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Daily News Blog

12
May

Persistent Pesticides and Other Chemicals Have Made “Legacy” a Dirty Word as “Forever” Chemicals

(Beyond Pesticides, May 12, 2023) With the growth of chemical-intensive land management over the last century, the world has been held captive by pesticide companies. For part of that time, it could be said the modern society has suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, a theory about abusive relationships in which one party exerts power over the other using threats, fear, and lies and the victim comes to depend on the perpetrator emotionally. During the so-called “Green Revolution” (circa 1945-1985), the world came to depend on vast amounts of fertilizers and herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. Many people believed that food, clothing, and shelter made from naturally-occurring materials such as fruit, flax and wood could not be provided to the world without pesticides. It seemed that science and commerce could indefinitely raise the standard of living around the world, perhaps leading to world peace.

This is not what happened. Soon observers noticed the harmful effects of many pesticides, including their persistence in the environment, their tendency to accumulate in the bodies of humans and wildlife, and their influence on the risk of contracting many diseases, from cancer to asthma—not to mention the Darwinian inevitability of pest resistance.

By the turn of the 20th century, it was clear something had to be done. And something was done. After several years of exploration and negotiation by the United Nations, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) came into being when some 90 countries signed the treaty in 2001. They agreed to reduce or eliminate the use of nine chemicals, minimize the inadvertent production of two more (dioxins and furans, formed in combustion), and more selectively apply one (DDT, against malaria). The full list of 12 was dubbed the “Dirty Dozen” after the 1967 film of the same name.

The Convention went into force in 2004. For a while it appeared that society might escape its captors. Sadly, this has been delayed. A country can sign a treaty without ratifying it. This is what the United States has done. According to the U.S. Department of State, “The United States signed the Stockholm Convention in 2001, but has yet to ratify because we currently lack the authority to implement all of its provisions. The United States participates as an observer in the meetings of the parties and in technical working groups.” [Emphasis added.] Signing is an aspirational act; ratification is a legal commitment. The U.S. has tried to have it both ways.

To be fair, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out that despite the failure of Congress to ratify the Stockholm Convention, the agency has taken many steps to reduce or eliminate the listed chemicals in the U.S. The first dozen Stockholm POPs were aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, toxaphene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT, dioxins and furans. According to the EPA:

“[N]one of the original POPs pesticides listed in the Stockholm Convention is registered for sale and distribution in the United States today and in 1978, Congress prohibited the manufacture of PCBs and severely restricted the use of remaining PCB stocks. In addition, since 1987, EPA and the states have effectively reduced environmental releases of dioxins and furans to land, air, and water from U.S. sources. These regulatory actions, along with voluntary efforts by U.S. industry, resulted in a greater than 85 percent decline in total dioxin and furan releases after 1987 from known industrial sources.”

However, the U.S. is out of sync with international scientific consensus on the need to eliminate many persistent pesticides. Most notably, the wood preservative pentachlorophenol and the insecticide lindane are still permitted to be used in the U.S. (Lindane’s use is allowed by FDA as a pediculicide.)

Unfortunately, the POPs chemicals are so persistent that people, animals, and ecosystems continue to be exposed to them in dangerous quantities. For example, for 40 years the Army Corps of Engineers dumped tons of waste containing PCBs and mercury directly into the Columbia River at Bradford Island, a small islet near the Bonneville Dam. Despite the Corps’ actions to dredge the sediment, filter the water, and haul away 32 tons of solid waste, the fish residing within a mile of the island still have the highest levels of PCBs in the nation. Both Oregon and Washington warn people not to eat the fish. According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, “smallmouth bass were found at concentrations as high as 183,000 parts per billion. A safe level for human consumption of fish is less than 1 part per billion.”

So while there has been progress on letting the past be the past, it is two steps forward, one step back. This is partly owing to the chemical industry’s propensity for substituting a new problem for an old one by offering compounds that are chemically analogous to the hazardous ones, such as advertising “BPA-free” (bisphenol-A) water bottles that are made of BPS (bisphenol-S). Both types of bisphenol are endocrine disrupters.

The Stockholm Convention continues to consider other chemicals for addition to the treaty. In June 2022 the parties added perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS) to the Convention. PFHxS is one of the family of the perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) known as “forever chemicals.” PFAS are used in food wrappers, non-stick pans, climbing ropes, guitar strings, ammunition, firefighting foam and many other products. They’ve been available since the 1950s and there are at least 9,000 separate PFAS compounds. The chemical bonds between their carbon and fluorine atoms are almost impossible to break.

In the U.S., EPA has proposed new limits to PFAS levels in drinking water, and not a minute too soon; PFAS have been found in water supplies in nearly 3,000 locations in all 50 states and two territories. PFAS chemicals have been found in human breast milk, umbilical cord blood, deer meat, fish, and beef. They are found in pesticides. One study using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found PFAS compounds in 97% of Americans. Studies have suggested a wide range of health effects, including raised cholesterol levels, high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia during pregnancy, and increased risk of kidney cancer.

Congress and EPA have been relatively active in starting efforts to assess and measure the amount of PFAS chemicals in the environment, especially in water. President Biden wants to fund more research and recently supported the classification of PFAS as hazardous substances for Superfund listing. But these efforts move very slowly through the gears and conveyor belts of government. So far, they are piecemeal and mostly inadequate. For example, in March 2021 EPA began a process to regulate perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate—just two of thousands of PFAS varieties—but the rulemaking process will likely take years. The U.S. military, notorious for polluting land and water worldwide, has tested drinking water at 63 installations but has formed remediation plans for only nine of 50 bases marked for cleanup. Actual remediation is underway at only one Department of Defense site.

While waiting for the federal government to act, about 35 states have adopted various policies to limit exposures to PFAS, such as Alaska’s prohibitions on firefighting foam, California’s elimination of PFAS from cosmetics and menstrual products, and Georgia’s disclosure requirements for PFAS, lead, formaldehyde and other hazardous chemicals in cosmetics. Illinois now requires landfills to capture PFAS-contaminated leachate before it escapes from the landfill or is transported for wastewater treatment. One problem with this is that PFAS pass through standard water treatment processes chemically unchanged. According to EPA, several removal technologies are available, ranging from ion exchange to activated carbon that could be applied at municipal plants and in consumer-grade water filters.

Private businesses and farmers are taking action too. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has developed a resource page for members to keep abreast of testing and certification issues regarding PFAS. California and New York are requiring apparel to be PFAS-free starting in 2025, and the footwear company KEEN has reduced PFAS in its products by 65% simply by asking its suppliers to stop using it where possible.

PFAS may seem like new chemicals, but it is just public awareness of them that is new. Like the Dirty Dozen POPs, they are actually “legacy” pollutants; according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), chemical giant 3M knew from its own mouse studies in the 1950s that PFAS bioaccumulate. (For a comprehensive timeline based on industry documents, see the EWG’s major report. This report also demonstrates the deep capture of academic researchers by industry.)

Beyond Pesticides takes the position that these toxic chemicals are in the environment (including our bodies) mostly because of bad decisions in the past. We should be devoting energy to cleaning them up, but given their persistence (hence “forever”), unless we stop manufacturing them and releasing them into the environment, cleanup efforts will be futile. Further, if we do not develop true alternatives rather than knock-off chemical analogues to these chemicals, we will extend our legacy into forever. And then we will be back in Stockholm Syndrome captivity.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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One Response to “Persistent Pesticides and Other Chemicals Have Made “Legacy” a Dirty Word as “Forever” Chemicals”

  1. 1
    Miklen Rykunyk Says:

    These toxic chemicals are dangerous to us all. Please help restrict and eventually end their use.

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