Not only do plastics pose a very real threat to our environment, but they also have a well-documented impact on human health.
Though far from a complete list in regard to the effects of plastic on human health, there are three primary areas of concern: endocrine system disruption, carcinogens, and direct toxicity.
Chemicals in plastics identified as “endocrine disruptors” have been known for some time, but the impact on human health seems to be increasing at an alarming rate. In it’s simplest definition, the endocrine system is a group of glands in an animal that produces and/or introduces hormones directly into the bloodstream. There is mounting evidence that specific chemicals in plastic are contributing to the endocrine system disruption we are seeing on a global scale. Chemicals known as EDC’s (endocrine disrupting chemicals), and how they are getting into the environment and the human body is at the epicenter of current research. Soft, or flexible plastics manufactured with a group of chemicals called “phthalates” have become the primary concern in the study of endocrine system disruption. The suspected effects of these EDC’s range from subtle to severe, from immune system impairment and asthma to cancer, birth defects, endometriosis, and infertility. Though the potential damage on human health and the environment is great, there is more to consider.
What is not being widely discussed is the effect these chemicals have on other species. Humans are far from the only organisms with endocrine systems that are facing this threat.
To add, the financial repercussions on the public from this chemical production are extreme. A 2016 study of epidemiological data (Attina, Theresa M et al., Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol, 2016), indicated that long term, low-level exposure to EDC’s costs the U.S. $340 billion in annual health costs. And as we’ve seen too many times, the chemical companies achieve their profits, and the public, unfortunately, pays the price (financially and otherwise).
Carcinogens and direct toxins are more straight forward. Carcinogens are broadly defined as any substance capable of causing cancer in living tissue. There have been multiple components in plastics, or plastic manufacturing, that have been officially identified as carcinogenic, such as formaldehyde and styrene (which is used in styrofoam). Some, however, seem to be politically stuck in the category of “suspected carcinogens”, the most recognizable of which is Bisphenol A (BPA). “Direct toxins” are those components involved and/or released in plastic production, such as Polychlorinated Biphenyls, Furans, Mercury, and Dioxins. Again, it is not only human health that is affected. Much like finished plastic material finding its way into our oceans, direct toxins are generally released into the atmosphere, again allowing them to spread unimpeded.