April 30, 2021

​A Toxic Legacy

Here’s why caring for creation should matter to Christians.

William K. Hayes

The flyer announcing a community meeting at the nearby church caught her attention. Like other neighbors, Jennifer Hall-Massey, the mother of two young teenagers, had noticed a change in her well water several years prior. It had become gray, cloudy, oily, and foul-smelling. Toilets, bathtubs, and washers had developed rusty stains. Her younger son had suffered painful skin rashes after bathing in the water. Enamel in the teeth of her older son had eroded away.

Jennifer had her suspicions. Her younger brother had died the year before from a brain tumor, but at the community meeting she learned that six neighbors in a 10-house span had also suffered brain tumors. Soon surveys revealed additional ailments, with the community experiencing exceptional rates of gallbladder disease, fertility issues, miscarriages, kidney and thyroid problems, and cancer. Jennifer—as well as 30 percent of others in the community—eventually had her gallbladder removed.

What happened? Prenter Hollow, a small community less than 17 miles from West Virginia’s capital city, had been poisoned. Coal mining companies had injected nearly 2 billion gallons of coal deposits and slurry into abandoned mine shafts just a few miles away. The deposits contained more than 10 times the legally allowed concentrations of arsenic, barium, lead, and manganese. All these chemicals showed up in tests of the local well water.

Coal and the industry that mines it are the lifeblood of West Virginia’s economy, so state authorities were reluctant to challenge the immense political and social influence of the industry. Multiple companies responsible for the pollution openly reported their transgressions but denied any link to the water problems and were never even fined.1

Sadly, the problem of polluters and the consequences of pollution are hardly unique to West Virginia. As many as 100,000 violations of the Clean Water Act2 occur each year in the United States, with fewer than 3 percent resulting in fines or other significant punishments.3 Research suggests that one in 10 Americans is exposed to dangerous chemicals in their drinking water, and up to 20 million fall ill each year from contaminated water.4 And this happens in a developed country with relatively strict environmental protections.

A Toxic Legacy

Today we live on a planet full of pollutants that we create and distribute. We inhale them in the air we breathe. We consume them in our food and water. They permeate and affect our bodies in ways we barely understand.

Consider air pollution. The vast majority of pollutants derive from energy use and production, including vehicles, factories, power plants, and incinerators. The resulting smog (ground-level ozone) and soot (particulate matter) irritate the eyes and throat and cause life-threatening injury to lungs. Mercury, lead, dioxins, benzene, and other toxic emissions damage the nervous, immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems. Carbon dioxide and methane elevate the earth’s temperature, which exacerbates smog formation and alters the climate. Currently nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe dangerously unhealthy air.5 Air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people each year,6 including 66,000 in the United States.7

Consider water pollution. Agriculture damages our precious but finite waterways more than any other source, as rainfall washes fertilizers, pesticides, nitrates, animal waste from livestock operations, and deadly pathogens into our waterways. Sewage and wastewater from our homes, businesses, and manufacturing add to the toxic brew. Oil seeps into the water from oil wells, industrial use, drippage from millions of vehicles, and tankers at sea. Mercury and other toxic chemicals have now penetrated the most remote regions of our oceans. Unsafe water sickens about 1 billion people each year and kills nearly 2 million.8

Consider household pollution. Inefficient household cooking creates the biggest problem, accounting for roughly 4 million of the 7 million annual deaths from air pollution.9 Some chemicals we interact with daily and assume to be harmless cause more subtle problems. Their accumulation in our bodies has been associated with numerous health issues, including reduced sperm counts and quality.10

Collectively, pollutants kill an estimated 9 million humans each year, accounting for roughly one in every six deaths.11 They also wreak havoc on other parts of God’s creation—the plants, animals, and delicately balanced ecosystems that God provided to sustain us. Ocean pollution, for example, kills an estimated 1 million birds and 100,000 sea mammals each year.12 Sadly, much of this toxic legacy could be avoided if we committed ourselves to taking better care of God’s creation.

Should We Care About the Present Creation?

While many Christians today hold an elevated view toward the original creation, they often express indifference toward the present creation. Some argue that God permits us to exploit resources that are essentially inexhaustible, and that scientists and environmentalists grossly exaggerate the fragility of our planet and its resources. God, however, has given no room to doubt: “I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable” (Jer. 2:7, NIV). In spite of this clear rebuke, many Christians have largely stood idle while nonbelievers have taken the lead in creation care.

Clearly, healthy humans need healthy environments.

Clearly, healthy humans need healthy environments. That alone should justify our efforts to become better stewards of God’s creation. Nevertheless, we should endear ourselves to creation care for at least three additional reasons. First, the Bible clearly implores us to (see Gen. 2:15; Zech. 11:2, 3; Rev. 11:18). Second, caring brings us into communion with God (Job 12:7, 8). And third, we gain economic benefits by protecting essential ecological services, such as the provisioning of clean air, food, water, and construction materials; regulation of plant and human diseases; protection against extreme weather; and decomposition and detoxification of wastes.13

Pollution and Health Disparities

Tragically, the poor and impoverished usually bear the brunt of problems that arise from unhealthy environments. Individuals and corporations often conduct business in ways that exploit the environment and diminish its capacity to sustain local communities . Wealthy nations often benefit at the expense of developing nations. More than 90 percent of pollution-related deaths occur in developing countries.14

As Christians we should have the loudest voices in defending the victims of environmental injustice. We have a moral imperative to identify these victims, listen to their needs, and extend a helping hand.

In the words of an influential Adventist: “In slighting the claims of the poor, the suffering, and the sinful, we are proving ourselves traitors to Christ.”15

What Can Be Done About Pollution?

As individuals, we have several means of reducing exposure to pollutants. Those of us who have the options can choose clean areas to live, consume organic produce, drive more efficient vehicles, eschew plastic packaging, and support environmental protections. Individuals, however, have limited ability to change the ways of polluters, so coordinated effort is needed—and this is best accomplished by government actions.

Governments can effect change by two principal means: enacting fiscal policies that shift behavior toward healthier, more sustainable practices; and enacting regulations that reduce pollution, increase monitoring, and punish violators.

Many Christians believe, however, that environm
ental regulations excessively burden businesses and are much too costly to implement. But the facts suggest otherwise—that inaction may be more costly. Researchers estimate that welfare losses resulting from pollution comprise a staggering US$4.6 trillion per year, representing more than 6 percent of global economic output.16 In the United States alone net benefits of environmental regulations have exceeded $200 billion each year since 1980, summing to more than $8 trillion total.17

In the absence of government policies, how safe can we really be? A benevolent government seeks to protect the health of its citizens through policies that include oversight and compensation.

Change simply cannot happen without the public caring; indeed, it seems, without public outcry. Somehow we need to find our voices to support efforts for change.

To Never Thirst Again

For those who believe in the Bible, Jesus is the ultimate solution to pollution. Speaking to a woman at a well, He said, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst” (John 4:13, 14, NIV).

With that promise, we can look forward to the day when toxic water and recalcitrant polluters will no longer threaten our health and be on our minds. Until then, we are tasked to ensure that God’s creation supplies us, and all of God’s creation, with the next best thing—clean air, healthy land, and pure water.

  1. Charles Duhigg, “Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering,” New York Times, Sept. 12, 2009, https://tinyurl.com/e3usb5zy; see also, https://tinyurl.com/556dbkce.
  2. https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-water-act.
  3. Duhigg.
  4. Ibid.
  5. World Health Organization, “9 out of 10 People Worldwide Breathe Polluted Air, but More Countries Are Taking Action,” May 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yf5pt274.
  6. Ibid.
  7. I. C. Dedoussi et al., “Premature Mortality Related to United States Cross-State Air Pollution,” Nature 578 (2020):261–265.
  8. P. J. Landrigan et al., “The Health and Economic Benefits of Climate Mitigation and Pollution Control,” Lancet 391 (2018): 462–512.
  9. World Health Organization.
  10. U. Mann et al., in Current Opinion in Urology 30 (2020): 296–301; see also, L. G. Kahn et al., in Lancet Diabetes Endocrinology 8 (2020): 703–718.
  11. The Lancet Commission, October 2017, https://tinyurl.com/5ase4jeu.
  12. United Nations Environment Programme, “Marine Litter: Trash That Kills,” 2021, https://tinyurl.com/39nmxxrr.
  13. R. Costanza et al., “Changes in the Global Value of Ecosystem Services,” Global Environmental Change 26 (2014): 152-158.
  14. The Lancet Commission.
  15. Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 137.
  16. The Lancet Commission.
  17. Landrigan et al.; see also U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/afn7j6fj.

William K. Hayes, Ph.D., is a professor of biology at Loma Linda University in California.