Art by Matteo Farinella, written by Jeremy Deaton
Algal blooms are killing wildlife and making people sick. Here's how we aided their reign of terror.
By Gigen Mammoser
- Most holiday decorations, toys, ornaments, and plants aren't going to hurt you, but some can pose health risks if they aren't handled appropriately.
- Practicing good hygiene habits, like hand washing (not only for germs) but also to prevent the potential transfer of unwanted chemicals after handling items.
- This can help further limit risks — especially for young children who may put their hands in their mouth.
- Experts say the hype around potentially toxic holiday items, such as ornaments, is generally overblown and the actual risk is very low.
If you're like many other people this time of year, you're probably approaching the busy holiday season with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
1. Christmas Decorations and Lights<p>Yes, all those beautiful tree ornaments, the decorations, and even that snarl of lights you drag out of storage once a year have the potential to contain toxic substances.</p><p>The most common reason: They can contain lead.</p><p>Major news outlets, including <a href="https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2007/12/safe_xmas.html" target="_blank">Consumer Affairs</a>, have speculated on the potential for lead exposure from holiday decorations, but it's not clear what, if any, real threat these items actually pose to individuals.</p><p>"My sense would be that there is, overall, hardly an epidemic of lead poisoning as a result of folks decorating their trees and putting up their decorations," <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/find-care/find-a-doctor/internal-medicine/dr-kenneth-richard-spaeth-md-11352799" target="_blank">Dr. Ken Spaeth</a>, chief of environmental medicine at Northwell Health in New York, told Healthline.</p><p>It can also be difficult to know for sure whether or not your ornaments and decorations contain lead.</p><p>A <a href="https://www.ecocenter.org/healthy-stuff/reports/ghosts-christmas-past" target="_blank">study</a> from 2014 found that 13 percent of seasonal holiday products sold at major retailers like Walmart and CVS contained lead levels that exceeded a threshold deemed safe for children's toys. Although the products are not regulated as children's toys, they may be handled by children during the holidays.</p><p>While newer decorations manufactured in the U.S. may not contain lead, if you've been hanging onto a box of old Christmas stuff since as far back as you can remember, or if you're buying cheap holiday ornaments online, there is the potential that they could contain lead.</p><p>"Lead is still used in a number of manufacturing processes for consumer items. More so in items manufactured outside the U.S. where standards are usually more lax … It's very difficult to really feel confident about some products and that would certainly hold true for some of the seasonal and holiday specific items that make their way out to the market starting this time of year," said Spaeth.</p><p>Spaeth does warn, however, that parents should be cautious with children around holiday ornaments and decorations. He notes that while lead exposure is unlikely through skin contact, it very easily can enter the body through the mouth.</p><p>"Especially with young children who are more prone to put the item in their mouth. Now you've got a very direct pathway for exposure," said Spaeth.</p>
2. Toys<p>The holidays and toys go together like marshmallows and hot cocoa. But, like holiday decorations and ornaments, depending on the quality and the manufacturing of the toy, there is also a potential for <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/sources/consumer-products.htm?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fnceh%2Flead%2Ftips%2Ftoys.htm" target="_blank">lead or other heavy metal contamination,</a> most frequently through paint.</p><p>Every year the U.S. PIRG, a group of consumer advocacy driven organizations, releases their "<a href="https://uspirgedfund.org/sites/pirg/files/cpn/USN-112117-A1-REPORT/trouble-in-toyland-32.html" target="_blank">Trouble In Toyland</a>" report on toy safety, where readers can find the most dangerous toys on the market.</p><p>Additionally, with the rise in popularity of more electronic gifts, batteries are an increasingly common hazard, particularly for young children.</p><p><a href="https://www.fresno.ucsf.edu/ucsf-fresno-faculty/rais-vohra-md/" target="_blank">Dr. Rais Vohra</a>, the medical director of the Fresno/Madera division of the California Poison Control System, told Healthline that "button" batteries, which are small and easy to swallow can be very dangerous.</p><p>"Those can actually lead to really bad burns and damage to the esophagus as well as to the stomach," he said.</p>
3. Holiday Plants<p>Poinsettia, holly, mistletoe: Nothing says Christmas quite like them.</p><p>However, they also have a reputation for being poisonous, though they aren't as dangerous as some would have you believe.</p><p>A 2012 <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3555592/" target="_blank">review of the toxicity</a> of most common decorative holiday plants found that most ingestions, even in children, are asymptomatic That is, you probably don't need to worry about your child poisoning themself from a poinsettia.</p><p>Nonetheless, exposures do happen quite commonly, according to Vohra.</p><p>"These things are very beautiful. They are around during the Christmastime holidays. They may be on a kitchen table or on a countertop, and a child can just grab a number of leaves or berries or even a poinsettia leaf and then ingest something that causes a reaction," he said.</p><p>"For the most part though, most kids even if they [ingest these plants] they will probably tolerate it pretty well," said Vohra.</p><p>Ingesting holiday plants can still result in symptoms like upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, but rarely in more serious poisoning outcomes.</p>
4. Wrapping Paper<p>Wrapping paper is beautiful. That's why we use it to wrap gifts. But the components that make it beautiful — inks, dyes, and other chemicals — also mean it has the potential to contain toxic substances.</p><p>"There [are] an increasingly large number of chemicals being used to treat the paper, to color the paper, to make the paper more elaborate and sometimes that can include the use of heavy metals," said Spaeth.</p><p>But, like the aforementioned toys and decorations in this list, how and where the paper is manufactured will have a strong bearing on whether it actually contains toxic components.</p><p>Handling the paper and wrapping gifts with it isn't going to make you sick, but as a rule of thumb, don't let children put it in their mouths.</p><p>And <a href="https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98476323" target="_blank">don't burn it.</a></p><p>"There are so many synthetic products, if you burn it, you're likely to be breathing in those chemicals," said Spaeth.</p>
The Bottom Line<p>Most holiday decorations, toys, ornaments, and plants aren't going to hurt you, but it's a no-brainer to make sure they're all handled appropriately, especially if there are kids around.</p><p>Insist on good hygiene habits like hand washing (not only for germs) but also to prevent the potential transfer of unwanted chemicals when you bring down that dusty box of decorations out of the attic.</p><p>"Kids are kids… Make sure your kids are safe and make sure you know what they are eating and what they are putting in their mouths, and make sure that's not poisonous," said Vohra.</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Wesley Rahn
Plastic byproducts were found in 97 percent of blood and urine samples from 2,500 children tested between 2014 and 2017, according to a study by the German Environment Ministry and the Robert Koch Institute.
Toxic Clothes and Cookware?<p>Plastic from cleaning products, waterproof clothing, food packaging and cooking utensils frequently comes into direct contact with the body.</p><p>Although some of the chemicals studied pose no known health risk, researchers said that they were especially concerned about high levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) that were found in the study. PFOA is frequently used in non-stick cookware and in waterproof clothing.</p><p>According to the German Environment Ministry, the chemical is dangerous for the reproductive system and is toxic to the liver. The EU will ban the substance in 2020.</p><p>Plastic byproducts are also blamed for disrupting hormone function, which could lead to obesity, reproductive disorders, cancer and development delays in children.</p>
Youngest Children Most Vulnerable<p>According to the research, younger children were reported to be the most affected by plastic ingestion. The study also showed children from poorer families had more plastic residue in their bodies than children from higher-income families, according to German public broadcaster ARD.</p><p>"It is very concerning that the youngest children, as the most sensitive group, are also the most affected," Kolossa-Gehring said.</p><p>"It can't be that every fourth child between three and five years old is so heavily burdened with chemicals that long-term damage cannot safely be ruled out," Green Party environmental health expert Bettina Hoffmann told <em>Der Spiegel.</em></p><p>According to the magazine, the study has not yet been published, and the results were made available by the government upon request by a Green Party inquiry into the effects of chemicals on public health.</p><p>Hoffmann said that there has not been enough research on how plastic chemicals affect the body, and how they are ingested. </p>
By Dan Nosowitz
A hot-button issue in the UK focuses on something most Americans don't even know about: a particular method of disinfecting raw poultry.
By Courtney Lindwall
Question: I've heard that producing denim is particularly bad for the environment. Do I need to give up my blue jeans?
Top, from left: Every morning, workers at a Xintang denim-washing factory must search through wastewater to scoop out stones that are washed with the fabric in industrial washing machines to make stonewash denim; wastewater discharged from a denim-washing factory in Xintang. Bottom: A Greenpeace campaigner takes a water sample from a polluted river near Dadun Village, Xintang, where the economy is centered around textile production. Greenpeace has found high levels of industrial pollution and has documented the effects on the community.
Lu Guang / Greenpeace<p>But the industry is transforming, however slowly. When the dangerous situation in Xintang came to light several years ago, China's central government ordered the local government to tackle <a href="http://www.mee.gov.cn/xxgk/hjyw/201812/t20181220_685358.shtml" target="_blank">the pollution issue</a>. In response, between 2016 and 2018, 76 facilities, including 68 dyeing, printing and laundry mills, were shut down. According to Sina Finance, these shutdowns have caused more than <a href="http://www.mee.gov.cn/xxgk/hjyw/201812/t20181220_685358.shtml" target="_blank">1 billion U.S. dollars' worth of local economic loss</a>. But there are now encouraging signs: Some companies are rolling out <a href="http://store.levi.com/waterless/index.html" target="_blank">new production techniques</a> that significantly reduce water usage, and other brands are <a href="https://www.everlane.com/denim-factory" target="_blank">pursuing sustainability</a> by powering their factories with renewable energy and recycling water.</p><p>Although some denim manufacturers are making smarter choices, most international corporations get away with disclosing little information about their production processes. "People need to demand that companies make their practices available. Because the information isn't there in the first place, people don't know what to ask," Schlossberg said.</p><p>Yiliqi, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is working to do just that. She said <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fixing-fashion-industry" target="_blank">improving the clothing industry</a> will require oversight, transparency and accountability. NRDC has worked with the <a href="http://wwwen.ipe.org.cn/" target="_blank">Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs</a> in China, for example, to <a href="http://wwwen.ipe.org.cn/MapBrand/Brand.html?q=6" target="_blank">map</a> and <a href="http://wwwen.ipe.org.cn/GreenSupplyChain/CITI.html" target="_blank">rank</a> multinational corporations on their supply chain performance. Meanwhile, the <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/resources/clean-design-2018-mill-overview" target="_blank">Clean by Design</a> program that NRDC created more than a decade ago provides a tool for brands to cut water, energy and chemical consumption as well as wastewater discharge from their supply chains. (Last year the program was transferred to the <a href="https://www.apparelimpactinstitute.org/" target="_blank">Apparel Impact Institute</a>, a collaboration of industry stakeholders working to scale up the initiative.) The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has <a href="https://apparelcoalition.org/the-higg-index/" target="_blank">developed indices for measuring</a> a products' environmental impact. And various sustainability certifications, including <a href="https://bettercotton.org/" target="_blank">BCI (Better Cotton Initiative)</a>, <a href="https://www.bluesign.com/en" target="_blank">Bluesign</a>, <a href="https://www.oeko-tex.com/en/" target="_blank">OEKO-TEX</a> and <a href="https://www.global-standard.org/" target="_blank">GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)</a>, among others, can be used as branding and put on clothing labels, creating further incentives for companies to improve.</p><p>For individuals, Yiliqi said, "the fastest way to make an impact is to ask their brands to do better." It's also important to investigate the work a company is doing to reduce its impact before you buy its products. And if you're looking to change some of your shopping habits, here are some tips:</p><ul> <li>Avoid overconsumption. Wear the denim you have as long as possible and forgo "fast fashion," which is a term for cheaply made, trendy clothing manufactured to last only a season or two.</li></ul><ul> <li>Take existing jeans in for mending when needed, rather than tossing them out altogether.</li></ul><ul> <li>Shop at thrift stores, which extends the life and reduces the carbon footprint of each pair of jeans, or swap with friends.</li></ul><ul><li>When you do buy new, opt for durable items that will last years instead of months.</li></ul><p>We don't have to forgo this American classic — it just needs a makeover.</p>
- The Environmental and Human Cost of Making a Pair of Jeans ... ›
- What You Can Do to Make Your Clothing Ocean Safe - EcoWatch ›
- 5 Tips for a More Earth-Conscious Wardrobe - EcoWatch ›
By Anne Schechinger
Over the Fourth of July holiday, many of us love to beat the heat in a favorite lake, pond or river. But this year, vacationers from coast to coast will have to look out for a potentially record-breaking number of algae blooms.
Toxic Waste Will Continue to Grow for Decades Even if All U.S. Drilling and Fracking Halts Today, New Report Says
By Jessica Corbett
For more than three decades, the U.S. government has mismanaged toxic oil and gas waste containing carcinogens, heavy metals and radioactive materials, according to a new Earthworks report — and with the country on track to continue drilling and fracking for fossil fuels, the advocacy group warns of growing threats to the planet and public health.
Truck spreading brine in New York.
No Fracking Way.<p>Building on a 2015 Earthworks <a href="https://earthworks.org/publications/wasting_away_full_report/" target="_blank">analysis</a>, <em><a href="https://earthworks.org/cms/assets/uploads/2019/06/StillWastingAway.pdf" target="_blank">Still Wasting Away</a> </em>details congressional and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actions as well as industry lobbying related to the federal rules for liquid and solid waste from fossil fuel development.</p><p>"Despite over 30 years of research about the toxic impacts of the industry's waste, it is far from being handled properly," the report says. "There is little consistency in tracking, testing, and monitoring requirements for oil and gas waste in the United States."</p><p>"At all stages of the oil and gas waste management process," the report explains, "toxins can enter the environment accidentally (spills, leaks, waste truck rollovers, and illegal dumping) or legally under current state and federal law (road spreading, discharge to rivers, landfill leaching)."</p><p>Demonstrating the scope of the threat that such waste poses to human health, the report notes that "an estimated 17.6 million Americans live within a mile of oil and gas development, including half of the population in West Virginia and almost a quarter of the population in Ohio."</p><p>The report calls for immediate action from state and federal governments, and offers several policy recommendations to stem mounting risks to water, soil, air and people nationwide.</p>
Storage pit at the Ginsburg injection well, Ohio.
Athens County Fracking Action Network<p>In 2016, Earthworks and other environmental organizations filed a federal lawsuit against the EPA in a bid to force the agency to more strictly manage fossil fuel waste under the RCRA, and the EPA agreed to a consent decree that required the agency to review and consider revising its rules. In April, the EPA <a href="https://www.gravel2gavel.com/epa-rcra-regulation/" target="_blank">announced</a> that it wasn't making any changes and that it would allow states to continue spearheading regulation.</p><p>"EPA will continue to work with states and other organizations to identify areas for continued improvement and to address emerging issues to ensure that exploration, development, and production wastes continue to be managed in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment," the EPA <a href="https://www.epa.gov/hw/management-oil-and-gas-exploration-and-production-waste" target="_blank">vowed</a> on its website.</p><p>With the release of <em>Still Wasting Away</em>, Earthworks <a href="https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/06/18/This%20report,%20and%20others,%20reveal%20that%20EPA%20and%20state%20governments%20are%20leaving%20communities%20at%20increased%20risk%20for%20exposure%20to%20toxic%20and%20carcinogenic%20oil%20and%20gas%20waste." target="_blank">charged</a> Tuesday that "this report, and others, reveal that EPA and state governments are leaving communities at increased risk for exposure to toxic and carcinogenic oil and gas waste."</p><p>While the Earthworks report details waste management failures under both Democratic and Republican presidents, environmental advocates face an uphill battle in their fight for stricter federal rules under the Trump administration. According to a New York Times <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks.html" target="_blank">tally</a> updated earlier this month, the administration — with help from congressional Republicans — has worked to roll back at least 83 environmental regulations since President Donald Trump took office.</p><p><em>Still Wasting Away</em> will be followed by supplemental reports for nine states that are home to much of the country's drilling and fracking for fossil fuels: California, Colorado, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia.</p>
fotofrog / E+ / Getty Images
By Gigen Mammoser
A recent analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found chemical contamination of PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) at multiple levels of the U.S. food supply chain.
What Are PFAS and Why Are They Used?<p>PFAS are a widely used class of nearly 5,000 synthetic chemicals that have been used in manufacturing since the 1940s. They're oil-, water-, and heat-resistant, making them profoundly useful and popular in all manner of products.</p><p>These are the chemicals that make carpets stain resistant and fast food packaging able to repel grease and water.</p><p>They're also used in fire-fighting foams and what gives nonstick cookware, well, it's non-stickiness.</p><p>And <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/oral-b-dental-floss-toxic" target="_blank">dental floss</a> contains them, too.</p><p>They're also known as "forever chemicals," because the molecular bonds that form them can take thousands of years to degrade, meaning that they accumulate both in the environment and in our bodies.</p><p>So, when <a href="https://static.ewg.org/pdf/alex-530.pdf" target="_blank">images of an FDA presentation</a> came to light last week, they appeared to confirm what many doctors and scientists have thought for some time.</p>
PFAS Are Everywhere, Even in Food<p>FDA scientists sampled a wide variety of food sources across the country, including some taken directly from geographic areas known to have PFAS contamination.</p><p>The milk at a dairy farm in New Mexico was deemed to be a potential human health hazard after being contaminated by PFAS in groundwater.</p><p>Leafy green vegetables like lettuce, kale, and cabbage grown downstream from a PFAS production plant in North Carolina and sold at a local farmers were found to contain the chemicals as well, but at low levels.</p><p>The FDA did not deem them a human health concern.</p><p>Additionally, PFAS were found in 14 out of 91 samples of meat, dairy, and grain samples, including off-the-shelf chocolate cake.</p>
Reason for Concern?<p>Despite what the findings seem to imply — that PFAS are widespread throughout the U.S. food-supply chain at various levels from production to packaging — the FDA's consensus is optimistic.</p><p>"Our findings did not detect PFAS in the vast majority of the foods tested. In addition, based on the best available current science, the FDA does not have any indication that these substances are a human health concern, in other words a food safety risk in human food, at the levels found in this limited sampling," the FDA said in <a href="https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/statement-fdas-scientific-work-understand-and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas-food-and-findings" target="_blank">a statement released today.Trusted Source</a></p><p>However, those sentiments don't appear to be shared by other experts in the field of public health.</p><p>"It's certainly not a surprise in the sense that it's long been known that the general population is exposed to these chemicals. Essentially everyone in the U.S. has these chemicals in their bodies. We've known that for a long time," said Dr. Ken Spaeth, chief of occupational and environmental medicine at Northwell Health in New York.</p><p>"My concern is that these particular FDA researchers concluded that these were safe levels, that there were no hazards posed by these levels, and I would take issue with that," Dr. Spaeth said.</p><p>He argues that looking at individual PFAS levels in chocolate cake and cabbages loses sight of the "big picture" of PFAS, which is about cumulative, lifetime exposure.</p><p>In other words, it's about the PFAS levels that are in everything from the water we drink to the furniture in our house rather than just what's found in that box of chocolate cake on store shelves.</p>
How PFAS Can Affect Health<p>PFAS are recognized as having the potential to cause a <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfc/docs/pfas_clinician_fact_sheet_508.pdf" target="_blank">host of serious health problems,</a> including cancers, liver and kidney problems, reproductive harm, high blood pressure, and thyroid issues.</p><p>The strongest evidence of such adverse health effects comes from an epidemiological study known as the C8 Health Project, which took place from the 1950s until 2002 in areas of known water contamination in West Virginia and Ohio.</p><p>What still remains unclear is at what level of lifetime exposure do these health effects manifest.</p><p>There are currently no federally-regulated safety levels for PFAS by the FDA or other federal agencies.</p><p>In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/drinking-water-health-advisories-pfoa-and-pfos" target="_blank">a health advisory for certain PFAS</a>, which set a lifetime exposure limit for drinking water at 70 parts per trillion.</p><p>However, health advisories are non-binding, non-enforceable limits that are instead meant to inform the public and health officials.</p><p>"EPA does not anticipate a person to experience negative health effects if they drink water with levels of PFOA or PFAS (or both combined) at or below 70 ppt (parts per trillion) every day over their entire lifetime. The health advisories are based on estimated exposure from drinking water and household use of drinking water during food preparation (e.g., cooking or to prepare coffee, tea, or soup)," an EPA spokesperson told Healthline in an email.</p><p>The spokesperson said that the limit set by the health advisory isn't appropriate to identify the potential exposure risk of other products, including food sources like fish, meat, and dairy.</p><p><a href="https://www.bu.edu/sph/profile/wendy-heiger-bernays/" target="_blank">Wendy Heiger-Bernays</a>, PhD, a molecular toxicologist in the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health, told Healthline that the FDA's findings provide further proof that federal regulations need to be established across one or more agencies.</p><p>"I think they need to be established very quickly. The evidence is sufficient to set limits," she said.</p><p>Dr. Heiger-Bernays is keenly aware of the potential danger of PFAS in the environment and our bodies because of her understanding of the special bonds that make them "forever chemicals."</p><p>"When you have these two atoms, carbons and fluorines, and they bind together molecularly, it creates a molecule that cannot be broken down by enzymes in the body, by sunlight, by microorganisms. They just can't be broken down," she said. "They are here forever."</p>
Some Good News<p>Blood levels of certain PFAS have<a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/pfas-blood-testing.html" target="_blank"> actually declined</a> over the past two decades.</p><p>In 2006, the EPA launched the <a href="https://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/fact-sheet-20102015-pfoa-stewardship-program" target="_blank">PFOA Stewardship Program</a> alongside the eight major companies of the PFAS industry including 3M and DuPont, to help phase out certain PFAS from manufacturing.</p><p>But without any real regulation at the federal level, there's little that individuals can do to mitigate their own exposure to PFAS because of how widespread they are throughout commercial and consumer goods.</p><p>"It would require multiple agencies since no one arena is probably sufficient to ensure that exposures are adequately reduced. It would take a coordinated effort, which means there has to be political and regulatory focus for this to happen," Spaeth said. "There doesn't seem to be a critical mass of political will to get this done."</p>
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found per- and polyfluoroalykyl substances, or PFAS, in foods including grocery store meat, fish and chocolate cake, The Associated Press reported Monday.
Several New York City Starbucks exposed customers to a potentially deadly pesticide, two lawsuits filed Tuesday allege.