Our New Enemy and the Environment
It seems incredible that at the height of our technological sophistication we have suddenly embarked on a new crusade! Just as in medieval times, we have been convinced that an enemy is threatening us and we must fight it with all our might. Our new enemy is not in any far-away land; it is all around us and even inside us. Our new enemies are the microorganisms, the germs, the bacteria, and the worst, the viruses.
Dangerous pathogens have existed for eons but it is only now, when science is our sine qua non, that we have turned them into our enemy and the target for an all-out pseudoscience war. This modern crusade equates safety with a world without microbes, reducing the definition of safety to just a few variables while ignoring the safety risks caused by the ecological damage that this crusade implies for our future.
This safety crusade is in essence a crusade against us! Only about half of the cells in our body belong to us; the rest belong to our microbiome, the cocktail of viruses, bacteria, fungi et al that inhabit not just our gut, but most of our tissues and our chromosomes.
Without microbes like bacteria, the existence of complex organisms would not have happened, much less homo Sapiens. Recent research indicates that the invasion of an archaeon (another ancient organism) by a bacteria started the evolution towards complex cells by gradually specializing as the mitochondria, the cell’s battery essential for complex cell life. There is also research about the high possibility of viral agency in the evolutionary step from prokaryotic (cell without nucleus) to a eukaryotic (cell with a nucleus). We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for these microorganisms and yet, we have started a misguided crusade against them.
Everywhere we go we see messages or advertising aiming at convincing us that our safety depends on killing all bacteria and viruses. Our phones, our gloves, our hands, all the surfaces must be overly sanitized! Never before had we seen so many signs directing us to wash our hands constantly and use hand sanitizers and alcohol, just to be sure! We don’t care about the toxicity of the disinfectants; all we care about is that they kill every microorganism.
This new and very limited definition of safety has relegated the extreme dangers posed by climate change and ecological damage to a lower tier while ignoring the environmental risks inherent in the above “safety” measures.
Let’s begin with the surgical disposable masks (including N95), items that went from a non-essential status to a priority. After 15 months of lockdowns and the start of the vaccination campaign, the mask requirement has been relaxed in some places, but a lot of the world continues to use them. These masks are accumulating in our oceans, rivers, lakes, and soil. are made of toxic plastics like polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene, poly-carbonate, and polyester -the same materials used to manufacture plastic bags, bottle caps, food containers, synthetic clothing, construction, and manufacturing items. Our culture was slowly becoming more conscious about the dangers of plastic waste, yet the pandemic seems to have made us oblivious of the increase in plastic pollution that the “safety” measures are creating.
Plastics used for disposable masks cover the whole range of toxicity:
- Polypropylene or PP is the most used plastic in the world, and already 88% of it ends up in a landfill, burnt (producing greenhouse emissions), or in the ocean. It degrades quite slowly, over 20–30 years and according to recent discoveries, it leaches quaternary ammonium compounds (QUATs or QACs), the same toxic substances that most disinfectants use.
- Polystyrene degrades slowly and emits toxic gases and substances into the air, soil, and water, adding to our greenhouse gas problem.
- Polycarbonates hydrolyze into the dreaded Bisphenol A (BPA) whenever the temperature is above 70 degrees and humidity is high. BPA is a hormonal disruptor that mimics estrogen and prevents the expression of androgenic hormones in our bodies and those of all fauna.
- Polyesters leach toxic chemicals and their manufacturing causes tons of hazardous waste.
In the ocean, all of the above plastics are magnets for PBTs (Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic substances) that other industrial and mining processes produce. This means that plastics aren’t only toxic by themselves, but attract even more toxic substances, compounding the pollution problem. Even before the pandemic, researchers had found that the whole water column of the ocean was contaminated with plastics, even at the seafloor. The recent safety measures are deepening the problem.
Aaron Stubbins, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern University also points out that plastics are contributing to the accumulation of plastic-based carbon in our oceans. This is further destroying the health of the ocean by disturbing its biochemistry and concentration of microorganisms. In some ecosystems there is as much plastic-carbon than natural biological one; already by 1994 the concentration of plastic-sourced carbon was higher than biological carbon in all animals.
All plastics slowly degrade into microfibers or micro plastics affecting the survival of fauna and flora worldwide. These tiny fibers also cause air pollution -until 2019 the average person had inhaled about 70,000 to 121,000 plastic particles each year. With the use of surgical masks, the microfiber pollution in the air has increased, including in between your nose and the mask. Non-natural fiber masks shed microfibers at a higher rate than they can filter them so their use necessarily involves inhalation of microfibers which can cause lung problems in the future.
Researchers from the University College London Plastic Waste Innovation hub estimated that about 70,000 tons of plastic waste would be produced if all Britons wore a single-use mask each day for a year. Just multiply that by the billions of people in our world and it becomes easier to see how the measures for the pandemic are worsening an already dire pollution problem affecting all our ecosystems.
We think this is a problem far away from us, in poor places -precisely the areas that are usually forced to receive most of our usual plastic refuse. Unfortunately, plastic pollution is affecting the whole world; it is a problem impossible to escape even in a well-protected bunker.
Adding to our plastic pollution festival we are also indulging in hand sanitizers and gels that contain plastic, plus the mountains of disinfectant wipes. These are considered more convenient but their pollution quotient is quite high. Wipes are made of non-woven material, mostly polyester and some include rayon. Flushed wipes block sewer systems, but when thrown in the garbage they end up in landfills forming huge piles of non-biodegradable waste that leaches toxicity into the soil and water.
The safety mania has also made interaction with other people problematic. This prompted stores, restaurants, and offices to divide their spaces with Plexiglas or shower curtains in an effort to give comfort to the germ obsessed. Unfortunately, there is no proof that these measures limit the movement of microbes in general but they do add to the piling of discarded plastic in our environment.
Our obsession with wiping out every germ requires extra use of disinfectants, most of which are very toxic for the environment. The most common components of disinfectants are the same as those used for pesticides: the quaternary ammonium compounds (QATS or QACS). The disinfecting obsession has increased the amount of these compounds in our sewer systems and treatment plants, overwhelming them and increasing the percentage that escapes to the environment. The problem gets worse when we see that in the developing world, 90 percent of the sewage is discharged directly into lakes, rivers, and oceans. This means that all the toxic products that we use to get rid of germs are going directly into the environment in many places. Even in developed countries, many cities depend on old and rickety sewage systems that are easily overwhelmed by heavy rain.
QACs are used also as pesticides so it is no wonder that their accumulation in our ecosystems is wreaking havoc with our fauna and flora. According to studies with animals, QACs can cause birth defects, endocrine and reproductive disturbances, and respiratory problems. Theresa Hrubec, a biologist at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute has studied the effects of QACs in humans and has found that high blood levels correlate with higher levels of inflammation and decreased mitochondrial function. Mitochondrial dysfunction impairs the production of energy for the cell.
When the QACs are combined with chemotherapy drugs in the sewage system, they become even more toxic for marine fauna, and in humans, they act as carcinogens and can cause blindness. QACs usually get combined in the raw sewage with water delivery disinfectants that contain chlorine, producing toxic nitrosamines, pollutants that also constitute the runoff from animal feeding operations. Nitrosamines are DNA-damaging and cancer-causing compounds; at least 15 nitrosamines are listed as carcinogens by the US Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program Report. Yet the Federal government hasn’t banned or limited their use.
All our new safety measures also imply over-consumption of goods that aren’t really needed, or require a high amount of energy. During the pandemic, we were told the lockdowns helped to lower emissions by curbing travel, but we compensated for it with an uptick in electronic use which involves not just the emissions from the raw materials and manufacturing, but also the huge energy expenditures required for data managing. It is estimated that the internet represents more than 1% of the world’s energy consumption, an amount greater than the total consumption of several nations combined. The latest prioritization of virtual interaction will increase those numbers dramatically.
We have been convinced that germs are the enemy and that any measures taken to fight them are valid, even if they are counterproductive. Before the arrival of germ theory, people believed that holding a nosegay (bouquet) near the nose protected them from the evils of the plague. This practice might seem primitive to us since we know it was not effective, but at least it wasn’t toxic and didn’t contribute to the further pollution of our already overly polluted planet. We are now in the same situation, convinced that our modern nosegays are effective while we are just damaging ourselves and our planet.
If we put our presence on Earth in perspective, we notice that we are the newcomers while bacteria and microorganisms are the winners of survival. If we represent the age of the Earth in one year, bacteria and microbes were the only living things present until June. By October, animals with a head and a body entered the scene, humans arrived on the 31st of December and our industrial revolution happened in the last minutes of that last day.
As humans, we are bad at assessing risk because our brains have trouble putting statistics in context and understanding the exponential function. If we were good at these two tasks, we would notice that climate change is a much higher risk than the fear-laden statistics about the virus given by the media without much proof or explanation. The Earth’s systems have crossed the critical threshold towards a very dangerous future for humans; this means that we are at a point when the exponential function will start its sharp upward move bringing with it the fast deterioration of all the Earth systems. This year’s extreme heat waves, excessive rain fall, and droughts give us a clue of the real risk we are facing and should help us to put in perspective our misguided germ safety crusade.