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The Threat to Life from Ocean Microplastics

Meena Miriam Yust

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad Khan

When Chelsea Rochman at the University of Toronto and colleagues began their study on medakas (small Japanese rice paddy fish), they did not expect to find what they did.

They first soaked ground-up polyethylene in San Diego Bay for three months and then fed it to these fish along with a laboratory diet.  They also fed the same diet to a comparison group of medakas but along with virgin polyethylene also ground-up.  The medakas eating the plastic immersed in the Bay suffered greater liver damage.  How much of a danger then is our seafood?  

Defined as less than 5mm in size,  microplastics have been found in 114 types of aquatic life, over half of which are consumed by humans.   Oysters exposed to food-container plastic (polystyrene) have fewer eggs and impaired less-motile sperm.  Does eating them do the same to us?  Nobody knows.  A comprehensive study of plastics in seafood and its implications for human health points to the gaps in our knowledge.  It calls for more research into the toxicity of various plastics and in identifying lower risk seafood.  

There is some evidence for the quantity of microplastic pieces per cubic meter of water — from the surface to a depth of 1000 meters in one study.  The numbers range from four pieces at the surface increasing to about a dozen at 200 meters down then declining to three or so at a 1000 meters down.  It is certainly not super dense.  At the same time, little fish ingesting it and bigger fish eating smaller ones, and one can see a problem developing, particularly for us the final consumer.  

The copious plastic debris flowing into the ocean estimated at 8 million tons annually continues to add to the 100 million tons already there.  Engineering experts at Stanford University have discussed “the potential for meaningful change” in the status quo.  They have some interesting observations:  Microplastics are now in “about a quarter of the sea foods in our markets and even in table salt.”  They are also in “94 percent of tap water samples in the US and in nearly every brand of bottled water.”  At this we checked tap water and some bottled water and did not notice any.  Insidious, if these are microscopic.   

Research in other parts of the world exemplify the global extent of the microplastics menace.  In a study of commercial fish caught off the Portuguese coast, microplastics were found in 19.8 percent of the 26 species of fish tested.  Plastic polymers, polyethylene and polypropylene as well as fibers like polyester, rayon and nylon had been ingested.  As might be expected, the fish taken off Lisbon and its environs were worst affected.  

In another study, fish and bivalves taken from markets in California and Makassar, Indonesia were  examined for anthropogenic debris.  Plastic was again confirmed in seafood sold for human consumption.  Debris was found in about a quarter of individual fish and a third of shellfish raising concerns about human health.

North Sea fish have been studied for plastic ingestion also.  Foekema and his fellow researchers found particles up to 4.8 mm in five of seven common North Sea fish species.  Usually only one particle was found and in only 2.6 percent of the 1204 individual specimens tested.  Cod showed the highest frequency with one third involved.  In another study of 400 individual fish from four species, only two particles were found, both in one individual, a sprat, confirming the relative low incidence of plastics in North Sea fish.  The particles in the sprat were microbeads.

Then there is the ubiquitous cigarette butt.  Is there something prophetic about dropping and stubbing it as the final act of a habit statistically known to shorten the lives of smokers?  Discarding butts may be socially acceptable but when 6.5 trillion cigarettes are smoked each year around the world, and an estimated two-thirds of the ends flicked away carelessly, butts become the most littered plastic item.  Made of cellulose acetate they degrade slowly, and then into tiny microplastic pieces finding their way often into waterways and oceans.

The thrown-away butt, a lethal parcel of absorbed nicotine, heavy metals and chemicals, appears to marine life as food floating on the surface.  It has been found to be deadly to fish, and to inhibit plant growth.  A new addition, e-cigarettes are growing in popularity, their discarded pods posing a similar problem  — not to mention the e-cigarette itself, a package of plastic, electric circuitry and battery.

Another disturbing trend is for manufacturers to add plastic microbeads as cheap fillers in household products like toothpaste, shampoo and cosmetics.  Washed down the drain, and small enough to bypass the water filters at reclamation plants, these eventually find their way into the ocean.  Of course some can be swallowed accidentally by product users.  A Mother Jones (May 28 , 2015) article pictures an array of products containing them.  

Fish are fooled by microbeads which are a similar size and shape to fish eggs.  Add all the other plastics and the chemicals adhering to them and they become a meal with long-term consequences for other predators as well.  The Guardian newspaper reports on five species affected by ocean plastics.  Fish-eating birds, whales with plastic-clogged stomachs, turtles snagged by plastic six-pack holders, crabs ingesting microplastics that also enter through their gills, even vital oxygen producing ocean bacteria are being harmed.   

Birds eating plastic had stunted growth and kidney problems noted a University of Tasmania study with particular reference to the near-threatened flesh-footed shearwaters (long-winged oceanic birds).  They have estimated a million seabirds dying annually from plastic ingestion, and other researchers have tagged balloons as the “no.1 marine debris risk of mortality for seabirds.”  A high-risk item, ingesting a balloon fragment is 32 times more likely to cause death than a hard plastic item.

A map of the US showing the interest levels in plastic pollution for the different states as measured by the numbers of tweets about the subject might be appropriate in our new world of politics by tweet led by the president.  None of it helps the individual dying of kidney, liver or pancreatic cancer.  Infertility clinics abound as sperm counts decline in the west and specially in the US … joining the oysters mentioned earlier.

If we reflect on the issues, a logical answer emerges; that is, to reduce plastics, ban single-use items, increase recycling, and dispose of the rest safely.  Above all, educating us remains key.  Who knew cigarette butts are not just an unsightly nuisance but deadly?  

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CounterPunch.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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Green Planet

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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Green Planet

Consequences of U.S. formal exit from Paris climate pact: More isolation globally

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The U.S. has formally begun to exit the Paris climate agreement. Regardless of whether or not the Paris Agreement is legally binding, the U.S. has committed to cut 26-28% of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 from 2005 levels, and donate three billion dollars to poor countries by 2020.

 The U.S. is now the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China. In other words, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 were about 7000 million metric tones, which is more than total emissions of the entire EU countries. However, the U.S. president claimed that he has decided to pull his country out of the Paris climate pact because his job is to “protect America and its citizens”. 

Commenting on the reason for withdrawing from the agreement, the U.S. president said that the pact is favorable for other countries not the United States, because it puts the country at a very big economic disadvantage. Trump also presented statistics showing that implementation of the agreement for the U.S. will result in losing 2.7 million job opportunities by 2025 as well as 440,000 industrial opportunities inside the country. The president added that this is not what the U.S. needed. This issue is not acceptable to Trump that China can continue to emit greenhouse gas for another 13 years, and India is able to continue its greenhouse gas emissions till 2020, while receiving billions of dollars.

The U.S. president also complains that his country has already donated about one billion dollar to Green Climate Fund, which is founded to help developing countries, while no other country has spent such a large sum in this field. 

Trump, despite his decision to exit the Paris Agreement, has announced that he is ready to “begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris Accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers”. He also said that if they reach an accord, that will be great and if they do not, that will be fine.

 Consequences of U.S. withdrawal

It should be noted that the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord by the U.S. is not its first unconventional action toward valid international documents. After coming to the White House, in one of his first moves, Trump ordered to pull the country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that was signed in 2016. The TPP is the greatest trade agreement in the world, which was signed between 12 countries around the Pacific Ocean with the exception of China, and aimed to remove trade barriers to the countries that signed the agreement. 

However, the Paris Agreement is of particular importance for the current generation and the world’s future in terms of environmental and international rights. Obviously, legal and political consequences of the Paris accord is more serious than those of the TPP. The following is the summary of the effects of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate pact:

1.    U.S. political and legal isolation: the U.S. will be seriously isolated if it withdraws from the Paris accord, because besides Europeans, countries like Canada, Russia, and Asian countries such as China and Japan have signed the agreement. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Chinese president reaffirmed that they will be committed to the pact even after the U.S. withdrawal. 

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, at a meeting in Berlin, described the U.S. withdrawal as a completely wrong move.  Juncker said that the U.S. cannot exit the agreement just like that. He added that Trump says he will exit the Paris climate pact because he is not well aware of this pact. This is while, he said, in 2015, about 200 countries signed an accord in 2015 in Paris, based on which they were committed to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 °C to prevent global warming.

2.    Lack of states’ trust on the U.S. to reach an agreement on other issues: this move by Trump shows the U.S. non-compliance with international agreements that could disturb its prestige and position in the world. The move also will cause other Western partners, especially Europeans, lose their trust of the United States. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, other countries will hesitate to cooperate and sign contract with the White House on other issues. 

3.    Distrust of environmental rights: one of the important issues in legal subjects is environmental right, which is being taken into account at national and international level. The U.S. withdrawal from the pact means disregard to international documents related to environmental rights. This approach can be a serious threat to plans to control global warming. Furthermore, the approach indicates that the world’s second largest polluter does not pay much attention to environmental protection, which has been one of most important challenges for environmental rights in recent decades.

From our partner Tehran Times

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