The Unusual Suspects

So what are we talking about? Who or what are the “Unusual Suspects”? We certainly have an idea of where the term, “Usual Suspects”, originated. The phrase, “Usual Suspects” was first used in popular culture in thcaptaine classic film, “Casablanca” (Warner Brothers, 1942). As the story goes, during World War II in French Morocco after the fall of France, people wanting escape Nazi-occupied Europe would make their way to Casablanca in the hopes of getting transit visas to free or neutral countries like Portugal. Captain Renault holds sway over Casablanca and when a murder occurs, he instructs his officers to “Round up the usual suspects.” spaceyThis phrase inspired the movie, “The Usual Suspects” (Bad Hat Harry Productions Blue Parrott, 1995) wherein Verbal Kint, played by Kevin Spacey, chronicles the tale of the evil master villain, Keyser Söze, and Kint’s mortal fear of Söze given that authorities are asking Kint to agrees to testify against Söze.

Both humans and other species are currently being plagued by a mysterious malaise that is perhaps being surreptitiously conveyed throughout our natural and man-made water systems. So who are the Usual Suspects in this case? Someone who knows Captain Renault? Maybe it could be the seemingly omniscient Keyser Söze? The grim reality is that these suspects are unusual everyday ones and there are approximately 7 billion of them. The Unusual Suspects are Homo sapiens and they have been at it for quite some time. So what is the “it” that they have been “at” that is making them and fellow planetary inhabitants ill?

One of the lesser known aspects of the result of human societal activity is the production, dispersion, and proliferation of numerous compounds that have detrimental impacts on both humans and other life forms. These compounds are collectively often referred to as “persistent organic pollutants” or POPs. Just like Keyser Söze, POPs can act in insidious and devious ways. The reason for this statement is that many of these compounds work subtly to interfere and alter the biochemical functionality for humans and numerous other species. After being manufactured and consumed by people, most of these products are not converted in the human body to innocuous substances. Consequently, the vast majority of these materials merely “pass- through” the human body and are discharged into domestic wastewater collection systems or other disposal systems. When these materials arrive at wastewater treatment facilities, the current technology is not capable of destroying the preponderance of POPs and they are then widely dispersed into the environment.organics

One class of POPs are called endocrine disruptor compounds or EDCs. These compounds can interfere with the functioning or human and animal endocrine systems. The endocrine system is comprised of glands in the body. These glands produce hormones which act as chemical messengers. These chemicals control a number of important biological functions, including reproduction, growth, development, and food processing. Insulin, estrogen, and testosterone are examples of hormones. Alarmingly, these substances have found their way into the environment at levels which can inflict adverse health effects, even death, to organisms including humans. EDCs are one class of anthropogenic organics that can be particularly insidious.. They are usually in health care products and the like and usually found in consumer products.

A case in point for EDCs is DDT. The alarming impacts of DDT were brought to public attention by Dr. Rachel Carson in her groundbreaking book, “Silent Spring”. As a result of Dr. Carson’s book, investigative efforts determined that DDT had effects on wildlife and other data were obtained that showed that DDT represented a potential risk to human health. DDT is classified as a probable human carcinogen by both U.S. and international experts. Data from studies using animals showed that animals exposed to DDT developed liver tumors. Since DDT biodegrades slowly, it is very persistent in the environment.egg

Although society ultimately dealt with DDT, there are numerous other POP compounds currently being manufactured, consumed, and widely dispersed into the environment. The Unusual Suspects are increasingly dispersing these compounds into the environment. This proliferation is facilitated by the society’s water and wastewater treatment systems which are unable to cope with these substances resulting in the dispersion of POPs into the environment. Persistent organics is an issue that will require our attention as an “other inconvenient truth” particularly as economies and populations grow and water is “recycled” more frequently in society.

Rozich, A. F., Other Inconvenient Truths Beyond Global Warming, Virtual, College Station, Texas, 2013.

Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring, Houghton-Mifflin, New York, 2002.

Photo credits:
The Inimitable Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in a Scene from the Timeless Classic, CasablancaCourtesy Wikimedia Commons

Kevin Spacey, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Eggshells Deformed by DDT, Courtesy, Wikispaces and Anthony Li.