By Pragya Rai
You may have seen the now-iconic video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nose. It is well known that plastic has invaded every corner of the planet, from Mt. Everest, the tallest peak on Earth, to the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean.
These events would foreshadow a less well known occurrence; the detection of plastic in our bodies. Tiny plastic fragments – microplastics – have been found in the human placenta, and in the blood of 80% of those tested. Scientists have also found microplastics in stool samples, with especially high concentrations found in the feces of infants. And airborne microplastics can accumulate in the lungs.
The health impacts of plastics in the human body are not fully known, but there are signs that it may cause or worsen disease. For example, a study in China found that feces from patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) showed 1.5 times more microplastics per gram than that of healthy individuals.
How did we get here? Plastic made its way into the world of consumerism after World War II. Cheaply made from petroleum, plastic is found in everyday objects such as water bottles, diapers, medical gadgets, toys, appliances, furniture, and cars. Plastic production increased from 2 million tonnes per year to 381 million tonnes in 2015.
Much of that plastic is still with us. In 2015, Our World in Data reported that 55 percent of global plastic was discarded, 25 percent incinerated and 20 percent recycled. But “discarded” plastic doesn’t go away: once thrown in the trash and out of sight, plastics continue to degrade to smaller particles, along with the chemicals used to mold and preserve them. These microplastics are distributed widely over our land, air, water and – given their minute size —readily enter the human body via inhalation and ingestion.
Scientists and doctors are increasingly concerned about chemicals from plastic leaching their way into the human body. In children, particularly, these chemicals (known as endocrine disruptors) have been linked to conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, early puberty, and fertility issues. Of particular concern are hard clear plastics, like those used to make water bottles, which contain Bisphenol (BPA) . Also problematic are phthalates, used to make plastic flexible and can also be found in fragrances, skin products and processed foods.
There is much we can do, as individuals, to decrease exposure to these chemicals. For example, we can avoid plastic utensils and stop microwaving food in plastic containers. We can use fragrance-free products, choose fresh food over canned or packaged foods, use a HEPA filtered vacuum, and avoid plastic products labeled #3,6,7. We can bring reusable bags to the market – though it would help so much more if the produce inside those cloth bags were not wrapped in plastic.
Our individual choices can have a broader impact. As more consumers refuse single-use plastic and choose plastic-free options, we will decrease demand and thereby production.
But consumers alone cannot turn the tide of plastic pollution. We need stricter guidelines on the production, use, and disposal of plastic, locally and globally. Washington State has made progress in this area, beginning with banning single-use plastic bags in 2021. By 2024, Washington will ban Styrofoam and require minimum recycled content in several types of single-use plastics. Now, a bill has been introduced to reduce the use of single-use utensils, condiments, and straws.
Producers must offer other methods of packaging that are less damaging to our environment and health. We can incentivize that shift by adopting Extended Producer Responsibility in which producers are responsible – financially or physically – for the disposal or recycling of their products.
With its beginnings from crude oil to a shiny, moldable product now considered an essential, plastic has in many ways contributed significantly to mankind. Despite its many benefits, we have somehow forgotten its life cycle and association with health and environmental injustice. Microplastics are invading the planet and its detection in blood, feces, lungs and placenta begs the question of our own immunity. We must pause before we continue on this frenzy of massive production that began fifty years ago and ask the important question; how much do we truly need of this everlasting product, the plastic?
Pragya Rai is a pediatric pulmonologist with a keen interest in climate and health, and the current 2022 Climate and Health Equity Fellow of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. Rai has lived in Spokane since 2011 and is a board member of 350 Spokane.