Friday, May 22, 2009

Pollution in a crowded, toxic world

Early gains in curbing pollution made after passage of legislation such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act are being challenged by an ever expanding use of toxic chemicals in all phases of our economy. Ever growing economies, expanding populations, and the waste generated by them are posing more and more health risks.

Recently a Center for Disease Control study found perchlorate, a chemical in rocket fuel, at potentially dangerous levels in powdered infant formula. At too high a level, perchlorate can damage the thyroid and hinder brain development in infants. The problem is magnified by the existence of perchlorate in many of the water systems in the country. Although there is debate over what constitutes a dangerous level of perchlorate, the CDC study estimated that 54% of infants drinking perchlorate contaminated formula would exceed EPA limits with water containing 4 parts per million or more—a level found in at least 26 states.

Another recent study found a group of chemicals used in coatings on food wrappers in human blood. Food wrapper coatings break down inside the human body into a chemical known as C8 which is linked to a variety of adverse health effects.

Another product recently found to be dangerously polluted is drywall imported from China. Studies have found that samples of some Chinese drywall contained sulfur compounds which gave a sulfurous odor when exposed to extreme heat and moisture, creating a corrosive environment in the home. Owners complained of headaches and respiratory problems while copper wiring became corroded. Although most of the drywall went to Florida, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating complaints in , Alabama, Louisiana, Washington and North Carolina as well. Class-action lawsuits are lining up against Chinese manufacturers as well as suppliers and builders.

A significant source of pollution that has gone virtually unrecognized are the 90,000 cargo ships that ship exports around the world. The biggest of these ships have engines which weigh 2,300 tons and use a low grade fuel oil that has up to 20,000 times the sulphur content of diesel fuel used in automobiles. One giant container ship can emit the same amount of cancer and asthma causing chemicals as 50 million cars. The ships account for around 4% of the greenhouse gasses emitted in the world.

The US government only recently set up a 230 mile buffer zone along the entire US coast after research showed that pollution from the cargo ships leads to 60,000 deaths a year in the US alone, driving up health care costs by some $330 billion. The buffer zone will impose air quality standards that will require cutting sulphur in fuel by 98%, partulate matter by 85% and nitrogen oxide emissions by 80%. The UN’s International Maritime Organization and the EU are under pressure to follow suit.

Even efforts to recycle waste material have resulted in toxic effects from chemicals in the waste. In recent years, treated sewage sludge has been used as fertilizer on farms. As early as 2002 studies were showing that exposure to this sludge resulted in burning eyes and lungs, skin rashes and other symptoms. This year a lawsuit in Missouri alleges that sludge from a St. Joseph tannery containing hexavalent chromium, had been used as fertilizer in four counties, causing brain tumors in at least two patients. In Canada, some communities and environmental groups are fighting Ontario’s plan to allow sewage sludge to be spread on farmers’ fields without a waste-disposal permit.

The problems of waste disposal and pollution continue to grow as the amount of waste grows. Industrial chemicals are making their way into our bodies in ever greater amounts. People are very literally choking on the waste created by human society. As the world grows ever smaller, these problems can only continue to multiply.