Of all the materials that were discovered in the past 100 years or so, none have become so widespread as plastic. Plastic is used for just about everything. From soda-pop to sterile saline in hospitals, flooring to teflon pans, plastics have become universal in every home and business in America and around the world. Unfortunately.
The great thing about plastics is their almost unlimited usefulness. The finished product can be shaped in almost any way imaginable, vary in hardness, and is relatively chemically inert, all for a nice, low price. Unfortunately, these properties also make it one of the worst physical pollutants in the world. It takes roughly 450 years for a plastic bottle to degrade, which, to compare, is about twice as long as it takes for an aluminum can. While recycling has done a tremendous amount to lessen the problem, the fact is that a lot of plastic ends up in trash cans. Because of it’s popularity and immortality, “between 1970 and 2003, plastic has become the fastest growing segment of the US municipal waste stream with a nine-fold increase, and marine litter is now 60–80% of plastic, reaching 90–95% in some areas,” according to the introduction to the special section in the newest issue of the journal Environmental Research, called “The Plastic World.”
As if this weren’t bad enough, more and more research has come out revealing the toxicity of plastics, either the material itself or the process used to create it. These include the highly toxic phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and brominated flame retardants (PBDEs). The ‘plastic problem’ has become such an issue in the scientific community that Environmental Research printed six different articles focusing on the adverse heath impacts of chemicals present in or left over from plastics. Originally begun as a workshop in 2006, the special section “Plastic World” seeks to highlight the danger of plastics and raise awareness to this increasingly important ecological issue.
Some of the articles focus on phthalates which are used in PVC plastic and block the production of the male hormone testosterone. Two articles report similar changes in male reproductive organs in rats and humans due to fetal exposure to phthalates. One, from scientists at the EPA and North Carolina State University, found that the exposure of male fetal rats led to multiple complications, including prevention of proper reproductive system development and lowered testosterone production. Scarily, the same kind of effects were found by researchers at the University of Rochester’s Study of Future Familes, through ongoing studies of pregnant women and their offspring.
Bisphenol A has also been causing adverse ecological effects because it mimics the action of the sex hormone estrogen. Previous studies have found changes in the biology and behavior of male seabirds in areas of high BPA exposure. In this issue, joint research between the University of Parma in Italy and the University of Missouri at Columbia show that fetal exposure to BPA disrupts normal development of the brain and behavior in mice. Another study finds similar effects from exposure of rats to PBDEs, which are found in almost every form of plastic, and are known to disrupt thyroid function.
Two other studies integrate new research to show a broader view of the impacts of these and other plastic chemicals on marine and freshwater environments. Overall the studies show that the byproducts of plastics, individually and together, have far-reaching, devastating effects in humans and animals, and on overall environmental health. These articles add to previous research showing the massive contamination of the Pacific Ocean with plastic and how overall contamination has increased dramatically.
“For the first time a series of articles will appear together that identify that billions of kilograms of a number of chemicals used in the manufacture of different types of plastic can leach out of plastic products and cause harm to the brain and reproductive system when exposure occurs during fetal life or prior to weaning,” emphasized Dr. Frederick vom Saal, Guest Editor of the “Plastic World”.
The special section is the latest in a trend of research which hopes to show how dangerous plastics are and the increasing need for regulation and monitoring of their impacts. The FDA is currently reviewing the evidence of the effects of plastics, and will soon be deciding how and to what extent these materials are controlled. In the meantime, consumers should consider how much plastic they throw away and what they might be doing to the environment and themselves. It can’t be said enough – RECYCLE, RECYCLE, RECYCLE!