Bring up the health concerns of extracting and burning fossil fuels and most people fall into one of four camps: Those who fear and experience health problems from pollution; those that deny or ignore health problems because they profit from fossil fuels; those that fear losing the conveniences of using fossil fuels; or those that simply do not know that there are health problems associated with fossil fuels. Not to make light of the fourth camp, but they are by far the largest of the camps that seem to think the technologies that support our modern technological, consumer society are benign.
A quick overview of how technology overall has inundated us ALL with pollution problems should help remedy this illusion of benignity from technologies that we take for granted. There are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals on the market today, and very few have been thoroughly tested for any harmful effects. A quick test on your attitude to being exposed to chemicals. Whenever you buy any household product, think, “Is it safe?” If after reading the list of ingredients you would happily put it next to the food on the kitchen counter then fine. If you would be hesitant to place it anywhere near your food or even the children, then why is it in your house being used? Some products with toxic ingredients and potential for harm need to be used, but how carefully are you using them?
Of course, there are many kinds of toxicity, and for many, we do not have a choice about whether we are exposed to them or not, because they come to us from many sources. We are all exposed to pollution and toxic chemicals via Industrial manufacturing that reach us through; consumer products; workplace products; medicines and medical materials; pesticides and fertilizers; and air, water and solid waste. Think about all the places and ways you can be exposed to these chemicals: drinking water, the air you breathe, the food you eat, household and cosmetic products, medicinal chemicals, and workplace exposure, as well as multiple possibilities in all public areas where chemicals are used. The range of toxicants are also unnerving: carcinogens that cause cancer, mutagens that cause mutations in DNA, teratogens that cause birth defects in pregnant women, allergens that cause unnecessary immune responses, neurotoxins that damage the nervous system, and endocrine disruptors that interfere with hormones. We might believe that government agencies like the FDA and EPA are protecting us – aren’t they? They are charged with monitoring 75,000 industrial chemicals, but there is minimal funding to do this required testing – too many chemicals, and too little time, people, and resources. Only 10% of chemicals on the market are thoroughly tested with less than 1% actually being government regulated. And then only 2% are screened for carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, and 0% are tested for endocrine, nervous, or immune effects. Because of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts our air and water are somewhat regulated but the thresholds of how much pollution is allowed is determined in part by how effective the polluting industries have been in lobbying to deregulate such landmark acts.
.Toxic and emissions drift inundate anyone that is in the air flow from the sources of pollution, whether this be farmers using pesticides on a field, smoke stacks from manufacturing or coal burning power plants, or emissions from resource extraction fields. There is nowhere on Earth you can go now (including the polar regions) to escape these drifts, but the concentrations of toxics are clearly higher the closer you are to a source or if you are in the air flow corridors. Water and wind have this propensity to move around the planet. So, what pollution happens in China, for instance, can eventually make it into the rain and air over your home. Besides river and groundwater pollution that makes it into your drinking water, there are numerous sources of your farm crops being polluted as well as the many chemicals that are added by the food industry to processed food! But, wait. Isn’t the food industry regulated? Sort of. The FDA cannot test everything so most times they leave the industry themselves to police the danger of any chemicals they use. If any chemical is ‘Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS)’ then it need not be tested. Who determines GRAS? Experts of course, most who work for or are funded by the industry itself. I wish I was simply some radical trying to just scare you, but you can easily look up this information for yourself.
It’s not as if chemicals that are used then just vanish after they enter the environment (or us). There is the problem of persistence as well as drift. Some pollutants are more long-lasting than others and can persist within the environment for many years, breaking down naturally – sometimes in to a more toxic a chemical than the original pollutant. Pesticide/toxicant pollution drift can be found from the tropics to the arctic and accumulate within food webs. What might start out as low innocuous concentrations of pollutions can, through the process of biomagnification (the concentration of toxins in an organism as a result of its ingesting other plants or animals in which the toxins are more widely disbursed), reach toxic concentrations in long-lived predators.
Dose-response curves allow us to predict effects of higher doses. By extrapolating the curve out to higher values, we can predict how toxic a substance may be to humans at various concentrations. In most curves, response increases with dose. But this is not always the case; the increase may not be linear. With endocrine disruption for instance, toxic effects may increase even though the toxin concentration has decreased. Now you might be asking, aren’t some people more sensitive than others to pollution? Yes, that is true, but you don’t know who until they are affected! Not all people are equal. Sensitivity to toxicant can vary with sex, age, weight, etc. Babies, older people, or those in poor health are more sensitive. The type of exposure is important. Acute is high exposure in short period of time and often be pinpointed to a specific source (e.g. a chemical splash or factory explosion). The hardest to pinpoint is chronic exposures that occur from lower amounts over a long period of time. To complicate the problems even more, many chemical substances may interact when combined together within the environment such that the mixes of toxicants may cause health effects greater than the sum of their individual effects. These are called synergistic effects and pose a challenging problem for toxicologists since there is no way to test all possible combinations! (And the environment contains complex mixtures of many toxicants.)
This blog post isn’t meant to scare you but just to make you aware of the need for caution and awareness, and not to simply accept things as they are just because some authority says “not to worry.” There is a lot we can do, but it means making your voice heard, and joining it with others to set sensible and well-thought out regulations and restrictions for everyone’s health and benefit. To Be Continued…