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Daily News Blog

14
Mar

Petrochemical Pesticides, Fertilizers, and Plastics Linked to Dire Health Effects while Alternatives Are Available

Petrochemical factory

 (Beyond Pesticides, March 14, 2024)  A recent review in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) highlights the urgent need to address the widespread chemical pollution stemming from the petrochemical industry, underscoring the dire implications for public health. Tracey Woodruff, PhD, author and professor at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), emphatically states in an email comment to Beyond Pesticides, “We need to recognize the very real harm that petrochemicals are having on people’s health. Many of these fossil-fuel-based chemicals are endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with hormonal systems, and they are part of the disturbing rise in disease.” Beyond Pesticides echoes this concern, noting that endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) include many pesticides and are linked to a plethora of health issues such as infertility, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, early puberty, as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and childhood and adult cancers.  (See Beyond Pesticides’ Disease database here and news coverage here). The review further calls on the clinical community to advocate for policy changes aimed at mitigating the health threats posed by petrochemical-derived EDCs and climate change. Beyond Pesticides urgently calls for the elimination of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers and advocates for a systemic shift to organic regenerative agriculture.  This call to action is grounded in the understanding that the petrochemical industry’s growth poses existential threats to climate, human health, and biodiversity.  

Dr. Woodruff’s article adds to a series, “Fossil Fuel Pollution and Climate Change,” that NEJM launched in 2021. The journal joined with more than 200 health journals worldwide in publishing a joint editorial “calling for urgent action to limit greenhouse gas emissions to protect human health, adding to growing demands from around the globe.” 

Highlighting the explosive growth in petrochemical production, including plastics, pesticides, and fertilizers, Dr. Woodruff’s report draws a direct line between these activities and a growing burden of chemical exposure responsible for at least 1.8 million deaths annually. As the demand for oil and gas declines due to the shift toward renewable energy sources, multinational fossil-fuel corporations have ramped up the production of plastics and other petrochemicals. This transition is highlighted in the report as a significant factor driving both climate change and increased exposure to health-impacting chemicals through contaminated air, water, food, and a range of manufactured products (including plastics, pesticides, and consumer goods). This body of work is among numerous studies pointing to the far-reaching effects of endocrine disruption on both humans and wildlife. Endocrine disruptors can cause significant harm even at very low exposure levels, with embryonic and fetal development stages being particularly vulnerable to their adverse effects. The report notes, “Consequently, experts believe there is no risk-free level of exposure to these chemicals across the population.”  The report underscores the omnipresent nature of petrochemical-derived EDCs, noting that national biomonitoring data and epidemiologic studies have detected around 150 chemicals in human bodily fluids, including during pregnancy.  “This represents a fraction of potential EDC exposures, since standard detection technology measures less than 1% of totally chemicals in use,” the authors note.  

Of serious concern is the disproportionate impact on communities of color and low-income communities, contributing to health inequities. While the report sheds light on this disparity, it stops short of delving into the environmental justice issues specific to petrochemical pesticide use, which significantly affects farmworkers and their families (see here and here). While the report focuses on what healthcare clinicians can do to reduce EDC exposures for their patients (and includes a helpful example of an environmental exposure history and suggestions of how patients can protect themselves), Dr. Woodruff acknowledges that “most exposures are beyond individual control” and even when one chemical is removed from consumer products, the result is often a substitution of a similar toxic chemical.  

Regulatory Failure 

After a nearly two decade defiance of a federal mandate to institute pesticide registration requirements for endocrine disruptors, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accepted public comments until last month on establishing a testing protocol for pesticides. (See here for comprehensive Beyond Pesticide comments). Advocates, including Beyond Pesticides, are criticizing the agency’s proposed evaluation as too narrow. EPA never completed protocol for testing potential endocrine-disrupting pesticides that disrupt the fundamental functioning of organisms, including humans, causing a range of chronic adverse health effects that defy the common misconception (and EPA risk assessment assumption) that dose makes the poison (“a little bit won’t hurt you”), when, in fact, minuscule doses (exposure) wreak havoc with biological systems. Beyond Pesticides detailed comments call for EPA to suspend or deny any pesticide registration until the agency has sufficient data to demonstrate no unreasonable adverse endocrine system risk per the mandate in Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), as amended by the 1996 Food Quality Production Act. Under FIFRA, there is an inherent presumption of risk, a pesticide is presumed to pose an unreasonable risk until reliable data demonstrate otherwise. If the agency lacks the data and/or resources to fully evaluate endocrine system risks to human health and wildlife, then the agency is obliged to deny registration of said pesticide. Further, it is not the agency but pesticide registrants that have the burden to demonstrate with adequate data that their products will not pose unreasonable adverse effects, including the inherently presumed endocrine-disrupting effects.  

Beyond Pesticide’s Call for an End to Petrochemical Pesticide and Synthetic Fertilizer Use by 2032 

The petrochemical industries’ growth is a driver of three existential threats: climate, human health, biodiversity. In addition to the petroleum used to produce synthetic pesticides, Beyond Pesticides has reported on the plastic saturation of the planet, including through the use of plastic coating of some synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as well as treated seeds. The reliance on petroleum-based pesticides, fertilizers, and plastics reveals a deep connection of chemical-intensive agriculture to the climate crisis and biodiversity decline and establishes a vivid contrast to organic agriculture which eschews these inputs.​​  

The plastic problem is vast and complex. A 2022 study in Environmental Science & Technology reports that plastics caused chemical pollution has the potential to “alter vital Earth system processes on which human life depends.”  The inherent “chemically inert” property of plastics, once thought benign, has proven to be a double-edged sword. Under certain conditions, plastics are not benign at all; they can leach toxic chemicals into their surroundings. Moreover, plastics do not easily break down into their constituent compounds after their intended life. The result is a world where microplastics, pieces less than five millimeters in diameter, have suffused every ecosystem, as the Guardian reported from the heights of Everest to the depths of the oceans, and even in Antarctica. These microplastics, along with the toxicants they may carry, have entered the food chain, impacting marine organisms, terrestrial livestock, and humans through multiple exposure routes. 

Rising petrochemical production spells disaster for efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and avert climate catastrophe​​.  Agriculture is a major consumer of other plastic products, using them for purposes ranging from mulching to irrigation. The United States alone uses approximately 816 million pounds of agricultural plastics annually, with significant environmental implications due to the lack of recycling policies and the resultant soil contamination that affects crop yield and ecosystem health​​. As Center for International Environmental Law in its December 2022 reissued report, Sowing a Plastic Planet: How Microplastics in Agrochemical Are Affecting  our Soils, Our Food, And Our Future writes, “Non-plastic alternatives already exist for most of the agricultural uses of microplastics (organic and organic regenerative agriculture). Accordingly, there is no justification for allowing the continued use of microplastics in fertilizers and pesticides.”  In response to these and other challenges, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other bodies have advocated for a return to traditional, organic farming practices that eschew synthetic materials in favor of organic mulch materials, cover crops, and nonchemical management strategies. These practices reduce dependence on fossil fuel-based inputs and thus, the negative climate, health, and environmental impacts.  Beyond Pesticides supports the transition to organic regenerative agriculture as a comprehensive solution to the myriad problems posed by chemical and plastic use in farming. Organic agricultural approaches offer numerous benefits over chemical methods, including enhanced safety for people and the environment, improved soil health, a more nutritious and nutrient dense food supply, in many cases, superior yields and and can mitigate the effects of agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As the Rodale Institute notes, conventional farming isn’t just contributing to the climate crisis, organic farming is essential to address it and wrote, “Organic methods can produce competitive yields in good weather and outperform conventional in times of drought or flooding, and organic uses less energy and generates fewer emissions while revitalizing the soil and sequestering carbon.  If we’re going to decrease farming’s impact—and we must decrease farming’s impact—then we need organic. Because farming doesn’t only contribute to climate change; it’s greatly affected by it. And it is getting harder and harder to grow food in extreme weather.”  

Solutions to Existential Crises of Climate, Human Health, and Biodiversity 

Beyond Pesticides noted in January 2023 that there is no solution to this wide array of crises that includes continued fossil fuel use. The organization wrote: “While the solutions are in reach, tremendous public action is needed to stop the fossil fuel and agrichemical industries from their short-sighted pursuit of profit at any cost…. Arguments are made that high intensity, industrial chemical agriculture is the only way to feed the world, and fossil fuels are the only way to provide energy. Scientific data has spelled out exactly what we are in for if we continue to endorse these dangerous myths.” With chemicals, like pesticides, long advanced by the synthetic pesticide and fertilizer industry as the answer to feeding the world, the United Nations  Special Rapporteur on the right to food concluded in 2017 that industrialized agriculture has not succeeded in eliminating world hunger, and has only hurt human health and the environment in its wake.  

Beyond Pesticides established the Parks for a Sustainable Future program to assist with the transition to organic land management in communities across the U.S. The organization also strives to maintain the integrity of organic standards through Keeping Organic Strong campaign and historical work to transition agriculture to organic practices. In 2022, Beyond Pesticides sponsored a Climate Change Calls for Phase Out of Fossil Fuels Linked to Petrochemical Pesticides and Fertilizer series of national virtual seminars (with archived videos) covering health, biodiversity, and climate. For more on climate-friendly organic agriculture, see Daily News and the groundbreaking work of the Rodale Institute, as captured in its Farming Systems Trial — 40-Year Report, which shows the efficacy and benefits of organic agriculture. California Certified Organic Farmers Association’s Roadmap to an Organic California provides a policy framework for advancing agricultural programs that combat climate change.   

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

 Sources:

Health Effects of Fossil Fuel-Derived Endocrine Disruptors, Dr. Tracey Woodruff, The New England Journal of Medicine, March 7, 2024  

‘Explosive growth’ in petrochemical production poses risks to human health, The Guardian, March 6, 2024

Sowing a Plastic Planet: How Microplastics in Agrochemical Are Affecting  our Soils, Our Food, And Our Future, Center for International Environmental Law, Reissued December 2022  

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One Response to “Petrochemical Pesticides, Fertilizers, and Plastics Linked to Dire Health Effects while Alternatives Are Available”

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    Learn Brands Says:

    It is imperative that we take a stand now to protect our health and the health of future generations.

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