The current work of the Massachusetts Chapter has been around synthetic petrochemical toxics, primarily:
- Pesticides and herbicides
- PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Alkylated Substances), a large class of synthetic industrial chemicals.
Pesticides under Federal and state regulation cover chemicals used for any pest or plant. Many of these chemicals are organophosphates and organochlorides. Pesticide use has raised concern in the following applications in Massachusetts:
- Eliminate unwanted plants such as weeds and invasives in public and private open spaces. This encompasses vegetation along utility, highway and rail rights of way (such as the MBTA). Typical chemicals include glyphosate (such as Monsanto Roundup®), imazapyr, and dicamba (such as Nufarm's Vanquish®), phenoxy herbicides (such as MCPA and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid known as "2,4-D" from Dow), and diquat dibromide (found in Spectracide® or Syngenta's Reward®). Herbicides are often used in combination. In addition to herbicides, fungicides may be used, for example on golf courses, such as chlorothalonil.
- Control agricultural pests including in particular:
- Genetically modified (GMO) crops that have been bred for specific resistance to herbicides such as glyphosate or dicamba.
- insecticides such as neonicotinoids (such as imidacloprid from Bayer CropScience). A special concern in this application is the reduction in pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
- Mosquito and insect control. For example, pyrethroid pesticides such as Sumithrin® from Sumitomo Company are used to control West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) including by aerial spraying by the Commonwealth of Clarke Anvil® 10+10.
We use many chemicals in our homes and outside without understanding the possible health effects. Here in the US, we commonly use chemicals that have been banned in most other wealthy nations. Here is a report compiled by one of our allies about pesticide risks. Read Environment & Human Health, Inc. (EHHI)’s Report: Pesticide Risks: From our Farms to our Homes.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of thousands of dangerous, virtually unregulated synthetic chemicals used in the manufacturing of many common products and packaging. PFASs have been widely used since the 1950's for a wide range of industrial, medical and consumer applications. Some of the more well-known consumer applications include stain-resistant and waterproof fabrics (for example 3M Scotchgard™ and Gor-Tex®), non-stick pans (DuPont's Teflon®) and paper food service ware (including plates and microwave popcorn bags), and dental floss (such as Procter & Gamble's Glide®). PFAS has also been used in firefighting foam since the 1970's for Class B fires (for flammable liquids such as gasoline and other petrochemicals). Other uses are less obvious such as lubricants, artificial turf blades, cosmetics, pesticides, and paints.
PFAS is a class of synthetic organohalogens based on fluorine. PFAS are often called the "forever chemicals" since they never break down completely due to the strength of the fluorine-carbon bond. Many of them bioaccumulate and migrate from contaminated water to food crops such as lettuce and strawberries. PFAS are linked to deadly diseases like thyroid cancer, harm to immune and reproductive systems, damage to developing fetuses, and may permanently compromise children’s brain development and behavior. Many PFASs also have serious health concerns even at very low levels. The current EPA advisory level for drinking water is 70 parts per trillion (ppt) and some states have instituted lower levels (such as Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection and Vermont at 20 ppt). PFAS has been found widely in Massachusetts drinking water, which has led to actions such as the closure of some municipal wells in Westfield.
Resource: Interactive Map of PFAS contamination
Bisphenols is the name of a common class of organic chemicals used primarily as an intermediate component of other petrochemicals such as epoxy resins or polycarbonate plastic. Bisphenols are also used directly as the developer in thermal paper (most commonly retail receipts). Epoxy resins are best known as glue but are also used as the liner for aluminum beverage containers and steel food cans. Reusable water bottles are often made of polycarbonate. Bisphenols are based on highly toxic benzene, while some use fluorine in a manner similar to PFAS. The most well known member of this family is bisphenol A (BPA), which is an endocrine disruptor.
Resource: "Bisphenols + Phthalates: Hormone disrupters
What we are doing and how you can help
The Massachusetts Chapter is supporting state legislation that addresses each of these four broad issues. The Sierra Club also supports local campaigns to ban plastics and limit the use of pesticides on municipal property. Our Cape Group has been active for many years on water contamination from PFASs from fire fighting training sites (Barnstable County Fire and Rescue Training Academy, and Joint Base Cape Cod). Contact us if you would like to get involved in any of these campaigns. As a consumer you should also try to avoid the products mentioned on this page. You can also reduce personal pesticide exposure for yourself and your family by choosing organic foods and promoting them in schools.
Click here for the Sierra Club's national toxics program including how this is integrated into the Sierra Club's environmental justice work.