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POPs, Those Toxic, Manmade Persistent Organic Pollutants

Posted on January 31, 2018 by Jeanne Roberts There have been 0 comments

But This Time It’s Nature Doing the Dirty Work!

In the late 1970s, the U.S. government banned a group of manmade chemical compounds known as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) thanks to scientific evidence that they caused harm to both people and animals.

This group of toxins, along with DDT, PCBs, and PBDEs, are all classified as POPs, or persistent organic pollutants – chemicals with such serious side effects that nations around the globe joined to ban them in 2004 in what is known as the Stockholm Convention.

Nature Makes POPs, Too

It was a magnificent effort, but one that Nature herself may be undermining. According to some scientists, certain bacteria, fungi, plants and waterborne organisms may now be making their own, counterfeit versions of PCBs, PBDEs, and other banned compounds.

Scientists don’t yet know whether their production is part of a natural process or some response to the chemicals we have already introduced into earth’s biosphere. The most burning question, however, may be why Nature is reproducing these POPs?

Take a group of chemicals called organohalogens, which are being found in seabird eggs along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, according to researcher Sheryl Tittlemier of Carleton University.

These organic halogen compounds are structurally very similar to manmade DDT, halogenated dioxins, and brominated flame retardants. In nature, they are produced by marine organisms such as the acorn worm, for example, and production is verified by carbon-14 dating – a highly conclusive method for anything less than 50,000 years old.

The list of naturally produced POPs currently approaches 6,000, and challenges the perception that humans have produced more of these toxic compounds than Nature!

Natural POPs Making Their Way Up the Food Chain

Most scientists support the idea that these Nature-made POPs are as harmful to species as the ones chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow and 3M once made.

Several studies – one from the University of Missouri – have found trace amounts of POPs in pet food (and, of course, pets). The worst offender is BPA, or Bisphenol A, found in the lining of far too many pet food cans. The most troubling aspect of this problem is that at least two of the manufacturers lied about the presence of bisphenol A in their cans.

Traces of hydroxylated PBDEs have also been found in humans. The greatest risk is to people eating a marine diet, including fish; shellfish like oysters, crabs and lobster; whales and dolphins; seaweeds and microalgae; squid; sea cucumbers; jellyfish; and frogs.

Women in the Faroe Islands, who commonly ate whale blubber, had traces of these “natural” PCBs in their breast milk. Unfortunately, these naturally produced compounds can’t be banned as easily as manmade PCBs, so scientists are using analytical techniques like genome sampling to figure out which organisms are synthesizing the chemicals, how they do it, and why.

So far, the worst culprits appear to be marine sponges, whose bodies harbor 10 percent or more (by dry weight) of polybrominated compounds! Good reason, if you needed one, not to buy bath sponges.

But Why?

The immediate question is what risk do these “Nature-made” chemicals present. The biggest question is why would Nature manufacture toxic chemicals man has already banned?

The answer, suggest scientists, is the result of chemical warfare, this time by bacteria.

“Bacteria use chemicals to protect themselves from threats and to taste bad to predators,” notes Vinayak Agarwal of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The same aptitude that makes bacteria able to engage in chemical warfare may also make them highly adept at breaking down similar manmade chemicals in the environment. Take, for example, a General Electric Superfund site along the Hudson River in New York, where some naturally occurring microbes have learned to break down PCBs released into the river for three decades.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Nature could reverse our carelessness with chemicals? It might even make the extra body burden of persistent organic chemicals acceptable.

Or would it?

This post was posted in Blog and Green Library, Health and Safety and was tagged with bacteria, DDT, marine sponges, natural POPs, ORGANIC, PCB, persistent organic pollutants, POPs, Stockholm Convention


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