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Green Planet

Dangerous Plastics Are a Threat to Us and Future Generations

Meena Miriam Yust

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Every day people make decisions about what to eat, sometimes opting for colorful fruits and veggies, sometimes finding the smell of bacon irresistible.  At the end of the day people are controlling their own health.  What is remarkable though, is the possibility that something one swallows today could have a lasting effect on future offspring – children, grandchildren, great grandchildren.  New research is finding a generational impact of certain chemicals.  This time it’s not the bacon we’re worried about – but plastics and the toxins within them.  

Twenty years ago, researchers  at Washington State University discovered accidentally that the now-infamous bisphenol A (BPA) was leaching out of plastic cages, harming the mice within.  The contamination caused abnormalities in mice eggs and fertility.  Numerous subsequent studies found BPA exposure affects adult fertility and health across species, including monkeys, fish, and humans.  Known to decrease sperm count in rats and to cause breast cancer in women, BPA was banned in 2012 by the FDA from being used in baby bottles and sippy cups.  Yet BPA is still used in many products, including epoxy resins used to coat canned foods.  A 2004 study of 2,517 people found that 93% had detectable quantities of BPA’s by-product in their urine. 

Since the toxic effects of BPA came to light, several replacement bisphenols were quickly brought to market by chemical companies and are now in widespread use.  Twenty years after the BPA toxicity discovery, by remarkable chance, the same Washington State University lab recently noticed again that something was amiss with their mice.  This time the mice were housed in cages comprised of replacement bisphenols, largely believed to be safer than BPA.  The researchers subsequently performed controlled studies with several of the replacement bisphenols including BPS, a widely used replacement.  

Results demonstrated that the new bisphenols behaved similarly to BPA, causing health problems including detrimental effects on fertility in both males and females, reported in Cell Biology in September 2018.  Scientist Sarah Hunt explained, “This paper reports a strange déjà vu experience in our laboratory.”  What the lab discovered once with BPA, it was seeing again with the replacements.  Perhaps most troubling were the long-lasting effects of the toxins.  Even if all bisphenols could be magically eliminated today, the toxic effects would still last about three generations through the germline of people already exposed.  This means bisphenols ingested today could affect the fertility of one’s great grandchildren.

The bisphenol case demonstrates that FDA bans do not necessarily solve the root problem.  Chemical companies tend to roll out similar chemicals to those that have been banned, because this is the easiest way to bring something to market quickly.  But more testing is needed before chemicals are released into the environment.  Long term problems such as generational infertility and cancer risk often cannot easily be examined in clinical trials, and environmental effects are not rigorously analyzed prior to release.  

The Washington State University study also proved that damaged and heated plastics are particularly deadly, as the damaged cages leached more toxins.  This should serve as a warning for those who microwave food in plastic containers for their families.  And it should remind us that discarded plastic bottles degrading in oceans and rivers are releasing toxins that cause irreversible infertility.

The current estimate of plastics in our oceans is approximately 150 million metric tons. By 2050, the amount is expected to ‘outweigh the fish,’ according to Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions.  A recent study has determined microplastics (small plastic particles) are present in every river and lake in Britain.  And they have been found in tap water, everywhere from the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC to the Trump Grill in New York.  A study of 159 drinking water samples on five continents found that 83% of those samples were contaminated.  Plastics are everywhere, from the highest mountains to the deepest parts of the ocean and Arctic.  Nanoplastics less than 50 nanometers long have even been found in plankton, which is ingested by fish that humans eat.

Scientists are finding that plastics are disrupting marine mammals’ ability to reproduce.  Many forms of plastic including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Bisphenol A are endocrine disruptors, meaning they affect the hormonal systems of animals.  An orca of adult age called Lulu, researchers recently found, was barren as if she was a juvenile.  Analysis revealed very high levels of PCBs in her lipid tissues.  One orca pod off the coast of Scotland has not produced a calf in 25 years.  Despite bans on PCBs 30 years ago,  toxins remain in orca mothers’ milk, and are passed from mother to baby.  A recent study published in the journal Science predicts that half the world’s population of orcas will be extinct in just a few decades due to PCB poisoning.  Researchers have also found that despite the PCB ban in Europe, levels of PCBs have not decreased, indicated that they may be leaching out of landfills.  Hormone disruptors have also been found to impair male frogs’ fertility, and to cause tadpoles to more frequently develop ovaries rather than testicles, thus skewing the proportion of males to females.  Similar problems have been found in fish.  Reproductive risks associated with endocrine disrupting chemicals span species.

Bisphenol A is known to decrease sperm count and to cause cancer in many species.  Its counterpart replacement plastics (BPS, BPF, BPAF, BPZ, BPP, BHPF… to name just a few), researchers have recently discovered, are no better.  Whether these pollutants have already affected humans is anyone’s guess, but it would be wise to view statistics during the time period since plastics became popular, starting in the 1960s, and to see if there is a significant trend over time.  

It appears there is.  Notably, a 2017 study found that sperm counts per milliliter declined by more than 50% from 1973 to 2011, with total sperm counts down almost 60%.  Two other recent studies have demonstrated that over the past few decades in the U.S. and Europe, both sperm count and motility have decreased.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) recently debated a proposed legally binding treaty to address plastic pollution.  One objective of the proposed treaty was to phase out single use plastics by 2025.  Norway also suggested a global agreement for handling ocean plastic pollution.  Sadly, the U.S. was the largest voice against the proposed treaty and the proposed global waste disposal plan.  

Eventually a non-legally-binding agreement was reached in which the U.S. watered down the language to “significantly reduce” plastics by 2030, eleven years from now.  One UN delegate described the Trump representatives as “trying to remove all targets and timelines.”  

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been exporting large quantities of plastics overseas for years, historically mostly to China.  In the previous year, 70% was exported to China and Hong Kong.  But in 2018, China banned imports of plastic waste.  Since the ban the U.S. has looked to poorer nations for its overseas garbage dump.  Unearthed, Greenpeace’s research group, has found that in the first six months of 2018, almost half of U.S. plastic waste was sent to developing countries: Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.  U.S. plastic waste exports to Thailand went up by nearly 2,000% this year.  

Most developing nations do not have sufficient recycling infrastructure to properly handle plastic waste.  On Earth Day 2018, the top producers of mismanaged ocean plastic waste were ranked by tons of waste.  The top five after China were Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.  In some cases as in parts of the Philippines, recycling is done laboriously by hand, picking bottles out of large dumps.  As this is very difficult and time consuming, large quantities find their way into oceans and rivers.  Sadly and not surprisingly, the Pasig River in the Philippines transports approximately 72,000 tons of plastic downstream, and has been declared “biologically dead” since 1990.  Instead of helping these countries to develop recycling infrastructure, we are sending them more toxic waste.

We might think we are kicking the can down the road by sending plastics overseas but they will wash right back up on the Hawaiian and California coast.  Beachgoers might witness solid litter washing ashore, or unearthed from the stomachs of dead whales.  Or they might not notice the pollution  — instead unknowingly consuming microplastics in their next Ahi Tuna sandwich.  On the East Coast, one might encounter them in a glass of water at the Trump Grill in New York.  There is only one world sink after all.  Tossing poison to the other end of the tub only works for so long – it will inevitably, over time, mix and wash back to your side of the water.  And when one of us is diagnosed with cancer, do we really know the cause? 

It is instructive to remember the orca Lulu, a mammal like us, who no longer produces eggs.  And to remember that if sperm counts continue to decline at the present rate, they will soon reach levels where it becomes difficult to have children.  By then, the world’s water supply may be irreversibly contaminated and an enforceable treaty will be too late.

Postponing a legally binding treaty may put us on the path of our fellow mammals the orcas, half of which already face inevitable extinction worldwide.  And we can not forget the tragedy of the orca Tahlequah, who last summer carried her dead calf for a record 17 days and 1,000 miles in mourning. 

Eleven years may be too late.  

Author’s note: this piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org

Meena Miriam Yust is an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois. Educated at Vassar College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, she published a draft Migratory Insect Treaty with commentary in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law.

Green Planet

Thanksgiving Also Means Giving Thanks for Our Planet

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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It is Thanksgiving holiday in the US.  The Europeans do not celebrate Thanksgiving and the European Parliament has held an election.  It has chosen former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen as the new President of the European Commission.  Hailing from a political family of conservatives — her father narrowly lost a party leadership election to Franz Josef Strauss — she is the first woman to hold the EU’s top executive job.

Conservative or not, there is unanimity in the EU about climate change, and how the EU has to lead the transition to a healthier planet by planning the necessary upgrading of its social market economy.

If the Europeans are increasingly aware of the environmental challenges ahead, the UN Environment Programme has just issued its flagship Emissions Gap Report.  As one might surmise, the ‘gap’ refers to the difference between what the world is doing to tackle climate change and what it needs to do to limit temperature increase to 1.5C.  Our present ambitions of structural change from a fossil fuel economy is forecast in the report to lead to a catastrophic 3.2C rise.

Present California fires and coastal flooding of the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas down to Florida are just the top of the iceberg as are the European floods in Spain, Italy and France — and the temperature rise so far is a single degree Celsius.

The window to act is closing rapidly.  As the UN report clarifies in stark terms, emissions will have to peak by 2020 to limit global warming to 1.5C without affecting economic growth.  It turns out that of the 43 developed and emerging economies, all with the sole exception of Turkey will have peaked their emissions by 2020.  Be 2030, 57 countries will have peaked.  That is the good news.

By far the greatest emitters are China, the US, and then India and the EU.  Together they account for 56 percent of greenhouse gasses emitted over the last decade.  These therefore bear a heavy responsibility.

The bad news is that while these and other emitters have pledged to follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement — except for the US because Trump withdrew from it — it is not enough.  According to the UN report, their efforts will still result in a 3.2C rise by century’s end to devastating effect.

It is logical then that efforts have to be intensified, and countries need to be more ambitious in their goals.  A focus on innovation and domestic policies to encourage non-fossil fuel power generation would be clearly to their advantage.  For example, energy produced from solar panels has soared from 50 Gigawatts in 2010 to 400 GW in 2015 with an expectation of 450+ GW by 2020.

The strong message of the report is for all sectors and their principals — national, state and local governments, mayors, corporations, their executives, civil society and civic leaders — to come together and act in concert if they are to avert a problem affecting our common home before it is too late.  It is one way of giving thanks for what we have.  The last five years have already been the warmest on record, the future can be expected to be worse if we do not act.

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Venice Is Flooded: A Look at Our Coastal Future

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Authors: Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If humans have been lucky, basking in the comforting warmth of an inter-glacial period for the last 10,000 years, that luck may be about to turn.  Rest assured we are not entering a glacial period.  No, our quest for greater comfort has us pumping fossil fuel residues in the air—particularly CO2—warming the earth beyond its natural trajectory.  One consequence is melting Arctic (especially Greenland) ice and coastal flooding.

Problematic as that might be, new research holds worse in store… much worse, for the Antarctic has not been a passive bystander.  It melted when the north was taking a rest allowing no let up.

The previous glacial age lasted from 125,000 to 118,000 years ago.  A paper published November 6, 2019 in Nature Communications (Vol. 10, Article # 5040) has found the Greenland ice sheet melt insufficient to explain the highs of the rise then.  In fact, it was the Antarctic ice sheet, previously thought to be inconsequential, that was key.  It turns out the Southern Ocean warmed first at the start of the inter-glacial, leading to a change in the circulation pattern of the oceans and to a warming of the northern polar areas to start the ice melt in Greenland.

Temperatures then were up to 1°C higher than now but the same has been estimated for us in the future.  However, this time climate changes on earth have been accelerated by greenhouse gas emissions over the industrial period, resulting in more extreme climate changes than in the last inter-glacial. 

The research has also revealed that ice melt caused a 10 meter sea level rise above the present level at a rate of 3 meters (about 10 feet) per century, a rate that is 10 times higher than the rise observed in the last 150 years.  If 10 ft. per century has a remote feel, try a foot every 10 years!   

This is far greater than current projections of sea level rise that anticipate an increase at the most to about 3 feet above 2000 levels by 2100.  The predictions, however, do not account for an important natural outcome of ice sheet melt, that of ice cliff instability.  The ice cliffs form as the warm water melts their ice under the water, eating away until the cliff shears off and collapses into the sea. 

The collapse is a sudden and unpredictable addition to the gradual melt in the ocean.  It also means that polar ice sheet melt can affect sea levels far more intensely than has been projected so far, and it could account at least in part for the much higher rise found by the researchers in the prior inter-glacial. Are we in for a surprise! 

If incoming solar radiation was greater in the last inter-glacial because of the earth’s position relative to the sun, the CO2 levels were lower, at 280 parts per million as opposed to 410 plus today.  Worse, in the former inter-glacial the two polar areas did not warm up simultaneously.  Today’s intensive climate change is propelled by greenhouse gases, and the warming is bipolar with the ice melting in  both polar regions at the same time. 

Another paper also published in Nature Communications a week earlier (Vol. 10, Article # 4844 October 29, 2019) examines global vulnerability to coastal flooding from rising sea levels given new metrics for measuring land elevation.  The model currently in use for this measurement, developed by NASA, has a 2 meter vertical bias.  Using a new Coastal DEM (Digital Elevation Model) and a mean estimate of sea level rise this century, the authors estimate 190 million people live below projected high tide lines at present.  This rises to 630 million by century’s end in the extreme case of high emissions.  Increase the sea level rise to 3 meters (10 feet) projected in the other paper above and a billion people could be in jeopardy.

What can one expect?  Well, the first signs of trouble will be when coastal flooding that used to happen once a decade becomes an annual event, or when unprecedented events occur.  Venice is a current example.  In a rare historic flood its iconic St. Mark’s Square is hip-deep in water.  The church itself and its priceless frescoes could be in danger if the water rises further. 

The increased coastal flooding will be gradual of course.  Our children, their children, and so on down the line will be the real innocent victims of our legacy/profligacy.  

Note:  This article appeared originally on CommonDreams.org

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Green Planet

Thirty years on, what is the Montreal Protocol doing to protect the ozone?

MD Staff

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The Montreal Protocol to protect the Earth’s ozone layer is to date the only United Nations environmental agreement to be ratified by every country in the world. It is also one of the most successful. With the parties to the Protocol having phased out 98 per cent of their ozone-depleting substances, they saved an estimated two million people from skin cancer every year.

Following the thirty-first meeting of the parties in Rome during 4–8 November, Stephanie Haysmith, the communications officer for the Ozone Secretariat, explained why the Montreal Protocol has been so successful and what lies ahead for the treaty.

The 2019 ozone hole is the smallest on record since its discovery. How does the ozone repair and how long will it take?

The Montreal Protocol has been successful in reducing ozone-depleting substances and reactive chlorine and bromine in the stratosphere. As a result, the ozone layer is showing the first signs of recovery. It is expected that the ozone layer will return to pre-1980s levels by the middle of the century and the Antarctic ozone hole by around 2060s. This is because once released, ozone-depleting substances stay in the atmosphere for many years and continue to cause damage. The 2019 hole is indeed the smallest since recording of its size began in 1982 but the ozone is also influenced by temperature shifts and dynamics in the atmosphere through climate change. In 2019, the stratosphere was particularly warm during the Antarctic winter and spring.

The Kigali Amendment, which came into force January 2019, requires countries to limit hydrofluorocarbons in refrigerators and air-conditioners by more than 80 percent.  Yet, there is a growing demand for cooling. How can the two needs be met?

While there is a growing global demand for cooling systems for personal well-being and in the commercial sector, improving energy efficiency with low or zero global-warming-potential will be needed to meet needs while minimizing adverse impacts on climate and environment. Research and development have kept pace: equipment design has changed and improved with the ozone-depleting substances phase-out.

At the Rome meeting, parties were made aware of an unexpected increase in global emissions of trichlorofluoromethane, or CFC-11. Why is that, and what is being planned to address it?

The issue of unexpected emissions of CFC-11 was brought to the attention of the parties in 2018. Global emissions of CFC-11 had increased in the period after 2012. This unexpected trend suggests that there is illegal production and consumption of CFC-11. The exact sources of these emissions have yet to be found. The parties take this very seriously and a decision was made at the MOP30 [30th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol] to cooperate in further scientific research. In addition, the parties will assess the mechanisms of monitoring for the Montreal Protocol and the Multilateral Fund. 

What is meant by “a sustainable cold chain” and how does it reduce food loss?

A cold chain is a connected set of temperature-controlled facilities (pack houses, cold stores, refrigerated transportation, etc.) that ensures perishable foods maintain their freshness and quality while in transit. Access to cold chain allows local producers to link with high-value markets locally, nationally and internationally. By enabling perishable food commodities to be stored and transported in a temperature-controlled environment not only ensures quality and safety, but reduces overall food loss, while improving economic gains and increasing sustainability.

From an environmental perspective, it is important that increasing demand for cold chain is sustainable with increased use of green fuels, energy efficiency and low or zero global warming potential technologies.

What do you hope the Montreal Protocol will inspire?

The Montreal Protocol is one of the world’s most successful environmental treaties and since its adoption, it has encouraged countries to commit to phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances. The parties to the Protocol, on realizing that the alternatives, known as hydrofluorocarbons, are potent greenhouse gases contributing to global warming, agreed to address this. After protracted discussions, in 2016 the parties adopted the Kigali Amendment. The global partnership, stakeholder involvement and overall commitment of the countries lent to the success of the ozone protection regime. A successful hydrofluorocarbon phasedown is expected to avoid up to 0.4°C of global temperature rise by 2100, while continuing to protect the ozone layer.

UN Environment

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