By Helena Durán*
I had never really paid much attention to tags on products that certify they’re BPA, Lead, or whatever other toxic– free. I didn’t think much about it, but if I did, I probably thought it was just an exaggeration, that nothing that was freely sold to the public could be that harmful. It turns out I was wrong. A few weeks ago, I attended the global meeting of IPEN, an international network of organizations that work for a toxics-free future, and had an intensive introduction into the world of toxics. Now I’m aware of how dangerous, scary and unjust the toxic issue is.
Toxics are everywhere. They are in pesticides that end up in our food and our water; they are in plastics, electronics, toys, clothes, decorative paints, mattresses and in the chemicals used in gold mining and fracking. And this is just a short list of products and activities that we know are related to chemical toxics. There is a much larger list of things that contain toxic chemicals we know nothing about.
The chemical industry is enormous. Between 1930 and 2000 the global production of man-made chemicals increased from 1 million to 400 million tons per year. The American Chemical Association has a registry of more than 124 million chemical substances. However, only 346,000 – around 0.2%- of these substances are regulated. Moreover, according to WWF, only 14% of chemicals used in large volumes have the minimum amount of data publicly available to conduct a basic safety assessment. In countries like the U.S. there are no mandatory pre-market health testing or approval requirements for the use of chemicals in everyday products such as cosmetics, toys, clothing, carpets or construction materials. And only 26 chemicals are listed in the Stockholm Convention as hazardous chemicals whose production should be eliminated or restricted worldwide.
So, the big picture is that we are exposed daily to millions of toxics we don’t even know about and whose effects over our health and the environment are yet to be studied. However, what shocked me the most after a week-long immersion in the toxics issue, is the fact that, despite the global effects of toxics, they especially impact vulnerable populations, such as indigenous communities that are far away from the toxic industry or industrial workers that end up being exposed to chemicals without knowing about it and without the proper protection. I heard the following two cases directly from the victims of this injustice.
Han Hye-Kyung is a South Korean woman who started working in Samsung a few months after graduating high school. Samsung is one of the global electronic giants, so landing a job there was seen as a big achievement. Han was in charge of inspecting circuit boards after a lead containing cream had been applied. She says she was never warned of the hazards of working with this heavy metal, or given sufficient information about the chemicals she was working with and the safety measures they required. According to Han, the company’s only focus was on productivity and efficiency.
After a few months in the job, Han stopped getting her periods. Then she began to lose her balance. After more than five years working at Samsung, she quit. Four years later she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She had a medical procedure to remove the tumor, but lost her sight, speech and muscle control. She hadn’t even turned 30. Today, more than ten years later, she has to use a wheelchair and is fully dependent on her mother. During our meeting, someone had to help her deliver her testimony.
After getting sick, Han and her mother started talking with ex-coworkers and doing some research. Others that worked with Han during that time had also been diagnosed with different types of cancer and other rare disease. Some of them had died prematurely. An NGO called SHARPS, which advocates for the rights and compensation of electronic industry workers, has documented at least 300 cases of Samsung workers that have fallen ill or died. The problem is that proving causality with illness is notoriously difficult, and the company has not disclosed (to courts or to its workers) the exact chemicals they use, alleging they are protected by trade secrets. So, apart from the fact that workers are being exposed to chemicals without knowing about it or about the safety conditions that should apply, proving the link with their illness is almost impossible not just because it is scientifically complicated, but also because the company has withheld information.
Viola Waghiyi, also known as Vi, comes from Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska, a desolate finger of land surrounded by the Berin Ocean. Vi belongs to the Yupik Tribe, an indigenous community that has lived a subsistence livelihood through many generations. Vi is now a grandmother, but during her youth she faced three miscarriages. She also noticed how her people started suffering from different types of cancer, how birth defects on new born babies were increasingly common, and, what especially worried her, how the IQ of the Yupik people was significantly lower than average.
Most people think of Alaska and Saint Lawrence Island as a wild and pristine paradise, surrounded by nature and isolated from pollution, pesticides and toxics. This imagery does not correspond to the reality. During the Cold War, numerous military bases were built in the Island and later abandoned with electronic equipment inside, particularly old listening devices, that contained toxic chemicals. Moreover, due to a phenomenon commonly known as the grasshopper effect, toxic chemicals fromwarmer climates in the south travel north to Alaska, contaminating the land and the animals the Yupik people depend on. The animals they hunt, like whales, are high up in the food chainand contain enormous amounts of fatty-tissues that accumulate toxins. Hence, they carry more toxic pollutants than other sources of food. The sum of these complex problems has intoxicated Vi’s people even though they have nothing to do with any industry associated with toxic chemicals.
Han and Vi’s stories show how toxics affect people, regardless of their consumption or use of products that are commonly related with toxic chemicals. Han and the Yupik people didn’t get ill because they consumed food grown with pesticides. They did not get ill because of a detergent, a shampoo, or a toy contaminated with lead. They got ill because society lacks sufficient information on the toxics industry and on its effects and because the industry has insufficient regulation. So, to avoid injustices like these to continue happening, society should demand proper information from the industry and a stricter regulation that protects the life and health of every individual.
*Helena Durán a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).