Concerns over raising our children in a toxic world were aired at Mount Sinai hospital in a summit aimed at spreading awareness. Among those speaking is Robert F Kennedy, the late president’s Nephew, who voiced grave concerns that the diseases becoming increasingly prevalent in our society today are caused by our exposure to toxins. Illnesses ranging from asthma to autism, Kennedy claims, were once rare but are now common due to the harm caused by our own environment. That 1 in 6 of our children now have learning disabilities due to exposure to dangerous chemical pesticides is a shocking statistic. Also shocking is the fact that these key officials believe that these diseases are completely attributed to toxic environment. Particularly scary are the statistics claiming that testicular cancer rates are rising, sperm counts are falling, and an increased occurances of hyperspadia (male babies born with disfigured penises). Endocrine disruptors are now so engrained in our society that we cannot go back to a world in which we use purely naturally products. What they prescribe a careful stewardship over our chemical industry so that our exposure is limited.

We generally think of the diseases listed in this article as not preventable, non treatable defects even though the highly increasing rates at which they occur tell us that the our environment is at play. Indeed evolution cannot and does not move fast enough to be attributed to these high rates of disease. Kennedy blames the industries producing toxic chemicals for manipulating our laws and agencies into turning a blind eye. Because the science is funded by chemical industries the studies are bias

After this past term you’ve probably been second-thinking that plastic cup in your cupboard, drinking from the tap, or touching just about anything in this toxic world.  Well, here is a website that was designed by Dara O’Rourke, a UC Berkeley Professor, that gives ratings to consumer products based on their environmental impact, societal impacts, and general health to the consumer:

Very similar to many consumer guides, it allows the consumer a metric with which to compare different products and companies.  This simultaneously encourages change within corporations to produce more environmentally friendly products and informs the consumer about which products to cut from their consumption.

Or, in case you’re in need of a little hope, here is a website/magazine that is a self-proclaimed “Survival Guide to the Planet”:

It has articles about everything environmental.  I found the letter from the editor in the current issue of the magazine especially profound.

Anyway, happy summer and good luck navigating our toxic world!!OpenDocument

Ground breaking legislation was passes today to reduce the risk of poisoning by ingesting rat poisons. The EPA announced a ban of the sale of most toxic mouse and rat poisons to residential customers. The move was prompted by the thousands of children under 6 and pets that ingest poison pellets everyday. Due to their close proximity to the ground, poisons are often ingested by toddlers and pets and can cause brain damage, internal organ damage and even death.Back in 2008 the EPA gave developers till 2011 to enclose their products in delivery enclosures and produce less toxic baits, yet some chose noncompliance and are now being reprimanded. We pride our country on having eliminated basic risk factors in our society leading to a generally low mortality rates yet for decades we have been knowingly placing poison pellets on the floors where are children and pets play. The move to ban many forms of rodenticide containing toxic chemicals as well as requiring protective delivery stations should indeed make our households safer. It might however drive the price of such products up as some products are still allowed only when applied by professionals. It is good to see legislation in favor of reducing our exposure to toxic substances though admittedly tackling the residential application of rat poisons is much easier and solves many less problems than say tackling pesticides used in farming. Priority to such legislation makes me consider how much environmental justice the EPA aims to achieve. While a few thousand toddlers and pets may be saved from a stomach pumping, some live neighborhoods, particularly low income neighborhoods, completely contaminated by near by industry. I wonder if the EPA is going after easy wins rather than tackling tougher, bigger issues.

I confess that I’ve never been a fan of reality TV, but I can see why a lot of people find it appealing. It represents a fake reality that attempts to put a more realistic slice of everyday life on TV. People feel connected because they see it as the real story of the tangible, ordinary person. One of the recurring themes of reality TV is the concept of swapping. There are shows like “House Swap”, where people obviously swap houses. After that came “Wife Swap” (really, who watches these?!). Then there was a show called “Black.White” in which the participants swapped races (well, not really, but through heavy make-up it gave the outward appearance of swapping races). Even a show like American Idol was essentially swapping – placing ordinary Americans a situation where given enough talent and popularity, the contestant would swap his or her ordinary life to the celebrity lifestyle of a pop singer.

The other day in class as I watched the group presentation of the documentary “Waste Land” I thought, why did nobody do a swapping show the other way round? So instead of getting an ordinary person off the street to join a show like “The Apprentice” with the possibility of swapping their existing job with a ‘dream’ job of working for Donald Trump, we could have a rich magnate taking on the mundane job of an ordinary person. Perhaps we can go one step further and have the rich person work as say… a catadores? A recycler in Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill? I realise this doesn’t make for great entertainment value nor suit the target audience of reality TV. It’s sad though. It’s just that the idea seems really compelling to me. The media forces that be make sure that what doesn’t sell or doesn’t make money doesn’t get on air. Essentially this is censorship of what people need to be aware of. Wastefulness. Creation of waste. Creation of Waste Land. What we do get is advertisements telling us we need to buy this and we need to buy that. Constant bombardment of consumerism in our faces.

It’s interesting to compare the two documentaries “Waste Land” and “Manufactured Landscapes.” The former shows poor people working in a toxic environment but they are proud and upbeat, knowing that they are responsible for recycling and doing as much as they can with the resources at hand to save the of landscape of Brazil. Never mind the injustice of it all – the rich pollute and the poor save the environment, then the rich can continue to enjoy the environment. In the latter documentary though, recyclers appear visibly depressed, which may have to do with the much greater toxicity from the heavy metals and toxic fumes (a much more toxic environment). These two films have completely changed my view of consumption. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We should have a new saying updated for this information age – if it ain’t broke, don’t replace it. At least that’s what I’m going to do from now on.


I want you to think of what got you interested in environmental studies enough to take this class.  For me it was Captain planet which was an animated children’s TV show that I’m sure many of you remember.  The main purpose behind the show was to teach children about the environment around us and how we should protect it to keep the ecosystems from being destroyed.  It featured Captain Planet and the Planeteers who were young citizens from around the world who fought for environmental justice and fought against large corporations who pollute the world with toxic waste.  In nearly every episode the PLaneteers do their part but usually rely on Captain Planet to finish the job for them and save the day.  While we don’t have a super hero to rely on to save us from ourselves and our destructive ways we can take his message very seriously, “The power is yours”!  This reminds us that we must take responsibility to clean up after ourselves and others and only we can save the planet.

We never really know what we will find when we drill into the Earth.  Geologist drilling in the Karakorum Desert in Turkmenistan found out how true that was.  While drilling for oil in the desert they discovered a large underground cavern full of natural gas.  With the weight of the drill, trucks, people and all the other equipment the cavern turn into a giant sinkhole taking everything with it.  The pit known now, as the ‘Gates of Hell’ is approximately two football fields wide and nearly 100 feet deep.  At the time of the incident, no official report was filed, nor were there any news articles on the disaster.  The remaining crew decided to light the pit on fire to stop the expelling poisonous gas.  This happened back in 1971, and still today no studies have been done to measure the amount of gasses released into the air every day. The pit can be seen for miles at night and people see the Gates of Hell as a tourist attraction oblivious to the risks involved with being around a giant gas-burning pit.  There is a serious need for environmental management around the world to control dangerous natural phenomenons from harming others.  Here are som  e photos of the pit and a quick video of the pit.





I think people too often discount indigenous traditional knowledge when they really should be commending indigenous people for a job well done. If we sit back for a moment shed away all our biases to look at what they’ve accomplished, the results are pretty remarkable. Indigenous people had no formal academic training in sciences, and yet through generations of trial and error, they made countless discoveries that were way ahead of the curve than discoveries by Western scientists of the day. In some ways they are still ahead.

A well-known example comes to mind – herbal knowledge that the shamans of the Amazonian rainforests shared with Western scientists directly led to the development of many modern medicinal cures and treatments. In a sense the trials and errors were no different from what we think of as the classical scientific experimental process: observation, hypothesis, test the hypothesis, then either accept or reject the hypothesis. Just because human senses are crude instruments, and that indigenous people may not have an atomic understanding of physics, chemistry and biology, does not mean that the indigenous discoveries are any less valid.

Before I lose track and go off on a tangent about how indigenous knowledge of African elephant migration routes are more crucial for conservation than creating more wildlife conservation parks, let me bring this back to the issue of using local knowledge mentioned in Jason Corburn’s book “Street Science.” The author states that ” ‘street science’ does not devalue science, but rather re-values forms of knowledge that professional science has excluded and democratizes the inquiry and decision-making process.” The author goes on to cite the success of indigenous knowledge in environmental work in developing nations and claims that likewise in environmental and public health in the developed world local knowledge would make a difference.

I agree that incorporating local knowledge and including locals in decision-making helps. But what I’ve learned in this class is that as humans make increasingly complex and toxic chemicals, the traditional ways of sensory perception increasingly breaks down. I’m referring not only to the invisibility of toxins (such as radiation poisoning, which manifests as symptoms that could be symptomatic of many other possible illnesses), I’m also referring to the idea in the Adams’ article “Radiated Identities” that toxins have evolved temporally beyond our perceptive abilities; symptoms may manifest many years later. This certainly doesn’t make it any easier for locals to understand and subsequently share local environmental health knowledge with scientists. This is where I see an inherent limitation of local knowledge compared to the indigenous knowledge counterparts. The dynamic interactions of toxins external and internal to the human body in such an environment seems to give some possible answers, but perhaps raise even more questions and uncertainty at the end of the day.

Referring here to an earlier post by Sam on the same topic, I think he got it right when discussing the possibility of having locals trained in sciences and study the toxic local environment. Either that, or the scientists have to live in those neighbourhoods to really understand what’s going on.

I continue the story of e-waste that my group presented in class. We analysed the documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” and explored the manufacturing/consumption cycle: developing nations constantly manufacture products to feed the insatiable appetite of the developed world, only to have all the wastes dumped back on them after consumers were done with the products. Out with the old and in with the new (more on this later). The developing world then, becomes a factory and a landfill for the developed world. At every juncture of the cycle, even in transportation (as Cody showed on Google Earth the miles of abandoned old cargo ships), toxicity leaks out and strikes at those who are already poor and disenfranchised. The damage done to the environment and to public health is grave, and this should be apparent especially if you’ve watched the documentary. Of course, like many people, if you haven’t seen these sobering sights and sounds, all this toxicity and environmental injustice would be invisible – out of sight and out of mind.

What might a responsible, ethical person in a developed country do? One action, as the video clip below from 60-minutes shows, is recycle the e-waste responsibly, send them to high-tech, quality controlled, properly regulated domestic recycling centres. Surely with all the social and legal structures in place to protect workers, compared to the adverse conditions of workers in say, China, we should be directly helping ourselves and indirectly helping the e-waste recyclers in China. Right?

Take a look at this news story and decide for yourself:

One thing 60-minutes mentioned about seven minutes into the news story is 7 out of every 10 children in the town of Guiyu, the most toxic Chinese recycling centre, have too much lead in their blood. Now picture your local neighbourhood having 7 out of every 10 children with the same lead poisoning as these Chinese kids. What do you think the public would say about this? These poor people in developing nations don’t have a voice. The worse part is, this isn’t a problem they brought onto themselves. We, the developed world, exported the problem to their countries. This is our doing. And as the government’s sting operation revealed, about 50 so-called recycling companies are doing the very same thing they are publicly condemning – dump our load on others. The scenario is simple: farmers cannot make a living farming but are financially better off ‘recycling’ and poisoning their kids while trying to put food on the table. We have put them on the spot to choose between poverty or poison. Still not convinced we are part of the problem?

Watch this commercial from BestBuy:

In last weeks Eugene Weekly there was an interesting news brief entitled: Kids: Don’t Drink the Toxic Water.  After being in a class studying toxins for three months, it perked my interest for obvious reasons.  This article tells a story, like many we have heard before, of nonsensical applications of herbicides in rural communities that don’t have any say or control over the situation.

In this case, the incident occurred very close to Eugene.  45 minutes outside of Eugene on a quite winding road lays the small community of Triangle Lake.  In December of 2010, multiple doses of Imazapyr, a non-selective herbicide, were sprayed on a recent clear cut that surrounds the community elementary school.  This occurred despite many parental complains, knowing very well that the herbicide could potentially poison the schools only drinking well.  According to the news brief, studies have shown that Imazapyr “sinks deeper into the ground than other herbicides and has a long track record of polluting ground water and wells.”

Sure enough, on the first day that students returned to class after the herbicide was applied, a few complained of minor headaches and difficulty breathing.  In fact, Day Owen’s daughter, Ivana, had to go home early after spending nearly 45 minutes near an open adjacent window.  His daughter’s throat was so swollen that she had extreme difficulty breathing.

The spraying occurred less than 60 feet from the school.  Initial water samples taken this April show that the school’s well water does in fact have Imazapyr in it.  Though the levels are almost 1000 times lower than the government’s safety level, many parents and local citizens are still concerned.

A positive aspect of this story is how local citizens took matters into their own hands and acquired a testable water sample.  Grass roots, local involvement is often the best action for local or regional change.

Over the course of the term we have focused on the deleterious effects of agriculture on humans, but the effects of this practice on plant and animal life has been left untouched.  In the previous post the “Dead Zone” at the end of the Mississippi was discussed.  As was noted, this is caused by the process of eutrophication in which nitrogen and phosphorus run-off is used as the building blocks of algal bloom.  However, this effect on seas and oceans is not merely bound by the Mississippi and Gulf.  There are “Dead Zones” up and down the east coast, littered around Europe, and some on the Asian border to the Pacific Ocean.

Oceanographers have counted 405 such dead zones worldwide, ranging in size from 1 km^2 to 70,000 km^2.  This number was reported in 2008, up from 146 dead zones counted in 2003.  These hypoxic regions are a direct result of our worldwide use of fertilizers.  Furthermore, with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, our required production of corn for ethanol fuel must triple in 10 years.  Fertilizer consumption and agricultural production are directly related; therefore, a tripling of corn production will require a tripling of fertilizer.  This act will further the growth of these hypoxic regions, destroying increasingly more aquatic wildlife.

Following is a documentation of the worlds dead zones.  Notice the littering of red dots up and down the east coast of USA and the Gulf of Mexico.  Is it even possible to catch aquatic life on that side of the country anymore?  Historically the oceans have been viewed as plentiful and bottomless, but our current practices have seen the decline of aquatic species across the board.  Between the Pacific Trash Island Gyre and the Dead Zones we are destroying 70% of the surface of the Earth to produce food for one species.  That makes sense.

*Image courtesy of NASA.