Corpus Christi sold its water to Exxon, gambling on desalination. So far, it's a losing bet

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas—Five years ago, when ExxonMobil came calling, city officials eagerly signed over a large portion of their water supply so the oil giant could build a $10 billion plant to make plastics out of methane gas. 

A year later, they did the same for Steel Dynamics to build a rolled-steel factory. 

Never mind that Corpus Christi, a mid-sized city on the semi-arid South Texas coast, had just raced through its 50-year water plan 13 years ahead of schedule. Planners believed they had a solution: large-scale seawater desalination.

According to the plan in 2019, the state’s first plant needed to be running by early 2023 to safely meet industrial water demands that were scheduled to come online. But Corpus Christi never got it done.

That hasn’t stopped the city and its port authority from pursuing broader plans to build out a next-generation industrial sector around Corpus Christi Bay and make this region a rival to Houston, home to the nation’s largest petrochemical complex, 200 miles up the Gulf Coast.  

As efforts to cut carbon emissions fall desperately behind the timetables established in decades’ of global climate accords, Corpus Christi is planning a massive expansion of its hydrocarbon sector, aimed at delivering oil and gas from Texas’ shale fields to global markets for decades to come. 

All that’s missing is the freshwater. Now the commitments city officials made over the past five years are coming due. Exxon’s plastic plant started operations this year and will eventually consume 25 million gallons of water per day, even as the region’s water plan foresees demand exceeding supplies in this decade. 

A mural depicts sea life on a chemical tank at a Citgo refinery. Credit: Dylan Baddour

This summer, severe drought and heat pushed Corpus Christi into water use restrictions. Yet the desalination plans remained years away from completion, hung up on questions from state and federal environmental regulators—the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—over the ecological consequences of dumping hundreds of millions of gallons of salty brine per day into Corpus Christi Bay. 

“I would love nothing more than to get right in front of their faces—the state, TCEQ, EPA, all of those agencies—and say, ‘Hey people! Do you realize that we need this permit now? We provide water for 500,000 people,” Corpus Christi mayor Paulette Guajardo told the city council in July, answering complaints over years of delays. “This is of urgency. We have to have this permit.”

Today the pursuit of desalination has become an increasingly desperate race to meet incoming demands. The number of plants proposed for Corpus Christi Bay has grown to five—two for the City of Corpus Christi, two for the Port of Corpus Christi and one for a private polymer manufacturer. 

Last month, the TCEQ issued its first wastewater discharge permit to a plant proposed by the port, despite a challenge from the EPA signaling what could be a long legal fight ahead.

Regulators and scientists worry that each plant’s discharge of tens of millions of gallons of hyper-salty wastewater per day could disrupt major reproductive cycles for a host of aquatic species, which rely on the half-salty waters of the coastal bays for larvae to mature. 

All together, environmentalists say, the five plants’ discharge, coupled with the water pollution and ocean freighter traffic from the industrial boom they would unleash, may constitute a near-fatal blow for life in the bay, whose once-teeming ecosystems have nursed communities on its banks since long before Corpus Christi.

While plant developers have put forth analyses showing their discharge won’t affect ambient salinity or wildlife, Paul Montagna, a department chair at the Harte Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, doesn’t buy it.

“I don’t see how you can add brine to a salty system and not increase the salinity, I just don’t understand how that could happen,” he said from his corner office at the university, with two-story windows looking out to the bay. “I’ve read the engineering studies and I just don’t get it.”

Montagna agrees that Corpus Christi needs desalination, he just wants the brine piped a dozen miles offshore and released into the open Gulf instead of the shallow, almost stagnant bay. The idea is supported by scientists but dismissed by developers as too expensive. 

Other activists hope to block desalination altogether with an aim to hold up the buildout that has unfolded here in recent years, fueled by a spate of new pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Permian Basin and the Eagleford Shale since 2010, and by Congress’ lifting of the oil export ban in 2015, which have made Corpus Christi the nation’s top port for crude exports. One piece remains for the growth to continue. 

“That’s the chokehold,” said Isabel Araiza, a professor of social work at Del Mar College and founder of a group called For the Greater Good. “In order to bring heavy industry in they’re going to need water.”

Speaking Out Against Desalination 

Six days after Exxon accepted Corpus Christi’s offer of water in 2017, the city authorized an application for state funding to develop preliminary plans for a seawater desalination plant. 

When Steel Dynamics came seeking water in 2018, Corpus Christi offered another 6 million gallons a day, citing “plans for additional water sources in the planning and implementation phase.”

But that wasn’t exactly true. The preliminary plans had yet to be shared with city council and implementation remained years away at best. 

A great blue heron flies past the Corpus Christi skyline. Credit: Dylan Baddour

When the plans were presented in 2019, they noted Exxon’s demand scheduled for 2022 and Steel Dynamics’ after that. 

“Large increases in water demand are projected to occur in 2022,” the city’s presentation said. “Based on supply and demand projections, the first desalination plant needs to be operational (supplying water) in early 2023.”

The council voted unanimously to adopt the plan. Activists quickly pushed back. Araiza, the leader of For the Greater Good, stood outside Fry’s Electronics on Black Friday speaking out against desalination. 

“It’s for industry, not for us. And we pay for it,” she remembers telling shoppers. 

Araiza, whose family has been in Corpus Christi for a century, hoped to engage the public in such big decisions about the city’s future, which she said were too often made by small cliques of business elites for their own benefit. Her family had been in the area for a century. On her dad’s side she was the first generation in memory not to pick crops.

Growing up in the 1970s she rode buses across Corpus Christi as part of belated integration of white and Hispanic schools. She earned a Ph.D. from Boston College, then returned home to organize and teach. 

“What’s happening with industry and water is symptomatic of a bigger problem,” she said. “Our way of life is problematic: consumerism, disposable products, single use plastics.”

Araiza joined a budding activist movement that was heaping challenges on the desalination plans, forcing a slate of environmental permit applications through tedious administrative reviews. 

Council member Mike Pusley, a retired petroleum geologist and former Exxon employee, was not impressed with the city’s progress. At a meeting in April 2021, he told the Corpus Christi water department its original plans, long delayed, were no longer sufficient.

“I can assure you that within the next five years, you’re going to have several Exxons here, and you’re not going to be ready with a plan. We’re not going to be ready. We’re not going to be ready at all with the water,” he said. 

‘How Did They Get Ahead of Us?‘

While desalination plans fell further behind, the water supply was shrinking. The city’s reservoirs dipped to 40 percent of capacity as drought and heatwave grew acute this summer, prompting new restrictions and $500 fines for anyone caught running a sprinkler more than once per week. 

Meanwhile, the Port of Corpus Christi Authority had jumped into the race and claimed a clear lead, threatening the city’s historic monopoly on the regional water supply. 

Fisherman at a jetty in the Gulf of Mexico at North Padre Island, across the bay from Corpus Christi, on a Wednesday afternoon in October. Credit: Dylan Baddour

“It’s taking way too long for this to happen. The port has out-warriored us, they’ve out-lobbied us, they’ve out-engineered us,” Pusley said. “How did they get ahead of us? We’re the regional water supplier.”

“They spent more money on lawyers and lobbyists,” responded Mike Murphy, chief operating officer  for the Corpus Christi water department, who moved to the city in 2021.

(The port’s lobbyists and lawyers wouldn’t secure their first controversial permit, issued by the Industry-friendly TCEQ over the EPA’s objections, until September.)   

“This drought we’re in right now, there’s no solution for it but conservation,” said Corpus Christi manager Peter Zanoni, who moved to the city in 2019, to the council. 

Conservation, however, only applies to residents in Corpus Christi. According to a 2018 city ordinance, high-volume industrial users can pay $0.25 per thousand gallons consumed for exemption from restrictions during drought. Most pay it. While citizens face fines for sprinkler use, large facilities continue consuming millions of gallons per day.

A Proliferation of Energy and Industrial Projects

The fight for water comes at a time of rapid industrial growth around Corpus Christi. 

In the last five years, Valero and FlintHills expanded their refineries. Cheniere Energy built the region’s first export terminal for liquified natural gas and plans to double its output. Vostalpine built a plant that makes iron briquettes. Three huge, adjacent crude export terminals have cropped up on the bay, operated by Enbridge Inc., FlintHills and Buckeye Global Marine Terminals. Elon Musk wants to build a lithium refinery. 

Dolphins surface while a crude tanker docks at an Enbridge export terminal on Corpus Christi Bay. Credit: Dylan Baddour

“When we started being able to sell oil [abroad], the amount of new industry that moved to this area was phenomenal,” said Montagna. “I think there has been more change in this region in the last four years than there had been in the last 20.”

This year, Exxon opened its plastics plant, turning ethane, a form of natural gas, into ethylene and polyethylene, building blocks for plastics, on 1,300 acres across the bay from Corpus, in San Patricio County.

When the plant uses its ground flare—sportsfield sized units for burning off chemicals—Elida Castillo can see the sky glow orange from her house in the small town of Taft, about eight miles away, near a cemetery where her great, great grandparents are buried. Sometimes, she said, the sheriff posts on Facebook saying not to be alarmed. No one ever tells the community what chemicals are being burned. 

“Our aim is to block the infrastructure that industry needs to cut our roots and establish its own roots here,” said Castillo, who this year launched a Texas branch of Chispa, a national Latino organizing project. 

Elida Castillo on a city street near her home in Taft. Credit: Dylan Baddour

The port is pursuing its own $650 million expansion plan, including an 75-foot-deep channel running 11 miles into the Gulf to enable the world’s largest oil tankers to cross Corpus Christi Bay. A colossal, new billion-dollar bridge (by the same builders of a bridge that collapsed in Florida in 2018) will allow them into Corpus Christi Harbor and its port. 

The two desalination plants proposed by the port would produce up to 80 million gallons a day.   

The port declined to answer questions about projects in the pipeline, industrial water demand projections or plans for desalination. 

Port CEO Sean Strawbridge, who came to Corpus Christi seven years ago and made $650,000 in 2021, told a meeting of the Ingleside City Council in August last year that the port began pursuing desalination plans after he “got a call” from someone who “decided to invest here and they’ve got a large project going on. Basically said, ‘What the heck is going on with your water situation down there?’ And the port commission decided to take a leadership role.”

A Century of Rising Salinity 

Whether the port and the city ultimately get the permits they need for their desalination plants will depend upon forthcoming environmental assessments of Corpus Christi Bay, where the deadly effects of rising salinity are not theoretical—they are the lived experience.

These placid, shallow waters, sheltered from the Gulf by more than 200 miles of barrier island, once teemed with shrimp and oysters that had nourished bayside communities for thousands of years. Today dolphins still splash and great herons still stalk the wetlands, but the bounty of shellfish is gone.

In Nueces Bay, an inland appendage of Corpus Christi Bay, oysters died off in the late 1930s. Two dams on the Nueces River, and two railroads across its delta, were reducing freshwater flows. 

Mullet swim in the shallow water of Corpus Christi Bay near Ingleside. Credit: Dylan Baddour

A great egret hunts while crude oil tanks at a trio of new export terminals stand on the far shore of Corpus Christi Bay. Credit: Dylan Baddour

“Oysters did not come back,” said a 2011 report from the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M. “Because the salinities were too high.” 

Fifty years later, the shrimp were vanishing too. Two much larger dams stopped any freshwater at all from reaching the bays, turning Nueces from vibrant river delta to a shallow, stagnant mudflat where evaporation leaves extra-salty water and few living things.

“It was saltier than seawater,” said Montagna. “It became evident that the bay wasn’t producing shrimp or oysters anymore.”

The bays, formed by rivers that flowed to the ocean until the 21st Century, distinguish Texas’ coast from the successful examples of seawater desalination in California, where plants release brine into the deep, open Pacific. In Corpus Christi, developers want to discharge into a shallow, almost stagnant body. It takes one year for the contents of Corpus Christi Bay to be replaced by new water, Montagna said. The brine is going to accumulate, he said.

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How voter suppression and gerrymandering by the Texas GOP derails environmental justice

They say everything is bigger in Texas — and that includes the scale and brazenness of voter suppression efforts. The 2020 election saw record turnout in the Lone Star State, an 8% increase from 2016 overall and a 9% increase among nonwhite Texans. In a healthy democracy, such a substantial jump in voter participation — especially in a state plagued by notoriously low turnout — would have been cause for celebration.
But Texas Republicans only saw peril. Echoing former President Donald Trump and the national hysteria over election fraud — the same Big Lie that led to the failed Jan. 6 coup attempt — Gov. Greg Abbott called a special session of the state Legislature in the summer of 2021 to rush a slate of new voting restrictions into law. The fact that a multimillion dollar audit of the 2020 election by the Texas secretary of state found no evidence of widespread voter fraud did not deter the passage of SB1, with the Orwellian title of the Election Integrity Protection Act. “Senate Bill 1 ensures trust and confidence in our elections system,” Abbott said at the signing ceremony on Sept. 7, 2021, “and most importantly, it makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
For Black and Latino Texans, who have fought against disenfranchisement for generations — and who have paid an especially high price for the environmental and public health damage wrought by the unregulated oil, gas and chemical industries that are among the perennial top donors to Republican campaign coffers — the timing and intention of SB1 could not have been more clear: It had nothing to do with “election integrity” and everything to do with limiting the influence of likely Democrat voters, especially Texans of color.
“It didn’t make any sense,” said Bridgette Murray, a registered nurse, environmental activist and community organizer from Pleasantville, on Houston’s east side. “We were in the middle of a pandemic, and you’re saying people can’t use a drop box?” 

“They make people believe their vote doesn’t mean anything. Nothing ever changes, so why bother?”
~ Elida Castillo, CHISPA Texas

 Houston is in Harris County, where election officials expanded access to the polls in 2020 with measures like extended early voting, curbside and drive-through voting, 24-hour voting and broader availability of mail-in ballots, all of which made voting easier for working-class people and people who were concerned about exposure to COVID-19. Harris County’s voting access efforts were successful: Turnout jumped about 25% from 2016, equivalent to more than 300,000 additional voters casting ballots. But activists like Murray have good reason to worry that turnout won’t be so high in 2022: SB1 restricts or bans most of the measures used in Harris County to expand access to the polls. In Murray’s opinion, SB1 is just “another tool in their toolbox” to keep Texans of color from the polls — and she has witnessed the effects firsthand.
Now 69 years old, Murray, who is Black, has watched for decades as her neighborhood, Pleasantville — once a bustling community of Black laborers, professionals and small business owners — has been walled in by highways, railyards, truckyards, chemical storage facilities and other industrial businesses. In 2012, Murray founded a nonprofit called Achieving Community Tasks Successfully (ACTS) to organize Pleasantville residents to work for better air quality, reduced exposure to toxins from industrial facilities and improvements to flood mitigation, but she says she remembers a time when her neighbors could work with their elected officials to get results.
“It wasn’t unusual for there to be over 90% voter turnout back in the day, and it was basically the power of the vote that helped get a lot of the infrastructure improvements that we needed in our community,” said Murray, who cast her first vote in 1971 at age 18. “Our community leaders were able to get the funding to close open ditches, to make use of green spaces. There were a lot of infrastructure improvements at that time.”
But over the course of her life, Murray has witnessed her community’s voice in regional and state politics diminished to a whisper due to voter suppression and gerrymandering. “Voter suppression means that communities that need those dollars for infrastructure improvements can’t get them,” she said.
*   *   *
The history of voter suppression in Texas is as old as the state, and for more than a century, it was Democrats — anti-Reconstructionists and Jim Crow segregationists among them — who used tactics such as poll taxes, white primaries and terrorism to keep Black and Latino Texans from exercising the most fundamental right of citizens in a democracy. But the tables have turned. Now, it’s Republicans who are driving voter suppression, and the momentum of their anti-democratic efforts is accelerating.
“The Republican Party doesn’t want Black people to vote if they are going to vote 9-to-1 for Democrats,” Texas Tea Party activist Ken Emanuelson told the crowd at a Dallas County GOP event in early June 2013. Later that same month, with its 5-4 Shelby v. Holder decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act meant to protect racial minorities from discriminatory voting laws. Locked and loaded in anticipation of the ruling, Texas enacted the nation’s harshest voter identification law the very next day.
Shelby v. Holder also emboldened proponents of aggressive partisan gerrymandering after the 2020 census, who used a tactic known as “cracking and packing,” which splits up voting blocs and then crowds them into a few districts. In Texas, this process was seen as a way to undercut the growing voting power of nonwhite Texans. “They make people believe their vote doesn’t mean anything,” said Elida Castillo, who was born and raised in Taft, Texas, across the bay from Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast. “Nothing ever changes, so why bother?”
The notoriously conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals tends to intervene to keep restrictive voting laws on the books and has only become more aggressive with the addition of six Trump appointees. (Only four of the 5th Circuit’s 16 judges were appointed by Democrats; a Joe Biden nominee is awaiting confirmation for the vacant 17th seat.) Numerous lawsuits challenging Texas voter suppression laws on the grounds that they violate nonwhite citizens’ constitutional rights under the 13th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act have been successful in the Western District of Texas, but time and again, the 5th Circuit has stepped in to block the lower court’s decisions. 

Texas has added about 4 million new residents since 2010, and 95% of the newcomers are nonwhite.

 As a result, prospects have dimmed for the kinds of substantial gains in the Texas Legislature that could move the needle on environmental policy — from climate change mitigation and resilience to green energy transition to environmental justice. “Gerrymandering has impacted us greatly,” said Castillo, who lives in San Patricio County, which used to be part of Senate District 21 — stretching north from the Rio Grande Valley with zig-zag boundaries clear up to far South Austin — but which is now in Senate District 20 as a result of 2021 redistricting. “You don’t always have an open polling location in your community, especially in more rural areas,” Castillo said. “They have varied hours and they’re usually not convenient for the greater population who actually work, so they’re totally inaccessible and inconvenient.”
Because of the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, it was the first time since 1965 that new district maps were drawn and implemented in Texas without preclearance from the federal government. An analysis by the Texas Tribune found that the new maps protect Republican incumbents, dilute the power of nonwhite voters and increase the number of districts where Trump would have won in 2020.
Castillo works as a pro-democracy and environmental activist for CHISPA Texas, a project of the League of Conservation Voters. Like Bridgette Murray in Houston, she has seen her hometown and its surrounding areas overrun by industrial facilities — in her case, a massive plastics plant owned jointly by ExxonMobil and a Saudi partner, and a Chiniere Energy gas liquefaction plant, to name just two.
Castillo said industrial growth in San Patricio County, where she lives, has exploded as a result of the lifting of the oil export ban in 2015; four years of regulatory free-for-all under the Trump administration; and, most recently, with the surge in global demand for liquid natural gas caused by the war in Ukraine. In her work with CHISPA, Castillo helps Corpus Christi-area residents understand the environmental and public health issues that affect them as a consequence of industrial activity, and she helps them make their voices heard in public comment sessions about matters like air quality and water usage permitting.
“I want politicians who aren’t going to constantly sweeten the pot by giving these industries so much money and pushing back when they come with greenwashing pipe dreams,” Castillo said, referring to proposals from major energy companies for carbon capture and sequestration facilities in San Patricio County. “They’re being proposed by the same industries that are causing these problems. It’s like a robber saying, ‘I know I broke into your house, but hire me to fix it.’”
*   *   *
As Texas becomes younger, less white and less rural, Republicans have reason to worry that organizing efforts by Castillo, Murray and others like them will weaken their stranglehold on state politics. The state has added about 4 million new residents since 2010, and 95% of the newcomers are nonwhite. About 85% of the growth has occurred in the cities and suburbs of just four metropolitan areas — Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin — all of which chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020.
Harris County, where Murray lives, is the third-most diverse county in Texas and one of the fastest growing. In 2018, Harris County voters elected Colombia-born Democrat Lina Hidalgo to the position of Harris County judge. She has used her power of the purse to increase funding for the county’s Fire Marshal’s Office (to bolster its hazmat team) and its Pollution Control agency. Under Hidalgo, both agencies have stepped up enforcement against industrial polluters. Hidalgo has also teamed up with Houston-born County Attorney Christian Menefee, who was elected in 2020, to seek damages from major polluters in court.
It’s not hard to understand why the powerful Texas Republican politicians — who take in millions in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry — would view outspoken reformers like Hidalgo and Menefee with alarm. Abbott alone took in more than $12 million from the industry in the lead-up to the 2022 Republican primaries. In the same period, industry donors gave more than $800,000 to Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, the senior member of the agency responsible for regulating oil and gas companies.
The more voters in places like Harris County get to the polls, the more likely it is that Democrats who share Hidalgo and Menefee’s commitment to holding the oil and gas industry accountable and taking strong action to mitigate the risks associated with climate change will win a statewide election. That day seems to be getting closer with every election cycle. In 2018, Harris County voters helped make Beto O’Rourke’s bid for Ted Cruz’s U.S. Senate seat the most competitive performance by a Democrat in a statewide race since 1994.
O’Rourke, who is currently running an underdog campaign against Greg Abbott in the 2022 gubernatorial race, has pledged to fasttrack the state’s transition to green energy and prioritize climate change resilience. He’s trailing by a wide margin, but a Democrat running in one of the less publicized statewide races — the race for land commissioner — may have a shot at victory. 

Harris County voters helped make Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 U.S. Senate bid the most competitive performance by a Democrat in a statewide race since 1994.

 Democrat Jay Kleberg is running against Republican Dawn Buckingham to head the General Land Office, which oversees state public lands, the Alamo and veterans’ homes. In recent years, the agency has also overseen allocation of federal recovery funds in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which brought devastation to huge swaths of the Gulf Coast. Houston and its surrounding areas bore the brunt of damage totaling an estimated $125 billion. But in 2021, when outgoing Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced the recipients of the first round of $1 billion in federal relief funding, the city of Houston got nothing.
Houston’s inexplicable exclusion from relief allocations prompted lawsuits and, eventually, in March 2022, a letter from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development threatening an investigation and a potential referral to the Justice Department. HUD’s letter claimed the GLO’s process for awarding funds “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin” and “disadvantaged minority residents with particularly disparate outcomes for Black residents.” As of October 2022, the matter is still tied up in litigation and bureaucratic disputes.
Kleberg has said that he would have directed at least 50% of the first round of relief funds and mitigation funds to Houston and that he would use the GLO’s resources to make the Gulf Coast more resilient to climate change. A second round of $1.2 billion in relief funds is still pending, and if Kleberg wins the race for land commissioner this month, he will have an opportunity to make future disbursements more equitable.
Like many of her fellow Houstonians, Bridgette Murray is frustrated by the delays, and she does not have much hope that help will come any time soon. She watched as Interstate 610 drained flood water into Pleasantville like a funnel during Hurricane Harvey. The water was trapped for days due to the storm surge in the Houston Shipping Channel, causing severe damage in residents’ homes and contaminating groundwater.
“The city did submit a proposal to the General Land Office to address upgrading the storm water system in our community and creating detention,” Murray said, “but none of the projects submitted by the city of Houston were approved. So like so many communities, we’re still waiting for relief.”

Copyright 2022 Capital & Main

Can you trust the label? Fast fashion under increasing scrutiny over greenwashing

Laura McAndrews has seen and heard some things that the fashion industry wouldn’t want the public to know.For many years, it was her job to find factories to produce millions of items of clothing for big American brands like The Gap and Anthropologie.She started to worry about the environmental impact of clothing just as these multinational companies began accelerating into fast fashion.When she was asked about organic cotton in 2005, she found out just how easily sustainability could be dropped as a priority.”They were like, ‘Laura, look into how we get organic,'” she told ABC podcast, Threads.”I give them my little presentation … and they were like, ‘You know what? We just did some market research. No-one’s asking for it. No-one cares about it unless you can get us organic for the same price as everything else. Let’s just not do it.'”This period of her career changed her perspective on the industry.Dr McAndrews, now an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, sees a lot of the sustainability and environmental claims about clothing as little more than public relations spin to improve the image of brands.It’s a practice known as “greenwashing”, where companies misrepresent the extent to which a product is environmentally friendly, sustainable or ethical.”Greenwashing is a marketing strategy that gives you a reason to buy,” Dr McAndrews said.”Like putting a green tag on it, giving you a pretty little story – and now you feel good about your overconsumption. There’s nothing good about it.”Is greenwashing really that bad?As consumers become aware of the environmental cost of fast fashion, brands are finding new ways to market their clothing as sustainable.They might spruik the fast-growing nature of bamboo or lower carbon footprint of organic cotton, or tout the benefits of recycled polyester (more on that later).But the end results aren’t always what they’re made out to be.Earlier this year, high street retailer H&M was scrutinised for its use of bogus environmental scorecards for its clothing.

Most 'home-compostable' plastic doesn't fully break down in compost bins, UK study finds

Most certified “home-compostable” plastics do not fully break down in home compost bins, a UK citizen science project has found.Key points:More than 900 people across the UK participated in a home composting experimentAround 70 per cent of plastics certified as “home compostable” remained as fragments or microplastics after a yearThe researchers say home composting is not an effective method of disposal for compostable packagingThe project also showed that while 85 per cent of people surveyed were “enthusiastic” about buying compostable packaging, many were confused by what “compostable” meant.The study was published in Frontiers in Sustainability.Danielle Purkiss from University College London, who ran the study, said even when people correctly identified certified home-compostable plastic and placed it in their home composter, most of those plastics remained in large fragments after a year, and many lingered as microplastics.Some barely broke down at all.”We have photos [of home compost-certified plastic] that people have submitted after 12 months where you can still read the home compost certification label on it, which is ironic,” Ms Purkiss said.”There were plastic bags that were still so intact you’d probably be able to hold your shopping in them.”Plastic not so fantasticThe world’s appetite for plastic has increased dramatically in the past couple of decades. Since the turn of the millennium, global plastics production — and ensuing waste — doubled.Around half of the 353 million tonnes of plastic waste generated in 2019 ended up in landfill, while just under a quarter was “mismanaged”, meaning it was burned in open pits or ended up in waterways, oceans or dumped on land.And while plastics that make their way into the environment do eventually break down, the process can take hundreds of years, and involves them first eroding into microplastics that permeate every corner of the globe.In an attempt to tackle plastic pollution, many countries, including Australia, are phasing out single-use plastics and replacing them with recyclable, reusable or compostable options.Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.WatchDuration: 1 minute 43 seconds1m 43s

Turtle injured by ocean pollution to return home after 8 years of rehabilitation

CAPE TOWN – A turtle severely injured by ocean pollution will finally return to its habitat after eight years of rehabilitation. Bob the turtle suffered major brain damage after eating plastic and other pollution. He’s been recovering at the two oceans aquarium since 2014 and in January he will start his long-awaited swim to freedom. The conservation coordinator at the aquarium, Talitha Noble, said they’ve seen an increase in turtles with plastic pollution-related injuries.“Even though the issues that our turtles are facing in the ocean are caused by humans. Turtles embody resilience and hope. We want to protect the ocean he’s going back into, we know that just by everyone making small changes, down the line that will make a big impact. Say no single-use plastic, do beach cleanups.” In a bid to create awareness, beach volleyball players in Cape Town for an international tournament on Tuesday splashed around with Bob.Team USA’s professional beach volleyball player Sarah Schermerhorn said it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: “Bob got a little close to me and he was feeding and I was like ‘aaaahhhh’ at first for a second, but it was really cool to see that he was interested in what was going on around him.”

Single-use plastics banned in NSW but compostable products no longer alternative option for businesses

Single-use plastic items including straws and some takeaway packaging are banned in NSW from today, forcing businesses to transition towards more environmentally friendly products made from materials such as bamboo and paper. Key points:Single-use plastic items such as straws, plates and bowls are banned from November 1Biodegradable alternatives such as cardboard will still end up in landfillWork is underway to create safer compostable alternative products for consumers to useBut new EPA regulations mean these “eco” alternatives cannot currently be composted and will end up in landfill like their plastic counterparts.The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) recently clarified its guidelines around what was allowed in green compost bins, banning items such as cardboard and certified compostable packaging after research found that some products contained chemicals like PFAS, which can be harmful to human and animal health.More than 40 councils in NSW currently run compostable food and organic waste (FOGO) programs and all councils in the state will need to adopt FOGO schemes by 2030.But for NSW Far South Coast cafe owner Peter Haggar, restricting items such as cardboard and compostable packaging from FOGO bins will make the transition away from single-use plastics problematic.”They’ve sort of closed a door on a way out, or an exit route, from single-use plastics,” he said.”They’re going to have to do something about it because single-use plastics aren’t just [used] in hospitality. They’re also in medicine in a big way.”

How Australia is seeing a 'big shift' on plastic waste

Clean Up AustraliaBy Phil MercerBBC News, SydneyOn Tuesday, Australia takes another step towards reshaping its throw-away society.A range of single-use plastic, including straws, cutlery and micro beads in shampoo, will be banned in its most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), in a bid to reduce waste.”Australia has been very active over the last few years in moving to ban single-use plastics. We now have bans in place in over half of Australia’s states and territories,” says Shane Cucow, the plastics campaign manager at the Australian Marine Conservation Society.”It’s been incredible progress considering just two years ago not a single state and territory had banned single-use plastics.”Australia has complex record with plastic waste. Though it has long been accused of inaction, the country has also seen celebrated examples of leadership.One of the forefathers of the anti-waste movement was Ian Kiernan, a Sydney-born property developer who became a professional yachtsman.In the 1980s, he had an environmental epiphany in the waters of the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean during a solo race around the world.”He was horrified by the amount of pollution, particularly plastic,” explains one of his daughters, Pip. “So, that was the impetus to come back and do something about it.”In 1989, Ian Kiernan launched Clean Up Sydney Harbour, a community effort to tackle litter in one of the world’s most famous waterways.”He was worrying that no-one would turn up, but 40,000 Sydneysiders turned up,” Ms Kiernan tells the BBC.This video can not be playedTo play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.A year later it became a national event, and Clean Up Australia Day was born.”It is absolutely quintessentially Australian in that we are great volunteers but we don’t like being told what to do. Clean Up Australia is about empowering you. You chose where you clean up. We’ll give you the tools,” adds Ms Kiernan, who’s the chair of the organisation her father set up, which attracts a million volunteer waste warriors each year. “He’d be encouraged to see that we are phasing out problematic single-use plastic items. But he would equally be frustrated that we are still producing and wasting so much plastic across the world.”The man who wanted to clean up the worldDo single-use plastic bans work?Can seaweed help end plastic pollution?In June, NSW banned lightweight plastic bags. Other items included in Tuesday’s ban include single-use plastic drink stirrers and cotton buds, as well as expanded polystyrene containers for take-away food.Queensland will disallow many of these products in September 2023, along with heavyweight plastic shopping bags under a proposed “five-year roadmap”. Victoria will act sooner, and will ban “problematic single-use plastics from sale or supply” from 1 February 2023.The pace of legislative reform might be impressive, but Australia’s mission to tame its plastic waste problem has a long way to go.”We’re just at the start of our journey. Across the board Australia’s plastic packaging recycling rate is still just 16%. Our national target is 70%,” Mr Cucow says. “So, we are a very long way from actually recovering and recycling all of our plastic in Australia.”Australia is so far behind in terms of recycling our plastic packaging and one of the big barriers is soft plastics, which are very difficult to recycle. That’s a legacy of decades of neglect.”Getty ImagesA global comparison of plastics waste management placed Australia 7th among 25 nations for its overall efforts to control plastic pollution, behind European countries, Japan, the UK and the US. Australia was rated 1st for “promoting safe and informed plastic usage” but 16th for “efficient collection and sorting channels”, said the report released in October last year.About a third of Australians live in NSW. The state’s environment minister, James Griffin, has acknowledged the challenges that lie ahead.”The amount of plastic in our oceans is predicted to outweigh the amount of fish by 2050. That is a horrifying prediction and a call to action to ensure our wildlife… can have a brighter future,” he said.Mr Griffin asserted the state’s bans would “prevent 2.7 billion items of plastic litter from entering the environment over the next 20 years”.In June, Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, reported some good news that plastic pollution littering the coast had fallen by 29% compared to 2013.For Britta Denise Hardesty, a senior principal research scientist in its Oceans and Atmosphere unit, it was a “heartening” discovery and a sign that government policies were working.”We are starting to see a real change in our relationship with plastic,” she told the BBC, noting a “really big shift” in state government practices, including buy-back or cash-for-containers schemes reward individuals for recycling bottles and other items.”We are starting to put a price on plastic where we actually treat plastic as a valuable item, as a commodity rather than just as waste. Think about aluminium. It has intrinsic value and we don’t tend to find it lost to the environment,” she said.”I don’t foresee that we are going to have a plastic-free future. I’d like to see us designing with a legacy mindset, designing products for longer-term and thinking about what is the next life of that product going to be.”For Pip Kiernan, her late father’s mission goes on more than 30 years after it began. “He predicted all those years ago that plastics would be the scourge for our generation and he was right,” she says.More on this storyVideo shows plastic entering food chain11 March 2017The man who wanted to clean up the world17 October 2018Plastic-eating superworms offer hope for recycling10 June

Plastic pollution robs fish of nutrients

As plastic litter degrades in the sun, it breaks down into tiny pieces that are then consumed by the wildlife. Image: NOAA By Nicoline Bradford Researchers at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee have discovered that plastic pollution makes yellow perch less nutritious. Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than five millimeters, about the width of …

This scientist uses drones and algorithms to save whales — and the rest of the ocean

OFF THE COAST OF SANTA BARBARA — Just yards from the Fish 1, a 22-foot research vessel, a humpback whale about twice the size of the boat hurled itself out of the water, sending shimmering droplets in a broken necklace of splash.In the other direction, a hulking cargo ship, stacked high with containers, crept closer.About this seriesClimate Visionaries highlights brilliant people around the world who are working to find climate solutions.Aboard the Fish 1, a slight figure whose face is crinkled from years in the sun and saltwater, looked from one to the other. Ocean scientist Douglas McCauley wanted to see whether the near real-time detection system he and his colleagues had developed, Whale Safe, could avert collisions between whales and ships in the Santa Barbara Channel.The tool represents one of the ways McCauley, who heads the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at the University of California Santa Barbara, is working to protect the ocean even as it becomes more industrialized. By collecting data from several sources — an acoustic monitoring buoy that listens for whale songs, identifies them according to species with an algorithm and sends that information to satellites; a predictive habitat model for blue whales; and sightings logged in an app — Whale Safe forecasts to ships the chances of meeting a whale. Then, it grades shipping companies on whether they actually slow down to 10 knots or less during whale migrations, from May 1 to Dec. 15.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisement“We can literally watch all of the ships in California and across the whole ocean; we are better positioned than ever before to try to track damage as it occurs, or before it occurs,” McCauley said a few days later in a Zoom call from the French Polynesian island of Moorea, where he is spending a month researching coral reefs. “We are in trouble if we don’t do something different, and I realized that if I kept sticking my head literally underwater or stayed in the lab, these problems weren’t going to fix themselves.”Humans have worked in the seas for centuries: fishing, seafaring and more recently, drilling for oil and gas and the development of offshore wind farms. Shipping lanes cross almost every surface of the sea, except for shrinking swaths of the Southern and Arctic Ocean.But as development has intensified and the planet has warmed, the 43-year-old McCauley has ventured into the gray area between scientific research and advocacy to try to fix these problems — or at least make them visible.A cargo ship is seen in the distance near the Channel Islands on Sept. 30.
He is trying to save the whales; collect plastic; explore the links between climate change, overfishing and nutrition in the South Pacific; warn about the dangers of seabed mining; track sharks using drones and artificial intelligence; and calculate the benefits to people, animals and the planet that come from protecting broad swaths of the sea.“One of Doug’s compelling traits as a scientist is that he is keen to explore outside the box,” said Benjamin Halpern, a UCSB professor of marine biology and ocean conservation who has worked with McCauley for about a decade. “He is a very creative thinker, and able to think differently about the solutions to problems and what kinds of research and science can help inform those.”[These whales are on the brink. Now comes climate change — and wind power]In meetings with corporate executives and political leaders, McCauley has made a consistent argument: Protecting the sea is in our interest, since it already does a lot of the work for us.In 2020 McCauley led a report that provided a framework for marine protected areas on the high seas, finding that such refuges could be powerful tools for biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and climate resilience. Even port and fishing communities, he argued, depend on an ocean that is still wild and alive.“We have a globally unique chance to talk about this before it’s too late,” he said.California sea lions swim near the Channel Islands in California on Sept. 30. Humpback whales swim near the Channel Islands. Ship strikes killed 80 whales annually in three of the past four years, but the toll is probably much higher than reported.
Dolphins swim near the Channel Islands in California.California sea lions swim near the Channel Islands in California on Sept. 30.

Why more and more girls are hitting puberty early

Annals of MedicineWhy More and More Girls Are Hitting Puberty EarlyA pandemic-era rise in early puberty may help physicians to better understand its causes.By Jessica WinterOctober 27, 2022Illustration by Mikyung LeeMegan Gray was eight years old when she got her first period. She was playing hide-and-seek with her older sister and a friend at their friend’s house in suburban Sacramento. She was wearing pink jeans, which she had saved up for a long time to buy. She tied a sweatshirt around her waist to hide the bloodstain, and, later, threw the ruined pink jeans away; when her mother asked where they’d gone, she threw a tantrum to deflect the question. Gray had a close relationship with her mom, but she was so young that they’d had no conversations about puberty; her older sister had not yet gotten her period. “There was nothing, no context for understanding,” Gray told me. “I knew what a period was—I didn’t think I was dying or anything. But still, I didn’t tell anyone for months. I just used wadded-up toilet paper. It felt so awkward and shameful.” She did eventually talk with her mom about it. But this was the nineteen-eighties. “It wasn’t some big informational session. It was very Gen X—you just dealt with things by yourself and got on with it.”Gray was taller than her peers and wore layers of tops to conceal her developing breasts. She estimates that she was a C-cup by fifth grade. “There were assumptions about me because I had boobs. And I had never even kissed anyone. I was lucky, because nothing traumatic occurred. Yet I do think that there is a trauma in being sexualized.”Maritza Gualy got her first period when she was eight going on nine, at the end of the eighties. Her mom showed her how to use a thick Kotex pad. Eventually, her older sister introduced her to o.b. tampons—the ones with no applicator; they were small and easier to hide. The sisters, whose parents were Colombian immigrants, attended a majority-white Catholic school in Nashville. Her school uniform had no pockets, so whenever Gualy had her period, she had to hide tampons in her bra or in the waistband of her skirt. One day, an o.b. fell out of her skirt when she and her classmates were sitting on the rug together. Later, when they were back at their desks for a spelling test, Gualy recalled, “the teacher went around from kid to kid with the tampon. ‘Is this yours?’ ‘Is this yours?’ Except she was only asking the more well-developed girls! I knew I wasn’t going to admit to it.”In fifth grade, Gualy’s best friend got her period, and she was upset to learn that Gualy had started hers more than a year earlier and hadn’t mentioned anything. “But I already felt so othered,” Gualy said, “and I didn’t want to add to that.”When Gray and Gualy were kids, pediatricians thought that the average age of onset of puberty in girls—defined in most medical literature as thelarche, when breast tissue begins to develop—was about eleven years old. Menarche, or first period, was thought to happen around age thirteen. Only a small percentage of girls had started puberty by the age of eight, much less started menstruating. But, by the two-thousands, new research had found that eighteen per cent of white girls, thirty-one per cent of Hispanic girls, and forty-three per cent of Black girls had entered thelarche by age eight, according to a study published in 2010. Often, these girls were taller than most of their peers and showed other signs of accelerated physical maturation, such as pubic hair and underarm odor. Thelarche typically presages the onset of menstruation by two to three years, meaning that some of these girls would have to deal with the mess and discomfort of a monthly period before they’d finished elementary school. Researchers and physicians hypothesized about possible causes for the increase in early puberty, such as increasing rates of obesity; greater exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in food, plastics, and personal-care products; and stressful or abusive home environments.Then, during the coronavirus pandemic, pediatric endocrinologists saw a new surge of referrals for girls with early puberty. Recent retrospective studies from Germany and Turkey show that the number of these referrals doubled or even tripled during the lockdown periods of 2020 (this at a time when many families may have been avoiding non-emergency doctor’s visits for fear of COVID-19). A paper published in August in the journal Frontiers in Pediatrics, which analyzed data from South Korea’s national statistics portal, found that the number of children diagnosed with precocious puberty almost doubled between 2016 and 2021, with a sharp post-2020 spike. The rise in early puberty “is a phenomenon that is occurring all over the world,” Frank M. Biro, the former director of the adolescent-medicine division at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, told me. (Although there has also been a rise among boys, girls experiencing early puberty still vastly outnumber them.)The new data may offer some safety in numbers to early-developing girls—if Gray and Gualy were growing up today, they might have found a friend or two on the same accelerated track. But early puberty is associated with a daunting list of adverse physical and psychological outcomes: various studies have suggested that early-maturing girls are at greater risk for developing obesity, breast cancer, eating disorders, depression, and a range of behavioral issues. Especially in the midst of what is increasingly understood to be a post-COVID youth mental-health crisis, the startling new uptick in early puberty is troubling to some physicians and parents. But, because the spike appears to have been triggered within a compressed, well-defined timeframe, it also offers rich terrain for better understanding the condition’s causes and effects. It also provides a chance to rethink puberty: to see it not as a gateway into adulthood but as another stage of childhood—one that is highly variable from kid to kid and need not be cause for alarm.“We are in a great natural experiment at the moment, and we might not know the results of it for another ten years or more,” Louise Greenspan, a pediatric endocrinologist at Kaiser Permanente, San Francisco, said. “I do wonder if this is going to be a cohort of kids whose puberty was more rapid because they were in a critical window of susceptibility during a time of great social upheaval.”For generations, pediatricians have referred to a table of pubertal development known as Tanner stages, named for the pediatric endocrinologist James Tanner, one of the lead investigators of the landmark Harpenden Growth Study, conducted from 1949 to 1971 at a charity home for orphaned and neglected children in a suburb of London. There, hundreds of boys and girls were photographed naked at three-month intervals. Although the data for the Tanner scale were gathered from kids of a narrow demographic—white, thin, and bearing the internal scars of trauma or adversity in their formative years—it established, in a pair of papers published in 1969, our modern benchmarks of puberty: five distinct stages, ranging from prepubertal to fully developed. On average, the girls in the study began showing breast buds—the “Tanner II” stage—at age eleven or so, and began menstruating between thirteen and fourteen.Early puberty is identified through physical examination, blood tests to measure levels of sex hormones, and a bone X-ray to estimate “bone age”—how close a child’s skeletal system is to reaching maturation. Puberty typically begins in girls when the pituitary gland starts secreting hormones known as gonadotropins; these hormones cause the ovaries to grow and to produce estrogen, the sex hormone that triggers the development of secondary sex characteristics. These changes usually happen alongside a distinct process called adrenarche, or the awakening of the adrenal gland, which provokes the development of pubic and underarm hair and underarm odor. In formulating his scale, Tanner was careful to present puberty as a spectrum, not a strict schedule; he emphasized that a healthy girl might start her period at age ten or age sixteen, and that every child’s progress through puberty had its own rhythms and tempo. Some of the numbers in the Harpenden Growth Study have held up remarkably well: the average age for a first period, for example, has only dropped to about twelve and a half.But other norms set down by the Tanner stages began to come into question as early as the late nineteen-eighties, when a physician’s associate named Marcia Herman-Giddens, who worked in a pediatric clinic at the Duke University Medical Center, observed girls as young as six or seven presenting with breast buds or pubic hair. Herman-Giddens went on to lead a study of pubertal development in some seventeen thousand girls in the U.S., published in the journal Pediatrics in 1997. It found that the average age for Black girls to develop breast buds was just short of nine years old; for white girls, it was closer to ten on the dot. A moderately more rigorous longitudinal study, conducted in three U.S. cities and also published in Pediatrics, in 2010, showed those averages dropping even further, if only by a few more months.When researchers investigated possible reasons that more girls were entering puberty sooner, they focussed on three main factors. One was stress—they hypothesized that higher cortisol levels might contribute to the premature activation of the pituitary and adrenal glands. (Some of Herman-Giddens’s work was with early-maturing girls who were believed to have been physically and sexually abused, which prompted a causality question that has never been definitively resolved: whether abuse triggers premature puberty, or whether girls who enter puberty earlier are at greater risk for abuse.) A second factor was exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which can scramble or mimic the body’s naturally occurring hormones. E.D.C.s include parabens (preservatives that are used in cosmetics, food, and pharmaceuticals), phthalates (which are added to plastics to enhance their durability and flexibility), and the dreaded bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical compound that the Food and Drug Administration banned for use in baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012.But determining the role of E.D.C.s in a given health condition is a conundrum for any scientist attempting to design a controlled study, because “we live in an ocean of chemicals,” Biro, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, told me. “How you can measure exposure in an individual is a major issue. Some of these substances are in and out of the body in seventy-two hours, some take three or four years. Different people metabolize them at different rates.”Speculation about the main causes of early puberty eventually coalesced around a third factor, one that was easier to isolate: body-mass index. Average B.M.I. and obesity rates in girls had risen somewhat in tandem with rates of early puberty. Some research suggested as well that both elevated cortisol levels and high exposure to E.D.C.s are associated with higher B.M.I. Meanwhile, structural racism and failures of environmental justice have ensured that Black and brown girls are more vulnerable to all three of these factors than are white or Asian girls, who tend to enter puberty later.The correlation between B.M.I. and early puberty has to do with a hormone called leptin, which is one of the necessary components for the pituitary gland to begin producing gonadotropins. Leptin is produced in the fat tissue and plays a role in raising the body’s estrogen levels. Typically, as estrogen increases, so does fat and leptin, which can create a feedback loop—weight gain spurs puberty, and puberty spurs weight gain. (This relationship also helps to explain why some very thin girls and women don’t menstruate: they don’t have enough fat tissue to make leptin.)“Leptin is not so much the trigger for puberty as it’s permissive,” Paul Kaplowitz, a professor emeritus of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., told me. “An adequate level of fat tissue is a requirement for puberty to progress. But we don’t know for sure if fat is the only reason why girls in the twenty-first century are maturing earlier than girls in the latter part of the twentieth century. Obesity is a big part of the story. It’s not the whole story.”Given everything we understand about the mechanisms of puberty, it feels intuitive and logical that some percentage of lockdown kids, who might have otherwise followed a more Tanner-like progression in their physical development, may have tipped into early puberty thanks to a conspiracy of increased calorie intake, more fatty and processed foods, and decreased exercise, as well as the manifold sources of stress and anxiety that the pandemic generated during a pivotal stage of their development. Like early puberty itself, mental-health problems among children and teen-agers were on the rise before the pandemic, and skyrocketed during and after it. Between 2009 and 2019, according to data from the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, rates of depression and suicidal ideation among high-school students all rose significantly. Approximately one in three kids in this age group reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”; in a C.D.C. study of high-school students conducted in 2021, this number had risen to forty-four per cent. Mental-health-related emergency-room visits for children ages five to eleven increased by twenty-four per cent from March to October, 2020, as compared with the same period in 2019; for kids ages twelve to seventeen, the figure was thirty-one per cent. Child psychologists are overwhelmed with new-patient requests, and many have stopped taking insurance. The National Association of School Psychologists has stated that there is roughly one school psychologist for every twelve hundred students in the U.S.A crucial, perhaps overlooked link between early puberty and the youth mental-health crisis is sleep. Marlon Goering, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, studies the relationship between pubertal timing and behavioral challenges in young people. He told me that melatonin, the sleep-regulating hormone that the brain produces in response to darkness, may have contributed to the pandemic-era jump in early puberty. During the lockdowns, many children got less sleep and more irregular sleep, and they spent vastly more time in front of the blue light of screens, which inhibited their ability to secrete melatonin. A drop in melatonin can contribute to symptoms of anxiety and depression; it also activates an increase in a protein called kisspeptin, which is another of the trigger hormones for puberty. The melatonin-disrupting effects of blue light may have persisted long past the acute phase of the pandemic: many schools and students have continued using the iPads and Chromebooks that they acquired to facilitate remote learning, and many households never reset the screen-time rules that they had in place before lockdown obliterated them.Some pediatric endocrinologists suspect that the recent spike in early puberty may be subtly different from the decades-long rise that preceded it. Greenspan, of Kaiser Permanente, San Francisco, and other colleagues have noticed that, among their consultations for early puberty, they are not seeing as many girls with higher B.M.I. as they did pre-pandemic. She also said that pubertal tempo—the total time it takes to progress from thelarche to menarche—is speeding up among her patients, regardless of B.M.I. If large-scale data eventually bear out Greenspan’s observations, it would likely mean that the average age of first period, which has remained relatively stable over the last eighty years, may begin to drop more noticeably, even if only for a micro-generation of kids.Much of the time, early puberty does not require medical intervention (although, in rare cases, it may be caused by a brain tumor or by a disorder of the patient’s ability to produce cortisol). “I can’t tell you how many kids come into my practice who have their periods early, and when the parents don’t make a deal out of it, the kids tend to be fine—‘Yeah, it’s kind of annoying, but Mommy showed me how to change the pad.’ And you’re talking to a third grader,” Greenspan said.“We’re cognizant of trying not to medicalize things that are a normal part of life,” Deanna Adkins, a pediatric endocrinologist and the director of the Duke Child and Adolescent Gender Care Clinic, said. “Early puberty is early, but it’s still normal in most cases. We do the best we can to not make a child feel like, ‘My parents are bringing me to the doctor because there’s something wrong with me.’ ”Recently, a parent whom I will call R.—she asked that I not use her name, to protect her daughter’s privacy—phoned her pediatrician’s office because her seven-year-old had developed a breast bud. R., who is a college professor and lives in Brooklyn, spoke first with a nurse. “She said, ‘You’re the third or fourth mom this week who’s called about this. Puberty is starting earlier and earlier. It’s very normal, Mom.’ When we saw the pediatrician, it was the same thing: ‘Oh, Mom, it’s normal.’ ”R. found the pediatrician’s response dismissive without being reassuring. “There was no wider analysis about the consequences related to her socialization at school, her relationships with boys and men—all these things that it opened up,” R. said. She was especially uneasy because her daughter has experienced unusual stressors in the last couple of years, including a concussion and her parents’ divorce. Adding the possibility of early puberty, R. said, “just feels like insult to injury—like, can we give this kid a childhood?”I spoke with R. again after she and her daughter had a more satisfying appointment with a pediatric endocrinologist. “There was a straight-up acknowledgement, from the beginning, that this is a big deal. It was O.K. to think of this as something to be attentive to.” Now, mother and daughter await the results of blood tests and a bone X-ray; it’s safe to say that, of the two, R. is the more anxious. When they first broached the topic of early puberty, her daughter was excited. “Yes! Now I can get a bra!” she exclaimed. Puberty in a younger girl could be a simpler rite of passage, at times even a thrilling one, R. said, “if there wasn’t society out there to worry about.”Even in the absence of an acute medical crisis, some families do decide to halt the process of puberty temporarily, with medication that blocks the release of sex hormones—most commonly, a drug called Lupron. Lupron is sometimes prescribed off-label to children with gender dysphoria, and, due to efforts in many states to limit or ban gender-affirming pediatric care, the drug has become controversial. A puberty blocker such as Lupron may inhibit bone mineralization, when calcium and phosphate act on collagen to increase bone mass; this process accelerates during adolescence. Anecdotal reports have proliferated for years about women who took Lupron for precocious puberty in childhood and went on to suffer osteoporosis, joint disorders, and chronic pain in adulthood, but most research on puberty blockers and bone health is reassuring. In any case, it is difficult to adjudicate concerns about any long-term effects when those concerns are weaponized by, say, the Arkansas state legislature, which is attempting to prohibit gender-affirming pediatric care in the state with a bill known as the Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act, or the state attorney general’s office in Texas, which has proposed that administering puberty blockers to children with gender dysphoria may constitute “child abuse.” (Studies have repeatedly shown that mental-health outcomes for L.G.B.T.Q. youth were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and advocates for trans young people have warned that the ongoing proliferation of anti-trans legislation will compound those effects.)Adkins told me that she has not seen long-term issues such as low bone density or higher rates of fractures in patients who took Lupron. “When kids are in early puberty, they’re already starting to add calcium to their bones,” she said. “Pausing that for a period of time slows down their growth spurt and slows down their calcium spurt. But once you stop the medication, all of that restarts.” Children with precocious puberty typically stay on blockers until they reach a bone age of around eleven or twelve. “They’ll be accruing calcium in their bones from the restart of puberty all the way to the age of thirty or so,” Adkins said. “There’s plenty of time to catch up.”There are two main criteria to consider when deciding to start a child on Lupron, Adkins told me. One is if the child’s projected adult height falls below the fifth-percentile range, due to rapid bone maturation; stalling puberty buys the kid more time to add some inches. The other is more subjective, and has to do with physical or developmental challenges that the child might face in addition to precocious puberty.V., who is an occupational therapist in Orlando, has a daughter who is on the autism spectrum. She noticed that her daughter’s body began rapidly transforming in the late spring of 2020, when she was six and a half: breast buds, a huge growth spurt. By age eight, she had pubic hair and wore clothes in an adult-size extra-small. She frequently felt “off” in ways that she couldn’t precisely articulate—fatigued and headache-y. Her social status was changing, too. “She told me that boys were giving her more attention at school,” V. said. “She was like, ‘You’ve never noticed me before. Now, all of a sudden, I’m interesting? What?’ ”V. brought her daughter to a developmental pediatrician and a pediatric endocrinologist; the latter was a four-month wait. An X-ray showed that her “bone age” outpaced her chronological age by about two years. Her doctor guessed that she might begin her period within a few months, which seemed too soon for her. In the spring, her daughter began taking Vitamin D supplements, which aid in calcium absorption. She received her first dose of Lupron in August, two months before her ninth birthday. “I felt as if she needed more time to work on her social-emotional skills before she had to deal with a period every month,” V. said. “I want her to feel like, ‘O.K., I’m ready for this.’ But honestly, I need some time to adjust, too.”In Judy Blume’s 1970 young-adult novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” which has served as a puberty handbook of sorts for generations of girls, a character named Laura Danker looms awkwardly on the periphery. Laura is studious, very shy, and very tall. When the eleven-year-old narrator of the book, Margaret Simon, sees Laura on the first day of school, she mistakes her for a teacher, not a fellow sixth grader. “You could see the outline of her bra through her blouse and you could also tell from the front that it wasn’t the smallest size,” Margaret observes. “She sat down alone and didn’t talk to anyone.” Margaret has just moved to town and easily makes new friends, who giggle and gossip about “the big blonde with the big you know whats.” “She’s got a bad reputation,” one girl says. “She’s been wearing a bra since fourth grade and I bet she gets her period,” another alleges.Laura’s body commands a chaotic attention from her peers: by turns affronted and leering, repelled and keenly envious. Her body provokes their imagination, then serves to corroborate whatever they might imagine. Laura belongs nowhere: a head taller than all the boys, arms crossed over her chest, feeling the shame and confusion of the eleven-year-old she is but does not look like.In Blume, the fast-developing girl is sympathetic but mostly a cipher, a narrative device; in Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend,” she gets to tell the story. In the book—the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels—young Lenù, the narrator, gets her period without knowing what it is; she is comforted by an older friend, who’s had hers for a year already. Lenù’s best friend, Lila, shows no signs of development; for this, Lenù seems to pity her. “Suddenly, she seemed small, smaller than I had ever seen her…she didn’t know what the blood was. And no boy had ever made a declaration to her.” For an instant, it doesn’t entirely make sense that they are peers, much less friends.Lenù is wrung out by a classical pubertal funk: moodiness, anxiety, impulsivity (she flashes her breasts at some classmates for ten lire). Like Laura in “Are You There God?,” Lenù feels herself to be at once conspicuous and isolated. “I felt at the mercy of obscure forces acting inside my body,” she says. She is “besieged by boys.” She searches for respite. “I sneaked away, I compressed my bosom by holding my arms crossed over it, I felt mysteriously guilty and alone with my guilt.”The stigma of early development in girls is particularly painful because, in some cases, it may perpetuate a vicious cycle. An article published in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, in May, found that early puberty put girls at higher risk for obesity, type-2 diabetes, breast cancer, and heart disease along with “depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and antisocial behaviors,” “earlier onset of sexual activity, higher number of sexual partners, and higher likelihood of substance use, delinquency, and low academic achievement.” The journal Hormones and Behavior, in 2013, argued that “early maturing girls are at unique risk for psychopathology.” A Pediatrics article titled “Early Puberty, Negative Peer Influence, and Problem Behaviors in Adolescent Girls,” from 2013, stated, “Early timing of puberty and affiliation with deviant friends are associated with higher levels of delinquent and aggressive behavior. Early-maturing adolescents tend to affiliate with more-deviant peers and appear more susceptible to negative peer influences.” (Free book-title idea for Elena Ferrante: “My Deviant Friend.”)Kaplowitz, of Children’s National Hospital, and Greenspan both advised caution about the most doomsaying studies of girls who experience early puberty. Some of the results are derived from brief questionnaires. Others are based on self-reported data, which can render wobblier conclusions (for example, most women can pinpoint when their period began, more or less, but not as many know precisely when their breasts began to bud). “Many of these studies are not well controlled, and many of them don’t have a large number of subjects,” Kaplowitz said. “I don’t think these are settled issues.”Because more Black girls enter puberty at a younger age, and because Black girls tend to come under more punitive surveillance no matter what Tanner stage they happen to occupy, the onus of early puberty can be especially harmful to them. A 2017 report from the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality studied the impact of “adultification,” a phenomenon in which children are socialized to act older than they are, and in which Black kids, specifically, are perceived as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers”—less in need, or less deserving, of the kinds of protections that childhood confers. Adultification has effects across the education and juvenile-justice systems: Black girls are more likely to be disciplined than white girls of the same age for the same infractions, and they have higher rates of school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, and arrests.The emotional and behavioral haywire of adolescence is driven by a pair of interlocking mechanisms: the hormonal and the social. The hormones that are released in puberty can lead to increased risk-taking and sensation-seeking; a nine-year-old who is newly doused in these hormones may not have the same self-regulating ability to manage them that a thirteen-year-old does. And just how much self-regulation an early-developing girl must exhibit depends on her surroundings: not just the scrutiny she receives from adults, which in turn is mediated by race and class, but by the tendencies of the children and young adults with whom she interacts. An older-looking girl might be more likely to hang out with actually older girls, and do the things they do.Among the adverse outcomes linked to early puberty that are most strongly supported by data, causation is not always clear. “We know that people who have menarche earlier do tend to have a higher rate of depression,” Greenspan said. “But we don’t know if that’s a biological thing or a social thing. Is it the biological effects of estrogen on the developing brain? Or is it the stress of looking older than your peers, and having to deal with that?” Even the ways in which a girl looks older than her peers is heavily dependent on her social context. “Are you in a school with uniforms, where everybody looks kind of shapeless? Or are you in an environment where clothes are tighter, and everyone is looking at you? You might feel uncomfortable or even miserable in your body—and that could lead to depression, that could lead to body dysmorphia,” Greenspan said.Several pediatric endocrinologists told me that parents are often highly agitated by the likelihood that their children are becoming sexual beings and that others are going to sexualize them. But, Greenspan said, “puberty and sexuality can be separated. A seven- or eight-year-old girl going through puberty isn’t necessarily going to associate that with pregnancy and sex unless someone makes that association for her.” In Greenspan’s view, families can choose to see puberty not as a Rubicon but as one among many points on a decades-long continuum of transformation. “Kids’ bodies are constantly changing. They need new shoes because their feet are bigger; they can’t fit into their clothes because they’re getting taller; they’re banging into furniture because they no longer know where their body is in space.” In these prepubertal developmental stages—when kids are sprouting and molting and falling over and spilling their teeth on the floor—the adults, while attuned to these metamorphoses, are not especially fazed by them. The ordeal of puberty, Greenspan said, should be similarly understood: as a station of childhood, not its terminus.More than once in my conversations with Greenspan, she said that adults “have to let kids be the age they are.” But early puberty presents something of a physics problem—how do we measure the passage of time? The bone X-ray may best illustrate the dilemma: a medical assessment that assigns the child to a skeleton that is older than the child herself. A tall, developed ten-year-old who has reached menarche may not be chronologically older than a petite, flat-chested ten-year-old who has not—but she is, in a real sense, physically and even experientially older. Adults and other children will almost inevitably relate to the girl differently—and not necessarily even in a sexualized way, although that is of grave concern; but intellectually, socially, emotionally. They may have advanced expectations of her, and she may strive to meet those expectations or fail to, and, either way, that cycle of stimulus and response is determining her place in her social milieu, conjuring a mirror in which she sees herself, and wiring her brain in configurations that subtly differ from those of her average-developing peers. Nature begets nurture. For this girl, the hands of the clock simply go faster.Megan Gray is now forty-six, works as a writer in Los Angeles, and has two kids, ages ten and eight. She looks back on the shock of early puberty with an affecting sort of analytical melancholy. “When your hormones change when you’re that young, your body is flooded with such an intensity of emotions that you’re not nearly mature enough to deal with it,” she told me. “I mean, nobody is, ever, and that’s why junior high is the worst.” But she was only eight years old. “Everything is felt so powerfully, but your brain has not caught up with that,” she went on. “For me, that manifested in depression.” Developing early, Gray said, clouded her ability to see the romantic and sexual possibilities that her adult life promised. “When you’re shamed at a young age for a sexuality that you don’t even have, I think it inhibits you from developing a sexuality. I began to associate people seeing me in a sexual way, or even as attractive, as a negative. At the same time, when you’re entering that age, you do want people to like you. And you want to like other people. There was that constant tension of, you know, liking is good, but attraction is bad, even if, on a rational level, I understood that wasn’t true. That contradiction started very young.”Gray and Maritza Gualy, who is now forty-one and a product designer in Los Angeles, both said that developing early had a positive influence on how they approach the subject of puberty with their own kids. “My husband and I want to talk to them preëmptively, openly, and answer their questions honestly,” Gualy said. Her children, who are nine and eight, have already had “the puberty talk,” she went on, “and they have no shame about it—yet. They have fun detecting their body changes and announcing them.” Recently, a speaker visited her daughter’s Girl Scout troop to discuss puberty; now her daughter is putting together an emergency period kit to keep in her backpack, “just in case she or one of her friends needs it while at school,” Gualy said.Gray told me, “Our generation of parents is hopefully doing things differently. My son may never forgive me for making him do a two-hour Zoom for the Sex-Positive Families puberty workshop. But I’d rather my kids grew up to tell the story about how their mom gave them too much information than not enough.”She also recognizes that indulging too much in parental anxieties can have a conjuring power; that awareness of the past, and of the possibilities it may show you, doesn’t have to force upon you any foreboding premonitions. “I want to avoid the mistakes that the grownups in my life made,” Gray said. “At the same time, I don’t want to put any of that baggage on my kids. I don’t want to make any assumptions about their experiences just because I had some trauma surrounding puberty. I’m trying to remain neutral, and to listen when they tell me how they feel about it.” ♦