The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

So Much Plastic Chemical Contamination in Rainwater It’s Unsafe to Drink


Remember when you were a kid, and it was fun to tip your head back during a rainstorm and open your mouth to drink the drops? You shouldn’t do that anymore. That’s because you’ll be ingesting too many particles of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), the hazardous chemicals that leach from the ultra-durable plastics we’ve created for about the past 120 years.

Earth is officially past its safe zone for plastic contamination. The PFAS “boundary has been exceeded,” according to a study published August 2 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. PFAS are known to be hazardous to both the environment and human health. At this point, these “forever chemicals” are all over the globe and have seeded the atmosphere. Most importantly, they don’t break down in the environment.

This stuff can be removed from drinking water in various ways, but that doesn’t remove it from the environment. This also implies that drinking water from most, perhaps all, freshwater sources, is no longer safe. As a child in British Columbia and the Yukon in Canada, I often drank water from snow- and glacier-driven streams and rivers, but no longer.

Health Effects:

The health effects of PFAS vary, but include reproductive, developmental, and immunological problems. Since PFAS don’t easily break down and can accumulate in the human body overtime, the more exposure a person has, the greater the chance of negative health effects. The EPA has cited evidence linking PFAS exposure to the following:

    • increased cholesterol levels
    • suppressed immune system
    • thyroid hormone disruption
    • liver and kidney damage
    • low infant birth weight
    • cancer

… PFAS can be removed from water through reverse osmosis, activated carbon filtration, and ion exchange.

Ah, joy.

This is separate from the issue of microplastics, which are now commonly found in blood and organs of humans and animals, and which some bacteria do feed on, though not enough to have a significant effect yet. (We can hope that evolution, natural or human-induced, will create more bacteria which eats plastic.)

Based on these type of studies, researchers have hypothesized that human exposure to microplastics could lead to oxidative stress, DNA damage, and inflammationamong other health problems. Particularly, when inflammation becomes chronic, this can pave the way to very serious health problems. However, it’s not only the plastic particles themselves that are potentially harmful: The microplastic surfaces in the environment are colonised by micro-organisms, some of which have been identified as human pathogens.

Human pathogens have a particularly strong bind to plastic waste, more so than to natural surfaces. Research published in 2016 identified the human pathogen Vibrio cholera, which causes cholera in humans, attached to microplastics sampled from the North and Baltic Seas.

Wonderful. I can’t find the original source, but I remember someone quipping:

“Born too late to explore the world, and too soon to roam the stars, but just in time to have microplastics in our blood.

Of course in many areas, rainwater is still too acidic to drink, so there’s that — though at least the horrible acid rain of my youth no longer plagues most of North America. We exported the industry which produces it to south-east China and various other manufacturing domiciles.

The fact of the matter is that human society is simply incapable of handling the power we’ve gained since the industrial revolution. Even when we know we’re doing massive harm, we don’t stop, or clean up, and we lie about it. In my youth, we moved from glass bottles for almost everything (including pop, as they were massively heavy) to plastic, and said “plastic can be recycled.” But most plastic isn’t recycled; only about eight percent ever has been and it’s not easy to recycle plastic because it has to be separated into different types first, since each type requires a different heat to be melted and reformed.

What’s happening, with climate, pathogens, plastic, and far more is classic “sorcerer’s apprentice” stuff: We have power we can’t control, and when we use it, we do harm.

This is why even if all the “best time ever to be alive” books and articles were right (a questionable assertion, but it is true for many people), they’re wrong in a larger sense — it’s like saying, “Man, I’m staying warm!” as you burn down your house. Once you’re finished burning your house, you’re screwed. Except what we’re burning down is the environment which keeps us healthy, fed, watered, and protected from temperatures too cold or hot to survive, as with the infamous point where it’s so hot the human body can’t cool itself.

People often point to a study published in 2010 that estimated that a wet-bulb temperature of 35 C – equal to 95 F at 100 percent humidity, or 115 F at 50 percent humidity – would be the upper limit of safety, beyond which the human body can no longer cool itself by evaporating sweat from the surface of the body to maintain a stable body core temperature…

…Our studies on young, healthy men and women show that this upper environmental limit is even lower than the theorized 35 C. It’s more like a wet-bulb temperature of 31 C (88 F). That would equal 31 C at 100 percent humidity, or 38 C (100 F) at 60 percent humidity.

This temperature has been hit over the last couple years in India.

It’s a brave new world, and our descendants, and, indeed, many people alive today are or will be cursing us — and with good reason.



The Basic Pattern to Most Meditation


Open Thread


  1. NR

    At the rate we’re going I doubt we’ll make it to the stars, unfortunately.

  2. Ché Pasa

    I’ve sometimes wondered what our lives would be like if our manufacturers hadn’t gone all in for plastics in the ’60s and ’70s. Beforetime there were some — like Bakelite and celluloid that were considered almost luxury products. But as Ian says, CocaCola came in glass bottles that you paid a deposit on so you’d bring them back to be reused, You carried your 6-pack in aluminum or cardboard carriers. You reused the aluminum ones. There was no cling film or plastic shopping bags. Your groceries were packed in brown paper bags or cardboard boxes that everyone found additional used for. Your school lunch sandwich was wrapped in wax paper. There were some plastic toys and tchotchkies but most were metal or something else. Cars had little or no plastic and what there was was confined to the interiors. There were no plastic trash bags. No Visqueen. Milk was delivered in glass bottles (reused) or picked up at the store in waxed cardboard cartons. Bread was wrapped in cellophane (which I guess is a plastic, but one with a short lifespan that disintegrates pretty quick,)

    We could go on and on about what it was like without much plastic — there were certainly many other environmental hazards that have been partially mitigated since then — but the point is that plastic wasn’t ubiquitous then the way it is now, not because it wasn’t made or available, but because it was expensive. If we really want to get plastic out of our lives/environment, it has to become expensive again. Just factor in the cost of clean up. Eh?

  3. Mel

    I’m toying with the idea that it’s not the plastics that are the problem; it’s our idea that it’s a great thing to just throw stuff away. Doing that, we’ve filled up the planet, and there is no “away” anymore. We keep running into stuff that was supposed to be gone.
    We will not reach the stars, but I bet some of our junk will — give it time.

    Plus there’s a conflict between carbon sequestration and plastic elimination. Some plastics — maybe polyethylene? — sequester carbon quite nicely, until after we’ve created bacteria to break them down and return them to the cycle of death and rebirth.

  4. Trinity

    Great article, Ian!

    The rise in plastics use coincided (roughly) with penicillin, meaning fewer people died and more plastic everything. I vaguely remember those little metal insulated boxes on porches for the milk delivery (in bottles). The used/rinsed bottles were left out for the next delivery. I do remember glass coke bottles, though. They were also smaller, with less sugar consumption but the same satisfaction on a hot day. Plus glass also cools, so they were always super cold.

    There’s no way around it. Plastics made our owners richer, too. Absolutely no one in that social class wants to recycle anything, ever. Heck, they don’t even want anything to be repaired, so that we are forced to buy new (washers with chips in them). They even set up a federal bureau to “decide” how long washers and other big ticket items should last before the chip dies (roughly five years for washers).

    And they will never live near landfills, or breath polluted air from unregulated smoke stacks.

    Pieces from an Elon Musk rocket apparently dropped down in Australia. Thank goodness we won’t be going to space. To allow their insanity to expand beyond our solar system would be terrible.

  5. Hilary Jamnik

    Trinity “To allow their insanity to expand beyond our solar system would be terrible.”

    I would edit ‘their’ to ‘our’. I am not sure I know any innocents.

  6. bruce wilder

    If we really want to get plastic out of our lives/environment, it has to become expensive again. Just factor in the cost of clean up. Eh?

    This is the economist’s concept of externalities, so pat and so idiotic — it patched over a huge hole in the logic of neoclassical economics without actually proposing a practical solution or approach. At best it became another excuse to ignore the obvious and kick the can down the road and finally into the neighborhood of some poor schmuck. Except even that doesn’t work: the rich suffer along with the poor despite being able to “afford” to mitigate the ill effects on their own lovely selves. They will turn up the air conditioning to counter global warming, accelerating global warming!

    The forever chemicals and micro plastics are accumulating! Just like the accumulation of long-lived radioactive elements and the greenhouse gases, the effects accumulate. They are both semi-permanent and increasing. What do you suppose the math of folding that into the price of a soft drink is? You don’t need to give yourself a headache. It won’t work.

    Collectively we are exhausting the natural world’s capacity to assimilate our waste and our waste is a by-product of wasteful production: producing a lot of crap no one wants or needs including a great deal of pointless salesmanship as well as producing what people genuinely need, want and enjoy in pointlessly inefficient fashions.

    And, it remains impossible for most people to move beyond fantasies about simply reproducing this noisy, filthy mess with “sustainable alternatives”.

  7. But The Vaccines!!

    I have been harping on this for years. It irks me to see the faux outcry and outrage related to the vaccines and the vaccine mandates yet we’re being poisoned in a thousand different ways and nary a peep about all these myriad ways. It’s not Big Pharma, it’s Big Poison and that umbrella is a prodigious “Big” umbrella indeed. Bigger is better. It’s better at destroying faster and bigger.

  8. Ché Pasa

    Bruce, are you saying nothing will work — barring the Giant Asteroid or a sudden social upheaval?

    An example of how change has occurred without either: When I started smoking, cigarettes were 25cents a pack out of a machine, 20cents or less by the carton. Even in those days, that was cheap and practically everybody smoked. Health hazards were pish-tushed as alarmism and scaremongering. Lung cancer and emphysema were caused by all sorts of things, not just smoking. Maybe not by smoking at all.

    Took a while, but education about just what smoking was doing to the individual and society, the costs in lives and treasure, the terrible consequences to families, and so on eventually overcame the suspicion of “science” and the resistance of tobacco users and when the price of a pack of cigarettes started going up — first because of taxes, then corporate greed — number of smokers started going down. When I stopped smoking, cigarettes were around $2.00 a pack. Now it appears $7.00 or $8.00 is common, and hardly anyone smokes.

    Plastics are more ubiquitous and varied and therefore more difficult to control. But cities have banned plastic shopping bags (a start), some places charge deposits for plastic bottles, and as recycling fails. more serious measures are being considered, including taxes on plastics.

    The damage already done is not going to be reversed, but going forward the additional damage can be mitigated.

    Life was different without a lot of plastics, and there were very many other environmental hazards that caused at least as much damage if not more. Many of them have been dealt with, mitigated — air and water are (mostly) cleaner for example, fewer hazardous chemicals are widespread, even nuclear radiation is less — so it’s not impossible to reduce the use of and impact of plastics on the environment. Increasing the cost of plastics is one way of many.

  9. Trinity

    Hilary, I disagree. I have no power over anybody, and I can’t change anybody, I can only change myself. I can protest, and stop doing business with certain businesses, but there are limits to my power, and every day my power becomes even more limited. For example, most counties in the US have only one internet provider, there’s no competition, they charge whatever they want because they can. And I’m required by my work to have internet.

    The power to mitigate or change anything belongs to a very small group of people (perhaps growing in number but still relatively tiny compared to those who don’t have power). And that group, given their activities, their actions, even their statements, are clearly insane.

    And at the very least every child not born to an elite is an innocent. We (the non-elite) didn’t create these problems. We don’t make the decisions. We’ve never had any power to do so. Even our farce of a vote counts for nothing.

    I get it. This entire shit show is scary. But blaming the powerless will maintain the status quo. Is that what you want?

  10. Some Guy

    In the words of the great philosopher Perry Farrell, ‘we will make great pets’

  11. StewartM


    CP, the choices of glass containers vs aluminum containers vs plastic containers isn’t so clear-cut:

    The other thing is, some plastics are biodegradable. Cellulosics and cellulose esters are biodegradable plastics, plus there are others:

    Finally, plastics can be fully recycled via molecular recycling. It is true that conventional recycling, which involves just re-melting and reprocessing the plastic, can only do this a few times, as the plastic degrades on each re-melt. Molecular recycling involves actually breaking down the plastic (polymer) back down to its constituent chemical units. Polymers can be thought of as repeating (or random) “trains” of its constituent chemical parts (like train cars) and if given a simple polymer of chemicals “A” and “B”:


    molecular recycling breaks the old polymer back into its constituent “As” and “Bs”, from which a new virgin polymer can be produced. I’m not sure this can be done an infinite number of times, as with simple use (exposure to UV light and the elements) the plastic degrades (which is why plastic yellows and become brittle with age, which means the individual “A” and “B” units in the example above are being damaged) but it can be done “many times”. The problem here is energy use, but still this will result in a lower carbon footprint.

    I’m more with MeI on this issue, the real problem is our throwaway, planned obsolesce, consumer society. (Don’t get me started our elites pushing mobile phones on us instead of computers, the very reason why is that a decent computer can last a decade or more (i just had to replace a 14-year old computer last year, and my laptop is 15 years old and counting) versus phones our betters want us to replace every one or two–where does all that electronic stuff with its toxic metals end up?) This has gotten worse with the economy that Reagan created, instead of creating new products to improve peoples’ lives (because the old products that they already bought are fully functional for a long time), our economy appears fixated upon having having people buy again and again and again old products that are marginally different but offer little real improvement. Instead of using their incomes to buy things to improve their lives, people now have to spend ever-increasing amounts just to replace what they have to stay in-place.

    Also, what is needed is more public investing and infrastructure. One reason why the oceans are afloat with plastic bottles is that the Wall Street is delighted to invest in bottled water while we’ve not done what should have been done, which is making the water supply of every nation potable. I’ve traveled to many places where you drink bottled water and nothing else, because bottled water (expensive for the locals too!!) is the only safe drinking water. Making their native drinking water potable, addressing their sewage treatment, and setting up (both in our country and in others) ways to harvest garbage for recycling streams for all items, all of which would involve public investing (and no, don’t let your plastic or glass or aluminum or metal recycling be privatized for-profit, keep it running without any concerns how much profit does it produce) is important.

    Finally, I’d like to add two big problems that are usually overlooked in this discussion of polymer waste and plastics in natural waters. These two are:

    1) Automobile/truck tires

    2) Fibers from garments which come out of washing machines and go into waste water then into aquatic environments.

    These often escape notice, but I’ve read (due to their size) polymeric fibers are perhaps the biggest concern.

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