Every stage of plastic production and use is harming human health: Report

Plastic production is on track to triple by 2050, a potential influx of hazardous materials that the Earth and humans can’t handle, according to a new report from the Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health.

Experts say the report is one of the most comprehensive to date in compiling evidence of plastics’ risks for humans, the environment and the economy at every stage of their lifecycle. The commission — a group of researchers organized by the Australian foundation Minderoo, the Scientific Center of Monaco and Boston College — found plastics disproportionately harm low-income communities, people of color and children. They’re urging negotiators of the United Nations Global Plastics Treaty to take bold steps, such as capping plastic production, banning some single-use plastics and regulating the toxic chemicals added to plastics. Countries launched the plastics treaty process in March 2022, with the goal of adopting it in 2024.

From production through disposal, plastics impact people and the environment. At fossil fuel extraction sites (most plastics are made from fossil fuels like oil or natural gas) and plastic production facilities workers and surrounding communities are exposed to pollutants that can cause reproductive complications such as premature births and low birth weights, lung cancer, diabetes and asthma, among other illnesses.

Use of plastic products can expose people to toxic chemicals, including phthalates, which are linked to brain development problems in children, and BPA, which is linked to heart attacks and neurological issues. At the end of the plastics supply chain are growing landfills that leach harmful materials into the environment and surrounding communities. These landfills are often found in poor countries, described in the report as “pollution havens.”

“The bottom line is that plastic is not nearly as cheap as we thought it was, it’s just that the costs have been invisible,” Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician, director at the Boston College Global Observatory on Planetary Health and lead author of the report, told Environmental Health News (EHN). In fact, health-related costs resulting from plastic production were more than $250 billion in 2015, the report found.

He explained that the commission’s recommendations for the those discussing the treaty could prevent many of those costs to environmental health and the economy.

Plastics production caps and bans

Countries launched the plastics treaty process in March 2022, with the goal of adopting it in 2024.Credit: United Nations “There needs to be a global cap on plastic production,” Dr. Landrigan said. This cap would allow some plastic production, but prevent the anticipated growth of plastics in the coming years. Production is increasing in part because the fossil fuel industry is looking for new markets as rising demand for renewable energy could decrease the need for fuel, the report says.The commission hopes countries signing the Global Plastics Treaty will ban avoidable plastics alongside capping production. Roughly 35% to 40% of plastic goes into disposable single-use items, and that fraction is expected to increase. “We need to get in charge again of why we use plastic,” Jane Muncke, managing director and chief scientific officer at the Food Packaging Forum who was unaffiliated with the report, told EHN.

Plastic waste and health harms 

Less than 10% of plastics are reused or recycled, according to the report, and the rest is burned or goes into landfills with devastating human and environmental tolls. Areas where plastic is burned experience elevated pollution and health risks. For example, plastic burning is linked to about 5.1% of lung cancers in cities in India, according to the report. Waste from electronics, with plastic and metal components, creates harmful exposures for the people around them, including roughly 18 million children working with electronic waste, the report says.For plastics that remain on the market, the commission hopes to see improved health and safety testing of the thousands of chemicals added to plastics. There are more than 2,400 chemicals added to plastics that are considered a high risk, the report says, and many others have never been tested. “The burden of proof that a chemical is problematic ends up being on society, when people start having health problems,” Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Texas at Austin, told EHN. To change this, the commission proposes testing chemicals for toxicity before they’re added to plastic products that are sold. Exposure to plastics “falls most heavily on poor people, minorities, Indigenous populations, and of course, kids,” Dr. Landrigan said. He explains that generally, poor countries facing plastic pollution want to see global commitments to reduce plastics and their health harms, while countries that produce plastics might be wary of regulations that reduce the industry’s profits.

“It’ll spin out of control” 

The second negotiation meeting for the Global Plastics Treaty will start in Paris in late May. The initial meeting covered procedures and included representatives from 160 countries. It saw conflict between the High Ambition Coalition, made up of 40 countries who advocate for the treaty to include mandatory actions, and others, including the United States, who want the treaty to result in pledges from each country.For individuals concerned about plastic in their own life, Gore recommends reducing contact with plastic wherever is practical and avoiding heating plastic in the microwave, which can leach toxics. “Don’t panic, because it is easy to get very alarmed,” she said. ”This document gave me hope and has very strong recommendations.” Dr. Landrigan points out that while reducing harms from plastic can seem daunting, there are examples of policy changing the environment for the better, such as the Clean Air Act, which reduced U.S. air pollution by 77% from 1970 to 2019. But, he said, “if we don’t act courageously and just let the plastic crisis continue to escalate, it’ll spin out of control.”From Your Site ArticlesRelated Articles Around the Web

A new research review describes plastics, ‘from cradle to grave,’ as a toxics crisis and says the UN must act to limit production

Plastic causes illness and death across its lifecycle, from production to use and disposal, a team of nearly 50 scientists concludes in a report to be made public Tuesday.

The risk can come from being near oil and gas extraction, working in plastic manufacturing plants or living near them, eating food heated in plastic packaging or breathing the air near incinerators where plastic waste gets burned as trash.

The report was produced by the Minderoo-Monoco Commission on Human Health, a body of scientists assembled by the Australian-based Minderoo Foundation, and published by Annals of Global Health, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The commission concluded that global plastic production, use and disposal patterns are responsible for significant harm to human health, the environment and the economy, and are causing deep societal injustices, particularly to children. It recommended establishing health-protective standards for plastic chemicals under a United Nations plastics treaty that’s being negotiated now, and a cap on plastic production, which is otherwise expected to triple by 2060.

The report is the latest by scientists who have documented the ubiquitous nature of plastic in the world, and the environmental consequences. 

Plastic waste and microplastic particles have been found on the highest mountaintops and in ocean trenches; in the stomachs of whales and other marine mammals, and in our bodies, leading to mounting concerns about what all that plastic might be doing to the planet, wildlife and people. 

The commission’s focus on health accentuates those concerns, especially as they relate to a debate over how plastic affects human health. 

A lead author of the report, Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, a pediatrician, epidemiologist and director of Boston College’s Global Public Health Program and Global Observatory on Planetary Health, said the debate is largely resolved. 

“The level of scientific certainty is absolute,” he said. “There are still details to be worked out about the exact magnitude, but there is no doubt whatsoever that plastic causes disease, disability, premature death, economic damage and damage to ecosystems at every stage of its life cycle. And the life cycle begins with the extraction of the oil, the coal, and the gas that are the building blocks for 98 to 99 percent of plastics.”

Dr. Philip Landrigan speaks at a plastics workshop at Bennington College in 2022. Credit: James Bruggers

Landigran has been studying the health effects of environmental pollutants for decades and worked on the first studies that linked the dangers of lead exposure to children. 

He was also a pioneer in defining children’s unique susceptibilities to pesticides and other toxic chemicals and, while at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, was centrally involved in the medical and epidemiologic studies that followed the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and health impacts to thousands of rescue workers.

In recent years, Landrigan has turned his attention to plastic. The commission, he said, is an offshoot from work he did on human health and ocean pollution with the Scientific Center of Monaco, a partner in the new plastics report, along with Boston College and the Minderoo Foundation. The commission included health experts, biological oceanographers and environmental scientists who collaborated to quantify plastic’s risks to all life on earth.

Among the commission’s key findings:

Plastic causes disease, impairment and premature mortality at every stage of its life cycle, with the health repercussions disproportionately affecting vulnerable, low-income and minority communities, particularly children.

Toxic chemicals added to plastic and routinely detected in people are known to increase the risk of miscarriage, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancers.

Plastic waste is ubiquitous and the ocean, on which people depend for oxygen, food and livelihoods, is “suffering beyond measure, with micro- and nano plastics particles contaminating the water and the sea floor and entering the marine food chain.”

“It is not ethical to deliberately expose humans to toxic chemicals,” said Sarah Dunlop, co-author and head of plastics and human health at the Minderoo Foundation, based in Nedlands, a suburb of Perth in Western Australia. “And yet, that’s what’s happening every day of our lives. These chemicals are being detected in our blood, our urine, our amniotic fluid, you name it, because the chemicals leach out of the plastic.”

Andrew and Nicola Forrest founded Minderoo Foundation in 2001. Andrew Forrest is a mining magnate and multi-billionaire. The couple has pledged to give away much of their fortune.

In February, the foundation released a report that concluded that despite rising consumer awareness, corporate attention and regulation, there is more single-use plastic waste than ever before—an additional 6 million metric tons generated in 2021 compared to 2019 and still almost entirely made from fossil fuels.

Toxic Chemicals With Our Fast Food

The report synthesizes the state of scientific knowledge on plastics and health, citing scores of research references. It includes a new calculation that health-related losses from plastics production exceeded $250 billion globally in 2015. In the United States alone, health costs of disease and disability caused by certain chemicals used to make plastic likely exceeded $920 billion in 2015, the report found.

Plastic production released nearly 2 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually, which would amount to a single-year cost of $341 billion, according to the report. In all, plastic accounts for as much as 5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions across its lifecycle, equivalent to emissions from Russia, making it a large-scale contributor to climate change, according to the report. 

The report stands in sharp contrast to how the chemical and plastics industry describes plastics in society. Rather than a scourge, the industry touts oil and gas development as a source of jobs and energy independence, plastics production as means of economic development and plastic products as a social and personal benefit of modern society.

Plastics keep food fresh and safe to eat and reduce food waste and the waste’s methane emissions, industry representatives say. They say that plastics make shipping materials, cars and trucks lighter so they use less fuel, and they note that plastics are widely used in the health care system.  

The industry and trade groups also argue that they are working to end plastic pollution through so-called “advanced recycling” techniques—still largely unproven—that use heat and chemicals to turn plastic waste into fossil fuels and other feedstocks to produce new plastic products.

“We don’t have to get rid of all plastics,” Landrigan said. “I mean, I am a medical doctor. I use IV bags. I use endoscopes. A lot of plastics are essential. But why does 40 percent of current production have to be single-use plastic stuff we use and throw away?”

In an interview, Landrigan sketched out the life cycle of health risks.

One example, he said, is the recent train derailment and disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, which required burning off carcinogenic vinyl chloride from five train cars and produced a huge fire and cloud of toxic smoke. The chemical is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.

Workers exposed to some of the thousands of chemicals used to make plastic are also at risk, as well as communities near manufacturing plants, he said.

“Think about the little kid chewing on the rubber ducky, and swallowing the phthalates that squeeze out of the rubber ducky,” Landrigan said, referring to chemicals used to make plastic more durable. Phthalates are endocrine disrupters that can mimic or block hormones, with potentially serious consequences, studies have shown.

Plastic waste is often dumped in landfills or incinerated—only 9 percent of it is actually recycled and used again—and a large amount of the waste gets shipped overseas “to countries that are least equipped to deal with it,” Landrigan said.

The report cited research that found that pregnant women living in homes with PVC flooring have significantly higher urinary levels of some metabolites of phthalate than pregnant women living in homes made with other flooring materials. That signals greater phthalate exposure.

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Your 'recycled' grocery bag might not have been recycled

To jumpstart a paltry market for recycled plastic, governments across the globe are pushing companies to include recycled materials in their products. Last year, the United Kingdom introduced a tax on manufacturers that produce or import plastic packaging containing less than 30 percent recycled plastic. In 2024, New Jersey will begin enforcing similar rules, albeit with lower targets. California now requires that beverage containers be made of 15 percent recycled materials, and Washington will enact a similar requirement later this year. The European Commission, Canada, and Mexico are all considering comparable moves.

Currently, most plastic products are derived from freshly extracted fossil fuels, including crude oil and natural gas. Incorporating some recycled plastic could reduce emissions, and shrink pollution in waterways and landfills, experts say. But collecting, sorting, pulverizing, and melting post-consumer plastics for reuse is expensive. The new laws will potentially help recyclers find buyers for what would otherwise become waste.

But regulators may need a better way to verify that the new laws are working. While companies can enlist a third-party to certify their use of recycled content, most certifiers take a bird’s-eye view, tracking the materials across a range of products and factories. As a result, an item with a “recycled content” label might be completely devoid of recycled content.

This current approach, called mass balance, poses additional challenges for those seeking to verify recycled content. To work well, mass balance requires trustworthy and accurate data, which are not always available across a convoluted supply chain. Experts warn mass balance may also lead to inflated estimates of recycled content.

Researchers in the U.K. have developed a novel method to measure this recycled content that adds fluorescent dyes to recycled plastics at the beginning of manufacturing. By measuring the change in color, the team can determine the amount of recycled content in each individual plastic product. Through the nonprofit ReCon2, the team is running pilot tests in real-world conditions and says this approach can help prevent fraud, keep costs low, and improve consumer trust.

In 2019, the world generated roughly 350 million tons of plastic, a doubling of production over the past two decades. Just 6 percent of global plastics produced came from recycled plastics, leaving most to be shoveled into landfills, incinerated, or carried into ecosystems. Recycling is not sufficient for solving the problem of plastic pollution, many researchers suggest. Instead, the issue will require some measure of reduction and re-use as well. Nevertheless, scientists say that these new laws and technologies that focus on this last option could mitigate the environmental harms of plastic production.

It’s “imperative” to be able to track materials through this recycling market in a way that makes sense, said Katrina Knauer, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “If we really want to make the circular economy a reality, efficient tracking and quantifiable tracking is going to be the only way we can really do that and create trust in a system.”

Companies like Unilever, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo have been making claims about using recycled content in their products for years. But the term “recycled content” is as flexible as the term “organic” before regulators clamped down on their usage, said Knauer. Earning those badges now requires ticking several boxes determined by federal agencies in the U.S. and the European Commission in the EU. Recycled content hasn’t received the same kind of regulatory scrutiny.

As the recycling industry develops, “I think we will run into some of the same challenges that we ran into in the past with companies making claims that may not be very true,” said Knauer, who is also the chief technology officer at the Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment, an organization at the Department of Energy that helps companies adopt greener plastics technologies.

Right now, many companies use mass balance, which considers all of the inputs that go into making a product and then balances them with the outputs to calculate the amount of recycled material.

For example, say there are 20 plastic bottles in a recycling bin. Those enter a mass balance when they are handed over to a recycling company. A manufacturer may then buy these bottles from the recycling company, as well as the equivalent of 80 bottles from newly extracted oil or gas. Assuming the manufacturer then produces 100 total bottles, the mass balance will conclude that each bottle is made with 20 percent recycled content.

In 2019, just 6 percent of global plastics produced came from recycled plastics, leaving most to be shoveled into landfills, incinerated, or carried into ecosystems.

But there’s a twist: Under some certification schemes, the company can attribute its recycled material evenly across several plants, including those that haven’t been able to acquire any recycled material. As a result, you usually cannot calculate a single product’s recycled content, if it has any at all.

For Zero Waste Europe, a  network of European communities and experts pushing companies and governments to reduce waste, this makes the mass balance approach “a simplistic and meaningless bookkeeping exercise.” But the problem goes beyond misleading marketing. Recycled material can be lower quality, and too much in a product may threaten the product’s integrity.

There are some benefits to mass balance’s flexible approach. With the supply of recycled plastics limited in some areas, it’s helpful to allow companies to compensate by using extra recycled content in areas with plenty to buy.

Eventually, however, consumers should be able to expect that the bottle in their hands has a specific level of recycled content. “That’s the ultimate goal, but it is a really complex system, and it takes a long time to make changes, so we’ll probably need to rely on mass balance to meet that kind of transition,” said Alix Grabowski, director of plastic and material science at the World Wildlife Fund.

That system complexity is felt in other ways, too. Tracking recycled materials along sometimes tortuous chains of purchases depends on trust between companies, said Wan-Ting Hsu, a material flow research analyst and Ph.D. candidate at University College London. Post-consumer plastic material can pass between many companies and jurisdictions with different rules about responsibility and accounting before it returns to retailers ready to sell it back to consumers.

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Companies have been making claims about using “recycled content” in their products for years, but the term isn’t well regulated. In this video, a plastic bottle is manufactured, used, reclaimed, and recycled. But it’s surprisingly difficult to track how much of a new product is actually made from recycled material.Visual:PepsiCo Recycling/YouTube

In interviews with key stakeholders in the plastics value chain, such as brand owners and recyclers, Hsu has learned that companies struggle to verify the source of material, and often they are left to ask for data from previous owners, which can sometimes be inaccurate. Without better proof of content, companies could make misleading claims, experts say, though they could not point to public evidence of such cases.

Another issue: The methods to certify recycled content vary across certification bodies, and there is little consistency. When the Canadian government commissioned the environmental consultancy company Eunomia to consult with manufacturers, as evidenced in the 2021 report, the manufacturers said they often chose certification schemes that offered the most flexible approach. Under such schemes, the company with 20 recycled bottles in its mix of 100, for example, could claim 20 of its bottles are 100 percent recycled, even when this is not the case.

“At this point we haven’t had any real legislation for this,” said Sarah Edwards, North America CEO at Eunomia. Up until now, she added, companies have used certification more for marketing or as part of longer-term sustainability goals.

The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery told Undark that it requires beverage manufacturers to report data to them directly and does not use third-party certifiers at this time. It would not disclose the method to certify information reported. In a draft rule in Washington state that will be finalized later this year, the Department of Ecology said it will require that producers attest to the accuracy of their data or obtain third-party certification.

Mass balance is especially contentious when it is used to certify products created from chemical recycling, a collection of mostly new techniques to strip plastics down to their basic building blocks, called monomers. In contrast to mechanical recycling, which shreds plastic but keeps its chemical form, manufacturers can use monomers to construct many different kinds of plastics, which are made up of polymers.

As part of the chemical recycling process, a plant may burn a portion of the recycled material into fuel or other byproducts. Though this process releases greenhouse gases, some mass balance certifications allow a company to count the burned plastic towards its output of “recycled content.” The hypothetical supply chain that takes in 20 recycled bottles may still claim to produce bottles with 20 percent recycled content, even if 5 of those recycled bottles have been burnt as fuel.

In its 2021 report, Eunomia wrote that the chemical sector preferred to work with ISCC Plus, a third-party certifier in Germany that allows this kind of tabulation. In Edwards’ eyes, the chemical recycling industry is pushing for this as a temporary tool to get started.

Post-consumer plastic material can pass between many companies and jurisdictions with different rules about responsibility and accounting before it returns to retailers ready to sell it back to consumers.

There’s an additional point of contention: With some processes of reducing polymers down to monomers, molecules can react with ambient elements like nitrogen and hydrogen, inflating their weight with molecules that aren’t plastic. Calculating a mass balance just on weight — the typical approach for mechanical recycling — doesn’t work as well for chemical recycling and can overestimate the recycled content in materials.

A widely cited white paper published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity committed to creating a circular economy, provided an example: Producing 100 pounds of polyamide, often used in textiles, would require 150 pounds of recycled material if measured with weight, or 170 pounds if measured with calorific value — a unit that quantifies an object’s energy and doesn’t change as readily.

Scientists and engineers have agreed to use more precise units, like calorific value, but “there is quite a bit of argument across the industry” about which units to use, Knauer said.

Michael Shaver, a professor of polymer science at the University of Manchester and one of the researchers involved with ReCon2, said the group had “significant concerns in terms of the mass balance approach.”

“If the public believes that this is a measure of exactly how much plastic is in each package, that’s not what mass balance actually gives you, right?” he said.

Shaver wanted to develop a way to measure the recycled content in each individual product. He joined with Ph.D. student Zoé Schyns and research fellow Thomas Bennett, and together they developed a technique that adds fluorescent dye to the recycled materials during the manufacturing process. Regardless of what happens between the beginning and end of manufacturing, the ratio between fluorescence at the beginning and end reveals the concentration of recycled content in each individual product. Some of the light appears as green within the visible light spectrum, but one strategy is to keep the precise technique a secret so companies do not misuse it.

“We can show not only that everyone in your supply chain acted appropriately, but also that you have the same in all of your different bottles or film,” said Shaver. Although the public results focus on three of the most popular plastic types, the researchers say the approach can be adapted for other kinds of plastics and rules. Sponsors of a year-long trial phase include Kraft-Heinz and Reckitt, two large consumer good corporations, and the U.K.’s leading recycling label, OPRL.

“If the public believes that this is a measure of exactly how much plastic is in each package, that’s not what mass balance actually gives you, right?” Shaver said.

The company believes roll out of the technology would require an industry-wide approach, even as others doubt that plastic producers can adapt to including tracers. Shaver expects that their nonprofit ReCon2 will “shepherd” firms into the program, while it audits participating companies and gatekeeps against products with inaccurate or false recycled content claims. As a nonprofit, it would prioritize keeping the technique as low- cost as possible to promote adoption and minimize fraud through passive compliance.

On a broader scale, Knauer expects that establishing trust in measuring recycled content will take action from governments, as happened with “organic” labels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may be moving in this direction. In 2021, the agency laid out a national recycling strategy that includes the creation of “recycled content measures.” (A spokesperson told Undark that the EPA hasn’t started working on this yet.)

“I do not think that mass balance is the way we’re going to do it forever,” said Knauer. “I think there’s a lot to be done in this space and a lot more innovation we can certainly do.”

Ian Morse (@ianjmorse) investigates land and extractive businesses, reports on the natural sciences, and writes the Green Rocks newsletter. He is based in Seattle.

Minnesota bill would allow people to seek medical monitoring due to chemical exposure

A bill has been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature that would allow Minnesotans exposed to toxic substances to sue the responsible companies for the cost of monitoring their health. 
Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, and Sen. Tou Xiong, DFL-Maplewood, introduced the legislation (HF2794/SF2727), which would apply to people who aren’t sick and allows their legal fees to be reimbursed. People who are sick have other legal remedies.
The bill is aimed at the likes of 3M, which has avoided major litigation from Minnesotans despite contaminating water supplies in the East Metro with a class of chemicals known as PFAS, which are used widely in industrial and consumer products. 
The state of Minnesota settled a lawsuit with 3M in 2018 for $850 million, with the money going to provide clean water to affected East Metro communities. But Minnesotans who believe they’ve been sickened by 3M chemicals have been stymied by a lack of medical monitoring, which could detect whether the contamination is affecting their health.  
Brand said the bill still needs a fiscal note, which is the required government analysis of how much a new law would cost taxpayers — and it may be too late for a committee hearing this session.
Jay Eidsness, staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the bill is unique in allowing people to make a claim even if they’re not sick. The bill would give some relief to East Metro residents “living under a cloud of uncertainty,” Eidsness said. 
The bill is patterned after a first-of-its-kind Vermont law. Courts in about 16 states have recognized the right to seek medical monitoring, but Vermont’s law marked the first time a state put that right in statute, leaving no question that people could seek reimbursement of costs, according to Safer States, a national alliance of environmental health organizations. 
Vermont lawmakers pushed for the law after a now-shuttered Bennington plastics factory contaminated 8,000 residents’ drinking water, leading to a $34 million class action settlement that included a $6 million medical monitoring fund. 
Xiong went to Tartan High School in Oakdale from 2004 to 2008, and recalls cancer being commonplace at the school. Several THS graduates have been lobbying for bills that will more strictly regulate the chemicals made by 3M — whose headquarters is next door to Oakdale — in Maplewood.
Xiong remembers when state health officials announced in 2005 that 3M chemicals were detected in five Oakdale city water wells. The state health department had begun testing the city’s water for 3M chemicals, which are used in numerous products to repel heat, stains, water, oil and grease. The chemicals have been detected across the globe, contaminating wildlife, people and the environment.
For decades, 3M dumped its chemical waste into a number of unlined Washington County landfills, polluting 200 square miles of groundwater and four aquifers that provide drinking water for thousands of residents.
One of the disposal sites was in Oakdale. It was bought by 3M and designated a Superfund cleanup site in 1985 after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found solvents in shallow private wells. Residents then connected to the city’s water system, but chemicals were later found in the city’s water wells, groundwater and soil.
3M and Oakdale began filtering the water in 2006. A 2018 report by the state health department found elevated rates of childhood cancer in Oakdale from 1999 to 2014, and 28% more cases of chronic lymphocytic leukemia in Washington County than the rest of the state from 1999 to 2013.
A group of people east of the Twin Cities sued the company in 2004. Attorneys who were involved in the lawsuit say Brand and Xiong’s bill is a good first step.
After attorney Robert Bilott secured a landmark class action settlement with DuPont in 2004 over pollution 3M-made chemicals caused near DuPont’s plant in West Virginia, he helped represent Washington County residents suing 3M to get clean water and medical monitoring. But they were stymied by Minnesota law, which doesn’t allow medical monitoring claims for people who aren’t sick. 
That meant the lawsuit was narrowed to damage to property values and 3M’s handling of the chemicals. During the trial, lawyers weren’t even allowed to discuss whether the chemicals were harmful. In 2009, a jury decided in 3M’s favor.
The outcome was very different in West Virginia, where DuPont was required to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. The company also had to pay for an independent panel of scientists to study chemical impacts and monitor the health of thousands of West Virginians exposed to chemicals in drinking water. After seven years of study, the panel linked the chemicals to six diseases, including two types of cancer.
“Unfortunately, 3M has never really accepted that science and to this day dismisses any such causal connections between exposure to these chemicals and human health at all,” Bilott said in a November interview. “So it’s been difficult for others to be able to ever get compensated for the harms caused by their exposure because the company continues to dispute that science and oppose regulatory efforts relying upon that science.”
3M did not respond to a request for comment.
Last month, Bilott said during a press conference he’s monitoring the bills moving through Minnesota’s Legislature while pushing for medical monitoring nationwide. In 2018, he filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of anyone in the U.S. exposed to the chemicals made by 3M and other companies. He wants the companies to pay for a scientific panel to confirm how much harm the chemicals are causing.
In April, a judge certified the lawsuit to go forward for Ohioans, but the chemical companies are fighting expanding the class to all Americans.
“We’re trying to find ways to address these issues,” Bilott said, “but right now 3M is opposing those efforts everywhere across the country.” 

Why most plastic can’t be recycled

Around 85% of plastic packaging worldwide ends up in landfills.In the United States, which is by far the world’s biggest plastics polluter, only around 5% of over 50 million tons of plastic waste produced by households in 2021 was recycled, accordingto Greenpeace. 

With plastic production set to triple globally by 2060, plastics made primarily from oil or gas are a growing source of the carbon pollution fuelling climate change. Much is also ending up in oceans and severly impacting marine life. 

Promises by major plastics producers like Nestle and Danone to promote recycling and include more recycled plastic in their containers have been mostly broken.

The plastics lobby, along with supermarkets in countries from Austria to Spain, sometimes avoid this responsibility by lobbying againstdeposit return schemes that include plastic bottles.

But there is hope. New universal plastic regulations are currently being negotiatiated as part of a global plastics treatyaiming to streamline the production, use and reuse of plastic using a circular economy model.

Still, circular product design also relies on the myth of recycling, which in its current guise is doing little to ease a mounting plastics crisis.    

Separating seven types of plastic doesn’t add up

Most plastic packaging is produced from seven grades of plastic that are largely incompatible with each other, and are costly to sort for recycling.

Apart from PET, or Polyethylene terephthalate, the world’s most common plastic labelled with a #1, and high-density Polyethylene (HDPE), which carries the #2 symbol, five other plastic types might be collected but are rarely recycled, say Greenpeace. 

PET is the most recyclable plastic and there is a strong market for its byproduct used to make drink bottles, food containers or fibers for clothes.

But the harder plastics numbered 3-7 have a very small market since the value of the raw material is lower than the cost of recycling.

“It’s difficult to reprocess and sort through all the plastic,” said Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner. Mixed container recycling bins contain a lot of contaminates that make plastic unrecyclable, she added.

“Recycling is not the problem, plastics are,” Ramsden explained. With new virgin plastic often cheaper than recycled material, plastic recycling is not economical, she said. 

Virgin plastic is too cheap

The post-consumer plastic resin created from recycled material is being undercut by cheaper prime material, limiting the market for recycled plastics.

Reporting by New York-based market analysts S&P Global, shows demand for raw recycled plastic slowing due, among other factors, to rising transport costs for recycling businesses in Asia and a slowdown in the construction sector that creates plastic building materials.

Ironically, plastic bag bans in Africa and Asia have limited the amount of feed material, which, in addition to low recycling rates globally, is also raising the price of recycled material. 

While the price of virgin plastic is at the whim of fluctuating oil and gas prices, these fossil fuels are often subsidized. According to Sander Defruyt, who leads the New Plastics Economy initiative at the US-based non-profit, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, recycled plastic would be more competitive if fossil fuel subsidies were phased out.

But companies that produce waste could help undercut low virgin plastic costs by subsiziding plastic recycling schemes under the principle of extended producer responsibility (EPR), DeFruyt said. Such corporate subsidies have been key to the success of waste recycling schemes in EU countries like Germany and France, he added. The raw material created from recycled plastic can’t currently compete with virgin oil or gas-based plastic Image: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Lightweight ‘flexible’ packaging booming but non-recyclable

The lightweight packets that keep food and snacks likes chips or chocolate bars fresh, constitute around 40% of the world’s plastic packaging, according to Defruyt.

Known as flexible packaging, the lightweight, multi-layered single-use packets are used to wrap around 215 billion products in the UK alone.

Only around five European countries are currently attempting to recycle these packets, noted DeFruyt. In the US, flexible packaging made up only 2% of residential recycling in 2020.

When not ending up in landfill or burnt, the packaging is easily lost or discarded in the environment.

Part of the problem is their multi-layered composition that is sometimes lined with foil, making it very expensive to separate into recyclable parts. Flexible packaging is also often “super-contaminated” with food waste, which also makes it impossible to recycle, noted Defruyt.

The packaging industry claims that flexible packaging has environmental benefits as it’s lighter than more rigid plastics and causes less transport emissions while also keeping food fresher for longer.

Efforts by the flexible packaging industry to make the packets part of a circular economy are doing little to raise recycling rates.A house made of recycled plasticTo view this video please enable JavaScript, and consider upgrading to a web browser that supports HTML5 video

Bans a part of the solution?

In a 2022 survey of over 23,000 people across 34 countries, nearly 80% would support banning types of plastic that cannot be easily recycled.

This would include a global ban on products and materials made from hard-to-recycle plastics. Authors of the survey, conducted by international conservation organisation WWF and Australian-based campaigners Plastic Free Foundation, said “any meaningful progress in reducing global plastic waste” needs to include bans of “the most harmful and problematic types of single-use plastics, fishing gear, and microplastics.”

The EU has made some steps in this direction, having banned 10 single-use plastics products that not only blight Europe’s beaches but contravene a circular economy model via which all disposable plastics in the EU will be reusable or recyclable by 2030.

Meanwhile, more than 30 African countries have either completely or partially banned lightweight plastic bags. One goal of a global plastics treaty will be to harmonize these piecemeal bans into a coherent worldwide regulation.

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Plastic bags are leaving their mark on the deep-sea floor

Article body copy
Plastic pollution is everywhere, from the tip of Mount Everest to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Wherever it goes, plastic has unexpected effects: it transports pathogens, strangles wildlife, and, sometimes, becomes habitat. But on the bottom of the Philippine Trench, 10,000 meters deep, plastic is reshaping life on the seafloor.
In 2021, Alan Jamieson, a marine biologist at the University of Western Australia, Deo Florence L. Onda, a microbial oceanographer at the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, and their crew descended into the third-deepest trench in the world. The place was swarming with plastic bags.
As the scientists watched, the deep-sea current was dragging plastic bags along the seafloor, scraping it with parallel lines like tire tracks. Jamieson had seen these tracks before when he joined the Five Deeps Expedition, which journeyed to the Puerto Rico Trench in the Atlantic, the South Sandwich Trench in the Southern Ocean, the Java Trench in the Indian Ocean, the Challenger Deep in the Pacific, and the Molloy Deep in the Arctic Ocean. But he’d never understood where they came from. “There’s nothing in the deep sea that travels in straight lines,” Jamieson says.
Jamieson and Onda named these tracks müllspuren. It’s a nod to a German word, lebensspuren, which refers to the trails left by seafloor life. To the scientists’ dismay, the müllspuren were wiping out the lebensspuren.

On the bottom of the Philippine Trench, 10,000 meters deep, researchers saw plastic bags marking up the seafloor like teeny tiny little trawlers. Photos by Alan Jamieson for Caladan Oceanic LLC
The plastic bags’ impact on the seafloor could have repercussions for deep-sea life, Onda says. The main source of food for many deep-sea creatures is the organic matter that falls from the surface. Kazumasa Oguri, a biologist at the University of Southern Denmark who was not involved in the research, says plastic bags barreling across and gouging into the sediment could bury this scarce food.
Jamieson compares it to bulldozing a forest.
“All the material might still be there—all the volume of the tree and all the leaves might still be there—but someone comes along and pushes it over and flattens it,” he says. “You’ve altered the environment to the point that it doesn’t represent to the animals what it should.”
The tracks could also disrupt how carbon is stored in deep-sea sediments. It will take more research to properly understand the implications of müllspuren on the marine carbon cycle and other deep-sea ecological processes. But the study shows that plastic is changing the landscape of the seafloor—even 10,000 meters below the waves.
“These studies, although very basic, help us understand nature better and help us understand our connection with nature,” says Onda. “When I talk about this study to other people, they get shocked. That shock factor is important because it allows them to reflect, realize, and, hopefully, do something.”

How to ‘make some good’ out of East Palestine, Ohio, rail disaster? Ban vinyl chloride, former EPA official says

Outrage over last month’s Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, continued this week as former regional Environmental Protection Agency administrator Judith Enck called on the agency to ban vinyl chloride, the cancer-causing chemical at the center of the disaster.

Enck, in an interview on Thursday, said the goal of a petition from the environmental group she leads, Beyond Plastics, is to stir up reform following the Feb. 3 derailment, which prompted emergency crews on Feb. 6 to vent five rail cars of vinyl chloride—a flammable and toxic gas used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic—and set the chemical on fire to prevent a shrapnel-laden explosion in the small town near the Pennsylvania state line.

Residents have since complained of headaches and nausea, and expressed concerns about long-term health consequences, dead fish in local waterways and reduced property values.

“We want to phase out vinyl chloride so we don’t have any more East Palestines,” said Enck, the founder and president of Beyond Plastics. “We are going to do a grassroots campaign. The science is so solid.”

Judith Enck, founder and president of the environmental group Beyond Plastics, speaking at a Bennington College seminar in August. Credit: James Bruggers

A vinyl chloride ban, Enck said, “is the one positive thing that can come out of this.”

Enck, of New York, served and oversaw the EPA region that includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and eight Indian nations during the Obama administration. She founded Beyond Plastics in 2019 and teaches at Bennington College in Vermont.

The American Chemistry Council, a lobby group for the chemical and plastics industries, did not return a request for comment. However, the organization’s president and chief executive officer, Chris Jahn, released a statement on the derailment late last month.

“People are understandably concerned and question why we ship chemicals, including those that are classified as hazardous materials,” Jahn said. “We ship them because they are needed across the country and essential to everyday life. Chemicals are critical to providing safe drinking water, ensuring a plentiful food supply, producing life-saving medicines and medical equipment, and generating many types of energy.

“The impact of the derailment on the community of East Palestine underscores the need for a constant focus on safety. We must strive to meet the daily needs of the nation while delivering materials safely.”

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board found the derailed equipment included eleven tank cars carrying hazardous materials that were subsequently ignited, fueling fires that damaged an additional 12 non-derailed railcars. First responders called for a one-mile evacuation zone, affecting up to 2,000 residents. NTSB partially blamed an overheated wheel bearing for the derailment of the 149-car train.

Vinyl Chloride and Environmental Justice

A ban on vinyl chloride would effectively get rid of PVC, a major building material for the construction industry, commonly used in siding and windows. It’s also found in products such as floor tiles, roofing, tents, toys, pipes and food packaging. The European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers touts PVC as a solution to food waste because it’s flexible and tough, and, in the form of containers or films, seals out water or oxygen.

PVC, which some critics have called the worst kind of plastic, contains a variety of chemical additives, such as phthalate plasticizers, some of which are blamed for disrupting the human endocrine system. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has limited the use of some but not all phthalates in food packaging, due to health and safety concerns.

Last month, Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician, epidemiologist and director of Boston College’s Global Public Health Program and Global Observatory on Planetary Health, told Inside Climate News that PVC had problems at every stage of its lifecycle, beginning with potential dangers to workers who make it. Researchers in the 1970s first linked vinyl chloride occupational exposure to a rare form of cancer—angiosarcoma of the liver—to rubber workers at a factory in the Rubbertown complex of chemical plants in Louisville, Kentucky. Landgrand said there was evidence it may also cause brain cancers and that toxic ingredients in PVC may “leach out of plastics products and get into drinking water or blood products.”

The Beyond Plastics petition, also backed by the Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit that encourages young people to participate in the democratic process, observed that in 1974, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned vinyl chloride as an aerosol in consumer products, and FDA has banned its use in cosmetics.

“Burning vinyl chloride may create and release dioxins,” among the most toxic chemicals, and can cause cancer and disrupt the hormonal, reproductive, developmental and immune systems, the petition states.  “Vinyl chloride is also often produced in low-income communities and communities of color—a clear violation of environmental justice. We do not want to see another East Palestine toxic train disaster occur. It is within your authority to act and we are counting on you to protect public health and the environment.”

EPA has ‘Sweeping Authority’

The petition collected 10,000 signatures in its first week and more people are adding their names every day, Enck said. 

EPA’s authority to review the health and safety of chemicals like vinyl chloride and decide whether their use should be restricted or banned falls under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was amended and signed by President Barack Obama in 2016 after widespread acknowledgment that the original law from 1976 had been a failure. In 2013, the Government Accountability Office reported that of the thousands of chemicals listed for commercial use in the United States, EPA had used its authority to limit or ban just five since TSCA was first enacted.

The EPA, first under President Trump and now under President Biden, has been working its way through chemicals requiring review under the revised TCSA. EPA began with a list of ten chemicals to review for safety and potential restrictions, and the agency has yet to make final determinations on them.

“The existing chemical program gives EPA pretty sweeping authority to protect the public, up to and including a total ban on a chemical,” said Tosh Sagar, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law organization that closely follows TSCA.

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Toxic chemical rules pose test for Biden

Key industries — including some that the White House is backing through other policies — are lobbying to water down the first major new rules in a generation on chemicals that pose risks to humans.WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is preparing to impose some of the first new rules in a generation to restrict or ban an array of toxic chemicals that are widely used in manufacturing, presenting the White House with tough choices between its economic agenda and public health.Many of the substances in question are important to industries that President Biden has backed through other policies intended to bolster global competitiveness and national security, such as semiconductors and electric vehicles.Corporations are framing the decisions about new regulations for an initial group of toxic chemicals as putting at risk the administration’s drive to nurture the American economy of the future. Environmental and public health groups are stressing the need to focus on protecting workers and communities from substances known to carry health risks, such as cancer, liver and kidney damage and infertility.A major lobbying clash is already underway. Chip makers, the burgeoning electric vehicle industry and other companies, including military contractors, are pressuring the administration to water down the new rules, saying the repercussions of a ban or new restrictions could be crippling.“If the national security batteries do not perform as designed, then missiles don’t fire, fighter jets crash, and satellites go dark,” Aaron Rice, the director of environmental health and safety at EaglePicher Technologies, a Missouri-based battery manufacturer, wrote in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency objecting to expected restrictions on two chemicals the company uses.Boeing, Cummins, Ford, General Motors, General Electric and dozens of other companies have intervened with the E.P.A. directly or through trade associations to pre-emptively ask for exemptions.The corporate lobbying has provoked an equally intense response from public health advocates, who argue that the chemicals in question have caused dozens of deaths or thousands of illnesses, particularly affecting Black and Latino communities near industrial zones in Texas, Louisiana and other states.The E.P.A., the public health experts argue, can protect public health, combat climate change and promote other new technologies by pushing industry to switch to safer chemicals. The claims of disruption to economic growth, public health advocates say, are just scare tactics.“There is nothing industry won’t say to preserve their right to poison workers and consumers to make a buck,” said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that has been pushing the E.P.A. to move ahead with the rules.At issue initially are 10 chemicals that the E.P.A. has identified as among the most toxic threats. The agency has completed evaluations on nine of them, with the first three of these proposed chemical rules already undergoing review at the White House. Four others are expected by the end of the year.The E.P.A. has hinted where it is headed with the new rules, issuing a series of so-called chemical exposure limits that detail how much workers can safely inhale without an increased risk of cancer, liver disease or other ailments — extremely complex calculations based on decades of studies examining human and animal exposures to the toxins.The proposed levels in many cases are many times lower than current workplace standards, which are decades old, generating predictions by chemical industry players of enormous impact on existing operations at manufacturing and processing plants.Both sides are deluging the White House with their arguments.The effort at the E.P.A. is being overseen by Michal Ilana Freedhoff, a chemist who spent more than two decades as a staff member in Congress working with Democrats who wanted to strengthen the government’s powers to regulate toxic chemicals.“It is literally a matter of life and death for people all across America,” said Michal Ilana Freedhoff, who is in charge of overseeing the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate toxic chemicals.Jason Andrew for The New York TimesThe rail accident last month in East Palestine, Ohio, which released toxic substances made with some of the same chemicals now being examined for safety, has focused additional attention on the threat, Ms. Freedhoff said. But the risks from toxic chemicals are present in areas across the United States on a daily basis, particularly for families who live close to factories that manufacture or use them.“It is literally a matter of life and death for people all across America,” Ms. Freedhoff, the head of the E.P.A.’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in an interview at the agency’s headquarters.The pace of progress on toxic chemical regulation in the United States has been extraordinarily slow, even by the glacial standards of Washington’s bureaucracy.Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, giving the E.P.A. the power to regulate toxic chemicals. But by 1991, key parts of the law were invalidated by a federal appeals court ruling after industry manufacturers challenged an effort to ban asbestos, a known carcinogen.For the next 25 years, the United States effectively had no operative toxic chemical law. It was not until 2016 that Congress expanded the E.P.A.’s powers to fill the federal policy vacuum.Given the decades of regulatory inaction, officials at the E.P.A. acknowledge that there are thousands of chemicals in the United States that have never been properly evaluated for the risk they present based on the specific ways they are used.As a starting point, the agency identified 83 of the most toxic threats: chemicals that are “known human carcinogens and have high acute and chronic toxicity.” It then narrowed that list in 2016 to 10 of these chemicals as the initial focus of the regulatory process..css-1v2n82w{max-width:600px;width:calc(100% – 40px);margin-top:20px;margin-bottom:25px;height:auto;margin-left:auto;margin-right:auto;font-family:nyt-franklin;color:var(–color-content-secondary,#363636);}@media only screen and (max-width:480px){.css-1v2n82w{margin-left:20px;margin-right:20px;}}@media only screen and (min-width:1024px){.css-1v2n82w{width:600px;}}.css-161d8zr{width:40px;margin-bottom:18px;text-align:left;margin-left:0;color:var(–color-content-primary,#121212);border:1px solid var(–color-content-primary,#121212);}@media only screen and (max-width:480px){.css-161d8zr{width:30px;margin-bottom:15px;}}.css-tjtq43{line-height:25px;}@media only screen and (max-width:480px){.css-tjtq43{line-height:24px;}}.css-x1k33h{font-family:nyt-cheltenham;font-size:19px;font-weight:700;line-height:25px;}.css-1hvpcve{font-size:17px;font-weight:300;line-height:25px;}.css-1hvpcve em{font-style:italic;}.css-1hvpcve strong{font-weight:bold;}.css-1hvpcve a{font-weight:500;color:var(–color-content-secondary,#363636);}.css-1c013uz{margin-top:18px;margin-bottom:22px;}@media only screen and (max-width:480px){.css-1c013uz{font-size:14px;margin-top:15px;margin-bottom:20px;}}.css-1c013uz a{color:var(–color-signal-editorial,#326891);-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;font-weight:500;font-size:16px;}@media only screen and (max-width:480px){.css-1c013uz a{font-size:13px;}}.css-1c013uz a:hover{-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.Learn more about our process.But more delays followed. When President Donald J. Trump took office in 2017 — and hired several chemical industry executives to help oversee the revised law — the E.P.A. revised the way it defined “risk evaluation,” bowing to chemical industry lobbying but generating protests from longtime agency employees and lawsuits from public health advocates.When Mr. Biden came into office two years ago, the pendulum swung back. The E.P.A. moved to define more broadly how it would consider toxic chemical hazards, calling the restrictions that the Trump administration had imposed evidence of how “political interference sometimes compromised the integrity of our science.”The E.P.A. is now evaluating not just contamination in manufacturing plants but also threats to the public at large, through contaminated air or water or at landfills.The agency also assumes that workers do not always wear respirators or other protective equipment based on a concern that some employers do not mandate these basic safety measures, a decision that has provoked intense protests from chemical companies and industrial users. Workers are already protected, companies say, or the chemicals are used in closed-loop systems where the workers are not exposed at all — except if there is an accident.Ms. Freedhoff said the E.P.A. had an obligation to protect both workers and the public. She said she was still haunted by the deaths of children who drank contaminated drinking water in North Carolina and Massachusetts decades ago.The chemical implicated in the drinking water contamination, trichloroethylene, also known as TCE, can cause sudden death or kidney cancer if a person is exposed to high levels and other neurological harm even at lower exposures over a long period.Yet the E.P.A.’s recently completed risk-evaluation studies found that as much as 250 million pounds of TCE are still produced in the United States annually to make refrigerants and remove grease from metal parts. It is also used in carpet cleaners, laundry spot removers and even hoof polish for horses.Based on the new Biden-era risk evaluation, TCE presents an “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment” in 52 of the 54 known ways it is used as an industrial and consumer product, the E.P.A. determined. That also includes the way in which it is disposed.“That is locked into my whole moral compass,” Ms. Freedhoff said, referring to TCE, which the E.P.A. toxic chemical program has not regulated in the more than three decades since the government first listed it as a probable carcinogen. “We have to take on TCE. That rule has to be done. It has to be protective.”Workers manufacturing battery-powered trucks at a Ford plant in Dearborn, Mich. Making lithium batteries, used in electric vehicles and cellphones, relies on certain chemicals that increase health risks.Jeff Kowalsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesThe agency’s risk assessments for seven other chemicals — 1-bromopropane, carbon tetrachloride, C.I. Pigment Violet 29, cyclic aliphatic bromide cluster, methylene chloride, n-methylpyrrolidone, perchloroethylene — reached similar conclusions of widespread “unreasonable risks,” as did one completed during the Trump administration for asbestos.The toxic chemical law requires the E.P.A. to move immediately to issue regulations to eliminate unreasonable risks by picking from a range of options such as banning the chemical, prohibiting certain types of uses and requiring special health precautions.The E.P.A. has imposed air pollution restrictions on some of these same chemicals, but manufacturing plants often have mishaps that result in releases despite the rules. Public health advocates and some state health officials have pressed the E.P.A. to consider the cumulative impact of exposures to different chemicals in certain communities near clusters of manufacturing plants.“All sources of exposure must be considered,” said a letter sent by environmental officials from California, New York, Oregon and Washington State.The revised law gives the E.P.A. the power to grant exemptions to chemical regulations if a ban or restriction “would significantly disrupt the national economy, national security or critical infrastructure,” a process that may simply mean companies have more time to phase in a less toxic replacement.This language has generated a flood of exemption requests, including from a coalition of companies that manufacture lithium batteries used in cellphones and electric vehicles. The batteries use n-methylpyrrolidone, or NMP, which the E.P.A. concluded increases the risk of miscarriages and male infertility.“It is critical for E.P.A. to recognize that there is no substitute for NMP in our manufacturing processes,” the battery-industry trade association wrote in a letter to the agency before requesting an exemption, arguing that it had ways to safely use the chemical. “The federal government should be taking steps to promote — not impede — the growth of our rechargeable battery technology in the United States.”The Semiconductor Industry Association, whose members include Intel, GlobalFoundries, Samsung and most of the other major global chip manufacturers, has sent letters to the E.P.A., challenging its assumption that the way the companies use NMP presents a risk to its employees.President Biden speaking at the Taiwan Semiconductor plant in Phoenix in December. His administration is faced with tough choices between its economic agenda and public health.T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York TimesSeveral other industry players pointed out to the E.P.A. that chemicals it could soon impose limits on are essential to manufacture new air conditioning refrigerants that do not deplete the ozone layer or contribute to climate change.The American Chemistry Council, the country’s largest trade association representing the $800 billion-a-year chemical industry, has hosted over 100 virtual and in-person meetings for members of Congress and their staff to try to persuade them to more closely oversee the E.P.A.’s actions. Those events included a reception last month on Capitol Hill for newly elected members of Congress, mostly Republicans.“They’ve heard from us, they’ve heard from other stakeholders that work with the E.P.A.,” said Ross Eisenberg, the chief lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, which spent nearly $20 million on lobbying last year, the most in its history.House Republicans, following these appeals, introduced a bill last month that would require the E.P.A. to more broadly weigh “economic, societal” costs before it could reject the use of a new chemical.Corporate executives and lobbyists have also pressed White House officials to intervene. Executives from Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance — whose members make TCE and other chemicals — predicted at a White House meeting in December that there would be dire economic consequences if the E.P.A. moved ahead with tougher workplace inhalation limits.Companies have also made clear that they intend to sue to try to block the rules once they are imposed.“Such levels, if mandated, would eliminate U.S. manufacturing of tires, paper, many plastics and many other important products,” said a statement presented on behalf of a trade association and Olin Corporation, a major chemical manufacturer.The new rules, Ms. Freedhoff conceded, would mean higher costs in some cases. But she said she was also convinced that the United States could make progress on combating climate change and expanding major industries like semiconductor manufacturing while still reducing health threats. “We have to change the way industry does things in order to protect human beings,” she said. “Right now, the human beings are assuming the cost.”

Ocean farming: Seaweed is having its moment in the sun

March 15, 2023 For centuries, it’s been treasured in kitchens in Asia and neglected almost everywhere else: Those glistening ribbons of seaweed that bend and bloom in cold ocean waves. Today, seaweed is suddenly a hot global commodity. It’s attracting new money and new purpose in all kinds of new places because of its potential …

Where do 'forever chemicals' in drinking water come from?

New environmental protections might restrict the use of a few long-lived, harmful chemicals known as PFAS, but these are only the tip of a very persistent iceberg.They are in the water we drink, the packaging of the food we eat, the utensils we cook with, the beds we sleep in, the clothes we wear and even within our own bodies. There is no escaping so-called “forever chemicals”, a set of long-lasting and potentially harmful human-made substances that infuse almost every environment on the planet.
The US government is now proposing its first-ever restrictions on six of these chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the restrictions could, over time, prevent thousands of deaths, if they are implemented. The European Commission is also preparing to ban a set of PFAS compounds in fire-fighting foams.
Some companies have already begun phasing out the most closely-studied PFAS chemicals – PFOS and PFOA. These are hazardous to the human immune system, and have been linked to negative effects on fertility, childhood development and metabolism. 
But there are more than 9,000 PFAS compounds, which have hundreds of different uses, including in non-stick coatings, fabric protectors, and plastics. And some, including PFOS and PFOA, can persist in the environment for decades.
How long do forever chemicals actually last?
This long list of chemicals earned their nickname for a reason – they are persistent. They not only survive for a very long time without breaking down, they have the worrying ability to accumulate within living organisms. This means that even low levels of exposure can gradually build over time to a point where they become harmful.
Their persistence depends on the molecular structure and make-up of the individual substances. Not all of these infamous chemicals are equal. 
All PFAS compounds have a backbone built of carbon – those with fewer than six carbon atoms are “short-chained”, while the rest are “long-chained”. Long-chain PFAS compounds may remain in the body for far longer than short-chain ones, according to one small study of workers at Arvidsjaur airport in northern Sweden. They had been drinking water containing PFAS compounds from firefighting foams, following an accident. Their blood samples contained long-chained PFOS with a half-life of 2.93 years, and PFOA with a half-life of 1.77 years. A short molecule called PFBS, by contrast, had a half-life of just 44 days. One reason for this is that the kidneys seem to be better at eliminating the short chain molecules from the body.Elevated levels of PFAS in public water supplies can mean residents need to drink bottled water instead of from the tap (Credit: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)It’s worth remembering that the half-life doesn’t mean the chemical is eliminated in that time. Rather it is the time it takes for the levels in the blood to fall to half their original value. The chemicals can remain in the body for far longer, especially if continually topped by drinking contaminated water or other sources.
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Another study of a far longer-term exposure to PFAS among people living in Ronneby, southern Sweden, found that the half-life for another chemical called PFHxS was 5.3 years, while PFOS was 3.4 years and PFOA was 2.7 years. Some PFOS compounds that contain additional branches from their main carbon backbone have a half-life that stretch into decades within the human body.
In water, however, they can linger even longer. Some studies have suggested that PFOA has a half-life of more than 90 years, while for PFOS it is more than 41 years.
Read more about the chemicals that can linger in our blood for decades in this piece by environmental journalist Anna Turns.
Where do forever chemicals come from?
Some of the most commonly reported sources of PFAS contamination is from the use of fire-fighting foams, particularly in those for extinguishing flammable liquid blazes. Here the PFAS act as “surfactants”, to decrease the surface tension in the foam to allow it to spread across an area more easily and so starve the flames of oxygen.
Unfortunately, the foam can be washed away, leading the PFAS to pollute nearby water courses and soil.
They are also often used as a treatment in waterproof clothing or food packaging, such as paper bags used in takeaway food, and pizza boxes, to help resist grease stains seeping through. Similarly they can be used to treat carpets and soft-furnishings, and one study found them in 60% of bedding and clothing marketed for children. But it’s not yet known if this kind of exposure represents a health risk.
It currently isn’t clear what levels of PFAS can transfer into our bodies through our skin and food, but scientists do warn that there is a risk of contamination through the inhalation of PFAS-laden household dust. Children, in particular, might also put treated soft furnishings into their mouths directly. But exactly how much of these chemicals enter the body in that way has not been well studied, and they do tend to have a shorter half-life in the air than they do in water.
The other place where PFAS are commonly used is in plastic, such as food containers. They are used to help make plastics more chemically resistant to staining, but here too scientists have found the PFAS can leach out into our food.
And in 2022, the Environmental Working Group, an environmental non-profit found another source – sewage sludge. It estimated that almost 20 million acres (80,937sq km) of US cropland has been contaminated with PFAS through the use of sewage sludge. This sludge can contain microplastics and also the long-lived chemicals themselves that our kidneys have worked so hard to remove and excrete from the body. Once in the soil, they can then find its way back into our food system.
Read more about how forever chemicals and microplastics are getting into our food in this detailed article by environmental journalist Isabelle Gerretsen.

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