State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Our Toxic Environment

While high-level attention continues to focus on the “existential” climate crisis, corporations are continuing to emit toxic substances into the air, water, and land. The climate threat is obvious and manifest in increasingly common extreme weather events, but the toxic threat is typically subtle and poorly understood. There are exceptions, such as the toxic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio: there was nothing subtle about that. The direct release of toxic chemicals and waste is bad enough, but as these chemicals are transformed into everyday products, their durability, a chief selling point, becomes “persistence” as they accumulate in the environment and in our bodies. Some of these plastics are visible to the human eye, but some, known as microplastics, cannot be seen and may pose a deep threat to living beings and ecosystems. According to the U.N. Environment Program:

“The world is drowning under the weight of plastic pollution, with more than 430 million tonnes of plastic produced annually. Two-thirds are short-lived products that soon become waste, filling the ocean and, often, working their way into the human food chain. At this year’s World Environment Day on 5 June, the issue of plastic pollution will be front and center. One of the most damaging and long-lived legacies of the plastic pollution crisis is microplastics, a growing threat to human and planetary health. These tiny plastic particles are present in everyday items, including cigarettes, clothing and cosmetics. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) research shows that continuous use of some of these products increases microplastics’ accumulation in the environment. Microplastics, which can be up to five millimetres in diameter, enter the ocean from marine plastic litter breaking down, run-off from plumbing, leakage from production facilities and other sources. When ingested by marine life such as birds, fish, mammals and plants, microplastics have both toxic and mechanical effects, leading to issues including reduced food intake, suffocation, behavioral changes and genetic alteration. In addition to entering the food chain through seafood, people can inhale microplastics from the air, ingest them from water and absorb them through the skin. Microplastics have been found in various human organs, and even in the placenta of newborn babies. UNEP’s 2021 report From Pollution to Solution warned that chemicals in microplastics “are associated with serious health impacts, especially in women”. These can include changes to human genetics, brain development and respiration rates, among other health issues. “The impacts of hazardous chemicals and microplastics on the physiology of both humans and marine organisms is still nascent and must be prioritized and accelerated in this Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development,” said Leticia Carvalho, Head of the Marine and Freshwater Branch at UNEP.”

While scientists are proposing multi-trillion-dollar space shields to protect the earth from the heat of the sun, very little money is being allocated to study the way our day-to-day economy is slowly poisoning our living world. My colleague Beizhan Yan, a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is studying micro- and even smaller nanoplastics in plastic water bottles and has found more micro- and nanoplastics in bottled water than in the water that comes from your faucet. These studies are underfunded, and the overall impact of this pollution is poorly understood. The impact that can’t be measured but would need to be modeled is the future impact of the accumulation of these persistent substances in living beings and plants. Unlike biodegradable phenomena, plastics are not rapidly degraded by natural cycles such as sunlight, seasons, and water.

The presence of plastics and toxics relates to our approach to product innovation and our unwillingness to analyze new chemical combinations before they are used in products. Our fear is that regulation will depress innovation and place our businesses at a competitive disadvantage with companies from nations that do not regulate the introduction of new chemicals. We have a large case study that could be used to counter this claim: the development and marketing of new drugs. Drugs are subject to the precautionary principle, where we test new drugs on animals and then people before we allow them to be marketed. There is no evidence that this reduces innovation. In fact, a regulatory process that tests drugs before they are sold increases confidence in the marketplace that the new drug will help and not harm people. Moreover, the sophisticated and complex role of the FDA in drug regulation serves to promote rather than inhibit corporate innovation. According to Rebecca S. Eisenberg in a 2007 article in the “Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review”:

“As traditionally understood, the function of the FDA has been to protect consumers from dangerous or fraudulently marketed products. But as the practices and statutory authorities of the FDA have evolved, the agency has also come to play an important role in structuring incentives for biopharmaceutical innovation. These two functions are not entirely distinct from one another, and they have become closer over time. Sometimes the FDA uses its market gatekeeper role to perform a patent-like function of protecting innovators from competition from generic versions of new drugs. Regulatory sources of exclusivity have become more important as development times for new drugs have… lengthened, cutting further into product patent terms, and as industry “evergreening” strategies to secure additional follow-on patents have encountered obstacles in the courts. Even the FDA’s core function of reviewing data from clinical trials to determine the safety and efficacy of drugs prior to market approval may be understood as a means of promoting costly investments in a particular form of R&D rather than simply as a means of protecting patients from untoward risks of harm…”

Sophisticated chemical regulation could be similarly used to both protect the public and promote innovation. Unfortunately, since the Reagan era and certainly exacerbated by Donald Trump’s reflexive anti-regulatory ideology, our ability to utilize regulation creatively has been inhibited, if not destroyed. Evidence about the usefulness of intelligent and strategic regulation is drowned out by the rhetoric of anti-regulation. This is a theme I am increasingly focused on. As our economic life becomes more complex and its technology advances, we need to match that complexity with regulatory processes based on scientific expertise and an approach toward regulation that protects the public but is also sympathetic toward innovation and the introduction of new products. But coupled with that approach, we must include detailed and sound analysis of the impact of new chemicals and technologies on the living world. Our failure to match private sector expertise with public sector expertise leaves us open to unanticipated negative impacts. We already are experiencing this with the negative impact of social media on young people. We will soon see the negative impacts of unregulated artificial intelligence. Government must develop the expertise needed to regulate these new technologies or find itself at the mercy of private firms solely driven by their profit motive. I have no objection to the profit motive if we have the capacity to police these companies and control abuse.

The problem in America is reflexive anti-regulation. A year after the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, train companies and anti-regulation ideologues are still blocking bipartisan train safety regulations. Norfolk Southern, the company at fault, is playing a PR game in Ohio while playing hardball politics in DC. According to Washington Post reporter Tony Romm:

“Nearly one year after a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, releasing toxic chemicals into the air and soil, the rail operator’s top executive returned to the scene of the accident — and reiterated his promise of change… In the nation’s capital, however, Norfolk Southern often has sounded a more defiant note: It has joined some of the nation’s leading freight railroads in a bid to weaken newly proposed safety legislation, threatening to leave millions of Americans nationwide at risk of deadly derailments and dangerous chemical spills.”

Despite over a billion dollars spent by Norfolk Southern Railroad on clean-up and compensation, the town is still suffering toxic impacts, and the return to normalcy is a long way off. None of that seems to matter to Norfolk Southern and the other rail companies who don’t seem to care if their trains cause pain and suffering as long as the dough keeps rolling in. This hardwired idiocy in our regulatory politics makes it unlikely that we can control and reduce the negative impacts of the technology we rely on. Unless this changes, we will breathe and otherwise ingest an increasingly toxic environment. We will also lose the ability to influence the disinformation assaulting our politics and our children.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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