Exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment can contribute to heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune disease.

2 April 2014 – Good lifestyle choices – exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and drinking in moderation – make a difference in staying healthy. But research in the last few decades has shown, however, that exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment contributes to major diseases and health problems like heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune disease.

It’s a trend driven by the rise of industry worldwide, including heavily polluting industries, which generate source pollution in addition to waste that needs to be transferred to offsite locations for processing and disposal.

Scientists say poor regulation of pollution and industrial waste is creating a global epidemic of serious disabilities. This they say will lead to significant health problems for children now and in future generations.

In a 2012 paper, Harvard Medical School neurology professor Dr David Bellinger compared intelligence quotients among children whose mothers had been exposed to neurotoxins like lead, mercury, and organophosphate pesticides commonly used in agriculture while pregnant to those who had not.  Extraordinarily, he calculated a total loss of 16.9 million IQ points due to exposure to organophosphates.

A study done this year which appeared in the Lancet notes that the number of industrial chemicals known to cause neurodevelopmental disabilities among children – such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and dyslexia – has doubled from six to 12 over the past seven years. Furthermore, the list of recognized human neurotoxicants – chemicals that injure the adult human brain but have not yet been linked definitively to neurodevelopmental disabilities in children — increased from 202 to 214 over that same seven-year period.

They found five chemicals – lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic and toluene – had strong links disabilities. Their research also confirmed that exposure to these chemicals in pregnancy can substantially increase the risk of neurological disabilities, as they can interfere with the formation of the brain and nervous system.

The study’s authors, Dr Phillippe Grandjean, an environmental epidemiologist currently teaching at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Dr Philip Landrigan, a paediatrician at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City wrote:

“Strong evidence exists that industrial chemicals widely disseminated in the environment are important contributors to what we have called the global, silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity. The developing human brain is uniquely vulnerable to toxic chemical exposures, and major windows of developmental vulnerability occur in utero and during infancy and early childhood. During these sensitive life stages, chemicals can cause permanent brain injury at low levels of  exposure that would have little or no adverse e?ect in an adult.”

According to official stats, 310 kilograms of toxic chemicals are released into our air, land, and water by industrial facilities around the world every second. This amounts to approximately over 9 million tonnes of toxic chemicals released into our environment by industries each year. Of these, nearly 2 million tonnes per year are recognized carcinogens, about 65 kilograms each second.

The ABC reports that Australia has more than 150,000 sites that are potentially contaminated with toxic waste, and experts say that only a tiny fraction of them are being cleaned up to remove the risk to human health.

Director of the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation, Professor Ravi Naidu, told ABC’s The World Today that most of the sites are in urban areas and pose a serious threat to human and environmental health.

Inside the house, people might be exposed to toxic organic substances and solvents, like chlorinated hydrocarbons or petroleum hydrocarbons. Then there’s lead in the soil, not to mention fine dust particles and of course asbestos. The problem, he said, was that authorities are only starting to deal with it now.

“Australia has 160,000 potentially contaminated sites and so far we have remediated less than one per cent of these contaminated sites,” Professor Naidu said. “Globally we are looking at in excess of three million potentially contaminated sites. And already, we are spending in excess of $100 billion per annum assessing, managing and, or, cleaning up these sites.

Identifying the location of these sites is problematic but different state agencies like  the NSW EPA have guidelines on how to report and manage them.

Countries around the world, including Australia, have policies to deal with toxic chemicals. But as pointed out here, industry is forever expanding and regulators are struggling to keep up. Of the 80,000 chemicals currently being produced, the US Environmental Protection Agency has been able to test only 200 — 0.25 per cent of the chemicals on the market.

The New York Times in its editorial says that tens of thousands of inadequately tested chemicals were allowed to remain in use after the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which is supposed to ensure the safety of thousands of chemicals used in household products and manufacturing. After nearly 40 years, it still has to be updated.

The newspaper tells us tens of thousands of inadequately tested chemicals were allowed to remain in use after the law was enacted. But the problem is that the onus is on the US government to prove that a chemical is unsafe before it can be removed or kept off the market instead of requiring manufacturers to prove that their chemicals are safe before they can be sold and used.

And it makes it hard for the Environmental Protection Agency to pry the information it needs to assess risk from the manufacturers or to require them to conduct tests.

Companies have to alert the EPA before introducing new chemicals, but they don’t have to provide any safety data. It is up to the agency to find relevant scientific information elsewhere or use inexact computer modelling to estimate risk.

There are similar worries in Australia. While all state governments have air quality standards covering carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, lead and particulates many mine sites have special licences to exceed safe levels. Mount Isa, for instance, can exceed the maximum one-hour sulphur dioxide limit many times over.

The other worry is that an international trade agreement now being negotiated would grant leading multinational corporations new powers to challenge government policies that promote sustainability, clean energy and controls on toxic chemicals.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Australia is involved in the negotiations, would allow corporations to sue governments in an international tribunal and potentially force the reversal of sound regulations all over the world.

New Matilda reports that the TPP will cover a broad range of issues, including objectives and commitments; the relationship to multilateral environmental treaties; dispute resolution; trade and biodiversity; climate change; the regulation of fisheries; and trade and investment in environmental goods and services.

More to the point, it will give more power to fossil fuel multinationals through the inclusion of Investor State Dispute Settlement clauses. This would empower corporations to sue governments in private and non-transparent trade tribunals over regulation that corporations allege reduces their profits. This means that laws and policies designed to address climate change, curb fossil fuel expansion and reduce air pollution or toxic chemicals could all be subject to attack by corporations as a result of TPP.

If, for example, a country brings in a law that prevents a corporation from pursuing a toxic waste facility, dangerous development, water- and cyanide-intensive mining, or a fracking and drilling project, a corporation or an investment fund under the TPP could bring a claim against the signatory nation before an international arbitration tribunal and have millions of dollars in damages levelled against it.

The onslaught of toxic chemicals is getting worse. The question is whether governments are up for the fight.