Toxic Wastes

Part 1: A History of Toxic Wastes

When you drink from a public fountain like this one you take it for granted that the water is safe. It was not always so.

In 1854 over five hundred people died from the poison carried by a well at Golden Square, near the center of London, England. All of the victims lived within a few blocks of the well. he well was only a few feet from a sewer pipe. A London physician, John Snow, figured out the connection between the sewer pipes, the well and the disease. Once he convinced the authorities to remove the pump handle, forcing people to get their drinking water elsewhere, the cholera epidemic in that neighborhood ended.

It was one of the first times in human history that an epidemic ended because someone figured out how to stop it. To better understand our toxic wastes problems today, let's first look at history. What were toxic waste problems like in the past? When and how did people learn to understand and to control them?

Start our survey with the Roman Empire, some two thousand years ago. Among other assorted ills, epidemics and wars, there was chronic lead poisoning in many cities of that time and place. The lead came from cooking utensils, especially wine-making vats. Some historians think the long-range effect of the lead poisoning, which affects the brain particularly, was one of the major causes of the fall of the Roman Empire around the year A.D. 400.

Today we tend to think of "toxic wastes" as chemical poisons like lead, mercury, arsenic, PCBs, plutonium and other radioactive wastes. Poisonous though these chemicals may be, there is another class of toxic wastes that, ounce for ounce, are far more poisonous. These are the wastes produced by living bacteria and viruses. These are the poisons that maim and kill under names like cholera, rabies, yellow fever, smallpox, polio, botulism, measles, malaria and AIDS.

Between 592 and 594, one-third of the people in urope died of this kind of toxic waste! That is one out of every three people on a whole continent! This toxic waste was made by a bacteria that was carried from rats to fleas to people. In every case the poison from this bacteria, once it got into the human body, had the same devastating effect. The stricken person would go pale and start shivering. Scarlet blotches and black boils would quickly appear. Fever would rise rapidly, the patient would become delirious, and in a few hours would be dead. It was called the Black Death.

The same Black Death and other equally widespread epidemics of other germs caused diseases that made many people think the world was going to end in the year 1000. The world didn't end. But in the middle of the fourteenth century, once again over a third of the people of Europe died in another outbreak of the Black Death! In the fifteenth century a terrible syphilis epidemic spread throughout Europe, killing, blinding and maiming millions of people.

To get a better idea of just how catastrophic these poisons have been in the past, consider some numbers. When Newton retreated to his country home to discover the laws of motion in 1665, he left behind the Great Plague of London, a plague that killed 68,000 people in three months! That is 68,000 people out of a total population of 400,000. If a similar catastrophe were to strike New York, Los Angeles or Chicago today, the death toll in one summer would be over a million people in each city!

So far I have mentioned examples in Europe only. Move into Asia or South America or Africa and the death tolls get worse. Terrible though the wars of history have been, the terror, misery, suffering and death brought by toxic wastes have always been even more catastrophic.

Lest you think this was only the long long ago and the far far away, the "good old days" of the nineteenth century in this country and Europe were not much better. We know today that the smoke from factory stacks, or the foul liquids from factory sewers are threats to our health. In the nineteenth century, however, there were few cities that did not publish advertising posters proudly exaggerating the black smoke belching from their booming factories. They considered the smoke a sure sign of progress!

What they didn't show was the appalling amount of raw sewage, garbage and filth that littered the streets of every city and village in America. They didn't show the children competing with the pigs for food in the garbage heaps. They didn't show the thousands of poor people who lived in tiny windowless rooms with such a lack of air circulation that over three thousand died in one heat wave in New York in 1896. Smaller frontier towns in the west were no better. In places like Helena, Montana, for instance, the hitching posts for horses quickly turned into filthy cesspools.

The advertising posters didn't show the chemical poisons mixed up in all that factory smoke the cities were so proud of. A Hungarian visitor to Pittsburgh in those days described the industrial smoke as "a noisome vomit, killing everything that grows-trees, grass, and flowers."

The disease called rickets was especially common in all the industrial cities and towns of Europe. Rickets is caused by a lack of Vitamin D. Your body can make Vitamin D so long as it is exposed to enough sunlight. The rickets in Europe in those days was caused by the blocking of sunlight in the cities and villages by the factory smoke.

In the early nineteenth century this is how one visitor described a small industrial town in Germany, where the sky was darkened continually by the factory smoke. "The children must sit indoors, which ends in death or if they continue to live, they develop thick joints, cease to be able to walk, or have deformed legs. The head becomes large and even the vertebral column bends. It comes to pass that such children sit often for many years without being able to move; at times they cease to grow and are merely a burden to those about them."

Food and water supplies in the 19th century were especially vulnerable and tainted with many toxic chemicals and disease-causing germs. Unscrupulous vendors and manufacturers were even known to deliberately add toxic substances to bread, candy, milk and to the first canned goods-in order to make them look better or last longer. Even when honest, food markets exposed raw meat and fish for days on end to the dust and dirt of the streets, making for dangerous dinners.

And then there was the poisoning from drugs. Alcoholism was extremely common. Jacob Riis counted 111 Protestant churches below 14th St. in New York versus 4065 saloons. In Chicago near Jane Addams' Hull House there were nine churches and 250 saloons. Morphine, heroin and opium addiction were common. Infants were fed Winslow's Baby Syrup or Kopp's Baby Friend, both of which were liberally spiked with morphine. Heroin was marketed as a cough medicine in 1898.

The result of all this toxic binge was what you might expect. Epidemics, poisonings, malnutrition and drug addiction. The "good old days" in other words, were only good in relation to the worse old days of medieval or ancient times.

Was there no progress then? And are our problems today minor ones? Of course there was progress in the past. And no, our toxic problems today are far from minor. The point of this fast trip through history is not to dismiss or to minimize the problems of today, but rather to put them into perspective And more important, to take heart from and learn from the success stories of the past.

To understand the success stories remember there are two kinds of toxic wastes. (1) The toxic wastes generated by disease-causing organisms like cholera, black death, botulism, syphilis, as well as those produced naturally by plants, molds and fungi, and (2) the toxic wastes generated by human activities, like the chemicals in pesticides, factory smoke, landfills, automobile exhausts, and sewage systems--or more deadly than any of these today, the toxic wastes ingested into the body by smoke from cigarettes, cigars and pipes.

The first big success in the fight against nature-produced toxic wastes came from the work of a country doctor in England around the time of the American Revolution. Edward Jenner learned how to use one toxic waste to destroy another toxic waste! Jenner learned to prevent a serious disease, smallpox, by vaccinating people with the germs of a much milder disease, cowpox.

The immediate practical result–an astonishing victory over one of humankind's most dreadful scourges–was important enough. But Jenner's work provided, in addition, the model for the future elimination of a hundred other germ-caused diseases. The vaccination model said–inoculate the person with a small amount of a toxic substance, or the microorganism able to produce the toxic substance. This inoculation will stimulate the human body itself to produce antitoxins. Antitoxins are chemicals that will fight and neutralize the poisons. In this way the body will develop immunity to future doses of the same or similar toxic substances.

Using that model, scientists to follow, giants like Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, Ignaz Semmelweis, Walter Reed, Alexander Fleming and Jonas Salk gave us the knowledge and the technology needed to conquer rabies, typhoid, diphtheria, whooping cough, childbed fever, polio and a thousand other infectious diseases.

Essential to that winning battle was the chemical industry. With increasing knowledge of atoms and molecules, chemists began to custom make chemicals that could produce miracles.

Paul Ehrlich in Germany discovered a specific chemical, a "magic bullet" it was called, that could cure the dreaded syphilis. His arsenic bullet was the beginning shot in modern chemotherapy. Since then researchers have found many more "health bullets." Chemicals that can purify water, kill germs and hasten sewage treatments. Chemicals that can preserve food, cure ailments, prevent tooth decay and counteract toxic chemicals.

Equally important as the chemical industry in the fight for a healthy environment were thousands of not so well known engineers, politicians, early environmentalists and concerned citizens. They were the pioneers who, alone and together, all over the country and all over the world, gradually put together the pieces of community health programs.

These early nineteenth century pioneers were called sanitarians. They were the pioneers who created the world's first sanitation systems, garbage collection systems, safe water supplies, laws to restrict animals in the city, laws to control food and drug production and sale, pollution controls on factory and home health. And most important of all, education for individual and community health.

Sometimes the very effort to control toxic wastes led to remarkable advances in science and technology. James Watt’s invention of the steam engine, for instance, launched the industrial revolution and changed the world. What people often forget is that Watt and other pioneer engineers were trying to find a way to get rid of the toxic water that seeped into early coal mine shafts. Toxic waste problems in other words led to economic progress.

New public health laws and systems have worked remarkably well in changing human history. Today, in the industrialized world, disease epidemics are comparatively rare. When they do come they can usually be stopped with minimal suffering and loss of human life.

This does not mean, of course, there is no cause for concern today. The recent AIDS epidemic is the most sobering example that science is not all-powerful. So too the SARS scare, mad cow disease and recurrent flu epidemics in this country and around the world.

Safe water supplies, however, are now the rule, rather than the exception. The gross pollution of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, in other words, has been brought under control– in the industrialized world of North America, Europe and Japan, that is. In many of the poorer countries of Asia, Africa and South America, on the other hand, many of these same battles for sanitation are still being fought. And slowly won.

Does that mean that the toxic waste challenges are disappearing from our world? Far from it. They have changed. Where once nature and our own ignorance led to entire cities being wiped out by bubonic plague, or disfigured by smallpox, or poisoned by foul air and water, today we have to be concerned about the subtle long-range effects of chemicals we never heard of before. Chemicals that in many cases never existed before. Chemicals like plutonium and PCBs and dioxin. Or chemicals that were there but we never knew they were there, nor had any way of detecting them–like asbestos and minute amounts of metal ions and the slow buildup of acids in the air.

Or by the build-up of an unusual chemical-sometimes waste, sometimes life-giving–carbon dioxide, It is life-giving to plants since they need it to produce all of our food. It is dangerous waste if it builds up too much in the atmosphere to lead to global warming in coming decades and centuries.

And perhaps most worrisome of all, modern day terrorists threaten our cities and countryside with chemical or biological warfare that may be difficult to defend against. But, like all the other challenges we have faced in the past, doable.

For remember, the success stories of the past were always a blend of science and action. Science to identify the problem (cholera coming from a polluted well), action to do something about it (remove the pump handle so people don’t use the well.).

Heartened by the courage and eventual success of our ancestors, let's turn to our modern toxic waste problems and opportunities in the second part of this program.

Part Two: Toxic Wastes Today

Just about everyone who lives in Michigan carries around with him or her small amounts of a toxic chemical called PBB-polybrominated biphenol. Just about everyone who lives in the United States carries around with him or her small amounts of radioactive iodine. And just about everyone who lives in the world carries in his or her living tissues small amounts of toxic lead.

In each of these cases the toxic chemicals got there by the same route through the food chains and chemical cycles of the biosphere. In each of these cases the chemicals are potentially dangerous to human health. And in each of these cases, and the hundreds like them that regularly hit the evening news, fear of the unknown can sometimes turn out to be more harmful than the toxic chemical itself.

Let's look at what we do know, and at what we don't know about toxic wastes in our living world today. First we need to get clear on what toxic waste is. How poisonous, in other words, does it have to be to be labelled a toxic waste? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, has set standards that reflect the best medical judgement today about this question.

There is nothing sacred or certain about these figures. They are educated guesses, extrapolated from bacteria cultures and animal studies. A sample batch of mice or rats or monkeys is given very large doses of a suspected chemical. The doses are usually in the form of food, but they can be breathed in with the air, or applied to the skin. If health problems result, further tests are made and then scientists make some estimate of the likelihood that humans might be harmed even though they get much smaller doses.

What is the statistical likelihood, for instance, of developing cancer from PBB? Or birth defects from dioxin? Or lung problems from asbestos? When possible studies of humans who have accidentally been subjected to the chemical in past work situations or accidents are also made. Or, in the case of cigarette smoking, of humans who have and do deliberately subject themselves to suspect chemicals.

There are serious scientific problems with all of these studies. For one, suspected chemicals are usually present in extremely tiny amounts. Often the concentrations are expressed in parts per billion. To give you an idea how small an amount that is, if you were trying to find the one part per billion of lead in the glass of water you are drinking, it would be like looking for one second in thirty-four years. Or like walking around Lake Michigan to find one lost penny.

And yet, amazingly enough, scientists today can actually locate one part per billion, even one part per trillion or quadrillion in a sample of living tissue, or a handful of soil, or a flask of air! To do it they use extremely sensitive new chemical techniques like electrophoresis and chromatography. With these new tools, chemists can identify and measure toxic substances that once were totally undetectable.

Chemists can be more and more precise about what and how much of any suspected toxic substance is present in the air, earth, water, food or human tissue. Biologists, unfortunately, cannot be equally precise about the health hazards these infinitesimally small amounts bring with them. In a few cases the evidence is strong and clear.

Cigarette smoking, for instance, exposes the lungs to a wide variety of toxic substances that almost certainly lead to a much higher risk of developing lung cancer, emphysema, and other respiratory diseases, as well as heart disease.

Asbestos fibers, coal dust and other industrial and mining chemicals, when inhaled or ingested over a long period of time are known to cause cancer and other severe lung and intestinal problems. Mercury compounds coming from coal power plants enter the food chain and are selectively concentrated in fish. Pregnant women who eat large quantities of fish may be at risk. And too high a concentration of lead coming from coal plants, factories or old paint, is known to cause mental retardation and other serious nervous system problems.

Other toxic substances that have received much publicity in recent years are known to cause damage in experimental animals under relatively high dosages, but as yet have not been shown to cause any human damage. In some of the most highly publicized cases–Three Mile Island, PBB contamination in Michigan, dioxin contamination in Times Beach, Missouri and here at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, later studies have so far failed to show any health effects to human populations in the vicinity.

Of course at the height of the concern here at Love Canal, many families sold their homes to the government and moved out. Others, like the people across the street here, stayed. Now, since there does not seem to be any ill effects on people, many families are moving back in.

Highly publicized scares popularized in the media by Hollywood stars–like Alar in apples, Agent Orange, electromagnetic fields from electric power lines and electric blankets, cellular phone radiation, and even asbestos in schools–have all proved to be vastly overstated. Serious scientific studies in each of these cases have shown few if any harmful health effects.

So too, long term studies of Japanese survivors of World War 11 nuclear bombs have so far shown some effects, but surprisingly little health or genetic damage from their exposure to nuclear radiation almost sixty years ago.

Of course, we cannot be certain in these or any other cases that still longer-term maladies will not occur. Cancer, for instance, as well as most genetic diseases, takes a long time to develop.

It should be noted that threatening though the toxic wastes from industry may be, nature is not benign either. In fact, ounce for ounce, gram for gram, nature's toxic wastes are even more potent than the ones we have generated in our factories. In both cases, though, the concentration of the toxic chemical is all-important.

We are surrounded by natural toxic chemicals, and have been for centuries. Pure water can be toxic if ingested in too large a quantity. Many commonly eaten vegetables, fruits, nuts and herbal teas can be toxic to some people if taken in sufficient quantity. Peanuts and peanut butter can be deadly to some people who are allergic to peanuts.

In the nineteenth century for instance, many babies died from drinking milk from cows who had eaten the common but deadly weed, rattlesnake root. Many chemicals made by natural organisms, like the bacterium Clostridium botulinum (source of the deadly botulism) are far more potent than any of the new synthetic chemicals.

In fact, recent careful scientific work has found that many, indeed most, of our ordinary foods, things like celery, figs, mushrooms, coffee, tea, potatoes, peanuts, rhubarb, herbs, mustard, eggs, butter, lettuce, spinach, cheese, fruit and all kinds of meat and fish–contain significant amounts of carcinogens and mutagens. That is, cancer-causing and mutation-causing chemicals! This has no connection with whether fertilizers, insecticides or pesticides were used in their production. These carcinogens and mutagens are natural to the plants and were made by them long before there were any human beings to eat them.

Plants, in other words–probably all plants–produce an enormous number of potentially toxic chemicals designed to protect them against other plants, against insects, against organisms who want to eat them. A recent article in the journal Science pointed out that the average person each day takes in at least 10,000 times as much of nature's pesticides as he or she does of manmade pesticides. What can we do then, stop eating?

Fortunately there is good news from nature as well. Despite the relatively high amounts of carcinogens and mutagens in natural foods, these concentrations are still small enough to apparently not cause much, if any, damage. And more good news-plants also seem to produce many other chemicals that combat cancer, detoxify poisons, and that prevent mutations. Plants also produce chemicals that help destroy harmful parasites in our bodies.

Unfortunately, at the present time our knowledge of these natural toxic chemicals, as of the manmade synthetic ones, is very incomplete. It is enough, though, to give us perspective, caution and hope.

Besides caution in trying to assess the degree of toxicity, we must also remember that any toxic substance is only toxic if it actually enters the living body. In other words, in order to hurt us we have to eat it, drink it, breathe it in or take it in through our skin.

To keep it out, we need a better knowledge of food chains and chemical cycles in the biosphere. Here is a diagram of a food chain that illustrates how a toxic chemical can become ever more selectively concentrated as it passes through the chain. Concentrated enough to cause serious harm to humans and to all other living creatures in the food chain.

A seaside factory had for many years been sending its wastes, which contained substantial amounts of mercury compounds, into Minimata Bay in Japan. There these wastes were taken up by the algae. Which in turn were eaten by small crustaceans. Which in turn were eaten by fish. Which in turn were eaten by humans. At each step up the food chain the mercury compounds were selectively concentrated by the living organisms, until by the time they were taken in by the humans, the mercury compounds were concentrated enough to cause serious problems. Nervous systems were affected by the mercury. Pregnant women were especially vulnerable and gave birth to deformed children.

Here is another example. A diagram of a food chain in Michigan. Again a mistake. An animal feed worker accidentally put a bag of a fire retardant chemical, Firemaster, into some animal feed. The Firemaster contained the toxic chemical PBB, polybrominated biphenol, known to cause cancer in animals. Before the mistake was discovered, thousands of cows throughout southwestern Michigan had eaten the feed and concentrated the PBB in their milk. Pigs, chickens and sheep were also affected. And so too were humans throughout southwestern Michigan who ate the milk, pigs, chickens and sheep.

Fortunately in this case the amounts were small enough that as yet no human health problems have shown up. In order to protect humans however, the Michigan mistake did result in huge economic losses. Over 23,000 cattle, one and a half million chickens and thousands of pigs, sheep and other animals had to be sacrificed. Losses to farmers, insurance companies and taxpayers were enormous.

One of the most serious sources of future toxic pollution may come from old and new landfills. Dumps, as they used to be called. We know that over past decades industrial companies, as well as municipalities and individuals have regularly used landfill sites to dispose of wastes. The EPA has now identified over 15,000 of these waste disposal sites as being potentially hazardous, 419 as especially hazardous, and twenty as high priority "time-bombs." One worry is that leaking drums in mass burial sites will leak toxic chemicals into the water table. This means they will get into wells, rivers, lakes and the ocean. Which means they may be taken up and further concentrated by living creatures, and who can predict what and how much harm will result?

What can be and is being done to prevent possible harm to the biosphere? No two waste sites are exactly alike. Many have an alphabet soup mixture of chemicals, some relatively harmless, some very toxic. Other problems are confined to a single toxic waste. Some sites are on relatively impervious clay. Others are near the water table, or rivers, or lakes. Some chemicals are very soluble in water, others are not. Some chemicals tightly bond to the soil particles, others do not. Some are easily taken up by plants or animals, others are not. Some are harmful on contact with the skin, others are not. And some we have little data on. We don't know what they do in living systems, or how or whether they enter the food chains or chemical cycles of nature.

As the problems are different, the solutions vary. Some solutions can be as simple as moving drums from a poorly situated site to a well-situated one. Sometimes incineration is the best answer. Sometimes covering the waste site with clay first, then putting soil on top. Sometimes we need to, in addition, build walls around the dump, even pass any drainage from the site through activated charcoal. This is the expensive method being used at the Love Canal site near Niagara Falls, and thus far the effluent coming out of the old dump site is clean, and the quantities of chemicals collected on the charcoal are very small. No health effects have shown up.

With high-level radioactive wastes, the solutions are more difficult because of the long time spans involved. Though most of the most dangerous wastes from nuclear plants are do not stay radioactive very long, some of the longer half-life wastes do remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds, even thousands of years. How can they be isolated from the living biosphere for such long periods of time?

Some nuclear critics say they can't–the problem is insoluble. Others, the majority, say solutions here are neither impossible nor exorbitantly expensive. One feasible way they suggest is embedding the wastes in impervious ceramic, and then burying these in deep mines. These supporters point out that buried radioactive wastes will be much less dangerous to present and to future generations than the toxic wastes coming today from coal burning power plants.

Many scientists think the most difficult toxic problems, as well as the least understood and recognized, are the natural toxic wastes that come from plants we eat. Next to cigarette smoking, our dietary practices probably contribute more to cancer and other diseases than any other single environmental factor. We have only begun the scientific job of evaluating the natural chemicals in all food. But we have begun.

In the late 20th and early 21st century new studies have brought into question some of the science and much of the economics about toxic wastes.

Up till now there has usually been an assumption that if a chemical or a source of radiation is harmful in large doses it is probably also harmful in small doses. Even very small doses. On the scientific frontier today new studies have shown that at least in some cases this assumption is false. Small amounts of toxic poisons or of radiation may not be harmful. In fact they may be helpful.

Edward Jenner two hundred years ago found a way prevent smallpox by injecting a small amount of a natural poison into the body and thus causing the body to marshall its defense and become immune to larger does. So too toxicologists today have found that an herbicide that in normal concentrations will kill a plant, when applied in small amounts, can actually cause the plant to grow taller and healthier. Rats exposed to small amounts of dioxin actually have fewer liver tumors than unexposed rats. Mice zapped with x rays lived longer than unzapped mice. Again a scientific mystery. This is probably not true of all chemicals, nor of all radiation. But it is true of some. We need more research.

Besides the directly scientific work, economic studies have raised questions about cost vs benefits in controlling toxic wastes. A recent study, for instance, by the Harvard School of Public Health, calculated how much it would cost on the average to save one year of life in America. A heart transplant, they found, costs on the average $104,000 for each year of life it saves. Prenatal care and childhood immunizations on the other hand cost only pennies to save a year of life. Asbestos controls cost $1.9 million dollars to do the same job. Preventing factories from releasing toxic wastes into the atmosphere costs more than $2.5 million dollars per year of life saved. And investments in more safety for nuclear power plants and radiation disposal sites might cost as much as $27.4 million dollars per year of life saved!

As in the nineteenth century, it will take many skills and much new knowledge to protect our environment and our health in future years. For this task we need not only biologists, chemists and doctors just as important we need new knowledge in engineering, new skills in the educational, political and social arenas, and new understanding and support from citizens

To do an effective job, we need to make progress on three fronts.

(1) We need to find ways to not make so many toxic wastes.

(2) We need to find ways to safely dispose of those we do create.

And (3) just as we routinely recycle newspapers, cans, bottles and other non-toxic wastes today, we need to find new and creative ways to recycle toxic wastes as well.

In so far as we succeed in this last task, what we look on as toxic waste sites today, full of scary-sounding chemicals and powerful radiation sources, may well turn out to be valuable natural resources for the technologies of tomorrow.