- The environment contains thousands of hazardous chemicals from plastics.
- A recent study shows that at least four of these plastics have pushed us beyond safe limits for plastic contamination.
- Drinking rainwater could negatively impact human health around the world.
Remember when you were a kid, and it was fun to tip your head back during a rainstorm and open your mouth to drink the drops? You shouldn’t do that anymore. That’s because you’ll be ingesting too many particles of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), the hazardous chemicals that leach from the ultra-durable plastics we’ve created for about the past 120 years.
Earth is officially past its safe zone for plastic contamination. The PFAS “boundary has been exceeded,” according to a study published August 2 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. PFAS are known to be hazardous to both the environment and human health. At this point, these “forever chemicals” are all over the globe and have seeded the atmosphere. Most importantly, they don’t break down in the environment.
🌧 Science is on our side. We’ll help you unravel its mysteries.
“Based on the latest U.S. guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, rainwater everywhere would be judged unsafe to drink. Although in the industrial world we don’t often drink rainwater, many people around the world expect it to be safe to drink and it supplies many of our drinking water sources,” Ian Cousins, a professor at Stockholm University’s Department of Environmental Science, and the lead author of the study, says in a news release.
There are thousands of different PFAS substances floating around. The study compared the levels of four common forms (PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS, and PFNA) in various sources: rainwater, soils, and surface waters such as streams, lakes, and oceans. They found that levels of at least two forms of PFAS in rainwater, PFOA and PFOS, “often greatly exceed” the safe levels in drinking water, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises. Levels of the chemicals also exceed environmental protection agencies’ standards in different parts of the world, too.
Depending on the type of PFAS, maximum safe levels according to the EPA range from 0.004 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA to 2,000 ppt for PFBS (another form of the PFAS chemical, which the study didn’t focus on). While the idea of imbibing any plastic is abhorrent, when the human body exceeds safe limits, it can lead to deleterious affects throughout the body, impacting the immune system, cardiovascular system, fertility, and child development to name a few physiological consequences. It can also suppress children’s response to vaccines, making them less effective. There’s evidence that PFOA can likely cause cancer in humans, according to the EPA.
🌎 Discover What Microscopic Plastics Are Doing
PFAS continually cycles from the sea into the air through sea spray, the study found. Air currents carry it into the atmosphere, where it seeds rain clouds and ends up back on Earth.
Microplastics—the end result of all the plastic products and industrial waste we throw away—are one source of PFAS, and they often wind up in oceans and other waterways, impacting wildlife. While trash in landfills takes thousands of years to completely degrade, it forms minute bits of plastic that are tinier than 5 millimeters long. Their size means they end up everywhere, even in our blood, where they range in size between 700 nanometers and 5,000 nanometers. (A human hair is about 17,000 nanometers).
Reaching the U.S. safety levels for PFAS in the environment is impossible without “huge cleanup costs in drinking water treatment plants given that most drinking water sources on the planet will have PFAS levels above the advisory levels,” according to the study.
But something needs to be done, Jane Muncke, managing director of the Food Packaging Forum Foundation in Zürich, Switzerland, says in the release. She wasn’t involved in the study, but agrees with the authors that the results are alarming. “The vast amounts that it will cost to reduce PFAS in drinking water to levels that are safe based on current scientific understanding need to be paid by the industry producing and using these toxic chemicals. The time to act is now,” she says.
Why There Is So. Much. Plastic.
Plastic changed life in the 20th century. The first 100 percent synthetic plastic emerged in 1907. Later in the century, energy companies like ExxonMobil and DowChemicals were trying to turn the waste material leftover from processing crude oil and natural gas into something useful. Their experiments led to the creation of Perspex, polyethylene, Nylon, Teflon, and many other plastic compounds that have made their way into everyday life. Being super durable, plastic never rotted or broke down.
Plastic made manufacturing of all kinds of goods cheaper and faster. It soon took over all kinds of products, from hair clips to cameras, and even clothing and baby bottles. And plastic could be designed to resemble various other materials that were traditionally more expensive or in short supply. Bakelite, for example, gives a rich, almost woody look to household staples like telephones and radios, and it was all the rage in the 1930s. Depending on the compound, plastic can have useful properties, like heat resistance. During World War II, polyethylene plastic was an ideal insulator for radar cabling and, after the war, stocked household pantries in the form of Tupperware. People all over the world hailed plastic as one of the most versatile inventions ever.
While it’s certainly convenient, plastic now permeates everything. The polyethylene terephthalate, (PET, a form of polyester) bottle used for water and other drinks, is light, cheap, and unbreakable compared to traditional glass bottles. It’s so ideal, that about 500 billion PET bottles are now made every year.
Recycling what we have seems like a great option, but it’s complicated by the fact that these items must be well-separated into their different forms before they can be melted down for reuse. Even two PET objects, like a water bottle and a cookie cutter, melt at different temperatures. If combined, they create unusable waste.
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