Major journal sounds alarm over global mass poisoning


Multiple papers flag serious issues with chemical regulation and public health failures. Julian Cribb reports.


A piece of street art in Warsaw, Poland, expressing widespread concern about untested chemical use.
A piece of street art in Warsaw, Poland, expressing widespread concern about untested chemical use.
Hugh Rooney / Eye Ubiquitous

Almost every human being is now contaminated in a worldwide flood of industrial chemicals and pollutants – most of which have never been tested for safety – a leading scientific journal has warned.

Regulation and legal protection for today’s citizens from chemical poisons can no longer assure our health and safety, according to a hard-hitting report in the journal PLOS Biology, titled “Challenges in Environmental Health: Closing the Gap between Evidence and Regulations”.

The report describes a chemical oversight system corrupted from its outset in the 1970s when 60,000 chemicals were registered for use in the US, mostly without being safety tested. Many of these chemicals were subsequently adopted as ‘safe’ around the world.

Over the years, public health protection has stagnated – despite mounting scientific evidence that many chemicals are damaging whole classes of organisms, say report editors Liza Gross and Linda Birnbaum.

“We still have safety data on just a fraction of the 85,000-plus chemicals now approved for use in commerce. We know from field, wildlife, and epidemiology studies that exposures to environmental chemicals are ubiquitous,” the researchers say. (European estimates put the number of proposed new chemicals worldwide at over 145,000.)

“Hazardous chemicals enter the environment from the factories where they're made and added to a dizzying array of consumer products - including mattresses, computers, cookware, and plastic baby cups to name a few – and from landfills overflowing with our cast-offs,” Gross and Birnbaum say.

“They drift into homes from nearby agricultural fields and taint our drinking water and food. Today, hundreds of industrial chemicals contaminate the blood and urine of nearly every person tested, in the US and beyond.

“Evidence has emerged that chemicals in widespread use can cause cancer and other chronic diseases, damage reproductive systems, and harm developing brains at low levels of exposure once believed to be harmless. Such exposures pose unique risks to children at critical windows of development - risks that existing regulations fail to consider.”

The report underlines a recent finding by The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health which concluded nine million deaths (or 16% of the total) every year worldwide are due to diseases caused by the human chemical environment – 15 times the number killed in wars.

The PLOS report explores eight dimensions of the emerging chemical crisis. Key points include:

  • “Countless chemicals were entered into commercial use without toxicological information. Few chemicals of the many identified as potential public health threats were regulated or banned,” Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University states in a strong critique of policy failures.
  • Contrary to what some chemists claim, many substances become more poisonous at low doses than at high ones. For some toxins there is no safe dose level and “we will need to achieve near-zero exposures to protect public health,” says Bruce Lanphear of Canada’s Simon Fraser University.
  • Children face the highest risks from chemical poisons, while scientists are still working are working to determine the full range of chemicals we carry in our bodies and their effects on our health, say Joseph Braun and Kimberley Grey.
  • Several articles document the failure of government to keep hazardous chemicals from polluting our food, air, and drinking water. Maricel Maffini and colleagues describe the failure of regulators to account for health risks associated with the thousands of chemicals introduced into the food system by the US Congress and other governments since 1958.

The PLOS report concludes there is a need for more research and a much tougher approach to regulation – but these will not be enough. Citizens themselves will have to force governments to take stronger action to protect human health, it finds.

Julian Cribb is a multi-award-winning science journalist and author of Poisoned Planet (Allen and Unwin, 2014) and Surviving the 21st Century (Springer, 2017), two books which deal with the threat to humanity posed by our rising chemical exposure.
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