Humanity currently produces more than 144,000 synthetic chemicals, around a third of which are suspected of links to cancer, mutations and birth defects or are toxic in some way. Global output of these substances is around 30 million tonnes a year, which the UN Environment Program (UNEP) expects to triple by mid-century.
But these industrial chemicals are the tip of the iceberg. Each year we humans also emit more than 250 billion tonnes of topsoil, carbon, minerals and materials, hazardous wastes, fossil fuels, nitrogen, phosphorus – along with about 9 trillion tonnes of very polluted water. That’s our real footprint on the Earth.
These substances are now all around us. A growing avalanche of scientific studies documents their movement around the Earth in water, air, soil, animals, fish, food, trade, in people and in our very genes. Man-made chemicals are found from the stratosphere to the deep oceans, from the peak of Mt Everest (where fresh snow is too polluted to drink) to the Amazon jungle and remote Pacific atolls, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. They are routinely found in birds, fish, mammals and other creatures that have never had contact with humans. They occur throughout the modern food chain.
Today’s citizen is a walking contaminated site carrying often carrying several hundred industrial chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic. The US Centers for Disease Control’s regular survey find particular ‘chemicals of concern’ in the blood of 90-100 per cent of Americans. The Environmental Working Group in independent tests reports finding 414 industrial toxins in 186 people ranging in age from newborns to grandparents.
EWG also found 212 chemicals of concern, including dioxins, flame retardants and known carcinogens in the blood of new-born babies, who were contaminated while still in the womb. The World Health Organisation reports that mother’s milk is contaminated with up to 22 noxious pesticides and industrial chemicals in 68 countries including America, fifteen European countries, Brazil, China, Russia, India, Australia and numerous African and Asian countries. In the US every commercial brand of infant formula was found to be contaminated with rocket fuel.
Loving parents immerse their children in petrochemicals of known and unknown toxicity from birth – toys, clothing, furnishings, bottles, tableware, food, the home itself, the car, household cleansers and hundreds of so-called ‘personal care’ products like soaps, shampoos and perfumes. The US uses around 6000 different pesticides, preservatives, dyes and other chemicals to grow, process and package its food, and this trend is catching on worldwide as the industrial food chain takes over. Europe spends $173 billion in healthcare on diseases caused by endocrine disrupting chemicals alone. The World Health Organisation estimates that one in twelve deaths, globally, is now due to chemical poisoning, mostly chronic.
Millions of unknown chemical mixtures now reach us in the air we breathe, our food, drink and medicines, the things we touch every day. We are passing their effects to our children and grandchildren in our genes, bequeathing them less healthy lives. This has mostly happened in the last sixty years: previous generations of humans never faced such a toxic flood. For the first time in history, a single species – ourselves – is poisoning the entire planet, and all life on it.
In spite of this, the US Health Department estimates around 2000 new chemicals are released onto markets worldwide, Most of these have not been tested for human health or environmental safety, warns UNEP. So far just 19 (out of 144,000) chemicals have been banned in a handful of countries. Furthermore, the global chemical industry is rapidly relocated to developing countries where it is largely unregulated and outside the reach of the law. Its toxic emissions are returning to citizens in well-regulated countries in air, water, food, wildlife, trade goods and people - and local regulation is powerless to prevent this. Since Rachel Carson published ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962, world use of pesticides alone has increased thirty fold.
Chemicals and minerals are valuable and extremely useful. They do great good, save many lives and much money. Nobody is saying they should all be banned. But something must be done about the current uncontrolled, unmonitored, unregulated and unconscionable mass release and planetary saturation.
If governments cannot stem the toxic flood, the task falls to millions of individual citizens, acting in their own best interests and those of their grandchildren. In a globalised world only we, the people, have the power, as consumers, to send the market signals to industry to cease poisonous emissions – and to 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. It is already starting to happen, with organisations and websites representing some 50 million concerned citizens, parents and consumers sharing information, ideas and advice at lightspeed around the planet. Scientists are working on promising technologies like green chemistry, zero waste, industrial ecology, product stewardship and risk-based remediation, to clean up the mess – but they need we citizens to compel both industry and government to change.
This new form of human self-awareness crosses all the old boundaries that formerly divided us – gender, nationality, language, religion, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, geographic location. Given time, it can become be an expression of people power and global democracy like none before. We are starting to think as a species – and this is a very exciting and hopeful moment in the human ascent.
Finally, as I argue in the book Poisoned Planet, we also need a new Human Right: a right not to be poisoned. It is a right our ancestors enjoyed right up to present generation. Without such a right, there will probably never again be a day in our history when we and our children are safe from man-made poisons.