Why we must clean up the Earth

Humans emit more than 200 billion tonnes of chemical substances each year, in a toxic avalanche that is injuring people and life everywhere on the Planet.

Earth, and all life on it, are being saturated with man-made chemicals in an event unlike anything in the planet’s entire history.

Every moment of our lives we are exposed to thousands of these substances. They enter our bodies with each breath, meal or drink we take, the clothes and cosmetics we wear, the things we encounter every day in our homes, workplaces and travel. They affect every person, every day.

The poisoning of our planet through man-made chemical emissions is probably the largest human impact – and the one that is least understood or regulated. It is one of the ten major existential risks now confronting humanity. It has mostly occurred in just the last two generations.

Recent assessments find there are more than 350,000 man-made chemicals in existence. The US Department of Health estimates 2000 new chemicals are being released every year. The UN Environment Program warns most of these have never been screened for human health safety.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 12 million people – one in 4 – die every year from diseases caused by ‘air, water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change and ultraviolet radiation’, from human activity. Toxic chemicals thus claim four times more lives than the Covid pandemic and constitute the largest mass killing in human history.

Examples of the toxic avalanche include:

  • Manufactured chemicals – 2.5 billion tonnes a year
  • Hazardous waste – 400 mt/yr
  • Coal, oil, gas etc – 15 billion tonnes a year
  • Lost soil – 75 Gt/yr
  • Metals and materials – 75 Gt/yr
  • Mining and mineral wastes – 40-90 billion tonnes a year
  • Water (mostly contaminated with above wastes) – 9 trillion tonnes a year.

Industrial toxins are routinely found in new-born babies, in mother’s milk, in the food chain, in domestic drinking water worldwide. They have been detected from the peak of Mt Everest (where the snow is so polluted it doesn’t meet drinking water standards) to the depths of the oceans, from the hearts of our cities to the remotest islands.

The mercury found in the fish we eat is fallout from the burning of coal, and increases every year. Our seafood and marine life are contaminated with microplastics made from petroleum.

There is global concern at the death of honeybees from 5 million tonnes of agricultural pesticides and the potential impact on the world food supply, as well as all insect life – and on the birds, frogs and fish which in turn depend on insects.

An issue largely overlooked by governments and corporations is that chemicals act in combination, occur in mixtures and undergo constant change. A single chemical may not occur in toxic amounts in one place – but combined with thousands of other chemicals it may contribute a much larger risk to the health and safety of the whole population and the environment that supports it.

Medical science is increasingly linking issues such as obesity, cancers, heart disease and brain disorders such as autism, ADHD, depression and loss of human intelligence to the growing flood of poisons to which humans are exposed daily.

Despite attempts to regulate chemical use, only 21 out of 350,000 chemicals have so far been banned. In many countries the petrochemical sector is persuading government to roll back the laws that protect public health, in the interest of profit.

The good news is that solutions to the threat of global poisoning exist, but they require worldwide co-operation by consumers, government, civil society and industry.

In Earth Detox I propose a new Human Right – a Right Not To Be Poisoned. Without such a right, there will never again be a day in history when humans are free from man-made poisons.

We also need a global alliance of consumers and concerned citizens prepared to reject toxic products or products made with toxic processes – and so give industry the economic incentive to switch to ‘green chemistry’ and other safer systems.

Communities the world over need to move as fast as possible to policies of ‘zero waste’ and a circular economy, where nothing is discarded but everything is either re-used or made safe.

Earth has been poisoned because we, as consumers, send our dollar demands to industry to make things as cheaply as possible. This demand takes no account of the damage to human life and health that unbridled chemical use entails, including the 12 million annual deaths and 90 million disabilities it causes. We are all, in a sense, getting away with murder.

If consumers demand safe, healthy, green products and are willing to pay industry a little more to make them safely, we can cleanse our planet within a generation. Earth Detox makes clear the path to achieving this.

We all pay the price for chemical emissions one way or another. It’s a simple choice – pay at the supermarket, or pay at the hospice.

Earth Detox was launched in Canberra Australia, August 5, 2021

Order now from Cambridge University Press

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