Poisoning the Poor

The poor are dying younger because they are being systematically poisoned

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 20th June 1999.

Why do the poor die younger than the rich? There are many explanations, and most of them involve the fecklessness of the poor. They eat the wrong food, smoke too much and exercise too little. Recently we learnt that they may not be solely to blame for their own misfortunes: cancer treatment, the Cancer Research Campaign revealed last month, is far shoddier for people on low incomes. But while all these factors are doubtless important, one of the most deadly killers has been largely overlooked. The poor die younger than the rich, new research suggests, because they are being systematically poisoned.

Dr Dick van Steenis is a retired GP who, in 1994, was asked to look at the possible health effects of pollution from power stations in South Wales. He struck upon the simple device of mapping the use of asthma inhalers by primary school children. He was astonished to discover that, before long, he was able to predict the number of asthma patients to within one or two per cent, simply by measuring how far they lived from the nearest major source of pollution. In some villages, he found as many as 38 per cent of four and five year olds using inhalers.

He started deploying his simple test in other parts of the country. In Lancashire, he discovered that six times as many inhalers were used downwind of the cement works he studied than were used upwind. This was, he found, hardly surprising. While government monitoring equipment in the plant recorded an impressive though scarcely credible reading of minus 17 microgrammes of smoke particles per cubic metre of air, unofficial monitors in a nearby school playground found levels as high as 485 microgrammes, or nine times the government’s generous “safe limit”.

Where coal is being dug out of opencast pits in South Glamorgan, Derbyshire and Lanarkshire, Dr van Steenis has found that the residents are suffering from respiratory problems very similar to those which afflicted the miners who used to work in deep pits. In Lanarkshire, he discovered that asthma levels dropped back towards normal soon after the quarry he was studying closed. Asthma is just the first and most obvious symptom of poisoning by pollution. Dr van Steenis began to realise that much of the difference in disease rates in Britain could be explained simply by means of where people live.

While the number of Britain’s factories has declined sharply over the last forty years, the range of pollutants we produce has greatly increased. The main reason is that we are generating more waste. It is either being dumped in landfill sites (where pollutants can react with each other to produce more deadly ones) or being incinerated. Since 1991, companies have been allowed to burn toxic waste to power industrial processes. It’s not hard to see why they should want to do this: while coal costs some £26 a tonne, they are paid to take poisonous chemicals away. But because the chemicals they burn are classified as “fuel”, rather than “waste”, they are not required to fit proper scrubbing equipment to their chimneys. In 1998 the United Kingdom’s largest factories released over 10,000 tonnes of cancer-causing chemicals into the air.

The result, says Dr van Steenis, is an explosive increase in certain diseases. He links the rise of endometriosis – a horribly painful condition now afflicting as many as ten per cent of British women – to emissions of dioxins, which are common toxic by-products of incineration. Hypothyroidism, which is becoming something of an epidemic in Britain, seems to be linked to volatile organic pollutants. Fluorides are associated with certain forms of arthritis and rheumatism, while heavy metals have been blamed for cancer, heart disease and strokes.

In the villages around two toxic waste dumps in South Wales, infant mortality levels (at 12 per 1000 births) approach those of Belarus in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Pollution, in short, is becoming one of Britain’s major health hazards.

It’s hard to believe that these chemicals would have been allowed to spread so far and so fast if most of the people they poisoned were rich and powerful. But a recent study by Friends of the Earth shows how pollution in Britain has become the companion of poverty. Six hundred and sixty-two of the UK’s largest factories are in places in which the average household income is less than £15,000. Five are in places whose average income is more than £30,000. Where poverty is most concentrated, so are the poisons. Seal Sands on Teesside contains 17 of Britain’s most polluting factories, and has an average income of just £6,200.

Dr van Steenis’s work could go a long way towards explaining why three times as many men in social class five die each year as in social class one. Ironically, many of the industrial processes which are poisoning them result from consumption patterns in which the poor cannot participate. It’s not just the fecklessness of the poor that’s killing them, but also the fecklessness of the rich.