Toxics 

What are they and what’s wrong with them?

By the time of World War II, the production and use of synthetic chemicals as weapons boomed in the U.S. After the war, with less of a need to produce toxic gases, liquids, and powders for use in battle, chemical companies applied chemicals to new uses, especially for use as herbicides and insecticides on agricultural crops. Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane, better known as "DDT" was one extremely popular chemical used in the U.S. after World War II. DDT, later found to be dangerously carcinogenic and bioaccumulative, and was applied to people, homes, pets and crops as a pesticide. Today, toxics are all around you; found in food, water, air, and soil, in addition to many household and personal items that people assume are safe, like makeup and sunscreen. 

DDT was sprayed on beaches in Long Island, N.Y., primarily during the 1940s and 50s, as part of a nationwide effort to eradicate any and all insect "pests" (photo: Advisory Committee on Pesticides)

DDT was sprayed on beaches in Long Island, N.Y., primarily during the 1940s and 50s, as part of a nationwide effort to eradicate any and all insect "pests" (photo: Advisory Committee on Pesticides)

Because chemicals accumulate in reservoirs—both biological and geological—over time, the human body is filled with the traces of hundreds, if not thousands, of chemical pollutants that a person has encountered in his or her life. In animals, plants, and people, this is called “bioaccumulation.” Currently, in the U.S., the regulatory framework outlining what companies can and cannot put in their products has been highly criticized.

Chemicals can have varied effects on humans, animals, and plants. Some chemicals, called “carcinogens,” are proven to cause cancer. People, animals, and plants exposed to toxic chemicals can become severely ill and die. In the U.S., in 2010, a report published by the President’s Cancer Panel (a group of scientists and health experts appointed by George Bush) confirms the dangers of toxic chemicals to human bodies, highlighting the need for Congress to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (which has proven ineffective in keeping people safe from toxic chemicals).  

 

What’s been done?

Biologist and author Rachel Carson is credited with being among the first and most vocal among the early identifiers of the negative health and environmental impacts of chemicals. In Silent Spring, Carson links DDT and other toxic chemicals to animal die-offs and sickness, environmental pollution, and illness (especially cancer) in humans. Carson warned that more research needed to be done before introducing lethal chemicals into our environment for the supposed purpose of enhancing agricultural expansion through the eradication of "pests." 

Rachel Carson, author and biologist, examining a specimen collected from the ocean in 1961, a year before the publication of her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring (photo: A. Eisenstaedt)

Rachel Carson, author and biologist, examining a specimen collected from the ocean in 1961, a year before the publication of her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring (photo: A. Eisenstaedt)

In the 1990s, author and biologist Sandra Steingraber continued the work of Carson. She revealed the fact that many of the additional chemicals introduced into the environment in the 1950s and 60s correlated with rising rates of cancer, especially in women and children. Notably, Steingraber determined through careful research that the rise in cancer rates since the 1950s could be attributed to the flood of carcinogens introduced into the environment via many everyday products containing toxic chemicals.

Today, a movement of  "green chemistry" scientists and writers such as John Warner and Elizabeth Grossman, the Environmental Working Group, cancer awareness organizations like the Breast Cancer Fund, and others concerned with the adverse health impacts of toxic chemicals have begun to confront the issue head-on. Green chemists work to encourage the study and engineering of chemical products and processes that minimize or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.

Dr. John Warner, founder and chief technology officer of Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, works and writes to promote the field of green chemistry as an alternative to the use of toxic substances in everyday products and processes.

Dr. John Warner, founder and chief technology officer of Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, works and writes to promote the field of green chemistry as an alternative to the use of toxic substances in everyday products and processes.

 What can you do?

-Sign petitions, talk to your friends, family and politicians

-Watch what you eat and put on your body. Check:

-Support legislation to ban toxic products and force companies to make only safe and environmentally friendly products, such as the Safe Chemicals Act--NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and the late NJ Senator Frank Lautenberg (along with 27 co-sponsors) introduced the Safe Chemicals Act in 2012

-Be aware of environmental toxins in your community by checking: 

 

learn more here:

Articles

Banana Farming Harming Threatened Costa Rica Crocodile by Simone Scully, Audubon

Magazine (2013)

Great Lakes Chemicals Discovered by Researchers Shows PPCP Contamination of Lake Michigan by Ashley Woods (2013)

Lautenberg Leaves Lasting Legacy, Hope for Toxic Chemical Reform by Lynne Peeples, Huffington Post (2013)

This is Your Brain on Toxins by Nicholas D. Kristof, NY Times (2013)

 

Books

A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr (1996)

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams (2012)

The Body Toxic by Nina Baker (2009)

Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry by Elizabeth Grossman (2011)

Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality by Robert D. Bullard (2000)

Dying from Dioxin: A Citizen’s Guide to Reclaiming Our Health and Rebuilding Democracy by Lois Marie Gibbs (1999)

Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber (2003)

Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber (2010)

Love Canal: My Story (An Evergreen Book) by Lois Marie Gibbs (1982)

Our Stolen Future by Theo Colburn, Dianne Dumanoski, John Peter Mars (1997)

Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis by Sandra Steingraber (2011)

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (Intro by Linda Lear; Afterward by Edward O. Wilson) (2002)

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin (2013)

 

Films

A Civil Action (1999)

American Experience: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (2007)

Blue Vinyl: The World’s First Toxic Comedy (2005)

Doctor Bronner’s Magic Soapbox (2009)

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Living Downstream (2010)

The Warriors of Qiugang: Yale Environment 360 (2010)

 

video clips

DDT: Let’s Put it Everywhere (1946)

Dirty Dozen + Clean 15- Environmental Working Group 2013 Shopper’s Guide (Dr. Andrew Weil, 2013)

The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights with Robert J. Bullard (University of California Television, 2008)

Sandra Steingraber’s War on Toxic Trespassers (Bill Moyers, 2013)