Toxic economy

The global economy is toxic. The drive for constant innovation to produce new commodities to fix real or perceived problems in industries ranging from electronics to agriculture; food to pharmaceuticals; children’s toys to sanitation; bombs to beauty products, is having a toxic impact on the health of the population. According to the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer World Cancer Report, global cancer rates are increasing.

Scottish cancer rates are expected to rise by 8% every 5 years until 2020. We are told this is largely due to an ageing population. However, much research has shown methods of production on which our economy depends are exposing us to hundreds of substances which are responsible for the above cancer statistics and other diseases and are compromising our ability to reproduce our human populations.

In the 1990s, the Women’s Environmental Network conducted a Britain-wide project ‘Putting Breast Cancer on the Map’. It gathered evidence from women with experience of breast cancer, demonstrating cancer incidence follows a historical and geographical relationship to industrialisation. Subsequent work in Scotland by Andy Watterson and others at Stirling University, and in Canada by Jim Brophy and his colleagues, identified clear breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. In November 2014, The American Public Health Association published ‘Breast Cancer and Occupation: The Need for Action’.

Climate science is clear that fossil fuels are hugely responsible for rising global temperatures. The ethane fraction of such fuels is used to produce a large range of consumer products which have serious health effects, including causing cancers and as endocrine disruptors. Over a thousand chemicals in regular use have been found to interfere with endocrine (hormone) systems. These are called Endocrine Disruption Chemicals (EDCs). Hormones are responsible for the normal function of body systems. EDCs can cause illness in healthy adults and are particularly dangerous to young children and developing fetuses. Health effects associated with EDCs include: immune system impairment; hormone dependent cancers; allergies; metabolic syndrome – obesity and type 2 diabetes; developmental disorders in children (ADHD, autism spectrum, learning, coordination, behaviour difficulties) and possibly late neurological disorders (Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimers).

Some of these impacts have been found to be passed on to the third generation after exposure. Whilst some EDCs have been withdrawn from use, these chemicals are present in the environment, in many consumer products (like food, especially canned food, clothing, storage containers, personal care products, cosmetics, vegetables, paints and glues) and may be released through waste management processes. And new EDCs continue to be introduced in industrial and agrochemical processes and in consumer products, including perfluorinated chemicals (oil stain water and stick resistant) and bisphenol A.

In a detailed study of chemicals used in unconventional gas activities, 75% affected skin and eyes and respiratory and digestive system; 40-50% the brain and nervous, immune, renal and cardiovascular systems; 37% the endocrine system; and 25% could cause mutations and cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer estimate 7% to 19% of all cancers worldwide are due to toxic environmental exposures. It collected monographs on 900 substances of which 400 are classified as carcinogens, including 75 kinds of dioxins and 135 furans. There is no threshold dose or ‘safe exposure level’ for a carcinogen and Europe is currently working to establish the same principle for EDCs.

Since the 1990s, the global chemicals market has grown by around 7% per year. In 2015, the top 10 chemical companies alone turned over $350bn. Add to that the petrochemicals giants, which constitute around half of the Fortune 500 top companies. Despite the growth, it has been predicted that 30% of European chemicals jobs will be lost by 2030. And it is not just chemical industries that expose workers to toxins: agriculture, food processing, micro-electronics and auto-plastics have been linked to high levels of occupational cancers.

The true cost of fossil fuels and other environmental and occupational toxins must be properly accounted for: much of the cost is hidden or externalised and picked up by local authorities, social and health services and the people who are damaged by these activities and exposures.

The European Health and Environment Alliance estimate €31bn per year in EU health savings is possible from reducing exposures to hormone disrupting chemicals. However, the global Chemical industry was worth around €2.4tn Euros in 2010. Current political energy discourse is predominantly about the market and oil and gas prices, but this pales beside the need to consider the effects of our choices for protecting human health and a habitable planet.

Twenty five years ago, as a result of pressure from environmentalists, Massachusetts passed a Toxics Use Reduction Act which helped companies plan to reduce their use and emissions of toxic materials. Although a voluntary scheme with limited cover, participating companies have reported nearly 50% reduction in the use of toxins and over 90% reduction in emissions. If such a limited scheme can produce these results, just imagine what a regulatory regime could come up with. It is clear that toxic chemicals are unnecessary, dangerous and are perpetuated solely to meet the needs of industry shareholders.

Alongside phasing out toxins, it is important to develop safe alternatives. As Dr Duncan MacQuarrie, of the Green Chemistry Department of York University, put it: ‘The Scottish Government should be very positive about green chemistry. Scotland has a phenomenal amount of natural resources.- far more than the rest of the UK and more than the rest of Europe (other than Scandinavia perhaps) and they could reap massive benefits through their sustainable utilisation, particularly good for getting good jobs into the Highlands and stopping the drift away from these regions.’

This is where union demands for health and safety at work meet environmental campaigns against pollution. A toxic economy is in nobody’s interests but those who profit from it. There are certainly opportunities in Scotland to phase out the chemicals that are damaging the health of workers, communities and the environment and replace them with safe alternatives.

Morag Parnell is a retired general practitioner and co-founder of Women’s Environmental Network Scotland