The shocking images of the Yangtze River turning blood red over the weekend are disturbing. The image above shows where the polluted Yangtze meets the Jilian river at Chongqing. Officials say they are still investigating the reason for the color change, but the initial explanation of reddish-colored sand washing downriver was dismissed by environmentalists and residents as a cover for severe pollution.
"Red tides" of algal blooms, another possible explanation, have likely been ruled out. Professor Emily Stanley of the University of Wisconsin stated, "“It looks like a pollutant phenomenon. Water bodies that have turned red very fast in the past have happened because people have dumped dyes into them.” This scenario has caused at least one other river in the past year to turn red in China. The Jian River in Henan Province turned red after two dye workshops illegally dumped into that river.
While the cause is still not definitive, the visible pollution of the Yangtze river is striking to any casual observer. My own jaw literally dropped open when I saw the images as my mind raced to understand what could have caused such an intense color shift in such a large body of water. Sadly though, most of the pollution in the world around us is invisible.
The invisible pollution in our homes and workspaces due to the widespread application of brominated flame retardants has come under intense scrutiny in the past six months. Dr. Arlene Blum has slowly been making the world aware of the human health hazards of flame retardants since the 1970s, when she contributed to the regulation of two cancer-causing substances used in children's sleepwear. Since then she has conducted research into the necessity of the ubiquitous use of these chemicals in clothing, furniture, electronics, childrens car seats and other objects. Flame retardants have been linked to cancer, neurological defects, impaired fertility, and developmental problems, and these chemicals now show up in the cord blood of virtually all newborns in the United States.
This past spring, the Chicago Tribune began an investigative series, "Playing with Fire," that has not only made the public more aware of the health effects of flame retardant chemicals, but has also blown open a scandal surrounding the chemical industry, the tobacco industry, and the legislation that required the use of these chemicals in such a wide array of consumer products in the past decades.
In the late 1970s cigarette makers were facing public perceptions of danger due to cigarettes igniting fatal fires in homes. The obvious solution to this problem, a fire-safe cigarette that would extinguish itself, was vigorously fought by the tobacco industry. Instead, the industry turned safety on its head and promoted the idea that everything else in a home should be made "fire-safe" through the application of flame retardant chemicals to sofas, rugs, furniture, etc. They ultimately accomplished this objective, with the help of the chemical industry and the co-option of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, which they funded and which included a tobacco industry appointee who ultimately shaped the Association's standards for fire safety.
The Tribune series goes on to report that the fire marshals' Association promoted flame retardant products even after it was clear that the chemicals were escaping, settling in dust and winding up in the bodies of babies and adults worldwide, and despite the fact that the links to cancer and other health concerns were already known. Government scientists demonstrated that flame retardants were not necessarily protecting consumers in the event of a fire. The group nevertheless pushed for flame resistant standards that ensured that the burden of safety be placed on other products (rather than cigarettes) and that flame retardants would be the way to achieve this so-called fire safety. The nefarious dealings of the many players in this decades-long deceptive farce on public safety would not be out of place in a Hollywood movie (really, give the Tribune series a read!).
Blood levels of certain widely used flame retardants have doubled in U.S. adults every 2-5 years between 1970 and 2004. Young children in the U.S. now have some of the highest levels of flame retardants in their blood the world over. The fact that these chemicals are not even offering the protections that were intended by their application, and are in fact causing harm to human health, has outraged and galvanized citizens and lawmakers.
This July, a U.S. Senate Panel finally approved the Safe Chemicals Act, the first overhaul of chemical regulation in this country since 1976. The EPA acknowledges that it currently has sparse data, if any at all, about the safety of the 84,000+ chemicals currently in use in the U.S. including flame retardants. Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ) has introduced a version of the Safe Chemicals bill (also known as TSCA Reform for the update of the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976), into the Senate every year since 2005. The recent revelations by the Chicago Tribune and the years of research by Arlene Blum and other scientists have finally awoken the federal government to the need for stronger regulations of chemicals to protect human and environmental health.
While the Safe Chemical Act still needs to be borne out by the Senate with procedures for its implementation and enforcement by the EPA, for the first time practically since I was born, toxic chemicals will now undergo some review before being released into the marketplace. That will go a long way to reducing pollution, of both the visible and invisible kind.