Displaced and distraught: East Palestine remains at risk and without answers

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Gary Chirico pulled up to the First Church of Christ in a dust-coated minivan. The grey-bearded building maintenance worker surveyed a wall of boxes, filled with bottles or cans of water.

“Any gallon jugs?” Chirico, 59, asked Mallory Aponick, the church’s disaster relief coordinator.

“I think the gallon jugs are done,” she said.

The choices on this day in late May were plastic bottles or canned water, packaged in cases by Molson Coors.

“I like the aluminum cans,” said Chirico with a grin. “It feels like I’m drinking a beer.”

Chirico spoke like a connoisseur of bottled water — and in the four months since a train derailment forever changed this village of 4,700, his family and many other residents rely on it. A steady stream of vehicles flowed through the church’s back lot. Aponick helped load boxes into them. She said the supply of water on hand — donated by various nonprofits, stacked six feet high and stretched along the back of the building — will probably last three days.

It felt like East Palestine’s rebuke of assurances from authorities that their water, and their town, is safe.

On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying a long list of toxic chemicals — including vinyl chloride and benzene— caught fire as it approached the town. The train derailed and the cars burned for three days.
Some testing done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has shown levels of toxics that are higher than average and independent researchers insist they are collecting concerning samples around town.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s office, the EPA and the CEO of Norfolk Southern all said that air and water tests detected no signs of toxic chemicals in concentrations that would hurt human health.Boxes of donated bottled or canned water stand beside the First Church of Christ in East Palestine, Ohio.Credit: Nick Keppler for EHNYet residents got sick, they say, reporting headaches, rashes and respiratory problems.Some have not returned out of fear and are living indefinitely with friends, family or in hotels. The divide between how they feel (or how their neighbors feel) and what they’ve been told has deepened their distrust of Norfolk Southern, which is responsible for the cleanup, and the EPA, which is managing the environmental hazard.Months later, the constant movement of trucks and equipment and appearance of mysterious new devices around town still create frustration and confusion. As Norfolk Southern makes promises big and small — vowing to pay to make up for diminished home values and sponsoring the annual street fair — residents don’t know exactly what costs they can bill to the company.For many, the future seems as hazy as it was when plumes of black smoke loomed over their town.

“My stomach hurts. My face hurts. It’s just constant pain”

A sign in East Palestine, Ohio, points towards the free water distribution at the First Church of Christ.Credit: Nick Keppler for EHNChirico grabbed cases of cans. He is staying with his sister-in-law miles away from East Palestine, but he isn’t taking any chances.On Feb. 3, he, his wife and their grandson fled the smoke blowing through their house. His wife developed skin rashes, he said, and he a sore throat. A doctor couldn’t diagnose them with anything but said there was “something bad” in the back of his throat.Before picking up water, Chirico checked on the house. It still has a gas smell, he said. He doesn’t know when they will live there again. “I can’t plant my garden,” he told Environmental Health News (EHN). “The first time in 30 years.” He’s not the only exile.Courtney Miller, a 35-year-old mother of two, told EHN that she left East Palestine in mid-March due to nausea and burning skin. With two bags of belongings, she is staying with a rotation of friends in neighboring counties.“My stomach hurts. My face hurts. It’s just constant pain,” Miller said. Miller immediately distrusted guarantees that the town was safe and rushed to help some independent researchers and right-wing social media figures who descended on the town. She appears in a viral video throwing a rock into a creek and unleashing an oily, rainbow-hued mass. She also collected water samples in the creek. She now thinks she’s paying for that exposure.Rose Tellus, 69, drove by the First Church of Church to pick up another item that’s being offered for free, an air purifier. She hopes it will help in her daughter’s home.Her daughter attempted to return to East Palestine a week after the derailment. “Her skin started burning,” Tellus told EHN, “I had to take her to urgent care. The doctor said, ‘You need to get out of there.’ She had gotten this big blotch on her skin.” She has been staying in a hotel since.

No answers on health concerns

A Norfolk Southern train passes through East Palestine, Ohio.Credit: Nick Keppler for EHNThe EPA can’t answer questions about personal health. A crowd came to a March town hall with questions about their symptoms. Supervisory engineer Mark Durno, the EPA’s representative to the town, told them, “I can’t answer all your questions. I certainly can’t answer your health questions.”The federal agency with that mandate, the Centers for Disease Control, is giving assistance to local health officials, but its presence in town has been less than reassuring. Seven members of its own 15-person team reported getting sick while investigating the derailment. In an email to EHN, DeWine’s press secretary, Dan Tierney, suggested residents take their concerns to the free health clinic opened in February.“While no levels are being detected that would cause short-term or long-term health problems, seeing a physician is the only way to determine if symptoms are related to derailment chemicals or are of health concern,” he wrote.For displaced residents, Norfolk Southern is paying some costs of hotel stays, travel and other expenses. Since February, the company has operated an “assistance center” in a church five miles outside of town, to which residents have frequently schlepped carrying receipts. But as the months pass, along with derailment-related costs, it’s not clear what bills the rail conglomerate will foot.Tellus said that Norfolk Southern has been paying for her daughter’s hotel stay and other expenses. She drained her own savings to pay for professional cleanings of her and her daughter’s homes, plus the removal of carpets and furniture she thinks were contaminated. She said she went to the assistance center to ask about reimbursement. “They said, ‘We’re not there yet.’”In an email to EHN, a company spokesperson wrote that Norfolk Southern “continues to reimburse residents for reasonable expenses related to the derailment through the Family Assistance Center.”He did not respond to a follow up asking what constitutes a “reasonable expense.”

Businesses suffer 

Businesses are hurting too.Susan Reynolds, who owns the Dunes Tanning Salon and the Muscle Works Gym, said foot traffic has decreased by 50% at both since the derailment. “My numbers were just heading to where they were pre-Covid,” Reynolds, 58, told EHN while at the front desk of the tanning salon, surrounded by beach-themed decorations. She doesn’t blame customers. Trucks from the clean-up site go past “carrying who knows what,” she said.Rich Kaufman, a longtime employee of Doyle’s Fresh Meat & Deli, said business has been on the decline, particularly from customers who used to come from neighboring towns. “People call and ask if the meat is okay,” he said. “I tell them, ‘We don’t raise it out back.’”Norfolk Southern’s financial obligations will almost inevitably be decided in a class action lawsuit. Each Monday, the town library holds a “Norfolk Southern litigation Q&A.”Some residents struggle to keep up with the pace of changes. Dirt and train parts are hauled out of town. New hazards enter their mind; excavation on the tracks recently kicked up asbestos. New pieces of equipment suddenly show up on the streets and others vanish.“There have been a lot of changes since we first got back and it’s hard to keep up,” Angel Felger, 22, who works at the town’s McDonalds and lives with her mother, told EHN. Felger stopped by the church after her shift to pick up more bottled water.“There were a bunch of things over the drains, like, so water couldn’t get out,” she said. (An EPA representative confirmed that Norfolk Southern installed storm water drain mats to prevent dirt and gravel uprooted by the cleanup from clogging pipes.) “Some people just throw out all their belongings,” she added.

Glass, aluminum, paper? What to know about alternatives to plastic

The list of plastic substitutes seems to be growing longer by the day as companies come up with novel products such as cling wrap made from potato waste, seaweed-based food wrappers, and cassava starch bags.That’s in addition to efforts to package more products in everyday alternative materials, such as glass, metal and paper.Yet, the world’s plastic pollution problem has continued to worsen.Work is underway to create the first global treaty to reduce plastic pollution. But experts say achieving that goal will probably involve, in part, developing better substitutes — a challenge that has appeared to vex many environmentalists and sustainability researchers.That’s because it hasn’t been easy to replace plastic, a ubiquitous material that’s inexpensive, robust and versatile.“Plastics need to get fixed,” said Michael Shaver, director of the Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub at the University of Manchester. “But doing that by simply switching to another material without considering the consequences of that is where that’s dangerous.”There are 21,000 pieces of plastic in the ocean for each person on EarthUnderstanding the plastics problemConventional plastics are made from fossil fuels. But the problem with plastics, Shaver said, is less about the material and more about what is done with them at end of life.“We haven’t treated them with care,” he said. “The lack of waste management of those materials is what creates the problem.”The little-known unintended consequence of recycling plasticsMuch of the plastic that is produced does not get recycled. “That’s not because people aren’t putting the right thing in their bins,” said Melissa Valliant, communications director for the Beyond Plastics advocacy organization. “It’s because so much of our plastic products just cannot be recycled.”In the United States, recycling facilities typically can only effectively process No. 1 and 2 plastic. One peer-reviewed study of a recycling facility in the United Kingdom also found that 6 to 13 percent of the plastic processed there could end up being released into water or the air as microplastics.The search for plastic alternativesHowever, other packaging materials can also come with recycling challenges, and some have disadvantages when compared to plastic.“It’s not that any of those solutions is bad, but there’s not a panacea,” Shaver said. “There’s not a single solution which works for everywhere.”Here’s a look at how some common plastic alternatives measure up:Glass is made of natural materials such as sand, soda ash and limestone that are melted at high temperatures. Unlike plastic, experts say, glass is often easily reused and can be recycled many times without degrading in quality.But glass is heavy, so moving it over long distances can drive up transportation costs, said Muhammad Rabnawaz, an associate professor in the School of Packaging at Michigan State University. The material can also be more prone to breaking than plastic, aluminum and paper.And making and recycling glass are both energy-intensive processes, experts say. “Until we can couple that glass recycling to renewable energy, we’re at a risk of trading a waste problem for an energy problem,” Shaver said.Glass could, however, be the preferred choice in refill systems where transportation distances are short, he added.Making virgin aluminum, which involves mining minerals such as bauxite, can be environmentally destructive and energy-intensive. But it has the benefit of being lightweight and recyclable.“Aluminum is very difficult to make from the raw materials, so you must recycle it; otherwise there is no benefit,” Rabnawaz said. Recycling of aluminum cans, for example, is estimated to save 95 percent of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from its virgin source.But aluminum recycling, which involves melting down the material, can have its complications. Like glass, it can be recycled many times and still maintain its integrity, but aluminum cans are typically manufactured with a thin plastic coating on the inside that acts as a protective lining, Shaver said.“What happens to that is that when you melt the aluminum down, it gets burned, so we’re actually burning the plastic bit and then we’re recycling the container,” he said.Paper, which is recyclable, is generally thought of as one of the most environmentally sustainable materials, said Laszlo Horvath, an associate professor and director of the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech.But recycling paper is an extremely environmentally damaging process, Horvath said. “It requires a lot of chemicals, it requires a lot of energy, a lot of water,” he added. Similar to plastic, it can be challenging to maintain the quality of paper after it’s been recycled, Shaver said.Though a growing number of companies are finding more ways to use paper to package their products, experts say the material can fall short in some areas compared to plastic or aluminum. When it comes to packaging liquids, in particular, paper often isn’t a good alternative material, Horvath said.It’s also difficult to recycle paper-based beverage containers, Rabnawaz added.Bioplastics, biodegradables and compostablesFirst, experts say, it’s critical to understand what these terms mean. Using the label “bioplastic” or “biopolymer” typically indicates a material’s source is something biological, which can include food products, food waste or agricultural waste, Shaver said.“Bioplastics do not necessarily mean biodegradable or compostable,” he said.For consumers, it can also be hard to tell whether products marketed as biodegradable or compostable really are, he said.“Many things are industrially biodegradable or industrially compostable, not biodegradable in the environment or in the ocean or home composting,” he said. And because there can be different accreditations for products, that increases the risk of greenwashing, he added.Regardless of the material, the key, Shaver said, is to think about what happens to packaging after people are done with it.“It does not matter if something is recyclable, if it’s not recycled,” he said. “It does not matter if something is biodegradable, if it is not biodegraded. It does not matter if something is reusable, if it is not reused.”

‘It’s like a death pit’: How Ghana became fast fashion’s dumping ground

It’s mid-morning on a sunny day and Yvette Yaa Konadu Tetteh’s arms and legs barely make a splash as she powers along the blue-green waters of the River Volta in Ghana. This is the last leg of a journey that has seen Tetteh cover 450km (280 miles) in 40 days to become the first person known to swim the length of the waterway.It’s an epic mission but with a purpose: to find out whatis in the water and raise awareness of pollution in Ghana.As the 30-year-old swims, a crew shadows her on a solar-powered boat, named The Woman Who Does Not Fear, taking air and water samples along the way that will be analysed to measure pollution.It is hoped that the swim will draw attention to some of the pristine environments in Ghana, in contrast with places such as Korle Lagoon in the capital city of Accra, one of the most polluted water bodies on Earth.“I want people to understand and appreciate the value we have here in Ghana,” says the British-Ghanaian agribusiness entrepreneur. “The only way I can swim is because the waters [of the Volta River] are hopefully clean. Korle Lagoon was once swimmable but now you wouldn’t want to touch any of it.”The swim is supported by the Or Foundation, of which Tetteh is a board member, that campaigns against textile waste in Ghana, one cause of increasing water pollution in the country.Ghana imports about 15m items of secondhand clothing each week, known locally as obroni wawu or “dead white man’s clothes”. In 2021, Ghana imported $214m (£171m) of used clothes, making it the world’s biggest importer.Donated clothes come from countries including the UK, US and China and are sold to exporters and importers who then sell them to vendors in places such as Kantamanto in Accra, one of the world’s largest secondhand clothing markets.Kantamanto is a sprawling complex of thousands of stalls crammed with clothes. You can find items from H&M, Levi Strauss, Tesco, Primark, New Look and more. On display at one stall is a River Island top with a creased cardboard price tag showing that, at one point, it was on sale for £6 in a UK Marie Curie charity shop.As fast fashion – cheap clothes bought and cast aside as trends change – has grown, the volume of clothing coming to the market has increased while the quality has gone down.Jacklyn Ofori Benson is one of about 30,000 people who depend on the market for their livelihood. When the Guardian visits, she is furious. Earlier that morning, when she cut open her bale, she found it full of stained denim shorts.“Today’s bale was very, very costly,” she says. “Most of the 230 items were rubbish; I noticed so many bloodstains. I’m really angry and have thrown all of them away.” To reinforce her point, she picks out other pairs of shorts with broken zips as well as stains that she has kept in the hope of someone buying them for a knockdown price.In another section of the market, people work to repurpose items of clothing that would otherwise be discarded. T-shirts are cut up and sewn together with other bits of material to create skirts, knickers, tops and boxer shorts.John Opoku Agyemang, the secretary of the Kantamanto Hard Workers’ Association, stands at his workstation cutting T-shirts into strips of material that he gives to seamstresses. He exports the resulting garments to other African countries, including Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.When he first started working at the market 24 years ago, he remembers being able to sell all the clothing that came in a bale. Now, when he opens one, there are about 70 items he can’t use, he says. “The problem of waste is getting worse. For 12 years, the goods coming here have not been good, we can’t benefit from them. It’s my impression that countries abroad think Africa is very poor so they give us low-quality goods and their waste.”According to the Or Foundation, about 40% of the clothing in Kantamanto leaves as waste. Some of it is collected by waste management services, some is burned at the edges of the market, while the rest is dumped in informal landfills.About two miles from the market lies Old Fadama, a once vibrant and thriving community that now resembles an apocalyptic hellscape. It is the largest unsanctioned dump for clothing waste leaving Kantamanto, the Or Foundation believes. The area is home to at least 80,000 people – many have migrated from northern Ghana where the climate crisis is affecting farming; their houses are built on layers of rubbish.Animals graze on metres-high piles of clothes and plastic. A TV lies in the mud. Birds circle overhead while flies swarm close to the ground. Korle Lagoon is here; its waters are black and filled with excrement, its shores lined with litter. The air is hazy with smoke from fires burning waste. Rubbish collectors pick up plastic bottles, put them into sacks and carry them on their heads. No one smiles.It wasn’t always like this. Alhassan Fatawu, a 24-year-old photographer, moved to Old Fadama as a child with his mother and remembers swimming in the lagoon and playing on its shores. “As it is now, I can’t go near the lagoon. It’s like a death pit. People used to fish there, there were a lot of canoes with people depending on the lagoon for their livelihood.”He adds: “The last decade was mad [in terms of waste being dumped there] … It’s so upsetting.”Korle Lagoon leads to the ocean. Waste is washed out to sea before some of it ends up lining the beaches of Accra. In Jamestown, one beach, next to a huge port development financed by China, is hemmed in by cliffs, which have clothes hanging off them. You can’t walk out into the waves without stepping over mounds of clothes and plastic waste.At one end of the beach, Thomas Alotey sits on a boat mending fishing nets. He is resigned to his surroundings. “We want the situation to change but nothing will happen,” he says. “I know some of the clothes come from abroad but it is Ghana’s responsibility to dispose of the waste properly.”He adds: “We are suffering. When I go out to fish, I come back with more clothes in my nets than fish.”About 80 miles to the east, where Tetteh started the final leg of her swim, the scene could not be more different. The water is clean and enticing; the banks of the river are lined with palm trees and sandy beaches, and there’s only the odd canoe for company.“There are parts that have been just sublime,” says Tetteh of her journey. “We came across small, sandy islands surrounded by super-calm, still waters against brilliant blue skies. The vistas are incredible.”The crew’s journey has not been without challenges, however. There were nights spent on stormy waters in the middle of Lake Volta, the world’s largest artificial reservoir, because the boat ran out of power; tsetse flies, known to cause the potentially fatal sleeping sickness, hovered ominously round the crew; the boat got stuck in mud and it took the four-person crew along with a team of fishers three hours getting it afloat; and strong currents and lively waves made swimming almost impossible at times.But, just before 6pm on 17 May as the sun set and the sky took on hues of orange, yellow and red, Tetteh swam towards the shore in Ada, where the River Volta meets the Atlantic Ocean. A crowd gathered to cheer her on and welcome her. She walked out of the water to a soundtrack of traditional drumming, and was flanked by a pair of dancers who accompanied her as she was greeted by community elders. Ghanaian TV crews had come to capture her, and the crew’s, triumph.“It’s extremely satisfying to have finished,” says Tetteh. “I was very excited when I could taste salt in the water. Before that, I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”

US lead pipe replacements stoke concerns about plastic and environmental injustice

Roughly 9.2 million lead pipes deliver drinking water to homes, schools and other buildings in the U.S., according to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate released last month.

The Biden administration has announced its intention to replace all lead service lines within 10 years; and in 2021, Congress made $15 billion available for lead service line replacement through the bipartisan infrastructure law that passed last year. The EPA estimates the average cost to replace a lead service line is $4,700, putting the total need at $43 billion.

Scientists and drinking-water advocates say this fund is only a starting-point. A 2020 EPA analysis failed to consider many health outcomes from lead exposure, causing some experts to fear there’s a lack of willingness at the agency to address the problem. This could change, with new regulations on lead exposure expected from the EPA in September 2023. Advocates say upcoming rules need to include a mandate and funding for utilities to fully replace lead service lines so everyone can benefit from the program, including low-income customers.

Complicating lead pipe replacement are alternatives that may carry health risks of their own. A new report from Beyond Plastics, the Plastic Pollution Coalition and Environmental Health Sciences highlights a growing body of research that has found toxic chemicals in PVC and CPVC pipes — commonly used to replace lead lines — that have the potential to leach into drinking water. Health advocates say that in replacing lead lines, cities and states need to select safe materials to avoid a regrettable substitution, and many say copper is the best option. (Environmental Health Sciences publishes Environmental Health News, which is editorially independent.)

The EPA has chosen not to regulate plastic pipes or look into their potential health effects, Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator, told Environmental Health News (EHN).
“We’ve had about a half a dozen meetings with EPA, and every office we meet with points to another office,” she said, “It’s a lot of buck passing.”

Lack of federal motivation on lead replacement

The EPA enforces the Lead and Copper Rule, which requires utilities to address contamination when more than 10% of customer taps have high levels of lead or copper. Credit: Enoch Appiah Jr./UnsplashLead was a common material for service lines, the pipes that connect a building to a water main, until Congress banned them in 1986 due to health risks. There is no safe level of lead exposure, the EPA says. In children, lead affects growth, behavior, IQ and more. Lead can impact pregnancies, causing early births and damage to a baby’s brain, kidneys and nervous system. In adults, lead can impact cardiovascular health, kidney function and fertility. Research has found that minority and low-income households are more likely to face lead exposure, often because their homes were built during the decades when lead service lines were most prevalent.The EPA enforces the Lead and Copper Rule, which requires utilities to address contamination when more than 10% of customer taps have high levels of lead or copper. The Trump administration revised the rule, adding new testing requirements and protocols intended to require more action from utilities to reduce lead exposure. When the agency released their economic analysis of the rule revisions, “I was appalled,” Ronnie Levin, instructor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and former EPA senior scientist, told EHN. The EPA recognizes eight health outcomes caused by lead, and eight that are likely caused by lead. “They only monetized one,” Levin said. Related: Check out Beyond Plastics’ “The Perils of PVC Plastic Pipes” reportThat means they didn’t quantify many health outcomes the rule revisions would improve by lowering lead exposure. With the single health outcome monetized, the EPA analysis found roughly $160 to $330 million in costs from the revisions, and $230 to $800 million in benefits. “EPA considered both the quantifiable and the nonquantifiable health risk reduction benefits in promulgating the final Lead and Copper Rule…EPA exercised discretion to determine the approaches used to quantify benefits,” a spokesperson for the EPA told EHN in an email. Levin ran the numbers herself, including as many EPA acknowledged health outcomes from lead as she could. In a non-peer-reviewed preprint study, she and a coauthor estimate $9 billion in health benefits and an additional $2 to $8 billion in savings on plumbing materials thanks to corrosion control required by the Lead and Copper Rule revisions. The EPA’s underestimation of benefits demonstrates a lack of investment to address lead in drinking water, Levin said. “EPA, when it really wants to do something, loads on all the benefits it can marshal.” She’s concerned the incomplete health benefits analysis means the agency isn’t committed to solving this problem.

Environmental injustice and lead replacement

A young girl at the “Poor People’s Campaign” in Washington DC in 2018. A study in Washington D.C. found that low-income neighborhoods were far less likely to receive full service lead line replacements. Credit: Susan Melkisethian/flickrUnder the Biden administration, the Lead and Copper Rule will see another set of changes, which the EPA plans to announce in September 2023. The agency told an appeals court in December 2022 that it expects to require replacement of all lead service lines in that rulemaking.Some utilities are ahead of the curve, and have used funds from last year’s infrastructure act and other sources to jump start lead service line replacement. “But until we actually get a requirement that those lead pipes are pulled out, we’re concerned that a lot of communities are just going to shrug their shoulders,” Erik Olson, attorney and senior strategic director of the NRDC’s Health and Food, People & Communities Program, told EHN. To access state funds, utilities have to hire consulting firms to put together proposals for lead service line replacement, Olson explained. Low-income communities with fewer resources might not have the capacity to access the programs available now, but could be motivated with better funding and a mandate to replace service lines. Currently, the EPA is rolling out a technical assistance program in four states — Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — to help disadvantaged communities access funds. “We’re hoping that EPA will require the full replacement and at the expense of the utility, because otherwise we’re just not going to see a solution to this problem and it really will be an environmental injustice,” Olson said. When lead service lines are replaced by utilities, the Lead and Copper Rule requires them to address the portion they own. But that ownership is up for debate: many utilities say the property owner owns part of the service line, and that the utility is only responsible for a portion of it. Olson said utilities have been unable to provide documentation to back up this claim when asked by NRDC. Still some cities, including Washington D.C., have required customers to pay for a portion of a lead service line replacement, generally costing a few thousand dollars. A study of this program in Washington D.C. found that low-income neighborhoods were far less likely to receive full service line replacements. Neighborhoods with more Black residents were also less likely to receive full replacements. Instead, in many places the utility performed partial replacements, leaving some lead pipe intact. These partial replacements “may be worse than doing nothing,” the study said. The partial replacement process can disturb pipe coatings and speed up corrosion, leading to higher lead contamination of water. For example, research on partial lead service line replacements in Halifax, Canada,, found that a partial replacement more than doubled lead release in the short term, and had no beneficial effects on lead contamination after six months. In 2019, Washington D.C.’s council changed their program to better fund full replacements and address past partial replacements. “EPA strongly discourages water systems from conducting partial lead service line replacement,” said the EPA spokesperson.

PVC piping health impacts

[embedded content]The material that goes in to replace lead pipes can also create health concerns. Common replacements for lead service lines include pipes made from copper and plastics such as high-density polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC). Plastic pipes tend to be the cheapest option, but a report last month highlights serious health risks from plastic PVC and CPVC pipes. Scientists have identified 59 chemicals that can leach from PVC pipes, but there’s a dearth of research on exactly what concentrations could be found in home tap water and what health risks they pose. The report shows that some toxics leach from plastic pipes, including vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, and phthalates and organotins, endocrine-disruptors that impact the body’s hormone system.Plastic pipes, particularly PVC and CPVC, could represent a regrettable substitution for lead pipes, said Enck in a press conference about the report. “EPA does not have requirements for plumbing materials beyond the requirements for lead-free,” Senior Communications Advisor for EPA, Dominique Joseph, told EHN in an email. “EPA has supported the development of independent, third-party testing standards for plumbing materials under NSF/ANSI 61, which has been incorporated into many state and local plumbing codes.” The report raises concerns about the rigor of the NSF/ANSI 61 standard, which was developed by NSF International, an industry-funded organization. Beyond concerns for chemical leaching into drinking water, “Plastic pipes are an environmental justice issue,” Enck said. The vinyl chloride that makes the pipes is largely produced in the Gulf Coast and Appalachia, where surrounding communities face exposure to the carcinogen. Vinyl chloride was the principal chemical released in the February train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The train was also carrying PVC pellets on their way to a PVC pipe manufacturer, said Mike Schade, director of Mind the Store at Toxic-Free Future, at a press conference for the report.Copper can also corrode from pipes and cause health issues in high concentrations, but this is less common than high lead levels, and can be managed with corrosion control, said NRDC’s Olson. Recycled copper is the best choice for service lines to protect public health, the report concludes.

Cities take action on lead pipes

Plastic pipes, particularly PVC and CPVC, could represent a regrettable substitution for lead pipes. Credit: Unsplash+Some cities have made drinking water exposures a priority, and set an example for others to follow, Olson said. He points to Newark, New Jersey, which replaced more than 20,000 lead service lines with copper at no expense to property owners within a few years.Somerville, Massachusetts, is replacing all of its non-copper service lines with copper, prioritizing lead pipe removals first. “Copper tubing is the preferred water service material as it is sturdier and has a longer life span,” Karla Cuarezma, project manager for Somerville, said in an email to EHN. Troy, New York, also plans to replace lead pipes with copper. This pipe material preference has been in the city’s code for many decades, and they’re planning to stick with it, Chris Wheland, Troy’s superintendent of public utilities, told EHN. He added that at high water pressures plastic pipes don’t last as long. After facing criticisms for a slow start to the lead service line replacement program, Troy is putting a $500,000 fund to work to identify lead service line locations and begin some replacements. But Wheland said this is only a start, Troy will need $30 million to finish the job and replace all of its lead service lines. “We also have many other programs that we have to fund,” he said, “I still have to maintain the water plant, I still have to maintain pipes to the water plant and out of the water plant, because if I don’t have a water plant to give you water, there’s no sense in worrying about the lead pipe.”

EPA spurns Trump-era effort to drop clean-air protections for plastic waste recycling

Reversing its own Trump-era proposal, the Environmental Protection Agency has spurned a lobbying effort by the chemical industry to relax clean-air regulations on two types of chemical or “advanced” recycling of plastics. 

The decision, announced by the EPA on May 24, covers pyrolysis and gasification, two processes that use chemical methods to break down plastic waste. Both have largely been regulated as incineration for nearly three decades and have therefore had to meet stringent emission requirements for burning solid waste under the federal Clean Air Act. 

But in the final months of the Trump administration, the EPA proposed an industry-friendly rule change in August 2020 stating that pyrolysis does not involve enough oxygen to constitute combustion, and that emissions from the process should therefore not be regulated as incineration.

Pyrolysis, or the process of decomposing materials at high temperatures in an oxygen-free environment, has been around for centuries. Traditional uses have ranged from making tar from timber for wooden ships to transforming coal into coke for steelmaking.

Today, the chemical industry is looking to pyrolysis as a way to convert plastic waste into synthetic gases, char residue, and a type of oil that can then be turned into fuel or chemical feedstocks. (Gasification is similar to pyrolysis but uses some oxygen.)

Proponents argue that pyrolysis works with plastics that are otherwise difficult to recycle, providing an alternative to typical mechanical methods like shredding, melting and remolding the waste into new products. The industry has marshaled such arguments in lobbying state legislatures across the country to pass laws that incentivize the development of a chemical recycling industry for plastics.

The world is making twice as much plastic waste as it did two decades ago, with most of the discarded material buried in landfills, burned in incinerators or dumped into the environment, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a forum for developed nations. 

Annual production of plastic is expected to triple by 2060 to 1.23 billion metric tons yearly, with OECD countries like the U.S. producing far more per person than their counterparts in Africa and Asia. Only 9 percent of plastic waste is successfully recycled, the organization reports. 

Responding to growing concern, the chemical industry has championed what it calls advanced recycling. But government scientists have questioned the supposed environmental benefits of the chemical recycling of plastic waste as well as the technology’s commercial viability, at least in the short term.

Democratic Lawmakers Prevailed

The EPA’s 2020 proposal to ease its rules, which was related to how the agency regulates municipal waste combustion units, drew sharp criticism from environmentalists and Democrats in Congress. They argued that pyrolysis and gasification were indeed a form of combustion—and that abandoning strict regulation of those processes in chemical recycling would present health risks while failing to address the plastic waste crisis.

“Instead of leading to the recovery of plastic and supporting the transition to a circular economy, pyrolysis and gasification lead to the release of more harmful pollutants and greenhouse gases,” 35 lawmakers wrote the EPA last summer. They urged the agency to fully regulate the emissions from chemical recycling as waste combustion and to cease efforts to promote the technology as a solution to the global plastics crisis. 

Among those signing the letter were the House Democrats Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Jared Huffman of California, the Democratic senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent. “Chemical recycling contributes to our growing climate crisis and leads to toxic air emissions that disproportionately impact vulnerable communities,” the legislators wrote.

In a new fact sheet posted on the EPA’s website, the agency noted that it had “received significant adverse comments” on the provision it had put forward during the Trump administration. In taking final action to withdraw the proposal, the agency said it would “prevent any regulatory gaps and ensure that public health protections are maintained.” 

In a notice to be published in the Federal Register, the EPA left the door open to changing its mind later. It said it has received 170 comments on the 2020 proposal and that it was “evident that pyrolysis is a complex process that is starting to be used in many and varied industries.” The agency said it would need significant time and personnel to analyze the comments and other information to gain a full understanding of pyrolysis.

The American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group that is working to advance policies that promote chemical recycling, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But last summer, Joshua Baca, vice president for plastics at the council, said that the regulatory changes were necessary.

“The appropriate regulation of this is really critical if you want to scale advanced recycling, and you want to use more recycled material in your products,” Baca said. 

The lobbying group has also helped persuade 24 states, most recently Indiana in April, to pass legislation recognizing advanced recycling as manufacturing rather than waste management,  another path toward easing regulation of the fledgling industry.

Environmental advocates celebrated the EPA’s decision, saying it would help their groups and local communities fight for cleaner air amid the expansion of chemical recycling.

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Nanoplastic ingestion causes neurological deficits

Microplastics, or plastic particulates measuring less than five micrometers, are a growing environmental concern. These particulates disrupt reproduction, immune cell and microbiome composition in the gut, and neural and endocrine function in aquatic species and laboratory animals.1-4 Now, a new study published in Cell Reports suggests that the smaller the plastic, the greater the problem.5According to Chao Wang, an immunologist at Soochow University and coauthor of the study, feeding mice nanoplastics induced a greater overall immune response in their guts than feeding mice larger microplastics. This supports previous research showing size-dependent differences in how nanoparticles interact with cells and instigate responses from them.6Wang and his team found that nanoplastics, defined as being less than 500 nanometers in size, are more readily phagocytosed by macrophages compared to microplastics, which measure up to five micrometers. The smaller sized particulates induced a greater degree of lysosomal damage in these cells and resulted in production of the proinflammatory cytokine interleukin 1 beta (IL-1β) both in vitro and in the intestines of mice following one week of daily oral administration of the plastic. Using single-cell sequencing, Wang and his colleagues identified a population of IL-1β-producing macrophages in the intestines of nanoplastic-fed mice.Recent studies have shown that inflammatory responses in the intestines affect the brain, so Wang and his team next assessed the gut-brain axis. After two months of daily ingestion of nanoplastics at the estimated human consumption dose, nanoplastic-exposed mice exhibited reduced cognition and short-term memory as assessed by standard neurological assessments such as the open-field test, novel object recognition assay, and the Morris water maze. These plastic-fed mice also had more activated microglia and astrocytes as well as Th17-differentiated T cells than nontreated mice.Wang and his colleagues also observed elevated IL-1β in the brains of plastic-fed mice, but did not find IL-1β-producing cells in the brain, which suggested that these effects resulted from IL-1β-producing macrophages in the gut. “All these changes associated with brain function damage,” Wang said.Neurological effects from the ingestion of microplastics have been abundantly documented in marine species2,7,8 as plastic pollution in water ways is an outstanding problem. “I didn’t know the enormity—how big this problem was—until I started working on it about three years ago,” said Ebenezer Nyadjro, an oceanographer at Mississippi State University and data manager at the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), who was not involved with the study. “The long-term effect is if this is not controlled—if we keep dumping plastics into the water bodies, they break down into microplastics; they have an impact on those fisheries; and as studies have shown, they bioaccumulate up to higher organisms and humans—there will be impacts on us as well.”This observation has been echoed with recent reports of microplastics in human tissues,9 underscoring the importance of Wang’s findings.However, even after two months of daily nanoplastic ingestion, cognitive function and short-term memory impairments were mitigated by blocking IL-1β using either a monoclonal antibody or chemical inhibitor, and more promisingly, by cessation of nanoplastic exposure. One month after Wang and his team stopped feeding mice nanoplastics, they performed as well as nontreated mice in neurological assessments. “It’s showing this effect is not permanent but can be rescued. So, it’s showing one more reason to fix the plastic pollution worldwide,” Wang said.ReferencesHarusato A, Seo W, Abo H, Nakanishi Y, Nishikawa H, Itoh Y. Impact of particulate microplastics generated from polyethylene terephthalate on gut pathology and immune microenvironments. iScience. 2023;26(4):106474. doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2023.106474.Torres-Ruiz M, de Alba González M, Morales M, et al. Neurotoxicity and endocrine disruption caused by polystyrene nanoparticles in zebrafish embryo. Science of the Total Environment. 2023;874:162406. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.162406.Mattioda V, Benedetti V, Tessarolo C, et al. Pro-inflammatory and cytotoxic effects of polystyrene microplastics on human and murine intestinal cell lines. Biomolecules. 2023;13(1):140. doi: 10.3390/biom13010140Merkley SD, Moss HC, Goodfellow SM, et al. Polystyrene microplastics induce an immunometabolic active state in macrophages. Cell Biology and Toxicology. 2022;38(1):31-41. doi:10.1007/s10565-021-09616-xYang Q, Dai H, Cheng Y, et al. Oral feeding of nanoplastics affects brain function of mice by inducing macrophage IL-1 signal in the intestine. Cell Reports. 2023;42(4). doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2023.112346Jiang W, Kim BYS, Rutka JT. Chan WCW. Nanoparticle-mediated cellular response is size-dependent. Nature Nanotechnology. 2008;3 https://doi.org/10.1038/nnano.2008.30Hamed M, Martyniuk CJ, Naguib M, Lee JS, Sayed AEH. Neurotoxic effects of different sizes of plastics (nano, micro, and macro) on juvenile common carp (Cyprinus carpio). Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience. 2022;15:1028364. doi: 10.3389/fnmol.2022.1028364.Aliakbarzadeh F, Rafiee M, Khodagholi F, Khorramizadeh MR, Manouchehri H, Eslami A, et al. Adverse effects of polystyrene nanoplastic and its binary mixtures with nonylphenol on zebrafish nervous system: From oxidative stress to impaired neurotransmitter system. Environmental Pollution. 2023;317:120587. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2022.120587.Amato-Lourenço LF, Carvalho-Oliveira R, Júnior GR, dos Santos Galvão L, Ando RA,  Mauad T. Presence of airborne microplastics in human lung tissue. Journal of Hazardous Materials 2021;416:126124. Doi:10.1016/j.jhaxmat.2021.126124

As plastics keep piling up, can ‘advanced’ recycling cut the waste?

Bob Powell had spent more than a decade in the energy industry when he turned his attention to the problem of plastic waste. “I’m very passionate about the environment,” he says. To him, the accumulating scourge of irresponsibly discarded plastic ranks high on the list of environmental issues, “right behind global warming and drought.” In 2014, he found what he considers a solution: a suite of technologies that uses chemicals and heat to turn plastic into oil to manufacture more plastic.
In the years since, Powell founded a “plastics renewal” company, Brightmark, Inc., whose first plant, currently in its start-up phase, has processed 2,000 tons of waste plastic at its Circularity Center in Ashley, Indiana. Using an “advanced plastics recycling” technique called pyrolysis, post-consumer plastics delivered to the Brightmark plant are subjected to intense heat in an oxygen-starved environment until their molecules shake apart, yielding a type of oil similar to plastic’s petroleum feedstock, along with some waste byproducts. Ideally, Powell says, Brightmark will sell the oil to produce new plastic, promoting true circularity in the manufacturing supply chain.
Around the world, companies are drawing up plans for pyrolysis plants, promising relief from the crushing problem of plastic pollution. Small startups and demonstration projects are joining with larger companies, including petroleum and chemical giants. Chevron Phillips was recently awarded a patent for its proprietary pyrolysis process, and ExxonMobil announced in March it was considering opening pyrolysis plants in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Beaumont, Texas; and Joliet, Illinois. ExxonMobil already operates a pyrolysis facility in Baytown, Texas, which the company claims will recycle 500,000 tons of plastic waste annually by 2026.

“There’s a lack of transparency about how much plastic they’re recycling” and what the end product will be used for, a critic says.

Globally, the market for advanced recycling technologies is projected to exceed $9 billion by 2031, up from $270 million in 2022, according to a report from Research and Markets, an industry analysis firm. That’s a 32 percent increase every one of those nine years.
Proponents of pyrolysis say it will keep plastic out of landfills, incinerators, and waterways, prevent it from choking marine life, and keep its toxic components from leaching into soil and contaminating water and air. The American Chemistry Council says that “advanced recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions 43 percent relative to waste-to-energy incineration of plastic films made from virgin resources.”

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Biden Administration to support efforts to create a circular economy

By Will Atwater

Distance runners must develop two critical traits: mental toughness and the ability to focus on the big picture when obstacles such as fatigue set in. These are characteristics that runner and problem-solver Crystal Dreisbach has found valuable in her career tackling environmental issues.

Dreisbach is involved in a decade-long marathon to establish in Durham something called a  circular economy, which would divert plastic and other waste from landfills and local waterways. She draws parallels between distance running and her environmental work.

“[If] I hit a wall at mile 18 or whatever,” she said, “I know from experience that I’m going to feel like I’m done … But if I just push through that wall, when I get to the other side, I’ll feel better. So it’s like the knowledge that if you overcome a challenge, it is better on the other side. Just keep going.”

The Environmental Protection Agency defines a circular economy as one that “keeps materials, products and services in circulation for as long as possible” to slow climate change. If fewer single-use materials, such as plastics, are produced, it lowers CO2 emission from fossil fuels used to make plastics, and it reduces emissions from plastic waste decomposition. 

At this stage in the race, Dreisbach is garnering support for an ordinance that would reduce plastic waste in Durham by imposing a 10 cent fee per bag paid by retail customers needing  bags for purchases. If established, Dreisbach believes the regulation will reduce the plastic waste polluting the environment — including on the land, in waterways and in the bodies of marine animals and people.

And she’s getting a boost from the federal government. On April 21, the Biden administration published a draft plan for reducing plastic waste at the source, cleaning up the recycling process and removing litter from the environment. The administration’s action signals that the federal government is ready to lead in addressing this environmental challenge.

Finding the money 

Despite the daunting task she’s taken on, Dreisbach is willing to share her vision with anyone who’ll listen. She recently traveled to Washington, D.C., where she spoke to an engaged audience for an Earth Day event titled “From Single-use to Reuse: The Growing Reuse Movement.” 

The World Wildlife Fund and Upstream, an organization that works with businesses and institutions to eliminate waste, organized the event. It was attended by more than 100 people, including representatives from federal agencies. 

Crystal Dreisbach, founder of Don’t Waste Durham, talks with students about the benefits of a circular economy, including eliminating single-use plastic waste. Credit: Don’t Waste Durham

“This is the first time in my career [that] we put out our recycling strategy the same day that we got funding in the bipartisan infrastructure law,” said Nena Shaw, EPA acting director, resource conservation and sustainability division. “The president signed it, and we have support from industry and nonprofits and others that are all trying to work towards the same end.”

Dr. Priscilla Johnson, interim CEO at Upstream, says there’s an opportunity to reduce plastic waste and boost local economies by creating jobs and adopting a circular economy, which the federal government can support.

“I think funding is the biggest barrier,” she said, “so the federal government’s role in catalyzing private industries, like banks, to direct their funding to these types of efforts that solve systemic problems [is needed]. When you look at how plastic and plastics are manufactured, they have a deleterious upstream effect on the most vulnerable communities. And that happens throughout the entire world.”

Curbing waste is also on the minds of North Carolina lawmakers. In February, NC Health News  reported on the NC Managing Waste Act of 2023. The bill, introduced by Rep. Harry Warren (R-Salisbury), seeks to reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste generated by state agencies.

A race we must win

Oceana, an organization that states its mission is to “protect the world’s oceans,” says it’s critical for humanity to address the global plastic pollution problem. 

“Plastic is everywhere. It’s choking our oceans, melting out of Arctic sea ice, sitting at the deepest point of the seafloor, and raining onto our national parks,” reads a statement on the organization’s website. “It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. It’s greatly contributing to the climate crisis and disproportionately polluting communities of color and low-income communities ….” 

Oceana reports that roughly 33 billion pounds of plastic is deposited into the ocean annually. More than 14.5 million tons of plastic debris were dumped in landfills in 2018, according to the EPA, and a 2021 UN Environment Programme report states that the annual global cost associated with plastic pollution was $19 billion in 2018.  

A 2019 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund found that humans digest roughly 5 grams, or a credit-card size amount, of microplastics weekly. While there is no consensus on whether there is a link between microplastic ingestion and human disease, research is underway. One study found that people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) had a higher quantity of microplastic particles in their feces than healthy people. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two forms of IBD.

Plastic waste that is not recycled often ends up in landfills and releases greenhouse gases as it breaks down into smaller particles. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. 

And due to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it’s highly likely “that at least one of the next five years, and the five-year period as a whole, will be the warmest on record,” according to a recently released report by the World Meteorological Organization. 

“This report does not mean that we will permanently exceed the 1.5°C level specified in the Paris Agreement, which refers to long-term warming over many years. However, WMO is sounding the alarm that we will breach the 1.5°C level on a temporary basis with increasing frequency,” said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.

A 2016 EPA climate indicator report states that people 65 and older, African Americans and children are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses and deaths than the general population.

‘Following the North Star’

Dreisbach says her training as a public health professional and her experience in the Peace Corps and working on international campaigns for international public health contractor FHI 360 gave her the skills that she now uses to take on Durham’s waste problem.

Crystal Dreisbach (second row, third from the right) stands with colleagues, including federal officials, for a group photo during the “From Single-use to Reuse: Earth Day Event,” held in Washington, DC, on April 21, 2023. Credit: Uptream

On her journey toward a circular economy, Dreisbach has endured pushback from critics and delays, including the changeover of mayors and council members along the way, reminding her to view this effort as a marathon, not a sprint.  

“Ten years ago, everyone was laughing at me. But now they’re putting me in front of the White House, you know? So, clearly, I’ve been following the North Star.”

Dreisbach’s mission led her in 2013 to form Don’t Waste Durham, a nonprofit organization “that creates solutions that prevent trash,” according to its website. 

During the past decade, initiatives developed by Don’t Waste Durham to eliminate waste include “Boomerang Bags” made by volunteers out of recycled T-shirts. The bags are free at checkout counters in participating retail shops. Customers who need a bag can borrow a bag to carry purchases home and return it later, or keep the bag to use for future purchases.

Another initiative established by Don’t Waste Durham is “Green-to-Go,” a fee-for-service program available in selected restaurants and retail outlets that offers customers the option of replacing single-use food containers with reusable containers to transport food home. Once the customer finishes using the container, it is collected and brought to a washing center, sterilized and returned to the restaurant.

Don’t Waste Durham is also working with the Durham Public Schools, and other city and county agencies, on environmental efforts such as improving education around recycling and replacing disposable food containers with reusable stainless foodware, among other initiatives.

Hard-earned recognition

Dreisbach’s work is not going unnoticed. In 2021, she was recognized as the “Activist of the Year” during the National Reuse Awards, held virtually and sponsored by Upstream and Closed Loop Partners, a circular economy-focused investment firm and innovation center, according to a release.

“Never has recognition of heroes in the reuse movement been more crucial as we experience the multiple effects of climate change and plastic pollution in the air, on land and in our oceans,” said Matt Prindiville, former CEO at Upstream. “The recipients of The Reusies are true trailblazers and game-changing innovators of the growing reuse economy.” 

Dreisbach’s work is also receiving support from local colleagues. 
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“She doesn’t see boundaries, she sees hurdles that need to be overcome,” said Tobin Freid, Durham County sustainability officer. “And she goes after [hurdles] tenaciously. If that doesn’t work, she pivots to find another way around it.” 

In 2019, Don’t Waste Durham became a client of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, where the organization worked with law students and staff to draft policy that supports a reuse economy such as the proposed plastic bag ordinance.

“I wish there were 100 Crystals doing what Crystal is doing in Durham,” said Nancy Lauer, staff scientist and lecturing fellow at the law clinic. “Her vision is where we need to be going.” 

Michelle Nowlin, co-director of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, agrees with Lauer’s take on Dreisbach.

“Crystal has tremendous passion and vision for more environmentally sustainable ways of structuring our society and our economy.”

Running uphill

Dreisbach says the next leg in Don’t Waste Durham’s journey toward establishing a circular economy is to get the city council to vote on the proposed 10-cent-per-bag ordinance. However, there’s a significant barrier to overcome before a vote happens.

Credit: NC DEQ

City officials have said that they’re only willing to vote on the proposed ordinance if the upcoming budget includes line items for an educational outreach coordinator and a code enforcement officer, according to Dreisbach. 

Allegedly, the city manager is only willing to have the two positions in a proposed budget with the policy in place.

“So we’re like in this chicken-and-egg situation,” Dreisbach said. “[The city manager] won’t recommend the two positions unless the policy has passed.”

Don’t Waste Durham and its supporters are working diligently to address council members’ concerns before June 20, when the vote for the upcoming budget is expected.

Shaw acknowledges that establishing a coalition of stakeholders to eliminate single-use plastic waste can be a challenging, but worthwhile endeavor.

“We don’t all agree on everything, but at the same time, the momentum is there,” Shaw said. ”There’s a huge desire on the part of the young people, certainly of today, pushing us in that direction because they’re not satisfied with the status quo — and they shouldn’t be.”

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Reimagining healthcare to reduce pollution, tackle climate change and center justice

PITTSBURGH — Hospitals save lives — but they’re also complex ecosystems that generate toxic waste, rely on fossil fuels and instigate health problems due to harmful emissions.

Change comes hard to healthcare institutions, but a growing movement of doctors, nurses, medical school students and hospital system executives are working to clean up the industry.

Around 650 health care professionals from around the world gathered in Pittsburgh last week to strategize about ways to reduce waste and air pollution, disinvest from fossil fuels, better integrate communities, drive down the industry’s climate-warming emissions and hear success stories from people on the front lines of this work.

“[This] is not just a conference — we’re intentionally building a movement,” said Gary Cohen, president and co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, the organization that hosts the CleanMed conference, during his opening remarks. “This is the work of our lifetime. Are we ready to get going?”

Healthcare’s environmental toll

Ironically, the healthcare industry takes a significant toll on the environment in ways that negatively impact human health. The sector accounts for an estimated 4.4% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and up to 9.8% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.Related: Visiting health care professionals take “environmental justice tour” of PittsburghHealth damages from the U.S. healthcare sector’s pollution – including greenhouse gasses, carcinogenic emissions and other toxic air pollutants – from 2003-2013 are estimated to have cost Americans more than 400,000 years of full health, defined as years lived free of disease or disability. It’s estimated that nearly eight million, or one in five deaths globally, are caused by air pollution — more than the number of deaths caused by AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.Institutional investments are also problematic: The U.S. has more than 1,200 private hospital systems, which invest an estimated $10 billion in fossil fuels.

Cleaning up the healthcare sector

People who have successfully initiated new sustainability programs or policies at their organizations shared tools and tips.Credit: Kristina Marusic for Environmental Health NewsThe doctors and nurses attending CleanMed were joined by operations managers, sustainability directors, budget analysts, medical device providers and health-care-strategy consultants, along with people in numerous other roles.People who have successfully initiated new sustainability programs or policies at their organizations shared tools and tips.Elizabeth McLellan was one of those people. In the early 2000s, while working as a nurse administrator at Maine Medical Center, she was troubled by the huge volume of unused supplies like gloves, gowns, gauze, bandages and masks going into the trash because they’d been left in a patient’s room or opened in an operating room. McLellan had lived and worked abroad and knew there was a dire need for these supplies in other parts of the world, so she started collecting them. There was nowhere on site at her hospital to store the supplies she saved, so she took them home. By 2009 the bottom floor of her house was filled with about 11,000 pounds of rescued medical supplies, which she eventually figured out how to warehouse, ship and donate to hospitals in need around the world. After running the project entirely by herself for years, McLellan scaled the operation into a regional nonprofit, Partners for World Health, with 10 staff members and 800 volunteers, that has saved more than 180,000 pounds of medical supplies from landfills and shipped them to countries in need including Ukraine, Syria, Turkey, Zambia, Haiti, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya.[embedded content]“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission,” she said in a session about hospitals making progress toward becoming zero-waste. “That has worked my whole career, and it worked for this project, too.”In one of two talks about reducing single-use plastics, Dr. Sara Angelilli, director of perioperative education at the Allegheny Health Network, talked about implementing reusable respirators. Dr. Preetri Preeti Mehrotra, a senior medical director at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, shared tips on finding the people who “can help pull the levers,” and discussed both infection control and financial benefits in switching to reusable products. And Daniel Vukelich, president of the Association of Medical Device Reprocessors, cautioned about the false promise of “chemical recycling” of single-use plastics, which is associated with a host of climate and environmental health concerns. Health Care Without Harm is also calling for the global plastics treaty currently in its second round of talks this week in Paris, to not allow medical exemptions. Other health care professionals shared advice about incorporating environmental justice and community health advocacy into clinical care by setting and meeting renewable energy goals, managing hazardous pharmaceutical waste, getting clinicians involved in climate action and increasing patient access to healthy and sustainable foods inside hospitals and at home. Health Care Without Harm partners with hospitals around the world to help them meet these types of goals through its Practice GreenHealth program.“In the last year or two, hospitals are increasingly looking beyond their four walls when talking about community resilience and environmental health,” Paul Bogart, executive director of Health Care Without Harm, told EHN. “They’re starting to think about economic drivers of community health and social determinants of health — things like housing, transportation, employment and exposure to polluting facilities.”“That type of work, for many health care institutions, is just beginning,” Bogart added. “Those relationships with community leaders are just beginning.”

Why Pittsburgh?

Walking along the Allegheny River with scenic views of the city’s iconic yellow bridges, the group learned about how pollution from the steel industry was once so bad that Pittsburgh was nicknamed “hell with the lid off.”Credit: Kristina Marusic for Environmental Health News Attendees representing at least 15 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Japan, Nepal, South Korea and Taiwan attended the CleanMed conference.Previous conferences have been held in cities across the U.S. and across the world, and conference organizers connect what’s happening locally with the broader movement.Related: A guide to environmental health in southwestern PennsylvaniaIn Pittsburgh, that meant acknowledging the city’s industrial history, discussing ongoing problems with air pollution and childhood lead exposure and addressing the significant role that extractive industries, particularly fracking and petrochemical development, play in shaping the region’s health. It also meant asking questions about the health care industry’s obligations to communities impacted by these problems.“The fossil fuel and petrochemical industries require externalizing harm,” said Cohen during a plenary on building partnerships between health care institutions and community advocacy. “We need to understand who is harmed by an economy that’s based on fossil fuels and toxic chemicals … What does it mean for the health care industry to truly partner with these communities to help build community health, wealth and resilience?”

Recycling plastics “extremely problematic” due to toxic chemical additives: Report

Plastics contain toxic chemicals that can enter products and interact to create new harmful substances during the recycling process, a new report from Greenpeace and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) shows.

The report comes as negotiators from more than 180 nations meet in Paris this week to discuss a global plastics treaty, developing regulations to address the plastic pollution crisis. The backdrop is stark: Plastics production is currently on track to triple by 2060, causing harm to human health and the environment throughout its lifecycle from creation to disposal.

Capping plastics production is a key point of debate. Fifty-eight countries, aligned in a group called the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, want to see a treaty that slows production. Industry groups and countries that stand to profit from plastic production want to focus on waste management and recycling instead, according to scientists and advocates.

Plastics manufacturing is one of the largest industries in the U.S., but the country is still committed to a treaty with “strong binding provisions, not only voluntary actions,” said Jose Fernandez, under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and environment, at a High Ambition Coalition briefing. The U.S. is not a member of the coalition, instead calling for the treaty to direct nations to develop individual action plans.

Current plastic recycling systems “mold this unknown cocktail of potentially harmful substances together,” Melanie Bergmann, a biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute and a member of the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, who was not speaking on behalf of the coalition, told Environmental Health News (EHN).

That chemical cocktail can harm workers and communities around recycling sites and leach from recycled plastic products, the Greenpeace and IPEN report found.

Chemical additives in plastic

A resolution on plastic is passed at the first round of global plastic treaty talks in March 2022. Credit: UNEP/ Cyril VillemainOnly 9% of plastic is recycled and the rest is burned in incinerators, left to pollute nature or tossed in landfills that are often located in low and middle-income countries. But increasing recycling isn’t a viable solution, scientists and advocates point out. Plastics contain toxic chemicals, such as bisphenols (like BPA), phthalates and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and can also absorb materials from other products in the wastestream, like pesticides and pharmaceuticals, which can later leach out of the plastic. IPEN and Greenpeace advocate for limiting plastic production alongside eliminating toxic chemicals added to plastics to make safe recycled products feasible.Related: UN plastics treaty should prioritize health and climate changeFossil fuels are the raw material that makes plastic, and more than 13,000 chemicals are added to change durability, flexibility, color, UV-protection and more. Roughly 3,200 of those chemicals are considered a concern for human health, and an additional 6,000 have never been screened, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Program. “Six thousand with no data is like driving blind,” Bjorn Beeler, international coordinator at IPEN, told EHN. Many chemicals added to plastics are linked with health risks including cancers, hormonal system disruptions and reproductive harms.

Plastic production cap

One solution involves simplification and transparency of ingredients in plastics. Lists of approved and unsafe chemicals could guide production and improve the safety of the end material, Bergmann said. Full transparency of ingredients could also help improve recycling and reduce the risk of creating new toxics.

But, “the single most important measure that we need to take is a cap on plastic production,” she said.

A statement released Friday by the High Ambition Coalition echoed this, saying the treaty must reduce plastic production and consumption. “We need to first close the tap by addressing the unsustainable sourcing and extraction of raw materials to make plastics,” Sir Molwyn Joseph, Antigua & Barbuda’s minister of health, wellness and the environment said at a briefing that day.

He emphasized that, as with climate change, developing countries contribute little to the plastic pollution crisis but bear the brunt of the impact. “We have a very small window to address and arrest the severe damage being done by plastics not only to the environment but to human health,” he said.

The mandate for the treaty was agreed on in March 2022, and is currently in its second of five weeks of discussions, spread across three years. The first meeting in late 2022 focused on procedures for the talks, and this week negotiators are expected to dive into substantive issues.

So far, some countries including Saudi Arabia, Russia, India and China have held up talks with procedural issues, opposing the possibility of a vote on a final treaty if consensus can’t be reached. These are countries that profit significantly from the production of fossil fuels, plastics or petrochemicals.

Countries’ ability to agree on a treaty objective will be the measure of success for the week, Beeler said. He hopes to see an objective to protect the environment and human health from adverse impacts at all stages of the plastic lifecycle.

“We are now more than one year into negotiations,” said Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, Rwanda’s minister of environment, at the High Ambition Coalition briefing. “However, since then more than 400 million tons of new plastic have been produced and another 22 million tons of plastic waste has ended up in nature…We need to move quickly into treaty-making mode.”