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Our Chemically Modified Organisms (CMOs)

Our Chemically Modified Organisms (CMOs), 22.5 x 33"
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Industrial chemistry is a 20th century phenomenon. During World War I, military demand for war gas was a great boon for the burgeoning industry. But, in 1925, with the signing of the Geneva Protocol that banned chemical warfare, industry had to look for other markets. The production of nerve gas (a phosphorous-containing chemical) gave way to a new line of insecticides and the chlorine used in weapons such as phosgene and mustard gas became feedstock for newly designed solvents, PCBs and, eventually, plastics.

The chemical industry really took off after World War II. In the United States, synthetic organic chemical production has grown more than thirty-fold since 1940. Today industry produces billions of tons of chemicals per year of approximately 90,000 substances. These man-made chemicals are the foundation of our built environment. They form our plastics, cosmetics, household cleaners, pharmaceuticals, resins, pesticides, food packaging, paper, clothing, flame-retardants, electronics, solvents, paint, automobile parts, mattresses, lumber, pigments, refrigeration, detergents, PVC, silicone, dry cleaning, disinfectants, lubricants – the list is truly endless.

Many of these chemicals and the byproducts produced during their life cycle are stable and persist in the environment. These chemicals also bio-accumulate, meaning they increase in concentration as they move up the food chain. Chemicals can travel great distances on currents of wind and water, making remote regions like the Arctic just as susceptible to degradation.

New research demonstrates that some of these pollutants, even at very low doses, can cause serious health problems. Previously it was thought that decreasing the concentration of a substance would mitigate its impact. Dilution is no longer seen as the pollution solution. Timing of exposure is crucial and sensitivity is particularly high when exposure occurs in utero or early development.

For many years, cancer was the primary health concern. Today, laboratory studies and wildlife observations demonstrate that chemical dangers are extensive. Chemical exposures disrupt endocrine, reproductive, immune and nervous systems as well as contribute to cancer and other diseases.

In its first scientific statement published in 2009, The Endrocrine Society -- an international body with 14,000 members founded in 1916 -- stated: “Results from animal models, human clinical observations, and epidemiological studies converge to implicate EDCs [endocrine-disrupting chemicals] as a significant concern to public health.”

The United States government does not require manufacturers to prove a chemical is safe before use and companies generally do not voluntarily do so. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has only required testing for some 200 of the 90,000 chemicals already in circulation. In response, many groups and concerned citizens are promoting the precautionary principle, which states that the manufacture of certain products should cease even when there are only hypothetical and untested risks. This places the burden of proof on the industry to show that a substance is safe rather than on society to demonstrate there is a specific risk.

Some scientists are creating new frameworks, citing the failure of the scientific method alone to sufficiently protect human health and ecological effects. Funtowicz and Ravetz, for example, have introduced postnormal science, which is useful when facts are uncertain, the stakes are high and decisions are urgent. These scientists encourage dialogue and participation with a full range of stakeholders since scientific objectivity cannot provide all that is needed for decision-making on high, risk issues.

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