EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Designing a New Materials Economy: The Earth’s Toxic Burden

No one knows exactly how many chemicals are manufactured today, but with the advent of synthetic chemicals, most of them organic in nature, the number of chemicals in use has climbed over 100,000. A random blood test of Americans will show measurable amounts of easily 200 chemicals that did not exist a century ago.32

A number of these chemicals are highly persistent and found in remote corners of the globe, far from their origin. Recent research at the Norwegian Polar Institute indicates that polar bears living within the Arctic Circle have high concentrations of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in their fatty tissue. One apparent consequence of the buildup of POPs, some of which are endocrine disruptors, is that 1.5 percent of all female bears have deformed sexual organs. 33

Most of these new chemicals have not been tested for toxicity. Those that are known to be toxic are included in a list of 644 chemicals whose discharge by industry into the environment must be reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The annual publication of EPA's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) makes public some of the more dangerous chemicals being put into the air or water or simply buried underground. Although these detailed data for the United States, compiled from reports submitted by industrial, mining, and electrical generating firms, are not readily available for most other countries, they do provide some sense of the global situation.34

In 1999, some 7.8 billion pounds of toxic chemicals28 pounds for each personwere released into the U.S. environment. Metal mining accounted for 4 billion pounds and electrical generating facilities for 1.2 billion pounds. The primary metals industry, which refines metals and manufactures metal products ranging from steel plates to copper wire and aluminum cans, released 684 million pounds of toxic chemicals. Compounds containing copper, zinc, and arsenic accounted for nearly three fourths of all the toxic chemicals released from these industries. The chemical manufacturing industry was close behind, with 671 million pounds. Paper manufacturing was third, with 226 million pounds of toxics released.35

For the electric utility sector, hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid were among the leading toxics released. This does not include the emissions of sulfur dioxide and various nitrous oxides that interact with moisture in the atmosphere to form the sulfuric and nitric acid that damage respiratory systems and produce acid rain. While gold miners release an estimated 200,000 pounds of mercury into the Amazon ecosystem each year, coal-burning power plants release over 100,000 pounds of mercury into the air in the United States. EPA reports that "mercury from power plants settles over waterways, polluting rivers and lakes and contaminating fish." The risks to human health, and particularly prenatal damage to nervous system development, have led to restrictions on fish consumption in an estimated 50,000 U.S. freshwater lakes, rivers, and ponds. The 35,000 pounds of mercury deposited in New England each year from coal-burning power plants led the region's six states to warn children and pregnant women to limit their consumption of freshwater fish. A report by the National Academy of Sciences for the United States as a whole indicates that 60,000 infants may face neurological damage from mercury exposure before birth.36

The Toxic Release Inventory, now accessible on the Internet, also provides information on a community-by-community basis, arming local groups with data needed to evaluate the potential threats to their health and that of the environment. Since the TRI was inaugurated in 1988, toxic chemical emissions have declined steadily.37

Unfortunately, few other countries have instituted such comprehensive reporting procedures. And the U.S. system still has some gaps, such as on pesticides, which are released into the environment by farmers, homeowners, and golf course managers.

Some chemicals that are used in large quantities are lethal even in small quantities. For example, swallowing one teaspoonful of arsenic leads to death in less than a minute. Exposure to varying levels of toxic chemicals and in various combinations can lead to birth defects, impaired immune systems, damage to the central nervous system (including mental retardation), respiratory illnesses, a disruption of endocrine systems and hormonal balances, and cancer of almost every kind.38

Pollutants also damage the environment. Acid rain from sulfur dioxide emissions, for example, has damaged forests in industrial regions, including Europe, North America, and China. A 2000 survey reports that one quarter of Europe's forests are damaged. A nickel smelter in Norilsk, Siberia, has killed all the trees in a 3,500-square-kilometer area. Thousands of lakes in the northern tier of industrial countries are now lifeless because of acidification from acid rain.39

In some countries, environmental pollutants have accumulated to the point where they are reducing life expectancy. In Russia, the combination of a breakdown in the health care system, a dramatic rise in poverty over the last decade, and some of the world's highest pollution levels has helped reduce male life expectancy to less than 60 years. Horror stories of the health effects of uncontrolled industrial pollution in Russia are commonplace. For example, in the industrial town of Karabash in the foothills of the Ural Mountains, children routinely suffer from lead, arsenic, and cadmium poisoning. This translates into congenital defects, neurological disorders, and cancer. Pollutants also disrupt metabolic systems and impair immune systems.40

Developing countries, too, are beginning to suffer from uncontrolled pollution. Payal Sampat of Worldwatch Institute writes that the largest city in the agricultural state of the Punjab in northern India, Ludiana, is now paying the price for industrial pollution. A combination of industries, ranging from textiles to metal electroplating, has left the underground water supply contaminated with cyanide, cadmium, and lead. The well water on which the city's residents depend is no longer safe to drink. Other cities in India, such as Jaipur, and in China, such as Shenyang, that once depended on local groundwater supplies must now also seek water from elsewhere.41

Scientists analyzing underground water pollution quickly point out that thus far we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg, because it takes time for water-soluble toxic chemicals to percolate through the soil and eventually pollute underground aquifers. The toxics in underground aquifers today may be the product of industrial activities from a generation ago.42

The dispersal of some toxics is relatively new. This is the case in Japan, for example, where the incineration of municipal waste is discharging dioxins into the air. Dioxinswhich are so toxic that their presence is measured not in parts per million but in parts per billionare a product of burning plastic. Tokyo has become the dioxin capital of the world. Although Japan's emissions of dioxin, the highest of any country, total only 4 kilograms per year, they are at a level that could cause cancer or other maladies.43

One of the big challenges the world now faces is how to detoxify the earth. How do we make the air safe to breathe, the water safe to drink, and the soil safe for producing food? One important step was taken in December 2000 when delegates from 122 countries meeting in Stockholm approved a landmark agreement banning 12 of the most toxic chemicals now in use. These 12 persistent organic pollutants included pesticides, such as DDT, aldrin, endrin, chlordane, and dieldrin, as well as industrial chemicals like hexachlorbenzene and PCBs. Once 50 countries ratify the treaty, a process expected to take at least three years, then implementation will begin. Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson observed, "Dangerous substances do not respect international or national borders. They can only be fought with common strategies." Most countries have already banned the use of lead in gasoline, a common source of mental retardation in children.44

If we restructure the energy economy to stabilize climate (see Chapter 5), then the burning of coal for electrical generationthe source of the mercury that is making fish unsafe for human consumption, and the hydrochloric and sulfuric acids that are destroying forests and impairing respiratory systemswill largely disappear.

If recycling industries replace mining industries, the flow of pollutants will be greatly reduced. If countries ban the use of nonrefillable beverage containers, as Denmark and Finland have done, then both the amount of energy and the materials used in manufacturing beverage containers will be sharply reduced. In building an eco-economy, many of the goals are mutually reinforcing.45

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32. Anne Platt McGinn, Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals, Worldwatch Paper 153 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, November 2000), p. 7; 200 chemicals in the body from Pete Myers, plenary discussion on Emerging Environmental Issues, at U.S. Agency for International Development Environmental Officers Training Workshop, "Meeting the Environmental Challenges of the 21st Century," Airlie Center, Warrenton, VA, 26 July 1999.

33. Alister Doyle, "Bears Take Brunt of Toxic Chemicals as Ban Looms," Reuters, 22 May 2001.

34. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Toxic Release Inventory 1999 (Washington, DC: 2001).

35. Ibid.

36. Mercury in the Amazon in "Mercury Poisoning Disease Hits Amazon Villages," Reuters, 4 February 1999; mercury emissions from U.S. coal plants in EPA, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards and Office of Research and Development, Mercury Study Report to Congress Volume II (Washington, DC: December 1997), p. ES-4; mercury in rivers and lakes in Glick, op. cit. note 30; "EPA Decides Mercury Emissions from Power Plants Must Be Reduced," press release (Washington, DC: 15 December 2000); New England in Robert Braile, "Mercury Danger Rising, Group Says," Boston Globe, 19 September 2000; newborns in National Academy of Sciences, Toxicological Effects of Methylmercury (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000).

37. "EPA Issues New Toxics Report, Improves Means of Reporting," press release (Washington, DC: 11 April 2001); TRI available on Internet at www.epa.gov/tri.

38. McGinn, op. cit. note 32, pp. 6-12.

39. European forest damage in U.N. Economic Commission for Europe and European Commission, Forest Condition in Europe 2000 (Hamburg, Germany: 2000); Norilsk from Koko Warner, An Emissions Tax in Siberia: Economic Theory, Firm Response and Noncompliance in Imperfect Markets (Laxenburg, Austria: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, 7 July 1997), pp. 1, 32, 37.

40. Sharon LaFraniere, "Mother Russia's Poisoned Land," Washington Post, 22 June 1999.

41. Payal Sampat, "Groundwater Shock," World Watch, January/February 2000, pp. 10-22.

42. Ibid. 43. "Japan Emits Most Dioxin Among 15 Nations: Study," Japan Times, 22 June 1999.

44. "Governments Agree to Ban or Limit 'Dirty Dozen' POPs," Bridges Weekly Trade News Digest (International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, Geneva), 12 December 2000; Persson quoted in "Toxic Chemicals Outlawed," Cable News Network, 22 May 2001.

45. Denmark and Finland in Brenda Platt and Neil Seldman, Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000 (Athens, GA: GrassRoots Recycling Network, 2000).


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute