Chemical Pollution

Well, here’s a global problem that may feel as though there’s nothing that we, as individuals, can do about it.  Yet, we are the ones who buy and use and dispose of these chemicals, so we do have some responsibility for causing the problem.  In years (or centuries) gone by, a civilization might flourish, create an unsustainable mess along the way, then vanish. Some other area of the world would host humanity, while the previous area healed.

No longer.  Today, we occupy the entire planet.  We must clean up our act or lose our entire civilization!  I’ll add comments about what we can personally do.

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Chemical pollution has passed safe

limit for humanity, say scientists


Study calls for cap on production and release as pollution

threatens global ecosystems upon which life depends


Damian Carrington Environment editor


The Guardian

Tue 18 Jan 2022


The cocktail of chemical pollution that pervades the planet now threatens the stability of global ecosystems upon which humanity depends, scientists have said.

Plastics are of particularly high concern, they said, along with 350,000 synthetic chemicals including pesticides, industrial compounds and antibiotics. Plastic pollution is now found from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans, and some toxic chemicals, such as PCBs, are long-lasting and widespread.

The study concludes that chemical pollution has crossed a “planetary boundary”, the point at which human-made changes to the Earth push it outside the stable environment of the last 10,000 years.

Chemical pollution threatens Earth’s systems by damaging the biological and physical processes that underpin all life. For example, pesticides wipe out many non-target insects, which are fundamental to all ecosystems and, therefore, to the provision of clean air, water and food.

Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, a PhD candidate and research assistant at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) who was part of the study team, said:


“There has been a fiftyfold increase

in the production of chemicals since

1950 and this is projected to triple

again by 2050.  The pace that socie-

ties are producing and releasing new

chemicals into the environment is not

consistent with staying within a safe

operating space for humanity.”


Dr Sarah Cornell, an associate professor and principal researcher at SRC, said:


“For a long time, people have known

that chemical pollution is a bad thing.

But they haven’t been thinking about

it at the global level. This work brings

chemical pollution, especially plastics,

into the story of how people are

changing the planet.”


Some threats have been tackled to a larger extent, the scientists said, such as the CFC chemicals that destroy the ozone layer and its protection from damaging ultraviolet rays.

Determining whether chemical pollution has crossed a planetary boundary is complex because there is no pre-human baseline, unlike with the climate crisis and the pre-industrial level of CO2 in the atmosphere. There are also a huge number of chemical compounds registered for use – about 350,000 – and only a tiny fraction of these have been assessed for safety.

So the research used a combination of measurements to assess the situation. These included the rate of production of chemicals, which is rising rapidly, and their release into the environment, which is happening much faster than the ability of authorities to track or investigate the impacts.

The well-known negative effects of some chemicals, from the extraction of fossil fuels to produce them to their leaking into the environment, were also part of the assessment. The scientists acknowledged the data was limited in many areas, but said the weight of evidence pointed to a breach of the planetary boundary.

Prof Bethanie Carney Almroth at the University of Gothenburg who was part of the team, said:


“There’s evidence that things are

pointing in the wrong direction every

step of the way. For example, the

total mass of plastics now exceeds

the total mass of all living mammals.

That to me is a pretty clear indication

that we’ve crossed a boundary.


“We’re in trouble, but there are things

we can do to reverse some of this.”


Villarrubia-Gómez said:


“Shifting to a circular economy

is really important. That means

changing materials and products

so they can be reused, not wasted.”


The researchers said stronger regulation was needed and in the future a fixed cap on chemical production and release, in the same way carbon targets aim to end greenhouse gas emissions. Their study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology

There are growing calls for international action on chemicals and plastics, including the establishment of a global scientific body for chemical pollution akin to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Prof Sir Ian Boyd at the University of St Andrews, who was not part of the study, said:


“The rise of the chemical burden in the

environment is diffuse and insidious.

Even if the toxic effects of individual

chemicals can be hard to detect, this

does not mean that the aggregate

effect is likely to be insignificant.


“Regulation is not designed to detect

or understand these effects.


“We are relatively blind to what is

going on as a result. In this situation,

where we have a low level of scientific

certainty about effects, there is a need

for a much more precautionary approach

to new chemicals and to the amount

being emitted to the environment.”


Boyd, a former UK government chief scientific adviser, warned in 2017 that assumption by regulators around the world that it was safe to use pesticides at industrial scales across landscapes was false.

The chemical pollution planetary boundary is the fifth of nine that scientists say have been crossed, with the others being global heating, the destruction of wild habitats, loss of biodiversity and excessive nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

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I’ve lost my confidence in government being able to address these problems.  The industries that cause the problems tend to control the politicians with their campaign contributions.  And bureaucrats seem to avoid taking any kind of radical action.  Here are some actions, from D, that we can take:


The article is ominous, and it sounds scary.  And yet, there is much that an individual can do.  Let us list a few:


  • “Limit your use of plastics, and try to use more easily recycled materials, such as glass and aluminum.


  • “Purchase or grow organic foods. The more retailers understand that individuals will not pay for cheaper food that is laced with chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, the faster we can get those chemicals out of the ecosystems.


  • “Try to reduce your use of “single use” plastics. Those that can’t be eliminated must be recycled, usually at special places, to become items such as Trex, which is used for decking.


  • “There are many chemicals in household cleaners for which there is little need. Vinegar is a great cleanser for floors, for windows, for bathrooms.  Baking soda is great for scrubbing and for laundry.  There are also numerous brands of cleansers that use essential oils; they are worth trying.”


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