Chemicals & Our Disposable Consumer Behavior

Chemicals & Our Disposable Consumer Behavior

This Earth Day, let’s remember exactly what’s at stake: everything.

As Peter Singer and Collin O’Rourke wrote in an op-ed, published in the Daily News over four years ago (“Decade of distraction” / “Over the past 10 years, as the news has gotten bleaker, Americans have only twiddled their thumbs harder” Dec. 5, 2010, p. 28-29):

“[It is] … entirely possible that we will soon pass a tipping point after which the temperatures will spiral upwards, totally out of our control. Feedback loops such as the release of methane from the frozen Siberian tundra may cause more warming and more methane release until large parts of the planet become uninhabitable.

The recklessness with which we put at risk the stability of our planet’s ecosystem and the lives of billions of people is simply breathtaking. …”

To conclude this op-ed, here is what they wrote as their finishing paragraph:

“We have rightly rejected discrimination on grounds of race or sex. We are still discriminating on grounds of time of birth. Before it is too late, we need to develop an intergenerational conception of equality that extends beyond the interests of those alive today, and gives equal weight to the interests of future generations.”

I agree, but I think it’s less a matter of not caring about future generations, and more a matter of not caring about nature, in general. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most, it would seem to me, do not care for nature and would sell their share.” Still, there is definitely much to be said about how we are so focused on our lifetimes — and I talk about this on the Underlying Causes page of this website. Indeed, the problem extends even into our lexicon. For example, while we have a word for “concern for others” (altruism), we don’t have a word for “concern for others of future generations“; and though we have a word for “having no regard for justice or for others’ feelings, rights, or safety” (wanton), we don’t have a word for “having no regard for justice, or for posterity’s feelings, rights or safety.” The way we treat this planet can also be regarded as somewhat analogous to slavery. Just as slavery was a horrific way to treat other people, how we’re treating this planet demonstrates a thoroughly callous disregard for future generations.

We are mistreating this planet in so many ways. One of those ways is through the widespread release of so many different chemicals into the environment. Regarding just one consumer product, cellphones, here is what Oladele A. Ogunseitan — an environmental-health scientist at the University of California, Irvine — had to say (as quoted in a New York Times Magazine article by Jon Mooallem [“The Afterlife of Cellphones” / “A growing international trade in discarded mobile phones is helping the world’s poor. But will it poison the earth?” Jan. 13, 2008]):

“In a phone that you can hold in the palm of your hand, you now have more than 200 chemical compounds. To try to separate them out and study what health effects may be associated with burning it or sinking it in water — that’s a lifetime of work for a toxicologist.”

Studying the health effects from those cellphones being discarded might be a lifetime of work for a toxicologist, but from what I read in a cover story that appeared in The New York Times [Hiroko Tabuchi, “Fad-Loving Japan May Derail a Sony Smartphone” June 27, 2013], many Japanese consumers are ditching their cellphones after just three or four months, so they can trade up for the ones with the latest features.

One old article that I’m holding in my hand — (Bill Richards, “Computer-Chip Plants Aren’t as Safe and Clean As Billed, Some Say” The Wall Street Journal, Oct 5, 1998) — mentions that both the older and newer computer chip plants “typically use about 500 to 1,000 chemicals.” Another article talks about how ubiquitous polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs (chemical flame retardants) are (Deborah Blum, “A Spreading Health Worry” The New York Times, July 8, 2014). An opinion piece by Diane Lewis (“The Toxic Brew in Our Yards” May 11, 2014), published in The New York Times, states that “A study by the United States Geological Survey released in 1999 found at least one pesticide, and often more than one, in almost every stream and fish sample tested, and in about half of the samples drawn from wells throughout the country.” And I have so many more examples of these sorts of articles. It goes on and on and on. Chemical pollution is everywhere.

One article talks about the chemical Bisphenol A, or BPA and how it “has been detected in nearly all human bodies tested in the United States” (The by-line mentions that this article was published in The Los Angeles Times, but the copy I have was published in Newsday [“Plastics chemical may pose risks” Apr. 15, 2005]). The article references a report published online in Environmental Health Perspectives, by scientists Frederick vom Saal [reproductive biologist, University of Missouri, Columbia] and Claude Hughes [executive director of the polycarbonate business unit of the American Plastics Council]. Here is how the article concludes:

“The chemical industry’s position that this is a weak chemical has been proven totally false. This is a phenomenally potent chemical as a sex hormone,” vom Saal said. He and Hughes found that 100 percent of the 11 studies funded by chemical companies found no risk, while 90 percent of the 104 government-funded, non-industry studies found harm.”

This also raises another issue. How scientifically valid are studies, when they have been funded by companies with a vested interest in the outcome?

In concluding, let me just mention three more chemicals. While methane and CO2 get most of the press coverage when it comes to discussion about the causes of global warming and climate change, there are other contributing factors as well. For example, nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), according to the Wikipedia article on this inorganic compound, “is a greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential (GWP) 17,200 times greater than that of CO2 … and has an estimated atmospheric lifetime of 740 years.” It is used in the manufacture of such consumer goods as CPUs, laptops, video game consoles, cellphones, digital cameras, and thin-film solar cells.

Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), is described by Wikipedia as having a global warming potential (GWP) of 23,900 times that of carbon dioxide, and an estimated lifetime of 800-3,200 years. The Wikipedia article states that “more than 10,000 tons are produced each year.”

Tetrafluoromethane, also known as carbon tetrafluoride (CF4), according to what I’ve read, has a heat trapping potential roughly 11,200 times that of CO2, and according to the Wikipedia entry, “has an atmospheric lifetime of 50,000 years.”

So even if we stopped using this one particular chemical (CF4), today, the molecules of it that we’ve already produced, and that have found their way into the atmosphere, will have the ability to remain there, until another 50,000 years/Earth Days from today!