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.

3

You may have recently heard about microplastics and nanoplastics in the news, on social media, in your school or workplace, or in everyday conversation. “Microplastics” have even been deemed a “2023 Buzzword” by National Public Radio.

“Microplastics” and “nanoplastics” are words used to describe tiny plastic particles about the diameter of a standard pencil’s eraser and smaller. They exist all around us on Earth, and inside of our bodies, and shed off of things that are made from plastic.

Scientists have known for decades that plastic is a material that never breaks down or benignly biodegrades. But it’s only more recently that experts have been able to identify what happens instead: All plastic items break up into ever-smaller particles that remain plastic. Plastic particles travel through indoor and outdoor air; fresh waters, oceans, and other aquatic ecosystems; soils; plants; weather systems and atmosphere; and in the bodies of animals—including, as we now know, humans. This, in addition to the toxic and climate-warming pollution and injustices driven by plastic production, transportation, use, and disposal; and the extraction, transportation, storage, and refining of plastic’s fossil fuel ingredients.

Should we be concerned? In short, yes. A large and growing body of evidence shows us how microplastics and nanoplastics are hazardous to people and other living beings, and the Earth, too. In fact, the Earth is so saturated with plastic particles that some people have said we are living during a new geological era: The Plasticene

While we unfortunately cannot always avoid plastic particles, there’s much you can do to minimize your exposure. Read on to learn more about how you can take action today to protect your health from the dangers of microplastics and nanoplastics:


Microplastics and Nanoplastics are Harmful

Research showing the full extent of harm caused by microplastics and nanoplastics is now ramping up fast. While there’s a lot we do not yet know—such as the long-term effects of exposure to plastic particles on humans and the Earth—what we do know is concerning:

Plastic particles are in our bodies and environment

Microplastics and nanoplastics are small enough to enter the human body. They get into our bodies through our skin, when we eat and drink, and when we breathe. Plastic particles are widespread in modern human diets and our drinking water sources (tap and bottled); beverages (including soda and beer); fish, livestock, and game; produce and other edible plants; spices and salt; and processed and packaged foods.

Over the past several years, scientists have detected the presence of tiny plastic particles in people’s bloodstreams, brains, breast milk, feces, hearts, lungs, placentas, testes/semen, and veins, with more worrying research now on the way. Patients undergoing treatment for heart disease who had microplastics detected in the plaques of their carotid arteries also showed signs of inflammation in their bodies, and were much more likely to go on to experience heart attack, stroke, and death from any cause compared to patients without evidence of microplastics traveling to their hearts. Human body cells exposed to microplastic particles in the laboratory experience cell damage and death. Observations of wild animals in nature show us that interactions with microplastics and nanoplastics can be deadly.

Plastic particles are known to both absorb toxic chemicals that pollute our planet and leach them into living organisms (including humans) and into Earth’s ecosystems. The smallest nanoplastic particles appear to have the ability to cross the blood–brain barrier in animals that ingest them, including fish. Plastic particles are easily colonized by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microscopic organisms that can cause disease.

Plastic particles are hazardous to our health

Ninety-nine percent of all plastics are made from petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels—gas, oil, and coal. Plastic’s fossil fuel ingredients are mixed with any combination of more than 16,000 chemicals that give plastics certain useful characteristics, such as flexibility, water-resistance, and nonstick qualities. But this usefulness comes at a steep cost: More than 4,200 of these chemicals are have been deemed hazardous; that is, “toxic,” “persistent,” and/or “bioaccumulating” (dangerously building up in our bodies), with many more marked as likely hazardous. Many of the problematic chemicals in plastics are also made from fossil fuels.

The health probllems linked to plastic chemicals costs U.S. healthcare system $250 billion in 2018 alone. Babies, young people, and pregnant people are especially vulnerable to health issues linked to plastics and plastic chemicals. Many plastic chemicals are known to cause and/or contribute to a wide range of health problems, including a person’s risk of hormone-related health issues, such as infertility and auto-immune diseases, cancers, and DNA damage. Microplastics and nanoplastics act as carriers for the chemicals that industries manufacture into plastics.


Take These Steps to Protect Your Health

Many experts now advise taking steps to avoid exposure to microplastics and nanoplastics, and plastics generally, to best protect our health. Children, as well as people who are trying to reproduce, appear particularly vulnerable to the hormone-disrupting and other toxic properties of plastics. People who work directly with plastics also appear more prone to the health threats of plastics and plastic particles.

Modern people may spend 90% (or more) of their time indoors—at home, school, in the workplace, and in public places. This is especially true as people continue to adapt to life amid a global pandemic. That’s a lot of time in environments that we can potentially control. Outdoors, we usually have less control over what pollutants we encounter. 

Follow these steps to eliminate plastics—and microplastic and nanoplastic particles—from your indoor environments:

1. Take stock of plastics in your kitchen

Research suggests that most processed and packaged foods and beverages contain microplastic particles—in surprising amounts. Researchers have estimated modern people could be ingesting up to a credit card’s weight in plastic every week

Eating unpackaged foods, such as loose fruits and vegetables, as well as foods packaged in untreated paper or reusable materials such as stainless steel, glass, and ceramic, can minimize your exposure to additional plastic particles in your diet. Don’t ever warm food in plastic containers in the microwave—use microwave-safe ceramic or glass instead. 

Avoid consuming beverages bottled in plastic, including bottled water, to reduce your exposure to microplastic particles. Research shows tap water usually has lower levels of microplastics. Use a filter capable of removing microplastics and other contaminants to ensure the water you drink is safe and clean.

Shop for food locally if you can, at farmers markets (find markets in the U.S. here) and grocery stores that offer reuse options where you bring your own containers to refill. You can also grow your own food in your garden, or in containers on your windowsill or rooftop; or in a community garden near you. Or purchase fresh, local food from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation in your neighborhood (search for CSAs in the U.S. here). If you chew gum, find gum made from natural ingredients—not plastic! And when you shop, use reusable bags, ideally made from cotton or other natural, non-plastic materials like hemp or bamboo. You can make your own bags for free out of old t-shirts made from these same materials.

When eating out, choose eateries offering plastic-free and reusable packaging and dining options. We’ve partnered with Yelp! to create search attributes to help you decide. Prepare your foods from unprocessed ingredients, and store or carry meals and in reusable, non-plastic containers. Eat off of, and drink out of, reusable glass, metal, and ceramic plates, bowls, cups, mugs; use metal or wood flatware, and glass or metal straws. Avoid plastic baby bottles.

Remove plastics from your kitchen and instead try to find utensils, appliances, and other supplies that minimize or eliminate plastic contact with food. Ditch toxic plastic-coated teflon pots and pans and stock up on stainless steel, uncoated ceramic, and cast iron. Many plastic-free kitchen solutions are low-cost, if not free: for example, instead of purchasing glass containers to store your leftovers or to take to a reuse shop, save glass containers you purchase along with your peanut butter, pickles, and other jarred foods for this purpose. 

2. Beware of the plastics you might be wearing

Plastic fibers make up much modern clothing and apparel today. These manmade materials are major shedders of microplastic and nanoplastic “microfibers.” Avoid buying clothes made of plastic fibers like spandex, polyester, nylon, acrylic, and polyamide. Instead, opt for natural fibers such as 100% organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, wool, and other animal fibers. 

Be aware that cheaply made, mass-produced seasonal “fast-fashion” apparel, even if made from nonplastic fibers, often has outsized negative impacts on people and the environment. Do your homework on brands before you buy to understand how their employees are treated, and how they value (or not) people and the planet.

Overall we need to take better care of our clothing, buying less and taking care of it better. Wash your clothes only when they are truly dirty, use cold water, wash in full loads, and opt for shorter washing cycles to reduce wear and tear. Learning to sew, knit, and repair your clothes can extend their useful life and reduce the need to buy “new” clothes. Buying secondhand or exchanging clothing in swaps can extend the life of garments that otherwise may be destined for a landfill.

If you do have plastic fabrics in your home, consider installing a filter on your washing machine that’s designed to catch plastic fibers. In France, by 2025, these filters will be obligatory on all new washing machines. These filters are an imperfect solution, since microfibers still need to be removed periodically and sent somewhere for disposal—most often a landfill. However, washing machine filters can minimize your exposure and prevent microfibers from immediate discharge into your wastewater system.

3. Choose plastic-free furnishings

Homes, offices, schools, and other buildings we occupy are often built with plastic materials and filled with plastic furnishings. When possible, avoid plastic materials and furniture for use in your home. Carpeting, manmade flooring, ceiling tiles, paints and finishes, couches, upholstered chairs, and other common household items contribute to indoor plastic pollution.

Besides circulating in the air, plastic particles often settle in the dust in indoor environments. Children and pets, being low to the ground where particles gather, are especially vulnerable to microplastics and nanoplastic exposure indoors. 

Children and pets alike should not be given plastic toys with which to play. For human babies and kids, unpainted, untreated wooden toys are one of many safe options. Learn more about keeping your child safe from plastics with our Healthy Baby Guide. For keeping pets content, opt for natural ropes, homemade biscuits, raw fruits and vegetables, and real animal bones or horns (appropriately sized to your pet, of course), and organic catnip. Learn more about keeping your nonhuman friends safe in our webinar, “Plastic-Free Pet Care.” 

Your lifestyle choices also impact plastic exposure in your indoor environments. Frequent vacuuming can reduce microplastics and nanoplastics. Be sure to open your windows while vacuuming to minimize your exposure to plastic particles kicked up during the process. Indoor HEPA filters can remove plastic particles from the air to minimize your risk of breathing them in.


Take Action to End Plastic Pollution

While you take steps to minimize your exposure to plastics in your everyday life, you can make an even bigger impact by supporting systemic solutions to plastic pollution. Remember, we need to turn off the tap on global plastics production in order to stop this urgent crisis. Plastic particles are only one of many sources of serious pollution caused by plastics. And the growing threat of microplastics and nanoplastics will only multiply unless plastic production is stopped.

Together we can build a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution! Learn more about the facts and solutions, and take action: sign petitions on important plastics issues, and pledge to cut your own plastic use.

5

Photo: A landfill in Delhi, India. Photo by Marcus Eriksen.

New science featuring Plastic Pollution Coalition member organization 5 Gyres was published today in Science magazine. Director of Science and Innovation for 5 Gyres, Dr. Marcus Eriksen, authored the article with scientists Chelsea Rochman, Dr. Stephanie Borrelle, Jenna Jambeck, and others:  Predicted growth in plastic waste exceeds efforts to mitigate plastic pollution

The key finding: plastic waste production is outpacing our ability to manage it. 

Even with ambitious globally coordinated plastic reduction efforts, plastic emissions to rivers, lakes, and oceans could be as high as 53 Million tonnes in 2030.

“Considering the ambitious commitments currently set by governments, annual emissions may reach up to 53 million metric tons per year by 2030,” reads the abstract. “To reduce emissions to a level well below this prediction, extraordinary efforts to transform the global plastics economy are needed.”

Take action to stop plastic pollution.

Join our global Coalition.

Researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science
and Technology
(SOEST) discovered that several greenhouse gases are emitted as common
plastics degrade in the environment.

Mass production of plastics started nearly 70 years ago and the production rate is expected to double over the next two decades. While serving many applications because of their durability, stability and low cost, plastics have deleterious effects on the environment. Plastic is known to release a variety of chemicals during degradation, which has a negative impact on organisms and ecosystems.

The study, published yesterday in PLOS ONE, reports the unexpected discovery of the universal production of greenhouse gases methane and ethylene by the most common plastics when exposed to sunlight. The science team tested polycarbonate, acrylic, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene, high-density polyethylene and low-density polyethylene (LDPE)—materials used to make food storage, textiles, construction materials, and various plastic goods.

Polyethylene, used in shopping bags, is the most produced and discarded synthetic polymer globally and was found to be the most prolific emitter of both gases.

Additionally, the team found that the emission rate of the gases from virgin pellets of LDPE
increased during a 212-day experiment and that LDPE debris found in the ocean also emitted greenhouse gases when exposed to sunlight. Once initiated by solar radiation, the emission of these gases continued in the dark.

“We attribute the increased emission of greenhouse gases with time from the virgin pellets to photo-degradation of the plastic, as well as the formation of a surface layer marked with fractures, micro-cracks and pits,” said lead author Sarah-Jeanne Royer, a post-doctoral scholar in the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) at the time of this investigation. “With time, these defects increase the surface area available for further photo-chemical degradation and therefore contribute to an acceleration of the rate of gas production.”

It is also known that smaller particles, termed ‘microplastics,’ are eventually produced in the environment and may further accelerate gas production.

“Plastic represents a source of climate-relevant trace gases that is expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment,” said David Karl, senior author on the study and SOEST professor with C-MORE. “This source is not yet budgeted for when assessing global methane and ethylene cycles, and may be significant.”

Greenhouse gases directly influence climate change—affecting sea level, global temperatures, ecosystem health on land and in the ocean, and storms, which increase flooding, drought, and erosion.

“Considering the amounts of plastic washing ashore on our coastlines and the amount of plastic exposed to ambient conditions, our finding provides further evidence that we need to stop plastic production at the source, especially single use plastic,” said Royer.

Now, Royer is working to develop estimates of the amount of plastic exposed to the environment in oceanic and terrestrial regions, globally, in order to constrain the overall greenhouse gas emissions from plastics.

Join our global Coalition.