From cell phones and computers to bicycle helmets and hospital IV bags, plastic has molded society in many ways that make life both easier and safer. But the synthetic material also has left harmful imprints on the environment and perhaps human health, according to a new compilation of articles authored by scientists from around the world.
More than 60 scientists contributed to the new report, which aims to present the first comprehensive review of the impact of plastics on the environment and human health, and offer possible solutions.
“One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics,” wrote David Barnes, a lead author and researcher for the British Antarctic Survey. The report was published this month in a theme issue of Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B, a scientific journal.
As the scrutiny of the environmental toll of plastic increases, so has its usage, the scientists reported.
Since its mass production began in the 1940s, plastic’s wide range of unique properties has propelled it to an essential status in society. Next year, more than 300 million tons will be produced worldwide. The amount of plastic manufactured in the first ten years of this century will approach the total produced in the entire last century, according to the report.
“Plastics are very long-lived products that could potentially have service over decades, and yet our main use of these lightweight, inexpensive materials are as single-use items that will go to the garbage dump within a year, where they’ll persist for centuries,” Richard Thompson, lead editor of the report, said in an interview.
Evidence is mounting that the chemical building blocks that make plastics so versatile are the same components that might harm people and the environment. And its production and disposal contribute to an array of environmental problems, too. For example:
• Chemicals added to plastics are absorbed by human bodies. Some of these compounds have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.
• Plastic buried deep in landfills can leach harmful chemicals that spread into groundwater.
• Around 4 percent of world oil production is used as a feedstock to make plastics, and a similar amount is consumed as energy in the process.
People are exposed to chemicals from plastic multiple times per day through the air, dust, water, food and use of consumer products.
For example, phthalates are used as plasticizers in the manufacture of vinyl flooring and wall coverings, food packaging and medical devices. Eight out of every ten babies, and nearly all adults, have measurable levels of phthalates in their bodies.
In addition, bisphenol A (BPA), found in polycarbonate bottles and the linings of food and beverage cans, can leach into food and drinks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 93 percent of people had detectable levels of BPA in their urine.
The report noted that the high exposure of premature infants in neonatal intensive care units to both BPA and phthalates is of “great concern.”