Serious Effects of Plastic Pollution on Human Health
Most of us grew up in an age where the mantra of “plastic is fantastic” shaped our environment to the extent that today plastic really is all around us. Look around you. Food and beverage containers, cosmetic and toiletry containers, pens, car interiors, your laptop mouse, toys, bags, packaging, floors, shoes and your cellphone screen.
Materials that do not readily look like plastic include plastic polymers or resins like Styrofoam and food can liners. Other not so obvious plastics are in cosmetics, toothpastes, adhesives, lubricants, detergents and internal medical devices.
In short, we are constantly exposed to plastics.
Plastic toxicity for human body
Plastics can be made of a selection of many different chemicals to improve its properties, to prevent degradation in the environment when exposed to light, humidity, temperature or microorganisms, to make it more or less flexible, to lessen flammability or to color it.
Many of these substances are not bound to the chemical chain of the plastic, which means that they can migrate under different circumstances as small as a change in temperature or light. Toxic ingredients can evaporate into the air and be breathed in. They can readily absorb into the skin. And they can leach into food or drink and then be ingested.
Breathing near plastic trash being burned, opening a new plastic item that releases a strong odor, applying body lotion, drinking hot coffee from a Styrofoam cup , reusing a water bottle, eating food microwaved in a plastic container, or that has been frozen in a plastic container or even food that has simply been stored in a while… any of these common practices allow chemicals from plastic to migrate easily into the body.
Plastic comes in many forms but there is general consensus that while a useful material, there are serious concerns about harmful effects of plastic on human health.
- The additives contained in plastic materials with which we come directly into contact.
- The effects of plastics on the environment which in turn may compromise human health.
Additives used in plastics can have different health effects for people. Numerous additives are used depending on the kind of plastic, the primary use of the product where the plastic is used or even the brand! For instance, the group of chemicals called “plasticizers” is one family of additives used to provide PVC with flexibility.
Plasticizers are in fact numerous substances and the kind of plasticizer added in the manufacturing process depends on where the PVC is used and what it is needed for, for example in children’s toys or in fake leather car seats .
This complicates matters for both policy-makers seeking to limit our exposure to harmful chemicals but it also makes it impossible for consumers to know what everyday products are really made from.
The three most commonly cited plastic additives that have been linked to such diseases are:
- BPA or Bisphenol A, often used in food and beverages containers, such as water bottles. The EU has taken steps to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and some EU member states have taken restrictions further.
- Plasticisers or Phthalates, primarily used in PVC to make it flexible, these additives can be used in children’s toys, flooring, clothes and a myriad of other everyday items.
- Flame retardants, used in electric and electronic equipment, upholstery and other items to provide fire safety benefits. Some of these substances have been banned by the UN due to the detrimental effects they had to the environment and human health.
Additionally, very few of these chemicals known to easily migrate from plastic have been tested for their toxicity to humans. One of the reasons for this is the difficulty in coming up with a testing model as there does not appear to be a population baseline for a control group that has not been exposed to plastic.
Bisphenol A: A powerful endocrine disruptor
An oft-cited early study from the scientific community showed that 95 percent of the over 2500 participants aged six and older in the United States had Bisphenol A, or BPA, a common chemical component in plastic, in their urine .
BPA only takes six hours to pass through the body so this indicates current exposure. BPA was selected for testing because it is one of the highest volume chemicals produced worldwide .
The problem with this ready migration is that BPA is an endocrine disruptor, which means that it disrupts the human endocrine system from working properly.
The endocrine system regulates a number of vital body functions including:
- heart rate
- general mood
- ability to sleep well
- sexual function
- fertility and reproduction
- tissue development and function
Generally, the endocrine system works by removing necessary materials from the blood, processing them for the destination and then making sure they get there . It affects every cell in the body and its disruption at any point has consequences.
The most common endocrine disease in the United States is diabetes. This occurs when there is a problem within the endocrine system such as the pancreas not making enough of the hormone insulin or the body does not use it as it should so then the sugar in the blood becomes too high.
A disrupting chemical like BPA can mimic a hormone or block a receptor or do any number of things to disrupt the proper functioning of any of the endocrine glands.
The list of other disorders widespread in society includes:
- thyroid cancer
- hypo- and hypertension
- Addison’s disease
- Cushing’s syndrome
- low testosterone
These disorders often cover a host of symptoms and other problems and risks.
For example, studies cited in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that those under age 75 with subclinical hypothyroidism have been found to be at significant risk of cognitive impairment and even dementia .
The problem of introducing endocrine disruptors into the body is complex and unfortunately, ubiquitous.
Because it is widely recognized that tissue and development disruption have the most far-reaching consequences during prenatal and post-natal periods, the United States banned BPA in the manufacture of baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012.
The United States does not lead the way in formally recognizing adverse health consequences from chemicals widely used in production by any stretch, backpedaling from its own findings according to the reigning political administration .
A more reliable assessment of the state of science of endocrine disruptors is probably that prepared by a group of experts for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) published in 2013.
The study was initiated due to emerging evidence for adverse reproductive outcomes (infertility, cancers, malformations) from exposure to endocrine disrupting hormones, as well as “mounting evidence for effects of these chemicals on thyroid function, brain function, obesity and metabolism, and insulin and glucose homeostasis.”
Cautious in its conclusions due the inability to find and test a baseline of humans who have not been exposed to plastics, but relying on studies of wildlife as well as epidemiological data indicating the alarming increase of endocrine-related diseases, the study concludes that “Together, the animal model data and human evidence support the idea that exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals during fetal development and puberty plays a role in the increased incidences of reproductive diseases, endocrine-related cancers, behavioural and learning problems, including ADHD, infections, asthma, and perhaps obesity and diabetes in humans.”
The study results included breast and prostate cancer, autoimmune diseases, susceptibility to infections, Parkinson disease, learning disabilities, and strokes and Alzheimer disease as diseases among those induced by exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals .
Asthma causing phthalates
BPA is not the only endocrine-disrupting chemical found to leach from plastics.
Phthalates are plastic softeners that have also been finding their way into the human body.
Phthalates are linked to:
- reproductive malformations
- developmental disorders
- pulmonary system effects including asthma and allergies
- direct toxicity 
Banned by the European Union in 2015 , phthalates are still manufactured in all but children’s toys and child care products in the United States even though tests have consistently demonstrated phthalate exposure in 98 percent of the participants, including pregnant women.
Like BPA, phthalates also pass swiftly out of the body, so presence in the urine likely indicates chronic exposure rather than accumulation over time within the body .
How does plastic pollution in the ocean affect our health?
Our oceans are critical for absorbing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that would otherwise make the earth too hot and the weather too tempestuous for humans to survive .
Marine ecosystems support oxygen production, nutrient cycles and carbon capture through photosynthesis and carbon sequestration .
Our oceans are critical for providing food for a good deal of the earth’s population, including most notably impoverished populations that would not otherwise survive . Our oceans also play a vital role in providing water, necessary for life. The oceans hold 97 percent of the water on Earth .
It is predicted that by 2050 the world’s oceans will contain a greater mass of plastic than fish .
In fact, Nature.com recently released a report about ocean pollution revealing that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawaii, one of five major garbage patches in the oceans has now grown to over 600,000 square miles. It is estimated to contain about 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic and to weigh 88,000 tons.
And of course, this is just the surface. It is nearly impossible to say how much pollution is in the ocean.
When plastics deteriorate, they release their hazardous chemicals like BPA and phthalates and a host of other toxic components including lead, mercury, cadmium and dioxin into the sea.
Plastic chemicals also adsorb, meaning that they attract each other and then combine. For example, a plastic bag will pick up or adsorb mercury or cadmium from material floating adjacent to it. The toxicity is accordingly magnified .
Enough plastic bags have been found in fish carcasses to make scientist believe that perhaps they look like jellyfish, a delicacy. Birds, whales, sea turtles, all of these have been dissected to reveal guts or gills filled with plastic bits. Plankton, the smallest of marine life at the bottom of the food chain have been filmed eating plastic .
The toxic chemicals in plastic bioaccumulate in the lipids or fatty tissue and are found in higher concentrations at higher levels in the food chain .
Not only does the ingestion cause respiratory and digestive issues, often fatal, increased susceptibility to infectious diseases, but also endocrine disruption in the host fish and its predators.
Each successive predator consumes ten times its body weight, so that by the time the fish ends up at the top of the food chain, the small bit of mercury, cadmium, phthalates and bisphenol-A consumed by the tiny plankton is now a potent amount on your plate.
And so, while you are dining on fresh flounder in a fancy restaurant feeling peaceful with things and heady with fine wine, appreciating the nutrition you are feeding your cells, you are actually unwittingly forking toxins into your body that will bind to an endocrine receptor and send signals that you own thyroid is a foreign entity.
You will become hyperthyroid, brittle and angry for the rest of your days. Despite medication and therapy, you will never know exactly why.
But if you could trace it back to the one plastic bag floating in the ocean that attracted the other toxic chemicals before being nibbled by the tiny fish eventually consumed by the flounder, you would find that the plastic bag was used for one minute by a man to carry his chewing tobacco can from the store to his pickup truck, a completely necessary use and from there, once he pulled the can out, the bag blew out the window making its way across the land to the ocean where it floated, adsorbing more toxins before entering the food chain and making its way into your body.
This is one way how plastics in the ocean have been affecting human health. We have to look at the bigger picture to understand how everything is connected in nature, and effects of marine pollution get back to us in one way or another.
Looking at the problem from a global perspective, the European Environment Agency has stated point blank that marine ecosystems are “essential for maintaining life on our planet .”
The health and vitality of marine ecosystems affects the health of the food chain, the welfare of local populations relying upon the sea for food, tourism, cultural identity and enjoyment, as well as affecting the carbon cycle and hence the vitality of the earth itself and all of its inhabitants.
For example, in addition to adversely affecting vertebrates, plastic toxins are also destroying coral reefs .
So, how can we stop the madness?
The most widespread causes of plastic pollution
Half of the plastic being produced today is used for packaging, plastic bags and other single-use containers, all instantly discardable items .
How can we reduce plastic pollution?
Piecemeal efforts are being made to reduce plastic pollution. For instance, the UK and the United States have banned the manufacturing and distribution of rinse-off cosmetics and toothpastes containing tiny plastic microbeads .
New York City has banned single-use Styrofoam containers .
The State of California banned single-use plastic bags at large retail stores and requires a minimum ten cent charge for reusable plastic bags . Most of Austria’s larger supermarket chains have voluntarily stopped providing customers plastic bags. If you haven’t brought one, you can buy a sturdy, reusable bag at the checkout .
Plastic bags are a recycling nightmare because they require separate facilities and yet wind up at plastic recycling facilities for harder plastics and jam the machines at every step of the way.
Less than 1 percent of the four trillion plastic bags uses annually end up pf the manufactured end up in recycling facilities . They never degrade.
In short, using less plastic is the first step.
The market is run by supply and demand and if consumers are not demanding plastic products, there will be no profit in making them. But you don’t have to wait for the market to catch up. Start your own trend. For example, it has become trendy to refuse plastic straws.
Second, spreading awareness. If people truly understood the environmental and health costs of using plastic bags, perhaps they would not use them so thoughtlessly.
Likewise, if people were to understand society’s and their own addiction to useless and sometimes dangerous plastic products, that is, if people could actually see their shopping behaviors from a more objective perspective, they would be more likely to consider the impact of unnecessary purchases.
Third, ensuring that plastic to be recycled gets to its end destination rather than ending up in the environment.
What can we do with plastic waste?
Banning the use of plastic bags would go a long way to preventing further problems, but what do we do with the plastic we have now?
First, we must gather it.
This involves cleaning the polluted areas. Ten rivers are contributing to most of the plastic pollution in the oceans . Stopping the garbage before it enters the ocean would help.
Efforts are also being made to clean the garbage patches .
Local efforts such as an organization adopting a section of highway are popular in the United States.
The logistics of enforcing littering laws is problematic. Making littering less socially acceptable would be helpful in curbing our plastic problem.
Improve recycling collection so that plastic bags are separated from other recyclables at the source, are free from contamination and not subject to blowing away would help ensure the gathered plastic makes it to its intended destination.
But where is the intended destination?
Landfills are proving to not be a viable solution. An alternative idea being pursued in laboratories, where scientists are trying to find an enzyme to eat or dissolve plastic. Or a new use for using recycled plastic is highlighted. The government of Maharashtra, India is trying to build 10,000 km of roads using 50,000 tons of plastic waste.
Finding more uses involving recycling plastic already would definitely help. It is unclear whether the entire United States has more than 1300 businesses that recycle plastic .
China is now refusing to accept the plastic waste countries have been sending it to recycle due its detrimental effect on its environment.
Coupled with these new ideas must be the requirement that it is an environmentally-friendly business . Perhaps government incentives such as tax credits would help or awards to inventors with new business ideas.
 Vandenberg LN, Hauser R, Marcus M, Olea N, Welshons WV Reprod Toxicol. 2007 Aug-Sep; 24(2):139-77.