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7 Dangerous Lies About Plastic

The 5 Gyres Institute

By Stiv Wilson

To receive a Ph.D in industrial chemistry in the U.S., no American university requires candidates to take even a single toxicology class as part of their course work. We churn out new chemists with the divine power to manipulate the very structure of nature itself, without teaching them the divine wisdom of how to wield that power.

Nearly everything we consume or even interact with these days is made of plastic. The industry that produces plastic, largely represented by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), has an annual budget of more than $120 million to protect its interests. But as the plague of plastic that wreaks havoc on our environment slowly gains the attention of policymakers, concerned citizens and the media, the makers of plastic resins and the companies that package their products have become increasingly aggressive about defending their respective bottom lines.

Taking tactics from Big Tobacco's playbook, the industry engages in bully tactics, politician buys and wide-scale misinformation campaigns meant to confuse the public and turn truth to speculation. Big Plastic is big money and survives regulatory scrutiny by creating big spin.

Because of slashed budgets to regulatory agencies, little private-sector money for watchdogging industry, and a lazy mainstream press that simply regurgitates its claims, the petrochemical industry goes largely unchecked. Here are some of the biggest whoppers.

Lie #1: Plastics are safe.

To date, we use more than 248,000 chemicals in commerce and we don't know which ones are harmful or safe. Why? Because the vast amount of research on plastics we use in our lives comes from the plastic industry.

Much of the plastic we see on a daily basis we know by its designated recycling numbers 1 through 7. These plastics are not pure; rather, they're a proprietary formulation of additives, some of which have been shown to be endocrine disrupters, carcinogenic and pose countless other health concerns, but very, very little data exists on additives, toxicologically speaking. In the U.S., chemicals that make plastics are innocent until proven guilty, leaving the burden of proof of toxicity to the vastly underfunded and under-staffed Environmental Protection Agency. With 248,000 chemicals on the market, don't expect any light shed here anytime soon.

Perhaps the best-known additive is bisphenol-A, or BPA. Though it's gained media traction having been shown to cause sexual mutations, cardiovascular disorders, obesity, and diabetes, the $6 billion annual industry makes the plastics industry protect it fiercely, even though Centers for Disease Control studies have shown that 93 percent of the adult population has BPA present in their urine. BPA has been on the radar of environmentalists for years but few policy victorieshave been won because industry-funded studies repeatedly don't show adverse effects, though all the independent studies do

Lie #2: The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch does not exist.

In a 25-page report for the Save the Bag Coalition, meant to refute claims made by the media and environmentalists about the presence of plastic in the ocean, attorney Stephen Joseph wrote that the "so-called 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch,' which is alleged to be twice the size of Texas, does not exist." To keep the speculation on the table, industry hammers on a single point; in early 2011, Oregon State University issued a press release titled, "Oceanic "Garbage Patch' Not Nearly As Big As Portrayed By Media" and a huge media storm ensued calling out environmentalists as a result.

Why this press release was so widely distributed is strange, because the woman who issued it isn't even a relevant name in the plastics research world. But seeing an opportunity to pound environmentalists, the plastic industry created a PR blitz sending press releases to media and form letters to lawmakers. What's interesting is that no one can attribute who first made the Texas-sized analogy, and no primary source for the quote exists, though it certainly went viral.

The researcher from OSU, Angelique White, is correct in her assessment from the best available data, but the data available isn't enough by several degrees of scale to accurately predict spatial distribution of plastics in the gyres (which any scientist who works on the issue will tell you, explicitly), or the ocean in general. To do so would mean that 70 percent of the surface of the earth surface had been sampled.

Well, that's not going to happen anytime soon, as research vessels cost about $30,000 a day and funding is very limited in this field, because so many corporate interests that might sponsor such research depend on plastic to deliver their products. What scientists do know is that 200 billion pounds of plastic are produced each year, and that number is on the rise, and mitigation strategies for keeping plastics out of the ocean are failing, horribly. Greenpeace estimates that of the 200 billion pounds produced annually, 10 percent makes it into the ocean.

To date, the best estimate of how much plastic is in the gyres comes from Columbia University. Researchers took all the major data sets (of which there are very, very few) that exist and calculated 73,878,000 pounds of plastic in the area of the gyres, which accounts for just 16 million of the earth's 315 million square kilometers of ocean surface.

Another problem with determining the scale of plastic pollution is that half of the plastics that are made sink and to date no data exists on how much plastic lies beneath the surface of the water. But when speaking only of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles, a type of plastic that sinks, we know that Americans alone discard 22 billion a year. Scientists who work on plastic in the ocean often refer to it as, "the world's largest dump." But without "conclusive" data, industry can stay on the offensive.

Lie #3: Plastics don't kill sea life or pose a threat to people eating fish.

While occasionally industry will acknowledge that marine animals do eat plastics from time to time, they make a point of stating that they don't know if the plastics are definitively responsible for the animal's death. To date, 177 species of marine life have been shown to ingest plastics and the number is likely to get much higher as more research is done. Recently published evidence has shown that shards of plastic eroded from synthetic clothing in the washing machine is so small that it can enter an animal at the cellular level.

But determining death, or eventual death of an animal based on a necropsy (autopsy for animals) is notoriously difficult in some cases. What's at issue is that again, industry takes advantage of the "unknowns" to make the assertion that their products don't cause morbidity. Scientists can't absolutely know what causes an animal's death unless it lives and dies in a controlled environment. But opening up a turtle stomach and finding pounds of plastic in it might give them a clue. How long would a turtle have survived with this much plastic garbage in his guts?

We know that most types of plastic aren't passed by a turtle and that it wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. We also know that carrying around a stomach full of plastic is going to slow him down and change his natural buoyancy. Sharper plastics, cause gut impaction and the potential for stomach wall and intestinal perforation. In the wild, everything about an animal's health and agility matters in determining his survival quotient.

In December, a study was published in Science Of The Total Environment that looked to see if the digestive juices of turtles could make plastic bags decay. Three common types of shopping bags (including bioplastic) were subjected to the gastrointestinal fluids of Green and Loggerheads turtles. Without exception, the ubiquitous High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) bag showed "negligible" biodegradability—which means if a turtle can't pass it, he's stuck with it forever.

Beyond turtles, 9 percent of base food chain fish (which represents as much as 50 percent of the biomass of fish in the entire ocean) sampled in the North Pacific have been shown to ingest plastics, and along with it a toxic soup of PAHs, flame retardants, DDE (a persistent form of the outlawed DDT) and PCBs. Concentrations of these chemicals in ocean-borne plastics have been shown to be up to a million times higher than the ambient sea water around it.

Bigger fish eat the fish that eat these toxic bombs and so do humans at the top of the food chain. All humans have levels of these toxins in their blood and men can't get rid of them. Women can only pass the chemicals through the umbilical chord and through breast milk, and thus, a higher and higher chemical burden in the human body will result from generation to generation.

Lie #4: It shouldn't be called "plastic pollution" but rather "marine debris."

What's the most common type of plastic found on the surface of the ocean? According to the Ocean Conservancy's annual report, 11 percent of beach litter is plastic bags. But what happens when a plastic bag enters the ocean? Plastic doesn't biodegrade in any meaningful timeframe, but it photo-degrades. Thin, flimsy plastic like HDPE with a lot of surface area (like the common bag from grocery stores) photo-degrades faster than thicker plastic. Ultraviolet rays from the sun break the polymer chains of hydrocarbon molecules into smaller pieces and what you end up with is small fragments. So, you might not find a plastic bag in the "garbage patch" but you surely will find the remnants of them. Plastic bags are of the class of plastics recyclers refer to as "blow trash" as they tend to be picked up by the wind and blown out to sea. They're huge offenders of plastic pollution as Americans consume more than 100 billion a year.

Keith Christman, managing director for plastics markets at the ACC, maintained that "marine debris" is a better phrase than "plastic pollution" for describing the trash in the ocean even though 90 percent of the contents of the gyres is plastic. Christman, understanding the negative implications of his product's association with the word "pollution," mentioned that it's not just plastic, but derelict fishing gear as well. All modern fishing gear is made of polypropylene, i.e. plastic. This is a sore spot for the ACC, and marine plastics research and education groups that receive funding from the ACC are typically "mandated" to refer to oceanic trash as marine debris to keep the burden of guilt from resting squarely on their shoulders.

Lie #5: "Plastic retail carry-out bags are 100-percent recyclable and made from clean natural gas."

This is a direct statement issued by the American Progressive Bag Alliance to the city of Dana Point, California in a letter regarding a proposed bag ban. That plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable isn't the issue; it's that by and large, they are not recycled. Plastic bag recycling is governed by supply and demand. People assume that if they place a bag in a recycling receptacle this means the bag will in fact be recycled. That's not necessarily true. In order to show (very) modest positive trending in recycling, industry lops all polyethylene (PE) films, wraps and bags all into one category. But for bags discretely, which are high-density polyethylene, the numbers are atrocious. In 2009, the rate for recycling is 6.1 percent; in 2010, the rate is 4.3 percent.

Thus one of the main targets legislatively, is plastic shopping bags. The biggest player in the bag market, Hilex Poly, has become a master of spin tactics to attempt to paint a rosy picture of its business. Hilex, the largest recycler in the US, writes posts on its Web site patting itself on the back for increased recycling rates claiming that PE rates are up from 2009 to 2010. What it fails to mention is the distinction between the different types of PE, and that EPA itself doesn't independently audit the recycling industry, it just compiles industry's reporting.

There's another problem with plastic bag recyclability. According to Mark Daniels of Hilex Poly, only 30-percent post-consumer HDPE can be used to make a new bag, which means 70 percent of a "recycled" plastic bag comes from virgin sources (natural gas). Sometimes, recycled HDPE gets down-cycled into other products like decking materials. The problem here is that plastic decking materials have a lifespan as well, and no strategy for reclaiming them at the end of their lifespan has been introduced to the recycling markets.

When speaking of plastics in general (including plastic bags), even when there is a modest gain in recycling rates, those rates are far outpaced by higher consumption. From 2009 to 2010, plastics generated in the municipal waste stream jumped from 59,660,000 to 62,080,000 pounds. This is an increase of 2,420,000 pounds. In terms of recycling gains, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports 440,000 more pounds of all plastics recovered from 2009 to 2010.

So, if we subtract the increase in gains in recovery from the increase in generation we still get an increase of plastic generation of 1,980,000 pounds. This is the central conspiracy of the plastics industry tactically. If industry can convince the public that the environmental consequences of their consumption habits are offset by the industry-backed solution of recycling, industry is guaranteed that its bottom line will grow by hoodwinking the public into believing the myth of recycling.

What about natural gas, the stock for plastic bags? It is becoming scarcer and dirtier to get. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 35 percent of domestic natural gas drilling comes from fracking, and will reach 47 percent by 2035. Though natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, getting it out of the ground by fracking creates potent greenhouse gas emissions of methane and other undesired consequences. According to a congressional report released in April, the 14 biggest fracking companies released 3 billion liters of fracking fluid into the environment, including 29 chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogenic to humans. This is where your plastic bag comes from—or at least 70 pecent of it.

Lie #6: Reusable bags are dangerous.

The American Chemistry Council is worried that Americans might not understand the danger of things when they get dirty. Like your underwear, if you don't wash your reusable bag, bacteria might grow in it. So, rather than issue a press release telling people to wash their bags, they funded a study looking at bacterial contamination of reusable bags.

Bacteria are myriad on everything we touch, but the presence of bacteria is natural and the microbe kingdom has a pretty good system of checks and balances. The study found that 12 percent of its 84-bag sample size found E. coli, and all samples but one contained bacteria. This finding spawned scary headlines in newspapers such as the Washington Post that read "Reusable Bags Found To Be Full Of Bacteria." But here's the problem: None of the bacteria (salmonella and listeria were not found), or the strains of E. coli present in reusable bags are harmful to humans.

The ACC, though absolutely knowing this, still went ahead on a PR blitz trying to scare the hell out of people about bacterial exposure. Thankfully, the study was officially debunked by Consumer Reports. My favorite bit from the article comes from a senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports, who said, "A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study."

Lie #7: We care about polar bears and recycling.

Coca-Cola is one the world's largest producers of plastic waste. Coke creates cause marketing campaigns with corporate-aligned NGOs like World Wildlife Fund which is working with the Canadian government to to find an area of ice that can withstand climate change to create a sort of polar bear refuge, hoping to save the white bears from drowning because Artic ice is melting.

In total, Coke has pledged $2 million and another $1 million matching funds to consumer donations. What's ironic is that Coke uses a plastic bottle for much of its product's packaging and one-third of the volume of a plastic Coke bottle is what it takes to produce it from oil, and another third is what it takes to transport it to market. That's a lot of fossil fuel burning. Fossil fuel burning that melts polar ice that kills polar bears.

But perhaps the most egregious offense is that Coke vehemently opposes the only program proven to reduce its bottles' impact on the environment: bottle bills. Statistically, for states that have bottle deposits, the recovery rates for recycling are off the charts compared to those that don't. In California, recovery rates top 70 percent for PET bottles.

So what's a citizen to do? Unfortunately, cutting through the spin is a difficult task, but as always, when there is a lot of money to be had, injecting oneself with a healthy does of skepticism about the intentions of chemical companies that manipulate nature for profit is a good start. What's the best solution? Remember this: if you don't consume it in the first place, it can't damage you or the environment.

Avoiding plastics is not just a personal responsibility, it's an environmental mandate and should be as common in our global society as turning off the lights when you leave the room. There is no silver bullet solution to plastic pollution, more like a silver buckshot, but it all starts with you saying two words: "No Plastic."

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

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"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."


The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."


Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.