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Some Reasons For Optimism In The Battle For The Planet

Optimism In The Battle For The Planet
Optimism In The Battle For The Planet

Some Reasons For Optimism In The Battle For The Planet

Let’s start 2023 with some positive news for a change.

It’s amply clear that the current global economic systems are not at all sustainable. Business as usual is not an option. “It’s the economy stupid’ now seems to be the most unfitting of political statements in that the most common notion of “The Economy’ is decoupled from extreme externalities such as environmental degradation, impacts on global health and social upheavals.

A famous Einstein quote is applicable – “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” To me – this implies that whatever situation we are facing, we need to rise to a new consciousness — a new way of thinking. This means saying NO to business as usual. Fortunately, there is a growing cadre of scientists, economists, political leaders, activists, conservationists, indigenous groups, farmers, foresters, engineers and more that are applying knowledge to attain solutions for the crises we face.

Christiana Figueres is the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010-2016). In a 2021 editorial piece she wrote “History will remember this decade as the climate turning point, the moment we finally woke up to the fact that despite (and because of) shocks like Covid-19, decarbonization — the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions — is now inevitable. The only question is how fast we will achieve it.”

Optimism In The Battle For The Planet

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Despite the continued force exerted by powerful lobbies funded by big money, there are rays of hope around the world. Note – some of this was mentioned in my previous article –  https://environmentmatters.ca/climate-change-are-we-beyond-hope/

 

 

  • Loss and damage – COP27 – the annual conference of the parties on climate change did achieve something. The new loss and damage fund promises to finance the rebuilding of poorer, vulnerable countries hit by increasingly severe climate impacts that they have done little to cause. It is a long overdue acknowledgment of the moral responsibility the big polluters have for the climate emergency.

 

Optimism In The Battle For The Planet

 

  • Deforestation – A ground-breaking EU (European Union) deal to ban the import of goods linked to deforestation should set a global benchmark and will hasten the passage of a similar law in the US and hopefully other jurisdictions. This will in effect prohibit the import of commodities such as beef, soya, palm oil, coffee, cocoa, rubber, charcoal and paper, and derived products, unless their origins can be verified as not being associated with deforestation. This is an imperative given the fact that a football pitch-sized tract of forest is lost every second somewhere around the world because of agricultural expansion. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/jan/05/eu-ban-on-deforestation-linked-goods-sets-benchmark-say-us-lawmakers

Helping in these cases is definitive evidence that the fossil fuel industry understood the reality of climate change as early as the 1960s. In a paper commissioned by the American Petroleum Association, the authors wrote ““There seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe,” https://e360.yale.edu/features/climate-lawsuits-oil-industry-research?utm_source=pocket_saves&utm_source=pocket-newtab

 

  • Politically – In Brazil, the defeat of right-wing president – Jair Bolsonaro means a return to policies to save the Amazon (considered the lungs of the earth), or at least halt the pillage that Bolsonaro enabled. And in the USA – the mid-term elections did not result in a projected ‘red wave’ that would have given the Republican Party the political power to potentially reverse the progress that the current administration has initiated on the climate front. Likewise, Australia elected the Labour Party who, with the support of the Green Party and independents have ushered in bold climate plans and regulations. Strangely – conservative parties around the world seem unwilling to face the urgency of planetary destruction.
  • AdvocacyCollective action is a global imperative. There have been many mega projects cancelled or put on hold due to collective action. Indigenous leaders are now realizing some long-overdue credit and recognition. Moreover, financial support for climate activists is growing and is accelerating change. For example, there is a new initiative called HERO, which aims to provide a basic income for 10,000 climate activists in the next five years. HERO is a subscription-based platform where people can support activist groups around the world working on pressing policy issues, and thereby turning the climate crisis into humanity’s most unifying ethical moment. https://herocircle.app

 

  • The EU – seems to be the leading jurisdiction in tackling environmental issues. For example, up to 12,000 substances could ultimately fall within the scope of a new law, which would constitute the world’s “largest ever ban of toxic chemicals”, according to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).  In the US – investors are now pressuring the top firms to halt production of toxic ‘forever chemicals’ due to the potential for lawsuits over toxic compounds linked to cancer and other diseases. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/apr/25/eu-unveils-plan-largest-ever-ban-on-dangerous-chemicals.

 

  • Plastics – The EU has the most wide-ranging single use plastics ban. For example, in France – even fruit and vegetables will be sold without plastic packaging. There will no longer be small toiletries in hotels. In Canada – effective December 20, 2022, the manufacture and import for sale of the following harmful single-use plastics, will be prohibited: checkout bags/cutlery / food service ware made from, or containing, problematic plastics that are hard to recycle/stir sticks/and straws (with some exceptions).

 

Optimism In The Battle For The Planet
Optimism In The Battle For The Planet

These are but a few examples that demonstrate some degree of progress towards the battle for Planet Earth. Much more is needed if untenable environmental devastation is to be avoided. The solutions require technological advances, new economic models (circular economy), rigorous regulations, international accords, massive capital investments (some of which must come from the big polluters) and for certain – political courage.

Climate Change – Are We Beyond Hope

Climate Change - Are We Beyond Hope

Climate Change – Are We Beyond Hope

Climate Change – Are We Beyond Hope? 

“When we get our story wrong, we get our future wrong” – David Korten

There is a saying that a pessimist is an optimist with years of experience.  I have been following a variety of environmental issues for over 45 years now and this saying neatly sums up the degree of my frustration concerning the lack of progress on crucial environmental matters. For me – it’s also personal. I have grandchildren and I worry greatly about the future they will face.

 

AN ENGINEERED FAILURE

I acknowledge the negative tone of many of my articles. I wish it were not so. But the reality is indeed dire, and this must be stated clearly. It’s of no value to gloss over the facts. The past few years have seen a drumbeat of climate-driven disasters all over the world. Climate scientists are using words or phrases including – ‘scary’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘unstoppable’, ‘beyond extreme’, “time is running out’ and ‘frightening tipping points’ – just to name a few. Even more unsettling is that social scientists seem as, or even more alarmed in terms of assessing the upheaval that is already occurring and will undoubtedly get worse.   

One role of science communication is to counteract willful ignorance. Science often develops inconvenient facts. Science communication takes this knowledge, translating the complexity into everyday language. If the message is inconvenient, unpalatable, disturbing, or even downright scary, the story still requires telling. This is what I attempt to do with my blogs, joining the chorus of thousands of other science communicators who are sounding the alarm of a catastrophic future if carbon emissions continue their current trajectory.

From what I can ascertain, we (a majority of humanity) are in a collective delusion about our current and impending impact on life on this planet. As such, science communication is not enough. This is not a matter of rationality.  Proper science communication is continually obfuscated by false information. The fossil fuel industry has known since the 1970s that their products cause climate change but took the course of denial and delay by seeding misinformation fed to the public through a variety of “think’ tanks using phony science. Social media greatly aided these efforts.

Climate Change - Are We Beyond Hope

The failure to halt climate change has been engineered from day one. We know that the licence granted to fossil fuel companies by 50 years of failure has enabled them to make stupendous profits – estimated to be 2.5 billion dollars per day (averaged over 50 years and corrected to today’s dollar). This kind of money provides big industry the power over every political decision they require. Even more perverse, -governments continue to supplement this financial grab by granting oil and gas companies 64 billion dollars per year in public subsidies.

So – while I acknowledge the negative tone of my articles, I don’t apologize for that. My frustration is warranted. This year’s CoP (Conference of the Parties) conference in Egypt – confirms this. When the history of the climate crisis is written, in whatever world awaits us, CoP 27 will be seen as the moment when the dream of keeping global heating below 1.5C died. Little wonder, there were over 600 fossil fuel lobbyists attending, more than the delegates of any single country and more than the delegates from all African countries. The words “fossil fuels” do not even appear in the final text. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/20/world-still-on-brink-of-climate-catastrophe-after-cop27-deal

For over 50 years we have all been witnessing an engineered failure and even paying into it. But – we are not beyond hope. In fact, it is impossible to function without hope. The fact is, the 1.5C target is not a threshold beyond which all hope also dies.

RAYS OF HOPE

“Hope is stubborn. It exists within us at the cellular level and works up from there, as the urge to live. So, hope will persist. The question is, can we put it to use.”  Kim Stanley Robinson.

Despite the continued force exerted by powerful lobbies funded by big money, there are rays of hope around the world.

  • The past decade has been one of slow but steady progress with carbon emissions starting to flatten. Countries representing 88% of global emissions have announced plans to get to net zero in the latter half of the 21st century
  • CoP27 did achieve something. The new loss and damage fundpromises to finance the rebuilding of poorer, vulnerable countries hit by increasingly severe climate impacts that they have done little to cause. It is a long overdue acknowledgment of the moral responsibility the big polluters have for the climate emergency.
  • Another reason to be hopeful is that clean energy became cheaper much faster than expected. The cost of both solar energy and batteries fell tenfold in the last 10 years and the cost of wind energy by two-thirds. Solar is the cheapest form of new electricity to build in much of the world today, and electric vehicles now represent 13% of new vehicle sales globally.
  • Politically – Brazil – The defeat of right-wing president – Jair Bolsonaro means a return to policies to save the Amazon or at least the pillage that Bolsonaro enabled. As well as containing 25% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, the Amazon plays a crucial global role in storing billions of tons of carbon and releasing billions of tons of water each year.
  • Politically – USA – the mid-term elections did not result in a projected ‘red wave’ that would have given the Republican Party the pollical power to potentially reverse the progress that the current administration has initiated on the climate front. Sadly – conservative parties around the world seem to be tone deaf on the urgency of planetary destruction. This applies to Canada as well.
  • Price on carbon – As of 2020, sixty-four carbon pricing (carbon tax or cap and trade) initiatives have been implemented in forty-six countries worldwide, representing over 22% of global emissions. British Columbia was one of the first jurisdictions to introduce a carbon tax (in 2008). Since then, carbon emissions decreased by more than 17% in just 5 years, personal income tax dropped to the lowest in Canada and the BC economy performed well. Carbon pricing works.
  • Advocacy – Collective action is a global imperative. There have been many mega projects cancelled or put on hold due to collective action. Indigenous leaders are now realizing some long-overdue credit and recognition. Moreover, well-informed young people such as Greta Thunberg, Delany Reynolds, and Xiuhtezcati Martinez are often the adults in the room and have been turning the climate crisis into humanity’s most unifying ethical moment. It was unfortunate that the most recent CoP was in Egypt as the opportunity for mass protests was prevented by the authoritarian government. The protests help drive the process.
  • Legal action – is increasingly effective, using the courts to hold governments and industry to account – much like what was achieved to fight ‘Big Tobacco’. Recently, climate change activists secured a major legal victory against oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.
  • Grass roots efforts – Energy poverty is real – 770 million people lacked access to any form of electricity as of 2019. Solar Sister is a non-profit whose goal is to support rural women in creating their own energy businesses. With sufficient funding an organization like this can help rural areas to ‘leapfrog’ to sustainable electricity as opposed to relying on the traditional business as usual model of fossil fuel-based electricity. https://solarsister.org
Climate Change - Are We Beyond Hope

These are some examples that can give us hope. These kinds of efforts must now be exponentially enhanced with monumental conviction. The deeply flawed economic theory that has been driving this disaster must be radically altered. Everyone has a role to play. I highly recommend watching the following 15-minute video. It was made just prior to the most recent CoP in Egypt.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2022/nov/10/climate-carnage-whose-job-is-it-to-save-the-planet-documentary

Climate Change: Facing Reality and Debunking Misinformation

Climate Change Facing Reality Debunking Misinformation

Climate Change Facing Reality Debunking Misinformation

Climate Change: Facing Reality and Debunking Misinformation

Recently a dear friend remarked that it must be so very frustrating for those of us in the environmental field to know how dire things are and yet see such inertia at the political level. My reply to this comment – “Absolutely – I’ve been following this issue since the mid-1980s and the outcomes of global warming are becoming reality even faster and more severely than the earlier predictions”.

In this article, I have attempted to address this inertia that can be so readily enabled by misinformation and disinformation (aka – BS).

SPECIAL NOTE – some of the links I provide in this article are from mainstream media and others are the full reports. In each case, for those interested, there are links that can be followed that will take the reader to the complete published literature – some of which required a fee. I have followed all the needed links to prepare this summary

THE CLIMATE CRISIS IS NOW

The climate crisis is no longer an abstract future or a news article about a far-off country. It’s here – it’s now. The world has witnessed a summer season marked again by historic heat waves, widespread drought, deadly wildfires, and torrential rains. More than 1/3 of Pakistan is currently under water displacing millions of people. The southwest of North America is experiencing the worst drought in over 1000 years with several states perilously low in water for irrigation and consumption. Rivers in Europe were too low for shipping goods. The Atlantic hurricane system is late this year but is impacting with devastating consequences

Both NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) affirm 2022 will almost assuredly rank in the top 10 warmest years on record with Europe and China both recording their warmest meteorological summers.  The world already sees twice as many days in which temperatures exceed 50C, compared to 30 years ago. This level of heat is deadly for humans, and hugely problematic for buildings, roads and power stations rendering these locations unliveable.

PREDICTABLE SKEPTICISM AND PUSH BACK

With the stark facts outlined above (and this is only a partial listing), it would be assumed that there would be a wide acceptance of the reality humanity is facing. But no! Climate change denialism is still out there even though the messages have been evolving.

Complete denial was the earliest tactic. It is very well documented that it was a multi-million-dollar endeavour in which professional public relations firms fought science with junk-science. But their message stuck thereby providing the salvation for politicians who lacked the courage to confront the global warming threat. https://environmentmatters.ca/climate-change-industry-knew-this-was-coming-2/

Over the past decade, the “complete denial strategy” by industry has crumbled in the face of the many dramatic realities of climate change along with the revelations that the  fossil fuel industry had been warned decades ago this was coming even from their own scientists. For this reason, the fossil fuel industries have been settling on a new tactic to avoid being properly and necessarily regulated. That tactic? DEFLECTION – using misinformation and disinformation. Social media and email chains then provide inexpensive deliveries of such false or misleading messages.

DEBUNKING THE BUNK

Here are some of the more common misconceptions that I continually come across in various forms.

CLAIM RE: NO CONSENSUS – global warming and the resulting climate change are apparent but there is no real consensus as to the cause. This claim is incorrect. The consensus is almost 100%. Here is a list of 200 scientific organizations all over the world (science academies and associations) that hold the position that Climate Change has been caused by human action. https://www.opr.ca.gov/facts/list-of-scientific-organizations.html

This is not a trivial list and covers almost all relevant science around the world. A late comer to this list is the US national association of physicists. In 2015, this association hedged somewhat. This year however, the society of 50,000 physicists adopted a new policy without any caveats concluding that ‘anthropogenic greenhouse gases have become the dominant driver of global climate warming observed since the mid-twentieth century.”. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/11112021/american-physical-society-climate-change-statement/

Climate Change Facing Reality Debunking Misinformation

The collapse of the Greenland ice cap (now melting at a rate of 10,000 cubic meters per second) is one of the tipping pClioints that may already have been passed. Photograph: Ulrik Pedersen/Getty Images

Dangerous tipping points – The climate crisis has now driven the world to the brink of multiple “disastrous” tipping points, according to a major study. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/sep/08/world-on-brink-five-climate-tipping-points-study-finds. The study shows that some of these may already be imminent due to the 1.1C of global heating already caused by humanity.

CLAIM RE: NATURAL AND GEOLOGICAL CYCLES – The climate has always been changing so how can the current warming be attributed to human activity? Afterall, the claim continues, earth has experienced ice ages and warm interglacial eras over millions of years. There is no doubt that Earth’s climate has fluctuated through deep time, pushed by several different causes or “forcings”. But none of these can explain the warming over the last 100 years which is why the consensus among scientists is almost 100%

Firstly, solar activity and volcanos were initially (1980s and 1990s) identified as possible causes but have now been clearly discounted as factors as they demonstrate trends that do not correlate. In fact – volcanos are more responsible for global cooling. As well, natural variabilities have been well documented but not correlated to the current warming. These variabilities are due to ocean current oscillations – the most well-known are El Nino and La Nina. Natural and more localized variations also explain what is known as the so-called Medieval Warm Period over the northern Atlantic. “So-called” because at the same time there was also a Medieval Cold Period in Siberia.

Climate Change Facing Reality

There is almost 100% consensus among scientists linking global warming with CO2 emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels.

Ice Ages – A more complex discussion centers around the various orbital cycles. By the early 1900s, scientific investigations were able to identify the causes of ice ages and interglacial warmer periods. Over time (thousands of years), the varying gravitational pull of the larger planets in the solar system stretches the Earth’s orbit from a circle to an ellipse and back again. These orbital changes create cycles of about 100,000 years – the same length as the longest ice age. They are also called Milankovitch Cycles named after the scientist that first published on this finding.

There are other geological and natural cycles. Here is a link to one of the better explanations of these forcings along with the explanation as to why things are different for explaining the current warming. https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-earths-climate-changes-naturally-and-why-things-are-different-now-20200721/

CLAIM – EARTH HAS ALWAYS HAD CLIMATE DISASTERS (heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc.) before – how can these current ones be any different?  The facts – global warming is making these events worse.

Hurricanes are becoming more intense, causing greater rainfall and have an increased coastal flood risk due to higher storm surge caused by rising seas. Moreover, they are moving more slowly creating more destruction. https://climate.nasa.gov/news/3184/a-force-of-nature-hurricanes-in-a-changing-climate/

https://globalnews.ca/news/9146319/hurricane-fiona-climate-change/

Forest fires are increasing in intensity, frequency, and size. Moreover, the fires are occurring at higher altitudes and in more northerly regions – even Siberia – thus threatening carbon rich tundra. https://environmentmatters.ca/wildfires-impact-of-climate-change-sept-23rd-2020/

Attribution Science – is an important and vital emerging discipline in the environmental research field. Attribution science can determine, not if climate change caused an event, but if climate change made some extreme events more severe and more likely to occur, and if so, by how much. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2021/10/04/attribution-science-linking-climate-change-to-extreme-weather/

Rise of Billion-dollar disasters – Perhaps economic impacts are more convincing to some sectors of society than climate change measurements and attribution science. For example, in 2021 climate disasters cost the USA an estimated $145 billion. The costs are increasing rapidly. Over the previous 4 decades, the country experienced an average of around 7 disasters annually that resulted more than a billion dollars of damage. But in the past five years, that average has jumped to nearly 20 such events each year with 2020 and 2021 being the worst on record. And this is just the US – it’s happening everywhere. Moreover – Insured losses from natural catastrophes have increased 250% in the last 30 years. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/interactive/2022/billion-dollar-disasters/

So – getting back to the original comment – YES – it is so very frustrating that after all these years and with mountains of evidence, and a very broad scientific consensus, there is still a need to combat misinformation and political inertia.  And there is no mistaking that it gets even more frustrating and more damaging when reviewing the unfounded attacks on renewable energy and electric vehicles. This will be the focus of another blog this Fall.

There are several reasons to be somewhat hopeful though. Awareness of the risks is at an all time high. Young people around the world are mobilizing and even sounding like the adults in the room. The major automobile companies are phasing out gasoline and diesel-powered engines. Big industry groups (oil and gas, petrochemical) are facing major legal battles and are even having difficulty getting insurance to cover the costs of defending themselves. As well – there have been some positive developments politically – particularly in the USA. Let us hope reason and good science will eventually prevail.

As a final comment – I highly recommend the documentary – ‘Breaking Boundaries – The Science of Our Planet” – now available on Netflix and U-Tube. It explains the science in a very clear and concise manner and also offers hope that good science has solutions. Here is a link to the Trailer. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt14539726/

How to Minimize Exposure to Toxins

How to Minimize Exposure to Toxins

How to Minimize Exposure to Toxins

​Part 4 of 4 – series on exposure to man-made chemicals

After reading my series of articles on man-made chemicals, some may now have the impression that we are living in a toxic soup with risks around every corner. This is not the case for most of us that don’t face —

  • occupational exposure (ie – farm workers, chemical factory workers, firefighters, etc.),
  • proximity exposure – (living in an area near heavy industry and thus dealing with contaminated water and air), or
  • living in a city with highly polluted air.

However, our risks are not zero. Many dangerous chemicals can be closer to home than we think. They are present in everyday products such as furniture, clothing, food, water, hygiene products etc. Traces of some of the longer lasting chemicals have been detected in the bloodstream of practically everyone tested.

https://environmentmatters.ca/a-daily-dose-of-chemical-exposure/

It becomes increasingly clear that the chemical industry directly, along with the various ways in which chemicals are used in everyday products, are inadequately regulated. There are many cases in which chemicals are introduced without sufficient study. Moreover, their use is often not justified as was recently exposed in the case of widespread use of fire retardants in furniture and carpets.

https://environmentmatters.ca/toxic-exposure-forever-chemicals-part-1/

THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE

Here is a common lament. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.  This is the idea behind the precautionary principle, which helps industry and regulators weigh whether an action or decision should be taken when there is insufficient knowledge about potential harmful effects on the environment, or on the health of people. The precautionary principle implies that, when there is uncertainty about the potential damaging effects of substances, especially those that are persistent and toxic in the environment, it is best to err on the side of precaution. The correct approach is to prevent exposure, rather than try to clean up or cure the negative health effects of an environmental exposure after it has occurred.

http://mleead.umich.edu/files/Precautionary-Principle.pdf

https://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/reach/pdf/publications/final_report_pp.pdf

Evidence abounds that the precautionary principle has not been adhered to for a majority of man-made chemicals on the market today. Here is but one example – with regulations in the USA.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/03/19/our-broken-congresss-latest-effort-to-fix-our-broken-toxic-chemicals-law/

PRUDENT PRECAUTIONS

Given the concern about the various ways in which we can be exposed on a day-to-day basis, and the lack of knowledge about the potential long-term effects of these exposures, here are some suggestions for taking some prudent precautions. In some ways – this list may seem unduly cautious – but they are relatively easy to apply and will be effective. Bearing in mind that many of these chemicals accumulate with some affecting our genes, it is especially important to apply these precautions for young children.

For brevity, the rational for these precautions is not stated in this summary, as that information is presented in a previous article – in the link below.

https://environmentmatters.ca/a-daily-dose-of-chemical-exposure/

How to minimize exposure to toxins

How to minimize exposure to toxins

Here are some suggestions:

  • When exposed to air pollutants – as so many were last summer due to wildfires, wear an N-95 mask (or equivalent) and keep air filters in home heating/AC systems clean.

https://smartairfilters.com/en/blog/best-masks-for-viruses-air-pollution/

  • Cooking with gas – turn the fan on high. If considering a new stove and or oven – don’t buy a gas appliance.
  • If buying new furniture – insist on it being free of PFAS (forever chemicals used as fire retardants).
  • Tap water – run the tap (and collect the water for other uses) for about 30 seconds to clear possible metals that dissolve as the water stands in the plumbing.
  • Tap water – buy an activated carbon filter if there is a possibility of trace organo-chlorine chemicals (disinfection by-products)
  • Minimize using canned food. If glass is an option in buying certain products – take it.
  • Avoid buying beverages in plastic bottles – especially alcohol. Avoid bottled water. Do not allow bottled water (or other beverages) to heat up by leaving them in a warm vehicle.
  • Be extremely cautious buying cosmetics – especially lip gloss which can contain PFAS. This industry is a “wild west” in terms of being very poorly regulated. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/beauty-industry-in-the-us-is-the-wild-wild-west-beautycounter-ceo-133509049.html
  •  Fruit and vegetables – wash well before use. If possible, avoid buying products from countries not properly regulated in terms of pesticide use.
  • Fish – eat larger fish like tuna infrequently (few times per month) to minimize exposure to mercury.
  • Meat – whenever possible buy meat that is antibiotic free. Eat only small quantities of grilled meat and ensure little or no burning of the meats.
  • Fast food – it is best to avoid altogether given most of the food wrappings contain PFAS (forever chemicals)
  • Household and garden chemicals – use very carefully in well ventilated areas and follow the instructions exactly.

 

How to minimize exposure to toxins

How to minimize exposure to toxins

This is the last of the series on human exposure to man-made chemical. Coming up – the environmental impacts of our food supply.

Linking Illness to Chemical Exposure

Linking Illness to Chemical Exposure

My wife of over 50 years suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Were toxic chemicals used on the family farm a possible causative factor? We will never know. The linking of illness to chemical exposure is extremely complex as the following article explains.

On March 18, 2021 – we (friends and family) lost a beautiful soul to Alzheimer’s disease. After my wife Margrit’s diagnosis in 2014, we struggled to accept the inexorable loss of her most precious assets that defined who she was. Of course, we also asked why. How could this happen? The assumption – genetics was the main factor. Afterall, her mother died of Alzheimer’s in 1987 and her youngest brother is now in a care home for the same illness.

But then – there are indications that genetics may be only part of the story. There have been no recorded cases of dementia among Margrit’s many Swiss relatives. Moreover, it is early onset dementia, that is typically linked to genetic factors. So the question arises – could exposure to chemicals used on the family farm be a factor? Margrit and her siblings would describe the arial spraying of their crops with pesticides (including DDT in the early 50s) and even running behind the low flying planes! They grew mushrooms which could have exposed them to a variety of chemicals as well as mushroom spores which have been associated with illness, most notably lung inflammation. Their water supply was a shallow well that could have been contaminated with some of the farming chemicals. It’s a legitimate question to pose. Evidence from recent studies shows a possible association between chronic pesticide exposure and an increased prevalence of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD) dementia.

THE CONCLUSION? We will never know the full answer. The linking of illness to chemical exposure is incredibly complex, even in the most extreme cases in which the exposure has been properly measured and the illnesses well documented. Consider 3 examples that demonstrate these challenges – especially when cases go to the courts for which the proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Linking Illness to Chemical Exposure

Smoking – In the early 1950s, the tobacco industry had sufficient evidence that smoking could be associated with cancer. By the 1970s there were scores of lawsuits associated with illnesses from smoking, but the tobacco industry was generally successful at defending itself mainly because the cancer link was not unequivocal. Industry could claim that other factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and exposure to other toxins, could have been factors. It was not until the late 1990s that the tobacco industry was held accountable and faced massive financial settlements.

Chromium – Hinkley, California is a small town in San Bernardino in southern California. In 1952, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) installed a compressor station near the town as part of a gas pipeline system linking Texas to California. Chromium (hexavalent chromium) was used as a corrosion inhibitor in its cooling system. The contaminated water was discharged into unlined pools, thus leaking into the aquifer serving Hinkley’s residents water needs.

Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

Julia Roberts in the movie Erin Brockovich

The residents of Hinkley experienced a wide range of illnesses – asthma, nosebleeds, miscarriages, and several cancers. Medical research at that time did indeed demonstrate that Hexavalent Chromium could be associated with many of those illnesses. Erin Brockovich, a clerk at a local law firm, was instrumental in initiating legal action against PG&E in 1993. The case was featured in a blockbuster movie starring Julia Roberts as the law clerk Erin Brockovich.

In defending PG&E, lawyers tried to de-link people’s health problems from exposure to chromium. They likely would have been successful except for the fact that the plaintiffs had evidence that the company knew about the water contamination since 1965 but did nothing about it. PG&E eventually managed to take the case out of courts and reach a settlement through mediation, paying the plaintiffs a total of 333 million dollars, one of the largest settlements of that nature, in US history.

Teflon Manufacture – From 1951 to 2013, Teflon was produced by Dupont’s plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The manufacturing process used Perfluorooctanoic acid, (or PFOA or C-8) – one of many of a class of fluorinated hydrocarbons now known as forever chemicals due to their long-term stability. In 1998 multiple lawsuits were filed against Dupont.  Local farmers, residents and company workers claimed to have suffered illnesses and livestock mortalities linked to pollution from DuPont’s Parkersburg plant. DuPont was forced to provide millions of dollars for medical monitoring of over 70,000 people.

In 2012, a science panel concluded (from these studies) a “probable link” existed between C8 and six diseases: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol. Since then, there were numerous individual lawsuits from victims of PFOA-related diseases. In February 2017, DuPont settled over 3,550 lawsuits for 671 million dollars.

 

environment matters

A pattern emerges – The above examples exemplify the challenges in linking illness from exposure to chemicals – even in the most egregious of cases. The 3 points that become clear are –

  • Evidence denialism – The industries that should have been responsible had access to credible knowledge concerning the health impacts of exposures but resorted to tactics to suppress such knowledge.
  • Decades to prove – It took decades to eventually reach the point to when the offending industries were held financially accountable.
  • Delinking – In court proceedings, the industries were initially able to argue cases de-linking the people’s health problems from exposure to chemicals. However, the court cases eventually succeeded in large part because of the proven cover-ups and delays.

Fortunately, there are some notable examples in which compensation is provided on the presumption of a link. A very important example — Firefighters die of cancer at significantly higher rates than the public. One of the largest studies involved examining nearly 30,000 urban U.S. firefighters over a span of almost 60 years. The study confirmed that firefighters have a nine per cent higher chance of developing cancer at some point during their lives, and a 14 per cent higher probability of subsequently dying from cancer than the general population. In most jurisdictions – firefighters are properly compensated and rightly so. For example – in British Columba if a firefighter develops one of the listed cancers after a certain period of employment, it is presumed that the cancer arose from their employment. The firefighter is then eligible for workers’ compensation benefits without having to prove the cancer is work-related. 

Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

So – where does this leave the general population? As presented in the previous blog, many dangerous chemicals can be closer to home than we think. Man-made chemicals are everywhere: in water and dust, food packaging, personal hygiene products and household cleaners, furniture and electronics. Recently (this May 2022), an international group of scientists analyzed more than 1,200 scientific studies where chemicals had been measured in food packaging, processing equipment, tableware and reusable food containers.

This is clearly wrong. These chemicals are introduced without sufficient study and their use is often not even justified as has been recently exposed in the case of widespread use of fire retardants in furniture and carpets. The chemical industry must be much more effectively regulated. There are ongoing legislative initiatives in this direction but industry, through various channels (think tanks, associations, etc.) are unrelentingly directing massive financial investments towards lobbying and financing the campaigns of sympathetic political candidates. It is frustrating to observe. We can only hope that evidence-based decision making will eventually prevail.

 

As a respite from this rather gloomy picture, the final article in this series on toxins – coming soon — will outline ways in which we can minimize toxic exposure in our everyday lives.