Everyday Household Items Made From Black Plastic Can Be Harmful to Human Health

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It would be difficult to get through an entire day without coming into contact with plastic, but too much exposure to certain kinds of the material could pose a health risk, according to new research. A study by the University of Plymouth in England has revealed "significant and widespread contamination" of everyday items containing black plastic, such as thermos cups, toys, coat hangers, and Christmas decorations, Co.Design reports.

Black plastic isn't widely recycled because its dark pigment makes it hard for many plastic sorting facilities to detect it via infrared radiation. Nevertheless, the plastic parts of old electronic devices like laptops and music players are often repurposed into common household items. Researchers used X-ray fluorescence spectrometers to examine 600 black plastic items and found the presence of additives that can be harmful to human health, such as bromine, antimony, and lead. Historically, bromine has been used in electronic devices to prevent them from catching fire, but they’re not suitable for food containers or other items (like children's toys) that can come into contact with one's mouth. Their findings were published in Environment International.

"Black plastic may be aesthetically pleasing, but this study confirms that the recycling of plastic from electronic waste is introducing harmful chemicals into consumer products," the study's author, Andrew Turner, said in a statement released by the university. "That is something the public would obviously not expect, or wish, to see and there has previously been very little research exploring this."

As Co. Design points out, the greatest concern is cooking utensils, especially food containers. In the UK, some businesses have vowed to stop using black plastic, including supermarket chains Waitrose and Tesco. In Toronto, some businesses are considering swapping out their black plastics (like coffee cup lids) for materials that can be recycled more easily.

Another University of Plymouth study from January found toxic elements in second-hand children's toys, including bromine, lead, and other substances that can be toxic over time. Beyond the risk to human health, black plastic also harms the environment and introduces contaminants to beaches, the researchers found.

[h/t Co.Design]

The Tree That Inspired Dr. Seuss's The Lorax Has Fallen Over

Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Truffula trees at the center of The Lorax may have been a product of Dr. Seuss's imagination, but it's believed they were inspired by a real-life tree in La Jolla, California. Nearly 50 years after the environmental parable was published, Smithsonian reports that the iconic Monterey cypress has fallen.

The tree had grown for 80 to 100 years in what is today Ellen Browning Scripps Park in Southern California. It was clearly visible from the observation tower where Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, lived in La Jolla following World War II.

While the children's book author and illustrator never stated that the tree inspired his work, locals started referring to it as "The Lorax Tree." The resemblance it bears to Seuss's Truffula is undeniable: Both have skinny trunks with whimsical curves and thick, fluffy canopies of foliage concentrated at the top.

In The Lorax, the Truffula trees are threatened by the Once-ler, who wants to chop them down and turn them into garments called Thneeds. The title character "speaks for the trees" and conveys the book's environmentalist message.

Unlike the Truffula, La Jolla's Monterey cypress appeared to be in no danger until it recently toppled over. Arborists aren't sure what caused the collapse, as they hadn't noticed any prior health issues with the tree except for some termites. The past year's uncharacteristically wet winter and the effect it had on the surrounding soil may have played a role, so experts are looking into that possibility.

Most of the tree has been removed from the area, and the city plans to plant another tree in its place. There are also plans to salvage and repurpose the trunk from the fallen tree, though they haven't been made official.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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