Environmental Contaminants: An Opportunity to Re-Discover Ecosystem Health

March 20, 2015

During the 1940s, we were promoting campaigns for the widespread use of chemical pesticides with jingles like “DDT is good for me!” and videos showing people literally eating DDT by the spoonful:

In retrospect, of course, we know that we messed up.  We messed up bad.  Yet we kept developing and distributing more and more chemicals, which often end up becoming harmful environmental contaminants. Why does it seem as though we have failed to learn our lesson time and time again? 

Other posts in this series:

Nadine Gudz
Alexa Pitoulis
Adam Lynes-Ford
Jessica Knowler
Mandy McDougall

Check out last month’s series


Environmental contamination is often treated as a local issue; however, it is rarely such.  Many contaminants are subject to long-range environmental transport, either through the atmosphere or ocean currents.  Many persistent organic pollutants (POPs), like DDT for instance, will be transported from lower latitudes (i.e., the tropics) through a process referred to as the ‘grasshopper effect’, and are eventually deposited in the Arctic, where they remain. Watch video

Many of these POPs are highly toxic and bioaccumulative, and will build up in very high concentrations within the fatty tissues of high trophic level organisms (i.e., near the top of the food web).  Ultimately, this negatively impacts the health of northern populations who often depend on these animals as part of their diet.  The big picture here is that when a chemical is manufactured or released, say, in North America, natural Earth processes will take what is temporarily a local issue, and distribute it such that environmental contamination becomes a much bigger global problem. 

Contaminants can end up in northern, Arctic cities where the concept of a ‘city’ itself is quite different from that elsewhere in the world.  In Arctic communities, hunting remains very important and crucial for families’ well being.  Often consuming animals with extremely high contaminant concentrations may impact northern cities more so than other urban cities where contaminants may not accumulate as much.

Let’s think about a contaminant like DDT.  DDT was believed to be completely safe for widespread use.  It was even sprayed over family picnics and rubbed in children’s hair to show that there were no immediate toxic effects.

Fast forward a few years, when the long-term bioaccumulative and toxic effects of DDT become known.  Newer contaminants have followed in the same footsteps; ‘surprise’ adverse environmental and health effects become known after the chemical becomes environmentally ubiquitous – but the damage has already been done. 

Development of New Compounds

The development of new, anthropogenic (i.e., human-made) compounds focuses on practicality and usefulness in the market – and understandably so. But this process should always keep in mind the long-term impacts these compounds may have for the health of the environment and ecosystems (including human health).  This is a key element of new economies – designing chemicals with the health of the planet in mind, not just the benefits or convenience it will bring to its users. 

Currently, the approach to regulating contaminants in Canada involves an initial universal screening process, assessing health and environmental safety.  Any modifications to a compound’s status are made if future research or events determine that it poses a threat to ecosystem health.  This has been flagged by some as a problem, as it is said to assume a ‘market now, study later’ approach. 

Consumer education is important to consider in general, especially for terminology.  Notice how I refrain from using ‘toxin’ throughout.  That’s because it doesn’t mean what everyone seems to think it means.  Often times (I’d say about 99% of the time), people are actually referring to ‘toxicants’.  Toxins are of plant or animal origin (i.e., biological in nature), and is not the correct term for human-made contaminants – fun fact!

Environmental Contamination and New Economies – Moving Forward With Remediation

New economies must include a larger focus on holistic remediation efforts.  Remediation efforts usually focus on a few contaminants known to be present in a specific area.  Larger-scale remediation efforts should include a search for and cleanup of all contaminants of significant concern for ecosystem and human health, rather than only taking care of specific chemicals as prerequisites for a project or development. If done properly (e.g., on a municipal level), there can be a lot of success in widespread remediation, which would hopefully encourage chemists, engineers, toxicologists ecologists, and others with the tools to collaborate and invest efforts into large-scale remediation.  If remediation were done on municipal scales, with the appropriate funding, it could become much more efficient and tackle a large issue at once instead of breaking it down into smaller pieces, which does not always eliminate the full issue of environmental contamination.

We must keep in mind that localized decisions regarding environmental contaminants are sometimes necessary.  For instance, DDT continues to be used in tropical areas of the world where malaria persists.

It’s essentially a trade-off between reducing the chance of contracting a potentially deadly disease, or risking long-term adverse effects of a bioaccumulative, toxic compound.  Understandably, the choice between immediate well-being and potential long-term health effects will lean towards short-term benefits (i.e., survival), and risking health problems in the future is a risk many governing bodies and individuals would be willing to take.

Urban dwellers must also question chemical alternatives.  When you see a water bottle labeled “BPA free”, is there simply another less infamous toxicant in its place that has just yet to get the same kind of negative attention as BPA?  Conversely, we cannot get so caught up in a product’s ingredients that we forget the first rule of toxicology: the dose makes the poison.  Everything is toxic at some doses – even water.  As consumers, it is not practical to base our purchasing and economic decisions solely based on an ingredient list.  Also be wary of ‘green washing’ – when products marketed as ‘green’ or ‘environmentally-friendly’ are either exaggerated or really no different from the ‘regular’ (and usually cheaper) version of the product.  See the CBC Marketplace story here: https://www.cbc.ca/marketplace/episodes/2011-episodes/lousy-labels; this should give you an idea of how the ‘green’ chemical movement really operates, how much of it is true, and how to be a smart chemical consumer in general.

Environmental health, through proper management of toxicants, is a significant component of real wealth.  How much does substantial material and financial wealth really matter in the long-term if it is accompanied by constant exposure to nasty contaminants such as metals, toxic POPs, and other dangerous chemicals (including carcinogens and endocrine disruptors)? It is time to see the benefits in holistic ecosystem health – large scale environmental remediation is just one component.

Mandy McDougall is currently completing her Masters degree in Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada, and conducting her research project within the field of environmental toxicology.  Afterwards, she plans on attending law school to focus on bridging the gap between science and environmental policy within Canada.  She is passionate about contributing to insightful projects designed to improve the state of our environment on both small and large scales.

This blog is part of the ‘Voices of New Economies‘ series within Cities for People – an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.

The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.

This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need – ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.