But a first-of-its-kind study released Tuesday sets out to change that. The study, Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, is especially groundbreaking because it looks at the health impacts of every stage in the life cycle of plastics, from the extraction of the fossil fuels that make them to their permanence in the environment. While previous studies have focused on particular products, manufacturing processes or moments in the creation and use of plastics, this study shows that plastics pose serious health risks at every stage in their production, use and disposal.
“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,” report co-author and Break Free From Plastic Movement (BFFP) Global Coordinator Von Hernandez said in a press release. “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.” The report was a joint effort 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, UPSTREAM and BFFP. It explains in depth how each stage in the plastics life cycle puts human health at risk.
1. “Extraction and Transport of Fossil Feedstocks for Plastic”: The extraction of the oil and gas needed to make plastic releases toxic chemicals into the air and water. The chemicals used to produce plastic feedstock via fracking are particularly dangerous: More than 170 of them can cause documented health problems including cancer and damage to the nervous and immune systems.
2. “Refining and Production of Plastic Resins and Additives”: The process of refining fossil fuels into plastic resin releases toxic chemicals into the air that can cause cancer and damage the nervous system, among other issues. Industrial workers and communities near refineries are especially at risk.
3. “Consumer Products and Packaging”: Plastic products themselves can harm their users both in the form of microplastics that break off from the larger product and chemicals contained in the product that can cause cancer and developmental problems, as well as disrupt the hormone system.
4. “Toxic Releases from Plastic Waste Management”: Every method for eliminating plastic waste, such as incineration and gasification, releases acid gases, organic substances like dioxins and furans and toxic metals like lead and mercury into the air, soil and water. This is also particularly dangerous for plant workers and surrounding communities.
5. “Fragmenting and Microplastics”: As plastics break down, they release tiny fragments into the environment that humans can swallow or inhale. Doing so can cause problems like inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis and necrosis, which can lead to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other potentially deadly or chronic ailments.
6. “Cascading Exposure as Plastic Degrades”: The chemicals added to plastics easily spread into the surrounding environment as the plastic breaks down, posing an ever-increasing risk to water, soil or body tissue where plastic is present.
7. “Ongoing Environmental Exposure”: Plastic degrading in the ocean or on land builds up in the food chain as it is ingested by larger and larger animals. The plastic both leaches the chemicals it already contained into the environment and accumulates other toxic chemicals present in the environment as it works its way up the food chain.
In order to combat the problem, the report recommends treating plastic exposure as a human rights issue, making sure every stage in the plastic life cycle is addressed, drafting laws that require accurate information about what goes into plastics during all stages of production, ensuring transparency in the development of solutions and making sure that solutions take into account the global reach of plastic production and proliferation.
Other organizations who work on plastic pollution have praised the report for its in-depth investigation of the crisis.
“This new report provides further evidence of plastic’s detrimental effects on a global scale—and it’s more personal than ever,” Oceana chief policy officer Jacqueline Savitz said in a statement. “Plastic is impacting human health through every single stage of its life cycle, from extraction and production to consumer use, and it is entering our food chain. The risks to human health begin long before plastic even makes it onto store shelves, providing yet another reason why waste-management efforts alone can’t reverse this crisis. We need companies to take responsibility for plastic’s effects on our health and the environment, stop wasting time with false solutions and turn to sustainable alternatives to plastic before it’s too late.”