Fighting an invisible evil – Chemicals and the impact on our health

Elizabeth Salter Green and Maria Westerbos neither use plastic sandwich bags nor do they wear synthetic clothes. They also think twice about buying plastic toys. And for good reason. These two experts of our partner organizations CHEM Trust and the Plastic Soup Foundation are fighting for a future without harmful plastics and chemical substances. They seek out connections with the scientific community, policymakers and other campaigners.

“Your government must be ashamed!”

“Plastic is in your apple, lettuce, leeks, in animals and our bodies. It’s never going to go away.” Maria Westerbos of the Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF) does not beat around the bush. Over 10 years ago, she took to the barricades to address the plastic issue, which back then was not widely known among the general public and in politics. “We successfully drew attention to this issue thanks to Charles Moore, the oceanographer and captain who had discovered the ‘plastic soup’ in the Pacific in 1997. Dressed in his captain’s uniform, he scooped up plastic from the pond in front of the Dutch parliament buildings with a small fishing net: ‘There’s a lot of plastic soup here, your government must be ashamed!’ That day, his statement was splashed across the front page of all regional newspapers as well as in Dutch daily AD. Our message reached an audience of 9 million people. In that moment I thought: so this is how it works, this is how you draw media attention.”

Research on microplastic pollution in a laboratory.

Less harmful alternatives

Safe chemicals Plastic also forms part of the daily work of Elizabeth Salter Green, Director of CHEM Trust, and particularly the chemicals used in plastics. CHEM Trust mainly works behind the scenes. “We attend technical meetings of the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament. Your average consumer is not interested in the detail of the subjects we discuss and may find it very technical and difficult to understand, but on the other hand they do not want to be exposed to toxic chemicals either.” It is also in the interest of consumers that CHEM Trust produces scientific proof of the harmful effects of certain chemicals. “People have become more and more aware of climate change and its consequences. I’m not saying that climate change is not important, but the problems that chemicals cause have been snowed under while the threat they pose is just as great. We want manufacturers to stop producing certain substances and use less harmful alternatives. There are plenty of safe chemicals.”

Massive production

For decades, manufacturers were able to market chemical substances with sales messages such as ‘this product makes something work better’ or ‘now, with a longer shelf-life’. Elizabeth: “Regulators could only ban a chemical ingredient after it had caused issues. So this meant that the manufacturer didn’t have to prove that a product was safe before putting it on the shelves in markets. The result is that for decades our environment has been inundated with harmful chemicals. Only after the EU had developed the so-called REACH legislation and implemented it in 2007, things were better organized, though not perfectly. The EU made it clear: if you want to market a chemical substance, you first have to prove that it is safe.”
Meanwhile, our environment has had to contend with plastics and chemical substances for decades. Maria: “The production of plastic has risen exponentially, starting from the very first products just after WWII until now. Not to mention that we have produced as much plastic since the year 2000 as in the 50 years before. If we continue like this, those numbers will double again in the next 30 years. The world won’t be able to survive this.” Disruption of the immune system More and more, the message of the PSF boils down to human health, both of the current generation and the next. Maria: “We have to present the story, the narrative, differently. The world isn’t going to change because plankton is dying. That is a far-off scenario for most people. You have to bring it closer to home. We have to say, for example, scientists have shown that our immune system is disrupted because it is under stress from the presence of plastic in our body.”

Employees of the Plastic Soup Foundation investigating nurdles, microscopically small pieces of plastic.

Fetus in the womb

Elizabeth also emphasizes the major consequences for our children “Adults can have been exposed to harmful chemicals for years, which may or may not have harmful health effects. But a fetus growing in the womb is much more vulnerable to toxic exposure at the wrong moments. A baby is born and may look healthy, but being exposed as a fetus can cause illnesses later in life. If, for instance, the hormone testosterone is unable to peak because the pregnant mother was exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, it may hinder the development of the baby boy, impacting the male reproductive organs and future reproductive health. A lot of things around the house contain these synthetic chemical ingredients, such as PVC floors, cosmetics, toys, toiletries, and furniture. In her book Count Down, respected scientist Shanna Swan predicts that if people continue to be exposed to harmful chemicals, the number of sperm cells in men will have reached the zero mark by 2040. An absolute disaster for humankind.”

Fast fashion and dangerous fibers

People are also exposed to harmful substances in clothing. Maria: “We’ve been working on our project Fatal Fashion for about eight years. At first behind the scenes, but we’re now also going public with it. We researched how many fibers are released from synthetic clothes and how you can prevent it from happening. It soon became clear that the figures were much higher than previous research had shown. Instead of the average 1,900 fibers – what had been claimed for years – a pair of acrylic socks contains close to 150,000 fibers. On average, 9 million nanofibers, tiny pieces of plastic, are released during a cycle in the washing machine. The fashion industry has presented different figures, but this is the harsh reality. Fibers are also released when we walk outside. We breathe in those fibers, where they damage our immune system, with fateful consequences. We warned fashion brands years ago: your fast fashion is a health hazard. I always compare it to a snowball: we rolled the ball down the mountain when we opened up discussions with the brands so that they could implement the information we presented. Unfortunately, the brands failed to undertake any concrete action. Meanwhile, the ball is getting bigger and bigger. But we continue to collect scientific evidence and build on our campaign. This spring the snowball will be so big that it will have become unstoppable. We are very vocal about it: people have to know that they are in danger.”

Harmful chemical substances can be found all over the house, such as in the plastic casing of a remote control.

Shaking up politics

Science is important to PSF and CHEM Trust. Elizabeth: “Scientists are good at science, but they are less focussed on what their research means for laws and regulations on chemicals. Therefore, it’s important for parties such as CHEM Trust to work on the interface of science and policy development. It’s our job to say: look at the new science, it tells us that these chemicals cause problems. The legislators, such as the European Commission or the member states, have to make decisions to reduce that exposure.”
The PSF has also successfully reached politicians. Their campaigns have not only alerted the press but also the Dutch House of Representatives. “I’ll never forget that the chairperson of the Packaging Waste Fund visited us and said: ‘You lost, deposits on large bottles is going to be abolished.’ My response was: But you don’t know which surprises I still have up my sleeve… The week before the deposit would be abolished, we collected 25,000 pieces of litter with 200 volunteers. About 0.5 percent consisted of large deposit bottles, the rest was plastic that had no deposit on it.” In the end, the deposit on large bottles maintained.

Voting power

Changing legislation in the EU is an entirely different matter and requires patience. Elizabeth: “There are now no less than 27 member states, each with their own political agenda. Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are strong supporters of reducing the use of and exposure to harmful chemicals. Germany, on the other hand, is the biggest producer of synthetic chemicals in Europe, and has a lot of voting power. Delays are often caused by political and economic motives.” The next few years will see the introduction of crucial legislation. “In 2020, the EU introduced the ‘chemicals strategy for sustainability’, which states that there should be a ban on the exposure of animals and humans to harmful chemicals. It is a tremendous ambition. We are working hard to ensure that that ambition will be incorporated into legislation, so we have our work cut out for us in the next three years.”

During wash cycles, fibers are released that are harmful to health.

The gold standard for the world

How about the rest of the world, once legislation has been set in place in the EU? “The American Captain Charles Moore once said to me in the early days of the PSF: change has to start with you, in northern Europe. It is safe there, you are not poor and you have democracy,” says PSF’s Maria Westerbos. CHEM Trust agrees: “The EU’s chemicals strategy for sustainability is, as we like to call it, the gold standard for the rest of the world. If the EU attends a worldwide, UN meeting on chemicals, they could use it in a type of quid-pro-quo exchange: America, China, India, you have to meet our standards if you want to export products to the EU. In short: if the strategy has been implemented and certain substances are indeed banned, those countries will have to stop producing products containing those chemicals.”
Not only does CHEM Trust build a bridge between science and policy-makers but the organization also regularly works with other organizations. “We pass on our scientific knowledge and policy proposals to other organizations so that they can lobby their own governments. We simply don’t have the media contacts or campaigning power they have. Take our campaign on Food Contact Materials, for example. We furnish proof of why so-called PFAS chemicals – horrible substances that damage the immune system and can cause cancer – should not be used in food packaging. Other campaign partners, such as Zero Waste Europe, ensure that this important message reaches the general public.”

Better baby clothes and less red meat

A better health starts with you, also when it comes to chemicals and plastic. Elizabeth has a few tips for consumers: “If you know, roughly, that 80 percent of the synthetic chemical substances found in your body enter through your mouth, I would choose organic food wherever possible. I would also eat food that is lower in the food chain: less red meats, less dairy products.. Avoid packaged and processed food such as takeaways and, of course, eat more vegetables.” Maria urges parents to minimize their children’s exposure to plastics. “Pay attention to which baby clothes and toys you buy. Buy wood or safe plastic. Don’t go to a discount store that sells toys that fall apart after the first day. Choose glass bottles and reusable diapers. A baby’s blood-brain barrier is not fully developed, so everything they breathe in goes straight to their brain. Think of your children. We have saddled future generations with too many health problems as it is.”

Tip: video ‘How Chemical Pollution Affects Life on Earth’

Ninja Reineke, head of science at CHEM Trust, explains the consequences of chemical pollution in a short, interesting video (2 minutes).

Partners of Adessium Foundation

While some of this pollution is visible, such as plastic waste, some of it is invisible, such as that caused by harmful chemicals, microplastics and particulate matter. This leads to major environmental risks, and can have – often unknown – harmful effects on our health. Adessium collaborates with partners such as CHEM Trust, Plastic Soup Foundation, HEAL and Tegengif, so that they can encourage policy makers to improve legislation and regulations and make the general public aware of the harmful effects of this pollution.

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