What you will find in this section
- The Big Picture of Big Chemical
- Toxic World: News from the Chemical Edge
For “Greening Our Chemical Footprint” resources, click here
Sarnia’s Chemical Valley from the St. Clair River
The Big Picture of Big Chemical
Big Chemical is really big, the heart of a 3 trillion dollar economy, employing over 800,000 people directly in the U.S., contributing to over 6 million jobs in “downstream industries.” Plastics are huge in that economy, accounting for close to 80 per cent of non-energy petroleum use. In the U.S., chemical manufacture accounts for nearly 25 per cent America’s GDP, and its products are found in over 90 per cent of other manufactured goods. Big Chemical is interwoven on the one hand with the carbon industries (oil, natural gas) and on the other with pharmaceutical industries, making it the largest and wealthiest industrial nexus in the world.
If there is one overarching factor that shapes what has happened in our chemical world, it is the agenda, writ large, of this industry. Without setting out to harm, the chemical industry has, nevertheless, created more than 80,000 new chemicals with which neither humans nor nature co-evolved. Result: The evidence of scholarship, human and animal illness shows that many of the most important products of this industry, as well as its manufacturing sites, its fence line communities, and the legacy of its emissions and spills – both near to its sites and all the way downstream – are poisoning us, our fellow creatures, our very biosphere. And, without most people really becoming aware of it, like climate change, this has become a species crisis.
Has the chemical industry shown a historic or current willingness to acknowledge this reality and to change in ways and at a pace the big picture demands? If you go to the website of the American Chemistry Council, formerly the American Chemical Manufacturers Association, you will find glossy pictures of happy children, clean industries, responsive legislatures – a gushy, self-congratulatory paean to themselves and their members. But I ask you to attend, instead, to the following words, taken from the titles in the reading list on the Toxic World page, books written by distinguished scientists, physicians, epidemiologists and former senior EPA employees. What do they convey to you about the modus operandi of Big Chemical?
Cancer, stolen, threatening, assault on science, body toxic, hazardous, slow death, amputated lives, bending science, cancer, death, deceit, denial, deadly politics, poison, disruption, toxic legacy, merchants of doubt, cancer, silent spring, poison spring, Pandora’s poison, poison on tap, cancer, sacrifice zones, secret history, environmental deception, toxic chemical exposure, contested illnesses, trespass against us.
Two broad strategies in the playbook: deceit and government complicity
Rachel Carson’s 1968 book, Silent Spring, has often been credited with launching the modern environmental movement. It was an exposé of the lethal effects of the now-banned pesticide DDT. The huge, ugly, self-righteous attack on Carson by the chemical industry when her book came out, and the way that industry sought government assistance in discounting Carson’s conclusions prefigured even then the two broad strategies the industry as a whole would employ going forward: deceit and government complicity. The goal of complicity, particularly transparent in efforts of industry people who have rotated in and out of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was abetted by deceit, and has always been to minimize public regulation in favour of laissez-faire policies for the industry.
The billions of dollars spent in lobbying efforts and direct campaign contributions by this industry have lubricated the relationship with federal, state and provincial and municipal governments all over this continent. The Center for Responsive Politics and its opensecrets.org website keep careful track, with excellent and accessible tools, of the industry’s above-board lobby costs, going back to 1998, which you can peruse at leisure there
Why so much deceit? Well, would you knowingly purchase laundry soap or “air-freshener” that contains a dozen or more serious toxicants, including carcinogens, chemicals that could harm your liver, kidneys, lungs, immune system and brain? That’s what most people are doing right now. Would you spray your lawn with pesticides if you knew it was going to hurt you, your kids and your pets, unto multiple generations? I’m betting the answer to that is no, too. Would you still love that “new car smell” if you knew it was a host of endocrine disrupting chemicals that were neurotoxicants and obesogens? No again? So there’s the answer to why the chemical industry has fought labelling with every resource it has, and still prevails in most jurisdictions. (Recently, there has been a big victory in California, so this can be changed!)
California State Legislature
The chemical industry has also distorted or buried scientific reports, hired captive scientists to produce fake science, placed its senior executives into regulatory positions in government agencies, spent billions in lobbying national, state and provincial politicians, opposed new regulatory laws at every turn, fought toxic torts (law suits alleging harm) on every front, no matter the evidence, and have taken to creating fake citizen’s groups to make it appear that ordinary people disagree with environmental justice efforts. They have pitted commercial interests against those of public health. Sound familiar? Yes, these are the same tactics that the tobacco industry employed, and often with the same companies and consultants for support – but on a much, much larger scale and with much, much worse consequences.
Poster: Rangly, Colorado
Toxic World -– News from the Chemical Edge
Since Donald Trump became president of the United States, all environmentalists have been struggling to deal with historic setbacks and grave fears about the future, in the U.S. and in its closest neighbours, whose economies are tied to the big guy in the middle. These setbacks include, of course, major attempts to slow down climate change and climate justice initiatives. But less well known though equally frightening have been a series of major initiatives to reverse many laws that regulate toxic chemicals, their manufacture, their use and their disposal. This is even true of the new, bipartisan Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, passed in 2016, that however imperfectly, raised standards nationally from the old federal legislation. It too is under severe assault.
So there has been a steady stream of stories about the retrograde politics of toxics for the last year, many of which have been lost in the storms of scandal and controversy over the new President’s behaviour and the threats to climate justice. It worried me greatly that so little attention was being paid to these many facets of toxic chemical debate.
In late September and early October of this year (2017), four new items about environmental health entered the public realm in my corner of the world, and, on top of all the others I had read before them, finally prompted me to create this on-line resource kit.
To great fanfare, on the front pages of the Toronto Star over several days, were two stories about occupational and community health disasters in Ontario, in the cities of Sarnia and Peterborough (not four blocks from my own house), respectively. The third item, the Phase 1 Report of the Task Force on Environmental Health, a body mandated by Ontario’s Minister of Health and Long Term Care – was released, on the other hand, was released with no public notice, and therefore no coverage. Finally, the United States Environmental Protection Agency dropped what should have been a bombshell – the fourth big piece – in the final week of October, releasing its Impact Report: Protecting Children’s Health – Where They Live, Learn, and Play. But what should have been a historic and watershed report – a huge wake-up call – got little attention relative to its importance.
Peterborough’s largely decommissioned GE Plant – a legacy toxics site Photo Peterborough Examiner
Now, the Sarnia and Peterborough stories are about appalling health impacts on workers and surrounding communities, about toxic legacies in soil, buildings and water, about complicit, dogged, multi-decade government refusal to attend to community and labour calls for help, and finally by implication, about phenomenal corporate greed. The adverse heath impacts that were cited have been well-documented in scientific and epidemiological literature that stretches back decades too. And they have been ignored for decades by industries, by passive and complicit governments, and, as it happens, also by a mostly silent press. The spotlight these articles, and others that have followed, prompted promises by Ontario’s Liberal government to “study” the problem and take action, underwhelming and inadequate promises from the party that consistently promises friendship to ordinary people and consistently fails to deliver it.
The Ontario Task Force on Environmental Health Phase 1 report, by contrast, was released with no public notification and no coverage in the press, and so no influential voices connected the dots between what goes on in industrial sites like Sarnia and Peterborough, and the millions of people who get so sensitized to chemicals they become disabled. This task force is the most recent phase of a 32-year-long struggle (pdf: Deja Vu All Over Again) for recognition and care, by such people in Ontario, those with Environmental Sensitivities/Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (ES/MCS) – 300,000+ and counting, in this province alone. The task force was also mandated to address two other invisible, neglected, and frequently co-occurring conditions: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and Fibromyalgia (FM) [jump to section on these, bottom of ES/MCS page]. The total of those people with one or more of these conditions in Ontario exceeds 550,000.
Clearly, ES/MCS is very widespread even as it is little known and profoundly misunderstood. Thanks to decades of chemical-industry disinformation (pdf: The Chemical Industry vs MCS), which was swallowed wholesale by large parts of the medical profession and then took on a life of its own, these sufferers get no health care or social supports for this form of toxic injury from mainstream medicine, while others are not aware of these “human canaries” letting them know the chemicals in their products and their air are toxic. Still. In 2017.
Meanwhile, the province of Ontario spends hundreds of millions of dollars in inappropriate care that does not help and often makes these people worse. (Find this in Recognition, inclusion and equity: Solutions for people living in Ontario with ES/MCS, ME/CFS and FM – The Business Case Proposal, Steering Committee of the OCEEH Business Case project ) Even as support for those with ES/MCSers is just as important as for people in workplaces and fence line communities – indeed, they are often one and the same.
With severe chemical sensitivity, daily tasks in a chemical world become highly dangerous – Photo Tilde Jensen
To telegraph: the recommendations of the Task force are all essential and welcome, but also underwhelming – scant and inadequate, and ironically, not engaged in environmental issues at all. More, there is a lot omitted and unspoken in the report, and an important, historical and political context that is hidden, too. So if you want to make real sense of what’s in this document and what it means– click here
Finally, the U.S.’s EPA released a terrifying piece that should have caused a seismic explosion: Impact Report: Protecting Children’s Health – Where They Live, Learn, and Play. This major work chronicles the truly horrifying toll that pesticides, industrial and consumer chemicals and air pollution take on the health of America’s children. It summarizes dozens of long-term studies that cost $300 million dollars to fund, and were conducted over 20 years by two federal agencies. The research links everyday exposures to bisphenol A (a plasticizer found in everything from food containers to Kraft Dinner to moisturizer); flame retardants (in our furniture, our bedding and clothing) and in pesticides (in our food chain, golf courses, gardens, homes and water supplies) with asthma, bad birth outcomes, cancer, brain and behavioural problems, immune dysfunction, autism spectrum disorder and obesity. Yet even this got lost in the unending media storm about other matters.
The EPA’s report estimates the cost of environmentally related diseases in children at $76 billion a year! And that’s just in children.
We need to face facts: our society pays every day, in every way, including in untold suffering and untold billions of dollars in direct and indirect costs, for the adverse health impacts of chemicals. Yet the suffering, the costs, the toxicity of the chemicals around us – despite extremely well-developed and impressive knowledge, and organizations working with it – seems almost never to get the kind of traction we need for change.
This is because the facts have been occluded by decades of intense, expensive and largely successful efforts by the chemical industry and its propaganda machine (known as PR) to hide these matters. And so it falls to all of us – citizens, parents, guardians of the earth for future generations – to make the suffering, the financial costs, the toxicity completely transparent, and join with those already campaigning to demand accountability from our elected representatives – for effective regulation, and for health care to treat and support people with toxic injuries.
Making changes against the resistance of the largest corporate nexus in the world – petroleum/chemicals/pharmaceuticals – will take efforts on the same scale as we now need to tackle climate change and climate justice – including, above all, electing representatives who will tackle this head-on. (See sidebar) If we don’t succeed, governments will continue to favour industry over the public interest, families will be isolated in their illnesses and increasing chronic illness and neurological disorders will weaken our society for the extraordinary socio-environmental challenges to come.
The Sarnia, Peterborough, Task Force on Environmental Health and EPA Impact Report are all expressions, in various ways, of our failing grades in this larger challenge. And this is why I felt strongly prompted to post some analysis and some resources that I hope will help others make better sense of the issues involved in chemicals and health, to better understand why we need to regulate toxic chemicals, green our chemical footprint, care for the chemically injured and get rapidly focused on children. Because these items flag a much larger catastrophe in our health, well-being, fertility and mental capacities.
Greening our chemicals is a task on par with tackling climate change. We have no time to lose.