Plastic manufacturing in the first ten years of this century eclipsed the total produced in the entire last century: Now we're producing – and discarding – almost 360 million tons a year.
From cell phones to bicycle helmets to IV bags, plastic has molded society in ways that make life easier and safer. But the synthetic material also has left harmful imprints on the environment and perhaps human health.
Plastic manufactured in the first 10 years of this century eclipses the total produced in the entire last century<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzE0NTM5Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzc5MzMxOH0.B9gvkZFRXn-RLWmIL57WNSHwkQYvFnE5SRublHKK8uc/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C18%2C0%2C18&height=700" id="cd503" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="44b045131d7191401796bacf20e42619" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="polyethylene plastic bottle stock" />
High BPA and phthalate exposure by premature infants in neonatal intensive care units is 'of great concern'<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzE0NTM4NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTI1ODAyOH0.eGG5VbHTrm7eEGCbazVSaByJa8zasiN31xO12WhWQPA/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C320%2C0%2C321&height=700" id="a6c67" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="126ef57f4495a368e650ca645f7906fc" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Medical officers helping a premature baby in a neonatal intensive care unit." />
Flickr.com<p>Polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, which are flame-retardants added to polyurethane foam furniture cushions, mattresses, carpet pads and automobile seats, also are widespread.</p><p>The plastics industry maintains that its products are safe after decades of testing.</p><p>"Every additive that we use is very carefully evaluated, not just by the industry, but also independently by government agencies to look at all the materials we use in plastics," said Mike Neal, a consumer and environmental affairs specialist at PlasticsEurope, an industry trade association, and a co-author of the report.</p><p>But some of these chemicals have been shown to affect reproduction and development in animal studies, according to the report. Some studies also have linked these chemicals with adverse effects in people, including reproductive abnormalities.</p><p>"We have animal literature, which shows direct links between exposure and adverse health outcomes, the limited human studies, and the fact that 90 to 100 percent of the population has measurable levels of these compounds in their bodies," said John Meeker, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a lead author. "You take the whole picture and it does raise concerns, but more research is needed."</p><p>Shanna Swan, director of the University of Rochester's Center for Reproductive Epidemiology, conducted studies that found an association between pregnant women's exposure to phthalates and altered genital development in their baby boys.</p><p>Also, people with the highest exposure to BPA have an increased rate of heart disease and diabetes, according to one recent study. Animal tests studies of PBDEs have revealed the potential for damaging the developing brain and the reproductive system. </p><p>Yet the effects on human health remain largely unknown. To help shed more light on the issue, the report recommends more sophisticated human studies.</p><p>"It's tough to have a smoking gun with a single animal study or observational human study," Meeker said. "We need to have different types of studies indicating a consistent pattern to more definitively determine health effects resulting from these chemicals."</p><p>But testing humans for endocrine disruptors can be tricky because phthalates and BPA pass through the body so quickly. In addition, tests for each chemical cost about $100 a pop.</p><p>Deciding which chemicals to test and at what dose is also an issue. To date, most studies have addressed single chemicals, and there are limited data on the interactions between chemicals. Compounding the problem is the discovery that endocrine disrupting chemicals may have effects at doses lower than those used in the Environmental Protection Agency's standard toxicity tests.</p>
Current testing efforts should be thrown out. The new goal? Tests that mimic real human exposure.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzE0NTM4Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NDUxMDI1OX0.wkO8RFGrlF_wjkakoj5a9-pNe0edBRDGioG-uPiqqxw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=113%2C0%2C113%2C0&height=700" id="a0847" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fbae35e5ddb2ec82c3365c25d9500a3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Researchers looking at BPA samples" />
Amy Soto<p>"It's a very complicated picture and the laboratory model of just taking one isolated chemical and giving it to a genetically pure strain of rats in clean cages, clean air and clean water and seeing what it does just doesn't come close to mimicking the human situation," Swan said.</p><p>Many researchers recommend studies that test pregnant women as well as their children. The National Children's Study will do just that by examining environmental influences on more than 100,000 children across the United States, following them from before birth until age 21.<br><br>"There are so many questions now with these chemicals in relation to cardiovascular disease, age and puberty, obesity, developmental disorders," said Swan. "We don't know what's causing it, only hints, so the beauty of the National Children's Study is that we can look at all of these endpoints and it should reveal a lot of answers."</p><p>Plastic's problems extend beyond the human body, according to the report. More than one-third of all plastic is disposable packaging like bottles and bags, many of which end up littering the environment.</p><p>Although the image of a bird tangled in a plastic necklace is by now burned into the public's eye, ingestion of plastic fragments is much more common. Once inside, plastic can pack a one-two punch by both clogging an animal's stomach and poisoning it with chemicals that have concentrated in the plastic. Some chemicals are then transferred to the food web when animals eat them.</p><p>More than 180 species of animals have been documented to ingest plastic debris, including birds, fish, turtles and marine mammals, according to the report.</p><p>Unfortunately, collecting data on plasticizers' impacts on wildlife suffers the same pitfalls as studying human health. Still, there is already evidence that chemicals associated plastics might harm wildlife.</p><p>For example, laboratory studies have shown that phthalates and BPA affect reproduction in all studied animal groups and impair development in crustaceans and amphibians.</p><p>"While there is clear evidence that these chemicals have adverse effects at environmentally relevant concentrations in laboratory studies, there is a need for further research to establish population-level effects in the natural environment," according to the report.</p><p>Charles Tyler, a professor at the University of Exeter School of Biosciences in the United Kingdom and a senior author of the report, said that scientists have shown that "some of these chemical compounds are getting into the environment and are in some environments at concentrations where they can produce biological effects in a range of wildlife species."</p><p>Traveling from coast to coast, plastic can endure for thousands of years due to the reduced UV exposure and lower temperatures of aquatic habitats.</p><p>Barnes demonstrates plastic's mobility with his account of a plastic sighting during an expedition to the Amundsen Sea where he took biological samples, the first there ever. The Amundsen, located in the Pacific Sector of Antarctica, is the only sea in Antarctica with no research station on its coast and the nearest urban center thousands of miles away.</p><p>"Even for us, getting in was a challenge because there's so much ice and it's so difficult to get there," said Barnes. "But even in that remotest of environments, there was plastic floating on the sea surface.</p><p>Plastic also serves as a floating transportation device that allows alien species to hitchhike to unfamiliar parts of the world, threatening biodiversity. Global warming further aids the process by making previously inhospitable areas like the Arctic livable for invasive species, which can be detrimental to local species.</p><p>For example, plastic items are commonly colonized by barnacles, tubeworms and algae. Along the shore of Adelaide Island, west of the Antarctic Peninsula, ten species of invertebrates were found attached to plastic strapping that was littering the ice.</p><p>"Raising the temperature just one degree can make the difference between getting to someplace and actually surviving once you get there," said Barnes.</p><p>Plastic is so resilient that even burying it deep within the earth doesn't keep it from impacting the environment. Currently it accounts for approximately 10 percent of generated waste, most of which is landfilled. But, as the report notes, placing plastics in a landfill may simply be storing a problem for the future, as plastic's chemicals often sink into nearby land, contaminating groundwater.</p>