Ill-effects of plastic on human health

GD Assist | Published: July 27, 2018 18:21:45 | Updated: July 31, 2018 20:51:27


A doctor’s narration of an incident of a patient with symptoms of lung and stomach infection, frequent stomach ache, loose motion and distension underwent every possible investigation. Finally, it was discovered that he had stomach cancer, the cause of which was the presence of excess bisphenol in his blood stream. Unfortunately, by the time it was detected, is was too late.

How is this connected to plastic, you may ask? Well, research suggests that all plastics leach chemicals if they are scratched or heated. At certain exposure levels, of some chemicals in plastic products, such as bisphenol, can cause cancer. The link is hence clear: Plastic chemicals can cause cancer.

This post describes the detrimental impact of plastic on human health and underscores precautions that may help readers protect their health against the adverse effects of plastic. 

The utility of plastic requires a hard rethink

Unwittingly, we come into contact with plastic almost every day. We drink water out of plastic bottles, use plastic straws to consume beverages, use plastic containers and cutlery to eat food and use plastic cups to drink tea/coffee. The point is that plastics last for up to 400 years because it is non-biodegradable. When exposed to the sun and with the temperatures hitting peaks in the summers, the chemical cocktail comprising plastic micro-granules starts shedding toxins into the water within minutes of exposure, making human ingestion of plastics a reality.

In the plastics lifecycle chain, let’s start with its negative impact of its manufacture. Toxic chemicals released during the manufacturing process have a severe negative environmental impact. A whole host of carcinogenic, neurotoxic and hormone-disruptive chemicals are standard waste products of plastic production and it finds its way into our ecology inevitably. Some of the more familiar compounds include vinyl chloride, dioxins, benzene and bisphenol-A.

In first phase, though most plastics are benign, many release toxic gases in their formulation. In the final phase, the disposal of plastics has a high ecological impact with their resistance to decomposition - a great liability. This problem is compounded by the fact that only a tiny amount of the total plastics production is recycled. The rest is either dumped into landfills or despatched to incinerators where its toxic compounds are spewed in the surrounding ecosystem. Effectively, with the disposal thus, the harmful impact of plastic is amplified as it bio-accumulates in large concentrations up the food chain and right into our diets. The harmful chemicals released are known to cause such severe health problems as cancer, endometriosis, neurological damage, endocrine disruption, birth defects, child developmental disorders, reproductive damage, immune damage, asthma and multiple organ damage. 

Human consumption of plastic

It has been found that mismanaged waste is particularly challenging in fast-growing countries, such as India, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh, is leading to severe levels of plastic pollution.

Recently, things have come to such that the planet is awash in products spawned by the plastics industry. Toxic plastics, health-bisphenol-A(BPA) along with phthalates, are used in many everyday resources, including plastic bottles and food packaging materials. Their constant contact allows residues of plastic to become ubiquitous in our bodies. Moreover, the route to ingestion of plastic in humans is also through the consumption of contaminated fish and other marine mammals, as these aquatic creatures consume polystyrene components as they sink lower into the oceans. 

Plastic alternatives

The use of plastic bags is considered as one of the greatest health and civic issues that humans are facing today. Cities such as China have banned the use of plastic. Bangladesh and India have banned the use and sale of polythene bags that have thickness of less than 50 microns. Moreover, there is a rising global voice against the use of plastic straws that are produced in the billions the world over.

One of the most effective and obvious ways to reduce the impact of plastics and its derivatives, including plastic bags, is to progressively stop its use. While one recognises the need for plastic products, we must select plastic alternatives, examples of which include using paper/cloth bags and paper straws, etc. These products have the benefits of being non-petroleum in feedstock and, most importantly, are biodegradable.

Common precautions against plastic

We should choose plastic bottles carefully. Pick up such a bottle and turn it upside down. On its base you will find a recycling code that looks like a triangular arrow around a number. Avoid the numbers 3, 6 and 7. Plastics, especially with the number 7, contain BPA.

One should also not microwave food or drinks that are stored in plastic containers even if they carry the tag of being ‘microwave-safe’. Heat can breakdown plastics and release chemical additives into the food and beverages stored in the containers. Moreover, microwaves heat unevenly, creating hot spots where the plastic is more likely to breakdown. Also, for protecting oneself from plastic contamination, it is best not to have a diet that consists mainly of fish since most of it is probably contaminated.

Some of the other ways by which one can circumvent the use of plastic include:

  • Avoiding plastic bags (including for snacks and food storage)
  • Avoiding disposable straws (reusable straws made from stainless steel or bamboo are widely available)
  • Choosing a jute or cotton (cloth) bag for carrying purposes
  • Choosing glass containers for storage
  • Choosing a non-plastic toothbrush made from bamboo or flax
  • Avoiding disposable plastic bottles by using one’s own reusable bottle instead

Besides, one of the most effective and conscious things we could do to protect our fragile ecosystem is to be responsible for our trash. The average person disposes half a pound of plastic waste every day. Besides, governmental regulation also needs to be more structured and clear to alter plastic use/consumption habits.

Tip: Studies have found that gooseberry/amla has shown to be effective in preventing and lessening the toxic effects of chemicals in the body and represent effective detox preparations. Also, regular sweating and exercising helps one get rid of harmful chemicals and minerals from the body.

So go ahead, create a plastic-free life for yourselves and others around you.

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