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How plastic can harm people

22 Jun 2023

We’ve written before about the impact that our plastic consumption is having on the environment. But there’s also a growing body of research that is highlighting the harmful effects of plastic on people. Plastic isn't just a problem for nature; it's a problem for our health too. In this blog, we'll look at how plastic, which we use every day, might be causing health issues for us, and why we need to think more about how we use plastic.

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How plastic harms people

It has been found that different plastics contain and excrete chemicals that are harmful to the environment, animals and humans. This is going to get a little technical but the main takeaway is that chemicals released from plastics have been found to cause hormone imbalances, which is bad news for us. These hormone imbalances can have far-reaching and detrimental effects on human health, potentially leading to a wide range of health issues.

The problem with phthalates

Phthalates can best be described as ‘plastic softeners’ and are used to make plastic less brittle. Commonly, they are not tightly bound to other molecules in the plastic so they can easily make their way into us. They are found in toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, blood bags and tubing, and personal care products, such as nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos, perfumes and other fragrance preparations.

Problem with Phthalates

Research has shown that certain phthalates are endocrine disruptors, the endocrine system of hormones being a highly complex system important for controlling respiration, metabolism and sexual development. Phthalates have been linked to an increased likelihood of respiratory conditions such as asthma in infants, as well as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The problem with BPA

BPA plastic, the kind that a lot of food containers and water bottles are made from, contains bisphenol A (hence the name). From research into marine animals, BPA has been found to disrupt hormones in a variety of ways, for example as an estrogen imitator, blocking other sex hormones, and disrupting the thyroid hormone system. Research with other animals has also indicated adverse reproductive development in sperm and eggs.

When it comes to humans, BPA exposure has been correlated with an increased risk of miscarriage, low birth weight, childhood obesity and impaired neurological development.

Plastic Bottles with BPA Disrupt Hormones in a Variety of Ways

PVC may just be the worst

PVC contains a lot of harmful chemicals such as phthalates, chlorides, dioxins, VOCs, lead and cadmium. These are released in production, or evaporate or leach off over time, ending up inside of us.

Water pollution by plastics

Water contamination is a pressing issue in today's world, with far-reaching consequences for both our environment and public health.

Drinking water

The presence of microplastics in our tap water and bottled water is a growing concern. These minuscule plastic particles, often invisible to the naked eye, have been detected in various water sources across the globe. Microplastics can carry with them a cocktail of potentially harmful substances, including chemicals used in the manufacturing process and those absorbed from the surrounding environment. As we consume this water, there is a potential risk of these substances entering our bodies, raising questions about the long-term health implications of plastic pollution in our drinking water.

Drinking Water

Toxic runoff

Plastic waste deposited in landfills can pose a significant environmental threat, particularly when rainwater comes into contact with it. When water percolates through these landfills, it can leach out a mixture of toxic chemicals and pollutants present in the plastics. This contaminated runoff can seep into the ground, polluting groundwater reserves and affecting nearby ecosystems.

Communities residing in the vicinity of such landfills are at risk of exposure to these pollutants, which can lead to various health problems and long-lasting environmental damage. The management and containment of plastic waste in landfills have become critical to mitigate the adverse effects of toxic runoff on our environment and public health.

Ocean plastic picks up extra toxins

A lot of the plastic we discard ends up in our oceans. On its way there, it can actually absorb toxins from other sources. When the plastic breaks down into microplastics and is consumed by marine life it then makes its way up the food chain, becoming more concentrated, and into us.

Water Contamination

So, all the more reason to avoid plastics. Research is still ongoing that links the chemicals found in plastic to human health conditions, but the signs are not good and it’s recommended to decrease exposure, particularly for children.

How to reduce your plastic exposure

Plastic is everywhere. Think about what you have consumed or come into contact with already today. Consider all the items you've encountered or consumed – from your morning routine to your daily meals. How many of these involved plastic in one way or another? Which of those products were made of or packaged in plastic? Chances are, even the seemingly innocuous products you've interacted with have some connection to plastic.

But, it’s still possible to reduce your exposure by choosing reusable alternatives to single-use plastics. Here are some practical suggestions to get you started:

  • Avoid storing food in plastic containers, especially when microwaving. Use glass, ceramic or metal instead.
  • Carry a stainless steel reusable drinks bottle to hold drinks.
  • Eat fresh fruits and vegetables to avoid plastic wrapping.
  • When dining out or ordering takeout, make a habit of declining plastic straws and cutlery. Carry reusable alternatives like metal or bamboo straws and utensils in your bag or pocket for those occasions when you need them
  • Another simple but effective way to cut down on plastic use is to bring your reusable shopping bags. Keep a few sturdy, eco-friendly totes in your car or backpack, so you're always prepared to shop without relying on single-use plastic bags.
agood company Bottle Reusable Alternative to Single-Use Plastics
Reusable Alternatives to Single Use Plastic - Stainless Steel Container

Final thoughts

Reducing plastic exposure in today's world is more important than ever, given the pervasive presence of plastic in our daily lives. It’s essential for each of us to take proactive steps in minimising plastic use, whether through conscious consumer choices, supporting eco-friendly alternatives, or advocating for policies that promote a more sustainable future. By doing so, we can collectively work towards a cleaner, healthier planet for generations to come.

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