Jun 25, 2018
by Gary Pace M.D.
From the famous line in “The Graduate” encouraging the young man into ‘plastics’ to have a bright economic future, to the recent death of a pilot whale in Thailand due to a “belly full of black plastic bags” (NYT 6/4/18)--18 lbs to be exact-- the impact on our world is profound.
Now there are legislative attempts on multiple fronts to limit their use. How bad is it?
● 8.3 billion metric tons produced globally since 1950.
● 6.3 billion tons have been thrown away (2017 study in Science Advances.)
● Packaging is a major driver-- 54% of discarded plastic is from packaging.
● Plastics don’t degrade, often end up in landfills.
● Chemicals in plastic have been found in 93% of people over 6 years old.
Given its presence in all areas of modern life, we have to wonder how plastic impacts our health. Unfortunately, the answer is not very clear.
Certainly, the discarding of it in the environment is problematic. Some countries in the Pacific have started calling “garbage emergencies” where they close beaches due to the threats to public health from garbage, often mainly plastics.
Contact with some of the chemicals in the plastics in food and water containers has caused concern, especially with the chemicalsBisphenol A and phthalate. For BPA, animal evidence has shown some problems, but the human studies have been more ambiguous.
What we do know is that the chemical structure of BPA causes it to act as an estrogen mimicker. Animal studies link it to breast cancer, brain, and prostate problems. Mainly, estrogen-mimickers cause reproductive disorders, like early puberty, recurrent miscarriages, and infertility, common problems in the modern world. Phthalates, common in water bottles, are also endocrine disruptors.
The most stunning example of the impact of plastics on the environment is the Ocean gyre, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” It has grown in size to something between Texas and Russia. The plastic articles in our lives wash into the ocean and eventually break into small particles that are suspended in the water. By 2050, experts think the oceans may contain more weight in plastics than in fish by 2050. Many species are affected by this, as evidenced by the death of the whale. They unknowingly eat the plastic, and can eventually die. Also it enters the food chain in this way, and can end up on our dinner plates.
States and countries have recently tried different strategies, from bans of certain plastic products, to taxes, to encouraging recycling. At this point, it is unclear how much impact these efforts will really have.
The EU recently proposed banning several single use plastic products. California and other states have eliminated plastic grocery bags. Plastic straw bans are becoming a new focus in this country. Limits or bans have gone into effect in Davis, San Luis Obispo, Malibu, and Seattle. While plastic straws are a small contributor to overall plastic waste, an inordinate amount ends up in the oceans and in the guts of fish and other sea-life. FDA has been slow to adopt restrictions on BPA, although they have limited its use in baby bottles. Many activists recommend a “precautionary principle,” where we start limiting its production even before all of the evidence is in.
Recycling has been a favored solution. Unfortunately, this has been much more problematic that had been hoped. China had been accepting alot of our recycling, but as of Jan 1, it has stopped this business plan. Now much of plastic that is separated for recycling goes right into landfill. Unwashed plastics also pose a problem, since the material has to be clean to be acceptable to recycle. Good advice is: “Recycling is the third ‘R.’ You have to reduce and reuse first.”
The future with plastics is not rosy. The Trump administration, with Scott Pruitt at the EPA, is actively trying to cut research into the effects of chemicals on human health and rollback any legislation limiting the presence of industrial products in our society. Somehow, we are going to have to change our relationship to plastic before we get buried in it.
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