Planet vs. Plastics
Plastics: The Deadly Epidemic
November 20, 2023
Plastic is everywhere. It seems impossible to estimate how much we depend on this popular material. Plastics have only been around for a fraction of the planet’s history — since the early 20th century — but while they may give us short term convenience they are causing irreparable environmental damage that will impact our world for hundreds of years. They also pose considerable risks for wildlife and human health, and they are a unique hazard because it is virtually impossible to avoid plastics. Nobody can completely opt out of exposure to them.
Fifty years ago, our reliance on plastic would have seemed absurd in a world where most everyday items were made from glass, clay, wood, metal, or paper. Clay, for example, was used to make pots. Tin and paper were used for food packaging. Many times, fresh produce from local grocers came in no packaging at all, while drinks came in reusable glass bottles.
In the early 1900s, initial research into naturally plastic materials began for specific industrial applications such as car manufacturing. Later, chemical modification of these materials, synthetic plastics, began production on a much larger scale. Plastic research and development truly began taking off during WWII when other natural materials became more scarce or expensive.
In the 1950s, plastic production exploded, and companies such as Dow and DuPont patented new plastics for public use. The burgeoning plastics industry allowed companies to increase their profits exponentially, as there were seemingly endless uses for plastics and they were cheap to produce.
Marketing was crucial. Anything and everything could be replaced with colorful, shiny plastics. Plastics promised to make our lives easier. They were cheaper than natural alternatives, could be mass produced, and were less liable to break.
Early Plastic Research
Before the 21st century, research into the health impacts of plastic was almost nonexistent. Consumers adopted these materials without questioning if they were good for us or not. According to the Plastic Health Map created by the Minderoo Foundation, from 1961 to 1980 only 47 studies were conducted to assess the human health effects of plastics. Most of these studies examined synthetic polymers which had become inescapable in the average household. Brand name polymers such as Nylon, Teflon, and Mylar were virtually everywhere. The limited research focused on the impact polymers have on the skin as well as the digestive and immune systems.
From 1981 to 1990, scientists began looking into the effects of plastic on the endocrine, metabolic, and nutritional systems. Notably, research into PCBs examined the health of workers with occupational exposure to these highly carcinogenic chemical compounds.
The EPA has determined that PCBs are a probable human carcinogen. Epidemiological studies found that rare liver cancers and malignant melanoma were more common among workers with daily exposure to PCBs. These compounds have also been found to have a toxic effect in animals that can wreak havoc on their immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems.
Companies such as Monsanto knew of the danger of PCBs as early as the 1960s. An internal study found that they caused tumors in rats, but these corporations enjoyed decades of PCB production without regulation. The 1979 Toxic Substances Control Act finally banned PCB production in the United States.
Even then, PCBs were not entirely eliminated. They are still present in materials produced before the ban, such as colorful plastics that use PCB pigment, and it’s estimated that 83% of total PCBs produced still persist in plastic objects, the environment, and our bodies.
Scientists Find Dangerous Effects
From 1991 to the turn of the 21st century, the diversity of plastic research expanded. Phthalates became a topic of scrutiny for scientists. These additive chemicals which make plastics more durable are used in cosmetics, toys, and vinyl flooring — and these are just a few examples of the everyday objects that utilize PVC, a high-strength plastic that contains phthalates.
Infants in particular are exposed to high levels of phthalates via teething products and toys. By their very nature children chew on inanimate objects for the first couple of years of their lives – but during this development phase, they are ingesting microplastics and the phthalates that leach from them. Microplastics are tiny slivers of plastics that break off from larger plastic items and they are typically no bigger than a grain of sand. In 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act limited the level of phthalates that were acceptable in children’s toys but they are still used in the production of many plastic toys, just at low levels.
Microplastic and phthalate exposure has been linked to adverse effects on the reproductive system in animals. Studies also detail the impacts on the endocrine system of children. They have also discovered phthalate exposure can cause higher systolic blood pressure, earlier menopause, low birth weight, pregnancy loss, and preterm birth in women. Researchers believe this is because women tend to be more exposed to phthalates than men via cosmetic products.
In the 2000s, the prevalence of the chemical additives known as bisphenols, PFAS, and PBDEs exploded. PFAS are toxic fluorine compounds also known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment. PBDEs are added to reduce flammability of objects. Bisphenols such as BPA are used to make epoxy resin and plastics that are present in commonplace objects like water bottles and food storage containers. Bisphenols have been observed to interfere with various cell functions which can lead to cardiovascular diseases, neurological disorders, reproductive abnormalities, and diabetes.
PFAS have been used since the 1940s, but as plastic food packaging became more common, our exposure to PFAS in plastic increased. A significant amount of research on PFAS is ongoing. But we do know that exposure may lead to reproductive and developmental effects, increased cancer risk, and interference with hormones and the immune system.
There are thousands of PFAS that have yet to be studied, but they continue to be used in plastic products. Per the FDA’s advice, manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to phase some PFAS out of food packaging. While this step is a good start, it minimizes only one pathway for contact with PFAS.
What We Don’t Know About Plastics
From 2011 to 2022, the number of studies on plastics more than quadrupled. Specific health outcomes and the variety of health impacts between demographics received more attention. But what is most striking about the current body of research is what we still do not know. Of over 10,500 chemicals used in plastic production, we have only researched 1,557 of them. The health impacts of thousands of chemicals already being used in plastics remain unknown.
Additionally, from 1961 to 2022, no human exposure studies examined the effects of microplastics or nanoplastics. Most studies were conducted in the United States, Europe, China, and Japan, meaning that the effects on industrializing nations (which often suffer more acutely from plastic pollution) were barely investigated.
In order to address today’s plastic crisis, we need to expand the narrow body of research and invest in a huge array of scientific research dedicated to examining the health impacts of plastic, microplastics and their additive chemicals. But most importantly of all we need to limit our exposure to plastics which means drastically reducing our plastic production, so that by 2040, we have reduced it by 60%.
For more information on plastics and human health, view the Plastic Research Health Module and for more background on plastics view our Plastic Tool Kit. We need to take action immediately to limit plastic production and prevent pollution for ourselves and the planet — so we invite you to sign the Global Plastic Treaty Petition to make your voice heard.