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Friday, March 4, 2011

The suicidal reign of us

Dave Collins of Ontario is dying of cancer, and he wants to know why. Actually, he already knows why: he was one of the unlucky bastards given brushes and pails and told to paint weeds with noxious chemicals while working for CN Rail. The noxious chemical in question? The infamous Agent Orange of Vietnam fame. He offers a chilling quotation: “The four gentleman I started with on the railway - each one of them stayed until they received a full pension and retired. And before any one of those [men] reached the 18-month mark of their pension they were all dead - and they all died of cancer.”
This isn’t the first time Agent Orange has made an appearance in Canada. Compensation has already been paid to workers made ill in New Brunswick due to Agent Orange exposure. There was nearly a decade of time in the 70’s where Agent Orange was used liberally as a defoliant and weed suppresser. Yes, it was a bad move, but only one of many that we lovely humans are capable of making. Our history is rife with examples of gleefully embracing some new chemistry miracle without pausing to ask “Could this be dangerous?” Even when we do ask, we are always content to be told a blithe “Naw, it’s fine. Eat some.”
We added lead to our gasoline because it was a simple and cheap way to avoid engine knocks in high performance machines. Problem with a luxury item? Add poison! Thomas Midgley, Jr. was a pivotal figure in its invention. He learned very quickly how damaging lead exposure was, due to the number of employees in his factories that ended up with brain damage, stumbling around like drunken zombies. Yet he continued to deny it’s toxicity because it was making him boatloads of money. He would dip his hands into the gasoline in front of reporters to reassure them, then dart off-stage to wipe himself down before he could absorb too much lead. Instead of installing safety measures, or stopping manufacture of the stupid stuff, they began monitoring the lead levels in their employees’ blood, and firing anyone who had too much so that they wouldn’t also become media nightmares. He’s quite the guy. (Midgley was also responsible for the invention of CFC’s, by the way. It’s like the dude had a personal issue with Mother Nature.)
Other instances abound. Let’s use mercury to make hats. What would life be like without a fine beaver-pelt top hat? So what if we end up with enough crazy hat-makers that we still use the expression “mad as a hatter?” Thalidomide to dispel nausea and calm down pregnant women. We all know how that turned out. DDT to control insects (sorry about that, bees, our bad). Lung cancer was unheard of until after the proliferation of cigarettes, but we’re still lighting up all over the place, oblivious to emphysema, tumors, birth defects, and worst of all, yellow teeth and unpleasant personal odors. Testing nuclear weapons closely observed by thousands of military and civilian personnel. Guess the thousands of rads and radioactive fallout had a greater range than the explosion. Oops.
Workplace safety and protective equipment are definitely modern concepts. Much of the world still doesn’t worry too much about them. The real question is, what are we doing right now, oblivious to its pitfalls? And will we stop when we find out?
Maybe safety goggles cause blindness in third-generation offspring. Only time will tell.

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