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Moquito truck spraying neighborhood

A mosquito control truck drives through a suburban neighborhood spraying insecticide to control the mosquito population. (Photo: Edwin Remsberg / VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Rising Chemical Pollution Crosses Crucial 'Planetary Boundary'

"The pace that societies are producing and releasing new chemicals into the environment is not consistent with staying within a safe operating space for humanity," said one scientist.

Julia Conley

The level of chemical pollution on Earth has crossed a "planetary boundary" and now threatens global ecosystems that support all life, according to a new study on human-made substances whose production has rapidly increased in recent decades.

Researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC) examined the levels of 350,000 plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and other chemicals and found that human activity is releasing so many of these substances each year that their production has altered "the remarkably stable state Earth has remained within for 10,000 years—since the dawn of civilization."

"The rate at which these pollutants are appearing in the environment far exceeds the capacity of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control any potential problems."

"The pace that societies are producing and releasing new chemicals into the environment is not consistent with staying within a safe operating space for humanity," said Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, a PhD candidate and research assistant who contributed to the report.

Plastics are a significant driver of the problem, with worldwide plastic production skyrocketing by 79% between 2000 and 2015.

The authors of the report, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, drew on research from 2009 in which a team of international scientists identified nine planetary boundaries that influence the planet's stability.

The new study relates to "novel entities," or synthetic chemicals that are "created by human activities with largely unknown effects on the Earth system," according to the SRC.

The novel entities boundary is the fifth to be crossed, according to scientists, after climate change and global heating, land-system change, biogeochemical flows, and the loss of biodiversity.

Freshwater use, stratospheric ozone depletion, and ocean acidification are still within the "safe operating space" identified by scientists, but are also approaching the planetary boundaries.

Researchers at the SRC compared the rate of production of chemicals to the rate of release into the environment and found that authorities and regulators are not able to keep up with production rates in order to track the synthetic chemicals' impacts.

"The rate at which these pollutants are appearing in the environment far exceeds the capacity of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control any potential problems," said Bethanie Carney Almroth of the University of Gothenburg, who worked on the study, in a statement.

Environmental politics researcher and writer Aaron Vansintjan noted that conservationist Rachel Carson warned of the effects of industrial chemicals in the book Silent Spring, published in 1962, yet chemical production accelerated in the decades that followed.

"There has been a fifty-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950 and this is projected to triple again by 2050," said Villarrubia-Gómez.

The rapid rise in the release of chemicals has included the use of pesticides, which can wipe out beneficial insects that underpin ecosystems and help provide food to humans and other species.

"Some of these pollutants can be found globally, from the Arctic to Antarctica, and can be extremely persistent," said Carney Almroth. "We have overwhelming evidence of negative impacts on Earth systems, including biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles."

The researchers said authorities must strongly regulate chemical production and impose strict limits on their release, just as world governments have introduced targets for limiting fossil fuel emissions.

"And shifting to a circular economy is really important," said Sarah Cornell, an associate professor at the SRC. "That means changing materials and products so they can be reused not wasted, designing chemicals and products for recycling, and much better screening of chemicals for their safety and sustainability along their whole impact pathway in the Earth system."


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