Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Plastics on the brain

Plastic waste is increasingly on people’s minds. The theme of this year’s Earth Day celebrated around the world this past Monday was Planet vs. Plastic. Fittingly, Earth Day kicked off the international negotiations taking place in Ottawa this week on a global treaty on plastics.
Each year, global production of plastics leads to more than 20 million tons of plastic entering the terrestrial and aquatic environment in the form of macroplastics (such as bottles), which can disintegrate in the environment into tiny particles known as microplastics and nano-plastics.
This information comes from a briefing paper that was produced to inform negotiators in Ottawa this week of the harm to children’s brains resulting from widespread exposure to plastics. It says there is overwhelming evidence that prenatal and early childhood exposures to chemicals found in plastics are contributing to problems with child brain development and neurodevelopment disorders. It summarizes the scientific evidence of neurological harm from an array of chemicals used in plastics and how they leach into food and dust, and are widely found in pregnant women, infants, and children, passing to the fetus via the placenta, and to the infant via breastmilk and formula.
Among the authors of the paper is American toxicologist Dr. Linda Birnbaum, a name that may be familiar to anyone who attended any of the five recent MRC Pontiac presentations on the proposed garbage incinerator. An excerpt from Dr. Birnbaum’s research was used in the MRC presentation apparently to quell concerns about the risks of dioxin exposure from waste-to-energy facilities.
This may have backfired.
Among the seven policy recommendations in the presentation on plastics that Dr. Birnbaum co-authored is the advice to prevent the incineration of plastics by waste-to-energy schemes. According to the briefing paper, plastics that contain chlorine or bromine, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), when incinerated for “waste-to-energy” conversion can result in harmful exposures to neurotoxic chemicals such as dioxins and furans, some of the most highly toxic chemicals, exposing workers and residents of surrounding communities.
But the effects on human and environmental health can also be felt much further away, as research by Dr. Barry Commoner has shown. A cellular biologist, ecologist, and eventually a presidential candidate in the 1980 U.S. election, Dr. Commoner was one of the sources of inspiration for the first Earth Day back in 1970.
As a scientist, one of Dr. Commoner’s especially interesting investigations was of the movement of dioxins through the environment. In a study published in 2000, he traced dioxins found in the breast milk of Inuit women living in Nunavut back to their origins in the American industrial heartland.
Dr. Commoner showed how the toxins were moved northward by the hydrologic cycle, falling on land and water, ingested by plants and animals, bioaccumulating in the fat of fish, seals and ultimately humans as they traveled up the food chain. Of the 44,000 dioxin emitters identified, an incinerator in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was found to be the greatest source.
At last week’s Council of Mayors meeting, a woman in the audience commented that it was unacceptable to see twenty or more plastic water bottles around the council table. The warden agreed.
Not only do plastic bottles present a disposal problem with the potential to disperse toxic pollutants around the planet, as Dr. Commoner showed. Anyone who simply drinks from a plastic water bottle can be exposed to as many as 240,000 microplastics, as reported in Dr. Birnbaum’s paper.
Against the backdrop of our current debate about whether to incinerate the Ottawa Valley’s garbage here in the Pontiac, it might serve us well to recall the wisdom of the now decades-old refrain, think globally, act locally.

Charles Dickson


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