Toxic & Plastic Pollution

Plastic Pollution Crisis

We have a global plastic pollution crisis. Plastic threatens human health at every stage of its production pipeline — from extraction of oil and gas to its manufacturing, use and disposal. About 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s, half of which was produced in the last 15 years. Unfortunately, 91% of plastics are not recycled. Instead, they are incinerated or end up in landfills or the environment.

Plastic is the top litter found in our local waterways. How does it get there? When it rains, trash is washed from our streets and neighborhoods  — mostly plastic — and into our local streams and rivers, or it is washed into storm drains and carried to our streams and rivers. Then it travels to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Large pieces of plastic (bottles, bags, etc) break down into smaller pieces call microplastics. Microplastics are loosely defined as plastic particles ranging from a microscopic 1 nanometer to 5 millimeters—about the length of a short grain of rice. A study in 2019 found microplastic in the stomachs of 89 smallmouth bass sampled from the mainstem of the Susquehanna River. A 2017 study in the Potomac River around Washington, DC, found microplastics accumulating in underwater grasses. In 2014, they were found in 59 of 60 water samples taken from the Patapsco, Magothy, Rhode and Corsica rivers. From 2017–18, the U.S. Geological Survey found microplastics in two streams in Virginia, two in DC and the Susquehanna River.

In June 2020, the Chesapeake Bay Program launched a Plastic Pollution Action Team, which is working on establishing a full ecological risk assessment of microplastics in the Bay watershed. A first effort may focus on effects of microplastics on striped bass in the Potomac because it has a lot of freshwater and saltwater habitats, and multiple possible pollution sources.

Toxic PFAS Crisis

Closely associated with plastic pollution, is the urgent public health threat from PFAS, the “forever chemical.” At the forefront of toxics polluting our waterways are PFAS, largely due to its prominence throughout our environment and its lasting effects exacerbated by lack of regulation. 

Since at least the 1950s, PFAS compounds have been widely used in manufacturing and are found in many consumer, commercial, and industrial products. These multiple PFAS compounds are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down over time. Instead, these dangerous chemicals accumulate in people, wildlife, and the environment. As a result, PFAS have been found in surface water, air, soil, food, and many commercial materials. Scientific studies increasingly link these toxic chemicals to serious health conditions such as cancer, liver and kidney disease, reproductive issues, immunodeficiencies, and hormonal disruptions.

In 2021, EPA launched its PFAS Strategic Roadmap: EPA’s Commitments to Action 2021-2024, laying out a whole-of-agency approach to addressing PFAS. The roadmap sets timelines by which EPA plans to take specific actions and commits to new policies to safeguard public health, protect the environment, and hold polluters accountable.

Waterkeepers Chesapeake’s advocacy efforts geared towards addressing PFAS contamination have ranged from seeking to require owners of publicly owned treatment works to monitor and report PFAS levels in their biosolids and effluent to outright banning the use of PFAS in products such as firefighting foam and pesticides. Biosolids, a product of the wastewater treatment process, often referred to as “sewage sludge” are often applied to agricultural fields. Due to the lack of enforcement of monitoring of PFAS in biosolids, agricultural stormwater runoff leads to PFAS from these biosolids to reach and pollute our waterways. EPA has committed to conducting a biosolids risk assessment which is currently underway and expected to be completed in December 2024.

Local Waterkeeper Trash Programs

Latest News

Waterkeepers Chesapeake Urges EPA to List PFAS as Hazardous

On August 11, 2023, Waterkeepers Chesapeake joined the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and 87 other organizations in SELC’s comments to the EPA on its proposal to list additional PFAS as hazardous substances under CERCLA, also known as Superfund. Joining us were three of our Riverkeeper organizations, Potomac Riverkeeper Network, James River Association, and Anacostia … Read more

Analysis by Waterkeepers Shows Shocking Level of PFAS Contamination in Local Rivers & Streams

This year, a total of 113 local Waterkeepers, including 16 Waterkeepers in our region, collected samples from 114 waterways across 34 states and the District of Columbia. Independent analysis indicates a shocking level of contamination, with 94 participating Waterkeeper groups confirming the presence of PFAS – dangerous per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are widely linked … Read more

Take Action to Stop Toxic PFAS in Maryland!

People across the state and country are exposed to PFAS chemicals in consumer products, food and food packaging, and drinking water. Exposure to PFAS is linked to cancer and other illnesses. Urge your Maryland legislators to stop PFAS and pass the The George “Walter” Taylor Act (SB273/HB275) introduced by Sen. Sarah Elfreth & Del. Sara Love.Maryland, … Read more

Urge Your Virginia State Senator to Support a Ban on Foam!

The Virginia Senate is gearing up to vote on Delegate Betsy Carr’s HB 1902, which bans single-use polystyrene foam cups and food containers. Most everyone can agree that plastic pollution is a huge problem, and nothing that we use for a few minutes should be allowed to pollute our rivers and oceans for hundreds of … Read more