Some people may know me from my days as a television and print journalist. Before that, I trained as a nurse.
In the years that have followed, the incidence of many diseases and conditions afflicting humanity have not decreased, as one might have hoped, but have significantly increased. Alzheimer’s, autism, asthma, allergies and childhood cancer among others.
Research carried out by the United States National Cancer Institute puts the increase in childhood cancer in that country up almost 30 per cent since 1975. That is alongside the rise in cancer overall, diabetes, coronary heart disease, strokes and arthritis.
Even in our little corner of the world we are experiencing many such health challenges among our people.
The human body is a very complex mechanism and those who know most about how it works tell us we still have much to learn. One area where much work is still to be done is toxicology, the field of science that studies the harmful effects that chemicals or substances can have on people, animals and the environment.
We know that certain chemicals or substances are poisonous to the human body in certain quantities – for example, botulinum toxin, toxins from certain snakes, fish, frogs, spiders, plants, and cyanide, arsenic or strychnine.
What is much less clear is the combined synergistic effect on a given human being of long-term exposure to a wide variety of substances, including heavy metals such as aluminium, cadmium, lead and mercury.
Those, as well as the cocktail of chemicals the average person regularly consumes in the form of food preservatives, colourings, flavourings and other additives, or applies to their body in the form of personal care products.
There are reported to be at least 1000 chemicals in our food that have never been tested for safety.
Of more than 84,000 chemicals on the market in things such as personal care and household products, only about 1 per cent are reported to have been tested for safety.
One mainstream scientific report noted that many babies today are “born pre-polluted” – 300 contaminants have been detected in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.
An average woman who applies around 15 personal care products per day is being exposed to around 168 chemicals from that source alone.
A child born today will grow up being exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in history. It’s been described as living in a toxic soup.
The human body has a number of detoxification pathways, but there is mounting concern that the daily level of exposure to a growing number of environmental stressors places too great a cumulative burden upon many people’s systems to cope effectively, especially the young and the old.
Many researchers into those diseases that are on the rise, such as childhood cancer and Alzheimer’s, believe that environmental factors are the likely drivers behind their worrying increase in recent decades.
These environmental factors include exposure to heavy metals. For example, when the extent to which lead was a health hazard to the development of young children’s brains and nervous systems became recognised, governments around the world took steps to regulate lead in paint and petrol.
Whenever as a community we have a problem to solve, we should therefore always be looking for the solution with the least environmental impact as a sensible way forward.
In the current debate around providing the community with cleaner, safer drinking water, the question therefore isn’t: “What’s an effective way to produce clean drinking water for the public?” but rather “What’s an effective and cost-effective way to produce clean, safe drinking water with the least environmental impact?”
The announcement that poly-aluminium chloride is now to be used on Rarotonga is a matter of real concern. Scientists have found that this chemical can harm or kill animals that accumulate aluminium in their bodies, such as young fish and freshwater prawns, and that aluminium can also accumulate in the surrounding soil and vegetation.
Why should this concern us?
Because this is our small island environment, the environment we and our families live, work and play in.
This month Cook Islands News reported that growers were developing an “audacious plan to rejuvenate our local agriculture”. Te Tango Enua president, Danny Mataroa, said the organisation was exploring opportunities for export, especially organically-farmed produce to New Zealand.
More and more customers around the world are wanting to be assured of the quality and wholesomeness of their food, and many are seeking out organic food, especially for their babies and children.
Organic produce commands a significant premium, so it makes good economic sense for Te Tango Enua to be targeting this expanding, high-value niche market.
But you cannot operate an organic farming method in a polluted environment. And consumers worldwide are increasingly concerned about polluted environments and polluted food.
Currently our economy depends largely on tourism, and travellers to our country value a clean, unspoiled island environment.
We would therefore want to avoid solving one problem – that of achieving cleaner, safer public drinking water – by creating a much bigger problem – heavy metal pollution in our environment which once it occurs, is almost impossible to undo.
The genie is then already out of the bottle, and the domino cascade has begun. The cost to the health of our people, to our environment, to any potential organic farming ventures and to our tourism of heavy metals being leached into our island’s waterways, soil and vegetation far outweighs any benefit.
For many years resorts around the island have been cleaning the water for their guests using filtration and UV purification methods. There are also other effective and environmentally-smarter ways of providing our people with cleaner, safer drinking water which have been put forward by concerned island residents.
In addition, any household can boil water or purchase water filter jugs such as Zero or Brita.
As a community, what we would want to achieve is the greatest benefit for the least impact. What we would want to avoid is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut – in other words, using a very heavy, high-impact solution when we could instead tread lightly to solve the same problem without harmful downstream effects to the health of our people, our environment, our tourism and our agriculture.
We all want to protect our children, ourselves, our visitors and our environment from potential harm.
Unleashing poly-aluminium chloride into our environment does not sound to be the smartest solution when much better, safer public water solutions are well within our reach.