Chemical World

This article was originally in Black Flag #208, published in 1996. It was written by a member of the grassroots Communities Against Toxics, who publish ToxCat.

Submitted by martinh on March 9, 2006

Phthalates, dioxins, other chemicals and infants

Scientists tell us that there are 500 measurable synthetic chemicals in our bodies which are capable of disrupting our fertility and intelligence. Politicians and industrialists tell us the levels are insufficient to cause these problems. Who do you believe? Who do you trust?
What are the consequences to society of a 5% drop in IQ? What if the decline in sperm count continues to the point that men become infertile? These are crucial questions because these chemicals are ubiquitous in society. They are found in pesticides, plastics, detergents, cosmetics and environmental pollutants. Eventually, in tiny amounts, they end up in our bodies where they cause a range of illnesses from respiratory disease (on initial exposure), to cancer (up to 20 years after exposure began), and reproductive effects (which begin during cell development in the foetus where the damage is permanent).
Your choice is simple. You can trust the politicians' rhetoric and allow yourself to be exposed to these chemicals, or you can change your life style and do something about it.
We live in a toxic world, some would say a world with its biological diversity in the first phase of meltdown. Yet the print and electronic media trivialise the issue of chemicals in food and in our bodies, not least because scare stories are the rage in our risk management society.
"There's no gain without pain," our ruling elite argue, and we can only agree that if we want to create a world that is a technological and scientific marvel we must take and accept these risks.
It's this "we" that I have trouble with, not forgetting those who make these utterances when we (the majority of global society) meekly question what is happening to us during this quest for the technological nirvana. Let's not get carried away cry the bureaucrats and industrialists when someone wonders why chemicals in infant formula milk might be a problem.
It was Lewis Mumford, writing more than half a century ago, who put this debate in perspective when he attempted to clarify why technological progress would have an impact on society. "By putting business before every other manifestation of life," he wrote in The Future of Technics and Civilisation, "our mechanical and financial leaders have neglected the chief business of life: namely, growth, reproduction, development, expression. Paying infinite attention to the invention and perfection of incubators, they have forgotten the egg, and its reason for existence." So this most recent food-scare is not a problem if you actually understand anything about the means and modes of production, particularly the processes used by the multi-billion dollar, multinational chemical industry and about capitalist industry, particularly its dependence on fossil fuels, petrochemicals and their derivatives. We cannot manufacture our products without these chemicals, industry screams whingeing all the while about technological progress. Modern society cannot exist without these products, the chemical industry in particular insists.
This, as you should know, is not true, a point once made by Beeching who did more than most to promote the development of the petrochemical industry. "Instead of producing new products to satisfy existing industrial needs, it is, increasingly, producing new forms of matter which not only replace the materials used by existing industries, but which cause extension and modification of those industries. To an increasing degree it forces existing industries to adapt themselves to use its products."
On one side we have industry and its obsession with technological progress while on the other we have not only the human species but every other earthly species as well. To keep on the track of technological progression the chemical industry must continue to synthesise new compounds combining petrochemicals with chlorine but in doing so it actually creates synthetic chemicals capable of disrupting the fertility and intelligence of thousands of species including humans.
Phthalates, the chemicals found in infant formula milk, are abundant in modern technology; they are known as plasticisers because they soften polyvinylchloride (PVC) and are also used in paints, inks and plastic flooring and covering. If you have been following the debate (and that is all it is at the moment) about environmental oestrogens and endocrine disrupters - synthetic chemicals capable of mimicking and disrupting ovarian hormones - you will know that phthlates are the very tip of an iceberg that contains a myriad of very toxic substances. If, sadly, you are one of the many out there trapped in wage-slave-television culture, dependent on mass media for your social and political awareness and creative stimulation, you're probably either confused, apathetic or scared shitless. If you are confused you have my sympathy - for the time it takes me to blink; if you are apathetic you rise my anger and despair; if you are scared shitless you give me hope, that you will begin to do something about the ecological and biological damage being done by mankind (sic) to this planet and its species.
The synthetic chemicals present in our air, seas, rivers, soil, grass and food are a major problem, but you don't need to be a toxicologist, endocrinologist, epidemiologist, biologist or environmental scientist to understand what this means. You certainly don't need the media to patronise you while feeding you lies and excuses from bureaucrats, industrialists, politicians and scientists. What you do need to know is that these chemicals do not go away; they do not break down, they are not biodegradable. Because they are fat soluble they accumulate in the cells of each species that encounters them, slowly rising up the food chain where they will stick around for at least seven generations causing gradual and varying degrees of biological damage that might well be irreversible.
Not only do we live in a toxic world, the toxic chemicals live in us - in wildlife and in humans. The damage to wildlife over the past four decades alone from toxic pollution is as sure an indicator as you will find that many species have lost the ability to reproduce or to adapt to environmental change. The anecdotal, never mind scientific, evidence that chemicals are affecting wildlife has been ignored for years. To echo the words of those scientists who have been trying to alert the ruling elites to this disturbing reality, "you'd have to be an idiot not to believe that we are next".
Yet despite what the enlightened few are describing as an apocalyptic scenario the media and parliament treat us to a game of trivial deceit, debasing the quality of our lives with scare stories that insult our intelligence.
So yes, we probably are all idiots to believe what the mainstream media tell us. It's worth remembering, if you are old enough, that 'toxic' scare stories in the media have been around since people like Murray Bookchin and Rachel Carson warned us about the dangers of pesticides in the 50s and 60s. There's nothing new about them - the media's presentation is as ignorant as ever; it is the treatment not the content that makes the story for the media. So it is perhaps significant that this summer we have gone full circle with the toxic scare stories of the latter half of the 20th century; notably pesticides, herbicides, pharmaceuticals and synthetic chemicals which are more commonly known as DDT, lindane, 2,4,5-T, dioxin, thalidomide, DES, etc..
But let's start with the thalidomide "scare" story. In 1954 enterprising German chemists created a new drug called thalidomide. It seemed to be an ideal sleeping pill and tranquilliser and after three years of animal tests it was judged so safe that it was approved for over the counter (non prescription) sale throughout Germany. By 1960 thalidomide was Germany's most popular sleeping pill and tranquilliser. It was also a huge financial success and was marketed under 50 different trade names in 24 countries, including Distillers in Britain where it was prescribed as a morning sickness/nausea pill to pregnant women.
Then a report appeared in a British medical journal, indicating that persistent users of thalidomide had developed nerve damage in their hands and feet. In Germany there was an outbreak of phocomelia (which means literally "seal limbs") - a terrible deformity in which babies are born with tiny flipper-like stumps instead of arms and hands. In America a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officer who had been considering an application to market thalidomide in the US asked the chemical company who wanted to market it to conduct studies to show that the drug could be safely taken by pregnant women without harming the foetus. In November 1961 Dr Widuking Lenz in Germany and Dr W.G. McBride in Australia, almost simultaneously, observed that the mothers of several babies with phocomelia had one thing in common, they had taken thalidomide in the first 20 to 40 days of pregnancy. In September the following year the extent of the damage was confirmed.
In the four years since 1957, when this wonderful pill was first approved for sale, thalidomide had caused 10,000 cases of birth malformations in western Germany. In England a thousand cases were reported. No one has ever tallied the damage in the other 22 countries where the drug was sold.
Reading this story now probably gives the impression that it broke as soon as the scientists discovered what was happening - but it didn't. Although the Sunday Times 'Insight' team is given and takes credit for breaking the thalidomide story in reality the media has nothing to congratulate itself about, no less than government. Although those critical of synthetic chemicals had tried to alert the wider public to the dangers of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries it was several years before the tragedy of thalidomide became clear and even longer before the British Government and Distillers admitted their liability. It was 1973 before the Thalidomide Trust was set up to distribute compensation to those born with birth defects as a result of their mothers' misfortune and even then only 460 people were included among those officially deformed by the drug. Distillers graciously gave £19 million, the Government £5m; obviously this wasn't enough to compensate the victims of thalidomide so the Trust had to keep plugging away at the company and at government for more money. Distillers finally paid another £37.5m and told the Trust that was thei "žr lot - if they wanted more the government would have to fork out. On June 5, 1996 the Government announced that it would pay another £7m.
Was this a major news story? In some papers it merited a paragraph, in others it was ignored. The reason? Because it wasn't a worthy news story. Yet thalidomide was a quality "scare" story when it broke during the early 60s, simply because its effects were apparent fairly immediately.
The same cannot be said about phthalates or DDT, or even about dioxins, because, as a news editor of a national newspaper will tell you "there's no dead or deformed bodies?" By distorting the phthalates story the mainstream media has, whether deliberately or accidentally, trivialised the issue to such an extent that most people don't know what to believe anymore. Phthalates are of concern because the levels found by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) have been reported to cause reproductive effects in wildlife. They are an issue because the synergistic effects of endocrine disrupters such as phthalates and dioxins and PCBs work at low rather than high doses - which means that there is no safe level. The body burden of these chemicals is already sufficient to cause damage to fertility and intelligence but don't be waiting for the dead bodies or the deformed babies. Instead consider, as they grow, the intelligence levels of your friends' and neighbours' young children, if after a while you even notice that children are still being born. But of course they are and of course children are as intelligent as they always were; after all I'm just scaremongering - aren't I?
Let's not ask why teachers using the same methods they always have, regardless of trendy "new" methods, are finding the reading age of the average pupil to be well below their biological age; or that the drop in sperm count is being recognised as being accompanied by a decrease in motility (they can't bloody swim) and an increase in mutant sperm that are just not viable...

On the same day that the government announced its £7m payment to the Thalidomide Trust, Shanks and McEwan (who own ReChem) gleefully told the media that they were in pretax profit again. And ReChem, after losing £388,000 in 1994, had made pretax profits of £418,000 in 1995. Yet Rechem, who "sue and bruise easily", are one of many filthy firms who make it their business to guarantee the need for future incarnations of the Thalidomide Trust, and for ever larger segments of our population. In 1990 the Welsh Affairs committee recommended, on the basis of extreme levels of PCB at Rechem, Pontypool, that Ã’major incinerators are not in future located near residential areas. PCBs and dioxins have no safe threshold level, and are the cause of various deformities in newborn babies around the Rechem plant (though legally the victim must prove harm, with no pressure on industry to prove their case - see the recent farce over BSE). These deformities include microphthalmia (no eyelids), and anophthalmia (lack of an eye). Other problems, all seen throughout Britain at this time, and also linked to incineration, include limblessness and skull-plate deformities. In adults, chloracne, cancers, immunological problems, and reproductive failures (in men and women, the former suffering reduced sperm counts and deformed sperm, the latter suffering, in extreme cases, intersexuality, wherein the "woman" has both female and male genitalia inside herself, neither functional) are amongst the terrible health effects of proximity to these toxins. These chemicals are becoming common throughout the environment, and no longer just in industrial areas. When we reach the "population threshold" (ie; when the localised effects spread until they join up, making the maps of toxics one big red danger zone), who then will be able to afford "charity"? Despite which, yet another urban incinerator (SELCHP) was opened in Bermondsey, South London, only two years ago - and another is proposed for Woolwich.
Still, June is a good month for scare stories, a prelude to the silly season - as Shanks and McEwan announced their wonderful profits, and the government finally coughed up a little more for the victims of Thalidomide, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that pesticide use in the USA had reached record levels. According to the Natural Resources Defence Council, which compiled the information for the US EPA, 544 million kilograms of pesticides were sprayed on crops and grassland in the year up to March 1995.
"Many of these chemicals are acutely or chronically toxic, cause cancer, birth defects, are endocrine disrupters and can cause severe adverse environmental impacts," said an official with the NRDC.
But so what! We know from bitter experience that this will make little difference to the capitalist industrialists until it is even more totally too late.

Robert Allen