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writing for godot

Intentionally polluting our planet: What would Rachel Carson think half a century later?

Written by Glenn Ashton   
Sunday, 23 September 2012 19:54
The pesticide industry is the only industry on earth which has, as its primary intention, the dispersal of poisons throughout the environment in order to kill living organisms. Only small amounts of toxins applied actually reach the intended target. The bulk of these chemicals are liberated into our soil, air, water and food, where they can remain active for decades, sometimes for ever.

Fifty years ago this month an eloquent book was published which heralded the birth of the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was an uncompromising expose of the dangers of the rapidly increasing use and abuse of pesticides across the United States. Its publication was met with shock, appreciation and denial in almost equal proportions.

Silent Spring became an immediate best seller, remaining on the New York Times best-seller list for 31 weeks. Besides receiving massive support from citizens and scientists alike, Silent Spring triggered a presidential review of the pesticide industry that totally vindicated Carson’s arguments. More than 40 bills to regulate chemical use were introduced within a few months after its publication.

Most importantly this book awoke people to the huge environmental and health risks that industry was willing to take in order to maximise profits. Carson detailed how scientists and industry failed to disclose the dangers of pesticides, either for risk of losing funding or for reducing profits. Silent Spring clearly showed how human activities can and do have global consequences.

The reaction to Silent Spring from the chemical and pesticide industry was predictably vehement and aggressive. Lawsuits were threatened but Carson’s book was so impeccably researched that no fault has ever been found with her claims. Nevertheless the attacks continue, unabated.

Huge amounts were spent on public relations campaigns that viciously attacked her, as a scientist and as a woman. But the realities of extermination of swathes of birds - hence the title - of poisoned rivers and land, led to improved regulation of pesticides.

“But what exactly are pesticides?” you may ask. They are chemicals devised to kill pests; weeds, insects, fungus, bacteria, viruses and rodents and sometimes even birds viewed as pests. When Silent Spring was published in 1962 the most widely used chemicals were persistent organochlorines like DDT and heptachlor.

Most of these were subsequently banned under the Stockholm Convention on persistent chemicals. Some limited use is still allowed. For instance DDT is still permitted for malaria control, even though it is a known hormone disruptor and has other negative health and environmental impacts. This has been documented and confirmed by studies of areas in South Africa where DDT is still being used in spraying households.

Persistent chemicals are problematic because they biomagnify. This means that the concentrations of chemicals increase as they move up the food chain. For example plankton can magnify DDT residues by thousands of times. These are in turn magnified in small fish or shrimp, then by dolphins eating the fish or by whales consuming shrimp.

Apex predators like dolphins, polar bears, seals, sharks and people consequently carry the highest pesticide loads even though they are sometimes far removed from the source. Each of us carries a significant chemical burden, the body burden; we have been polluted by the pesticide industry. Chemicals like organochlorines, organophosphates, pyrethrins and their breakdown products remain present in the environment and our bodies for long periods. US studies found over 150 chemicals present in most people.

DDT and many other chemicals concentrate in fat – so cows eating grass from a DDT treated pasture will concentrate the chemical, together with its breakdown products which are also dangerous. These are then expressed in butter and meat fats, eaten by us, who in turn pass these chemicals through our breast milk to our young.

Pesticides can have many negative impacts on humans and the environment. They can be neurotoxic (nerve poisons) or hormone disrupting, causing sexual abnormalities or sterility; they can impact learning, cause cancers and in concert with other chemicals are capable of magnifying their impacts many tens of times.

This is of real concern. For instance in early September this year The United National Environmental Programme (UNEP) published its Global Chemicals Outlook, which highlights the major economic burden caused by chemical hazards, particularly pesticides. This is especially evident in developing countries.

In South Africa pesticide use increased more than 5 times between its democratic transition in 1994, from just over 15 million kilogrammes then, to over 80 million in 2011. That country has only recently banned some particularly nasty chemicals like endosulfan. This is one of the few countries in the region that has what is supposed to be a functional pesticide regulatory system. Even so, pretty much all that the existing legislation stipulates is who is registered to sell what.

Even so the South African Department of Agriculture published a draft “Pesticide Management Policy” in 2010 which unambiguously recognised that existing legislation, dating back to 1948, is dysfunctional. That being said there has been a notable lack of inertia in updating this archaic regulation.

Numerous pesticides banned in other countries are permitted in developing nations. Despite the best efforts of UNEP and other agencies, stockpiles of many banned and outdated chemicals remain on farms and government stores across Africa.

In the Global Chemicals Outlook, UNEP estimated that between 2005 and 2020 the accumulated cost of illness and injury linked to pesticides in small scale farming in sub-Saharan Africa could reach USD $90 billion. This is more than is paid by international aid donors on basic health services in the region.

Most developing nations have no compulsory or functional monitoring or management of pesticide residues. Therefore no random testing is done on any meaningful scale, except sometimes on export products sold into developed markets.

It is notable that around one third of suicides around the world are committed by pesticide ingestion. This is particularly evident in South Asia where indebtedness to agricultural companies or money lenders, brought about through the high cost of seed and chemicals, commit suicide as the only available solution to apparently hopeless situations.

The spread of genetically engineered (GE) crops has also increased the use of pesticides, particularly of glyphosate, sold as Roundup by its manufacturer Monsanto. The sale of the pesticide is linked to the sale of seed. South America has seen huge growth in GE soy. Several studies have linked glyphosate to reproductive impacts in humans. A recent independent study has linked both glyphosate and GM crops to increased incidences of cancerous tumors and other serious health impacts.

Have we made progress since the 1962 publication of Silent Spring? The reality is that chemicals remain extremely poorly regulated. The UNEP Chemicals report highlighted that chemical sales had grown from $171 billion in 1970 to over $ 4 trillion today.

Most developing nations have few experts to manage pesticide use, pollution, management and oversight. Those are more likely to work for the pesticide industry than for regulators. There are tiny numbers of functioning and accredited laboratories to measure, manage or oversee these chemicals.

The known impacts of pesticide use across the world are huge, as backed up by the recent UNEP study. Cancer incidence is growing across the world. Liver, kidney, hormonal diseases and other non specific diseases like Parkinson’s, autism and multiple sclerosis are also increasing globally. The pesticide industry knows it is impossible to trace back what is killing and harming us.

Even so, as Rachel Carson said in Silent Spring, this is not about banning all of these chemicals; it is about using them responsibly. The fact remains that after half a century we have not yet made a sufficient shift toward the responsible use of these substances.

Tiny amounts of the thousands of pesticides used around the world actually do the job they were meant to. The rest pollute waterways, fields, food, animals and us. We continue to use these substances wastefully, recklessly and without due care for future generations. Silent Spring has been followed by equally comprehensive books such as “Our Stolen Future” and “Living Downstream” that have reinforced the dangers of these chemicals.

It is immoral and wrong to permit the unlimited, unregulated sale of these products for profit. The world urgently needs to implement legislation to introduce a transparent regulatory regime. We have a right to know on what foods and where these products are used so we can, at the very least, take action to protect our communities and ourselves from exposure to the intentional use of these chemicals.

Were Rachel Carson still alive today she would surely be horrified at our lack of progress in pesticide regulation over the past half century. your social media marketing partner
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