How did the environment and all people become polluted with toxic chemicals?
I offer my understanding of the variety of factors leading to this toxic condition. There is no culprit, no evil force, or person, or group responsible for the polluted conditions. Rather, the current environmental conditions grew out of new technologies and changes in society.
New technical capabilities emerged from the expansion of industrial research and development after WWII. Thousands of chemists were set to work on every conceivable kind of new material. NASA’s mission to the moon in the mid 1960s gave a great impetus to science and technology. There was a large increase in the number of scientists and engineers available to work in industrial and medical enterprises.
People and industries wanted the new products. People liked the new plastics products that were less expensive than the wood or metal products they displaced. Farmers were happy with the pesticides that eliminated (or controlled) insects and fungi, thus increasing yields. DDT virtually eliminated mosquitoes and malaria in the U.S. Women loved nylon stockings, which were superior to silk stockings and cost less. PVC pipe was cheaper and easier to work with than steel pipes. Fluorochemical plastics like Teflon made possible “non-stick” cookware.
New products earned billions of dollars, and corporations used their political muscle to shape legislation to their liking. Crop pesticides, home pesticides, Nylon, Teflon, Dacron, Lexan, Plexiglass, PVC, fiberglass, vinyl “synthetic leather,” and others became huge dollar items of commerce. Possible hazards of the new materials were investigated with the goal of persuading federal regulatory agencies that there were no health hazards, or the hazards were minimal. Corporations were able to guide former executives into top positions in the USDA, FDA, EPA regulatory agencies.
The long-term dangers were not known. Rachael Carson’s 1962 warning was ignored; in fact it was strenuously refuted by corporate spokesmen. Because of the effectiveness of DDT, it was looked upon as a miracle substance, and millions of pounds were sprayed throughout the world. It was not realized that the new chlorinated organic chemicals (e.g., DDT and PCBs) persist for years and decades in the environment, and the concentration in bodies of animals increases as it moves up the food chain. Chemists were accustomed to paying attention to the immediate possible toxic nature of new materials, but they generally were not conscious of the possibility that a chemical with no bad short-term (i.e., acute) effects could have bad long-term (i.e., chronic) effects. Toxicologists also focused only on short-term toxic effects. New materials were assigned a toxicity number, LD50 that indicated the dose of the substance that quickly killed 50% of the test group.
The medical profession was focused on infectious diseases and genetic causes of chronic disability conditions. As the medical profession evolved, its attention was on curing illnesses and diseases caused by microbes. Medical researchers did continue to work on vaccines for prevention of illnesses, but this work was complex with only occasional pay offs. With the emergence of genetics as a discipline (after Crick and Watson’s elucidation of the structure of DNA), a whole new industry developed to find genetic causes of diseases.
It is difficult to develop practical screening tests for the identification of long-term hazards from new chemicals. Chronic diseases and illnesses necessarily require long-term testing. This means testing over the life span of small animals used to simulate effects in humans. This is slow and expensive work, usually requiring autopsies to discover the reasons for illness or disease. Looking for diseases in organs of lab animals is difficult, but discovering subtle risk effects like disruption of hormones or damage to the immune system, or neurodevelopmental disorders in new born is much more difficult. So called in vitro tests (in test tubes and culture dishes) are extremely difficult to develop and certify. The Ames test (with bacteria) for carcinogenic activity is one such test. Sufficiently sensitive analytical tests for trace amounts chemicals did not exist. Earlier tests were cumbersome, often lengthy, and costly, and were generally only able to detect parts per thousand concentrations of the chemical.
Federal regulation was weak to non-existent. With the rise of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act), all industrial scale chemicals had to have labels describing the nature of the hazard, but this referred only to acute toxicity. The old agencies did not have missions to deal with the surfeit of new chemicals. Although new regulatory agencies (e.g., EPA) and new congressional acts (Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act of 1972 and the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976) were created, their enforcement power was politically limited.
Fortunately, the situation has improved in many ways. The forces responsible for these improving conditions will be discussed in the next blog article.