RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) decision this week to investigate the environmental impact of bisphenol A (BPA), even as evidence mounts that BPA is less safe and more widespread than we realized, is just one compelling reason to think about all the plastic we come in contact with in our lives. Try to spend a day without coming into contact with plastic, and you'll quickly realize that it's impossible. The material has become such a staple of modern life that almost everything we touch seems to be made, at least in part, from plastic. But as useful as plastic is, being exposed to so much of it may be putting our health at risk, according to a report published in the Annual Review of Public Health.
Rolf Halden, PhD, associate professor at the Center for Environmental Biotechnology in the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, reviewed the existing scientific literature on plastic's effects on human health and the environment, and he came to the conclusion that the three "Rs" (reduce, reuse, recycle) aren't doing enough to reduce the environmental damage, health threats, and other disadvantages of plastic overuse. "Plastic pollution is a serious environmental issue that will escalate in the future with the continued production of nonbiodegradable materials," he says.
THE DETAILS: The world's production of plastics will surpass 300 million tons by the end of this year, Halden writes, consuming 8 percent of the world's annual oil production. Approximately a third of those plastics are used in disposable goods like takeout containers, plastic bags, and product packaging, leading to a pretty huge pile of plastic trash. About half a pound of plastic trash is produced per person per day, and the disposal of all that garbage is creating huge problems, considering that most municipalities recycle only two out of dozens of types of plastic. Non-recycled plastics wind up in landfills or, increasingly, in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swath of ocean the size of Texas in the North Pacific completely covered with trash, most of which is plastic. If plastics don't wind up in landfills or the ocean, they're incinerated, releasing cancer-causing compounds called dioxins and furans into the atmosphere.
But the disadvantages of plastic go beyond its environmental impact. More and more research is finding that the chemical additives in plastics— used to make plastics harder or softer, to keep them from breaking down too quickly when exposed to light and heat, and to keep them from absorbing bacteria—are causing severe human health problems. The two most researched, and worrisome, additives are BPA and phthalates. BPA is a hormone-disrupting chemical used to keep polycarbonate plastic food containers rigid, but it has been linked to a variety of problems, including obesity, early puberty in girls (which itself is a precursor to obesity), decreased levels of testosterone and lowered sperm counts in men, lowered immune responses, and aggressive behavior in children—all at levels lower than what the EPA deems "safe."
Like BPA, phthalates are hormone disruptors, though they're used to keep plastics—usually vinyl—soft and pliable. They've been definitively linked to increased rates of asthma, and a number of studies have found they interfere with male reproductive development and could possibly play a role in obesity and insulin resistance. While phthalates have been banned in products marketed to children, they're still widely used in other household products, such as shower curtains and vinyl flooring, as well as medical products like IV bags and medical tubing.
Halden adds that other types of plastic have been found to leach chemicals as well. For instance, #2 plastic, used in milk jugs and oil bottles, may transmit a hormone-disrupting chemical called nonylphenol into food, while traces of phthalates have been detected in water stored for nine months or longer in disposable plastic water bottles. However, the levels of these chemicals are too low to cause harm, he writes.