A guest post from Fiona Sinclair following the completion of the COP 27 summit.
The mothers of the world made a small and overlooked intervention at COP 27. The main thrust of this was that, although mothers will go to extraordinary lengths to protect their children, they cannot protect them from pollution and climate breakdown. Mothers and other women have had a central role in environmental activism for decades, and there have been some successes down the years, whether or not they get the credit for their persistence, hard work, knowledge and creative campaigning.
From the publication of `Silent Spring` – written by Rachel Carson – to the present day, there have always been some women who are prepared to take on the battle to protect the environment, usually with a focus on human health. However, as time has progressed, the issues have become more complex and the battles have become multi-faceted. Anyone who believes that climate change is the only environmental challenge we face today is not paying attention. There are 3 interlocking environmental crises that affect our planet: climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity. The Executive Director of the European Environment Agency has highlighted that we have already gone beyond the safe planetary boundary for chemical pollution.
The recent publication of research into the presence of carbon nanoparticles in human foetuses and babies showed for the first time that these particles find their way into internal organs and were found to be present in every sample of lung, liver and brain tissue. Previously, these particles have been found in placenta and are known to cross the blood-brain barrier. The research teams from Aberdeen in Scotland and Hasselt in Belgium have established that nanoparticles can leach toxic chemicals into the developing foetus. The mothers chosen for the research were non-smokers and lived in areas with relatively low air pollution. Other research reviews have established that air pollution may be damaging every organ and virtually every cell in the human body. The presence of toxic nanoparticles in the brains of developing foetuses confirm a direct link with the known neurological effects of pollutants such as PCBs, which are strongly correlated with learning disabilities. Little wonder that neurological diseases and disorders are rising steeply.
The major problem with scientific research is that it simply cannot keep up with the exponential increase in chemicals in the environment. At least a thousand new chemical compounds come on the market each and every year. The numbers of chemical compounds now total more than 100,000. To test even a few effects of these chemicals would take thousands of years. Many chemicals have never been tested. Even in Europe, with the most highly regulated environmental standards in the world, pesticides are not tested for their neurotoxicity. The precautionary principle has never been applied. Environmental organisations are still struggling to persuade European regulators to restrict the most toxic classes of chemicals. They predicted that banning individual chemical compounds would mean that the chemical industry would simply create substitute chemicals that were only slightly different and just as toxic – and that has come to pass.
You don’t need to be a scientist to know these things – just someone with intelligence and the motivation to learn and remember. One of the most important things that I learnt as an environmental activist was that the dose does not necessarily make the poison. Newer synthetic substances pose dangers to health and the environment at tiny dosages, and the developmental stage of an animal is just as important in terms of future health impacts as the amount of a substance. On top of that, the effects of toxic chemicals in the environment are not just cumulative, they are synergistic, so particular combinations of chemical compounds can multiply various health effects.
The bottom line is that the science required to pull just one chemical compound off the market can take decades, whereas the standards set for health impacts of such products going to market are wholly inadequate to non-existent.
So, while there are political `representatives` who are stonewalling action on climate change, there has been a political partiality towards dirty business for very much longer. The major failure of some of the larger environmental organisations has been to self-censor the emerging knowledge on the health impacts of synthetic chemicals. The truth is, there was more than enough evidence decades ago to use the known and suspected impacts on human health to call for better collation of data and for banning the most toxic classes of chemicals. I had a terse email exchange with the chief executive of one of these large organisations several years ago, in which I made these very points. He was entirely dismissive and has pursued a policy since that time of trying to `persuade` the corporate sector to change their act.
For those making a good living out of others’ concern for the environment, the urgent need for environmental protections was never as pressing a concern as it was to community campaigners. A recent study has revealed that it is impacts on human health, rather than economic impacts, that motivate people to accept measures to protect the environment. Some community activists knew that long ago. One of the best of those campaigners was a fellow campaigner, Ralph Ryder, who became the UK and Ireland co-ordinator for Communities Against Toxics. Ralph was that rarity amongst people – a real working class English socialist. He knew that, to beat back the numerous planning applications for incinerators that were then threatening the UK, he needed to back local campaigns that would emphasise the threats to human health, particularly to children. To do this, he had to constantly seek funding, which was not always forthcoming, and he ended up subsidising much of his own campaigning because of this. Ralph and myself were part of a network of campaigners against toxic incinerators and dumps who contributed information and research to the Irish writer Robert Allen’s `Waste Not, Want Not` book, published in 1992, about the UK anti-toxics community campaigns. We all worked for free and in our `spare` time, because we believed that things needed to change, and that, faced with the threat of toxic pollution in our backyards, this had to come through collective action, to push politicians to accept the realities of what environmental toxins did to human health. After all, the financial costs would ultimately be borne by the NHS.
I took on all of the Scottish research and interviews for `Waste Not, Want Not`. I was heading up my own local campaign at the time. Robert Allen asked me to interview some of those who had campaigned against ReChem’s toxic waste incinerator at Bonnybridge, in Stirlingshire, including Andrew Graham, the local farmer who had spent years trying to take legal action against ReChem. Even farmers, who have relatively deep pockets compared to most people, can be bankrupted by such a legal case. Andrew Graham had to apply for legal aid under the English system and in an English court, because the Scottish legal aid system would not pay out. He fought a joint case with a Welsh farmer who was trying to sue against damage done to his livestock that he blamed on the same company’s incinerator at Pontypool. This legal case was eventually unsuccessful. The legal system leans heavily on regulatory standards in reaching decisions in environmental cases. Regulatory standards are partly based on risk assessment. Risk assessment permits a certain amount of damage, such as numbers of cancers caused by individual environmental pollutants. That’s before you bear in mind what I’ve said in relation to how science produces evidence that regulatory bodies might consider.
I was initially rather puzzled by one specific request from Robert Allen to interview a scientist for his book. He asked me to interview Dr. Charles Gillies, who was the lead researcher into what was regarded as the definitive research into mesothelioma – a cancer of the lungs caused by exposure to asbestos. This clinical research had looked at individual cases of mesothelioma, when the research up ‘til then was mainly epidemiological research that simply looked at statistics. The received wisdom, until Gillies and his team published their research, was that the excess of lung cancer cases around the Clyde were due to the high proportion of smokers in that area. Afterwards, it was recognised that the ubiquitous use of asbestos in the shipbuilding industry was the real culprit, although their research did conclude that if you had worked in particular trades in the shipyards for 20 years and had also smoked, that was pretty much a death sentence.
The added bonus in my trip to interview Dr. Gillies was unexpected. When I gave him further details about the nature of the book that I was working on, he became somewhat apprehensive and
insisted that I speak to another scientist working at that location. It turned out that this scientist had been part of the team working on the Lenihan report, otherwise known as ‘Bonnybridge /Denny Morbidity Review: report of independent review group under chairman Professor J. Lenihan’, published in 1985. So, I was faced with `interviewing` a man who was one of the backroom boys on a report well described at the time of its release by Dr. John Wheeler of the campaign group S.C.O.T.T.I.E. as a ‘desk job’. The Lenihan report had concluded that the morbidity of Andrew Graham’s cattle was the result of ragwort poisoning, not because of the incinerator. My interviewee was adamant that this was the correct conclusion. This was in spite of the fact that workers at the plant had admitted to a local newspaper reporter that they had been opening barrels of PCBs with pick axes, in ignorance of the extremely toxic nature of this chemical compound, which was being incinerated at the plant. The local paper subsequently ran a headline about the ‘cyclops’ babies, born in the local area, some of whom, it was later claimed, had been born to the wives of men working at the Bonnybridge plant. The headline was wildly inaccurate – the birth defects were actually microphthalmia and anophthalmia (very small eyes and a missing eye), both of which are rare defects, but not nearly as rare as cyclops, which actually does occur, and is when there is an eye in the middle of the head, usually with a missing nose. It also has to be said that ragwort is a notifiable plant – it does cause fatty liver in cattle and landowners must report its presence to the relevant authorities. The Lenihan report implied that Andrew Graham had not been as careful as he should have been about the presence of ragwort in his fields – but Andrew Graham and the other farmers maintained that there wasn’t any ragwort in their fields. Andrew Graham’s reputation as a farmer was put on the line, in spite of other scientific reports questioning the validity of Lenihan’s conclusions. The fact that Graham had previously won awards for his stock-keeping counted for nothing. However, in the end the incinerator was closed because of the combined pressure from local people, including farmers, MPs and an MEP, and the plant workers themselves.
If you want a clean environment, you legislate, regulate and tax to enable clean industries to thrive and dirty industries to clean up their act, or to shut down and make way for a better way of producing goods, or produce better goods. What gets in the way of doing that should be what promotes it – a public bureaucracy. What happens instead is that public and corporate bureaucracies collaborate to obfuscate the issues and connive to dismiss solutions from outside their respective bubbles. Anyone who doesn’t align themselves with this self-reinforcing empire building is shunned. There is no shared responsibility, just an ongoing shirking of responsibility. Hence, the transformative change we need is forever sidelined and supplanted. Bureaucracies will never feel the distress of watching their child struggle for breath, fearing that they won’t make it through the night, nor watch their asthmatic mother rushed to hospital in an ambulance, hoping against hope that they will see her again, nor feel the deepest pain of all – losing a child.
OTHER ENVIRONMENTAL ARTICLES BY THE SAME AUTHOR ON ‘YOURS FOR SCOTLAND’:-
REFERENCES / FURTHER READING
Here’s another remarkable woman who dedicated her life to environmental science (don’t let the strange American name fool you):-
– listen to this short clip of Dr. Theo Colborn
– WEBLINK TO MY RESPONSE TO INCINERATION REVIEW
5 thoughts on “THE HEALTH OF NATIONS”
A very uncomfortable read. I grow my own vegetables, and fruit, and my wife makes jam.I pass the produce around our family. But, I use seaweed as fertiliser, and with the reports of plastic waste in the seas, is seaweed safe to use?
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I would say that it depends where you gather it. Everything is contaminated, to some degree – but we have to eat! You don’t know where most of your food is coming from, but at least you know where your homegrown food is from! The fresher the food, the better the nutritional content, and that definitely helps protect against the effects of pollutants in our environment. Microplastics are now ubiqitous. If you decide against seaweed, you can steep nettles and /or comfrey to make a fertilser. Green manures are a good idea, too – and there’s always horse dung!
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Homo sapien’ – the wise ape? No so much.
A great read is Paul Stamets’ ‘Mycelium Running’. Some incredible facts about the power and importance of fungi. One such fact is the appearance of thriving funghi in one of the nuclear reactors at three mile island after a partial melt-down..
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I haven’t read this book, but I may well get it. Other things are being looked at for bioremediation, even micro-organisms.There has been more recent interest in mycorrhiza because of the growing recognition of the importance of mycorrhizal associations for agriculture. I found out about these associations when I was researching blaeberry:- https://blaeberry.org
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COP 27 ended late, with a commitment to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment re-instated. So, together with the first recognition of claims by developing countries for loss and damage, something was achieved:-
– For the first time, the right to a
#healthyenvironment was mentioned in an international environmental negotiation process.
On November 19th, 2022, the Global Pact Coalition, along with more than 170 NGOs, urged States in an open letter to include a reference to the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment
in the #COP27 final document.
The reference was initially present in the first drafts but, hours before the end of the COP27 meeting, it was removed from the text. As this right was recognized by the @unhrcpr and the @UN General Assembly,
this would have been a step backward in the protection of this right.
Finally, civil society’s mobilization succeeded and the final document mentions the right to a #healthyenvironment as follows:
“ Acknowledging that #climatechange is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on #humanrights, the right to a clean, healthy and #sustainable #environment…”
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