Environmental Health News
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Plastic threatens our health from before production to long after it’s thrown away: Report

"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."

Plastic pollution is a "threat to human life and human rights" and, in order to stem this problem, we have to overhaul how we produce, use and dispose of it, according to an international report released today.

The report, the result of a collaboration between seven environmental organizations, finds most attempts to examine the impact of plastic on people and the planet focus on one aspect—such as manufacturing, the testing of products, or how plastic is disposed. However, the authors of today's report say we need to look at the entire lifecycle of plastic because "each of those stages interacts with others, and all of them interact with the human environment and the human body in multiple, often intersecting, ways."

The report is the latest on the topic, which has skyrocketed into the public consciousness over the past couple years.

Plastic pollution has been recognized as pervasive across the planet and research increasingly finds it is infiltrating wildlife, our food and us—bringing fresh concerns about how our plastic addiction may be impacting our health.

"Health problems associated with plastics throughout the lifecycle includes numerous forms of cancers, diabetes, several organ malfunctions, impact on eyes, skin and other sensory organs, birth defects" and many other impacts, said David Azoulay, a report author and managing attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, in an email to EHN.

"And those are only the human health costs, they do not mention impacts on climate, impacts on fisheries or farmland productivity," he added.

Other organizations involved in the report include: Earthworks, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Health Babies Bright Futures, IPEN, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Upstream and Break Free From Plastic Movement.

Azoulay and colleagues found unique health risks from each part of the plastic lifecycle.

  • The extraction of fossil fuels, used as feedstocks in manufacturing plastic, results in air and water pollution and other direct impacts to communities such as increased traffic and pipeline construction (more than 99 percent of plastic made today is made using fossil fuels);
  • Refining and producing the plastic resins and additives releases cancer-causing compounds and other toxics, some of which "can be difficult to detect" as they "are colorless and tend to have mild-to-no odor. In addition, refinery workers are exposed to high levels of these compounds;
  • Plastic products and packaging, when in the consumer's hands, lead to inhaled or ingested toxic and/or plastic particles;
  • Plastic incineration releases toxic compounds;
  • The degradation of plastic leads to microplastics that can get into people, wildlife, soil and water

Azoulay said it is important to distinguish between the impacts of the microplastics themselves and the impacts of the associated chemicals.

In addition to the chemical byproducts in producing or incinerating plastic, there are harmful additives, such as bisphenol-A (BPA), metals such as cadmium or lead, flame retardants, perfluorinated substances (PFAS), phthalates, and other chemicals. Many of these are known endocrine disrupting compounds that alter our hormones, and have been linked to a variety of health impacts including cancers, heart problems, obesity and diabetes, birth defects, and impacts to the reproductive, immune and nervous systems.

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"Even babies are being born pre-polluted with these unnecessary dangerous chemicals," said Mike Schade, Mind the Store Campaign Director at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, in a statement. "At a time when we are learning more about the dangers of chemicals such as these in plastics, the US federal government is rolling back critical environmental and public health safeguards.

"Big retailers must step up to drive toxic chemicals out of plastics and act swiftly to phase out the worst plastics of concern like PVC, the poison plastic."

Then there is the plastic itself—increasingly research shows tiny bits of plastics in our water, air, food, and us. It still isn't entirely clear what this means for our health as these particles pass through our body.

"Given the ubiquitous nature of these particles in our food and the serious risks to human health arising from their ingestion, further study to understand and prevent health risks arising from the consumption of microplastics must be a priority," the authors wrote.

Two-thirds of all plastic ever produced remains in the environment

The report cites shocking statistics on plastic production, including data that shows plastic production has increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 380 million metric tons in 2015.

Currently about 42 percent of plastic is designed for packaging, which is especially troubling because most plastic packaging is designed for single-use.

And the tons of plastic already produced is not going anywhere— "roughly two thirds of all plastic ever produced has been released into the environment and remain there in some form—as debris in the oceans, as micro- or nanoparticles in air and agricultural soils, as microfibers in water supplies, or as microparticles in the human body," the authors wrote.

"Plastic has now permeated our air, our soil, our water and our bodies, and the consequences cannot be ignored," said Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer of North America for international ocean advocacy organization Oceana.

"Companies cannot continue hiding behind waste-management solutions like recycling, when none of that will be enough unless they also dramatically reduce plastic use by using alternatives to single-use plastics," she added.

There has been momentum in recent years for plastic bans. A United Nations' December report found 66 percent of countries globally have put in place regulation to tackle plastic bags, for example. But the report found only eight countries had bans on microbeads.

"This report suggests more comprehensive regulatory approaches must be explored that will integrate the lifecycle of plastic products: from production to use, and distribution to disposal. Countries must seriously consider alternatives to plastics that are causing at least $8 billion of damages per year," said Celine Salcedo-La Viña, research associate at the World Resources Institute and one of the lead authors of the December report, in a statement about the UN's findings.

To help tackle the seemingly intractable problem, the new report recommends looking at the entire lifecycle of plastics; a stronger focus on the harmful additive chemicals; increased transparency about what's in plastics and how they're disposed; and putting human rights and human health at the core of any proposed solution.

The authors remain hopeful: Azoulay pointed to some recent progress on the issue, citing how quickly the European Union banned a series of single-use plastics, and a ban passed just last month in Berkeley, California, on disposable plastic food ware.

"We're seeing a level of awareness and mobilization that is unheard of, for any environmental issues," he said.

You can see the full report here.

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Peter Dykstra: Acid heroes

One of the first environmental heroes I ever met was an unusual man named Dan Smiley.

I've written about him previously – a geek bearing gifts whose daily measurements of water temperature and pH levels on New York's Lake Mohonk are some of the earliest, longest-range measures of both climate change and acid rain damage.

Smiley is one of several early heroes in the partial victory we've scored against the environmental scourge of acid rain – the chemical changes discovered in the 1970's that ravaged forests as well as freshwater streams and lakes.

From Smiley's humble beginnings in 1931, it's a rare battle that Earth's human residents are winning.

Damage to trees from acid rain. (Credit: Pixabay, Creative Commons License)

As decades passed, Smiley's measurements were bolstered by more methodical science. Enter Gene Likens.

Talk about a backdrop for heroes, Likens grew up in a log cabin on his family's Indiana farm. His early ambition mirrored a Gene Hackman character, the high school basketball coach in the movie Hoosiers. But a college mentor steered him to more cerebral pursuits, eventually landing him at New Hampshire's Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (HBEF) in 1960.

Along with HBEF founder F.H. Bormann and others, Likens discovered that rain and snowfall around Hubbard Brook were 100 times more acidic than normal.

Likens expanded his studies to New York's Finger Lakes and Adirondack Mountains. Evidence of acid rain damage turned up in Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere – damage not just to nature, but to granite statues and building facades.

Sherwood Boehlert (Credit: US Gov)

This brings us to Sherwood Boehlert, a 12-term Congressman from acid rain-ravaged upstate New York whose strong environmental views earned him the nickname "The Green Hornet."

Boehlert was an effective voice for the environment, championing the 1990 strengthening of the Clean Air Act, including strong action to rein in acid precipitation. He was an early adapter on climate change, and a major advocate for higher fuel efficiency, improved mass transit and intercity rail.

Oh did I mention that Sherry Boehlert is a Republican? From 2001 to 2006, he was the last Republican chair of the House Science Committee who did not seemingly treat science like it was in poor taste.

The Mohonk Mountain House, founded by the Smiley family in 1869, is in its fifth generation of Smiley management. The charming, family-run anachronism retains its environmental values. Go visit if you can afford it.

Gene Likens remains active into his 80s, contributing to more than 50 peer-reviewed papers in the past decade. The venerable Franklin Institute just honored Likens with its 2019 Award in Earth and Environmental Sciences, telling his life's story in the video above.

Sherry Boehlert retired from Congress in 2007. His brand of green Republican officeholder is extinct, and might as well be a trophy mounted over the fireplace.

As for acid rain the verdict is hopeful, but the issue is far from won. Damaged lakes and forests in the eastern U.S. and Canada are clearly on the mend.

Coal-hungry juggernauts like China and India, not so much. But there are countless citizen-activist-geeks like Dan Smiley; many driven scientists; and a bounty of genuinely concerned pols who can drive us toward solutions.

In the coming months, I hope to focus on some of the hopeful and inspirational ones, and not just the dwindling ice sheets, declining habitat, and decreasing signs of hope.

Twelve years until we're doomed, UN? I'll see your 12 years, and raise you many more.