10 08 19 The New Pollution

The term “sustainability” is in many ways replacing the old term “environmentalism”, in large part because we’re beginning to recognize just how much we rely upon our environment: human life simply isn’t sustainable without it, and when the environment is damaged, inevitably so is our quality of life.

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that reducing or eliminating pollution is a driving force in the sustainability movement, and great strides have been taken to fight things like smog, toxic waste, and other obvious pollutants. But as positive as our progress has been, our visibly cleaner air and water may not be telling the whole story. That’s because many of our pollutants today are not limited to streams or air quality; they are everywhere, and they are completely invisible.

In their best-selling book Slow Death by Rubber Duck, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie define the difference between our old notion of pollution and the new pollution: “humanity’s ability to poison itself has changed from a local, highly visible and acute phenomenon to a global, largely invisible and chronic threat” (p.4). We could usually see pollution by the old definition, and the results in those who were exposed to it were usually drastic and immediate; people exposed to visible pollution tend to get very sick very fast. But the pollution that affects us most today is caused by the many chemicals that we are exposed to at low levels on a daily basis, with the repeated exposure contributing over time to chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes, as well as hormonal and behavioural issues like obesity and ADHD.

Where do these chemicals come from? They’re in our everyday products: fragrances in our shampoo; non-stick coatings on our frying pans and stain-resistant carpets; plastic shower curtains, food containers, and toys; flame-retardants in our couches and appliances; anti-bacterial hand soaps; the list of products with chemicals seems endless, and all of these products have chemicals that are acknowledged to be potential risks to human health with continual exposure over long periods. But these chemicals are also found in our food and water, the dust in our homes, and even inside our own bodies, because of the way that they break down or leach out of the products they’re meant to enhance. They are found in remote environments such as the arctic, carried there by polluted air. We eat them in wild fish and meat, and even in vegetables grown in contaminated soil. And, perhaps the worst part, they are largely unregulated by the government: they are not usually banned or regulated until they are proven seriously toxic – usually involving outbreaks of serious illnesses and lawsuits. These chemicals are everywhere, and we cannot avoid them entirely.

But this article isn’t meant to scare you: you’ve lived with these chemicals for this long, and you can avoid many of them to a large extent. Instead, this article is meant to inspire you to read product labels and be informed about what you’re consuming and absorbing; after all, the new pollution is personal – it’s in your very blood – and it’s entirely unsustainable.

Jeff Wheeldon