If You Love This Planet, Dr. Helen Caldicott

Archive for June, 2009

Lester Brown on the precarious world food situation and other threats to humanity

Monday, June 22nd, 2009


Photo:  The New York Times

Photo: The New York Times

Founder of environmental non-profit research group Earth Policy Institute as well as the Worldwatch Institute, Lester Brown has been described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” He
holds 24 honorary degrees and has written 50 books. In this interview with
Dr. Caldicott, he talks about the rise of failed states around the world, how
the price of grain will in the future be linked to the price of oil, and the danger posed to civilization if food and water shortages and hunger continue to increase. Read Fears for the world’s poor countries as the rich grab land to grow food.

Lester Brown

Lester Brown

Brown’s recent book titled Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization is published by W.W. Norton. It can be purchased in print or downloaded for free. Read A Conversation with Lester Brown in the summer 2009 issue of Earth Island Journal. Read Brown’s article in the May 2009 Scientific American, Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?

At the start of the program, Brown describes the components of a failed country, and lists nations which meet this description. He says that as the list of failing states grows, the fate of these nations may create a failed global civilization, with major repercussions for all humanity. One of the problems affecting failed states is deforestation and soil erosion. Read geologist David Montgomery’s article Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability and buy his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Brown says a country like Haiti, an “ecological basket case,” is in many cases also an “economic basket case.” How the First World may block aid to the Third World is also worth noting. Read the July 6 Oxfam International press release More than 3 Million Face Death [in Subsaharan Africa] while Berlusconi and the G8 Fiddle about how “urgent action” is needed “to protect poor people from the triple threat of the economic crisis, rising food prices and climate change.” The failed-states issue is one of many incredibly urgent topics on this week’s episode. Also see the July 6 Oxam press release about their new report on hunger and climate change, Millions Face Climate-Related Hunger as Seasons Shift and Change.

Dr. Caldicott brings up the Amazon rainforest, and Brown then delineates the three major land expansion efforts over the last century, one of which is leveling the Amazon. Brown notes how some of the disasters spawned by earlier land-expansion strategies were later reversed through careful conservation and planning. The fate of the Amazon rainforest is crucial to the health of the rest of the globe, particularly in terms of climate change. Read 85% of the Amazon may be lost due to global warming.

Brown discusses the relationship between food production and world hunger; which countries are changing from food exporters to food importers; and how crops grown for animals and for fuel will create more food shortages for humans. Brown says that the world used to have a separate food economy and energy economy, but now with ethanol, these economies are totally interconnected and interdependent. Up to one-quarter of the U.S. grain harvest is now going toward fuel for cars. Dr. Caldicott points to the folly of “feeding cars not people,” and creating more CO2 than is produced processing petroleum. Brown says that all the latest findings say that there is a net increase in carbon emissions when growing corn for ethanol (which also may involve major deforestation to create more cropland). Global warming will also cause food shortages. Read Half the world’s population faces major food crisis by 2100, Science study finds.

Brown notes the increasing competition between the 860 million people with cars who want to maintain mobility without concern for the fuel source, and the vast majority of the world’s people whose primary concern is survival. He describes how the number of hungry people is now increasing, not decreasing, and may reach 1.2 billion by 2017. With food prices on rise, the world could see more failing states, as governments may not be able to provide food.

Himalayan glacier melt.  Photo:  Greenpeace

Himalayan glacier melt. Photo: Greenpeace

Another critical issue affecting the world community is falling water tables. Brown talks about the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau, and what the loss of the glacier water will mean to the major river systems in China and India. One dramatic effect of this projected loss of water is that China, the world’s leading wheat producer, and India, the second larger producer, will no longer be able to grow most of their wheat. These same two countries also produce the bulk of the world’s rice for their own consumption and for export.

Dr. Caldicott talks about the major forest fires in Australia. Hear her interview with Paul Carroll about forest fires. Later, she points to another factor that can destabilize nations – nuclear weapons proliferation.

In closing, Dr. Caldicott asks Brown for his perspective on the Obama administration’s environmental team, and whether they will follow Brown’s contention that only an 80% reduction in fossil fuel emissions by 2020 can help avert catastrophic global warming. Be sure to tune in to what
Dr. Caldicott calls a “fascinating, insightful and visionary interview.”

Dr. Bryan Brooks on how drugs and soaps are contaminating rivers, oceans and drinking water

Monday, June 15th, 2009


Image:  watersecretsblog.com

Image: watersecretsblog.com

This week’s guest, Dr. Bryan Brooks, is an Associate Professor of Environmental Science at Baylor University in Texas. He has given over
60 invited presentations and lectures in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Poland, Portugal and Australia on the water quality dynamics of rapidly urbanizing regions. Dr Brooks is particularly interested in contaminants like pharma-ceuticals, personal care products and endocrine active substances, and the way in which these chemicals - as well as the excretion of medical drugs - affect the ecosystem and marine environment in which they end up. Read Baylor Begins First National Study On Pharmaceutical Contaminants, Personal Care Products in Fish Tissue.

Dr. Bryan Brooks

Dr. Bryan Brooks

In this interview, Dr. Brooks starts off by defining the term “PPCP” (pharmaceuticals and personal care products) as first used in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives. These PPCPs are entering the wastewater stream as consumers excrete or throw away drugs, and as they use shampoos, detergents and other body care goods that are washed down the drain. See the EPA’s Pharma-ceuticals and Personal Care Products as Pollutants (PPCPs) page.

Dr. Brooks is asked which surfactants or soaps are having adverse effects on aquatic life. Dr. Caldicott brings up the topic of antimicrobial soaps and other anti-germ agents, and what she calls an obsessive drive to sell people products that over-sterilize bathrooms and kitchens, when in fact we must live with some bacteria to develop our resistance. Read Cleaning Up Antimicrobial Hand Soaps and Warning: Toxic Chemical Triclosan Can Turn Your Toothpaste or Bathroom Soap into Chloroform about the negative aspects of these cleansers.

Dr. Brooks says scientists are assessing if current approaches to assess the environmental impact of PPCPs and hormone-disrupting chemicals are stringent enough & have the right design. He refers to the effects of water pollutants on alligator sexual development. Read the PBS Frontline Fooling with Nature feature, “Teeny Weenies.” Dr. Brooks also mentions the study by John Sumpter, Feminized responses in fish to environmental estrogens.


Dr. Caldicott refers to recent medical literature about more boys being born with smaller-than-normal or malformed penises, and she says we are definitely seeing the results of unstudied chemicals entering the environment. Read It’s official: Men really are the weaker sex: Evolution is being distorted by pollution, which damages genitals and the ability to father offspring, says new study.

The program discusses antibiotics in animals, and the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, before Dr. Caldicott asks Dr. Brooks to explain his findings on antidepressants and other pharma-ceutical drugs which are ending up in rivers (and other studies find, in tap water). Dr. Brooks says he found Prozac and Zoloft in fish. He describes how fish affected by antidepressants lose their ability to catch prey. Read Study: Pharma-ceuticals Found in North Texas Fish: Human drugs show up in fish caught near wastewater treatment plants about one of Dr. Brooks’s studies.

Dr. Brooks says the notion of mixtures is part of our lives with the advent of chemicals, and the challenge for scientists is to find the consequences in aquatic life of mixtures of drugs excreted or thrown by humans. Read the full text of Effects and Interactions in an Environmentally Relevant Mixture of Pharmaceuticals which describes a study of drug combinations similar to those combinations entering the water supply on the health of fish. Dr. Caldicott emphasizes that the EPA must become more involved in investigating the chemical cocktail humans and other creatures are forced to live in now.

To read more on the topics in this week’s program, see Endocrine Disruption Found in Fish Exposed to Municipal Wastewater and Cancer Drugs Found in Tap Water and Fish in U.S. Rivers Tainted With Common Medications and AP: Drugs found in drinking water and Benadryl, Antidepressants Found Tainting US Rivers
and Earthwatch – drugs in the water and Tests for drugs in tap water and How Drugs Can Contaminate Drinking Water.

Read Dr. Brooks’s paper, Ecotoxicological Investigations In Effluent-Dominated Stream Mesocosms (161 pages, 2002) and read an abstract of Dr. Brooks’s 2005 study Determination Of Select Antidepressants In Fish From An Effluent-Dominated Stream.

Dr. Richard Thompson on how out-of-control plastics are damaging life in the sea

Monday, June 8th, 2009



This week, Dr. Caldicott continues her exploration of the “plastic plague” that is seriously harming ocean life and increasingly linked to numerous human health problems. Her guest Dr. Richard Thompson is a Senior Lecturer and Reader in Marine Ecology at the University of Plymouth in the UK. He is a leading scientist on the subject of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) binding to ocean plastic debris. His research, some of which he discusses in this interview, focuses on three main topics: the effects of plastic trash in the marine environment, the ecology and conservation of shallow-water habitats, and habitat modification to enhance biodiversity of marine engineering such as coastal defenses and off-shore renewable energy devices.

Dr. Caldicott asks Dr. Thompson to talk about what plastic debris in the oceans is doing to the marine food chain at the macro and micro level, and he starts off by pointing out the enormous increase in plastic production. He mentions the shocking fact that in the first nine or 10 years of the 21st Century (in other words, from 2000 through 2010), the world will have produced more plastic than in all of the 20th Century. And nearly all that new plastic will stay in existence for a very long time. In the oceans, he says, plastic items dating to World War II have been found perfectly intact.

Dr. Richard Thompson

Dr. Richard Thompson

As discussed in Dr. Caldicott’s recent interview with Captain Charles Moore, plastic particles of all sizes can harm sea organisms. The ocean plastic may disintegrate into smaller fragments, but it continues to be harmful to sea life, and does not disappear. Dr. Thompson’s laboratory has studied recovered plastic particles as small as half the diameter of a human hair in the seas and in the creatures that live there. Read more about
Dr. Thompson’s and Captain Moore’s pioneering research in the article, Polymers Are Forever: Alarming Tales Of A Most Prevalent And Problematic Substance, an excerpt from Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us.

Dr. Caldicott asks Dr. Thompson to explain what she understands to be the five major categories of plastic, and he describes the different polymers.
Dr. Thompson argues that there are many societal benefits of plastic (in hospitals or schools, for example). He contends that how industry wastefully uses plastic to create packaging, and then fails to recycle most plastic, is the essential problem, not plastics themselves. Read Plastic. Fantastic? Can we learn to live with (and even love) plastic? Dr. Thompson says he believes the pace of industrialization and how goods are transported globally today would make it nearly impossible to eliminate plastic.

Penn. Dept. of Agriculture

Penn. Dept. of Agriculture

Dr. Caldicott questions if plastic is really necessary. She asks if we should abandon plastic in favor of re-usable items like glass beverage bottles. Perhaps only 2% of plastics are recycled now, and recycled plastic is presently used for a limited number of products. Dr. Caldicott talks about the amount of electricity and fossil fuel that would be required to recycle more plastic (vs. making products that can be reused virtually forever). Many people are attempting to remove plastic from their lives, and they describe their experiences in blogs. Read the articles Get Plastic Out Of Your Diet (If Your Food Or Drink Is In Plastic, The Plastic Is In You) and Alternatives to Plastic.

Dr. Thompson says that industry must consider how all products impact the environment, “cradle to cradle.” The book entitled Cradle to Cradle, mentioned by Capt. Moore, advocates redesigning everything with sustainability in mind. Dr. Thompson provides one solution to the problem of excess packaging. He notes how the United Kingdom is now requiring all food products with salt to rate the amount of salt with red, amber or green dots. He says a color rating system should also be used to rate the amount of packaging – minimal to excessive, which would force manufacturers to reduce excess packaging. Up to 60% of plastic, according to some figures, is packaging that is discarded. Americans produce about 250 pounds of plastic garbage per person, per year. Both re-use and recycling can be very successful, as exemplified by Germany, where among other practices, consumers return packaging to stores and manufacturers must take it back and recycle it. Read more about Germany’s policies here and here.

One topic not addressed on this program, which would factor into the future of plastic, is peak oil. If petroleum is no longer available or severely restricted, the majority of plastic materials as we know them today would be impossible to produce. Listen to Dr. Caldicott’s interview with Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute on the topic of peak oil (and peak coal).

This episode also does not investigate bioplastics made from corn, soy, hemp, etc., and whether plant plastics are the correct solution to the plastic problem. Capt. Moore stated that plant plastics often do not biodegrade as advertised without being sent to special facilities which break them down. Plant plastics also play into the notion of disposability instead of re-use, and do not not alleviate the problem of people littering. Growing corn and other crops solely for plant plastic (or for biofuels) would displace land used for food production. While plant plastics would not have nearly the toxicity of oil-based plastic, they could still become debris that harms marine and land creatures. Read more about bioplastic in this Wikipedia article. Read about the bioplastic on the horizon in Biodegradable plastic made from plants, not oil, is emerging and A Turn to Alternative Chemicals and Coca-Cola Introduces Plant-Based Plastic Bottle [a bottle which is still 60-75% petroleum] and Scientists unveil plastic plants [genetically-engineered plants that actually “grow plastic”].

Dr. Caldicott moves the conversation with Dr. Thompson into the issue of toxicity of plastic, and the prevalence of the toxic chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) as discussed in her recent interview with Dr. Maricel Maffini. She refers to the recent Harvard University study that found that students who drank water out of plastic bottles had 70% more BPA in their urine than students in a control group who did not. Read Use of plastic bottles increases BPA in study. She mentions one of the highly toxic industrial corridors in New Jersey where plastic is made. Read about some of the pollutants released in the production of plastic in Plastic at your peril: The environmental and health costs of plastic.

Dr. Thompson talks about research studies finding minute particles of plastic in many consumer products like skin cleansers. If we are constantly flushing pieces of plastic into the water supply, he says, these microplastics are likely to harm many life forms. Do pets have plastic in them? Read about the findings of the Environmental Working Group’s study, Polluted Pets: High Levels of Toxic Industrial Chemicals Contaminate Cats And Dogs.

Dr. Thompson says the tiny plastic pre-production pellets or “nurdles” are becoming ubiquitous in the marine environment and in storm drains and rivers. He says that 95% of one seabird species has plastic in it. Nurdles now comprise 11 percent of beach litter.
Dr. Thompson discusses his findings about plastic on beaches throughout the world, and the increasing abundance of plastic fragments. One of Dr. Thompson’s studies showed that, in his words, “small plastic particles translocate to the circulatory system of the common mussel Mytilus edulis.” Read an abstract of Ingested Microscopic Plastic Translocates to the Circulatory System of the Mussel, Mytilus edulis (L.). Dr. Caldicott says she was fascinated to read how plastic particles can migrate throughout an organism, which she says could have major ramifications for animals and humans as plastic contaminants bio-concentrate in the food chain, and fish and other marine life become increasing polluted with plastic (and mercury, flame retardants, etc.).

Dr. Thompson explains how plastic polymers absorb carcinogenic and estrogenic mimickers from sea water, and which of these hydrophobic chemicals the plastic tends to absorb. He continues to study which chemicals are being absorbed, and which creatures are ingesting the most contaminated plastic. Dr. Thompson refers to the work of Dr. Hideshige Takada who is mapping the location of plastic pellets found worldwide, and which chemicals are binding to the nurdles. See more information on the International Pellet Watch website. Dr. Thompson says he is finding plastic particles everywhere in the world.

For more on Dr. Thompson’s research, read his 2004 article on microplastic, Lost at Sea – Where is All the Plastic? Read more on this study in Rising tide of micro-plastics plaguing the seas. Also read Potential for Plastics to Transport Hydrophobic Contaminants, another study by
Dr. Thompson.

For further information on this week’s topic, have a look at the following articles: Why Small Plastic Particles May Pose a Big Problem in the Oceans and Oceans Awash With Microscopic Plastic, Scientists Say and Warning on plastic’s toxic threat and Plastics ‘poisoning world’s seas’ and How to Help Prevent Birds and Sea Life from Dying. Learn about the new 85-minute documentary film, Addicted to Plastic : The Rise and Demise of a Modern Miracle, and watch the two-minute trailer here. And visit the website of Plastic Debris-Rivers to Sea, a project of Capt. Moore’s Algalita Marine Research Foundation and the California Coastal Commission.

This week’s interview with Dr. Richard Thompson is a vital use of your time to learn even more about the multifaceted problem of plastic.

Lynn Eden on how firestorms would greatly intensify the effects of nuclear war

Monday, June 1st, 2009


Lynn Eden

Lynn Eden

Do Pentagon nuclear-war planners really take into account the destruction nuclear weapons would unleash? This week’s guest, Lynn Eden, has found that the devastating and far-reaching fire damage that would result from use of nuclear weapons is not considered by the U.S. military, which only pays attention to the more limited blast damage. Eden is the acting co-director (2008-09) of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, where she is a senior research scholar. She is a co-chair of Pugwash USA. Her focus is on foreign and military policy, and science and technology in the nuclear realm. This program discusses Eden’s most recent book, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge and Nuclear Weapons Devastation, which won the American Sociological Association’s 2004 Robert K. Merton Award for best book on science, knowledge and technology.

Dr. Caldicott has Eden expound upon the history and the more dysfunctional aspects of U.S. war planning and nuclear weapons targeting. Edens describes how much more destructive any nuclear blast on a U.S. (or Russian) city would be when firestorms are taken into account. Many U.S. and Russian cities have over 40 weapons targeted on them, a case of extreme “overkill”. This episode also looks at the Pentagon’s use of language regarding nuclear war casualties and the concept of “deterrence;” the number of U.S. and Russian weapons on alert and in storage; and the “football” that U.S. and Russian presidents would have to activate to launch nuclear weapons. Read Obama Gets Nuclear “Football”. Read more about the U.S. football here and see close-up photos here. Read about the Russian football or “cheget,” and how U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons-launch protocols differ in Changing the Nuclear Command.

The horrific damage that nuclear weapons can unleash, as explained in this episode, is well represented in Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors’ accounts in the Emmy-Award-winning 2007 documentary White Light Black Rain, now available on DVD. Dr. Caldicott and Eden explore how present-day nuclear weapons are much more powerful than those used on Japan. Our host refers to an article she co-wrote with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Still on Catastrophe’s Edge: In a flash, U.S. and Russia could hurl thousands of missiles at each other, which notes the redundancy of cities nuclear targeters select to bomb. Watch a still-relevant 2003 lecture by Dr. Caldicott at the Goldman School of Public Policy, U.C. Berkeley in which she covers the present nuclear alert situation, the medical effects of nuclear war, and other nuclear weapons topics.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Keith Davids carrying the football, foreground, containing nuclear codes, at the White House (2005 AP photo)

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Keith Davids carrying the "football," foreground, containing nuclear codes, at the White House (2005 AP photo)

Today, U.S.-Russian relations are on the mend, and President Obama has declared his commitment to eliminate all nuclear weapons (though he has absolved himself of some responsibility by saying total disarmament may not be achieved in his lifetime). However, for now the possibility of global nuclear war between the superpowers, by computer or human accident or by design, is still a real possibility at every moment. Read about just a few of the known False Alarms on the Nuclear Front. Nuclear weapons could also be launched by the smaller nuclear states, which would create a regional catastrophe and exacerbate global warming, as described in
Dr. Caldicott’s interview last year with Professor Alan Robock.

Eden describes how her research on the fire damage of nuclear war enabled her to discover a great deal about how organizations make decisions and solve problems, often with pronounced blind spots and tunnel-vision thinking. Dr. Caldicott notes that as the work of U.S. and Russian nuclear-war planners involves the very real possibility of global annihilation, what they do in secret and how they think “affects every person on earth. They are determining our future.” Don’t miss this episode to learn more about the still-urgent issue of preventing nuclear war.