You are on page 1of 6


Fred Slocombe

Toxins in the Food Chain:

The Creeping Normalcy of Pollution Perception.


Mercury and Arsenic are just two of many toxins in our environment. Others
include Lead, Benzene, Carbon Monoxide, Sulfuric Acid, and many more. Recent
studies by the group Environment Canada discovered in samples from the St.
Lawrence River in Quebec, “drugs ranging from caffeine and over-the-counter
Ibuprofen to the prescription antibiotic oxytetracycline and carbamazepine,
prescribed to treat epilepsy and Alzheimer's.” (Moore 2006. para 3) i Moore
reported that pharmaceutical development is far out-pacing the capacity for water
treatment facilities to filter and remove those substances. The scope of this paper is
narrowed to Mercury and Arsenic because those toxins have been more heavily
researched. However, I feel it’s necessary to also mention the need for more
research on Pharmacological influence on ecosystems.

Fred Slocombe
University of Illinois at Springfield
Profs. Gary L. Butler and Siri Hartsfield / BIO 305A 305B
Monday, July 24, 2006
I’ll start with an old cliché. If you throw a frog in boiling water, it will jump out, but if
you put it in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog won’t realize its demise and
it will die. This also called creeping normalcy which has been attributed to a basic
fundamental flaw in human perception. Changes in the environment, which occur at or
below a certain rate, will be ignored by most people.

By the early 1960’s the use of industrial pesticides were so heavily used that an avid bird
watcher named Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring that was inspired by her
notice of declining bird populations. Were it not for the seasonal changes, this decline
may never have been recognized. During the Vietnam War, the public became aware of
the Agent Orange defoliant, and together with Carson’s book, a movement was formed
that finally culminated in the creation of Environmental Protection Agency in December,
1970. The period in between was tumultuous with debates, accusations and predictions.
“U Thant of the United Nations gave the planet only ten years to avert environmental
disaster; the following month, he blamed the bulk of planetary catastrophe on the United
States.”.(Lewis 1985 para. 8) ii

The 1960’s and 1970’s was a period of environmental awakening. Asbestos was linked to
lung diseases and its use was banned from textiles, particularly children’s pajamas and
DDT was linked to the thinning of bird egg shells. A myriad of other environmental
issues entered public awareness and gave birth to “Earth Day.” It also was the beginning
of the Industrial Global Migration which emptied the steel mills of Indiana and
Pennsylvania, and continues to this day, to close domestic manufacturing plants as high-
paid American workers who work in clean, safe environments are shed and replaced with
low wage workers in developing countries where there is no safety or environmental

The American public perception of the EPA’s power to roll over industry and clean up
the environment was a magnificent achievement. Pollution became out of sight, and
therefore out of mind. The trade-off was the loss of jobs which to some people was a far
bigger threat than pollution. The employment issue continues to overshadow the
environment and the balance of politics shifted in the 1980’s towards conservative
industrial deregulation in the United States.

One heavy metal pollutant that cannot dissipate is Mercury (Atomic symbol Hg). “Within
the United States alone, manufacturers use 500 - 600 metric tons of mercury annually as
part of their manufacturing processes or to create products that rely on mercury's diverse
properties.” ( March 2006, para 1) iii
Mercury is used in everything from gold refining, military munitions, paint, pesticides,
electronics and electric thermostats, municipal waste incineration, wastewater treatment,
petroleum refining, and residential boilers and wood burning stoves. (see table at “Using emissions
factors to estimate mercury releases, preliminary analysis indicates that, in the United
States, anthropogenic sources emit 263 tons of mercury annually to the atmosphere.”
( March 2006, part II, para 3)

Mercury, after it falls on bodies of water, converts to methylmercury through microbial

activity. It then accumulates in fish and becomes part of the carnivorous food web which
includes eagles, otters, and predators such as large cats and bears. (, July 11,
2006. para 2) iv

Arsenic is another compound that is part of our every day lives. Until recently, we used it
as an insecticide and preservative for the lumber used in our back yard decks and exterior
porches. Some rocks have naturally high levels of arsenic. It is also produced as a
byproduct of copper smelting (Seattle & King County Public Health May 12, 2006) v .

Arsenic is not easily absorbed through the skin, but unlike mercury which has difficulty
being absorbed in your intestines, arsenic will easily absorb through the membranes of
your lungs or digestive system. Arsenic is a known cancer causing agent, and a
neurotoxin that will give you a tingling sensation in your hands and feet, and if consumed
in high enough quantities, will cause nausea, diarrhea, low blood pressure, abnormal
heart rhythm, and seizures. Most of the toxin will leave your body through the urine in
several days, but some will remain for months. ( May 22, 2006, para 5) vi

In 1984, a massive chemical spill at a Union Carbide plant in Bophol, India caused a
horrific loss of life, but there are only two remaining references to that disaster on the
Internet. One is an article with only a vague reference to Bophol about stock prices from
the Yale School of management.

“For instance, a major disaster such as the Bophol chemical

spill immediately drove down the Union Carbide stock
price. In fact, prices react within a matter of minutes to
such news, and the reaction is over within the day! In
empirical "event studies" which focus on corporate news
releases, there is little evidence that you can make money
by investing on yesterday's news.” (Goetzmann,
William,) vii .
Another is a Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute about Terrorism and weapons of
mass destruction. “…But a good example of the potential lethality of a chemical attack
exists: the accidental release of a very toxic industrial chemical in Bophol, India, in 1984
illustrates the grave consequences for an unprepared, unprotected, and exposed
population.” (Taylor, Eric R. Nov., 2000) viii
Both articles are the only clues left on the entire Internet as to the conditions resulting
from the chemical disaster 22 years ago. This might be considered a relatively accurate
assessment of the public’s attitude concerning issues that occur on the other side of the
planet, which is now embroiled in an environmental situation worse than the United
States of the 1960’s and 1970’s. “An environmental health disaster is unfolding in West
Bengal and Bangladesh. Tens of millions of persons in many districts are drinking ground
water with arsenic concentrations far above acceptable levels.” (The Arsenic Crisis, Jan.
7, 1998) ix


The rate of absorption by plants of Arsenic varies depending on the soil type. In 1998, a
thousand samples of food crops were examined by Department of Soil, Water and
Environment of Dhaka University and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial
Research Organization (CSIRO) to determine the level of arsenic in the plants.

“Some types of soil have a capacity for very strong bonding

while others do not. So, arsenic released from soil to the
plants is quite different. "We have detected significant
amount of arsenic transferred from groundwater to crops,
says Dr Ravi Naidu, although many crops are still safe. The
researchers also studied samples of cooked food collected
from the affected areas…”(Mortoza, Sylvia, 1998)

This chart shows the traces of Arsenic in milligrams per kilogram found in the samples.
Note the consistency throughout the entire sample for some vegetables and variations in
others. The wide range of findings in the Cabbage sample implies adaptability or perhaps
indistinguishably different species.
mg/kg .05 .27 .33 .35 .81 .83 1.1 1.8 1.9 2.7 4.5 5.1 5.3 7.2 20.1 93.3

Veg. Curry *
spinach *
Fish. Curry .39
Pumkin *
bean *
Gourd leaf *
onion *
tomato *
papaya * *
cauliflower * * *
cabbage * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Leafy veg. * * *
& spinach
Wheat 1
rice *
Allowable .2
per day
arsenic was not found in cooked lentil, brinjal and egg […]
However, the study showed that potato, bitter gourd,
brinjal, snake gourd (chichinga), bitter gourd, Kakrol,
ladies finger, palwal, large leafy spinach, pumpkin, sweet
potato, turmeric, ginger and green chili are safe as presence
of arsenic in them are insignificant and does not pose a
threat.( Mortoza 1998) x


Pollution stress induces various adaptive conditions in some species of plants and trees.
Varanassi, India was the subject of a pollution study involving the distribution and
inspection of a spiny, berry producing shrub Carissa carandas, and two types of legume
bearing trees, Delonix regia and Cassia fistula. The plants were grown in pots of nearly
identically composed soil over a period of two years, and then compared with a control
sample grown in a neutral environment. The height and trunk diameter was reduced in all
three species, and particularly for the shrub, the size of the leaves was reduced, but the
number of leaves increased. “Cell elongation is more sensitive to stress that
photosynthesis and cell division […] Consequently, leaf elongation may cease when
stress is imposed, carbohydrate reserve accumulates and new leaves continue to be
initiated as observed in C. carandas. […]” (Agrawal, Pandey, J. Jan., 1994, p 58) xi

There are some species of plants that appear to adapt readily to increasing levels of toxins
in the environment while others are either slow to change or don’t change and die. Many
that can adapt and survive in one generation or at least long enough to mutate for survival
are flowering plants like alyssum, Thlaspi, and Calochortus. Atmospheric toxins remain
in the top layers of soil out of the reach of many deep root systems. Other plants may
simply proliferate roots around contamination. A process called phenotypic plasticity
allows the plant, in some cases, to develop a tolerance until it can create genetically
altered offspring better suited for the polluted environment. (Dickenson, N. M.; Turner,
A.P.; Lepp, N.W. (1991)) xii

Here we find that contamination does not necessarily cause plants to disappear.
Regarding plants one must have an eye keener than Rachel Carson who raised an alarm
because she saw the threat of a potential Silent Spring, entirely devoid of birds. Plants are
silent and their adaptation is slow. They can absorb contaminants and sometimes not
show any immediate signs of stress. There really can be no standard by which we can
look directly at an environment to see if plants are showing signs of contamination unless
we know what species were there before. Perhaps a plant can be engineered and used
much like canaries were once used in coal mines.

India stands out as an example of rampant unregulated industrialization. It paints a clear

example of the “incentive for self-regulation” proclaimed by its proponents.
Moore, Dene Environment Canada study finds caffeine, prescription drugs in St.
Lawrence July 5, 2006.
Lewis, Jack (Nov. 1985) The Birth of EPA. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
website ( )
iii (March 2006) Background Information on Mercury Sources and Regulations.
(Environmental Protection Agency)
iv (July 11, 2006) Mercury: Environmental Effects: Fate and Transport and
Ecological Effects of Mercury (Environmental Protection Agency)
Seattle & King County Public Health. (May 12, 2006) Toxic Hazards: Arsenic Facts
vi (May 22, 2006) Frequently asked questions about Arsenic. Health Studies
Branch. National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (
Goetzmann, William N. An Introduction to Investment Theory, Chapter VIII; YALE
School of Management.
Taylor, Eric R. (Nov. 27, 2000) Are we prepared for terrorism using weapons of mass
destruction? Policy Analysis No. 387. The Cato Institute.
The Arsenic Crisis. (Jan 7, 1998) West Bengal and Bangladesh Arsenic Crisis
Information Center:
Mortoza, Sylvia (1998) Arsenic in the food chain. News From Bangladesh (NFB)
archives. Arsenic Crisis Info Centre.
Agrawal, Pandey, J. (Jan., 1994) Evaluation of Air Pollution Phototoxicity in
Seasonally Dry Tropical Urban Environment Using Three Woody Perennials.
New Phytologist, Vol. 126, No.1, pp. 53-61.
Dickenson, N. M.; Turner, A.P.; Lepp, N.W. (1991) How Do Trees and Other Long
Lived Plants Survive in Polluted Environments? Functional Ecology Vol. 5, No.
1, pp. 5-11.