28 Jan Imagine If – How pollution made its way into every corner of our lives
Nebojša Ilić (ESR13)
In my previous blog post, I shared with you my amusement with the marvelous piece of engineering that makes extended missions in space possible. This incredible machine located on the International Space Station completes a complex system that allows for an almost perfectly closed water cycle aboard the space station, cherishing and recycling this valuable resource.
So, how is it that while astronauts can recycle a fixed amount of water in space practically forever, we down on planet earth keep hearing about new species of dangerous chemicals and pollution issues almost every day? To answer this question, we must first identify what kind of wastewater the astronauts face in space. I wrote more elaborately on this topic in the previous post, but in essence, there are no complex activities in space, and the produced wastewater is mainly due to the anthropogenic activity aboard the space station. As such, the generated wastewater carries organic matter and an overall predictable and easily treatable.
Unlike the space station, we live complex lives on earth surrounded by traffic, industry, agriculture, and various other activities that introduce different pollution into the environment. And even though we might observe different water bodies around us like rivers, lakes, oceans – in essence, all water on our planet is just one big puddle, forever circling around various forms. This life-bearing resource conveniently comes with many properties that make it useful in all kinds of anthropogenic activities. As such, we expose this delicate ecosystem to pollution and abuse daily for our own personal gain. The significance of this problem has been growing exponentially in recent decades, both due to a sharp increase in the global population and due to technological advancements. New manufacturing processes and chemicals are constantly introduced, which in turn bring unknown pollution issues with them.
For example, a factory that produces Teflon products used PFOA as the main chemical in the production process for a long time before switching to new-gen PFAS. PFOA is a member of the PFAS family, a class of pollutants I wrote about in previous blog posts, known for its recalcitrance and ubiquity. Just imagine, this hypothetical factory has been active and using these chemicals since the 1960s, and kept discarding PFOA-contaminated water directly into rivers due to lack of knowledge (a debatable statement) and regulations. Decades of uncontrolled release combined with the fact that this chemical does not degrade at all means that we can find PFAS anywhere and everywhere.
In fact, a study conducted by the company 3M could not find a single blood sample from all the samples taken around the world that DIDN’T have PFAS in it. You can read extensively about this whole story here. Sure, the public is slowly catching up, scientific communities are rallying behind this global pollution issue, regulations are being set in place. But imagine if this hypothetical company was aware of the adverse effects these chemicals have on the ecosystem and the health of their workers. And imagine if they decided against publishing these findings for decades because this product was bringing in billions in revenue. What a scary world that would be, right? Well, that’s exactly what happened. Which brings the question – Is this hypothetical non-stick pan worth all that?
Now imagine if our regulations were the other way around. If, by default, no company or public entity was able to release chemicals into nature unless proven to be harmless.
This approach would incur higher capital and operational expenditure for companies. This quantifiable higher expenditure is likely just a tiny fraction of the complex cost accrued because of the release of many toxic chemicals, impacting the health of the ecosystem, wildlife and human population globally. The Coca-Cola company basically invented Life Cycle Assessment when they needed an answer to the question that was the environmental (and economical) impact of switching from glass to plastic bottles. Perhaps this is just the right incentive to start shifting the mentality – dumping waste in a river does not make this waste someone else’s problem. It makes it everyone’s problem.
Until the day comes when the politicians elected by the people start serving the people, and the health of our planet is cherished more than the thickness of our wallets, we need to choose carefully where we place our trust and whom we support with our money. Given enough time, a silent stream of water can cut mountains.