Petrochemicals, Plastics & Health: Will global treaty offer pathway to progress?

April 10 , 1:00 pm 2:00 pm EDT

Plastics chemicals and their impacts on human health are a central issue in the global plastics crisis. An estimated 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuel-derived chemicals (or petrochemicals), which have been associated with increased rates of neurodevelopmental disorders, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and certain cancers. 

A recent review article by Dr. Tracey Woodruff highlights the link between the explosive growth of the petrochemical industry and the rise in various diseases, particularly reproductive cancers in women. The analysis emphasizes that many petrochemicals used in plastics are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which interfere with the body’s hormonal function and are found in many everyday products. 

Global plastic production is projected to nearly triple by 2050, from 400 million to 1100 million metric tons. With upcoming INC-4 negotiations to develop an international legally binding plastics treaty, it’s crucial that policymakers and the general public understand the health and environmental risks associated with chemical exposure throughout the plastics life cycle. 

A recent state-of-the-science report on plastic chemicals co-authored by Dr. Laura Monclús Anglada for the PlastChem Project synthesizes the current scientific evidence on more than 16,000 chemicals potentially present in plastic materials and products. It identifies the plastic chemicals of most concern and recommends approaches for regulation, transparency, and safer plastics.

In this webinar, CHE-Alaska and CHE will host Dr. Woodruff and Dr. Monclúsfor a conversation about chemicals in plastics, their impacts on human health and how the global plastics treaty could help address this urgent public health issue.

March 14 , 9:00 am 10:30 am EDT

Launching a new report from the PlastChem Project, this event organized within the framework of the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues, will provide a platform for stakeholders to discuss the latest state of science on plastic chemicals and polymers of concern and identify way to address them.

Chemicals are a central aspect of the plastics issue. Although there is a wealth of science-based information to inform policy makers, implementing scientific data is challenging because information is scattered and not easily accessible. The PlastChem project addresses the fragmented understanding of plastic chemicals, their hazard properties, and their presence in polymers. This initiative has created a high-quality, comprehensive state-of-the-science report synthesizing publicly available evidence to inform future-proof policy development that protects public health and the environment

This event, organized in the framework of the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues will launch a new report from the PlastChem Project and will provide a platform for stakeholders to discuss the latest state of science on plastic chemicals and polymers of concern and identify ways to address them.

December 14, 2023 , 3:00 pm 4:00 pm EST

​The oil and gas industry has been running misinformation and disinformation campaigns for decades. We’ve seen how effective they’ve been at distorting public perception: Even environmental groups and allies often unintentionally adopt pro-industry framing and language. This undermines the urgency to address pollution and hinders environmental action.

​How can we avoid repeating industry misinformation?

​Join us for the kickoff of our new event series: “Say This, Not That.”

​In this series, you’ll hear from a series of experts who specialize in countering the oil & gas industry’s pervasive misinformation campaigns. You’ll learn how to identify industry talking points and how to frame messaging effectively and accurately.

​For our first session, David Gold from the Environmental Polling Consortium will guide us on how to avoid industry messaging and frame your messaging effectively.

December 11, 2023 , 7:00 pm 8:00 pm EST

Join us on Monday, Dec 11 at 7pm ET for a discussion on the dangers posed by the chemical vinyl chloride and its toll on the health of individuals and communities. Vinyl chloride is a critical raw material for the plastics industry, but it is highly toxic and is not found in any other products. Decades of experience and research have in fact demonstrated that it poses significant dangers to human health. Among workers it has been associated with high levels of angiosarcoma, a deadly and rare cancer of the liver, while in the wider population it is connected with brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia. Most recently, it grabbed headlines when a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, prompted the release of nearly 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride from five tankers, contaminating nearby land, air, and water. Area residents experienced rashes, headaches and nosebleeds among other ailments. The toxic properties of vinyl chloride are well known, and in 1974 the EPA banned the chemical as an aerosol propellant, but it has taken no regulatory action since then – until now. This fall, the agency is considering adding vinyl chloride to its list of chemicals to reassess for a ban or restriction due to toxicity.

November 14, 2023 , 12:00 pm 1:00 pm EST

Gasification and pyrolysis are thermal processes that converting carbonaceous substances into tar, ash, coke, char, and gas. Pyrolysis produces products such as char, tar, and gas, while gasification transforms carbon-containing products (e.g., the products from pyrolysis) into a primarily gaseous product. These processes are highly controversial due to their impact upon air quality. This is also a major concern for the communities surrounding the facilities that use these processes.

The EPA recently withdrew its proposal to exempt pyrolysis and gasification units from the Clean Air Act. What does this action mean for the many proposals in the U.S. to build these facilities?  Where are these facilities being proposed? What kinds of pollution do they emit? What should you be concerned about if one of these facilities is being proposed for you community? These questions—and more—will be answered by Jane Williams, Executive Director of California Communities Against Toxics, who has dedicated her life to fighting for the removal of incinerators, landfills, nuclear waste dumps, and industrial plants.

Header image: Exxon Mobil Refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, seen from the top of the Louisiana State Capitol. By WClarke (Wikimedia Commons)

An investigation of Louisiana State departments’ roles in perpetuating environmental injustices in a highly industrialized area along the lower Mississippi River, dubbed “Cancer Alley,” has been abruptly closed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

For those living on the frontlines of dangerous and deadly plastics, fossil fuel, and other industrial facilities and infrastructure, the move has been seen as a setback to their efforts to address systemic racism in the region and elsewhere in the state. The end of the investigation, which was sparked by official complaints filed on behalf of impacted communities, could also undermine the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing environmental injustices across the country.

We are very disheartened that EPA has decided to halt its investigation without making findings or addressing our concerns. EPA agreed that what’s happening to us is unfair. We thought the Administration would protect us, but no one wants to stand up to these companies. We are suffering, we are dying, and this makes us feel like our lives don’t matter. That’s a hard thing to deal with.

— Mary Hampton, President of Concerned Citizens of St. John, as told to Earthjustice

I feel like we were put on the back burner.

– Sharon Lavigne, environmental justice leader and Founder of RISE St. James, as told to The Washington Post

Louisiana Continues to Prioritize Profits Over People

Shell Norco Manufacturing Complex in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. By Erica Cirino

In October 2022, the EPA launched its investigation and sent a letter to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Louisiana Department of Public Health calling for research on the health impacts faced by local residents from Denka Performance Elastomer’s neoprene factory in St. John the Baptist Parish and Formosa Plastics’ proposed facility in St. James Parish after finding evidence of racial discrimination.

The EPA’s short-lived investigation had marked a rare show of attention to the need to enforce against “disparate impact” of the disproportionate placement of hazardous industries and pollution in underserved communities. This progress was undermined when it closed its investigation after being sued by the state of Louisiana in a federal lawsuit filed in May by the state’s Attorney General Jeff Landry (R). The lawsuit alleges the EPA has violated aspects of the Constitution, Clean Air Act, and Civil rights Act of 1964, and effectively challenges the agency’s structure and authority, particularly in relation to its ability to regulate businesses and industries that drive major environmental injustices.

In closing its investigation into Louisiana’s role in perpetuating environmental social injustices, the EPA has taken a serious step backward, particularly in light of the Biden administration’s promises to address such discrimination. Frontline communities have for too long been fighting for their lives as industrial developments have colonized and polluted their neighborhoods, and this investigation could have made a positive impact on the lives of those harmed by environmental injustices. We have just witnessed the EPA cave to the pressures of profit-hungry, industry-friendly politics and unjust status quo systems.

– Erica Cirino, PPC Communications Manager and author of Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis

Meanwhile, Louisiana’s legal challenges to the EPA come after two Supreme Court rulings in the last year that curb the federal agency’s abilities to regulate protected wetlands and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. And Louisiana’s oil-and-gas friendly regulatory environment has led to fast-tracking permitting and operation of dangerous facilities—further imperiling federal efforts to address environmental injustices.

Threat of Environmental Injustice Grows

A glimpse of the petrochemical landscape along the Mississippi River in Southeastern Louisiana. By Erica Cirino

In Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of land along both banks of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Black communities are among the most likely to face the worst health impacts and other dangers, such as fires and explosions, that come along with the unjust placement of industrial facilities. The EPA had pointed out this disparity, and evidence of racial discrimination, in its letter to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Louisiana Department of Public Health.

Those affected by environmental injustice point out its roots in the region’s longstanding systemic racism, which stems from the days of plantation slavery and continues as industries exploit Black communities today. In the grimly named Cancer Alley, where industrial pollution of air, water, soils, and human bodies is extremely high, cancers are indeed extremely common. Residents also face asthma, autoimmune diseases, headaches, rapid heartbeat, respiratory diseases, and many other serious ailments that diminish both lifespan and quality of life. 

In 2021, the United Nations human rights experts declared that “federal environmental regulations have failed to protect people residing in ‘Cancer Alley’” and called for action to end the systemic racism which drives continued harm in the region. In addition to Black communities, low-income, rural, Indigenous, and People of Color communities across the U.S. are also most likely to face environmental injustices that threaten their health, lives, and overall well-being.

Take Action

Despite this major setback on what could have been a significant step forward, frontline communities in Louisiana—and across the U.S.—will continue to advocate and act for their protection.

Together let’s move forward to a world free of pollution and injustice. You can help frontline communities by taking action to tell President Biden and officials to stop approvals for new and expanded petrochemical facilities. Additionally, you can demand that JPMorgan Chase—a major funder for plastic and petrochemical projects—denounces, divests, and defunds Formosa Plastics’ proposed plastics and petrochemical mega-factory in St. James Parish, Louisiana.