Ubiquitous Toxins and Uncomfortable Questions

by Ray Grigg

A January, 2014, report from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that even organic foods are not free of pesticides and chemical residues was sad and sobering news — an ominous beginning to another year. The CFIA analyzed hundreds of samples of fruits, vegetables, oils, cheeses, juices and syrups from local and international sources. Not even the most carefully and conscientiously grown food could escape the presence of toxins. “The idea of toxin-free food in a modern world is a fantasy,” said Rebecca Kneen, the co-president of the Certified Organic Associations of BC. “We aren’t farming in a bubble” (The Vancouver Sun, Jan. 9/14).

Indeed, we are not. The consequences of using agro-toxins at an industrial scale for more than 70 years is now evident. Of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables bought in Canadian food stores, 80 percent contained residues of one or more commercially used pesticides, while 5 percent had levels higher than were considered safe by CFIA regulations. A surprising 50 percent of organically grown produce showed similar residue traces, with 1.8 percent over safe levels.

Of fruit juices tested, 67 percent made from fresh produce and 45 percent made from concentrate showed detectable amounts of pesticides. Not one of 167 samples of vegetable oils or 284 samples of cheeses were free of dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls, all known to be serious carcinogens. Mercury, a potent neurotoxin which is only safe at zero levels, was found 87 percent of the time in dried tea, 6 percent in soft drinks and 10 percent in corn syrup. Only 55 percent of rice was free of cadmium, another neurotoxin. Of the 879 samples of children’s food tested, 25 percent contained measurable levels of at least one pesticide, while 11 percent contained measurable levels of two or more — a most worrying finding since children are the ones most susceptible to the effects of toxins.

Tara McDonald, the executive director of the Vancouver Farmers Markets, said that the results were discouraging though not surprising. “Organic farmers share the air with other farms, and they share the same water table. Even the bees they use to pollinate crops don’t just stay on one farm.”

Of course, nothing on this planet stays in one place forever. But the reckless abandon of our enterprising enthusiasm has made a special contribution to the movement of all manner of things — from atoms to mountains. The results are unprecedented and disturbing. Extracting and burning massive amounts of coal as our primary industrial energy for more than 250 years has resulted in huge quantities of multiple toxins being dispersed globally. This probably explains the source of cadmium in food. And it is likely the principle source of mercury in ocean fish — some levels in large predator species are now so high that their regular consumption is not recommended. Toxins in whales make their edibility questionable — good news for whales if they can survive the health effects of being poisoned. The bodies of orcas, meanwhile, another species at the top of the food chain, are so laced with toxins that their carcasses are treated as contaminated sites.

As for contaminated sites, 22,000 have been identified in Canada alone, with an initial estimate of $8 billion for clean up. But this was before scientific studies — the kind the Canadian government doesn’t want known — revealed the actual proportions of the problem. Just one site in Yukon, the Faro Mine, is expected to cost $590 million to remediate. Of the 75 contaminated sites in the Northwest Territories, the biggest is the Giant Mine. Over $1 billion will be required to fix the mess created by over 250,000 tonnes of arsenic, most of it abandoned in collapsing surface structures where wind and rain are beginning to disperse this toxin into land, waterways and air. Remediation will be so dangerous that “buildings will have to be sealed off as they are demolished. Workers would have wear full hazmat suits and breathe supplied air” (Globe and Mail, Apr. 2/13).

And then there are plastics, modern civilization’s miraculous material. They are produced by the millions of tonnes per year but almost none of them break down or are removed from the planet’s ecosystems. Their eventual repository is usually the world’s oceans, where they either settle on beaches or into sediment to be ingested by worms and scavengers on their way into the food chain. If they float, they tend to concentrate in the five oceanic gyres as particulate pollutants — our own version of a Plastic Sargasso Sea that has become an obscene monument of wayward waste colonized by opportunistic plants and animals. All the floating microscopic plastics drifting throughout the oceans are now estimated to be six times the dry weight of marine phytoplankton, according to Alana Mitchell in her e-book, Invisible Plastics. Used as platforms by phytoplankton, bacteria and algae, these plastics, too, enter the food chain. And because of the similar chemical composition of plastics and many of our industrial concoctions — nearly 62,000 remain untested for toxicity — these particulates accumulate toxins by up to 1 million times background concentrations.

So this is the dark side of our civilization — the creeping, insidious and ominous side we would prefer not to notice. And it raises questions we would prefer not to ask. To feed ourselves with the ingenuity of our industrial agriculture, must we plague ourselves with poisonous pesticides? To supply energy for the ravenous demands of our modern lives, must we pollute our ecosystems with horrific emissions? To use the miraculous inventions of our sophisticated technology, must we contaminate our planet with toxic wastes? Surely, as a thinking species, we can find better options than the ones we are choosing.