The largest human impact to the Earth has been the billions of tons of chemicals that we emit and circulate through our normal daily and industrial activities. Global poisoning imperils human survival, and it must be solved in ways that make none of the other existential threats we face as a species even worse than they already are.
That’s the theme of Earth Detox: How and Why We Must Clean Up Our Planet, by Julian Cribb. The author reminds us that we now inhabit the Anthropocene, which is the age in which human action occurs at such a scale that it changes the very Earth and its systems.
Cribb is hard-hitting and quick to tell it like it is:
“Ours is a poisoned world, its system infused with the substances we deliberately or inadvertently produce in the course of extracting, making, using, burning, or discarding the many marvelous produces on which modern life depends.”
Lest we think that the chemical foundation to our daily life is a norm that has been with humans for eons, the author reminds us that the chemical era is quite new. It “has burgeoned so rapidly that most people are still unaware of the extend or scale of the peril in which it places each of us and our grandchildren.” Indeed, the book begins with the hope that the author’s young family members “may inherit a brave new world as free of poisons as the one our ancestors enjoyed.”
This era is a “beast” known as the Anthropogenic Chemical Circulation.
Because synthetic chemicals are integral to our daily routines, and because there is no industry or activity where they are not used in our western lives, human-emitted chemicals are everywhere, in all that we do:
- in clothing, bedding, and furnishings
- in electronics and plastics
- in cars, aircraft, and ships
- in the air we breathe and the water we drink
- in construction and manufacturing
- in pest control
- in the products that we put into our own bodies like cosmetics, medicines, food, drink, tobacco, and drugs
While there are many sources of chemicals, the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil, gas, tar sands, etc. — poses multiple threats to human health, especially for developing children and unborn babies. Our emitted chemicals do not simply disappear, as most people assume and the petrochemical industry wants us to believe. The chemicals go on forever, “reforming, recycling, recombining, reactivating in manifold forms” and becoming part of an “unending, every-growing, ever-flowing Planetary river.”
Here are 6 examples that Cribb outlines in which human-made pollution flows around the Earth:
- Dissolved or as particles in water, including rivers, lakes, groundwater, rain, snowfall, and ocean currents
- As airborne vapors, gases, microscopic chemical particles, or attached to dust particles
- In the bodies of living animals and in plants
- Via the food chain, which has become contaminated by the 3 previous routes in this list and by the intentional use of pesticides, packaging chemicals, food preservatives, dyes, and additives in food production
- In manufacturing goods — traded, transported, and used by humans, deliberately or unintentionally, and in their disposal as waste
- In humans ourselves, being passed from mother to embryo in the fetal blood supply and subsequently in breast milk; from parent to offspring and descendants in damaged genes; and, in the drugs we take
Deep Dives into Chemical Toxicity That We Can See & Comprehend
During the Trump administration, more than 125 environmental laws were watered down or eliminated. Favoring the poisoners over the victims has caused unnecessary illness and deaths and will take years to mitigate.
Air pollution. Deaths from polluted air mainly result from heart disease, stroke, chronic pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections. Air pollution increases death rates from infections such as the pandemic coronavirus.
Oceans. Our oceans are so vast that even poisonous chemicals dilute and lose effective toxicity, right? We can dump chemicals or unwanted materials into the oceans without causing significant harm, right? Nope. There is no place on Earth that is so remote as to be safe from rising Anthropogenic Chemical Circulation. A process known as biomagnification occurs, in which toxic substances originally released in low quantities can concentrate up the marine food chain until eventually they arrive at human consumers in poisonous doses. Deadzones — those areas of the ocean contaminated by agricultural soil erosion and fertilizer — also will expand as the fertilizer we use to grow our food doubles by the mid-twenty-first century.
Plastics. Because plastics are highly resistant to rotting and breaking down, they stay with us for a long, long time. Plastic pollution increases at a rate of 9% per year, driven by an industry that earns over $600 million annually from it. The total world output of plastics and its climate impact is expected to triple by the mid-twenty-first century.
Water. Groundwater is one of the Earth’s largest natural resources and accounts for 97% of the planet’s available fresh water. Groundwater travels far in its underground pathways, so, if it becomes contaminated, people distant from the source of the pollution can be affected. The main sources of groundwater contamination are leaky landfills, hazardous waste disposal, illicit industrial discharges and dumping, seepage from old garages and fuel stores, factory sites and gasometers, mining and tailings dams, fracking, oil and chemical spills, fire-fighting chemicals, dry cleaning and mechanical solvents, badly damaged sewage systems, medications, city runoff, and farm chemicals. An estimated 2 billion people drink contaminated water daily.
A Readable Narrative with a Scary Chemicals Subtext
Earth Detox presents an alarming array of examples of how immersed we are in a chemically-infused environment every hour of every day. But the book is quite readable, which makes the message digestible to its interested audience. Each chapter is broken down into short sections, and each section contains a balance of anecdotes, statistics, peer-reviewed research, multiple data sources, and syntheses that provide insights into the effects of chemicals on humans.
The book could be read as a forecast for doom without recourse. However, Cribbs ends the book with a Ten Point Plan to curb the toxic burden for ourselves, our children, and for life on Earth. It is a formidable list, for sure, but it is a workable place to begin.
- Form an alliance of people, institutions, and businesses concerned about detoxing the Planet, to spread awareness, motivate the uptake of clean products and production systems, and educate citizens to become “clean consumers.”
- Campaign for a universal Human Right Not to Be Poisoned.
- Establish a new international scientific body to measure the full extent of human chemical emissions, assess their toxicity and impact, monitor change, and oversee the task of cleaning up the Planet.
- Press for the universal testing of all new and suspected chemicals. Share the findings openly and globally. Maintain an open global toxic substances register.
- Press for the replacement of all coal, oil, gas, and other fossil fuels with clean energy and with non-toxic feedstocks for industry.
- Banish known toxins from the food chain, water supply, air, and wider environment through informed consumer choice and regulation. Increase scrutiny of suspected toxins.
- Press for a priority policy of disease prevention in medicine over chemical cure. Educate healthcare workers to recognize, diagnose, report, and prevent diseases resulting from chronic or acute chemical exposure, and educate the public about risks and solutions.
- Train all young chemists, scientists, and engineers in their social and ethical responsibility to “Help. But first do no harm.”
- Educate our children to choose wisely among products and services that are safest and least toxic. Empower them to educate us.
- Empower and reward industry to make profits ethically by producing clean products that do no harm. Encourage universal adoption of stronger clean industry codes, recycling, zero waste, and green chemistry and clean-up.
Cribb compels us to acknowledge …
“… we now face unarguable proofs that our combined chemical outpouring threatens human civilization, placing in jeopardy the health, happiness, intelligence, and well being of all. Now is the time for us to clean up the Earth. Together.”