PLANET DISINFECTED?

One of the most unfortunate, and dangerous aspects of the world wide panic generated by covid-19 pandemic is the massive surface disinfection activity adopted in nearly all countries of the globe. Surfaces are being washed with sodium hypochlorite and other chemical disinfectants routinely. Buildings, streets, roads, market places, neighborhoods, towns, cities, even districts are being sanitized with chemical ingredients some of which have no approval from environmental protection agencies in respective countries. A spike in demand means labeled products are in short supply. Service providers have no choice but to avail what ever they can lay their hands on in an array of commonly available house hold disinfectants, which are allowed to remain in wet contact with surface for long enough period to kill microorganisms, pathogens and viruses. Surfaces are not wiped dry afterwards but left to air dry. Some are hosed with clean water before disinfection. This is done not once or twice, but routinely for the last quarter of a year with no end in sight. Walk through sanitizer tunnels are installed at entrances to commercial and residential buildings and market places all over the globe. Ambulances and goods carrying vehicles are sanitized. There are places where just about any vehicle is routinely sanitized.

Chemical product labeling programs hardly exist in most developing countries. Labour force that carries out disinfecting jobs is ill trained. High demand for labeled products means availability runs short. Service providers have to make compounds themselves under often inadequate instructions. In USA, for instance, EPA’s Environment Safe Product Labeling Program is voluntary and most products that are being used to disinfect North America are not reviewed because of panic buying to meet the spike in demand, and producers running low on stock. Basically what ever is available is being used to disinfect surfaces everywhere. Human habitat is incessantly given a chemical bath for a prolonged period.

At what cost?

The ecological consequence of this routine dousing of the planet with man made disinfectants is dangerous due to two scientific processes – Surface run off – and – biomagnification. This global disinfection activity not only poses a threat to marine and avian life, it has adverse impact on human and other life forms as well.

The term surface run off refers to over land flow of water after every rainfall or snow melt. Surface run off routinely replenishes Earth’s rivers, seas and oceans. Even in ordinary circumstances, civilization has made surface run off a major source of down- stream water pollution due to presence of agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, and industrial waste. To control latter’s harmful impact on earth’s water system, states have evolved certain SOPs and maintain hydrographs to keep checking the chemical content of water in a given area, referred to as ‘point source pollution.’

Agricultural surface run off is sub-surface run off, the part of water which first leashes into the soil, (natural filter) and moves laterally to the stream, river or ocean. Industrial waste is monitored and controlled through regulations that require industrial waste water to be filtered before it is discharged down stream. Regulations are in place for eroded material to be deposited in a place where it is considered safe. Because points of pollution are known and finite in all such cases, regulatory enforcement is possible. And yet – despite all this effort – agricultural and industrial waste continues to pose a threat to Earth’s ecosystem.

And now, this unprecedented and insane rush to disinfect the entire planet Earth with man-made chemicals is ‘non point source pollution,’ meaning it is generating dangerous run off from all over, all at once, on regular, relentless basis, polluting our ecosystem with harmful substances, poisoning marine life, avian life, and harming human health.

Run off is measured as the quantity of water that is discharged during a given period from a drainage basin and collects in lakes, swamps, ponds, rivers, seas and ultimately, earth’s oceans. Much of the US land, (hub of relentless urban chemical disinfection activity for last three months) for instance, drains into Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi watershed. All over the globe, surface run off drains into different water systems of the Earth in similar manner.

Urban land is mostly paved, i.e., it consists of vast tracts of impervious surface such as roads, roofs, pavements. On such surfaces, water does not get absorbed into the soil, which is a natural filtration mechanism, but runs off down stream into creeks, lakes, and rivers headed for seas and ultimately, Earth’s oceans. As we disinfect planet earth with sodium hypochlorite and other chemical substances, urban run off gets polluted with high concentration levels of harmful chemical disinfectants. This has adverse impact on marine life.

Hypochlorite has destructive effect on gills, makes it difficult for large size marine vertebrates to breathe, to absorb oxygen. Tiny microbes, plankton or algae, absorb pollutants in the run off. Fish or shell fish consume the microbes or absorb the pollutants directly. Birds consume the fish, increasing the level of pollutants in their own bodies. Birds also quench thirst directly from the run off.

Biomagnification is the process by which the concentration of a substance increases as it passes up the food chain. Organisms high on the food chain have a higher concentration of pollutants in their body than organisms lower down the chain, such as algae. We humans occupy a high status. When we eat sea food, say for instance oysters, we ingest run off chemicals. Ingesting high concentrations of sodium hypochlorite can ultimately lower our immunity to covid-19 as hypochlorite directly impacts the lungs and the esophagus.

In a 2001 lab study on impact of sodium hypochlorite on avian life, the aviary premise was cleaned with 5% chlorine bleach. Seven birds out of thirty five died after developing respiratory disease within twelve days of exposure. Clinical abnormalities started to show after six days of exposure. The reproductive system of all birds was damaged. Think of what we are doing to avian life by giving our planet a chlorine shower every hour, every day, every week, every month for the past quarter of a year. Think of what we are doing to Earth’s marine life – and think of what we are doing to our own health and that of our children.

We are not just endangering entire species of marine and avian life, we may even be ending some through this process.

In South Asia, the monsoon is upon us. During this season, there is a sharp spike in mean discharge per unit of drainage area. Massive urban run off is generated during monsoon and replenishes our rivers and seas. Run off in South Asia’s big cities has lately regularly created urban flooding because the capacity of the drainage system is overwhelmed during monsoon. If we keep adding chemicals to our run off, the monsoon induced urban floods will have devastating impact on avian life and down stream ecosystem, not to mention human health in such an environment. We can have higher rate of respiratory illnesses among human beings (rising parallel to Covid-19), higher rate of skin and eye disease among children and adults, and birds dying all around us.

We have to stop drenching our planet in chemical disinfectants. The carrier of covid-19 is ‘human body.’ Personal Protection equipment is designed to safeguard humans from the virus. Hand sanitization is utilized to mitigate contamination by touch of hand. Where, in this equation of prevention of inflow and outflow of virus, do the hard surfaces of our cities feature?

States of the world need to stop ‘NOW,’ or it could be “too late.”

Author: Zeenia Satti

Zeenia Satti lives in Islamabad, Pakistan, where she works as Executive Director at Pakistan's People Led Disaster Management. She is also a political analyst and columnist. She has studied Middle Eastern Affairs at Harvard University, USA. Follow her on twitter@zssatti.

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