Can you beat Tierra Curry’s record of swimming in 108 rivers?

Take the River Swimming Challenge in 2022.
Each summer, Tierra Curry and her friends have a fun competition to see who can swim in the most rivers. This year, Tierra went all in to win. She swam in 108 rivers across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. From her home near the Cumberland River in Kentucky, she traveled from Pennsylvania to Georgia, west to the Mississippi River and east to the Shenandoah River, to swim in every river she could reach. 
Curry didn’t wear a wetsuit—just a swimsuit and sandals. She was hoping to see a diversity of aquatic life. Instead, what she found was a lot of mud, pollution, and plastic. 
 “Wild, beautiful rivers are still out there, but they are few and far between,” Curry wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in September. “Most of the rivers I swam in were varying degrees of disgusting.”
Curry’s river swimming challenge also revealed the realities of our changing climate. Some rivers were bone-dry; others were swollen from so much rainfall that they washed out roads. 

Next year is the perfect time to take the plunge. 2022 is the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. As Curry discovered about our rivers, we have a lot to celebrate, and even more work to do.
What were the highlights of her river swimming challenge? Curry shared some of her most memorable moments from the 108 Southeastern rivers she visited.
What was the most beautiful river?
I’m in love with the Cranberry River in West Virginia. Summer or winter, it’s a beautiful place to sit on huge rocks under hemlock trees and rhododendrons and stare into the water. Early in the spring there are frog eggs, phoebes, juncos—it’s a naturalist’s wonderland.
What was the most polluted river?
Singling out the most polluted river is a matter of pick your poison. The Obion was surrounded by endless fields of corn and soy that are doused in pesticides and fertilizers and run right up to the river’s edge with no forested buffers. In the Mississippi in western Kentucky I waded in through an oil sheen. When I swam in the Shenandoah there was an active no swim advisory due to E. coli and algae. I felt good about the rivers that were surprisingly clear until a Debbie Downer scientist pointed out that some rivers are clear because they are so toxic nothing can survive.
What was the craziest object you observed in the river?
I was actually happy to find a baby doll head in the Guyandotte River because malacologists are prone to flaunting their doll-parts loot in particular. At the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society meeting, they auction off this grotesque sculpture of scavenged baby dolls that the highest bidder gets to house for the year. I also found a My Little Pony in the Cumberland, and most of a cow skeleton.
What were the biggest and smallest rivers you swam in?
I got in the Mississippi at the western edge of Kentucky, but the river there was narrower than the Ohio at the waterfront in Paducah where it meets the Tennessee. 
I had to lay down in a puddle in the Lost River in West Virginia when it was living up to its name in a summer dry spell.
Your favorite river?
The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is my favorite river ever. It’s the only place where the critically endangered littlewing pearly mussel survives and is also home to the endemic Big South Fork crayfish and dozens of other special species. The wildflowers are off the charts and the rock formations are magnificent.
Most endangered river? 
The Rockcastle River in Kentucky still supports a pretty good assemblage of endangered mussels, but unmanaged off-road vehicle traffic on Forest Service land is dumping sediment into the river, which jeopardizes the survival of the endangered animals. Wading into the mainstem of the river you sink into goo the silt load is so high. It’s tragic because it doesn’t have to be this way if people would stay on trails and the agency would enforce the boundaries.
Coldest river? 
Dam-released water can be brutally cold and the Savage River in Maryland is no exception. But the naturally coldest river was the Little Pigeon in the Smokies. People on the trail were in disbelief that I jumped in.
What were the first and last rivers you swam in?
I started the season the week of summer solstice in the Green River in western Kentucky. It’s home to an amazing diversity of freshwater mussels. I had always read that empty mussel shells provide homes for other species, and sure enough I picked up an old shell and there was a tiny crawdad living inside. It feels so deeply good to explore the handful of places where endangered species are surviving and recovering as opposed to the larger landscape where most rivers have just been wrecked.
I ended the season in the Little River in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a clear, stunningly cold beautiful stream.
What species depend on these rivers?
Humans depend on the rivers for drinking water, fishing, and recreation. Driving around swimming in rivers and then getting to come home and shower and drink reliably clean water is an experience of privilege. Some communities have polluted water and can’t just drive away, and the wildlife that depend on the rivers for their very survival can’t just up and move. Coal mining ruined my family’s well water when I was in high school, and we couldn’t use it for drinking or even laundry.
The Southeast is a world hotspot for freshwater biodiversity including fish, salamanders, crayfish, mussels, river snails, turtles, and aquatic insects. Our beautiful rivers and the amazing diversity of wildlife they support should be a source of pride and we should safeguard them.
What was the most dangerous or difficult moment during your river swim challenge?
Knowingly submerging myself in polluted waters aside, I took some chances that weren’t the smartest decisions during the record floods in Tennessee when I should’ve just stayed out of the rushing water. I dedicated each summer weekend to heading out in a different direction from my home near the Cumberland River, and my weekend to drive across Tennessee coincided with the flooding. The rivers were overtopping roads and bridges and I couldn’t see under the water at all and I kept having to turn around and reroute because the roads were flooded. I got the points, but I didn’t get to experience the wildlife at all.
How can we improve health of our rivers?
Everything flows downhill and ends up in a river. Individuals can choose not to use pesticides and can choose healthier versions of personal care and cleaning products. Dietary choices like choosing organic produce and plant-based proteins lessen the pollution burden. Towns can create greener parking lots and streets with vegetated stormwater buffers. Agencies can increase enforcement to keep off-road vehicle traffic on designated trails away from waterways. States can improve water quality standards, protect headwater streams, and limit development approvals that would degrade water quality. We can stop building new dams, remove old dams, and better manage all dams to prevent the spread of invasive species and ensure adequate flows for wildlife.
I was bowled over by how much litter people leave on riverbanks. An old school Give a Hoot Don’t Pollute campaign would be helpful. At the macro level, we need to fight for policies to end human-caused extinction and to protect a livable climate.
What was the most inspiring moment from your summer of swims?
Growing up in southeastern Kentucky, surface coal mining was rampant, and creeks could run orange, blue, black, nothing was surprising. Returning to explore the area this summer after decades away, I was pleasantly surprised by how clear some of the rivers are now. I’m so stoked about the lovely Russell Fork River Blue Water Trail on the Kentucky-Virginia border. I swam at an incredible public access beach in downtown Elkhorn City that rivals any swimming hole anywhere. 
Cover Photo: Curry in the Big South Fork, one of the 108 rivers she visited in 2021. 

Injustice forever? Toxic PFAS chemicals have ‘made a mockery of our environmental regulations’

Wherever you look for PFAS, you’ll find them.
“They’re on Mount Everest; they’re in the Mariana Trench; they’re in polar bears; they’re in penguins; and they’re in just about every human population on Earth,” says David Bond, a cultural anthropologist and professor at Bennington College, who’s been investigating the “forever chemicals.”
PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a family of chemicals that includes PFOA and PFOS, are widely used in the manufacture of plastic products like non-stick pans, food packaging and waterproof clothing, and are also a component of firefighting foam.
Their non-sticky, nonreactive properties made them appealing to plastics manufacturers. But they’ve proved a nightmare for environmental health because they don’t break down quickly, if at all. They also travel long distances and bioaccumulate in plants, animals and people. Traces of the chemicals — many known to be harmful — are now found all over the world.
Seven years ago water tests revealed PFAS in Hoosick Falls, New York, just down the road from Bennington College. Bond, along with a small team of other professors at Bennington, began engaging students and community members in an effort to understand the extent of local PFAS contamination — which he later learned even included his own backyard.
They’ve since extended their work to other areas — helping to generate research that’s given communities a weapon to fight back against polluters and push for stronger regulations.
The Revelator spoke with Bond, who also serves as the associate director of the Elizabeth Coleman Center for the Advancement of Public Action, about the dangers of PFAS, why regulators have been slow to act and the power of a real-world education in environmental justice.
You’ve studied the effects of fossil fuels on communities for years. How did you get involved with PFAS?
PFAS came to us. In Hoosick Falls, New York, which is about seven miles from us at Bennington College, a resident discovered high levels of PFOA in drinking water in 2014. The state was unsure of what to do and actually put out a sheet for residents that said that PFOA was detected in the water over the level that the EPA had issued a health concern for, but residents could continue drinking the water and there was nothing to worry about.
So this caused a lot of alarm and residents reached out to me and asked if I would help them understand what was happening. I quickly enlisted a chemistry professor and a geology professor to join me.
We realized that one of the things that we do — teach — could be put in the service of this sort of unfolding toxic event. So we put together a classroom that was free for the community — anybody could come and take that class to learn about the contaminants, the health concerns, and what sort of things were available to help protect themselves.
What was the response from the community? And what did you learn together?
We had about half students and half community members in most of the classes. In 2015 [when we started] it was really just an emerging issue and there wasn’t a lot of reliable information. There were three plastics plants in town that were suspected and found to be the sources of the contamination. The state set up a perimeter around [them] and wasn’t willing to test beyond that perimeter.
But in our class people would say things like, “I live outside town, but every night for a few years, a truck would come up my road with a bunch of barrels and it would come back down the road in the middle of the night with no barrels. I wonder if there’s a dumpsite there.”
And so we would put together a little research question and go up and take some samples from surface water and groundwater where they had identified [potential problems] and see what we found. And a handful of times we came back with really high levels that we then turned over to the state and asked them to expand the perimeter. That perimeter kept expanding.
Eventually what we identified was an area of about 200 square miles that was contaminated with PFOA — way above what you’d expect in that area — that we could trace back to the plastics factories.
It took the state a very long time to start thinking at that scale. But we were able to because we were talking to people, listening to what they said. This is what anthropology is good at — listening to people. And [because we] partnered with a chemist and a geologist, we had all the tools you need to take people seriously and really test what they were telling us.
Former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck and Bennington College faculty members Janet Foley and John Hultgren take PFOA community health questionnaires door-to-door in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. Photo: David Bond, Bennington College
What’s been the impact of this work?
The students have gotten really engaged with this issue. It’s not something that you study in a textbook yet. It’s an unfolding problem and it’s happening next door. We brought our neighbors into our classroom, and we got out and went into our neighbors’ houses and started working together with them. And the students have been really taken with this model of learning.
I’ve also just drawn tremendous inspiration from how the community has insisted on justice for them. I’m not just working with them, I actually live there. PFAS was found in my own garden.
With this class of chemicals there’s no going back to before — the contamination is so extensive. There’s no way to remediate 200 square miles of this contaminant. It means that people are going to be carrying a lifetime of medical worry.
We know that trace exposure to these chemicals on levels of parts per trillion — which is almost impossible to get your head around how small that is — is strongly linked to a number of developmental dysfunctions, immune issues, and a host of cancers. Folks know these chemicals are in our community. We were exposed to them for decades. That means we’re going to have a pattern of health impacts over the long haul. So they’ve been really proactive at insisting that medical monitoring be part of any settlement with the polluters.
That sets up a kind of infrastructure where all the local doctors and nurses are on the lookout for all of the health issues that are known to be associated with exposure to these chemicals. And most of these issues — if they’re caught early — they’re very treatable.
Folks have also insisted on filtration systems for everybody’s water — this stuff is probably going to be in the groundwater for millennia.
After working in Hoosick Falls, you’ve extended your work to other communities. What else have you found?
In the last few years we’ve gotten a number of requests, and each time we try to figure out what we can do to help and how we can put the scientific resources of a college to work helping the public understand the PFAS issue and equip them to be better citizens and pursue environmental justice.
The last one that we got involved in was the incineration of PFAS. As it’s becoming clear that they will likely be designated as a hazardous waste substance, those who are sitting on stockpiles of these chemicals will soon have a huge liability on their hands. So the Department of Defense and the petrochemical industry have all rushed to start trying to incinerate stockpiles of PFAS.
This is worrisome because there’s no evidence that incineration destroys these chemicals. They’re fireproof toxins and are used in firefighting foam extensively. It’s a bit of a harebrained notion that you can burn them to destroy them.
A public housing complex in Cohoes, New York got ahold of us two years ago. It’s next to an incinerator. They had gotten word that it was suspected to be incinerating a tremendous amount of what’s called AFFF [Aqueous Film Forming Foam], which is a firefighting foam that’s made mostly of PFAS chemicals.
We took some samples of soil and water around that incinerator and analyzed them. We found a fairly distinctive fingerprint that matched AFFF. And again, in the shadow of the incinerator stands the public housing complex that’s by and large poor people of color. And this incinerator was just torching away as much PFAS as they could get. There’s no evidence that incineration was breaking those toxins down and good reason to think it was just spreading them into the community.
Norlite hazardous waste incinerator sits less than 400 feet from Saratoga Sites public housing in Cohoes, N.Y. Photo: David Bond, Bennington College
We were able to document that and push that out and the town passed a moratorium on burning PFAS waste at that incinerator. And then the state passed a bill that banned this incineration in [parts of] New York. We suspect that hasn’t slowed down the burning of these chemicals nationwide, so I’ve been in conversation with a few folks trying to figure out how we can push a national ban.
There has been recent news that the EPA is finally moving to act on regulating some PFAS. Do you think the actions will go far enough? 
I appreciate that the EPA is taking a step toward this crisis by announcing that they are going to begin to try to regulate PFOA and PFOS — two of the most prominent chemicals in the PFAS family. However, the step they’ve chosen to take is far too little and far too late. The EPA was made aware of the toxicity of PFOA and PFOS nearly 20 years ago.
If you follow that timeline out, it’s going to take about a century to go through all of the PFAS chemicals that are now in circulation, build up a data set on them, and begin to issue regulations for them.
And now that we’re discovering these chemicals in our drinking water, our farms and our bodies, [regulators are] almost throwing their hands up at the sheer ubiquity of the problem and saying, “What can we possibly do at this point, they’re everywhere”? It’s almost as if PFAS are becoming too toxic to fail.
The petrochemical manufacturers knew the risks of these chemicals almost from the moment they started manufacturing them in the 1960s. Again and again, they buried that evidence. The ways that PFAS has made a mockery of our environmental regulations can’t be the end of our ability to prosecute these injustices. This needs to be the starting point of fixing everything that went wrong, not a point of resignation.

Are Forever Chemicals Harming Ocean Life?

Hospitals want to go green, but sustainability data is scarce

As Dr. Jodi Sherman thought about her residency at Stanford University, she couldn’t help but notice how many medical supplies, plastic, resources — stuff — she was throwing away every day.
“It just felt wrong,” she said. Sherman couldn’t put out of her mind that she was feeding into pollution and dirty air that would, at some point, send more people to hospitals.
“It was clear that we were using so much stuff, it was going somewhere and it was coming from somewhere, and we must be causing so much harm to the environment,” she said. “At the time, there was no resources to understand the magnitude of the problem and be able to guide better practice.”
She made a pact to herself that she wouldn’t practice medicine unless she got involved in greening medical systems.
Ten years later, as an anesthesiologist at Yale University and director of the school’s Program on Healthcare Environmental Sustainability, Sherman is one of many doctors still prodding U.S. hospitals and health systems to take action on sustainability. But without a standard framework, U.S. hospitals are slow to green.
Across the globe, health care is responsible for nearly 5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and the United States is among the world’s highest emitters along with China. According to Sherman’s estimate, 8.5 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from the health care industry in 2018.
Emissions from running the hospital and its vehicles accounted for 17 percent of the sector’s worldwide footprint, and indirect emissions from steam, electricity, cooling and heating made up another 12 percent. The bulk of health care emissions — about 70 percent — stemmed from the supply chain of goods and services, notably pharmaceuticals, medical devices and food.
A 2018 study found that pollution from health care results in a loss annually of up to 614,000 disability-adjusted life years — a figure that combines years of life lost due to both premature mortality and time lived in states of less than full health.
And the problem goes beyond emissions; the sector also has a huge waste — especially plastic — problem. The health care industry produces around 5.9 million metric tons of medical waste per year in the United States, and of that amount, 1.7 million metric tons is plastic.
“The latest framework is this idea that we have to go zero carbon because we are dramatically approaching climate tipping points,” Sherman said. But in addition to that, “we need to understand more about other dimensions of the issue and how to quantify them — greenhouse gases aren’t the only emissions of concern.”

Where are the numbers?
A hospital is a resource-eating beast — it has to be always alive, prepared and moving. The building and its lights, heat and electricity run 24/7. Trucks move in and out, feeding it medical and food supplies. Waste from single-use devices, gowns, masks and more piles up in the dumpster, waiting to see a landfill. And hundreds of miles away, plastics are molded into gloves, tubes and needles to be used once and thrown out.
Few medical centers in the U.S. are measuring and reporting their emissions, but Harvard Medical School and the Cleveland Clinic are among the exceptions. Harvard is aiming to be fossil-fuel neutral by 2026, and the Cleveland Clinic has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2027.
Other hospitals, like Boston Medical Center, have carbon-neutral goals but don’t publicly track their progress. The Boston facility has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030 and has won awards for its green initiatives, but it doesn’t publicly report environmental impact or emissions data. As hospitals declare sustainability and net-zero goals, green advocates wonder whether there can be accountability without data.
The Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit medical center, has been pursuing green initiatives since 2007 — strides ahead of other U.S. hospitals.
Not only does the clinic’s Office for a Healthy Environment track and report its emissions across the spectrum, but it’s also one of the first medical facilities to adopt a clinical plastic recycling program, use alternative fuel vehicles including patient transportation vans and buses, and repurpose unused medical tools. It installed the campus’s first solar array over a decade ago.
As a result, the clinic has reduced its carbon intensity by 28 percent since 2007. And its public data report proves it.
“Doctors and nurses see [the sustainability] issue and want to get involved,” said Jon Utech, senior director of the clinic’s Office for a Healthy Environment. “We actually have a custom recycling program that happened because of engaged physicians and nurses — it troubled them to see all these materials being thrown away.”
For example, Utech said the clinic has a program to repurpose medical supplies that were set out but not used during procedures, including catheters, blood pressure cuffs and laparoscopic devices.
But convincing hospital leadership to adopt green goals can be tricky, especially as mergers happen and operations get larger. Existing sustainability and reporting goals can get lost in the shuffle as health companies buy up smaller ones, and it can be hard for physicians and nurses to advocate for green goals as management shifts.
Health Care Without Harm, a global nonprofit organization, is one of the largest operations dedicated to helping hospitals reduce their environmental footprint. For a fee, hospitals and medical systems can become a partner and access materials and advisers through Practice Greenhealth to improve their sustainability.
Although its goal is to set hospitals on a path to net neutrality and public emissions tracking, Sustainability Solutions Director Janet Howard said the organization sometimes has to start small with sustainability goals. Some facilities don’t have the workforce to set up infrastructure needed for robust programs. Others come to Practice Greenhealth with hopes to improve on one issue — like waste reduction — and don’t have the capacity to take on other sustainability problems.
“We do the fundamentals, helping them put the roots down,” Howard said.
But out of Practice Greenhealth’s about 1,400 partners, only 350 shared any sort of environmental data last year. The company also does not require hospitals to make data public.
Howard said that’s because medical facilities that join as partners have environmental programs at different maturity levels — some programs are so new that pushing for tracking and reporting could overwhelm the facilities and deter them from going green. Practice Greenhealth also gives out yearly environmental awards that do require data sharing. But that data is not made public.
“We advocate for [data reporting], but it takes time,” she said. “It can be a heavy lift for some of these hospitals to get their arms around.”

‘Yes, I’m optimistic’
By nature, hospitals’ missions and business models complicate sustainability efforts.
For one, medical systems sometimes struggle already to fulfill their primary calling to care for patients; especially in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic that has taken a huge toll on health care workers and resources, recycling and renewable energy come second to saving lives.
And the market competition that has been driving Wall Street to adopt sustainability measures doesn’t exist for hospitals — when in need, patients typically go to the nearest hospital or the one that best suits their medical needs, regardless of the facility’s green goals.
Although a handful of hospitals have voluntarily adopted emissions tracking, there’s still a push from green-minded doctors across the U.S. for mandatory reporting.
Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine said last month that the federal agency is working with health systems to find ways to lower emissions voluntarily. That gives Sherman hope for greener hospitals.
“Yes, I’m optimistic,” she said. “If I weren’t hopeful, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.”

BPA use in doubt as Europe proposes vastly more protective health limits

European regulators on Thursday took sharp aim at the common plastic additive BPA, slashing the recommended daily dose by 100,000 and all but ensuring the chemical cannot be used in any product coming into contact with food.The decision, if it stands, promises to revolutionize the food contact materials industry—particularly food packaging and processing equipment—and bring BPA regulations in line with health research that scientists have been warning about for decades.BPA is a key ingredient in polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins—added to everything from Tupperware to food can liners. Scientists have long known the BPA leaches out of plastic and into food; virtually every human tested on the planet has some BPA in their blood.

BPA: No safe dose

Until Thursday, regulators have long held that some amount of BPA in our food and bodies is acceptable, with the US safety level about 12 times higher than European standards. But scientists have known since the 1990s that BPA has potentially harmful effects on reproduction, brain development, mammary gland health, and metabolism, among others.The new proposed rule, from the European Food Safety Authority—Europe’s equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—makes the regulations congruent with that science.A dose of BPA from a glass bottle with a BPA-laced sealant in the cap would likely be too high under Europe’s proposed rule, experts told EHN.”They are acknowledging what many of us have known for many years: Even at very low doses, BPA causes harm,” said Laura Vandenberg, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health & Health Sciences.”Unfortunately that’s a decision that’s two decades too late. A whole generation of children have been allowed to be exposed to levels potentially causing harm.”

BPA rule ‘decades late’

In 2015, the EFSA set a temporary safety level of 4 micrograms per kilogram of body weight for daily BPA exposure, what regulators call a “tolerable daily intake.” For comparison, that’s roughly the amount of folic acid doctors recommend pregnant women take daily to ensure the health of their child.In its draft re-evaluation of BPA, published today, EFSA’s expert Panel on Food Contact Materials, Enzymes and Processing Aids recommended setting the tolerable daily intake at 0.04 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day – a 100,000-fold drop.That’s the equivalent to taking the healthy serving size for cake from one slice to one-thousandths of a grain of flour.The U.S., meanwhile, set the equivalent daily exposure level for BPA in 1988 at 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day. It remains unchanged today.”Thank goodness for the EFSA advisors, because this is decades late in coming,” said Terry Collins, a green chemist at Carnegie Mellon University. “The challenge such lowering will produce for the chemical enterprise is massive, but for the sake of Europe’s fertility and its general health, regulators cannot back off this essential step.” “All of Europe—every pocket of the ecosphere—is contaminated with BPA,” Collins added. “You can find it in translucent shrimp at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. It’s everywhere.”

Hormone hijackers

The European recommendation comes as regulators assess new scientific evidence on BPA and its impact to hormone, brain and body development, especially to the immune system, the EFSA said.“This updated draft is the result of a thorough assessment over several years,” said Dr. Claude Lambré, chair of the CEP Food Contact Panel, in a statement. “The new scientific studies that have emerged in literature have helped us address important uncertainties about BPA’s toxicity.”In the US, federal regulators have examined but discounted the same evidence via a process that an investigation found to be highly problematic and “willfully blind.”That study, dubbed CLARITY-BPA, found that even the lowest dose administered had bad effects, prompting scientists involved in the study to conclude that the safe dose of BPA would need to be at least 20,000 times lower than current federal standards. European regulators are pushing for an even lower safe dose.“This divide between how European regulators regard BPA toxicity and the U.S. approach is going to provoke major challenges in trade and commerce —and fundamental questions about what US regulators are doing,” said Pete Myers, chief scientist for Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of “What do European regulators know that the US FDA is ignoring? They can’t both be right.”The American Chemistry Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.BPA is an endocrine disruptor, hijacking the body’s hormone functions at extraordinarily tiny concentrations. “What we’ve learned from literally tens of thousands of papers, is that endocrine activity is stimulated by very tiny quantities of endocrine hormones,” Collins told for its investigation, “Exposed: How willful blindness keeps BPA on shelves and contaminating our bodies.””Really, if you look at the data, we shouldn’t be making these compounds, period.”

BPA in food, receipts

The proposed EFSA rules do have their limits.They apply only to food-contact materials. BPA is also used in non-food applications, chiefly in paper used for cash register receipts and paper airline boarding passes and baggage tickets—though food is thought to be the major exposure route for BPA.And the ruling only applies to BPA, not to the host of chemical cousins like BPS and BPF that have proliferated in recent years as a replacement for BPA. While consumers and regulators have focused on banning BPA, most of the chemical replacements have the same harmful health effects.But the new limits are a start of a revolutionary new approach to assessing potential threats posed by chemicals used in everyday products, chemists said—one that should ripple across the Atlantic to the United States and throughout the chemical industry.”There are consequences for industry, but there are also consequences for human health,” said Thomas Zoeller, Emeritus Professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “This is just a sledge hammer that is telling us that our risk assessment strategies are simply not working.”The EFSA draft rules are open for public comment until Feb. 8, 2022. You can comment on the BPA health standards here on the EFSA’s “public consultations” page.
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The insidious side effects of recycling plastic

Cookware, water bottles, and hundreds of other items made from recycled plastic worldwide may contain toxic chemicals harmful to human health, a new study has found. The findings come as countries — including Canada — and companies aim to boost recycling rates in an effort to reduce plastic pollution. But now researchers with the International Pollutant Elimination Network (IPEN) warn those measures could inadvertently expose people to toxins. The problem is most plastic items contain a suite of toxic chemical additives like bisphenol-A (BPA) or brominated flame retardants, which can cause endocrine issues and other health problems. While exposure to these chemicals may initially have been relatively low because of how the plastic was first used, once recycled into a new product, it could be subject to far more human contact. Get top stories in your inbox.Our award-winning journalists bring you the news that impacts you, Canada, and the world. Don’t miss out.For instance, the plastics used inside electronics often contain harmful flame retardants, but they pose a low risk to humans because we interact with them relatively rarely. Yet once that plastic is melted down into pellets, it could feasibly end up in a recycled water bottle or in cookware where the risk of exposure is higher. “It is worrisome that we find so many different chemicals in these pellets,” said Sara Brosché, an environmental chemist and IPEN science adviser. “And we don’t really have any control over what they are used for.” The IPEN-commissioned study, which was not peer-reviewed, examined pellets collected in 24 different places worldwide made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a common plastic used in everything from toys to milk jugs. Pellets are small plastic beads that manufacturers melt down and use to make new plastic items. Researchers then tested the samples for 18 chemical additives, at least a dozen of which have confirmed health impacts, including BPA and brominated flame retardants. All the samples contained at least one chemical additive, and the vast majority had more than three. What people are reading The findings should be cause for concern, explained IPEN technical adviser Vito Buensante. Only about 10 per cent of the world’s plastic waste is currently recycled, but companies and several countries — including Canada — are developing policies to quickly make it more widespread. Key to these efforts is companies’ ability to source recycled plastic for cheap. Right now, that’s a nearly impossible task because new plastic is far cheaper than recycled. As a result, most plastic waste is landfilled, incinerated, or ends up in the environment. Plastics that do get recycled are rarely tracked from origin to final product because of the cost. While IPEN and other environmental groups and scholars argue efforts to reduce plastic pollution must start by reducing the production of new materials, Buensante noted that ensuring recycling laws created to manage the remaining plastic protect people from harmful chemicals is vital. Cookware, water bottles, and hundreds of other items made from recycled plastic worldwide may contain toxic chemicals harmful to human health, a new study has found. #Plastics #RecycledPlastic “When people say we need more recycling … this is not the recycling we’re looking for,” he said. So far, there have been relatively few efforts to deal with the problem, including in Canada. Two international treaties — the Basel Convention and the Stockholm Convention — tackle the international plastic waste trade and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), like some flame retardants. Most POPs are banned in Canada, including in items made from recycled plastics that contain the chemicals, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) said in a statement. The country’s international commitments also require it to ensure that when POPs become waste they aren’t “recovered, recycled, reclaimed, or reused.” Earlier this year, Canada officially listed plastic as toxic under its environmental laws, a move expected to make the future regulation of plastics easier. ECCC’s efforts have primarily focused on eliminating some single-use plastics — a 2019 election promise from the Liberals — but also include proposals to boost recycling capacity, the ministry wrote.Still, Canada and other countries need to take more extensive measures, like creating a system to track plastics from the moment they are created until they are broken down. Automakers have already created this type of system, Buensante said. Now it must become more widespread. Both researchers also want countries to ban toxic additives in all plastics, reducing the risk of cross-contamination and harm to the environment and human health. IPEN is advocating for countries to include negotiations on banning harmful additives in a possible future international plastics treaty that will likely be proposed at the UN Environment Assembly meeting in February 2022. If implemented, those rules would likely force us to change how plastic is used. Additives serve specific purposes — increasing flexibility or reducing flammability, for example — so a ban would force manufacturers and designers to develop alternate solutions. But the researchers noted it is a small price to pay when it comes to protecting people and the environment. “No toxic chemicals should be added to plastics,” Brosché said.

Amazon’s plastic waste soars by a third amid pandemic, report finds

Amazon’s plastic waste soars by a third amid pandemic, report finds Online retailer disputes figures showing it produced 270,000 tonnes of packaging last year, with about 10,000 tonnes likely to end up in seas Amazon’s plastic packaging waste soared by almost a third, to 270,000 tonnes, during the pandemic last year, according to a report …

Glass, plastic, or PLA? Dairies struggle to replace single-use bottles

But one aspect of its operation remains contentious: the packaging. Like most dairy products in the U.S., Alexandre Family Farm’s milk and yogurt are sold in plastic jugs and containers, to the chagrin of some customers. Most plastic packaging is made from fossil fuels and more than 90 percent of it is not recycled. Instead, it fills our landfills, ends up as tiny particles in our soil and our bodies, and more than 8 million tons of it is dumped into oceans annually.As more dairies turn to organic and regenerative practices, consumers are pushing for packaging that eliminates single-use plastics, and dairies like Alexandre are actively looking for new solutions. But, it turns out, there is no simple fix. Switching to glass milk bottles is one approach that has become popular among some consumers, but it comes with the potential for high carbon emissions and logistical challenges. New technologies, including containers made from plants, aren’t yet optimized for holding liquids. And, even if they were, our waste systems can’t process them, meaning most end up in landfills.“We’re not happy to use plastic . . . but there aren’t yet alternative solutions, especially for beverage companies,” said Robert Brewer, Alexandre’s chief operating officer, who has been focused on finding new packaging since he was hired two years ago. “We just can’t continue to put billions of pounds of waste into the ocean and expect to have life on earth.”“We’re not happy to use plastic, but there aren’t yet alternative solutions, especially for beverage companies.”The dairy industry’s pursuit of new packaging also reflects the ongoing debate about whether society’s focus should be on inventing and refining disposable single-use packaging that is compostable or biodegradable or on improving recycling and reinforcing a circular economy that continues to rely on plastic. The makers of plant-based milks (almond, oat, rice, and soy)—many of which are also sold in plastic bottles—face similar conundrums.Retailers, Distributors Refuse Glass Milk Bottles Regardless of how milk is produced, in the U.S. most of it is sold in plastic containers made from virgin high-density polyethylene, also known as HDPE or No. 2 plastic. Nearly two-thirds of milk containers sold in North America are HDPE bottles, followed by cartons (24 percent) and plastic bags (7 percent). In recent years, some dairy companies—including Alexandre Family Farm—are turning to containers made from transparent, sturdy polyethylene terephthalate, which is also known as PET or No. 1 plastic, and commonly used in water bottles.Reba Brindley, a project manager at the University of California, San Francisco, said she gave up on buying Alexandre’s milk specifically because it came in plastic bottles—a choice she finds incompatible with the farm’s other values.“I am impressed by their work and dedication,” Brindley said of Alexandre. “But considering how little plastic is recycled and what an inefficient process it is, I don’t see how they can be held up as an environmental example when they pump out plastic bottles . . . I just can’t handle throwing out a plastic bottle every week.”Brindley switched to milk from the Straus Family Creamery, which comes in reusable glass containers. “There is so much emphasis on recycling when I think we need to move towards reuse and reduce,” said Brindley.Brindley is not alone in believing that glass—once the material of choice for milk bottles—is the dairy industry’s best shot at sustainability. Over the past decade, glass manufacturers have seen a resurgence of glass milk bottles across the U.S., particularly among small dairies and creameries. Some companies offer old-fashioned glass milk delivery to consumers’ doorsteps, while others offer reusable glass bottles that and can be returned to grocery stores, as in the case with Straus.“There is so much emphasis on recycling when I think we need to move towards reuse and reduce.”But while using glass may keep plastic out of landfills, prevent some toxic chemicals from leaching into our milk, and cater to our nostalgia and notions of improved taste and freshness, it’s not a panacea. Each packaging system has environmental impacts that go beyond the issue of solid waste, said Gregory Keoleian, professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. Those environmental impacts stem from material production, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life processing and include energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use.“There will be tradeoffs with respect to these impacts and also between packaging performance and cost,” Keoleian said.Glass bottles weigh much more than other containers, so they take more energy to transport and result in higher transport-based emissions per volume of packaged milk. Extracting raw materials for new glass is also energy intensive, fueled mainly by natural gas. And only 31 percent of all glass containers are recycled—most end up in landfills, where they will take more 1 million years to decompose. Despite these drawbacks, when Keoleian and his colleagues studied milk packaging systems, they found that glass refillable bottles can outcompete single use containers such as plastic HDPE milk jugs and gable-top cartons with respect to energy and carbon footprints as long as they are reused at least five times—and the savings increases at higher reuse rates.Keoleian’s research also found that refillable plastic bottles—which are not used much today— can have an even lower environmental impact than glass because they can have higher reuse rates. But the most sustainable choice for milk packaging? He says it’s lightweight plastic pouches, which are used mostly in Canada and have a significantly smaller environmental impact than reusable glass or plastic. Aluminum, which is recycled at very high rates, could also serve as a sustainable packaging for milk.But most consumers want traditional bottles, Alexandre’s Brewer said, hence his dairy’s search for an alternative to standard plastic. Brewer was vice-president of sales and distribution for Straus from 2004 to 2008, overseeing its glass bottle reuse system. At the time, a significant number of retailers and distributors were willing to offer glass bottles, Brewer said. Today, it’s difficult to get them into large grocery chains.The system, he adds, is a logistical nightmare. Straus buys the glass bottles, made of approximately 30 percent recycled glass, sanitizes, fills, and counts them. They are then sent to a distributor, who is charged a deposit. The distributor delivers the bottles to retailers who, in turn, are charged another deposit, and retailers then sell the milk to customers, who get charged yet another deposit. The whole process is then repeated backwards, until the used bottles are returned to Straus for sanitizing and refilling. In all, it entails six different accounting steps, Brewer said. In addition, the bottles can break during shipping, increasing costs.So while Straus bottles are reused an average of five times before they are recycled (that number is primarily driven by the consumer return rate, which prior to the pandemic was close to 80 percent, and by ink wearing out on bottle labels), it’s a limited retail niche.“It’s not a bad system, it’s just that we were told clearly by retailers and distributors that they were not willing to do it,” Brewer said. “They told us, ‘If you want to come into our stores, you have to put the milk in plastic bottles.’ So the choice was existential.”A spokesperson from Straus Family Creamery, which has bottled its milk in reusable glass since 1994, told Civil Eats that “it may take longer for some stores to adapt and implement new sustainability programs.” But, the creamery added, the bottle logistics and accounting are not onerous once in place and “when retailers realize that there is demand among their shoppers . . . they are willing to invest time in developing the program with us and our distributor partners.” The creamery’s analysis has shown that its glass reuse program prevents approximately 500,000 pounds of milk containers and plastic out of the landfills each year.

Plastic straw ban not helped improve ocean environmental health

Most major fast-food corporations in the West have banned plastic straws and replaced them with paper ones. (Getty Images)The world is going through multiple simultaneous crises that compound one another and have one thing in common – their damaging consequences are caused by human hands.Capable of the worst, but also the best, our species has become a living force able to do dire harm to the natural environment of our planet.Even so, an army of conscientious thinkers is scrambling to find a solution that repairs the damage done by others, a result that is sadly less common than we would like to believe.In fact, some of the policies we enthusiastically pursue to lessen or reverse these anthropogenic effects do not work at all, and seem to be aimed only at appeasing our guilty consciences.There are multiple examples of such impulsive behaviours, as unhelpful as they are well-intentioned, that demonstrate our continued failure to plan on a grand scale, and that ‘seeing the big picture’ is too often beyond our means.Is it feasible to combat the energy crisis by covering a large area of the Sahara Desert with solar panels? (Getty Images)Let me explain this with a very simple example. From time-to-time, someone suggests combating the energy crisis by covering a large area of the Sahara Desert with solar panels. The efficacy of the idea is apparently so simple that it is hard to see any drawbacks.However, doing something like this would alter the Earth’s albedo, which is the level of radiation that light surfaces (such as snow or sand) bounce back into space due to their refractive nature. The usually dark solar panels would trap more radiation, raising the average temperature of the desert. This, paradoxical as it may seem, would increase the level of rainfall in the Sahel, eventually turning the desert into a kind of orchard.However, since the planet turns out to be an interconnected ‘whole’, the butterfly effect would cause an identical but opposite effect to appear on the other side of the Earth, let’s say the Amazon, which could end up becoming a desert, trapping Brazil in everlasting droughts (something that is already beginning to be seen due to the deforestation encouraged by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro).Story continuesRead more: Three years after the EU demanded single-use plastic ban by 2021… has it worked?But important as this issue is, another much closer to home is the epidemic of paper straws that has flooded fast-food restaurants, cafes and bars. The idea, like that of solar panels in the Sahara, appeared unimpeachable.The little plastic tubes with which we have traditionally – and quite efficaciously – sipped our drinks were ending up in the oceans, polluting the environment and causing horrific damage to beautiful and vulnerable creatures like sea turtles.What else was there to do but pile into a crusade that would involve using paper straws that turn into toilet-flavoured mush at the first sip?Let’s start, however, with the story of the turtle, as it is extremely interesting and a textbook example of the emergence of habits that apparently favour sustainability, but which, when it comes down to it, do not pass the scientific test.The myth of the environmental efficacy of today’s absorbent straws, famous for self-destructing in three seconds, started in the place where all things happen lately – on social media.In 2015, a biologist named Christine Figgener uploaded a video to Facebook that she had recorded while conducting fieldwork in Costa Rican waters for her PhD, a study on the migratory patterns of olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea).Biologist Christine Figgener uploaded a video to Facebook showing the struggle to remove a plastic straw from a turtle.In the extremely unpleasant video, Figgener and her expedition companions are seen struggling to remove a plastic object embedded in a turtle’s nostril. The video of the chelonian, which visibly suffers and bleeds during the extraction, immediately went viral and has now been watched more than 44 million times on YouTube.The social reaction to the moving scene was instantaneous. Most major fast-food corporations in the Western world banned plastic straws and replaced them with paper ones, and the movement resonated among most of our governments as well (the EU banned plastic straws earlier this year).It is impossible not to empathise with the turtle while watching the video. In fact, it is so unbearable that one tends to think that we are the cancer of the planet, and that the plastic straws thrown in the rubbish by some guy from Madrid, Vancouver or Sydney at his local burger joint will invariably end up killing a turtle in the distant tropics.Read more: How much damage is eating red meat doing to the environment?Really? Well, no, not at all. I’m afraid that our chewing of wet cellulose as we sip our gin and tonic is little more than foolishness, and I’m going to explain why.According to a study published in 2017, 95% of all plastic in the Earth’s oceans comes from only 10 rivers. Eight of them are in Asia and the other two are in Africa. Another group specialising in ocean conservation similarly estimated that most of the plastics reaching the sea come mainly from five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.I’m sure some people think that these studies have a pro-Western bias, and that the aim is to hide the problem by blaming less developed countries, but think about one thing. The straw that your child throws in the rubbish bin at the burger joint ends up with others in a bag in a container for plastic recyclingMost developed countries are developed because, among other things, they manage their waste efficiently. So even if the straws don’t end up being recycled, they will end up buried under tons of soil in a location where they are unlikely to reach the oceans.Unfortunately, the straw that Figgener and her colleagues so painfully extracted from the turtle in the video almost certainly came from an Asian country where rubbish is not managed correctly.Some 95% of all plastic in the Earth’s oceans comes from only 10 rivers. Eight of them are in Asia and the other two are in Africa. (Getty Images)At the same time, we have also identified another major problem. Most of the plastic that ends up in the oceans, forming floating islands that continue to grow in size, comes from fishing or shipping gear that ‘falls off’ merchant ships.Indeed, this is the origin of some 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is already three times the size of France. Unfortunately, until this gear breaks down into small pieces, it can cause the death of many marine creatures.We therefore have reliable information we can use as a basis for solutions that are not as far-fetched as adopting paper straws. It would be enough to create programmes in developing countries in which fishermen and seafarers would be paid for their old gear, thus discouraging the easy and destructive solution of throwing it into the sea when it is no longer of use.As for the treatment of waste in the five most polluting countries, the solution would be to provide funds to their emerging economies so that they can invest in efficient waste management systems.So easy, yet so complicated.Watch: Should we get rid of single-use plastic items?

Bugs across globe are evolving to eat plastic, study finds

Bugs across globe are evolving to eat plastic, study finds Surprising discovery shows scale of plastic pollution and reveals enzymes that could boost recycling Microbes in oceans and soils across the globe are evolving to eat plastic, according to a study. The research scanned more than 200m genes found in DNA samples taken from the …

Microplastics are wreaking havoc on human cells

This story was originally published by The Guardian and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.Microplastics cause damage to human cells in the laboratory at the levels known to be eaten by people via their food, a study has found.The harm included cell death and allergic reactions and the research is the first to show this happens at levels relevant to human exposure. However, the health impact on humans is uncertain because it is not known how long microplastics remain in the body before being excreted.Get top stories in your inbox.Our award-winning journalists bring you the news that impacts you, Canada, and the world. Don’t miss out.Microplastics pollution has contaminated the entire planet, from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans. People were already known to consume the tiny particles via food and water as well as breathing them in.The research analyzed 17 previous studies which looked at the toxicological impacts of microplastics on human cell lines. The scientists compared the level of microplastics at which damage was caused to the cells with the levels consumed by people through contaminated drinking water, seafood and table salt.They found specific types of harm — cell death, allergic response, and damage to cell walls — were caused by the levels of microplastics that people ingest.“Harmful effects on cells are in many cases the initiating event for health effects,” said Evangelos Danopoulos of Hull York Medical School, U.K., who led the research published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. “We should be concerned. Right now, there isn’t really a way to protect ourselves.” What people are reading Future research could make it possible to identify the most contaminated foods and avoid them, he said, but the ultimate solution was to stop the loss of plastic waste: “Once the plastic is in the environment, we can’t really get it out.”Research on the health impact of microplastics is ramping up quickly, Danopoulos said: “It is exploding and for good reason. We are exposed to these particles every day: we’re eating them, we’re inhaling them. And we don’t really know how they react with our bodies once they are in.”The research also showed irregularly shaped microplastics caused more cell death than spherical ones. This is important for future studies as many microplastics bought for use in laboratory experiments are spherical, and therefore may not be representative of the particles humans ingest. “We should be concerned. Right now, there isn’t really a way to protect ourselves,” says lead researcher Evangelos Danopoulos of Hull York Medical School, U.K. #PlasticWaste #Health #Microplastics “This work helps inform where research should be looking to find real-world effects,” said microplastics researcher Steve Allen. “It was interesting that shape was so important to toxicity, as it confirms what many plastic pollution researchers believed would be happening — that pristine spheres used in lab experiments may not be showing the real-world effects.”Danopoulos said the next step for researchers was to look at studies of microplastic harm in laboratory animals — experiments on human subjects would not be ethical. In March, a study showed tiny plastic particles in the lungs of pregnant rats pass rapidly into the hearts, brains and other organs of their fetuses.In December, microplastics were revealed in the placentas of unborn babies, which the researchers said was “a matter of great concern.” In October, scientists showed that babies fed formula milk in plastic bottles were swallowing millions of particles a day.