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Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry
By Elizabeth Grossman
ISLAND PRESS Copyright © 2009 Elizabeth Grossman
All rights reserved.
There's Something in the Air
Clouds are building slowly along the horizon as afternoon breezes begin to stir the air. Cumulous clouds float over the northern shore of Lake Erie, casting shadows on fields of wheat and corn and soybeans. They float over the Tomato Capital of Canada. Over cattails and water lilies and disappearing bullfrogs. The breezes travel south over Lake Huron and over Ojibwe homelands on the south shore of the lake. They travel over the smokestacks of Sarnia, Detroit, and Windsor, and mix with air blowing north from Cleveland and the Ohio Valley. They ruffle flags on the small docks of homes along the St. Clair River, bending the plume of power-plant smoke and black-tipped flares from the refineries that shadow their backyards. They whip up waves at the mouth of the Detroit River and rock the fishing boats moored at the Wheatley Harbor where children scamper along the pier, casting lines in practice for the upcoming fishing derby.
It is because this Great Lakes region has the worst air quality and the highest ozone levels along the U.S.-Canadian border that I am standing in an Ontario bean field on a sweltering July day in 2007 with scientists who have set up mobile labs to map and measure what's in the air. It's here that airborne effluent from petrochemical and automotive factories, oil refineries, and coal-fired power plants in Sarnia, about an hour's drive north of here, and factories in Windsor and Detroit along the U.S.-Canadian border, mixes with diesel exhaust from one of North America's busiest trucking corridors, which runs between Midwestern and Eastern industrial hubs. As air swirls above the Great Lakes, propelled by cool lake waters and heat from the sun, chemical reactions are taking place. Hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and dioxide, nitrogen, sulfur, and persistent pollutants bounce around the troposphere.
Some of these chemicals will linger locally, as smog and particulates that will make some residents of this Great Lakes region wheeze and cause the blood vessels of others to constrict. Some will act as greenhouse gases and contribute to the climate-disrupting effects of global warming. Some will turn up in Great Lakes fish, for which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently maintains some thirty-nine different chemical advisories. Atop a buoy bobbing on the waves of Lake Erie, the scientists I'm visiting have placed a filter to catch pollutants that drift out over the water. Overhead, a small plane loaded with gear to monitor what's floating up near the clouds cruises over the farm fields, its buzz mingling with summer insect drone and distant traffic hum.
Later I'll drive through neighborhoods surrounding the factories that turn fossil fuel into the ingredients of plastics; solvents; fertilizers; pesticides ; lubricants; synthetic fibers; surfactants; pharmaceuticals; moisture, stain, and flame repellants; cosmetics; and household cleaning and personal care products. Families in these neighborhoods carry the chemical constituents of these products in their bloodstreams. Hospitalization rates in their communities are significantly higher than elsewhere in Canada as are rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. People who live here also have notably higher incidences of certain cancers—Hodgkin's disease and leukemia—than do other Ontario residents. It's becoming increasingly clear that these illnesses are related to the thousands of tons of airborne pollutants that circulate through these communities. These chemicals may also impact residents' health in far less overt or acute ways, prompting subtle but significant changes in how genetic receptors and hormones behave and setting the stage for dysfunction that may take years or even generations to become apparent.
Some of these chemicals will also move on, mingling with soot, vehicle and agricultural emissions, and vented indoor air. They will travel on city breezes, with global air and water currents—with clouds, rain, snowmelt, pollen, oceans, rivers, and fog. Some will end up continents away from their points of origin, leapfrogging with seasonal weather patterns across county, state, and national borders. As a result of such chemical migrations, even the most remote and visually pristine places on Earth—high-altitude rain forests, coral reefs, and Arctic communities among them—are suffering the impacts of industrial pollution.
Later that same July, on a day when the sun barely set, in an Alaskan island village built on permafrost, I listened to residents express frustration, anxiety, and anger over not knowing how these kinds of lingering pollutants might be affecting their health and that of the animals they depend on for food. Some of the same chemicals wafting over those Ontario farm fields and found in the tissue of Great Lakes fish will be in ice samples I helped scientists bag a few months later, in December on the frozen Beaufort Sea. Tracking the journey of such pollutants further the following April, I watched gulls fly over water dotted with small ice floes off the north coast of the Norwegian islands of Svalbard, just 10 latitude degrees south of the North Pole. Brominated flame retardants—synthetic chemicals commonly used in upholstery and electronics—have been found in these birds and their eggs.
What makes this far-flung pollution perplexing is that while some of it comes from smokestacks, drainpipes, tail pipes, waste sites, and other industrial sources, many of these contaminants can be traced to and migrate out of products we use every day and seldom think could be the source of airborne or aquatic contamination. Our kitchens, offices, bathrooms, hospitals, and children's toy boxes are filled with these products. We clean our homes, clothes, and bodies with them. Travel in a car, airplane, or modern train and you are surrounded by them. Much of our food is grown, processed with, and affected by such chemicals. Agricultural, industrial, and urban runoff, along with what we flush down our own household drains, has filled our waterways with so many of these chemicals that they are now common in coastal environments. We wear them, eat them, and touch them constantly. Vacuum cleaner and drier lint are full of them. One scientist has recently posited that young children's exposure to such compounds may be proportionally higher than adults' because they touch hands to mouth so much more frequently and are in closer proximity to household dust.
Many of these fugitive chemicals have turned out to be long-distance travelers that resist degradation in the environment. They are accumulating in groundwater, soil, aquatic sediment, glacial snow, and polar ice. Many last for years, even decades. Others, such as those that make up polycarbonate and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, migrate only short distances and do not last for extended periods of time but are nevertheless pervasive and so widely used as to be virtually inescapable in twenty-first-century, consumer-product-filled society.
Both the persistent pollutants and the less long-lasting but pervasive synthetic chemicals are turning up repeatedly in animals, plants, food, and in people, including those who do not work with these substances nor live anywhere near where chemical product manufacturing takes place. Though used commercially with the assumption that they are safe, a growing body of scientific evidence indicates many of these materials may in fact not be. While not acutely toxic at levels routinely encountered, it appears that even at low levels some of these compounds can disrupt normal cell function with a number of disturbing outcomes. Among these impacts is interference with endocrine system hormones and genetic mechanisms that regulate reproductive and neurological development and metabolism. Some are being linked to the recent rise in obesity and other metabolic disorders, including diabetes. Others are confirmed or suspected carcinogens, while some have been documented to both interfere with hormone function in ways that can result in early puberty and irregular reproductive cycles and promote certain cancers as well as interfere with chemotherapy drugs. Adverse impacts are now being seen not only in laboratory experiments but also in field observations.
A number of these engineered materials have molecular structures that make them soluble in fat. If traveling with air or water and taken up by an animals or plants, these substances will lodge in, and over time can build up in, the fat cells of plant or animal tissue. As contaminated plants and animals are eaten so are these fat-soluble compounds, and thus they work their way up the food web. Polar bears, top predators with great stores of fat, have among the highest recorded levels of such chemicals. Residents of the Arctic, whose diet centers on marine mammals and fatty fish, have some of the highest levels of exposure to these toxics. Recent scientific investigations indicate that fat cells themselves can become reservoirs of these fat-soluble or lipophilic (fat loving) toxics, setting the stage for prolonged contact even when the external sources of exposure are removed.
Some of these chemicals—both the persistent and the shorter-lived pervasive compounds—have become so ubiquitous that they are now found in the vast majority of Americans tested for them. Similar results have been found in such testing (known as biomonitoring) done all around the world, with nearly everyone's results revealing evidence of chemicals to which they have had no occupational or other previously recognized exposure. Flame retardants, plasticizers, and surfactants (synthetic chemicals that give soaps, detergents, lotions, paints, and inks, for example, their special textures and consistency) are being found in newborns' umbilical cord blood. An expert in this field has told me that no babies are born in this country today without at least some of these synthetics percolating through their bodies.
These chemicals—compounds designed in laboratories and that exist nowhere in nature—have given us lightweight, durable, flexible, and waterproof materials. These synthetic materials can be manipulated to deliver medicine, help increase crop yields, and create the nerve centers of digital information systems. They have transformed our lives in countless efficacious ways and it's now hard to imagine life without them. Yet the chemistry of a great many of these synthetics is also changing the world in ways that extend far beyond their intended design. In some cases these materials have permanently altered the behavior of hormones that control metabolism and reproduction resulting in adverse health effects that are already showing up in wildlife and human populations.
Many of these compounds are so different from the products of natural chemistry, says one scientist, that "it is as if they dropped in from an alien world." Another—John Warner—commented, "We're lucky if 10 percent of the chemicals we use are truly benign." These manufactured chemicals are subtly changing environmental chemistry worldwide—the fundamental building blocks of life on Earth—on both a cellular and landscape scale. So many of these changes have already taken place that according to marine scientists studying the impact of these chemicals, "During the course of the last century, the planet has become and is now chemically different from any previous time."
* * *
Virtually everything on Earth is made up of chemicals, as any number of people who work for chemical manufacturing companies have pointed out to me. Chemicals are simply the elemental molecules that make up life on Earth. I've also been reminded that at certain doses, under certain circumstances, even the most environmentally benign substances (water is the oft-cited example) can be toxic. There are also natural sources of many hazardous materials—mercury, for example, or poisonous plants—so industry is not the sole source of environmental toxics. All this is certainly true. The chemicals I'm following in this book, however, are all deliberately manufactured or the result of environmental breakdown and recombination of commercially synthesized materials. None would be present in our lives if they had not been invented in a laboratory, and their hazard or toxicity is directly related to their molecular composition and design. Unlike an overdose of water, exposure to these synthetic chemicals is occurring under normal circumstances—not accidentally or as a result of any product misuse, although occupational exposure to some of these synthetics can cause serious problems—often over extended periods of time, and most often without warning signs of unusual odor, taste, or other immediate sensory distress signals.
We've been living with warnings about industrially synthesized and dispersed chemicals for decades now. But we've responded to these concerns on a piecemeal, substance-by-substance basis, taking one material off the market when its adverse effects have been recognized and substituting another without altering the framework of this process. This approach has discontinued use of some blatantly dangerous chemicals, and some scientists feel this has successfully reduced our exposure to the most hazardous toxics. But this approach has also allowed the commercial production of tens of thousands of new materials, many of which have turned out to be environmentally problematic, while allowing continued use of older known hazards either at low volumes or in places with less stringent environmental regulations. If evidence of chemical contamination were reported graphically on a global map, that chart would now be so riddled with blots that virtually no part of the world would be untouched.
Living with pollution and potentially hazardous materials is not new. Humans have been polluting ever since we began burning, mining, forging, milling, tanning, and dying. What is new in historical terms is the existence of so many synthetic chemicals—many of which are toxic—and the large number of such substances we are exposed to, often since before birth, and how impossible they are to avoid. We've now gotten a grip on some of the most egregious offenders in terms of large volumes of acutely toxic or noxious emissions—we're no longer using most ozone-depleting chemicals or spraying DDT across North America, for example—but the legacy of many of these substances is still with us and large quantities of hazardous effluent continue to flow from industrial point sources.
Some of the discontinued toxics, for example, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)—which were used as industrial insulators and coolants, primarily in electrical equipment—are so persistent in the environment that although they were taken off the U.S. market in 1977 due to their carcinogenicity, they continue to be found almost everywhere scientists have looked. You "can't go anywhere on earth and not find PCBs," says John Stegeman, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who specializes in marine contaminants. DDT was also taken out of use in the 1970s in the United States and Europe, but its chemical breakdown products continue to be found in people without current direct exposures in both North America and Europe. These are but two examples of such chemical persistence.
Environmental regulations enacted at about the same time as these product bans have effectively put the brakes on uncontrolled industrial emissions. But while we've worked hard to control these large fixed sources of chemical contamination, thanks to the global marketplace and supply chains of the twenty-first and late twentieth centuries, what we've added to this ongoing burden are potentially millions of new point sources of pollution—millions of individual products, mass-produced and launched at high volume and rapid pace into the world market—whose chemical contents permeate our lives and the world's environment. What is also new is that these chemicals are abroad in the world at a time when other crucial ecological dynamics are changing. These substances are interacting with biological mechanisms, individuals, species, and ecosystems that are also now affected by the impacts of global warming, natural resource depletion, and habitat destruction—all of which make us and the rest of nature more vulnerable than ever and which increase the urgency of finding solutions to this chemical pollution.
Excerpted from Chasing Molecules by Elizabeth Grossman. Copyright © 2009 Elizabeth Grossman. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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