Risks and Hazards of Plastics
Plastics can pose many risks and hazards to the environment and to human health both indirectly, by the process of its production, and directly in its day to day use . Chemicals can travel from these plastics into the environment, and the foods and products they carry. Looking at different risks with plastics, including the use of BPA, phthalates, and other plasticizers, can help people understand how they can better protect themselves from the hazards of plastic packaging. By avoiding certain plastics and using alternatives people can better protect their health, while also preserving the environment around them. These hazards with plastics not only affect people everywhere, but also have a great effect on this planet. It is important to comprehend the issues with plastic packaging so that these risks can be avoided in future generations.
Do you frequently buy prepackaged food? Do children in your family often play with plastic toys? Have you ever been to the hospital or the dentist? If so, you have probably come in contact with Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, is a material frequently used to produce plastics food packaging, toys for infants, dental and health equipment, and even the paper commonly used for receipts. Since most of us are so frequently exposed to BPA, it is no surprise that in a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2003, detectable levels of BPA were found in 93% of 2517 urine samples from people six years and older. Unfortunately, this is not a good thing. While BPA can be metabolized in the liver, high levels of BPA in the body can cause several endocrine disorders including infertility in males, hormone dependent tumors, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and even breast and prostate cancers. (Konieczna, Rutkowska, Rachoń, 2015). This is because its chemical structure allows it to weakly mimic the hormone estrogen. High BPA intake therefore causes the body to react as if it were in the presence of excess estrogen, disrupting the endocrine system and hormone levels in estrogen-dependent organs and systems such as mammary glands and the reproductive system. (Konieczna, et al, 2015). It is concerning this chemical, with which we are in contact on a daily basis has been associated with such severe health risks, yet it is still so frequently utilized and so rarely monitored.
Another group of chemicals of concern are phthalates. These are known plasticizers, materials used in the production of plastics to add flexibility and strength. Though not all phthalates pose significant health and environmental risks, example is di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), a material used to fabricate the PVC used in hospital equipment including tubing and IV bags. DEHP is particularly concerning because it has been known to leach out of the product it forms and into the environment in a matter of hours (Peason, Trissel 1993) Thankfully, the body can rid itself of the chemical almost as fast, so it is not a major hazard for people with infrequent exposure (Erythropel, Leask, Maric, Nicell, and Yargeau 2014). However, people who experience more frequent contact, such as newborns and dialysis patients, are at much higher risk.
Nowadays, the mass production of plastic materials containing phthalates has made modern life impossible to imagine without these products. The widespread use of plastic products is the result of our culture becoming accustomed to the convenience that plastic can provide; it is inexpensive, requires low material costs, and can be efficiently produced. Considering that we live in this type of world, it is important that we understand the potential dangers associated with phthalates and how we can protect ourselves and limit our exposure to this chemical compound.
Although we may never truly be able to avoid phthalates completely, there are simple steps and practices that we can use to lessen the impact it has on our lives. For starters, if you are living in a household it would be in your best interests to replace all plastic tupperware with glass or silicone containers for your food. When shopping, pay attention to the product label of what you are buying and rule out materials that could possibly contain phthalates. If the product label does not clearly specify if it has phthalates or not, one can look at the recycling code. According to Maia James, “plastic products with recycling codes 3 and 7 may contain phthalates or BPA. Look for plastic with recycling codes 1, 2, or 5”. Other techniques used to avoid plastics can involve purchasing stainless steel water bottles to avoid the unnecessary purchasing and consumption of plastic water bottles. Alternatively, one could install a water filter on their faucet to eliminate the potential consumption of different types of phthalates found in water pipes. When it comes to making a choice in terms of food products, look for produce that is organic, considering non-organic produce often contain pesticides and other chemicals that contain phthalate in them. Although switching from plastic materials to more environmentally friendly materials might be more costly or inconvenient, they will improve the health of our lives and our environment.
Aside from the hazards plastics pose on humans there are also numerous negative effects they pose on the environment throughout their entire lifecycle, from production to disposal. “Plastic bags start as crude oil, natural gas or other petrochemical derivatives, which are transformed into chains of hydrogen and carbon molecules known as polymers or polymer resin. By some estimates nearly 12 million barrels of petroleum oil (or fuel equivalents such as natural gas) are used to produce 100 billion plastic bags” (Kazda, 2014). This is a large use of our highly valued resource, natural gas, considering 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags are produced globally each year and 100 billion are thrown away each year by the United States alone. Once they are produced and distributed they also have a very short lifespan of use. Most bags are not made thick enough to reuse more than once so they often are thrown away or recycled. Recycling these bags is a good thought but most recycling plants cannot accept these since they don’t have the correct facilities in place to recycle them so they will either send them to landfills or burn them. Neither of these are great options with regards to sustaining a healthy environment since “burning emits toxic gases that harm the atmosphere and increase the level of VOCs in the air, while landfills hold them indefinitely as part of the plastic waste problem” (Wagner). These volatile organic compounds then contribute to thickening the ozone and contributing to global warming. Bags that end up in the landfill will most likely never go away since the breakdown process is so slow. Other plastics are also blown away by the wind and by weathering broken down into smaller pieces of plastic. These can then end up in our waterways or harm animals when ingested.
In today’s society, plastic is a cheap convenient material commonly found in packaging, containers, toys, and even plumbing amongst other things. Due to plastics being deeply ingrained in our way of life, it is impossible to avoid contact or use of plastics completely. Society’s continuous use of plastics pose many risks to human health and the environment due to harmful chemicals used in the process of plastic production. A synthetic chemical compound known as Bisphenol A, or BPA for short, is one of many plasticizers that are used to add flexibility and strength to plastic materials. If exposed to Bisphenol A, there are many possible health effects to the brain, infants, prostate in fetuses, and is thought to be a link to increased blood pressure. These chemicals, such as BPA, found in plastics can travel to people, the food or product they carry, or the environment. Most plastics are also non-biodegradable, meaning it can take hundreds of years just for one plastic water bottle to biodegrade and in turn causes degradation to the environment. Hazards associated with the use of plastics can be reduced through avoiding certain plastics completely, using alternatives such as reusable metal water bottles, and in general switching to more environmentally friendly materials. Even though plastics are prominent in our daily lives, educating people to understand the risks and associate them with plastics is important to protect human health and preserve the environment.
Aleksandra Konieczna, Aleksandra Rutkowska*, Dominik Rachoń. (2015). “Health Risk of Exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA).” Annals of the National Institute of Hygiene. 66. Pp 5-11
Bauer, Brent. (2016). “What is BPA, and What are the Concerns about BPA?” Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/bpa/faq-20058331
Erythropel H.C., Maric M, Nicell JA, Leask RL & Yargeau V. “Leaching of the Plasticizer de(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) from Plastic Containers and the Question of Human Exposure.” (2014) NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25376446
James, Maia. “How to Avoid Phthalates (Even though you can’t avoid phthalates).” The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maia-james/phthalates-health_b_2464248.html
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Pearson SD1, Trissel LA “Leaching of diethylhexyl phthalate from polyvinyl chloride containers by selected drugs and formulation components.” (1993) NCBI Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8362871
Wagner, Jamey. “The Effects of Plastic Bags on the Environment.” Health Guidance: Health Guidance for Better Health. Retrieved from http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/14901/1/The-Effects-of-Plastic-Bags-on-Environment.html
Wolchover, Natalie. “Why Doesn’t Plastic Biodegrade?” Live Science. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/33085-petroleum-derived-plastic-non-biodegradable.html