Healing Our World

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

From a Distance, the World Looks Great

"From a distance the world looks blue and green
And the snow-capped mountains white
From a distance the ocean meets the stream
And the eagle takes to flight

From a distance there is harmony
And it echoes through the land
It's the voice of hope, it's the voice of peace
It's the voice of every man."
-- Julie Gold

I took my two year old son Justin to Lake Union in Seattle yesterday to see the boats. It was lovely  the Sun was out, the sky was blue and clear, the air was warm, and the wind blew the smells of the outdoors gently in our faces. The smell of water ecosystems brings back so many memories, memories of how the water has always been a place of peace to me, a place where I could quietly reflect and contemplate without being judged or criticized.

 

Lake Union as seen from the Seattle Space Needle (Photo by Richard Mieremet courtesy NOAA)
But along with those awarenesses were other thoughts as I saw all the boats in the water, the sickly looking birds all around, the murky, soupy water below, all the trash at my feet and the large industrial ships going to and fro.
The water was so lovely. But I know that it is terribly poisoned. Earlier in the day, I saw children swimming in Seattles Green Lake, a dead body of water with no fresh inflow. I desperately wanted to tell them to get out, that they could get sick. But I didn't.

I've been told before not to be so negative. People don't always want to hear about the darkness. It is frightening to contemplate. Acknowledging the darkness also means that you must take personal responsibility for your contribution to the problem. In order to do this, you will have to drive less, fly less, eat differently and consume less. These are treasonous words in our consumer based, feel good culture.

So I looked away and continued walking and wondered what I would tell my son when the day came when he asked to swim in Green Lake.

As I looked off into the distance, I saw a park on the other side of Lake Union. But this is no ordinary park. Gas Works Park is built on the contaminated remains of a former coal gasification plant. It was where coal was turned into natural gas, a very dirty process. The 20 acre facility was opened as a park in 1975.

 

This sign is posted at Seattle's Gas Works Park. (Photo courtesy Puget Soundkeeper)
In 1996, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta, Georgia, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to examine the public health threat from contamination in the soil and water at Gas Works Park. Their study confirmed that PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] are still present in accessible soil and sediments at concentrations greater than 1000 [parts per million] ppm. The data also indicate that VOCs [volatile organic compounds] are present at concentrations greater than 0.10 ppm in water seeping from the site. The contamination affects soil in the park, sediments along the shoreline of the park and Lake Union, and water seeping from beneath the park into Lake Union.
The report concluded that short term exposure to the contamination could result in some skin irritations, that anyone digging in park soil or sediment may be exposed to high transient concentrations of VOCs, and that further consideration should be given to preventing human contact with highly contaminated soil and sediments.

The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department finally admitted a couple of years ago that the park was contaminated with benzene and other cancer causing contaminants and would have to be closed for cleanup for seven months. During that time, a few inches of soil was removed from a portion of the park and replaced with new soil. Contamination still remains.

Justin and I visited the Center for Wooden Boats, where all kinds of boats are moored for display. Some of the boats are used to take people out on short tours of the lake. All around the Center were huge yachts and hundreds of other boats.

As we walked out onto the wharves surrounded by all those boats and their paint, I thought about what I had learned a few years earlier while I was living in Southern California - that significant numbers of the over 2,000 remaining Southern sea otters in California are dying. They are dying because they are being poisoned by tributyltin (TBT) and its byproducts, a chemical that, since the 1960s, has been used as an "antifouling agent" in marine paint to prevent barnacles and slime from attaching to boats. I wondered about all the boat paint and antifouling agents, fuel, and chemicals that were rendering Lake Union beneath us into a toxic soup.

 

Seattle's Center for Wooden Boats (Photo courtesy Center for Wooden Boats)
As I saw all the fishing gear on the surrounding boats, I remembered that there is an ongoing health advisory for all the waters of Puget Sound in and around Seattle. All bottom fish and all shellfish including crab are highly contaminated from decades of the presence of toxic industrial chemicals and are not fit for consumption.
Investigations into the cause of death of 247 sea otters found along the California coast a couple of years ago revealed that 40 percent of them died from infectious diseases caused by parasites, bacteria, and fungi. This high percentage suggests that the otters lacked a resistance to infections, possibly because of damaged immune systems.

All the dead otters had TBT in their bodies, a chemical whose presence suppresses the immune system. Although the government banned the use of TBT paint on small boats in 1989 because of the connection between TBT and diseases in bottlenose dolphins in the Atlantic, it can still be used on boats larger than 25 feet in length. And despite the ban the chemical is already deeply imbedded into the ecosystem, in bottom dwelling animals like sea urchins, scallops, and mussels - all part of the sea otter's diet - and many people's diets as well.

As we walked down the wharf and Justin laughed as he saw Canada geese swimming by, I saw a young man washing down one of the Centers boats. He was using a collection of bathroom cleaners available in any grocery store that all have warning labels that advise users not to dispose of them in bodies of water. He was rinsing them right into the lake, and he had no clue that this was a problem.

I cried inside as I realized that the very Canada geese that my son was giggling at would probably be murdered over the next couple of weeks by agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), hired by Seattles Parks Department every year to kill a few thousand geese. It is estimated that there are about 20,000 to 25,000 of the birds in the area.

Their crime  pooping. The Parks Department claims that the feces of the geese are messy and a health hazard, even though not one documented case of an illness from the feces can be found.

 

Canada geese in a Seattle park (Photo ) J.A. Giuliano)
The USDA personnel use boats to herd the birds onto land and then use bread to lure them into a fenced area. From there, the officials herd the geese down a narrow fenced chute into a larger pen where, as one activist described the scene last year, they are roughly chased, grabbed, and stuffed into gas chambers." Carbon dioxide is pumped into the chambers to kill the birds.
The gas chambers are metal boxes constructed to fit in the bed of a pickup truck. They were not built to adequately accommodate large birds like Canada geese. The boxes are dark and do not allow the geese to stand upright. One can only imagine the panic and terror the birds experience crowded into these death chambers.

As I walked back toward the car carrying my sweet, innocent little boy, I thought of all the people in the water whose immune systems were suffering. I thought about how many would probably get a rash they couldn't explain or get a runny nose or fever next week that they attribute to the flu. None would associate any ill health with their romp in the water or their fish dinner.

As I looked up, I saw a group of teenage men and women about to take part in a cruise of some kind on a rented yacht. Could they be counted on to repair the damage we have done? Somehow, I didnt think so. I held my boy tighter.

The otters' plight is our own. The chemicals most boat owners dump into the water are our responsibility. Our immune systems are suffering as well with the constant toxic load being placed on them. Sure, we will probably be OK. But what about those who come after us? Don't we have a responsibility to take care of them too? Our oceans, lakes, and streams are the lifeblood of our Earth.

From a distance, everything looks OK. But we have to get on our knees and look closely at what we are doing - and pray for forgiveness.

From a distance we all have enough
And no one is in need
There are no guns, no bombs, no diseases
No hungry mouths to feed

From a distance we are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of home, playing songs of peace
They're the songs of every man
God is watching us, God is watching us
God is watching us from a distance

From a distance you look like my friend
Even though we are at war
From a distance I can't comprehend
What all this war is for

From a distance there is harmony
And it echoes through the land
It's the hope of hopes, it's the love of loves
It's the heart of every man

It's the hope of hopes, It's the love of loves
It's the song of every man.
-- A song by Julie Gold sung by Nancy Griffith


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