By Bill Walker
Ten years ago, Californians threw away an estimated 157,000 tons of plastic bags, about 8 pounds for each person in the state. To stem the tide of polyethylene piling up in landfills, polluting parks and beaches, and imperiling wildlife, that year California enacted the nation’s first statewide ban on single-use plastic grocery bags.
It didn’t work.
In 2021, the latest year for which figures are available, Californians tossed out more than 231,000 tons of plastic bags – almost 12 pounds per person.
Now lawmakers in Sacramento are trying again.
A pair of bills introduced earlier this month – SB 1053 and AB 2236 – would ban the use of all plastic bags by groceries and other stores that sell food. That means not only the flimsy single-use bags covered by the 2014 law, but also the thicker bags that technically can be reused and recycled, but almost never are.
The thicker bags, of the more durable polyethene called HDPE, carry the familiar, but often misleading, “chasing arrows” recycling symbol. But they can’t go in curbside recycling bins, and good luck finding a store that will take them back or a recycling center that will accept them. They’re designed to be reused up to 20 times, but most consumers toss them as soon as they unload their groceries at home.
“A plastic bag has an average lifespan of 12 minutes and then it is discarded… clogging sewage drains, contaminating our drinking water and degenerating into toxic microplastics that fester in our oceans and landfills for up to 1,000 years,” state Sen. Catherine Blakespear, co-author of SB 1053, said in a press release. “It’s time to improve on California’s original plastic bags ban and do it right this time.”
What went wrong? What happened to turn the state’s good intentions into a disheartening lesson in the law of unintended consequences?
Enter the plastics industry.
By Shannon Kelleher
In the wake of fresh evidence that US farms are being poisoned by PFAS-laden fertilizers, a watchdog group and two Texas farm families said Thursday they plan to sue regulators to try to force protective actions.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has violated the Clean Water Act by failing to regulate at least 12 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in treated sewage sludge (biosolids) applied to agricultural lands, allege Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the farmers in a notice of intent to sue sent Feb. 22 to EPA Administrator Michael Regan. Studies have linked these particular PFAS chemicals to asthma, disrupted thyroid hormones, immune suppression, kidney problems, lung issues in children, and other health effects, the letter says.
The agency has also unlawfully failed to include in its regular biosolids reports at least 18 additional PFAS chemicals that scientific studies indicate are present in biosolids, PEER and the farmers allege.
PEER and the farmers will sue the EPA within 60 days if the agency does not take immediate action, said PEER executive director Timothy Whitehouse in the notice of intent to sue.
“EPA has deemed it acceptable for biosolids containing PFAS and other known toxic chemicals to be applied directly to soil as fertilizer, where these man-made contaminants then build up in the environment, exacerbating the PFAS contamination crisis,” wrote Whitehouse. “This is not protective of human health or the environment.”
“Because there are no standards, farmers, ranchers, and gardeners have no warning that they are potentially poisoning their soil, water, livestock, and pets with these biosolid fertilizer products,” Kyla Bennett, director of science policy for PEER, said in a press release. “Prompt, responsible regulatory action by EPA would prevent untold damage and heartache.”
By Johnathan Hettinger
US regulators are failing to address toxic “open-air dumps” that in some cases tower many hundreds of feet tall and hundreds of acres wide, according to a group of conservation and public health advocates who have filed a notice of intent to sue the government to force protective action.
The advocacy groups represent people in multiple states who live near the manmade dumps that store massive amounts of a radioactive substance called phosphogypsum, which is generated in the process of creating phosphoric acid for fertilizer. Phosphogypsum and its leachate can contain several hazardous substances, including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and chromium. These substances are considered carcinogenic and known to induce damage to multiple organs, even at lower levels of exposure, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Communities in Florida, Texas, Louisiana and other states are at risk from these dumps, according to the groups. There are four “Superfund” abandoned hazardous waste sites in Idaho, Illinois and Mississippi, where phosphate plants once operated.
The fertilizer industry creates 46 million tons of phosphogypsum each year, more than the amount of regulated hazardous waste produced in all other industries combined, according to the notice of intent to sue. In Florida, alone, there are more than one billion tons of phosphogypsum stored across 25 stacks, the groups say.
“The waste is not just toxic, it’s not just carcinogenic. It’s radioactive,” said Jaclyn Lopez, director of the Jacobs Public Interest Law Clinic for Democracy and the Environment at Stetson University, who is providing legal representation to the groups. Lopez recently authored a legal review finding that these plants are largely concentrated in low-wealth and minority communities across the United States.
“This has the potential to impact truly millions of people,” Lopez said.
By Shannon Kelleher
Two Texas farm families have seen their health decline, their pets and livestock sickened and killed, their water poisoned and and their property values wiped out due to high levels of chemical contamination linked to a company marketing treated sewage sludge as a fertilizer and soil conditioner, according to a lawsuit filed by the families.
The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs’ farms, located near Fort Worth, were “poisoned by toxic chemicals” after a neighboring farmer took shipment of “smoking” piles of biosolids that contained hazardous per- and polyfluoroalkl substances (PFAS) in late 2022.
The PFAS-laced fertilizer was allegedly made by Synagro of Texas-CDR Inc., using semi-solid treated waste obtained from wastewater facilities. The waste, referred to as biosolids, has been promoted as an effective means for turning sewage into useful agricultural applications that can boost crop yields.
The biosolids are supposed to be treated to remove toxins, but PFAS chemicals are difficult – if not impossible – to break down, and are known to persist in the environment. Sometimes called “forever chemicals,” several types of PFAS are known to be hazardous to human health, including some linked to cancers.
Synagro is one of the largest in the biosolids industry, and knew, or should have known, that its biosolid products contained PFAS, according to the lawsuit, which was filed last week in Maryland, where Synagro is headquartered.
Synagro did not respond to a request for comment. On its website, the company calls itself a “partner for a cleaner, greener world” and says it works to “protect the health of the water, our Earth and those who depend on them now and for the future.”
By Johnathan Hettinger and Carey Gillam
Pregnant women in a key US farm state are showing increasing amounts of a toxic weed killer in their urine, a rise that comes alongside climbing use of the chemicals in agriculture, according to a new study published Friday.
The study, led by the Indiana University School of Medicine, showed that 70% of pregnant women tested in Indiana between 2020 and 2022 had an herbicide called dicamba in their urine, up from 28% from a similar analysis for the period 2010-2012 that included women in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.
Notably, the new study found that along with a larger percentage of women showing the presence of dicamba in their bodies, the concentrations of the weed killing chemical increased more than four-fold.
The study also looked for the presence of 2,4-dichloroacetic acid, better known as 2,4-D, in the urine samples, finding that 100% of the women in both the earlier study and the new one had 2,4-D in their urine, with detectable, but not significant, increases in concentration levels.
The new findings add to a growing body of literature documenting human exposure to chemicals used in agriculture, and various known and potential health impacts. Many scientists have particular concerns about how farm chemicals impact pregnant women and their children, but say more research – and more regulatory scrutiny – is needed.
“These are two chemicals we’re concerned about because of their increasing use,” said Paul Winchester, a neonatal physician in Indianapolis, Indiana, who was not involved in this study but has authored related studies.
Dicamba exposure has been linked to increased risk of liver and bile duct cancer. Some animal studies of 2,4-D exposure during pregnancy found low body weights and changes in behavior in the offspring, while other studies have found that exposure to 2,4-D appears to increase the risk of lymphoma.
By Shannon Kelleher
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is breaking the law by concealing health and safety data about a class of toxic chemicals called PFAS found in millions of plastic containers, two environmental advocacy groups allege.
The agency is refusing to turn over data on toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers produced by the company Inhance, citing “confidential business information.”
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) have been seeking data held by the EPA about the company and its containers through a 2023 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. But the agency has redacted and withheld key information, the groups allege.
They filed a lawsuit against the EPA on Thursday claiming the agency is violating the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) by refusing to provide the requested data for public scrutiny.
“The cloak of confidential business information cannot be used to hide health and safety studies as EPA is currently doing,” Colleen Teubner, a PEER lawyer, said in a press release. “By sitting on this critical information, EPA is advancing the private interests of a corporate violator and shirking its public health responsibilities.”
The groups sent a demand letter to EPA in November, arguing that the agency “has no statutory basis” for its refusal to turn over information.
Last year, the EPA ordered Inhance to stop making plastic containers that contain PFAS following legal pressure from PEER and CEH. That order is set to go into effect Feb. 28.
By Dana Drugmand
Plastics makers and petrochemical industry players have engaged in a decades-long fraud aimed at deceiving the public about plastic recycling, according to a new report that spotlights freshly uncovered industry communications and internal documents.
The report comes as the global plastic waste crisis deepens, and as environmental advocacy organizations are increasingly calling for major fossil fuel and petrochemical companies to be held responsible for plastic pollution that poses a threat to human and planetary health.
“Despite their long-standing knowledge that recycling plastic is neither technically nor economically viable, petrochemical companies—independently and through their industry trade associations and front groups—have engaged in fraudulent marketing and public education campaigns designed to mislead the public about the viability of plastic recycling,” asserts the new report, released by the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) on Thursday.
In detailing the plastics industry’s campaign of deception that dates back more than 50 years, the report reveals how the industry deployed a familiar strategic playbook to push back on threats of regulation by promoting a misleading narrative and false claims pertaining to plastics and recycling, despite knowing all along that plastics’ recyclability was more of a public relations message than an effective solution to the waste management problem.
“This evidence shows that many of the same fossil fuel companies that knew and lied for decades about how their products cause climate change have also known and lied to the public about plastic recycling,” CCI President Richard Wiles said in a statement. “When corporations and trade groups know that their products pose grave risks to society, and then lie to the public and policymakers about it, they must be held accountable.”
By Johnathan Hettinger
Despite a recent federal court ruling banning three agricultural weed killing products, U.S. regulators said this week that they will continue to allow farmers to spray the pesticides this summer.
In what amounts to a win for the agrochemical industry and for many farmers using the industry’s seeds and chemicals, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an order on Wednesday laying out a framework for continued use of millions of gallons of dicamba herbicides. The EPA said farmers may still apply product that has already been shipped from agrochemical companies Bayer, BASF and Syngenta. The companies cannot sell additional supplies over what has already been labeled and shipped, however, the EPA said.
The announcement is the latest move in a years-long saga that has played out across US farm country, pitting farmer against farmer. While many growers say the dicamba products – sprayed over special dicamba-tolerant crops – are necessary to fight back increasingly difficult-to-kill weeds in their fields, many others say their own orchards, gardens and farm fields not planted with dicamba-tolerant crops are being damaged by the drift of the pesticide across the countryside.
Last week, a federal judge in Arizona banned the dicamba-based weed killers made by the three companies, saying the EPA unlawfully approved the products. It marked the second time a federal court has banned dicamba weed killers since they were introduced for the 2017 growing season. The judge in the most recent case found that the EPA made a crucial error by failing to allow a public notice and comment period on its reapproval decision for dicamba as required by law.
The EPA’s action to allow farmers to still spray this year angered many environmental advocates.
“It’s as though they didn’t just lose this lawsuit,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which successfully challenged the 2020 approval of dicamba in court. “It’s hard to imagine what it would take to get rid of dicamba. It’s like a zombie, it just keeps coming back and coming back. There has never been a point where the EPA didn’t bend over backwards to give registrants what they want,” Burd said.
By Carey Gillam
Highlighting a fresh health concern for US consumers, a new study has found that a farm chemical linked to reproductive problems is increasingly showing up in the urine of people across the United States.
The study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology on Thursday, reported that the majority of a set of nearly 100 urine samples collected from people in different states over the last few years showed the presence of a pesticide called chlormequat, which is used in agriculture to control growth in plants.
Notably, the study found that both frequency of detection and concentrations of the chemical were starkly higher in 2023 than in samples collected from prior years.
“While the sample size is small and more research will be needed to verify the extent of the problem, it is very concerning to see chlormequat chloride showing up in these samples, and at increasing levels,” said Danielle Melgar, a specialist in food and agriculture advocacy work with the Public Interest Research Group.
“It means that consumers are clearly being exposed to it. If it wasn’t linked to health concerns, that might not be an issue, but independent research has established connections to fetal and reproductive health harms in animal studies,” Melgar said.
Chlormequat is used to regulate the size of plants by blocking certain hormones. Though primarily used on ornamental plants in the United States, it is allowed on imported foods from other countries, including from Canada and Europe where chlormequat is approved for use on wheat, oats and barley.
Last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed that farmers in this country also be allowed to apply it to their food crops. By regulating the growth of crops such as wheat, yields can be improved, farmers have found.
But animal studies show chlormequat exposure can disrupt embryonic growth and contribute to other health problems.
Environmental and health advocates cite those studies in strongly opposing any expansion of use. Last year, PIRG sent a petition to the EPA, arguing “a slightly bigger harvest isn’t worth the risk to our health.”
By Shannon Kelleher
Commonly used pesticides pose a toxic threat to earthworms, creatures considered crucial for the health of soil used to grow crops, according to a new study published Wednesday.
The study builds on evidence that a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics, are harming a range of species important for planetary health. Neonics have been banned in many countries but are popular with farmers in the United States.
The authors of the new study said they found that when earthworms were exposed to four different types of neonics, as well as the fungicide difenoconazole, they suffered damage to their mitochondrial DNA and gained significantly less weight than earthworms not exposed to the chemicals. The pesticides were especially damaging when the worms were exposed to a neonic plus the fungicide in combination.
The findings were published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
“We need to re-evaluate the toxicity of neonics and the synergistic effects of neonics and systemic pesticides in those non-target organisms when they are applied to soil simultaneously,” said Chensheng (Alex) Lu, a professor at Southwest University in Chongqing, China and an author of the study.
“The contribution of earthworms to crop yields is as essential as pollination done by honey bees,” he added. “A healthy soil is simply not possible without the presence of earthworms.”