Our Imminent Demise – 3. Toxic Chemistry

The mass extinction event underway owes a large debt to man-made chemical pollution. The poisoning of Earth by men began in ancient times. Along with other evils created by men, chemical abuse accelerated greatly with industrialization.

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Earth’s air is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, almost 1% argon, just 4 / 100ths of a percent carbon dioxide, or CO2, and with trace amounts of other gases.

A greenhouse gas is an excitable gas. Nitrogen, oxygen, and argon are not greenhouse gases, as they form tight molecules which are not rattled when energetically jostled. Being unaffected by infrared radiation means these gases generate no greenhouse, or warming, effect.

Water vapor has the greatest greenhouse effect in the air. The water cycle has played an enormous role in making and keeping Earth habitable.

There is a positive feedback loop among greenhouse gases and water vapor that generates a warming gyre. By trapping extra heat, greenhouse gases affect the amount of water vapor in the air. Heating the air by adding carbon dioxide means the air takes up more water vapor, which further warms the atmosphere. Thus, greenhouse gases engender a multiplier to their warming effect via humidity.

Carbon dioxide is the principal gaseous determinant of Earth’s climate state. It essentially acts as the radiative “control knob” that sets global temperature. Contributing 63% toward aeriform global warming, carbon dioxide is by far the gas with the greatest greenhouse kick.

The rising level of atmospheric CO2 is a direct product of deforestation and life under industrialization.

Clearing forests delivers a double shot of carbon dioxide. CO2 is released by the felling or burning. Further, the loss of vegetation removes a natural absorber of carbon dioxide.

The atmospheric carbon dioxide level before industrialization was 280 parts per million. By the end of 2nd World War it had hit 300. People were emitting 6 billion metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere annually.

The global level of atmospheric CO2 went over 400 parts per million in 2013. The last time the carbon dioxide level was that high was 3 million years ago, when sea levels were 20 meters higher.

In May 2019, global CO2 hit 415 parts per million. During 2018, humanity pumped roughly 45 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air: over 600% more than during the mid-20th century.

The current rate of greenhouse gas emission increase is over 100 times faster than in at least the last billion years, if ever in the planet’s history; a rate that continues to rise.

Once installed, carbon dioxide persists in the air for a century. Humanity has already locked in accelerating global warming for the rest of its existence.

Most of the greenhouse gases people emit come from the combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

Coal has been mined since medieval times in Europe. Coal was the vital fuel for industrialization. At the onset of the 20th century, coal dominated energy supply.

As the 20th century wore on, other fossil fuels, particularly petroleum and natural gas, came to the fore. Vehicle transport accounted for the rise of petroleum as a fuel and planetary warming agent.

Coal is an especially noxious pollution source, as it has scant hydrogen compared to other fossil fuels, and so coal combustion is not as thorough as other fossil fuels, which are more refined. Hydrogen burns cleanly with no pollution. Natural gas is cleaner than coal and petroleum partly because of its high hydrogen content.

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Men mined for minerals before they figured out how to write. Arabs in the Middle East were using concrete-like materials 7,000 years before the common era.

The ancient Romans were the first to employ concrete on a large scale. After the Roman Empire collapsed, concrete was largely forgotten until its redevelopment in England during the mid-18th century, whereupon concrete was used to build the modern urban jungle.

The concrete the Romans made is superior to the modern variety. Chemical reactions on modern concrete after it hardens can only be damaging. In contrast, Roman concrete became stronger with time.

The difference is in the materials and process of making cement, which is the primary ingredient in concrete. Compared to ancient times, modern concrete is a careless construction, and so does not last like Roman concrete did.

Open-pit mining for limestone, a key ingredient in cement, is environmentally destructive. Both the intense heating and the chemical reactions involved in cement manufacture produce prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide. Cement production contributes 5% of all fossil-fuel-based CO2 emissions worldwide.

By weight, concrete is the 2nd-most-consumed substance on Earth, behind water. On average, every person on the planet chews through 2.7 metric tonnes of cement each year. 4.3 billion tonnes were consumed worldwide in 2014. Concrete is used to build roads, runways, sidewalks, bridges, buildings, and dams. China consumes over half the cement made, and produces 60% of it, followed at a distance by India and the United States.

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Lead is a soft, dull metal that is utterly toxic. Lead only came to the attention of ancient men because of galena, which is also called lead glance. Galena is an ore which has silver along with lead. The silver was of interest but lead too found uses.

The ancient Egyptians were the first to put lead in cosmetics, a practice that spread to ancient Greece and beyond. Ancient civilizations in the Fertile Crescent used lead as a writing material, as currency, and in construction. The ancient Chinese ate lead as a stimulant and contraceptive, as well as using it as a currency.

Being an easily worked metal, the ancient Romans used lead to make water pipes. Europeans in medieval times continued this practice.

Lead was also used during the Middle Ages to adulterate wine, leading to innumerable mass poisonings well into the late 18th century. Lead became a key material for the printing press, which was invented around the year 1440. Lead dust was commonly inhaled, causing lead poisoning.

Firearms were invented contemporaneously to the printing press. With both, words and war took a step up. Lead became the common material for bullets, as lead bullets were relatively easy to make, caused less damage to gun barrels, and the density of lead meant that these bullets had good velocity retention.

Lead as a whitener in cosmetics became common, first in Europe, and then in Japan, where the practice continued into the 20th century.

During the industrial age, lead continued to be employed for piping water. Lead was also put into paints, as lead stabilized paint and helped keep colors bright. Lead had first been used in paint in the 4th century before the common era. In 1786, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to a friend warning him of the hazard of lead, and particularly lead paint; a danger which Franklin considered well established.

Lead as a poisoning agent became better appreciated in the last half of the 19th century. The first laws aimed at lead pollution were enacted in Britain in the 1870s and 1880s. There was no law against lead in the United States until 1971, and that only applied to lead paint.

Even as the toxicity of lead became better known, its use continued, and even expanded. In 1921, while working for General Motors, Thomas Midgley¬†Jr. discovered how to prevent “knocking” in gasoline engines: add a bit of lead to the fuel. General Motors deceptively advertised the additive as “Ethyl,” avoiding any mention of the well-known toxicant. In 1923, Midgley took a long vacation, hoping to cure himself of lead poisoning.

Despite scientific outcry, leaded gasoline was adopted worldwide.

Lead gasoline was only banned in the US in 1990. By then, lead was in the blood and brain of every American, making them even stupider than they would have otherwise been.

Only in the early 21st century was lead phased out of gasoline in most industrialized countries. By that time, lead had infused the planetary atmosphere and had landed everywhere on Earth. Lead in water supplies remains a severe health hazard throughout much of the world, including the United States.

Back to Thomas Midgley Jr. at General Motors. In the late 1920s, GM had Midgley working on a way to improve the refrigerants used in refrigerators and air conditioners. The currently used chemicals were toxic, flammable, or explosive.

Midgley settled on a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC),¬†which was trademarked “Freon.” CFCs went on, in various concoctions, to keep devices and people cool worldwide.

In the early 1970s, researchers discovered that CFCs were eating huge holes in the atmospheric ozone layer, which helps keep the planet cool. CFCs were ostensibly banned worldwide by 2110, but their use continues. Still resident in the upper atmosphere, CFCs continue to help heat the planet, and so contribute to global warming.

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The first man-made plastic was created from cellulose in 1855 by English metallurgist and inventor Alexander Parkes.

In the mid-19th century, American inventor John Wesley Hyatt simplified the production of celluloid, which became the basis for motion picture film stock. Hyatt received several hundred patents for various plastics.

In 1907, Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland invented the 1st inexpensive, nonflammable, and versatile plastic. Plastics found employment in a vast number of applications in the decades that followed.

In 1955, Life magazine celebrated the dawn of “throwaway living,” thanks to disposable plastics. In 2015, 406 million metric tonnes of plastic were produced worldwide. 36% of it was used once or twice and then throw away. The global production of plastics continues to rise at a meteoritic rate.

As part of a continuing trend, 13 million tonnes of plastic trash went into the world’s oceans in 2015; a tally which continues rising. By 2030 there will probably be more plastic in the ocean than fish weight-wise. This owes both to the burgeoning volume of plastic waste and the precipitous decline of fish. Already, 2/3rds of the seafood Americans eat has plastic in it.

Further, plastic fibers are in tap water worldwide. At least 83% of the world’s drinking water is plasticized. 94% of American tap water is laced with plastic. Practically all of the water in plastic bottles has plastic in it, as well as other toxic compounds. Americans drink 20 billion gallons of plasticized liquids annually.

Plastic undergoes physical and chemical transformations as it breaks down, increasing toxicity. A few compounds in plastic which leach out, such as BPA, disrupt the hormone systems of animals. The long-term health effects of plastic consumption are not well understood, but indications are that microplastic pollution is debilitating if not outright lethal.

Plastic debris is everywhere. Plastic has spread across the planet, including accumulating in the Arctic.

Plastic disintegrated by sunlight releases methane and ethylene, both potent greenhouse gases. Once such dissolution begins, the emissions proceed without further solar energy.

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Mankind paid too little heed to the poisons which were thought to offer some modest convenience. In agriculture, that careless habit expanded with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic engineering. Next, how we fouled the world with our food.