We know that plastic is bad for the environment, and the conversation around zero waste is a big one for that reason. But what about our health? Could plastic be making us sick -- our kids sick? How?
The reality is: every day we are exposed to plastic and the toxic chemical additives that make it up. It's in the food we eat, air we breathe, and the water we drink. We ingest it from plastic food storage and packaging. We absorb it through the personal care items we use and clothes we wear. We inhale it through our cleaning agents, paints, synthetic fragrance... It may only be a small amount per source, but it's the accumulative effect that is worrisome. These pollutants can build up in our bodies from multiple sources. Over time this can lead to an array of health impacts including inflammation, neurological and reproductive disorders, and cancer.
Still not convinced?
In stool samples taken from people living in 8 different countries, every sample came back positive for the presence of microplastics and up to nine different plastic resins were detected.
A comprehensive study by the CDC detected cancer-causing plastic additives in 92 percent of urine samples taken from 2,517 children aged six years and older. Up to ten different toxic additives were detected.
So why are these toxic chemical additives still being used within packaging, products, toys and fabrics if they are so bad for us?
The Stockholm Convention is a global treaty that aims to eliminate or restrict persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs are highly hazardous chemical pollutants that are recognised as a serious threat to human health, and many plastics contain them. Of the 28 POPs identified, Australia has only placed controls on 12 of them. In short, regulation of industrial chemicals is poor.
There are also inadequate disclosure requirements for businesses manufacturing plastic; they do not necessarily need to disclose how the plastic is made or what is in it. In instances where a chemical has been banned from use within plastic due to health concerns (ie, BPA) companies have simply substituted them for replacements that pose similar risks but are not regulated (yet).
We can't eliminate our exposure to these toxins from our lives completely, but it's important to control what we can control. There are small, everyday changes we can make to limit our exposure to plastic and the toxic additives that make it up, move towards a healthier way of living and protect our health.
- As plastic degrades, the additives within the plastic leach into its surrounding environment (water, food, the human body).
- Migration of chemicals from food packaging into food and beverages is the main source of human exposure to toxic plastic additives.
- Micro and nanoplastic particles and the toxic additives within them can lead to an array of human illness and disability once entered the human body via contact, ingestion or inhalation.
- Children's toys made of PVC plastic contain additives which adversely affect the kidney, liver, disrupt thyroid endocrine function and are believed to cause cancer.
- Robust medical research links POPs to serious illness and disability. POPs are found in many plastics, can be absorbed through contact, ingestion or inhalation and can pass from mother to child either in the womb or through breastmilk.
How is plastic made?
Plastic is made from fossil fuels. Transforming fossil fuel into plastic resin happens with the combination of hundreds of petrochemical additives. That is what determines the plastics characteristics (transparent, soft, hard). Among the most hazardous additive types are brominated flame retardants, softeners, and phthalates. These are considered "Persistent Organic Pollutants" (POPs). POPs are highly hazardous chemical pollutants that are recognised as a serious threat to human health - yet they are still found in our everyday plastics, including food packaging. These pollutants are known to leach from the plastic into its surroundings and eventually the human body through direct contact, ingestion or inhalation. There is robust medical evidence linking the following human illnesses and disabilities to one or more POP:
- Cancers and tumours, including soft tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer and adult-onset leukemia
- Neurological disorders, including attention deficit disorder, behaviour problems such as aggression and delinquency, learning disabilities and impaired memory and;
- Reproductive disorders, including abnormal sperm, miscarriages, pre-term delivery, low birth weight, altered sex ratios in offspring, shortened period of lactation in nursing mothers and menstrual disorders.
POPs can be passed from mother to child either in the womb or via breastmilk. They are the most harmful to a developing fetus, causing health impairments such as neurological disorders and deficients which continue throughout a child's entire life.
Other chemical additives to common plastic resins include bisphenol A (BPA), and formaldehyde. These chemicals have been labeled as carcinogens or EDCs, and exposure can lead to mammary gland tumors, liver damage, lung cancer, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, and breast cancer, among others.
The Centers for Disease Control National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted one of the most comprehensive surveys of a population’s chemical exposure. It found BPA in 92 percent of the urine samples from children (at least six years old) and adults in the United States. Ten of the 15 phthalates were detected in virtually all of the samples, as were PFOA and perchlorate, and 4-nonylphenol was found in 51 percent of people tested.
It's not possible to know how much of a specific chemical in the human body is from plastic or packaging, but it does show the extent of our exposure to these toxic chemicals and the need to limit exposure where we can.
Human Health Impact
The table below simply shows which toxic chemical additives are in which products and what health impact this can have on our bodies.
Check out below to see how humans are exposed to these toxins at every stage of the plastic lifecycle ⬇️
How can you know what plastic is what? Check out the codes below which you can find labeled on your plastic items ⬇️
From obvious food packaging, to metal cans lined with plastic additives, personal care products, synthetic fabrics, baby wipes, nappies and even chewing gum.. when you take a look around your home, you may be surprised at where you find plastic. Maybe there is an item you can not find an alternative option for. In that case, look at the plastic label and see what type it is.
- Resin code (HDPE) #2, (LDPE) #4 and (PP) #5, are generally safer
- Avoid (PVC) #3, (PS) #6, (polycarbonate) #7
- Avoid polyurethane and epoxy resins
- Avoid any plastic containing phthalates, flame retardant, BPA and PFAS
- Try to source the plastic item second-hand
Check out our safe, eco-friendly options and make your move towards a healthier home!
1. Stainless steel food storage
2. Glass bottles with 100% natural rubber teats
3. Food grade silicone feeding sets