The cost of our errors is immediate

Roneal Naidu award winner

The cost of our errors is immediate

At CleanUp 2017 in Melbourne last September, CRC CARE presented its High School Essay Competition. In this issue of Remediation Australasia, we’re proud to reprint the winning essay from the 2017 Dr Roneal Naidu award for writing on chemical contamination and its effect on food quality and human health. The award honours Dr Naidu, who, as a medical doctor, acted on his passion for the environment to inspire others.

Globalisation has brought about a radical change in humanity’s way of life, irreversibly altering our interconnectedness, communications, trade, industry and technology. It has even influenced the variety, cost and production of the food we eat. A global industry is difficult to regulate, posing challenges for the control of chemical contaminants. As our food travels further, grows faster and finds itself in more packaging than ever before, we are forced to consider the implications of industrialised agriculture, chemical discharge and pollution for the environment and our health.

The human preoccupation with distancing ourselves from nature and synthesising our own needs extends to our food. We not only create artificial environments and clothing for ourselves, but we have in the past century introduced potentially harmful chemicals in order to enhance crop production and processing. The humble carrot, bought in an Australian supermarket, may carry pesticide and fertiliser residues, chemicals involved in cleaning, processing and transport, and migratory compounds from its associated packaging. Chemical contamination has come to be the inevitable, and unless we sacrifice availability for complete freedom from contaminants, it cannot be avoided. The challenge now lies in understanding the risks posed by the introduction of foreign materials into food, in addition to minimising human and environmental exposure.

Contamination occurs not only in crops, but also in meat, poultry and fish. Veterinary treatment in livestock, such as vaccinations and added growth hormone, remain in the meat and can transfer adverse effects into those who consume it. Battery farming not only poses ethical questions, but risk to human health in regards to high levels of hormone and other chemicals present in feed. Levels of industrial pollutants, plastics and agricultural runoff are ever increasing in our oceans, harming marine life and those it nourishes. Supplying the world with one-third of its protein, particularly in developing nations, the ocean represents a major food resource. By leaching chemical contaminants and discarding plastics into it, we are not only endangering marine life but our own food security. If contamination is not reduced, safe seafood may become scarce.

The media has prompted a negative reaction against the use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilisers in crop farming among consumers, with many opting for organically grown produce. While chemical contamination remains a concerning issue, it should be noted that the world cannot sustain its current population using organic farming methods alone. While good in principle, it increases the disparity in quality of health between the rich and poor. Consumers should be focused on advocating for both alternatives and solutions to the problem of chemical contamination. The answer lies in increased awareness of ingredient origin and commercial responsibility for the use of chemicals.

Consumers carry the greatest power in advocating for change, but perhaps suffer the least direct consequences of chemical contamination. Consumption of toxins can be very harmful, but the greatest dangers exist for those involved in food processing and production. Particularly in developing countries, where herbicide and pesticide use are not well regulated and proper safety equipment is not widely available, workers and their families can suffer health consequences from inhalation and direct contact with chemicals. These health consequences can be extremely serious and, at sufficient levels, some toxins can cause organ failure and death.

The absorption of toxins by any means, be they organic or synthesised, can be extremely harmful. Some act as carcinogens, such as dioxins produced during the manufacture of chlorinated herbicides, while others, including mercury present in tuna, can cause brain damage. The effects of chemical exposure are particularly acute in children and adolescents, causing delayed development and growth problems. Exposure during pregnancy can result in severe birth defects, or death of the fetus.

The regulation of chemical toxins present in food is critical in preventing outbreaks of poisoning. With food being traded and exported at a greater rate than ever before, this becomes increasingly important, as cases can be far reaching and widely distributed. We cannot avoid the use of chemicals in agriculture outright, but we can minimise the risk by monitoring levels administered to crops. Problems arise when contamination occurs that cannot be regulated. Fertiliser runoff, heavy metal leakage, petroleum spillage and industrial waste chemicals contribute to the gradual toxification of our oceans. Such leakage occurs as a result of discharge of chemical waste into waterways, which eventually are released into the ocean. It is difficult to monitor or prevent this, and when contamination occurs as a result of nature, such as rainfall or wind, it is impossible to gauge the risk.

Like all of our depredations of the environment, chemical contamination will ultimately affect us. Yet the speed and the potency with which it does so are far more direct than other environmental concerns. When we compromise our own food quality, one of the many things which we depend on nature for, the cost of our errors is immediate. When we place profit above the health of our environment and the health of people, the issues created affect us directly, not just future generations. It seems that the preoccupation with the now, with the synthesised and the artificial, with output and efficiency, is all too deeply ingrained into the human psyche. The issue of chemical contamination is not merely a logistical or scientific problem, it extends to our morals, our philosophy. All too soon we must ask ourselves: is it right to value productivity over safety?

Essay topic: Chemical contamination and its effect on food quality and human health

Prize: $1000 and trip to CleanUp2017 dinner

Judging criteria: writing quality, interest, newsworthiness, and scientific accuracy

Published April 2018 Issue 19