They have kept us warm, prevented malaria, improved sanitation and extended the shelf life of our food, but some of humankind’s most celebrated inventions are also responsible for millions of deaths, catastrophic environmental contamination and the hastening of global warming. In fact, one supposedly safe discovery even indirectly led to the demise of its inventor. From the coal that burns in our power plants to the sacks we use to carry home our groceries, these killer creations have probably done far more harm than good.
Coal-Fired Power Plants
Coal has kept us warm and provided energy since caveman days, but few human comforts have come at so high a cost to the environment and our own health. In a single year, the coal industry spews pollutants into the atmosphere, contaminates millions of rivers, devastates mining sites, produces millions of tons of toxic solid waste products and shortens approximately one million human lives. The primary cause of climate change in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, coal plants are also a leading cause of smog and acid rain. Surface coal mining dramatically alters the landscape, dumping waste into valleys and streams and requiring large quantities of water to filter out impurities. From its initial extraction to its transformation into electricity, coal is so destructive that the head of the UN climate agency recommended leaving the rest of it in the ground forever to prevent further catastrophic global warming.
The Atomic Bomb
In the early 20th century, as Albert Einstein developed his famous mass-energy equivalency E = mc 2 and Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radiation, advancements in chemistry and physics rushed along the invention of humankind’s most potentially catastrophic invention to date. Capable of astonishing instantaneous destruction, nuclear weapons have long-reaching consequences that go far beyond the initial annihilation of their targets. After the instant death of most life forms in the impact zone, radioactive particles rain down from the sky, contaminating the air, water, soil and food supply for thousands of miles. Then there are the genetic mutations seen in humans, animals and plants after they’re exposed to radiation, like cancerous tumours, infertility and extra limbs.
The inventors of DDT hoped that their colourless, tasteless and nearly odorless creation would help control malaria and typhus among civilians and troops during World War II. The Swiss chemist who discovered its insecticidal action, Paul Hermann Müller, was even awarded a Nobel Prize as his creation was formulated into commercial preparations for use the world over. But in addition to mosquitoes, DDT was killing everything from microorganisms to birds, and is suspected of causing cancer in humans. Rachel Carson was the first to expose DDT’s dangers in her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring.
A single man named Thomas Midgley Jr has had the biggest impact on the atmosphere than any other living creature in history, and his invention indirectly caused his own death. Unaware of lead’s toxicity, the American mechanical engineer and chemist discovered that adding tetraethyllead (TEL) to gasoline prevents ‘knocking’ in internal combustion engines. After ten people died during testing at TEL prototype plants, Midgley attempted to demonstrate the safety of the substance by pouring it all over his hands and inhaling its vapor. Ultimately, he was forced into convalescence with a serious case of lead poisoning, and accidentally strangled himself in a pulley system designed to help him sit up in bed. Nonetheless, TEL became a common additive in gasoline around the world, blasting lead particulates into the environment from automobile exhausts for decades before it was finally phased out in the 1970s.
Even as states like California experience increasingly troubling droughts, Americans literally flush about 6 billion gallons of water down the toilet each and every day. Prior to the invention of low-flow toilets, a single flush could send seven gallons into the sewers. In developing countries, flushing a toilet might mean sending human waste directly into a nearby river, contaminating the entire ecosystem and spreading water-borne diseases. Dual-flush toilets and other technologies that use far less water can help, as well as waste incinerators and even special toilets that turn waste into energy and fertilisers.
Freon and other chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were thought to be an improvement on toxic refrigerants like ammonia and sulfur dioxide when they were introduced for use in air conditioners, refrigerators and aerosols in the 1930s. In fact, good old Thomas Midgley (also responsible for leaded gasoline) helped synthesise CFCs and promote their use, demonstrating their low boiling point, low toxicity and non-reactive properties for the American Chemical Society in stunts that included inhaling a breath of the gas and using it to blow out a candle. But it’s not a direct toxicity to humans that lands CFCs on this list: it’s the giant hole they helped create in the Earth’s ozone layer, hastening global warming. Their usage for most applications has since been phased out.
Take a glance around any urban area and you’re likely to see at least one plastic bag crumpled by the curb or tumbling along a sidewalk. So cheap to produce that we don’t think twice about tossing them after a single use, these ubiquitous bags have a hidden cost. Instead of biodegrading, they break down into smaller pieces that contaminate soil and waterways, entering the food chain when animals accidentally ingest them and causing the deaths of over 100,000 sea turtles and other marine animals each year. Scientists estimate that nearly 90% of the debris in the world’s oceans is plastic, much of it collecting into massive trash gyres that are virtually impossible to clean up.
Over forty years after the United States military sprayed the toxic herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam to destroy both jungle cover and cropland, many ecosystems still haven’t recovered. Nearly 5 million acres of jungle and 500,000 acres of crops were left denuded or heavily damaged, leading to a domino effect of ecological problems like erosion and the spread of dioxins through the food chain. As many as 3 million Vietnamese people suffered illnesses after exposure.