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close this bookToxics and Health: - The Potential Long-Term Effects of Industrial Activity (WRI, 1994, 68 pages)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentIntroduction
Open this folder and view contentsI. Toxification of the Environment by Industrial Activity
Open this folder and view contentsII. Assessing the Scale of Industrial Releases
Open this folder and view contentsIII. Health Risks from Industrial Pollution
View the documentIV. Ecosystem Health
Open this folder and view contentsV. Toxic Legacy: Country Studies
View the documentVI. Transforming Industry
View the documentSummary
View the documentNotes
View the documentAppendix: - List of Attendees
View the documentOrder Form
View the documentThe 2050 Project


Human and ecosystem, health are critical concerns for long-term sustainability. Evidence indicates that some forest, aquatic, and marine ecosystems, the three most productive types of ecosystems, are under stress in some regions, and that some are collapsing due to a variety of causes, including industrial pollution.127 Some wildlife ecologists fear that populations of many long-lived species are declining globally, some to the point of extinction. Much of this is occurring unbeknownst to all but a few scientists.128

Human health too is increasingly compromised by the accumulation of toxic chemicals. Neither the nature nor the effect of human exposure to bioaccumulative chemicals known to disrupt the endocrine system is clear.129 There is growing concern, however, that toxic exposure is affecting the brain and reproductive system not just in acute episodes of disease, but is chronically degrading function. The human ability to reproduce and even to reason may be at risk.130

In certain "hot spots," the detrimental effects of toxic exposure are readily apparent. Flurries of some cancers, clusters of reproductive disorders, and populations suffering from neurological diseases tied to specific toxic spills plague a number of communities. Some researchers view these blighted areas as the leading edge of a global epidemic of health problems related to environmental toxification.

In his efforts to find an experimental control group to study in his investigation of nervous system response to environmental toxins, for instance, Kaye Kilburn said he wanted to compare a population that used well water contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) and other solvents with a group that had not been exposed. He searched all of Arizona before he found a single unexposed population. Kilburn told meeting participants that he believes the group of 4,500 people is a "relatively reliable" control population, but he does not know whether it is truly unexposed.131 Kilburn's concern is supported by the findings of the U.S. EPA's Human Adipose Survey, which showed that probably all Americans have toxic compounds stored in their fatty tissues. In one test, 100 percent of the samples contained styrene, xylene isomers, 1,4 dichlorobenzene, and ethylphenol. Some of these chemicals are suspected carcinogens and/or may cause birth defects or other health problems.132

Exposure is widespread in industrialized nations, where some environmental controls were implemented decades ago. Most developing nations, where economic growth is or will be rapid, lack the economic resources to invest in environmental controls and cleanup. Only with a new approach to industrial processing can developing nations and those reorganizing in Eastern Europe avoid the mistakes that created today's toxic burden.

Participants at the May 1994 workshop exploring the effects of industrial activity on human and ecosystem health brought wide-ranging viewpoints to the topic. Most medical and public health researchers emphasized the health of individuals and communities. The ecologists analyzed the complex functioning of species in biological systems, as well as signs that ecosystems are responding to environmental toxins. The industrial economists explored the basic nature of materials consumption as well as the ways in which current industrial practices contribute toxins to the environment.133

As the researchers shared varied perspectives and intellectual concerns, they affirmed several fundamental points:

· Persistent, toxic materials created or emitted during industrial activity and energy production are accumulating in the environment. These substances hold the potential to destabilize ecosystems and disrupt nutrient cycles planet-wide.

· The health of human beings and natural systems is increasingly compromised, directly and indirectly, by exposure to toxic heavy metals and industrial chemicals. Documented effects include increases in industrialized nations of several types of cancers; diminished brain function in individuals living or working under heavily contaminated conditions; and the disruption of the endocrine systems that regulate sexual development and, ultimately, the ability to survive and reproduce.

· If the projected fivefold increase in global economic activity over the next 50 years is based on the same technology as the current system, the rate at which toxic materials accumulate will increase. Even at current levels of population and economic activity, however, environmental toxification will continue.

· If we are to reach a state of ecological sustainability within 50 or 100 years, the industrial system must change. This will mean closing the materials loop so that waste and hazardous materials stay within the industrial system.

This report was written by Cheryl Simon Silver, a writer based in Bethesda, MD., and edited by Dale S. Rothman, a research associate with The 2050 Project.

In the context of the 2050 Project, workshop participants helped pinpoint the kinds of conditions needed to develop a sustainable global system. In general, 2050 Project researchers try to "work backward" from. a possible future dictated by conditions perceived today. With shared images of a livable future in mind, they devise policy strategies appropriate to needs and conditions in different parts of the world that will maintain a global environment capable of meeting today's physical, material, and social needs, as well as tomorrow's.134

The health of people and ecosystems is but one facet of the sustainability question. Through other cross-cutting studies, the 2050 Project is examining security, equity, conflict and safety, information systems, and finance and investments.