OUR techno-industrial development has provided greater productivity, choice and higher living standards. However, despite scientific and technological advancements we still fail to understand the full health and environmental impact of our actions.
Human societies have had an affect on the environment since time immemorial. However, the rate and scale at which we have degraded our environment has increased significantly with industrialisation. In the 1960s Rachel Carson’s the Silent Spring documented the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment and has been credited with helping launch the environmental movement. Since then we have see many products and industrial processes which have had unknown effects on our health and environment from lead additives, radioactive waste, dioxins, persistent organic pollutants, tobacco smoke to CFCs and greenhouse gases.
A recent US study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that children whose mothers encountered a large amount of air pollution during pregnancy may end up with lower IQs. The study found that those babies whose mothers were exposed to high levels of vehicle pollution from heavy car, truck and bus traffic had IQ scores four to five points below those whose expecting mothers had breathed less polluted air. The results add to growing evidence of how low-dose exposure to every day pollutants can have an impact on developing children.
In Corby, Northamptonshire (UK) sixteen families have successfully proved a link between their children’s deformities and exposure to poisonous waste caused by the clean-up of a steelworks site which had closed in the 1980s. To reclaim the site the local council demolished old buildings and removed waste, steel dust and slag to a quarry. The dirty and dusty operation exposed 18 pregnant mothers to harmful toxins. This resulted in the children being deformed and having missing fingers. The families may now finally be able to claim compensation for having to suffer the unexpected cost of environmental pollution.
While we have used technology to reduce our the impact of our activities on our health and environment (e.g. catalytic converters to reduce vehicle pollution, desulphurisation units to reduce sulphorus emissions from power stations that cause acid rain) we still have a limited understanding of the health effects of certain production processes and chemicals. There is much to learn about the impact of chemicals in cosmetics, cleaning fluids and plastic products. For example, concern over “toxic toys” produced in China resulted in toy producers recalling their products.
Those products which we intuitively think are good for are also sometimes questionable. A report by the UK Food Standards Agency concluded that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventional produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.
Our lack of understanding of the effect of artificial chemicals and substances on complex systems such as nature and the human body requires us to adopt the precautionary principle and to be fully informed about the risks we are taking. Even then there is no guarantee we will get it right.
As we make further developments in nanotechnology, genetically modified organisms and create new chemicals and drugs we need to be mindful of the complexity of the issues we are dealing with and should be guided by nature and natural processes. If we had done this at the beginning of our industrial age then perhaps we would have avoided the pain, suffering and death of thousands of people who were sacrificed for the sake of economic and technological progress.
© Gary Haq 2009