Healing Our World: Weekly Comment

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Ethical Dilemmas – How Do We Decide?

Industrial cultures live with the essence of two extremely dangerous phenomena. One is the good side of production; the other is the danger of what happens to the tools for production when they are devoid of any spiritual strength ...

... The spirit liberates the person to work with the things of the soul. Because this reaching out to the spiritual is not happening, the Machine has overthrown the spirit and, as it sits in its place, is being worshiped as spiritual. This is simply an error of human judgment. Anyone who worships his own creation, something of his own making, is someone in a state of confusion.
-- Malidoma Patrice Some

While courts argue, lawmakers struggle, and organizations sue, I realize that I have come to see things as either right or wrong. My usual test for the rightness of a position is whether or not anyone is being hurt or has the potential of being hurt by an action. In discussions of ethical theory – which I am going to teach in a five week class that starts next week – this criteria would be known as an “ideal,” one of the three basic criteria for ethical discourse.

Unfortunately, what seems to me to be a fairly black and white ideal can seem totally unfair to someone with a different value system. But I have to ask myself if that is just a human-made rationale to justify stupidity.

For example, the Environmental Working Group recently released a study that found women from one end of the country to the other had measurable levels of the toxic chemical family polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs in their blood. This new study mirrors the results of earlier studies.

PBDEs belong to a family of chemicals that came into heavy use in the 1970s. Europe is phasing them out and California recently passed a ban on some forms of them. They are used so widely throughout the world that traces of them can even be found in the blood of indigenous peoples far from technology.

PBDEs are used primarily to make fire retardants, chemicals that supposedly slow the spread of fire. They are used in electronics, electrical cables, carpets, furniture, textiles, computer casings, marine paints, fax machines, printers, cell phones, and coffee makers. But the form that may spread the chemical the most may be in the polyurethane foam used in so much furniture, carpet padding, and auto seats.


Polyurethane skull model helps doctors repair a skull with a titanium plate.. (Photo courtesy University College London Department of Medical Physics and Bioengineering)
The EWG says that “recent research on animals has shown that exposure to low levels of PBDEs can cause permanent neurological and developmental damage including deficits in learning, memory and hearing, changes in behavior, and delays in sensory-motor development.” Most at risk are pregnant women, fetuses, infants, young children, and the 10 million Americans with hypothyroidism.

The chemicals are found worldwide in house dust, indoor and outdoor air and the water and sediments of rivers, estuaries and oceans. PBDEs have been found in the tissues of whales, seals, birds and bird eggs, moose, reindeer, mussels, eels, and dozens of species of fish from both freshwater and marine environments.

Most Americans may carry levels of PBDEs in their bodies that have been found to cause serious, permanent neurological damage in laboratory animals.

So what about my ideal that says you should stop making something if it could cause harm?

Unfortunately, governments and chemical manufacturers confuse us by warning that if you ban fire retardants, then fire related deaths could increase. What they don’t tell us is that alternatives to PBDEs are available immediately.

For example, the Ikea company, an international department store chain, had to comply with the European ban on PBDEs that goes into effect in 2004, so they simply used thicker foam in their furniture. The resulting fire resistance is enough to meet safety standards. Some computer manufacturers are reducing the need for PBDEs by encasing computers in metal instead of plastic.

The chemical industry is one of the most poorly regulated industries on Earth. Manufacturers of these toxic substances are allowed to supply safety reports to the various government agencies, and few chemicals are denied entry into the marketplace.

Bill Walker of the Environmental Working Group said, “The chemical regulation process in this country basically allows this grand experiment to be carried out on all of us. We release these chemicals into the environment and 20 or 30 years later we see the effects.”


U.S. EPA workers sample an abandoned chemical drum to determine the health threats and the need for emergency response. (Photo courtesy EPA)
The chemical nightmare in the United States has been going on for a long time and those who work in these toxic industries are especially at risk. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that more than 32 million workers are exposed to harmful substances from more than 3.5 million workplaces.

Over the last 30 years, OSHA has issued only 170 citations to employers for not having proper procedures to protect against toxic substances leaving the workplace. Few studies are done on the level of exposures that consumers face from these products.

There have been over 1,000 victims of workplace toxics in the home over the last 20 years. There have been cases of employees of the nuclear industry taking radioactive material home on their skin and clothing and spreading it to cars, homes, businesses, and their children. In California, hundreds of children of parents who work with lead in their jobs have been found with elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream.

Cancers, learning disabilities, impaired motor coordination, memory loss, incurable lung disease, seizures, asthma and death have been reported among family members of workers in toxic industries.

Typical cleaning methods such as vacuuming and washing may be doing more harm than good, spreading the contaminants all over the house. Toxics can enter the home on clothing, briefcases, handbags, shoes, skin and hair.

A worker in the nuclear industry had contaminated his hands, wrists and jacket with radiation that was not detected when he left work. It was later found in his home on bedding and towels.

Boys and girls as young as four years old whose parents worked at an Indianapolis chemical plant where zeranol, an animal growth accelerator was used, have developed enlarged breasts. Work clothing routinely washed at workers’ homes was found to contain the substance.

The list of victims goes on and on. Many family members who work in the chemical industry live with lifelong guilt at having indirectly caused the deaths of beloved children, spouses, unborn children or other relatives.

Of course, the problem has its roots in our consumer, economic based culture where health is measured in terms of units sold and profit margins. Too many of the toxic substances the workers of the world come into contact with are used to make items that are not an essential part of our existence and that we would all be better off without.

What of our ethical theories? I think we work too hard to try and prove or disprove concerns. I don’t care what the belief system is, what the business is, or what economic impact that business has on the nation, if something is being made that causes harm, or could cause harm, at any stage in production cycle, come up with something else.

We all have to stop endlessly studying issues and litigating court cases and wake up from our economically and politically – and probably chemically - induced stupor and protect people and the environment from harm.


1. See the complete story on PBDEs at the Environmental Working Group’s website at: http://www.ewg.org/

2. See an extensive USA TODAY special report on workplace toxins from a few years ago at: http://www.usatoday.com/careers/news/usa006.htm

3. For a list of problem industries with cancer risks, visit: http://www.toxictorts.com/toxic_injury.html. You will also find legal histories of court actions.

4. For some ideas for alternatives to fire retardant products that contain PBDEs, see: http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc.mhtml?i=97&s=pbde

5. Read about one of the other PBDE studies at: http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/journals/esthag-w/2001/dec/science/kb_pbde.htm

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle and the author of "Healing Our World", A Journey from the Darkness Into the Light," available at: http://www.xlibris.com/HealingOurWorld.html and “Of This Earth, Reflections on Connections,” available at: http://ofthisearth.org. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at: jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his website at: http://www.healingourworld.com}