Recent studies demonstrate that plastics have a dramatic effect on human health.
Humans are exposed to a wide variety of toxic chemicals and microplastics; from the clothes we wear to the food we buy, even the air we breathe. Nanoplastics and harmful additives can be found in food packaging, household items, and medical equipment. These chemicals can enter our bodies through food, water, air and skin contact.
Many chemical additives that give plastic products desirable performance properties also have negative environmental and human health effects.
For more information on the life cycle of plastics, toxin exposure, and its varying health impacts, see figure 1 below.
Children are at the highest risk of health impacts due to toxin exposure.
In a 2005 study published by The Environmental Working Group, they found 287 chemicals in the cord blood of newborn babies; 187 were known carcinogens, 217 were known neurotoxins, and 218 of which were compounds shown to cause birth defects or abnormal development in animals. This level of toxin exposure causes a huge health risk in early development, and lays the groundwork for chronic illnesses as these children mature into adulthood.
Infants and children are typically the most vulnerable groups of plastic associated chemicals because of their sensitivity while in development, and higher exposure to such chemicals via baby food packaging (Fantoni and Simoneau, 2003), children’s toys (Xie et al., 2015; Turner, 2018) and breast milk (Tanabe and Kunisue, 2007).
“The average US citizen consumes more than 74,000 microplastic particles annually (Cox et al., 2019) and an unknown but likely larger number of nanoplastics (Triebskorn et al., 2019). Further research is needed to better understand the health impacts and associated healthcare costs of plastic exposure.”
Figure 1: DIRECT EXPOSURE by CIEL
Inhaling, ingesting and coming into direct contact with plastics through our skin, affects renal, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems, sensory organs, liver, and kidneys.
Some impacts of coming into contact with such chemicals include: cancers, diabetes, and developmental toxicity, reproductive toxicity, low birth weight, eye and skin irritation, lowered immune system.
At each stage of the plastic production lifecycle (extraction, refining and manufacturing, consumer use, and waste management), there are various effects of plastic
components on human health.
“Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastics. They are also heavily used in personal care products, especially those that are scented. You will also find them in air fresheners that use heat to release the aroma. Even if you avoid all of these sources, you will be exposed because phthalates do not bind very tightly to the plastics and therefore are released into the atmosphere quite easily. This means that the main sources of exposure are inhalation, dermal absorption and ingestion.42
Several recent studies have revealed that many of the metabolites of phthalates (DEP, DnBP, BBzP, and DEHP) are found extensively in the general population.43,44 There is evidence that the exposures also have socioeconomic and sociodemographic divides, which place a greater burden on children of the poor.45,46
One of the mechanisms behind phthalate toxicity is its depression of testosterone. Growing evidence shows that phthalate exposure may express its effect on reproductive health, especially in developing males.48,49 It has also been implicated in miscarriages and birth defects.
Arguments against phthalate’s toxicity include its relatively short half-life, which is less than twenty-four hours.50 This assertion does not hold true, as we are constantly exposed to the chemical; thus, its effects are persistent, with a percentage of the population having unacceptably high levels of phthalates.51
The question is how to avoid exposure. To begin with, it is important to make sure that the personal care products you use do not contain them. A resource to find out which toxins are in your products is available through the non-profit Environmental Working Group at www.ewg.org. The site offers a database called “Skin Deep” which rates various products, lists their toxins, and suggests safer alternatives. Another quick tip to detect phthalates is whether the product emits an aroma; if it does, it likely contains this toxin.
A few years ago, I received a call from a physician at a midwestern university who was concerned that she was finding more and more males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five with testosterone levels you would normally find in fifty- to sixty-year-olds. When we began testing we found that almost all of the young men with high phthalates had low testosterone. To me this was not a surprising finding given the popularity of body sprays.
The third major source I would caution you on is soft plastics like those used in water bottles. Phthalates are very heat sensitive, and if you ever suspect that a bottle has gotten hot, such as being left in your car during the day, discard it. When Whole Foods opened in Reno a number of years ago, they had a display of bottled water outside the store when the temperature was over 90 degrees F. I called the assistant manager and informed him that this was a good way of increasing the toxic load of his customers and that it might be a good idea to change the display.”
Here are a few tips to avoid some of these health risks in your daily life:
Buy food in glass or metal containers; avoid plastic drinking bottles
Check the ingredients on your shampoo bottle!
Avoid heating food in plastic containers, or storing fatty foods in plastic containers or plastic wrap.
Do not give young children plastic teethers or toys
Use natural fiber clothing, bedding and furniture
Avoid all PVC and Styrene products