Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) last week released a report, Plastic & Health; The Hidden Cost of a Plastic Planet.

Its conclusion: “Plastic is a Global Health Crisis Hiding in Plain Sight.”

Lifecycle Approach

The principal contribution of the report: it takes a comprehensive look at the health impacts of plastic throughout its life cycle. This begins with  the extraction and transport of fossil feedstocks for plastic, continues onto refining and production of plastic, creating consumer products and packaging, fostering toxic releases from plastic waste management. Waste disposal isn’t the final stage either, as afterwards, there’s the fragmentation and creation of microplastics to consider, as well as cascading exposures as plastic degrades, and finally, ongoing and continuing environmental exposures over the hundreds of years plastic remains before it disintegrates completely..

This report breaks new ground, as thus far, there’s been little systematic attention to the collective problems created by the ubiquitous and increasing use of plastic throughout its lifecycle – from when the fossil fuel is extracted from the ground, to final waste disposal – and what happens to plastic that finds its way into the environment:

To date, discussions of the health and environmental impacts of plastic have usually focused on specific moments in the plastic lifecycle: during use and after disposal. However, the lifecycle of plastic and its related human health impacts extends far beyond these two stages in both directions: upstream, during feedstock extraction, transport, and manufacturing, and downstream, when plastic reaches the environment and degrades into micro- and nanoplastics. Increasing research and investigation are providing new insights into the hidden, pervasive impacts of micro- and nanoplastics on human health and the environment (report, p.6).

I encourage readers to take a brief look at the entire report, which only runs to 75 pp. I warn you, however, that it’s deeply depressing.  In common with many others who’ve written about or studied the plastics problem,  I realize that so far, I’ve limited my focus on plastic pollution only to specific stages of this lifecycle – largely waste reduction and waste management. What the CIEL report’s comprehensive approach reveals is a far, far worse catastrophe unfolding as the potential cumulative health risks of effects of plastic are considered throughout its life cycle. A too-narrow focus on one stage or even several in that of that cycle underestimates the full scope of the problem.

Don’t Drink That Water!

Just a couple of things I thought I’d mention from the report.

Microplastics contaminate the water we drink, the food we eat, even the salt we use to season our meals:

The evidence that humans are increasingly exposed to microplastics is mounting. Recent reports suggest that microplastics are entering the human body through the water we drink, food we eat, and air we breathe. In 2018, a study from the Medical University of Vienna and the Environment Agency of Austria analyzed stool samples from participants across Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Austria. Every sample tested positive for the presence of microplastics and up to nine di erent types of plastic resins were detected. On average, the researchers found 20 microplastic particles per 10g of stool. The study demonstrated that plastic reaches
the human gut and that all food chains are likely contaminated.202 Increasing evidence that human food and water sources are contaminated with microplastic will continue to shed light on the routes of exposure (p. 37).

Tap water is contaminated by micro plastics across the globe, according to a recent study by Orb Media cited in the CIEL report:

Researchers at Fredonia State University of New York analyzed 159 tap water samples from 14 countries, half from developed and half from developing nations. Of these samples, 81 percent showed particles ranging from 0 to 61 particles per liter. The results included an overall average of 5.45 particles per liter, with the US having the highest average (9.24 particles per liter) while EU nations had the four lowest averages. Water from more developed nations had a higher average density (6.85 par- ticles per liter) while the average density from developing nations was lower (4.26 particles
per liter). Ninety-eight percent of particles were fibers.203 (report, p. 37).

How about drinking bottled water instead?

That solution would increase rather than reduce a person’s exposure to plastics:

When Orb Media ran a subsequent study of bottled water with the same researchers, it found twice as much plastic in bottled water compared to the previous study on tap water.204 The study tested 259 bottles from 19 locations across 11 leading brands and found microplastic particles in 93 percent of the samples, with an average of 325 plastic particles per liter. The tests revealed an average of 10.4 plastic particles per liter, nearly double the average of the tap water study.

Not only is bottled water contaminated with microplastics, but samples also included polypropylene, nylon, and PET – leading the Orb Media authors to suggest that packaging might be the source for some contamination.

Plastic Additives

I had been aware of the microplastics issue before. Good luck with trying to reduce your exposure.

One issue I’d failed to appreciate before was the ubiquity of plastic additives, and the potential health risks they pose:

Additives are added to plastic for flexibility (softeners and plasticizers), durability against heat or sunlight (stabilizers and anti-oxidants), color, flame retardancy, and as fillers. They are an underestimated environmental problem. Among the most hazardous additive types are brominated ame retardants, phthalates, and lead compounds. Some brominated flame retar-dants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBdEs) structurally resemble polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are environmental contaminants known to accumulate in the fat tissues of aquatic animals, causing neurotoxic effects and altering the function of thyroid hormones.Other chemicals used as softeners or brominated flame retardants cause birth defects, cancer, and hormonal problems, particularly for women. Once the additives have been released, including through incineration of plastic, they persist in the environment, building up in the food chain (report, p. 29, citations omitted).

I’m not alone in my concern. Chemical Watch also highlighted this issue, in Plastics exposure a global health crisis, says NGO report:

The report says plastics additives are an “underestimated problem”. Research that has identified negative human health impacts of many plastic additives is conclusive, it adds. “There are significant risks to human health and a precautionary approach is warranted.”

The report says that “most of these additives are not bound to the polymer matrix and, due to their low molecular weight, easily leach out”.

What Is To Be Done? Weak on Solutions

I found the last chapter of the report, on conclusions and recommendations, to be the weakest – especially in light of its warning:

Every stage of the plastic lifecycle poses significant risks to human health, and the majority of people worldwide are exposed to plastic at multiple stages of this lifecycle )p. 61).

Grist reports in Plastic has a long lifespan. It’s probably shortening yours. :

While plastic is the material du jour in part thanks to its cheap convenience, the true cost of plastics has not been reflected in the price at the till. “Plastics are harming or killing animals around the globe, contributing to climate change and keeping us dependent on fossil fuels, entering our air, water, and food supplies, and seriously jeopardizing human health throughout their lifecycle,” said Graham Forbes, Global Plastics Project Leader for Greenpeace, in a press release.

So, what is to be done? Especially as the use of plastics continues to increase, and is estimated may increase by a factor of four by 2050. Should we just surrender to the notion of a future in which we’ll be smothered by plastic?

The report punts on solid, focused answers, but recommends:

Solutions at every stage of the plastic lifecycle should respect the human rights to health and to a healthy environment. Despite some uncertainty requiring further independent scientific research, existing information about the severe human health impacts of the plastic lifecycle documented in this report warrant the adoption of a precautionary approach to the lifecycle of plastic and the overall reduction of plastic production and uses (emphasis added).

And CiEL recommends increasing transparency and creating a right to a remedy – but is silent on how this is to be achieved in a world hostile to  global action not only on plastics, but on dealing with climate change:

In identifying, designing, and implementing possible solutions to the plastic pollution crisis transparency is key to success. As indicated above, transparency is required to identify the nature and breadth of exposure to toxic material, as well to assess and prevent possible adverse health and environmental impacts of technologies touted as “solutions” to the plastic pollution problem, such as incineration and plastic-to-fuel technologies. As indicated in a statement of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Toxic Substances: “The right of victims to an effective remedy, the right to meaningful participation, the right not to be subject to experimentation without consent, the right to the highest attainable standard of health and several other human rights have all been frustrated by large information gaps throughout the lifecycle of substances and wastes.” (report, p. 54, citations omitted).

The way we think about the plastic problem has to change, too, from a focus on one aspect or another of the issue, without considering the cumulative effect of exposure throughout the entire plastics lifecycle – and regulating or restricting accordingly. Absent a more comprehensive approach, well-meaning but ill-conceived solutions that address one aspect of the problem may only exacerbate another – and worsen the overall scenario. So, looking at the whole plastic lifecycle is key:

The current narrow approaches to assessing and addressing plastic impacts are inadequate and inappropriate. Understanding and responding
to plastic risks, and making informed decisions in the face of those risks, demands a full lifecycle approach to assessing the complete scope of the impacts of plastic on human health.

As is considering the health impact of chemical additives in addition to a product’s plastic components:

Health impact assessments that focus solely on the plastic components of products while ignoring the thousands of additives and their behavior at every stage of the plastic lifecycle are incomplete and dangerous (report, p. 63).

One of the report’s seven co-authors, David Azoulay, director of environmental health for CIEL, was quoted in Chemical Watch article, as saying:

that because supply chains and the impacts of plastic cross borders, continents and oceans, “no country can effectively protect its citizens from those impacts on its own, and no global instrument exists today to fully address the toxic lifecycle of plastics”.

“Countries must seize the opportunity of current global discussions to develop a holistic response to the plastic health crisis that involves reducing the production, use and disposal of plastic worldwide,” he says.

I can’t offer much by way of a happy prognosis. This is not to fault the achievement of the report’s authors in organising and summarizing material defining and outlining the problem. Perhaps it’s too ambitious to expect more by way of solutions.  

What can consumers do? Alas, the best answer I can come up with is to practice the four Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle, and repair (see Four Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and…Repair).  My recommendation will provide scant comfort to those readers who have or will look at the report, as they are inadequate to confronting this pending global health catastrophe  created by indiscriminate use of plastics.

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  1. Peter VE

    The microbes will have evolved to eat all those varieties of plastic in the next 1,000 years or so, so that will solve the problem of the existing plastic. Meanwhile, the problem of new plastics will be solved by the poisoning of the human race until we’re a shadow of our current numbers.

    1. Jeotsu

      Evolution won’t necessarily work on the time scales we might hope for. The carboniferous period ran for ~60 million years, and one theory for why it left all that coal is that the biochemical pathway for the breakdown/degradation/recycling of cellulose hadn’t been “invented” yet. So just because a potential food source is plentiful, doesn’t mean that the biochemistry to exploit it will evolve quickly. We may be stuck with purely chemical/photochemical reactions for the environmental breakdown of plastic.

  2. Craig Dempsey

    The answer is as simple as it is unimaginable, we need a Manhattan Project-style initiative to research both safe replacements for plastics and practical methods for neutralizing the plastics already in our environment. Plastic is light, tough, and cheap, which is why it has shoved aside steel, aluminum, glass and cardboard for many purposes. Plastic is also deadly. What we can achieve by reduce, reuse and recycle is minimal in face of the gigantic problem. No doubt a few uses of plastic can be regulated or taxed out of existence, but mostly we need a safe replacement for a bread sack (for example), not the end of sliced bread. Otherwise we face the absurd existential question. Which will do us in first, anthropogenic global warming, or plastic?

    1. polecat

      I think those ‘safe replacements’ were once the predecessor to our plastic world … they’re called GLASS, METALS, and PAPER ! … each with their own unique environmental crosses to bare.

      1. John

        …but each is a natural material and will degrade. The use of plastics needs to be set on the path of extinction now.

    2. notabanker

      I’m picturing a couple of Egyptians 10,000 years ago talking over the first loaf of bread:
      If only we had a non-permeable device of some sort to wrap this in, we’d be on to something here.

      1. Joe Well

        I had read once that the ancient Egyptians suffered dental damage from sand in the bread. We’re living through something analogous with plastic.

        1. The Rev Kev

          Not just the ancient Egyptians. Forensic archaeologists check on marks and damage to teeth which tells us about people’s diets. Those old stone mills could only crush the grain so much and it was not until you had steam-powered metal milling of grains that you were able to grind grain fully to eliminate the grains that left grooves in people’s teeth. Saying that, the bread that people ate until a century or so ago could be much healthier in comparison to what we call bread these days.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            It depends on the stone used to grind the bread – basically, granite was the worst. Its not the rough stuff in the grain that caused the damage, its tiny sand particles from the grindstone. Granite gives off tiny particles of ultra hard quartz. The Vikings had a habit of using granite grindstones which proved terrible for their teeth.

            1. The Rev Kev

              Good point. However, as millers in England had reputations as cheats with their measures, I would guess that they would have also not paid top dollar (or should that be pound?) for their millstones but would have gone with whatever was going.

              1. PlutoniumKun

                Ah, there’s the rub – granite grindstones were the top dollar option – the ultra hard grainy surface made them perfect for grinding. A little like plastics are perfect for packaging.

  3. barrisj

    An omitted aspect in this article about plastic and plastic additive contamination is the effect on male sperm viability in developed countries. Sperm counts are declining at a constant rate over the past three decades or so, with a variety of environmental pollutants implicated, including BPA and phthalate release into drinking water. Clearly a case of what one sows one reaps.

  4. The Rev Kev

    I suppose that you could show a timeline of the history of a plastic, disposable water-bottle that would start off as a drop of oil in Saudi Arabia and that would branch out over the centuries as it breaks down and spreads through the food chains of the planet with some being deposited in cemeteries as people carrying it in their bodies. You would then point out in this chronology the tiny, thin slice in it’s history of when it actually intersected with humans for it’s original purpose as a temporary container of water.

  5. Paul Whittaker

    you might also consider the plastic in your meat: the UK passed a regulation allowing up to .5% in animal food as this saves the feed industry from having to remove the wrappers on waste bread.

    1. Joe Well

      At this point, if you’re still eating meat, you obviously don’t care about much of anything. Sorry, that’s the truth.

      1. Tony Wright

        Oh yes I do. I grow, nurture and kill my own goats and one yearling bovine per year. They live with their mothers, not made into orphan collectives like commercial meat animals. They have short,but happy lives and die quickly with their head in a food bowl away from the rest of the herd, so they don’t suffer the fear and panic of an abattoir death. I know what they have eaten, mostly pasture, and for goats the branches of the many weed trees which afflict our area.
        Plastic ,along with the overpopulation of humans, is the scourge of the planet.
        One solution would be to replace with hemp and bamboo products.
        And stop buying clothes made from synthetic fabrics – all those microfibres in the grey water which end up in the aquatic food chains causing everything to starve to death.

  6. Calpolitico

    Congratulations to NC for posting another work by the fine folks at CIEL and collaborators for their report. While many parts of this subject have been reported elsewhere over the past two decades, framing the issue in terms of life-cycle analysis helps to remind all of us about the limits of focusing on only one dimension for action (e.g., data gaps and the absence of a comprehensive chemical policy). Understanding plastics with respect to linked problems (e.g., methane releases from fracked during natural gas extraction) and larger problems of petroleum production more generally (e.g., climate change) also provides a clearer path that the only viable solutions are of a scale suggested by a New Green Deal. While the status quo appears inescapable (recall the sage advice in The Graduate), there are a wealth of alternatives (e.g., bioplastics) which while having their own set of problems, hold promise for a much healthier world. The rapidly worsening and multi-dimensional fossil-fueled crises of the 21st century make it clear that the economy must be dramatically and rapidly transformed; a project that NC and its community might be well disposed to pursue….

    1. John Zelnicker

      February 24, 2019 at 11:01 pm

      Excellent comment, +100.

      It really is necessary to take a holistic look at the issue and address it from every possible angle. And, IMNSHO, the only way to do that is through the Green New Deal or a similar type of comprehensive program.

  7. Ignacio

    Thank you Jerry-Lynn! Let me add a couple of bits to worsen the depressive news:

    Toxic effects of plastic on human health and environment : A consequences of health risk assessment in Bangladesh

    Different human health problems like irritation in the eye, vision failure, breathing difficulties, respiratory problems, liver dysfunction, cancers, skin diseases, lungs problems, headache, dizziness, birth effect, reproductive, cardiovascular, genotoxic, and gastrointestinal causes for using toxic plastics.

    Plastics reach remote pristine environments, scientists say

    Birds’ eggs in High Arctic contain chemical additives used in plastics

    Regarding the former: I think that an assessment of gastrointestinal diseases (infectious or not) and plastic presence (prevalence) in the food chain is a must.

    Regarding the second: yes, as you say, plastics contain additives and now we know these are entering the food chain. More assessment needed.

  8. Paul Handover

    This looks like an excellent report. “I can’t offer much by way of a happy prognosis.” is a fair statement of an extremely difficult situation.

    Speaking generally, I do wonder just what the next fifty years will deliver. There are times when I think I’m becoming too morbid, end of the world and all that, then there are times when I think the younger population will sort things out, Greta Thunberg being a fine example.

    On balance, I’m glad I’m a relatively healthy 74-year-old who will be very lucky to live for another 15 years!

  9. Cal2

    Besides eliminating its voluntary use to whatever extent is possible, the emphasis on plastic disposal and recycling should be physically returned to the industries that create and promote plastics, or the stores that sell it, instead of defaulting to customers.
    An easy and symbolic way to do this is to return all plastic packaging back to the stores from which it came with products, or, to unwrap them right there, pay for, take the product and leave the packaging.

    Of course it’s better to boycott any product with plastic, especially Dow Chemical’s styrofoam it’s packaged in. When ordering products online; “This will be returned if any styrofoam peanuts or packaging are in the box.” Or, open products in stores and leave them at the counter if the stuff is found inside.

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