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Friday, October 9, 2020

Priorities bite us in the ass again

Climate Deniers, Covidiots and Conspiracy Quacks Really Have Nothing to Fear

By FRANK CARINI

Those outraged by having to wear a mask or not being able to dine indoors during a pandemic fear a loss of their freedom to infect others. (YouTube video/The Telegraph)

While the climate crisis burns out West, a public-health crisis made worse by covidiots burns everywhere, and the country’s remaining embers of democracy are snuffed out, don’t forgot that our bodies, drinking water, and the environment are being poisoned by a class of nasty chemicals and ubiquitous plastic.

But don’t fear, climate deniers, anti-maskers, conspiracy theorists, and free-market apologists. Our elected officials, both locally and nationally, aren’t up for addressing the many challenges burning out of control.

In D.C., they’re too busy appointing white, male judges who are frequently labeled “not qualified” by the American Bar Association to lifetime appointments. 

In Rhode Island, the speaker of the House is too busy bragging about a bill he introduced that would allow restaurants to continue to sell alcohol with takeout orders through the end of next year, while putting off difficult budget decisions until after the election and keeping the General Assembly quarantined as students return to school.

As for those nasty chemicals that have been found in the drinking water of more than 1,400 communities in 49 states, including southern New England’s three states, the Environmental Protection Agency, despite 20-plus years of information, still hasn’t issued an enforceable nationwide standard for PFAS.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, of which there are about 5,000, are chemicals manufactured to make nonstick cookware, stain-resistant clothing, and firefighting foams. They’ve been linked to cancer, impaired liver function, chronic intestinal inflammation, elevated blood pressure during pregnancy, thyroid disease, low birth weight, and cardiovascular disease. 

One would think society would be doing all it could to curb the use of substances called “forever chemicals” because the chemical bonds that hold the compounds together don’t break down easily.

Fortunately for the American greedy, the bond between politicians and lobbyists is just as strong. The over-influential American Chemistry Council won’t let the people we elect address the dangers of PFAS, even as evidence continues to accumulate about human and wildlife exposure.

A new study by a University of Rhode Island graduate student found high levels of PFAS in seabirds from offshore Massachusetts and coastal Rhode Island and North Carolina.

Chief among the findings was the discovery that one type of PFAS, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, which hasn’t been manufactured since the early 2000s, is the most dominant PFAS compound found in the birds, further illustrating how these chemicals don’t breakdown in the environment and can remain in animal tissue for years.

“Wildlife is being inundated with PFAS,” said Anna Robuck, a doctoral student at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography who has been studying PFAS with professor Rainer Lohmann since 2016. “We don’t really understand what that means for wildlife health overall, since scientists are just catching up with what PFAS means for human health. What we do know is that we’re seeing significant concentrations that laboratory studies tell us are concerning.”

Robuck measured the levels of PFAS in the livers of herring gulls from Narragansett Bay, great shearwaters in the offshore waters of Massachusetts Bay, and royal and sandwich terns from Cape Fear, N.C. All of the birds were juveniles found dead near their breeding or feeding grounds. 

The three sites were chosen to represent birds from an urban area where PFAS exposure is common (Narragansett Bay), an offshore area of birds that seldom approach land (Massachusetts Bay), and an area downstream of a major PFAS producer (Cape Fear).

Among her findings, Robuck discovered that the North Carolina birds that hatched downstream from a PFAS production site contained several novel PFAS compounds that have been created in recent years to replace those that have been phased out.

Of particular note, Robuck also found that as PFAS levels increased in the birds, the phospholipid levels in their liver decreased, a finding that is especially concerning.

“That’s a really big deal because fats are important for reproductive health, migration, raising their young successfully, and other elements of their life cycle,” she said.

The selfish ties that bind politicians and industry powers aren’t limited to downplaying the danger and perseverance of PFAS. Plastic, touted as the “miracle material” of the modern world, has rapidly become one of the planet’s biggest environmental problems. It’s everywhere, pouring out into the natural world at a rate of 8 million tons a year, or one garbage truck full a minute.

Since plastic production took off in 1950s, it skyrocketed to 448 million tons by 2015, and half of all plastics ever made have been produced in the past 15 years. The largest end-use market for plastics, accounting for just over 40 percent of total usage, is packaging — most of which is single use. Just 9 percent of all plastic has been recycled, while 12 percent has been incinerated, and 79 percent has ended up in landfills or the natural environment, according to a report published this month.

Spanning 15 countries and regions across five continents, the global investigation by the Changing Markets Foundation reveals how — behind a veil of voluntary initiatives and empty promises — the industry has obstructed and undermined proven legislative solutions for decades.

Industry tactics to distract, delay, and derail legislation to curb plastic pollution are often aided by friendly government officials procured by vigorous lobbying. In the United States, the study shows how the industry has successfully shifted the blame and responsibility for plastic pollution from corporations to consumers and public authorities, all while promoting recycling as a convenient excuse to produce ever more plastic.

The overwhelming amount of plastic being produced, however, is problematic on many levels, from extraction and refining to consumption and disposal. It’s causing pollution on land and in water, threatening marine ecosystems, generating toxic emissions, and undermining human and environmental health.

But at least the unmasked spewers of virus, hate, and lies don’t have to worry about government overreach when it comes to addressing these man-made problems.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.