Pollution, it's in you

This article by Julee Boan was first published in the Chronicle Journal in April 2013.  

Note: Rick Smith's talk was cancelled due to a snow storm but it was rescheduled for November 12, 2013.  

Our planet is composed of chemicals. They are in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the water we drink and the plants in our gardens. Industry's ability to synthesize new chemicals has been a cornerstone of modern society. The positive impacts for people are obvious – these chemicals can destroy disease, increase food production and protect us from harsh environments. They can prolong and improve our quality of life.

Chemicals can also have negative side-effects. The degree to which chemicals are poisonous ranges from essentially non-toxic to extremely toxic. Some have been shown to be cancer-causing; others have negative effects on reproduction and brain development. However, as most chemists will tell you, it's the dose that makes the poison. Even water can kill you in a high enough amount, formaldehyde is part of the natural chemical compound of apples, and, while beloved to many, caffeine is considered a natural, toxic chemical.

However, in just over a century, tens of thousands of new chemicals have come into use. While the laws that govern the behavior of chemicals – natural or synthetic – are the same, toxic levels of chemicals are increasingly persistent. Most industrial chemicals are designed to be stable to avoid premature degradation. They are not quickly broken down, into their original, non-toxic elements.

In 2011, a study at the University of California showed that 100 percent of expectant mothers were contaminated with highly toxic synthetic chemicals known to exhibit harmful effects on people, many of which have been banned for decades. Other studies have shown Canadians have chemicals such as lead, flame retardants, pesticides and stain repellents in our bodies at unhealthy levels. To complicate matters, scientific studies are often focused on how a single chemical acts on the body, rather than the potential impacts of having dozens of introduced chemicals interacting.

We should educate and empower ourselves both as consumers and as citizens. By reading labels more carefully, the average consumer can dramatically reduce potentially toxic chemical levels in themselves and their kids. Many websites provide advice on the highest risk chemicals to avoid bringing into our homes.

We also count on the government to protect our health and welfare. According to Dr. Rick Smith, co-author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck, companies don't have to demonstrate that new chemicals are safe prior to introducing them to the market. He argues the chemical industry has been largely self-regulating for 50 years. This has to change. Instead, like is now required in Europe, companies should be compelled to demonstrate that their products are safe prior to stocking them on the store shelves.

On April 19th, Environment North and EcoSuperior will be hosting Dr. Rick Smith. He will explain how toxins make their way inside us, the impact they have on our health and what we can do about them. The presentation will begin at 7:30 pm, preceded by Environment North's Annual General Meeting at the Thunder Bay Centre of Change Auditorium, 96 High Street North (Hillcrest High School). Stop by Ontario Nature's office, Room 703, to meet the author and enjoy some light refreshments between 4 and 6 pm.

Julee Boan is a Board member of Environment North.