Thursday, July 01, 2010

A dirty business

From Bhopal to the Niger Delta, Grangemouth to the Gulf of Mexico – humans and animals are paying a high price for the profitability of the petrochemical industry.

Two successive chief executives of the Octel chemical works in Ellesmere Port, Merseyside, are accused of bribing Iraqi officials to buy and use toxic fuel additives.

Iraq, it turns out, is the last country in the world to add tetraethyl lead (TEL) to petrol. It’s banned in most places because it causes brain damage to children.

The company admits paying kickbacks to officials in Iraq and Indonesia, so their countries would go on using TEL. The US Justice Department has extradited Octel’s Iraqi fixer and now wants to prosecute former CEO Paul Jennings.

Wherever you look, the situation is the same. A report issued yesterday showed that more than 4,200 Londoners are dying each year because of long-term exposure to traffic pollution. And yet Mayor Boris Johnson is planning fewer restrictions on emissions, cuts in public transport and massive fare increases.

The study by the Institute of Occupational Medicine found that whilst Central London is most polluted, it is in the suburbs with denser populations that most people are dying. Worst affected were areas such as Penge, and parts of Bromley and Beckenham.

It can be no accident that this is the part of South-east London which is not served by the Underground. Johnson, by the way, claims to be a “green” Mayor.

The build-up of toxins in the air, on land and in the oceans threatens the survival of every life form in the eco-system, quite apart from other ecological threats, as another report emphasises.

It discovered that sperm whales feeding even in the most remote oceans have shockingly high levels of toxic and heavy metals, which spells danger not only for marine life but for the millions of humans who depend on seafood.

The report of the Voyage of the Odyssey, a research ship of the Ocean Alliance conservation group, revealed high levels of cadmium, aluminium, chromium, lead, silver, mercury and titanium in tissue samples taken by dart gun from nearly 1,000 whales from polar areas to equatorial waters.

The researchers found mercury as high as 16 parts per million in the whales. Fish high in mercury such as shark and swordfish — the types health experts warn children and pregnant women to avoid — typically have levels of about 1 part per million.

And now a new toxin is being hurled thoughtlessly into the biosphere. In drought-stricken areas the practice of “cloud seeding” is becoming more common. It sounds very sweet, but the reality is different.

This unproven practice disperses particles of silver iodide into the atmosphere to try to induce rain. There is absolutely no evidence that it works. But what is known is that in areas where cloud seeding is being carried out, the silver iodide accumulates in animals and the environment.

What these stories and report reveal is an uncontrolled attack on human health in the name of profit. As the recession deepens, corporations are certain to take even more risks at our expense.

Governments, central and local, will do nothing to halt this dirty business because they are in thrall to the industry. Pressing for regulation and control is not an answer because corporations will always find a way round any restrictions. Replacing shareholders with owners in the shape of communities and control by local assemblies is a much more viable way forward.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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