Plastic is a global health crisis, and it requires global solutions

Carroll Muffett, CIEL

There is a global health crisis hiding in plain sight. It’s being transported along our roadways and released into our skies. It surrounds us in our homes and offices. It plagues our oceans, our waterways, and our soil. It’s even in the food we eat and the water we drink.

It’s plastic. And it’s impacting human health on a global scale, according to a new report Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet.

But plastic doesn’t magically appear in our coffee cups, carpets and toys. And it doesn’t just disappear when we toss it into the nearest trash or recycling bin.

The life of a plastic product starts at the wellhead, when fossil fuels are extracted from the ground. Over 99% of plastic comes from fossil fuels, like oil, gas, and coal. And Its toxic legacy never really ends, it just circles back into our body via the air we breathe, food we eat, and water we drink. 

In the United States, cheap shale gas from fracking is driving a plastic boom as wet gas extracted from fracking wells are particularly well suited to plastic production. Local activists have long stood up against fracking in their communities—and for good reason. Fracking—and oil and gas extraction more generally—releases toxic chemicals into the air and water. Over 170 of the chemicals used in fracking processes to create plastic are associated with known health impacts: they can affect the immune and reproductive systems, sensory organs and can cause cancer. But while the health impacts of extraction are significant in their own right, they’re just the first step in a toxic lifecycle.

After fossil fuels are extracted, they go through pipelines, which cause their own health impacts by leaching toxic chemicals in the air and water, and head to refineries and manufacturing plants. These plants refine the raw materials and combine them with thousands of toxic additives to be transformed into plastic as we know it. Neighborhoods located near these facilities (fence line communities) and the workers employed at the plants are at particular risk during these processes. Exposure to the toxic substances released into the air from these plants has been shown to affect eyes and skin, and cause impacts such as low birth weight, developmental delays, cancer, leukemia, and other dire health impacts. Manchester/Harrisburg, Texas, and the notorious “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana are examples of communities fighting for environmental justice as they bear a disproportionate burden of the health impacts and mortality from plastic production and they aren’t given information about the toxic cocktail to which they are exposed.

Then, the newly produced plastic and its cocktail of toxic additives is turned into cups, toys, food packaging, building materials, synthetic athletic wear, or carpeting, and makes its way to stores, and then into our homes, and then into our bodies. We touch, ingest, and inhale toxic chemicals from these materials every day. And chemicals regularly migrate into our bodies via the food we eat and the air we breathe in our own homes, with concerning effects. 

One study found that 92% of urine samples from children (6 years and older) and adults contained BPA, a known endocrine disruptor that can affect development, and is used as both a plastic processing agent and additive. But BPA is merely a single example among literally thousands of known toxics, including lead (used as a plastic stabilizer), phthalates (common plasticizers), highly toxic and persistent brominated compounds (used as flame retardants), PFAs (used as grease and stain repellent and for waterproofing rain gear) and many more. In some plastics, such as PVC, these toxic compounds can make up to 80% of the overall weight of the final product. And countless studies are finding these chemicals in people's blood and other bodily tissues and even in babies, that are now born “pre-polluted.”

While a global movement is coalescing around reducing the ubiquity of single-use plastic, for now at least, they remain ubiquitous. And plastic products with a longer lifespan just expand their toxic aura throughout their life, and beyond. Because plastic never really goes away, and neither does its toxic impact.

Of all the plastic ever created, only 9% is recycled, 12% is burned, and a whopping 79% ends up in landfills or the environment. Burning plastic (or turning it back into fuel) releases heavy metals, acid gases, and other dangerous toxins into our air, water, and soil. In the environment, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces called micro (and nano) plastics contaminating waterways, agricultural soils, and the air we breathe.  

And these micro and nano plastics are small enough to contaminate almost all food chains, but not before acting as a toxic sponge, absorbing additional toxic chemicals from the environment, and making them bioavailable again as they degrade.

Already, plastic has been detected in seafood, salt, honey, sugar, beer, and water (both bottled and tap). Our repeated exposure to this toxic cocktail of chemicals could compound a whole new universe of health impacts—many of which we don’t yet fully understand.

While there are still so many things that we don’t know about plastic’s health impacts, Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet is the first  comprehensive report on the health impacts of the plastic life cycle to date. And while the report identifies many areas that require additional research to better understand the exposure pathways and toxicity mechanisms the information available is more than enough to paint a clear picture: Plastic is toxic. Full stop. At every single stage in its lifecycle.

Now, we must work together on a global scale to stop the plastic health crisis. There’s no silver bullet, and we’ll need action at all levels in order to make an impact in slowing this behemoth industry. But we know one thing for sure: any true solution must reduce the plastic production and use. Because when your sink is overflowing, you don’t start by grabbing a mop, you first turn off the tap! Even more so when this particular tap spills a cocktail of thousands of toxic chemicals. 

One promising action area is the fourth meeting of the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) in March. At UNEA-4, lawmakers from around the world will gather to discuss ways to tackle the plastic pollution problem. Under consideration at this meeting is a potential treaty to regulate plastic at the global level. Currently, plastic regulations are piecemeal and fragmented, and many gains rely on voluntary commitments. But a new convention on plastic could unify global efforts to confront and manage the entire lifecycle of plastic, from wellhead to oceans. We plan to make the Plastic & Health report a centerpiece in those discussions.

While we still have a long way to go toward a global plastic treaty, the evidence shows that it’s time for ambitious solutions. The rights to health and life demands urgent, global action to reduce exposure to plastic’s toxic lifecycle.

Last updated February 20, 2019

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