- The “novel entities” planetary boundary encapsulates all toxic and long-lived substances that humans release into the environment — from heavy metals and radioactive waste, to industrial chemicals and pesticides, even novel living organisms — which can threaten the stability of the Earth system.
- Humans have invented more than 140,000 synthetic chemicals and we produce them in vast quantities: around 2.3 billion tons annually. Yet, only a few thousand have been tested for their toxicity to humans or other organisms. That leaves humanity essentially flying blind to potential chemical interactions and impacts.
- Global treaties such as the Stockholm Convention, Minamata Convention, and Basel Convention, limit production and/or trade of some environmentally persistent toxic and hazardous chemicals. But progress is slow: Decades after DDT’s impacts were reported, it is still regularly used in developing nations.
- NGOs call for an international tax on basic chemicals production, with the funds supporting countries devising and implementing regulations to protect human health and the environment. A 0.5% international fee could raise $11.5 billion yearly, vastly surpassing current global funding for chemicals management.
Hinkley, California, USA, 1952-1966: A Pacific Gas and Electric powerplant releases 1.4 billion liters (370 million gallons) of wastewater laced with carcinogenic chromium-6 into unlined ponds, polluting groundwater for the town’s 2,000 residents, leading to a successful $333 million class-action lawsuit (and an Academy Award-winning movie).
Minamata, Japan, 1956: A Chisso chemical factory dumps wastewater contaminated with methylmercury into Minamata Bay. This extremely active and toxic form of mercury, which causes severe neurological damage in adults and developing fetuses, kills 600 people and leaves more than 3,000 with lifelong disabilities.
Niagara Falls, New York, USA, 1978: The Hooker Chemical Company improperly disposes of 21,000 tons of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals, including dioxin, into the Love Canal landfill. It resurfaces in surrounding homes, elevating the risk of miscarriages and birth defects, forcing hundreds of families to relocate.
Bhopal, India, 1984: A leak at a Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant releases 40 tons of deadly methylisocyanate (MIC) gas from a storage tank. More than 20,000 people are killed and hundreds of thousands injured. Over the years, survivors were twice as likely to die of cancer, lung disease or tuberculosis.
Pripyat, Ukraine, USSR, 1986: The No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explodes, releasing more than 6 tons of radioactive material; 28 people die of acute radiation syndrome and thousands more suffer long-term effects. Lingering radiation creates a perpetual 2,600-square-kilometer (1,000-square-mile) human exclusion zone.
Flint, Michigan, USA, 2014: The municipality pumps untreated, lead-contaminated river water into municipal tap water, exposing 100,000 residents, including as many as 12,000 children, to unsafe levels of lead, a neurotoxin that can impair intelligence.
What unites these seemingly unconnected tragedies? They’re all examples of humanity’s dangerous and irresponsible transgression of the “novel entities” planetary boundary. This innocuous-sounding boundary encompasses all of the toxic and long-lived substances that humanity releases into the environment, which individually or in aggregate threaten the stability of the whole Earth system.
The most terrible dilemma connected with this little-known but vast seething toxic legacy: Humanity has almost no idea of how close it presently is to catastrophically crossing this unseen border, as it continues to regularly dump synthetic chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals, radioactive waste, genetically modified organisms, and nanoparticles randomly into the environment.
“The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials.” — Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)
Better living through modern chemistry
For 20 years, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane was the wonder child of modern chemistry. DDT’s insect-killing action during World War II slowed the spread of diseases like malaria and typhus, saving untold numbers of lives. Later, it became popular as an agricultural pesticide. But Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, documented and drew attention to the devastating effects of DDT and other pesticides on wildlife populations. And following public outcry, the chemical was banned in the United States in 1972 — though not in developing nations, where it is still sold.
Carson’s cautionary tale went largely unheeded, and so has been repeated over the decades with other novel entities across the globe, as companies rushing to market new products, or municipalities and nations determined to avoid regulation, committed unforeseen assaults on the environment and citizenry.
Whether it’s toxic organochlorine pesticides like DDT, cancer-causing asbestos in building insulation, ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosols, lead in gasoline, or radioactive radium paint in luminous watches, it seems that as soon as we discover a new wonder chemical, the clock begins ticking until the day we see its toxic effects taking a toll on humans, wildlife and Earth’s life support systems.
Where one chemical is banned, hundreds or thousands more soon take its place. DDT itself rose to popularity as a replacement for the toxic pesticide lead arsenate. After Silent Spring, DDT was gradually replaced by chlorpyrifos, which has since been replaced by neonicotinoid pesticides, which are now seeing bans in the EU due to harm to bees and other pollinators.
Rampant pesticide use, along with the overuse of antibiotics, are also expediting the emergence of another deadly novel entity: biocide-resistant organisms. Our water treatment methods and agricultural systems have created a strong selective advantage for resistant pathogens, weeds and insects, embarking humanity on an evolutionary arms race with crop pests, microorganisms and infectious diseases.
“When organisms become ‘pan-resistant’ — resistant to all available biocides — this is what we call the danger zone,” said Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, a researcher studying antibiotic resistance at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) in Sweden. “Being [in the danger zone] for a long time increases the risk that pan-resistant organisms will spread,” he said.
A 2018 analysis led by Søgaard Jørgensen found one group of bacteria, known as gram-negative, that is already in the danger zone for full biocide resistance, putting human health, biodiversity and food security under threat.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared antimicrobial resistance one of the top 10 global public health threats.
Novel entities are persistent in the environment
Humans have invented more than 140,000 synthetic chemicals, adding another 2,000 or so each year. We also produce vast quantities: around 2.3 billion tons annually. Yet, only a few thousand have ever been tested for their toxicity to humans or other organisms. And very few are tracked along their supply chains from source to disposal.
The Planetary Boundaries framework created by SRC’s international scientific team, is trying to get a handle on the myriad environmental impacts of this chemical onslaught. It defines novel entities by their persistence in the environment, their mobility in water and air, and their harmful effects on human health and living ecosystems.
“Earth has a finite assimilative capacity for chemicals introduced into the environment by humans, especially the toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative, and easily mobilized chemicals,” explained Sunday Leonard, program officer for the Scientific & Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Researchers are sure of one thing: the more novel substances we release into new environments, the closer we push the whole Earth system toward collapse.
DDT, for example, is categorized as one of many persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These long-lasting chemicals are slow to degrade and can accumulate to dangerous levels in ecosystems or in the tissues of living organisms. POPs also include CFCs, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and a long list of other tongue-twisting toxic substances widely used in electronics, textiles, cookware, paper and plastics. PCBs, for example, have made headlines due to their threat to marine mammals, and also for their link to human cancers, immune disorders, thyroid issues and neurological effects.
These chemicals aren’t only environmentally persistent — the polluters themselves have also shown terrible persistence in avoiding footing the bill for the cleanup. General Electric, for example, discharged roughly 590,000 kilograms (1.3 million pounds) of PCBs (mostly made by Monsanto) into the Hudson River over a period of 30 years, ending in 1977. GE then fought the cleanup for decades. Dangerous levels of PCBs remain today in Hudson River fish and sediments.
In 2004, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was ratified by 127 States and the EU, committing to phasing out or eliminating 12 of the most harmful and persistent. Since then, new POPs have been identified and added to the list. For example, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a versatile group of more than 5,000 chemicals, some developed as early as the 1940s, which contain extremely strong carbon-fluorine bonds that are almost impossible to break. PFAS compounds are used in food packaging (even some marketed as “compostable”), cookware, textiles, cosmetics, electronics, and industrial firefighting foams. These highly toxic chemicals easily migrate into the air, dust, food, soil and water.
Non-stick chemicals stick around
One of the earliest PFAS chemicals to be discovered and marketed was perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), known in the industry as C-8. It was used at the DuPont Teflon plant to manufacture non-stick pans, and despite evidence of its devastating effects on the human body — heart disease, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer — emerging as early as the 1960s, the chemical was used without restriction in the U.S. until 2016. Experts say the current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion is still far too high.
“One U.S. company produced this, and has essentially polluted the entire world as they have irresponsibly sold the patents, and these are chemicals that never break down,” said Björn Beeler, international coordinator at the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), a global network of more than 600 NGOs central to the development of the Stockholm Convention and other international treaties.
These so-called forever chemicals are ubiquitous and dangerous. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that 200 million people in the U.S. have PFAS- contaminated tap water, and researchers are working hard to develop technologies that can remediate PFAS-contamination.
“Traditional groundwater treatment technologies are [already costly]. However, because of the unique recalcitrance of PFAS, some of these new approaches [to clean up] are even more expensive because they are energy intensive,” said Michelle Crimi, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Clarkson University in New York.
EWG has found PFAS contamination at more than 700 U.S. military sites, where the chemicals were used in firefighting foams. Reports that the military is disposing of remaining stocks by incinerating them have been met with bafflement by scientists who point out that there’s no evidence fire can break the near-indestructible fluorine-carbon bonds that make PFAS chemicals persistent.
PCBs and PFAS can attack organs throughout the human body because they are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), meaning they mimic or interfere with hormones, which regulate every major body system. In fact, EDCs have been linked to some of the biggest non-communicable health epidemics of the 21st century, including obesity, endometriosis, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. They have also been linked to declining sperm counts and female infertility; EDCs’ damaging effects can even be transgenerational. They also impact the immune system; PFAS exposure has been linked to lower vaccine efficacy in general, and to worse disease severity for COVID-19 specifically.
EDCs can be found “in the bottom of the Mariana Trench, they’re in glaciers, they’re in the Arctic snow, and they’re in people — everywhere,” said Pete Myers, founder and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences (EHS), a nonpartisan NGO.
Since Myers coined the term in 1991, tens of thousands of scientific papers have been published on EDCs, documenting their toxicity and mapping exposure. Hundreds of EDCs have since been identified, including now infamous toxic plastic ingredients and additives, like phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA).
“Disorders that were once rare are the result of fossil fuel-derived chemicals interfering with our endocrine system, the overarching system that integrates all our body’s glands, like the pancreas, thyroid, adrenal, sex organs and segments of the brain” – Theo Colborn, TEDxMidAtlantic (2012)
What goes around, comes around
Plastics are a novel entity in their own right: Ubiquitous, mobile, and exceptionally slow to degrade, plastics may be the fastest-growing threat to Earth systems. “Plastics are second only to climate change with regard to [the threat to] our ability as a species to survive on this planet,” said Sherri Mason, professor of chemistry at Penn State University in Pennsylvania.
Microplastics have been found on the slopes of Everest, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, in tap water and bottled water, soft drinks and beer, and they are inside living creatures, including us.
“It’s hard to really fully describe how ubiquitous [they] are because they’re just everywhere. They’re inescapable,” said Mason.
Plastic debris in the environment can pick up other pollutants and distribute them far and wide, making microplastics “the nexus for a lot of other environmental issues,” Mason explained. “They absorb all sorts of really toxic, human-health-impacting chemicals like polyaromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls, and they incorporate flame retardants and PFAS.”
With no restrictions or legislation over production, the plastics industry continues to grow, year on year. Some nations have taken steps to limit single-use plastics, such as plastic bag taxes or bans, but global production stands at more than 380 million tons of new plastic every year. Just 9% of the plastic we manufacture gets recycled — the rest ends up as waste, and the international trade and transport of plastic waste has come under regulatory scrutiny in recent years. A 2019 amendment to include plastic waste under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal — an international treaty that restricts movement of hazardous substances and requires prior consent from countries to receive waste shipments — sent shockwaves across the world and left Western governments scrambling to find alternative disposal methods to deal with their rapidly mounting plastic waste.
The brain is defenseless against nanoscale pollutants
An emerging area of novel entities research concerns nanoparticles. These tiny particles, each less than a thousandth the width of a human hair, are generated by a wide variety of processes, both natural and fabricated, including forest fires and wood-burning stoves, road traffic pollution, and many high-temperature industrial processes.
Once inhaled, nanoparticles can access our vital organs. For example, “because they’re so small they can go straight up your olfactory nerves and into the brain,” explained Barbara Maher, a professor at the U.K.’s Lancaster University, who is researching airborne pollutants.
Maher and her colleagues have found iron-rich nanoparticles in the brain’s frontal cortex and brainstem, and inside heart cells, which can only have come from pollution in the surrounding environment. ‘There’s no way you can get a … recently molten droplet of iron naturally forming in the brain; it has to have come from outside,” she explained. For city-dwellers, the most likely source of these iron-rich particles, Maher said, is vehicle brake wear, followed by engine exhausts.
Though research on the environmental and health impacts of nanoparticles is still scant, exposure to metal-rich nanoparticles has been linked to cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. “The human body has very few defenses against that sort of [acute] onslaught of millions of nanoparticles, or chronic exposure to thousands of nanoparticles,” she said.
In addition to the countless nanoparticles we are unwittingly releasing into the environment as a byproduct of human activities, nanotechnology is also creating entirely new types of nanoparticle.
At a 2002 Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Baltimore, Maryland, a reporter asked a nanotech expert panelist whether the U.S. government would move to regulate nanotechnology. “That horse is out of the barn, across the meadow and over the ridge,” he replied. Since that time, nanoparticles have rapidly become ubiquitous in the global consumer culture, used in transparent sunscreens, stain-repellent fabrics, scratchproof glasses, crack-resistant paints, car tires, and even for drug delivery within the human body — requiring no identification or warning labels in many nations.
At the nanoscale, the properties of familiar elements and molecules can change in unpredictable ways. Their impact on people and the environment remains largely unresearched.
Although their potential benefits to humanity are huge, “there is a dearth of knowledge on nanomaterials’ fate, transport, and behavior in the environment, how they may alter ecosystems, or the ability of the Earth systems to respond or counteract their impact if they unintentionally leak into the environment,” cautioned Leonard.
The status of the novel entity planetary boundary
The sheer volume and variety of environmental pollutants is why this planetary boundary remains one of two whose risks are wholly unquantified (the other being atmospheric aerosol pollution). But scientists have reason to suspect we may already be in the novel entity danger zone: A 2017 analysis found that the production and diversification of synthetic chemicals has outpaced other already critical planetary boundaries, including climate change, land use, and biodiversity loss.
“The chemical pollution issue is at the same level as climate change, if you’re talking about the health of humanity,” said Beeler from IPEN.
A big unknown is how the cocktail of novel entities may interact with each other and the environment to inflict additive, or even multiplicative, unpredictable damage on Earth systems. Maher fears that in as little as a decade, “we might look back and say, ‘Wow, we were just poisoning ourselves, left, right, and center.’”
Novel entities are also further destabilizing other planetary boundaries. For example, the release (deliberate or accidental) of heavy metals, radioactive waste, POPs and pesticides into the environment can pollute air, soil and water, directly affecting the freshwater, atmospheric aerosol and biodiversity boundaries.
Furthermore, many synthetic chemicals are produced from petroleum, intimately linking the novel entities and climate boundaries. The chemicals industry is currently the third-largest global CO2 emitter, and this $5 trillion industry is predicted to double by 2030. “The fossil fuel sector is the petrochemicals sector — it’s just the same mammoth — and they’re shifting basically all that investment from gasoline to materials, which is plastics,” Beeler said.
Conversely, global warming can exacerbate chemical pollution; hotter temperatures make POPs evaporate more readily into the atmosphere, while climate change-driven drought concentrates pollutants in water bodies, and ice-trapped chemicals can be remobilized from within melting glaciers.
Novel entities also amplify existing social and economic inequalities; in wealthy nations it is the poorest communities that tend to have the highest exposure to air and water pollution; globally, the burden of waste cleanup falls on developing nations. Women, people of color, Indigenous communities, children, the elderly, and other marginalized groups are often most severely impacted.
The precautionary principle
Experts interviewed for this story agreed that the best way for regulators to deal with the tidal wave of novel entities is to heed the precautionary principle, which states that new innovations should only be released into the market after they’ve been proven safe.
The EU Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation is intended to do just that, and has been effective in removing many POPs and other harmful substances from the EU market. But exemptions exist for some “unavoidable uses,” and many suspected POPs are still permitted. However, regulations in many other nations are far weaker.
“We can’t pretend ignorance of this problem,” warned Maher. “We can’t just do the experiment [on the environment] and clean up the mess afterwards. It’s just not ethically correct” — and cleanups are both challenging and very expensive.
Sources told Mongabay that regulatory bodies are also failing to implement state-of-the art scientific tests to set safe limits for new chemicals. For example, decades of research on EDCs confirmed a counterintuitive relationship between the dose and the effect — these chemicals have different effects at low doses compared to high doses. “The most sensitive part of the dose-response curve for a hormone and an EDC is at the lower doses — as the dose increases, the receptors can actually be desensitized to the hormone” and the EDC, explained Myers.
This EDC toxicological pattern flies in the face of traditional industry testing, which first tests for toxicity at very high doses and repeats with smaller and smaller doses until no effect is found. This level is then divided by a factor of 1,000 to determine the safe dose. But as Myers points out, with this testing regime, “you never get [down] to the levels at which hormone disruption actually works.”
This means that “safe doses that have been established [for EDCs] are totally fraudulent because they’re based upon vastly outdated science,” he said.
Corporate influence is another problem. A report by Sharon Lerner for The Intercept, catalogued failures by the EPA to regulate dangerous pesticides, likely due to intense pressure from industry lobbyists, a severe lack of funding and resources, and a pro-agribusiness culture within the agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs that has seen thousands of toxicity tests waived and whistleblowers’ career progression stunted.
Legal loopholes also stack the deck in favor of U.S. chemical companies. For example, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act of 1947 states that pesticides can only be refused certification if the risks to health and environment are greater than the benefits to crop yield and quality. Since 2000, the EPA has cancelled the registrations of just five pesticides, despite many thousands coming to market.
Global change is even slower. At the current rate, it would take more than 40,000 years for global treaties to regulate all the PFAS chemicals, one by one. Furthermore, 20 years since the Stockholm Convention was signed, DDT is still widely used in developing nations to control disease-carrying mosquitos. And in Brazil, the world’s largest user of pesticides, the rate of new product approvals — counted in hundreds per year, with many manufactured in the EU where their use is banned — has outraced all ability to evaluate them.
Nevertheless, agreements like the Stockholm Convention, the Basel Convention, and the Minamata Convention on Mercury set the standard for new national regulations. “Most low- and middle-income countries develop their national policies off the international norm,” said Beeler.
Time for industry to pay its share
The chemical industry’s astronomical success and profits have been built upon the externalization of many of its costs. “Until you make [chemical producers pay] the real [environmental and human] cost, it’s really the public paying for everything, and they’re paying for it through health care,” disposal and cleanup, said Beeler. In 2019, the WHO estimated that 53 million disability-adjusted life years were lost due to chemical exposure.
One proposed solution: In 2020, IPEN, together with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), published a report calling for a 0.5% international fee on the production of basic chemicals, which they say could raise $11.5 billion annually, 85 times the current annual funding available for chemicals management by governments.
“The industry must pay to solve this, they must pay their share,” and take responsibility for their chemicals, Beeler asserted.
Currently, “companies release the chemical, they’re making billions of dollars, but the onus on showing that it’s having an impact is on me and you,” or on under-resourced governments, Mason observed.
In 2013, Mason’s discovery of microplastics in the U.S. Great Lakes gained media attention and triggered a cascade of advocacy ultimately resulting in the Microbeads-Free Water Act. This 2015 legislation “passed unanimously through [the U.S.] Congress … That doesn’t happen!” exclaimed Mason, who then explained why: In this very unusual case, “industry felt this [huge] push from the consumer, and they did not lobby against it.”
Successes like this might be possible for other novel entities, if industry sees a market opportunity in green chemistry and sustainable materials. Such a shift would “allow the regulatory authorities to get away from the constant pressure from chemical industries,” said Myers, and allow them to support emerging green industries instead.
As we approach the 60th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, IPEN’s goal of a “toxics-free future” seems a very distant prospect. But science continues warning us urgently that this is a planetary boundary we cannot afford to ignore.
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