URI experts discuss the price of convenience: plastics and forever chemicals

Graduate School of Oceanography opens public lecture series

Feb. 9, 2023

University of Rhode Island Professors J.P. Walsh and Rainer Lohmann discussed the wide-ranging impacts of ocean plastics and PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” in a recent talk at the URI Narragansett Bay Campus. The two oceanography professors were the first presenters at the new GSO Public Lecture Series, “Confronting Ocean Pollution.”

“It’s the whole ecosystem, and of course, humans that may ultimately be impacted,” Walsh said.

Walsh displayed a clip from a 1909 edition of The New York Times, which excitedly announced a new wonder product known as Bakelite. Strong, flexible, and cheaply manufactured, the product that would later become better known as plastic promised a revolution in modern conveniences. Today, the world is paying the price for those modern conveniences, a massive problem with plastics big and small.

“I’m not here to say don’t use plastics,” Walsh said. “It’s part of our society and we produce a lot, but we need to think about its ramifications. The world produces hundreds of millions of tons of plastic per year, and much of it is produced in the coastal zones. Today we have on the order of 2 billion people living within 30 miles of the coast. That’s a huge population with a lot of demand. And, not surprisingly, there’s mismanagement, both in places where the infrastructure to support this manufacturing does not exist, but also just through the sheer volume of trash.”

Walsh discussed the various things that can happen to plastic when it enters the marine environment. Physical, chemical, and biological events are some of the ways plastic interacts with the environment, each of which break down the substance to smaller and smaller pieces. “From those processes, we end up with this distribution of particles that can then unfortunately end up in different parts of the biological system. Not only do we have big plastic pieces that large organisms can eat, but we also have very small plastic pieces that small organisms eat. So we have great concern about different entry points of pollutants into the biological system and then the ramifications of it.

“I think the reality is coastal plastics are a huge problem. And I worry most that in many places, we’re kind of getting used to this problem. You can see people sort of living with the reality. I do think we need to rethink our actions: reuse when possible, refuse when able, reduce what you want, repair when we can and recycle as much as possible,” Walsh said. “We also need to encourage the private sector to be thinking about the lifecycle of everything they make. So that not only is the object useful during the limited time it may be used, but that it has a sustainable future. We have a big problem with plastics. We do need more research. And I think we’re doing some great stuff here at GSO, URI, and around the world. We also need to put that science into action. We must champion that change. And I hope that you’ll all be part of that.

Slick surfaces, fire safety, and the chemical that wouldn’t die

According to Lohmann, a key development in the history of PFAS came about during World War II. When the Manhattan Project was scrambling to create an atom bomb, scientists used a new product called Teflon, which was trademarked in 1945, to help seal centrifuges that were enriching uranium. The new product was effective, but at first there were few other uses for it. “The chemical industry is very creative in selling products,” Lohmann said. “They came up with this use that you might have had in your lifetime: the Teflon frying pan. It was a wonderful thing. Foods wouldn’t stick, and as long as you don’t scratch it, the surface would stay that way. And if you did scratch it, you could always throw it away and buy a new one.”

Then came the U.S. military’s discovery that, used in the right combination, the chemicals would snuff out fires instantly. Use of PFAS became protocol on ships, on submarines, and other military apparatus.

“We made these wonderful products which have unique properties,” Lohmann said. “Then you just throw them away when you’re done with them.” The trouble was, as various products went to landfills, the landfills would gradually leach the chemicals back into the environment.

Around the same time, Aqueous Film Forming Foam became useful as a fire suppressant used to extinguish flammable liquid fires such as fuel fires. The foam is often used in shipboard and shore facility fire suppression systems, fire fighting vehicles, and at fire training facilities.

“A lot of training takes place at installations like Joint Base Cape Cod, where we do some of our research and they do trainings where they set something on fire, they use the foam, and the fire is gone,” said Lohmann who added “the PFAS-solution eventually moves through the soil and into the environment, where it remains.

“Now the environment, we mean freshwater aquifers, coastal waters. (The chemical) goes through wastewater treatment plants; we get biosolids and sometimes we reuse them as fertilizers on fields. So now we have the PFAS in drinking water, in our coastal waters, and on farm fields.”

Lohmann said they are in the marine plankton, the fish that grow on them and we then harvest. “We get them through food and water, the air we inhale. There’s no easy way out of this because these compounds do not degrade. The fluorine chemistry is so strong that the chemical carriers are basically stable. That’s why we call them forever chemicals.”

Over the past 30 years or so, much research has been done on the spread of PFAS, and the results indicate that the chemicals are present worldwide. Lohmann pointed out that one of his students is comparing the presence of the chemicals in birds from Narragansett Bay with those from Cape Fear in North Carolina. Both sets of birds indicate the presence of PFAS, but those from Cape Fear have a much higher amount because of their proximity to plants that manufacture the fluorinated chemicals. Another student is investigating the process by which the chemicals manifest themselves in plankton. 

Lohmann notes that there have been local efforts to deal with the chemical.

“Rhode Island has just passed a couple of bills including one that will actually ban PFAS in food contact materials, which is such an obvious target because you don’t necessarily need it. But it is a great way to expose people to the chemicals. You have a coating on your cardboard box so the grease does not soak through that is made from PFAS, and similar chemicals on the carpet so that it doesn’t become ruined if some of the grease falls to the floor. But you can use something else and it’s a heck of a lot safer for everybody who’s eating the pizza. This bill was just passed, and as of next year there will be no more PFAS in food contact materials in Rhode Island. There are other bills from other states that look into cosmetics, carpets, textiles, so we’ll see what happens.”

Lohmann added, “PFAS – free products might not be quite as powerful, but honestly, I think for the majority of us, we will not notice the difference. This is one of these cases where with a combination of smart legislation and consumer pressure, we can remove all of these products and we will not notice a difference in convenience.”

This article was written by Hugh Markey.

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