Welcome to Dispatches from The Chemical Edge
Petrochemical Supply Chain – CHE Manager
Welcome to Dispatches from the Chemical Edge
Since the late 1960s I have watched the growth of two amazing and compelling bodies of environmental knowledge. The first is concerned primarily with the species- and civilization-threatening causes, and the ever-accelerating timetables of climate change. The second is concerned with the adverse impacts of far, far too many modern day chemicals – consumer as well as industrial – and the pandemic plagues of acute and chronic diseases and disabling syndromes and disorders that are eroding our health and our viability as well. When the rate of autism spectrum disorder shifts in 50 years from 1 in 10,000 to one in 80, something terrible is going on. The same can be said of cancer rates – some up more than 180 percent, all more than 50 percent – since the 1970s. And cancer is now the leading cause of deaths in children. Even the obesity pandemic is a red flag.
The term “petrochemical” expresses the intimate relationship between the industry that causes climate change and the one that produces the toxics that are threatening us so seriously. Shell Oil is twinned by Shell Chemical, ExxonMobil by Exxon Chemical, and so on down the line. Climate and health catastrophes are two sides of the same coin.
Yet though everyone I know, work with, or even encounter casually seems to have grasped the fundamentals of climate change, and the vast majority agree with the need to green our energy production through a global shift to sustainable technologies, far fewer people have a similar grasp on the threats posed to us by ubiquitous chemical impacts.
Certainly, most people grasp the idea that “pollution” is bad. But few people realize that almost none of us escapes the effect of toxic chemicals. For most people, pollution is still something that exists “somewhere else” – for example, inside and close to industrial facilities the refine or work with chemicals, in fence-line communities, such as those in Sarnia, Ontario, or in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – and is, therefore, someone else’s problem. Few people realize the extent to which these installations send direct, industrial pollution – in accidental spills, but mostly in legal emissions – far downstream, in water, soil and air, reaching every region of the earth.
As well, few people really understand the severity and the impacts of what researchers call TRAP – traffic-related automobile pollution – even though this has a devastating effect on the neurological, respiratory and cardiovascular health of tens of millions of us, especially those who live close to major thoroughfares, and those who live in cities where smog is generated.
And perhaps even fewer people really understand the reach and severity of the widest contaminants of them all: the consumer chemicals that leach off everyday objects made from refined petrochemicals – the same chemicals that make workers and people in fence-line communities sick also have a very detrimental effect on people who purchase and use the end products of that long petrochemical supply chain. I am constantly reminded by people I meet how few understand that toxic chemicals are in everything today – in building supplies and cosmetics, in furnishings and baby clothes, in plastics and in cleaning supplies – and that means they’re right inside our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our stores, in the air we breathe, in the dust bunnies under the bed, in the fumes from our printers, in our medical supplies, in our baby toys.
Our children are, without any doubt, the most vulnerable among us to these everyday chemicals – a reality that has haunted me for years, and which I have sought to address here, in offering a section on children, and in my intention to blog about issues that affect them on a regular basis.
Enormously troubling is that most health professionals seem to be as ignorant as the average person of the constellation of issues behind today’s chemical regime. I meet many people in the health field – from senior government officials to nurses and doctors on the front lines – and I am repeatedly and dismayingly stunned by the ignorance of toxics that I encounter among them.
Last year, for example, at an environmental event, I was seated next to a distinguished paediatrician, copiously awarded for his life-saving campaigns to replace micro-nutrients in the diets of many African children. After congratulating him on his work, I asked what he thought about the problem of endocrine disruption in babies and children. Turned out he no idea what an endocrine disrupting chemical was. As disturbing as this was, it was in line with so many other such encounters. Last year too, I worked for some months with a number of health ministry staff on a task force and learned that not one of them – including the person from the Ministry of the Environment – had a clue about the issues so many fine scientists, physicians, epidemiologists, occupational health and safety specialists and paediatric researchers have studied and published.
It’s a fact that the silos of knowledge are high and too often impermeable. It’s holding us all back. Helping to dissolve the knowledge barriers has been a huge motivator for me, in writing about toxics-related issues.
But what finally pushed me into creating this blog and website was the backdrop of suicidal mayhem in both climate and toxics fields created by the deeply anti-environmentalist Trump administration, against which a number of big deeply disturbing stories emerged this fall – stories about horrible active and legacy pollution in Ontario, the province where I now live; stories about the ongoing reality of environmental racism even as the chemical industry grows by leaps and bounds; and a story from the National Institutes of Health and the EPA about the appalling toll that toxics are taking on our children.
So: My goal has been to make a site that provides brief introductions to a number of the really big components of the chemical crisis; that provides non-specialist readers with great additional resources that include excellent and accessible science reporting and many original sources too, through numerous informative links, some reading lists and some of my own writing (wherever relevant) for people who want a person-friendly way to learn about current realities.
Also worthy of mention, I think, is that in my own work, I have long engaged with both U.S. and Canadian developments. On a personal level, I have lived and worked on both sides of the 49th parallel and I have family and friends in both countries. Substantively, however – and most importantly – I am acutely aware of how integrated the continental petrochemical economy is. Yet I’ve found that people in each country are largely ignorant of, and indifferent, to what’s happening in the other, and that makes it so much easier for the big companies to successfully drive their agendas through, over and over again. So here, I will be continuing with this dual focus.
As well as dealing with the whole tragic panoply of diseases and disorders that are familiar – cancers, respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, reproductive and immunological disorders – in many places on this site, I have also chosen to provide a couple of specialized sections on the phenomenon of extreme chemical sensitivity. This condition involves toxic injury, affects nine times more people than Alzheimers, yet remains almost invisible, misunderstood and even stigmatized – a true exemplar of the broader strategies of deceit, denial, and government compliance, that make up the chemical industries’ playbook. Here you can learn all about this nightmare condition; and, if so moved, you can also learn about a process in Ontario, ongoing for many years, to bring about integrated care and support for the more than 300,000 people living with it just in my province.
Finally, let me say that we’ll be adding new content and replacing old as we go along. Some of the squares we are going to fill are already there in the nav bar, so you can have a look at what’s coming. But we’ll be picking the material to blog about day by day. So welcome to Dispatches today, and welcome back many times. I really hope you find ideas, facts and approaches that are helpful to you.
There are many ways to approach environmental issues. For me, the Precautionary Principle and the principles of environmental justice have always been critical in the way I try to understand and think about solutions for any given issue
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