How Plastics Threaten Human Health From ‘Cradle to Grave’
Plastics harm human health at all stages of the life cycle, a first-of-its-kind study has found.
The Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health, published in the Annals of Global Health March 21, revealed the extent to which plastics harm those that interact with them, from the unique lung diseases suffered by coal miners to the recycling plant workers who are at greater risk for heart disease, toxic metal poisoning, neuropathy and lung cancer.
“These findings put us on an unequivocal path to demand the banning or severely restricting of unnecessary, avoidable, and problematic plastic items, many of which contain hazardous chemicals with links to horrific harm to people and the planet,” study co-author and Minderroo Foundation Head of Plastics and Human Health Professor Sarah Dunlop said in a press release.
The ambitious report was led by experts at the Minderoo Foundation, the Boston College Observatory on Planetary Health and the Centre Scientifique de Monaco. It took a holistic view of plastics’ impact, focusing on ocean plastic pollution, human health and the economic and social justice costs of the widely used materials.
“This is the first analysis to look at hazards to human health caused by plastics across their entire life cycle — cradle to grave — beginning with extraction of the coal, oil and gas from which nearly all plastics are made, through production and use, and on to the point where plastic wastes are thrown into landfills, dumped into the ocean or shipped overseas,” lead author and director of the Program on Global Public Health and the Common Good and the Boston College Observatory on Planetary Health Dr. Philip Landrigan said in a press release.
Plastics pose a health risk to workers involved in every stage of their production and disposal, from extracting the fossil fuels from which plastics are made to producing plastics or plastic textiles to recycling them once discarded. For example, people who make plastic textiles are more likely to die from bladder cancer, lung cancer, mesothelioma and interstitial lung disease.
Plastics are also a danger to so-called “fenceline” communities who live near plastic production or disposal sites, such as the residents of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, as well as consumers through the toxic chemicals mixed in with plastics as additives. Plastic additives have been linked to endocrine disruption, premature births, neurodevelopmental disorders, male reproductive birth defects, infertility, obesity, heart disease, kidney disease and cancers, and children and infants are particularly vulnerable to these effects. The study authors estimated that just three common plastic chemicals — PBDE, BPA and DEHP — led to disease and disability costs higher than $920 billion in the U.S. in 2015 alone.
Another potential plastic health risk is the proliferation of microplastic and nanoplastic particles (MNPs) in the environment and human bodies.
“Emerging, albeit still incomplete evidence indicates that MNPs may cause toxicity due to their physical and toxicological effects as well as by acting as vectors that transport toxic chemicals and bacterial pathogens into tissues and cells,” the study authors wrote.
These health risks are not distributed equally.
“They disproportionately affect poor, disempowered, and marginalized populations such as workers, racial and ethnic minorities, ‘fenceline’ communities, Indigenous groups, women, and children, all of whom had little to do with creating the current plastics crisis and lack the political influence or the resources to address it,” the study authors wrote.
In response to its findings, the commission called for a strong Global Plastics Treaty — a legally binding international instrument currently being negotiated — that included a global cap on plastic production. It also supported a goal of ending plastic pollution by 2040. To do this, it’s important to distinguish between essential plastics that need to be produced and the safely disposed and non-essential plastics that need to be phased out.
“A lot of plastic is not essential, particularly single-use plastic like product wrapping,” Landrigan said in a press release. “That’s not accidental. The fossil fuel industry sees its markets for gasoline and other fuels declining as the world goes green and they are therefore diverting increasing amounts of coal, oil and gas into plastic manufacture and creating new markets for plastic. The goal of the Global Plastics Treaty is to put a brake on this this runaway production while at the same time preserving essential uses of plastic.”
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