There is a crisis with plastics in the world. At every stage of their lifecycle, including fossil fuel extraction, manufacturing, production, usage, recycling, and dumping, plastics have a harmful impact on both humans and the environment, as well as numerous other sectors.
- What volume of plastic do you see? The list is vast and includes plastic bottles, pens, food containers, and even your phone case.
- Despite its pervasiveness, most people are unaware of how plastic pollution affects human health.
- Have you ever considered the detrimental impact on your health of the daily increase in plastic pollution?
Along the whole plastic lifespan, humans are exposed to a wide range of hazardous compounds and microplastics through breathing, ingestion, and direct skin contact. According to WWF, a common individual may consume 5 grams of plastic weekly (WWF, 2021). Even though research on the health effects of plastics is still in its infancy, the evidence thus far suggests that the contaminants and harmful chemical additions present in plastics pose a global threat to human health. The development of cancer and the alteration of hormone action (known as endocrine disruption), which can impede growth, reproduction, and cognition, are examples of scientifically documented health repercussions (Geneva Environment Network, 2022; Michael Irving, 2022).
The Plastic Health Summit II occurred in Amsterdam on October 21st, 2021. One’s health was the main topic. There is no question about a connection between environmental and human health (Plastic health coalition, 2021).
The use of plastic is all around us. It is used in many clothes, furniture, food packaging, and electronics. Natural materials used in production, such as glass, paper, and cotton, have been supplanted by plastic over the last few decades. We know that the massive plastic contamination of our environment results from the pervasive use of plastics. Plastics, though, affect more than simply the environment (Plastic health coalition, 2021; CIEL, 2022). Prof. Dr. Dick Vethaak, a toxicologist, noted that we are also dealing with a human health concern.
Three different avenues exist for plastics to harm our health:
- Every day, we consume and breathe microplastics. Once they have entered our bodies, these tiny plastic particles could harm our health.
- Chemical additives are present in plastic products. Several of these substances have been linked to grave health issues like tumors linked to hormones, infertility, and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism.
- Plastics and microplastics released into the environment draw microbes like dangerous bacteria (pathogens). Microplastics containing these microorganisms could raise the risk of illness if they get inside us (Plastic health coalition, 2021; Michael Irving, 2022).
Additionally, effects on health are seen throughout the plastic value chain. Examples comprise air pollution at waste incineration sites, worker chemical exposure, water and soil contamination, and pollution at extraction sites. Concerns about human rights violations and environmental injustice are raised by the disproportionate exposure of vulnerable populations, such as children, workers in the informal garbage sector, and marginalized communities. The myriad health problems linked to rising temperatures and extreme weather events brought on by climate change are also a result of plastics (WWF, 2021; Geneva Environment Network, 2022; Celis et al., 2021).
According to a recent study, plastic is a disaster for human health that is not being seen. Authors of the book Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet include the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Earthworks, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), IPEN, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.), University of Exeter, and UPSTREAM. The book compiles research that reveals the distinct toxic risks plastic poses to human health at every stage of the plastic lifecycle (Plastic pollution coalition, 2019).
Research on the effects of plastic on human health has so far mainly concentrated on particular phases of the plastic lifecycle, frequently on single items, procedures, or exposure pathways. This method overlooks the fact that there are significant, intricate, and interconnected effects on human health at every stage of the plastic lifecycle, including the wellhead, refinery, store shelves, human bodies, waste disposal, and continuous effects of microplastics in the air, water, and soil (Plastic pollution coalition, 2019). The comprehensive overview of plastic’s impact on human health provided by Plastic & Health advises that any solution to the plastic dilemma must be considered for the entire lifetime (Michael Irving, 2022).
Although plastic has become a necessity for society, we rarely consider how it might hurt our health. Plastic is frequently given toxic chemicals to enhance its qualities. Several of these additives could be released into the atmosphere when exposed to diverse atmospheric conditions because they do not bond to the chemical structure of the plastic. These chemicals can enter our bodies through the skin, evaporate into the atmosphere, or be ingested through food or beverages (Alice Fortuna, 2019; Angnunavuri et al., 2022). Given that all of them are poisonous, it is crucial to understand precisely what compounds are utilized and take precautions to avoid them.
The following is a list of the five main ways that plastic enters our bodies and harms human health:
1. We consume fish tainted with plastic:
Nearly one-third of the microplastics discovered by scientists in 114 marine species eventually wind up on our plates. While some of the chemicals put into plastic to improve its performance are regarded as endocrine disruptors, which influence natural hormone function, others are considered retardants, which may impair a child’s ability to grow their brain. However, scientists are still worried about the impact of marine plastics on human health (CIEL, 2022; Wang & Qian, 2021).
Before we can comprehend the effects of consuming contaminated seafood, further research must be done. The fact that this cannot be a healthy addition to our meals is obvious. Even if these impacts have not yet materialized, plastic pollution has an impact on human health with each passing day while we consume more tainted seafood (Alice Fortuna, 2019).
2. Plastic is consumed through packaging:
Numerous plastic items that come into direct contact with food, such as cookware, beverage interior coatings, and plastic packaging, contain BPAs (Bisphenol A). BPA is converted in the liver to Bisphenol A, which then leaves the body through the urine.
95% of Canadians had BPA in their urine, which shows how much we are exposed to this plastic ingredient. As was already mentioned, the fundamental issue is that BPA is an endocrine disruptor (Alice Fortuna, 2019; CIEL, 2022; Plastic health coalition, 2021).
3. The bottled water we consume contains microplastics:
The World Health Organization (WHO) revealed disturbing findings in 2018 that only 17 out of 259 examined water bottles were plastic-free, indicating that 90% contained microplastics. Even though there is currently insufficient data on the effects of microplastics on human health, most experts concur that this is an increasing area of worry and that if it is killing thousands of species worldwide, it cannot be healthy for humans either (Alice Fortuna, 2019; WWF, 2021; Celis et al., 2021).
4. Plastic is absorbed through our clothing:
Yes, you read that right. Out of the 100,000 kg of fibers consumed globally in a year, information from the Global Apparel Fiber Consumption shows that 70% are synthetic. Petrol, the same oil we use to fuel our cars, is the source of synthetic fibers like rayon, polyester, nylon, and acrylic, which are plastic. We breathe in microplastics daily because they are constantly released into the air by our garments. Thousands of dangerous poisonous chemicals are used to treat a variety of synthetic fabrics during production, with polyester rated as the worst fabric for the skin. Synthetic textiles also prevent your skin from breathing, trapping odors and creating the ideal environment for bacteria to flourish (Michael Irving, 2022; Alice Fortuna, 2019).
5. We breathe plastic:
According to a survey released in March 2018, 5 billion people worldwide do not have access to controlled trash disposal or waste pickup. As a result, about 9 million individuals pass away annually. The problem still exists in Europe, but it is concealed inside enormous structures called incinerators. Incinerators in Europe are designed to run as safely as possible while generating energy from the heat created by burning waste. Wonderful, huh? Unfortunately, it has been established that incinerators discharge significant amounts of dioxin into the air, one of the most hazardous compounds known to man. It is collected in hazardous ashes if not immediately dispersed into our atmosphere (Alice Fortuna, 2019).
Conclusively, plastic presents specific health concerns to people throughout every stage of its lifespan, resulting from contact with plastic particles and related compounds. Multiple stages of this lifecycle are exposed to people worldwide (Plastic pollution coalition, 2019).
Extraction and transportation of fossil fuels used to make plastic releases a variety of toxic substances into the air, water, and soil, some of which are known to have adverse health effects, such as neurotoxicity, cancer, immune system impairment, and reproductive and developmental toxicity.
Refinement and manufacture of plastic resins and additives (Plastic pollution coalition, 2019; Celis et al., 2021), which emit highly toxic and carcinogenic compounds into the air, having effects on the nervous system impairment, issues during reproduction and development, causing cancer, leukemia, and genetic effects including low birth weight.
Consumer goods and packaging can cause hundreds of harmful compounds and microplastic particles to be consumed or inhaled.
The management of plastic waste, particularly ‘waste-to-energy’ (Plastic pollution coalition, 2019) and other types of incineration, discharges harmful compounds, such as particulate matter, acid gases, and heavy metals like lead and mercury that can enter the air, water, and soil, posing both direct and indirect health hazards to employees and nearby areas.
Fragmentation and microplastics penetrate the human body directly and have a variety of deleterious health effects (such as inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis) related to illnesses like cancer and autoimmune disorders; (Celis et al., 2021)
Continuous environmental exposure occurs as plastic contaminates and builds up in food chains through agricultural soils, terrestrial and aquatic food chains, and the water supply, creating new opportunities for human exposure; cascading exposure occurs as plastic degrades, further releasing toxic chemicals concentrated in plastic into the environment and human bodies; and one-time exposure occurs as plastic is discarded or recycled (Plastic pollution coalition, 2019; Wang & Qian, 2021).
The cumulative consequences of plastic paint an intricate and ominous picture: plastic endangers people’s health across the world. To reduce those concerns, it will be necessary to halt and reverse the global rise in plastics production, consumption, and disposal.
We must: Take into account the lifetime of plastic in order to solve the human health issue that is obvious. So far, the few approaches that have been employed to assess and deal with the effects of plastic are ineffective and inappropriate. Making wise choices about risk requires being aware of how much harm plastic can bring to human health. As a result of the resolution of the existing environmental problem, it is also required to prevent the formation of other, more complicated environmental problems (CIEL, 2022; Celis et al., 2021).
Take into account the distinct risks to human health from exposure to plastic particles and related compounds at each stage of the plastic’s life. Most people on the earth are exposed throughout this lifecycle:
Transport and Extraction
Fossil fuels make up 99% of plastic. The production of oil and gas, especially the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas, releases a variety of hazardous substances into the air and water, frequently in significant amounts. Over 170 fracking chemicals are used to make the main feedstocks for plastic, and they have been connected to a number of known health problems, including neurological harm, cancer, reproductive harm, immune system harm, developmental toxicity, and more (CIEL, 2022; Geneva Environment Network, 2022; Angnunavuri et al., 2022).
Manufacturing and Refining
Carcinogenic and other highly hazardous compounds are released into the atmosphere by converting fossil fuels into plastic resins and additives. The nervous system can be harmed by exposure to these drugs and reproductive and developmental issues, cancer, leukemia, and genetic implications such as low birth weight. The most vulnerable groups during uncontrolled leaks and emergencies are industry personnel and the communities close to refining facilities (CIEL, 2022; Wang & Qian, 2021).
Commercial Goods and Packaging
Large quantities of microplastic particles and hundreds of hazardous chemicals with known or suspected carcinogenic, developmental, or endocrine-disrupting effects are ingested and/or inhaled as a result of the use of plastic items.
All methods of managing plastic trash (including incineration, co-incineration, gasification, and pyrolysis) emit hazardous materials into the air, water, and soils, including organic compounds (dioxins and furans), acid gases, and toxic metals like lead and mercury. These technologies expose employees and the surrounding community to hazardous substances both directly and indirectly, including by breathing in contaminated air, coming into direct contact with contaminated soil or water, and eating food raised in a toxic environment (CIEL, 2022; Angnunavuri et al., 2022; Celis et al., 2021). Toxins from burn pile emissions, fly ash, and slag can disperse over great distances and deposit in soil and water before eventually making their way into human bodies after building up in plant and animal tissues.
To sum up, agricultural soils, terrestrial and aquatic food chains, and water sources are all pathways by which macro- and microplastics released into the environment contaminate and build up in food systems. This environmental plastic can concentrate or quickly leak out toxins already existing in the environment, making them once again available for either direct or indirect human exposure. When plastic particles age, new surface regions become apparent, allowing the leaching of additives from the particle’s core to its surface into the environment and body.
Alice Fortuna, (2019). Harmful Effects of Plastic Pollution on Human Health. rePurpose. Retrieved from: https://repurpose.global/blog/post/harmful-effects-of-plastic-pollution-on-human-health. Accessed on: 16-12-2022
Angnunavuri, P. N., Attiogbe, F., & Mensah, B. (2022). Particulate plastics in drinking water and potential human health effects: Current knowledge for management of freshwater plastic materials in Africa. Environmental Pollution, 120714.
Celis, J. E., Espejo, W., Paredes-Osses, E., Contreras, S. A., Chiang, G., & Bahamonde, P. (2021). Plastic residues produced with confirmatory testing for COVID-19: classification, quantification, fate, and impacts on human health. Science of the Total Environment, 760, 144167.
CIEL, (2022). Plastic and Human Health: A Lifecycle Approach to Plastic Pollution. CIEL – Center for International Environmental Law. Retrieved from: https://www.ciel.org/project-update/plastic-and-human-health-a-lifecycle-approach-to-plastic-pollution/. Accessed on: 30-11-2022
Geneva Environment Network, (2022). Plastics and Human Health | Plastics and the Environment Series. Geneva Environment Network. Retrieved from: https://www.genevaenvironmentnetwork.org/resources/updates/plastics-and-health/. Accessed on: 17-12-2022
Michael Irving, (2022). Efficient new catalyst converts mixed plastic waste into propane. New Atlas. Retrieved from: https://newatlas.com/materials/catalyst-mixed-plastic-waste-propane-recycle/. Accessed on: 18-12-2022
Plastic health coalition, (2021). PLASTIC HEALTH SUMMIT 2021: ONE HEALTH. Plastic health coalition by Plastic Soup Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.plastichealthcoalition.org/#:~:text=These%20small%20plastic%20particles%20may,disorders%20like%20ADHD%20and%20autism. Accessed on: 19-12-2022
Plastic pollution coalition (2019). Report: Plastic Threatens Human Health at a Global Scale. Plastic pollution coalition. Retrieved from: https://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/blog/2019/2/20/report-plastic-threatens-human-health-at-a-global-scale. Accessed on: 17-12-2022
Wang, Y., & Qian, H. (2021, May). Phthalates and their impacts on human health. In Healthcare (Vol. 9, No. 5, p. 603). MDPI.
WWF, (2021). World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). UN environment programme. Retrieved from: seas/partners/world-wide-fund-nature-wwf#:~:text=The%20World%20Wide%20Fund%20for,spaces%20and%20addressing%20global%20threats. Accessed on: 18-12-2022