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
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
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
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
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
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
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