Trade groups representing the world’s biggest oil and chemical companies have been opposing a ground-breaking new proposal to regulate toxic and persistent chemicals in microplastics, according to documents obtained by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative platform.
Microplastic pollution has been found practically everywhere on the planet, from oceans, lakes and rivers to raindrops, air, wildlife and even our dinner plates.
Study after study has shown it can release harmful chemicals and attract other pollutants already present in seawater, ending up in the guts of marine life and further up the food chain.
Last year, the Swiss government put forward a proposal to list a widely-used plastic additive in the Stockholm Convention, the UN’s global treaty on persistent organic pollutants.
It’s the first proposal to make a case for a chemical to be listed partly on the basis that it travels long distances via microplastics and plastic debris.
Relatively little research has been done on the chemical, called UV-328, which is often added to plastic products, rubber, paints, coatings and cosmetics to protect them from UV damage.
But scientists are concerned that it does not easily break down in the environment, accumulates in organisms and may cause harm to wildlife or human health.
‘We know that microplastic is everywhere, from Arctic sea ice to tap water, and that it’s linked to the spread of harmful chemicals. Many of these substances have slipped through the net of global regulations so far, but this proposal could change that and that’s why the industry is hell-bent on stopping it. Where we see a game-changer in protecting marine life from toxic pollution, the oil and chemical lobby only sees a threat to its profits.
‘Cutting the amount of single-use plastic in circulation has to be part of the solution, but that’s exactly what the industry doesn’t want to do. Their entire business model is still predicated on generating more waste and pollution, never mind the consequences. That’s why we need firm government intervention to clamp down on harmful chemicals, set plastic reduction targets and force the industry to take responsibility for the pollution they’re causing.’
Greenpeace UK plastic campaigner
Unearthed has revealed that powerful lobby groups representing corporations such as BASF, ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Ineos, BP and Shell are opposing the proposal, arguing that there is insufficient evidence to consider the additive a persistent organic pollutant.
A cache of emails and documents obtained under transparency laws from the US Environmental Protection Agency shows the American Chemistry Council and the European Chemical Industry Council raising concerns about the precedent the proposal could set.
‘The industry is basically saying that until they have polluted enough – until they have created a big enough problem – we can’t do anything about it. When it comes to proving the harm of this chemical, there isn’t a lot of evidence available yet, but the assumption is that if a chemical doesn’t degrade, we are altering our environment in a permanent way and we shouldn’t be doing that.
‘When we start finding chemicals in human breast milk, it is not good. It means it is going into babies during vulnerable developmental periods. Most people would assume that breast milk would not be polluted, that it would be the best food you could give your babies.’
PROF LAURA VANDENBERG
University of Massachusetts
The industry’s position has also raised concerns among some Indigenous people in the Arctic because it is a major sink for plastic pollution and such communities are often more exposed to persistent organic pollutants through the traditional foods they eat.
Viola Waghiyi, who is a Native Village of Savoonga tribal citizen, part of a Yupik indigenous community on Sivuqaq in the Arctic, and recently appointed to Biden’s new White House environmental justice advisory council, criticised the USA’s position.
‘We’re concerned that this chemical has reached the Arctic and could be toxic, but this is not just about one chemical. Our community has already been so exposed to so many chemicals. The Stockholm Convention recognizes the special vulnerabilities of Arctic Indigenous Peoples, but the EPA is not looking out for the health and wellbeing of our people. The US produces so many toxic chemicals but it is not even a party to the convention.’
part of a Yupik indigenous community on Sivuqaq in the Arctic
Listing this chemical in the Stockholm Convention would lead to bans on its production or use, and could be a landmark for the regulation of chemicals in microplastics.
UV-328 is just one of many chemicals added in the plastic manufacturing process which some scientists are now concerned could spread far and wide via microplastics, posing potential risks to wildlife, human health or the environment.
At a meeting in January, the Convention’s scientific committee agreed that there is sufficient evidence on UV-328 to meet the Convention’s initial criteria to be considered a persistent organic pollutant.
In September the proposal will go forward to the next stage of the process, where the committee will produce a risk profile to decide whether the additive poses enough risk to warrant global action.
‘Plastics are a cocktail of all kinds of chemicals, such as UV-328, which are embedded to modify its structure and function. But they are not chemically bound to the plastic, so these chemicals are slowly released in the environment, or when they enter organisms, even if the plastic itself ends up being excreted. This is where most of the toxicity – the harm – comes from.
‘The extent of the harm they cause to humans is still being investigated, but quite a number of toxic effects have been established in marine organisms, such as reproductive issues and the growth inhibition of organs.’
DR OMOWUNMI H. FRED-AHMADU
Environmental chemist at Covenant University, Nigeria