We are beginning to see the impact of plastic pollution on the environment. We have all seen that image of a sea turtle with a plastic straw in its nose or that photo of a bird who has over 30 pieces of plastic in its gut. But how is plastic affecting human health? We need a microscope and a catheter to find out.
Plastics do not decompose, rather they go through a process called photodegradation where sunlight breaks up plastic into smaller pieces while releasing different chemicals into the environment. These pieces become microplastics, which is any plastic smaller than 5 mm, and are barely visible to the human eye.
Microplastics are finding their way everywhere around the world from the streets of Chicago to the most remote mountain regions of the Himalayas. They are even finding their way into our food. Scientists have found microplastics in 114 aquatic species, and more than half of those end up on our dinner plates. And even if you don’t eat fish, you can still get plastic in your body.
Bottled and tap water alike has microplastics. The World Health Organization found that among the most popular bottled water brands, 90% contained pieces of plastic. In tap water tested across the world, 80% of samples contained microplastics with the USA ranking the highest then Lebanon and India.
These plastics can enter bodies through the foods we eat and the water we drink; it’s even found in table salt. In fact, a new study estimates that the average adult consumes approximately 2,000 microplastics per year through salt.
So what does this mean for human health?
Plastics contain compounds like dioxins, phthalates, benzene, formaldehyde, and phenols such as BPA, which are all chemically derived from laboratories. These different compounds are used to make plastics more flexible while increasing durability. Many plastics also contain other additives such as artificial pigments, ultraviolet stabilizers, water repellents, and flame retardants. These compounds are linked to serious health issues such as endocrine disruption, weight gain, insulin resistance, decreased reproductive health, and even cancer.
These chemicals can leach from our plastic water bottles and forks and knives and enter our body. In fact, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, BPA, which is considered an endocrine disruptor, was found in 93% of all urine sample collected from U.S. citizens above the age of six.
There is still much to be understood regarding the impact of plastics on human health. This article only highlights the impact of plastic post-production, but the extraction, manufacturing, and processing of plastics also have serious impacts on human health. Scientists and citizens alike are beginning to realize the major implications that plastic can have not only on the environment and wildlife but also on us.
So what can we do? There is still a lot that we have to learn about plastics’ long and short term effects on digestive, neurological, and reproductive health. But as scientists begin to formulate studies, we as consumers can begin to make an impact.
As individuals, it is so important to not only to reuse and recycle our plastics but to reduce them in the first place. Swapping out disposables for reusables is a great first step. Check out our other blogs for zero waste tips and tricks. And if you are still unable to completely reduce your plastic footprint, let rePurpose offset the rest by using the plastic footprint calculator.
About the author
Rachel Gladstone is an environmental science student studying at the University of Vermont in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. Her concentration is in sustainability science and waste systems, and her research focuses on the presence and impact of microplastics in the environment. She is an avid #zerowaster and proud to contribute to #rePurpose and their #PlasticNeutral mission