It’s not going too far to say that the environment of the modern world is a chaos of human-caused pollution — from plastics, industrial solvents, radioactive contamination, pesticides, mercury and continent-sized islands of waste in the oceans to CO2 and methane in the atmosphere, fumes from household cleaners, oil and gasoline in aquifers, hormones in water supplies, toxic “inhalants” in permanent markers and glues, and diesel and auto exhaust (and a veritable jungle of undisclosed allergens in dust) in the air we breathe every moment.
The natural world has been conquered by our waste and byproducts. Earth has become our landfill and our deep-sea dumping grounds. We’ve been colonized by the military industrial complex and its pollution, the chemical industry and its befoulants and the fossil fuel industry and its toxic byproducts — every bit as much as those of us who used to be hooked on tobacco had become the slaves of the tobacco industry. Anyone who keeps up with the news or hasn’t been brain dead over the last 60 years knows we’re facing a massive pollution problem that includes climate change and a catastrophe that’s on the verge of engulfing us all.
Many of us also surmise that in comparison to the magnitude of human-caused pollution, the efforts made to understand and minimize its impact on public health in America are virtually nil. But a conference held last week in Albuquerque on Environmental Public Health in New Mexico is a light on the horizon. The conference brought together advocates from the spectrum of health and ecological advocacy to discuss the urgency of this chronic problem and how to address it, largely through more refined and useful regulations to block pollution before it is released into the human and natural habitat.
The conference covered a range of issues that reveal the open-mindedness of its organizers — from oil and gas issues that affect public health to down-winder issues in the Tularosa Basin — and focused on advancing environmental public health issues in our state. This is a movement we need to keep an eye on and support, especially as climate change and water scarcity shows the old slogan, “the solution to pollution is dilution,” to be the truly dangerous farce it’s always been.
There are many disturbing reasons for why pollution’s insidious undermining of public health has been all but ignored for so many years. Perhaps the most irritating reason is that concern over pollution has been relegated in our culture to the margins that the mainstream media and mainstream science for hire say are inhabited by cranks, hysterics and hypochondriacs. It doesn’t help that environmental regulations protecting public health have oscillated between reluctant advocacy and outright denial during every election cycle. And it goes without saying that the steady stream of slick pubic relations denials of any possible harm by the major polluters have gone unabated since chemical companies hurled abuse at Rachel Carson after the publication of Silent Spring and tobacco companies relentlessly attacked all associations between smoking and cancer.
Environmental public health issues in New Mexico, and around the Southwest, have an unambiguous priority when it comes to a responsible legislative agenda.
The highest priority must go to characterizing the contamination of underground water in our state. What aquifers have been compromised? Where is the contamination? How “bad” is it? What is it composed of? What methods can be used to clean it up? What do they cost? How long will they take? How possible is it to make contaminated parts of aquifers potable again? What are the consequences across the age spectrum of the human population from drinking various kinds of contaminated water? Aquifer contamination must be given top priority in an age of climate extremes because surface water will be so diminished by an overheated planet that communities will be forced to overuse their freshwater aquifers and eventually desalinate deep brackish water, should they be so lucky as to have some. If fresh water aquifers are polluted, our chances of sustainability, not to mention raw survival, are severely compromised.
A second priority is to understand the major sources of contaminated groundwater, which usually, in New Mexico and much of the Southwest, involve oil and gas extraction, aspects of the military industrial complex, including waste from military bases and military research and development, which encompasses not only jet fuel spills but our long history of radioactive emissions into the atmosphere of northern New Mexico. (See the Los Alamos Historic Document Retrieval and Assessment project conducted by the CDC.)
A third priority is the extraordinary variety of air pollution that threatens the public health of even a rural state like New Mexico. Most of it comes as a noxious byproduct of the fossil fuel industry, both from extraction processes like fracking and its use as a fuel.
If environmental public health advocacy hopes to go anywhere, it must be accompanied by a major lobbying effort to reform the New Mexico Environment Department in a way that allows it to take up some of the slack from the Trump-destroyed EPA. If there ever was a time for an expanded environmental view of state’s rights in the West, one that even surpasses California’s when it comes to water pollution, now is it. During the Richardson administration, the Environment Department managed to get the state’s major military industrial polluters — Los Alamos National Lab and Sandia National Labs — to sign consent decrees that accused them of endangerment of public health and ordered them to clean up decades of debris from their unconscionably careless hazardous waste disposal practices. It seems clear that this effort was only partially accomplished and its urgency largely swept under the rug during the eight years of the Martinez administration. New Mexico needs a hawkish and uncompromising environmental bureaucracy to implement existing public health regulations and help draft tough and enforceable new ones with meaningful fines that could help replenish the state’s coffers and offset the loss of oil and gas revenues, should any occur.
It’s important sometimes to restate the obvious: pollution, of all kinds, is a poison that endangers the health of everyone unfortunate enough to ingest, inhale or come into contact with it. Effective environmental public health advocacy involves not only cleaning up pollution but also the creation of stringent regulations that prevent it in the first place. Such regulations might minimally harm the bottom line of some extractive industries, but they are not going to leave New Mexico to find oilier pastures. As it turns out, there are no states oilier than ours. And as far as harming the bottom line or harming the public’s health, we know what choices the public and its elected representatives have to make.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image by Taras Kalapun)