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Plastic in Our Evironment – A Health Hazard Not Only for Marine Life!

by Donna Staton, MD

Plastic is everywhere. You’re likely wearing it right now (polyester, fleece, sneakers — check the labels) and will likely ingest some with your next meal.  While most of us recognize the problem of plastic waste polluting our oceans and harming marine life, we don’t realize that plastic and the toxins that leach from it accumulate in our bodies. Medical researchers are now examining levels of plastic-derived chemical compounds in humans to better understand the effects on our own health.

How do chemicals from plastic enter our bodies?

To answer this, it’s important to understand two things:

1)  Because plastic is not biodegradable, it only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces over time, producing microparticles or microfibers, some too small to see.  Millions of tons of plastic debris in the oceans continually produce these microparticles, which are mistaken for food by plankton, fish, and marine animals, thus entering our food chain. On land, our homes are full of plastics and synthetics (upholstery, carpets, bedding, clothing, cookware, etc.) that constantly create dust and microparticles. Some skin products and cosmetics contain plastic microbeads (though they are being phased out). We breathe them in, eat them, and even send these particles from our homes to the ocean via the washing machine and sink water going down our drains. Plastic microfibers have even been found in our drinking water samples.

2)  During plastic production, chemical compounds are added to produce hardness, softness, flexibility, flame resistance, etc. These chemicals can leach from the plastic and into food that comes in contact with it during processing, cooking, packaging, and reheating and can also be absorbed through our skin. Examples: phthalates — plastic softeners, fragrance stabilizers found in shampoo, soaps, nail polish, hair spray, deodorant, etc. — which do not build up in our bodies but to which we are continually exposed and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs; flame retardants in electrical products, coatings, textiles, and  foam in furniture padding) which do build up in our bodies.

Are there health risks from ingested/absorbed plastic-derived substances?

So what if I eat a little plastic or absorb some of these chemicals, you may wonder.  A growing number of scientific studies is raising concern. Even at low concentrations, phthalates can interfere with the action of hormones, and exposure during pregnancy, a critical time for child development, has been associated with lower male reproductive hormones; similar exposure to PBDEs has been associated with lower intelligence. Phthalates may increase the risk for miscarriage, gestational diabetes, and premature birth.  

Perfluorinated alkylate substances (PFASs), used in stain-proof fabric, waterproof clothing, and some food packaging, build up in the food chain and persist in our bodies. PFASs are linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, hormone disruption and immune system dysfunction. Of significant concern is that PFASs are found in human breastmilk and accumulate in infants the longer they nurse (think of a nursing infant as the top of the top of the food chain).  

How can I reduce my exposure to plastic-derived chemicals?

Put simply, use and wear less plastic and eat unprocessed food that has not been stored or cooked in plastic containers. This is also great for the environment!

Here are some specific suggestions:

Food

  1. Buy & store unprocessed food/beverages in glass or stainless steel containers

  2. Cook in stainless steel pots/pans using stainless steel or wood utensils

  3. Minimize eating or drinking from plastic

  4. Use a wooden cutting board

  5. Decline straws and encourage businesses to only provide paper/natural straws on request

  6. Never microwave or boil in plastic containers; use glass baby bottles

Environment

  1. Wear natural fabric clothing as much as possible; use cloth diapers

  2. Purchase furniture made of natural products, sleep on a natural material mattress using cotton bedding

  3. Replace polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products such as flooring, blinds, shower curtains with cotton, bamboo or polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA)

  4. Shower with a bar of fragrance-free soap and a cotton washcloth instead of shower gel from a plastic bottle and a mesh shower sponge

  5. Get the plastic off your skin: minimize use of lotions and deodorants; look for phthalate-free, paraben-free, fragrance-free products

  6. Buy laundry detergent in a box rather than a plastic jug

  7. When ordering shipped items, request no plastic packaging

Advocacy

  1. Give feedback to companies, stores, and restaurants; discourage single-use plastics

  2. Weigh in with your legislators on plastic reduction proposals

  3. Encourage schools & workplaces to choose plastic-free cafeterias

  4. Support local efforts to reduce plastic waste in the environment

Of course, we can’t avoid plastics entirely, and with every choice there are trade-offs.  But we can and should educate ourselves and others about this issue, and demand that more consumer goods be made of natural or biodegradable materials.  Recycling, though vital, is NOT the answer, as it only postpones the inevitable deposition of plastic somewhere in our environment.

Among their many efforts to protect our environment and our health, Green Town Los Altos members are advocating for local restaurants to use fewer single-use plastic items, beginning with a “Skip-the-Straw” campaign. To learn more, contact Green Town at info@greentownlosaltos.org

It will take some effort, but we can all make a real difference in protecting our health and our environment!

For more information on plastics and our health:

  1. KQED’s 6-minute video “Is Your Fleece Polluting the Ocean?” https://www.kqed.org/lowdown/29456/how-plastics-took-over-the-world-and-created-an-environmental-mess-a-brief-disposable-history?utm_medium=Email&utm_source=ExactTarget&utm_campaign=20180113EducationNewsletter&mc_key=003i000000UOaUWAA1

  2. National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase “Are You Eating Plastic For Dinner?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjT8GG0ETQg

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