Scientists Map Research on Human Health Impacts of Plastic Chemicals

Scientists from the Minderoo Foundation have launched an online map of research on plastic chemicals’ human health impacts. The open-access, interactive Plastic Health Map incorporates more than 3,500 studies on plastic chemical exposure and human health effects dating back to the 1960s, when plastic mass-production began to surge.

This map contains data that can be useful to policymakers, researchers, educators, students, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and other individuals and communities. It is the first interactive map of its kind to be created. The data collection shows that many chemicals used to make plastic are understudied, and those that are better understood present hazards linked to poor health outcomes.

The researchers recommend a precautionary approach to chemical regulation, with continued health monitoring on new and existing plastic chemicals to ensure human health is protected.

— Marcus Gover, Director (Plastics) of Minderoo Foundation

Mapping Exposure to Unregulated Plastic Chemicals

To develop its map, Minderoo Foundation researchers screened more than 100,000 individual scientific papers across multiple scientific journals.

The studies assessed show that people are exposed to plastic chemicals via inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact. Children are additionally exposed to plastic chemicals prenatally, for example, through the placenta during gestation, and postnatally via breastmilk when feeding. The safety of many plastic chemicals is unregulated, and understudied.

The map highlights plastic chemicals to which people are commonly exposed, including fossil fuel based polymers, chemical additives (e.g., plasticizers and flame retardants), bisphenols, and per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Map users can filter the scientific evidence available by type of plastic chemical exposure, country, and human health outcomes.

Uncovering Problematic Research Gaps

The team uncovered specific patterns in human health research on plastics, as well as serious research gaps. Some of the most concerning gaps identified include:

Less than 30 percent of more than 1,500 chemicals mapped have been investigated for human health impacts.

• Many human health outcomes have not been investigated for any given chemicals class.

• Few studies have addressed “substitution” chemicals, such as organophosphate flame retardants, phthalate substitutes, and bisphenol analogues, which have increasingly replaced restricted toxic plastic additives.

The impact of micro- and/or nano-plastics on human health was not examined in any studies screened.

• Very few studies have been conducted in low-income countries where populations may be heavily exposed to plastic waste due to environmental injustices and the global waste trade.

The researchers describe their project, methodology, and key results, in an article published in Environment International. The study’s authors call for a “paradigm shift in chemical regulation.” This means that new chemicals should not be considered “safe” simply because of a lack of evidence for human harm.

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