The Dangers of Plastics

Plastic is an insidious threat to our planet. It’s used in everything from water bottles and bags to toys and clothing, and it takes hundreds or even thousands of years to break down. In fact, the majority of plastic that has ever been produced still lingers in our environment, accumulating in garbage piles and bodies of water around the world.

Plastic pollution harms humans at every stage of its life cycle, including extraction and production, as well as use and disposal. The National Academy of Medicine has identified it as one of the top 10 threats to human health.

Despite the appearance of inertness, plastics contain many chemicals that can leach out over time and pose risks to human health. Most of these are potential carcinogens or endocrine disruptors. They may be released from plastics through abrasion, leaking containers and improperly incinerated waste. They can also be ingested or absorbed through the skin. These additives include bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, polyvinyl chloride and flame retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which have been linked to a host of problems from reproductive disorders to metabolic changes.

The chemicals in plastics can contaminate soil and water, poisoning wildlife, plants, fish and human beings. They can also interfere with the function of wetlands, oceans and other natural systems that support human life.

Plastics are a major source of marine debris and microplastics, which are small pieces of plastic that can be ingested by ocean creatures. These microscopic particles can cause a wide variety of problems, from reduced feeding and energy deficiencies to death. They can also interfere with zooplankton, the tiny animals at the base of the ocean food chain.

These tiny particles have also been found in human blood, lungs and tissues, colons, placentas, stool, breast milk and urine. They can disrupt the immune and endocrine systems, cause inflammation, damage organs and lead to cancer. The toxins they release may also contribute to the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In addition to affecting humans and other animals, plastics are also dangerous for the workers who produce and dispose of them. Studies have shown that the toxins in plastics can make them sick, and that this impact is especially significant for lower-income people.

Workers in the plastic industry are exposed to numerous toxic chemicals, including BPA and other endocrine disruptors, that can cause harm to their reproductive systems and affect their metabolism and immune system. They are also at increased risk for traumatic injury, silicosis and lung disease. The communities in which plastics are produced and disposed of are also impacted, as many facilities are located in low-income countries and in poor or minority communities in high-income nations. These people are at a higher risk for asthma, childhood leukemia, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. These conditions disproportionately affect people of color and women.