Toxic Load


Special Series: Fast Forward

Chemical Soup

By David Kattenburg

We live in a chemical soup.

Bacteria and fungi, Earth’s quintessential biochemists, are famous for the unusual molecules they produce. But human beings are no slouches. According to one estimate, modern global commerce swells with almost 150 thousand industrial chemicals, many completely novel, some very toxic.


It therefore came as no surprise, earlier this year, to learn that a wide range of man-made chemicals and materials now form a geologically distinct layer — a globe-girdling stratum of soil and sediment-permeating chemicals and detritus entirely human in origin.

Such were the findings of a battery of scientists now calling upon the International Commission on Stratigraphy to declare the Holocene Epoch over and done with, and the Anthropocene in full swing. At pains to pinpoint when the transition occurred, the scientists chose 1950.

Court Sandau (David Kattenburg)

Court Sandau (David Kattenburg)

A good date, atmospheric nuclear tests going great guns at Bikini Atoll, in the central Pacific, as well as in the Nevada desert, spewing radioactive debris into the stratosphere and around the planet. Those and other atomic/thermonuclear tests by the Russians, Chinese, British and French smeared Earth’s surface with a variety of long-lasting radionuclides.

“The start of the Anthropocene may thus be defined by a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age (GSSA) coinciding with detonation of the Trinity atomic device at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945 CE,” the 24-author team wrote. A Pu-239 “fallout signature” starting in 1951, peaking in 1963-1964, will persist in Earth’s ice and sediments for a hundred-thousand years, they wrote.

Humanity’s stratum is also characterized by polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and “diverse” pesticide residues, and by the toxic heavy metals lead, cadmium, chromium and mercury.

Maggie MacDonald, Environmental Defence

Maggie MacDonald, Environmental Defence

Catalytic converter-derived platinum, rhodium and palladium, meanwhile, concentrate in roadside soils, and black carbon, “inorganic ash spheres” and “spherical carbonaceous particles” circulate through the atmosphere, leaving indelible, highly distinctive layers in Earth’s [melting] glaciers and ice sheets.

Given Homo sapiens‘ stupendous ability to introduce hitherto non-existent molecules and materials into the geological record, it seems entirely fitting that our bodies are filled with industrial chemicals too. According to recent reports — discussed in detail in this audio doc — hundreds of chemical compounds stubbornly accumulate and linger in our bodies, among them well known neurotoxins, carcinogens, hormone mimics and reproductive disruptors. Read this and this and this.

Lochend district, southern Alberta

Lochend district, southern Alberta

Toxic pollution is not just an urban problem, as the purple haze hovering over Alberta’s lovely Lochend district suggests. Past GPM stories have focused on this topic. Listen here.

In this audio story, Didsbury, Alberta homesteader Diana Daunheimer describes life encircled by a half dozen oil/gas wells in the process of being drilled, fracked and ‘completed.’ It’s in the latter of these stages — when gases and waste frack water get “incinerated” or vented, for up to a week — that the greatest volume of alien organic compounds get released, several of them known toxics; most of them unidentified or assessed for toxicity.

Dealing with an uncertain toxic threat — concurrently with actual family health problems — has been a big challenge for the Daunheimer family. Empowerment is the upside: learning new science; becoming ‘expert’, prepared (with the help of a lawyer) to take on deep-pocketed oil and gas producers.

Diana Daunheimer and her photo of an exposed "incinerator" flame

Diana Daunheimer and her photo of an exposed “incinerator” flame

This audio conversation with Diana dates back to January 2014. The toxic assault continues. Even with the collapse in the oil and gas market, and virtually no drilling in the area, production, processing and fugitive emissions release tonnes of VOCs and acid gas wastes into the local airshed daily, Diana says. Meanwhile, the Daunheimers continue to seek restitution from Bellatrix Exploration (formerly Angle Energy) for health and property damages they claim to have suffered. Charges have yet to be proven in court. Diana doubts environmental justice is possible.

Calgary-based chemist Court Sandau is familiar with scenarios like Diana’s. Getting to the bottom of environmental questions and complaints is the challenge he takes up: doing rigorous science, encouraging industry to be accountable, providing assurance to local residents. Listen to Court talk in this audio story about “non-targeted” analysis of frac emissions — potentially hundreds of compounds no chemist has ever identified before, let alone assess for toxicity. Scientific studies come with a caveat, says Sandau: results can raise more questions than they answer.

In the end, the prospect of banishing all exposure to potential toxics, in this post-modern world of ours, seems unlikely. They’re in our bed sheets and mattresses; in the toothpaste, soap and cosmetics we apply in the morning; in the clothes we slip into, the food and drink we consume, the air we breath strolling down the street. In buildings, inside cars. In the cord blood of newborn babies.

It’s easy to get scared. Don’t, says Maggie MacDonald. Just inform yourself, be a conscious consumer and make demands.  The organization Maggie works with, Environmental Defence, has been researching the toxics issue and raising public awareness for years. Last year’s report on the toxic bisphenol-A (BPA) received brief media attention. Listen to Maggie here.

Fast Forward: Stories of Challenge & Change is produced with the generous support of the Government of Canada, the Social Justice Fund of Unifor and the Community Radio Fund of Canada. Thanks to Roger Dumas for his wonderful human brain ‘sonifications’, one of which appears in Fast Forward intros/extros. For more information about Roger’s Pieces of Mind CD, go here.