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7 Types of Plastic Wreaking Havoc on Our Health

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It's all around us—in our houses, walls, plumbing pipes, bottles and cans, rugs, dental fillings, eyeglass lenses, phones, cars, garden mulch and much more. We are talking, of course, about plastic.

PET is commonly used in commercially sold water bottles, soft drink bottles, sports drink bottles and condiment bottles.

Aside from the devastating impact on the planet's health, plastic's impact on human health has been insidious. Decade after decade we have watched as prostate and breast cancer rates have risen, fertility rates in men have dropped, young girls have entered early puberty, young boys have become increasingly hyperactive and children have become fatter. All of these conditions result from multiple factors, but the effects of plastic cannot be discounted.

Endocrine disruptors are the link between human health hazards and plastic. Some of the better publicized endocrine disruptors include dioxins and PCBs, which have polluted our nation's waterways. In the human body, endocrine disruptors mimic the actions of the hormone estrogen. They upset the hormonal balance and can stimulate the growth of tumors in the breast, uterus or prostate. They can affect fertility, pregnancy, and worse, can affect the fetus by interfering with testosterone, disrupting normal sexual development. This disruption is not often apparent until adulthood and includes the increased risk of cancer.

One of the main chemicals used to produce plastics is bisphenol A, or BPA, an endocrine disruptor that is prevalent in a vast number of widely used products, not least of which are plastic food and beverage bottles and the lining of metal cans. Heat, repeated washing, acidity, and alkalinity cause the BPA in plastics to leach into our food and beverages. Further, BPA leaches into our groundwater from all the plastic sitting in landfills. And of course we ingest BPA from all the fish we eat that has previously ingested all that plastic floating around in the ocean.

In one study, the Centers for Disease Control found 95 percent of urine samplescontained some amount of BPA. It's in our blood, our amniotic fluid, our breast milk. Small children are most at risk because they put everything in their mouths, they breathe and drink more, relative to their size, and they excrete waste more slowly.

The health risks of BPA have been observed primarily through animal testing, and there is some controversy as to whether human risk can be extrapolated from animal testing. However, many of the adverse effects of BPA, such as reproductive cancers, obesity, type-2 diabetes and even autism, have been observed to be increasing in the human population in the past 50 years, mirroring the rise of plastic consumption. While correlation is not causation, the signs are certainly not encouraging.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has maintained that the levels of BPA are safe, Sarah Janssen of the Natural Resources Defense Council told Mother Earth News, “BPA should be considered a hazard to human development and reproduction with clear evidence of adverse effects." Many countries, including the U.S., have banned the presence of BPA in baby bottles. Unfortunately, the common substitute is often Biphenol S (BPS), which is also an endocrine disruptor and seems to cause many of the same problems as BPA.

Polycarbonate water bottles, popular among those who seek to minimize plastic pollution, are a major source of human BPA exposure. Studies have shown that BPA leaches into water even at room temperature, and when exposed to boiling water, BPA leached 55 times more rapidly than it did prior to exposure to the heat.

Another class of endocrine disruptor called phthalates is also present in plastic products containing PVC. Phthalates are used to soften plastic and can be found in toys, deodorants and shampoos, shower curtains, raincoats, food packaging and a myriad of other products. Phthalates are loosely bound to plastic and easily absorbed into food, beverages and saliva, and like BPA, have been commonly detected in our bodies. Most concerning is the effect phthalates have on reproductive health in males. Exposure in fetuses has been linked to the malformation of the male reproductive system.

The dangers from plastic are not just from ingestion. During the industrial manufacturing of plastic, all manner of toxic chemicals are released, many of which are carcinogenic or neurotoxic. These would include vinyl chloride, from PVC; dioxins and benzene, from polystyrene; and formaldehyde, from polycarbonates. Many of these toxins are known as POPs, or persistent organic pollutants. They are highly toxic, and like plastic, they don't easily go away.

Plastic comes in many variations, different combinations of resins and polymers creating plastics with different properties, and different types of plastic present different dangers. The numbers embedded on most plastic products identify the type of plastic it is made from, ostensibly so it can be properly recycled. (The reality is that barely 10 percent of plastic is recycled, or more accurately down-cycled, say from a soda bottle to winter coat insulation, so it still ends up in a landfill.)

Here are the most common plastics, by number, and some of the hazards they present.

1. PET: polyethylene terephthalate

PET is commonly used in commercially sold water bottles, soft drink bottles, sports drink bottles and condiment bottles (like ketchup). While it is generally considered a “safe" plastic, and does not contain BPA, in the presence of heat it can leach antimony, a toxic metalloid, into food and beverages, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and stomach ulcers. Some studies have shown up to 100 times the amount of antimony in bottled water than in clean groundwater. The longer the bottle is on the shelf or exposed to heat or sunshine, the more antimony is likely to have leached into the product.

2. HDPE: high-density polyethylene

HDPE is commonly used in milk and juice bottles, detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, grocery bags, and cereal box liners. Like PET, it is also considered “safe," but has been shown to leach estrogenic chemicals dangerous to fetuses and juveniles.

3. PVC: polyvinyl chloride

PVC can be flexible or rigid, and is used for plumbing pipes, clear food packaging, shrink wrap, plastic children's toys, tablecloths, vinyl flooring, children's play mats, and blister packs (such as for medicines). PVC contains a phthalate called DEHP, which can cause male traits to become more feminized (DEHP-containing products have been banned in many countries, but not the U.S.). In some products, DEHP has been replaced with another chemical called DiNP, which has similarly been shown to have hormone disruption properties.

4. LDPE: low-density polyethylene

LDPE is used for dry cleaning bags, bread bags, newspaper bags, produce bags, and garbage bags, as well as “paper" milk cartons and hot/cold beverage cups. LDPE does not contain BPA, but as with most plastics, it can leach estrogenic chemicals.

5. PP: polypropylene

PP is used to make yogurt containers, deli food containers and winter clothing insulation. PP actually has a high heat tolerance and as such, does not seem to leach many of the chemicals other plastics do.

6. PS: polystyrene

PS, also popularly known as Styrofoam, is used for cups, plates, take-out containers, supermarket meat trays, and packing peanuts. Polystyrene can leach styrene, a suspected carcinogen, especially in the presence of heat (which makes hot coffee in a Styrofoam container an unwise choice).

7. Everything else

Any plastic item not made from the above six plastics is lumped together as a #7 plastic. Any plastic designated #7 is likely to leach BPA and/or BPS, both potent endocrine disruptors linked to interfering with proper mood, growth, development, sexual function, reproductive function, and puberty, among other essential human developmental processes. They are also suspected of increasing the risk of adult reproductive cancers, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

The Dangers of Outgassing

The danger from chemicals in plastic is not limited to leaching from bottles and food wraps. Another significant source of concern is from outgassing (also known as offgassing). That new-car smell, or the odor from a new synthetic-fiber carpet or new plastic toy is actually called outgassing.

What is chemically happening is that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are evaporating into the air around us. These gases are, in many cases, hazardous to human health.

These VOCs include aldehydes, alcohols, plasticizers, and alkanes. PVC is probably the worst outgassing offender and is prevalent throughout the household. A buildup of VOCs in the household (sometimes called sick building syndrome) can result in symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, allergies, skin/eye/nose/throat irritations, and asthma. Long-term damage can include cancer and heart disease. Heat can speed up the process of outgassing, so it may be helpful to put new products containing plastic out in the sun for a few hours to minimize the indoor VOC buildup.

The ABCs of Avoiding Plastics

The obvious solution to avoiding plastic toxicity is to avoid plastics, which, in a world awash in plastic, is pretty difficult. In the absence of this, it makes sense to limit your close encounters with plastic as best as you can.

  • Never heat or microwave your food in plastic containers, which increases the leaching of chemicals.
  • Avoid contact with BPA by avoiding plastic wrap (use wax or parchment paper, or aluminum foil), plastic food containers (use metal or glass containers), and disposable water bottles (use reusable non-plastic or BPA-free bottles).
  • Look for BPA-free on the label of products (while this is not a guarantee of safety, it at least limits BPA exposure). Use metal and wooden eating and cooking utensils instead of plastic utensils.
  • Find food and water containers that are BPA-free. Avoid phthalates by primarily avoiding PVC products (labeled as #3 plastic).
  • Look for phthalates-free labels.
  • When possible, air new plastic products like blowup mattresses, synthetic-fiber rugs, tablecloths, and toys outside for a few hours to let the VOCs disperse.
  • Avoid plastics numbered #6 and #7 whenever possible.

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.