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Resources on Plastics in the Environment (June 2022): Harms to Human Health

By Margaret Manion

Harms to Human Health

An area where research activity is sure to increase is the effect of plastics on human health, a topic that needs to be considered at every stage of the plastics life cycle, from extraction of raw materials and manufacture to use, disposal, and presence in the ocean, on land, and in the atmosphere. Anthony Andrady provides details on certain known harms in his Plastics and Environmental Sustainability (mentioned above). These include additive migration and toxicity in food products and specific endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs) commonly used in the plastics industry. Concerning the latter, for example, Andrady’s discussion of the bisphenol A (BPA) notoriously used in fabricating baby bottles, water bottles, and food storage containers may be of interest to readers. Andrady helpfully provides a table of all EDCs of concern, showing the breakout of particular adverse impacts, listed by disease pathology in humans, with indication of the presence/absence of the concern in association with four EDC classes, as opposed to presence of the same impact with respect to common metals. Andrady’s discussion extends to some length (chapter 7) and may be more technical than general readers will be inclined to absorb, yet the knowledge of where to go for such information may indeed be of interest.

Unsurprisingly, the people most seriously affected by plastic harms are those working in plastics manufacture and disposal or living near dumps, landfills, and plastics manufacturing facilities. The adverse impacts on human health are not limited to the effects of plastic molecules alone, but also arise in connection with the additives and fillers used in plastics manufacture. In part 3 (“People and the Plastic Industry”) of Thicker than Water (mentioned above), Erica Cirino calls attention to the fact that Black people and members of other historically underserved groups are more likely to die prematurely from the toxic effects of exposure to polluted air as a result of living near petrochemical processing plants partly devoted to feeding plastics manufacture. Cirino’s personal account of interviews with notable community activists near New Orleans puts this issue well within reach of general readers. Graphic illustration of the particular concentration of petrochemical processing plants along the Louisiana coastline (the area popularly dubbed “Cancer Alley”) is provided by Courtney Bernhardt and Alexandra Shaykevich in their report “Greenhouse Gases from Oil, Gas, and Petrochemical Production.” In another popular work, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Susan Freinkel also focuses on harms involving adverse health effects, including endocrine disruption from EDCs, warning that EDCs may actually act as sponges to absorb other carcinogens. Freinkel cautions that there is no way for consumers to know exactly which chemicals are in the plastic items they purchase. Because humans are at the top of the food chain, we are particularly vulnerable to bioaccumulation, whereby toxins acquired lower down in the food chain can enter animal bodies.

In a more technical vein, the scholarly collection Handbook of Research on Environmental and Human Health Impacts of Plastic Pollution, edited by Khursheed Wani, Lutfah Ariana, and S. M. Zuber, provides assessments of the health threats to humans from plastics, including those from phthalate exposure, bisphenol A, dioxins, furans, and ash disposal. In Count Down, Shanna Swan draws a connection between the presence of phthalates (the chemicals used to make plastics soft and flexible), BPA (added to many plastic food containers), and lower sperm counts in men as well as fertility problems and miscarriages suffered by women. In Analysis of Nanoplastics and Microplastics in Food (mentioned above), Nollet and Siddiqi discuss the three main routes of entry into the human body: dermal, inhalation, and ingestion, also pointing out that exposure may occur via prosthetics and other forms of medical treatment. This work covers both marine and terrestrial food sources (including bottled water, the largest source of plastics consumption by humans). Among the potential health effects discussed are carcinogenesis, inflammation, and changes in the microbiome. Finally, in chapter 20 (“Ecological and Health Issues of Plastic Waste”) of Plastic Waste and Recycling (edited by Trevor Letcher, as mentioned above), coauthors Cora Cook and Rolf Halden summarize the harms of plastics and their additives to human health.

Works Cited