inventory http://www.npi.gov.au/
- Europe: Pollutants Emissions Register http://eper.ec.europa.eu/