What Do Plastics & “Pre-Polluted Babies” Have in Common?  

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By Sharon Franklin.

While modern science has greatly improved the American way of life, it has also increasingly revealed the human costs of these advances. Of these costs are the large-scale environmental pollution that has the potential to impact the health of people across the world. Kyle Bagenstose a reporter for phys.org, recently published an alarming article emphasizing this impact.

In this article, Bagenstose reports that during last month, a groundbreaking study from the University of California, San Francisco of 171 pregnant women found more than 9 in 10 had measurable amounts of 19 different chemicals and pesticides in their bodies. This also showed evidence suggesting that babies are born “pre-polluted” with chemicals. The full extent of health effects from such exposures is unknown, but scientists are worried that they could contribute to the rising rates of autoimmune diseases, developmental disorders such as autism and reproductive harms, and the mysterious decline of sperm counts in men amongst the U.S. population. Dr. Tracey Woodruff, co-author of this study states, “Our understanding of exposures is not keeping up. What are these chemicals doing?”  Even though the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have decreased the amount of many toxins in the environment over the past 50 years, according to Dr. Woodruff, experts are saying regulators remain far behind in catching up to the threats of the modern era. This is partly due to how little the more than 40,000 chemicals in commerce have been robustly studied for their potential human health effects.

Is there anything we can do about this? According to Stephanie Wein of PennEnvironment, states’ efforts to cut down on pollution have often focused on the “end fate” of materials, such as recycling plastics or repurposing materials. This, she says, means that solutions usually misplace responsibility. Says Wein, “The onus should not be on local governments or consumers to deal with the waste. The onus should instead be on the companies that create it.” 

Roland Geyer, an ecology researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, adds, “There will always be plastic[…] it’s such a cheap and incredibly useful material[.] But we need to agree that this is too much, and we need to bring it down.” Other experts agree that solutions need to come from federal agencies like the EPA, with support from Congress through more funding and newer authorities. 

For a community like Port Arthur, Texas, a city rife with cancer, where little is being done to understand and address hazards, such changes are essential. John Beard, of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, notes that in his community, the French-owned Total Energies’ oil refinery is one of 12 facilities that the Environmental Integrity Project calculated as emitting benzene at levels above EPA limits. He thinks, “We need more monitoring along the fenceline communities, and also beyond the fenceline, because the effects are carried downwind. We have to regulate how these refineries go about their business.”

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