By Michael Jessen
The phrase "no place to hide" appears in over 53,000 Internet web sites according to www.google.ca. Used as both movie and song titles, it can describe everything from terrorists to pests to criminals. The month of September 2003 has confirmed it is also a phrase depicting the current plight of Earth's inhabitants.
While recorded human history goes back only about 6,000 years, palaeontologists estimate the first descendants of the current human species appeared about 3 million years ago. Such a long time yet our species seems to have learned so little.
We live within a landscape of natural ecosystems without fully understanding or respecting the natural forces that maintain them. We continue to do so at our peril. So far, our resourcefulness has allowed us to cope with the many changes humans are making to the Earth's environment. Our luck may soon run out. This is not alarmist rhetoric. Consider the following stories gathered this month about human impacts on the environment.
Just last week we learned that the largest ice shelf in the Arctic is breaking up and Canadian polar scientists are blaming accelerated regional warming. The finding appeared September 22 in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union at http://www.agu.org/grl/. The finding suggests the impact of climate change in the Arctic is more widespread and advanced than thought.
"There are likely to be more surprises like this," John Stone, a senior climate change expert with Environment Canada told the Toronto Star.
The fracturing Ward Hunt ice sheet is on the northwest edge of Ellesmere Island at the top of the Arctic archipelago. Now roughly one-and-a-half times the area of Mississauga, the ice sheet has existed for 3,000 years.
Polar expert Warwick Vincent, a Laval University biology professor, and his PhD student Derek Mueller first noticed a large crack running through the ice sheet two years ago. Using images from Canada's radar satellite and helicopter forays across the ice shelf, Mueller tracked the break-up. "It's basically cut the ice shelf in half," Mueller said.
"This is a very sudden change in a feature that's been present for a long time," added Vincent, who holds the Canada Research Chair in aquatic ecosystem studies. The researchers said the Ward Hunt ice shelf disintegration seems prompted by a century-old local warming trend and a more recent rise in temperatures. They were not certain it was linked to the man-made warming apparently caused by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, but it was one of many signs the Arctic is seeing enormous climatic changes.
Climate records from nearby Alert show average air temperatures in the spring and fall warming by 4/10ths of a degree Celsius every decade since 1967.
For two decades, scientists have recorded the collapse of massive ice shelves in the Antarctic, the most recent in 2002. The study by the Laval University researchers is the first evidence of a similar climate effect in the northern polar region. They estimated July temperatures on the ice shelf during the past three decades averaged 1.3 C, well above the 0-degree threshold for break-up established by Antarctic research.
Break-up of the shelf also spelled the end for a unique lake in Disraeli Fjord, which stretches 30 kilometres inland. Because the ice shelf blocked the top portion of the fjord's mouth, a layer of fresh water from melting snow and ice sat atop salty ocean water in the lake providing a habitat for unique organisms.
Disraeli's was the largest of these special lakes in the Northern Hemisphere, but its fresh water floated away through the 80-metre-wide crack last summer, said Vincent. "We're really running out of time to understand these northernmost environments before more of them are lost," he added.
"Three cubic kilometres of fresh water has drained from the fjord, disrupting a rare microbial ecosystem that was only discovered in 1999," says geophysicist Mark Jefferies of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, co-author of the study with Vincent and Mueller.
"It is accepted that should the global climate start to warm, the effects would be felt first in the polar regions, and they would be amplified," Jefferies added. "This could be part of that signal."
The scientists also warned that floating ice islands 10 kilometres long, or longer, are likely to escape the Ward Hunt ice shelf and could endanger shipping and oil and gas drilling platforms in the Beaufort Sea.
On the same day as the Vincent-Mueller-Jeffries research was published, The Vancouver Sun learned the effects of the record-breaking summer wildfires in BC. The fires created more greenhouse gas than nearly one million Canadians produce in one year and produced about one-quarter of BC's annual gas emissions.
The evidence was provided to The Vancouver Sun by the provincial forests ministry. They were tracked by a new carbon computing tracking model developed by scientists at the Canadian Forest Service, part of Natural Resources Canada in Victoria.
The wildfires, which consumed 250,000 hectares (about 0.4 per cent of BC's forests), produced 15 million tonnes of greenhouse gas. An average Canadian produces 18.3 tonnes a year and BC as a whole emits about 65 million tonnes every year.
Barely a week earlier, Statistics Canada reported on September 16 that the average Canadian's production of greenhouse gases was one of the highest levels in the world, fully 30 per cent higher than the average for member nations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
"Canadian industries, governments and households produced an estimated 564 megatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2000, up from 434 megatonnes in 1981, a 30 per cent increase," Statistics Canada said. The agency said during the period 1981 to 2000 Canadians became more efficient in their use of energy and having been using forms of energy that increasingly generate fewer emissions per unit of energy consumed. During the same period, carbon dioxide emissions per person increased at an average rate of 0.25 per cent a year, largely because of an increase in our standard of living.
One of the first tools of its kind in the world, the carbon tracking computer model was designed to help forest managers and researchers track carbon in trees, leaf litter, coarse woody debris, and soil.
"The computer program tracks not just how much carbon dioxide, the major component of greenhouse gas, is taken in by trees, but how much carbon dioxide is released when trees are cut or burned in fires," said research scientist Werner Kurz, who works with the Pacific Forestry Centre of the Canadian Forest Service.
A glance at the projected forest fire severity level for 2050 to 2059 developed by Natural Resources Canada in the Atlas of Canada at http://atlas.gc.ca/maptexts/map_texts/english/ffires50_e.html should spur our politicians into action. The severity level is expected to reach extreme in Southeastern BC and across the southern half of the three Prairie provinces during that decade. During a summer that brought the worst wildfires in decades, the same web site rated the projected fire severity level moderate for Southern BC.
Just as the forest fires proved no home is a safe haven (hundreds of residences were destroyed in the Kamloops and Kelowna areas), a leading researcher in environmental cancers has determined that women who work at home have a 54 per cent higher risk of getting cancer than women who work outside the home.
Speaking at a September 16 seminar in Windsor, Ontario, Michael Dufresne said his greatest worry is the lack of information given to the public about products they use every day.
"People are blindly being led in the use of these products, they assume they are tested, and they're not," said Dufresne, a research professor at the University of Windsor, who is also a research coordinator for Cancer Care Ontario and a member of the U.S. Barbara Karmanos Cancer Institute. "Scientists are discovering that exposure to a variety of trace chemicals over the span of a lifetime is dangerous."
Quoting from leading studies, Dufresne said women and men who want to look good and avoid body odours are at an added risk because of the cancer causing chemicals in hundreds of personal care products and household cleaners. From cosmetics and hair products to toothpaste, shaving cream, furniture polish and dish washing liquid, the presence of cancer-linked chemicals raises major concerns, said Dufresne.
More than half of Canadian women (54%) work at home while the remainder are in the workforce outside the home. An estimated 68,600 Canadian women will be diagnosed with cancer this year and 31,600 of them will die.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (http://www.uspirg.org/) reports there are more than 100,000 synthetic chemicals in use. Residues of more than 400 toxic chemicals have been identified in human blood and fat tissue.
The risk for childhood leukemia and brain tumors increases dramatically in households using home and garden pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. Bleach is being linked to the rising rates of breast cancer.
Dufresne said the biggest culprit is the cosmetic industry that does not put warnings on labels and does not list potentially harmful ingredients.
"The industry and the regulators know the cancer risks associated with cosmetics but there is virtually no consumer knowledge," Dufresne said. "Unlike cigarettes, there are no warning labels on cosmetics and virtually no FDA [Food and Drug Administration] regulations policing them."
Cancer-linked chemicals are found in blush, concealer, facial powder, mascara, eye shadow, and lipstick. Toothpaste, nail polish, shaving cream, deodorant, soap, tampons, conditioner, shampoo, and styling products also pose a threat.
"My own study showed that men and women think they're safer if they pay more, but there is absolutely no relationship between cost and safety," said Dufresne.
The use of talc in the genital area has been linked to ovarian cancer. Mouth tongue and throat cancer has been linked to the high alcohol content (more than 25 per cent), saccharin, dyes and a chemical called PS60/80 in various types of mouthwash.
In the home, Lysol, Murphy's Oil Soap, Pledge, Tilex, Ajax, and Spray 'N Wash, Palmolive, Joy, Sunlight, Arm & Hammer heavy duty laundry detergents, are a few of the many products containing dangerous chemicals, Dufresne said.
Chemicals formed in wood smoke from the fireplace, some burning candles, carpets, and plastics -- particularly plastic wrap -- can also cause cancer.
Dufresne said people should not panic, but wants to ensure they have information to make informed choices. "You have to balance the risks and benefits, but ask questions first and demand answers. Just remember what you don't know can hurt you."
Now that we know the George Bush White House fabricated the involvement of Saddam Hussein in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, it should come as no surprise that the White House deliberately kept residents, schoolchildren, and cleanup and office workers in the dark about air and water safety in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
The burning ruins of the World Trade Center spewed toxic gases "like a chemical factory" for at least six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, despite government assurances the air was safe, says a study released on Sept. 10, 2003. Lead study author Thomas Cahill said conditions would have been "brutal" for workers without respirators and slightly less so for those working or living in adjacent buildings.
Cahill's study found that the gases of toxic metals, acids and organics were capable of penetrating deeply into the lungs of workers at Ground Zero.
The study follows the release of a government report that the White House directed the Environmental Protection Agency to give New Yorkers misleading assurances about the health risk. In August, an internal report by EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley said the White House pressured the agency to make premature statements that the air was safe to breathe.
"When the EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air was 'safe' to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement," Tinsley's report said.
In an interview with Lisa Myers of NBC News, Tinsley says the White House -- through the National Security Council, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Council on Environmental Quality -- "convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones. " The NSC was handed control of EPA communications during the days after Sept. 11. Among the information withheld was the potential health hazards of breathing asbestos, lead, concrete and pulverized glass, Tinsley's report stated.
In one press release, the White House left out entirely the warning "that air samples raise concerns for cleanup workers and office workers near Water St." Another draft statement raising concerns about "sensitive populations" such as asthma patients, the elderly and people with underlying respiratory diseases was deleted.
Discovery of asbestos higher than safe levels in dust samples from lower Manhattan was changed to state that "samples confirm previous reports that ambient air quality meets OSHA standards and consequently is not a cause for public concern."
According to Tinsley, the desire by the White House to show Americans undeterred by the attacks prompted the changes. "We were told that a desire to reopen Wall Street and national security concerns were the reasons for changing the press releases," said Tinsley.
While the EPA's Tinsley says the White House misled the public, she stops short of accusing anyone of actually lying, or knowingly providing false information. She says the EPA handled most things during 9/11 very well considering the circumstances under which the agency had to work.
Cahill, a professor of physics and engineering at the University of California at Davis, said that starting on Oct. 3, 2001, air monitored a mile north of Ground Zero showed "unprecedented ambient levels" of fine metals, sulfuric acid, fine undissolvable particles of glass, and high-temperature carcinogenic organic matter.
"For each of these four classes of pollutant," Cahill said, "we recorded the highest levels we have ever seen in over 7,000 measurements we have made of very fine air pollution throughout the world." His study found that by May 2002, the levels of nearly all the fine components had declined more than 90 per cent.
Researchers noted that tons of concrete, glass, furniture, carpets, insulation, computers, and papers burned until Dec. 19, 2001. Some elements of the debris combined with organic matter and chlorine from papers and plastics and escaped to the surface as metal-rich gases that either burned or chemically decomposed into very fine particles that could easily penetrate deep into human lungs, the study found.
According to the web site AsthmaMoms (http://www.asthmamoms.com/worldtradecenter.htm), the smoke and toxic dust from the destruction of the World Trade Center affected pregnant women living nearby, causing them to have smaller babies, which tend to have more health and developmental problems.
Hugh Kaufman of the EPA told Channel News Asia that the EPA failed to advise people of the environmental dangers and that hazardous materials remain in some Manhattan buildings to this day.
"This material can cause respiratory problems, pulmonary problems, cancer (and) health effects, some (of which) may not show up for another twenty or thirty years," Kaufman said. "Right now we're finding that over 50 per cent of the workers that were in Ground Zero are experiencing major cardiovascular and respiratory problems."
So much for the belief that government agencies should protect the health of their citizens. Lying in the corporate world is as prevalent in the realm of government. Thank goodness for the whistle blowers that have the courage to speak out and tell the truth.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become the leading source of news about the real effects of human activities on the health of the Earth.
The past few months have seen heat waves, droughts, forest fires, and other extreme weather events. The World Wildlife Fund warned at the Fifth World Parks Congress on September 9 in Durban, South Africa that such climate change impacts will damage protected areas and other valuable habitats unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced drastically.
According to a new publication by WWF, changing patterns of climate affect the natural distribution limits for species or communities, forcing them to migrate in response to changing conditions. Around the world, changing conditions are resulting in the loss of rare species, such as the golden toad in Costa Rica and the edelweiss in the European Alps. Coral reefs are under threat due to rising sea levels and to coral bleaching due to warmer sea temperatures.
National parks around the world, from Canada's parks in the Arctic tundra to the Richtersveld National Park in Succulent Karoo in South Africa, have identified climate change as the main pressure causing habitats and species to shift beyond the park borders. Protected area agencies could be faced with the daunting task of having to shift protected areas to keep up with moving habitats and ecosystems.
So there you have it: just a small sample of the environmental news from the month of September 2003. Truly, the human species and the flora and fauna that currently occupy Earth have nowhere to run and no place to hide. If we want to avoid future environmental damage that will make life uncomfortable for future generations, we must learn to understand and respect natural life forces. We must, as Dave Foreman said, "open our souls to love this glorious, luxuriant, animated planet." We must harness our affinity for life to the goal of building humane and sustainable societies. Living in harmony with the planet must be the goal of each of us. While the efforts of one individual may seem to make little difference, the actions of thousands of like-minded persons can change the world.
RESOURCES - Stories on the break-up of the Ward Hunt ice shelf were reported by the CBC at http://www.cbc.ca/stories/2003/09/23/ice_arctic030923, the Toronto Star at http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&cid=1064268612650&call_pageid=968332188492, Nature at http://www.nature.com/nsu/030922/030922-8.html, The Independent at http://news.independent.co.uk/world/environment/story.jsp?story=446434, and BBC News at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3132074.stm.
The Vancouver Sun story about wildfires and greenhouse gas emissions is at http://www.canada.com/vancouver/vancouversun/archives/story.asp?id=E91E44D4-2462-49F2-B03A-6C211CD1C50A.
Information about Statistics Canada's report Greenhouse gas emissions in the Canadian economy is available at http://www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/030916/d030916b.htm and the whole report can be downloaded from http://www.statcan.ca/cgi-bin/downpub/listpub.cgi?catno=11-624-MIE2003001.
Housework makes women sick: from detergents to cosmetics, home is where the cancer is, a story by Veronique Mandal, a health-science reporter for the Windsor Star, is available at http://www.rense.com/general41/fetre.htm.
The NBC News report of Thomas Cahill's study on air quality after the destruction of the World Trade Towers is at http://www.msnbc.com/news/956255.asp.
Lisa Myers NBC News report What was known about post-9/11 air is at http://www.msnbc.com/news/961134.asp?vts=090320031930 and the transcript of her interview with Nikki Tinsley can be found at http://stacks.msnbc.com/news/961109.asp.
Laurie Garrett's Newsday story Full Effects of WTC Pollution May Never Be Known can be found at http://www.newsday.com/news/health/ny-hsair0911,0,471193.story?coll=ny-homepage-right-area.
Hugh Kaufman's comments to Channel News Asia can be found at http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/americas/view/48880/1/.html.
The EPA's response to 9/11 is at http://epa.gov/wtc/. Two reports from the National Center for Environmental Assessment Exposure and Human Health Evaluation of Airborne Pollution from the World Trade Center Disaster and Toxicological Effects of Fine Particulate Matter Derived from the Destruction of the World Trade Center can be downloaded from http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=54667 or the National Health and Environmental Effects Laboratory web site at http://www.epa.gov/nheerl/wtc/.
Two publications from the World Wildlife Fund -- No Place to Hide: Effects of Climate Change on Protected Areas can be found at http://www.panda.org/downloads/climate_change/wwfparksbro.pdf and Buying Time: A User's Manual for Building Resistance and Resilience to Climate Change in Natural Systems is at http://www.panda.org/news_facts/publications/climate_change/publication.cfm?uNewsID=8678&uLangId=1.
The mission of Eco-Spirit (http://www.eco-spirit.org) is changing the world for the better. It has just launched its ONE EARTH ONE PEOPLE Campaign to unite all people of all faiths and spiritual beliefs, all races, all countries, and all cultures, behind a common goal of protecting the Earth and our environment. Eco-Spirit, a non-profit environmental education organization based in the Washington, DC area, strives to protect the Earth's land, water, air, animals, and plants, by fostering a desire among all people to live in harmony with the Earth, its ecosystems, and other living organisms in a sustainable manner. Eco-Spirit endeavours to educate its members and the general public on how to practice environmental sensitivity and voluntary simplicity to reduce pollution, cut energy use, and limit consumption of the Earth's natural resources. Eco-Spirit seeks to build an international "community" of like-minded people living environmentally sustainable and eco-spiritual lives. The Eco-Spirit slogan is: "Life Guidance for Environmentally-Minded People with Green Spirits."
Michael Jessen is a Nelson sustainability consultant who specializes in helping homeowners with waste-free living and businesses with waste-free workplaces. Telephone him at 250-229-5632 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.
All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at email@example.com to arrange appropriate payment.