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Nine farming states along the Mississippi river have been contributing to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Louisiana due to chemical fertilizers used in farming.  The main chemicals that cause the dead zone are nitrogen and phosphorous that creates algal blooms that starve other living creatures of oxygen.  The fact that so many states along the river contribute to the problem leads to a discussion of which is responsible for the pollution, which is responsible for cleaning up the mess, and what practices can be implemented in order to reduce this environmental degradation.  The NY Times reports that only two of the states, Illinois and Indiana, have taken action.  These actions are limited, however, to only pertain to lakes and not the main cause of the dead zone in the gulf, the Mississippi river.

The fact that the river crosses many borders creates an imbalance of power and a blame game of sorts.  States downstream are most affected by the pollution causing them to promote large-scale regulations by the EPA pertaining to the river as a whole in order to encompass the scope of the environmental issue.  Apparently, voluntary mechanisms have not done enough to encourage more sustainable agriculture.   At the very end of the river, in the Gulf of Mexico, citizens who have absolutely nothing to do with agricultural production may be the most negatively affected.   Fishermen see a large decrease in yield and cannot find quality marine life in or near the dead zone.

One reason for the use of chemical fertilizers that damage rivers and oceans is the American appetite for cheap food.  Because of the need for food and the preference for cheap food, agricultural producers are forced to yield more food more frequently and must use chemical fertilizers in order to keep up with the consumer’s appetite.  This is an example of how many levels contribute to this type of environmental degradation.

The consumption patterns of society require lots of food for very cheap.  This leads to more agricultural lands that sometimes are placed where other vital natural features once existed which removes the natural systems that usually purify and clean out toxins.  Chemical fertilizers are used in order to keep up with the demand for food both in amounts and cost.  With natural filtration systems removed, these chemicals are able to enter the rivers and as they pass by more agricultural states, chemical concentrations grow.   Once the chemicals enter the ocean, they create algal blooms and dead zones which negatively affect fishing industries.  In order to try to regulate these problems, states try to implement voluntary regulation which simply does not work because the bottom line for agriculture is profit.  Also, producers of agriculture perceive more risk from applying too little pesticides as opposed to applying too much.  Downstream states that are more negatively affected blame states upstream and call for a large-scale regulation put in place by the EPA.  Finally, it takes a collaboration of local governments, farmers, environmental groups, federal government and regulatory agencies to come up with a plan to decrease use of chemical fertilizers while maintaining crop yield to satisfy the consumer’s appetite.

Hong Kong’s status as one of the largest economies in Asia has led to rapid industrial development using very inefficient infrastructure.  The main issue for the Hong Kong economy is air pollution due mostly to gas-guzzling engines implemented in the transportation sector including the trucking industry and buses.  The air pollution has been deemed a threat to public health and has negatively affected the economy by making it difficult to find workers and management staff who are willing to work and live in Hong Kong.  This now becomes another example of the differences between developed countries and their economies and rapidly developing countries and their economies.  Developed countries who already have the affluence to support a large economy have the capability to invest in greener, more environmentally friendly fuels and infrastructure while the developing countries rely on old, inefficient and polluting technologies to catch up to the first regime of industrial nations.

As a member of one of the developed nations, it is easy to see why we would discourage developing nations from relying on these old technologies as we have travelled the path of excessive oil consumption and viewed first-hand the negative effects of pollution on the environment.  From the developing nation’s perspective, however, economic growth may take priority over environmental protection especially because the affluence and security available in the developed nations is due mainly to the use of these old technologies.  The new, environmentally friendly infrastructure at this point in time is very expensive and only available to economies that already have a stable base and can withstand a time period without growing.  Hong Kong’s emphasis on economic growth, however, seems to take priority over investment in clean technologies.

This creates a catch-22 situation in which the air pollution due to old infrastructure is affecting the growth of the Hong Kong economy.  Now that these two issues are directly linked, there is a push for an investment in new infrastructure that will eventually help the economy grow.  Hong Kong has a chance to be a leader for developing nations and to show how investment in new infrastructure that preserves the quality of the environment can actually be used as a tool to grow the economy.  The changes may cost a lot and the economy may stall for some time but the inability to grow the economy due to air pollution caused by old infrastructure can serve as an example of how environmental quality can be directly linked to rapid economic growth.

Dawn Soap Company capitalizes on the fact that their soap helps save animals affected by oil spills by printing a code on every bottle that can be redeemed online for a $1 donation to conservation organizations.  In 2 years they claim to have donated $1 million dollars to the cause.  Their advertising and sales, however, seem to be benefitting from these environmental disasters and specifically the oil spills.  On the Dawn dish soap website there are some featured pictures from the South African Penguin Rescue in which they claim, “Thousands of penguins’ lives were put in danger off the coast of South Africa by a tanker spill in June, 2000. Amazingly, wildlife rescuers were able to save the lives of 90% of them.”  It makes sense that a cleaning detergent would be the best way to remove oils from marine animals, it’s just a shame that it is necessary to use.  This approach is necessary but is once again an example of solving the immediate problem without addressing the cause of the problem.  In referencing Steingraber, this is another case of saving people downstream without looking upstream at the root of the problem.

With the recent BP oil spill along the gulf coast Dawn Soap is in a brighter spotlight than before.  The advertising efforts of Dawn clearly are geared toward pulling on your heart strings to gain sympathy and earn your dollar because they are saving wildlife.  One critique I would have about Dawn’s donation efforts is the “up to $500,000” amount that they will donate to help clean the oil spill.   It doesn’t really make sense to me to put a cap on the amount you will donate to help a cause especially if the success of your product can earn you far beyond that amount.

All in all, Dawn Soap Company seems to accept oil spills and environmental disasters as an inevitable part of our present and future lives.  They are using this inevitability to build a case that paints their product as the ultimate cleaning sponge for these disasters.  They use the good they are doing to pull on the public heartstrings in order to both donate to the conservation organizations and make a profit for themselves.  To Dawn, it doesn’t really matter who is responsible for the oil spill.  Whether it is the President, BP, or the regulatory agencies that allowed sub-par engineering Dawn will be there to capitalize on an oil spill.  By basing their current advertising campaign on cleaning oil spills, what would Dawn Soap Company do without environmental disasters like oil spills?

The great Pacific garbage patch was first recorded in a report published in 1988 by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which discovered high accumulations of marine debris gathering North of  the Hawaiian archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.  The debris was gathering due to a convergence of ocean currents that trapped the debris in what is called the North Pacific Gyre.  Sailors who travelled through this area in the late 1990’s described sailing through a large area of floating marine debris but the area of pollution is much larger because much of the debris has broken down and is invisible to the naked eye.  Although the small debris is hard to investigate, there are larger sized pollutants that can float or remain submerged in the water columns such as discarded fishing gear and plastics that have not yet been broken down.  The best estimates have determined that the polluted area is about twice the size as Texas but the true size of the garbage patch is difficult to determine due to the miniscule size of the pollutants and the varying amounts of them found at different depths. Research at different depths in the ocean shows that most of the pollution concentrates in the upper water column where most marine life exists.   An astounding 80% of the pollution is reported to be from land-based sources while the other 20% is from ships.  The types of pollutants mostly include plastics which take many years to biodegrade.  Instead of biodegrading, the plastics are constantly being broken up into smaller and smaller pieces which then allow ingestion and contamination in marine life.  Other contaminants however, do decompose but also add toxic chemicals to the water column.  The small size of the plastics and the harmful chemicals are able to enter the food chain at all scales.  Larger pieces of garbage are mistaken as food by sea birds and turtles among other larger animals and can act as endocrine disruptors creating defects in reproduction and other biological processes necessary for survival.  Because of the knowledge of bioaccumulation and biomagnification, people are worried how human health may be affected by this pollution.  From what we know about ecology, pollution and health, the toxification of a marine habitat will lead to all scales of marine life becoming contaminated.  With most of the world’s fish already polluted with mercury due to industrial runoff and processes, negative effects on human health seem inevitable when contamination from plastics travels through the food chain and into what humans ingest.  The goal of this paper is to identify some of the most harmful toxins that exist in the North Pacific gyre and identify how bioaccumulation and biomagnification will affect wildlife and eventually humans.

Sandra Steingraber’s LivingDownstream is an exploration of historical pollutants and pollutant control acts along with a narrative of stories that explain personal experiences and encounters with pollution and specifically its effects on health.  Steingraber’s own experience with cancer is explored and her thoughts and worries are projected into future generations.  Beginning with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a shift in the way society views and values the environment has led to an interrogation of human degradation of the environment and ecosystem.  Steingraber’s book takes a critical look at the way society implements and regulates business and how that affects or degrades natural and personal health.  An overwhelming load of health and chemical statistics are presented to drive home the point that cancer rates have increased and yet we still know little to none about the pollutants we are exposing to both our environment and ourselves.    Steingraber’s book discusses the many scales of the pollution and health issue from the small personal choices an individual can make concerning their health to the industrial mechanism that creates emissions over entire communities.

The question of health and pollution is applicable on all scales.  On a personal scale, it is important to know what is going into your body through education and research.  On a community scale, it is important to decide the value of a clean environment.  On an economic scale, there must be a way to make a profit in a process that reduces harmful release of chemicals.  In agriculture, there must be a larger emphasis on health and nutrition instead of simply mass production.  For the government, there must be programs and funds set in place to lower the costs of production for healthy foods in order to allow access to the entire population.  Equity must be applied on all sized scales and interconnections must be identified to truly put together the web that makes up the question of pollution and health.  The precautionary principle is very useful in a complex, multi-scaled issue such as this one.  There is still so much unknown about the specific effects of pollution on health but what we know and what we think we know has led us to an understanding that health issues become much more frequent and complex when pollutants are present.

Steingraber makes suggestions for societal changes which mostly include decision making guidelines.  One is the Principle of Reverse Onus which forces substances to be proven safe within reason by the producers before use.  Another principle is Alternatives Assessment which means using the least harmful form to complete a task.  The final principle is the Precautionary Principle suggesting that it needs to be clear what substances can do to humans and the environment before widespread use.   Steingraber suggests a rethinking in how we view health and our relationship to the environment and its limited resources.


In Norco, Louisiana, the Shell gas company has many fossil fuel refineries in close proximity to residential areas.  In this image, a concerned citizen is using a small scale air test kit to determine exactly what toxins are being breathed in by the community.  People are forced into testing the air themselves due to manipulation of statistics and the understating of danger by the Shell gas company.  This is an example of the awareness of the risk of pollution because the community will have to buy and use these test kits in order to determine their level of safety.  The Shell gas company does not have to prove that their emissions are safe and the burden of proof is left up to the public who is affected by the pollution.  Because of the lack of regulations and enforcement on industries, the industries are allowed to externalize their costs of pollution onto the community.  Until government regulations become more stringent or are enforced more frequently, the burden of proof will remain on the public.  Industry tends to locate highly toxic operations near poor, minority neighborhoods enforcing a large disparity of wealth and also creating a large disparity of health between the wealthy and the less fortunate.  Despite benefiting from job opportunities, the communities still suffer more as a whole because of health complications caused by the pollution in the area.  On the other hand, industries receive all of the benefit without bearing any costs by using cheap labor and polluting areas that most consumers (rich, white Americans) don’t see.  The historical racism that has leaked into housing markets and economic industry has created inequity in health due to pollution in poor, minority communities.  The personalized air testing kits are an example of a commodity that will perceivably be around as air pollution and toxicity become more of an issue.