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Plastics exposure a global health crisis, says NGO report

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Plastic and its impact on human health is poorly understood and presents a "global health crisis", according to a report by a group of international NGOs.

The report, Plastic and Health: The hidden cost of a plastic planet, says that health impact assessments have focused solely on the plastic components of products while ignoring the thousands of additives within the plastics and their behaviour at every stage of the plastic lifecycle.

The report labels the "current narrow approaches to assessing and addressing plastic impacts" as "inadequate and inappropriate".

"Understanding and responding to plastic risks, and making informed decisions in the face of those risks, demands a full lifecycle approach to assessing the complete scope of the impacts of plastic on human health," it says.

One of the authors, David Azoulay, director of environmental health for the Centre for International Environmental Law (Ciel), says that because supply chains and the impacts of plastic cross borders, continents and oceans, "no country can effectively protect its citizens from those impacts on its own, and no global instrument exists today to fully address the toxic lifecycle of plastics".

"Countries must seize the opportunity of current global discussions to develop a holistic response to the plastic health crisis that involves reducing the production, use and disposal of plastic worldwide," he says.

‘Underestimated problem’

The report says plastics additives are an "underestimated problem". Research that has identified negative human health impacts of many plastic additives is conclusive, it adds. "There are significant risks to human health and a precautionary approach is warranted."

Chemical additives may be used in the manufacturing process to create a polymer, including initiators, catalysts and solvents, while others are used to provide functions including stabilisers, plasticisers, flame retardants, pigments and fillers. Some are used to inhibit photodegradation, increase strength, rigidity and flexibility, or to prevent microbial growth.

The report says that "most of these additives are not bound to the polymer matrix and, due to their low molecular weight, easily leach out".

Of the chemical additives, phthalate plasticisers, bisphenol A, antimicrobial agents and polybrominated flame retardants "are of particular concern", the report says.

"Once these additives have been released, including through incineration of plastic, they persist in the environment, building up in the food chain."

The report says that while the health effects of many are conclusive, those associated with inhaled chemical additives and "accumulated toxics in plastic particles" are not yet clear.

"As plastic production increases, this exposure will only grow," it warns. It is estimated that there will be a four-fold increase in plastic production by 2050.

Plastic a POP?

The report says that, while plastic is not officially recognised as a persistent organic pollutant (POP) under the Stockholm Convention, the material's "characteristics and its chemical additives and contaminants make it potentially as harmful as, and portraying similar characteristics to, officially recognised POPs".

These characteristics, the report says, include:

  • the degradation of persistent plastic into micro- and nano-plastic particles, which facilitates their uptake by marine biota, indicates they accumulate in the food chain;
  • some chemical additives and contaminants present in plastic polymers have endocrine disrupting properties and may be harmful at extremely low doses; and
  • there is a "continuous flow of ‘fresh’ plastic waste", marking a significant persistence in the marine ecosystem.

The report adds that Echa’s recent restriction proposal for intentionally added microplastics  "supports a POPs classification".

Echa’s proposal says the persistence and the potential for adverse effects or bioaccumulation of microplastics is a "cause for concern".

"Once released, they can be extremely persistent in the environment, lasting thousands of years and practically impossible to remove," the proposal adds.

Report authors and their organisations:

  • David Azoulay  - Centre for International Environmental Law (Ciel);
  • Priscilla Villa  - Earthworks
  • Yvette Arellano - Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (Tejas);
  • Miriam Gordon - UPSTREAM;
  • Doun Moon - Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA); and
  • Kathryn Miller and Kristen Thompson - Exeter University

In a recent article for Chemical Watch, UN Environment's Jacob Duer addresses the issues of global chemicals management and plastic pollution. Plastics, their additives and the circular economy will also feature throughout Chemical Watch's Global Business Summit on 26-28 March.  

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