We’re eating plastic, people!

More news to file in the great book of They Saw It Coming But Did Nothing this week. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reported that the world must enact a binding treaty to curb the use of plastics. According to the international NGO, plastics waste is almost as big a threat to the planet as …

Environmental justice concerns loom over Kanawha County ethylene oxide cancer risk reassessment

“Are you saying that the DEP doesn’t understand what environmental justice is?”The question came from West Virginia Environmental Council President Linda Frame.It came after the Department of Environmental Protection representative on the Zoom call said the department needed more federal guidance on dealing with environmental justice concerns.All the participants in last month’s council-hosted online town hall with department members to let them bring concerns to the agency’s attention knew what environmental justice is not.It’s not Institute.The historically Black community has long been what NAACP Charleston branch Environmental and Climate Justice Committee chair and former DEP environmental advocate Pam Nixon has called an “environmental sacrifice zone.”Chemical facilities like those operated by Union Carbide Corp., Bayer CropScience and US Methanol as well as sites like the nearby Dunbar treatment plant and asphalt-producing company West Virginia Paving have exposed the area to adverse impacts.A plant was built in Institute during World War II for the federal government to produce butadiene and styrene, which are used to produce synthetic rubber. Union Carbide bought the plant in 1947 to produce other chemicals.By the 1970s, the plant was a “major source of air pollutants” and “major generator of hazardous wastes,” according to a 1984 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overview of Kanawha Valley environmental pollution.The agency reported that monitoring wells onsite had detected significant groundwater contamination, exceeding drinking water standards. Union Carbide had told the EPA that it had buried a wide variety of chemical wastes at the site from 1950 to 1970.In August 1985, an accidental release of aldicarb oxime from the Institute plant sent at least 135 people to the hospital — eight months after a leak of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands and caused permanent disabilities or premature death for many thousands more.In August 2008, an explosion at the plant then owned by Bayer CropScience left two dead and eight treated for possible chemical exposure.And in 2018, the EPA released its latest National Air Toxics Assessment, finding that six of the 90 census tracts with the highest cancer risk from the flammable, colorless gas ethylene oxide were in Kanawha County.

Flames shot 50 to 100 feet into the air at the Bayer Plant in Institute as explosions rocketed the valley in 2008.

Gazette-Mail file photo

It was the first such assessment since the EPA reclassified ethylene oxide as a carcinogen in 2016, causing risk estimates to go up.The total cancer risk in Kanawha was 366 in 1 million, 10th-highest in the country, and made up largely of the risk from ethylene oxide that composed much of the risk for most tracts across the country.Located along W.Va. 25 near West Virginia State University, the Institute facility released 9,164 pounds of ethylene oxide from 2015 through 2019, according to EPA data. That was more than most of the 25 high-priority facilities where the agency has estimated emissions significantly contribute to elevated estimated cancer risk.Union Carbide in 2018 transferred permitting in Institute to Specialty Products US, LLC, a subsidiary of International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., meaning Specialty Products now operates an ethylene oxide process there that had been run by Union Carbide.Ethylene oxide has been a raw material at the Institute plant dating back to at least the 1970s, according to the EPA’s 1984 Kanawha Valley environmental pollution overview.“What specific steps has the DEP taken related to the state focusing on the EJ [environmental justice] implications of having this ethylene oxide issue that is centered partially around a chemical plant in Institute, a majority Black community that is home to a historically Black university?” Frame asked DEP Environmental Advocate Ed Maguire, reading another question from a town hall participant.Maguire responded by shifting focus to the EPA.The EPA, Maguire said, had wanted the DEP to provide environmental justice training for all staff, prompting the latter agency to ask the former for a training program.“They never responded,” Maguire said. “ … It’s almost like they don’t want to interject EPA’s view. They want us to develop it on our own.”

The West Virginia State University campus in Institute.

Gazette-Mail file photo

EPA Region 3 Regional Administrator Adam Ortiz deferred comment on staff environmental justice training to state agencies but added that the EPA is willing to provide training.“We have a lot of folks that are willing to come out and train anybody to help us achieve our environmental goals,” Ortiz said.Asked by Frame whether the DEP had an environmental justice policy to ensure that communities of color aren’t bearing disproportionate levels of pollution, Maguire acknowledged that the agency did not.The department has an acting environmental justice coordinator that monitors EPA guidance but no new policy or statutory authority to deny permits based on environmental justice concerns, Maguire said.“We look forward to the opportunity to do that when we’re provided all the resources necessary to be incorporated in it,” Maguire said of having a state environmental justice policy.Nixon, a former Institute resident who now lives in South Charleston, responded by pointing out that the DEP had published an environmental equity policy drafted at her request in 2003 pledging to ensure that no segment of the population, regardless of racial or economic makeup, bears “a disproportionate share of the risks and consequences of environmental pollution or be denied equal access to environmental benefits.”“It needs to be updated because it really has no teeth to it,” Nixon said.

Pam Nixon stands on the deck of her South Charleston home. A longtime advocate of chemical safety and clean air, Nixon wants a Kanawha County-focused cancer risk reassessment that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection are working on to result in greater air emissions regulations and not just a new set of numbers. Nixon also wants the DEP to come up with an updated, strengthened environmental equity policy.

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail file photo

DEP acting spokesman Terry Fletcher said the policy is no longer in effect because its terms are already included in agency permitting and enforcement. Fletcher noted the 2003 policy stated it did not affect regulatory requirements and that the DEP has never had the authority to permit or enforce regulations based on a community’s racial or economic makeup.The EPA defines environmental justice as “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”The Biden administration has emphasized environmental justice, setting a goal of delivering at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.But Maguire’s comments characterizing the DEP as powerless to statutorily enforce environmental justice and the EPA short on guidance suggest a long road ahead for resolving the latest environmental justice concerns for Institute over ethylene oxide.Meanwhile, state and federal regulators are playing catchup in educating the public about the health risks from the chemical in their communities.“[W]e know that the violations are out there on many levels,” Nyoka Baker Chapman of the League of Women Voters of West Virginia Natural Resources Committee told Maguire. “And in order for enforcement with environmental justice for communities on all different kinds of levels, you have to have teeth to be able to get the job done.”A sampling planThe 2018 National Air Toxics Assessment based on 2014 data indicating Kanawha County’s high total cancer risk driven by ethylene oxide emissions hasn’t been the final word.The DEP subsequently asked the EPA for help getting localized data, suspecting the assessment overestimated the cancer risk at the Union Carbide facilities.In 2019, the DEP got what Fletcher said were the most recent and accurate emissions data from the sites so regulators could perform their own dispersion modeling and get a more precise view of potential risks and minimization strategies.A May EPA document the Gazette-Mail obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request said state air dispersion modeling showed “the risk for populated areas remain high.”Records the Gazette-Mail additionally obtained from the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the EPA turned up analysis of cancer data that found an area of elevated ethylene oxide-related cancers downwind of the Union Carbide sites but cautioned the data were inconclusive.A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the issue partly because environmental regulators chose not to hold public meetings on the subject until now. A March 2020 EPA Office of Inspector General report urged the agency to inform people who live near facilities with significant emissions about their elevated estimated cancer risks.The report noted agency plans for potential outreach in the first half of 2020. The EPA delayed those efforts as regulators decided to gather and model additional information instead.EPA officials agreed to provide quarterly updates to Nixon and others on ethylene oxide cancer risk assessment in Kanawha County, but she said that didn’t happen.A DEP webpage published in August explains the flammable, colorless gas is used to make antifreeze, detergents and plastics and sterilize medical and dental equipment. Long-term exposure has been associated with increases in female breast and white blood cell cancers, including leukemia, Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Short-term exposure to high concentrations of ethylene oxide can cause nausea, fatigue, respiratory irritation and vomiting.An analysis of Cancer Registry data that state epidemiologist Steven Blankenship shared with health officials showed elevated ethylene oxide-related cancers downwind of the Union Carbide facilities, according to internal documents obtained by the Gazette-Mail.The analysis was based on a review of cancer data from 1993 — the first year of West Virginia Cancer Registry operations — to 2019.Blankenship presented a map showing a cluster of census tracts east of the area of release with higher rates of ethylene oxide-related cancers. He also compared the percentage of cases by primary site by ZIP code for the areas of concern to the remainder of Kanawha County and found nothing stood out in the target area. But Blankenship said major flaws with that approach could skew the results.“The point is that any estimate used will be wrong, and there is no way of knowing by how much,” Blankenship wrote. “The reliability of any rates calculated at the census tract level for these data cannot be defended.”It was impossible to attribute those cancer clusters east of the area of release to ethylene oxide exposure, Blankenship concluded, citing potential exposures from sources known to exist in an area he acknowledged was “well-known as ‘Chemical Valley.’”Nevertheless, Blankenship observed it was reasonable to expect people onsite could be the most vulnerable.Blankenship recommended contacting the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which he wrote in a November 2019 email to former state health officer Cathy Slemp “might be willing to investigate cancer incidence among daily onsite workers likely to have relatively high levels of exposure.”“Occupational study would definitely be a more direct way to look at exposure,” Slemp replied in an email.State Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jessica Holstein has said the agency is not aware of any such study having been conducted.Kyle Bandlow, spokesman for Union Carbide parent company Dow Chemical, has declined to comment on whether the company would welcome another workplace study. He said in an emailed statement that safety is Union Carbide’s top priority and that the company follows OSHA and other regulatory guidelines to protect employees and communities.

Using 2017 modeling, the EPA estimated the potential increased cancer risk from breathing ethylene oxide released from another Union Carbide facility along MacCorkle Avenue Southwest in South Charleston to be 807 cases in 1 million, the Institute Union Carbide facility to be 379 in 1 million and a Covestro facility in South Charleston to be 185 cases in 1 million.In November, the EPA approved a field air sampling plan for the DEP’s Division of Air Quality to assess atmospheric concentrations in fenceline, onsite and offsite locations near facilities with known ethylene oxide air emissions in Institute and South Charleston.Sampling will be conducted using summa canister samplers. Each sample will be collected over a 24-hour period, with sampling taking place over a roughly three-month span, according to the plan.Four sets of canister samplers will be placed around each area as well as a background site location.The Division of Air Quality will review the results to determine ethylene oxide presence and conduct short-term air dispersion modeling, with the EPA providing funding for lab analyses and advisory help.Union Carbide, Specialty Products and Covestro will provide sampling location access and operational and emissions data for sampling days. Sampling will take place when the most ethylene oxide-emitting processes are in operation at the facilities.The canisters will be situated at approximate breathing height — 5 to 6 feet from the ground — as much as possible.Final results and their public release are anticipated in May or June, Maguire said during the Dec. 7 town hall, admitting that citizens “may not be thrilled” with that timetable.State environmental regulators are planning on holding an in-person open house in late March or early April at which members of the public could raise ethylene oxide concerns with Division of Air Quality and EPA staff one-on-one.Maguire contended that while DEP public meetings conducted virtually have been useful in facilitating participation from residents across the state and will continue, an in-person event would allow agency officials to better gauge public reaction.Maguire demurred in response to a participant’s request to provide information to all attendees at the planned spring meeting at the same time rather than in stations designed for small groups.“There’s a value in having small groups,” Maguire said. “ … A little bit of intimacy is part of the reasons for having it that way. But we’ll see.”The EPA and DEP fielded questions from Kanawha County residents and public officials with health and regulatory concerns about ethylene oxide emissions in Institute and South Charleston during a Zoom teleconference meeting they hosted in September. The meeting attracted more than 175 attendees and marked the agencies’ first local public meeting on ethylene oxide.‘Subjectivity is not helpful’During the town hall, Maguire recalled a November meeting with water regulators in states comprising EPA Region 3 (West Virginia, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia) at which an EPA official said that the feds didn’t want to “give anyone a script about how to address environmental justice” and were looking to the states to develop an environmental justice approach.“Well, it’s going to be different in Texas than it is in Minnesota and it is in West Virginia,” Maguire said. “ … [A] lot of this stuff becomes subjective. If you’re in the regulatory business, subjectivity is not helpful.”The EPA has demonstrated it “hasn’t quite figured it out yet” regarding its environmental justice approach, Maguire said.Ortiz acknowledged that environmental justice “covers a lot of ground” but said the Biden administration is performing data-based assessments of human health impacts, demographic information and environmental stressors to determine communities’ environmental distress levels.Ortiz recalled speaking with DEP Secretary Harold Ward and state Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch about immediate environmental justice issues and having a closer partnership toward identifying the most impacted communities.Those environmental justice issues included ethylene oxide impacts in Institute and South Charleston. Ortiz said, emphasizing adequate drinking water testing, lead line replacements and data collaboration.“Sometimes it’s not an enforcement action, but rather it’s technical assistance or education or funding to help make a change of some kind,” Ortiz said.Ortiz said that the EPA plans to make public a list of environmentally distressed communities and an analysis of the issues they face this spring after confirming that agency data matches up with what state regulators have observed locally.Ortiz touted the importance of federal, state and local officials to address findings in EJSCREEN, the EPA’s environmental justice screening and mapping tool that can identify demographic and environmental conditions within a certain distance of an industrial facility.Maguire sees great potential for West Virginia to benefit from the Biden administration’s focus on environmental justice.Given West Virginia’s chronically high poverty levels, the White House’s goal of delivering 40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities would especially benefit the state, Maguire said.“That’s how we sell this to our Legislature and anybody else when they have a problem endorsing this concept,” Maguire said.Not living in a siloFrame said after the town hall that it’s time for the DEP to review and update its nearly 20-year-old environmental equity policy with input from citizens and leaders from impacted communities.Of particular concern, Frame said, is the water and air quality surrounding the Kanawha Valley’s chemical plants located near communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.“We need legislation in West Virginia, we need the introduction of House bills that are going to be supporting climate justice policies and laws that they can enforce,” Chapman said.But the first week and a half of the 2022 state legislative session has resulted in the advancement of bills favorable to energy industries, not measures focused on environmental justice.State lawmaker committees have pushed forward bills that would lift restrictions on nuclear power development, allow restricting state banking contracts with financial institutions that divest from fossil fuel companies and create a mining mutual insurance company with $50 million of state funds that critics say amounts to a coal industry bailout destined to lose taxpayer dollars amid the energy transition away from coal.Those seeking environmental justice in Union Carbide’s shadow are looking for justice through the courts as well.Two federal class-action lawsuits filed by Kanawha County residents against Union Carbide in 2019 touted the EPA’s air toxics assessment finding elevated cancer risks from ethylene oxide, alleging the company’s ethylene oxide emissions exposed residents in Institute and South Charleston to hazardous levels of the chemical for decades.The still-unresolved lawsuits contend the pollution prompted residents to turn to medical monitoring to mitigate increased cancer risk.The plaintiffs in those cases have sought any medical surveillance programs Union Carbide has considered or implemented for employees exposed to ethylene oxide at Union Carbide’s West Virginia operations since 1970, including whether such programs were used for any risk assessments or epidemiological investigations. They have also sought all enforcement actions taken by and communications with state or federal regulators regarding ethylene oxide at the Institute and South Charleston sites.Union Carbide has fought those requests, calling them “overbroad, unduly burdensome, and not proportional to the needs of the case” in a court filing last month.Quote“I feel like we’re talking about ethylene oxide sort of in a silo. It’s the chemical de jour. … [T]o look at ethylene oxide and say, ‘Well, there’s this amount of cancer risk,’ add that to the other exposures. Add that to the other chemicals that are in the air.” Kathy Ferguson Institute resident“Safety and integrity are at the core of Union Carbide’s operations and we remain dedicated to reducing ethylene oxide emissions to a level that meets or out-performs EPA regulations and our own aggressive company sustainability goals,” Union Carbide said in an emailed statement. “We take, and have always taken, emissions seriously and believe it is important that measurement and modeling techniques are subject to ongoing development and improvement over time.”There have been no Clean Air Act violations identified at Union Carbide’s Institute or South Charleston plants since at least April 2019, according to EPA data.But the facilities have emitted more than 868,000 pounds of ethylene oxide since 1987.

Chemical facilities in Institute have raised lingering environmental justice concerns that state and federal environmental regulators have struggled to assuage.  

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail file photo

Kathy Ferguson, an Institute area resident, said at the EPA and DEP joint public meeting in September on ethylene oxide in Kanawha County that uncertainty over cancer risks from the chemical made it feel like she and neighbors are being treated like guinea pigs.“I feel like we’re talking about ethylene oxide sort of in a silo,” Ferguson said, alluding to the 1985 leak from Union Carbide’s Institute plant and other chemical incidents in the Kanawha Valley. “It’s the chemical de jour … [T]o look at ethylene oxide and say, ‘Well, there’s this amount of cancer risk,’ add that to the other exposures. Add that to the other chemicals that are in the air.”Looking for a new normalOpponents of a proposal to build a 1,275-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant in Monongalia County that the Division of Air Quality earlier this month approved an air quality permit for cited environmental justice concerns with the project.Longview Power’s Mountain State Clean Energy LLC was looking to build the facility north of the Longview coal-fired plant in Maidsville.Mon Valley Clean Air Coalition coordinator and Morgantown resident Duane Nichols argued in written comments to state environmental regulators and at an October public hearing on the permit that it would be environmentally unjust for the plant to be located near West Virginia University medical facilities, University High School, health centers and other public sites of importance.Nichols said greenhouse gas emissions from the planned plant would add to long-term exposure for area students, patients in medical treatment and older residents in care facilities, exacerbating an environmental justice issue he contends already exists with Longview Power’s 700-megawatt coal-fired plant and FirstEnergy’s 1,107-megawatt coal-fired Fort Martin Power Station nearby.Those two plants emitted a combined 11,720,168 tons of carbon dioxide in 2019, resulting in health impacts that included 82 deaths and 4,173 lost work days, according to a Clean Air Task Force analysis of state data derived from a federal screening model.The permit allows annual carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of 2,227,260 tons per year for each emission point for a Mitsubishi Hibachi Power Series M501JAC combustion turbine and 2,563,571 tons per year for a General Electric 7HA.03 combustion turbine.“We believe that this proposed project with the numerous issues that offend the public interest should be set aside for a detailed environmental justice analysis,” Nichols and other project opponents wrote in public comments filed with the DEP on the permit application.The Division of Air Quality responded in a written comment by applying the EPA’s environmental justice screening tool to Mountain State Clean Energy’s proposed facility location.The area’s low-income population was greater than 72% of the rest of the state, while its population with less than a high school education ranked in the 75th percentile and its population over age 64 in the 62nd percentile.Despite the relatively high rankings, the Division of Air Quality wrote that the results didn’t warrant further review.“For now, there will not be a ‘new normal’ for Monongalia County and the surrounding region,” Nichols said in an email.Those who lament Institute’s history of disproportionate environmental burdens also hope to turn the page toward a new normal. In the meantime, the people behind the percentiles in Institute and South Charleston residents wait on the DEP and EPA for more information — and regulatory relief.“It is beyond time to provide community-based public education from state leadership to inform residents of the health hazards they are exposed to and for the DEP to act immediately to reduce those hazards,” Frame said.

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Jersey conservationists worried about pandemic plastic pollution

At a glanceJersey conservationists are worried about the impact of pandemic plastic pollution on the ocean around the island.They say litter can float down to the seabed and quickly make its way into the food chain. A beachcomber who has been cleaning the island’s beaches for 25 years says she is finding “a lot more” face masks entangled in seaweed.8 hours agoConservationists in Jersey are concerned about the effects litter connected to the pandemic is having on the environment.They say there are large numbers of face masks and rubber gloves blowing into the sea around the island. Kevin McIlwee from Jersey Marine Conservation said he was especially concerned by items being found on the seabed.He said rubbish is being dropped on land which can then easily blow into the sea.He said: “Working gloves, plastic bags, can fill up with water and seep down to the seabed.”So it’s not just what we see on the surface it’s actually items that are actually on the seabed itself.”They’re particularly disturbing because they’re going to go very quickly into the food chain.”Tracy Vibert has been cleaning the island’s beaches for about 25 years and said she is finding “a lot more” face masks entangled in seaweed.What began as beachcombing gradually turned into beach cleaning.”We were considered strange, weird, even got asked if we were doing community service because a lady couldn’t understand why we were picking somebody else’s rubbish up,” she told BBC Channel Islands.Ms Vibert says attitudes towards her hobby have changed over the years and that more people are picking their rubbish up since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.She said: “With the pandemic, people are spending a lot more time on the island and they’re seeing Jersey in a different light.”It’s becoming more popular and acceptable to pick up rubbish now which is a good thing.”

Senegal's 'Plastic Man' is on a mission to clean up pollution

Dressed head to toe in plastic, Modou Fall is a familiar sight in Dakar. But however playful his costume, his goal couldn’t be more serious: ridding the capital of the scourge of plastic bags.DAKAR, Senegal — As the marathon runners stretched and took their places on the starting line, one man stood out, dressed, as he was, in plastic from head to toe.A multicolored cape made entirely of plastic bags swept the sandy ground. A hat constructed out of plastic sunglasses was perched on his head.But this man, Modou Fall, was not competing in the annual marathon held in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, each November. He was participating in a different kind of race: one to save the West African country from the scourge of plastic waste that clogged its waterways, marred its white beaches and constantly blew across its streets.With the marathon drawing large crowds and a major media presence, he could not pass up the chance the race presented to promote his cause.Waving the Senegalese flag and carrying a loudspeaker from which spilled songs cataloging the damage caused by plastic — “I like my country, I say no to plastic bags” — Mr. Fall swished in and around the runners in his long plastic cloak as the race began.Those at the race who stopped him to ask for selfies fell into his well-laid and oft-used trap: He seized every opportunity to give them a gentle lecture about environmental issues.After the last group of runners had left the starting area, Mr. Fall and his team of volunteers began to pick up the empty water bottles and plastic bags they had left behind.For the foreign racers and tourists the marathon brought to Dakar, this might have been their first encounter with Mr. Fall, but for local residents, he’s a familiar presence known as “Plastic Man.”Mr. Fall offering paper bags as an alternative to plastic at a market on the outskirts of Dakar.Zohra Bensemra/ReutersHe can often be seen dancing through the streets dressed in a self-designed and ever-evolving costume made entirely of plastic, mostly bags collected from across the city. Pinned to his chest is a sign that reads NO PLASTIC BAGS. It’s a fight he takes very seriously.His costume is modeled after the “Kankurang” — an imposing traditional figure deeply rooted in Senegalese culture who stalks sacred forests and wears a shroud of woven grasses. The Kankurang is considered a protector against bad spirits, and in charge of teaching communal values.“I behave like the Kankurang,” Mr. Fall said in a recent interview. “I am an educator, a defender and a protector of the environment.”While plastic waste poses a severe environmental problem around the globe, recent studies have found Senegal, despite its relatively small size, to be among the top countries polluting the world’s oceans with plastic. This is in part because it struggles to manage its waste, like many poorer countries, and it has a large population living on the coast.In an effort to reduce its share of pollution, the Senegalese government implemented a ban on some plastic products in 2020, but the country has had a hard time enforcing it. Senegal, with a population of about 17 million, is projected to produce more than 700,000 metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste by 2025 if nothing is done, compared with about 337,000 metric tons in the United States.A scene in Bargny, a coastal town in Senegal. Like many poorer countries, Senegal struggles to manage its plastic waste. Leo Correa/Associated PressMr. Fall, 48, has been fighting against plastic waste for most of his adult life. A tall, quietly charismatic former soldier, he first noticed plastic’s damaging effects in 1998 during his military service. He was stationed in rural eastern Senegal, home to many herding communities, where he saw their cows getting sick after consuming the fragments of plastic bags that littered the arid landscape.The herders would slaughter their valuable animals before they inevitably died. This way, at least, eating their meat would not be haram, or forbidden by Islam.After his military service, Mr. Fall sold T-shirts and life buoys in Dakar’s busy Sandaga market, where dozens of traders displayed all kind of goods, often packed in plastic. Plastic bags were cheap and plentiful, and shopkeepers would toss them into the street with abandon, unaware of how they could harm the environment.For months, Mr. Fall tried to get his fellow shopkeepers to recognize the environmental threat posed by using so much plastic, and if they did use it, to dispose of it properly. But nobody listened. The market was a mess.Fed up, one day he decided to try leading by example. He would clean up the entire market on his own.Mr. Fall on the streets of Dakar during November’s marathon.Ricci Shryock for The New York Times“It took me 13 days, but I did it,” he said.The plastic eventually came back. But he’d succeeded in making some of the stall holders think twice.And stopping the rising tide of plastic became Mr. Fall’s obsession. “If it continues like this, the lives of future generations are in jeopardy,” he said.In 2006, Mr. Fall used his life savings, just over $500, to found his association, Senegal Propre, or Clean Senegal.He planted dozens of trees across the city and held community meetings to persuade people to stop buying throwaway plastic. He organized cleaning and tire recycling campaigns in Dakar’s lively neighborhoods, his waste pickers dodging taxi drivers and street vendors as they went.With the plastic waste they collected, Clean Senegal made bricks, paving stones and public benches. Old tires became couches that they sold for about $430 apiece — money that went toward more environmental efforts like planting trees at schools.Other street vendors began to see the point of what he was doing, and joined in.“I used to throw plastic bags or cups in the street after use because I wasn’t aware of the dangers it could cause,” said Cheikh Seck, 31, who sells sunglasses and watches in Pikine, his home suburb in Dakar. “Plastic waste is a global concern, and I am more than happy to contribute to the fight that Modou started.”The plastic waste clogging up the ocean waters off Dakar has damaged fishing stocks, further decreasing the incomes of Senegalese fishermen already struggling against their waters being overfished. Plastic can also poison agricultural land.Mr. Fall and volunteers picking up trash on a Dakar beach on World Cleanup Day, in 2018.Zohra Bensemra/ReutersMr. Fall’s message seems to be catching on. At November’s marathon, the third one he has cleaned up after, some of the runners now knew his favorite slogan and yelled it to him as they passed: “No to plastic waste!”Following much of the marathon route, Mr. Fall and his team of 10 young volunteers in green shirts and gloves fanned out for their cleanup operation.They picked up water bottles outside Dakar’s pioneering Museum of Black Civilizations, which showcases one of Africa’s largest art collections. They collected hundreds of plastic bags on the leafy campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University. They found plastic cups in the thrumming city center, known as Plateau, home to the presidential palace and many embassies.One of the neighborhoods they passed through was Medina, built by the French during the colonial period, and where Mr. Fall was born. After his father died when he was 4, Mr. Fall’s mother moved the family to the suburbs. As a single mother, she struggled to make ends meet running a restaurant, and Mr. Fall had to leave school after only six years of primary education to support the family by taking jobs in metalworking and house painting. After his mother died, he joined the army.By midafternoon of the marathon day, Mr. Fall and his team were staggering under the weight of the plastic they had collected. A van drove up and they handed over hundreds of plastic bottles.The team took a short break for lunch. But not Mr. Fall. He was still focused on his mission. There were five miles to go along the race route, and he set off, his plastic cape floating around him.Those at the marathon often stopped Mr. Fall to ask for a selfie. He seized the chance to give those posing with him a gentle lecture about environmental issues.Ricci Shryock for The New York Times

Senegal's 'Plastic Man' is on a mission to clean up pollution

Dressed head to toe in plastic, Modou Fall is a familiar sight in Dakar. But however playful his costume, his goal couldn’t be more serious: ridding the capital of the scourge of plastic bags.DAKAR, Senegal — As the marathon runners stretched and took their places on the starting line, one man stood out, dressed, as he was, in plastic from head to toe.A multicolored cape made entirely of plastic bags swept the sandy ground. A hat constructed out of plastic sunglasses was perched on his head.But this man, Modou Fall, was not competing in the annual marathon held in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, each November. He was participating in a different kind of race: one to save the West African country from the scourge of plastic waste that clogged its waterways, marred its white beaches and constantly blew across its streets.With the marathon drawing large crowds and a major media presence, he could not pass up the chance the race presented to promote his cause.Waving the Senegalese flag and carrying a loudspeaker from which spilled songs cataloging the damage caused by plastic — “I like my country, I say no to plastic bags” — Mr. Fall swished in and around the runners in his long plastic cloak as the race began.Those at the race who stopped him to ask for selfies fell into his well-laid and oft-used trap: He seized every opportunity to give them a gentle lecture about environmental issues.After the last group of runners had left the starting area, Mr. Fall and his team of volunteers began to pick up the empty water bottles and plastic bags they had left behind.For the foreign racers and tourists the marathon brought to Dakar, this might have been their first encounter with Mr. Fall, but for local residents, he’s a familiar presence known as “Plastic Man.”Mr. Fall offering paper bags as an alternative to plastic at a market on the outskirts of Dakar.Zohra Bensemra/ReutersHe can often be seen dancing through the streets dressed in a self-designed and ever-evolving costume made entirely of plastic, mostly bags collected from across the city. Pinned to his chest is a sign that reads NO PLASTIC BAGS. It’s a fight he takes very seriously.His costume is modeled after the “Kankurang” — an imposing traditional figure deeply rooted in Senegalese culture who stalks sacred forests and wears a shroud of woven grasses. The Kankurang is considered a protector against bad spirits, and in charge of teaching communal values.“I behave like the Kankurang,” Mr. Fall said in a recent interview. “I am an educator, a defender and a protector of the environment.”While plastic waste poses a severe environmental problem around the globe, recent studies have found Senegal, despite its relatively small size, to be among the top countries polluting the world’s oceans with plastic. This is in part because it struggles to manage its waste, like many poorer countries, and it has a large population living on the coast.In an effort to reduce its share of pollution, the Senegalese government implemented a ban on some plastic products in 2020, but the country has had a hard time enforcing it. Senegal, with a population of about 17 million, is projected to produce more than 700,000 metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste by 2025 if nothing is done, compared with about 337,000 metric tons in the United States.A scene in Bargny, a coastal town in Senegal. Like many poorer countries, Senegal struggles to manage its plastic waste. Leo Correa/Associated PressMr. Fall, 48, has been fighting against plastic waste for most of his adult life. A tall, quietly charismatic former soldier, he first noticed plastic’s damaging effects in 1998 during his military service. He was stationed in rural eastern Senegal, home to many herding communities, where he saw their cows getting sick after consuming the fragments of plastic bags that littered the arid landscape.The herders would slaughter their valuable animals before they inevitably died. This way, at least, eating their meat would not be haram, or forbidden by Islam.After his military service, Mr. Fall sold T-shirts and life buoys in Dakar’s busy Sandaga market, where dozens of traders displayed all kind of goods, often packed in plastic. Plastic bags were cheap and plentiful, and shopkeepers would toss them into the street with abandon, unaware of how they could harm the environment.For months, Mr. Fall tried to get his fellow shopkeepers to recognize the environmental threat posed by using so much plastic, and if they did use it, to dispose of it properly. But nobody listened. The market was a mess.Fed up, one day he decided to try leading by example. He would clean up the entire market on his own.Mr. Fall on the streets of Dakar during November’s marathon.Ricci Shryock for The New York Times“It took me 13 days, but I did it,” he said.The plastic eventually came back. But he’d succeeded in making some of the stall holders think twice.And stopping the rising tide of plastic became Mr. Fall’s obsession. “If it continues like this, the lives of future generations are in jeopardy,” he said.In 2006, Mr. Fall used his life savings, just over $500, to found his association, Senegal Propre, or Clean Senegal.He planted dozens of trees across the city and held community meetings to persuade people to stop buying throwaway plastic. He organized cleaning and tire recycling campaigns in Dakar’s lively neighborhoods, his waste pickers dodging taxi drivers and street vendors as they went.With the plastic waste they collected, Clean Senegal made bricks, paving stones and public benches. Old tires became couches that they sold for about $430 apiece — money that went toward more environmental efforts like planting trees at schools.Other street vendors began to see the point of what he was doing, and joined in.“I used to throw plastic bags or cups in the street after use because I wasn’t aware of the dangers it could cause,” said Cheikh Seck, 31, who sells sunglasses and watches in Pikine, his home suburb in Dakar. “Plastic waste is a global concern, and I am more than happy to contribute to the fight that Modou started.”The plastic waste clogging up the ocean waters off Dakar has damaged fishing stocks, further decreasing the incomes of Senegalese fishermen already struggling against their waters being overfished. Plastic can also poison agricultural land.Mr. Fall and volunteers picking up trash on a Dakar beach on World Cleanup Day, in 2018.Zohra Bensemra/ReutersMr. Fall’s message seems to be catching on. At November’s marathon, the third one he has cleaned up after, some of the runners now knew his favorite slogan and yelled it to him as they passed: “No to plastic waste!”Following much of the marathon route, Mr. Fall and his team of 10 young volunteers in green shirts and gloves fanned out for their cleanup operation.They picked up water bottles outside Dakar’s pioneering Museum of Black Civilizations, which showcases one of Africa’s largest art collections. They collected hundreds of plastic bags on the leafy campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University. They found plastic cups in the thrumming city center, known as Plateau, home to the presidential palace and many embassies.One of the neighborhoods they passed through was Medina, built by the French during the colonial period, and where Mr. Fall was born. After his father died when he was 4, Mr. Fall’s mother moved the family to the suburbs. As a single mother, she struggled to make ends meet running a restaurant, and Mr. Fall had to leave school after only six years of primary education to support the family by taking jobs in metalworking and house painting. After his mother died, he joined the army.By midafternoon of the marathon day, Mr. Fall and his team were staggering under the weight of the plastic they had collected. A van drove up and they handed over hundreds of plastic bottles.The team took a short break for lunch. But not Mr. Fall. He was still focused on his mission. There were five miles to go along the race route, and he set off, his plastic cape floating around him.Those at the marathon often stopped Mr. Fall to ask for a selfie. He seized the chance to give those posing with him a gentle lecture about environmental issues.Ricci Shryock for The New York Times

We’ve breached Earth’s threshold for chemical pollution, study says

A new study has found that the release of novel entities — artificial chemicals and other human-made pollutants — has accelerated to a point that we have crossed a “planetary boundary,” threatening the entire Earth operating system, along with humanity.The study authors argue that the breach of this critical planetary boundary has occurred because the rate at which novel entities are being developed and produced by industry exceeds governments’ ability to assess risk and monitor impacts.There are about 350,000 different types of artificial chemicals currently on the international market, with production of existing and new synthetic chemicals set to substantially increase in the coming decades.While many of these substances have been shown to negatively affect the natural world and human health, the vast majority have yet to be evaluated, with their interactions and impacts poorly understood or completely unknown. Many thousands of human-made chemicals and synthetic pollutants are circulating throughout our world, with new ones entering production all the time — so many, in fact, that scientists now say we’ve crossed a critical threshold that heightens the risk of destabilizing the entire Earth operating system and posing a clear threat to humanity.
There are about 350,000 different types of artificial chemicals currently in the global market, from plastics to pesticides to industrial chemicals like flame retardants and insulators. While research has shown that many of these chemicals can have deleterious impacts on the natural world and human health, most substances have not been evaluated, with their interactions and impacts not yet understood or entirely unknown.
“The knowledge gaps are massive and we don’t have the tools to understand all of what is being produced or released or [what is] having effects,” Bethanie Carney Almroth, an ecotoxicologist and microplastics researcher from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, told Mongabay in a video interview. “We just don’t know. So we try to look at what we do know and add up all these little puzzle pieces to get a big picture.”
As scientists endeavor to identify and understand the impacts of chemicals and other artificial substances — referred to en masse as “novel entities” — industries are pumping them out at a staggering rate. The global production of chemicals has increased fiftyfold since 1950, and this is expected to triple by 2050, according to a report published by the European Environment Agency. While some novel entities are regulated by governmental bodies and international agreements, many can be produced without any restrictions or controls.
The mismatch between the rapid rate at which novel entities are being produced, compared to the snail’s pace at which governments assess risk and monitor impacts — leaving society largely flying blind as to chemical threats — is what prompted Carney Almroth and colleagues to make a weighty argument in a new paper published in Science and Technology: that we have breached the “planetary boundary” for novel entities, endangering the stability of the planet we call home.
An estimated 350,000 different kinds of chemicals are currently in the global market, yet most substances have not been evaluated. Image by MolnarSzabolcsErdely via Pixabay.
Quantifying the novel entities boundary
The concept of planetary boundaries was first proposed by a team of international scientists in 2009 to articulate key natural processes that, when kept in balance, support biodiversity; but when disrupted beyond a certain threshold, can destabilize and even destroy the Earth’s ability to function and support life. Nine boundaries have been identified: climate change, biosphere integrity, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol pollution, freshwater use, biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, land-system change, and of course, the release of novel chemicals.
Many of these boundaries have clear thresholds. For instance, scientists determined that humanity would overshoot the safe operating space for climate change when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 350 parts per million (ppm), which happened in 1988. The threshold for novel entities, however, has until recently evaded definition, largely because of the knowledge gaps surrounding these substances.
Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, a plastic pollution researcher at Stockholm University’s Stockholm Resilience Centre, who co-authored the new paper, said these knowledge gaps aren’t present because these chemicals and other polluting substances don’t pose risks — it’s because scientists are still scrambling to understand novel entities and the myriad ways they can impact the natural world.
“It’s a very new field of study,” Villarrubia-Gómez told Mongabay in a video interview. “It’s in its infancy in comparison to other major environmental problems … most research has been done in the past seven years.”
Carney Almroth said researchers have used the Holocene, the current geological epoch that began just over 10,000 years ago, as a measuring point to quantify the thresholds of other planetary boundaries, but this approach wasn’t appropriate for novel entities.
“This boundary is different from the others because the others are all referring back to the Holocene conditions — that was 10,000 years of a very stable Earth system and Earth climate,” Carney Almroth said. Scientists “can look back and ask, ‘What were carbon dioxide levels then and where was nitrogen and phosphorus during that time period?’ and refer back to that [as a baseline]. We couldn’t do that because novel entities didn’t exist during that time period and the background baseline levels would be zero for most of them.”
Instead, the researchers gathered all of the information they could on artificial chemicals and other pollutants, looking at their impacts all along their supply chain, from extraction to production to use, and eventually, to their disposal as waste. Then they used a weight-of-evidence approach to determine that novel entities could, in fact, disrupt the planet’s stability.
“The weight of evidence indicates now that we are exceeding the boundary, but there’s more work to be done,” Carney Almroth said.
Björn Beeler, the international coordinator for the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), who was not involved in this new research, called it a “very smart academic paper” that illustrates the need to act.
“We’re about to enter an exponential growth period,” Beeler told Mongabay in a phone interview. “If you’re concerned about toxic substance exposure, the amount of toxic substances [including plastic pollution] is set to grow three- [or] fourfold in the decades ahead.”
He added: “If you’re worried about it now, it’s set to get a lot worse.”
With science falling far behind in assessing risk, and governments largely failing to regulate chemicals, humanity is flying blind into a future where the unforeseen impacts of chemical pollutants could be catastrophic.
The release of novel entities isn’t the only planetary boundary that humanity has breached. Climate change, biosphere integrity, land system change and the biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus have also pushed past the safe operating limits that keep Earth a habitable place.
As the demand for oil decreases, petrochemical companies are ramping up their plastic production. Image by Louis Vest via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
An ‘existential’ threat to humanity
What is known about chemical substances and other pollutants has long raised alarms among experts — dating back to Rachel Carson and the publication of Silent Spring, which helped launch the modern environmental movement. Hazardous chemicals such as pesticides can damage soil health, contaminate drinking water, and even get carried on the wind, to impact a wider environment and disrupt populations of birds, mammals and fish. Many of the chemicals we ingest, such as pharmaceuticals, persist after being flushed down the toilet, with wastewater polluting rivers and oceans, or even the land when contaminated solid sewage sludge is used to fertilize crops.
Chemical persistence in the environment is a major thorny problem: Research has shown that polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — highly toxic and carcinogenic substances banned by the U.S. as far back as 1977 and once widely used in coolants and oil paints — have continued building up in the blubber of killer whales (Orcinus orca), posing a genuine threat to a species that is already struggling in many parts of the world. So called “forever chemicals” — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), that are highly toxic, carcinogenic and act like endocrine disruptors, are currently commonly used in disposable food packaging, cookware, cosmetics and even dental floss. A recent report also found them to be common in most of the drinking water in the U.S. They take hundreds or thousands of years to break down, but no U.S. limits have yet been placed on the concentration of forever chemicals in water.
“Even if we were to stop using and releasing [many novel entities], they would still be [here] for decades, or centuries, depending on what [substance] we’re talking about,” Carney Almroth said, adding that the risk of residual impacts from novel entities makes it even more imperative to stop, or at least slow down, the release of these substances.
The new paper in Science and Technology takes a specific look at plastics, which have become ever-present in daily life as food packaging, kitchenware and appliances. In recent years, much attention has been paid to the trillions of microplastics — fragments smaller than 5 millimeters, or three-sixteenths of an inch — polluting the global oceans, and the potential for larger plastic pieces to entangle or choke wildlife. New research shows that the sea breeze can even propel microplastics into the atmosphere, contaminating the very air we breathe and impacting climate change.
Plastic is highly problematic since it’s made out of a cocktail of chemicals that can leach out dangerous substances, especially when heated, cooled or scratched. A chemical compound known as bisphenol A (BPA) has been shown to act as an endocrine disruptor and interfere with hormones, impact immune systems and even promote certain cancers. One study even found that BPA can be absorbed into the human body through mere skin contact. But it’s not just BPA that’s harmful — many BPA alternatives have been found to be equally a risk to human health.
“We have been told for many, many decades that [plastics are] inert, and that they don’t release chemicals to their surroundings,” Villarrubia-Gómez said. “More and more, we’re discovering that that’s not true. Plastic leaches other chemicals … and we are in contact with [plastic] the whole day.”
Plastic isn’t just a problem in its end state. To make plastic, which uses petroleum as its base, greenhouse gases like ethane and methane need to be fracked from the ground and “cracked” into new compounds, the precursors to plastics. These industrial processes can release a number of toxic chemicals, along with various greenhouse gases, into the environment. The production of plastics is also intimately tied to the fossil fuel industry; as demand for oil drops, the petrochemical industry is ramping up its production of plastics.
“They see plastics as their next piggy bank,” Carney Almroth said. “Simultaneously, there’s a big push for an increase in plastics production and plastic use and plastic sales.”
Beeler said the release of novel entities into the environment poses a similar risk as climate change. “They’re both existential threats to humanity,” he noted. “Climate change [will determine] where you can live and how you can have a livelihood. Chemicals actually just remove your health — it’s very, very direct and personal. So I would draw them [as being at] the same crisis levels. It’s just that we’re not that socially conscious of chemicals and chemical safety, as we are of climate now.”
Determining a chemical’s risk often takes many years of methodical research, as scientists trace the causal connections between a synthetic substance and resulting environmental and health impacts. By then, that substance will often be ubiquitous, used in products across society.
Many chemicals will persist in the environment for a long time after they have stopped being released by industries. Image by yogendras31 via Pixabay.
‘Uptick in awareness’ 
While change is urgently needed to mitigate the impacts of novel entities, Carney Almroth said such an industrial paradigm shift would require a “massive overhaul of systemic societal structures.”
Industries that produce novel entities are “supported by the fact that we require constant economic growth,” she said. “This is one of the ways that they’ve been able to keep producing and using chemicals, even in the face of toxicity data, because they can show that it can grow economies, provide jobs, provide materials and so on and so forth.”
Despite the enormity of the problem, there may be opportunities for change in the near future. For instance, there are calls to form an international panel on chemical pollution, similar to those institutions focused on biodiversity and climate, such as the IUCN or the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In February and March, the U.N. Environment Assembly (UNEA) will also be meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss a number of environmental issues, including whether to mandate a new global treaty on plastics.
Beeler said that while negotiations may swing in the direction of only treating plastic as a waste issue, there are calls to address the entire plastic life cycle, taking into account all of the chemicals and pollutants plastic releases into the environment from production to waste stream.
He also said there’s also a reason for optimism in the way heightened public interest in plastic pollution has helped raise awareness of the larger problem of synthetic chemical contaminants.
“There’s been a small uptick in awareness [of] the harm from chemicals … due to the affiliation and link to plastics,” he said. “But prior to plastics, it was really [an awareness] desert — and plastics have created a little oasis of growing consciousness.”
Citations:
Allen, S., Allen, D., Moss, K., Le Roux, G., Phoenix, V. R., & Sonke, J. E. (2020). Examination of the ocean as a source for atmospheric microplastics. PLOS ONE , 15(5). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0232746
European Environment Agency (2017). Chemicals for a sustainable future. Retrieved from: https://www.eea.europa.eu/about-us/governance/scientific-committee/reports/chemicals-for-a-sustainable-future
Desforges, J., Hall, A., McConnell, B., Rosing-Asvid, A., Barber, J. L., Brownlow, A., … Dietz, R. (2018). Predicting global killer whale population collapse from PCB pollution. Science, 361(6409), 1373-1376. doi:10.1126/science.aat1953
Ma, Y., Liu, H., Wu, J., Yuan, L., Wang, Y., Du, X., … Zhang, H. (2019). The adverse health effects of bisphenol a and related toxicity mechanisms. Environmental Research, 176, 108575. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2019.108575
Persson, L., Carney Almroth, B. M., Collins, C. D., Cornell, S., De Wit, C. A., Diamond, M. L., … Hauschild, M. Z. (2022). Outside the safe operating space of the planetary boundary for novel entities. Environmental Science & Technology. doi:10.1021/acs.est.1c04158
Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin III, F. S., Lambin, E., … Foley, J. (2009). Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society, 14(2). Retrieved from https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/
Wang, Z., Walker, G. W., Muir, D. C., & Nagatani-Yoshida, K. (2020). Toward a global understanding of chemical pollution: A first comprehensive analysis of national and regional chemical inventories. Environmental Science & Technology, 54(5), 2575-2584. doi:10.1021/acs.est.9b06379
Zalko, D., Jacques, C., Duplan, H., Bruel, S., & Perdu, E. (2011). Viable skin efficiently absorbs and metabolizes bisphenol a. Chemosphere, 82(3), 424-430. doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2010.09.058
Banner image caption: Plastic pollution in the ocean. Image by Naja Bertolt Jensen via Unsplash.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
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This recyclable boat is made from wool

Ask someone for a fact about New Zealand and chances are they’ll likely say, “There are more sheep than people.” It’s true, with 30 million sheep to 4.4 million humans, so it is little wonder that wool production is a major source of export revenue, and national pride, for the country. But the industry is in serious decline. Total wool exports fell 30.2 percent to NZ$367 million ($251.3 million USD) in the year to January 2021, and with wool prices so low it can often cost farmers more to shear sheep than they can get for the wool once sold.We’re not talking about luxury Merino wool here. That ultrafine fiber still commands a high price, but it makes up only 10 percent of New Zealand wool products. Some 80 percent of New Zealand wool is actually strong wool, a coarser natural fiber more typically used for carpets and rugs. Changing tastes and the popularity of man-made fibers means there’s a surfeit of strong wool in New Zealand—an estimated 1 million tons is stored waiting for the prices to improve—but 26-year-old inventor Logan Williams, and his company Shear Edge, is hoping to make the most of this increasingly ignored material by chopping it up and using it to make boats, knives, fencing, and just about anything that’s currently made using plastic.