There’s DDT in the Ocean

DDT is good for me advertisement with a woman, cow, dog, chicken, apple and potato singing.
‘DDT is good for me’ advertisement. Detail of Penn Salt chemicals advertisement in Time Magazine June 30, 1947. AP2 .T37 v.49 pt. 2. Provided by the Crossett Library at Bennington College on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In late 2020, scientists discovered that up to 500,000 barrels of DDT, a highly toxic and banned pesticide, had been dumped in the Pacific Ocean near Santa Catalina Island in Southern California. To make matters worse, the barrels are leaking. Some barrels, unbelievably, are leaking because they were deliberately punctured to make them sink easier. DDT is super toxic, so how did this happen?

Montrose Chemical Corporation

Montrose Chemical was the nation’s largest manufacturer of DDT, located in Los Angeles. Starting in 1947 and continuing through 1961 (and perhaps even later), the company instructed its employees to transport barrels of DDT and acid sludge waste and dump them into the ocean. 

This is in addition to a DDT deposit of about 110 tons on the ocean floor off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, covering 17 square miles of ocean floor. From 1947 until 1971, Montrose discharged DDT into Los Angeles County sewers that empty into the ocean. It is the largest known deposit of DDT in the world and the EPA declared it a Superfund site in 1996. The fish found in the Palos Verdes Shelf area contain high concentrations of DDT as well as PCBs.

So for decades, Montrose Chemical dumped DDT and DDT acid sludge both down the drains and into the ocean. But the barrels likely caused far more damage. According to the Los Angeles Times, a sediment sample showed DDT concentrations 40 times greater in the ocean floor from the barrel dumpings than the highest contamination recorded at the Superfund site created by the DDT sewer discharges.1

Now back at that time, the common ‘wisdom’ was that the ocean was so big that it would dilute even the most dangerous poisons. It’s hard to believe now that ocean dumping was an accepted practice then, but laws protecting the ocean didn’t exist. “Federal ocean dumping laws dated back to 1886, but the rules were focused on clearing the way for ship navigation. It wasn’t until the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, that environmental impacts were considered.”2

There have been several lawsuits filed against Montrose and its successor company, Bayer Corporation. As of October 2021, the companies settled and have agreed to pay for the cleanup of contaminated groundwater at the Montrose Chemical Superfund sites in Los Angeles County. In May 2021, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against Montrose and Bayer. It calls for the companies to take responsibility for the areas affected by the DDT barrel dumping.3

 But the damage is already done. 

The Los Angeles Times wrote a comprehensive and fascinating series of articles on the Montrose DDT ocean dumping. I’ve listed them under Additional Resources and I encourage you to read them.

“DDT — the all-but-indestructible compound dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, which first stunned and jolted the public into environmental action — persists as an unsolved and largely forgotten problem.” -Los Angeles Times4

DDT’s History

While many people have heard of DDT, and may even be generally aware that it is ‘bad,’ they do not know exactly what it is or how it was used.

DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, was first concocted by a German chemist in 1874. But someone discovered it was powerful as a synthetic insecticide in the 1940s. “It was initially used with great effect to combat malaria, typhus, and the other insect-borne human diseases among both military and civilian populations. It also was effective for insect control in crop and livestock production, institutions, homes, and gardens.”5

The military used DDT to treat and prevent lice in soldiers during World War II. “The U.S. Army’s chief of preventive medicine, Brig. Gen. James Simmons, famously praised the chemical as ‘the war’s greatest contribution to the future health of the world.'”6 After WWII, it was sprayed everywhere and sold in household products and in lice treatments. Companies even advertised it as safe for children.

"No Flies on Me Thanks to DDT - Black Flag" vintage advertisement with a photo of a baby
“No Flies on Me Thanks to DDT – Black Flag” vintage advertisement. Uploaded by Seth Anderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

For decades, this chemical was used in neighborhoods, recreation areas, agricultural areas, and farms. Fogging trucks sprayed it in residential areas, such as neighborhoods and beaches, and airplanes sprayed over vast swaths of agricultural land. “During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, approximately 675,000 tons of DDT were applied to U.S. soil. The peak year for use in the United States was 1959 – nearly 80 million pounds were applied.”7

1962. TBM spraying DDT. Western spruce budworm control. Yakima, Washington.
1962. TBM plane spraying DDT. Western spruce budworm control. Yakima, Washington. Credit: USDA Forest Service, Region 6, State and Private Forestry, Forest Health Protection.

“During summers in New Jersey, I remember the fog machine – at least, that’s what we called it, the fog machine; we loved it because it spewed out this mist, and my sisters and I would go riding after it on our bicycles so we could get lost in the fog. I remember our mother screaming at us to get away from it, just screaming. These were exterminators, who came almost every evening in the summer when the sun was setting, to kill mosquitos…I cannot imagine how they sprayed pesticides like that every night, and that kids were allowed to be out there in it.” -Alice Waters, referring to DDT fogging trucks8

DDT spraying on Darwin's RAAF Base Fogging Machine 1962, Australia,
“Photograph 0078 – Darwin’s RAAF Base Fogging Machine 1962,” Australia, photo uploaded by Ken Hodge on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Banning DDT

Studies into the effects of DDT started as early as 1945, and scientists discovered fish, birds, and mammals died from exposure to it. Rachel Carson, a writer, scientist, and ecologist who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, wrote some of the press releases about these studies and proposed writing a story for Reader’s Digest to reach a wider audience. But the publication turned her down. The New Yorker released Silent Spring as a series, and then Carson published the book in 1962.9 It “exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT, eloquently questioned humanity’s faith in technological progress and helped set the stage for the environmental movement.”10

At the very end of 1972, the EPA banned DDT use based on its adverse environmental effects, such as those to wildlife, as well as being a human carcinogen. Carson, herself, died of breast cancer at age 56, in 1964. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.

“We have seen that [pesticides] now contaminate soil, water, and food, that they have the power to make our streams fishless and our gardens and woodlands silent and birdless.” -Rachel Carson

Painted Sloss DDT advertisement on the side of a building, 6% DDT
“Sloss DDT advert[isement]” by Francis Storr on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

DDT is Extremely Toxic and Poisonous 

DDT is highly persistent in the environment and in the body, meaning it does not dissolve or wash away. After the use of DDT was banned in the U.S., its concentration in the environment and animals has decreased, but because of its persistence, it still poisons.1314 

DDT is absorbed by ingesting, breathing, or touching products contaminated with the chemical. But people are most likely to be exposed to DDT from eating meat, fish, and dairy products. In the body, DDT is converted into several breakdown products called metabolites. One of these includes the metabolite dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE). Both DDT and DDE are bio accumulators, meaning the chemicals accumulate in the body’s fatty tissues. In pregnant women, DDT and DDE can be passed to the fetus and both chemicals are found in breast milk.15

“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?” -Rachel Carson16

Brown pelican close-up, with ocean water in background.
Brown Pelican, photographed in La Jolla, California. Photo by Y S on Unsplash

Endangered Species

DDT completely infiltrates the environment and food chain. “When it rained, DDT would wash off the soil and into the waterways. There, aquatic plants absorbed it and animals ingested it. Fish ate the plants and animals, and then eagles ate the fish.”17 It works its way up the food chain.

A pair of Bald Eagles in their nest in a tree at Bonita Bay, Florida
A pair of Bald Eagles in their nest at Bonita Bay, Florida, February 16, 2021. Photo by J Dean on Unsplash

DDT in Our Environment Today

DDT doesn’t go away. Past contaminations of waterways still linger, and it still affects many species, including ourselves. There are hundreds of cases related to DDT’s continued effects on humans and wildlife. Following are just a few of them.

Arizona

The sign from Maricopa County, Arizona (see below) is a good example. Fish and aquatic wildlife are dangerous to eat because of DDT contamination. Additionally, residues from the chemical have made their way into the milk people drink. “DDE routinely shows up in trace amounts in Arizona’s milk supply, transferred to cows through hay grown in contaminated soil,” according to a 2005 article in the Phoenix New Times.

In 1958 alone, 500,000 pounds of DDT were applied to farmland in that area to fight the cotton bollworm. By the 1970s, the Gila [River] was the most DDT-contaminated stream in the western United States. In the 1980s, federal wildlife officials found that DDE residues in birds collected in the Goodyear-Avondale area were among the highest in the nation.” The state began posting signs like the one below in the 1990s.

Don't Eat the fish, crayfish, turtles or frogs Warning sign near Goodyear, AZ
“Don’t Eat the Frogs, Warning sign near Goodyear, AZ.” Photo by Warren Lauzon on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Michigan

In St. Louis, Michigan, a Superfund site is still the likely culprit for dying birds. The Velsicol Chemical Corporation, formerly Michigan Chemical, manufactured pesticides until 1963. The EPA took control of the site in 1982 and the plant was demolished in the mid-1990s, but it left behind 3 Superfund sites in the small 3.5-square mile town. “Of most concern is the 54-acre site that once contained Velsicol’s main plant, which backs up to the neighborhood where residents have found dead birds on their lawns.”

Velsicol Chemical is infamous for a major chemical disaster in 1973, involving polybrominated biphenyls, or PBBs, a flame retardant compound it manufactured. The company accidentally mixed PBBs with a cattle feed supplement, poisoning thousands of cattle. This led to widespread contamination in Michigan.

There are still studies to monitor the effects of PBBs in the community. But not DDT, even though people find dead birds all the time. “The birds apparently have been poisoned by eating worms living in contaminated soil near the old chemical plant. No studies have been conducted to see whether the DDT has contaminated any vegetables or fruits grown in yards.” Beginning in 2006, the EPA began cleaning up homeowner’s yards to remove DDT and PBBs. But Velsicol was right on the Pine River, and its sediment was also contaminated with DDT and PBBs. “Traces of a chemical that is a byproduct of DDT manufacturing, pCBSA, have been found in the city’s water system, so new water mains will tap into a nearby town’s water supply.”

Aerial Google map showing the Velsicol plant area in St. Louis, Michigan.
Google map showing the Velsicol plant area in St. Louis, Michigan.

DDT Affects Grandchildren

Scientific American published an article in 2021 about the findings of Barbara Cohn, an epidemiologist at Oakland’s Public Health Institute, who studies the long-term effects of DDT. In a past study, she “found that the daughters of mothers exposed to the highest DDT levels while pregnant had elevated rates of breast cancer, hypertension and obesity.” But her newest study focused on the exposed women’s grandchildren and showed that the effects of DDT can persist for at least three generations. “The study linked grandmothers’ higher DDT exposure rates to granddaughters’ higher body mass index (BMI) and earlier first menstruation, both of which can signal future health issues.”23 Given that DDT is a persistent chemical, this makes sense. But humans used it all over the world for decades. How many people had or have long-term illnesses or poor health effects from it?

DDT around the World

Some areas of the world still use DDT today to control mosquitos that transmit the microbe that causes malaria, a disease that kills millions of people. The EPA has been participating in international negotiations to control the use of DDT and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) used around the world since 1996. Through the United Nations Environment Programme many countries negotiated a treaty, known as the Stockholm Convention on POPs, in order to enact global bans and/or restrictions on POPs, including DDT.24

The Convention allows an exemption for the control of the spread of malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) also supports the indoor use of DDT in African countries where malaria remains a major health problem. They believe that the benefits outweigh the health and environmental risks of DDT.25

“While it’s illegal to use DDT in this country, it’s perfectly legal to manufacture and export it. Eventually, it finds its way back to us in foods grown abroad that have been treated with the chemical. So in addition to endangering animals around the world, we’re also poisoning ourselves.” -Jeff Corwin

Knowledge is Key

We have to protect ourselves from these chemicals. But it’s not as simple as staying away from contaminated areas, assuming you even know where they are and have the means to live elsewhere (not everyone does). Knowing the facts about DDT and other persistent chemicals is important. We have to fight for remediation and cleanups while protecting our health, children’s health, wildlife, and our own habitats. Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “L.A.’s coast was once a DDT dumping ground: No one could see it – until now,” The Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2020.

Article, “Stunning DDT dump site off L.A. coast much bigger than scientists expected,” The Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2021.

Announcement, “Montrose Chemical Corp. Agrees to $77M in Consent Decrees in 31-Year Lawsuit Over DDT Pollution,” The Recorder, Law.com, October 04, 2021.

Press Release, “EPA Reaches $56.6 million Settlement for Groundwater Cleanup at Los Angeles Area Superfund Sites,” Environmental Protection Agency, August 14, 2020.

Parody, “The Desolate Year,” Monsanto Magazine, October 1962, accessed January 3, 2022.

Article, “Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer,” The New York Times, April 15, 1964.

Article, “Signs Warn Shore Anglers of Contaminated Fish,” Patch.com, June 3, 2011.

Footnotes:

The Chemicals in Plastic and Why it Matters, Part 1

Colorful plastic bottles, from products such as shampoo and household cleaners.
Image by ds_30 from Pixabay

Plastics are made from chemicals and petroleum.

I have found that most people don’t know that, or don’t care to know. Many plastics are full of potentially toxic chemical concoctions, and knowing what makes up plastics is key to understanding how dangerous those chemicals are. Once you know that, it’s hard to understand why would the FDA, EPA, and other government regulatory agencies allow them to be used in, well…everything.

The short answer is, they just don’t regulate that many chemicals.

But plastics are all around us in everyday life, and thus we are regularly exposed to these chemicals. This is one reason I’m anti-plastic, at least in the way we overuse and overconsume it in daily life.

How Plastic is Made

Colorful plastic nurdles close-up.
Plastic nurdles. Image by feiern1 from Pixabay

“Most plastic is derived from oil drilling and/or fracking.” -Jennie Romer, sustainability expert and attorney1

Plastics are derived from fossil fuels, such as crude oil and natural gas. It is then processed at a refinery into ethane and propane. Next, they go to what are called cracker facilities that “crack” or break down these molecules. They turn ethane into ethylene, which is a building block of most common plastics. Propane becomes propylene. They are mixed with a catalyst, or chemical additive, that links the molecules together and forms polymers. Polymers are long, repeating chains of molecules that are chemically linked, or bonded, together. Harken back to chemistry class and this process is called polymerization.

But “polymers alone rarely have the physical qualities to be of practical value, so most plastics contain a multitude of chemical additives to facilitate the manufacturing process or produce a particular desirable property, such as flexibility, toughness, color or resistance to UV light.”2 This process forms different resins, or types of plastics, and are generally categorized by Resin Codes (those little numbers on plastics with the recycling symbol around it).

Oil pump with bright blue sky and white clouds background
Image by John R Perry from Pixabay

Plastic is Toxic

These chemical additives are usually what is most harmful to our health and the environment, as they leach over time and under certain conditions such as heat or UV exposure. Additives include dyes, “fragrances” or phthalates, plasticizers such as bisphenol A (BPA), fillers, fluffers, hardeners, stabilizers, lubricants, fire retardants, blowing agents, antistatic chemicals, and even fungicides and antibacterial agents. “Imagine that, plastics eerily designed to repel insects and bacteria, just like genetically modified cotton or corn!” wrote Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha, founders of Life Without Plastic.3

Many chemicals are not even regulated. For example, the FDA banned BPA from infant formula packaging, baby bottles, and sippy cups in 2013 because of its toxic leaching. But, there is a whole family of other bisphenols and most of those are still in active and legal use.

Plastic is often intended for single use only because the toxins leach out over time into your water, food, or product. As Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha noted: “We would wash and reuse single-use water bottles over and over, thinking we were being super eco-aware by preventing them from being recycled after a single use or heading straight into the trash and, ultimately, a landfill. We didn’t realize each use and wash was breaking down the cheap, unstable plastic more and more, and increasing the potential for chemicals and microscopic bits of plastic to leach into our drinks.”4 I used to reuse my plastic water bottles too – and I stored mine in the car, where the plastics were exposed to intense heat and sunlight, both factors that accelerate plastic chemical leaching.

Plastic Marketing

Plastic toy cash register, plastic coins and pretend bills
Image by anncapictures from Pixabay

Facing changing public opinion about the harmfulness of plastic in the 1980s, the plastics industry “launched a $50M-a-year ad campaign to improve plastic’s image. Part of the message was ‘recycling is the answer.’ Within the plastics industry, however, it was later revealed that even then there was serious doubt that widespread plastic recycling could ever be made economically viable.”5 They knew then, and they certainly know now, that we cannot recycle all of the plastic. Despite the pollution and toxicity, the plastics industry continues to push, market, and produce excessive plastic products and packaging.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.” -Larry Thomas, former head of the Society of the Plastics Industry, now called the Plastics Industry Association6

There are many advocates for plastic production, including the chemical, trade, and petroleum organizations. The global plastics industry is worth between $500 and $800 billion dollars. The plastics industry is not going away while there is that much money at stake.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) is one of the biggest supporters of plastics, and they spend millions each year contributing to political parties in order to fight legislation that would regulate plastic production. Other organizations protective of plastics include (but are not limited to) the Plastics Industry Association, the American Chemical Society, the Manufacturers Association for Plastic Processors, the International Association of Plastics Distribution, the Vinyl Institute, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the Society Of Plastics Engineers.

Plastics Make it Possible Logo, an American Chemistry Council initiative.
Plastics Make it Possible Logo, an American Chemistry Council initiative.

“We are not out to destroy the plastics industry, but we must embrace change.”7

The Overproduction of Plastic

Greenpeace scuba diver holding up a Coca-Cola bottle and sign: "Coca-Cola is this yours?" Found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
A Greenpeace diver holds a banner reading “Coca-Cola is this yours?” and a
Coca-Cola bottle found adrift in the garbage patch. The crew of the Greenpeace ship MY Arctic Sunrise voyage into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch document plastics and other marine debris. CREDIT: © Justin Hofman / Greenpeace, October 1, 2018. Image used with written permission from Greenpeace media.

“Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years.”8

There are a few plastics that have an important place on our planet and in our lives, but most do not. Single-use disposable plastics are the major culprits of our plastic pollution problem. The companies we purchase products from are now producing it at such a high rate that we cannot recycle the problem away. Plastic production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015, and it is expected to double by 2050.9 “Plastic is too microscopically dispersed around the world to try and clean it all up at this point…Prevention and avoidance should be engraved in our minds,” wrote Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha in Life Without Plastic.10 Companies and manufacturers must stop producing so much of it!

“Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years.”11

Watch this short film about plastic from The Story of Stuff Project:

“We have polluted the planet with indestructible plastic to such a degree that plastic may serve as a fossil marker in our strata to indicate a new era – the way dinosaurs indicate the Mesozoic one – until Big Oil digs the last of those reptiles up to produce more Coke bottles.” -Anne-Marie Bonneau, author of The Zero-Waste Chef12

What To Do

Whatever it takes to slow or stop the neverending barrage of chemical toxicity and plastic pollution being perpetrated on our planet by profit-driven entities, you can start at home and start small. You can avoid and refuse single-use plastic, changing your habits surrounding it one step at a time. I offer many ways to eliminate plastic on my site in my articles such as “11 Ways To Go Plastic-Free With Food,” and under Resources, where there are lists of books, films, and other websites that offer good information.

You have to eliminate plastics in your life in small manageable chunks, because there’s just so much of it. As the founders of Life Without Plastic wrote, “As excited as you may be to embark on this journey, be careful about fully embracing plastic-free living cold turkey, and trying to do it all at once. Once you start noticing the plastic around you, it could overwhelm and discourage you quickly…Take it one step at a time. This is all about changing habits, and that takes time, effort and patience.”13 This will protect you and your family from potentially toxic products entering your body and harming your health.

Contact companies whose products you consume and ask them to switch to responsible packaging. Switch the products you use with items that don’t have plastic. Support legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.14 Getting manufacturers and companies to stop the overproduction of plastics will be key, and to do so we will have to force them through purchase power and legislation.

“We are surrounded by the toxic polluting conundrum that versatile convenient plastic has become. But . . . there are lots of ways to avoid plastics in everyday life – wherever you are, whatever you do. All it takes is a little awareness and initiative. Educated actions, we like to call it.” –Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha, Life Without Plastic15

Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “Plastics 101,” National Geographic, May 18, 2018.

Guide to My Packaging Industry Series.

Footnotes:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 3

Polystyrene food container from Popeye's, sitting on the bank of the Tennessee River.
Polystyrene food container from Popeyes, sitting on the bank of the Tennessee River. Photo by me

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I told you about polystyrene (Styrofoam) food containers, how and what it they are made with, and how polystyrene is harmful and toxic to human health. Today I’ll explain its poor recyclability and its environmental impact.

“The irrefutable evidence and research has been mounting over decades from various federal agencies, city staff reports, state staff reports, environmental clubs, and nonprofits,” pertaining to the negative effects of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS). -Jeff Lewis, environmentalist writer1

Polystyrene container showing the #6 recycling symbol.
Polystyrene container showing the #6 recycling symbol. Photo by me

Recyclability

In practice, polystyrene food packaging is not recycled. Despite misconceptions, most municipalities do not accept it for recycling, even with the #6 recycling symbol. If it is collected, it often goes to the landfill instead of a recycling facility. Polystyrene is often contaminated with food residue which makes recycling impractical. Additionally, most establishments that use polystyrene food packaging do not provide separate recycling bins, so customers have no choice but to throw them in the regular trash. Nothing is recycled when it is thrown in the trash.

Overflowing trash receptacle at Dunkin Donuts
Photo by Chris Caravello on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Even when you do find a place that accepts polystyrene, there’s no guarantee that the meat trays and egg cartons that you wash, save, and cart back to the supermarket actually get recycled, if you’ll recall from Part 6 of my Packaging Series. Often, those collection sites are simply to draw you into the store and keep local recycling streams free from those materials.

“Styrofoam, despite the #6 plastic composition and the misleading recycling symbol it often carries, cannot be recycled easily or cost-effectively – less than 1% of Styrofoam is recycled in the USA.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis

Cheaper to Produce New Polystyrene

Unfortunately, it is also easier and cheaper to produce new polystyrene than it is to collect, sort, and clean it for the recycling process. Thus, the market for recycled polystyrene is small and unlikely to grow. Companies such as BASF and Dart Container Corporation would have you believe otherwise. Both advocate for polystyrene recycling because they are producers of it as well. Many of the companies that do recycle polystyrene don’t accept food containers, they only accept polystyrene shipping materials. There are a few companies that do recycle used polystyrene food containers and have ways to clean them. But because food contamination makes food containers very costly to sort, clean, and recycle, those companies are rare.

New York City’s Department of Sanitation studied recycling polystyrene food containers and determined that recycling them is not economically feasible. “The report found that the majority of Styrofoam collected for recycling ended up in landfill anyway—but at a higher economic cost and carbon footprint compared to being directly landfilled.” This includes the cost of collection, recycling separation and contamination, and ultimately hauling it a second time to the landfill.2 The conclusion, as always, is to stop relying on recycling and focus on ending the use of single-use disposable items.

“The reason for the decline in price is that crude oil prices are so low that it is cheaper for companies to produce new Styrofoam products than to clean and reuse postconsumer products. This economic reality discourages other companies from getting into the market of recycling the polystyrene.” -Real Cost of Styrofoam3

The Volume of Polystyrene is Overwhelming

The sheer volume of discarded polystyrene is a problem as well. The world produces about 14 million tons of polystyrene annually. As with any type of plastic, we cannot recycle away the problem of single-use disposable items. We must stop it at the source; refusing to use them whenever possible.

Polystyrene cup left in the woods.
Image by Nik Stanbridge on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups are used for just a few minutes and thrown away every year.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis

Environmental Impacts

Since polystyrene is not recyclable, most of it goes to landfills and some inevitably makes its way into the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Styrofoam production is the fifth largest creator of toxic waste in the United States. Polystyrene products break down into smaller and smaller pieces and eventually become microplastics. Birds and marine life ingest small pieces because they mistake the pieces for food. Additionally, after the ingested polystyrene kills an animal, it can go on to kill again after that animal decomposes and the pieces reenter the environment.

“80% of Styrofoam ends up in landfills, and much of the remaining 20% in waterways.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis

Polystyrene does not biodegrade, even the alleged biodegradable and compostable polystyrene, as I wrote about in Part 2 of my Packaging Series. Again, most take-out packaging is thrown away. Polystyrene foam litter is common as it is lightweight and breaks apart easily, making smaller pieces that become windswept. The Clean Water Action organization noted important facts about polystyrene’s environmental harm:4

      • Expanded polystyrene (EPS) products and their associated chemicals (such as styrenes) are widespread in the marine environment.
      • Polystyrene is in the digestive tracts of marine invertebrate and vertebrate wildlife.
      • Polystyrene is one of the most common types of debris on shorelines and beaches worldwide.
A large piece of a polystyrene container, found near the bank of the Tennessee River.
A large piece of a polystyrene container found near the bank of the Tennessee River. Photo by me

“Why is such a toxic material in use? Polystyrene is cheaper than some alternatives. However, the environmental expense of polystyrene far exceeds the cost restaurants and grocery stores are currently paying to provide them.” -Massachuesetts Sierra Club5

Solution

After considering the costs to human health, wildlife, and the environment, the solution is to end the use of polystyrene food packaging. Many reports have a similar conclusion and call for banning polystyrene or finding alternatives (see Additional Resources below). We must call for businesses to stop using these products and for local governments to ban their use. Moreover, we need to greatly reduce the amounts of all single-use disposable products we use. In my next article, I’ll explore alternatives to polystyrene food containers, the role of companies in their use of it, and municipal bans on polystyrene. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional resources:

Video, “Plastic Recycling, Inc. recycles foam #6 from a MRF,” Plastic Recycling, Inc., March 25, 2016. This video shows the process for one of the rare companies that actually recycles polystyrene food packaging.

Article, “Now and forever: The Styrofoam dilemma,” by Catherine Solyom, Canwest News Service, Accessed October 20, 2020.

Report from cleanwateraction.org, “Greenhouse Gas Impacts
of Disposable vs Reusable Foodservice Products,” January 2017.

 

Footnotes:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 2

Last updated on September 11, 2021.

Yellow warning sign with skull and crossbones
Image by OpenIcons from Pixabay

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced polystyrene, which we commonly refer to as Styrofoam, food packaging. This type of plastic is terrible for the environment and human health. Today, we’ll look at the toxicity of polystyrene in depth.

After watching friends and coworkers repeatedly reheat their take-out and leftovers in polystyrene, I decided to write a post about it. I had known polystyrene was potentially toxic for a long time, but I had no idea of the breadth of the problem.

Chemicals Leach from Containers into Food

Polystyrene leaches styrene and benzene, chemicals that have known toxic properties, into food. In testing, one scientific journal independently tested and found that polystyrene leaches more toxins when in contact with high-temperature contents and into foods with higher fat content.1 What does this mean? It means that if you buy hot food, fatty food, soup, or coffee and it is packaged in polystyrene, some of the chemicals from the container leach into your food. Over time, these chemicals can cause severe health problems.

“Styrene is likely to leach when it comes in contact with fatty foods, hot beverages, and especially alcohol. When thinking about the kinds of foods that typically end up in Styrofoam containers (fatty foods) and cups (hot coffee), it seems as though the exact kinds of items Styrofoam contains are exactly the kind of items it should never touch.” -The Green Dining Alliance2

Melted polystyrene spots from hot food in a polystyrene container.
I recently went to a BBQ restaurant in Dayton, TN. They serve most of their food in polystyrene containers. My fried okra side melted the polystyrene and those chemicals certainly leached into my food. I didn’t eat the okra, I dumped it out so that I could photograph the container. I likely will never dine at that place again. It really concerns me that people eat food out of these types of containers every day! Photo by me
Melted polystyrene spots from hot food in a polystyrene container.
Photo by me

Known Toxicity

When I searched “polystyrene human health” I got more than 13 million results. After reading many articles, I realized that all organizations and even the government, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), know that polystyrene is harmful to human health as well as land and marine environments. Furthermore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits the migration of styrene from packaging into food!

Study after study shows that chemicals from polystyrene leach into foods and beverages, especially with higher temperatures and food with higher fat content. And study after study shows that styrene is dangerous to human health. In fact, most agencies caution against the use of polystyrene because of the known health hazards, including:

        • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
        • The World Health Organization (WHO)
        • The International Agency for Research on Cancer
        • National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences
        • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)
        • National Research Council (NRC)
        • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
        • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
        • The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR), Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Take-out in polystyrene containers
Image by albedo20 on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A Known Carcinogen

Styrene exposure increases the risk of leukemia and lymphoma and is a neurotoxin. This alone is enough reason to avoid polystyrene containers. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) reclassified styrene as a probable carcinogen.3 While the EPA does not classify it as a carcinogen, it noted that animal cancer studies provided some evidence for carcinogenicity.4 Several of the organizations mentioned above, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Department of Health and Human Services consider it to be carcinogenic.

Hormone Disruption

There are countless studies that show certain types of plastics contain known hormone disruptors. Those chemicals often mimic estrogen and they seep into food and beverages (including breastmilk). In 2014, Environmental Health tested 11 samples of polystyrene and consistently found estrogen seepage after exposure to intense steam or ultraviolet rays5. Since polystyrene is a type of plastic, this is just one more reason to avoid polystyrene containers.

It is terrifying that many schools use foam trays for cafeteria food. Hormone disruption in young children prevents them from developing normally, can affect their ability to reproduce as adults, and can set them up to be prone to other diseases.

Polystyrene food tray
Image by Laura Taylor on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Other Health Hazards

Styrene exposure can come from other sources, such as photocopier toner, automobile exhaust, and plastics manufacturing. Exposure can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, mucous membranes, the upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal irritation. Chronic exposure can cause neurological problems such as depression, headaches, fatigue, weakness, hearing loss, and disrupted kidney function.6

Additional Unknown Chemicals

There are many chemicals and ingredients that are not tested for and not regulated by the EPA and FDA. While this may seem surprising, the standard operating procedure in the United States is to allow the chemical to be used until a known hazard is not only discovered, but proven. Essentially, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.

Hefty polystyrene container
Hefty polystyrene container, photo by me

Exposure through Manufacturing

Anyone who lives near or works in polystyrene manufacturing sites are at risk of even greater health problems due to respiratory exposure. The Clean Water Action organization noted that “occupational exposure to Styrene increases [the] risk of lymphoma, leukemia, lung tumors, pancreatic cancer, urinary bladder cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer. High rates of neurotoxicological effects have been reported in workers,” as well as decreased sperm counts.”7 These plants also emit a toxic and volatile gas called pentane, often used as a blowing agent in the production of polystyrene. 

“Over fifty chemical byproducts are released during the manufacturing of polystyrene, contaminating the air, water and communities that live near these facilities.” Children’s Environmental Health Network

What You Can Do

Polystyrene is toxic to human health. When ordering take-out, ask the restaurant if they use “Styrofoam” or polystyrene containers, and if they do, you can either ask if they have an alternative type of container or decide to order from somewhere else. When bringing leftovers home from a restaurant, keep a glass or metal container in your car specifically for such occasions. Bring your own reusable coffee mug to coffee shops. As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, please try to avoid eating food in polystyrene, and definitely stop reheating your food in polystyrene containers in the microwave

Last, polystyrene is the most common type of #6 plastic and is largely not recyclable because of food contamination. In Part 3, I will cover the problems with recycling and the environmental damage polystyrene causes. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

“Styrene,” Report on Carcinogens, 14th Edition, National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services.

Report, “What’s the Package? Unveiling the Toxic Secrets of Food and Beverage Packaging,” Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, August 2016.

Article, “Leaching of styrene and other aromatic compounds in drinking water from PS bottles,” by Maqbool Ahmad and Ahmad S. Bajahlan, Journal of Environmental Sciences, 19 (2007), p. 421–426, accessed September 12, 2021.

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