Look around you, man. Right now, man. How much plastic are you able to see? Food containers, plastic bottles, pens, even the phone cover, the list is endless. Despite its ubiquity, the impact of plastics on human health remain largely unknown to most people. Have you ever worried about how plastic pollution impacts human health?
Society has become totally dependent on plastic, but we rarely stop and wonder how this material could affect our health. Toxic chemicals are often applied to plastics in order to improve their properties. Many of these chemicals do not bind to the chemical chain of plastics, which ensures that they can be released into the environment under various atmospheric conditions. Such chemicals can be absorbed by the skin, evaporated into the air or consumed through the food or drink we eat. The toxicity of plastic products has a significant impact on human health, so it is important to know precisely what chemicals are used and to take steps to prevent them.
The most common plastic additives are:
BPAs–widely used in food and beverage containers. The EU is already taking steps to limit and regulate the use of BPAs, recognizing their human health hazards.
Plasticisers–often used to make PVC more flexible, are found in almost every plastic object we use on a daily basis, from children's toys to car seats.
Flame retardants–commonly used in electronic devices to provide fire safety benefits. Some of these chemicals have been banned by the United Nations as being considered dangerous both to the atmosphere and to humans.
Below you will find a list of the five main ways in which plastic reaches our body and how plastic pollution affects human health:
1) We eat plastic polluted seafood
Scientists have found microplastics in 114 marine species and almost one-third of them end up in our plates. Some of the chemicals added to plastic to improve its efficiency are considered to be endocrine disruptors–chemicals that affect normal hormonal function–while some of the retardants can interfere with the development of the brain in children. It is very difficult to study the effects of microplastics on human health. Today, we know very little about the levels of pollution that could negatively affect us. According to recent research by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, people are likely to eat only negligible amounts of microplastics from food. Nevertheless, scientists remain concerned about the human-health impact of marine plastics. Further research needs to be done before we can really understand the implications of the ingestion of infected fish. But it is quite clear that this can not possibly be a good addition to our diets. Every day that we consume more contaminated seafood, plastic pollution affects human health, even if it has not yet occurred.
2) Plastic is consumed by packaging
BPAs in many plastic items that come into close contact with food, including plastic packaging, kitchenware and inner beverage coatings. BPA is metabolized in the liver to produce Bisphenol A, and it leaves our body through our urine.
Just to give you an idea of the degree to which we are exposed to this plastic chemical, 95% of Canadians have detected BPA in their urine. The main problem is that–as already mentioned–BPA is an endocrine disruptor. The human endocrine system controls a range of vital body functions, including: aerobic heart rate digestion reproduction BPAs emitted from plastic pollution cause serious health effects, leading to worldwide market campaigns demanding BPA-free packaging.
3) We drink microplastics via bottled water
The World Health Organization (WHO) published shocking research in 2018, which exposed the presence of microplastics in 90% of the bottled water tested–only 17 of which were free of plastics out of 259. Today, while there is not enough proof of the effect of microplastics on human health, most scientists agree that this is a growing area of concern and that, if thousands of species worldwide die because of it, it can't be that good for us either.
4) We absorb plastic from our clothing
Yes, you read it correctly. Global Apparel Fiber Consumption has published research that highlights that–out of 100,000 kg of fiber consumed worldwide in one year–70% is synthetic. Synthetic fibres, such as polyester, acrylic, radius and nylon, are made from petroleum–yes, the same oil that we supply to our cars–and are a form of plastic. Microplastics are continuously emitted from our clothes in the rain, and we breathe them every single day. Most synthetic fabrics are treated with thousands of hazardous toxic chemicals during processing, with polyester ranked first and foremost as the worst skin tissue. Our skin is the largest and most permeable organ in our bodies and can consume up to 60% of the substances we bring in direct contact with. However, synthetic fabrics do not allow your skin to breathe, trapping odors and serving as a perfect environment for bacteria to grow. Such microfibers often lead to marine plastic pollution in a subtle yet systematic way: every time we wash our synthetic clothes in a washing machine, microplastics leak into the ocean from our household water waste. It is possible that a single load of laundry will release up to thousands of microfibers from our clothes into the water supply.
5) We breathe plastic
This is a problem that many people in the Global North are unable to respond to, but it presents a major health threat to people living in the Global South. Where waste management is poor, people often have no choice but to burn their garbage in the open air. This is a very common practice that allows artificial chemicals to quickly enter the body while we usually breathe. A report published in March 2018 showed that 5 billion people worldwide live without waste collection or managed disposal. As a result, nearly 9 million people die each year. In Europe, the issue remains, but it is hidden within the vast buildings known as incinerators. Incinerators in Europe are expected to operate with maximum safety, converting heat produced by burning trash into energy. It's beautiful right? Unfortunately, it has been shown that dioxins–one of the most toxic chemicals known to humans –are released into the air by incinerators in huge quantities. When it is not directly released into our atmosphere, it is grouped into toxic ash. Sweden has recently been subjected to dumping its radioactive incinerator waste on an island off Norway.
We're drowning in a sea of plastics, and that can't be good for our health.
Some plastic additives are known to be extremely harmful to humans and the environment, and while we do not yet have enough knowledge on the true extent to which plastic pollution affects human health, it is clear that that levels of pollution do not bode well for us.
While we are not choking on plastic bags such as marine birds or turtles, there is concern about the amount of toxic chemicals found in our daily plastics, combined with our constant exposure to this stuff. It is becoming increasingly important for society to reduce its reliance on single-use plastics and to seek alternative materials.
Intrigued by this post, huh? Find out more about how plastic pollution affects marine life.