The Dangers of Plastics

Plastics help provide clean drinking water, allow medical devices to be made including surgical equipment and drip tubes, reduce food waste through the use of modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), and extend the shelf life of fresh meat and produce. But they’re also a significant source of environmental harm and can be dangerous to people, animals and plants. These dangers are exacerbated by the fact that it takes a long time for plastics to break down. The high levels of plastics that can be found in landfills, oceans and remote areas of the world paint a bleak picture for our planet’s future.

The chemicals used to make plastics are also dangerous in their own right. They include a group of compounds called plasticizers that render plastics pliable and flexible, as well as flame retardants, which slow the rate of fire and burn, and UV stabilizers to prevent degradation by sunlight. In addition, many plastics are mixed with additives to enhance their properties. These may include inorganic fillers such as carbon or silica to reinforce the material, plasticizers (e.g. adipates, polymerics, trimellitates and 1,2-cyclohexanedicarboxylic acid diisononyl ester), lubricants, stabilizers, plasticizers, antimony catalysts, colorants, matting agents and lustre additives. The use of additives is a complex issue and they are often the subject of emotional calls to ban or restrict their use without full consideration of the evidence and the implications for public health.

When it comes to humans, exposure to plastics and their chemical constituents has been linked to a range of health problems, including endocrine disruption, which is when chemicals mimic hormones in the body and interfere with normal development. This is especially problematic for children and unborn babies. Exposure has also been linked to obesity, reproductive disorders, and some cancers in humans.

Despite the risks, many governments continue to allow the use of toxic additives in plastics. For example, bisphenol A (BPA) was banned in baby bottles in the United States in 2012, but is still used in a wide variety of other plastics including beverage bottles, food containers and water pipes. The FDA and similar agencies around the world maintain that BPA poses no health risks, citing a lack of human evidence while dismissing voluminous animal evidence.

Totally avoiding plastics is nearly impossible, but there are ways to minimize your exposure. Start by investing in a reusable stainless steel water bottle and bringing a reusable canvas or mesh bag to the grocery store for your produce. And, if you must buy a disposable product, choose one with a minimal amount of additives. And remember the age-old adage: “the dose makes the poison.”