From sea to land to sky, earth systems are contaminated with man-made substances, and scientists warn that this has already pushed the integrity of our planet to the brink.
Today, there are approximately 350,000 man-made chemicals on the market, including plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, cosmetic chemicals, antibiotics and other drugs.
The fact that this number continues to increase at an extraordinary rate makes it virtually impossible for any authority to track their potential environmental impacts.
At this point, there is no follow-up. Now, a new analysis of the situation suggests that we have firmly crossed a planetary boundary into dangerous space.
Since the 1950s, chemical production has increased 50 times. By 2050, it is on track to triple again.
“The rate at which these pollutants appear in the environment far exceeds the ability of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control potential problems,” says ecotoxicologist Bethanie Carney Almroth from the University of Gothenburg.
Even though we may slow chemical production in the future, new entities of our own making have already infiltrated the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, geosphere, and biosphere.
Since many of these chemicals can live “forever” in the environment, any potential threats they pose could be the root of lingering problems well into the distant future.
Ignoring the problem is foolish, but that’s largely what humanity has done.
In 2009, an international team of researchers compiled a list of nine boundaries that kept our planet stable for human existence, including greenhouse gas emissions, the ozone layer, forests and fresh water. .
In 2015, they concluded that humanity had crossed four of these boundaries: climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, Earth system change, and the rate of extinction.
Until now, chemical pollution, or “new entities”, had never been quantified.
Like a cap on greenhouse gases, the researchers say countries also need to limit the rapid production of synthetic chemicals, while assessing those they already have.
Today, tens of thousands of chemicals on the market have not been tested, and even those that have been assessed for health and safety still pose many unknown risks.
Although some chemicals may be safe on their own, for example, studies have shown that they can become toxic when they break down or in the presence of other chemicals. If enough of these by-products build up in the environment, it could have long-term adverse effects.
Much of the research so far has focused on the impact of chemicals on human health, but our species cannot live without the environment around us.
Entities like the US Food and Drug Administration are required to assess the environmental impact of new pharmaceutical products for approval, although despite the best intentions, it often takes time for more subtle influences to become apparent.
The chemicals in some sunscreens, for example, have been shown to be toxic to corals. In recent years, antidepressants have also been shown to accumulate in water sources, where they appear to impact how some fish hunt for food.
Avoiding similar mistakes in the future will be next to impossible if we don’t significantly slow down the global production of new entities, and soon.
“Moving to a circular economy is really important,” says Sarah Cornell, who works in sustainability research at the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden.
“That means changing materials and products so they can be reused and not wasted, designing chemicals and products for recycling, and much better screening of chemicals for their safety and durability throughout their lifetime. impact path in the Earth system.”
It’s a gargantuan task, but so are the consequences.
The study was published in Environmental science and technology.