By Hilda Oltean
Over time, the evolution of consumerism has driven big companies into looking for cheaper ways for producing basic items like packaging, cleaning products, cookware and in some cases, even cosmetics. This means that the materials used are often combined with toxic chemicals that end up not only polluting our air and water but posing a real threat to human health. Unfortunately, because there still is a high demand for these items, mass production doesn’t seem to stop anytime soon and the amount of pollution emerging from it just grows higher. From production fumes released from factories that contribute greatly to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to chemicals being released in soil and contaminating our groundwater to the alarming problem of our nonbiodegradable waste that just keeps growing, with no real means of actually being able to recycle it or to dispose of it in a non-polluting way.
Awareness campaigns have started to spread more easily through mainstream media and social networks, and ultimately ended up on the big screen with motion pictures like Dark Waters that talks about the PFAS contamination of the water systems in the U.S and the recent Netflix Docu-Series Broken, which raises the problem of plastic and microplastic pollution.
Understanding Plastic and Microplastic Pollution
Over the past couple of years, the problem of plastic that basically started to slowly cover our planet has been raised by numerous environmental activists, who are trying to put into perspective the alarmingly growing rate of plastic being used for tons of packaging materials that are non-recyclable and impossible to dispose of without polluting the air.
Netflix’s Broken series, episode four – “Recycling Sham” illustrates in a chilling succession of images and interviews how growing consumerism has made the world we live in more dangerous, by slowly breaking it down.
Plastic production exploded over the last few decades, with manufacturing doubling every decade. There is an estimate of about 380 million tons of plastic being produced each year, and there are thousands of different kinds of plastic that make recycling extremely difficult. Basically, there are 7 different groups of plastic out of each only two are actually recyclable. For what concerns the rest of them, most of it just accumulates. Because the materials that are used in plastics often are toxic, this makes it extremely difficult to dispose of them in a way that won’t lead to toxic pollution and therefore put human health at more risks.
The irony that Broken points out, is the fact that a lot of companies have been actively trying to shift the responsibility of recycling to consumers, without moving so much as a finger in the direction of trying to come up with a biodegradable solution for their packaging or slow down their mass production. And the best example for the fact that ultimately the economic interest for continuing this mass production is ruling over environmental concerns, is what happened in the town of Laredo, Texas. The city’s initiative to pass a ban on plastic bags, led by Tricia Cortez and the Rio Grande International Study Center, was overturned by the state Supreme Court after American Chemistry Council lawyers have argued against the legitimacy of the ban.
There is also the issue of microplastic pollution, which isn’t exactly a recent problem. As the studies around it are ongoing there is not much knowledge about their impact. Microplastics come from various sources, including the degradation of plastic debris that turns into smaller pieces and microbeads, which are tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic. The problem with microplastics is not only that they easily pass through filtration systems and end up in our oceans and beaches but that animals ingest them, which means that the chemicals in their composition can eventually end up on our plate. Additionally, they can also be found in health and beauty products as well, such as cleansers and toothpaste.
The Link Between PFAS Chemicals and Microplastics
As we’ve come to learn, PFAS are man-made chemicals that are used as oil and water repellents and coating for various products such as cookware, carpets, textiles and packaging. They do not break down into the environment but rather accumulate over time and they have the ability to travel for great distances, thus contaminating larger areas.
Now right off the bat, we can notice two big similarities between PFAS chemicals and microplastics – the fact that they are both being used for packaging and they are not biodegradable. But how exactly are they affecting human health?
Studies have shown that synthetic chemicals found in plastics and other household items can mimic hormones and disrupt the endocrine functions. These are generally called EDC (Endocrine Disruptive Chemicals) and they are possibly contaminating our water systems and food supplies. A study on the chemicals associated with plastic packaging has estimated that there could be as many as 63 chemicals ranking high for human health risks used during manufacturing or present in the final packaging articles. Out of these, 15 have been found to be EDC. These chemicals can enter the food supply not only through packaging but also through contaminated soil and water systems which in a big part of the U.S has happened due to military activities using firefighting foam containing these chemicals.
DuPont, 3M and the PFAS Controversy
On the subject of manufacturers polluting water systems and soil, there is one big name connecting microplastics with PFAS chemicals that comes to mind, and that is DuPont. From turning resin into plastic pellets or flakes, then into specialty packaging materials, agricultural chemicals and even fire suppressant foam, they have pretty much covered every sector of products containing these chemicals hazardous for human health.
DuPont and 3M were the main manufacturers and sellers of AFFF (Aqueous Forming Film Foam), a special fire suppressant that has been sold to military and industrial facilities as well as firefighting training academies for decades. This foam containing the highly toxic group of chemicals named PFAS, was used not only in putting out chemical hazards but in numerous training and exercises which has ultimately led to foam-laced water running into groundwater and soil. Through this, the majority of water systems close to military bases have been contaminated with PFAS chemicals.
As a consequence, they are now headlining the lawsuits over environmental pollution and toxic exposure years after dumping their waste into soil and putting millions of Americans at health risks by using their products, contaminating drinking water and even the food supply.
There are more than 100 lawsuits involving the PFAS contamination that resulted from the use of AFFF in the US, which have been combined in a multidistrict litigation and more cases are expected to be filed. Meanwhile, the Navy is said to test, remove and safely dispose of the old foam installed in all firefighting systems around the country and the Air Force has spent millions already, in the process of replacing it.
After numerous studies on the health risks that the exposure to PFAS chemicals raises, including a study conducted by DuPont and 3M in which it was revealed that monkeys exposed to these chemicals had developed various health issues such as enlarged livers or weight loss, 3M decided to take AFFF off the market. Still, even the foam chosen to replace the old one could contain PFAS molecules other than PFOS and PFOA, which were proven to be a health hazard primarily for firefighters coming in direct contact with it and for people drinking the contaminated water around military bases.
What Can We Do to Limit Our Exposure and Help the Environment
While it might take years to clean up our waters and soil and to find environmentally friendly solutions to replace the manufacturing process of plastic and other products that use harmful chemicals, there are things that we can do right now not only to protect ourselves from ingesting them but to protect the environment as well. It’s clear that on a larger scale solutions aren’t found fast enough and the laws are still not very strict when it comes to regulations of chemicals that pose a health risk.
- We can start by eliminating the demand for mass production of single-use plastic. And this is quite simple actually. All we need to do is try to implement simple changes in our daily lifestyle such as taking our own bags and containers when we go shopping and forget the plastic bags. While we can’t completely eliminate plastic from our lives, we need to also be attentive to how we use them. If you keep plastic containers, don’t use them to store fatty foods and never microwave them.
- Filter tap water by using an NSF certified water filter, as we know that PFAS chemicals are spread through water systems all around the U.S. If you choose to drink bottled water, it’s safer to opt for glass bottles rather than plastic.
- Check out the labels on the products you choose. While nowadays it’s pretty difficult to have products completely free of chemicals, there are alternatives that are way less harmful. For example, you can find plastic products that are BPA free, which means that they do not use organic compound Bisphenol A (i.e. EDC) in its construction.
About the Author
Hilda Oltean is a statistical analyst for Environmental Litigation Group, PC. The firm handles cases of occupational exposure to PFAS chemicals and AFFF foam that result in serious health issues such as pancreatic and testicular cancer.