Poisoned Planet

11 June 2014 — Canberra-based author, science journalist and former science editor for The Australian Julian Cribb’s Poisoned Planet puts together such a dense amount of global research and case studies on the toxic impact of chemicals it’s alarming. Fortunately, he also lays out the methods by which we can, as individuals and collectively, make progress towards a more sustainable world.

This reviewer will confess to reading some of the ending before finishing the middle, just to affirm it’s not all doom and devastation. Because, in many ways, where we are right now according to Cribb’s research is a dark, disease-inducing place indeed where homes and workplaces are minefields of contamination, and industry spin doctors engineer “don’t panic” campaigns while dead zones – places where all life has mysteriously ceased – proliferate in our oceans.

The facts are confronting, with Cribb pointing out that while 143,835 chemicals are pre-registered with the European Union’s chemical regulation, there are many tens of thousands more substances produced during mineral extraction and processing, energy generation, engine use, land degradation, waste disposal and manufacturing, as well as the “adventitious” compounds that happen when different chemicals react or combine, creating whole new substances that may never have been identified or tested for safety.

One of the points Cribb returns to throughout is that no-one actually knows what the impact is of the cumulative interaction of the many thousands of risky and downright dangerous chemicals we ingest with our food and water, breathe in our air and put on our bodies.

Researchers might study what a specific chemical does, but testing how any chemical behaves when it reacts with the witch’s brew of chemicals in and around us has never been done.

What has been studied, and is painstakingly detailed in the book, is the degree to which the rate of cancers, immune system disorders, hormonal disorders, mental and cognitive disorders, and other conditions has escalated. Specific research is reported, for example the links found between the use of personal care products containing hormone-disrupting chemicals such as parabens, and breast cancer; or the relationship between cheap synthetic perfumes and reactions including asthma, anger outbursts or headaches for both the wearer and the people around them in the office.

Breast cancer a high price for great hair

Cribb’s writing is accessible and lightened by wry gems like “breast cancer seems a high price to pay for great hair”. It’s the kind of pithy, pull-no-punches observation that brings home the facts.

Machiavelli and Big Chem

Beyond the scary facts about toxic contamination on both a personal and geopolitical scale, Cribb also explains the Machiavellian workings of many of the chemical companies, which move hazardous manufacturing operations to zones of lighter regulations to escape the need to clean up their act in nations where regulations have been tightened.

The economic picture is also explored, and the relationship between consumer demand for cheap products and the production of dangerous substances is clearly explained, as is the tension between the goal of regulations and the ability of industry interests to influence the development and enforcement of standards.

So that’s some of the bad news.

Cleanup time is positive time

The good news is Cribb also examines the ways in which the poisoning of the planet can be halted and mitigated, giving the cleanup of the Sydney Olympics site as one example of the scientific feasibility of decontamination and the associated economic benefits.

He reports that the cleanup cost $137 million and the renovated land yielded a return of around $600 million.

“Not many investments generate such an attractive rate of return so quickly… The lesson from the Sydney Olympics is quite simply that a cleaner world is a more prosperous and profitable world – as well as a safer one,” Cribb writes.

Why coal and oil are the root of much evil

If climate change isn’t enough of a reason to question ongoing policy dedication to the fossil fuel industries, the chemicals they are responsible for producing nails the argument against their continuance.

“Besides being responsible for causing climate change, oil and coal are also the primary sources of most of the toxic chemicals of concern to humanity. They provide the feedstock for the manufacture of industrial chemicals, pesticides, legal drugs, illegal drugs, plastics, solvents, chemical weapons and other pollutants including most of the endocrine disruptors. Their elimination will go a long way towards cleansing our poisoned planet,” Cribb writes.

“That human health is being undermined globally, and children and our genome damaged at this very moment by coal and oil, constitutes an argument for immediate action.

“This means that there are now two utterly compelling reasons – our own health and that of the earth’s natural systems – to replace all forms of fossil fuel and product use with cleaner, safer, healthier, renewable solutions as quickly as possible. How we respond to these challenges will have a powerful influence on the human destiny and the fate of all life on Earth.”

Readers will appreciate the broad clean-up approaches Cribb outlines, which include:

  • lifecycle assessment
  • product stewardship
  • green building
  • green chemistry
  • green manufacturing
  • organic farming
  • zero waste strategies
  • risk assessment and remediation

The sustainability industry is well and truly part of the solution.