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November 2023: Extinguishing Toxics, Igniting Change

In this edition:

I hope you had an enjoyable Thanksgiving with friends and family. I am happy to share with you two long overdue policy changes to which our Institute contributed.

A win for airports, communities, and firefighters

First, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has given airports the green light to use PFAS-free firefighting foam. This is a huge win for public health, as the use of PFAS-laden firefighting foam at civilian airports (and military bases) is a major source of drinking-water contamination across the country.

Scientists at our Institute started working towards this change five years ago after speaking with representatives from the Fairbanks and San Francisco international airports. They wanted to switch to PFAS-free foam, but their hands were tied by an FAA specification which only allowed foam that contained PFAS. We shared this problem with Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan who proposed an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 that would direct the FAA to allow civilian airports the freedom to choose PFAS-free firefighting foams. When this quickly passed the House, we rejoiced and began to meet with dozens of Senate staffers on the Hill, educating them about the benefits of PFAS-free foam. When the Kildee FAA amendment then passed the Senate and was signed into law by the President, we celebrated!

However, nothing changed until now, as the FAA did not follow the amendment’s directive to allow the use of PFAS-free foams. We’re delighted to announce that the FAA has now followed through and even more pleased that military bases are also using foam without PFAS.

An even longer-awaited change is the FDA’s proposal vegetable oils (BVOs) in food and beverages.

It seems obvious that kids shouldn't drink flame retardants

Hard to believe that BVOs, patented as flame retardants, have been added to some citrus soda drinks for half a century! Their purpose is to keep flavoring oils from separating and floating to the top of the drinks. This gives beverages the cloudy look of real fruit juice. Unfortunately, drinking BVO-containing sodas can lead to health harms including bromine bioaccumulation and toxic effects on the thyroid. 

BVOs were banned in the EU and Japan in the 1970s when I first wrote with concern about their use in soft drinks. I wish it hadn’t taken nearly fifty years for the FDA to act, but it’s great that they finally have. One likely reason is California’s recently passed ban on BVOs. Congratulations to EWG and other NGOs who led the way on this important legislation.

Why is it so difficult to stop the use of obviously harmful chemicals like PFAS, BVOs, flame retardants, and antimicrobials? One answer is that they are extremely profitable. This motivates the chemical industry to spend millions upon millions of dollars lobbying against their regulation, much to the detriment of our health and environment. Our Institute and our colleagues are committed to continue researching, writing, and speaking out until science prevails over profit.

We will begin 2023 with a focus on stopping antimicrobial overuse in gyms and beyond, encouraging alternatives to PFAS in clean technology, and reducing the use of flame retardants and PFAS in vehicles and everyday products. These projects will help make people and ecosystems healthier.

Warm wishes for your winter holiday season,

Arlene and the Green Science Policy team

UN: North Carolina PFAS Pollution a Human Rights Violation

by Rebecca Fuoco

Celebrities, brands, and government agencies alike often utilize the “Friday news dump” strategy when announcing negative news. That means putting out a press release on a Friday afternoon when most members of the news media are off for the weekend, and therefore, less likely to report on it.

A pathway to justice for Cape Fear

The United Nations just released something major on Black Friday, when much of the country was on Thanksgiving break and focused on bargain shopping. However, it was actually good news that shouldn’t fly under the radar: the UN is formally recognizing the PFAS contamination crisis in the lower Cape Fear River basin in North Carolina as a violation of international human rights law.

The UN has published five letters sent to DuPont, Chemours, Corteva, the United States, and the Netherlands. These letters were in direct response to a communication filed by Berkeley Law's Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of Clean Cape Fear in April. That petition alleged that DuPont and spin-off Chemours have for decades polluted Cape Fear, contaminating drinking water for 500,000 residents in three North Carolina counties as well as groundwater affecting more than 6,000 private well owners in eight surrounding counties. This has sickened the region’s people, pets, and livestock.

"We are grateful to see the United Nations take action on behalf of Clean Cape Fear and all residents in our region suffering from decades of human rights abuse related to our PFAS contamination crisis," said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear. "Clearly, the UN recognizes international law is being violated in the United States. We find it profoundly troubling the United States and DuPont have yet to respond to our complaint to the UN or to the UN’s allegation letters."

Healthy Holiday Shopping Guide

Keep it PFAS-free under the tree

By Rebecca Fuoco

Making your list and checking it twice?

Beware, many popular holiday gift categories can be a minefield for nearly all six classes of harmful chemicals. Below are some tips and tricks. 

Here are some online tools for safer shopping:

  • Our PFAS-free list includes apparel, shoes, outdoor gear, cosmetics, and more. 
  • Clearya is a free browser plug-in and mobile app that scans and flags unsafe ingredients for products on Amazon, Sephora, and other online stores.
  • Sway vets home goods using rigorous standards for health. Their holiday gift guide includes everything from chocolates to candles to cookware.  
  • EWG’s Skin Deep Database has health ratings for nearly 100,000 personal care products. Their Healthy Living app allows you to scan food and personal care products for health ratings.
  • There are several websites and retailers dedicated to non-toxic children’s products, most notably The Tot.

Here is some general shopping guidance:

  • Avoid products (such as clothing and shoes) advertised as “water-resistant” or “stain-resistant,” which may have PFAS.
  • Avoid products advertised as “antimicrobial,” “antibacterial,” or “anti-odor.”
  • Avoid makeup and personal care products with “perfluor-,“ “polyfluor-,“ and “PTFE” on the label.
  • Look for fragrance-free products, since the ingredients “fragrance,” “perfume,” or “parfum” often mean phthalates are present.
  • Avoid plastic toys, and instead look for toys made of FSC-certified wood, natural rubber, or organic fabric. Even plastic toys advertised as “BPA-free” may contain similarly toxic bisphenols like BPS.
  • Avoid inexpensive metal jewelry or charms, which may contain cadmium or lead.

Flame Retardant Soda?!

By Lydia Jahl

Updating furniture and tent flammability standards and restricting the use of some flame retardants has reduced levels of certain brominated chemicals in our homes and our bodies. However, brominated vegetable oils (BVOs), originally patented as flame retardants, have long been added to some citrus soda drinks to emulsify flavoring oils and give these soft drinks the cloudy look of real fruit juice.

BVOs are on their way out of soft drinks

Drinking more than two liters a day of BVO-containing sodas can lead to severe bromine toxicity requiring medical treatment, and rats exposed at low concentrations experienced thyroid damage. According to one 2012 study, “the average daily human intake of BVO [from BVO-containing sodas] exceeds the intake of other organobromine compounds, such as brominated flame retardants, by more than 4000 times for adults and more than 1000 times for children.” 

BVOs have been banned for decades in the EU and Japan, and there is finally some real progress to share here. In October, California Governor Newsom signed The California Food Safety Act, banning four chemical food additives - BVOs, potassium bromate, propyl paraben, and Red Dye No. 3. Shortly after, the US FDA announced that it was considering removing its approval for BVO use in beverages (check out John Oliver’s recent episode for more on the safety of our food supply).

California’s new legislation is a hopeful sign that US consumers will no longer be exposed to BVOs through soft drinks starting January 2027. But for now, keep an eye on soda ingredient labels for “brominated vegetable oil” and choose a healthier alternative like 100% fruit juice.

Global Policymaking Needs to be Protected from Vested Interests

By Anna Soehl

Conflicts of interest can prevent addressing health harm from chemicals. Vested interests are behind much misinformation and lobbying leading to the continued uses of harmful chemical classes such as flame retardants, PFAS, bisphenols and phthalates, and antimicrobials. They have also brought us a paralysis-by-analysis chemical management, where toxic chemicals are widely used until there is unquestionable evidence of harm—a process of lock-in in that often takes decades while the harm continues.

Webinar recording: Unwrapping Conflict of Interest in Chemicals and Waste Governance

Recently, through my work with the International Panel on Chemical Pollution, I collaborated with over 30 scientists warning of the risks associated with conflicts of interest. In a peer-reviewed Feature paper in Environmental Science & Technology we called for implementation of strict conflict of interest guidelines by the future United Nations (UN) science-policy panel on chemicals, waste, and pollution prevention.

“Just like the tobacco industry was restricted from WHO’s work on smoking, the UN shouldn’t let the chemical industry’s hired guns dilute global guidelines for chemical and waste management,” points out Andreas Schäffer, Professor at Aachen University and the lead author of our paper.

This warning came at the beginning of the third UN plastic treaty negotiation session in Nairobi, where industry representatives have outnumbered other interests and have been too closely involved in the process. As a result, these important negotiations have suffered a setback. A few so-called low-ambition fossil-fuel producing countries, supported by industries protecting their own financial interest, have rejected actions that would meaningfully address plastic pollution. At the same time, independent scientists continue to find it challenging to get a seat at the table. 

The recent Nairobi developments serve as yet another reminder that, to ensure the effectiveness of the global policymaking on chemicals, the international community needs to:

  • Define clear and strict conflict of interest provisions, which do not confuse the undesirable conflicts of financial or political competing interests with legitimate interests or biases
  • Install regular audits to check for conflicts of interest
  • Secure as many elements of transparency as possible

If you would like to follow or contribute to international negotiations regarding plastics and chemicals, check out materials prepared by the International Panel on Chemical Pollution (IPCP) and the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty

Green Science Policy Institute in the News

We communicate our science to a wide audience. You can too.

By Rebecca Fuoco

Below are recent news articles, blogs, podcasts, newsletters, and more that have featured our Institute’s work and expertise.

  • Our map of flame retardants in wildlife continued to get media coverage, including in CTV NewsEcoWatchDoctissimo (France), and Republika (Indonesia), as well as in blogs from Fidra and CHEMTrust.
  • Institute staff and collaborators published op-eds about the map in The HillMongabay, and The Messenger.
  • Our scientist Lydia Jahl was interviewed by the popular YouTube channel Plant Chompers about the connection between PFAS and diet.
  • Our PFAS-free list was featured in an investigative article mapping drinking water contamination in USA Today.
  • Our paper on PFAS research publicity was covered by Sante Log, a French publication for health professionals.
  • In an article about the connection between pollution and heart attacks, Vanity Fair Italia mentioned our 2021 study on PFAS indoor air pollution.
  • In article in The New Lede mentioned our joint 2019 and 2020 petitions to the EPA to regulate PFAS as a hazardous waste.
  • Building off our joint 2021 paper, our colleague Graham Peaslee collaborated with CBC Marketplace to investigate PFAS in cosmetics. The episode also features our colleague Miriam Diamond.
  • Our colleague Linda Birnbaum was interviewed by the Big Brains podcast about PFAS, and pointed to our Institute as a resource for information on avoiding PFAS. 


December 6, 2023
The Cosmos Club, Washington, D.C.

Arlene will present the 2023 John Wesley Powell Lecture, "Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life", describing her mountain and scientific adventures at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. 

December 9, 2023, 1:00pm-3:00pm Eastern
Society of Woman Geographers Headquarters, 415 East Capitol Street SE, Washington, D.C. 20003

Arlene will deliver a talk called “Mountains and Molecules” about the connection between her climbing and chemicals work.
To attend, please RSVP by December 6 to the [email protected] and/or to Arlene.

December 13 & 14, 2023, 2:00pm-5:30pm Eastern
The OpEd Project 2-Day Intensive Workshop

Our communications director Rebecca Fuoco will help facilitate an online training on op-ed writing. She is recruiting women scientists and other scientists from underrepresented identities and backgrounds to participate. Scholarships are available. See more information about the workshop here and reach out to Rebecca ([email protected]) if you’d like to register.

December 15, 2023
Hotel ALOFT, Thamel, Kathmandu Nepal

Arlene will speak to the Kathmandu Rotary Club Mid town about her past climbs in Nepal and current work with the Green Science Policy Institute reducing the use of harmful chemicals in everyday products.
´╗┐Please contact Arlene if you would like to attend.

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