Chemicals of mass destruction

By Rehan Khan*. Published in Bahrain this Month (March 2005) The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has named it the second gravest threat to mankind (1) behind global warming.  Its been blamed for distorting hormones (gender bender), changing behaviour amongst animals and people, affecting fertility rates and the immune system, as well as causing neurological illnesses. Is this threat some ‘rogue’ state bent on destroying life as we know it? Or perhaps some retro-virus left by aliens at Roswell, New Mexico when they crash landed way back in the 1950’s? Actually no, what they’re referring to is man-made chemical pollution.

That’s right chemicals which we produce through industry to contaminate the planet and ourselves. These could be chemicals in food, furniture, clothing, health care products, pesticides, and a host of other modern day niceties that apparently we can’t live without. According to Matthew Wilkinson, the WWF toxics programme leader “We’ve started seeing changes in fertility rates, the immune system, neurological changes [and] impacts on behaviour” as a result of chemical pollution. The WWF are particularly worried about ‘persistent and accumulative’ industrial chemicals that are increasingly being found in household and personal care products. Could there be a link between the increase in chemicals in all aspects of life and the rise in diseases such as asthma, cancer, chemical related allergies, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neurone diseases, to name a few?

A detailed study (2) entitled ‘Children of the 90’s’, carried out over ten years involving 7000 children by researchers at Bristol University (UK) showed a very strong link between household chemicals (air freshener, bleach, cleaning fluids, disinfectant and paint stripper) and wheezing which often leads to asthma. Dr Andrea Sheriff from the research team says “We are seeing what appears to be effects on lung function, either while the baby is still in the womb or after birth…we have followed the children to the age of eight…these findings suggest that children whose mothers made frequent use of chemical-based domestic products during pregnancy were more likely to wheeze persistently throughout early childhood, independent of many other factors.”

Perhaps this should not be such a shock for us, especially when we consider the following facts. World chemical output went up from 1 billion lb in 1940 to 500 billion lb fifty years later, so creating an intense ‘chemical soup’ around the planet. There are now 70,000 synthetic chemicals in use, many of which are unregulated. Some household cleaning products are known carcinogens which can lead to anemia and damage to the liver, kidney and nervous system. Around 900 chemicals known to be toxic as tested by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety are routinely used in personal health care products and cosmetics. 95% of the 5000 or so chemicals used in perfumes are derived from petroleum and the vast majority have never been tested for human toxicity since the perfume industry is unregulated. Next time before you're tempted to buy one of those over priced bottles of meaning, why don’t you contact the manufacturer and ask them about their testing procedures. While you're at it you may want to ask them why their industry is not governed by regulation that protects the consumer.

In parallel there has been a 25% increase in cancer rates in the last twenty years. Asthma now affects 20% of 5 year olds living in major cities. Cases of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) are sky-rocketing globally. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates 20,000 unintentional deaths each year due to pesticide poisoning. The list goes on, but I guess you get the drift. This could be a complete coincidence. But isn’t that what NASA scientists said about the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica – that it didn’t exist, until they realized they were measuring the wrong thing and it was actually much larger than they had ever imagined. Certainly the skeptic in me is not prepared to believe powerful lobby groups telling me otherwise, particularly as all our lives are at stake.

In fact the problem seems to be so far reaching that even the most natural and wholesome of sources, mothers breast milk, has not escaped. Research (3) over the last 20 years has shown that chemical pollution is finding its way into mother's breast milk, by attaching itself to fatty tissues in the human body. So when the fatty tissues are called on as a source of nutrient for breast milk, the chemicals also go as a surprise package straight into baby. This is particularly so for a group of chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), as they remain in the environment and body for many years. These critters just stick around for as long as they can, eventually finding a nice warm place inside me or you and then pop up on some ultra scan along with a possible cancer cell. Yes, that’s right these chemicals have got more staying power than a second hand car salesmen, they’ll never leave you alone till they take you six feet under. Fortunately there have been some recent positive moves such as the Stockholm Convention to ban and outlaw these chemical menaces, however there is still a long way to go as many chemicals remain unregulated.

To illustrate the problem further, in a five year study in California (4) researchers found a strong link between exposure to indoor pesticides and the risk of childhood leukemia. Those families where there were children with leukemia were more likely to have used professional pest control services. In fact a child in a home using professional pest control services was more than twice as likely to develop leukemia. The researchers concluded that increased exposure led to increased risk of leukemia. Now how many of us have called those guys dressed up in masks with canisters on their backs, looking like the poor cousins of Ghostbusters to spray our homes with pesticides? Probably many. But how many of us knew of possible side-affects? Probably only a few.

There is no escaping the fact that chemicals are and will remain with us – in pesticides, cosmetics, baby bottles, clothes, furniture – our lifestyles depend on it. Unless of-course we are bold enough to re-think current paradigms. Until we do, it's important for there to be greater public awareness, particularly of three types of chemicals which the WWF are very concerned about. Firstly, persistent chemicals which break down slowly or not at all and build up in the body. Secondly, endochrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) which interfere with the hormonal systems of animals and people. Finally, chemicals which cause cancer, reproductive problems, or damage DNA. Shockingly of those chemicals that are used in the largest volume only 14% (5) have the necessary amount of data publicly available to make an initial basic safety assessment, according to the European Environment Agency.

This all sounds far too depressing. Every other person you meet also seems to have or know someone who has problems with their immune system. Clearly detailed medical research which can be made available to the public is required, particularly for those living near industrial sites.

As individuals it's important we educate ourselves on some of the do’s and don’t when it comes to chemical pollution and how to reduce the effect on us. However at the same time individual initiatives are not enough unless they are supported with clear legislation and regulation. European governments are currently looking to implement REACH, which is a draft law that should lead to the identification and phasing out of the most harmful chemicals. Isn’t it about time we also joined the campaign to detox the planet and rid it of chemicals of mass destruction?

* This article was first published under the pen name of Osman Idris.


1. WWF

2. Children of the 90’s’ project, Bristol University, December 2004

3. American Academy of Pediatrics

4. Ma, X, PA Buffler, RB Gunier, G Dahl, MT Smith, K Reinier and P Reynolds. 2002. Critical Windows of Exposure to Household Pesticides and Risk of Childhood Leukemia. Environmental Health Perspectives 110:955-960.

5. European Commission. 2001. White paper on strategy for a future chemical policy. COM(2001) 88 final. Brussels