As a former Chemistry student, I retain a certain academic scepticism of any tabloid science story that brashly declares “Shoes Cause Cancer!” or “Are Your Teeth Killing You From Within?” So as I picked up a copy of Julian Cribb’s Poisoned Planet, a book marketed with provocative statements about the arsenic content of coffee and the presence of carcinogens in shampoo, I was slightly concerned that I could be embarking on 200 pages of depressing anti-science. However, after finishing the book and speaking with its author, nothing could be further from the truth.
Poisoned Planet opens with the haunting image of a Japanese child, born deaf, blind and crippled. These disabilities are a result of methylmercury poisoning following contamination of the local water supply by waste from the Minamata chemical plant. Cribb’s message is clear from the outset – unless we change our ways, our planet will too become the victim of man-made disaster. From this evocative opening, we are taken on a journey into the frightening world of the chemical contamination of our planet, a journey through dozens of case studies and academic articles, experiences amassed by the author over the best part of a decade.
“I’ve been working with a group of contamination experts for about ten years,” explains Julian Cribb, an Australian science writer and journalist who has published eight books. “Gradually I accumulated more and more awareness of what cutting edge science in the field was saying. After a while it became like any piece of journalism – it was assembling pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and, when you had collected enough pieces, making a picture.”
The first impression you get from reading Poisoned Planet is the broad range of pieces Cribb has managed to fit together into the same puzzle; The scope of the book is simultaneously impressive, given its reasonably short length, and depressing, as there is evidently no lack of source material. Seemingly nothing and nowhere on Earth is safe from the impact of our globalised industrial society.The first impression you get from reading Poisoned Planet is the broad range of pieces Cribb has managed to fit together into the same puzzle; The scope of the book is simultaneously impressive, given its reasonably short length, and depressing, as there is evidently no lack of source material. Seemingly nothing and nowhere on Earth is safe from the impact of our globalised industrial society.
“We’re making a bad mess. If you cast your mind back to medieval cities where people just used to empty the chamber pot out of the window, they were pretty smelly, unhygienic and indeed deadly places to live. That’s what we’re doing to the planet now, and it’s becoming smelly, unhygienic and indeed deadly. You only have to look on the internet for pictures of Beijing and you can see – it’s just disgusting.”
We learn about the flame retardants that have crept into the bodies of polar bears and deep sea squid, the chemical contaminants that build up, unnoticed, within our own bodies, and the alarming extents to which industries will go to spin, hide or deny the reality of their environmental impacts.
In fact, such is the number of case studies included that the chapters threaten to become lists of academic findings, often containing long lists of medical conditions and scary-sounding chemical culprits (Look out for furans! Help, mutagenic dyes! Please, no more polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons!). However, the slip into dull repetitiveness is prevented by the vivid imagery that sets each chapter in motion. A particularly poignant example is the description of e-waste “chemical hells”: infernos of toxic smoke and fire from the burning carcasses of last year’s gadgetry. Third World workers risk serious medical consequences to strip valuable, and often hazardous, materials from the West’s waste.
The ‘witches brew’ we are drinking every day
Cribb argues that we are exposed to a “witches’ brew” of chemical contamination each and every day:
“You’re not just exposed to one chemical – you’re exposed to hundreds or thousands of chemicals, coming out of the furnishings around you, the food you eat, the water you drink,” says the author.
“It was the scale of the exposure to this combination of chemicals that troubled me most. Many eminent authorities are united on this point – it’s not necessarily the individual chemicals – most of the chemicals we are exposed to each day are well below the threshold of concern. But there are two things. Firstly, these individual toxins are mixed up with thousands of other chemicals, and secondly dissimilar chemicals can have similar effects. For instance, there could be many hundreds of chemicals attacking your brain, or attacking your endocrine system – the individual effects may be subtle, but in combination they can add up to a toxic dose.”
Disturbingly, this concept of a combined onslaught from separate attackers appears to be rarely acknowledged by modern toxicology. Equally worrying is a general lack of any thorough testing whatsoever on many widely-used chemical compounds.
“You wouldn’t fly in an aeroplane that had never been safety tested, but most of the chemicals in out environment have never been tested, and particularly they’ve never been tested with respect to their effects on the development of children. Adults are intelligent beings; they can take their own chances. They choose to smoke, choose to drink, they may get a cancer. But children are coming into the world with carcinogens already in their blood. That is an absolute disgrace.”
This is a troubling concept indeed. In fact, much of the book itself is very scary: revealing the deadly global consequences of our irresponsible and often short-sighted industrial activity. However, it sometimes feels as if Cribb strays from evocatively revealing a frightening reality and towards the realm of hyperbole.
For instance, when discussing potential carcinogens in cosmetics, Cribb remarks, “breast cancer seems a high price to pay for great hair.” A closer look at the studies on which this comment is based suggest that although parabens, the cosmetic chemicals in question, were indeed found in the bodies of women with breast cancer, there is yet to be any firm evidence whatsoever suggesting the parabens actually caused the tumours. Making the direct assertion that “shampoo causes cancer” is therefore something of an overstatement. Likewise, the discussion and context of “chemicals” tends to be a little simplistic – it often feels as if the reader is to assume that anything man-made is automatically harmful and anything natural automatically not so. In reality chemistry is not so black and white.
How you can help save the planet from chemical apocalypse
Nevertheless, Cribb insists the aim of the book is not to scare its reader: “I’m not trying to scare people, I am trying to make them aware that there is nothing you do in your life as an act of consumption that does not have chemical consequences. People need to be aware that they are having a huge impact. I think so far we’ve not wanted to know. We’ve avoided the truth. Air pollution is visible. The stuff that’s in water and food and in your clothing and your motor car is not – that’s the trouble. You can’t see it, so you’re not worried about it.”
Put simply, the depressing message at the core of Poisoned Planet is this – that ‘out of sight is out of mind’ regarding the environment is simply not good enough. Nevertheless, the book manages to remain optimistic. In its closing chapters, Cribb sets out a case for how we, as a species, can repair the damage of the past and move towards a more ‘chemically responsible future’ – and the concept of raising awareness is crucial to the source of the optimism:
“We are not yet past the point of no return, but we do need to get to the point of awareness very quickly, and that’s why I wrote the book – not to scare people, but to make them aware. First of all – it’s their fault. It’s all of our fault. We’re the ones that want things to be cheap and efficient, but we are ignoring the knock-on effects of these desires.
“None of the problems discussed in the book are beyond our power to solve, but there are a lot of people who don’t want them solved. Similarly, there are those who simply don’t care about the impact they have on the planet, and those who don’t care about the harm they are doing to our children. However, we the consumers have the power to discipline them, by not buying their products, by opposing industries that are harmful, and by patronising those companies and industries that make it a point of pride to operate and produce in a safe, clean and healthy way.
“My advice to the concerned reader would be to become an informed consumer. There is a tremendous amount of information on good consumer websites, they’ll tell you how to choose the products and the foods and the way of life that is safe and responsible. Buy something made from timber instead of plastic. Buy foods that are or organic or that you know come from a responsible farmer. Be more thoughtful in the way you consume because your choices have terrific knock-on effects for the planet that you may not be aware of.
“But most of all, my message is don’t panic – we the human race can solve this one. We just have to develop the awareness of how to solve it, and we have to join hands to solve it.”
Poisoned Planet may not have persuaded me to renounce my chemistry background or to regard every man-made product around me with suspicion, but it vividly shows the alarming and often-ignored extent to which our commercial lifestyles impact the planet. If, as Cribb says, we the people truly hold the power to alter the way our society and industries operate then surely raising awareness is a crucial first step in enacting real positive change. In that respect, this is a very important book indeed.