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Ball in Court

Is Big Oil Putting Microplastic in Your Testicles?

And if they are—should someone do something about that?

A plastic bottle lies on a beach.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
A plastic bottle and the remains of a child’s spade lay on the beach on Earth Day in Prestatyn, Wales, on April 22.

There is no limit to the amount of plastic that can legally be deposited into human testicles. Presumably there are crimes an individual can be charged with if they inject polypropylene, for instance, into someone’s balls without their consent. Yet if that plastic is deposited over several decades into the air and water, finding its way to untold scrotums, there’s no reason to believe that the companies responsible for doing this will ever be held accountable.

This isn’t a theoretical scenario. A recently published study of 23 human and 47 dog testes found that all of the testes contained microplastics. The study, published in the journal Toxicological Studies, also suggests a correlation between microplastics contamination and lower sperm count. It’s not the first of its kind, either: Plastic particles are widespread in food, water, blood, and placenta; their presence in certain blood vessels has been linked to higher rates of strokes, heart attacks, and death.

In the United States, environmental regulations protect against toxins and pollution in the air and water, often quite successfully. Rules around certain kinds of plastic pollution are relatively new, though; it was only last month that the Environmental Protection Agency finalized limits on six “forever chemicals” frequently found in plastics owing to their potential to cause kidney and liver cancer. As regulators start to crack down on plastics’ seemingly ever-larger footprint, will there be any reckoning with the harm that’s already been done?

It’s a question that pertains not just to plastics—a broad umbrella of products overwhelmingly derived from oil and gas—but to the fossil fuel economy and its well-documented tendency to harm and kill people. One 2021 study found that air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for a whopping one in five premature deaths worldwide. Big oil and gas producers, like Shell and ExxonMobil, are also some of the world’s top plastics producers and see it as a promising growth industry over the coming decades.

If you missed news about the plastics-in-testes study, it might have been because a seemingly unrelated event was dominating headlines. On Monday, International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan announced that the ICC is seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defense minister Yoav Gallant, and three top Hamas leaders (Yehya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif, and Ismail Haniyeh) on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. While these warrants seem well justified—the Israel Defense Forces have openly admitted to deliberately bombing refugee camps, for instance—coverage of the announcement has been met with understandable cynicism: ICC proceedings are notoriously sluggish. While they can exert pressure on alleged war criminals, it can take decades, in some cases, for them to be brought to justice; infamous Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladić, for instance, wasn’t found guilty of atrocities committed during the Bosnian War, spanning from 1992 through 1995—including the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica Massacre—until 2017.

In some ways, expecting Netanyahu or Gallant to face a similar trial, however slow, is optimistic. While the U.S. was united with the international community in opposing Serbian actions in the Bosnian War, today it’s actively funding Israel’s brutal war on Gaza with billions of dollars in military aid. Despite mounting regular defenses of the so-called “rules-based international order,” U.S. officials have uniformly rebuked the ICC’s pursuit of Netanyahu and Gallant. Biden called the ICC’s application for those arrest warrants “outrageous,” pledging that the U.S. “will always stand with Israel against threats to its security.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken also chided the ICC for seeking arrest warrants “rather than allowing the Israeli legal system a full and timely opportunity to proceed.” On Tuesday, Blinken said he was open to working with Congress on sanctioning the ICC for “sticking its nose in the business of countries that have an independent legitimate, democratic judicial system,” as Republican Senator James Risch put it. (Like the U.S., Israel is not a party to the ICC, meaning that Israeli leaders would need to travel to a country that is to face the possibility of arrest and prosecution over killing upward of 35,000 Palestinians.)

As ever, the U.S. supports the rules-based international order so long as it gets to set those rules. For the most part, it has. The architecture of that order has been designed to protect the interests of capital, not the victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Corporations have no shortage of venues to demand payouts from sovereign governments they see as threatening their profits. Investor-state dispute settlements—baked into trade agreements—allow companies to sue governments over all manner of regulations in front of secretive tribunals; most of those charges have been brought under the Energy Charter Treaty, ostensibly designed to assure prospective investors in former Eastern bloc countries’ power sector that their assets wouldn’t seized by extant Soviets. It’s now a potent tool for fossil fuel companies to discourage environmental regulations that make them lose money.

Whereas United Nations compacts rely overwhelmingly on voluntary pledges and financing to address global crises like climate change and plastics, titans of industry can lean on any number of legally binding statutes to seek justice for lost profits all over the world. Needless to say, those on the losing end of corporate crimes—especially victims looking to bring cases against Western multinationals operating in the global south—have comparatively few options to seek compensation, let alone criminal prosecutions.

That’s not to say there haven’t been attempts. Court challenges against fossil fuel companies have picked up over the last decade. More than 40 states, municipalities, and tribal nations across the U.S. are suing polluters for damages, and a Dutch court sided with the climate group Milieudefensie in its 2021 ruling that Shell needs to reduce its carbon emissions 45 percent below 2019 levels by the end of 2030. Aaron Regunberg and David Arkush have made a compelling case for trying fossil fuel on criminal charges, including homicide. In a recent book, Spanish economist and environmental adviser David Lizoain makes the case for bringing fossil fuel executives in front of the International Criminal Court, and understanding rising temperatures—and the resulting mass deaths—as climate genocide.

These are excellent, well-argued proposals. Implementing them will entail long, hard battles against some of the planet’s most powerful countries and companies. For now, Netanyahu and Gallant are unlikely to be brought to justice for the same reason that petrochemical companies are likely to continue pouring plastic into our blood and balls with impunity: That’s just not what the rules-based international order was built to do.