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Microplastics can pick up pollution in their travels and pose an even greater threat to human health, according to a new study.
In the ocean, for example, toxic compounds can hitch a ride on plastic and make the material 10 times more toxic than it would normally be, according to the research published earlier this year in Chemosphere.
Although the dangers of both microplastics and harmful compounds have been studied individually, few researchers have look at their combined effect. This study is also unique in that the researchers tested these polluted plastic particles on human cells—most previous research has focused on the impacts on marine life.
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles formed when larger pieces of plastic degrade over time—and they are ubiquitous, found everywhere from Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench. They can act as magnets for environmental pollution, transforming them into potentially toxic particles, Andrey Rubin, a Ph.D. Student at Tel Aviv University and first author of the study, told EHN.
The microplastics can then funnel these compounds into the bodies of marine organisms, which studies have shown can lead to neurotoxicity, an altered immune response, a reduced growth rate, and death. From there, the tainted microplastics can continue to make their way up the food chain, inadvertently exposing humans.
Rubin and co-author Ines Zuker, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Tel Aviv University, tested what would happen when human cells found along the intestinal tract were exposed to a pollution-plastic mixture containing one type of microplastic known as microbeads and triclosan, an antimicrobial ingredient that was banned in the U.S. in 2016, primarily due to health concerns.
Triclosan, formerly found in mouthwash and hand sanitizer, is an endocrine disruptor that has also been linked to an increase in allergies in children. Even so, “it still exists in some products,” explained Rubin. “A year ago, we saw triclosan in a toothpaste, which is sold here in Israel.”
Rubin and Zucker found that, alone, the microbeads weren’t toxic to human cells. Neither was triclosan.
When combined, however, the two were “very toxic toward the cells,” said Rubin—the effect was an order of magnitude greater than the sum of its parts.
Outside the lab, the cells the researchers used in their investigation are the same ones that act as a barrier between the inside and outside of the body. The plastic mixture “can get into our bloodstream,” explained Rubin, where the accumulated compounds will likely be released.
Next, they hope to investigate how the mixture’s toxicity changes when different plastics or pollutants are used.
Controlled environments in a laboratory make it difficult to say how applicable these findings are in the real world, Tan Amelia, a Ph.D. student at University of Malaysia, Terengganu who was not involved with the study, told EHN. Conditions in the lab don’t perfectly represent environment, and findings from microplastics research is often hard to replicate due to a lack of standardized methods.
But Amelia said the study should spur more awareness of a global problem.
“Papers like those of Rubin and co-workers’ could help spread awareness regarding the severity of microplastics, which indirectly encourages the reduction of microplastics manufacturing and consumption,” she said.
Four popular organic pasta sauces have detectable levels of fluorine, an indicator of toxic PFAS, according to a new report from Mamavation.
Partnering with EHN.org, the environmental wellness blog and community Mamavation tested 55 sauces and found levels of fluorine ranging from 10 parts per million (ppm) up to 21 ppm in four of the sauces: 365 Whole Foods Organic Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce, Muir Glen Organic Italian Herb Pasta Sauce, Organicville Italian Herb Pasta Sauce, and Trader Joe's Organic Tomato Basil Marinara.
EHN.org partially funded the testing and Pete Myers, chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, which publishes Environmental Health News, reviewed the findings.
While the testing doesn’t prove per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are in the sauces, fluorine is a strong indicator of the “forever chemicals”— which have been linked to everything from cancer to birth defects to lower vaccine effectiveness.
PFAS in our food
PFAS has been found in food before: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019 reported PFAS in several types of food, including meats, seafood, and grocery store chocolate cake.
Related: What are PFAS?
However, Mamavation found evidence of the chemicals in brands that are marketed as organic. It's unclear how PFAS make it into certain foods, but due to widespread use of PFAS across industries, the chemicals can contaminate consumer goods though manufacturing lubricants and coatings, misidentified raw materials, pesticides, personal protective equipment, and plastic packaging.
Ongoing PFAS testing
While the testing is concerning, 92% of sauces tested had no detectable fluorine.
“The good news is that only 8% of the tomato and pasta sauces contained PFAS. But why should there be any in our food?” Linda Birnbaum, who served as the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program for more than a decade and who also reviewed the investigation, told Mamavation.
The testing is part of an ongoing effort by Mamavation and EHN.org to identify PFAS in common consumer products. See the full results at Mamavation.
Here’s a secret about single-use foodware: brands and manufacturers don’t have to tell what’s in it, and in some cases, they don’t even know.
This presents a challenge for safety-conscious consumers of takeout containers, disposable cups, and similar materials who are hoping to avoid chemicals like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), bisphenols, phthalates, and other less high-profile compounds.
But the nonprofit organizations Clean Production Action, based in Massachusetts, and Center for Environmental Health, based in California, both advocates of chemical safety in consumer products, believe they have a solution: the first-ever independent, third-party chemical screening and certification program for disposable foodware. Private consumers and institutional buyers can use the program to inform purchasing decisions.
Launched last November, the GreenScreen Certified Standard for Food Service Ware is a subset of the larger GreenScreen brand, operated by Clean Production Action since 2007. The brand also includes certifications for firefighting foams, textiles, furniture, fabrics, cleaners, and degreasers.
Manufacturers of single-use foodware seeking certification can apply at one of three levels, with increasingly fewer chemicals allowed and individual chemicals assessed with stricter criteria at each level. Even at the lowest level, Silver, full disclosure to GreenScreen of all intentionally added ingredients is required, and more than 2,000 chemicals of concern are prohibited. These include endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenols, phthalates, parabens, and organotin compounds; chemical classes including PFAS, organohalogens, and polycyclic aromatic amines; compounds of cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, and mercury; and antimicrobials and nanomaterials.
Certified foodware must also undergo product-level testing at an approved lab for a variety of chemicals and classes including fluorine, an indicator of PFAS. There is mounting evidence that many products are unintentionally contaminated with PFAS during manufacturing, even if the chemicals are not meant to go into the product.
These standards are more stringent than those enforced by any government agency or regulatory body in the world—but they still keep consumers in the dark as to which chemicals are actually being used.
GreenScreen’s track record and name recognition likely helped it succeed in launching a third-party foodware certification program where other attempts have stalled. An ongoing effort to ban PFAS in food packaging in Washington, for example, was delayed in 2020 when the state was unable to obtain details from brands and manufacturers about what they were using instead of PFAS, Clean Production Action Executive Director Mark Rossi told EHN. These chemicals impart grease and water resistance to porous materials like paper and molded fiber in foodware; if eliminated, other chemicals must be used in their place, or the entire product must be redesigned.
This raises the possibility of manufacturers employing so-called regrettable substitutes—alternative chemicals that turn out to be similarly harmful, most famously illustrated by the replacement of bisphenol A (BPA) with BPS, BPF, and other endocrine-disrupting bisphenols in many products.
Knowing that a given product is PFAS-free may not be enough, but moving from there to a surer assurance of safety can be stymied by secrecy from raw material suppliers, Rossi said. “The company that puts their brand name on that product often doesn’t know what is being used as the alternative to PFAS,” he said. “They don’t know the alternative chemistries because, oftentimes, the [supplier] will claim it’s proprietary.”
The workaround offered by GreenScreen is a non-disclosure agreement with suppliers in exchange for complete accounting of intentionally added chemicals down to the parts per million level. If a raw-material supplier is unwilling to be fully transparent with GreenScreen about the original formulation, then the final product cannot be certified.
This impulse for privacy within the industry is so strong, in fact, that rollout of the new certification program was delayed for nearly a year by difficulties in gaining access to proprietary information, Rossi said. Clean Production Action and the Center for Environmental Health held off on formally launching the program until they were able to successfully usher a couple initialproducts all the way through the certification process.
The program is still in its early stages, but to date two materials have been certified. One is a line of molded-fiber plates, bowls, and clamshell packages certified Silver, from a company called Eco-Products that sells both business-to-business and direct to consumers. Eco-Products plans to add the GreenScreen logo to its packaging to advertise the certification, Director of Marketing Nicole Tariku told EHN.
The other is a raw material: plastic beads from a company called NatureWorks made of plant-derived polylactic acid (PLA) that are used in the production of single-use plastics. These are certified Platinum, the program’s highest level, but any final product using the beads, such as a clear-plastic cup or a PLA-lined paper plate, will need to be screened and certified separately.
Related: What are PFAS?
Jane Muncke, managing director of the Zurich, Switzerland-based Food Packaging Forum, a nonprofit organization that performs and communicates science about food packaging and health, provided input for the new program during its development. “It’s good to raise awareness for hazardous chemicals in food-contact materials, and the certification helps with this,” she said.
Muncke commends GreenScreen for excluding recycled paper, which is often loaded with harmful chemicals despite its appearance as a sustainable choice.
But she is concerned by the program’s allowance of up to 100 parts per million for some unintentionally added chemicals, even at the Platinum level. “That is way too high in my opinion,” she said.
Confidentiality about chemical replacements
After declining to bare all for Washington state’s program, Minneapolis-based NatureWorks worked with GreenScreen once the offer of a non-disclosure agreement was on the table, said lead applications engineer Nicole Whiteman. “The information needed in order to go through that toxicology evaluation required revealing a lot of confidential business information,” she told EHN. “A lot of the very minute ingredients, such as the catalyst for bringing together the polymerization, are closely held trade secrets, or confidential information to a company. And the beauty [with GreenScreen] is that we can have a fairly standard confidentiality agreement with the toxicology firm.”
NatureWorks can now market its plastic beads to consumer-facing manufacturers of disposable food-service products as certified safe according to the strictest standards available anywhere.
And even at the Silver level, the Eco-Products certification could serve the company well as it competes in the expanding global market for PFAS-free molded-fiber foodware, and as consumer and regulatory awareness of the issue continues to grow.
Tariku says GreenScreen’s assurances of privacy were key to the company’s ability to participate. When pressed by EHN to comment on the nature of its new formulation, even in general terms, she replied, “We can’t discuss details of the alternative material. That’s one reason why Eco-Products sought third-party certification through GreenScreen: to protect our innovative process while also being as transparent as feasible about the material.”
Want to know more about PFAS? Check out our comprehensive guide.
Have something you want tested for PFAS? Let us know and write us at email@example.com.
Banner photo credit: Clair/Unsplash
What a time of change and growth!
We are pleased to share Environmental Health Sciences' 2021 Annual Report, highlighting the many activities we undertook last year that set EHS up for a strong 2022.
Download our annual report here:
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
2021 was a year of excitement and challenge for our small nonprofit.
- We launched EHN en Español,
- Doubled down on our commitment to the groundbreaking early career science program Agents of Change, and
- Saw significant gains on both the toxics and climate fronts.
And we watched readers – like you! – get engaged in ways that continually surprised us.
Our work continues
Photo by Jamie Coupaud on Unsplash
In just the first three months this year EHS staff has been a hive of activity:
- Partnered with wellness community Mamavation.com to investigate PFAS contamination in sports bras, cosmetics and other products.
- Driven a global campaign around groundbreaking BPA limits in Europe – and why the same scientific standards should be applied in the U.S.
- Published 10 Agents of Change essays & podcasts exploring everything from new pathways into science to workplace chemical exposures.
Take a look at the work EHS did last year and be proud that you, as a reader, are moving it forward.
We certainly are grateful to you!
PS: Just this week we published a look at impacts one year after "Fractured," our groundbreaking investigation into spillover pollution from fracking fields in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Check it out!
Banner photo art by David Ryder for EHN.org
As states work to limit the use of PFAS, one path for their spread is often overlooked: incineration of consumer waste, such as clothing, textiles, food packaging, paints, and electronics.
Regulatory agencies are paying some attention to the PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) waste stream, such as contaminated leachate from landfills. However, about 12% of the U.S. waste stream goes to the country’s 75 aging municipal solid waste incinerators, with minimal research on likely byproducts of burning PFAS-tainted trash.
Now “PFAS in air emissions and incineration are becoming more of a focus,” Lydia Jahl, a science and policy associate for the Green Science Policy Institute, told EHN.
Related: What are PFAS?
Ingesting contaminated water and food pose the highest known risk for PFAS exposure, which is linked to multiple negative health outcomes including some cancers, reproductive problems, and birth defects. Airborne emissions from incinerators could be spreading PFAS significant distances, researchers warn, increasing the risk of contaminated water and soil downwind of facilities.
Research in Europe suggests waste incinerators are contributing to plumes of airborne PFAS pollution, but U.S. regulators are not yet tracking this threat.
PFAS resist thermal degradation
Municipal waste incinerators only report hazardous air pollutants–like dioxin, mercury, and lead–to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) every three years, and PFAS compounds are not yet listed in this category. Some PFAS were recently added to the agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, which mandates annual reporting of how toxic compounds are managed, but researchers have noted that the initial PFAS reporting likely underestimates airborne emissions.
Dubbed “forever chemicals,” PFAS are notoriously long-lived due to strong carbon-fluorine bonds. EPA’s research suggests that these “chemicals are not really broken down at normal incinerator temperatures,” Tim Schroeder, a geologist at Bennington College in Vermont who has studied the movement of PFAS through local ecosystems, told EHN.
“Much is currently unknown” about how PFAS compounds behave during incineration, a spokesperson for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development wrote in an email to EHN, explaining that PFAS molecules at lower temperatures may not break apart or may decompose partially and recombine to form new PFAS.
A team of international scientists reached a similar conclusion in a recent study of fluoropolymers, a sub-class of PFAS, writing that “it is currently unclear whether typical municipal solid waste incinerators can safely destroy fluoropolymers without emissions of harmful PFAS and other problematic substances.”
The Solid Waste Association of North America has more confidence that incinerators “designed to manage non-hazardous waste are destroying most of the PFAS in municipal solid waste” based on the potential temperatures they can achieve, Jeremy O’Brien, SWANA’s director of applied research, told EHN. That premise, however, is not based on emissions testing or even continuous temperature monitoring at U.S. incinerators. “Further testing of actual emissions may be useful to better quantify potential health risks,” he added.
EPA has no field testing underway to determine what kinds or levels of PFAS may be emitted through municipal waste incineration, and “no timeline for testing,” but a spokesperson wrote that characterizing these emissions “remains an EPA priority.” Meanwhile, Europe has begun assessing potential public health and environmental risks from PFAS exposure linked to waste incineration.
Europe finds ‘alarming’ levels of PFAS downwind of incinerators
Source: U.S. EPA
Testing incinerator emissions is complicated by the daunting number of PFAS compounds, upwards of 9,000. In Europe, researchers used bioassays [which detect compounds in living tissues or organs] to circumvent the challenges of chemically assessing stack emissions for all the potential PFAS in a study completed for Zero Waste Europe. Funded by the European Union, the research involved testing for PFAS and other pollutants in animal and plant cells at sites downwind of three waste incinerators.
Released in January, the studies found high levels of PFAS in chicken eggs and mosses near a waste incinerator in the Czech Republic. Downwind of an incinerator in Madrid, Spain, researcher Abel Arkenbout, a Dutch toxicologist from the ToxicoWatch Foundation, reported “alarming” PFAS levels in pine needles, 10 times greater than the reference sample.
Based on these findings and review of some not-yet-published studies, Arkenbout told EHN via email, “our hypothesis is that PFAS cannot be destroyed completely at temperatures used in Waste-to-Energy [municipal waste] incinerators.”
This biomonitoring work was the first such study done in Europe, but Xenia Trier, a chemicals, environment and human health expert with the Air Pollution, Environment and Health branch of the European Environment Agency, wrote EHN that “emissions of PFAS from waste facilities are on the radar in Europe, and there will likely be more research studies on this through national and EU funding.”
If the European hypothesis that incinerators are emitting PFAS proves true, where do those molecules go?
Tracking the movement of PFAS emitted from industrial or incinerator stacks is a more “three-dimensional” challenge than following it downstream in a river flowing one way with two banks, explained Ralph Mead, a chemistry professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) and co-author of a recent study tracking how PFAS compounds settle out of the atmosphere.
The path and distance that airborne molecules travel depends on temperature, humidity, and wind speed, and when the compounds shift from a gas to a particle.
In a study done in Vermont, Schroeder of Bennington College found a downwind plume of PFAS dispersal that extended over roughly 125 square miles, including some sites 2,000 feet higher in elevation than the factory source. While both that study and the UNCW one assessed PFAS dispersion from manufacturing facilities, “it’s a logical extension,” Schroeder said, to assume similar transport patterns from incinerator stacks.
The North Carolina facility Mead studied is a Chemours (formerly DuPont) plant that produces a newer PFAS compound known as GenX, the chemical HFPO-DA, marketed as a safer replacement (despite old and recent research confirming that it poses similar health and environmental threats). EPA modeling there showed that 97.4% of the GenX emitted from the site traveled more than 93 miles.
‘Legacy’ forms of PFAS (manufactured prior to 2015) have been found at both poles due to atmospheric transport, and the GenX replacement–which EPA describes as “more mobile” and equally persistent–is now moving around the globe, even turning up in Arctic waters.
Atmospheric deposition is unquestionably one of the routes of PFAS contamination, Mead said, and it’s gaining attention. “From a scientific perspective, it’s fascinating. From an environmental health and human health perspective, it’s pretty scary.”
Want to know more about PFAS? Check out our comprehensive guide.
Banner photo: A march to stop a waste incinerator in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2013. (Credit: United Workers/flickr)