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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.

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Dying Wildlife on a Warming Planet

Meena Miriam Yust

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan

The emaciated polar bear, a sorry remnant of magnificence, raiding garbage cans in an iconic, even infamous photo, is one consequence of global warming.  As the September (2019) National Geographic cover story displays depressingly, Arctic ice collected over winter is sparser, thinner, and now disappears completely during summer in parts of Canada.  If the effects of global warming are staring us in the face, then only the woefully or willfully ignorant – like Trump – can ignore them.  

One more aspect of warming on Arctic ice has been reported recently.  As we know, two-thirds of an iceberg lies under water.  As sea water warms, melt increases and scientists have made measurements to discover that submerged parts of icebergs and glaciers entering the sea are melting significantly more than was previously believed, contributing to rising sea levels.

Researchers are warning that permafrost collapse in the Arctic is releasing nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide.  The store is vast: nearly 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon lies trapped in the frozen soils of the permafrost region as a result of decaying organic matter over millennia.  That is almost double the quantity in the atmosphere.

The environmental costs of global warming appear in yet other unexpected ways.  A new paper in Science reports the threat to coral reef reproduction.  Free-spawning marine species synchronize spawning as a way to ensure reproduction.  In this way the gametes developed are so numerous that some escape their predators, ensuring species survival.  Global warming is now affecting this reproductive synchrony, threatening coral reef recovery.

Rising ocean temperatures impact fish, plankton and crustaceans, in turn affecting the creatures that feed on them.  So now sea birds, like the puffin, are struggling to stay alive.  These are striking birds with black and white plumage, bright orange legs and feet, and, during the mating season, orange beaks.  This past May, it was estimated that between 3,150 and 8,500 puffins starved to death in the Bering Sea, their emaciated bodies washing ashore on the Pribilof Islands, some 300 miles west of mainland Alaska.  Prior to the mass deaths, there was a documented period of elevated sea surface temperatures in the eastern Bering Sea according to scientists.  The unfortunate result was a shift in zooplankton composition and in forage fish distribution, both food sources for the puffin.

In Iceland, too, puffins are in trouble.  Researchers discovered that thousands of puffin chicks had died from starvation in the summer of 2018.  It turns out rising ocean temperatures have pushed cold-water fish farther north leaving the baby pufflings with little to eat.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) as vulnerable on its red list.  

Rising ocean temperatures are also affecting food availability and the habitat of many Arctic creatures, including the walrus, polar bear, gray whale, arctic fox, and ice seal.  Some are starving to death, some wandering long and far in search of food.  Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals at their breathing holes.  When the sea is not covered in ice, breathing holes become unnecessary as the seals can come up anywhere for air, and are no longer easy for polar bears to snatch up.  The World Wildlife Fund has reported a 40% drop in number of the southern Beaufort Sea polar bears between 2001 and 2010.   Worse still, scientists forecasting global polar bear populations estimate a high probability that 30% of polar bears worldwide will be gone by 2050.

Declining sea ice is also harming seals. Baby harp seals lie on the ice during their fragile first few weeks of life.  Without a thick and stable span of ice, seal pups may drown or be crushed by broken ice.  In 2007, a then surprising 75 percent plus of pups died due to thin ice conditions; in 2010, nearly all.  “Some years, when there’s poor ice in a given pupping ground, essentially all of the pups don’t make it,” says Duke marine biologist David Johnston.  As temperatures continue to rise, seal survival becomes precarious.

The Pacific walrus population is in decline with only 129,000 animals left.  Due to climate change, the floating summer ice that walruses used to haul themselves upon to rest is now way up north.  Consequently the animals are swimming ashore and taking to land in huge numbers.  Unfortunately their feeding grounds are far away from shore, forcing a 250 mile round trip.  In addition to exhaustion from traveling long distances and food scarcity, walruses also face threats from being on the beach in vast crowds.  In 2014, 35,000 walruses were seen together on the shore near Point Lay, Alaska.  The animals, which can weigh as much as 1.5 tons, can be frightened easily by loud noises like airplanes, causing stampedes and mass deaths by trampling, especially of young calves – as many as 500 in one incident.  If ice continues to diminish, their future looks bleak.  

Then there are the gray whales.  Their favorite crustacean is the amphipod – a small flat morsel with segments and antennae resembling a grasshopper.  These lipid-rich crustaceans are devoured by whales in bulk.  Over the past 30 years, as currents have warmed and sea ice has melted, amphipod populations have declined in the Bering Sea whale feeding area.  As a result, gray whale mothers and babies have had no choice but to swim north through the Bering Strait and far into the Arctic Ocean in search of an alternate food supply.  They are so hungry they are eating krill and mysid shrimp, but as it takes an enormous quantity to match the calories of lipid-rich amphipods, the whales remain hungry.

The North Atlantic right whale, a species federally classified as endangered, is also affected by the rising ocean temperatures.  The Smithsonian reports that right whales eat more than 2,000 pounds each day, mostly copepods.  Their favorite copepod, the Calanus finmarchicus, has dramatically declined because some of the deep waters of the north Atlantic have warmed almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit since 2004, forcing right whales to migrate elsewhere in search of food.  Several right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters in recent months, and a sixth dead whale was found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in July of this year.  The steep rise since 2010 in the deaths of these whales from shipping vessel strikes as well as entanglement with fishing gear is attributed to the animals moving into new and unexpected areas where speed restrictions for vessels are not in place.  With some 400 right whales left (out of 500 in the early 2000s) and about 100 breeding females, the species may face extinction if these trends continue.  Researchers are hoping to use satellite technology to detect whales in new territory, allowing for faster responses in moving fishing nets and large vessels.

Creatures large and small face threats from melting ice.  Lemmings are like hamsters of the tundra – small, furry rodents with faces and whiskers as adorable as the childhood pet.  In winter, northern Norway lemmings burrow under the snow for insulation and protection from prey.  During good snow seasons, they reach population peaks and their young prosper.  But in Norway in recent years, rising temperatures are causing repeated thawing and icing periods resulting in poor snow conditions for the lemmings.  The resulting altered and reduced population cycles mean lemmings are no longer reaching population peaks. 

The arctic fox relies on lemmings as a primary food source, and scientists believe lemming decline has contributed to sharp declines and breeding failures in the arctic fox population of Norway.  Arctic foxes also face threats from the red fox, a larger more aggressive animal, which historically lived south of the arctic fox habitat.  Due to climate change and warming of the Arctic, however, the red fox is encroaching on arctic fox areas.  Warming is also converting the tundra to shrublands, a habitat the red fox desires.  The poor arctic fox faces loss of habitat, decreased food availability, increased competition for food, and possible displacement by the red fox.  And with the Arctic continuing to warm, these changes will only become more extensive.  Small wonder then that the arctic fox often has to travel long and hard to find food.  One female captured all our hearts as it traveled 3,500 km from Norway to Canada in 76 days, its remarkable journey including 1,512 km on sea ice.

These few examples demonstrate the impact of global warming on diverse forms of life — from coral reefs and lemmings to the right whale.  We learn that changes in plankton and tiny crustaceans can starve a giant whale and diminishing ice cover can cause polar bears to lose their primary food source, and we begin to register the intimate interconnectedness in the web of life.  Human well-being too is tied to this chain of life.  If fish decline, so does a food source for humans and the water birds that feed on fish, and as insect pollinators decline, so do our crops and the plants around us.  A study suggests that 40% of insect species are in decline.  And the U.S. and Canada have lost three billion birds since 1970.  In this anthropocene age, humans are not rapacious owners but stewards of our planet, holding it in trust for succeeding generations.  It is what the young led by Greta Thunberg are forcefully making clear to their elders.   

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

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The Climate Action Summit Fiasco

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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No one could fail to be touched by the fear (for the future) and urgency in Greta Thunberg’s young voice as she broke down while addressing world leaders on the last day of the UN Climate Summit.  The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Special Report on the oceans showed a worse prognosis, the patient is clearly worse.

Sad to say, despite all Greta’s efforts, nothing happened — no commitment by any of the major polluters.  Trump sauntered by before going on to mock her in his address — a grown man bullying a 16-year old girl! 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres wanted a commitment to the higher ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5C instead of 2C.  He got excuses, and of course no promise of net zero by 2050 from any major polluter.  Net zero implies balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal.  He also wanted a commitment to no new coal plants beyond 2020. Instead China, India and Turkey will be shamelessly expanding coal power well beyond that date. 

China wanted the developed nations to take the lead due to their long history of emissions and consequent responsibility.  It refused to make concrete commitments unless the US and EU did so.  The EU blames Poland, a coal exporter; the US has Mr. Trump.  In the end none of the major polluters (China, India, EU, US) did although 80 other countries pledged to reach net zero by 2050. 

Included in the 80 who pledged were 47 least developed countries (LDCs) although they are the least responsible for the emissions.  They have also been victimized by past colonialism, slavery, and for many the IMF’s notorious structural adjustment programs.

The climate data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) presented at the summit is sobering:  Global temperatures are up 1.1C since 1850 of which a 0.2C (or near 20 percent) rise occurred from 2011 to 2015.  The five-year period from 2014 to 2019 is the hottest on record while carbon emissions over the same period are up 20 percent from the previous five years.  Sea level rise since 2014 has averaged 5mm annually while the 10-year average up to 2016 was only 4mm.

One consequence of the sea level rise and warmer temperatures has been the human catastrophe from the unprecedented storms in Mozambique and the Bahamas recently.

Ninety percent of the excess heat from climate change is absorbed by water, and the WMO recorded the highest ocean heat content on record in 2018.  It poses a special danger for the Greenland ice sheet and the Arctic.  New research (July 2019) also finds melt under the water surface from glaciers reaching the sea and icebergs is ‘orders of magnitude’ greater than previously believed.  It threatens a dramatic sea level rise by the end of the century.  

Professor Brian Hoskins, a meteorologist from Imperial College London warns, “Climate change due to us is accelerating and on a very dangerous course,” adding “We should listen to the loud cry from the school children …”  No one is listening Professor, despite human-induced warming exacerbating storms, wildfires, heatwaves, coastal flooding, etc.  No, not a single major polluter stood up to make a commitment.  The EU blames Poland which relies on coal exports and has veto power over any EU-wide policy; the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia scrupulously avoided the event as if it were a plague.

The IPCC officially adopted its report on oceans and the cryosphere (those portions of Earth’s surface where water is in solid form, including sea ice, lake ice, river ice, snow cover, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, and frozen ground).  Compiled by 100 scientists, it  forecasts a catastrophic rise in sea levels, coastal flooding and worsening disasters.  It moved none of the implacables — not even the terrifying fact that Greenland’s ice sheet alone can raise sea levels by 20 feet.  All of it was ignored and instead of a breakthrough, the IPCC was left touting its evidence and reports at the end of the summit.

To summarize, nothing happened.  The climate action summit became a climate inaction summit, and the climate can was kicked down the road to Chile for the next IPCC meeting in December. 

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Actions not words: What was promised at the UN’s landmark climate summit?

MD Staff

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Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg , speaks at the opening of the UN Climate Action Summit 2019. UN Photo/Cia Pak

UN Secretary-General warned leaders not to come to his landmark Climate Action Summit with beautiful speeches, but to present concrete plans for cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050. So what, exactly, was promised at Monday’s all-day event at UN Headquarters in New York?

Profiting from sustainability

The private sector had a chance to demonstrate how it can bring about real positive change, when 87 major companies – with a combined market capitalization of over US$2.3 trillion, over 4.2 million employees, and annual direct emissions equivalent to 73 coal-fired power plants – committed to setting climate targets across their operations.

These businesses include well-known brands such as Burberry, Danone, Ericsson, Electrolux, IKEA, and Nestlé. A number of these companies (you can find the full list here), went a step further, by committing to “science-based targets”, which means that their corporate emissions cuts can be independently assessed.

Speaking at the UN Global Compact Private Sector Forum, Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, an Indian multinational conglomerate with over 200,000 employees, said that more and more business leaders are waking up to the fact that sustainability and profit go together, and that climate action represents the biggest business opportunity of the next few decades.

In the finance sector, some of the world’s largest pension funds and insurers, responsible for directing more than $2 trillion in investments, have joined together to form the Asset Owner Alliance, which committed to moving their portfolios to carbon-neutral investments by 2050. The members of the Alliance are already engaging with companies in which they are investing, to ensure that they are decarbonizing their business models.

Unlocking the power of nature

Using the power of nature is believed to be one of the most effective and immediate ways to address the climate crisis. Strengthening natural ecosystems such as forests, for example, is one such solution: more forests means more capacity for carbon capture, and replanting mangrove forests provides an effective and cheap natural barrier against coastal floods and shoreline erosion.

Monday saw the launch of several initiatives designed to boost nature-based solutions. These include the Global Campaign for Nature, which plans to conserve around 30 percent of the Earth’s lands and oceans by 2030; a High-Level Panel for the Sustainable Ocean Economy, which will build resilience for the ocean and marine-protected areas; and the Central African Forest Initiative promises to protect the region’s forest cover, which provides livelihoods for some 60 million people.

Cleaning up cities

It is now possible to construct buildings that are 100 per cent net-zero carbon emitters, and the Zero Carbon Buildings for All initiative is pledging to make all buildings – new build and existing – net zero carbon by 2050. This could potentially lead to a $1 trillion investment in developing countries, by 2030.

A total of 2000 cities committed to placing climate risk at the centre of their decision-making, planning and investments: this includes launching 1,000 bankable, climate-smart urban projects, and creating innovative financing mechanisms.

Tackling traffic congestion and pollution is the aim of the Action Towards Climate Friendly Transport initiative, which includes actions to plan city development in a way that minimises travel, shift from fossil-fuelled vehicles to non-motorized and public transport, and increase the use of zero-emission technologies.

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