About 2.5 years ago, I heard Lois Gibbs speak. Her story, as a resident affected by the environmental disaster at Love Canal, NY, served as a touchstone for the work I do IRL—as an environmental scientist, a large part of what I do is contaminant remediation. As I mark five years of doing my best to reduce contamination and the risks it poses, I see Love Canal rise in the news again.
People often hear “environmental scientist” and automatically translate this to “environmentalist” (I need a whole other post to explain what’s wrong with that misnomer). Moreover, people usually think my main focus is climate change. To the wary public, I am the guy who wants ‘everyone to live as if we were in the stone age’.
I have very little defense to that, besides sighing quietly to myself.
I am not of the inclination to hold climate change as the biggest environmental threat to humanity. The dangers posed by climate change are largely out of our control. Perhaps how change is initiated is within our control (or so popular scientific opinion postulates)—but the outcomes, once change in the system is initiated, are outside of humanity’s grasp.
Realistically, we cannot stop a hurricane once it’s formed. We cannot guide tornadoes to gracefully sweep between rural communities. We cannot negotiate amounts of radiation the sun outputs.
In western society, we are increasingly overloaded with this guilt that we need to do something about everything. As I get older, I am starting to appreciate my small radius of influence. Many adverse environmental effects caused by the human hand are reasonably controllable. For what I can reasonably affect in my professional and personal roles, climate change doesn’t even hit my top five concerns.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s a valuable topic. But my concerns about climate change are not about what will happen to humanity. My concern is that humanity, in its current (generalized) state, has a questionable chance of being the kind of resilient species that spans eons of history.
Maybe you don’t believe in your body, but it is intimately connected to this earth. From what we understand about ecology, as long as there is an ecological function that a species can perform, that species will continue to find a place within its ecosystem.
We are an adaptive species—if it rains we try to remain dry, if it’s cold we try to stay warm, when it’s warm we try to keep cool. My study of yoga has further re-enforced my belief that as long as your system is maintained in a certain way, what’s happening externally is inconsequential. If your system is damaged in any way, your ability to flexibly adapt to a situation is going to be impinged upon.
Try this fun experiment.
Go to a summer music festival. Have a blast, but don’t take drugs or alcohol. Eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of water. Take regular, qualitative notes on your body temperature, sweat, and urine colour. Wake up the next morning and take some notes on how you physically feel.
Ask a friend to join in on your experiment. Ideally, this friend is similar to you in body shape and medical history. Tell them to a have a blast, but they get to drink as much alcohol as they desire. Ask them to eat only spicy, greasy food. Take matching qualitative notes on your friend’s body temperature, sweat, and urine colour. Ask them the next morning how they feel (if they don’t spend the night in the medic’s tent).
I think it’s obvious what the outcome of the experiment is. I don’t even have to be a pedantic asshole and ask leading questions. You and your friend are experiencing the same external conditions. The difference is in the physical condition of the body. By what has been put into the body, a dramatically different experience—and a different outcome—can be induced. You may wake up with ringing in your ears from loud music. Your friend may spend the next week recovering from dehydration or sun stroke.
Of course, the acute and chronic effects of alcohol are self-evident. It’s easy enough to say, “You knew drinking nothing but vodka all day was going to lead to. Smarten up.”
Fair enough. Humanity doesn’t have a great record on being kind to its self. We have been around on the planet long enough to have figured out that we can get away with recreationally harming ourselves. If a substance hits our brain’s reward centres, chances are, we will put up with a lot of damage to our systems before we stop.
In a similar vein, we quest for comfort, convenience, and compulsion. Since the late 18th century, this quest has been characterized by the Industrial Revolution. In the short period that this has begun, humanity has synthesized a number of chemicals and substances that we would never otherwise find in nature.
With the exception of the well-known tryptamines, phenylethylamines, and other psychoactive substances we have created (mostly within the last century), many of the new, synthesized substances are not the kind of chemicals hipsters ingest so that their peers acknowledge how cool they are.
I am talking about substances that have practical uses in our industrial processes (or are by-products of those processes)—the substances that help drive our comforts, conveniences, and compulsions. Here, I am talking about halogenated compounds, pesticides, plastics, and polymers.
And then there are the natural compounds that we use in high concentrations or expose ourselves to in a way we very rarely would otherwise: heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and minerals.
These contaminants are ubiquitous in our environment. And not a benign ubiquity, like up-talk. In Canada, we have had a real knack of picking interesting locations for our most intense industrial activities. Think Hamilton Harbor, Sarnia’s Chemical Valley, Edmonton’s Refinery Row, Montreal’s industrial hub, and Vancouver’s Dockside Green.
And if you don’t live in one of these centres, don’t think you are immune. Even some of our remotest outposts have long-lived residual contamination in soil and groundwater (e.g. Ontario’s Grassy Narrows First Nation). And even then, if you think you are far and free from the dirty crowd, there is that thing that keeps coming in and out of your lungs: the air.
Toxicology is a relatively new science, and environmental technology is newer yet. It was thalidomide in the late 1950’s that first brought attention to the teratogenic effects of drugs (Rachel Carson followed up in the early 1960’s and brought the effects of pesticides to light). And in all reality, the thalidomide connection was made because it was directly following the drug’s release in 1957 that thousands of babies were born with deformed limbs and other defects. It was the immediacy of the impact that made the effects apparent.
Since then, we have started to understand the acute effects of the usual suspects on the human body. Year after year, we are learning about the effects of more and more chemicals, both the ones we take willingly and the ones we are exposed to in our environment.
And it’s not just acute effects. The chronic effects are starting to become obvious. Now, common substances we liberally used in our homes—plastics, fabrics with flame retardants, household cleaning & garage products—are being considered straight-up toxic.
Canada (Chemicals Management Plan) and the U.S. (Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act) have poorly funded programs to investigate the many chemicals used in our countries. Apart from that, we rely on companies to willingly identify their chemicals as toxic, or wait for universities to publish research.
Here’s a fun example.
Ever have your clothes dry cleaned? Ever use Brakleen to degrease something in your garage? Ever handle refrigerants?
If so, you have very likely been exposed to tricholoroethylene (TCE). The EPA announced in 2016 that TCE is deemed as toxic (it was also recently added to Canada’s toxic substances list). The US EPA recognizes TCE as a carcinogen and teratogen, with a number of effects on the respiratory and central nervous systems. In Canada, it has been detected in ambient air, the air inside homes, drinking water, and surface water.
But don’t worry! You can still have full access to it. The EPA is just now in the process of proposing a ban on TCE in commercial vapor degreasing. That will not stop its use in a multitude of other industrial and residential uses.
As we start to understand the effects of a multitude of chemicals, we are starting to understand how we might have fucked ourselves over. I can’t put a quantitative value to it, but we have a shitload of our vast landscape that is effectively poisoned. We are also finding out places we didn’t think would be impacted indeed are.
Which brings me back to resiliency. Compare two men in their 50’s. One worked in a garage, exposed day in and day out to a degreaser with TCE. Another worked in an office, and for arguments sake, we will say he was never exposed to TCE (or at least to a significantly less amount). Let’s turn up the heat in the room they are sitting in together. Let’s change the composition of the air they are breathing. Let’s throw some disasters at them. All things being the same, who do you think would fare better?
This is why contamination, to me, is head and shoulders above climate change. Sure, we may not have a home if the climate changes. That’s no problem—we are gone, end of story. But we all know nature doesn’t work in black & white. If doom is on its way, it will happen periodically and incrementally. There will a long, hellish road for humans before this planet is human-free.
If we continue to expose ourselves to chemicals, and allow contaminated sites to remain unmitigated, it won’t matter much whether the climate changes or not.
Which brings me back to Love Canal. This month, residents of North Tonawanda, NY have filed notices of claim for $60 million apiece against the neighbouring Town of Wheatfield (totaling a nearly $1 billion claim). The town’s inactive landfill historically accepted the spectrum of hazardous wastes, including material from Love Canal.
Residents paid for an independent soil investigation. Results showed hazardous chemicals, including those from Love Canal, were present on their properties after having migrated from the boundaries of the landfill. Additionally, the landfill was so poorly managed that lack of fencing and supervision meant people used it to dirtbike or jog. The plaintiffs in the proceedings have all been affected by cancer, headaches, respiratory issues, and nervous system disorders.
This may appear to be an isolated incident, and it may be right now. But this is primarily how we handle our hazardous chemicals. We choose a sacrificial area, call it a landfill, and then rely on public or private companies to monitor and manage the waste into the undefined future. The private companies will do their jobs as long as there is money. Love Canal became the first SuperFund site because the Hooker Chemical Company left their liability behind. It’s not unheard of for owners of environmental liability to go bankrupt, dissolve, or disappear.
These sacrificial areas may not be so unrealistic. Even in the body, there are distinct areas suited for handling ‘waste’ for our physical systems. The liver is a vital organ because it is such a dirty place—if toxins were everywhere else in the system, we could be dead. But because toxins accumulate in the liver, we have a buffering capacity. A little bit of bad exposure won’t kill a healthy liver.
But overwhelm or inhibit maintenance of the liver, and the body falls into trouble. The Wheatfield Landfill is a liver with cirrhosis. It is very likely not the only one like it. Just like any other addict, we are damn good at hiding that we get blotto and our livers whimper through our daily hangover.
Love Canal contains waste dating back almost 100 years. We are still dealing with its devastating consequences. “Climate change” may be fighting words in some parts, and guaranteed to spark a strongly opinionated conversation anywhere else. Some of that is the perception of deniability. But there is no denying environmental contamination. There is no doubt that certain chemicals have a detrimental effect on our bodies. The argument comes down to risk of exposure, which is always nuanced but is unable to dismiss the inherent adverse effects of those chemicals.
Technologies available to actually denature contaminants, or manage them in a reliable, long-term manner, are rare and expensive. If the money that went into climate change research went into contaminant remediation research, we could be so much farther along in enjoying a healthy environment.
To me, belabouring over climate change as opposed to something like contamination is like the yoga enthusiast who reads that through samyama, you can control other peoples’ minds. Cool! So this yoga enthusiast makes this their highest ideal. But this eager yogi can’t even sit straight or touch their toes.
That’s where we are at. As a society, our bodies and minds are in such a poor condition that we cannot touch our proverbial toes—we cannot control ourselves, yet we want to control something outside of ourselves.
In the legend of Saint George, a malicious dragon holds a Libyan empire under its long-clawed thumb. It lives in the emperor’s lake and requires two sheep (or children) per day to appease it or else it will poison the countryside. Saint George tames the dragon and convinces the pagans he saved to convert to Christianity. In one heroic swoop, Saint George conquers the problem and also convinces everyone to think like he does. In a way, climate change advocates are attempting to re-create this narrative.
I can sympathize with climate warriors. I get it. It’s much more rewarding to go to war with the dragon. Victory is so much sweeter, and failure is forgivable because it was a dragon, after all.