Celebrities often make headlines – less for their work and more for their social media posts. Dia Mirza, actor-producer and a climate change activist, recently caught the twitterati’s attention when she shared a Skynews post highlighting the negative effects of air pollution on male sex organs. As expected, she was trolled by many, ridiculed for being a hypocrite and understood by very few. What got lost in the SHORT shelf-life of a tweet is a LONG story that has been conveniently ignored for years now: the impact of aggressive human activities on environment and human health.
We live in the anthropocene age, the time (2.6 million years to present) since man began to substantially alter Earth’s surface. We don’t have to go back such a long time to understand the damage home sapiens have done to nature …it’s just about 250 years back when the industrial revolution began in Europe that we started exploiting natural resources without giving a thought to the consequences of our actions, which would eventually become the reason for our own downfall. The process of degradation has accelerated in the last 20 years so much so that harmful chemicals (toxins) have occupied the food chain and have spoiled much of our water sources.
While excess use of urea, DAP & pesticides could be blamed for spoiling farm lands and eventually our food, about 80% pollution in rivers is directly attributed to domestic waste, which primarily includes thousands of chemicals that we use every day by way of toothpastes, shampoos, detergents, cosmetics, toilet cleaners and what not. Most sewage treatment plants are incapable of removing them.
Scientists link several chemicals used in these products with different cancers, nervous disorders in youngsters, dementia in older population and genetic disorders. It is strange that most of the harmful ingredients (not all) are mentioned in the product label, but we don’t care to read. Even if we read we don’t care to understand their impact on us.
Take for example, a simple compound called Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS), which is found in everything from toothpaste, face wash to laundry detergent. A little online search, followed by some deep research will tell you that SLS, which gives foam, has several health disadvantages. Surprisingly, the same SLS is found in your toothpaste and in your soaps and detergents as well.
Manufacturers will claim (hardly ever backed by independent, impartial research) that all the chemicals they use are safe for human health. These finished goods fall under the category of cosmetics, which are out of the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Even if we take the producer’s word on its face value, it is hard to believe why popular toothpastes carry warnings such as ‘Use a pea sized amount under adult supervision’. Which means an excess of these chemicals is harmful for us. Why should any manufacturer put anything in your toothpaste, which could be remotely injurious to your health?
Can you imagine how much of these so-called harmless chemicals flow from our wash basins and bathrooms into our rivers every day? As per one estimate, every round of brushing teeth discharges about 4 gm of chemicals in nature. So, a city like Mumbai, with roughly 2 crore population, has the capacity to release about 80,000 kilogram of chemicals in the water bodies every morning simply by way of dental cleaning. And mind you, doctors advise brushing teeth twice a day.
Fluorides are used in toothpastes for better oral hygiene while ground water in several regions of India already has excess of fluorine, which is known to affect nervous development in children. Besides, several ingredients mentioned in the product label have code words like CI 16255. A common user will never understand what that code means.
Nobody tells benefits of brushing the teeth with any ‘manjan’ (dental powder) or even edible oil/ common salt. Many years back, Colgate introduced white dental power in India, simply because it could not sell its popular toothpaste in a market obsessed with manjan, mostly home-made. Today, Colgate is the no. 1 toothpaste brand in the country.
Common ingredients in sunscreen lotions aid the growth of a virus in the algae that live inside coral reefs. Scientists say about 5,000 tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers each year worldwide, threatening to bleach about 10 percent of coral reefs.
Just a cursory look at the composition of soaps, deodorants, toilet and floor cleaners will reveal the range of chemicals our bodies are exposed to every day. An estimate puts the number of chemicals in our day-to-day use at 80,000, of which only a couple of hundred have been safety tested for human application without any long-term impact.
Chemicals aren’t bad for us. After all, we owe our existence to chemical reactions of all sorts. Digestion of food would not be possible without a chemical reaction. What is worrying, though, is the lack of concern for rampant use of molecules and their combinations in cosmetics which could adversely affect human health. Unfortunately, the media and the ad world laps us any new product that hits the shelves, wraps it up with endorsements from celebrities in the world of sports and cinema and presents them to us like a must-have addition to our otherwise directionless lives.
The government regulators turn a blind eye to the problem because there is no way any ailment can be directly attributed to application of these molecules, which often happens in small quantities over a long period of time. Of course there are exceptions. A New York court last November ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $120 million to a woman in damages after she blamed her cancer on asbestos exposure from using the company’s baby powder.
So when a celebrity like Dia Mirza, who propagates the idea of toxin-free living, uses her star appeal to draw attention to a glaring fact about air pollution, we make fun of her. None of the people who passed nasty comments at Dia’s observations ever thought of having a reasonable debate on the subject – air pollution – which affects us all.
In fact, it’s strange that we see everything, yet we fail to change. There is an old saying: ‘What we don’t know, can’t hurt us.’ In today’s context, one might say: ‘What we don’t know, hurts us more.’
Daniel Goleman in his book ‘Ecological Intelligence’ says: “Our inability to instinctively recognize the connections between our actions and the problems that result from them leaves us wide open to creating the dangers we decry.”
Nature has customized our brains to instantly react to a fixed range of threats, but nothing in our evolutionary history has shaped it for recognizing less apparent threats like global warming, air and water pollution. While our brain is good at handling a knife attack, it goes blank at anticipating a canon ball fired from a distance. In short, we are myopic, for we fail to see threats beyond a limit. We need a good pair of glasses that will help us see through the dangers that lie in a not very distant future.
A note on the rearview car mirror sums it all: ‘Objects seen in the mirror could be nearer than they appear’. Simply replace the word ‘objects’ with ‘threats’.