Invisible poisons in the water

Darryl D’Monte
Oceans around the world have been indiscriminately used as dumping grounds for every conceivable kind of waste — from sewage to garbage to toxic chemicals. It took underwater explorers like Jacques Cousteau to remind us that these wastes do not necessarily get broken down even years after their disposal; they lie at the bottom of the ocean, where they contaminate plant, fish, and eventually, human life.
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One must recall the parallel on land, with Rachel Carson’s epoch-making book, Silent Spring(1). In many ways it was this book that in 1962 first triggered the environmental movement in America and the industrial West as it exposed the hazards of careless use of pesticides in agriculture. It was a tragic irony that Carson herself developed and succumbed to cancer.

Minamata Disease

The worst recorded case of toxic contamination of the oceans in the world was that which took place in Minamata, a city located off the southern coast of Japan. Till the late 1960s the Chisso Corporation, which manufactured fertilizers, drugs, and plastics, dumped chemical waste into a bay some 570 km (354 mi.) south of Tokyo. Among the chemicals dumped was mercury. Besides the damage caused to fisheries and the fishing industry in the area, people who ate the poisoned fish started to develop a range of neurological illnesses that later came to be known as the Minamata disease. Adults developed physical and mental disabilities while newborns were inflicted with terrible deformities that left them maimed for life. Hundreds of people eventually died.
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Mercury is a highly poisonous substance when ingested.
Some 3,000 people contracted this rare affliction and several received millions of yen as compensation. Their plight was captured by some of the world’s best photographers and documentary film-makers, among them the renowned US photographer William Eugene Smith. His early death was partly caused by near blindness that he acquired while accompanying some Minamata victims to the Chisso Corporation factory. The corporation had hired goons to beat them up when they arrived.
In 1982, the Delhi-based Centre for Science & Environment brought out its first State of India’s Environment: A Citizens’ Report(2). This was a path-breaking report with references to instances of environmental degradation throughout the length and breadth of the country, using nonofficial sources. It is often cited as a model for other countries to emulate.
I wrote a section in the report likening the Thane Creek, which straddles the eastern coast of Mumbai, to “Bombay’s Minamata.” This cited studies by the Institute of Science in the city that there were traces of mercury in the samples of water taken there. One must remember that up until a decade or so ago, the Thane-Belapur belt was the location of some of the country’s biggest petrochemical industries.
The Swedish Case
Some countries have been taking the threat to their seas very seriously. Sweden is one of the most environment-conscious countries in the world and has been very concerned about its archipelagos. Stockholm is truly a city on the sea. There are as many as one million pleasure boats in the country — one boat for every nine people.
During a recent annual congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), we were taken to a laboratory that is the field station of the Stockholm Marine Research Centre. It was about a 90-minute journey away from the capital, followed by a half-hour boat ride to the deserted island where the lab is located.
Lena Kautsky, professor in marine plant ecology and director of the center, explained how the Baltic Sea is heavily brackish (saltier than fresh water but not as salty as seawater). This promotes eutrophication, which is the increase of certain nutrients that promote the fouling of the water with organic matter such as algae. Eutrophication leads to the depletion of oxygen in the water as the available supplies are used up by the increase in algae and the like. As a result, many toxic substances remain buried at the bottom of the sea since the normal process of waste degradation is retarded by the lack of oxygen.
Kautsky’s fellow researchers from the Institute of Applied Environmental Research at Stockholm University have been painstakingly tracking another hidden menace. Because Swedes are so passionately fond of the sea, they need little excuse to sail in their boats. For years these boat owners were plagued by “fouling organisms” such as barnacles, mussels, and algae. These organisms attach themselves to the hulls, increasing the friction of the boats as they cruise through the water. As these researchers point out, “this lowers speed, impairs maneuverability, and ultimately increases fuel consumption.”
The technical fix, as was the conventional wisdom some years ago, was to treat the boats with special paints that deterred the troublesome organisms from getting a free ride on the vessels. These paints, however, contained chemicals referred to as biocides that, just like pesticides, can kill living organisms. These biocides eventually fouled the ocean, forcing Swedish authorities in 2001 to ban their sale and use in the Baltic Sea. Biocide-free paints were consequently used instead.
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Now the university researchers have made an interesting discovery. They have found that even these supposedly biocide-free, anti-fouling paints have toxic impacts. Studies of fish and plant species in the shallow waters off the laboratory have found that these new paints have a growth-inhibiting effect on algae and crustaceans. The danger, as we have seen in the cases of Carson’s Silent Spring and the Minamata tragedy, is that it might only be a matter of time before such poisons find their way up the food chain to human beings.
A Worldwide Crisis
It is well established that in major industrial countries, a new problem is arising due to the inconsiderate use of some new chemicals. What are technically known as endocrine disruptors are beginning to rear their disturbing heads. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that, upon absorption in the body, affect hormones and disrupt the body’s normal functioning. One such effect is the decrease in sperm count in males leading to the gradual, but almost imperceptible, decline in fertility.
The Stockholm researchers have indeed found that crustaceans in the Baltic Sea are actually altering their gender as a consequence of such pollution. British marine life experts have found that these endocrine disruptors mimic the female hormone oestrogen when ingested. A reduction in the size of male genitals, a lower sex drive, and parts of the testes turning into ovary tissue are among the symptoms observed.
As these chemicals start to creep up food chains around the world, concerns over the potential effect on human health will start to grow amid increasing evidence of falling sperm counts and rising infertility among men.
Greenpeace mounted a major worldwide campaign against such substances some years ago. It was accused of spreading paranoia by pointing at these hidden dangers — hitting macho males below the belt, as it were.
But even if environmentalists were sometimes crying wolf on this score, there is no question that all countries ought to be doubly careful about the indiscriminate use and disposal of these poisons. The precautionary principle ought to work in this regard, keeping in mind that it is better to be safe than sorry.
That is why during this current controversy in India over the presence of pesticides in cola drinks, the Centre for Science & Environment in Delhi has been giving a clear message. It has been constantly pointing out that it is not directing its fire against these multinationals per se, but rather against the Health Ministry for dragging its heels on establishing norms for pesticide content in food and drink. Ever since it first accused companies of selling soft drinks that contained these chemicals three years ago, the ministry — for reasons best known to itself — has not laid down any such norms. This is a harsh comment on the laxity displayed by this apex body.
** Darryl D’Monte is the founder-president of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists. He is also the chairperson of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI) and a syndicated columnist and freelance writer. He has published two books: Temples or Tombs? Industry versus Environment: Three Controversies (New Delhi: Center for Science & Environment, 1985) and Ripping the Fabric: The Decline of Mumbai and Its Mills (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002). He was previously the resident editor of the Indian Express (1979-1981) and of the Times of India (1988-1994) in Mumbai.
[1] Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
[2] Centre for Science and Environment. The State of India’s Environment: The First Citizen’s Report. New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment, 1982.

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