It is well known that we humans have polluted the planet. Globally, humanity produces over 2 billion tons or 4 trillion pounds of trash per year, much of which is dumped in landfills.[i] In the US alone, 34 billion gallons of wastewater is generated per day.[ii] In 2020 global use of fossil fuels released 34 billion tons of Co2 into the atmosphere[iii] and Co2 levels are now higher than they have been in 3 million years.[iv] This greenhouse gas heats the planet as it absorbs infrared energy from the sun that has radiated off the Earth’s surface and radiates some of it back to Earth. Centuries of burning fossil fuels has raised global temperatures enough to melt massive ice sheets and glaciers, resulting in the flooding of coastal cities around the world. As I wrote in 2017, coral bleaching, eutrophication, plastic waste, radiation from nuclear power plants, and rising water temperatures are all devastating marine life. Extreme weather events like hurricanes, droughts, forest fires, and flooding are on the rise due to anthropogenic climate change, and the human made Great Pacific garbage patch that weighs 7 million tons and is twice the size of Texas is growing with little efforts to halt its development.
380 million tons of plastic is produced yearly[v]. Chris Sherrington, head of environmental policy at Eunomia, estimates 12 million tons of microplastic enter the Earth’s oceans every year, mostly from car tires. Because of human pollution and exploitation of the environment, half of the world’s species have been killed off by humans in what is called the Holocene extinction event. The population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish declined by 68% in just 46 years.[vi]
In 2012 China’s ministry of water resources said 40% of China’s rivers are seriously polluted. 200 million rural Chinese people lack access to clean drinking water and 90% of China’s groundwater in its cities is contaminated. In the US, the EPA has noted in May 2000 similarly “An overwhelming majority of Americans-218 million-live within 10 miles of a polluted, lake, river, stream, or coastal area. States have identified almost 300,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than five million acres of lakes that do not meet state water quality goals.”
Despite the prevailing anthropocentric misconception that humans are somehow substantially different than the rest of nature, we are a part of the biosphere. When we pollute our ecosystems, we are polluting ourselves as well, because we drink the water and breathe the air that we pollute, and if concern for the priceless biodiversity and beauty of our ecosystems can’t persuade us to be better caretakers of the planet, perhaps an interest in self-preservation will. Most people don’t act as if they know poisoning the planet poisons our bodies too perhaps because we can’t see the pollutants inside us without testing for them unlike many of the pollutants we can see in our environments. Further, more and more studies are finding chemical and metal pollutants in human blood we didn’t know we had.
The Lancet commission on pollution and health estimated in May of 2022 that human pollution is conservatively responsible for nine million deaths per year or one in every six. Deaths have increased by 66% since 2000. The Commission notes urbanization driven by people leaving rural and remote areas to live in cities is a contributing factor. Over six million of these deaths are attributable to air pollution and another 1 to 8 million are caused by lead and other chemical pollution.
Beyond genetically modified foods, processed foods, tobacco, pharmaceutical drugs, chemical preservatives, dyes, and pesticides in food, which are all problematic, there are also thousands of other chemicals and metals in tremendously higher concentrations in our blood than there were just a few hundred years ago before the industrial revolution. Some chemicals that were just invented in the 20th and 21st century that are not produced by nature are also being found in our blood. Lead, mercury, cadmium, dioxins, radioactive isotopes, BPA, PFAs, and plastic are among many of the other contaminants in human blood, flesh, bones, and gastrointestinal tracts. Exactly how did this happen and what are the long-term effects? Much is still unknown about potential health effects but what we do know isn’t reassuring.
In a study published in May of 2022 by researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Amsterdam University Medical Center, 80% of all the randomly chosen healthy volunteers tested positive for microplastics in their blood, including “polyethylene terephthalate, polyethylene and polymers of styrene (a sum parameter of polystyrene, expanded polystyrene, [and] acetonitrile butadiene styrene”[vii] Some of these can be traced to products used by humans, such as toothpaste and lip gloss, which have plastic in them, but there are also tremendous concentrations of microplastics in our water and air. Using data from 24 different expeditions around the world surveying plastic pollution, Marcus Eriksen of the Five Gyres Institute estimated there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean.[viii] Microplastics have been found on the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, and the deepest depths of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, where deep-sea creatures have been found with plastic in their stomachs and sediment samples contained up to 2,200 plastic pieces per liter. [ix] In a 2019 National Geographic expedition, up to 119 microplastic particles were found per liter of water in samples of snow. It is clear human pollution is ubiquitous.
One study conducted by the Department of Biology at the University of Victoria in BC estimated that Americans consume an average of 39,000 to 52,000 particles of microplastic annually and “74,000 and 121,000 when inhalation is considered.“[x] Individuals who only consume bottled water are estimated to consume an additional 90,000 particles yearly. As tests revealing plastic in human blood and feces are only very recent, the health effects are still unknown, but it is thought they can accumulate in organs and impair their function.
One study at Plymouth University found that one cycle of a washing machine can release 700,000 plastic fibers into wastewater, only some of which are filtered out at wastewater treatment plants. The remaining fibers flow back into streams and oceans.[xi] Acrylic clothing is the worst offender followed by polyester so avoiding use of any acrylic, polyester, and other synthetic materials can have a large impact. Organic cotton and hemp, of course, are biodegradable and much better for the environment. Even the process of recycling plastics in recycling facilities generates microplastics that are deposited in wastewater, which is funneled into the sea where plastics leech endocrine disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals, so it’s better to avoid plastic altogether than simply recycle it.[xii] Recycling plastic is also logistically very difficult as there are so many different types and colors that cannot be recycled together. Recycling facilities lack the resources or time to sort through every individual piece of plastic and identify it by type. Because of this only 5% of the 51 million tons of plastic waste generated by US households in 2021 was recycled.
Plastic production is so pervasive that even the chemical compounds used in the manufacture of plastic, such as bisphenol A or BPA, have been found in human blood. In a 2002-2003 survey, the CDC found BPA in “93% of 2517 urine samples from people six years and older”[xiii] BPA is known to disrupt the endocrine system, which can result in developmental disorders, such as ADD, as well as cancerous tumors and birth defects. On December 15, 2021, the European Food Safety Authority issued a report stating that consumption of more than .04 nanograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight is a health risk. Meanwhile, the average American over 2 years of age has more than 200 nanograms per kilogram of their body weight. The report mentioned that they also found clear evidence of BPA’ neurotoxicity.
Plastics and BPA aren’t the only manmade products found in humans. In August of 2022, researchers at the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University and the Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics analyzed a series of tests, which found manmade chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in every single rainwater, soil, and surface water sample tested, including samples from Antarctica.[xiv] The study notes that “in some arid and tropical regions, rainwater remains an important source of drinking water“ and rainwater feeds mountain steam water that is used as a source of drinking water for even greater portions of the global population. This means these chemicals are getting in our blood, and the CDC has stated that PFAs are in the blood of most Americans, especially perfluorooctanesulfonic acid[xv] Blood levels of some PFAs have declined over the past few decades as some have been phased out, but their presence in rainwater makes them hard to avoid. It’s possible PFAs are also getting into our food since freshwater fish we eat live in waters contaminated with these chemicals and outdoor crops uptake contaminated rainwater. In fact, in Stockholm authorities told the public to avoid eating fish from lakes in the region due to high concentrations of PFOS found in the fish there.[xvi] PFAs have also been found in grease resistant food wrappers and in non-stick cookware that leaches into food when cooked.
The Stockholm University study on PFAs in rainwater found concentrations of these chemicals were highest in urban areas like cities, lower in rural areas, and least prevalent in remote regions but still ubiquitous. As these chemicals continually cycle through the hydrosphere and are not biodegradable, and they may be with us for a very long time. However, there has been some promising research on destroying PFAs through supercritical water oxidation. The Stockholm study notes adverse human reactions to exposure of PFAs, such as reduced immune response, but also mentions that as there are so many PFAs in the environment, study on health effects has been limited and is generally unknown.
One pollutant in the human body that has been with us for a much longer period is lead. Americans have roughly 625 times the amount of lead in their blood than people did a hundred years ago.[xvii] This is because for many years the lead industry put it in just about every consumer product imaginable, despite knowing about the numerous environmental and health risks, including neurotoxicity. Author Bill Bryson notes in his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything:
“Foods came in cans sealed with lead solder. Water was often stored in lead-lined tanks. Lead arsenate was sprayed onto fruit as a pesticide. Lead even came as part of the composition of toothpaste tubes. Hardly a product existed that didn’t bring a little lead into consumers’ lives. …Among the many symptoms associated with over-exposure are blindness, insomnia, kidney failure, hearing loss, cancer, palsies and convulsions. In its most acute form it produces abrupt and terrifying hallucinations, On the other hand, lead was easy to extract and work, and almost embarrassingly profitable to produce industrially—and tetraethyl lead did indubitably stop engines from knocking. So in 1923 three of America’s largest corporations, General Motors, Du Pont and Standard Oil of New Jersey, formed a joint enterprise called the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation (later shortened to simply Ethyl Corporation) with a view to making as much tetraethyl lead as the world was willing to buy, and that proved to be a very great deal. They called their additive “ethyl” because it sounded friendlier and less toxic than “lead,” and introduced it for public consumption (in more ways than most people realized) on 1 February 1923. As Sharon Bertsch McGrayne notes in her absorbing history of industrial chemistry, Prometheans in the Lab, when employees at one plant developed irreversible delusions, a spokesman blandly informed reporters: “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard.” Altogether, at least fifteen workers died in the early days of production of leaded gasoline, and untold numbers of others became ill, often violently so; the exact numbers are unknown because the company nearly always managed to hush up news of embarrassing leakages, spills and poisonings. At times, however, suppressing the news became impossible—most notably in 1924 when, in a matter of days, five production workers died and thirty-five more were turned into permanent staggering wrecks at a single ill-ventilated facility.”
Mining and smelting industries continue to pump hundreds of thousands of tons of lead each year into the atmosphere as the law still permits this. Exposure to lead, of course, isn’t limited to humans. In 2016, Lynn Tompkins, executive director of Blue Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education tested 160 birds for lead in their blood, and found that “80 percent of eagles, 30 percent of hawks and 25 percent of great horned owls”[xviii] tested positive. The presence of lead in their blood often paralyzes the birds.
Despite the many health risks associated with exposure to lead, including lowered IQ, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and behavioral problems, the FDA allows it in fruit juices. Currently, they are proposing limiting lead content in apple juice to 10 parts per billion (ppb) and 20 ppb for other fruit juices while research has shown more than just 1 ppb can be harmful. [xix]
Another metal that has made its way into the human body in abnormal concentrations is mercury. The burning of coal and gold mining are the primary anthropogenic sources of mercury pollution. Oil refining, waste from consumer products, and the production of cement, chloralkaline, vinyl chloride and smelting also contribute. Natural sources of mercury, such as volcanoes, only account for 10% of mercury emissions. Remissions of natural and anthropogenic mercury, which occur when mercury in soil is washed out by floods and when plants that have absorbed mercury are burned in a forest fire, account for 60% of mercury in the environment. One of the primary sources of mercury poisoning is the consumption of contaminated fish. In 2011 researchers at Croucher Institute for Environmental Sciences in China found that mercury in aquaculture ponds biomagnifies as it moves up the food chain[xx] Some fish feed given to farmed fish is also high in mercury itself, along with lead and arsenic. Children are particularly vulnerable to mercury poisoning, which can cause minamata disease and kill in high enough concentrations. Symptoms include muscular hypotonia, tremor, ataxia, coordination problems, increased blood pressure, tachycardia, dysarthria, paresthesia, and ataxia.[xxi]
Another source of oceanic and atmospheric pollution is nuclear weapons testing and nuclear power plants. Radioactive isotopes from these tests and power plants have been found in both wildlife and humans and they all cause cancer as they decay and release ionizing radiation. Strontium-90, for example, can take hundreds of years to decay and can cause bone cancer and leukemia as when ingested what is not excreted is primarily deposited directly in our bones and bone marrow. Caesium-137 has also been found in excessive concentrations in reindeer and sheep in Scandinavia 26 years after the Chernobyl disaster. The same radioactive isotope has been found in extreme concentrations (740,000 becquerels per kilogram) in fish near the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Caesium-137 has been linked to pancreatic cancer and 6 children killed by the Chernobyl disaster were found to have excessive concentrations of Caesium-137 in their livers. When Caesium-137 touches water it produces Caesium hydroxide, a water-soluble compound, making it a particularly potent source of oceanic pollution. Subcritical hydrothermal blasting has been of the few techniques proven effective to remove Caesium-137 from the soil. Carbon-14, yet another example, produced by nuclear testing is present in the atmosphere and the concentration of carbon-14 in our bodies mirrors the relative concentration in our atmosphere making it difficult to avoid. Over 2000 nuclear weapons have been detonated in tests since 1945 primarily on land inhabited by Native Peoples, about half of which were detonated by the US government. Additionally, 715 nuclear weapons were detonated by the Soviet Union. These tests have had far reaching impacts, poisoning the water, air, and soil miles away from each blast site. Fortunately, over the past two decades nuclear testing has nearly come to a halt. However, the effects of these tests will be felt for generations without addressing the pollution they created, and nuclear power is still a large source of energy for many nations, making radioactive pollution a persistent problem.
Yet another metal that has been increasing in our bodies is cadmium. Cadmium is used in a variety of consumer products, including semiconductors, TVs, solder, alloys, batteries, electronic cigarettes, phosphate-based fertilizers, paints, and jewelry. In industrial areas, especially near hazardous waste factories, high concentrations of cadmium have been found in the air, water, and soil. Cadmium is a known carcinogen and ingestion damages the respiratory tract, liver, and kidneys, and can cause anemia, coma, and death from kidney failure.
Mining, logging, manufacturing, factory farming, and oil drilling and refining produce the bulk of pollution that ends up in our environments, so it’s essential to hold industry accountable, push them to be more sustainable and equitable, sabotage destructive industry, and work towards abolishing capitalism and the states that uphold it altogether. But it’s important not to pass the buck either by acting like personal choices don’t matter because these industries or other people “will pollute either way”. These industries are only so successful because consumers buy their products. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist, so it’s crucial for us as consumers who have even a little bit of capital to make more sustainable choices. Some are not even more expensive than less sustainable options. Each person makes a difference, and many people mimic behaviors they see. If they see you have good habits, they’re more likely to do the adopt the same habits. Conversely, if they see you pollute, they’re more likely to thoughtlessly toss their fast food out the window.
Most people don’t have many choices when it comes to ways to survive. Large swaths of land are privatized, fishing, and hunting are illegal without licenses, and so living off the land is not an option for most, which forces us into a job market dominated by large polluting corporations that give us meager salaries to buy products we need to survive that have a variety of negative environmental externalities. But we can collectively resist corporate and state exploitation of the people and the planet.
For those of us who aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, we can make a number of less harmful choices as consumers, such as avoiding bottled water, buying a water filter instead, using glass and metal containers, (both are endlessly recyclable but there is more energy involved in transporting and recycling glass) avoiding use of plastics and instead opting for biodegradable reusable bags, recycling textiles and everything else, avoiding tobacco, reading the ingredients in everything you buy to avoid toxic chemicals, not littering, avoiding farmed fish, avoiding acrylic clothing, using only natural materials, avoiding buying anything in a plastic package, and avoiding packaging wherever possible can make a big difference. If grocery stores required customers to bring their own containers and fill them with meat, grains, this could substantially decrease the amount of plastic pollution. Biocomposites can replace many synthetic materials used for applications that need to be waterproof.
Moving out of the big city and industrial towns and into remote or rural locations can also greatly help reduce your exposure and contributions to pollution. (As climate change brings about more forest fires these can be hard to avoid but at least the bulk of human pollutants can be avoided in rural and remote areas.) Maintaining a sustainable lifestyle is much more feasible in remote and rural areas as I have discussed in previous articles. Growing your own food by practicing permaculture, composting your waste, making what you need, reforesting cleared land, creating a habitat for wildlife, and generally respecting the land and nature is far more practical in rural areas. It is much easier to lirve independently of polluting industries when you live off the land and arguably much easier to maintain your mental health. We have much to learn from indigenous populations who live sustainably off the land and looking to them for knowledge can inform our own efforts. The endless capitalist pursuit for greater profits and extraction of resources will deplete the planet and render it completely uninhabitable for humans if it’s not stopped. Our bodies will become virtual toxic waste dumps, our organs filled with plastic, our brains deadened by lead, and our blood full of radioactive isotopes. The more people understand how connected we are to our environments, the greater the chance we have to reverse this trend of destruction before it’s too late.
[xvii] Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything.