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Plastic: The effects on our health

Plastic: The effects on our health


Plastic isn’t just a scourge on the world around us - it has made its way inside our bodies and concern is growing about the resulting impact on our health.

In the first study of its kind, recent research - published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal - has shown that we are likely to be ingesting hundreds of thousands of microplastic particles every year through our diets and inhalation.

And while it is correct to say that there is insufficient evidence to date on the danger to humans, it is also right to point out that the scientific community is highlighting a cause for concern.

Microplastics - which have been found in fish, water, salt and are likely to be in bread, meat and even vegetables - can release toxic substances and some particles are small enough to penetrate human tissue.

There have been suggestions that phthalates - chemicals widely used in cosmetics products such as nail polish and hair sprays - may cause hormone-related cancers and laboratory tests using animals have resulted in issues with reproduction.

A study cited in a report by the United Nations Environment Programme, suggested that babies whose mothers had recently applied infant care products were more likely to have phthalates in their urine than those whose mothers had not.

A population study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in America showed that 97% of 2,540 individuals tested had been exposed to one or more phthalates. 

And another study conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health showed a correlation between urinary phthalate metabolite concentrations and DNA damage in human sperm.

All of this has led to warnings from science professionals about the ongoing dangers of microplastics.

Kieran Cox, from the University of Victoria in Canada, who led the research published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal, said: “Removing single-use plastic from your life and supporting companies that are moving away from plastic packaging is going to have a non-trivial impact. The facts are simple. We are producing a lot of plastic and it is ending up in the ecosystems, which we are a part of.”

The European Commission’s chief scientific advisers have stated: “The evidence (on the environmental and health risks of microplastics) provides grounds for genuine concern and for precaution to be exercised.”

“Growing scientific evidence on the hazards of uncontrolled microplastic pollution, combined with its long-term persistence and irreversibility, suggests that reasonable and proportional measures should be taken to prevent the release of microplastics.”

And the data from the CDC’s study prompted Elizabeth Sword, executive director of the not-for-profit Children’s Health Environmental Coalition, to say: “In my view there is sufficient evidence to pique my concern, not only as a parent but as the executive director of this organization, to circulate this information directly to parents in a way that they can then make the healthiest decisions.

Speaking specifically about cosmetics, she said: “There are industry trade secrets and formulations that for industry reasons are kept from the consumer. This prevents the consumer from making fully informed decisions.”

So there is no doubt that humans are ingesting and inhaling microplastics and the debate continues on whether this is having a detrimental effect on our health.

The evidence of widespread exposure to microplastics is undisputed. It is the level of exposure that is the basis of the argument set out by cosmetics industry groups. They argue that exposure is so low as to not make a difference to our health.

The question, therefore, for us all is: Do we feel it is worth the risk?