It used to be a mantra in environmental circles that "the solution to pollution is dilution." That simply isn't tenable anymore, and it probably never was. The reasons are many:
- We now know that many compounds are biologically active at extremely low levels.
- We know that chemicals, radiation, and biological agents can and do act synergistically to magnify their effects on humans, animals and plants.
- We know that chemicals that were thought to degrade quickly in the environment such as glyphosate may persist for long periods.
- Most people now understand that the industries producing chemical and radiation hazards have spent huge sums to propagandize the public and intimidate and control scientists in order to convince us that the industry's products and the pollution associated with them are not harmful.
- Furthermore, in many cases, the dangers have been known from the beginning and been covered up.
A little history regarding leaded gasoline, chlorofluorocarbons, bisphenol A, and wireless radiation will highlight these conclusions.
Let us start with leaded gasoline which was invented in the early 1920s to increase the performance of gasoline engines—essentially to get rid of the "knocking" noise which also indicates inefficient combustion.
The now infamous inventor of leaded gasoline, chemist Thomas Midgely, certainly knew that the lead compound in question, tetraethyl lead, was poisonous. How? Midgely himself came down with lead poisoning from exposure to the substance.
Later, five workers manufacturing the compound died from lead poisoning. And yet, a task force convened by the U.S. Public Health Service concluded that the levels of lead emitted from vehicle exhaust pipes would be too diffuse to cause problems. The members concluded this even though every driver tested by the panel was positive for lead in his or her blood. The tests took place after leaded gasoline was being widely used.
A crushing blow to the lead-is-safe-in-gasoline story was delivered by a geochemist, Clair Patterson, best known for his work in establishing the age of the Earth. Patterson discovered vastly increased lead levels in industrially contaminated soils and air. Atmospheric lead was now 1,000 times the natural background level. His findings were published in 1965.
Of course, by that time lead residue was everywhere and was especially dangerous to children who are more susceptible to damage from such poisoning and were suffering from behavioral problems, learning disabilities and lowered intelligence.
It wasn't until 1974 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a schedule for phasing out lead in gasoline. And, it wasn't until 1976 that a U.S. federal circuit court upheld the EPA's action.
It's worth noting that General Motors (GM), the owner of the tetraethyl lead patent, already knew about another solution to engine knocking before it began production. The other solution was ethanol. All one had to do is add ethanol to gasoline. But GM chose not to pursue ethanol as a gasoline additive because ethanol couldn't be patented and therefore the company couldn't make any money on it.
The pattern we see in the history of leaded gasoline has repeated itself again and again, and yet the public is convinced again and again to believe that substances which are inherently harmful are somehow rendered harmless when released into the environment and diluted by wind, water and even the soil.
Midgley, it turns out, was responsible for another discovery that led one environmental historian to claim that Midgley "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history." That invention was chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used as a refrigerant and in spray cans until one atmospheric chemist seeking to find out where CFCs go when they escape into the air discovered that they made their way to the upper atmosphere.
The scientist, F. Sherwood Rowland, found that CFCs were eating away the ozone layer, the layer which protects the Earth from excessive ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. He published his research in 1974, but in wasn't until 1987 that a worldwide phaseout was agreed to, commonly referred to as the Montreal Protocol.
The book Our Stolen Future when it was published in 1997 created a minor panic in the chemical industry. The authors outlined their research showing that infinitesimal amounts of chemical poisons from pesticides, herbicides, factory effluent and other sources could disrupt human endocrine function in ways that threaten human fertility and intelligence. Endocrine disruption has also been linked to the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes.
The industry had long maintained that levels of chemical contamination in our food, air and water were too low to have any effect on human health. Now that idea was blown to bits. Even so, the momentum and power of the industry has meant it has suffered few setbacks.
Perhaps the most notable one has been the phaseout of Bisphenol A or BPA in plastic food packaging and containers. Most plastic food packaging now states that it is BPA-free. But BPA is still used in many plastics because it adds strength and allows for the production of see-through plastic products. In addition, anyone who handles a cash register receipt is still exposed to possible BPA absorption through the skin.
It turns out, however, that the replacements the industry is using for BPA in plastics may also be harmful. The pattern repeats itself.
Today, we face a danger which like the previous two examples we cannot readily detect. In fact, we cannot even see it. This is the vast increase in wireless radiation we can expect in the wake of the rollout of 5G wireless service. The service will require that cellular antennas be placed in our neighborhoods every few hundred feet on utility poles, many ending up in the front yard of homes.
We are told by the industry that the radiation from these antennas will be well under the U.S. federal limit. But that limit has two problems. First, it was last adjusted in 1996 based on scientific knowledge back then about the health effects of radio frequency (RF) radiation (which is the formal name for radiation from cellphones and cellular antennas).
Basically, the government believed then that only if the radiation was strong enough to heat the body would it result in damage. Essentially, sticking your hand in a microwave oven was a no-no, but putting a cellphone to your head wouldn't hurt anything, even if you did it day after day.
(Full disclosure: I am being paid to consult with groups concerned about the health effects of RF radiation.)
Second, most limits including ones for RF radiation don't take into account synergistic effects. RF radiation can cause excessive permeability in the blood-brain barrier—a barrier designed to protect the brain from toxic chemicals and dangerous pathogens. That means that such radiation can act synergistically with toxic chemicals from the environment that get into the human bloodstream and make it easier for those chemicals to enter the brain and affect its health.
Today, the U.S. government cannot claim ignorance about the effects of RF radiation. It's own National Toxicology Program just completed a study that clearly links the kind of radiation that comes from cellphones with cancer. It's no good for the industry to say that this is just an animal study. Animal studies are how we find such things out because it would be unethical for researchers to subject humans to continuous RF radiation even at low levels of power due to the potential for injury. And, yet the 5G rollout promises to be just such an experiment without our consent.
And so, the pattern repeats. The U.S. military knew from at least the early 1970s onward that RF radiation exposure has health and biological effects on humans. The industry knew about the dangers from its own research in the 1990s. But the public has once again been bamboozled by industry propaganda and by the scientists the industry has controlled. We're almost 40 years into the cellphone experiment, and we are only now just starting to have a serious discussion about the safety of wireless technology.
It took about the same amount of time after the invention of leaded gasoline for a serious discussion to take place about lead being spewed into the air by vehicles everywhere. And, it was almost a century between the discovery of BPA and the book Our Stolen Future, and then another two decades before anything serious was actually done to get BPA out of food containers. But BPA is still around in many other products.
The next time you hear someone say that the exposure to something harmful is really quite low, remind the speaker about leaded gasoline and BPA. Those exposures were low, but they turned about to be very harmful. If he or she pulls out a cellphone, remind the person that that is what the wireless industry keeps saying about cellphones and cellular antennas: The exposure is very low.
But, it turns out that in the field of biological effects a little bit can mean a lot, especially if we are exposed to that little bit continuously for decades.
Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.