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

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. […] 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. “The rise of the chemical burden in the environment is diffuse and insidious,” said Prof Sir Ian Boyd at the University of St Andrews. “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.”


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