Common Medical Conditions

Plastic Toxicity

Written by
Dr. Sneha Kannan
and medically reviewed by Dr. Magesh T

Published on Feb 25, 2019   -  5 min read

Abstract

Abstract

Most of the plastic produced today are for food packaging, plastic bags, and containers, which are single-use and are discarded immediately. This single-use plastic is the major contributor to plastic pollution.

Plastic Toxicity

Plastic Toxicity

We live in an age where plastic is all around us. Everything from food and beverage containers, cosmetics containers, pens, interiors of cars, toys, bags, shoes, adhesives, lubricants, medical devices, etc., all contain plastic in some form. As they are not expensive and durable, plastic production by humans is very high. Plastic does not biodegrade but just breaks down into smaller pieces.

Plastics are made of various chemicals to improve their properties. Most of these chemicals are not bound chemically to plastic, which means they can leach out of them under small changes in temperature or light. On exposure to high temperature and light, plastic releases toxins that can evaporate in the air or get mixed in food and water. These toxins can be ingested or can be absorbed through the skin.

How Does Plastic Enter the Human Body?

The harmful chemicals in the plastic can enter the human body through the following ways:

  1. Breathing and inhaling fumes near burning plastic trash.

  2. Smelling plastic item that has a strong odor.

  3. Applying body lotion stored in a plastic container.

  4. Drinking hot beverage from a styrofoam cup.

  5. Reusing water bottle.

  6. Eating microwaved food that has been heated in a plastic container.

  7. Eating frozen food stored in a plastic container.

  8. Consuming food stored in a plastic container for a long period.

  9. Eating fish and other seafood contaminated with plastic toxins present in seawater.

How Does Plastic Affect Human Health?

Specific chemicals found in plastic that have raised serious concern and are believed to be harmful to humans are phthalates, heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury), bisphenol A (BPA), etc.

Bisphenol A (BPA):

BPA is commonly used in making water bottles. It is a powerful endocrine disruptor and one of the highest volume chemicals produced worldwide. A study found BPA in the urine of 95 % of people who participated in the study in the United States. BPA only takes about six hours to pass through the body, which shows the extent of exposure. It disrupts the normal functioning of the endocrine system in humans. As the endocrine system regulates several vital functions of the body, its disruption might cause the following problems:

Studies have shown that exposure to very low doses of BPA increases the risk of:

  • Cancer.

  • Impaired immunity.

  • Early puberty.

  • Obesity.

  • Diabetes.

  • Thyroid problems.

  • Hyperactivity.

Phthalates:

The other chemical that has been found to leach from plastics and enter the human body is phthalates, which are used as plastic softeners. They are used in producing soft vinyl products like blood bags, IV tubes, surgical gloves, breathing tubes, vinyl clothing, emulsion paint, flooring, inks for printing, footwear, food wrap, etc. Phthalates cause adverse effects through the release of dioxins and mercury, and they are linked to the following health conditions:

  • Asthma.

  • Reproductive malformations.

  • Developmental problems.

  • Disruption of the endocrine system.

  • Cancer.

  • Hormonal imbalance and changes.

  • Infertility.

  • Immune system impairment.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC):

PVC is commonly used in packaging food, pacifiers, toys, water pipes, inflatable bathtubs, cosmetic and toiletries container, tiles, shower curtains, etc. It can cause:

  • Cancer.

  • Birth deformations.

  • Bronchitis.

  • Ulcers.

  • Diseases of the skin.

  • Deafness.

  • Vision problems.

  • Liver problems.

  • Indigestion.

  • Genetic mutations.

Heavy Metals:

Various heavy metals like lead, cadmium, mercury, bromine, etc., are been added to plastic as fillers, pigments, stabilizers, and retardants. On burning plastic waste, these heavy metals are either released into the atmosphere or get leached into the soil and water. Exposure to heavy metals in childhood causes:

  • Impaired nervous system.

  • Kidney dysfunction.

  • Poor mental development.

Polystyrene:

Polystyrene is used in the packaging of meat, fish, yogurt, and cheese. Some of the other products that are made from it are foam packaging, disposable spoons, and forks, building insulation, paints, serving trays and plates, disposable cups, clear containers for storing biscuits, etc. Polystyrene enters the body through food and is stored in body fat, and is believed to cause:

  • Eyes, nose, and ear irritation.

  • Dizziness.

  • Increases the risk of blood cancer.

Polyethylene (PET):

It is mainly used in making water bottles and soda bottles. The other products that are made using polyethylene are chewing gum, drink and coffee stirrers, plastic bags, toys, squeezy bottles, etc. They are suspected of being carcinogenic.

Polyester:

Sanitary napkins, diapers, bedding, clothing, etc., are made using polyester. They are known to cause:

  • Eye irritation.

  • Respiratory tract problems.

  • Skin rashes.

Urea-Formaldehyde:

It is mainly used in building insulation, plywood, and finishing fabric. Inhaling formaldehyde causes:

  • Cough.

  • Throat swelling.

  • Watery eyes.

  • Headaches.

  • Problems breathing.

  • Skin rashes.

  • Fatigue.

  • Birth deformations.

  • Genetic mutations.

Polyurethane Foam:

Polyurethane foam is used in mattress, bedding, cushions, and pillows. It can release toluene diisocyanate and can cause:

  • Lung problems.

  • Bronchitis.

  • Coughing.

  • Skin rashes.

  • Eye irritation.

Acrylic:

Dentures, blankets, cleaning waxes, diapers, sanitary napkins, carpets, food processors, paints, etc., are all made from acrylic. Acrylic can cause:

  • Vomiting.

  • Loose stools.

  • Fatigue.

  • Headache.

  • Breathing problems.

Tetrafluoroethylene:

It is used for non-stick coating, plumbing, ironing boards, etc. It can cause:

How to Reduce Plastic Pollution?

Most of the plastic produced today are for food packaging, plastic bags, and containers, which are single-use and are discarded immediately. This single-use plastic is the major contributor to plastic pollution. Some of the ways by which plastic pollution and toxicity can be reduced are:

  • Reduce the use of plastic.
  • Reuse bags and cups.
  • Refuse straws to drink your beverage in restaurants.
  • Do not throw plastic waste near the beaches.
  • Store food in glass containers.
  • Avoid heating food in a plastic container.
  • Do not give plastic toys and teethers to your children.
  • Use clothing, bedding, and furniture made of natural fibers.

If we stop using plastic products, the demand will go down and so will the production. So it is up to us to stop overproduction of plastic and to educate people around you about the health and environmental hazards of plastic.

Last reviewed at:
25 Feb 2019  -  5 min read

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