How Plastic Is Changing our Bodies in Ways We May Not Realize
by Vicki Thomas
While plastic is widely recognized as a litter problem, fewer people know that it’s also a major health problem. How so?
Plastic is essentially a fossil fuel with added chemicals. Lots of added chemicals. There are over 10,400 known chemicals in plastics and thousands more that are unidentified. A 2021 study from ETH University in Zurich Switzerland shows (1):
• A quarter of the 10,000-plus chemicals studied are of concern — meaning they are characterized by persistence, bioaccumulation or toxicity,
• At least 1,000 are harmful even in small doses,
• 90 percent of those chemicals known to be harmful are approved for food contact in the United State, the EU and Japan, and
• Plastic producers aren’t required to disclose the chemical makeup of their products, declaring it to be proprietary information.
Many of the chemicals in plastic are known to disrupt the endocrine system. The endocrine system is your body’s network of glands, such as thyroid, pituitary, thymus and hypothalamus, and organs such as brain, heart, kidneys, pancreas, and reproductive organs, among others. The endocrine system controls metabolism, energy, mood, reproduction, growth and development, as well as response to stress and injury. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) in plastic throw off the proper working of that system in a number of ways. Let’s look at just three of them.
How Plastic Can Make Us Fat
The current surge in obesity around the world cannot be explained by diet and exercise changes alone. There is a growing body of research that links exposure to the chemicals in plastics to obesity, both in childhood and adulthood.
Exposure to these obesity promoters (obesogens) can happen when the toxins in plastic leach into nearby food, water, soil or air or via microplastics or nanoplastics, including plastic “dust” from carpets or textiles. They can get into our bodies via ingestion, inhalation, skin contact or intravenously. The obesogenic effect may manifest in various ways (2):
• By lowering the metabolic rate at which calories are burned,
• Affecting the number and size of fat cells,
• Changing the mechanism that signals a body that it is full, and
• Changing the thyroid function and dopamine reward system.
A study published by the American Chemical Society in 2022 tested 34 common plastic household products, including food packaging, and found that a third of those products contained metabolism-disrupting compounds that triggered fat cell development in the lab. Their conclusion sums up their research and others nicely: “Plastics contain a potent mixture of chemicals that promote adipogenesis, a key process in the development of obesity.” (3)
It’s currently estimated that 15-20 percent of the increase in obesity may come from EDC exposure.
Obesity is known to be a precursor to diabetes and heart disease and to be a contributing or complicating factor in virtually every other disease. The implications of plastic contributing to obesity, however profound, pale in comparison to two of its other health effects: the effects on our brains and reproductive capability.
Plastics Change Children’s Brains
Exposure to chemical additives from plastic are highly damaging to fetuses, infants and young children. For them, there is no safe level of exposure. The results are autism, ADHD, IQ loss, aggression and other behavioral problems. The problems caused by their exposure to chemicals in plastic are likely to be lifelong. Like obesity, these neurological problems are on the rise worldwide.
Children may be exposed in the womb to plastic chemicals from their mother. They are also routinely exposed to EDCs in their baby bottles. There was concern a few years ago about the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and some manufacturers have started producing “BPA-free” bottles; however, many of the substitute chemicals are other bisphenols, such as BPF and BPS that have similar endocrine-disrupting effects. Breast feeding may not solve this problem, either, as the mother will simply pass on her chemical exposure in her milk.
The baby bottles, toys, blankets, baby furniture and carpets that small children come in contact with every day contain EDCs.
Plastics Change Ability to Reproduce
Male sperm counts in Western countries have decreased over 50 percent in the last 40 years, which tallies very closely with the rise in plastics and the thousands of chemicals in them. It doesn’t take much math to be alarmed at that trend.
Prenatal exposure to phthalates, an EDC found in vinyl, grooming products, PVC medical tubing, flooring, shower curtains, carpeting, food packaging and a wide array of other materials, is known to cause genital birth defects in males, lower sperm counts later in life, and to increase sperm malformation.
Chronic exposure to phthalates has been shown to cause a variety of reproductive problems for women as well. These include early depletion of viable eggs, lack of ovulation, reduced pregnancy rates, higher rates of miscarriage, and increased rates of pregnancy complications, like anemia, toxemia and pre-eclampsia.
Phthalates are just one of the EDCs that affect fertility. This decline in fertility affects all other creatures on the planet as well and is contributing to the extinction crisis.
How likely are you to be exposed to EDCs? One hundred percent.
We are all assaulted daily with a massive cocktail of chemicals, many of which are EDCs. According to the Endocrine Society, there is likely no safe dose of EDCs and the effects can be multigenerational.
The chemicals in plastic and synthetic chemicals generally are not well studied or regulated, especially in the United States. The EPA is supposedly the gatekeeper on chemicals, but routinely overrides public safety in favor of corporate profits and claims of confidentiality. (4) Chemicals are assumed to be okay unless proven otherwise.
Plastic is changing and mutilating our bodies and brains. It’s changing who we are, who we can be, even if we can be. It isn’t just sea turtles and whales that are endangered by plastic. It’s us, as well.
What You Can Do
We need legislation to stop plastic. Individual action will not do it. The fossil fuel companies see plastic as their “get-out-of-jail-free” card to increase production as the world turns to green energy. Their response to certain and imminent planetary-wide disaster has been to ramp up plastic to triple its current production by 2050 and they are on track. We have to turn off the tap of endless plastic production, because once plastic is made, the damage is irreversible. Recycling is inappropriate for plastic given its toxic nature and no attempt at plastic recycling ever reduced its production.
1. Call, email or visit your federal Congressional representatives and demand that the “Break Free From Plastic Act” get out of committee, to the floor and passed. The bill is not perfect, but it does impose a desperately needed moratorium on new plastic infrastructure.
2. Tell your Congressional representative or senator that you want to phase out fossil fuel subsidies which make plastic so cheap.
3. Educate yourself and others about plastic’s poisonous nature. See “Sources” on previous page.
4. Email your state representatives and express urgent support for:
a. Rejecting new or expanded plastic/fossil fuel infrastructure in your state/locality,
b. A required phaseout of plastic and plastic-lined metal food and beverage containers,
c. Using state purchasing power to require plastic-free packaging, especially in food and beverage containers and vending machines used in any state offices or events and in schools,
d. Funding, support and use of safe, sustainable and scalable alternative materials, such as mushroom packaging, being developed by small companies,
e. State bill HB1085 — mandates water refill stations in all new construction, and
f. Transparency, research and improved regulation on chemicals in plastics and on plastics in products.
5. Three things you can do right now to reduce your plastic toxin load and help the planet:
a. Avoid beverages in plastic bottles, which are a huge proportion of the single-use plastic waste.
b. Choose natural fabrics for clothing — most of the microplastic fibers floating around come from our clothes. Wash any remaining plastic-based clothing in cold water to reduce the fiber shedding.
c. Check out EWG.org online to see if the products you use contain harmful toxins.
1. “There Are Thousands More Toxic Chemicals in Plastic Than We Thought” — https://www.fastcompany.com/90649480/there-are-thousands-more-toxic-chemicals-in-plastic-than-we-thought
2. “Environmental toxins are worsening obesity pandemic say scientists” — https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/may/19/environmental-toxins-are-worsening-obesity-pandemic-say-scientists
3. “Adipogenic Activity of Chemicals Used in Plastic Consumer Products” — Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022, 56, 4,2487–2496 https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.1c06316
4. “EPA Whistleblowers Say Managers Bullied Them to Approve Dangerous Chemicals” — https://theintercept.com/2020/08/04intercepted-podcast-epa-chemicals-whistleblowers/
“Plastics, EDCs and Health” — https://www.endocrine.org/-/media/endocrine/files/topics/edc_guide_2020_v1_6chqennew-version.pdf
“Plastic’s Impact on Human Health” from BeyondPlastic.org — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utUFl4gqiYc
“The Plastic Invasion of Reproductive Health” from BeyondPlastic.org — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLKV8wcKn1E&t
“Death by Plastic” from Bellingham/Whatcom County LWV website — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYEf3UP6FEU&t
Vicki Thomas has a degree in political science from George Washington University. She retired as the chief operating officer of a small California e-commerce company and moved to Bellingham in 2015. Vicki was a team-lead volunteer for the Community Research Project, a county outreach project sponsored by the Whatcom County Climate Impact Advisory Committee. She is a currently cochair of the League of Women Voters Climate Committee.