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How Toxic Substances Get into our Bodies

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 4: Environmental Rights and Justice > How Toxic Substances Get into our Bodies

A woman drinking from a cup.
A man next to a can spewing toxic fumes.
A man scratching a rash on his arm.
Eating and drinking (ingestion) Breathing
and Through the skin (absorption)

The longer someone is exposed to (in direct contact with) a toxic chemical, the more harm it can cause. In Bhopal, 500,000 people were exposed all at once by breathing the gas and getting it on their skin. This was the immediate disaster. Because the chemical disaster was not cleaned up and the chemicals spread widely throughout the areas around the factory, the poison got into the soil and the groundwater beneath the city. Now, many years later, people are drinking water with the poison in it. This is part of the ongoing disaster.

Whether in a large-scale toxic exposure such as the one in Bhopal or a simple exposure to toxics in paints, solvents, or other ordinary products, the first thing to do is to get away from the chemicals, or get them away from you, so that the exposure does not last. After that, work to prevent future exposures. (For more about health problems from toxic chemicals, see Chapter 16.)

A health clinic designed to protect the environment

People in Bhopal are fighting for environmental justice. At the same time, they are working to heal from the disaster. Survivors and other volunteers started the Sambhavna Clinic to provide health care to the whole community, regardless of ability to pay, or religious or caste differences. Sambhavna means "possibility" in the Sanskrit and Hindi languages.

The Sambhavna Clinic is a model of environmental health. It was built and operates as safely and sustainably as possible. For example:

  • Only hot water and soap are used to clean the clinic, to make sure that no one is harmed by toxic cleaning products.
  • Clinic workers started a garden to grow plant medicines. No chemicals are used in the garden. People treated at the clinic work in the garden and collect their own herbs for treatment.
  • When new clinic buildings are needed, only nontoxic building materials are used. The buildings use local materials, and are designed to allow natural light and air to pass through.
  • Rainwater is collected from tiled roofs during the wet season and stored in underground tanks, providing water for the dry season.
  • After water is used for washing, it is piped into a pond and then irrigates the grounds and the herb garden.
  • Electricity is made by solar panels, which cause very little pollution.
People working and meditating in the garden outside the clinic.

The Sambhavna Clinic shows how achieving health for all means not only treating the sick, but preventing illness in the first place. Their example of reducing harm from toxics can be followed in schools, businesses, government offices, and our homes. But even if we change our homes and institutions to make them healthier and more sustainable, all of us, especially the most vulnerable, are still at risk, as long as industries continue to produce and use toxic substances.

Working for change

By organizing their community to struggle for long-term health and well-being, the survivors of Bhopal have inspired people around the world to act for environmental rights and justice. These principles of organizing to reduce harm from toxic chemicals have proven useful:

  • Avoid toxics in daily life. Use nontoxic chemicals for cleaning at home, in community institutions, or at the workplace. Do not use chemical pesticides or fertilizers in the garden, eat food grown without chemicals, and wash fruits and vegetables carefully before eating. Because we are likely to be exposed to toxics in our communities, we must pressure governments to stop allowing corporations to expose people, especially the most vulnerable.
  • Organize to prevent pollution. Use different actions to prevent toxic disasters, including hunger strikes, sit-ins, and marches, as well as popular theater, the media, the internet, and other communication methods to educate people. If a factory is polluting, look for other ways that workers can earn their livelihood, because all people need jobs and income.
A woman speaking as she holds her child.
If our governments protected us and our environment the way I protect my family, we would all be healthier.
  • Force companies to clean up. Although this is very hard to achieve, demanding that a corporation clean up its toxic mess is an important part of every struggle for environmental rights. People agree, even if corporations do not, that corporations must take responsibility to prevent harm and to repair any damage they cause. When people force corporations to pay for damage, the corporations are more likely to improve safety in the future.
  • Pressure governments for better safety standards. Unfortunately, most governments protect corporate profits more than they protect people. This promotes environmental injustice and leads to disasters when the companies see safety as an avoidable cost, not a responsibility. Governments must change their priorities to protect all people, especially the most vulnerable.
  • Change the way industry makes things. The Union Carbide factory in Bhopal made pesticides to control crop pests. But there are better ways to control pests than using these chemicals. In fact, there are less harmful and more sustainable ways to do just about everything. Why is it that we are allowed to be poisoned by industry, but not allowed to decide how things should be made?

Acceptable risk? For whom?

Industries and governments often justify the risk of environmental damage, even disasters such as the one at Bhopal, by saying that a certain amount of risk is acceptable as "the cost of development." This usually means that the most vulnerable of us are sacrificed in order for business to continue making profits as usual. For most of us, that is not acceptable. The pursuit of profit is no justification for causing so much harm and violating people's human rights to health and a healthy environment.

If the Union Carbide company or the Indian government had been guided by the precautionary principle, perhaps the Bhopal toxic gas disaster would not have happened.

Demanding precaution

Safety measures can reduce harm. But even when safety measures are taken, there is always some risk in industrial factories. If risks cannot be avoided, then at least they should be shared equally and not affect only the poorest people and communities.

In the long term, to be as safe as possible, industries must be organized in a way that values safety and sustainability more than high profits. To achieve this, we should demand that corporations develop safer and more just ways of doing things, and that governments hold them accountable by making and enforcing laws that protect health and the environment. One way to promote environmental justice for all is to demand that our leaders and those in power make decisions guided by the precautionary principle.

Illustration of the following: The shape of the factory turned sideways becomes a gun.
Demand precaution!
EHB Ch4 Page 43-2.png
A smoking factory… …can be turned into a smoking gun