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Plastic Poison - Why plastic pollution should be seen as a public health issue
by UN Environment, Reuters, Guardian News, agencies
10:27am 4th Jun, 2018
June 2018
The missing science: Could our addiction to plastic be poisoning us, by Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment.
What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Of all the oft-repeated maxims, this one is perhaps the most dangerous. Many things we didn’t know turned out to hurt us. In the 1930s, consumers were sold on the health benefits of tobacco. We happily used asbestos to flame-proof buildings. We once thought mercury was a great treatment for syphilis.
When scientists took a proper look at these substances, they found them to be incredibly harmful to people and the planet. Now this attention is increasingly turning to one of the most ubiquitous materials in use today: plastic.
The fact is that while we are acutely aware of the alarming rising tide of plastic waste, there is not a great deal known about the long-term health impacts of this pollution crisis.
What we do know is that our addiction to convenience has placed it everywhere: leaching into food from kitchens, restaurants and supermarkets; floating in microscopic particles in our drinking water; drifting in the oceans and choking wildlife and ecosystems.
For a long time, we operated on the principle that plastics are okay because there was no evidence that they are unsafe. This is not equivalent to proving they are safe. The ubiquity of plastics, and the increasing evidence that we are ingesting many of them in microplastic form, demands a closer examination of the health implications.
Until recently, much of the research, and concern, focused on food packaging and how tiny plastic fragments “migrate” into food from the containers they are stored in.
Writing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, a team of environmental scientists raised the alarm over “food contact materials” – substances used in packaging, storage, processing, or preparation equipment. According to the research, food contact materials contain a total of over 4,000 chemical substances – including formaldehyde, classified as carcinogen category 1B by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. There are discussions at this moment on restrictions, which can focus on the placing on the market and use of formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers in mixtures and articles for supply to consumers.
The chemicals causing the most disquiet have been bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. The former is a material used in hard, transparent plastics known as polycarbonates – a popular material for baby bottles and storage containers. Phthalates are a class of chemicals that, when added to plastics, make them more durable, flexible and long-lasting.
Some research has indicated that BPA may disrupt hormone and reproductive systems, including including abnormal penis development in men. There are also suspicions that it could contribute to diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. According to the US National Institute of Environmental Health Services, exposure to BPA has long been widespread. A 2003-2004 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found BPA in 93 per cent of 2,517 urine samples from people six years and older.
Some regulations have been passed to limit BPA use, particularly in baby products, and more is in the offing in the European Union, but many believe it doesn’t go far enough.
Recent research on phthalates pointed to equally widespread levels of contamination. The researchers found elevated levels of phthalates in the bodies of those who had eaten out the previous day – 35 per cent higher. These chemicals are linked to fertility problems, pregnancy complications and other health issues.
As ever in fields of emerging science, though, there is dissenting opinion. Stephen Ostroff, Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at the US Food and Drug Administration, in February 2018 declared BPA safe for “currently authorized uses” in food packaging after a two-year study on rats.
Growing concern over microplastics
Potentially harmful plastic fragments – which can also serve as magnets for other pollutants, including dioxins, metals and pesticides – are getting into our bodies in increasing quantities. And the route of migration into foodstuffs from direct contact with plastics is no longer the only one that is furrowing scientific brows. We now have to worry about microplastics.
Microplastics, pieces of plastic under 5 millimetres in length, come from many sources: larger pieces of plastic that break up; microbeads, which are added to health and beauty products like toothpastes and face scrubs; and synthetic fibres, with a single wash of acrylics capable of releasing over 700,000 particles, according to research from Plymouth University.
These tiny particles pass through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean, water bodies and our drinking water. As many as 51 trillion microplastic particles – 500 times more than stars in our galaxy – litter our seas, seriously threatening marine wildlife.
UN Environment and others have been raising red flags about microplastics for a few years now, but a study on bottled water, released in late 2017, propelled the issue into the headlines.
Dr. Sherri Mason, a leading microplastics researcher who chairs the Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences at the State University of New York at Fredonia, tested more than 250 bottles from eleven leading brands worldwide and found plastic debris – including polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene terephthalate – in 93 per cent of the samples. The team found an average of ten plastic particles per litre of water. Dr. Mason says now was the time to “re-evaluate our relationship” with plastics.
Dr. Mason also acknowledges that we know “very little” about the impacts of plastics on human health. However, the better-known impacts on wildlife a clearly a cause for concern.
“While we don’t know the exact implications of microplastic ingestion, I think we all have a pretty innate understanding that it isn’t good,” she said. “We have seen the impacts on aquatic species – from dehydration/starvation to the transmission of bioaccumulative toxic compounds – and we shouldn’t expect it to be any different for us.”
My own recent report on pollution also points to the strength of evidence on how plastics damage wildlife.
Towards a Pollution-Free Planet lays out how plastic debris is present in all the world’s oceans and seas, even in remote areas such as deep trenches and uninhabited islands in the Pacific Ocean, far from human contact.
Research on the physical and toxicological effects of microplastics provides evidence of direct intake by marine invertebrates and shows how microplastics pass up planktonic food chains. Fish who ingest microplastics show physiological stress, liver cancer and endocrine dysfunction, affecting female fertility and the growth of reproductive tissue in males.
These effects are thought to be caused by the plastic itself, as well as by chemical pollutants that absorb into the plastic from seawater. Under laboratory conditions, nanosize microplastics have been shown to cross cell membranes, resulting in tissue damage.
We’ve become over reliant on single-use or disposable plastic. We buy one million plastic drinking bottles every minute and use roughly 500 billion disposable plastic bags every year. In total, some 50 per cent of plastic is single use.
Nearly one third of plastic packaging escapes collection, which means that it ends up clogging our city streets and polluting the environment. Every year, up to 13 million tonnes of plastic reach our oceans, where it smothers coral reefs and threatens vulnerable marine wildlife. The plastic that ends up in the oceans can circle the Earth four times in a single year; it can persist for up to 1,000 years before it fully disintegrates.
* Towards a Pollution Free Planet (120pp):
Apr. 2018
Record concentration of microplastics found in Arctic sea ice. (Reuters, agencies)
Researchers have warned of a "troubling" accumulation of microplastics in sea ice floating in the Arctic ocean, a major potential source of water pollution as global warming melts the sheets of frozen water.
A team from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) found 17 different plastic types in ice samples gathered during three Arctic expeditions on board the research icebreaker Polarstern in 2014 and 2015.
They included plastic from shopping bags and food packaging, from ship paint, fishing nets, nylon and polyester found in synthetic fabrics, and cigarette filters.
One sample contained the highest concentration of microplastics ever found in sea ice -- up to 12,000 particles per litre of frozen water. This was two- to three times higher than any past measurement, the research team wrote in the journal Nature Communications.
The discovery suggests microplastics "are now ubiquitous within the surface waters of the world''s ocean," sea ice physicist Jeremy Wilkinson of the British Antarctic Survey said in a comment on the study. "Nowhere is immune," he said via the Science Media Centre in London.
Sea ice grows from the freezing of seawater directly underneath the existing ice, thus incorporating floating microplastics as it grows downward, he explained. This means the plastics were present as the ice was growing, and drifting, in the Arctic Ocean.
Of particular concern was the particles small size. Some were only 11 micrometres across -- about a sixth the diameter of a human hair, the team said.
This "means they could easily be ingested by Arctic micro-organisms" such as small crustaceans on which fish feed," said study coauthor Ilka Peeken, an AWI biologist.
Micro-plastics are less than five millimetres (0,2 inches) long, about the size of a sesame seed. They come in the form of "micro-beads" used in face scrubs and toothpaste, or are created when larger pieces are degraded by the Sun, temperature changes, mechanic abrasion, or ocean wave action.
According to environmental group WWF, 8.8 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans every year. On current trends, warns the UN, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.
Samples from the Canada Basin, fed by water from the northeast Pacific via the Bering Strait, were high in polyethylene used in packaging material, leading the authors to conclude these particles came mainly from the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- a swirling plastic dump in the ocean now bigger than France, Germany and Spain combined. Others were rich in particles from paint and varnish used on ships, while nylon bits from fish nets were "found frequently in almost all sea ice cores."
"The melting of multi-year sea ice exacerbated by climate change could reasonably lead to the release into the water column of large amounts of plastics stored in the Arctic sea ice cover," Newcastle University oceanographer Miguel Angel Morales Maqueda said.
Apr. 2018
Microplastics found in Great Australian Bight sediment.
Plastic found in ocean-floor sediments 2km below the surface in one of Australia’s most precious and isolated marine environments.
CSIRO scientists discovered the microplastic pieces while analysing samples taken hundreds of kilometres offshore at the bottom of the Great Australian Bight – a so-called “pristine” biodiversity hotspot and marine treasure.
Conservationists and scientists said the discovery off the South Australian coast should act as a “wake-up call” for governments and corporations to cut unnecessary use of plastics and to “legislate and incentivise” to tackle the growing ocean plastics problem.
Dr Denise Hardesty, a principal research scientist at CSIRO and a member of the team analysing the sediments, said: “This points to just how ubiquitous plastics are in our environment. Even in deep sea sediments around Australia, that’s a developed country, we still find plastic from the bottom of the sea to the surface.
“Wherever you are, the organisms passing through those areas will have come in contact with it – whether it was a fishing line or a plastic bag that’s broken down into thousands of tiny pieces.
“This is hundreds of kilometres offshore at a couple of kilometres of depth – that’s pretty confronting that, even there, we find it. This stuff is everywhere.”
Dr Jennifer Lavers, of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, said she was not surprised that plastic had been found in the bight “because there are multiple studies from around the world finding microplastics and even nano plastics in sediments throughout the bottom of the world’s oceans”.
“Should it worry us? Absolutely,” she said. “The smaller the pieces, the more species there are to consume it. “Everything that is tiny is at the base of the food web so it’s not an issue of just an albatross swallowing a cigarette lighter or a sperm whale swallowing big chunk of net, you now literally have microplastics being eaten by corals, sea cucumbers, clams and muscles, and zooplankton at the very base of the food web. You have all levels of the food web infiltrated with this stuff. It’s everywhere and where the plastic goes, the chemicals follow.”
James Cordwell, the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s marine campaigner, said: “It’s gutting to know that plastic pollution has been found in one of the wildest parts of our oceans. It is further evidence that few parts of our oceans are left untouched by plastic. We should be very concerned. Plastic pollution is flowing into our oceans at an alarming rate.. We’ve got to stop plastic reaching our oceans and entering our food chains.”
Nathaniel Pelle, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said it was “incredibly troubling” that plastics had penetrated to Great Australian Bight seabed.
“Corporations like Nestle, Unilever and Procter & Gamble are still pushing incredible quantities of plastic on to the global market and governments in Australia, and the world, have been incredibly slow to act on controlling the avalanche. We cannot afford to continue our inaction to this problem as plastic permeates every single part of the environment from our drinking water and the food we eat to microplastic particles in the Antarctic and Great Australian Bight.
“Corporations and governments must move to not only limit the use and consumption of single-use plastics but to address the impact of what is already in the environment.”
Apr. 2018
Plastic Poison - Why plastic pollution should be seen as a public health issue, by Sachini Muller. (APPS Policy Forum)
Climate change, sustainability, and environmental damage are now common topics in households around the world. But what we’re not talking enough about is how much plastic we’re producing, using, and not disposing of properly.
Plastic is already severely impacting our environment. And although we don’t yet have adequate research to know for sure, it’s probably also negatively impacting our health.
We’ve heard about the chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA), commonly used in food packaging, and its links to disorders such as infertility and tumours such as breast and prostate cancer. We know we should reduce microwaving our food in plastic containers because they can leach chemicals into the food.
But did you know that plastics that break down in the ocean are making their way into our food chain?
First, let’s take a look at what happens to plastic once it enters our oceans. It is clear that our overconsumption of plastic is having an effect on the environment, with some estimates suggesting each year at least 100,000 marine mammals are killed by plastic pollution. However, it is not just lives of marine animals that are under threat, but the balance of entire ecosystems.
Plastic isn’t biodegradable, which means that even when it breaks down, it just breaks down into smaller pieces. These micrometre-sized pieces are called microplastics. These can include fibres from synthetic clothing, or the microbeads found in many cosmetics.
In a Macquarie University study, beach hoppers (small jumping crustaceans at the bottom of the coastal food web) were fed microplastics. After five days, the beach hoppers had gained weight, reducing their ability to hop, and in some cases, had died. Beach hoppers are crucial to decomposing seaweed, cycling nutrients back into the beach, and in moving energy up the food chain. Reduced numbers (or extinction) of beach hoppers can, therefore, change essential coastal processes.
The Plastic Oceans Foundation has argued that plastic should be considered toxic once it gets into the natural environment, as it can attract poisonous chemicals “like a magnet”. When ingested by animals, the chemicals from microplastics transfer into the tissue of the organism. This was found to be the case for lugworms, which are eaten by birds and fish and are commonly used by governments to test the safety of chemicals discharged into marine habitats.
Beyond seafood, we should also be worried about our water. In a global survey of tap water from six regions on five continents, 83 per cent of samples analysed contained plastic particles. And don’t think drinking bottled water will spare you. A recent study found that more than 90 per cent of some of the world’s most popular bottled water brands contained microplastics, prompting a health review from the World Health Organization. And we know that if plastic is in our water, it’s also definitely in our food. It gets worse.
Professor Frank Kelly, an environmental health expert from King’s College London, gave evidence to an Environmental Audit Committee in the UK in 2016, saying that we may be breathing in harmful microplastics from the environment. Research published earlier this year in Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health supported that claim, and added that chemicals from the plastics can be absorbed into the body and have health effects such as interfering with reproduction and causing cancer or DNA mutation.
So plastic is clearly quite a health issue, and we haven’t even started to see its full impact. By the time the US phased out the use of PBDEs – a compound widely used in electronics, baby clothes, and furniture – exposure to this chemical had already cost the country US $266 billion and was responsible for 43,000 cases of intellectual disability in the US each year.
Research into the health effects of microplastics on humans is only just beginning. By the time governments legislate on how to handle this issue, many of us will already be facing health issues from it.
What can we do about it? We’ve all heard the easy stuff – like buying re-usable shopping bags, but there is more we can do. We need to support initiatives such as Plastics for Change, which connects plastic waste-pickers in the developing world directly to buyers to recycle ethically-sourced plastic into eco-friendly product lines.
Policymakers also need to address this issue, as without legislation the uptake of plastic-free practices will be very slow.
Waste-to-energy technologies use various methods to turn plastic and organic waste into gas and liquid fuel. Such initiatives must be encouraged, and will hopefully be easier to implement since the conversation about them has already begun. Waste-to-energy technology has more use than just as an energy source – it is a key method of reducing landfill and our impact on the environment.
Governments need to explore all avenues of both reducing and disposing of our waste. We need a solution to the problem of plastic. Increasing awareness is helpful, but policymakers need to take notice and find and implement solutions.
Mar. 2018
An enormous area of rubbish floating in the Pacific Ocean is teeming with far more debris than previously thought, heightening alarm that the world’s oceans are being increasingly choked by trillions of pieces of plastic.
The sprawling patch of detritus – spanning 1.6m sq km, (617,763 sq miles) more than twice the size of France – contains at least 79,000 tons of plastic, new research published in Nature has found. This mass of waste is up to 16 times larger than previous estimates and provides a sobering challenge to a team that will start an ambitious attempt to clean up the vast swath of the Pacific this summer.
The analysis, conducted by boat and air surveys taken over two years, found that pollution in the so-called Great Pacific garbage patch is almost exclusively plastic and is “increasing exponentially”.
Microplastics, measuring less than 0.5cm (0.2in), make up the bulk of the estimated 1.8tn pieces floating in the garbage patch, which is kept in rough formation by a swirling ocean gyre.
While tiny fragments of plastic are the most numerous, nearly half of the weight of rubbish is composed of discarded fishing nets. Other items spotted in the stew of plastic include bottles, plates, buoys, ropes and even a toilet seat.
“I’ve been doing this research for a while, but it was depressing to see,” said Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer and lead author of the study. Lebreton works for the Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch-based non-profit that is aiming to tackle the garbage patch.
“There’s clearly an increasing influx of plastic into the garbage patch.. We need a coordinated international effort to rethink and redesign the way we use plastics. The numbers speak for themselves. Things are getting worse and we need to act now.”
Plastic has become a major environmental blight, tainting drinking water and rivers. Around 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year, where it washes up on beaches or drifts out to sea where the pieces very slowly break down over hundreds of years.
Larger pieces of plastic pollution can entangle and kill marine creatures, while tiny fragments are eaten by small fish and find their way up the food chain. Plastic often attracts toxic pollutants that are then ingested and spread by marine life. It’s estimated there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish by the year 2050.
Much plastic waste accumulates in five circular ocean currents – known as gyres – found around the globe. The Ocean Cleanup has pledged a “moonshot” effort to clean up half of the Great Pacific garbage patch within five years and mop up the other rubbish-strewn gyres by 2040.
The organization is developing a system of large floating barriers with underwater screens that capture and concentrate plastics into one area ready to be scooped out of the ocean. A prototype, to be launched from San Francisco this summer with the aim of spawning a clutch of devices each of which can collect five tons of waste a month, will, if successful, be followed by dozens of other boom-like systems measuring up to 2km (1.2 miles) long.
The project comes with caveats, however – its system will not catch the proliferation of microplastics measuring under 10 millimeters (0.39in) and the whole operation will require further funding from next year. Any successful clean up may also be overwhelmed by a global surge in plastic production – a recent UK government report warned the amount of plastic in the ocean could treble within the next decade.
“There is a big mine of microplastics there coming from larger stuff that’s crumbling down, so we need to get in there quickly to clean it up,” said Joost Dubois, a spokesman for the Ocean Cleanup. “But we also need to prevent plastic getting into the ocean in the first place.”
The alarming problem of global plastic pollution is gaining traction in diplomatic circles, with nearly 200 countries signing on to a UN resolution last year that aims to stem the flood of plastic into the oceans. However, the agreement has no timetable and is not legally binding.
Dr Clare Steele, a California-based marine ecologist who was not involved in the research, said the study provided enhanced understanding of the composition of the Great Pacific garbage patch.
But she regretted that while removing larger items, such as fishing nets, would help wildlife, the clean-up would not deal with the colossal amount of microplastic.
“Those plankton-sized pieces of plastic are pretty difficult to clean up,” she said. “The only way is to address the source and that will require a radical shift on how we use materials, particularly single-use plastic that is so durable.
“We urgently need to reduce waste and come up with new, biodegradable alternatives to plastic. But one of the easiest steps is changing the way we use and discard the more plastic products.”
Dec. 2017
Colossal funding in manufacturing plants by fossil fuel companies will increase plastic production by 40%, risking permanent pollution of the earth.
One million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute, with most ending up in landfill or in the sea.
The global plastic binge which is already causing widespread damage to oceans, habitats and food chains, is set to increase dramatically over the next 10 years after multibillion dollar investments in a new generation of plastics plants in the US.
Fossil fuel companies are among those who have ploughed more than $180bn since 2010 into new “cracking” facilities that will produce the raw material for everyday plastics from packaging to bottles, trays and cartons.
The new facilities – being built by corporations like Exxon Mobile Chemical and Shell Chemical – will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade, according to experts, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis that scientist warn already risks “near permanent pollution of the earth.”
“We could be locking in decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realising we should use far less of it,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the US Center for International Environmental Law, which has analysed the plastic industry.
“Around 99% of the feedstock for plastics is fossil fuels, so we are looking at the same companies, like Exxon and Shell, that have helped create the climate crisis. There is a deep and pervasive relationship between oil and gas companies and plastics.”
Greenpeace UK’s senior oceans campaigner Louise Edge said any increase in the amount of plastic ending up in the oceans would have a disastrous impact.
“We are already producing more disposable plastic than we can deal with, more in the last decade than in the entire twentieth century, and millions of tonnes of it are ending up in our oceans.”
The huge investment in plastic production has been driven by the shale gas boom in the US. This has resulted in one of the raw materials used to produce plastic resin – natural gas liquids – dropping dramatically in price.
The American Chemistry Council says that since 2010 this has led to $186bn dollars being invested in 318 new projects. Almost half of them are already under construction or have been completed. The rest are at the planning stage.
“I can summarise [the boom in plastics facilities] in two words,” Kevin Swift, chief economist at the ACC, told the Guardian. “Shale gas.” He added: “There has been a revolution in the US with the shale gas technologies, with the fracking, the horizontal drilling. The cost of our raw material base has gone down by roughly two thirds.”
The findings come amid widespread concern about the scale of plastics pollution around the world. Earlier this year scientists warned that it risked near permanent contamination of the planet and at a UN environment conference in Kenya this month the scale of plastic in the sea was described as an “ocean armageddon”.
In June a Guardian investigation revealed that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute with most ending up in landfill or the sea.
Campaigners warn that despite the rising tide of concern, powerful corporations are pressing ahead with a new generation of plastic production facilities that will swamp efforts to move the global economy away from single use, throw away plastic products.
Steven Feit, from the Centre for Environmental International Law which has researched the impact of the US shale boom on plastics, said: “The link between the shale gas boom in the United States and the ongoing – and accelerating – global plastics crisis cannot be ignored.
“In the US, fossil fuel and petrochemical companies are investing hundreds of billions of dollars to expand plastic production capacity... All this buildout, if allowed to proceed, will flood the global market with even more disposable, unmanageable plastic for decades to come.”
Athough the majority of the new investment is in the US, the impact will ripple outwards in the form of vast new supplies of raw materials for plastics being transported to Europe and China.
Petrochemical giant Ineos has been shipping natural gas liquids from the US to cracking plants in Europe and the UK on huge “dragon ships” for the past year.
Last month the company announced it will ship the first NGLs from the US to China in 2019 where it will be turned into plastic resin at a new cracking facility in Taixing China.
Roland Geyer, from the University of California at Santa Barbara, was the lead author of a study earlier this year revealing that humans have produced 8.3bn tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with the majority ending up in landfill or polluting the world’s oceans and continents. The report warned that plastic, which does not degrade for hundreds of years, risked “near-permanent contamination” of the earth.
He said he was deeply troubled by the expansion in plastic production. “I am now all but convinced that the plastic waste/pollution problem will remain unmanageable without serious source reduction efforts,” he told the Guardian. “Building out production capacity is obviously the opposite of source reduction.”
Experts believe the new facilities will lock in an increase in plastic production for years to come.

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