12/16/2014 11:17 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

The Chemical Ocean

We live in a toxic chemical sea. Over 50 years ago, Rachael Carson in her seminal books Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us sounded the alarm over the deposition of myriad chemicals into our watersheds and waterways through uncontrolled use of fertilizers and pesticides, manufacturing by-products and waste. There was a sudden focus of public awareness that resulted during the next two decades in certain legislation, regulation, outright banning of certain substances, and regional and international attempts to control what was then a new problem and significant health issue. There was some progress to be sure, but today we may need to understand that those advances have not been sustained and that the issue remains as pervasive and threatening as ever before.

In a paper in the Houston Journal of International Law in 2011, David L. VanderZwaag, Professor in Ocean Law and Governance at the Marine and Environmental Law Institute, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada, outlined the state of international protections, management approaches, precautionary measures, declarations and conventions for control of toxic chemicals as follows:

Toxic chemicals in the environment are a continuing concern. Nearly 80,000 chemicals are on the market in the United States; of those, 200 synthetic chemical are found in measurable quantities in the bodies of Americans. More than 5 billion kilograms of toxic pollutants are released or transferred each year in North America. Even more alarming, basic toxicological information is lacking for most of these... Long range transport of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), chemicals that are persistent and bio-accumulate, is a special concern particularly in the Arctic, which acts as a 'sink.' Examples of POPs include various pesticides such as DDT, chlordane, aldrin, heptachlor and toxaphene, industrial chemicals such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and unintentional byproducts such as dioxin and furans. Even commonly used chemicals (used as stain repellants and as non-stick surfaces on cookware) have found their way into Arctic food webs. In total, about 4,300 organic chemicals, most having low or unknown levels of production, are thought to have Arctic bio-accumulation potential, while over 120 industrial organic chemical and pesticides are considered high-production volume and have been identified as having POP characteristics. Elevated levels of POPs in both Arctic wildlife and human residents raises serious health concerns.

The amounts may seem small, but the sources are many, and the distribution is large; evidence that suggests that the adverse impact of these contaminants on the reproductive cycles and immune systems remains critical.

Looking further, it becomes clear that efforts to control these substances, even to take first precautions against their continued use and dispersal, are limited and confused despite best intentions, definitional dispute, lack of research, burden of proof, political dilution, innumerable exemptions, regulatory bureaucracy, failed coordination, uncertain political will, and lack of international consensus even on multi-lateral agreements and protocols in place.

Meanwhile, the problem continues, indeed grows at a terrifying rate. According to UN Secretary General's Report on Sustainable Development, 2009, about 1,000 new chemicals are estimated to enter the market each year. There are some 50 million unique chemical substances registered with Chemical Abstracts Service, a division of the American Chemical Society. In a recent conversation, Professor Vanderzwaag told me that only a handful of these -- less than 25 -- have been completely eliminated or restricted from production and circulation despite all the concern and calls for change. There is a proposed Global Plan of Action, suggesting some 250 activities to be implemented to address the problem by 2020, but like many such grandiose international declarations of intent, both local and regional opposition remains over questions of national sovereignty and special interests.

Like ocean acidification, this is mostly an invisible problem, but it is comparable in import for the vitality of marine ecosystems and the implication for human reliance on the ocean for water, food, and health in the future. Do we not all have the right to a clean, productive, and sustaining environment? What protects us from the threat of toxic chemicals that are pervasive, their origins obscure?

I am an optimist. I believe that we can turn this round and right. But we have built a world on chemistry that gives, yes, but also takes cruelly away. How do we differentiate what is good from what is worse than bad? And even if we know, what will force us to choose a way that must be so radically different from our past? We have added all these substances, intervened and modified and played with natural elements, and now we must live with the results. This cannot stand. We must begin to subtract, to take these poisons away, and to regenerate the systems that for millennia passed have served us well. It will take the courage of a generation.