Sunday, October 21, 2007

Chemicals, the environment, and strange effects on us all

Charlotte Brody is the executive director of Commonweal, an organization that works on health and environmental issues. I recently heard her speak at the Bioneers 2007 conference about chemical pollution in the environment, and how much of it mimics estrogen and is leading to biological mutation of sex characteristics in all kinds of animals.

There's a large number of chemicals which haven't been tested for their effects on humans. Generally the chemicals which are tested are ones which end up in food or beverage or drugs or other things which people consume into their bodies. Other chemicals aren't tested. But any chemical that's used to make anything will eventually get into the environment. A product will eventually end up broken and discarded by its owner, and end up in e.g. a landfill or an incinerator or dumped in the ocean etc. Eventually the environment will break that product down to its constituent chemicals and those chemicals will leach into the air, water, soil, etc. Every product goes through this, and every chemical used to make every product eventually ends up in the environment.

One effect from these chemicals is they mimic estrogen, and this ends up mutating sex characteristics of many animals. There are studies of fish showing multi-sex characteristics, having both male and female sex organs. This shows up in humans as well, especially in places with high levels of chemical contamination. She described an indiginous settlement in Ontario, across from Port Huron Michigan, where the ratio of baby boys to baby girls is 1/3 boys and 2/3 girls. Normally the ratio is slightly more than 50% baby boys. This happens elsewhere, and she described a village in Greenland where no baby boys are born.

You might think, Greenland? How is Greenland having chemical contamination? They don't have any industry. While this is true, there is a curious effect with the spread of chemical pollutants. Certain compounds are persistent, in that they don't break down and the global environment causes these compounds to collect in the polar regions in abnormally high concentrations. See Having Faith for a detailed discussion. Hence, even though the polar regions like Greenland don't have their own industry, they are chemically contaminated by the industry which occurs further south.

She makes an interesting point that this is a "common wound". We are all affected (wounded) by the chemical contamination of our environment. We all drink water and eat food and breath air and this affects us all.

Our health is being violated without our permission. The decisions which lead to the chemical contamination of our world, they're made far removed from where the typical person on the street has any input. These decisions are made inside corporations, legislatures, research labs, etc. The result of these decisions is the contamination of us all, one result of which is the confused sex characteristics I just mentioned.

This caused Charlotte Brody to suggest a Marxist view of this -- as in, "Who controls the means of production". I don't think she would call herself a Marxist, but she is raising an interesting question. Who controls what chemicals are used in the production of products around us? Who determines the burden of proof and other methods to decide which chemicals to use?

The default burden of proof currently used is to require that a given chemical be shown to be harmful before it can be banned. This has given industry an open road to using pretty much any chemical they desire, regardless of its safety or lack thereof. A different approach might be to require all chemicals be studied and shown to be safe, before they are allowed to be used.

But this leads to the other idea she discussed. There is a long history of environmental activists who get attacked by business and government. She especially focused on the story of Rachel Carson and how she was accused of being a hysterical bitch. The rhetoric defenses from business, when they feel threatened, is rarely to engage in a reasoned debate. But instead they accuse the activist of trying to stop all commerce, trying to overthrow the state, etc.

Businesses and governments have survival traits as do people and other animals. Businesses and governments can feel threatened, and if one suggests a given chemical must be banned because it's unhealthy then the maker of that chemical will feel threatened.

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