Author: lcoffice

Plastic litter, an almost unmanageable problem

For every euro paid for the production of plastic, society pays another nine for the damage it causes. In 2019, according to estimates worldwide, there were 2.8 trillion euros in so-called external costs that are not included in the price of plastics [Smit 2021]. This was the striking and alarming introduction to Pieter Hotse Smit’s article in the Flemish daily De Morgen. It refers to the Dahlberg study commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature [WWF 2021].

Now, is a critical moment for governments to ensure that all actors in the plastic system are held accountable for the cost imposed by the plastic lifecycle on nature and people [WWF 2021]
If nothing is done, external costs will more than double by 2040.

Take, make, use and dispose is no longer an option

Through innovation and advertising, the polymer industry has managed to sell us the “delights” of disposable plastics. The industry’s future is in the bin. Any product that is discarded has to be replaced, which ensures unending prosperity. To create one’s own exclusive production can be very profitable!

Meanwhile 7 billion tons of plastic waste have ended up in the environment. Also, it is estimated that between 10 and 20 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every single year. One ton every second. Our planet is simply drowning in plastic pollution [Moisan 2021]. Without a sound plastic waste policy, there will be some 600 million tons in the sea by 2040.

Worst of all and most difficult to remove are the micro- and nanoplastics. They are not visible to the naked eye, but they are omnipresent [Miraj et al. 2021]. Peng et al. [2018] found that microplastic concentrations in the hadal bottom waters and sediment depths of the Mariana Trench (one of the most remote and deepest places on our planet) are extremely high. Moreover, Napper et al. [2020] found microplastics in snow and stream water on Mount Everest. So none of us will be surprised to read that micro- and nanoplastics are also present in our diets and in our bodies.

Environmental quality and therefore also health itself is deteriorating

The damage caused by plastics is mainly the result of its production. With fossil oil as the basic raw material, carbon dioxide is released during plastic synthesis. This will cause further global warming, which we need to avoid as much as possible.

After disposing of plastic waste, society pays for its collection and processing. Researchers reckon that picking up the rubbish from the sea represents the highest cost. Plastic that keeps floating in the water and gradually breaks down into microplastics will reduce marine biodiversity and stocks. As a result, the economic yield from the seas and oceans is decreasing.

Tourism is also suffering from stray plastic pollution, because tourists will obviously avoid highly polluted beaches and swimming waters.

In these study types, the cost estimate of ecosystem services can only be approximate and results are always subject to uncertainty. The actual contribution of plastic in the decrease in economic value of seas and oceans is uncertain. Moreover, we do not know how long plastics remain in the seas and what the exact consequences are for sea life. Major studies are still being carried out. However, this study [WWF 2021], as was the case with a number of previous studies, shows that the problem is “gigantic”.

We are only beginning to understand the impact of plastic on the environment. Yet, we know there is a huge discrepancy between the real cost of plastic pollution and what polluters are made to pay by way of compensation.

We need a new global treaty on marine plastic pollution

Scientists strongly recommend the need to urgently establish overarching control bodies [Wang et al. 2021; Monti et al. 2021; WWF 2021].

A new global treaty on marine plastic pollution would enable governments to tackle the plastic crisis and reduce the cost that plastic imposes on society. It could provide a well-designed framework encompassing global coordination of definitions, policies, reporting, and implementation support to accelerate the transition to a circular economy for plastic. Take, make, use and reuse should replace take, make, use and dispose.

When effective, it will act as a legally binding instrument that ensures accountability, thereby encouraging and enabling countries to take necessary steps to tackle the plastic crisis. Governments are beginning to respond. As of August 2021, a majority of the UN member states (104 countries) have explicitly called for a new global agreement. If a new treaty is to be established, governments will have to start negotiations through the adoption of a formal negotiation mandate at the 5th session of the UN Environment Assembly in February 2022.

There is still a lot of work to be done, but burying our heads in the sand and turning our backs on new initiatives is no longer acceptable.


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Miraj et al. 2021]. Plastic microbeads: small yet mighty concerning, International Journal of Environmental Health Research 31, 7, in press

Moisan [2021]. Les Plastiqueurs, kero, pp. 339

Monti et al. [2021]. A new strategy for health and sustainable development in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lancet 398, 10305, 1029 – 1031

Napper et al. [2020]. Reaching new heights in plastic pollution—preliminary findings of microplastics on Mount Everest, One Earth 3, 5, 621 – 630

Peng et al. [2018]. Microplastics contaminate the deepest part of the world’s ocean, Geochemical Perspectives Letters 9, 1 – 5

Smit [2021]. Schade door plastic ligt bijna tien keer hoger dan de prijs: wereldwijd 2,8 biljoen euro aan verborgen kosten, De Morgen, 6 september

Wang et al. [2021]. We need a global science-policy body on chemicals and waste, Science 371, 6531, pp. 3

WWF [2021]. Plastics: the costs to society, the environment and the economy, pp. 26


Shale gas: not what you would call a panacea!

British chemical company INEOS was awarded the 2020 Exceptional Investment Trophy

Flanders’ Minister-President Jan Jambon presented this singular trophy – which has never been awarded before – to CEO of Project One at INEOS John McNally. “Last year, INEOS announced the construction of a new production site at the Port of Antwerp: an investment of around 3 billion euros,” stated the Minister-President. “There is no doubt that this is an exceptional investment. Not only is this amount the biggest investment ever made by INEOS, it also is the largest investment made in the entire European chemical industry in 20 years, boosting the sector’s resilience in the process” (

In 2019, INEOS was the fifth petrochemical company in the world [Tullo 2019]. Its British Chairman and CEO, Jim Ratcliffe, was bent on importing ethane from American shale using gigantic ships, and committed to producing ethylene and plastic in Europe. And he succeeded! On 23 March, 2016, the company celebrated the arrival of the Intrepid in the Norwegian port of Rafnes, thereby heralding the start of a new era for the European chemical industry.

INEOS Intrepid arrives in Europe, Hydrocarbon Engineering, 23 March 2016

INEOS’ Project One seems to be exceptionally innovative and ambitious. In 2016, the group published the banns of its new marriage with Flanders: after  twenty years of presence in the Antwerp port area with six factories, INEOS announced its plan to invest another 3 billion euros to build a huge complex composed of two production units, one for ethylene production, the other for propylene. Both will use American shale gas as their raw material. Project One was presented as an essential move to enhance the competitiveness of the European chemicals industry. It will only produce ethylene and propylene, destined for other factories. Well aware of the fact that ethylene and propylene gases are almost exclusively used for the production of their respective polymers, polyethylene and polypropylene, it goes without saying that Project One will widely contribute to the production of virgin, non-biodegradable plastic [Moisan 2021].

Is shale gas the conditio sine qua non for progress?

Shale gas is a form of natural gas that predominantly contains methane. It is found underground in shale rock. Shale gas is classified as “unconventional” because it is found in shale, a less permeable rock formation than sandstone, siltstone or limestone in which “conventional” gas is found. It is generally distributed over a much larger area and does not flow easily.

In 2015, the total amount of technically recoverable reserves of shale gas was estimated at ~215 trillion cubic metres, across 46 countries. The largest estimated resources are in China, followed by Argentina, Algeria, the United States and Canada. In Europe, Poland and France have the greatest stocks ( Shale gas is expected to account for ~30 % of the world’s natural gas production by 2040. Plastic manufacturers were quick to “smell” the exceptional opportunity represented by ethane-rich shale gas. The idea is to make the 5 to 10 % of ethane more profitable to produce polymers, since the added value is far greater than that of automotive fuel.

Hydraulic fracturing – this method is commonly known as fracking – is the process used to extract the shale gas. Deep holes are drilled down into the shale rock, followed by horizontal drilling to access more of the gas reserves, as shale reserves are typically distributed horizontally rather than vertically. Fracking fluids containing sand, water and chemicals are then pumped at high pressure into the drilled holes, to open up fractures in the rock, enabling the trapped gas to flow through the fractures into collection wells. From there it is piped away for commercial use. Recovery rates for shale gas are much lower than for conventional gas.

This highly polluting method causes significant methane leaks. Howart, an ecologist at Cornell University, concluded that the sudden surge of methane observed since 2008 was not attributable to cow farms, as was previously thought, but to the extraction/production of shale gas in Canada and the United States [Howarth 2019]. Moreover, the review by Guo & Wang [2021] evidences that besides methane emissions there are issues related to water resources that constitute important additional environmental risks.

Is it a good idea to produce virgin plastic when the planet faces a huge plastic contamination?

From the onset, environmental organisations have seen Project One as a serious challenge. They mainly accused INEOS of having minimised the environmental impact by cutting the file into three separate assessments: one for the deforestation of the area, and one for each of the plants. Trying to keep the full sum of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, biodiversity loss and climate impact remains out of the picture until it is too late to put forward alternatives, as Hens [2019] puts it. The approach is cunning and not unusual, but it is also reprehensible and contrary to European regulations. Faced with the prospect of lawsuits, the company finally agreed to submit one single impact study instead of three.

It is hard to believe that the Flemish authorities allowed deforestation without waiting for the comprehensive impact assessment that the legal authorities had demanded: another 55 hectares of forest in the port of Antwerp to grub up. More than three thousand people signed a notice of objection, and some thirty national and international organisations also objected: Politicians and policymakers need to free themselves from the harmful stranglehold of polluting multinationals such as INEOS and their influence on future Flemish environmental and climate policy by putting shareholder interests first []. Finally, the chainsaws were stored away at the request of the justice department, and INEOS has since launched a procedure on matters of substance, thereby delaying the project by at least a year. The first instance decision is not expected before 2022.

Another question is whether the project will succeed

On 15 January, 2021, INEOS announced that it was rescheduling sine die the construction of its polypropylene production unit []. When questioned, the group ensured that this decision was unrelated to the challenges, but wanted to give priority to the ethane cracker. There is a growing and acute need for ethylene on the market, while propylene is more readily available. The investment will however not be halved. The ethylene production unit and its supporting infrastructure alone already represent more than 3 billion euros ─ an additional cost that could well have influenced the outcome [Moisan 2021].

According to Truyts [2021], the British group will have to find an additional 2 billion euros to borrow if it really wants to build the propylene unit as planned; a new challenge which, in the opinion of opponents of the project, could well once and for all signal the cancellation of this part of the project.

And anyway, the ethylene unit on which INEOS relies has still not even been authorised [Moisan 2021].

Why we have to be very careful

During production, storage and transport of shale gas, huge amounts of methane are emitted. This is very damaging for the environment, since methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Its effect on the climate is 28 times more severe. Both the UN and the EU want to immediately phase out methane, whether from shale or fossil gas. It would appear that the INEOS licence application does not take this into account. On the contrary, by not doing so it fits seamlessly into the strategy of Big Oil & Gas to continue to introduce cheap shale gas produced outside the EU at the taxpayer’s expense.

Blue hydrogen is derived from natural gas through the process of steam methane reforming, which mixes natural gas with very hot steam, in the presence of a catalyst, thereby generating hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Additional water is added to the mixture, which converts the carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide and creates more hydrogen. The carbon dioxide emissions produced are then captured and stored underground. This  sounds very promising, but a very recent study has put a damper on any enthusiasm that may arise. Based on their life cycle analysis, Howarth & Jacobson [2021] conclude that blue hydrogen has many unwanted climatic consequences. According to the authors there is no way blue hydrogen can be considered green.

And when the production of polyethylene is increased − it may be assumed that this is the intention of INEOS − I can only hope this will not result in even more plastic waste being dumped on the planet Earth.

I remember the pictures of Henderson Island, the uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean. That little piece of heaven is already hopelessly polluted by some 38 million pieces of plastic [Davis 2019]. The ubiquitous chemical waste has still not been cleared up. Also, our efforts to reuse or recycle end- of-life plastic have so far not been sufficiently successful to avoid new waste production.

Ramping up plastic production without taking into account environmental consequences is most certainly not a good idea.

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Davis [2019], Henderson atoll: an expedition to the uninhabited island harbouring 38 million pieces of plastic, National History Museum

Guo & Wang [2021]. A Review of Environmental Risks in Shale Gas Development, Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Development in China, 19 – 42

Hens [2019]. Verzet tegen “voorbarige boskap” chemiereus Ineos, Mondiaal Nieuws (MO), 29 augustus

Howarth [2019]. Ideas and perspectives: is shale gas a major driver of recent increase in global atmospheric methane?, Biogeosciences 16, 15, 3033 – 3046

Howarth & Jacobson [2021]. How green is blue hydrogen?, Energy Science & Engineering 00, 1 – 12

Moisan [2021]. Les Plastiqueurs, kero, pp. 339

Truyts [2021]. Ineos klaar met huiswerk voor installatie van drie miljard euro: chemiereus vraagt omgevingsvergunning, Knack, 20 juli

Tullo [2019]. C&EN’s Global Top 50 chemical companies of 2018, Chemical & Engineering News, ISSN 0009-2347, pp. 18

Yes, forever chemicals are fueling a public health crisis

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are no laughing matter

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are ubiquitous, highly degradation-resistant contaminants. They are numerous and no one is exposed to one single PFAS molecule.

PFAS pathways [Sunderland at al. 2019]
In my previous communication, I wrote that the number of identified PFAS largely exceeds 4000 different molecules []. My American colleague immediately sent me an e-mail: US EPA has identified over 9000 different PFAS; all are bad. Obviously, we must not focus solely on the concentrations of individual compounds, such as perfluorooctanesulfonic acid or PFOS. Those who do so are trying to divert attention, to detract from the essential.

The citizen’s health must never be compromised. This is a fundamental principle that simply cannot be negotiated.

We should have known

Given the large number of substances in the PFAS family, the participants in the Zurich meeting (2017) agreed that actions needed to address groups of PFAS rather than individual chemicals and that such a grouping approach had to be scientifically sound [Ritscher et al. 2018].

Their widespread use, large numbers, and diverse chemical structures make it hard to implement any protective regulation, reduce emissions  and remediate contaminated sites. Specific members of the PFAS family such as PFOS and its salts have been regulated by various authoritative bodies. Regulating only individual PFAS or a limited subset has however resulted in their replacement by other class members with less obvious hazard profiles. These alternatives may even be worse than the PFAS being replaced, thus constituting a regrettable substitution. For example, manufacturers have shifted to PFAS with six or fewer carbons, such as perfluorohexanoic acid and other short-chain substances, which are less studied but have already been documented to display multiple hazard traits [Brendel et al. 2018].

Replacing one toxic molecule by another is no solution.

Managing PFAS one by one is neither feasible nor cost-efficient

The 3M-pollution was only recently “discovered” and, in the wake of media coverage, prof Jan Tytgat of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven stated that all Flemings have PFOS in their bodies.

Naturally, comprehensive solutions are urgently needed, since the traditional approaches have failed to control widespread PFAS exposures and have resulted in inadequate public health protection [Kwiatkowski et al. 2020]. For Europe alone, the annual health costs linked to the exposure to just a few PFAS are estimated at 52 − 84 billion Euros, and environmental remediation costs are estimated at roughly 17 billion Euros [Goldenman et al. 2019].

Kwiatkowski et al. [2020] conclude: The more we study PFAS, the more we learn about the harm they can do to our health and the environment. However, it is not possible to thoroughly assess every individual PFAS, or combination of PFAS, for their full range of effects in a reasonable time frame. Without effective risk management action around the entire class of PFAS, these chemicals will continue to accumulate and cause harm to human health and ecosystems for generations to come. The colleague who responded to my post has co-authored this Kwiatkowski-paper.

PFAS accumulating in human tissues have been shown to be toxic

Research in this field is expanding fast. We are now aware that PFAS absorbed by the intestine or inhaled may exert their toxicity acting as endocrine disruptors (EDs) affecting the reproductive system, the function of the thyroid gland, bone metabolism and leading to a number of deleterious health consequences on the immune, the nervous and, possibly, the cardiovascular system [Lindstrom et al. 2011; Kahn et al. 2020].

Tackling endocrine disruption is a major challenge for the 21st century. To be effective, the approach must be based on the evaluation of contaminant mixtures. This was suggested a long time ago, but the idea received little support by public authorities and far too few measures were taken. As long as 12 years ago, Kortenkamp wrote: I argue that the accumulated evidence seriously undermines continuation with the customary chemical-by-chemical approach to risk assessment for EDs. Instead, we should seriously consider group-wise regulation of classes of EDs.

Kortenkamp [2009] was right!

Guaranteeing public health is not possible in a polluted environment

We face a planetary chemical pollution problem − over 9000 PFAS and millions of other chemical substances are scattered around the planet Earth − and burying our heads in the sand will not make these pollutants go away. Wang et al. [2021] advocate the rapid establishment of an overarching international body to facilitate and foster efficient bi-directional science-policy interactions on chemicals and (chemical) waste: a great initiative that deserves our full attention.

Regarding PFAS, governments are recommended to apply a class-based clean-up approach by prioritising research and development funding for treatment, disposal and destruction methods that are effective for the entire class of PFAS [Kwiatkowski et al. 2020]. Treatment and disposal strategies should remove all PFAS from both impacted environmental media (e.g., water, air and soil) as well as treatment residuals (e.g., spent activated carbon and reverse osmosis concentrate).

Regulatory agencies should adopt class-based strategies to reduce exposure and minimise health risk. They should assess combined exposures to PFAS via drinking water, food, air, consumer products, and waste as a basis for setting up regulatory limits and treatment standards. Establishing limits to the class rather than doing so on a chemical-by-chemical basis will very likely result in lower exposure values that better protect vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, children, and workers.

Moreover, chemical manufacturers should focus on the development of safer nonfluorinated alternatives for currently used PFAS. They should collaborate with product manufacturers and businesses to replace all PFAS uses that already have acceptable alternatives from environmental and health perspectives. Moreover, chemical and product manufacturers must be transparent about the use of any PFAS chemistry in the supply chain and strictly monitor releases of all PFAS into the environment until their use can be phased out.

It is a great shame that transparency and honesty still need so much promotion. This cannot go on; change must come now. We face a scientific and moral imperative. If we do not act now, humans and most other species could end up marching toward the brink of obsolescence [Swan 2021].


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Brendel et al. [2018]. Short-chain perfluoroalkyl acids: environmental concerns and a regulatory strategy under REACH, Environmental Sciences Europe 30, 1, 1 – 11

Goldenman et al. [2019]. The cost of inaction – A socioeconomic analysis of environmental and health impacts linked to exposure to PFAS, available on 

Kahn et al. [2020]. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: implications for human health, The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology 8, 8, 703 – 718

Kortenkamp [2009]. Ten years of mixing cocktails: a review of combination effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, Environmental health perspectives 115, Suppl 1, 98 – 105

Kwiatkowski et al. [2020]. Scientific basis for managing PFAS as a chemical class, Environmental Science & Technology Letters 7, 8, 532 – 543

Lindstrom et al. [2011]. Polyfluorinated Compounds: Past, Present, and Future, Environtal Science & Technology 45, 19, 7954 – 7961

Ritscher et al. [2018]. Zürich statement on future actions on per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), Environmental health perspectives 126, 8, 084502, pp. 5

Sunderland et al. [2019]. A review of the pathways of human exposure to poly-and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) and present understanding of health effects, Journal of exposure science & environmental epidemiology 29, 2, 131 – 147

Swan [2020]. Count down, Scribner, pp. 292

Wang et al. [2021]. We need a global science-policy body on chemicals and waste, Science 371, 6531, 774 – 776


Are forever chemicals fueling a public health crisis?

The Flemish newspaper De Standaard published an article under the surprising headline “3M draagt een verpletterende verantwoordelijkheid (3M bears a crushing responsibility)”. The article referred to the frightful contamination in Zwijndrecht by per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Clearly, we have not heard the last of this. Minister Demir announced in the Flemish Parliament that 3M will be held responsible and forced to remediate the soil. It is not clear however how this task will be achieved. Also, a new descriptive soil research is currently being carried out on the 3M site, but the results are not expected soon [Cools & Poppelmonde 2021].

Please, don’t tell us you didn’t know

According to Robert Bilott, we face a unique health threat from a class of industrial chemicals that most Americans have never heard of. Neither have many Europeans heard of PFAS. These chemicals are widely used in everyday products such as non-stick cookware and stain-resistant fabrics, even though science has shown that they are linked to a range of deadly diseases, reproductive problems and other ailments. Bilott claims that powerful corporations are fighting to protect the use of these profitable chemical compounds and that US regulators are doing next to nothing to stop them [Gillam 2019].

Sources of PFAS []

In Exposure, Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont Bilott [2019] wrote about his fight against the chemical giant − a powerful story of malice and manipulation; about the shortcomings of environmental regulations and about a lawyer’s search for truth. Bilott was determined to denounce the lies and also to debunk the many often re-occurring falsehoods and prevent one of the greatest planetary crises of the 21st century. In 1998 began a two-decade long battle with Dupont, which was to expose one of the worst cases of environmental pollution in modern history and the cover-up by the Dupont company, which blatantly endangered the health of hundreds of thousands of people. Acting on behalf of one single farmer, who was convinced that the creek on his property was being poisoned by the run-off from a nearby DuPont landfill, Bilott finally discovered the truth; about unregulated and toxic PFAS, which DuPont’s own scientists had warned about for years; about a company that continued to allow these chemicals to be carelessly dumped into nature and pollute the drinking water. The scandal went on until Bilott forced the polluters to face the consequences.

That same year, the film Dark Waters, with Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins was also released. The film was based on the true story of the gruesome environmental secret uncovered by Bilott. In searching for the truth, Bilott put his future at risk as well as his safety and that of his family. The independent filmmaker Tod Haynes surprises audiences with his David versus Goliath story, featuring a legal fight that went on for years against DuPont, who continued to hide the dangerous chemical poisoning by Teflon. Haynes not only scrutinises the scandal; he also highlights attrition by the cynical giant, and makes pain and anger tangible in his cinematographic masterpiece. The striking prologue of Dark Waters conveys a sense of existential dread inspired by the abhorrent ecological pandemic and chemical contamination [].

Bilott’s and Haynes’s laudable crusades are widely known thanks to coverage by reporters. Both the book and the movie provide a great deal of detail and further context.

PFAS became a priority issue in the scientific realms of chemical contaminants

The exceptional PFAS characteristics provide both a wide range of interesting industrial applications and a great deal of anxiety. In the so-called Madrid statement, fourteen experts expressed their doubts and fears regarding the use of PFAS. The statement highlights the scientific consensus at the time and the unsurpassed environmental resistance and bioaccumulation, and potential toxicity of the entire class of PFAS. These compounds are known as forever chemicals. The statement [Blum et al. 2015] also provides a roadmap for scientific researchers, governments, manufacturers, purchasing organisations and consumers to work together to limit the use of PFAS worldwide. Finally, it also aims at developing safer alternatives.

In its response to this statement, the FluoroCouncil endorsed the numerous political recommendations, provided they apply only to long-chain PFAS. Long-chain fluorine compounds are molecules with a backbone of seven or more carbon atoms. FluoroCouncil supported the call by the scientific and professional community to limit the production and (illegal) dumping of long-chain PFAS, but claimed that the short-chain PFAS already studied are not likely to harm human health or the environment. Presumably, they are cleared from the body more quickly and are less toxic than the long-chain compounds [Bowman 2015]. This message has only partially mitigated the existing anxiety!

After the Madrid statement, there was also the Zurich statement. On November 17, 2017, some fifty international experts gathered in Zurich for a two-day workshop. The group identified the common needs and goals of scientists and policy makers, provided interesting recommendations for cooperative actions and outlined a possible reinforcement of the PFAS dialogue platform. Yet, these recommendations were not necessarily those of official policy or incumbent governments. They do however illustrate the priority needs and issues for a safer future [Ritscher et al. 2018].

Five essential needs were outlined − reflection themes for a safer future that did not come from nowhere, but corresponded to fairly well-known concerns. The numbers are staggering as is the diversity of unregulated PFAS on the market and in the environment. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences the number of different PFAS molecules largely exceeds 4700 []. So the participants unanimously agreed that further research and management of PFAS requires a coordinated approach. At the same time, the participants believed that any action should target groups of PFAS rather than individual molecules. For the chemical soup of thousands of molecules − and that number is increasing day by day − a molecule-by-molecule approach is totally inadequate. The participants also felt that the exceptional durability of PFAS has not been sufficiently addressed in current assessment and management procedures. Their pronounced persistence can lead to a permanent and almost irreversible accumulation of PFAS in the environment and subsequently to increased exposure and risks to humans and animals.

The specific needs are:

  • data on toxic effects, including underlying mechanisms and long-term health effects,
  • continued monitoring to identify new PFAS and develop effective regulations, and
  • the development of analytical techniques, including standardised methods for assessing PFAS in all kinds of (consumable) goods and not just in environmental samples.

When chemical contaminants are involved, the infamous c-word is mentioned

For extensive studies I have to refer to the scientific literature, e.g. Pelch et al. [2019]; Banwell et al. [2021]; Black et al. [2021]; Brase et al. [2021]; and Fenton et al. [2021]. It is particularly striking that there seems to be a strong link with the so-called western diseases. In all likelihood, our prosperity has led to undesirable consequences.

Epidemiological studies on the effects of PFAS exposure in humans suggest that exposure may be associated with health issues such as increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreased vaccine response in children, increased risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnant women, decreases in infant birth weight, and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancers. Concordance with experimental animal data exists for many of these negative effects.

Given there still remain uncertainties regarding the potential carcinogenicity of PFAS, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) − a perfluorinated carboxylic acid produced and used worldwide as an industrial surfactant in chemical processes as well as a material feedstock − is possibly a carcinogenic for humans and assigned the compound to Group 2B. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that there is suggestive evidence of the carcinogenic potential of both PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid or PFOS in humans.

The European Council Directive 98/83/EC on the quality of water intended for human consumption was recently reviewed and, as a result, standards for PFAS in drinking water were introduced. The new Directive includes in annex a limit value of 0.1 µg per L for a sum of 20 individual PFAS, as well as a limit value of 0.5 µg per L for total PFAS concentration (we should not forget that total PFAS concentrations are very difficult to determine, when considering that ~6000 different molecules have already been identified). Moreover, the new recommended limit in food for 4 predominant PFAS combined is 4.4 ng per kg body weight per week [EFSA 2020]. According to the EFSA risk assessment several people in Europe already exceed the new threshold level, based on blood serum data and estimated exposures.

It is quite striking that the precautionary principle was never invoked.

So, what will happen to Zwijndrecht?

There are tons of toxic PFAS in the ground where the Oosterweel tunnel is to be built. A long kept secret previous study of the soil by the company 3M had evidenced that the concentrations are thousand times higher than the accepted standards.

Huge amounts of contaminated soil − estimates put the volume at approximately one million cubic meters − will be excavated for the tunnel. There are now plans to use the extremely polluted soil in plastic bags covered with less polluting soil as noise barriers around the motorway at the mouth of the Oosterweeltunnel. This would only shift the problem without tackling or solving it. And yet, De Standaard claimed that 3M would have to remediate the soil. Remediation is quite different from filling huge plastic bags with contaminants.

PFAS are extremely resistant to degradation and they are also toxic. An article in De Wereld Morgen explains that the proposal is called “regulatory capture”. The industry exerts a very strong influence  on politics, so that public health matters tend not to remain the focus of attention for very long. []. 

Can we look forward to free-flowing traffic around Antwerp in the future? I sincerely hope unlocking the Antwerp ring will not produce a Jevons effect. The contamination will be invisible, but remain present. The participants of the Zurich meeting believe that regulators must proactively identify and communicate which information would be needed to justify their actions. In addition, Ritscher et al. [2018] recommend actions that target groups of PFAS. I am becoming increasingly annoyed that superficial news reports [] continue to refer to one chemical contaminant (singular). How much longer will it be before people, and especially the policy-makers, take cocktail effects seriously?


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Banwell et al. [2021]. Health and social concerns about living in three communities affected by per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS): A qualitative study in Australia, PloS one 16, 1, e0245141, pp. 18

Bilott [2019]. Exposure, Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont, Simon & Schuster, pp. 386

Black et al. ]2021]. Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances: Using Law and Policy to Address These Environmental Health Hazards in the United States, Health Matrix 31, 341, pp. 29

Blum et al. [2015]. The Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs), Environmental health perspectives 123, 5, A107 – A111

Bowman [2015]. Fluorotechnology is critical to modern life: the FluoroCouncil counterpoint to the Madrid Statement, Environmental health perspectives 123, 5, A112 – A113

Brase et al. [2021]. Legacy and Emerging Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances: Analytical Techniques, Environmental Fate, and Health Effect, International journal of molecular sciences 22, 3, 995, pp. 30

Cools & Poppelmonde [2021]. 3M draagt een verpletterende verantwoordelijkheid, De Standaard, June 2

EFSA [2020]. Scientific Opinion on the risk to human health related to the presence of perfluoroalkyl substances in food, EFSA Journal 18, 9, 6223, pp. 391

Fenton et al. [2021]. Per‐and polyfluoroalkyl substance toxicity and human health review: Current state of knowledge and strategies for informing future research, Environmental toxicology and chemistry 40, 3, 606 – 630

Gillam [2019]. Why a corporate lawyer is sounding the alarm about these common chemicals, The Guardian, December 27

Pelch et al. [2019]. PFAS health effects database: Protocol for a systematic evidence map, Environment international 130, 104851, pp. 8

Ritscher et al. [2018]. Zürich statement on future actions on per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), Environmental health perspectives 126, 8, 084502, pp. 5

Leo Goeyens

July 2021

Intravenous trunk injection into apple trees

It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man (Henry David Thoreau)

Can we finally replace conventional pesticides with harmless ones?

The use of conventional pesticides is the subject of fierce debate because of their potential negative impacts on the quality of the ecosystem as well as on our physical and mental health [Ali et al. 2021; Swan 2021]. Curbing the excessive use of these chemicals is becoming a matter of urgency.

Apple Malus domestica Borkh is the most cultivated fruit crop worldwide. As is the case with any other plant, apple trees are subject to abiotic and biotic stresses that cause important economic losses. Apple trees suffer from fungal, viral and bacterial diseases, insects, mites, and nematodes. The rosy apple aphid, Dysaphis plantaginea, and the apple worm, Cydia pomonella, are amongst the most harmful apple pests. Aphids alter fruiting and shoot development, and they can spread viruses. Moreover, decades of intensive insecticide use have given rise to aphid resistance, which means that we have to rely on research to develop harmless alternatives to synthetic pest management chemicals [Rousselin et al. 2017]. Other major diseases are apple scab, powdery mildew, and fire blight caused respectively by the fungi Venturia inequalis and Podosphaera leucotricha and by the bacteria Erwinia amylovora [Jamar et al. 2010].

Yes, rosy apple aphids do alter shoot development

With high percentages of food deterioration caused by insect infestation, serious food losses can occur either in terms of food damage or in terms of financial losses sustained by the supplier through declines in customer satisfaction. Maggoty fruit is not what we like, but then of course, neither do we want synthetic pesticides to harm our health.

We cannot remain indifferent and inactive in the face of this dilemma.

Cinnamon, the unusual repellent

Synthetic insecticides are toxic to a wide range of non-target organisms; they cause disturbances in ecosystem functioning and tend to accumulate in food, water and soil with all the inevitable consequences. To remedy these consequences, essential oils (EOs) are now being promoted as potential alternatives to the predominantly synthetic insecticidal agents.

EOs are very complex mixtures of volatile organic compounds produced as secondary metabolites in plants. They consist of many different hydrocarbons (e.g., terpenes and sesquiterpenes) and oxygenated compounds (e.g., alcohols, esters, ethers, aldehydes, ketones, lactones, phenols, and phenol esters). Moreover, they are released when the plants suffer aggressions. It is quite easy to extract them from various plant parts that are rich in oil glands, including leaves, flowers, stems and/or roots [Marsin et al. 2020].

Natural insect repellents such as EOs are environmentally friendly, biodegradable, and do not intrude soil and water. They act as the predominant endogenous sources of plant protection against pests and show low or no toxicity towards vertebrates. Moreover, it is important to remember that EOs are safe for use in food applications. As long as 10 years ago, Montero-Prado et al. [2011] published a fascinating paper about the application of cinnamon EO in packaging materials to significantly extend the shelf life of the succulent yellow Calanda peach.

Cinnamon is obtained from the bark and twigs of several trees of the Cinnamomum genus and Lauracea family. It is used in sweet and savoury foods. Moreover, it is a substance with powerful medicinal properties: it is loaded with antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory properties, may reduce the risk of heart disease, lowers blood sugar levels, has a powerful anti-diabetic effect, and helps fight bacterial and fungal infections [Goeyens 2019].

Now a striking new application has been added: plant protection, and more specifically the protection of apple trees. Anyone who enjoys his apple a day should read carefully.

Apple trees need a shot

An investigation jointly carried out by the Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech faculty of ULiège and the Université Catholique de Louvain, has shown that Mentha spicata and Cinnamomum cassia nano emulsions transit throug the apple tree’s vascular system and into the leaves [Werrie et al. 2021].

Carvone, a major constituent of the M. spicata EO, was contained in the leaves and emitted at a constant rate. Its particular odour repels several aphid species. Trans-cinnamaldehyde, Cinnamomum cassia’s major component, accumulated in the leaves without being emitted. The Cinnamomum cassia EO with its most important constituent compound, trans-cinnamaldehyde, also demonstrated insecticidal activity.

Furthermore, the obtained results highlighted the increase in various volatile organic compounds (VOC) following EO injection, both in terms of leaf-contained VOC, such as methyl salicylate, and in terms of leaf-emitted VOC, such as caryophyllene.

Natural origin alternatives are safer for the environment and the consumer

Plants produce numerous secondary metabolites that are not directly involved in their growth and development, but allow them to adapt to their environment and defend themselves against pathogen and pest attacks. Among these secondary plant metabolites, EOs are concentrated mixtures that exhibit numerous biocidal activities such as insecticide or fungicide. They have a very complex composition, much more complex than a synthetic pesticide with only one or a few active substances. These mixtures are multi-target products that are significantly less subject to the development of resistance, as was already observed for conventional pesticides.

Plants or insects end up adapting to pesticides and detoxifying the active molecule(s). The use of EOs makes it possible to reintroduce complex mixtures and complicate any adaptation or resistance. If an insect or a plant has to detoxify ~150 different substances, then it makes sense that resistance build-up will be slower compared to detoxifying one single substance. There is also the cocktail effect, meaning that a mixture of molecules at a lower dosage has a similar biological effect to that of an individual compound at a higher dosage.

Biopesticides for the future

The advantage of the injection method is to reduce the amount of inputs compared to pesticide spraying. During a conventional phytosanitary treatment by spraying, a significant part of the active ingredient will not reach its target and will end up in soil and water, potentially causing pollution. The injection requires much smaller amounts.

The study by Werrie et al. [2021] aimed to demonstrate that the EO substances were transported by the sap to the leaves and that the leaves did indeed emit these compounds into the surrounding air. They did not remain at the injection site. If the natural substances travel to the leaves, they will be able to exert their biocidal activity there. Quite unexpectedly, this study also demonstrated that not only did the essential oil migrate to the leaves, but that its injection also seemed to stimulate the natural defences of the plant.

Could this be a major step towards the development of tomorrow’s biopesticides?

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Ali et al. [2021]. Environmental and Health Effects of Pesticide Residues, in Inamuddin et al. (eds.), Sustainable Agriculture Reviews 48, Springer, 311 – 336

Goeyens [2019]. Cinnamon, one of the most delicious and healthiest spices on the planet, in Good and Bad Food Science – Separating the wheat from the chaff, Academic and Scientific Publishers, 117 – 130

Jamar et al. [2010]. Primary scab control using a ‘during-infection’ spray timing and the effect on fruit quality and yield in organic apple production, Biotechnology, Agronomy, Society and Environment (BASE) 14, 423 – 439

Marsin et al. [2020]. Essential oils as insect repellent agents in food packaging: a review, European Food Research and Technology 246, 1519 – 1532

Montero-Prado et al. [2011]. Active label-based packaging to extend the shelf-life of “Calanda” peach fruit: Changes in fruit quality and enzymatic activity, Postharvest Biology and Technology 60, 3, 211 – 219

Rousselin et al. [2017]. Harnessing the aphid life cycle to reduce insecticide reliance in apple and peach orchards. A review, Agronomy for Sustainable Development 37, 38, pp. 13

Swan [2021]. Count Down, Scribner, pp. 292

Werrie et al. [2021]. Biopesticide Trunk Injection Into Apple Trees: A Proof of Concept for the Systemic Movement of Mint and Cinnamon Essential Oils, Frontiers in Plant Science 12, 650132, pp. 13

Leo Goeyens

June 2021

Baby hormones hacked by glyphosate

Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides”, but “biocides” [Rachel Carson].

Think twice about using pesticides

Glyphosate is the active ingredient of broad-spectrum glyphosate-based herbicides (GBH), which are now the most heavily applied herbicides in the world. Glyphosate was first commercialised as Roundup® in 1974, and its initial use in agriculture was limited to preharvest spraying. However, since the introduction of genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant crops on the United States market in 1996, the agricultural use of GBH has increased 300-fold [Benbrook 2016].

Without and with the use of herbicides

In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. The European Food Safety Authority, following the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment evaluation, has since declared that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the European Chemicals Agency has stated that the available scientific evidence did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction [Pussemier & Goeyens 2020].

The possible effects of GBH on human health are still subject to intensive public debate on both its potential carcinogenic as well as non-carcinogenic effects. It appears, however, that people easily forget other adverse health effects, including the potential effects on the endocrine system, when the discussion focuses all too often on cancer.

Could glyphosate be a hormone hacker?

Residues of glyphosate and its primary metabolite aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA) are commonly detected in air, soil, water and food. It is usually accepted that human glyphosate exposure in the general population is widespread, with recent studies reporting increasing glyphosate and AMPA levels in urine samples from adults [Fagan et al. 2020]. Urinary glyphosate levels are considered good exposure markers because glyphosate is highly hydrophilic, does not bio-accumulate, and is poorly metabolised.

The study, performed by Manservisi et al. [2019], has found that exposure to GBH, including Roundup®, caused reproductive and developmental effects in both male and female Sprague Dawley rats at a dose of 1.75 mg per kg body weight and per day, which is currently considered safe in the United States. Exposure was associated with androgen-like effects, in particular in females, including a statistically significant increase of anogenital distance (AGD) in both males and females, a marked delay of first oestrous and increased testosterone in females. Moreover, hormonal status imbalances were more pronounced in Roundup-treated rats after prolonged exposure.

AGD, the distance between the anus and the genitals, is a sensitive marker of prenatal endocrine disruption, affecting the genital tract development. Exposure to different chemicals including pesticides has already been linked to altered AGD and other adverse endocrine effects [Dalsager et al. 2018].

Recently, a team of international scientists has released a peer reviewed pilot study that suggests the AGD of baby girls is becoming more male-typical, due to their mothers being exposed to glyphosate during pregnancy [Lesseur et al. 2021]. These scientists examined the concentration of glyphosate and its breakdown product AMPA in urine collected in mid-pregnancy in relation to AGD at birth, and found that higher exposure to these pesticide-derived chemicals was associated with a longer (more male-typical) AGD in girls. This association is very reminiscent of the one earlier observed in the rodent study.

These preliminary findings suggest that glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor with androgenic effects in humans. Given the increasing glyphosate exposure worldwide, this is a sign on the wall and we must take it very seriously. Shanna Swan and Jia Chen, who are both lead authors of the paper and Professors at the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, conclude that GBH are of significant public health concern because of their widespread and sharply increased usage. Unfortunately, there is still a relative knowledge dearth about their non-cancerous effects, in particular in developing children.

Planning a lifetime together is a noble ambition. Let us try to live up to it!

The inadequate regulation of these chemicals is a major problem. Unlike drugs, which must have a proven record of safety and efficacy before they are admitted to the market, chemicals, including pesticides and many others, are largely presumed innocent before the start. They are considered safe until proven otherwise. This means manufacturers can use chemicals in a wide array of consumer products with little oversight or restriction. Swan [2021] says it is a bit like the Wild West, lawless and untamed. In addition, completed as well as ongoing studies rarely deal with the potentially cumulative or synergistic effects these substances can have when they are mixed inside the human body. Once they are inside us, pesticides cause damage in a variety of ways.

It is today that we need to take care of our youth and that we must prepare for the future of our children and grandchildren. Tomorrow may be too late.

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Benbrook [2016]. Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally, Environmental Sciences Europe 28, 3, pp. 15

Dalsager et al. [2018]. Associations of maternal exposure to organophosphate and pyrethroid insecticides and the herbicide 2,4-D with birth outcomes and anogenital distance at 3 months in the Odense Child Cohort, Reproductive toxicology 76, 53 – 62

Fagan et al. [2020]. Organic diet intervention significantly reduces urinary glyphosate levels in U.S. children and adults, Environmental Research 189, 109898, pp. 7

Lesseur et al. [2021]. Maternal urinary levels of glyphosate during pregnancy and anogenital distance in newborns in a US multicenter pregnancy cohort, Environmental Pollution 280, 117002, pp. 8

Manservisi et al. [2019]. The Ramazzini Institute 13-week pilot study glyphosate-based herbicides administered at human-equivalent dose to Sprague Dawley rats: effects on development and endocrine system, Environmental Health 18, 15, pp. 16

Pussemier & Goeyens [2020]. Gezonde eetwaren voor een hoogwaardige voeding, Imprimerie CIACO, pp. 236

Swan [2021]. Count Down, Scribner, pp. 292

What we need is a global science-policy body

More than 10 years ago, Rockström et al. [2009] came up with a particularly chilling message. They proposed a new approach to global sustainability because they assumed that anthropogenic pressure on the Earth System had become so high that an abrupt global environmental change could no longer be excluded. The biggest contribution of their research was the definition of planetary boundaries within which humanity can operate safely. Transgressing one or more planetary boundaries could be detrimental and even catastrophic.

Three of nine planetary boundaries have already been transgressed and two could not be determined [Rockström et al. 2009]
Notice that two planetary boundaries could not be quantified: the atmospheric aerosol loading and the chemical pollution. Yet, no one should underestimate the dramatic consequences of chemical contamination [Willett et al. 2019]. This should really make us think!

Man is the biggest polluter on earth

The world is having to face a tremendous increase in the amount and variety of chemicals in use and figures are expected to grow. The generation of waste follows a similar trend with global plastic waste volumes, for example, likely to rise from ~260 million tons per year in 2016 to ~460 million tons in 2030 [Hundertmark et al. 2018]. The majority of them will end up in the World Ocean. There is no doubt that humans are the world’s worst polluters. No other animal generates so much waste.

When chemicals and waste are poorly managed, not only are valuable resources lost, but chemical pollution can cause a wide range of adverse effects on human health and ecosystem quality. On the one hand, substantial knowledge gaps hamper the sound management of a large fraction of used chemicals and, on the other, for those chemicals that are known as problematic, control measures have often been (too) limited [UN 2019; Wang et al. 2021]. In spite of early concerns raised by many scientists about the ubiquitous endocrine disrupting chemicals, these chemicals were identified as recently as 2019 as issues for potential joint action by the international community.

It is up to the polluters to clean up the planet, but it will not be easy to make them face up to their responsibilities. Twelve scientists, including the Belgian professor Adrian Covaci, have published a proposal for this necessary, but difficult task [Wang et al. 2021].

Existing science-policy interactions are flawed

Although the existing bodies perform important roles, Wang et al. [2021] point to four critical gaps that persist in the overall science-policy interface on international chemicals and waste governance. These gaps are particularly problematic as there is increasing scientific evidence of the destructive effect of chemical contamination on the environment and on human health.

First, there is the lack of coverage as existing bodies fail to cope with the large and ever growing occurrence of chemicals and waste; second, there is the lack of horizon scanning and early warning mechanisms. Most existing interface bodies do not monitor scientific developments nor do they provide early warnings on risks. Instead, many require external triggers to initiate action on specific issues. Thirdly, there is the lack of bi-directional communication. Most interface bodies focus on informing policymakers about scientific evidence on specific issues, but take limited action when it comes to forwarding communication about policy developments and policy-relevant scientific questions to the scientific community. Fourthly, the wider scientific community is not sufficiently involved. Participation of scientists and practitioners, such as lawyers and physicians in science-policy interactions remains limited.

The greatest gap in the world is the gap between knowing and doing (J. Maxwell)

Wang et al. [2021] advocate the rapid establishment of an overarching international body to facilitate and foster efficient bi-directional science-policy interactions on chemicals and waste. First and foremost, such a body will need to have an inclusive scope to cover all chemicals and waste and to avoid duplicating the efforts made by existing interface bodies (gap 1). It will need to produce robust and authoritative scientific assessments for the benefit of the decision makers. These assessments should be initiated through regular horizon scanning as well as early warning of new and emerging issues (gap 2). International bodies should also regularly inform the scientific community about international policy developments and highlight policy-relevant scientific questions by presenting them at major scientific conferences and informing researchfunding organisations (gap 3). This could help increase participation by the whole scientific community (gap 4).

The authors conclude: “… Setting up an overarching science-policy interface body on chemicals and waste will not solve all governance problems. However, it is a critical and necessary step toward strengthening informed policy-making for achieving the global sound management of chemicals and waste…”

Let us not forget Rockström et al. [2009]. Together we can still turn the tide!

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Hundertmark et al. [2018]. Reusing plastics waste could become an important driver of profitability for chemical companies – Incumbent players need to make the right moves now to tap this opportunity,

Rockström et al. [2009]. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity, Ecology and Society 14, 2, 32

UN [2019]. Global Chemicals Outlook II – From Legacies to Innovative Solutions: Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,

Wang et al. [2021]. We need a global science-policy body on chemicals and waste, Science 371, 6531, 774 – 776

Willett et al. [2019]. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, The Lancet 393, 447 – 492

The world health crisis caused by the spread of COVID-19 is threatening environmental sustainability

Gorrasi et al. [2021] evidence that the chaos and urgency induced by the COVID-19 pandemic has led  to massive fossil fuel-derived plastic production and utilisation, thereby largely ignoring the recent  environmental policies. They conclude that society issues can no longer be solved by the “painkiller  approach” [Lichtfouse et al. 2010], but require instead a new world system involving fast evaluation  and actions taking into account all problem aspects. 

Plastic waste, the old problem now requires new momentum 

Long before the world knew about COVID-19, millions of tons of plastic debris had ended up in the  World Ocean with devastating consequences for the environment and an unacceptable waste of  precious resources, including crude oil. Macroscopic degradation residues of common objects such as  bottles and food packaging are just a small part of the waste. Most of it consists of micro and  nanoparticles and are extremely hard to remove. 

Microplastics and nanoplastics are polluting your body, here’s how [Fernandes 2019]
Many micro and nanoplastics are produced by usual household operations such as the discharge of  wastewater from our washing machines, the frequent use of cosmetics and detergents, and the wear  of billions of car tires. 

These last few months have seen a sharp increase in plastic waste from personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves as well as from plastic shopping bags that are used to prevent cross contaminations. The lockdown has also boosted e-commerce, resulting in greatly increased consumption of containment and packaging materials; moreover, medical waste has also increased  dramatically [Silva et al. 2021]. 

Obviously, the fight against the virus has overshadowed environmental protection policies. Plastic  waste is a problem that also involves economic, social and technological aspects [Vanapalli et al. 2021]. 

The emergency caused by COVID-19 is highlighting the extreme fragility of our systems 

To fight the health crisis people need large quantities of inexpensive, safe and readily available materials. The most obvious option given the emergency situation was to use fossil fuel based  disposable materials such as polypropylene and polyethylene.

This does not mean that alternatives based on biodegradable materials are not available. Yet, biopolymers are not our first choice when a fast and efficient response to a real problem is required.  From a commercial point of view, these materials are not sufficiently well-known; they are also fairly expensive and sometimes difficult to handle. There are still not enough biorefineries capable of rapidly  and sustainably supplying the required high volumes at competitive costs, and there are too few  companies that are able to recycle these materials. Moreover, many scientists argue that the massive  use of biodegradable materials could create serious issues for the small number of existing treatment  plants. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has strongly confirmed the limits of the current “take-make-and-dispose” approach and challenges us to rethink and redesign the system as part of a more resilient, circular and  low carbon economic model. Circular economy means a whole lot more than minimising the  production of waste or inventing biodegradable materials. The circular economy is a radically different  economy, which is meant to overcome traditional conflicts between socioeconomic and  environmental interests [Aldaco et al. 2020; Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2020]. 

Only when governments are able to set a clear direction for circular innovation in the private sector,  will it be possible to combine economic regeneration, better social outcomes and climate ambitions. Unfortunately, it is obvious that real political willingness to do so is still lacking. 

A radical innovation and a radical change in approach are absolutely necessary 

In the words of the French philosopher and sociologist, Edgar Morin [2020]: …the mega-crisis caused  by the coronavirus is the brutal symptom of a crisis in our earthly (ecological) life… The post-corona  period is already being prepared. We should divest ourselves of Barbara Kruger’s 1987 iconic mantra, “I shop therefore I am”, and return to the original statement as produced by René Descartes in 1637, “I think therefore I am” [Gorrasi et al. 2021 and references herein]. 

If we are to do so, we need to understand the social and environmental values of consumables, we  need to keep them in circulation for as long as possible. It is essential to design products/objects that  are easier to disassemble and recycle, and to create infrastructures that facilitate the return of  products to manufacturers. It is crucial to introduce radical innovation holistically if businesses and  governments are to meet circular economy goals. 

Will the COVID-19 pandemic spur a rapid transition to new models of circular economy? It is in our  interest to deploy urgent and coordinated efforts to develop larger and more efficient systems as well  as infrastructures for plastic waste management. Strict policies should force companies to reduce the  use of “new” materials in favour of those that come from recycling. Additionally, efficient tax policies  could encourage sustainable products and processes. 

Plastics remain important, because of the many advantages they provide. Instead of demonising them,  we should learn to use them responsibly. 

Morin [2020] concludes: … We have entered the era of great uncertainties. The unpredictable future  is in the making today. Let us ensure that it is for political regeneration and improvement, for the  protection of the planet and for a humanisation of the society. We must change our path


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Aldaco et al. [2020]. Food waste management during the COVID-19 outbreak: a holistic climate,  economic and nutritional approach, Science of the Total Environment 742, 140524 

Ellen MacArthur Foundation [2020]. The Global Commitment 2020 Progress Report, pp. 76 

Fernandes [2019]. Microplastics and nanoplastics are polluting your body, here’s how, The CSR  Journal, July 8 

Gorrasi et al. [2021]. Back to plastic pollution in COVID times, Environmental Chemistry Letters 19, 1 – 4 

Lichtfouse [2010]. Society issues, painkiller solutions, dependence and sustainable agriculture, in  Lichtfouse (ed.) Sociology, organic farming, climate change and soil science, Springer, 1 – 17 

Morin [2020]. Changeons de voie, Denoël, pp. 150 

Silva et al. [2021]. Increased plastic pollution due to COVID-19 pandemic: Challenges and  recommendations, Chemical Engineering Journal, 126683 

Vanapalli [2021]. Challenges and strategies for effective plastic waste management during and post  COVID-19 pandemic, Science of the Total Environment 750, 141514 

Are you absolutely certain? Do not spread uncertainties!

On January 30, the chief editor of the Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir [Delvaux 2021] published a striking article headed Parliament is the guarantor of democracy, not Twitter.

I have translated the first paragraphs for you: We definitely do not need another Twitter “battle” between politicians and experts! The most recent exchange opposed the President of the French liberal party MR to Prof. Marc Van Ranst. Politicians claim he is too pessimistic, too omnipresent in the media and too weak in his arguments. Van Ranst counts himself lucky that these politicians are not virologists.

Moreover, the President of the Flemish liberal party Open VLD believes that the experts should not comment on matters about which they are not certain. Prof. Emmanuel André is resorting to bazooka fire, accusing, without naming him, the MR President of “stumbling in the mud of populism”.

Expressing displeasure on Twitter is hard to approve

There is no doubt that it is essential to have a debate on the Belgian strategy against COVID-19. A debate on Twitter however − if you could possibly stage a debate on Twitter − cannot protect Belgian democracy. Also, politicians seem to be calling for absolute scientific certainty. This clearly illustrates that their messages are poorly argued. They simply lack seriousness.

It is sometimes useful to recall the wise words of past scientists. I refer to the French biologist and humanist, Jean Rostand (1894 – 1977): … the truth I revere is the modest truth of science, the relative truth; fragmentary, provisional, always subject to retouching, correction, repentance … because, what I dread most is the total and definitive truth, the truth with a capital T, which is at the base of all sectarianism, all fanaticism and all crimes … [Rostand 1967].


Uncertainty principle (

It is all too easy to think that science creates absolute certainties. In other words, if there is no certainty, people think the science is wrong or at the very least incomplete. For Rostand, science is dynamic, and the truth is fragmentary and incomplete. Science, therefore, does not provide us with certainty; it provides us with a better trade-off between the inherently different expert opinions; a best compromise. This offers subtantial safeguards, but never absolute certainty.

Decisions must always be taken in a situation of uncertainty!

Policymaking during a pandemic can be extremely challenging

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights critical decision problems faced by governments. Policymakers are expected to take action to protect the population from the disease, while they still lack information on both the viruses (in the plural, because several new variants of the original virus have already been identified) and their transmission mechanisms as well as on the effectiveness of possible measures and their consequences on public health and the socio-economic situation. Any rational policy decision must use the best available scientific evidence, typically generated by expert opinions and modelling studies [Morgan 2019; Berger et al. 2021].

Moreover, it goes without saying that the inability to handle uncertainty may result in overlooking valuable insights from alternative sources and therefore in misinterpreting the state of the COVID-19 outbreak. This potentially leads to suboptimal decisions with disastrous consequences [Chater 2020]. Berger et al. [2021] argue that insights from the decision theory − the interdisciplinary approach to arrive at the decisions that are the most advantageous given an uncertain environment − help frame policy challenges and ambitions.

It is common practice to report policy analyses with incredible certainty

Meaning exact predictions of policy outcomes are routine, while expressions of uncertainty are rare. Predictions and estimates are however often fragile, relying as they do on unsupported assumptions and limited data. It often turns out that the expressed certitude is not credible.

To make decision-making under uncertainty more efficient, it is recommended to transparently acknowledge and communicate the various uncertainties [Manski 2019]. All advisors, including policy collaborators as well as academics, would then need to synthesise all the data to help policymakers turn them into actionable information for decisions, while making sure the complete range of uncertainty is properly understood and clearly reported.

Policymakers are responsible for communicating to professionals and the public

High-quality communication should be an essential part of the policy response to uncertainty. People do not need a pat on the back or denigrating generalisations; they need the truth including its securities and uncertainties. Superficial messages on Twitter, which do not reveal a positive attitude, but are liable to give rise to mutual insults, have no added value at all.

One of the possible lessons we have learned from the COVID-19 management experience is that policymakers, experts and reporters must increase the transparency of their approaches and communications [Berger et al. 2021]. Using the constructs from decision theory in policymaking, even informally, might favour prudent navigation through the uncertainty that pervades this and future pandemics.

Twitter is simply not an appropriate medium for emphasising essential data and information. It has never made me any wiser. Why then should I be a Twitter fan?


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Berger et al. [2021]. Rational policymaking during a pandemic, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, 4, pp. 7

Chater [2020]. Facing up to the uncertainties of COVID-19, Nature Human Behaviour 4, 5, 439 – 439

Delvaux [2021]. Le Parlement est le garant de la démocratie, pasTwitter, Le Soir, January 30

Manski [2019]. Communicating uncertainty in policy analysis, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, 16, 7634 – 7641

Morgan [2019]. How decision makers can use quantitative approaches to guide outbreak responses, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 374, 1776, 20180365.

Rostand [1967]. Inquiétudes d’un biologiste, éditions Stock

Production of meat from ruminant animals remains a major source of greenhouse gas emissions

Diets link environmental and human health

Rising incomes and urbanisation are driving a global dietary transition, whereby traditional diets are replaced by diets higher in sugars, fats, oils and meats. If unchecked, these dietary trends will be a major contributor to the estimated 80 % increase in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Global agriculture and food production release more than 25 % of all GHG, pollute fresh and marine waters with agrochemicals and use about half of the ice-free land area of our planet as crop land or pasture land [Tilman & Clark 2014 and references herein].

Moreover, unhealthy and unsustainably produced food poses a global risk for both people and planet. The number of people on unhealthy diets that contribute to morbidity and premature death largely exceeds 1 billion [Willett et al. 2019]. Dietary shifts and resulting increases in body mass index are associated with the significantly increased global incidence of chronic non-communicable diseases, especially type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and some cancers, which together are predicted to become two thirds of the global disease burden.

Fortunately, health-promoting foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, also tend to be the ones that are climate-friendly [Tilman & Clark 2014; Pussemier & Goeyens 2020], unlike certain foods that carry known health risks, which are highly polluting. For example, the production and consumption of red and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, while also being highly GHG emission intensive [GBD 2015 Risk Factors Collaborators 2016; Drew et al. 2020 and references herein].

Alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural GHG emissions, curb land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases. The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet-environment-health tri-lemma is a global challenge; it is also an opportunity of great environmental and public health importance.

Limiting the rise in emissions from the livestock sector is a major challenge

Herrero et al. [2016] conclude that the technical mitigation potential of the livestock sector is very significant. However, most of this potential is still hypothetical because of the low adoption of technical practices and because of uncertainties and trade-offs associated with any attempt to reduce the consumption of livestock products.

Rather than witness serious efforts to reduce GHG emissions and manure production, we now face ever more compelling requests to build mega stables. Farmers are only too happy to fatten a few hundred thousand chickens or a few thousand pigs in the shortest possible time [Renson 2020]. They argue that their only aim is to respond to consumer demand by offering more meat for less money. An understandable argument, but given the adverse effects of (ultra-processed) meat consumption, it is also a reprehensible one. Surely, transparent and clear communication is the very least we can expect!

Moreover, there is little evidence of government success in changing food preferences. Yet, the evidence is strong that increasing meat consumption runs counter to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Also, intensive livestock farming largely contributes to global agricultural trade. Obviously, limiting the rise in emissions from the livestock sector is particularly challenging. There are opportunities for synergies between increasing productivity and decreasing emission intensity, but there is always the risk that successful farmers will keep more animals, thereby limiting the benefits that may otherwise be expected.

Reducing global consumption of livestock products would bring considerable benefits in terms of agricultural emissions, but there is little evidence as to how this might be achieved without negative trade-offs.

Back to extensive grazing?

Does this make extensive livestock farming the better choice? Extensive livestock production is an animal farming system characterised by low productivity per animal and per surface. It requires small amounts of inputs, capital, and labour. Extensive livestock production systems usually have low stocking rates and are essentially based on grazing (permanent grasslands and natural pastures).

To be viable, extensive livestock production systems need to reduce their costs and offer higher value for their products. They generally use hardy breeds adapted to local specificities. However, in adverse situations, where crops cannot be grown, those livestock systems might need inputs in order to reach their milk and/or meat production goals. Such systems are referred to as “half extensive livestock production systems”.

Extensive livestock production provides ecosystem services while valorising grassland plant diversity. It is an agro-ecological solution that allows attractive landscapes to be maintained for tourism and social dynamics in isolated areas. It can supply humans as well as animals with quality products. Yet the question arises as to whether there is scientific evidence of the environmental friendliness of extensive livestock farming? You may think that GHG emissions are significantly lower, but is this really the case?

Using New Zealand, where cows and sheep are allowed to graze rather than being confined to feedlots, as a case study, Drew et al. [2020] investigated the extent to which potential contextual differences may affect the local applicability of international trends. Therefore, the authors adapted a 2013 life cycle assessment data base of foods eaten in the United Kingdom [Hoolohan et al. 2013] to develop a New Zealand-specific data base of estimated GHG emissions associated with seven life cycle stages: farming and processing, transportation, transit packaging, consumer packaging, warehousing and distribution, refrigeration, and supermarket overheads. And guess what? Beef and lamb still topped the list! This research characterises healthy and climate-friendly food choices and eating patterns in the New Zealand context and, on the other hand, demonstrates that local trends are not dissimilar from those found globally.

Dairy farming in New Zealand (©

Are meat and dairy still so much worse for the climate? The answer, according to Drew et al. [2020], is clear. Even under these conditions, animal-based foods, particularly red and processed meats, are responsible for significantly more GHG emissions than vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.

Stop the growth of meat consumption!

We should not be surprised that the number of vegetarians is increasing. Eating patterns emphasising the consumption of whole, plant-based foods offer an opportunity to achieve substantial GHG emission reductions, while simultaneously realising considerable health gains and health system cost savings.

A well-designed public policy is needed worldwide to support the creation of a global food system that no longer exacerbates the climate crisis or the burden of non-communicable disease. Our health is very closely linked to the health of our environment. As human beings, we have failed to live in harmony with nature. Dr Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, explains in an interview with Barbara Debusschere [2020] from the Flemish daily newspaper De Morgen that mass deforestation and the way we produce and consume food are leading to ever-increasing global warming.

Because of the Covid crisis, we have almost forgotten that we are also in the midst of a climate crisis and that the point of no return is getting ever closer. Albert Einstein said “… Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning…”. And he was absolutely right!

Let us waste no time in trying to improve matters now so we may look forward to 2021 and beyond with renewed hope.

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Debusschere [2020]. Dat westerse “me, myself and I” gaat ons parten spelen. Als we nu geen lessen trekken, weet ik het ook niet meer, De Morgen, December 25

Drew et al. [2020]. Healthy and Climate-Friendly Eating Patterns in the New Zealand Context, Environmental Health Perspectives 128, 1, 017007, pp. 13

GBD 2015 Risk Factors Collaborators [2016]. Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks, 1990–2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015, The Lancet 388, 1659 – 1724

Herrero et al. [2016]. Greenhouse gas mitigation potentials in the livestock sector, Nature Climate Change 6, 5, 452 – 461

Hoolohan et al. [2013]. Mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions embodied in food through realistic consumer choices, Energy Policy 63, 1065 – 1074

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Renson [2020]. Die megastallen maken alles kapot wat ons dierbaar is, De Standaard, November 30

Tilman & Clark [2014]. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health, Nature 515, 518 – 522

Willett et al. [2019]. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, The Lancet 393, 10170, 447 – 492