Ce que nous faisons à notre environnement, nous le faisons à nos enfants
Chaque année, environ six millions de tonnes de polluants sont légalement relâchées dans l'air par les entreprises du N.-B. Et, chaque année, la quantité et le type des produits chimiques déversés augmentent. Et ce ne sont pas seulement des produits chimiques cancérigènes qui sont dispersés dans notre environnement. On retrouve aussi des produits chimiques qui ont des effets sur les systèmes reproductif et développemental, qui perturbent les systèmes endocrinien et hormonal et qui causent des problèmes respiratoires.
Chacun des produits chimiques relachés a aussi le potentiel d'affecter la santé des humains et de la faune, et de dégrader la qualité environnementale. Il est de notre devoir de léguer à nos enfants une chance pour un futur meilleur que celui auquel on doit faire face.
Colburn, T, Dumanoski, D. and J. Peterson Myers. 1996. Our stolen future: are we threatening our fertility, intelligence and survival?: a scientific detective story. McClelland & Steward Inc., Canada. 306 pp.
PollutionWatch. 2004. Shattering the myth of pollution progress in Canada: a national report. Environmental Defense and Canadian Environmental Law Association. December 2004. 31 pp. Available on line at this link.
What we do
Provincial government officials have suggested that these increases are not actual increases but rather more industries and more types of chemicals are being reported. Obviously, the addition of new industrial operations to the province brings with it more and, potentially, new types of emissions. However, many companies that have been operating in the province for years are also increasing their emissions.
Take for example companies that release carcinogens. Since 1999, two companies have consistently been New Brunswick's top two emitters of carcinogens - Weyerhaeuser Canada (Miramichi) and Flakeboard Company (St. Stephen). In 1999, Weyerhaeuser took over the oriented strand board facility from Eagle Forest Products in Miramichi. At the time, the facility was releasing 33,403 kg of formaldehyde (a carcinogen) into the air. By 2002, these releases increased to 135,729 kg - a 400% increase in just four years. In 2002, Weyerhaeuser's Miramichi operation had the third highest release of total carcinogens in Canada. As for Flakeboard in St. Stephen, their releases of formaldehyde increased from 55,900 in 1999 to 63,100 in 2002.
Cancer-causing chemicals are not the only pollutants released into New Brunswick's environment. They also include chemicals that have reproductive and developmental effects, disrupt endocrine and hormone systems and cause respiratory problems. Respiratory pollutants like sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides represent the largest amount (by tonnage) of chemicals released into the environment. However, some respiratory pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include individual chemicals like benzene which are also cancer-causing. The release of respiratory pollutants in New Brunswick jumped from about 2 million kilograms in 1995 to just under 5 million kilograms in 2002.
Losers in the chemical lottery
Regardless of who and how many companies are releasing pollution into the environment, each chemical pollutant released has the potential to impact human health, wildlife and environmental quality. Different chemicals have different health impacts at different doses. Conservative estimates suggest there are over 35,000 chemicals in commercial use in Canada. Some scientists estimate this number is over100,000. According to a recent Globe and Mail feature article on measuring the load of chemical contaminants in humans, approximately 2000 newly made chemicals are registered in the United States each year (Stevenson, March 5, 2005).
Exposure to chemicals can occur through the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Health impacts from exposure will depend on the type of chemical (including its toxicity, persistence, and ability to accumulate in food), the amount of chemical released, where the chemical is released, weather patterns and sensitivity of the person or region. But, it is universally recognized that embryos and early life stages of humans and animals are most vulnerable to chemical contamination.
Inka takes samples
Over the past ten years, dozens of scientific, medical, public health, and cancer journals have devoted entire publications to examining the sensitivity and vulnerability of embryos, infants and children to environmental contaminants. Their conclusions are best summarized in the following statement which appeared in a special issue of Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Society of Pediatrics:
Because the embryo and the child are growing and their tissues and organs are differentiating, deleterious effects may occur at lower exposure to some chemicals, drugs and physical agents and produce more severe effects than those seen in adults. In fact some effect may not occur in adults. Thus, maximal permissible exposures (MPEs) for some environmental chemicals should be lower for the embryo and child.
Brent et al. 2004, p. 935.
Put more simply, children are not little adults and acceptable health risk levels set for adults don't apply to children. However when environment and health agencies adopt or set acceptable exposure limits or guidelines for contaminants in food, water and soil, they are primarily based on adult exposures. It is also important to note that, of the more than 35,000 chemicals circulating in the environment, the health impacts and risk levels are known for less than 0.1 percent of all the chemicals released and circulating in the environment. In addition, there are no regulatory controls on 99.9 % of all the different chemicals released.
From womb to their tomb, no previous generation of humans has been exposed to so many chemicals as the children born after the Second World War - the baby-boom generation. The outcomes of this unprecedented experiment and exposure are only now being observed. On April 12, 2005, the Canadian Cancer Society released a report that predicts baby-boomers are heading into a period where cancers will be more common. Based on current rates, 1 in 3 "boomer" women and about 1 in 2 men will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime (Telegraph Journal, April 12, 2005).
No one should be surprised by these numbers. More than 40 years ago, Rachel Carson meticulously documented the deadly toll synthetic chemicals were having on birds and wildlife in her landmark book, Silent Spring. In addition to making the simple observation that "what we do to wildlife, we do to ourselves," she made an equally simple prediction:
Like the constant dripping of water that in turn wears away the hardest stone, this birth-to-death contact with dangerous chemicals may in the end prove disastrous. Each of these recurrent exposures, no matter how slight, contributes to the progressive buildup of chemicals in our bodies and so to cumulative poisoning. Probably no person is immune to contact with this spreading contamination unless he lives in the most isolated situation imaginable.
We are now in the middle of a disaster - a health and environmental disaster. There is more than enough scientific evidence to demonstrate the vulnerability and sensitivity of children to chemical contaminants. In addition, there is growing concern in the medical and scientific community that the cause of autism and other neurodevelopment problems and the prevalence of other childhood and adult conditions as asthma and obesity are linked to environmental contaminants (Brent et al. 2004).
Yet in the face of this knowledge and concern, the healthcare and cancer-prevention strategies being proposed fail to include improving environmental quality and reducing exposure to the billions and billions of tonnes of chemicals being released into the environment. Why are we failing to tackle pollution prevention as a cancer and disease prevention strategy? A cynical person might suggest that there is more money to be made in developing diagnostic technology, expensive drug treatment and genetic engineering than simple pollution prevention.
(photo: Rachel Carson)
If we truly value our children and hope for a healthier future for them and ourselves, individuals and governments must act now. At the very least, we must stop using pesticides and toxic cleaning products in our homes, schools and workplaces, eat organic food, avoid using perfumed products (they may contain phthalates which are hormone disrupting chemicals) and avoid paint and building materials that contain methylene chloride or off-gas cancer-causing formaldehyde (like particleboard). As for governments, they need to reduce the pollution that industries are allowed to release and work towards eliminating the release of pollutants known to cause cancer, reproductive and developmental effects and disrupt endocrine and hormone systems.
We must not repeat the chemical experiment on this generation that was conducted on the baby-boomers. Don't we owe our children a chance at a better future than the grim one that faces ours.
Brent, R.L., Tanski, S. and M. Weitzman. 2004. A pediatric perspective on the unique vulnerability and resilience of the embryo and the child to environmental toxicants: the importance of rigorous research concerning age and agent. Pediatrics, 113 (4): 935-944.
Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. 368 pp.
Stevenson, M. 2005. I am polluted, Globe and Mail, Focus F8, March 5.