Human health and waste management is a major concern across the world. People do continually take risks on their health and are sick or ill from choices that they make themselves, but it is even more common that there are health hazards that we cannot control and branch from the direct effects of modern day human industry. Infectious and non-infectious diseases are on the rise despite advances in medicine and have been exacerbated by anthropogenic environmental problems.
Human living conditions are also of concern when it comes to environmental problems such as disposing of human waste. Hazardous and solid waste has terrible negative effects on the environment as well as human life into the future. In general, there are strategies that can be implemented to correct the problems with the buildup of waste and the trouble with infectious and non-infectious disease such as risk analysis and reducing the amount of waste produced.
To understand diseases better, we first must differentiate between the types. There are transmissable diseases which are infectious diseases that can be spread from one person to another, such as tuberculosis or HIV.
There are also non-transmissable diseases which are caused by something other than a living organism and don’t spread from one person to another-developing slowly with multiple causes. Examples include cancer, asthma and diabetes.
In general, we find that there has been a marked decrease in transmissable disease death rates due to better health care, more sanitary conditions, and other factors. Even so there are still pandemics such as AIDS which is extremely prevalent across the globe. Non-transmissable diseases, such as cancers and asthma have increased in their rates of incidence mainly due to environmental effects such as radiation and air pollution.
Cancer rates in particular are on the rise mainly because of three types of toxic agents that are found in the environment and in the home. Carcinogens are chemicals, types of radiation, or certain viruses which can cause or promote cancer.
The time between the initial exposure to the carcinogen and the appearance of cancer symptoms is around 10-40 years, thus you can be exposed to carcinogens such as tobacco smoke or UV radiation for years and discover lung or skin cancer years after the initial exposure. With the thinning of the ozone layer in particular there was definitely a marked rise in skin cancer rates as UV radiation became more prevalent than before.
Mutagens are also toxic agents-they include chemicals and radiation that cause or increase the frequency of mutations, or changes in the DNA molecules found in cells. Most mutations are harmless but some have the potential for developing into cancer or other disorders. For example nitrite, an ingredient in certain food preservatives, can lead to mutations that are linked to stomach cancer, thus people who eat large amounts of processed foods can increase their risk of having stomach cancer. In addition, what’s unique about these mutations is that they can be passed down to offspring, who will suffer the same genetic leanings.
Finally, teratogens are chemicals that cause harm or birth defects to a fetus or
embryo in a pregnant woman. Teratogens such as PCB’s and phthalates are examples of dangerous teratogens. In fact, very recently in China there has been a study that found that birth defects in Chinese infants rose by around 40% in recent times, most likely due to mercury from the rampant coal-burning power plants there.
PCBs are probably the most worrisome of these toxic substances because they, along with arsenic, lead and some pesticides, are neurotoxins. One persistent neurotoxin found biomagnifying in nature is methylmercury. In general, it is a fat-soluble toxin so when it is ingested its concentration only builds as you climb up the food chain. It is released into the environment by coal-burning power plants, waste incinerators and even some natural sources. We ingest it from very unlikely sources, such as fish or high-fructose corn syrup. The greatest risk that we take when ingesting this toxin is brain damage in fetuses and young children which lowers their IQ’s and leaves them with possible nervous system damage.
There are also toxins which interfere with the human endocrine system by way of mimicking hormones such as estrogen. Examples of these “gender benders” are chemicals such as BPA. In men, they reduce sperm counts and increase rates of testicular cancer while in women they increase breast cancer rates. What many don’t realize is that the BPA that leads to many of these adverse effects are found almost everywhere. We consume them inadvertedly when we eat out of certain plastic food and drink containers. Thankfully, action has been taken to rectify this when, in 2010 the FDA announced that it would study the potentially harmful effects of BPA and look to reduce it in packaging. Although this is a small step, it is a step in the right direction to take control over what harmful toxins we are consuming. Nalgene is a water bottle company which sells high-quality, BPA free water bottles and the number of companies choosing this path is growing.
In general, it is difficult to figure out the logistics of a toxin. There are many different ways that the toxin will react in your body depending on your age, your lifestyle and your own personal habits. However, no matter how you try to avoid some chemicals, some are found in municipal drinking water, food from the grocery store and even the air.
This is why the precautionary principle is being taken when it comes to creating products with chemicals that we may not know the effects of, and prevent the pollution from being created, or prevention, rather than having to focus your resources on cleaning it up after it has polluted the area or sickened people already. Prevention also will include slowing the effects of global warming, stopping the depletion of the ozone layer, and working towards using renewable resources of energy rather than burning fossil fuels. Consumers have the choice now to buy water bottles and containers that are BPA free, as long as they investigate into the products that they buy.
In general the planetary management viewpoint, as mentioned earlier, comes into play a lot more frequently with this issue. The idea that we can still maintain the kind of industry-based lifestyle and still avoid toxins is one that is difficult but can be done. Many of the Environmental Wisdom view would argue that the ethical
problems we face when testing these potential toxins on animals is unacceptable, as mice and other warm-blooded mammals are bred for the sole purpose of being injected with these chemicals. I would agree with the latter opinion, as there is now the technology to test on just cells, rather than an entire organism.
For the issue of management of human waste, there are multiple problems that need to be addressed in order to sort through the sheer amount of waste that we accumulate. The main problem with waste is that the waste that we as modern day humans produce is not readily reused in the environment and instead is unused and instead pollutes it.
First, there comes the problem of sorting the types of waste. One type of waste
is solid waste, which is any unwanted or discarded material that we produce that is not a liquid or gas, it contributes to pollution. Solid waste can be municipal solid waste that we put on our curbs for waste management to take away. The main problem with solid waste is how we can reduce the waste flow in general, and also how to reuse and recycle the wastes that are still thrown away.
Hazardous toxic waste is the other type of waste that threatens human health and the environment because it is poisonous, reactive, corrosive or flammable. These can be organic compounds, heavy metals or even highly radioactive waste produced by
nuclear power plants. The main issues with these wastes is how to store them until they are no longer hazardous-which for radioactive waste may be 20,000 to 60,000 years into the future.
To deal with the amount of solid waste that is made by humans, we can employ such planetary management techniques like waste management, which is when we attempt to control waste to reduce their environmental harm and not necessarily reduce the amount of waste produced. Another strategy would be waste reduction, which is producing less waste and pollution and the ways that we reduce are considered to be potential resources that we can reuse, recycle or compost. Probably the most all-encompassing strategy would be integrated waste management, which utilizes a variety of strategies for waste disposal and management.
Environmental scientists believe that the amount of waste needs to be greatly reduced, as the strategies that we employ to take care of the waste we produce now
are simply unsustainable. Landfills, for example, are no longer simply large pits to throw refuse in, but are layered and vented systems of that reduce any “garbage juice” called leachate from getting into the aquifers. Unfortunately it is not a foolproof system. We also burn a percentage of our waste, which is extremely detrimental to air quality and produces greenhouse gasses.
Hazardous waste such as nuclear waste and other extremely toxic chemicals are conventionally stored in concrete casings in a stable area underground that prevents it from poisoning water. Much of the time the unstable and corrosive elements are not taken care of in this way, however, as they are found in e-waste, or electronic waste such as cellphones and laptops. What comes with the great leap forward in technology in the past several decades also comes extremely large amounts of waste as outmoded or broken technology is thrown away. The majority of this broken technology is exported by first world nations to third world nations who employ people to extract valuable metals like gold and copper from discarded computers, television sets and cell phones.
There is a huge human rights issue in this process, as the workers have no mask to filter the fumes, have no gloves to protect their skin from the acid or heat they use to detach the metals from the circuit boards. The rest of the e-waste is usually dumped in landfills, or even the ocean causing more environmental damage. The corrosive metals and toxic chemicals that are leaked from the discarded electronics can taint clean drinking water if disposed of incorrectly, affecting humans and other organisms on land and sea.
Solutions are available for this hazardous waste. For e-waste, there exists recycling programs that take the parts to be reused or recycled responsibly; earth911.com is a resource that has lists of places that take electronics to be recycled in your area. Some solutions have been devised to neutralize the toxicity of these hazardous chemicals. For example, chemical methods can be used to convert hazardous substances to less harmful or benign substances. In the end, however, these substances still need to be stored in an enclosed area that will not release these chemicals into the environment so spaces must be devised for this purpose. Unfortunately we won’t have completely unlimited stable places for storage indefinitely, so there needs to be in implementation a program to reduce the amount of waste produced in general. This is reflective of the idea that there are many preventative measures we can take before pollution is even made.
Both waste and disease seem to be the biggest problems plaguing human health in this century, and the environment is also suffering some of the effects of both. What we can take away from this is that there are preventative measures we can take before disease strikes and before pollution is even made, such as evaluating risks. In my opinion, a program implemented to prevent exposure to infectious disease organisms and toxic and hazardous chemicals and also deal with solid and hazardous waste would need to include the following: implementing a vaccination program as well as reducing antibiotics that are frequently overused
because vaccinations will aid in combating viruses and a reduction in antibiotics use will allow humans to culture healthy bacteria in their body. Enforcing strict toxicology reports in the processes of manufacture so that toxic and hazardous chemical exposure is greatly reduced in all households, as well as enforcing organic agriculture practices to reduce much of the chemicals that we find in food would be recommended.
As for dealing with solid and hazardous waste it would be wise to implement a Degrowth policy which would produce less waste, as less production is happening overall. In addition recycling should be incentivized and made easier by clearer labeling.
Finally, hazardous chemical exposure could be significantly reduced by simply producing less weapons of mass destruction as well as keeping those chemicals that are dangerous and can be replaced with more benign chemicals, out of manufacture. A program to deal with the waste we have now should involve neutralizing the toxicity of much of the organic waste and corrosive chemicals. Nuclear waste will be much more difficult to deal with, but the solutions we have now are all we really have-perhaps scientists will develop technology to make radioactive nuclear waste a worry of the past.
When we better our environment we also improve the living conditions and the health of the general populace of humans. Even if there is no “cure-all” miracle pill for diseases such as Cancer or HIV we may still work to prevent them before they are even contracted and we could also improve the world we live in to make it a safer and less toxic world.