Last reviewed 19 September 2012

Waste is invading our lives to a very personal level. Jon Herbert considers the implications.

Progress giveth and progress taketh away. For eons, nature has worked hard refining all life on this planet to the highest engineering standards. We may be threatening that vital relationship.

While evolution is slow and meticulous, material progress is ambitious, swift and far from complete.

Pollution has been a growing concern since the mid-twentieth century. But the degree to which our synthetic society may now be affecting us on an individual, organic level has become a worrying concern.

Gradually, the full implications of tinkering boldly with the world around us are becoming clearer. And we may not like what we find. We affect the environment.

We are the environment. Waste is part of us from birth to death. The question is, how is it changing our longevity and well-being? The ability to detect the track of worrying elements in miniscule quantities is giving us new insights.

There are increasing hints of evidence that our current rate of progress may be creating “3D” contamination with the potential for future genetic mutations that we can’t possibly understand. We are giving pollution an uncontrolled chronology.

Experience tells us to be optimistic. Relax, nature will help us to adapt. It is taken for granted that adaptation is benign. But that basic assumption may no longer be true. Yes, nature may help us to cope, but not necessarily in ways that we find pleasant.

The stuff bad dreams are made of

In H G Well’s classic War of The Worlds, the all-powerful invading Martians were destroyed by an enemy that they could never hope to have seen through their distant telescopes — bacteria. Now microbes themselves form part of the modern wild chemical soup. Life on earth could once again be under invisible assault at the most basic level.

It was perhaps always inevitable that while attacking many of our natural microscopic foes with new chemical formulations, increasing the sophistication of industrial processes, developing new medical products and, ironically, making life in general safer — as in the case of fire-retardants — we have, little by little, let the by-products of progress seep into every aspect of the place where we live.

Future generations may look back aghast, in much the same way that we now see the perils of the Victorian age. Can we do better with care? Can we, and must we, redeem the past?

How much does it matter that while we are adding to the number and quality of our years, we might also be surreptitiously taking some of them away again? The disturbing answer is that we probably don’t yet know.

While developing in the womb, the average child is now subject to a complex chemical cocktail. This is likely to include bisphenol A taken in from “harmless” food and drink containers, phthalates found in PVC and other plastics, perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), common about the house and used in non-stick pans, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), now banned but once used in electrical equipment, and OCPs, also banned but persistent in the food chain. Other less than desirable substances are taken in during breast feeding.

The same is probably true to a greater or lesser degree in every embryo of the animal kingdom, along with plants. Each is now victim of a modern mix of micro-wastes.

Micro threats on a macro scale

One problem is that so many of the chemicals released into the environment are relatively new. Many have only quite recently begun to accumulate. There is no history of their long-term interaction with other materials in the environment. And there is certainly no evidence yet of the effect of high concentrations, particularly where chemicals may morph and change over time before becoming embedded stably. In the absence of evidence, rumours persist.

It did, after all, take nearly a century to act on the 1889 warnings of factory inspector Lucy Deane that asbestos was harmful.

A current example is dark rumours emerging from the virgin “taiga” forests of eastern Siberia’s Altai region. Local people rely on the untouched wilderness and their vegetable plots for most of their daily needs. Their lives are remote and isolated, except for the jettisoned first-stage parts of Proton space rockets used regularly and profitably to launch satellites into orbit from the Baikonur cosmodrome far to the west in Kazakhstan. Broken parts lie hidden in the endless trees.

Villages claim to suffer from an excessive occurrence of anaemia, allergies, sore throats, skin disease, high blood pressure, headaches and cancers. They attribute this to the release of the highly toxic rocket fuel component, unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH). This is known to penetrate soils, water, plants and animal tissue, causing burns, breathing problems, damage to the central nervous system and tumours.

Separating fact from fear is difficult. It is the unknown that perturbs the local people. They complain of having to consume poisoned food and water daily, hunting sick forest animals and, more than anything else, a complete lack of information.

It is the minute hidden in the immense that worries them.

Russia’s space agency says no significant level of toxicity has ever been found in the Altai forest. The broader lesson is that just because things vanish does not mean that they have gone away.

Closer to home

Proving tangible cause and effect links when we suspect problems can be extremely difficult. The result is claims and rebuttals.

Atrazine is a weed killer that has been used widely for some 50 years. Although thousands of scientific tests carried out on the crop protection product have not shown a link to the increased occurrence of gastroschisis in the young, US research has suggested that there might be a connection. Normally the condition, which causes the digestive tract to develop outside the abdomen, is found in only one in 7000 babies.

Now a group of mothers in the south of England living within a few hundred yards of each other fear that the abnormality in their children is caused by the chemical. They attribute dangerously high levels of atrazine found in groundwater tests near their homes for the non-hereditary condition which has resulted in long-term medical complications. The high number of incidents must have an environmental cause, they argue. Atrazine was banned by the EU in 2004 to prevent it contaminating groundwater and drinking water.

Again, it is the lack of information that is upsetting residents.

Testing times ahead

Fears of connections between contamination and visible human health problems may not be new. However, while unwanted impacts from industrialisation resulting in decades of unresolved dispute are not unusual, what awaits us could be far worse.

In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of research studies probing links between persistent chemicals and human, animal and plant well-being. What many feel is a major chink in the armour was the Government’s decision to close down the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) and save its relatively modest funding in 2011 as part of a drive for public spending efficiency.

One of the RCEP’s strengths was its ability to act independently in gathering and creating fundamental information on which well-informed advice could be made.

There is now broadening concern that we lack a dependable source of authoritative scientific advice on which effective government policy can be based confidently across a wide spectrum of environmental aspects.

The need for the environmental equivalent of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has been mooted. NICE systematically reviews scientific evidence concerning the safety and effective use of drugs. Even so, the size of the task could be enormous.

In 2007, the EU introduced a comprehensive system to regulate the hazards associated with all chemicals used in industrial and manufacturing. REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) is expected to embrace some 30,000 individual compounds in common daily use; the world total is even higher, at an estimated 100,000.

Testing is a slow process. To date, only 3000 to 4000 compounds have been examined in depth, and then often with tests on an individual representative species of each living domain. The task is made more Herculean to the point of impossibility if the specific reactions of different species are considered, and even more so if the enormous number of chemical permutations and combinations that could exist are taken into account.

Until then we are largely flying blind.

The world within us

What kind of chemicals assail us now and where are we exposed to them? The answer can be as simple as contact with certain kinds of plastic containers. The near universal adoption of plastics — our friends — is being tempered with new suspicions of what they might be doing to us deep inside — our foes.

We are also grateful for new medicines. Yet the residues of common, over-the-counter painkillers, along with micro-leakages from manufacturing and distribution, are now found in measurable quantities throughout the environment.

Vegetables contain vestiges of common drugs. They are found in sewers and on beaches. Even alligators in remote swamps are now showing signs of sex change from exposure to hormone compounds! And the consumption of medicine is set to rise dramatically.

Rogues gallery

A leading culprit is bisphenol A (BPA). Used in the production of food and drink cans, plastic tableware, white dental sealants, lenses, phone and computer cases and even till receipts, it is already banned in babies’ bottles. This is because infants in the womb and soon after birth are especially vulnerable to this endocrine disrupter, which is absorbed through food and perhaps via the skin and breathing in dust.

Its detrimental effects are associated with reproductive problems, brain and immune system damage, diabetes, obesity and cancer.

Brominated flame-retardants (BFRs) have already been distributed widely across the North Sea from one land-based source. Their benefit is in fire-safe textiles and furniture products, car interiors, carpets, construction materials and electronic products. Their downside is that they endure in air, water and soil and have been found in human blood, body fat and breast milk across the world. It is feared they can cause liver, thyroid and skin damage and may be carcinogenic.

In animals they are known to affect reproductive and brain functions and to cause nervous system damage.

Worryingly, BFRs have been found in every type of food and, once ingested, can lie in body fat for years. Embryos can absorb them through the placenta; young children take them in through mother’s milk. Skin absorption and ordinary house dust inhalation are other sources.

Phthalates are also potential endocrine disrupters. While many are harmless, others are linked to lower male fertility, premature breast development in girls and reproductive abnormalities for boys, who absorb them through the womb. Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) is a near universal long-term contaminant in soil, water, domestic dust, fish and animal life that could cause liver and kidney damage in the young. Studies have shown a majority of babies have DEHP in umbilical cord blood.

Non-stick pans may make life easier. But through their use of PFCs could pose a direct threat to most of us. Endocrine disrupters are linked to birth defects, liver and thyroid damage and cancer; they also appear in waterproof clothing, paper coatings and floor wax products.

Organochlorine pesticides (OCPs) and PCBs have long had a bad name but are still with us. OCPs are no longer permitted in agriculture but persist in the ground for decades and accumulate in bird, fish, mammal tissues and food chains.

The EU banned PCBs that were used in electrical equipment extensively through the 1970s, after they were found to be toxic. They are probably carcinogenic and linked to vital organ and immune system damage, and every one of us has detectable amounts in our blood and fat that can be taken in as airborne particles or food.

Even scented perfumes, soaps, toiletry products, domestic cleaners, air fresheners, detergents and fabric softeners harbour a dark side. Almost all contain synthetic musks that accumulate in living tissue after being absorbed through the skin.

As we walk around in our daily lives we carry these and many other known and little known chemical contaminants. Maybe we as individuals should also carry health warnings.

What else might lurk in this complex probability soup?

A group of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) includes some of the most toxic chemicals such as DDT, dioxins and PCBs. Statistics from a US national health survey showed that people with the highest POP concentrations are nearly 40 times more likely to develop diabetes than those with low concentrations.

Further work implied that those with a high proportion of body fat but low POPs are no more prone to diabetes than the skinny. Could this turn on its head the assumption that a contemporary rise in diabetes to epidemic proportions is a moral question of over-eating?

What other effects might our synthetic environment be having on us?

Nano problems

Perhaps the greatest storehouse of unknown problems ahead of us lies in the incredibly small-scale world of nanotechnology. Understanding the parameters of this micro-sphere could be just as obscure as trying to determine whether there is life on Mars.

Arguably, the Internet and microchip technology aside, nanotechnology could prove to be the most far-reaching development that man the industrial ape has ever invented.

One problem is the sheer number of nanoparticles being created — it is estimated that these could total nearly a third of a million for every one of the world’s seven billion-plus population.

Another is the reality that properties that materials display on a normal or even micro-scale are not necessarily the same at a nano-scale. Gold is an example. Valued for its inertness and stability as a precious metal, on a very small scale individual gold particles can be aggressive. To the extent that they kill cancer cells.

Yet another problem is that it is unclear what nanoparticles lying around in the environment for long periods will get up to with each other and other elements. Will they combine and vanish conveniently, or will they pose new invisible problems for almost as long as we can envisage?

Very recently, nanoparticles just millionths of a millimetre across from two widely used horticultural chemicals have been shown to spread throughout the whole body of common crop plants where they could affect plant development and soil fertility. A University of California study has tested their effect on the growth of soybean — the world’s fifth largest crop.

The first agent, zinc oxide, starts its journey in cosmetics before ending up in the solid component of sewage treatment where it can be widely used as an organic fertiliser.

The second is cerium oxide, used in some diesel fuels to improve combustion and reduce hazardous particulate emissions.

Tested soybeans were grown in soil with increasing amounts of both agents and their dispersion throughout the plants was then tracked carefully. Plants with zinc oxide grew slightly better but accumulated in their edible parts nanoparticles shown to be toxic to mammalian cell growth under laboratory conditions. Effects on full human bodies have yet to be examined closely.

Cerium entered plant roots. The roots of legumes host bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen in a form that helps plants to grow. Cerium nanoparticles appeared to block the ability of bacteria to fix nitrogen.

One fear is that a build-up of soil-based nanoparticles that inhibit crop growth could call for yet more synthetic fertilisers. What goes around certainly comes around. The challenge is to understand how their nano-chemical and physical characteristics can determine whether they are safe or hazardous. This is frontier country.

Yet the lure of nanotechnology is just so great that perhaps we won’t be able to resist its economic benefit. For example, nano super-thin paints could make aircraft much lighter, much more fuel-efficient and, therefore, much more carbon friendly. But at what hidden cost?

The prospect of windows coated with nanoparticles that break down dirt would mean perpetually clean glass without detergents running to waste. Very tempting.

Equally, the impact of dyes and mordants that have caused pollution for centuries might be replaced by twisted nano-fibre strands that reflect light at a single wavelength — in the same way that leaves are green because this is the one colour they do not absorb.

Where are nanoparticles used now?

They already enter the environment in upwards of 1000 different products, including cosmetics, hair care products, textiles and fuel additives. There are currently no central records.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is working towards developing tests for a limited number of nano-material categories. But the time taken to complete each successfully, versus the immense number of potential nano-materials that could exist, threatens to make this a drop in the ocean.

Future history may prove our fears to have been allayed quite naturally. The millennium bug never materialised. It could even be that vast accumulations of nanoparticles in the decades ahead neutralise each other, forming larger particles that have a more natural chemistry.

Let’s hope so. Because hope — and intelligent vigilance — are probably our greatest protection at present. We may just have more to fear than fear itself.