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Human and Environmental Effects of Industrial Activity

Human and ecosystem health are two of the most critical components of long-term sustainability. There is evidence that some of the most productive types of ecosystems - forest, aquatic and marine - are in a state of stress and that some are in danger of collapse due to a variety of causes including industrial pollution.

Human health is compromised by the accumulation of toxic chemicals. Growing evidence indicates that toxic exposure affects the human brain and reproductive system, not just through acute disease but also through chronic degradation of function. Although the precise nature and effect of human exposure to bio-accumulating chemicals is not clear, our ability to reason and to reproduce may be at risk.

To address these concerns, the 2050 Project gathered an international group of researchers at the White Oak Plantation in Yulee, Florida to explore health threats of common interest. Nineteen industrial economists, toxicologists and ecologists spent three days in May discussing the impact of industrial practises on the health of humans and other natural systems. The meeting was organised by the 2050 Project and hosted by the Howard Gilman Foundation.

Traditional models of development rely on a strong industrial base to provide goods, services, employment and wealth. Industrial activities, however, cause much of the pollution known to degrade the environment. The need to sustain current levels of development and to foster such development when it is lagging, gives rise to troubling concerns over the ability of the natural environment to accommodate unnatural loads of toxic substances. As pollutants build up in the environment, significant direct and indirect effects of this toxification emerge.

  • Persistent, toxic materials emitted during industrial activity and energy production accumulate in the environment. These substances may destabilise ecosystems and disrupt planet-wide nutrient cycles.
  • The health of humans and other natural systems is increasingly compromised directly and indirectly by exposure to toxic heavy metals and industrial chemicals. Documented effects in industrialised nations include increases in several types of cancers; diminishing brain function in individuals living or working in heavily contaminated areas; and disruption of the endocrine system which regulates sexual development and ultimately our ability to survive and reproduce.
  • If the projected increase in global economic activity over the next 50 years is based on the same technology in use today, the rate at which toxic chemicals accumulate will also increase. Even at current levels of population and economic activity, environmental toxification will continue to rise.
  • If we are to reach a state of ecological sustainability within 50 or 100 years, the industrial system must change. This will mean closing the loop of materials flow so that wastes and hazardous materials stay within the industrial system.

A fundamental restructuring of the industrial cycle to eliminate waste at every step of processing will be a necessary part of the transition to sustainability. Much research remains to be done to envision such an industrial system to build a forceful case for the transition and to implement the policies essential to initiate it.

The 1994 edition of State of the World published by the Worldwatch Institute has a chapter called "Assessing Environmental Health Risks" by Ann Misch, who writes of new, previously unforeseen threats.

According to Misch, some scientists are beginning to look beyond the obvious - cancer and other easily diagnosable problems - to other health consequences of the chemical age. What they are finding puts a different face on claims of harmlessness accepted by consumers in a less questioning era. In the summer of 1991 for example, 21 scientists gathered at the Wingspread Conference in Wisconsin, presented fresh evidence that a wide assortment of environmental pollutants had the potential to undermine biological functioning and so affect the overall competence of animals studied both in the lab and in the wild. Many of the substances they investigated had caused broad, yet subtle damage by disrupting vital physiological systems including the nervous system, the endocrine system and the immune system.

What the industrial chemicals discussed at Wingspread have in common - beyond in some cases their cancer-causing potential - is the ability to wreak silent havoc at much lower levels of exposure than those typically associated with cancer. Because most of the damage observed by scientists reporting at Wingspread was so insidious, the group determined that similar effects in people exposed to the same contaminants might go unnoticed, unless researchers specifically hunted for them. They called for a major investigation to better assess the extent of subtle chemical damage to health.

Although the suspicion that chemicals can cause toxic effects more subtle than cancer, acute poisoning or birth defects is not new, toxicologists and other scientists until recently lacked the tools to investigate many less obvious health effects. US regulatory agencies have emphasised avoiding cancer; in the process they presumed that a public protected against cancer was also a public protected against other toxic outcomes of chemical exposure. But environmental health research is proving that assumption false with each revelation that environmental pollutants can impair functioning and overall biological competence - in the absence of overt signs of disease.

The findings of scientists like those gathered at Wingspread do not mean that our previous focus on avoiding cancer was wrong. Yet the recent research on non-cancer effects certainly implies that our view of chemical risks is incomplete. The discovery that a whole universe of other health effects may be associated with the products of our industrial age has profound implications for public health and regulatory policy. The continuous appearance of toxic effects at lower and lower levels of exposure is especially troubling since low-level exposure to some chemicals is practically universal.

The growing repertoire of toxic effects that scientists are beginning to document begs for a much more conservative approach to chemical regulation. To include these fresh findings in chemical risk assessment, regulatory agencies must look beyond cancer to assess the effect of chemicals on overall biological competence. This task involves at a minimum, careful consideration of potential toxic effects on the nervous system, the endocrine and reproductive systems and the immune system.

If the billions squandered by TNCs on research into industrialised and chemically dependent food production, presentation, and marketing were diverted to the human and environmental consequences of the application of such research and promotion, the human race and its habitat would stand a better chance of survival in the next century.

Sources: 2050 Project Newsletter Fall 1994; State of the World 1994; Worldwatch Institute.

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