June 2022: The Cash-Climate-Chemical Connection
In this edition:
- Government Websites Obfuscate PFAS Health Risks
- Thousands of Potentially Harmful Chemicals in Food Packaging
- A Planetary Boundary for Pollution
- Green Science Policy Institute in the News
I hope you are enjoying the transition from spring to summer. It’s an exhilarating time of year, with flowers in full bloom and a fresh crop of graduates starting the next chapter of their lives.
I was honored to deliver the commencement address to the 2022 University of San Francisco’s College of Arts and Sciences. My topic was Tikkun Olam, which means “healing the world” in Hebrew. I spoke about examples from my own life leading pioneering mountaineering expeditions and science and policy work towards a healthier world.
I came away from this moving experience with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, and an important new idea as well. One of my fellow commencement speakers, the leading climate activist Bill McKibben, told me about his current New Yorker article about how Big Tech’s massive mountains of money inadvertently move the climate crisis. He explained that if the tech companies would band together to insist banks stop lending money to finance the expansion of fossil fuels, it “could be a true turning point in the crisis.” Recalling our New York Times op-ed on the connection between climate change, plastic pollutions and harmful petrochemicals, I realized that this strategy would also contribute to reducing toxics.
Since the petrochemical industry is pivoting to increased production of plastics and toxic chemicals to make up for declining fuel sales, divesting from this industry fights both the climate and chemical pollution crises. Just as the tech companies in our Material Buyers Club can combine their purchasing power to move the market away from toxics in products, they could use their combined wealth and influence to move their banks away from financing toxic industries.
After my commencement address, I happily rushed over to the Himalayan Fair, which I founded 39 years ago following a year of enjoying such celebrations as I walked across the Himalayan countries. The Fair was happening once again after a three-year break due to heavy rain and COVID. I reflected on the connection between the fair and our work to reduce toxics. It all goes back to Tikkun Olam.
As I told Earth Island Journal, “by connecting people to art, culture, and food from different communities, the fair helps foster understanding across differences. And that helps make the world a little better, in a way that’s different but just as important as keeping toxic chemicals out of our land, water, and bodies…”
A calming reading recommendation for these stressful times comes from our longtime Six Classes Toxic Reduction retreat facilitator and good friend Leigh Marz. Her new book, Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, includes a description of Leigh leading our toxic reduction retreats and was published last month in 13 languages. You can learn more and consider ordering a copy here.
Our institute wants to hire an Operations Director, primarily based in our North Berkeley office. Before posting this position publicly, we are sharing it with our newsletter community. Interested candidates can contact [email protected] for more information.
Arlene and the Green Science Policy team
Government Websites Obfuscate PFAS Health Risks
By Rebecca Fuoco
What do you say to a mother who has been feeding her baby formula in water contaminated with harmful PFAS? To a community with high cancer rates who learn their drinking water has been polluted and unsafe for decades? Consumers, healthcare providers, and policymakers alike look to public health agencies for accurate information on PFAS and other chemicals of concern.
Unfortunately, our analysis of state and federal government webpages found that many are using dismissive language to communicate PFAS health risks. This isn’t just unhelpful, it’s harmful—especially for people in communities with severe drinking water contamination.
For example, many of the government educational materials we reviewed limit the discussion of PFAS health risks to equivocal statements about the existence of “some studies” showing certain PFAS “may” lead to health effects. In actuality, for certain immune, liver, reproductive, and cancer adverse outcomes, most or nearly all studies have found harm from PFAS exposure.
In its heavily cited guidance for clinicians, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry not only uses equivocal language, but also provides examples of ways to dismiss concerns of the exposed patient. It includes little discussion of how patients and doctors can collaborate to reduce exposure and risk. It also ignores the clinician’s interest in community actions that can decrease exposure.
We did find positive examples of communications from some state agencies and nonprofit groups, including the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s fact sheet, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials Clinician FAQ, and the clinician guidance on Silent Spring Institute’s PFAS-REACH Exchange website.
We’re calling on government agencies to use these examples to update their communications to align with the science and better serve people in heavily contaminated communities.
Thousands of Potentially Harmful Chemicals in Food Packaging
By Lydia Jahl
Most of us understand that a healthy diet is composed of fresh whole foods, locally produced, without too many additives or preservatives with unpronounceable names. But when was the last time you considered the amount of potentially harmful chemicals in the packaging surrounding your food?
A new paper by the Food Packaging Forum, a non-profit organization based in Switzerland, revealed that most chemicals detected in food contact materials are not even listed for use in food packaging. The researchers compiled a database based on more than a thousand scientific studies that found more than 3,000 food contact chemicals that are present in food contact materials and may leach into food. A majority of these contaminants are non-intentionally added substances. The food packaging category with the most potentially harmful added chemicals was unsurprisingly plastic, and glass & ceramic had the lowest number of detected chemicals. Additional research identified that food packaging contains hundreds of chemicals that are known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, and harmful to the reproductive and endocrine systems.
Unfortunately, many of these chemicals are members of Green Science Policy Institute’s Six Classes: bisphenols & phthalates, certain metals, and PFAS. Moreover, the researchers identified that six PFAS that were frequently detected in the food contact materials are not even listed as being intentionally used in the manufacturing process of food packaging. The presence of these chemicals is a result of the largely unregulated chemical industry and the complex manufacturing of plastics.
However, more and more scientists and policymakers are becoming aware of the problems with food packaging. Several states, such as California, Maine, and New York, have restricted PFAS use in food packaging, and many more states are working towards similar legislation. The non-profit Environmental Defense Fund just released a helpful web-based tool that identifies which possible toxic chemicals might be lurking throughout the food packaging supply chain in order to help food companies remove harmful chemicals from their product portfolios.
How can you reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals in food packaging? Well, chemical migration from packaging into food depends on factors such as temperature, contact time, and the amount of chemical in the packaging. A first step to take is to purchase food that comes in no packaging altogether: bring reusable organic cotton bags to the grocery store to pick up fresh produce or bulk beans & grains. Try to purchase premade food that comes in glass packaging, or at least transfer food out of plastic containers before heating it. You can also limit migration by eating food soon after purchasing and avoiding single-portion snacks that have a lot of packaging surface area relative to the amount of food. And be sure to avoid single use plastics.
A Planetary Boundary for Pollution
By Hannah Ray
When it comes to toxics, how much is too much - for the air, the ocean, the soil, for animals, and for our health? A global awareness of this important question - and how it relates to other Earth systems such as climate change, freshwater use, and biodiversity loss - is emerging.
We know that pollution is a problem. More than 350,000 chemicals and mixtures have been registered globally for production and use. Chemical production volumes are in millions of tons per year and are poised to triple by 2050. We produce hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste every year - which clogs landfills, harms wildlife, and builds up in our waterways, oceans, and our food. Pollution increasingly kills humans. Contaminated air and water, and poisoning from lead and other heavy metals caused 1 in 6 deaths in the past five years - killing more people than war, terrorism, road injuries, malaria, and drugs and alcohol combined. Chemical exposures also combine to reduce human fertility, IQ, and overall health. This year,a new scientific analysis posits that globally, we have breached the “sustainable boundary” for chemical pollution, because annual production and releases of chemicals are increasing at a pace that outstrips the global capacity for assessment and monitoring.
The concept of the planetary boundaries that nine interrelated Earth system processes must stay within to sustain life, was introduced in a Nature article about a decade ago. Besides pollution, the other eight systems are climate change; biodiversity loss; nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; ozone depletion; ocean acidification; freshwater use; land use; and atmospheric aerosols.
During the Holocene period (about 12000 years before present), these complex Earth systems remained stable enabling human societies to develop and prosper. However, many scientists believe that we have now entered an era, the Anthropocene, in which humans are changing those stable conditions with dire consequences. A prime example are the changes to the Earth’s stable climate system wrought by human-caused fossil fuel emissions, the cause of the global climate emergency. In June 2022, the scientific community presented evidence that six of the nine boundaries have been transgressed. Watch the documentary Breaking Boundaries for an introduction to this concept, as well as some inspiring ways to take action.
Change at a global scale is needed - and governments are taking the first steps. This year, the European Union announced its plan to ban entire classes of chemicals of concern. The U.N. Environment Assembly resolved to end plastic pollution. New frameworks for rating the sustainability of chemicals are emerging, with implications for the environmental, social, and governance ratings of businesses that use them. Individuals can begin to educate themselves about the Earth systems and think about how their actions can affect them.
Green Science Policy Institute in the News
By Rebecca Fuoco
Below are recent news articles, blogs, podcasts, newsletters, and more that have featured our Institute’s work and expertise.
- The Boston Globe highlighted the success of our Institute and our Material Buyer’s Club in reducing harmful chemicals in products. “Much of the pioneering work for removing such chemicals from products has been done by Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute in California,” the article said.
- Coastal Review, WHQR, the Fayetteville Observer, E&E News, and more covered our joint analysis finding that state and federal public health agencies often understate the scientific evidence surrounding PFAS harms.
- Environmental Health News published a feature on worker exposure to PFAS in a variety of industries. It cites our report, which notes that the use of PFAS in building materials may give construction workers (and anyone doing home improvement projects) elevated exposure.
- Arlene was quoted in EcoWatch about harmful flame retardants in car seats. “Parents shouldn’t have to strap their child into a car seat that exposes them to toxic chemicals. Car seats are critical for child safety, which makes this health inequity especially problematic. It’s urgent that the Transportation Department update the ineffective standard that causes this problem.”
- After receiving the American Alpine Club’s highest honor at their March gala in Denver, Arlene was interviewed about her adventures in mountaineering and science. You can read the article on SFGATE.
- A new Consumer Reports guide to avoiding PFAS recommends checking out our consumer resources page and our PFAS-free products list.
- Better Homes & Gardens recommended our website for tips to clean without harmful chemicals.
July 11-12, 2022, 5am Eastern:
Chemicals Management for Electronics in Europe 2022
Arlene will speak on the second day of this virtual forum about the impact of international flammability standards and regulations on electronics sustainability. Register here.
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