Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

A vicious circle of modern life

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It’s not the modernity—we’ve always had modernity, since every age in its time is modern—it’s the ascendance of the behemoth corporation and the resources it commands and moves. Read this fascinating article about how a little check-up went ugly fast. From the article:

. . . It’s worth thinking about what a relatively short time we’ve been swimming in synthetic chemicals. The Synthetic Century, let us say, has been full of grand achievements and equally grand consequences, many of them unintended. In 1918, a scientist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for figuring out how to make synthetic nitrogen, a key component of soil, and thus “improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind.” But during World War I, his technology also helped Germany make bombs from synthetic nitrate and, later, poison chlorine and phosgene gas. In World War II, Hitler used another one of Haber’s compounds, Zyklon B, in Nazi concentration camps. After the wars, synthetic fertilizers paved the way for the explosion of industrial-scale agribusiness, which has, in turn, created great wealth but also unprecedented levels of pollution, monoculture and processed foods.

In his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan outlines the way our industrial food chain floats on an ocean of cheap oil. This is also true of our vast array of consumer products. Although coal companies in the mid-1800s were processing coal gas for lighting and synthesizing other products like dyes, this was but a baby step compared to what happened a hundred years later. Since World War II, Big Oil and, more recently, Big Coal and Big Natural Gas, have supplied our economy not just with energy for our homes and cars but with the very building blocks of our domestic lives: not only our plastics but our fertilizers and pesticides, our furniture, our personal care products, even our clothing. Consider this: in the last 25 years, the country’s consumption of synthetic chemicals has increased 8,200 percent.

The trouble with such rapid proliferation of products made from petrochemicals, of course, has been that the production and use of synthetic chemicals has vastly outpaced our ability to monitor their effects on our health and the environment. We learned to love what chemicals could make; we just never bothered to wonder if there could be a downside. By the mid-1970s, there were some 62,000 chemicals in use; today the number is thought to be closer to 80,000. The EPA has a full set of toxicity information for just 7 percent of these chemicals, and the U.S. chemical industry, a $637-billion-a-year business, is so woefully underregulated that 99 percent of chemicals in use today have never been tested for their effects on human health. Fewer than 3 percent of these chemicals have ever been tested for carcinogenicity. Far fewer (or none) have been assessed for their effect on things like the human endocrine system or reproductive health.

The human immune system has evolved over millennia to combat naturally occurring bacterial and viral agents. It has had only a few decades to adjust to most man-made contaminants, many of which are chemically similar to substances produced naturally by our own bodies. The effects of this are far from fully understood. “We face an ocean of biologically active synthetic organic compounds,” the ecologist Sandra Steingraber writes. “Some interfere with our hormones, some attach to chromosomes, some cripple the immune system, some overstimulate certain enzymes. If we could metabolize them into benign compounds and excrete them, they would be less of a worry. Instead, many accumulate. So they are doubly bad: they are similar enough to react with us, but different enough not to go away easily.”

What becomes clear, if you stop to think about it, is that what’s gotten into us is not just chemicals but culture. We aren’t just saturated with chemicals, after all; we are saturated with products, and marketing, and advertising, and political lobbying. Fifty years ago, it was not uncommon to see advertisements for DDT featuring an aproned housewife in spike heels and a pith helmet aiming a spray gun at two giant cockroaches standing on her kitchen counter. The caption below reads, “Super Ammunition for the Continued Battle on the Home Front.” Another ad shows a picture of a different aproned woman standing in a chorus line of dancing farm animals, who sing, “DDT is good for me!” DDT was marketed as the “atomic bomb of the insect world,” but also as “benign” for human beings. And we believed it.

Our ignorance is not an accident. We are not meant to know what goes into the products we use every day. The manufacturers of most American-made products tend to keep the ingredients and formulations of their products secret, and rarely mention that individual ingredients might (or do) cause cancer, or impede fetal development, or lead to hormone imbalances. It seems that the intention in packaging is to make information harder to find, not easier — an imitation of information, not information itself. With so little information, it’s easy to see why we have become so complacent. And why we have allowed ourselves to live, albeit uncomfortably, with assurances that these products are “safe.” A single exposure to these chemicals never killed anyone, we tell ourselves. This is true. But smoking a single cigarette never killed anyone, either. The trouble with exposure to toxic chemicals, as with exposure to tobacco, is that the impact is cumulative, long-lasting and, frequently, slow to reveal itself.

So here we are.

Almost 50 years after Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and the tide of synthetic chemicals is only rising. We are faced, every day, with an overwhelming number of choices as consumers: Do I choose this detergent or that one? This mattress or that one? The chemical lawn-care company or the “green” one? This shouldn’t be so hard. We’re talking about washing our children’s hair. Or cleaning the sink. Or tending a garden. Why has this become so complicated? And on what information do we make our decisions? . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

17 April 2011 at 9:07 am

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