Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Alert is sounding on our poisoned Earth

Julian Cribb

Earth Detox by Julian Cribb

A Red Alert is sounding over the rising tide of toxic chemistry which is inundating the Earth, humanity and all life.

Recently, scientists warned that the world’s large rivers are heavily polluted by drugs [i], and the planet has already exceeded its safe boundary for man-made chemicals and plastics following a 50-fold increase in production. [ii]

However, these are but facets of a greater menace – one many times the scale of the climate emergency, and far deadlier in the short run. Yet a threat which passes largely unacknowledged by governments and much of the world public.

Earth, and all life on it, are being saturated with human chemical emissions in an event unlike anything in the planet’s history. In Earth Detox I showed that, collectively, we emit around 200 billion tonnes of chemical substances a year – five times greater than our climate emissions – and this flows around the planet in a never-ending circulation.

Those emissions kill 12 million people – one in 5 deaths – annually from diseases caused by ‘air, water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change and ultraviolet radiation’, all of which result from human activity, according to the WHO.

This is the largest preventable mass homicide in human history. It is twice as deadly as WWII. But nobody talks about it – presumably because we are all complicit.

Every moment of our lives we are exposed to thousands of noxious 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. They affect every person, every day, lifelong.

Our babies are born excreting plastic particles. [iii] Their brains are damaged by plastics from their bottles [iv] and pesticides found in mother’s milk.[v] The oceans are awash in 14 million tonnes of plastic and foodgrowing soils are even more heavily contaminated, warns the UNEP. [vi]  Human 3mitted toxins are  found from the peak of Mt Everest to the depths of the oceans, from the hearts of our cities to the remotest ocean atolls.

This is probably humanity’s largest single impact on the Planet. It is one of the ten major catastrophic threats that now comprise the human existential emergency. It has mainly happened in just the last 70 years. It is finally being acknowledged as such by science – but not by government. [vii]

At last count there are over 350,000 man-made chemicals in circulation. The US Department of Health estimates 2000 new compounds are released every year. The UN Environment Program warns most have never been screened for human health or environmental safety.

The chemical industry hides behind the old alchemist’s saw that ‘the dose makes the poison’. A single chemical may not occur in toxic amounts in one place – but mixed with tens of thousands of other chemicals it contributes an elevated risk to the health and safety of the whole population and the environment that supports it.

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

The good news is that solutions to the threat of global poisoning exist, but they require worldwide co-operation by consumers, government, civil society and industry.

In Earth Detox I propose 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. I also call for a global alliance of consumers and concerned citizens prepared to reject toxic products or products made with toxic processes – and so give industry the economic incentive to switch to ‘green chemistry’ and other, less poisonous systems.

[i] Wilkinson J et al., Pharmaceutical pollution of the world’s rivers, PNAS 22 Feb 2022, https://www.pnas.org/content/119/8/e2113947119

[ii] Persson L et al., Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities. Environ. Sci. Technol. 18 Jan 2022, 56, 3, 1510–1521, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.1c04158

[iii] Braun T et al., Detection of Microplastic in Human Placenta and Meconium in a Clinical Setting. Pharmaceutics  22 Jun 2021. https://www.mdpi.com/1999-4923/13/7/921

[iv] Engel SM, Neurotoxicity of Ortho-Phthalates: Recommendations for Critical Policy Reforms to Protect Brain Development in Children, American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) April 2021. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2020.306014

[v] Massart F et al., Chemical Biomarkers of Human Breast Milk Pollution. Biomark Insights. 2008; 3: 159–169. 28 Mar 2008. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2688366/

[vi] UNEP. Plastic planet: How tiny plastic particles are polluting our soil. UNEP website. 22 Dec 2021. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/plastic-planet-how-tiny-plastic-particles-are-polluting-our-soil?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=fao

[vii] Naidu R, Cribb J et al., Chemical pollution: A growing peril and potential catastrophic risk to humanity.  Environment International, Vol 156, November 2021. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412021002415

About The Author

Julian Cribb

Julian Cribb FRSA FTSE is an Australian author and science communicator. His career includes appointments as scientific editor for The Australian newspaper, director of national aw...

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