The Hazards of Toxic Chemicals and Human Waste

This week’s material centers around the hazards of human activities and waste to the environment and human health. As seen in these chapters as well as the class as a whole, human activities often have a negative impact on the environment, which in turn has a negative impact on human lives. Carelessness and human error in production, the unsustainable harvesting of natural capital, and the saturation and mishandling of solid and hazardous waste all contribute to the presence of hazards for human beings. In order to alleviate the harms of pollutants and toxic chemicals, preventative measures and legislation should be encouraged so we can ensure large scale safety for all walks of life.

Chapter 17 describes the concept of hazards, and details the presence of chemical hazards in today’s world. Hazards can come from a plethora of areas, but the realm of chemical hazards has increased significantly due to anthropogenic activities and environmental damage. The texbook states that “a toxic chemical  is an element or compound that can cause temporary or permanent harm or death to humans” (Miller 2019, 418). These chemicals are a growing concern in today’s commercial atmosphere, as many toxic substances have been revealed to exist in common products. 

For example, as described in “Chemical Creep: How Toxic Chemicals Are Sneaking Into Your Food, And Your Body,” chemicals with hormone-mimicking and other harmful qualities have secret existences in common products. These “stealth chemicals”  such as phthalates and BPA may disrupt hormone functioning and “harm the brain, raise the risk of asthma and obesity, and slow down the growth of a developing baby” (Peeples 2013). These chemicals are found in many plastic products, as well as food products where certain plastics were used in their production. As there is not much information about the exact source or cause of these chemicals, it is difficult to gauge how we can solve this issue. However, we can assume with certainty that the presence of stealth chemicals can be attributed to human error in plastic/packaging production, and the leaching of chemicals into the environment and food products. On an individual level, people can try to refrain from such products, but these efforts are likely ineffective because stealth chemicals are so interwoven into modern goods and food production. Legislation, like the BPA and phthalate ban in baby bottles and toys, though not 100 percent successful, can help significantly and should be implemented on a larger scale as soon as scientists are able to find more information on the matter.

Fig. 1, BPA ban.

Chapter 21 describes another type of hazard: the accumulating amounts of human waste and its ramifications on human and environmental health. Industrial solid waste and municipal solid waste are both piling up to unsustainable levels in the environment. The textbook details that “Much of the world’s MSW ends up as litter in rivers, lakes, the ocean, and natural landscapes” or is “burned or buried in landfills or that end up as litter” (Miller 2019, 539). This has extremely detrimental effects on the environment, as it contaminates and saturates ecosystems and can greatly affect plant, animal, and human life. Waste itself can also be deemed “hazardous,”meaning it contains toxic chemicals or flammable properties which pose their own threats when being discarded. The “four R’s of waste reduction”: “refuse (don’t use it), reduce (use less of it), reuse (use it over and over), and recycle (convert used resources to useful items and buy products made from recycled materials)” can help alleviate the problem of excessive waste. However, these tenants need to be actualized on a large scale to make a major difference… this means that legislation and regulations need to become involved.

Fig. 2, Waste accumulation.

One way legislators can help alleviate the problem of excess waste and unwanted chemicals is by implementing the precautionary principle through preventative measures. The textbook states that “scientists and health officials, especially those in European Union countries, push for much greater emphasis on pollution prevention” (Miller 2019, 427). This demonstrates that the precautionary principle is being implemented worldwide, with regulations such as the Stockholm Convention of 2000 (Miller 2019, 428).  There is some discretion surrounding the precautionary principle in practice as there are disagreements to how far we should go to satisfy a scientific hunch. However, I believe that it is important to take as much precaution as possible, as the health of people and the environment are too precious to leave up to chance. We must work to incorporate the precautionary principle and sustainable, low waste practices into businesses and large corporations so that we can better ensure the health of our world and species. 

For example, the plastic bag ban in NYC is a preventative measure in which government officials are attempting to implement the “refuse” approach on a large scale. According to the textbook, “plastic bags can take up to 400 to 1,000 years to degrade” (Miller 2019, 539). One-use plastic bags are a worldwide issue which causes extreme damage to the environment, as they can block the flow of sewage systems, kill wildlife, aid in the spread of disease, and contribute to the general global waste pileup. Because of this severe environmental issue, and the excessive use of plastic bags in American cities, New York issued a state-wide ban on single-use plastic bags. This demonstrates that governments can get involved in the curbing of waste pollution. 

Fig. 2, Plastic bag litter.

However, the issues presented by waste pollution and chemical toxicity are also magnified by social inequalities. The ability to escape the harm of pollution and unwanted chemicals is disproportionally difficult for minority groups such as people of color. This is an example of environmental racism because minorities are exposed to a larger amount of harmful substances because of socioeconomic restrictions and inequalities. For example, many people of color cannot afford to shop organic, making them more susceptible to chemicals such as phthalates and pesticides. It is also proven that minorities are disproportionately affected by pollution and waste contaminants. This inequality is one that must be addressed by environmentalists, as the right to equally uncontaminated products, air, water, etc. is an important aspect of environmental justice. This is another reason why the issues of waste pollution and toxic “stealth” chemicals must be addressed, as it is unfair that certain groups of people have to face the hazardous consequences of the world’s unsustainable decisions.

In conclusion, preventative measures waste and chemical hazards are necessary because they pose great threats to human lives and to the environment. These issues, which are consequences of unsustainable human activity, are often invisible to the eye and affect minorities disproportionately. Though the health of people isn’t the only reason why we should emphasize sustainability in our societies, it is a definite incentive for change because we can perceive the risks that environmental harm and social inequality have posed for our species. 

Word Count: 1138

Question: How can universities (including Fordham) work to improve their recycling methods? When I look into communal recycling bins in dorms, I can see that there has been minimal effort to be sure of what can be recycled. How can we get across to students the severity of the waste crisis? 


Admin. “Ban on BPA Milk Bottles via the Star Newspaper 15th March 2011.” Katrin BJ Sdn Bhd, March 15, 2011. 

Kim, Juliana. “What to Know About N.Y.’s Plastic Bag Ban.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 20, 2020.

Peeples, Lynne. “Chemical Creep: How Toxic Chemicals Are Sneaking Into Your Food, And Your Body.” HuffPost. HuffPost, March 7, 2013. 

Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Living in the Environment. Stamford, CT: Cengage

Learning, 2019.

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