Problem: Pollution

A pollutant is any substance that, when in an environment, poisons our air, land and water. Chemicals have poisoned all of the world, harming humans, wildlife, and plant life, on land, sea and air. Approximately 100,000 synthetic chemicals are now on the market, with one thousand new chemicals are added yearly.

Although companies test the toxicity of their products individually, they do not exist alone in the environment. Compounds are altered in combination with others, but the effect of these combinations are not tested or studied. Pesticides, designed to kill insects, weeds and fungus, are also toxic to human nervous systems, and are linked to cancer and reproductive, developmental, neurological and immune-system damage. Every chemical we use, every substance we produce, in manufacturing, farming, energy use, or consumption, remains here on Earth. These poisons may seem to disappear—but they are only hidden.

The World Health Organization reports that 3 million people now die each year from the effects of air pollution. This is three times the 1 million who die each year in automobile accidents.

In the United States, traffic fatalities total just over 40,000 per year, while air pollution claims 70,000 lives annually. U.S. air pollution deaths are equal to deaths from breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

Air Pollution Fatalities Now Exceed Traffic Fatalities By 3 To 1.
Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts September 17, 2002-13.

Point Source and Nonpoint Source Pollution (NPS)

Pollution sources are classified as point source or nonpoint source (NPS). Point source pollution comes from a particular place such as industrial and sewage treatment plants. In the last 25 years, the United States, has made considerable progress in cleaning-up this cause of pollution.

Non-Point source pollution occurs when rainfall or snow melt moving over and through the ground, picks up natural and human-made pollutants and finally deposits them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and even our underground sources of drinking water. These non-point source pollutons include:

  • Fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides from agricultural lands and residential areas;
  • Oil, grease, toxic chemicals and heavy metals from urban runoff and energy production;
  • Sediment from improperly managed construction sites, crop and forest lands, and eroding stream banks;
  • Salt from irrigation practices and acid drainage from abandoned mines;
  • Bacteria and nutrients from livestock, pet wastes, and faulty septic systems;
    Agriculture, forestry, grazing, septic systems, recreational boating, urban runoff, construction, physical changes to stream channels, and habitat degradation, careless or uninformed household management. [X]

Today, NPS pollution is the main reason approximately 40 percent of the rivers, lakes, and estuaries surveyed are not clean enough to meet basic uses such as fishing or swimming. The latest National Water Quality Inventory indicates that agriculture is the leading contributor to water quality impairments, and responsible for degrading 60 percent of the impaired river miles and half of the impaired lake acreage surveyed by states, territories, and tribes. Runoff from urban areas is the largest source of water quality impairments to surveyed estuaries.

If US homeowners reduced their use of Toxic Chemicals including pesticides by 10%, 2 million kilograms of toxic chemicals would be removed from the environment each year.
If US manufacturing firms reduced their toxic releases by 10%, 700 million kilograms would be removed from the environment.
Worldwatch Magazine Jan-Feb 2003, p. 39. Their source: “Biodiversity 911: Saving the Earth” a traveling exhibit of the World Wildlife Fund and the Worldwatch Institute.

Endocrine Disruptors

The threat of toxic substances has been misunderstood. Scientists had assumed that, if they could rule out cancer, then people would be protected from everything else as well. But a new threat has been discovered. Until recently, research on and regulation of synthetic chemicals and pollution focused on the dangers of genetic mutation, gross birth defects, and especially, cancer. A decade ago, it was assumed that if very high-dose testing was used, the probability of causing cancer would not be missed. Wildlife studies and laboratory experiments provide solid evidence that synthetic chemicals have contributed to dwindling wildlife populations by disrupting hormones, altering sexual development, impairing reproduction, and undermining the immune system.

These man-made chemicals, are now called endocrine disruptors, because they interfere with the body’s hormones. Endocrine systems control body growth, organ development, metabolism and regular body processes such as kidney function, body temperature and calcium regulation. Endocrine disruptors include any chemical that interferes with hormones such as thyroid, cortisol, insulin or growth regulators. These chemicals are being tested for potential links to prostate, testicular and breast cancers, as well as lowered sperm counts and behavioral and learning abnormalities.

Our Stolen Future by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) senior scientist Dr. Theo Colborn and coauthors Dianne Dumanoski and Dr. John Peterson Myers, demonstrates that many man-made chemicals interfere with the body's hormones. Contaminants can also transfer to the fetus where chemicals interfere with the hormonal signals directing fetal development. The effects may not appear until puberty or later. Some of these chemicals alter sexual development, some undermine intelligence and behavior, others make our bodies less resistant to disease. Fetal development is extremely sensitive to any variations in hormone signals. For a fetus to grow up according to its genetic blueprint, the right hormone message has to arrive at the right place in the right amount at the right time. These chemicals interfere with the delivery of that message.

Hormonally active chemicals can do damage at extremely low exposure levels, because these compounds do not behave according to the classic linear dose-response model (that is, the higher the dose, the greater the harm) that traditional toxicology assumes.

Genetically Engineered Food is a Form of Pollution

Genetic engineering refers to a technology where scientists transfer genes from one species to another. This practice goes far beyond selective breeding or hybridization. For example, scientists have spliced genes from viruses, bacteria and animals into food crops. Presently, two thirds of processed foods are made with a genetically engineered organism. Our laws do not require long-term testing for safety, so long-term effects are still unknown. Although U.S. companies now promote and sell genetically engineered foods, many other nations worldwide believe the known or potential dangers of this technology, requires legal safe guards. Many countries have enacted laws or policies (or are in the process of doing so) to restrict use of genetically engineered products in their foods.

These nations have practical and ethical objections to putting genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) into the environment. Ecological concerns include the irreversible affects on the environment if these genes spread to other plants:

  • Cross pollination between GEOs and a wild relative could establish the engineered gene in nature, where it could cause irreparable damage to natural habitats, forever.
    • Genes that add resistance to weed killers or pests can spread to nearby weeds, creating a new invasive plant that could replace native plants.
    • The Bt toxin gene, a common gene spliced into plants, gives plants resistance to insect infestation. However, the toxin of the altered plant also kills beneficial insects like monarchs, lace wings and lady bugs. The plant exudes the toxin into the soil. This changes soil biology that that can affect nutrient cycle processes and soil fertility.
  • Bt is a natural insecticide organic farmers use. It is not known if extensive planting of crops with the added Bt gene cause the toxin itself to loose its effectiveness.

    The reasons companies give for gene splicing is that the added gene offers resistance to insect pests or weed killers. Some modifications increase the size or speed of plant growth. In practice gene modification allows a company to hold a patent on the altered seeds. A farmer cannot legally gather seeds from this year’s crop to share or to plant the next year.

Petrochemical Industry

The petrochemical industry is the biggest polluter—every Superfund site in the US is petrochemical- related. A Superfund site is any land in the United States that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified as contaminated by hazardous waste and therefore a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or to the environment.

We need new laws that use what ecologists call the precautionary principle. As described by John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander, in Alternatives to Economic Globalization, “proponents of a practice or product should bear the burden of proving that it is safe,” because it can take years to find scientific proof of harm.

Germany and Sweden have this law, and other countries are considering doing so. Currently, we use the policy of “risk assessment,” which requires governments to provide absolute proof of harm of new technologies and techniques before they can stop their use. Any preventative measures used to stop a product or practice, the WTO names as illegal barriers to trade and orders them stopped. Without the adoption of a precautionary principle, citizens lose the right to decide what risks they or the natural environment should be exposed to.

Environmental Defense Fund Scorecard.  EDF has set up a huge interactive site that enables anyone in the US to learn about what pollutants are being released into the air, water and soil of any community, and by whom--all by entering a ZIP code, or clicking on their maps.


Reducing Your Risk
On a day-to-day level, reduce contact and risk by following the ten tips outlined in The World Wildlife Fund's online pamphlet Reducing your risk: A guide to avoiding hormone-disrupting chemicals.

  • Eat lower on the food chain.
  • Do not microwave in plastic, use heat-resistant glass or ceramic containers instead of plastic containers or plastic wrap. Minimize plastic wrap’s direct contact with food. In particular, reduce consumption of fatty foods (cheese and meat) packaged in plastic and heat-sealed containers.
  • Drink distilled water.
  • Do not use pesticides (inside, outside, or on pets and kids).
  • Quit smoking.
  • Treat dead batteries as hazardous waste.
  • Wash hands, floors and windowsills frequently.
  • Avoid "super-strength" specialty cleaners.
  • Avoid mercury fillings.
  • If you golf, keep your hands, tees, and golf balls away from your mouth because most golf courses are sprayed intensively.
  • Read labels and call 1-800 numbers for information on product formulations.
  • Write or call local, provincial and federal politicians, asking them to take action to reduce hormone- disrupting chemicals in our environment. or at


LINKS to Pollution Sites
American Lung Association: Air Quality
Beyond Pesticides
Basel Action Network
Environmental Defense Scorecard
Environmental Protection Agency: Air Pollution
Environmental working Group
EPA Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances
International Biodegradable Products
Introduction to Hormone Disrupting Chemicals
National Pollution Prevention Roundtable
National Resources Defense Council: Air Pollution
Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO)
Our Stolen Future
Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly Web site:
Right-to Know Network
Sierra Club Clean Air Program
World News Network-
WWF Global Toxics Initiative

Children's Environmental Health
Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World: 101 Smart Solutions for Every Family by Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., Herbert L. Needleman, M.D. and Mary Landrigan, M.P.A. (Rodale, 2001)
Beyond Pesticide/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides,
Center for Health and Environmental Justice
Children's Environmental Health Network
Children's Health Environmental Coalition
Healthy Schools Network, Inc.,
National Environmental Trust ,
Our Stolen Future
Pesticides Action Network North America

Center for a New American Dream
Environmental Home Center
Good Stuff? A Behind-the-Scenes Guide to the Things We Buy .
The Green Guide
Seventh Generation


From Genetic Engineering at a Historic Crossroads:
Sierra Club Genetic Engineering Committee Report April 2000; revised March 2001
See HAZ-ED - This is Superfund: A Citizen's Guide to EPA's Superfund Program
Alternatives to Economic Globalization, John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander, 76
Alternatives 77