Scientists categorize Earth as a 'toxic planet'

February 7, 2017

Humans emit more than 250 billion tonnes of chemical substances a year, in a toxic avalanche that is harming people and life everywhere on the planet.

"Earth, and all life on it, are being saturated with man-made chemicals in an event unlike anything in the planet's entire history," says Julian Cribb, author of 'Surviving the 21st Century' (Springer International 2017).

"Every moment of our lives we are exposed to thousands of these substances. They enter our bodies with each breath, meal or drink we take, the clothes and cosmetics we wear, the things we encounter every day in our homes, workplaces and travel.

Mr Cribb says that the poisoning of the planet through man-made emissions is probably the largest human impact – and the one that is least understood or regulated. It is one of ten major existential risks now confronting humanity, he describes in Surviving the 21st Century.

"The European Chemicals agency estimates there are more than 144,000 man-made chemicals in existence. The US Department of Health estimates 2000 new chemicals are being released every year. The UN Environment Program warns most of these have never been screened for human health safety," he says.

"The World Health Organisation estimates that 12 million people – one in 4 – die every year from diseases caused by 'air water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change and ultraviolet radiation', all of which result from human activity."

Examples of the toxic avalanche include:

  • Manufactured chemicals – 30 million tonnes a year
  • Plastic pollution of oceans – 8mt/yr
  • Hazardous waste – 400 mt/yr
  • Coal, oil, gas etc – 15 gigatonnes (billion tonnes) a year
  • Lost soil – 75 Gt/yr
  • Metals and materials – 75 Gt/yr
  • Mining and mineral wastes - <200 Gt/yr
  • Water (mostly contaminated with above wastes) – 9 trillion tonnes a year.

"Industrial toxins are now routinely found in new-born babies, in mother's milk, in the food chain, in domestic drinking water worldwide. They have been detected from the peak of Mt Everest (where the snow is so polluted it doesn't meet drinking water standards) to the depths of the oceans, from the hearts of our cities to the remotest islands.

"The mercury found in the fish we eat, and in polar bears in the Arctic, is fallout from the burning of coal and increases every year.

"There is global concern at the death of honeybees from agricultural pesticides and the potential impact on the world food supply, as well as all insect life - and on the birds, frogs and fish which in turn depend on insects."

Mr Cribb says an issue of chemical contamination largely ignored by governments and corporations is that chemicals act in combination, occur in mixtures and undergo constant change. "A given chemical may not occur in toxic amounts in one place – but combined with thousands of other chemicals it may contribute a much larger risk to the health and safety of the whole population and the environment."

Medical science is increasingly linking issues such as obesity, cancers, heart disease and brain disorders such as autism, ADHD and depression to the growing volume of toxic substances to which humans are exposed daily.

"Despite attempts to regulate chemical use, only 21 out of 144,000 chemicals have so far been banned. In countries such as the United States, attempts are apparently under way to roll back chemical regulation, exposing the population to ever-greater health risks."

Mr Cribb says solutions to the threat of global poisoning exist, but require the co-operation of consumers, government and industry worldwide.

"First, we need a new Human Right – a right not to be poisoned. Without such a right, there will never again be a day in history when humans are free from man-made poisons.

"Second we need a global alliance of consumers who will reject toxic products or products made with toxic processes – and give industry the economic incentive to switch to 'green chemistry' and other safer systems.

"Our communities need to adopt 'zero waste', where nothing is discarded but all substances are re-used and toxic ones made safe."

"People need to understand that these poisons are only released because we as consumers send our dollar demands to industry to make things as cheaply as possible. This takes no account of the damage to human life and health. So we are all, in a sense, getting away with murder.

"If consumers demand safe, healthy, green products and are willing to pay industry a little more to make them safely, we can cleanse our planet within a generation.

"We all end up paying chemical toxicity one way or another. It's a simple choice – pay at the supermarket, or pay at the hospice."

Surviving the 21st Century describes what humanity as a whole must do, and what individuals can do to turn back the toxic tide.

Explore further: Every meal eaten estimated to cost the planet 10 kilos of lost topsoil

More information: Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity's Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them. www.springer.com/us/book/9783319412696

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10 comments

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michael_frishberg
5 / 5 (2) Feb 07, 2017
Many years ago, a suggestion was made that new chemicals must be tested, and whatever their added risk of death/cancer/whatever needed to be added to the cost of the product, as part of it paying for itself...that never happened.

Some of us know that no humans will survive the 21st century, and chemical pollution is only another coffin nail.
FactsReallyMatter
2.6 / 5 (5) Feb 15, 2017
"First, we need a new Human Right – a right not to be poisoned. Without such a right, there will never again be a day in history when humans are free from man-made poisons."

Yah, what a great idea.

One man's poison is another man's elixir. How to judge?

"Second we need a global alliance of consumers who will reject toxic products or products made with toxic processes – and give industry the economic incentive to switch to 'green chemistry' and other safer systems."

Well, there goes the whole solar cell industry, along with the battery industry, and pretty much all electronics.

MR166
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 15, 2017
Wow all of these toxins yet human lifespan continues to increase. It is unfair to call something beneficial or harmful without doing an unbiased cost/benefit ratio.

Fossil fuels are a prime example of this.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2017
"Despite attempts to regulate chemical use, only 21 out of 144,000 chemicals have so far been banned. In countries such as the United States, attempts are apparently under way to roll back chemical regulation, exposing the population to ever-greater health risks."

-Sounds to me like hes implying that they should all be banned. Sounds to me like he resents rollbacks more than the chemicals.

Hard not to be a contrarian when you suspect this guy is another big-govt spokesperson.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2017
One man's poison is another man's elixir. How to judge?

Science. There's such a thing as tests for chemical substances.

But if you want to have plutonium or car exhausts as your personal elixir, I don't think anyone is stopping you from taking a couple of deep breaths..

Some of us know that no humans will survive the 21st century

I wouldn't go that far. But the question is: what quality of life do we want? How much money in the bank is living in a poisoned environment worth to us?


Well, there goes the whole solar cell industry, along with the battery industry, and pretty much all electronics.

Stupid. The alternative is to use fossil fuels which are far more damaging to the environment. Unless you advocate we should shut down electricity production completely.
In which case: No on is stopping you from doing that right now. Go ahead. The world will be a better place (in more ways than you can imagine)
gkam
1 / 5 (5) Feb 15, 2017
Yeah, but by the time all this nasty pollution kills us, we will be rich!!
bschott
5 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2017
Yeah, but by the time all this nasty pollution kills us, we will be rich!!

Not us....them.
gkam
Feb 15, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Liquid1474
5 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2017
I agree with antialias---lifespan may be increasing but what quality of life do we want because of the chemicals and pollution?
Our lifespans are only prolonged with the use of more and more drugs to keep the 'who-knows-why-they-appear' diseases at bay: the cancers, auto-immune diseases, endocrine problems, cognitive decline and other life long conditions requiring medicines; consider these chemicals and pollutants are constantly attacking our bodies.

You all may not care about this for yourselves, but for those with kids, I certainly don't want a world where my children need life-long medications to live a long healthy life or to reach their potential.
MR166
not rated yet Feb 15, 2017

"I agree with antialias---lifespan may be increasing but what quality of life do we want because of the chemicals and pollution?"

Here in the US there is no reason that an 80 year old cannot live an active life in relatively good health. 50 years ago this would be a rare occurrence.

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