Human health impacts of plastic pollution | Life Without Plastic
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Human health impacts of plastic pollution

Because I love my readers, I have saved the most terrifying and infuriating blog post for last in this three part series! As I mentioned in the first post, 2018 for me was a lot about learning about the complexity of this issue from different angles, other than the oceans focus I have had for many years now. One of them that really captured my attention was the human health impacts of plastic, not only from the ingestion of contaminated seafood but also from the exposure to plastics through normal everyday use.

A little bit of background on how plastics are made

It’s a long, rather messy and complicated process, but for the sake of simplicity:

-Fossil fuels like oil and natural gas are extracted from the ground.

-If you’ve never seen crude oil before, it is basically just a thick black ooze (delightful!) – containing thousands of different hydrocarbons. Oil is transported to a refinery where it can be distilled into different “fractions”, meaning, the different hydrocarbons are separated out to be split into monomers.

-We then take these hydrocarbon monomers and link them up through polymerisation to make plastic polymers. (I have skipped steps and simplified this a lot, so chemists: don’t come at me! I’m just explaining this by way of background).

-We’re not done yet! The characteristics that we cherish so much in plastics, such as malleability, durability, or specific colours, are created through the addition of additives. 

So what are the human health implications of plastic pollution?

Endocrine disruption from additives

The additives in plastic affect our endocrine system, a delicate balance of glands and organs that produce, store and secrete hormones. The majority of additives in plastic have not been tested, but the two that are most studied are phthalates (pronounced “thalates”) and Bisphenol A. The health effects from endocrine-disrupting chemicals are estimated to cost the EU between 157 and 270 billion Euros per year[1]You can learn more about the impacts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals through this excellent talk by Pete Myers, the founder of Environmental Health News and a pioneer in the field of endocrine disruption:

Phthalates were previously used in toys and children’s products, like chewy teethers for babies, but have since been banned in the EU, US and Canada, among other places. Phthalates are still found in plastic films, sheets, pipes, cables and flooring. This has been linked to early onset puberty in girls[2], increased adiposity (obesity) and insulin resistance in adult men[3] and decreased level of reproductive hormones[4]

Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, was previously found in food containers and baby bottles and is now mostly in laptops, cell phones and in the ink used to print receipts. Exposure to BPA has been linked to breast[5] [6]and prostate cancer[7], obesity, neurobehavioural problems and reproductive abnormalities[8]. By the way, you’ll often see “BPA Free” on water bottles and food containers, a rare instance of the industry self-regulating itself in response to public backlash and pulling BPA from the market before governments implemented regulation. 

However, Bisphenol A has largely been replaced with Bisphenol S and Bisphenol F, chemically different to BPA but producing almost exactly the same effects on our health[9].

How do these additives transmit themselves to our bodies? Through inhalation, ingestion and skin contact[10], even transferring prenatally from woman to child in the womb[11]. Chemicals commonly transfer from food packaging to food, a process called chemical migration, which is affected by exposure to heat, packaging material, the type of food and the duration of food storage[12]. So, in practice, this means not drinking water after it’s been sitting in a plastic bottle in a hot car all day, not re-heating your leftovers in your plastic container, and limiting the time food in plastic sits in your pantry before you eat it. Food Packaging Forum do an excellent fact sheet[13] on food packaging and human health, here’s a little snippet below:

Excerpt from Fact Sheet by Food Packaging Forum, accessed online

What makes this an environmental justice issue? For me, I see a stark disparity in the access to information about these impacts. I have learned so much about this in the last year or so, but it has been a lot of deep diving into obtusely-written academic journals and contacting experts in the field. That speaks a lot to my privilege and in the need for democratisation of this information.

Secondly, when people are informed, there is a disparity in your ability to act on avoiding single-use plastics and thereby limit the impacts to your health. Recently, I have been doing a lot of workshops, particularly with young mothers, to explain how they can limit their children’s exposure to the chemicals in plastic. However, it’s important to acknowledge that people that I speak to here in Switzerland will have far greater financial flexibility to avoid single-use plastics versus other people within different financial brackets within this very country or in the developing world. That’s why we need action to take place at a political level to make sure that everyone can have the same access to these plastic-free, zero waste movements.

Human health impacts of disposal methods

There are also a wide array of human health impacts related to disposal methods. In the developed world, a lot of our waste is incinerated and chemically treated, so that air quality is not compromised. If you are born into a country without waste management infrastructure (and on top of that, you have other countries exporting waste to your home), you’ll feel the impacts of plastic pollution on your health much more readily.

You might be one of the hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world that live on dump sites, like the Smoky Mountain in Manila, Philippines.

Trash Pickers Burning Garbage, Smokey Mountain, Manila, Philippines. Photo courtesy of Adam Cohn, Creative Commons license

When I was working in the Maldives, I saw this first hand in my visits to Thilafushi Island to speak to the workers who were there sorting the daily shipments of waste coming in from community islands and luxury tourist resorts.

Here, you’re at risk of plastic affecting your health in many ways. Additives in plastic can migrate into the leachate in the landfill, contaminating your groundwater source[14]. If you burn plastic waste for heating or cooking purposes, or simply to reduce the garbage piles in size, you are directly releasing toxic chemicals into your breathing air. Incinerators that are not well-built or strictly regulated also release chemicals into the air. The documentary A Plastic Ocean highlighted the link of burning plastics to infertility in Tuvalu. So time and time again, we see how plastic pollution disproportionately affects those in the developing world and in low-income areas.

I’ve gone on far too long on this post, but it’s difficult to condense this vast issue down into just a few pages. Thanks so much to everyone who tuned into this series, I’ve gotten so many interesting and thought-provoking messages in the last couple of days. Please let me know in the comments below if you learned something new about environmental justice!

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