Effects of Plastic on Human Health


Plastics are organic materials just like wood, paper or wool. The raw materials used to produce plastics are natural products such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil. Plastics have become the modern material of choice because they make it possible to balance today’s needs with environmental concerns.

Plastic is material consisting of any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that are malleable and so can be moulded into solid objects. Plastics are typically organic polymers of high molecular mass and often contain other substances. They are usually synthetic, most commonly derived from petrochemicals; however, an array of variants are made from renewable materials such as polylactic acid from corn or cellulosic from cotton linters.

As of 2018, about 380 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide each year. From the 1950s up to 2018, an estimated 6.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide, of which an estimated 9% has been recycled and another 12% has been incinerated.

Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution is the accumulation of plastic objects (e.g.; plastic bottles and much more) in the Earth’s environment that adversely affects wildlife, wildlife habitat and humans. Plastics that act as pollutants are categorized into micro-, meso-, or macro debris, based on size. Plastic pollution can afflict land, waterways and oceans. It is estimated that 1.1 to 8.8 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste enters the ocean from coastal communities each year. Living organisms, particularly marine animals, can be harmed either by mechanical effects, such as entanglement in plastic objects or problems related to the ingestion of plastic waste or through exposure to chemicals within plastics that interfere with their physiology. Humans are also affected by plastic pollution, such as through the disruption of various hormonal mechanisms.

Effects on Human Health

Due to the use of chemical additives during plastic production, plastics have potentially harmful effects that could prove to be carcinogenic or promote endocrine disruption. Some of the additives are used as phthalate plasticizers and brominated flame retardants. Through bio-monitoring, chemicals in plastics, such as bisphenol-A, or BPA and phthalates, have been identified in the human population. Humans can be exposed to these chemicals through the nose, mouth, or skin. Although the level of exposure varies depending on age and geography, most humans experience simultaneous exposure to many of these chemicals.

Average levels of daily exposure are below the levels deemed to be unsafe, but more research needs to be done on the effects of low-dose exposure on humans. A lot is unknown about how severely humans are physically affected by these chemicals. Some of the chemicals used in plastic production can cause dermatitis upon contact with human skin. In many plastics, these toxic chemicals are only used in trace amounts, but significant testing is often required to ensure that the toxic elements are contained within the plastic by inert material or polymer. It can also affect humans in which it may create an eyesore that interferes with the enjoyment of the natural environment.

Toxic chemicals released during manufacture is another significant source of the negative environmental impact of plastics. A whole host of carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and hormone-disruptive chemicals are standard ingredients and waste products of plastic production, and they inevitably find their way into our ecology through water, land, and air pollution. Some of the more familiar compounds include vinyl chloride (in PVC), dioxins (in PVC), benzene (in polystyrene), phthalates and other plasticizers (in PVC and others), formaldehyde, and bisphenol-A, or BPA (in polycarbonate). Many of these are persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—some of the most damaging toxins on the planet, owing to a combination of their persistence in the environment and their high levels of toxicity. However, their unmitigated release into the environment affects all terrestrial and aquatic life with which they come into contact.

Plastic Alternatives

While we recognize the need for plastic products in our homes, in light of the tremendous ecological impact throughout plastic’s life-cycle, we are compelled to select plastic alternatives when possible. In many cases, we can elect to utilize a different material altogether; examples of plastic alternatives include using straw or cellulose-based insulation in walls and roofs and mineral board insulation below basement walls instead of foam insulation, using wood or cement-board siding or plaster as an exterior finish instead of vinyl, and using clay, lime, or casein-based finishes instead of acrylic or latex paints. In other cases, our best option may be to replace a more toxic plastic, such as PVC, with a less toxic one, such as polyethylene, ABS, or metallocene polyolefin (a newly developed plastic of lesser environmental footprint) pipe instead of PVC pipe, fiberglass instead of PVC window profiles, polyethylene instead of PVC-jacketed wire, or polyester instead of PVC commercial’ wall coverings. The field of bio-plastics is also growing rapidly. These products have the benefits of being nonpetroleum in the feedstock, supportive of the farm sector (although LCA must also evaluate industrialized farming practices), and, perhaps most importantly, biodegradable. Additionally, vegetable oils such as soy have been proven to effectively replace phthalates as plasticizers in PVC, reducing its POP load.

As of 2018, about 380 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide each year. From the 1950s up to 2018, an estimated 6.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced worldwide, of which an estimated 9% has been recycled and another 12% has been incinerated.

Alternatives to Use of Plastic Products

  • Buy food in glass or metal containers; avoid polycarbonate drinking bottles with Bisphenol A
  • Avoid heating food in plastic containers, or storing fatty foods in plastic containers or plastic wrap.
  • Do not give young children plastic teethers or toys
  • Use natural fiber clothing, bedding and furniture
  • Avoid all PVC and Styrene products.

Author Bio: Suba Keerthi (Assistant Professor, Kasturba Gandhi Nursing College, SBV University Puducherry. The author acknowledges various references that are available on request. Email: vsubakeerthi@gmail.com)