Headlines We’ll Be Glad Not to See

Modern culture has expected much from chemicals that promise to make life better for everyone.  We too often fall for the marketing schemes that assure us our hopes lie in the synthetic discoveries that the commercial chemical industry provides.  Yet we are learning that there are deadly consequences when certain chemicals are not adequately controlled and barriers to prevent tragedies like the BP Gulf oil spill, the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion and the chemical gas leak at the pesticide plant in Bhopal, India stem from the business attitude that puts profits over people.

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Is the health of the planet and the life that exist here slowly dying from too much faith in commercial chemical discoveries?

The headline was disturbing, to say the least.

Train derailment leaves much of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in ruins; many still missing, read one Syracuse news site. 

This report was not unlike most of the initial news sources that indicated the vast part of downtown Lac-Mégantic had been destroyed by exploding oil tankers on a runaway train and that likely many late night revelers in the towns night life venues had been injured or died.  The actual loss of life and property has yet to be fully assessed but for this small Canadian community of 6000 that sits next to the U.S. border near Maine, it will be extensive enough where life will not return to normal for some time.    Thus this tragedy becomes another microcosm in how most people have to live in today’’s world where hazardous chemicals move around us with often inept attempts to ensure our safety.

The extent of the damage has effected more than Lac-Mégantic citizens.  The BBC has reported that “Some of the train’s cargo spilled into the nearby Chaudiere river, …  adding that communities downstream of Lac-Mégantic had been warned to take care if using river water.”  This is not untypical of such spills.  Large quantities incapable of being recovered work their way into soils and water supplies and remain for years, threatening plant and animal life there along with health problems for citizens and untold economic damage to local businesses.

The loss of life and emotional trauma that humans suffer along with the property devastation that results from an oil or chemical spill in their community is an experience none of us want to go through.  There is little that can be done for the victims of such a tragedy once it has occurred.  The best most can offer, which provides little real solace to the victims, often comes in the form of a message like the one Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper sent to the citizens of Lac-Megantic.  “Thoughts and prayers are with those impacted in Lac-Mégantic.  Horrible News”, PM Harper conveyed over his Twitter account.

According to the EPA website, “from the production, storage, transport, and use of oil, an estimated 18,000–24,000 oil spills are reported and 10–25 million gallons of oil spilled annually.”

It perhaps would not be that unsettling for the rest of the world if such events were rare.  But they’re not and they can happen anywhere.  According to the EPA website,  “from the production, storage, transport, and use of oil, an estimated 18,000–24,000 oil spills are reported and 10–25 million gallons of oil spilled annually.”  And these are just the ones that get reported.

Non-petrol chemical spills occur at an equal or greater rate, depending on what types of spills and leaks you are considering.  A lot goes unreported here too and most of the rest never makes the daily sources of news outside the immediate area where they occurred  “Of the more than forty thousand chemicals in commercial use, most are subject to accidental spills or releases. Chemical spills and accidents range from small to large and can occur anywhere chemicals are found, from oil drilling rigs to factories, tanker trucks to fifty-five-gallon drums and all the way to the local dry cleaner or your garden tool shed.”

With all the agencies, policies and newer technology in place to prevent chemical accidents, the hazards that occur each year remind us that human and mechanical error are still with us.

The highly touted method of “fracking” for natural gas and oil has been hailed by commercial and political interests as a boon for extracting heretofore hard to get at oil and gas, promising a more abundant supply and supposedly cheaper prices.  The claims are exaggerated and the omission of the fact that the fracking process consists of toxic chemicals conceals yet another threat to local communities who have been willing to allow these risky commercial ventures into their domains.  Anyone who has watched Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland” is all too familiar with the threat from leaks that can occur as natural gas wells are drilled on or around private property

With all the agencies, policies and newer technology in place to prevent chemical accidents, the hazards that occur each year remind us that human and mechanical error are still with us.  For the Lac-Mégantic incident, the initial analysis is pointing to a mechanical failure.  But that could change. All we know now, according to a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic rail company spokesperson is that “the engineer did everything by the book. He had parked the train and was waiting for his relief … somehow, the train got released.”     Could something be added to that book?

One could argue that lax oversight by federal, state and local governments have contributed to the hazards we face in a commercial chemical world and there would be much to support that.  The conditions that created the devastating explosion in  the West, Texas fertilizer plant this last April is a testament to such lax and often haphazard oversight.    

This lack of attention to the safety of our workplaces and neighborhoods is no accident. It is the product of a concerted attack by the US Chamber of Commerce, industry trade associations, and conservative think tanks on what they see as onerous regulatory programs – but ones that were enacted by Congress over the years to protect the public from irresponsible corporate misconduct. 

These opponents of government regulation learned long ago that the best way to remove the burdens of regulatory programs was to starve the regulatory agencies and bash the bureaucracy …   SOURCE

To this date, following a state investigation of what led to the West Fertilizer Plant explosion, no one has been criminally charged for failures and abuses by both owners and state agencies that allowed an excess of ammonium nitrate to be stored in a single facility.  Thanks to the powerful chemical lobby, the U.S. is one of the few countries that continues to use the dangerous ammonium nitrate in their fertilizer.

The same lax conditions exist with pharmaceutical drugs and pesticides.  According to Carl F. Cranor, author of an unnerving new book, Legally Poisoned: How the Law Puts Us at Risk from Toxicants brings to bear how “the convoluted and contradictory patchwork of U.S. regulations on toxics and carcinogens” allows the biochemical industry to “treat citizens as experimental subjects by contaminating them with untested substances”.

Well-intentioned public servants and their agencies are unable to wage an effective effort to curb abuses within those industries that contribute to deadly toxicants that find their way into the air we breath and the water we drink.

So the Lac-Mégantic, Bhopar, India and West, Texas disasters will continue to occur.  There is no incentive for the people we elect to office charged with safeguarding the public to change the status quo.  Wealthy corporate interests pay millions to influence legislators and tie the courts up with cases that often drag out way beyond the resources of most communities.  Well-intentioned public servants and their agencies are unable to wage an effective effort to curb abuses within those industries that contribute to deadly toxicants that find their way into the air we breath and the water we drink.

And there doesn’t seem to be enough private and public will to change the template for how we provide energy to our homes, farm our land and nurture people back to health without synthetic chemicals.  We have all been led down that primrose path that companies like DuPont once described in their ads promising, “Better Things for Better Living … Through Chemistry”.   As if they knew in advance, two years before the worst recorded chemical disaster in the world in Bhopal, India, Dupont dropped the words “with chemicals” from their slogan.  By 1999 they changed it completely to read “The miracles of science” thus dragging the entire discipline into their web of deceit

There are no safe chemicals.  There are only controlled ones.  Nature itself provides many toxic chemicals naturally but they remain in a state that doesn’t threaten humans and entire communities unless mishandled by the human species.  Examples are the recent chemical spill in the English Channel that killed nearly 3000 birds and one a little over 20 years ago in Dunsmuir, California that has virtually killed all life in the Sacramento River. 

Inert chemicals found in nature don’t enhance the threat of dire consequences on their own.  Only when man perceives the promise of profits from extracting or duplicating these chemicals do they pose societal problems.  But it’s the synthetic transformation of chemicals that get introduced into our environs by commercial interests that pose the greatest threat.

Despite the fact that there are non-toxic, renewable natural resources to provide energy for our homes and businesses, we continue to bleed the finite sources of coal, oil and gas from the bowels of the earth.  In so doing we offset the cost of these cheap energy sources (for the time being at least) with the expense that is incumbent from pollution and accidents like those that happened in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec and West, Tx.  Likewise, where the promise of chemicals to increase food supplies and improve public health has shown a positive side to it, we have used them to excess to the point where dead zones in water supplies exist from man-made fertilizers and our immune systems grow weaker through overuse of antibiotics in meat products and chemical additives in everyday household products and women’s cosmetics.

Taking action now to convert off of fossil fuels and hazardous chemicals could prevent tragedies like that in Lac-Mégantic for future generations.

Maybe in the future when decision makers are brave enough to buck the moneyed interests and replace dangerous chemicals with clean energy sources and organic farming practices, expressions of sorrow that offer meaningless “thoughts and prayers” will no longer be necessary.  There may come a time when the disturbing headlines that reveal catastrophes from mishandled chemicals will become a thing of the past.  Taking action now to convert off of fossil fuels and hazardous chemicals could prevent tragedies like that in Lac-Mégantic for future generations.

This generation and the next however will not be immune from the headlines that announce yet another chemical or oil spill.  But wouldn’t it be a sign of good things to come if their kids and grandkids learn that dead zones from chemical fertilizer runoffs were disappearing.  Maybe that generation will also begin to see the decline of heart disease, cancers and obesity without the aid of pharmaceuticals found in processed food.  Natural, inexpensive therapies rather than costly chemical alternatives could lower health care costs for those who can least afford them.

Learning to change our way of life that relies too much on toxic chemicals in some form or fashion may contribute to another sort of decline – the news headline that announces yet another oil spill or a for-profit cure from yet another Fortune 500 company who rely on toxic chemicals to provide “better living through chemistry”

A video from a 1950’s Dupont ad selling the public on “the promise of Dupont”

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3 responses to “Headlines We’ll Be Glad Not to See

  1. Woody,

    As a chemist I have to say you hit the nail on the head. Chemists have very complicated disposal procedures (which were forced upon us by environment regulations, we didn’t come up with them without them) but when our products are sold to industries, they are sent with printed instructions, but government regulations are absolutely needed to back those up. Because of the stringent requirements for the safe use of chemicals in the U.S., companies have moved production overseas where the regulations either do not exist or enforcement is open to bribery. These folks should be recognized for the criminals they are.

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