Lines We Don’t Want to Cross: Synthethic Chemicals and Plastics Threaten Planetary Health

It’s known plastic harms humans and other living beings, but do you known that these substances also affect Earth’s system as a whole? Due to mass-production and inadequate regulation of plastic and synthetic materials, Earth has entered a high-risk zone where irreversible change is likely.

Urgent action is in need to reduce production and toxicity of synthetic chemicals and plastics to bring the plant back into a safe and more balanced state. The health of Earth’s systems are critical to human survival, and a collapse of just one can have crippling effects across the planet.

Scientist have developed and evaluated a system marking nine planetary boundaries to act as a benchmark that the planet is safe and functioning stably. This NRDC brief discusses how plastic and chemical production and pollution stress the Earth’s planetary boundaries in serious and severe ways.

Top plastic pollution researcher Martin Wagner at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology writes, “A United Nations-backed agreement to end plastic pollution is within reach — but only if scientists, civil society and businesses unite against powerful vested interests.”

Wagner argues that the global plastic treaty currently under negotiation, if crafted intelligently and agreed upon by world leaders, could significantly reduce global reliance on fossil fuels and plastics. This, he writes, could diminish human and planetary exposure to hazardous chemicals and harmful plastic particles. But to get there, negotiators and observers will have to agree that vested interests with the fossil fuel and plastics industries should not guide the process.

Dr. Pete Myers, Prof. Dr. Dick Vethaak, Prof. Dr. Terrence J. Collins, and Prof. Dr. Barbro Melgert have prepared a policy briefing on the UN Plastics Treaty, on behalf of the Plastic Health Council. These top health experts lay out the necessary aspects of an effective Treaty, and point out shortcomings of the existing Draft Treaty. Lastly, it highlights the latest scientific understanding of the risk of plastics and plastic chemicals, and additionally lays out short-term and long-term goals that expert health scientists propose for a Global Plastics Treaty that heeds the known science of the impact of plastic chemicals and plastic particles on human health.

Global production of plastic has resulted in the massive release of nano- and micro-plastics. Microplastics have found their way into humans, and scientists are developing a new methods to detect them. In one study, scientists found microplastics present in all 62 placentas tested from people who had recently given birth. They found various types of plastics, including polyethylene, PVC, and nylon.

The team’s methodology included saponification and ultracentrifugation to extract solid material from human placental tissue samples. They used highly specific and quantitative analysis of plastic with pyrolysis-gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy (Py-GC-MS). Placenta tissues were analyzed with fluorescence microscopy and automated particle count, which showed presence of micro-sized particles but not nano sized particles. Compared to other methodologies and tools, PY-GC-MS detected microplastics in all placenta samples.

The data that Py-GC-MS shows advancements in unbiased quantitative resolution and its application to detect microplastics in human placenta tissue samples. This method, with clinical data, could be essential to understanding the potential impacts of microplastics on pregnancy outcomes.

A critical issue from an occupational health perspective is how workers might be exposed to Nano- and microplastic particles (NMPPs). While much attention has focused on these plastic particles in water and food, less attention has been paid to their presence in the air. Thus, inhalation of NMPPs in the workplace should be a major concern.

Workplaces such as waste management and recycling operations could expose workers to NMPPs from the degradation of synthetic products. Office or telephone workers and custodial staff can be exposed with synthetic fibers from the carpet, along with many other professions who can be vulnerable to airborne NMPPs from the breakdown of plastic.

Inhaling NMPPs can lead to toxicity that is not yet labeled partly due to their complex chemical makeup, varied sizes, and frequent combination with other hazards, resulting in mixed exposures. It can lead to adverse health effects, especially effecting the lungs when inhaled.

Presently there are no occupational exposure limits for nano- and microplastics. In the absence of occupational exposure limits for nano- and microplastics workplace safety efforts should focus on minimizing potential exposure through appropriate engineering controls such as isolation cabinets, exhaust ventilation, and utilizing good industrial hygiene practices.

We all need to wear clothes, and fashion can be a powerful and fun way to express oneself. However, more than 60% of the clothes we wear today are made of plastic. Common fibers like nylon, spandex, and polyester are derived from fossil fuels and, like all plastics, don’t break down in the environment. Low-quality fast fashion items are dumped in countries that can’t properly manage the waste, while tiny microfibers constantly shed from our clothing and make their way into our air, oceans, food, and bodies. Fortunately, there are small lifestyle changes we can make to reduce the harm caused by textiles…and it starts with doing less. Sign the pledge to do less!