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Life on Earth Can’t Handle the Chemical Industry’s Onslaught – Mother Jones

Life on Earth Can’t Handle the Chemical Industry’s Onslaught – Mother Jones

Life on Earth Can’t Handle the Chemical Industry’s Onslaught – Mother Jones

The horizon seems to be extended by a plastic barrel and 45-gallon steel drum recycling storage.SimplyCreativePhotography

This story was first published by Canada’s National Observer and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Chemical companies have produced more chemicals—including plastics—than the planet can safely sustain without potentially causing irreversible harm to the environment or human health, Says a team of international researchers.

Canada and most countries don’t have the resources to monitor how chemicals like pesticides, fertilizers, and plastics are affecting people and ecosystems. Scientists warn that government must immediately reduce the production of chemicals while adequate regulatory and monitoring systems are in place.

It’s a new approach to research the global environmental and health impacts of chemicals, which typically examines a single type of chemical, like neonicotinoid pesticides, at a time. But with hundreds of thousands of chemicals in circulation and new ones going on the market daily, countries can’t keep up, explained co-author Miriam Diamond, a professor at the University of Toronto.

“There’s no way we can actually figure out a planetary boundary for each (chemical),” she explained. Instead, the team looked at the pace of chemical production and development and whether governments’ environmental and health regulations and monitoring can keep up.

“The answer is a resounding no. We are so far behind on our ability to assess and understand these entities, we can’t keep up.”

Plastic output increased by nearly 80 percent between 2000 and 2015. It is expected that it will triple by 2050. The output data is useful for tracking the production of harmful chemicals as a suite of chemicals, since nearly 99 percent of plastics are made using fossil fuels. Plastics often contain toxic chemicals that add flexibility, flame resistance, and other desirable characteristics.

This boom has come at a cost, with plastic waste infiltrating most ecosystems, killing animals, and even ending up in women’s breast milk. Only 10% of plastics are recycled globally. Plastic waste leakage into the environment, and disposal techniques such as incineration can have adverse health and environmental effects.

Despite this threat, no country has set production limits for new plastic. And few countries have evaluated the cumulative health and environmental effects of exposure to plastics. Even Canada—a leader globally after the federal government last year listed plastic as legally toxic—hasn’t completed an in-depth assessment of the materials’ cumulative health and environmental risk.

Cumulative effects are the cumulative effects of multiple chemicals being exposed over a longer time period. For example, someone briefly exposed to a harmful pesticide likely won’t suffer health consequences, but if they are exposed to that pesticide repeatedly and other chemicals (like cleaning products, solvents or flame retardants), they could suffer consequences of the cumulative impacts.

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Plastics aren’t the only problem. Canada’s current environmental laws only require the government to assess the cumulative impact of pesticides—a requirement that is “routinely” overlooked, said Ecojustice lawyer Elaine MacDonald. It is even worse for chemicals other than pesticides, she stated, as Canadian regulators do not have to assess cumulative impacts.

A bill introduced last April would have required Canada’s federal government to look at the cumulative impacts of chemicals, but it died with the September election. While MacDonald and other environmentalists expect it will be reintroduced by the Liberal government, she “suspects” they will have to “push hard for the government to be thorough.”

Fe de Leon, a paralegal for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said that this includes developing a more rigorous process for assessing and regulating new chemicals, nanomaterials and biotech materials. She would also like to see Canada push for stronger global regulations of chemicals—including production limits—a call echoed in the recent study.

“I anticipate there will be a lot of pushback with people saying, ‘It’s impossible to implement limits on production,’” Diamond said. “(But) we need sufficiency instead of growth.”

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