Is plastic making us ill? By Chloe Johnstone, WEN Volunteer
It doesn’t seem that long ago that David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series brought our attention to how single use plastic is damaging our environment. But with the release of a new report on ‘Plastics & Health: Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet’, a lesser known crisis has emerged; that plastic has severe impacts on human health too.
The research has uncovered that at all stages of plastic’s lifecycle, there is some kind of exposure to hazardous chemicals - causing an increased risk of illness, some that are potentially life-threatening. The danger to human health will continue to increase, unless consumers start questioning what their products are made from, demanding more plastic free options.
As consumers, we are rarely informed about the phases a product goes through before it reaches us on the shop shelf, not to mention the impact that each stage has on our health and the environment. However, this new report outlines the procedure of making plastic and the health issues that are connected.
The production of plastic starts with extracting oil and gas from the ground. This releases fossil fuels that then need to be refined and transformed, in order for consumer products to be manufactured out of them. These operations secrete an array of highly toxic substances into the air and water, creating a harmful atmosphere for humans and animals to be surrounded in. The chemicals have documented impacts on our sensory organs as well as being linked to cancer, the impairment of the immune system, skin and eye irritation, leukaemia and reproductive problems.
Another report into ‘Plastics, Gender and the Environment’, co-authored by WEN’s Health Advisor, Helen Lynn, found that households use about 20% of the global plastics for consumer products. When we buy these goods (such as clothing, jewellery, food packaging etc) we are putting ourselves in direct contact with plastic. Using these products can lead to the inhalation and ingestion of micro-plastic particles and other toxic substances, creating many different health issues for example inflammation and necrosis. In additionplastics from packaged food and PVC flooring can release hazardous chemicals such as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs). EDCs are also found in personal care and cosmetic products, which can be absorbed by the skin.
Plastic waste management systems that are used to destroy and break down the material result in the emission of poisonous metals, like lead and mercury as well as acidic gases, which can enter the air, water and soil. This can cause damage to the nervous, immune and respiratory system, especially in workers and people who live in near-by communities.
All the particles produced by the breakdown of plastic can travel long distances and deposit in water and soil. As the particles degrade they can contaminate and accumulate on plant and animal tissue. This leads to plastic leaching into human, agricultural and aquatic food chains. Microplastics entering the human body have been linked to many negative health outcomes like strokes, cardiovascular diseases and chronic inflammation.
From this new report we can see the overwhelming issues on human welfare caused by both direct and in-direct exposure to plastic production and consumption. Reducing our exposure to toxic chemicals will require a variety of solutions and options. We must have transparency within the industry in order to identify and address the nature and scale of danger at every stage of plastic’s lifecycle and as consumers we must make more conscious decisions on the products that we buy and use.
Some of the authors of the report have commented: “What’s toxic for the planet is just as toxic for human health. Why risk exposing our bodies to the thousands of chemicals found in plastic packaging when we have reusable options that do not pollute our health or the environment?” (Lauren Moore, UPSTREAM, global oil and gas news provider) and “We can’t dump, burn, or recycle our way out of this problem; it’s time for industry and governments to turn off this toxic tap and for all of us to make deep changes in the way we live”(Dr. Mariann Lloyd-Smith, IPEN, global network working to minimize and eliminate toxic chemicals).
WEN’s next #WENForum event is Generation Plastic - Toxic chemicals in plastic, what's the problem? 20/3/19 6pm Speakers include: Emma Ross; Mamalina, co-founder of #PlasticFreeParenting, a plastic free vlogger and blogger, Jayn Sterland; Managing Director at Weleda UK, a health and well-being brand and Dr Anna Watson of CHEM Trust. Book ticket