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Chemicals' Effect on the Environment

peregrine falcon and chickThere are SO MANY manmade chemicals in our environment. This cannot be disputed. The only dispute lies in whether the negative effects of this chemical presence outweigh the chemicals' societal benefits. The people who make their money off producing industrial chemicals – folks like Chemtura, Monsanto and Dow – will tell you the chemicals are so important to our everyday lives that any possible negative consequences are a necessary evil. I tend to think it's less necessary than evil (any company that starts its "About" page with its sales figures tells me all I need to know [the definition of irony, by the way]).

There is plenty of evidence of how damaging chemicals can be when they make their way into the environment – just try wading through the EPA’s National Priorities List of Superfund sites.
But the chemical companies have a point. Take DDT. It was banned in the U.S. in 1972 after outcries (led by Rachel Carson in her seminal green-movement work, Silent Spring) that it leads to cancer and that it is devastating to bird and fish populations. The cancer issue has yet to be definitively proven, but it’s established that raptors, especially bald eagles, were affected, and the rise in eagle populations is generally seen as being linked to the DDT ban. Bravo.

But the other side of the coin is that DDT is extremely effective in killing mosquitoes, and therefore in controlling the spread of malaria. The anti-DDT groundswell that helped eagles has, it’s been argued, led to the deaths of millions of people in developing nations where DDT is the best malaria control (on the other hand, read to the bottom of that link’s Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting story and you’ll see the flipside of the flipside argument).

So I read an article like this one in the San Francisco Chronicle and immediately I want to rail against the chemical industry. But then I realize it’s not their fault. They’re only giving us what we ask for. We’re a consumer-obsessed, gotta-get-it society and without chemicals like the PBDEs that keep a long list of goods from catching fire, how can we be expected to relax and enjoy all our stuff?

So it comes back to us, to recognize that animals like the magnificent peregrine falcon (above) – one of the few wild creatures you could actually spy while working in your 30th-floor office – are dying in part due to us needing to know that none of our three TV sets is going to overheat and burn the house down.

Where do you draw the line? Let us know what concessions you think are appropriate for humans to make to help nature.

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“Chemicals' Effect on the Environment”