Expansion of the human enterprise on Earth has had a profound and widespread effect on the chemistry of our soil, water and air. Elements have been redistributed in ways that nature never would have accomplished. Lead, for example, a developmental neurotoxicant, is now several hundred fold more abundant in the bones of American citizens than what it was prior to the Industrial Revolution. New materials have been invented and dispersed widely over the surface, to the point that 100% of Canadian women measured during the late 1980s had hexachlorobenzene, a fungicide and carcinogen, in their breast milk. Contamination has penetrated deeply beneath the surface into aquifers, rendering the water from them unfit for human consumption, in some watersheds irreparably. Widespread regions in Russia harbor illness and disease directly attributable to the industrial and military wastes that poured onto Russian soils and into their rivers during the seven-decade experiment with centralized industrial planning.
Rachel Carson turned the course of American environmental policy in the 1960s with Silent Spring. There is no doubt but that our waters are cleaner, our air is more breathable, that more people are less exposed to the sizable risks she identified so clearly.
But some things, it would seem, stay the same. In 1984 the National Research Council completed a four-year study and found that 78% of the chemicals in highest-volume commercial use had not had even "minimal" toxicity testing. The Environmental Defense Fund repeated this study in 1997. They focused on the 3000 chemicals, the so-called high priority chemicals, which are used in US commerce in excess of 1 million pounds per year and for which data have indicated, however sparsely, that there is cause for regulatory concern. EDF found that nearly three quarters (71%) of the sampled high-priority chemicals do not meet the minimum data requirements for health hazard screening set by the international standards.
And even as this willingness to risk contamination in ignorance of specific impact continues, science advances by revealing new health trends and new health concerns. For example, within the last ten years, asthma has become one of the nation's most common and costly diseases, hitting the hardest on children, the poor, and people of color. While asthma attacks can be induced by multiple factors, environmental pollutants are a prominent cause. Asthma now affects 14-15 million Americans, or about 4-5% of the population, including 4.8 million children less than 18 years of age. The death rate for children 19 years and younger increased by 78% between 1980 and 1993. In 1990, health care and other costs related to asthma in the US totaled approximately $6.2 billion; the projected cost of asthma for the year 2000 is expected to more than double to $14.5 billion.
One of the most important advances made in both science and policy within the last decade has been to focus increasing attention on the contamination risks created for children and the unborn. These formative years are the most delicate and vulnerable, not only because the impacts suffered in this stage then may last a lifetime, but because a fetus or child in development is truly vulnerable to lower levels of contamination than an adult, sometimes dramatically lower. These new insights are suggesting, for example, that some thresholds of exposure currently deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency may be tens of thousands of times too insensitive where children are concerned.Link to Sustainable World Grants