Forgotten, But Not Gone

Can the Conservatives’ new plan solve the long-neglected problem of chemical pollution?

• 2,331 words

Picture yourself in a casket below ground. Fumes of formaldehyde drift around you like unpleasant perfume, but you are not troubled. You have smelled your last. A light spring rain is falling, and drops of water make their way through the soil, settling on the finely crafted contours of your casket. Within a few short weeks, moisture begins to seep inside. Stains of mould spread across the satin lining. You begin to bloat. Unfazed by your appearance, groundwater penetrates you, mingling your tissues with the juices of rotting leaves and your dearly departed neighbours. In time, the world devours you in the dark.

What do you imagine you are made of? Will you be a wholesome meal? If you live in Canada, your body is likely to yield more than just nutrients and minerals. According to recent studies, inhabitants of industrialized countries are contaminated with traces of a wide range of carcinogens and other toxic substances. Fat-soluble substances like degreasing agents and dry-cleaning chemicals accumulate in our livers, our brains, our blood, our breasts, and the oily marrow of our bones. Industrial solvents and gasoline additives circulate with our fluids, diluted but recognizable.

Known as body burdens, these chemical traces can produce unexpectedly strong biological effects. The notion that the chemical ingredients of everyday objects might be hindering our immune systems, interfering with the replication of our DNA, and disrupting the hormonal messages that regulate everything from mood to sexual function is discomfiting, to say the least. Like the eventual decay of our bodies underground, the accumulation of body burdens represents an alarming integration with the substance of the earth and a somewhat morbid field of interest. Yet this is the very terrain Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government wandered into last December when it promised to evaluate and regulate toxic substances currently in widespread use. In anticipation of an election, the Conservatives are depending on initiatives like the Chemicals Management Plan to salvage their environmental image, but it remains to be seen whether the policy signifies a real shift from the invisibility and inertia that has characterized this issue in the past. Encumbered by feelings of apprehension and powerlessness, many people have preferred not to know about the effects of formaldehyde and polyvinyl chloride, artificial musks and aluminum. Where recognition of these effects threatens powerful business interests, the links between such substances and diseases like cancer have been not only ignored, but actively obscured. Certainly, Harper’s plan indicates growing political interest in chemical pollution, but will that be enough to catalyze changes in the chemical composition of our world?

Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring introduced the public to the impact of synthetic pesticides on ecosystems and human health forty-five years ago, many of the substances she identified have been banned, some at the international level. Under the first Canadian Environmental Protection Act, passed in 1988, our government has been collecting data from industry on newly developed chemicals and testing them for human safety before allowing them onto the market in large quantities. Environment Canada and provincial agencies monitor industrial releases of toxic substances into air, water, and soil, and publish information about the health effects of a wide range of synthetic substances.

While these may seem like appropriate measures, they haven’t properly addressed the potential danger posed by synthetic chemicals. For example, government agencies still have to prove conclusively that an existing chemical is hazardous before it is taken off the market, a process that can take between ten and fifteen years. Canadian industries currently produce around 18 million kilograms of known carcinogens every year, and given that only a fraction of the chemicals used commercially have even been tested for carcinogenicity, the actual amount is no doubt higher. As regulators plow slowly through their backlog of “priority substances,” cancer incidences are continuing to increase. At present, over 40 percent of Canadians will experience a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. One in four will die from the disease.

Despite the long lag times between chemical exposure and the onset of disease, the evidence linking synthetic toxic substances to cancer is compelling. Studies reveal significantly higher rates of cancer in areas where toxic wastes are treated and stored, as well as in regions with high industrial activity. Occupations that involve exposure to hazardous substances produce greater numbers of cancer victims; farmers, for example, endure more treatments for multiple myeloma and prostate cancer than people whose work does not involve chemical pesticides. The World Health Organization estimates that environmental stresses like chemical pollution and ionizing radiation cause 1.3 million deaths worldwide from cancer each year.

Given this evidence, it is absurd that the elimination of carcinogens has never before been a major election issue. Rather, cancer has been approached as a target for medical intervention. Well-publicized charity drives like Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Relay for Life, and Let’s Make Cancer History have typically raised large sums of money to “search for the cure.” But they devote only a fraction of their proceeds to preventive efforts, which are aimed mostly at encouraging people to alter their diets or stop smoking.

The low priority given to healthy environments can be explained in part by the financial allure of cancer diagnosis and treatment. The 2005 annual report of AstraZeneca, a leading producer of cancer drugs, states that “the world market value for cancer therapies is $26 billion and growing strongly.” A reduction in cancer incidence would represent a threat to the performance of investments, a decline in large and profitable markets.

Back in 1985, when Zeneca Pharmaceuticals sponsored the first US National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it operated as a subsidiary of Imperial Chemical Industries, one of the largest chemical companies in the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the event has never offered information on the links between chemical pollutants and breast cancer. AstraZeneca’s website denies environmental causation of cancer, claiming that everyday exposures to toxic substances “have not been conclusively linked to an increased risk.”

Economic interests have shaped not only the dissemination of information on cancer, but the production of new knowledge. To the extent that scientific studies depend on commercial sponsorship, research on links between profitable chemicals and cancer remains chronically underfunded. Asked in a recent survey to comment on the projected challenges in breast cancer research over the next thirty years, the majority of experts expressed hope that breast cancer will become a disease women live with, rather than die from. This goal seems tragically unambitious. The assumption that cancer is inescapable obscures the very real possibility of its prevention.

Chemical pollution, like cancer, is largely regarded as an inevitable affliction. It’s a perception chemical companies don’t discourage. Take, for example, a recent print advertisement from the Dow Chemical Company, a large multinational chemicals and plastics manufacturer. The image features a well-dressed arm, which we are invited to imagine is our own, pouring water from a carafe into a wine glass. Outside the window beyond our table is a familiar street scene, the comforting buzz of civilization. Reading the ad’s text, we might be momentarily troubled to learn that “The world’s thirst for fresh water is growing faster than nature can provide.” Luckily, Dow’s Filmtec reverse osmosis membrane can derive safe drinking water from the ocean as well as “lakes and rivers that were previously unsuitable due to pollution.” We needn’t worry: “The world can have quality water for life. All we need is the right chemistry.”

What the ad doesn’t say is that Dow also produces a number of the chemicals that render our waterways “unsuitable.” For example, the company is a leading producer of perchloroethylene, a solvent commonly used in dry cleaning that has turned up in sea water, river water, groundwater, rainwater, and tap water as well as in shellfish, fruit, oil, meat, cow’s milk, and human breast milk. Studies have linked some kinds of “perc” exposure to elevated rates of leukemia, esophageal cancer, and bladder cancer, and it has been identified as a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Is the production of this and other pollutants really necessary?

The tacit acceptance of hazardous pollution has roots that go back to the origins of industrial chemistry. With the synthesis of the first aniline dyes in the nineteenth century, both vivid colours and invisible toxic substances flooded from new chemical factories. These seemingly miraculous compounds brought purples, greens, blues, and reds out of the rarefied wardrobes of the elite and onto the streets of the world. Almost immediately, evidence surfaced that the dyes were less friendly to human health than they were to industrialists’ pocketbooks. Published reports of unusually frequent bladder cancer among dye workers had emerged by 1895, and in 1921 the International Labour Organization identified these chemicals as human carcinogens. And yet, aromatic amines like aniline are still imported for use in Canada, while others, like benzidine, were only phased out of use in the 1980s. Somewhere in this century or so of inaction, it must have been decided that the benefits of using these substances outweighed their harms, that their elimination would lead to a less colourful, if healthier, world.

Recent developments in ecological design suggest that toxic compounds can be eliminated without sacrificing the advantages afforded by harmful chemicals. Chemical dry cleaning can be replaced by methods involving water and non-toxic processes. Products like steering wheels, instrument panels, and spray paint can be made from plant-derived substances, and soybean oil can replace formaldehyde as the binding material in particleboard and plywood. By modelling the complex structure of a gecko’s feet, designers have produced strong adhesives that peel apart when pulled gently in the right direction, eliminating the need for harmful glue-removing solvents. Even colourful fabrics can be made in a way that poses no risk to textile workers and leaves factory outflows as clean as or even cleaner than the water upstream.

Interest in such innovations first emerged during the 1970s in response to the budding environmental movement. However, ecological design has begun to blossom in earnest in the last decade, mostly in response to progressive regulations in places like Scandinavia, Germany, and the Netherlands, where governments have been less squeamish about banning hazardous chemicals and redirecting market forces. By making industries responsible for the safe disposal or recycling of consumer products such as batteries, tires, and electronics, the European Union, South Korea, and others have stimulated efforts to make these goods less toxic. As 2006 drew to a close, the EU took an important step by passing a new chemicals policy known as reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of CHemicals), which places the onus on producers to prove the safety of substances they use in large quantities. Although it has been significantly weakened by industrial lobby groups, this new policy has the potential to gradually eliminate carcinogens and other toxic substances from the world’s largest chemicals market.

Environmental initiatives in Canada have tended to be less progressive than those in Europe, but political interest in the safety of chemical substances is growing. Many Canadian municipalities have recently prohibited the cosmetic use of pesticides, making lawns safer for children and dogs and decreasing the volume of poisons discharged into soils and water ways. British Columbia and Alberta are beginning to hold relevant industries responsible for the collection and safe disposal of hazardous household waste and other toxic products. Early in 2007, four members of parliament underwent body burden tests, the well-publicized results of which revealed astonishingly high levels of harmful chemicals.

After the Canadian Environmental Protection Act of 1999 was passed, updating the 1988 law, the government began to review more than 23,000 unregulated chemicals in widespread use. In September of 2006, the review concluded that around 4,300 of these are a concern to human health and the environment and will require further assessment and regulation or management. Stephen Harper’s response to this review is the Chemicals Management Plan, which he hopes will win the hearts of Canada’s environmentally concerned voters.

It is far from clear, however, whether the Plan is equipped to significantly reduce the burden of harmful chemicals in Canada. While it promises to prohibit the use of sixty confirmed toxic substances, many of these have already been banned in the European Union or the United States, and others are falling out of use. The Conservatives are offering manufacturers an opportunity to submit their own data in defence of an additional 200 substances of high concern before government scientists decide whether they should be banned, a process that will take years. Critics like Fe de Leon, a researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, point out that these chemicals are among the most toxic covered by the act and argue that they ought to be phased out of use without further delay.

Whether in the European Union or Canada, the effectiveness of chemicals regulation will depend on the intensity and persistence of public scrutiny. Unlike discrete, tradable goods and services, elements like water are shared, not only with other people, but with other species and future generations. Within economic spheres like the chemicals and pharmaceuticals markets, such non-proprietary goods tend to simply disappear. To emerge into public view, these shared interests must become the subjects of conversation and debate, not only in houses of parliament, but in kitchens, cafés, classrooms, artworks, and the media.

Back underground, beneath leaky landfills and illegal dump sites, in urban runoff pipes and rural aquifers, the waters are gathering a host of invisible but potent ghosts. Here and there, the carcass of an abandoned water bottle or a broken cellphone consigns its chemical soul to the wet passages of the soil. In another kind of underworld, biological cells encounter these strange molecules beneath the porous surfaces of human skin. Forgotten once their use has ended, familiar materials pursue unpredictable and sometimes savage afterlives in the environment and in our bodies. Collective attention has the power to bring these substances into view, where we can speak about them, understand them, and render them benign.