A new report reveals that plastic is a human health crisis hiding in plain sight. Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, authored by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Earthworks, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), IPEN, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), University of Exeter, and UPSTREAM, brings together research that exposes the distinct toxic risks plastic poses to human health at every stage of the plastic lifecycle, from extraction of fossil fuels, to consumer use, to disposal and beyond.
To date, research into the human health impacts of plastic have focused narrowly on specific moments in the plastic lifecycle, often on single products, processes, or exposure pathways. This approach fails to recognize that significant, complex, and intersecting human health impacts occur at every stage of the plastic lifecycle: from wellhead to refinery, from store shelves to human bodies, and from waste management to ongoing impacts of microplastics in the air, water, and soil. Plastic & Health presents the full panorama of human health impacts of plastic and counsels that any solution to the plastic crisis must address the full lifecycle.
According to the report, uncertainties and knowledge gaps often impede regulation and the ability of consumers, communities, and policymakers to make informed decisions. However, the full scale of health impacts throughout plastic’s lifecycle are overwhelming and warrant a precautionary approach.
Plastic requires a lifecycle approach. The narrow approaches to assessing and addressing plastic impacts to date are inadequate and inappropriate. Making informed decisions that address plastic risks demands a full lifecycle approach to understand the full scope of its toxic impacts on human health. Likewise, reducing toxic exposure to plastic will require a variety of solutions and options because plastic has a complex lifecycle with a diverse universe of actors.
At every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risks to human health, arising from both exposure to plastic particles themselves and associated chemicals. People worldwide are exposed at multiple stages of this lifecycle.
Extraction and transportation of fossil feedstocks for plastic, which releases an array of toxic substances into the air and water, including those with known health impacts like cancer, neurotoxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and impairment of the immune system;
Refining and production of plastic resins and additives, which releases carcinogenic and other highly toxic substances into the air, with effects including impairment of the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, leukemia, and genetic impacts like low birth weight;
Consumer products and packaging, which can lead to ingestion and/or inhalation of microplastic particles and hundreds of toxic substances;
Plastic waste management, especially “waste-to-energy” and other forms of incineration, releases toxic substances including heavy metals such as lead and mercury, acid gases and particulate matter, which can enter air, water, and soil causing both direct and indirect health risks for workers and nearby communities;
Fragmenting and microplastics, which enter the human body directly and lead to an array of health impacts (including inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis) that are linked to negative health outcomes ranging from cardiovascular disease to cancer and autoimmune conditions;
Cascading exposure as plastic degrades, which further leach toxic chemicals concentrated in plastic into the environment and human bodies; and
Ongoing environmental exposures as plastic contaminates and accumulates in food chains through agricultural soils, terrestrial and aquatic food chains, and the water supply, creating new opportunities for human exposure.
FROM THE AUTHORS
David Azoulay, Director of Environmental Health, CIEL:
“Both the supply chains and the impacts of plastic cross and re-cross borders, continents, and oceans. No country can effectively protect its citizens from those impacts on its own, and no global instrument exists today to fully address the toxic life cycle of plastics. Countries must seize the opportunity of current global discussions to develop a holistic response to the plastic health crisis that involves reducing the production, use, and disposal of plastic worldwide. There is no silver bullet to solve this health crisis, but all solutions must ultimately reduce the production and use of plastic if they are serious about protecting human health.”
Priscilla Villa, Earthworks:
“Plastics poison people before they’re ever used because they’re produced at polluting petrochemical plants. And those plastics are made from fracking byproducts. This is a problem because oil and gas extraction and transport releases carcinogens like benzene. Any solution to our plastics problem must prioritize people’s health ahead of Big Oil’s profits.”
Doun Moon, Research Associate, GAIA:
“Plastic waste does not only pollute our oceans. Burning plastic in incinerators turns one form of pollution into another, whether it be air emissions, toxic ash, or wastewater. People living nearby incinerators are primarily low income communities and people of color, and bear the brunt of this toxic pollution. We can’t burn our plastic problem away, leaving certain communities to suffer the consequences. We desperately need to turn off the plastic tap and build a more just and equitable society in the process.”
Dr. Mariann Lloyd-Smith, Senior Policy Advisor, IPEN:
“The twin crises of chemical and plastics pollution are decimating our oceans and its inhabitants. Plastics are not just unsightly litter, they are made with many toxic ingredients and collect many more persistent poisons over their incredibly long life time. Microplastics provide a pathway for hazardous chemicals into the marine foodchain on which humans depend. We can’t dump, burn, or recycle our way out of this problem; it’s time for industry and governments to turn off this toxic tap and for all of us to make deep changes in the way we live.”
Lauren Moore, UPSTREAM:
“What’s toxic for the planet is just as toxic for human health. Why risk exposing our bodies to the thousands of chemicals found in plastic packaging when we have reusable options that do not pollute our health or the environment? When it comes to the safety of our families and our planet, reuse wins every time.”
Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator, Break Free From Plastic Movement (BFFP):
“The heavy toxic burdens associated with plastic – at every stage of its life cycle – offers another convincing argument why reducing and not increasing production of plastics is the only way forward. It is shocking how the existing regulatory regime continues to give the whole plastic industrial complex, the license to play Russian roulette with our lives and our health. Plastic is lethal, and this report shows us why.”
WHAT EXPERTS ARE SAYING ABOUT PLASTIC & HEALTH
Ruthann Rudel, Director of Research, Silent Spring Institute: “Plastics are made of a complex mix of chemicals, many of them are endocrine disruptors or are of concern for other health effects. A recent National Academy of Sciences report found that the important vinyl ingredient DEHP is “a presumed hazard to human reproduction” at current exposures, and that’s just one plastics ingredient! Plastics also contain many toxic additives, such as flame retardants, metals, anti-microbials, non-stick coatings, and more. The fantasy that plastics are an inexpensive material is just that – a fantasy that fails to acknowledge the tremendous costs we all pay.”
Erica Jackson, Community Outreach & Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance: “The pervasiveness of plastic is a problem that spans space and time- it’s all around us and it lasts for centuries. Therefore, the importance of this assessment of plastic’s cumulative health impact cannot be understated. We know enough to justify taking immediate action to reduce our dependence on plastic, and that starts by keeping plastic feedstocks – oil and gas – in the ground.”
Graham Forbes, Greenpeace Global Plastics Project Leader: “The health risks of the plastic pollution crisis have been ignored for far too long, and must be at the forefront of all decisions on plastics moving forward. Corporations and governments are risking our health to maintain the status quo and keep profits flowing. It’s not just our oceans and marine animals that are suffering from this addiction to plastics, it’s all of us. While there is still much to learn about all of the impacts of plastics on human health, we know enough to adopt a precautionary principle and start to phase out these throwaway plastics for good.”
Mike Schade, Mind the Store Campaign Director, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families: “The plastics industry is polluting the planet with poisonous chemicals like phthalates and halogenated flame retardants, which are commonly found in products like food packaging and electronics. Even babies are being born pre-polluted with these unnecessary dangerous chemicals. 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.”
Julie Teel Simmonds, Senior Attorney, Center for Biological Diversity: “It is alarming that the fossil fuel industry plans to increase plastic production by 40 percent over the next decade. Making plastic pollutes communities, and plastic trash is filling our oceans. It is clear that curbing plastic pollution and protecting public health cannot be achieved without curbing plastic production.”
Stiv Wilson, Campaigns Director, Story of Stuff Project: “For years the petrochemical industry has ignored the upstream human health impacts in the extraction and refining process. Instead, they’ve chosen to frame the human health question narrowly, after plastic gets to the ocean where the science is a bit less smoking gun. Finally, we have a baseline for understanding the whole pollution matrix that surrounds this ubiquitous material called plastic.”
Jacqueline Savitz, Chief Policy Officer for North America, Oceana: “Plastic has now permeated our air, our soil, our water and our bodies, and the consequences cannot be ignored. 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.”
Sandra Curtis, Plastic Pollution Coalition: “The health consequences of the endocrine disrupting chemicals in plastic are little known to the public, yet are contributing to a global health crisis. More than 80% of the exposure to these harmful chemicals come through food preparation and storage. CIEL’s groundbreaking report puts the issue directly in the public eye throughout the lifecycle of plastic materials upon which we’ve become so dependent. Systemic change is necessary to stem the global rise of non-communicable diseases, which are correlated to these same chemicals. Like the extraction of fossil fuels from which single-use plastic are made, this report will help educate the public and encourage us all to extract ourselves from our dependence on single-use plastic.”