On the eve of key climate change talks and the day after the world’s biggest environmental protest, it seems apropos to highlight the linkage between chemicals and climate. The Guardian recently published an interesting article titled “Why Banning Dangerous Chemicals Is Not Enough” that touches on the scope of the chemical industry (with an increase of 250% in total output from 2010 to 2014, and no decreases anticipated) as well as the inadequacy of mitigation or prevention efforts around the harmful side effects of industrial chemical use. The author of the Guardian article likens our use of chemicals to a drug addiction:
...like all drugs, chemicals have some serious side effects. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the chemical industry causes around a million deaths and 21m disability adjusted life years (DALYs) globally every year (based on 2004 data). DALYs are a measure of overall disease burden, expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death.
The main cause of these serious health impacts are acute poisoning , occupational exposure and lead in the environment. What’s more, these WHO figures are almost certainly an underestimate, since they exclude (due to incomplete data) chronic consumer exposure to chemicals and chronic exposure to pesticides and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury.
He concludes with the question of whether the chemicals industry can ever be sustainable. My response to this is, only if we can move away from the petroleum feedstocks that feed both the critical issue of accelerating climate change and chemicals alike. Scientist and poet Sandra Steingraber put this beautifully in a 2010 article for Orion magazine on the hazards of fracking:
The environmental crisis can be viewed as a tree with two trunks. One trunk represents what we are doing to the planet through atmospheric accumulation of heat-trapping gasses. Follow this trunk along and you find droughts, floods, acidification of oceans, dissolving coral reefs, and species extinctions.
The other trunk represents what we are doing to ourselves and other animals through the chemical adulteration of the planet with inherently toxic synthetic pollutants. Follow this trunk along and you find asthma, infertility, cancer, and male fish in the Potomac River whose testicles have eggs inside them.
At the base of both these trunks is an economic dependency on fossil fuels, primarily coal (plant fossils) and petroleum (animal fossils). When we light them on fire, we threaten the global ecosystem. When we use them as feedstocks for making stuff, we create substances—pesticides, solvents, plastics—that can tinker with our subcellular machinery and the various signaling pathways that make it run.