Sunday, July 14, 2024
Chris Judd

Beam me up, Scotty

Remember Star Trek? We thought it was out of this world that someone could create a magnetic field around someone and send a person into another room or even another spaceship. Well, my cousin was an engineer at atomic energy and in the ‘70s they could create a magnetic field around a coffee mug and direct it anywhere in the room. Those engineers said it was only a matter of time before they could make the field strong enough to move larger objects and people wherever they wanted! They assumed that was how a spaceship from wherever could get to Earth from outer space. Remember Smart talking on his “shoe phone” and we thought that was far out? Now we carry a smart phone that has more computing ability than a room full of HP computers did in the late ‘60s.
We often hear a politician say, “listen to the science.” If you look up “scientist” in the dictionary, you’ll see any one of us is a scientist. Every time we compare something to something else, we are conducting our own small experiment. Some students spend a lifetime specializing in one very precise subject and become renowned scientists.
Creating new deadly chemicals took off during the past wars such as nerve gas to kill people during WWI, gas used by Hitler in the gas chambers, Agent Orange used to defoliate trees so the army could find the enemy, the nuclear bomb which was the deadliest weapon ever invented, etc.
Agent Orange, (commonly known as brush killer or 2-4-5-T) was later found to greatly increase cancer. 2-4-D, 2-4-DB, MPCA, and MPCB were all created from the same family as Agent Orange, but more user-friendly for farmers to use to kill weeds with. Many other man-made chemicals to kill weeds in the field would be created when those chemical engineers began experimenting. Sometimes it would be many years after they were released that we would find out that residues from those chemicals could remain and accumulate in the ground and water for generations after they were initially sprayed on crops. Some caused an increase in cancers, animals to have both male and female parts in the same body, early embryonic death of fetuses, and some digestive tract diseases and maybe a few other problems not discovered yet.
Several years ago, I was involved in the renovation of one of the oldest churches in Pontiac County. Although the church was well over a hundred years old, it had never been assessed by architects and engineers to be declared stable and structurally sound. Once it passed this initial inspection, we were assured that the old church was worth restoring. Initially, the church had a steeple that after 50 years became unstable and was replaced by a tower which was then the thing to do on many old English churches. Although the original tower was very stable, it was decided to make it taller and include a clock and renovate the bell tower. The extension was made of locally made cement blocks held together with the newest, strongest mortar available.
A small earthquake in the ‘80s had cracked the new extension made of cement blocks, but never moved the original stone structure. It was decided to remove the damaged cement block extension and replace it with a steeple like the one originally on the old church. When work began to remove the cement block extension, the workers found asbestos in the mortar holding the cement blocks together. Although more than half a century ago, asbestos was added to all the mortar used in both cement block and brick construction. Asbestos is now declared a dangerous contaminant, and to dismantle any structure containing asbestos requires all workers to wear hazmat suits and masks. All those extra precautions and moving this contaminated waste to some faraway secret location added unforeseen thousands of dollars to the restoration project.
Back in the early ‘60s, many of our dairy farmers were instructed by our Quebec minister of agriculture to line the inside of newly constructed bulk milk tank rooms with this new asbestos board which was easy to keep clean and disinfect and did not rust. A couple decades after that, asbestos sheeting was declared toxic and farmers removed the asbestos sheeting and under cloak of darkness buried this dangerous waste in some undisclosed place, never to be mentioned. The asbestos brake shoes that were used for generations on thousands of trucks and cars have now been replaced with ceramic linings.
Some of our oldest grandparents witnessed the use of wood-fired boilers to power our first steam engines which powered the first trains and traction engines to work our fields and power the threshing mills. Wood-fired boilers would soon be replaced by coal-fired boilers because coal could be moved with less manpower than blocks of wood.

The arrival of gas and diesel engines produced less black smoke and provided more convenience and versatility than the steam boilers. Now, after documenting the effect that years of burning fossil fuels has had on the planet that we are in custody of while our future generations grow up, we have been warned by our most respected scientists that we must take some very unpopular steps to reduce and reverse global warming so our grandchildren can survive and enjoy even a fraction of what we have taken for granted.
So, what about these mountains of garbage that are turning this beautiful planet into a dump? Sometimes we have to take a look back a few generations before we can plan our next steps. A large majority of what we throw away today didn’t even exist in our great-grandparent’s day. All plastics and man-made fibres didn’t exist until after oil was discovered in 1858 in Oil Springs, Ont. What did grandpa wear before manmade fabric? Cotton, wool, hemp, real leather boots, pig skin work mitts and deerskin gloves on Sunday. Funny those are still my favourite clothing materials.
Until a few years ago, my favorite work vest was an old sheepskin vest that my grandpa had. My friend’s favourite dress shirt was a white hemp shirt that his dad bought after returning from WWII. After 70 years of wear, it had no tears or holes in it. Some of our farmers are now recycling city compost or dewatered sludge to bring back some of the organic matter and phosphates that our city cousins dump down the drain. One of the main concerns that our soil scientists have about this compost or sludge is the micro-fibres that is present in most city waste. Most of these micro-fibres come from washing clothes which washes out any small, short fibres that become dislodged from man-made fibres. These micro-fibres can find their way into the streams, rivers, and oceans and be ingested by fish and other underwater animals. Other animals or people that consume them also get some of those minute pieces of plastic. When spread on farmers fields in the compost, plastic is very slow, if ever, to decompose.
Then there are those new forever chemicals that have been used for years but we have just recently been made aware of. The one that has made the news just recently is PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) which is used in many cosmetics, the coating on non-stick cookware, as a water repellant on tents and rain wear, among others. It is yet unknown if it ever degrades, even if it has been around since the ‘50s.
Europe has recently outlawed PFAS and just very recently has been under very close scrutiny by USDA officials. Some US farms have been declared never to be farmed again. Many of the petro-chemical products (plastics) are relatively stable and very slow to degrade in soil. However, if they are incinerated, very harmful dioxins are released into the soil and atmosphere. It is those dioxins that are a major cause of cancers. Although these dioxins are released into the air by burning, the rain or snow falling through the air will bring those dioxins to earth where they can be picked up by animal or people who consume the grain, veggies, fruits or meat from animals who eat what grows on that polluted ground. Depending which way the wind blows, the smoke from incineration will determine where the majority of the dioxins fall to earth. Many of the new complex of chemicals produced by incinerating different mixes of waste have never been tested for toxicity.
Will science ever be able to catch up to the thousands of complexes of chemicals being dumped on us yearly and determine how to safely dispose of those chemicals? Or, should we begin to determine those which we could easily do without? Our largest single use plastic is probably the car that we drive. Did you ever look closely at an automobile after it was burnt to the ground?

Chris Judd is a farmer in Clarendon on land that has been in his family for generations.

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