The idiot in us all

The idiot in us all

“From ignorance our comfort flows; the only wretched are the wise.” So said Matthew Prior, the British poet and politician. Does this apply to our attitude to chemicals? Or, asks VITTORIO BOLLO, are we just complete idiots?

I was lousy at science when I was at school. In fact, make that chemistry and physics too! Whilst suitably entranced by the living world around me (and, no, I hate to confess I wasn’t that good at biology either), the endless equations and abstract paraphernalia of physics and chemistry not only bored me to tears, but baffled me beyond belief.

My loves were the tangibles of geography and history, the facts and figures which I relished and at which I excelled. Hell, there was even a time I could name every capital city of the world (…and what I would give to have that power of memory back).

Fast forward to my professional life: At a time when the environmental field seemed awash in scientific types who had studied biochemistry, zoology and botany (read: my polar opposites), my early days in environmental consulting and legal compliance were filled with cold sweat-inducing panic attacks as clients blithely expected me to instantly grasp the biochemical by-products of an industrial process (I did not) or the difference between sulphur dioxide and carbon disulphide (yeah, right). Help!

In all of this I know I’m not alone. For many people, including many in the SHE field, scientific and technical jargon can often be confusing and even intimidating. This brings me to chemicals. It is the sheer number and scale of chemicals that is so bewildering, with no scientist, process engineer or technocrat able to offer an exact number of the different types of chemicals and their compounds in the world. The ubiquity of chemicals in industry, in offices, in our homes, in our transport, in what we wear, in what we eat, in the air we breathe, is frankly staggering. We live in a world filled with chemicals. Rather, make that a world saturated with chemicals.

The effects of a select number of certain chemicals on the natural environment are well documented.

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), once revered as being a wonder chemical due to its powerful insecticide, fungicide and pesticide properties, is probably one of the best known 20th century “wonder” chemicals that turned out to have a very sinister side. The highly toxic, bio-accumulative and mutagenic side effects of DDT, which play havoc on food chains exposed to the chemical, were first exposed to the public in the ground-breaking 1962 book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which many accredit as being one of the seminal moments in the growth of ecological consciousness and pivotal in the rise of the environmental movement. DDT, as poster child for the dangers of chemicals, has become stock standard in environmental discourse – to the point of being tired cliché.

What is not cliché is how there are other chemicals against which even DDT pales. One such chemical is dioxin. I’ve often heard about dioxins, but I certainly took more notice of them after having recently seen an excellent documentary about dioxins on Russia Today (channel 405 on DStv), which served as inspiration for this article.

Dioxin is formed as an unintentional by-product of many industrial processes involving chlorine – such as waste incineration, chemical and pesticide manufacturing and pulp and paper bleaching. Dioxin is primarily formed by burning chlorine-based chemical compounds with hydrocarbons. Dioxin pollution is strongly affiliated with paper mills due to their use of chlorine bleaching in pulp paper processes, as well as with the production of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) plastics.

The idiot in us all It should be noted that dioxin is a term to describe the group of hundreds of chemicals that are highly persistent in the environment. The most toxic compound is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD. The toxicity of other dioxins and chemicals like PCBs (notorious in their own right for their high toxicity to human health and the environment) that act biochemically like dioxin, are measured in their relative toxicity to TCDD.

The concept of what is termed toxic equivalence (TEQ) has been developed to facilitate risk assessment and regulatory control of various other toxic chemicals. TCDD has a toxic equivalence factor (TEF) of one – against which all other (highly) toxic chemicals are compared. This makes TCDD ground zero in chemical toxicity.

Are dioxins really that bad for human health? Indeed they are. It is now accepted that dioxins are some of the most toxic chemicals known to science. According to a 1994 United States Environment Protection Agency (EPA) report, there doesn’t appear to be a “safe” level of exposure to dioxin. In 1997, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), published its research into dioxins and announced that TCDD must be considered a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning a “known human carcinogen”.

In addition to cancer, exposure to dioxin can also cause severe reproductive and developmental problems, and has been linked to birth defects, inability to maintain pregnancy, decreased fertility, reduced sperm counts, endometriosis, diabetes, learning disabilities, immune system suppression, lung problems, skin disorders, lowered testosterone levels and a host of other health effects.

Interestingly, the major sources of dioxin for most people are in their diet. Since dioxin is fat-soluble, it bio-accumulates and rapidly climbs to the top of the food chain. Due to the fact that they bio-accumulate with such ease and are so toxic to the environment and human health, dioxins are readily classed as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Dioxin may be this generation’s version of what DDT was in the 1960s.

The Russia Today documentary shows Midland, Michigan, a town ravaged by dioxin emissions (and, not by coincidence, headquarters to Dow Chemicals, the world’s biggest chemical company and producer of dioxins), and in which a community activist angrily asks, “So there are no bodies floating down the river. Is that what it takes for us to know the truth?”

That is a very telling question. Is that what we require to know the truth about chemicals like dioxins? Do we need bodies floating down rivers? We seem to be in a very dangerous mindset, in which the questions being asked today appear less stringent than those previously asked. As Dr. Debra Davis stated, “We have moved from the 1970s scientific method of ‘being safe rather than sorry’ – known as the precautionary principle – to an ethos today in which the profit motive comes first.”

In the documentary, a researcher at the only scientific institute in the world that solely tests chemicals for their carcinogenic effects (situated at Bentivoglio in Italy) stated how its studies and other known studies in the United States show that a full 50% of chemicals tested to date have been found to be carcinogenic. Yet, roughly only 2% of known chemicals have been tested for their carcinogenic effects.

Tellingly, the Russia Today documentary was entitled The Idiot Cycle, a reference to the research showing that the very same companies that produce some of the most carcinogenic chemicals in the world are the same ones that produce and sell many of the known cancer treatments. Conspiracy theories – or troubling evidence of profit motives above all else – including our very health?

Are we the idiots? At the very least our continued collective lack of precautionary knowledge regarding chemicals is very troubling. A critical statement made in the documentary was: “We as citizens tend to mistake a lack of evidence with a lack of risk.” In a world as toxic as this, that cannot be acceptable status quo.


Vittorio Bollo achieved an LL B in Law and Politics from a UK university and a Master’s degree in International Environmental Law from a Canadian university. He has over 12 years experience in the SHE field, primarily in consulting, training and R&D. He has recently joined NOSA to work in its growing R&D department, in which he will continue to do work in environmental/SHE risk management and corporate governance, as well as his chief passion, sustainability.

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