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April 2024

Our Plastic Dilemma

Our Plastic Dilemma

          Robert A. Levine        

 In the late 19th century, plastic was invented as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls and piano keys and was originally called celluloid. Several decades later, Bakerlite was introduced, followed by polyethylene and dozens more varieties of plastic. Manufacture and demand for plastic in various products kept ramping up, until plastic of different kinds and shapes was found everywhere on the planet. From the land, sea and air, micro-plastics are infiltrating the bodies of wildlife and our own. We breathe some of it in, drink it and eat it. Even babies who drink milk from plastic bottles are drinking a plastic soup. Plastic has been found in placentas and in babies’ first poops and is in our flesh.

Plastic serves many valuable purposes for humans and modern societies could probably not exist without it. From medical instrumentation to wire insulation to containers to building materials, plastic serves innumerable functions. Most of the problems involving plastics occur when they are degraded into micro-plastics, fragments smaller than 5 mm across. This happens constantly in various ways. Sunlight alone can leach thousands of different compounds from plastic bags, some of them quite harmful. Micro-plastics also attract many dangerous substances, like DDT and PCBs. PBTs (persistent bioaccumulative and toxic substances) adhere to micro-plastics and can be inhaled deep into the lungs causing pulmonary damage.

Recycling plastic for the most part means having it sent to undeveloped nations where it is shredded in a factory and made into small pellets. Almost half of these cannot be used again because they are contaminated or degraded. In general, recycling is not an effective way to rid the environment of plastics. Many people do not want to go to the trouble of recycling, and corporations that have promised to enhance the recycling of their products have been unsuccessful.

Americans on average produce almost 500 pounds of plastic waste per person annually, more than citizens of any other nation. They generate twice as much as those in European states and 16 times as much as the average Indian. Major corporations spend huge sums to maintain plastic production. And substitutes may be even less environmentally friendly. Health must take precedence over poisoning our kids, ourselves, and our environment with plastics for our convenience and ease of living.

Micro-plastics harm us in many ways? We know that fish and shellfish are ingesting more and more micro-plastics and so are we. Belgian scientists in 2017 announced that seafood aficionados who ate mussels could take in as much as 11,000 plastic particles annually. Japanese scientists have projected there are 24.4 trillion micro-plastic particles in the upper oceans. Researchers who have examined seabirds that have consumed plastic discovered that their gut microbiomes changed. They had more potentially harmful bacteria. This could also possibly happen in humans. A study from Italy in 2022 found that breast milk from 34 healthy new mothers had micro-plastics present in 75 percent.

A research study analyzed the effect that micro-plastics might have on immune cells. Cultures of human macrophages, a type of white blood cell that attacks foreign invaders, were exposed to beads of polystyrene. Some macrophages engulfed the plastic particles while others didn’t. The cells that consumed plastic behaved differently and may have been damaged. This suggested they might not be as effective in providing protection from foreign organisms. In addition to micro-plastics in our bodies, there are also nanoplastics which are a small fraction of the size of micro-plastics. It has been shown that nano particles can pass through cell membranes and the blood-brain barrier and have been found to accumulate in the brains of fish.

Micro and nanoplastics in fish cause reproductive and growth problems that are passed on to the next generation. Plastic consumption in seabirds has been shown to produce a new disease known as plasticosis, with fibrotic scarring of their intestinal tracts. This causes the birds to be more vulnerable to bacterial infections and parasites. Are mammalian species and humans affected similarly? It appears as if we humans may be poisoning ourselves. A study in 2019 reported the average person may be consuming as much as 5 grams of plastic weekly.

Plastics constantly shred tiny pieces, fibers smaller than a human hair that become airborne. People in most homes will breathe in more plastic particles than they will consume eating fish or shellfish, tiny fibers floating in the air from clothes, rugs, upholstery and other objects. Micro-plastics are also found in salt, beer, fresh fruits and vegetables and drinking water. In addition to human lungs, scientists have also noted plastic fibers in blood. It is not only the plastic itself that can be harmful, but the various chemical additives. One study noted 8,681 chemicals and additives in a single plastic product. 

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in October 2023, described the malign effects of plastics on environmental and human health. 98 percent of plastics originate from fossil fuels adding almost 4 percent to greenhouse gas and toxic air emissions. It was also noted that plastics contain harmful chemical additives, including carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disrupters, and persistent organic pollutants able to damage current and future generations. Health care is reported to produce almost 5 percent of global greenhouse gases. One of the reasons is the utilization of single use plastics which are thrown away, rather than cleaned and repeatedly used. Convenience, cultural norms and economic benefits for manufacturers all play a role. Reusable alternatives may not be as convenient as single use equipment, but they are more environmentally friendly and less costly. Healthcare utilized 24 billion pounds of plastic in 2023 and is projected to employ 38 billion pounds by 2028.

With our daily intake, microplastics are accumulating in virtually every human organ. However, plastic manufacturers, fossil fuel companies and lobbyists continue to deny that microplastics present any health hazards. Sounds like what we were told by cigarette companies.

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