There is an interesting idea in the book The World Without Us (just one of many, I recommend it). What will be one of humanity’s most lasting legacies on earth? Our enduringly toxic chemicals. We sure do love ’em.
Here are just a few places that our interesting chemicals can be found.
Hormone pollution in rivers! Why are so many fish in some streams female or intersex? Pollution. And its getting worse. Recent studies show it’s not all from the contraceptive pill and hormone replacement therapy, as some previously suggested, factory farms are dumping hormones in the water too, and many industrial and household chemicals mimic estrogen as well. Perfect.
Mercury in fish. Mercury is bad for you. It’s pretty much bad for anything that’s alive. And human activity seems to spread it everywhere. Here is a useful list to know what to eat and what not to eat. Sadly tuna is one of the worst, and I love sushi.
Toxic metals and PCBs (nasty chemicals) in whales. Some scientists think the PCB concentrations could be a problem for some populations for 30 to 60 years, and the metals could even lead to extinctions.
Toxic pollutants in humans. What, you thought toxicity was only for fish and whales? Of all the toxic creatures, who did you think was at the top of the food chain? We are.
Pregnant women are highly in danger from pollutants and are therefore important to study. And a recent study reveals a lot. They, and therefore we, assuming we are exposed to the same environment, are all contaminated. Read it in the SF Chronicle, USA Today, or the journal abstract. What are some of these interesting chemicals? Fun things like polybrominated diphenylethers, organochlorines, perchlorate, and phthalates. I like chemistry, but not enough to eat those.
All these examples barely scratch the surface.
Why are we, as a nation, allowing this to happen? We are conducting a huge toxicology experiment ON OURSELVES. Since the government apparently has little interest in protecting us, we, as individuals, need to look out for our own health. A few years ago I thought to myself “I better not eat, use, or wear anything that hasn’t been vetted for at least 50 years.” A very “traditionalist” approach to life. Let everybody else test it first, let it be proven safe or dangerous, and until then I’ll stick with what’s time tested and won’t kill me. But such a quixotic quest is both wrongheaded and impossible: chemicals from plastics, processed food, clothing, the house you live in, your transportation, your town, even rocket fuel (the perchlorates mentioned above) get into all of us. The contamination is there whether you want it or not. The solution is not individual self-defense, but collective action. So what can we do? Let’s hear some ideas.
Just to end with a joke, my friend Ted Hand (here’s his blog) once said to me “Humanity is like a rock star: live fast, die young, and leave a chemically tainted corpse.” Yeah. I think we are. Talk to me about it again in 50 years.