By Fredrica Syren:
Until now, research on the impact of plastic on our health has focused solely on specific parts of the plastic lifecycle, often on single products, processes, or exposure pathways. Now a new research report by 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 UPSTREAMshows that the impact on the human body from exposure to plastic is greater and that people worldwide are exposed at multiple stages of plastic’s lifecycle.
Every stage of the plastic lifecycle has an impact on human health — from wellhead to production, from store shelves to human bodies, and from waste management. The effects continue with the impacts of microplastics in the air, water and soil.
According to the report, 99% of plastic comes from fossil fuels. The extraction of oil and gas, particularly hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, releases an array of toxic substances into the air and water, often in significant volumes. Over 170 fracking chemicals used to produce the main feedstocks for plastic have known human health impacts, including cancer; neurological, reproductive, and developmental toxicity; impairment of the immune system; and more.
We’re exposed to plastic many ways:
- Extraction and transportation of fossil feedstocks for plastic release highly toxic substances into the air and water. They are known to cause cancer, neurotoxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and impairment of the immune system;
- Refining and production of plastic resins and additives release carcinogenic and other highly toxic substances into the air. The effects include impairment of the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, leukemia and genetic impacts like low birth weight;
- Consumer products and packaging can lead to ingestion and/or inhalation of microplastic particles and hundreds of toxic substances;
- Plastic waste management, especially “waste-to-energy” and other forms of incineration, releases toxic substances including heavy metals such as lead and mercury; acid gases and particulate matter, which can enter air, water and soil, thus causing both direct and indirect health risks for workers and nearby communities;
- Fragmenting and microplastics enter the human body directly and lead to an array of health impacts (including inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis and necrosis), which are linked to negative health outcomes ranging from cardiovascular disease to cancer and autoimmune conditions;
- Cascading exposure as plastic degrades further leaches toxic chemicals concentrated in plastic into the environment and human bodies; and
- Ongoing environmental exposures as plastic contaminates and accumulates in food chains through agricultural soils, terrestrial and aquatic food chains, and the water supply, thereby creating new opportunities for human exposure.
One of the obstacles to finding a solution that will reduce exposure to plastic is the lack of transparency regarding the chemicals in plastic and its production processes. This prevents a full assessment of its impacts, reduces the ability of regulators to develop adequate safeguards, prevents consumers from making informed choices, and prevents fenceline communities from limiting their exposure.
According to a report called Fueling Plastics CIEL, plastic producers are well aware of the damage plastic is causing to our oceans … and they don’t care. As a matter of fact, they have known about the harm disposable plastic is to humans and the ocean since the 1970s. Instead of taking responsibility and working on a solution, for decades they have continued to deny any responsibility and have spent their time opposing sustainable solutions and fighting local regulations regarding disposable plastic products. Even as the crises mounted, they still did nothing. To put it bluntly, co-author of the CIEL report, Steven Feit, says the plastics producers took a note from Big Oil’s playbook on climate change: deny, confuse, and fight regulation and effective solutions.
We must remember that, after all, the plastics industry is for-profit business. It is the United States’ third largest industry, and responsible for 400 billion dollars in shipments. The plastics business is producing this volume of material because of consumer demand, so less demand will create less plastic.
Unfortunately, a change in consumers’ habits is not enough to solve the plastic crisis: “As hundreds of billions of dollars from the petrochemical industry are being poured into new plastic production, we need a global, binding treaty that regulates plastic pollution throughout its lifecycle, from wellhead production to ocean waste.”
It’s a fact that many actions and solutions are needed to confront this threat to human life and human rights. The only way to be effective is for manufacturers to reduce production, use, and disposal of plastic and associated toxic chemicals.