A new report released today 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.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORING ORGANIZATIONS:
Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) uses the power of law to protect the environment, promote human rights, and ensure a just and sustainable society. CIEL seeks a world where the law reflects the interconnection between humans and the environment, respects the limits of the planet, protects the dignity and equality of each person, and encourages all of earth’s inhabitants to live in balance with each other.
Earthworks is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while promoting sustainable solutions.
Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) is a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries whose ultimate vision is a just, toxic-free world without incineration.
Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) is an alliance of nonprofit organizations, scientists and donors that designs and implements outcomes-based programs to measurably reduce babies’ exposures to toxic chemicals in the first 1,000 days of development. HBBF brings together the strongest and latest science, data analysis, critical thinking, performance measurement, campaign talent, communications skills and commitment to collaboration.
IPEN brings together leading public interest groups working on environmental and public health issues in over 100 countries to take action internationally to minimize and, whenever possible, eliminate hazardous, toxic chemicals.
Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.) is dedicated to providing community members with the tools necessary to create sustainable, environmentally healthy communities by educating individuals on health concerns and implications arising from environmental pollution, empowering individuals with an understanding of applicable environmental laws and regulations and promoting their enforcement, and offering community building skills and resources for effective community action and greater public participation.
UPSTREAM sparks innovative solutions to plastic pollution and brings people together to transform our throw-away society to a culture of stewardship. UPSTREAM envisions a world without plastic pollution and empowers business, community, and people to imagine and co-create this future with us.