A new scientific report out Tuesday concludes that plastics and the chemicals they leave behind in the environment are a major threat to human health. It identifies over 140 chemicals readily found in plastic products that can harm our bodies, particularly through interfering with the endocrine system.
The report is the result of a collaboration between the Endocrine Society — one of the largest organisations of scientists who study the parts of the body that produce hormones, called the endocrine system — and the International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN. It was penned by scientists in the U.S. and Sweden and is intended as a review of the research conducted so far on plastics and their potential to cause harm in people and other animals. They looked at hundreds of studies from around the world. All told, the report paints a dire picture.
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The main threat from plastics comes from a group of chemicals that mimic hormones or can otherwise interfere with their role in the body. Hormones are naturally produced chemicals that help regulate most every bodily function we have, from metabolism to sleep to fertility.
The report identifies 144 of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, that are commonly found in everyday plastic products. These chemicals include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and toxic metals like lead and cadmium. Some are intentionally added to plastics to improve things like their durability, while others are byproducts that leach out into the environment after plastic products are disposed of into landfills or the oceans and break down into microplastics.
Higher levels of EDCs in the body have been linked to greater rates of infertility, metabolic disorders like diabetes, and certain cancers among the general population. Other chemicals, like lead, are unsafe even at very low levels of exposure. This threat rises the younger we are, with fetal exposure to EDCs linked to higher rates of childhood autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and lower birth weight, among other problems. Just this week, a new study found evidence that microplastics can end up in the human placenta, further highlighting the risk for fetal exposure.
“Endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure is not only a global problem today, but it poses a serious threat to future generations,” said co-author Pauliina Damdimopoulou, a researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, in a statement released by the Endocrine Society and IPEN Tuesday. “When a pregnant woman is exposed, EDCs can affect the health of her child and eventual grandchildren. Animal studies show EDCs can cause DNA modifications that have repercussions across multiple generations.”
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Another major problem is that because plastics are so omnipresent, our exposure to EDCs is nearly universal as well. That means there’s no place to hide from them, and it makes it hard to figure out the exact effects of EDCs, since there are no real “control” groups of unexposed people to use for comparison. Still, according to lead author Jodi Flaws, the harm caused by EDCs might be comparable to other common environmental toxins like cigarette smoke. However, as noted before, EDCs are practically everywhere, so they’re harder to avoid than pollutants like smoke.
The ubiquitousness of EDCs means that it will take a global effort on the part of countries and plastic-making companies to really change things. So far, that effort has been lacking. Supposedly safer alternatives to BPA used in recent years, for instance, seem to cause similar toxic effects, while so-called biodegradable plastics often have the same chemical additives as conventional plastics. Meanwhile, the overall production of plastic continues to rise, further increasing our exposure to EDCs. Though the authors acknowledge that plastics are still needed in society for the foreseeable future, particularly for things like medical equipment, the situation needs to begin changing now if we ever want to lower our health risk from EDCs.
The plus side is that many of the same steps that would make for less EDCs — like easing our dependence on fossil fuels, the source of most plastic — would also save our climate from continuing to change in dangerous ways. The report also recommends stricter government regulations on the use of EDCs in plastics, including outright bans, incentivising companies to develop safer alternatives, and improving the plastic recycling process, which can introduce other EDCs like dioxins into the environment.
In a move lauded by the authors, for instance, Switzerland in May became the first country to suggest adding a UV-stabilizer, one class of EDC that hasn’t received as much attention as others, to a list of dangerous chemicals maintained by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, a global UN treaty that tries to compel countries to regulate their use.
While there’s only so much a person can do about their individual exposure to EDCs, avoiding single-use materials for food and drink containers and not heating plastic containers in the microwave can help.
“It is our collective responsibility to enact public policies to address this clear scientific evidence that EDCs in plastics are hazardous,” the report authors wrote. “It is our hope that the science will lead to global policy action to address the hazards that are widespread in plastics that threaten our environment, our health, and our future.”