While climate disasters unfold in Canada and around the planet, the federal government is entertaining false solutions from the fossil-fuel industry that risk making things worse instead of better. The federal government has committed to ending fossil fuel subsidies. But now they’re rolling out new policies, spending programs and tax breaks to incentivize carbon capture and storage, blue hydrogen and “advanced recycling.” The truth is, these are just new fossil fuel subsidies in disguise that will continue to lock us into dirty fuels. Take “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), touted by the industry as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by capturing some of the gases from polluting facilities before they escape into the atmosphere. CCS does nothing to stop the emissions created from burning the fuel — most notably for heating and transportation — and yet the oil and gas lobby wants at least $50 billion from taxpayers to make it happen.But CCS is not a climate solution. In fact, CCS perversely increases emissions, since most of the captured carbon is actually used to get more oil out of the ground. And despite decades of research and tens of billions of dollars in subsidies globally, CCS is neither economically sound nor proven at scale. In fact, globally only 0.1 per cent of annual emissions from fossil fuels are being captured. And while the costs of renewables and real climate solutions have plummeted, carbon capture technologies remain very expensive.And then there’s “blue” hydrogen. Hydrogen, like electricity, can be used to store or transport energy, and when burned, it doesn’t create any greenhouse gas emissions. But the vast majority of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels — with huge emissions. Industry promises to deal with those through unproven CCS.A recent study from Cornell and Stanford found that blue fossil hydrogen is even worse for the climate than burning coal or natural gas directly and concludes there is no role for fossil hydrogen in a carbon-free future. If hydrogen is to play a role in a future energy grid, it will be “green” hydrogen from renewable electricity.Not to be left behind, the petrochemical industry is touting a troubling technology to rid the world of plastic waste. We’re on track to see plastic outweigh fish in the world’s oceans by 2050, but the industry’s proposed strategy will allow them to continue producing more and more plastic. The industry has long used the promise of recycling to justify plastic, especially single-use products and packaging. But recycling has never worked. Only 9 per cent of all plastic is recycled in Canada. The rest ends up in landfills, incinerators or the natural environment. Now the industry is selling “advanced recycling,” which isn’t really recycling at all. There has been a flurry of announcements around the world in recent years about pilot projects to make a small amount of plastic waste “disappear” by turning it into fuel and chemicals. These projects burn a lot of energy to get a small amount of fuel, some of which might be sent back to refineries that make new plastic and untold byproducts, most of which will end up in landfills. Similar to CCS, “advanced recycling” also doesn’t reduce our need to extract and refine fossil fuels. All we get in the end is more and more plastic, more and more waste and more and more pollution.To stop the damage to our planet, the federal government must refuse false solutions and instead pave the way for a fair transition for workers and communities away from oil and gas. That means no tax breaks, spending or regulations that provide a benefit to CCS, blue hydrogen or advanced recycling.Julia Levin is senior program manager, climate and energy, at Environmental Defence and Karen Wirsig is plastics program manager at Environmental Defence.
Plastic and other garbage litters the beach on Pace Picnic Island in Miami. Credit: University of Georgia
A team of University of Georgia (UGA) researchers is hard at work in Miami to help leaders there tackle a problem that affects nearly every city in the world: Plastic pollution.
Bales of waste illegally imported from Portugal seized in Romania in 2019. Photo: National Environmental Guard of RomaniaRomania has limited the number of border crossing points through which recyclable waste can be broughg into the country to 15, and has adopted a decision to combat the illegal import of waste. “Romania cannot be Europe’s landfill,” Environment Minister Tanczos Barna said.
Barna added that as European legislation currently does not allow member states to refuse imported waste, Romania needed to adopt its own normative act to regulate such activities.
“Tracing these transports from the border to the place of recycling will be mandatory. The quantities of waste entering the country will also be correlated with the recycling capacity of the companies,” he added.
An environmental activist, Octavian Berceanu, told BIRN that the new measures were good, but still insufficient, as the 15 designated points are the same points where such waste is usually introduced, so not much would change.
“These checking points must be equipped with scanning devices, and the number of environmental commissioners must be tripled. Otherwise, Romania could be sued by these companies,” Berceanu told BIRN.
Barna said that the transport – often illegal – of waste to Romania and the management of the waste were some of the urgent problems “that we will solve through this normative act”.
According to the act, the 15 authorised crossing points for waste will be established by a joint order of the Environment and Interior Ministers.
An Environmental Fund will be administered by an institution that will monitor the incoming quantities of waste, and ensure that they match the recycling capacity of the companies that the waste should reach, also making available to users a free-of-charge computer system to ensure traceability.
This will help to monitor and verify the correctness of transactions of waste.
“We noticed an increasing trend of illegal waste shipments identified in the Romanian border crossing points and an increased pressure on the borders,” the environmental protection agency, ANPM, said.
In recent years, Romania and Bulgaria have become essential destinations for waste from Western Europe after China closed its doors in 2018 to such imports.
Much of the waste is brought to villages around Bucharest and burned illegally, causing air pollution, as the central and local authorities often look the other way.
The metal extracted from burning plastic, rubber and other materials is sold to scrap metal businesses.
As Shell builds its petrochemical facility to make the building blocks of plastic in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, and more ethane crackers are being considered for the region, a novel about plastic pollution in Appalachia seems well timed.
This year’s Trashlands takes place in an eponymous junkyard where decades into the future agroup of people try to squeeze an existence out of the scraps that remain from our modern way of life.
The central character, Coral, named for the coralroot orchid, which has gone extinct, struggles to keep her family together and make sense out of this dystopian reality. Coral doesn’t remember a time when there were four seasons, while she and scrapes together meals from flour made of crickets.
Author Alison Stine created this world. A journalist and staff culture writer at Salon, Stine’s previous speculative fiction book, Road Out of Winter won the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Stine about some of the themes in Trashlands.
LISTEN to the interview
A new report from Oceana reveals that Amazon generated an estimated 271 million kilograms of plastic packaging waste last year. This is a 29 per cent increase over Oceana’s 2019 estimates, with much of this plastic waste stemming from the billions of packages Amazon delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic.Oceana also found, based on data from a peer-reviewed study on plastic waste pollution published in Science in 2020, that up to 10.66 million kilograms of this waste entered the world’s waterways and seas — the equivalent of dumping a delivery van worth of plastic into the oceans every 67 minutes. The majority of this packaging is lightweight plastic films, such as bubble wrap, mailers, and air pillows.”Amazon’s global plastic packaging pollution footprint is growing at an alarming rate at a time when the United Nations has declared plastic the biggest threat to the global environment after climate change,” says Oceana Canada plastic campaigner Ashley Wallis. “So-called corporate leadership simply isn’t good enough. We urgently need the Canadian government to enact a strong national ban on unnecessary single-use plastic. Federal leadership is needed to hold these corporate polluters accountable.”Plastic is a major source of pollution and is devastating the world’s oceans. Studies have estimated 55 per cent of sea birds, 70 per cent of marine mammals and 52 per cent of all sea turtles have ingested or become entangled in plastic, and that film, prevalent in Amazon packaging, is one of the deadliest forms of plastic for marine life. Only seven per cent of plastic films are recycled in Canada.Amazon has shown it has the technical ability to reduce its plastic use when compelled to by governments, consumers and environmental organizations like Oceana. Following the announcement of a pending national ban on single-use plastics in India, Amazon decreased its single-use plastic packaging and increased its use of returnable and reusable packaging.vi It also recently announced it would stop packaging products in single-use plastic packaging in Germany by the end of 2021.vii Amazon could substantially reduce its significant global plastic footprint if it expands this plastic-free approach worldwide.“Amazon has shown it can reduce its plastic footprint, but in Canada, whether it does or not will also depend on federal leadership,” says Wallis. “Shortly after the Indian government announced plans to ban single-use plastics, Amazon decreased its single-use plastic packaging. This illustrates exactly why we need the Canadian government to show leadership in fighting the growing global plastic disaster by implementing a comprehensive ban on unnecessary plastics and ultimately holding corporate polluters accountable.”In Canada, 95 per cent of those surveyed by Abacus Data for Oceana Canada are concerned about the impact plastic pollution has on our oceans and 94 per cent are concerned about the thousands of sea creatures that are killed because of plastic ingestion or entanglement every year. A whopping 90 per cent of Canadians support the proposed national single-use plastic ban and 63 per cent want to see it go further, including banning hard-to-recycle packaging. As currently proposed, the federal government’s ban on six types of single-use plastics reportedly covers less than one per cent of the plastic products we use and does not include the kinds of packaging Amazon uses.Oceana Canada is asking Canadians now to help urge our government to impose a strong single-use plastic ban by signing its government petition at Oceana.ca/EndthePlasticDisasterOceana is also calling on Amazon to reduce its plastic footprint and:Listen to its shareholders and be fully transparent: more than one-third of Amazon’s shareholders asked the company to report on its plastic footprint. This data should be independently verified.Listen to its customers: more than 740,000 people have signed a petition asking Amazon for plastic-free choices.Eliminate plastic packaging, increase the number of products shipped in reusable containers, and adopt policies that demonstrably reduce plastic pollution rather than making empty claims about “recyclability.”Find out more about Oceana Canada’s campaign to stop single-use plastic pollution at www.oceana.ca/Plastics.— Oceana Canada— AB
Take the River Swimming Challenge in 2022.
Each summer, Tierra Curry and her friends have a fun competition to see who can swim in the most rivers. This year, Tierra went all in to win. She swam in 108 rivers across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. From her home near the Cumberland River in Kentucky, she traveled from Pennsylvania to Georgia, west to the Mississippi River and east to the Shenandoah River, to swim in every river she could reach.
Curry didn’t wear a wetsuit—just a swimsuit and sandals. She was hoping to see a diversity of aquatic life. Instead, what she found was a lot of mud, pollution, and plastic.
“Wild, beautiful rivers are still out there, but they are few and far between,” Curry wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in September. “Most of the rivers I swam in were varying degrees of disgusting.”
Curry’s river swimming challenge also revealed the realities of our changing climate. Some rivers were bone-dry; others were swollen from so much rainfall that they washed out roads.
Next year is the perfect time to take the plunge. 2022 is the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. As Curry discovered about our rivers, we have a lot to celebrate, and even more work to do.
What were the highlights of her river swimming challenge? Curry shared some of her most memorable moments from the 108 Southeastern rivers she visited.
What was the most beautiful river?
I’m in love with the Cranberry River in West Virginia. Summer or winter, it’s a beautiful place to sit on huge rocks under hemlock trees and rhododendrons and stare into the water. Early in the spring there are frog eggs, phoebes, juncos—it’s a naturalist’s wonderland.
What was the most polluted river?
Singling out the most polluted river is a matter of pick your poison. The Obion was surrounded by endless fields of corn and soy that are doused in pesticides and fertilizers and run right up to the river’s edge with no forested buffers. In the Mississippi in western Kentucky I waded in through an oil sheen. When I swam in the Shenandoah there was an active no swim advisory due to E. coli and algae. I felt good about the rivers that were surprisingly clear until a Debbie Downer scientist pointed out that some rivers are clear because they are so toxic nothing can survive.
What was the craziest object you observed in the river?
I was actually happy to find a baby doll head in the Guyandotte River because malacologists are prone to flaunting their doll-parts loot in particular. At the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society meeting, they auction off this grotesque sculpture of scavenged baby dolls that the highest bidder gets to house for the year. I also found a My Little Pony in the Cumberland, and most of a cow skeleton.
What were the biggest and smallest rivers you swam in?
I got in the Mississippi at the western edge of Kentucky, but the river there was narrower than the Ohio at the waterfront in Paducah where it meets the Tennessee.
I had to lay down in a puddle in the Lost River in West Virginia when it was living up to its name in a summer dry spell.
Your favorite river?
The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is my favorite river ever. It’s the only place where the critically endangered littlewing pearly mussel survives and is also home to the endemic Big South Fork crayfish and dozens of other special species. The wildflowers are off the charts and the rock formations are magnificent.
Most endangered river?
The Rockcastle River in Kentucky still supports a pretty good assemblage of endangered mussels, but unmanaged off-road vehicle traffic on Forest Service land is dumping sediment into the river, which jeopardizes the survival of the endangered animals. Wading into the mainstem of the river you sink into goo the silt load is so high. It’s tragic because it doesn’t have to be this way if people would stay on trails and the agency would enforce the boundaries.
Dam-released water can be brutally cold and the Savage River in Maryland is no exception. But the naturally coldest river was the Little Pigeon in the Smokies. People on the trail were in disbelief that I jumped in.
What were the first and last rivers you swam in?
I started the season the week of summer solstice in the Green River in western Kentucky. It’s home to an amazing diversity of freshwater mussels. I had always read that empty mussel shells provide homes for other species, and sure enough I picked up an old shell and there was a tiny crawdad living inside. It feels so deeply good to explore the handful of places where endangered species are surviving and recovering as opposed to the larger landscape where most rivers have just been wrecked.
I ended the season in the Little River in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a clear, stunningly cold beautiful stream.
What species depend on these rivers?
Humans depend on the rivers for drinking water, fishing, and recreation. Driving around swimming in rivers and then getting to come home and shower and drink reliably clean water is an experience of privilege. Some communities have polluted water and can’t just drive away, and the wildlife that depend on the rivers for their very survival can’t just up and move. Coal mining ruined my family’s well water when I was in high school, and we couldn’t use it for drinking or even laundry.
The Southeast is a world hotspot for freshwater biodiversity including fish, salamanders, crayfish, mussels, river snails, turtles, and aquatic insects. Our beautiful rivers and the amazing diversity of wildlife they support should be a source of pride and we should safeguard them.
What was the most dangerous or difficult moment during your river swim challenge?
Knowingly submerging myself in polluted waters aside, I took some chances that weren’t the smartest decisions during the record floods in Tennessee when I should’ve just stayed out of the rushing water. I dedicated each summer weekend to heading out in a different direction from my home near the Cumberland River, and my weekend to drive across Tennessee coincided with the flooding. The rivers were overtopping roads and bridges and I couldn’t see under the water at all and I kept having to turn around and reroute because the roads were flooded. I got the points, but I didn’t get to experience the wildlife at all.
How can we improve health of our rivers?
Everything flows downhill and ends up in a river. Individuals can choose not to use pesticides and can choose healthier versions of personal care and cleaning products. Dietary choices like choosing organic produce and plant-based proteins lessen the pollution burden. Towns can create greener parking lots and streets with vegetated stormwater buffers. Agencies can increase enforcement to keep off-road vehicle traffic on designated trails away from waterways. States can improve water quality standards, protect headwater streams, and limit development approvals that would degrade water quality. We can stop building new dams, remove old dams, and better manage all dams to prevent the spread of invasive species and ensure adequate flows for wildlife.
I was bowled over by how much litter people leave on riverbanks. An old school Give a Hoot Don’t Pollute campaign would be helpful. At the macro level, we need to fight for policies to end human-caused extinction and to protect a livable climate.
What was the most inspiring moment from your summer of swims?
Growing up in southeastern Kentucky, surface coal mining was rampant, and creeks could run orange, blue, black, nothing was surprising. Returning to explore the area this summer after decades away, I was pleasantly surprised by how clear some of the rivers are now. I’m so stoked about the lovely Russell Fork River Blue Water Trail on the Kentucky-Virginia border. I swam at an incredible public access beach in downtown Elkhorn City that rivals any swimming hole anywhere.
Cover Photo: Curry in the Big South Fork, one of the 108 rivers she visited in 2021.
Wherever you look for PFAS, you’ll find them.
“They’re on Mount Everest; they’re in the Mariana Trench; they’re in polar bears; they’re in penguins; and they’re in just about every human population on Earth,” says David Bond, a cultural anthropologist and professor at Bennington College, who’s been investigating the “forever chemicals.”
PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a family of chemicals that includes PFOA and PFOS, are widely used in the manufacture of plastic products like non-stick pans, food packaging and waterproof clothing, and are also a component of firefighting foam.
Their non-sticky, nonreactive properties made them appealing to plastics manufacturers. But they’ve proved a nightmare for environmental health because they don’t break down quickly, if at all. They also travel long distances and bioaccumulate in plants, animals and people. Traces of the chemicals — many known to be harmful — are now found all over the world.
Seven years ago water tests revealed PFAS in Hoosick Falls, New York, just down the road from Bennington College. Bond, along with a small team of other professors at Bennington, began engaging students and community members in an effort to understand the extent of local PFAS contamination — which he later learned even included his own backyard.
They’ve since extended their work to other areas — helping to generate research that’s given communities a weapon to fight back against polluters and push for stronger regulations.
The Revelator spoke with Bond, who also serves as the associate director of the Elizabeth Coleman Center for the Advancement of Public Action, about the dangers of PFAS, why regulators have been slow to act and the power of a real-world education in environmental justice.
You’ve studied the effects of fossil fuels on communities for years. How did you get involved with PFAS?
PFAS came to us. In Hoosick Falls, New York, which is about seven miles from us at Bennington College, a resident discovered high levels of PFOA in drinking water in 2014. The state was unsure of what to do and actually put out a sheet for residents that said that PFOA was detected in the water over the level that the EPA had issued a health concern for, but residents could continue drinking the water and there was nothing to worry about.
So this caused a lot of alarm and residents reached out to me and asked if I would help them understand what was happening. I quickly enlisted a chemistry professor and a geology professor to join me.
We realized that one of the things that we do — teach — could be put in the service of this sort of unfolding toxic event. So we put together a classroom that was free for the community — anybody could come and take that class to learn about the contaminants, the health concerns, and what sort of things were available to help protect themselves.
What was the response from the community? And what did you learn together?
We had about half students and half community members in most of the classes. In 2015 [when we started] it was really just an emerging issue and there wasn’t a lot of reliable information. There were three plastics plants in town that were suspected and found to be the sources of the contamination. The state set up a perimeter around [them] and wasn’t willing to test beyond that perimeter.
But in our class people would say things like, “I live outside town, but every night for a few years, a truck would come up my road with a bunch of barrels and it would come back down the road in the middle of the night with no barrels. I wonder if there’s a dumpsite there.”
And so we would put together a little research question and go up and take some samples from surface water and groundwater where they had identified [potential problems] and see what we found. And a handful of times we came back with really high levels that we then turned over to the state and asked them to expand the perimeter. That perimeter kept expanding.
Eventually what we identified was an area of about 200 square miles that was contaminated with PFOA — way above what you’d expect in that area — that we could trace back to the plastics factories.
It took the state a very long time to start thinking at that scale. But we were able to because we were talking to people, listening to what they said. This is what anthropology is good at — listening to people. And [because we] partnered with a chemist and a geologist, we had all the tools you need to take people seriously and really test what they were telling us.
Former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck and Bennington College faculty members Janet Foley and John Hultgren take PFOA community health questionnaires door-to-door in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. Photo: David Bond, Bennington College
What’s been the impact of this work?
The students have gotten really engaged with this issue. It’s not something that you study in a textbook yet. It’s an unfolding problem and it’s happening next door. We brought our neighbors into our classroom, and we got out and went into our neighbors’ houses and started working together with them. And the students have been really taken with this model of learning.
I’ve also just drawn tremendous inspiration from how the community has insisted on justice for them. I’m not just working with them, I actually live there. PFAS was found in my own garden.
With this class of chemicals there’s no going back to before — the contamination is so extensive. There’s no way to remediate 200 square miles of this contaminant. It means that people are going to be carrying a lifetime of medical worry.
We know that trace exposure to these chemicals on levels of parts per trillion — which is almost impossible to get your head around how small that is — is strongly linked to a number of developmental dysfunctions, immune issues, and a host of cancers. Folks know these chemicals are in our community. We were exposed to them for decades. That means we’re going to have a pattern of health impacts over the long haul. So they’ve been really proactive at insisting that medical monitoring be part of any settlement with the polluters.
That sets up a kind of infrastructure where all the local doctors and nurses are on the lookout for all of the health issues that are known to be associated with exposure to these chemicals. And most of these issues — if they’re caught early — they’re very treatable.
Folks have also insisted on filtration systems for everybody’s water — this stuff is probably going to be in the groundwater for millennia.
After working in Hoosick Falls, you’ve extended your work to other communities. What else have you found?
In the last few years we’ve gotten a number of requests, and each time we try to figure out what we can do to help and how we can put the scientific resources of a college to work helping the public understand the PFAS issue and equip them to be better citizens and pursue environmental justice.
The last one that we got involved in was the incineration of PFAS. As it’s becoming clear that they will likely be designated as a hazardous waste substance, those who are sitting on stockpiles of these chemicals will soon have a huge liability on their hands. So the Department of Defense and the petrochemical industry have all rushed to start trying to incinerate stockpiles of PFAS.
This is worrisome because there’s no evidence that incineration destroys these chemicals. They’re fireproof toxins and are used in firefighting foam extensively. It’s a bit of a harebrained notion that you can burn them to destroy them.
A public housing complex in Cohoes, New York got ahold of us two years ago. It’s next to an incinerator. They had gotten word that it was suspected to be incinerating a tremendous amount of what’s called AFFF [Aqueous Film Forming Foam], which is a firefighting foam that’s made mostly of PFAS chemicals.
We took some samples of soil and water around that incinerator and analyzed them. We found a fairly distinctive fingerprint that matched AFFF. And again, in the shadow of the incinerator stands the public housing complex that’s by and large poor people of color. And this incinerator was just torching away as much PFAS as they could get. There’s no evidence that incineration was breaking those toxins down and good reason to think it was just spreading them into the community.
Norlite hazardous waste incinerator sits less than 400 feet from Saratoga Sites public housing in Cohoes, N.Y. Photo: David Bond, Bennington College
We were able to document that and push that out and the town passed a moratorium on burning PFAS waste at that incinerator. And then the state passed a bill that banned this incineration in [parts of] New York. We suspect that hasn’t slowed down the burning of these chemicals nationwide, so I’ve been in conversation with a few folks trying to figure out how we can push a national ban.
There has been recent news that the EPA is finally moving to act on regulating some PFAS. Do you think the actions will go far enough?
I appreciate that the EPA is taking a step toward this crisis by announcing that they are going to begin to try to regulate PFOA and PFOS — two of the most prominent chemicals in the PFAS family. However, the step they’ve chosen to take is far too little and far too late. The EPA was made aware of the toxicity of PFOA and PFOS nearly 20 years ago.
If you follow that timeline out, it’s going to take about a century to go through all of the PFAS chemicals that are now in circulation, build up a data set on them, and begin to issue regulations for them.
And now that we’re discovering these chemicals in our drinking water, our farms and our bodies, [regulators are] almost throwing their hands up at the sheer ubiquity of the problem and saying, “What can we possibly do at this point, they’re everywhere”? It’s almost as if PFAS are becoming too toxic to fail.
The petrochemical manufacturers knew the risks of these chemicals almost from the moment they started manufacturing them in the 1960s. Again and again, they buried that evidence. The ways that PFAS has made a mockery of our environmental regulations can’t be the end of our ability to prosecute these injustices. This needs to be the starting point of fixing everything that went wrong, not a point of resignation.
Are Forever Chemicals Harming Ocean Life?
As Dr. Jodi Sherman thought about her residency at Stanford University, she couldn’t help but notice how many medical supplies, plastic, resources — stuff — she was throwing away every day.
“It just felt wrong,” she said. Sherman couldn’t put out of her mind that she was feeding into pollution and dirty air that would, at some point, send more people to hospitals.
“It was clear that we were using so much stuff, it was going somewhere and it was coming from somewhere, and we must be causing so much harm to the environment,” she said. “At the time, there was no resources to understand the magnitude of the problem and be able to guide better practice.”
She made a pact to herself that she wouldn’t practice medicine unless she got involved in greening medical systems.
Ten years later, as an anesthesiologist at Yale University and director of the school’s Program on Healthcare Environmental Sustainability, Sherman is one of many doctors still prodding U.S. hospitals and health systems to take action on sustainability. But without a standard framework, U.S. hospitals are slow to green.
Across the globe, health care is responsible for nearly 5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and the United States is among the world’s highest emitters along with China. According to Sherman’s estimate, 8.5 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from the health care industry in 2018.
Emissions from running the hospital and its vehicles accounted for 17 percent of the sector’s worldwide footprint, and indirect emissions from steam, electricity, cooling and heating made up another 12 percent. The bulk of health care emissions — about 70 percent — stemmed from the supply chain of goods and services, notably pharmaceuticals, medical devices and food.
A 2018 study found that pollution from health care results in a loss annually of up to 614,000 disability-adjusted life years — a figure that combines years of life lost due to both premature mortality and time lived in states of less than full health.
And the problem goes beyond emissions; the sector also has a huge waste — especially plastic — problem. The health care industry produces around 5.9 million metric tons of medical waste per year in the United States, and of that amount, 1.7 million metric tons is plastic.
“The latest framework is this idea that we have to go zero carbon because we are dramatically approaching climate tipping points,” Sherman said. But in addition to that, “we need to understand more about other dimensions of the issue and how to quantify them — greenhouse gases aren’t the only emissions of concern.”
Where are the numbers?
A hospital is a resource-eating beast — it has to be always alive, prepared and moving. The building and its lights, heat and electricity run 24/7. Trucks move in and out, feeding it medical and food supplies. Waste from single-use devices, gowns, masks and more piles up in the dumpster, waiting to see a landfill. And hundreds of miles away, plastics are molded into gloves, tubes and needles to be used once and thrown out.
Few medical centers in the U.S. are measuring and reporting their emissions, but Harvard Medical School and the Cleveland Clinic are among the exceptions. Harvard is aiming to be fossil-fuel neutral by 2026, and the Cleveland Clinic has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2027.
Other hospitals, like Boston Medical Center, have carbon-neutral goals but don’t publicly track their progress. The Boston facility has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030 and has won awards for its green initiatives, but it doesn’t publicly report environmental impact or emissions data. As hospitals declare sustainability and net-zero goals, green advocates wonder whether there can be accountability without data.
The Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit medical center, has been pursuing green initiatives since 2007 — strides ahead of other U.S. hospitals.
Not only does the clinic’s Office for a Healthy Environment track and report its emissions across the spectrum, but it’s also one of the first medical facilities to adopt a clinical plastic recycling program, use alternative fuel vehicles including patient transportation vans and buses, and repurpose unused medical tools. It installed the campus’s first solar array over a decade ago.
As a result, the clinic has reduced its carbon intensity by 28 percent since 2007. And its public data report proves it.
“Doctors and nurses see [the sustainability] issue and want to get involved,” said Jon Utech, senior director of the clinic’s Office for a Healthy Environment. “We actually have a custom recycling program that happened because of engaged physicians and nurses — it troubled them to see all these materials being thrown away.”
For example, Utech said the clinic has a program to repurpose medical supplies that were set out but not used during procedures, including catheters, blood pressure cuffs and laparoscopic devices.
But convincing hospital leadership to adopt green goals can be tricky, especially as mergers happen and operations get larger. Existing sustainability and reporting goals can get lost in the shuffle as health companies buy up smaller ones, and it can be hard for physicians and nurses to advocate for green goals as management shifts.
Health Care Without Harm, a global nonprofit organization, is one of the largest operations dedicated to helping hospitals reduce their environmental footprint. For a fee, hospitals and medical systems can become a partner and access materials and advisers through Practice Greenhealth to improve their sustainability.
Although its goal is to set hospitals on a path to net neutrality and public emissions tracking, Sustainability Solutions Director Janet Howard said the organization sometimes has to start small with sustainability goals. Some facilities don’t have the workforce to set up infrastructure needed for robust programs. Others come to Practice Greenhealth with hopes to improve on one issue — like waste reduction — and don’t have the capacity to take on other sustainability problems.
“We do the fundamentals, helping them put the roots down,” Howard said.
But out of Practice Greenhealth’s about 1,400 partners, only 350 shared any sort of environmental data last year. The company also does not require hospitals to make data public.
Howard said that’s because medical facilities that join as partners have environmental programs at different maturity levels — some programs are so new that pushing for tracking and reporting could overwhelm the facilities and deter them from going green. Practice Greenhealth also gives out yearly environmental awards that do require data sharing. But that data is not made public.
“We advocate for [data reporting], but it takes time,” she said. “It can be a heavy lift for some of these hospitals to get their arms around.”
‘Yes, I’m optimistic’
By nature, hospitals’ missions and business models complicate sustainability efforts.
For one, medical systems sometimes struggle already to fulfill their primary calling to care for patients; especially in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic that has taken a huge toll on health care workers and resources, recycling and renewable energy come second to saving lives.
And the market competition that has been driving Wall Street to adopt sustainability measures doesn’t exist for hospitals — when in need, patients typically go to the nearest hospital or the one that best suits their medical needs, regardless of the facility’s green goals.
Although a handful of hospitals have voluntarily adopted emissions tracking, there’s still a push from green-minded doctors across the U.S. for mandatory reporting.
Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine said last month that the federal agency is working with health systems to find ways to lower emissions voluntarily. That gives Sherman hope for greener hospitals.
“Yes, I’m optimistic,” she said. “If I weren’t hopeful, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.”
European regulators on Thursday took sharp aim at the common plastic additive BPA, slashing the recommended daily dose by 100,000 and all but ensuring the chemical cannot be used in any product coming into contact with food.The decision, if it stands, promises to revolutionize the food contact materials industry—particularly food packaging and processing equipment—and bring BPA regulations in line with health research that scientists have been warning about for decades.BPA is a key ingredient in polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins—added to everything from Tupperware to food can liners. Scientists have long known the BPA leaches out of plastic and into food; virtually every human tested on the planet has some BPA in their blood.
BPA: No safe dose
Until Thursday, regulators have long held that some amount of BPA in our food and bodies is acceptable, with the US safety level about 12 times higher than European standards. But scientists have known since the 1990s that BPA has potentially harmful effects on reproduction, brain development, mammary gland health, and metabolism, among others.The new proposed rule, from the European Food Safety Authority—Europe’s equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—makes the regulations congruent with that science.A dose of BPA from a glass bottle with a BPA-laced sealant in the cap would likely be too high under Europe’s proposed rule, experts told EHN.”They are acknowledging what many of us have known for many years: Even at very low doses, BPA causes harm,” said Laura Vandenberg, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health & Health Sciences.”Unfortunately that’s a decision that’s two decades too late. A whole generation of children have been allowed to be exposed to levels potentially causing harm.”
BPA rule ‘decades late’
In 2015, the EFSA set a temporary safety level of 4 micrograms per kilogram of body weight for daily BPA exposure, what regulators call a “tolerable daily intake.” For comparison, that’s roughly the amount of folic acid doctors recommend pregnant women take daily to ensure the health of their child.In its draft re-evaluation of BPA, published today, EFSA’s expert Panel on Food Contact Materials, Enzymes and Processing Aids recommended setting the tolerable daily intake at 0.04 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day – a 100,000-fold drop.That’s the equivalent to taking the healthy serving size for cake from one slice to one-thousandths of a grain of flour.The U.S., meanwhile, set the equivalent daily exposure level for BPA in 1988 at 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day. It remains unchanged today.”Thank goodness for the EFSA advisors, because this is decades late in coming,” said Terry Collins, a green chemist at Carnegie Mellon University. “The challenge such lowering will produce for the chemical enterprise is massive, but for the sake of Europe’s fertility and its general health, regulators cannot back off this essential step.” “All of Europe—every pocket of the ecosphere—is contaminated with BPA,” Collins added. “You can find it in translucent shrimp at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. It’s everywhere.”
The European recommendation comes as regulators assess new scientific evidence on BPA and its impact to hormone, brain and body development, especially to the immune system, the EFSA said.“This updated draft is the result of a thorough assessment over several years,” said Dr. Claude Lambré, chair of the CEP Food Contact Panel, in a statement. “The new scientific studies that have emerged in literature have helped us address important uncertainties about BPA’s toxicity.”In the US, federal regulators have examined but discounted the same evidence via a process that an EHN.org investigation found to be highly problematic and “willfully blind.”That study, dubbed CLARITY-BPA, found that even the lowest dose administered had bad effects, prompting scientists involved in the study to conclude that the safe dose of BPA would need to be at least 20,000 times lower than current federal standards. European regulators are pushing for an even lower safe dose.“This divide between how European regulators regard BPA toxicity and the U.S. approach is going to provoke major challenges in trade and commerce —and fundamental questions about what US regulators are doing,” said Pete Myers, chief scientist for Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of EHN.org. “What do European regulators know that the US FDA is ignoring? They can’t both be right.”The American Chemistry Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.BPA is an endocrine disruptor, hijacking the body’s hormone functions at extraordinarily tiny concentrations. “What we’ve learned from literally tens of thousands of papers, is that endocrine activity is stimulated by very tiny quantities of endocrine hormones,” Collins told EHN.org for its investigation, “Exposed: How willful blindness keeps BPA on shelves and contaminating our bodies.””Really, if you look at the data, we shouldn’t be making these compounds, period.”
BPA in food, receipts
The proposed EFSA rules do have their limits.They apply only to food-contact materials. BPA is also used in non-food applications, chiefly in paper used for cash register receipts and paper airline boarding passes and baggage tickets—though food is thought to be the major exposure route for BPA.And the ruling only applies to BPA, not to the host of chemical cousins like BPS and BPF that have proliferated in recent years as a replacement for BPA. While consumers and regulators have focused on banning BPA, most of the chemical replacements have the same harmful health effects.But the new limits are a start of a revolutionary new approach to assessing potential threats posed by chemicals used in everyday products, chemists said—one that should ripple across the Atlantic to the United States and throughout the chemical industry.”There are consequences for industry, but there are also consequences for human health,” said Thomas Zoeller, Emeritus Professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “This is just a sledge hammer that is telling us that our risk assessment strategies are simply not working.”The EFSA draft rules are open for public comment until Feb. 8, 2022. You can comment on the BPA health standards here on the EFSA’s “public consultations” page.
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Cookware, water bottles, and hundreds of other items made from recycled plastic worldwide may contain toxic chemicals harmful to human health, a new study has found. The findings come as countries — including Canada — and companies aim to boost recycling rates in an effort to reduce plastic pollution. But now researchers with the International Pollutant Elimination Network (IPEN) warn those measures could inadvertently expose people to toxins. The problem is most plastic items contain a suite of toxic chemical additives like bisphenol-A (BPA) or brominated flame retardants, which can cause endocrine issues and other health problems. While exposure to these chemicals may initially have been relatively low because of how the plastic was first used, once recycled into a new product, it could be subject to far more human contact. Get top stories in your inbox.Our award-winning journalists bring you the news that impacts you, Canada, and the world. Don’t miss out.For instance, the plastics used inside electronics often contain harmful flame retardants, but they pose a low risk to humans because we interact with them relatively rarely. Yet once that plastic is melted down into pellets, it could feasibly end up in a recycled water bottle or in cookware where the risk of exposure is higher. “It is worrisome that we find so many different chemicals in these pellets,” said Sara Brosché, an environmental chemist and IPEN science adviser. “And we don’t really have any control over what they are used for.” The IPEN-commissioned study, which was not peer-reviewed, examined pellets collected in 24 different places worldwide made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a common plastic used in everything from toys to milk jugs. Pellets are small plastic beads that manufacturers melt down and use to make new plastic items. Researchers then tested the samples for 18 chemical additives, at least a dozen of which have confirmed health impacts, including BPA and brominated flame retardants. All the samples contained at least one chemical additive, and the vast majority had more than three. What people are reading The findings should be cause for concern, explained IPEN technical adviser Vito Buensante. Only about 10 per cent of the world’s plastic waste is currently recycled, but companies and several countries — including Canada — are developing policies to quickly make it more widespread. Key to these efforts is companies’ ability to source recycled plastic for cheap. Right now, that’s a nearly impossible task because new plastic is far cheaper than recycled. As a result, most plastic waste is landfilled, incinerated, or ends up in the environment. Plastics that do get recycled are rarely tracked from origin to final product because of the cost. While IPEN and other environmental groups and scholars argue efforts to reduce plastic pollution must start by reducing the production of new materials, Buensante noted that ensuring recycling laws created to manage the remaining plastic protect people from harmful chemicals is vital. Cookware, water bottles, and hundreds of other items made from recycled plastic worldwide may contain toxic chemicals harmful to human health, a new study has found. #Plastics #RecycledPlastic “When people say we need more recycling … this is not the recycling we’re looking for,” he said. So far, there have been relatively few efforts to deal with the problem, including in Canada. Two international treaties — the Basel Convention and the Stockholm Convention — tackle the international plastic waste trade and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), like some flame retardants. Most POPs are banned in Canada, including in items made from recycled plastics that contain the chemicals, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) said in a statement. The country’s international commitments also require it to ensure that when POPs become waste they aren’t “recovered, recycled, reclaimed, or reused.” Earlier this year, Canada officially listed plastic as toxic under its environmental laws, a move expected to make the future regulation of plastics easier. ECCC’s efforts have primarily focused on eliminating some single-use plastics — a 2019 election promise from the Liberals — but also include proposals to boost recycling capacity, the ministry wrote.Still, Canada and other countries need to take more extensive measures, like creating a system to track plastics from the moment they are created until they are broken down. Automakers have already created this type of system, Buensante said. Now it must become more widespread. Both researchers also want countries to ban toxic additives in all plastics, reducing the risk of cross-contamination and harm to the environment and human health. IPEN is advocating for countries to include negotiations on banning harmful additives in a possible future international plastics treaty that will likely be proposed at the UN Environment Assembly meeting in February 2022. If implemented, those rules would likely force us to change how plastic is used. Additives serve specific purposes — increasing flexibility or reducing flammability, for example — so a ban would force manufacturers and designers to develop alternate solutions. But the researchers noted it is a small price to pay when it comes to protecting people and the environment. “No toxic chemicals should be added to plastics,” Brosché said.