Some Thoughts on Pollution
Charles A. Sankey
March 1970

Last year I attended a banquet at which the guest speaker dealt with some aspects of the present world situation. He started by quoting the first paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities:-
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was. the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. "

The best and worst of times frequently go hand in hand. Pollution has always been and will always be part of the human situation. But its deadly dangerous importance today is in no small measure due to our living in the best of times.

In our neighbouring Province, water management comes under La Régie des Eaux de Québec. Their first questionnaire was designed to collect information on municipal and industrial water supply and discharge. A copy of this questionnaire went to our mill at Baie Comeau, and I saw the first draft of our reply. When it came to my desk the first question was unanswered. "What", it read, "in your opinion, is the principal cause of water pollution in the Province of Quebec?" I wrote in one word - "People".

Now today the vital facts about people are population growth, increasing urbanization and our standard of living as influenced by technical advances.

The population explosion is not a statistic, - it is people. Since 1950 spaceship earth has added a billion people. Earth's population simply cannot continue to increase indefinitely. Long before there is standing room only our environment will have deteriorated to the point where none of us will be around to stand. Do I need to tell you what happens if you have a pasture which can readily provide fodder and water for 20 cattle and you put 200 cattle on it. The grass goes, the soil erodes, the land dies, the cattle die. I've been told that, at the present American standard of living, each new person adds over 100 gallons a day to the inflow of the local sewage treatment plant (if there is one), that he adds per day 4 lb. of solid waste such as cartons, papers, etc. and 3 lb. of atmospheric pollution to his environment, that he also throws away over 200 cans plus 125 jars and bottles a year.

We compound the population explosion with, urbanization. The population not only explodes, it agglomerates. In the United States in 1920 less than half its 106 million people lived in an urban environment. Today this is true of over 70% of its about 190 million people. Our computers say that by the year 2000 the figure will be nearer 95% of about 280 million. The hell of it is that our wastes, our excreta, and all our discardings concentrate at a rate even more rapid than that at which we urbanize. The law of nature that a living organism cannot survive in its own waste is as valid for homo sapiens as for any other living thing. An irresistible force is meeting an immovable object. Something is going to give way and it may well-be homo sapiens. The impact of technological advances on people has reversed the old adage that necessity was the mother of invention. For many years now invention has been the mother of necessity.

I like to drive my own car to work, - so do you.. My wife and I only have one car but that's because our four children have married and scattered from Toronto to Germany. There was a time when our five households had seven cars, including an Alpha Romeo - a residue of bachelor days. So we have cars, cars, cars, highways, highways, service roads on each side of highways, multi-million dollar interchanges so we can go faster and farther and still faster and still farther. I go faster and farther and I like it. But I am beginning to realize that there is a day of reckoning ahead - if not for me then for my grandchildren.

I saw some U.S. figures on carbon monoxide atmospheric pollution recently. In 1966, 67 million tons of carbon monoxide were added to the air by motor vehicles, 27 million tons from other technological sources (combustion of one sort or another), perhaps 9 million tons from non-technological sources such as forest fires, - all of this in the United States alone. There was "fragmentary evidence" that with 10 ppm in the atmosphere, prolonged exposure was certainly not good for us and "good evidence" of an "adverse effect" on oxygen transport in the blood at 30 ppm In big cities levels of 50 ppm were not uncommon with 100 ppm for short periods in traffic jams. You and I know that the load is heavier today.

An advertising genius has made millions for himself by coining the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should". About 4% of cigarette exhaust is carbon monoxide. We have an individual system of valves and piping designed to insure an efficient chemical reaction of this carbon monoxide with our personal blood stream.

Sulphur dioxide and other sulphurous gases comprise another major contaminant from our technology. Significant progress is being made toward control, in part by paying attention to the sulphur content in our fuels and, in part, by recovering it for use either as sulphur or sulphur dioxide or sulphuric acid in cases where the otherwise contaminating source is large, e.g. in the mining and in the petro-chemical industries.

We have atmospheric pollution by dirt and smoke, what the authorities call "particulate matter". The Province is taking over standards and enforcement in this regard. This is excellent because somebody has to get tough. The problem is related to urbanization. Have you ever looked at the collar of your shirt after a day in Toronto, after a day in St. Catharines, and after a day in the countryside? If I expressed my opinion about the apparent recent approval of a 700 ft. smoke stack for a hydro plant near Toronto, there would be so many ^-letter words included that you would think you were attending a performance of "Hair". One of my friends at Brock quoted a poem to me yesterday -

Is no solution
To pollution."

This is not wholly true because there is a capacity, although a limited capacity, for self-depolluting of our environment. There is little if any such residual capacity in our urban areas.

Gross pollution has derived from products in themselves highly useful and valuable but whose deleterious subsequent effects have vastly outweighed their usefulness.

DDT is among the cheapest and most easily applied of insecticides. It is a nerve poison. Its use has saved untold human lives from malaria, typhus, and insect-borne diseases. At first it was almost alone in its class and a uniquely important advance in insect control. DDT has one fatal fault, - under natural conditions, e.g. in your garden soil or in the body of a bird or fish or in your body, it probably has a half--life of about 10 years . It accumulates in the bodies of living things. Even if we never used any more there will be too much of it around for the next 50 years or so.

The effect of DDT on bird life is devastating to some species. Pheasants seem to have the ability to accumulate large quantities in their bodies and survive, but then dead pheasants get eaten. So do fish with high DDT content. What happens is that local hot spots of DDT concentration develop. It is practically exterminating the bald eagle and the falcon by interfering with their calcium balance so that their eggs have soft shells and do not hatch. The Ontario government has recently taken strong action re DDT. I suggest we all support that action.

The prime example of a good thing gone wrong is phosphates. It is as good a detergent as we know. It is not too expensive. It is not a poison. On the contrary and unfortunately it is a prime nutrient, especially for algae. Lake Erie is being choked to death by the pollution of our prosperity. We are having "an algae explosion" and the result is the death of waters.

Tetra ethyl lead in gasoline is another good thing which we are recognizing as wrong.

New chemicals and new materials (there is one born every minute) result in thousands of new wastes . Their harmfulness is sometimes known, sometimes suspected, sometimes unknown, sometimes non-existent. We have been so ingenious, so very ingenious, in learning to mine, to process, to modify, to innovate, to supply what we blandly call our needs or to make things for our benefit and well-being. In the future we must add the future to our definitions of "needs" and "benefits" and"well-being".

Now some of you are raising your eyebrows and saying hare is a scientist whose life has been in research and development condemning his own life efforts. You are mistaken. I am not doing so at all. What I am saying in as loud a voice as I can is that a little knowledge is often a dangerous thing. We do not need less scientific knowledge, we need more.

No speech on pollution would be complete without a reference to industrial pollution. It's still a people problem. Directors are people, management is people, shareholders are people, employees are people. Should it be surprising then that the response of industry to pollution varies all the way from serious and honest dealing with the problem to, fortunately rarely but more frequently publicized, totally unacceptable stalling.

In Canada until the 1930's at least the priority with industrial developers and government leaders on federal, provincial and municipal levels was to encourage economic development and expansion without regard to the cumulative impact of pollution. No two industries are really alike. No two plants are alike in both process and environment. In the control of industrial wastes, blanket and inflexible directives should never be imposed. It is completely illogical to insist on treatment for treatment's sake. Sometimes the means of economic pollution abatement are unknown. In that case some reasonable time must be available for development of solutions, - not indefinite time but a reasonable time with deadlines. The ultimate action must be designed for and maintained for people.

You know, and I know, that our vast water and air resources are endangered and something must be done about it. I know and you know that an idle and bankrupt plant doesn't pollute but it doesn't employ people, it doesn't pay taxes, it doesn't make charitable donations, it doesn't contribute to the life of the community. I hope and you hope that solutions can be found to avoid failure at either extreme.

How let's get away from it all and go to your summer lakeshore cottage - do you remember Yeats poem -

"I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin built there, with clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings. "

Do you get away from it all? There are few Walden ponds left today. With water-skiing and boating and partying you and your family may not want to live alone anyway.

Now the lake which would accept and biodegrade your family sewage hasn't got the capacity for that of all the families now around the lake and the people at the lake have to do something about it. Don't get mad at the government - that won't solve the problem. If, and I repeat if, there is adequate soil for a septic tank, you can put one in. If not, chemical toilets are next, or perhaps an organized community service for the privies to an area sewage disposal or septic system. Your boat may have to have facilities too. If you don't like it, just remember that the people problem has caught up with you.

Now we come to the important consideration. What are we, you and I, going to do about it? Here are some of my thoughts, -

  1. We must recognize that pollution is a people problem and that as long as there are people there is going to be pollution. Elimination of pollution is therefore, from the standpoint of homo sapiens, impossible. What should be possible is reduction and control. We should direct our efforts to possible objectives.
  2. We have to recognize the facts of population explosion and urbanization. Later, if not sooner, there is going to be population control. All the issues which this involves have to be faced openly. The translation of the sixth commandment in the new English Bible reads -"You shall not commit murder." At what point does, population control become murder? The pill? contraceptive devices? abortion? infanticide? I suggest that destruction of the human race is not merely the ultimate "revenge of the cradle" but the ultimate in murder. Perhaps you would prefer a few quick-acting atomic bombs (preferably on China to start with), or some nice biological warfare or the, to me, disgusting alternative of mass drug addiction or homosexuality. There are alternatives, you see. When there is population control should it be eugenic as well as universal? Can it be eugenic? Must it be eugenic? Who is going to decide? Who is going to enforce it and how? These are not theoretical questions . They are intensely practical and, may I add, intensely moral questions as well. We had better face up to them.
  3. We need facts for intelligent action. The facts we really want are quantitative - What is the pollution, how much is there, where is it going, what happens to it then, what are the short range effects on us and on our surroundings? What are the long range effects? We should encourage the collection and dissemination of valid quantitative information.
  4. We must recognize that just as we will never "be rid of pollution, we will never have all the facts either. We will therefore have to take action and support action taken based on considered judgments of what facts are available at the time. It is most unlikely that we will have ultimate solutions to our liking. Death is, of course, an ultimate solution. We will make mistakes and we must be prepared to admit our mistakes - any intelligent action is, however, much to be preferred to no action at all. (v) We should all support and be more than willing to pay the cost of adequate sewage disposal, and I mean adequate and right here in St. Catharines. We should insist on government research and development on a large scale to improve techniques, to do a better job in less space, more rapidly, and more completely. If new methods lead to useful products so much the better.
  5. We should, personally and within our own personal activities, take action and accept the cost and inconvenience of reducing our contribution to the pollution load, - maybe this means an adequate sewage disposal at the cottage, maybe buying our car only if it is equipped with adequate, not just minimal, exhaust control, maybe refusing to buy non-returnable glass or non-biodegradable pop bottles or cans, maybe only buying detergents with low phosphate content - make up your own list.
  6. We must not be stampeded. The demagogue and the political opportunist are having a field day. It is so easy to blame someone else and gain from their misfortune, to go out not just to modify and alter laws but to overthrow the concept of law. It is so easy to throw the baby out with the bath water. This we must not do.
  7. We must be concerned, actively and intensely concerned, even worried, but not just pessimistic or despairing. There is work to be done. Let us try to do it.

Need I remind you today that -

"March days are long and growth seems slow
But Springtime comes and all the earth partakes.
That same life shall serve us also.
Our lives will change and grow from what we bring and take.
We are here within our separate worlds
To feel new signs of growth and change."

In a recent translation of the Torah by Jewish scholars these words are recorded in the first chapter of Genesis -

"And God said, "I will make man in My image, after My likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth". And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, "Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.
God said, "See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, (I give) all the green plants for food". And it was so. And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. "

In all great saga literature, whether sacred or profane, man has assumed a very exalted idea of his own importance and of his destiny. Nowhere is this more firmly expressed than in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As of today we have been fertile, we have increased, we are filling the earth and mastering it. I submit that there is one thing, one vital thing, missing from the ancient text, - if in truth man is made in the image of God then he had better learn to master himself. Otherwise he will disappear from the earth sooner than he expects and later, in due season, other life will have its opportunity to show whether it, in fact, is made in the image of God.