Global Catastrophic Risks by Chemical Contamination


Abstract: Global chemical contamination is an underexplored source of global catastrophic risks that is estimated to have low a priori probability. However, events such as pollinating insects’ population decline and lowering of the human male sperm count hint at some toxic exposure accumulation and thus could be a global catastrophic risk event if not prevented by future medical advances. We identified several potentially dangerous sources of the global chemical contamination, which may happen now or could happen in the future: autocatalytic reactions, exposure to multiple subthreshold sources, and long-term unintended consequences, arising from both natural and bioengineered sources. We list several especially dangerous chemicals—dioxin, organiс compounds, and toxic heavy metals. We also discuss the features of such dangerous chemicals—molecules that can stay in the biosphere for a long time and affect it over time. We explore several social processes and scenarios where global chemical contamination becomes possible: large natural catastrophe like meteorite impact, supervolcano eruption, new ways of predicting properties of the chemicals via machine learning and their manufacturing via synthetic biology, uncontrolled “capitalistic” economic development with a corresponding large waste production, quick adoption of many chemicals with unknown long-term properties and unintended side-effects. These are all low probability, so work on other global catastrophic risks should be prioritized, but chemical risks could exacerbate other types of catastrophe contributing to social collapse



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