Earth Day 4/22/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Earth day, once again. With a businessman in the white house for the past four years, many regulations were lifted or softened, removing protections from endangered species and opening up our land so it could be treated as a resource for exploitation rather than as precious mother earth to be preserved. The concept that corporations are responsible is antithetical to the first purpose of any business, namely to make money.

Back in the ‘80’s I was working as an environmental analytical chemist. The government had created a “Superfund” to test environmental sites, clean them up if needed and bring ecological wrongdoers to justice. The country was split up into five regions, and we tested for region 1, including water, oil and soil samples for pesticides, herbicides, asbestos and PCB’s (a carcinogenic additive in transformer oils). With our technology (the same technology used today), we were calibrated to test for contaminants in the parts per million or even parts per billion range. One of our instruments was knocked offline for several weeks when it was hit with a sample that was at least thirty percent DDT.

We like blaming companies, especially chemical companies, for these chemicals, but we forget the role we have in their use and distribution. DDT is a highly effective insecticide. As I understand it, it was frequently used in hotels and motels to eradicate bedbugs. Unfortunately, it had a deleterious effect on bald eagle eggs, leaving the shells too weak to survive. This chemical was one a significant reason for the population drop of the eagle.

The question becomes why it was developed and adopted so widely? We, in our nation, have a habit of overuse of those things that serve us well. I often like to say that when it first came out, DDT was safe. What I mean when I say that is not to imply that over the years it somehow became more deadly, but rather to point out that all testing prior to distribution showed it to have acceptably safe levels of toxicity. It was developed, frankly, because we as a society don’t like bedbugs. So, DDT was developed to deal with them, and it was tested on animals to find it’s LD50 level (the concentration where the species, typically mice since they often have a similar response to these chemicals as humans, have a 50% chance of survival). As it turns out, for dermal toxicity (assuming we’re not actually eating it), we can smear about 80 grams on ourselves and be fine. Heck, we could practically bathe in it. So it hit the market, it was very effective, and it was cheap with low enough toxicity that there was not much chance of people getting sick from it. It wasn’t until its use became widespread that somebody noticed that there were fewer and fewer eagles being born, which led to the investigation as to why this is. That showed that the eagle eggs were too thin shelled, and that was linked to DDT. It wasn’t until suddenly the problem became too pronounced that the pesticide was recalled and eventually banned.

As I write this, I’m drinking a diet soft drink. It is in a plastic container. I, personally, will reuse this bottle at least twice tonight refilling it with tap water and it will ultimately end up in my recycling bin, but how many people have decided that they must drink bottled water instead of tap? When I was in high school, we used to joke about putting water in a bottle and selling it for a dollar a bottle. It was a joke because tap water was readily available. We drank from drinking fountains and grabbed glasses of tap water when we were thirsty, but today my friends give me an enormously tough time when I drink water from the tap. This is our society. If we can buy bottled water, why would we settle for tap water?

Now, if we’re being completely fair, places like Flint, Michigan is proof that public water is not always as safe as we would like. But that’s a failing of the local politicians pandering to the corporations that have purchased their loyalty to allow for polluting the local water supply rather than keeping up with the water treatment.

I find I don’t drive much, but when I do, I have a hybrid car for driving around town, and bought a far more gas efficient vehicle to replace my old gas guzzler for long distance trips. I’ve looked into solar power for my house although I’ve been turned down because of my neighbor’s tree (which I feel is too harsh a judgment as only a small portion of my roof is in the shadows for part of the day). I recycle my plastics and cardboard and use rechargeable batteries. Small things that you personally can do won’t make much of a difference but modeling this behavior for others so they can see how easy it is can extend your impact by influencing others to follow suit. You have more power to help protect Mother Earth than you might think.

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