The following list is a working compilation of concepts and terms relevant to my blog posts. The purpose of this page is to provide you with a glossary in one place so you don’t need to search for an original post where a term is explained. Please contact me if you have any suggestions for things to add, if you think I missed a term used in a post, or if anything written below is unclear.
Bioaccumulation, Biomagnification, and Persistence
These terms refer to the behavior of chemicals in biological organisms and ecosystems. Bioaccumulation is the process of chemical buildup in an organism (like an animal), in which the chemical accumulates faster than it is excreted or processed by the body. Biomagnification is the increasing concentration of persistent chemicals in organisms moving up the food chain (apex predators have highest concentrations, lower down herbivores have less). Persistence refers to the nature of chemicals that do not break down in the environment; they remain in air, water, soil, and biological organisms. PCBs are persistent organic compounds, which means once released into the environment they remain there for an incredibly long time. This is why we are still dealing with the effects of PCBs, despite the fact that most countries started restricting their use or banning them in the 1970s and 1980s.
Body burdens refer to the potentially toxic and/or man-made chemicals found in our bodies. These chemicals are found in contaminated water and air, household and personal care products, processed foods, and unprocessed foods treated with pesticides or herbicides. Approximately 80,000 substances are on the consumer market and most are untested for health and environmental concerns. Many of these substances can pass from mother to fetus and can accumulate in bloodstream or body fat. Although there has not been rigorous testing of most substances, there is empirical evidence linking many to health risks including cancer, reproductive damage, and birth defects.
California’s Proposition 65
Prop 65, otherwise known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act was passed in 1986 to increase corporate transparency and reduce toxic chemicals in drinking water. The Act requires companies to label products containing toxic chemicals that may cause cancer or birth defects. CA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment created a list of about 800 different substances that warrant labeling. Prop 65 also requires the state to annually update and publish this list of chemicals for the public. Under Prop 65, businesses in CA cannot knowingly discharge any of the listed toxic chemicals into any drinking water sources. See the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment website for the list of Prop 65 chemicals.
Co-planting, or companion planting
Co-planting is a very old farming practice of planting certain species together that are beneficial to each other. Certain species of plants have natural defenses against pests, so planting them around or mixed in with species that are more vulnerable protects the crop. Some species help soil health, and some provide support for other physically. A good example is the traditional planting of corn, beans, and squash together. Beans grow up around corn stalks, using them as natural support structures. Beans provide nitrogen to the soil and the large low-lying squash leaves eliminate weeds by blocking their access to sunlight.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)
The endocrine system is an information-signaling group of glands throughout the body that secretes hormones to regulate growth, reproductive function, sexual development, mood, metabolism, and sleep. It’s comprised of the thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, and pituitary glands, as well as the pancreas, ovaries, and testicles. The endocrine system controls a huge range of biological functions and is imperative to normal development. EDCs are toxic chemicals interfere with this system, either by mimicking or blocking hormones, or by interrupting biological processes involving hormones. EDCs, which are usually manmade chemicals like pesticides, are associated with a plethora of health risks including cancer, birth defects, obesity, diabetes, early puberty, neurological development delays, and immune system problems. Examples of EDCs include pesticides (DDT and atrazine), PCBs, BPA, phthalates, and triclosan.
The European Commission, one of the seven EU institutions, is a politically independent executive branch of the EU. It’s responsible for introducing and enforcing legislation, enforcing laws, and managing the EU’s budget. Environmental legislation and policy is one area of work that involves the European Commission. Furthermore, the European Commission has proposed policy actions to evaluate and regulate endocrine disrupting chemicals. In their terms, they created a community strategy for protecting public and environmental health from EDCs. Thus, the European Commission has created it’s own classification system for potentially and known EDCs.
Greenwashing is the practice of communicating to the consumer unverified and misleading claims of environmental benefits or safety concerning corporate practices, products, or services to bolster public image and profits. Many companies use green or floral designs and include trendy buzzwords like natural and botanical in their packaging as an advertising ploy to entice shoppers.
International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)
The IARC is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) agency that promotes and coordinates international efforts in researching the causes of cancer. Their primary efforts involve organizing research across different countries to clarify environmental and lifestyle risks, particularly in moderate-income level countries. Additionally, the IARC educates cancer researchers and shapes global cancer policies in collaboration with the WHO.
Monocropping, or monoculture
Monocropping is the agricultural practice of cultivating a single crop in a field. Corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, and many other industrially grown crops are found as monocrops. This practice reduces soil fertility and increases the need for pesticides by eliminating any natural defenses from symbiotic plant species. It also reduces biodiversity in two ways. First, it encroaches on wilderness and can destroy plant species either through physical removal or through pesticide drift that kills of plants. Second, it shrinks the gene pool of common agricultural species and reduces the diversity of natural varieties, which increases the risk of massive crop failures.
National Toxicology Program (NTP)
Founded in 1987, this inter-agency program monitors and evaluates the public health and environmental risks of toxic chemicals. The goal of NTP is to coordinate testing efforts across departments in the government and to develop and continually improve toxicology science and testing methods. Read more on the NTP’s website.
N2O, also known as laughing gas, is a greenhouse gas produced during industrial and agricultural practices. It also comes from solid waste and fossil fuels. Nitrogen–rich fertilizers create excess nitrogen that seeps into water systems or off-gases from soil as nitrous oxide. N2O is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and it depletes the ozone.
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
These compounds remain in our environment and can accumulate in air, water, soil, and biological organisms. They are either slow to biodegrade or resistant to degradation. POPs or Persistent Organic Compounds have adverse impacts on public health and the environment. Additionally, they are highly migratory through air and water, leading to contamination of ecosystems far from where they were used. Thus, the issue of POPs is now a global one. The EPA has a list of the “dirty dozen” POPs, which includes chemicals banned in the 1980s. This list includes pesticides like Aldrin, DDT, endrin, plus PCBs, dioxins, and furans.
A pesticide is a chemical that deters or kills pests. The term is often used interchangeably with herbicide and insecticide, which are two categories of pesticides for weeds and insects respectively. In field of sustainability, the term pesticide refers specifically to synthetic petrochemicals that are toxic to the environment and human health. There are natural forms of pesticides, such as a plant’s natural defense mechanism against an insect or a benign substance that deters insects. These are usually referred to as natural forms of pest management, so you don’t confuse them with conventional chemical pesticides.
This is the basis for policies and toxic regulation in Europe for the most part; the US operates in the opposite manner. The precautionary principle places the burden of testing on proving a chemical is safe before allowing it to be used in the consumer market. In the US however, the burden of proof is on the EPA or other entities to prove that something causes harm in order to have it removed from use. It’s like innocent until proven guilty. In the US, chemical innocence (safety) is assumed until guilt (toxicity) is proved.
Synergism refers to the amplified health impacts from exposure to multiple chemicals, significantly greater than the health risks from the individual chemicals. In our bodies, we have any number of different toxins, which can act synergistically to worsen our risk of health problems. Some chemicals may increase the potency of others, or chemicals may interact to produce compounds that are more dangerous than their parts.