An Invisible Omnipresent Danger: Chemical Pollution

chemical pollution on beach

The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)

Since the beginning of my sustainable living journey, I have understood that the level of unregulated chemical pollution in our environment is staggering and poses a severe threat to human health. It became the focus on my blog because there wasn’t much public awareness about it. It seemed just as serious or even more so than climate change, which can still be elusive for people to grasp. Chemical pollution is not, it’s very direct and personal because it destroys your health. Even though massively unregulated and out of the individual consumer’s control, it seemed to me that from all our environmental challenges chemical pollution is the one we can do something about in many ways.

Participating in a circular economy and being a conscious consumer are most important in my own life for two reasons; one to reduce the amount of waste, plastic particularly, that my household produces; second to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals going into my body to protect my health.

Although I am increasingly concerned about chemical pollution, I am glad to see that this field is gaining public awareness on a global scale. A study and a new paper published in Science and Technology concluded that we have crossed a planetary boundary through the release of artificial chemicals and other human-made pollutants, collectively referred to as “novel entities”, that are threatening every Earth operating system, which human life depends on.

What are Planetary Boundaries?

The Stockholm Resilience Centre published the Planetary Boundaries Framework, which defines nine key factors that endanger the stability of the entire Earth System. They are:

1. Stratospheric ozone depletion

2. Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions)

3. Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities (including heavy metals, radioactive materials, plastics, and more)

4. Climate Change

5. Ocean acidification

6. Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle

7. Land system change

8. Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans

9. Atmospheric aerosol loading

To maintain the balance of the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and ecosystems that have allowed human civilizations to thrive, the stability of these nine boundaries is essential. Unfortunately, human activities have affected these boundaries profoundly.

Scientists now say that chemical pollution is the fifth of nine planetary boundaries that have been crossed, among climate change, biodiversity loss, land system change and excessive nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. We are reaching a tipping point of the biophysical coping capacity of the whole Earth System.

How Chemical Pollution Affects our Ecosystems

Chemical pollution damages the biological and physical processes that all life depends on. It alters the Earth’s vital system and causes severe ecosystem and human health problems.

For example, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of highly toxic synthetic chemicals. They are also known as “forever chemicals” as they take hundreds or thousands of years to break down. PFAS are carcinogenic and act like endocrine disruptors. They are used in a variety of products, from nonstick cookware, food-delivery boxes, dental floss, cosmetics to stain-resistant clothing and flame retardants. One of the most troubling sources of PFAS exposure in the U.S. is drinking water, contaminated by runoffs from factories and other facilities. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that 200 million people in the U.S. have PFAS- contaminated tap water.

Pesticides are hazardous chemicals that can also contaminate drinking water and damage soil health. They disrupt populations of birds, fish and mammals as they can get carried by the wind and affect a broader environment. Glyphosate, which is the most widely used chemical weed killer in the U.S., has been identified by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.

Pharmaceuticals we ingest can persevere after being flushed down the toilet, polluting rivers and oceans and even soil, when solid sewage sludge is used as fertilizer on crops.

Another Major Chemical Polluter: Plastic

Plastic pollution is not only a garbage problem that goes into landfills and ends up in our ecosystems and oceans, where it entangles and chokes wildlife. It also breaks down into microplastics, fragments of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters in length, and contaminate the environment and release problematic chemicals.

Our lives are plasticized. It’s everywhere – food packaging, kitchenware, household items, appliances and in our food! A study published in Environmental Research found that microplastics were even present in common fruits and vegetables. Ocean plastic can enter the atmosphere through the sea breeze, contaminating the air we breathe.

Bisphenol A – commonly known as BPA – is a chemical compound that leaches out of certain plastics, cans, and food packaging materials, especially when heated, cooled or scratched. It has become notorious as one of the more harmful toxins we find in our homes and products we use. Exposure is widespread. It’s found in dust, water, food, and in our bodies.

BPA is an obesogen, endocrine disruptor, interferes with hormones, has been associated with diabetes, cancer, infertility and reproductive system harm, cardiovascular disease in adults and with behavioral problems in children.

Plastic production is expected to double in the next 20 years. At the same time plastic pollution is to triple in terrestrial ecosystems and quadruple in the oceans. The reason why petrochemical companies are increasing and pushing their production efforts is because plastic is a way for them to continue to profit even as countries turn from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Future Prognosis

Since 1950 the global production of chemicals has increased fiftyfold! Around 350,000 different types of artificial chemicals are currently on the market. According to a report published by the European Environment Agency that production is expected to triple by 2050.

A $5 trillion industry globally, the United States is the top chemical producer in the world and the chemical industry is a keystone of the U.S. economy. The industry is now also the third-largest global CO2 emitter.

Meanwhile, the discrepancy between the slow pace of governmental risk assessment and regulation and the fast rate industries are pumping out novel entities is staggering, leaving the public blind to the danger of chemical pollution.

Even though research has shown that many chemicals have detrimental effects on our ecosystems and human health, scientists are falling far behind in understanding the risks of novel entities because it often takes years of methodical research. It’s also a new field of study compared to other environmental problems.

Given the severity of the problem, scientists are now calling for the formation of an international panel on chemical pollution, equal to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

With the U.N. Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Kenya underway, delegates are looking to advance a global agreement on plastic pollution at the top of their agenda. That’s a start.

Article originally published on Medium.

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