Editor’s note: This is the sixth of an eight-part series about the climate and biodiversity crises. John Keeble is a former Guardian and London Evening News journalist. He is part of Cuenca’s thriving hiking, cycling and writing communities. You can download free his latest novel, Beyond Extinction, via www.johnkeeble.net. To read part one of the series, click here.
By John Keeble
I’m so bored with pollution reports. Aren’t you? Just because pollution is killing people, wildlife, the land, the seas and the air we breathe – that’s no reason for us to try to stop it. Life’s too short. We should grab every pleasure and benefit that comes our way. However much we damage ourselves and the future.
My questions: Do you agree with this? Should older people – the generations with power and choice – tackle pollution effectively, or should we leave it to today’s kids who will inherit a world trashed by baby boomers and millennials?
Pollution, as a mega threat, is mostly going to affect the kids of today as they grow older. If they grow older in an extinction scenario gradually becoming too obviously true to refute unless you are delusional or want to protect corporation profits.
Contamination, collateral damage in the drive for big business profits, is so bad and so pervasive that we need to hit the panic button now. Industrial producers are already hitting the profits panic button to belt out more and more pollution while governments dither and dawdle.
Plastics are an easy example of brutal pollution. You may be doing what you see as your bit – cutting down on plastic bags, recycling your Coca Cola bottles. That is not even a snow flake in a forest fire compared with production.
National Geographic put it succinctly: Of the 8.3 billion metric tons [of plastic] that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine per cent has been recycled and 12 per cent incinerated. “The vast majority — 79 per cent — is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter,” the report added. “Meaning: at some point, much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink.”
We simply wring our hands over the amount of plastic and its effects, but producers are pushing their products and profits. Coca Cola, one of the few producers revealing their output, contributes nearly 12,000,000 plastic bottles an hour to our world already swamped in plastic.
That is not the worst of it. While about 250 major producers – including Coca Cola – have pledged to move to recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025, dozens of new plastics plants are being built around the world to capitalise on cheap fossil fuels, especially gas. Plastics output is expected to rise by 40 per cent in the next decade, reported The Guardian.
The biggest plant under construction is for Royal Dutch Shell near Pittsburgh: 325 acres employing 5,000 people. It will even have its own railway with 3,300 freight cars, says the New York Times. It will produce pellets that can be made into components for cars, homes, clothes, electronics and many more products.
My questions: Have you managed to get your mind off bottles and bags? Take a deep breath. Great. You just took in a lungful of plastic microfibres you never see but lodge in your lungs or passed into your blood. How do you feel about that?
Microplastic fibres are a major source of pollution and they are getting into everything, including you. Every day. Everywhere. They are in the air you breathe and the water you drink. They are in the sea and on the land, getting into animals and the human food chain. Medical scientists are trying to work out how dangerous they are, with some suggesting they could cause serious illnesses including cancer.
Researchers point to clothes as a major source of microplastic contamination. Vox online magazine reported: “Polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fibres — all of which are forms of plastic — are now about 60 per cent of the material that makes up our clothes worldwide. [They] leach into the environment just by being washed. Estimates vary, but it’s possible that a single load of laundry could release hundreds of thousands of fibres from our clothes into the water supply.”
Relatively heavy concentrations of microplastics lurk in our homes and threaten our health – particularly the health of babies and children.
Although toiletries and cosmetics containing microbeads are now banned in many countries, other sources cannot be regulated. Fibres come from everyday items through friction, heat and light. Furniture, clothes, kitchen utensils, toys… look around your home and count up the number of items containing plastic.
The World Economic Forum reports: “Babies and toddlers spend more time playing on the floor, where microplastics settle in the form of dust. Moreover, small children play with, and may even chew on plastic toys, putting them at a higher risk. A baby’s first exposure to these particles may, however, already take place before birth, as microplastics have been found in the placenta.”
Outside the home, significant contamination of the air and water has been found from the Arctic to the deepest oceans, getting into animals and fish that you eat.
As highly useful, ubiquitous plastic products gain ground everywhere, microplastics pollution will grow. And so will the risk to everyone on the planet.
A major point is that profits are driving big business to continue to pollute. And we will use their products because our choice is limited to using plastics, thus agreeing the pollution and risking our health, or going without things we need.
My question: Can you close your eyes to this danger to yourself and the future generations? Are you among those demanding that our elected representatives protect us from it?
Companies do not give up when faced with the stark truths about their products. They hide them, deny them, deflect with promises and concessions for the future, fight in the courts, use any means to stop regulation – you know this; why do you let them get away with patting you on the head and telling you everything is your fault but, if you mend your ways (eg, recycle), you can put it right?
Take Teflon as another example. DuPont knew in 1961 that its chemicals could cause damage to health, according to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. By 1984 it knew the chemicals were getting into water and the local environment. DuPont lost a series of legal cases and paid damages. However, production did not stop.
It agreed to replace C8, a chemical associated with illnesses, in 2015 – decades after becoming aware of the damage to health and knowing its chemicals were going into the water and the air.
“Evidence shows that DuPont knew for decades that exposure to C8 could cause long-term health effects in humans,” the Organic Consumers Association reported. “DuPont started conducting cancer studies in 1988. The company’s own studies showed that exposure to C8 killed rats, dogs and monkeys, by causing testicular cancer, liver disease and pancreatic disease.
“Teflon chemical is in the blood of 99 per cent of Americans.
“Not only did DuPont continue to manufacture Teflon, but it also continued to dump the chemical into waterways.”
Contamination, illnesses and deaths failed to stop production of Teflon-coated goods. Compensation and legal fees could be seen as just another production cost.
My question: Is that what is happening in the huge, internationally competitive plastics industries? Are your family members going to be written into profit and loss accounts as an extra production cost? How do you feel about that?
In some countries, health protections for people and animals are being watered down or even scrapped to give even more to the big profit-earning corporations – despite the world being more polluted and dangerous than ever before.
It would probably take a library of books to list every chemical and biological risk we face across the world. New risks and reports are emerging every day.
One of the latest, in a peer-reviewed Science report, reveals that antibiotic-resistant superbugs are being found on farms across the world after sustained use of antibiotics on animals.
This reinforces an earlier warning from Sally Davies, the UK’s former chief medical officer, who said antibiotic-resistant superbugs could end modern medicine.
On a more general danger, the World Health Organisation said: “The very air we breathe is growing dangerously polluted: nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air, which kills 7 million people every year.
“The health effects of air pollution are serious – one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution. This is having an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco, and much higher than, say, the effects of eating too much salt.”
Another new report, after research by Nature Communications, said black carbon – soot – contaminates babies before birth. Researchers believe it comes mostly from traffic pollution passing into the mother’s lungs and on to the growing fetus.
Contamination of food and drinking water now poses a major threat to health that is disguised by glossy packaging and smart marketing.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information wrote: “Food contamination could be due to naturally occurring contaminants in the environment or artificially introduced by the human. The phases of food processing, packaging, transportation, and storage are also significant contributors to food contamination.
“The implications of these chemical contaminants on human health are grave, ranging from mild gastroenteritis to fatal cases of hepatic, renal, and neurological syndromes.”
Makes you hope someone in authority is watching our backs on dangers that most of us cannot even pronounce, let alone effectively protect ourselves and our families against, doesn’t it?