Surviving Chemicals & Making Sense of Them By Nalaka Gunawardene Science Writer & Columnist www.nalakagunawardene.comPresentation to Media workshop on scientific reporting on chemical issues Organised by Centre for Environmental Justice Colombo, 25 September 2012
It’s All About Managing Risks! Modern life depends on 100s of chemicals (going back to Stone Age not an option) Toxicity depends on dose, exposure, resilience, etc. 100% chemical free life NOT POSSIBLE ANYWHERE ON EARTH Understand risks; stay within tolerable levels Don’t Demonise Science & Tech!
5 Leading Lights in Public Science:Balancing Risk & Benefits Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964) Alice Hamilton (1869 – 1970) Sherwood Rowland (1927 – 2012) Theo Colborn (1927 - ) Anil Agarwal (1947 – 2002) Remind us there are HONEST, CONSCIENTIOUS SCIENTISTS too!
Rachel Louise Carson (1907-1964):Inspired Environmental Movement Marine biologist Worked for US Bureau of Fisheries Became nature writer in 1950s: original books on oceans Late 1950s: Turned attention to impacts of pesticides on animals, ecosystems – humans? Most important book: 1962…
50 Years ago, in 1962:A book that changed the world… This is the way
US Senate subcommittee onpesticides, 1963 This is the way ththth
Alice Hamilton (1869 – 1970):Pioneer in Toxicology Trained as medical doctor professor of pathology Studied industrial medicine & occupational health issues First woman to join as teacher of Harvard Medical School Pioneer in toxicology: what are chemicals doing to our bodies?
Adding Lead to Gasoline/Petrol 1924: Oil & car companies introduce Tetra Ethyl Lead (TEL) to prevent petrol car engines ‘knocking’ To boost octane & raise compression ratios Public health specialists: Lead is a well known poison! Industry: “Don’t worry - Not harmful in small doses!”
Counterpoint:Surely you can do better?“It would be foolish to talk of theindustrial value of tetraethyl lead,when there is a health hazardinvolved. Men who could discoverthe fuel value of tetraethylcertainly could invent or discoversomething equally efficient and inno way dangerous. Americanchemists can do it if they will.”- Dr Alice Hamilton, 1925
Evidence piles up over decades…1970: US finally bans lead in petrol… This is the way thththSri Lanka finally kicked lead addiction in 2002.
Kicking out Lead in Petrol:A Rare Success Story worldwide Developing countries followed North America & Europe Lead phased out in most countries by 1990s Sri Lanka: State petroleum monopoly dragged its feet for dozen years, finally did so in 2002 Sustained evidence-based advocacy- story recalled in my recent column: http://collidecolumn.wordpress.com/201 2/07/15/when-worlds-collide-24-kicking- lead-in-petrol-lessons-for-cleaning-up- dirty-diesel/
Frank Sherwood Rowland(1927-2012): Saved Ozone Layer This is the way ththth
1974 - Sherwood Rowland & MarioMolina: “CFCs damage Ozone Layer” This is the way ththth
CFCs: Another ‘Wonder Chemical’turns deadly after a few decades… This is the way ththth
Govts reacted quickly to new science…So many lives saved! Montreal Protocol is estimated to have prevented (1987-2010): 19 million cases of non- melanoma (skin) cancer 1.5 million cases of melanoma cancer 130 million cases of eye cataracts.
Theo Colborn (1927 - ):Gender-Bender Detective Originally trained as a pharmacologist PhD in zoology at age 58 Discovery in 1980s at Great Lakes of North America: fish, birds, reptiles & mammals suffering from mysterious reproductive disorders Male/female hormones affected – how & why?
Theo Colborn as ‘Detective’… Industrial chemicals (in pesticides, plastics & cosmetics, etc.) interfered with animals endocrine systems, where hormones are regulated. All chemicals had one thing in common: at molecular level, they were structurally similar to estrogen, female hormone: GENDER-BENDERS? Colborn speculated: chemical pollutants responsible for lower sperm counts among men in Europe?
Our Stolen Future, 1996A new scientific discipline: Endocrine disruption Still active at 85… What are all these chemicals doing to human bodies, at chemical level? Look beyond cancers to other effects too! Researchers keep probingwww.endocrinedisruption.com
Anil Agarwal (1947 – 2002):Holding Science Accountable IIT-qualified mechanical engineer science journalist & eco campaigner Reporter, Hindustan Times (India), New Scientist (UK)# Founded Centre for Science & Environment (CSE), 1980 Started India’s Down to Earth magazine, 1992
Evidence-based Advocacy:e.g. People’s Right to Clean Air
Right to Clean Air – both outdoorsAND indoors… Not just outdoor pollution by vehicles & factories ALSO indoor pollution from poorly ventilated kitchens Exposing millions of women & children to respiratory illnesses & premature deaths
Anil Agarwal asks in 1996: “My Story Today; Your Story Tomorrow?” 1994: Diagnosed with ocular & central nervous system Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (NHL) “I learnt that the black lines in my eyes were cancer cells which had formed a sheet in front of the retina.” 1996 Down to Earth cover: his own story
We are shaped by what we eat, drink & breathe…NO ESCAPE! “As an environmental activist and writer, I have tried for years to promote nationwide concern about the deteriorating state of our environment. The idea of writing about my own travails as an environmental victim had, however, never crossed my mind. But obviously, I could not have escaped what was and is happening all around me.” - Anil Agarwal in 1996
Covering Chemical Stories in Media:A few generic tips• ‘Chemical Pollution’ stories never just that – there’s much more!• Complex links to govt policy, regulation, industrial lobbies, technology options, etc, etc.• Strong vested interests: money, power, intrigue!• At stake: public health & lives• Hype & disinformation abound• But success stories too!
How to cover complex, evolvingenvironmental stories… Many stories are science-based… Ideal media coverage: informed by science, but NOT IMMERSED in it! Chemical safety: environment + business + health + politics + rights Science is a self-correcting process There are good scientists, too! LOOK FOR HIDDEN STORIES…
Under-Reported Toxic Stories… Gradual poisoning of our bodies and surroundings (too slow for Breaking News?) Toxic chemicals mixed up in the air (e.g. Diesel fumes that cause cancer) Chemicals used by public agencies & utilities (e.g. chlorine to purify drinking water) HOW COME THESE GET AWAY WITHOUT MUCH SCRUTINY?
Lead in petrol is gone… Our next challenge: sulphur in diesel? June 2012: WHO Expert Group confirms diesel fumes definitely carcinogenic Limited media reaction in Sri Lanka: WHY? My column, 8 July 2012: ‘Slow Murder’ by Subsidised Diesel Fumes: http://collidecolumn.wordpress.com/2012/07/07/w hen-worlds-collide-23-slow-murder-by-subsidised- diesel-fumes/
WHY ISN’T THIS CONFIRMED KILLER NOT GETTING ASMUCH PRESS AS SPECULATED “ARSENIC IN RICE”? Cartoon courtesy: CSE India
Diesel sulphur level in Sri Lanka: 3,000 parts per million(ppm); Contrast with India 350 ppm & Japan, 30 - 50 ppmDIESEL FUMES CAUSE CANCER: WHY ISN’T THIS A STORY?
Advice to scientist-activists…“Scientists should firstestablish themselves asscientists, with a solid recordof peer-reviewedachievement, THEN speak outin their area of expertise--loudly, if necessary.”- Edward O WilsonHarvard biologist, author