Most of us are by now pretty much aware of the devastating effects of plastic on our planet and marine ecosystems. What is still widely ignored are its damaging consequences on human health. A new report from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), “Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet”, provides a detailed perspective on the impact of plastic on our body and reveals the numerous ways through which human health is affected by plastic in every stage of its production. A recent analysis estimated that the amount of plastic produced worldwide has increased from 2 million tons in 1950 to 380 million in 2015.
According to the CIEL Report,
Plastic is a global health crisis hiding in plain sight. […]
Despite being one of the most pervasive materials on the planet, plastic and its impact on human health remain poorly understood.
From inhalation to skin contact, there are many ways in which our health is badly affected by the excessive production and distribution of plastic every day. Once introduced into the environment, the report states, plastic slowly fragments into smaller parts, contaminating water, air and soil. It releases toxic additives, or concentrates of toxic chemical additives in the environment, making them available for direct or indirect inhalation by humans.
Extraction & Transport
The extraction of oil, gas and especially the use of hydraulic fracturing, releases toxic substances in significant volumes in the air and in the water. About 170 chemicals used in the production of plastic are known for their negative health effects, particularly in the development of tumors and in the weakening of the immune system. Furthermore, the effects of these toxins have been widely documented with reference to their impact on skin, eyes and other sensory organs, the respiratory system, the nervous system, the gastrointestinal system, the brain and the liver.
Refining & Manufacture
Transforming fossil fuel into plastic resins and additives releases carcinogenic and other highly toxic substances into the air. Documented effects of exposure to these substances include impairment of the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, leukemia, and genetic impacts like low birth weight.
Consumer Products & Packaging
We live surrounded by plastic containers, but the use of these products can lead to the ingestion and/or inhalation of large quantities of micro particles and hundreds of carcinogenic toxic substances, with destructive effects on the endocrine system.
All plastic waste management technologies (including incineration, co-incineration, gasification, and pyrolysis) result in the release of toxic metals and substances to the air, water, and soils. Workers and nearby communities are the most effected, through inhalation of contaminated air, direct contact with contaminated soil or water, and ingestion of foods that were grown in an environment polluted with these substances. Toxins from emissions can travel long distances though, and deposit in soil and water, eventually entering human bodies after being accumulated in the tissues of plants and animals.
Plastic in the Environment
Once plastic reaches the environment in the form of macro- or microplastics, it contaminates and accumulates in food chains through agricultural soils, terrestrial and aquatic food chains, and in the water supply. As plastic particles degrade, new surface areas are exposed, allowing continued leaching of additives from the core to the surface of the particle in the environment and the human body.
The presence of plastic microparticles is increasingly documented in human tissues. Sadly, uncertainties and knowledge gaps undermine the full evaluation of health risks at all stages of the plastic lifecycle, and limit the ability of consumers, communities, and regulators to make informed choices. As the report highlights,
lack of transparency of the chemicals in plastic and its production processes prevents a full assessment of its impacts, reduces the ability of regulators to develop adequate safeguards; consumers to make informed choices; and fenceline communities to limit their exposure.
Prevention & Recommendations
From a case study developed by Montana State University, we would like to share some recommendations:
As far as protecting yourself from contamination, it is probably best not to have a diet that consists mainly of fish, since most is probably contaminated. However, one of the most effective things we could all do as members of this fragile ecosystem is to be responsible for our trash. When we have the opportunity, we should try to avoid buying products packaged in plastic. We should always recycle plastic when we do use it. At the store, refuse plastic bags, bring your own. Use a reusable water bottle, and of course don’t litter.
And some more suggestions from Ecology Center:
Find alternatives to plastic products whenever possible. […]
- Buy food in glass or metal containers; avoid polycarbonate drinking bottles with Bisphenol A
- Avoid heating food in plastic containers, or storing fatty foods in plastic containers or plastic wrap
- Do not give young children plastic teethers or toys
- Use natural fiber clothing, bedding and furniture
- Avoid all PVC and Styrene products
As quoted by UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner,
Marine debris – trash in our oceans – is a symptom of our throw-away society and our approach to how we use our natural resources.
Part of the problem is that we don’t recognize how this issue starts with the individual. There are several lifestyle changes we can adopt to work this out. We just have to be willing to accept this is a real issue and look past our denial. Governments must make regulations on plastic; we shall be all involved though. It is everyone’s responsibility. Let’s make these changes before it is too late and we kill both the oceanic life and our own.