America Recycles Day 2019

November 15 is America Recycles Day. The day recognizes national support and education for the importance of recycling for the country’s economic and environmental health. The America Recycles Day not only brings awareness to recycling plastics, but encourages participants to review other lifestyle changes that would limit the production and circulation of plastic. Such changes include avoiding the purchase of plastic products or finding way to reuse products before disposal.
America Recycles Day
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Backyard Talk

FIGO Pushes Against Toxic Environmental Chemicals and Champions Environmental Justice

“Exposure to toxic environmental chemicals during pregnancy and breastfeeding is ubiquitous and is a threat to healthy human reproduction.”

That’s a pretty direct and bold statement. It is also a statement that outlines the stance of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) in a report recently published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics. Suffice it to say it is not sugar coated.

The report, titled “International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics opinion on reproductive health impacts of exposure to toxic environmental chemicals” and authored by experts from the US, UK and Canada, makes a strong argument that prenatal exposures to toxic chemicals in the environment such as pesticides, plastics and metals are strongly related to health problems that develop throughout the lifespan of affected individuals. This means that problems like fertility issues, stillbirths, miscarriages, cancer, and attention problems are all strongly associated with exposure to unwanted chemicals during gestation and early child development.

This information is nothing new – the literature on the topic of cumulative chemical exposures during childhood development is comprehensive. But it is a new and powerful statement coming from an organization that is the leading global voice of reproductive health professionals in over 125 countries/territories.

Gian Carlo Di Renzo, leading author of the report, put it quite eloquently: “We are drowning our world in untested and unsafe chemicals and the price we are paying in terms of our reproductive health is of serious concern”. These chemicals account for tremendous losses. According to the report, ambient and household air pollution results in at least 7 million deaths a year, costs of pesticide poisoning in the Sub-Saharan region are estimated to be $66 billion, costs attributable to exposure to only a select few endocrine-disrupting chemicals was conservatively estimated to be on average €157 billion per year… the statistics go on an on.

FIGO takes a strong stance against toxic chemicals, offering health professionals four recommendations: “advocate for policies to prevent exposure to toxic environmental chemicals, work to ensure a healthy food system for all, make environmental health part of health care, and champion environmental justice.” These suggestions are in line with CHEJ’s mission and vision, and we congratulate FIGO for developing and actively pursuing this policy stance

Backyard Talk

Will Roads Made of Recycled Plastic Be the Future?

By: Katie O’Brien
Earlier this week Dutch Construction Company, VolkerWessels, announced in partnership with the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, their plan to replace roadways using recycled plastic in as soon as three years. While it is still in the conceptual phase, there is a possibility that plastic can be the future of building materials for streets.
There are many benefits for the new plastic design. The design, known as PlasticRoad, is greener, stronger, easier to maintain, and less vulnerable to temperature extremes than asphalt. It will also help reduce our carbon footprint. According to Science Alert, the process of creating asphalt produces 1.45 million tons of global carbon dioxide emissions yearly. Switching to recycled plastic to “pave” roadways can greatly reduce our green house gas emissions.
PlasticRoad can also have a large impact on traffic patterns. Since the road can be constructed in an off- site location and easily delivered, there will be much less time needed to install the new infrastructure. This will result in less traffic, as installing and maintaining it will take significantly less time. The roadway is also designed to be hollow to allow for utility cables to be installed. Future plans are to develop integrated heating within the roadways to help melt snow during snowstorms, resulting in safer roads and less potholes. The hollow center can also be used as a rainwater displacement system, potentially keeping roads drier.
There is still a long way to go before PlasticRoad is implemented. There are a slew of tests that must deem the roadway safe to drive on. Prototypes are going to begin being created once VolkerWessels finds more partners in the project. This can be a game changer for plastic waste. Currently the United States alone generated more than 33 million tons of plastic waste in 2013, of that, only 9% of it was recycled. Recycled plastic roadways can make a big difference in our landfills. While it is still “just an idea on paper”, PlasticRoad can change the way we construct our roadways for the better.

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Backyard Talk

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

By Michelle Atkin

The world’s largest landfill is actually floating in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. It contains three million tons of plastic, in addition to other marine debris, and is often referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). This drifting ocean litter or gyre is one of five major global garbage patches and was discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, a California volunteer environmentalist and sailor who was so concerned he founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

The size of this trash cluster is widely debated because it is difficult to measure as it shifts with the currents. While some say it is the size of France, others say it is twice the size of Texas, but it is a problem that is not going away.

Every year there are 280 million tons of plastic produced around the world, and 63 pounds of plastic packaging for each person ends up in landfills annually while only nine percent of it is recycled in the United States. Unfortunately, because plastic is not biodegradable, all of the fragments of plastic that have ever been produced still exist, excluding the small volume that has been incinerated, which releases toxic chemicals.

While water bottles and plastic bags contribute to the greatest percentage of plastic litter, a few of the many other items that can be found on the ocean’s floor or surface are buttons, fishing line, toys, cigarette lighters, PVC pipe or fragments, golf tees, gloves and markers. Over time, the sun, wind and waves can break down the plastic into millimeter sized flecks which creates a mess that is impossible to clean up. Scientists have found six times more plastic than plankton in GPGP ocean water samples, and it makes its way into the stomachs of birds, fish, whales and other marine life, which may eventually end up on our plates, along with the Bisphenol A (BPA) and other toxic chemicals found in some plastic.

The estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer in the world’s oceans kill millions of seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year from ingestion or entanglement. Half of the Earth’s wetlands have been destroyed and beaches like Kamilo Beach in Hawaii consist of more plastic particles than sand particles in the top twelve inches of the beach.

As stated by National Geographic, “because the GPGP is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up,” but even if a net could collect the trash “the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.”

The enormity of the ocean and this problem is difficult to grasp because like GPGP reporter Richard Grant wrote, “even if plastic production halted tomorrow, the planet would be dealing with its environmental consequences for thousands of years, and on the bottom of the oceans, where an estimated 70 percent of marine plastic debris ends up, for tens of thousands of years. It may form a layer in the geological record of the planet.”

Despite the damage that has already been done, the focus should be placed on reducing our footprint in the future. We need to work together and individually by volunteering to clean-up streams, rivers, lakes and beaches, so that we can limit the garbage that makes it into the ocean. We should also support environmental organizations and embrace environmental initiatives, reduce plastic use and recycle.

Backyard Talk

For BPA, Does the Dose Make the Poison?

For those who keep up with environmental health research and chemical regulations, it is no surprise to come across conflicting reports on the safety or risk of various compounds. This week, in the case of the compound bisphenol A (BPA), these conflicting reports happened to emerge almost simultaneously. On January 21st, the European Food Safety Authority declared that BPA “poses no health risk to consumers of any age group…at current exposure levels.” The next day, a study published in the journal PLoS Genetics showed that even low and short-term exposures to BPA and other hormone-mimicking compounds could alter stem cells and lead to lower sperm counts.

BPA is a common ingredient in plastics used for food and drink containers. Its hormone-like properties allow it to disrupt the endocrine system, with potential health effects ranging from reproductive issues to cancer. Though BPA has been banned in baby bottles in the U.S., and BPA-free products have become widely available since concerns about the compound were first raised in 2008, it remains in products from water bottles to the inside coatings of cans.

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David McNew via Getty Images

‘The dose makes the poison’ is a well-known adage in toxicology, implying that even hazardous chemicals can be harmless at low enough concentrations. However, decades of research have shown this to be an overly simplistic way of analyzing toxic exposures.  Dr. Theo Colborn, who passed away on December 14th, 2014, was a pioneering researcher in the field of endocrine disruption and a tireless advocate for precautionary chemical regulation. Her research on endocrine disruption demonstrated that even very low concentrations of harmful chemicals could result in changes to the reproductive system, particularly in developing babies and children who have less of a tolerance for exposure than adults. She also demonstrated that not all effects of toxic chemicals are immediately apparent, but can occur decades and even generations later.

The study published last week focused on both questions of concentration and timing. The researchers tested estrogenic compounds including BPA on mice, and found that they alter the stem cells, or undifferentiated cells, which are responsible for sperm production later in life. Patricia Hunt, the researcher who led the study, told Environmental Health News that exposure to even low doses of estrogens “is not simply affecting sperm being produced now, but impacting the stem cell population, and that will affect sperm produced throughout the lifetime.”

Uncertainties remain in the wake of this study. For instance, the researchers are still investigating whether the changes observed can cross generations, or whether the same changes can occur in human reproductive stem cells. The EFSA also recognized uncertainties in non-dietary sources of BPA, and they are still conducting long-term studies in rats. While scientists and regulators continue to chase answers, this past week shines a spotlight on the complicated realm of environmental health risk assessment, and shows the continued relevance of Dr. Theo Colborn’s work and legacy. Dose is indeed important in making a poison, but so is timing of exposure, and time itself in revealing the chronic and transgenerational effects of chemicals.