Saturday, October 27, 2012

How many more must UNEP kill?

Dr Andrew Wakefield caused widespread alarm when he claimed that his research showed that the childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella could cause autism.  In May 2010, he was banned from practicing medicine in Britain for ethical lapses, including conducting invasive medical procedures on children that they did not need. Part of the cost of Dr. Wakefield’s research was paid by lawyers acting for parents seeking to sue vaccine makers for damages.

His claimed link caused the use of the vaccine in Britain and elsewhere in the world to plummet, a development that has contributed to a sharp rise in childhood diseases in countries where the vaccine was in use. Measles alone killed over 150 000 worldwide in 2008. It took more than a decade and intensive research to prove that the vaccine was indeed safe. There are still parents who refuse to have their children inoculated. Being banned from practice in Britain seems a mild punishment indeed.

But what do you do about an international body that does something very similar? What do you do if it makes wild, unsubstantiated claims, which seem calculated to cause a less-than-expert public to forego real benefits for fear of harm? 

In September 2012, the UN Environment Program [UNEP] released a report “Global Chemicals Report – Towards the sound management of chemicals.” The report itself is not yet available, but the Synthesis Report for Policy Makers can be downloaded from  It is, of course, a major question why the synthesis should precede the report itself, but that is not the real problem.

The real problem is that the Synthesis Report makes a lot of serious claims that lack any form of substantiation.  What is one to make of a claim such as “The Global Chemicals Outlook states that of the 5.7 million metric tonnes of pollutants released in North America (United States, Canada and Mexico), close to two million were chemicals that are persistent, able to accumulate in humans and animals and are toxic. The report also deemed toxic a further million tonnes of substances that are linked with or have suspected links with cancer.” 

Guess what gives cancers? Car tyres! Yes, they contain “Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and 1,3-butadiene. Some PAHs are carcinogenic, and 1,3-butadiene is a known human carcinogen.” Indeed, tyres contain carbon black, and that has traces of PAH’s in it; and 1,3-butadiene is used in the manufacture of tyres.  However, during manufacture it is polymerised into polybutadiene. Polybutadiene is harmless and widely used for drinking water piping.

Agricultural chemicals come in for particularly strong condemnation. “Total pesticide expenditures in South Africa rose 59% over the period 1999 to 2009, and are projected to rise another 55% in the period 2009 to 2019.” “World consumption of fertilizers is estimated to grow 2.6% per year in the period 2010 to 2014.” So, if UNEP is to be believed, it is better to feed insects than to feed ourselves, and better to starve than to fertilize our crops.

When you dig a little further, you find, horror of horrors, “Products such as cell phones and laptops are being purchased and used in regions of the world recently thought to be too remote.” Ecopaternalism is rife.

But far rifer are the stories of gloom and disaster. “Despite ubiquitous exposure to chemicals in both developed and developing nations, little is known about the total disease burden attributable to chemicals. In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that globally, 4.9 million deaths
(8.3% of total) and 86 million Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) (5.7% of total) were attributable to environmental exposure and management of selected chemicals in 2004 for which data were available.” 

Now for the good news – “This figure includes indoor smoke from solid fuel use, outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke, with 2.0, 1.2 and 0.6 million deaths/year. These are followed by occupational particulates, chemicals involved in acute poisonings, and pesticides involved in self-poisonings, with 375,000, 240,000 and 186,000 deaths/year respectively.” So of the 4.9 million deaths, most had causes other than what most would consider chemicals – smoke, air pollution and suicide.

Driving the message home are graphics straight out of the Greenpeace book of environmental photojournalism:
Nowhere is there any mention of the huge benefits chemicals have brought mankind. We enjoy clean water due to the chemical destruction of a wide range of pathogens – that in itself is worth tens of millions of lives annually.  We feed ourselves, we clothe ourselves, and our homes are warm and dry, thanks to the wonders of modern chemistry.  Yet UNEP would have us believe that all chemicals are bad, evil and to be avoided – particularly if you happen to be a developing nation. Forego the benefits, is the message – you don’t want to suffer as we in the developed world must, do you?

UNEP is the body behind the ban on the use of DDT. The ban may thicken the shells of the eggs of a few seabirds; but it causes the deaths of over one million Africans each year from that preventable disease, malaria.  

How many must UNEP kill before reason sets in and its leaders are charged with crimes against humanity?

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