The chemical contamination of the planet exceeded the recommended limits

The Earth is a big planet, enormous, if we think about the amount of resources, species of fauna and flora and people that it houses. Still, it is not infinite, nor resistant to everything, much less immune to damage and disease.

The nine planetary limits, defined in 2009 by the team led by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Center, recall those borders that cannot be crossed if you want to maintain that balance that, for 11,000 million years, the Earth has maintained.

Climate change, the depletion of the ozone layer, the consumption of fresh water, chemical contamination, loss of biodiversity, changes in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle, ocean acidification and the aerosols or polluting particles present in the atmosphere, are the ones that can potentially influence all living species on Earth.

If they cross them, the most affected will be, in addition to the planet itself, all living species and that is already evident today, because the limits are not only biological, geological or physical, they are also social and economic.

Already of the nine thresholds identified, four of them were known to have been exceeded. Today, however, an investigation revealed that another more was also exceeded. Now there are five.

To climate change, the change in land use, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle and the loss of biodiversity was added this Tuesday that of chemical pollution, according to a study by the University of Stockholm in Sweden and published in the journal Environmental Science&Technology.

The fifth limit in red

The research, led by Linn Persson of the Stockholm Environment Institute, takes a step forward in the analysis of new entities and chemical contamination, and has made it possible to evaluate for the first time the effect of the cocktail of synthetic chemicals that flood the environment. The results reveal that humanity has exceeded a planetary limit related to environmental pollutants, including plastics.

“We focus on documenting the concern for planetary security as a result of the overproduction and release of synthetic substances such as plastics, pesticides, flame retardants and other industrial chemicals; as well as natural materials that are mobilized as a consequence of human activities”, points out Villarrubia Gómez.

Antibiotics and other pharmaceutical products are also added to them. There are an estimated 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals on the world market, created by humans with largely unknown effects on the Earth system. Significant volumes of these new entities enter the environment each year.

Persistent compounds in the environment

“The production of chemical substances has multiplied by 50 since 1950. It is expected to triple again by 2050”, comments the co-author. The production of plastic alone increased by 79% between 2000 and 2015, the team further highlights.

Today, because some of these pollutants can be extremely persistent, they can be found all over the planet, from the Arctic to Antarctica. Their presence causes negative impacts on Earth systems, including biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles.

“The rate at which these pollutants are appearing in the environment far outstrips the ability of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control potential problems,” said co-author Bethanie Carney Almroth of the University of Gothenburg. .

Plastics, the biggest polluters

Scientists focused in part on studying plastic pollution for several reasons. “The amount of the total mass of plastics that has been produced already exceeds the total amount by mass of all existing mammals,” says Villarrubia Gómez. Furthermore, the buildings and infrastructure created (which contain plastics and thousands upon thousands of synthetic chemicals) exceed the mass of all existing trees and shrubs, according to a recent study.

“There is more and more scientific evidence pointing to great concern. Today, we know that there are multiple reasons why chemicals and plastics have negative impacts on the health of our planet, and that it is mainly due to the way in which we use them on a day-to-day basis”, emphasizes the scientific.

The negative impacts of these chemical substances occur in all phases of their life cycle, causing problems in each of the processes —from the extraction of raw materials, their transformation and industrialization, through the use of the products themselves— until these are disposed of as garbage.

In addition, in the case of plastics, “we know that there is a direct connection with climate change, since at least 98% of virgin plastics are a product derived from the production of fossil fuels such as gasoline or natural gas, which which is associated with large emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere, as well as the contamination of bodies of water and soil”, he stresses.

Boundary Affectations

They are alarming consequences. Just look at some figures: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO, about 26.4% of the world’s population, some 2 billion people, have experienced moderate to severe levels of food insecurity and only in 2020, according to the World Bank, there were 233 million people.

Extreme weather events, which due to climate change, among other reasons, have increased in intensity and frequency, such as heavy and prolonged rains and droughts, desertification, mass movements, forest fires or rising sea levels, are causes of migration and refugees. .

According to the UN Refugee Agency, Acnur, every year more than 20 million people have to leave their homes and move to other regions of the country or other countries because of these events.

In addition, according to data from the World Resources Institute, more than 1 billion people today live in regions with water scarcity and it is possible that, by 2025, that number will rise to 3,500.

This indicates that not only is it enough to understand what the nine planetary limits are, or how they work, but that concrete, transformative actions must be taken, which really prevent the human being from continuing to walk on the edge of the abyss that, once crossed, will not it will go backwards, explains Alejandro Álvarez Vanegas, professor of the undergraduate degree in Urban Design and Habitat Management and of the Environmental Culture area at EAFIT University.


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