SYDNEY - As the world focuses on the impact of climate change, little attention is being paid to yet another environmental bane: increasing contamination of air, water and soil.
The combined effects of this environmental scourge have contributed to global epidemics of cancers, lung and other degenerative diseases, and costing health systems across the world millions of dollars, experts say.
Forty-two years after she was exposed to asbestos in the Pambula beach hamlet, 470 kilometres south of Sydney, Jeanette Hennessy Wright, 51, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in July 2008.
"Asbestos was used in the construction of my neighbour's house while I helped my parents make additions to our own home with fibro sheets that contained asbestos too," explains Wright.
Two years ago, she began to "feel breathlessness while walking uphill and couldn't keep up with friends," she says. After X-rays, a needle biopsy followed by a surgical biopsy, I was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer associated with breathing in asbestos dust and fibres. Being afflicted with the disease is seen as an immediate death sentence, as victims die within 12 to 24 months.
"My tumour was too far advanced for surgery, but was growing, stifling my breathing and sapping energy levels. I underwent chemotherapy for nine months and one year on, I am in much better health. However, I have had to quit a regular public service job as pain comes with a vengeance anytime, and the side effects of chemotherapy have led to hearing loss and numbness in my feet," Wright further recounts.
She reckons that, unknowingly, builders and many people like her have been exposed to asbestos, which was widely used in construction during the 1960s and 1970s. "Many holiday homes on Australia's beaches were built using Fibrous Asbestos Cement, and owners renovating them now could be exposed to deadly particles. It is a time-bomb ticking for young families as the disease can take 30 to 40 years to surface," she says.
A research study by the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling in Scotland found mesothelioma accounted for 100 cases and directly cost Scottish National Health Service hospitals an estimated 942,038 pounds (1.540 million U.S. dollars) in 2000.
The corresponding cost to Britain was at least 16 million pounds (26.174 million U.S. dollars), as official figures for diagnosed and recorded deaths from mesothelioma exceeded 1,700 a year. By 2003, around 50,000 people in Britain had died from diagnosed and recorded mesothelioma.
Leading international environmental scientists that gathered during the Third International Contaminated Site Remediation conference held in the South Australian capital, Adelaide, in late September demanded urgent action to bridge the gap between research, industry and policy to tackle the mounting risk to environment and human health posed by a cocktail of toxic contaminants in the environment.
"In contaminated sites we are almost always dealing with mixtures, which can be far more lethal than individual substances," says Prof Ravi Naidu, managing director of the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment in Adelaide.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2.4 million people die each year from air pollution. Of these 1.5 million fatalities are attributed to indoor air pollution alone. Among the major contributors to such pollution are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), released by photocopiers, carpets, paint, cleaning products and office furnishings. These cause ‘sick building syndrome' - characterised by acute health and comfort effects with no identifiable illness or cause. It costs the Australian economy an estimated 12 billion Australian dollars (10.862 billion U.S. dollars) a year in healthcare and lost production.
Australia is estimated to have between 80,000 and 160,000 potentially contaminated industrial sites, many of which lie close to the urban centres. The United States has around 450,000 such sites and Asia has three million.
Yet many countries are still trying to solve the problem of contamination by digging up toxic waste and polluted soil and dumping it in landfill sites on the urban fringes.
"When cities expand, these toxic dumps become part of the suburbs, and their contents again pose a risk to the health and safety of the community, so dig-and-dump is not the answer," Prof Naidu told IPS.
Last year, Australians dumped 14.7 million electronic products in landfills, where the highly dangerous chemicals and heavy metals that they contain can leach into groundwater and cause major health hazard. For example, each TV tube could contain up to four kilograms of lead, plus toxic materials such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
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"In China, toxic metals have previously leached into groundwater, causing lead, mercury and cadmium poisoning, as well as central nervous system damage and cancer," said Dr Sunil Heart, Lecturer at the School of Engineering in Griffith University in Queensland (Australia). He has called for strict government regulations to deal with electronic waste.
Experts say that with growing industrialisation, especially in heavily populated countries of Asia and the Pacific, only cleaning up contaminated sites and recycling waste and not "digging and dumping" can ensure a sustainable future.
People living in both urban and rural environments around the world are likewise being exposed to toxic mixtures of heavy metals and organic chemicals such as pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), VOCs, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in their food, water, air and soil.
For example, common symptoms observed in people exposed to PCBs include fatigue, headache, cough, unusual skin sores, irregular menstrual cycles and a lowered immune response. Higher levels of PCBs can damage the liver, experts say.
WHO has classified PCBs as probable human carcinogens. In 2001 their production was banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an international treaty that seeks to eliminate or restrict the production and use of such pollutants.
Another insidious toxic carbon-based organic compounds are POPs that can persist in the environment for long, move immense distances in air or water, can build up in human or animal fat, and can accumulate in food chains causing many forms of illness.
"You cannot overcome pollution merely by moving it. You have to disable it by turning the toxic substances into forms which are completely safe, or locking them up so they become unavailable to harm anyone," said Prof Naidu.
Yet another contaminant posing a grave challenge to scientists and to millions of innocent consumers around the world is the ultrafine nanoparticles, which are less than the width of a human hair and are being used in a range of industries and modern products such as toothpaste, cosmetics and sunscreens.
A team of scientists led by Dr Tomas Vanek, head of Laboratory of Plant Biotechnologies, Joint Laboratory of Institute of Experimental Botany and Research Institute of Crop Production, Rozvojová (Prague, Czech Republic), was among the first in the world to show that 'nanopollution' could harm plants.
"The world needs to urgently begin preparing to regulate and, if necessary, restrict the widespread use of nanoparticles in order to safely and sustainably manage the technology," Dr Vanek said.
People are also being unknowingly exposed to, and endangered by, toxic chemicals used in making of illicit drugs that find their way into soil, water and air. For example, over five kilos of toxic waste are generated for every kilo of methamphetamine produced. Environmental clean-up costs for clandestine drug laboratories range from 5,000 to 150,000 Australian dollars (4,529 to 135,897 U.S. dollars).
"Clandestine manufacturers of methamphetamine typically wash toxic waste from the production of the drug down drains, or dump it untreated into the environment," said Prof Megh Mallavarapu from the Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment and Remediation at the University of South Australia.
He explained that a drug laboratory "is often a temporary set-up, moving to different locations and abandoned without clean-up, causing contamination to escalate in the locality."
Individuals exposed to methamphetamine lab contamination may experience dizziness, headaches and reactions, chemical burns, lung and nerve damage. "It is not just the concentration of heavy metals, but also the condition of the soil that determines whether or not dangerous contaminants can enter our food chain," Prof Steve McGrath of Rothamsted Research Institute in Britain told IPS.
While science is helping detect, assess and clean up contamination safely and economically, perhaps it is time the world considered having a global forum on toxic contaminants similar to climate change.