Just over a week from now, on the 5th of June, we once again celebrate World Environment Day. Despite a notable lack of progress since it was first held almost 50 years ago, the occasion provides an opportunity to reflect upon a self-inflicted problem that is larger than climate change, and many times deadlier – and about which very little is being done in any worthwhile sense.
I refer to the chemical contamination of Earth by human activities, a condition so vast that it now affects every one of us every day, as well as almost all life on the planet. Last month The Lancet Commission on pollution and health published an update to its 2017 report, which estimated that, “pollution was responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths (16% of all deaths globally) and for economic losses totalling US$ 4·6 trillion (6·2% of global economic output) in 2015.” Using 2019 data, the update indicated at best no improvement. Of the more than 9 million annual deaths globally, air pollution is responsible for 6·5 million, and lead and other chemicals for 1·8 million. Low- and middle-income countries shoulder most of this burden, and the trends are worsening.
What’s more, the scourge of chemical contamination poses risks not only to those of us alive today, but also to future generations. Industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals are being detected in unborn babies and there is increasing evidence that such pollution is reducing male fertility. It is not a stretch to consider it an existential threat to humanity.
We have to date released around 350,000 synthetic chemicals into our living environment. The vast majority of these are unregulated and we know very little about their environmental or health impacts. Compounding this, historic activities such as energy production, mining, farming, construction, land clearing and waste disposal have left a plethora of hazardous by-products – a toxic legacy of contamination from a time in which appropriate regulatory policies were weak or absent, and the damage went unnoticed or ignored. In many countries today, regulation remains ineffective or unenforced, and rogue operators continue to shirk their imperative to protect human and environmental health.
To illustrate the problem, I have been asked to chair the United Nations’ International Network on Soil Pollution (INSOP), a global effort to clean up the world’s farming soils. Despite significant progress by farmers in implementing sustainable approaches, farm soils everywhere are increasingly polluted by fertiliser and pesticides, industrial fallout from cities, and microplastics. These pollutants are ending up in our food supply and often our drinking water too. Over time, they infiltrate the entire food chain and accumulate into a toxic menace to the health of everyone on the planet.
The job of the INSOP is to carry out a global assessment of the extent and danger of this problem and to develop tools and guidelines for cleaning it up and preventing future pollution. Its task is similar to that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but with – at this stage – a tiny fraction of the resources. Tackling pollution is resource intensive and without meaningful investment, we are doomed to fail.
The soil problem is just as bad as the climate problem – but has been out of sight, out of mind for governments and industry for most of that time. There are now significant tracts of farmland around the world that can no longer be used to grow food because they are so contaminated with heavy metals, hydrocarbons and pesticides – and the area grows year by year.
Polluted soils and food supplies are but one dimension of this planet-wide contamination. We also have extensive air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels and wood, which claims millions of lives. Our rivers, lakes and groundwater are polluted by pharmaceutical products and illicit drugs, and are fouled with urban runoff and industrial discharges. Our landfills are bursting with hazardous waste including heavy metals and discarded electronics. Our oceans are seething with disintegrating plastic particles that, when they reduce to nanoscales, have been shown to invade the human brain and the infant in its mother’s womb via fish in the human food chain and the plastics that permeate our daily lives.
Nanoparticles are particularly dangerous, as they can penetrate almost any part of the human body and cause mischief. Furthermore, new nanoproducts are being churned out by industry worldwide at a rapidly increasing pace. They are so small they can never be recalled, and can cause harm over alarmingly long timescales. The nanoproduct industry is almost completely unregulated globally, and this is a deep concern.
Early in the industrial era, when the human population was much smaller, people could avoid noxious contaminants by moving to a cleaner area, or building a longer waste pipe – options that no longer exist. The entire planet is blanketed by human chemical emissions, which continue to accumulate, recombine and form new compounds, both safe and toxic, in our daily living environment. We are being swallowed up by our own filth.
The problem of human chemical pollution doesn’t just apply to humans: the extinction threat is in part due to chemicals such as endocrine disruptors, which are eliminating insect life worldwide, along with the birds, fish and reptiles that depend on it. And, if it can wipe out wild species, it can also wipe out humans. That is a message we need to take on board.
Unlike climate change, where there are emerging systems for both adaptation and mitigation, as things presently stand there is no escaping the toxic chemical avalanche. Even strong anti-pollution laws in individual countries do not help much, because the contamination is global and is flowing around Earth in wind, water, food, consumer goods, wildlife and even people.
Solutions to the problem exist, but they are in early stages and are not receiving sufficient priority anywhere, given the scale of the threat. Above all we need to raise the awareness of citizens and consumers worldwide so that they begin to demand products that are not toxic and do not leave poisonous pollution behind them.
So, on World Environment Day let us all give some serious thought to this sleeping giant of a menace to human health and existence – and what we can all do about it.
Laureate Professor Ravi Naidu
Ravi Naidu is CEO and Managing Director of CRC CARE (formerly the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment) and Founding Director of the Global Centre for Environmental Remediation at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Ravi’s work focuses on the remediation of contaminated soil, water and air, and the potential impacts of contaminants upon environmental and human health at local, national and global levels. For more than two decades, Ravi has been a global leader in the move to the now widely accepted ‘risk based’ approach to managing contaminated sites. He has also been a leader in the shift to in-situ remediation – cleaning up contamination where it lies, rather than the traditional ‘dig and dump’ approach. Together, these approaches potentially save industry millions, if not billions, of dollars annually and make clean-up far more feasible and effective.