Plastic: Convenient, Cheap, Killing Us

By: Matthew Arnett

Many may be aware/away that plastic is toxic when inside any life form, that the fumes from burning plastic are to be avoided, and that no one in his or her right mind would eat it. Still, the ease with which it finds it's way into our air, water, food, bloodstreams and even urine has yet to alarm the mainstream public. The reality is that plastic rubs off into anything it touches, and much more rapidly than we might think. In the past half century, we've seen an alarming increase in debilitating and life threatening diseases that were virtually unknown before, particularly cancer. Is it a coincidence that plastic had been introduced to society only shortly before that, considering that the components of plastic have been found to be carcinogenic and hazardous in many other ways?

Who, in this modern society, can imagine a life without plastic. By now, we've seen plastic replace natural materials as the material of many things we consider essential in our lives. It is used to make cars, houses, containers for food, carpeting, pesticides, perfumes, clothes, furniture, and more on a list that could fill several volumes of this newspaper. By now, we’ve seen plastic replace a great many of the essential products in our lives that, for millenia, had been made from natural materials. It is even put directly on and in our food, in the form of synthetic pesticides (petroleum based), chemical additives, and as a protective coating for produce (including organic produce), we eat plastic. Residues from household items, such as furniture, end up in the air in our homes, we breath plastic. Plastic either forms the inner coating or the entire container of virtually any store-bought beverage, which ends up in our drinks, we drink plastic. When all of this is filtered from our bloodstream, we even urinate plastic. The fact that plastic migrates into our food has been common knowledge to the FDA which, until 2002, considered plastic food containers to be "indirect food additives." [1]

Plastic is a derivative of petroleum (Oil). When most people talk about the wars fought for oil, they are referring to our dependence on gasoline to fuel our vehicles. Actually, plastic is made from the abundance of toxic sludge leftover after the refinement of fuel from crude oil. It's interesting to note that these two things that we have become dependent on, fuel and plastic, come from a source that only the huge corporations that control the oil industry are capable of producing. This means that the people who control these corporations indirectly control us.

Although some of the plastic is eliminated from our bodies through urine, etc., dangerous amounts still remain in the bloodstream and fatty tissues of most of us. When we become sick from the use of these products, the medical industry eagerly snatches us up into their poisonous medical vortex that will have us medicated for the rest of our lives (many medications also contain plastic), while they get rich from our suffering. It is all part of the vicious cycle that begins with our reliance on the convenience of products that are slowly killing us.

Paul Goettlich is a researcher and activist who has done extensive research regarding the dangers of plastic. I recommend that anyone interested in more information on this subject visit his website, Mindfully.org. According to Goettlich, cancer is not the only danger that plastic presents to those who come into contact with it. Components commonly found in plastic have been known to act as endocrine disruptors (EDs). Goettlich, paraphrasing the report of an EPA workshop in 1996, writes that "endocrine disruptors are external agents that interfere with the production, release, transport, metabolism, binding, action or elimination of natural hormones in the body, responsible for maintaining internal balances and the regulation of developmental processes." [1]

One such ED is Bisphenol-A (BPA), which is used in the production of polycarbonate (water and baby bottles), an inner coating for food and beverage cans, syringes, dental products, and a protective coating used for children's teeth. Goettlich states that, "the list of negative health effects associated in some way with exposure to BPA is remarkably long. The most visible effect may be aneuploidy, a chromosome abnormality found in more than 5% of pregnancies. Most aneuploid fetuses die in utero. About one-third of all miscarriages are aneuploid, making it the leading known cause of pregnancy loss. Among conceptions that survive to term, aneuploidy is the leading genetic cause of developmental disabilities and mental retardation. About 1 in 300 liveborn infants and 1 in 3 miscarriages are aneuploid. It is associated with Down syndrome, Patau syndrome, Edwards syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, Turner syndrome, Cri du chat syndrome, and Alzheimer's disease." He goes on to explain that, "being one of many known endocrine disruptors, BPA affects development, intelligence, memory, learning, and behavior, skeleton, body size and shape, significant increase in prostate size, prostate cancer, reduced sperm count, both physical and mental aspects of sexuality." [1]

In April 2003, a study was published about BPA accidentally killing mice that had been held in polycarbonate cages at a lab.[26] It was found accidentally when it ruined a lab experiment that heated yeast in PC flasks to find out if the yeast produced estrogens. It was discovered that BPA from the PC flasks was the material that was estrogenic, and that it competed with the natural estrogen in a rat’s body. [1]

Another poisonous substance is deca-BDE, a flame retardant used in amounts as high as 15% of high impact polystyrene used in products such as hair dryers, toasters, curling irons, coffeemakers, TVs, computer casings, printers, fax machines, smoke detectors, and light fixtures. It is also added to textiles used for drapes, furniture, and rugs. Like all plastic, deca-BDE degrades over time. It has been found at significant levels in household dust and office air, meaning we are breathing it. Studies have found that high levels of deca-BDE exist in 5% of the population. It had also been found present in breast milk. Exposures early in life can alter reproductive structures, lower sperm count, delay puberty, and damage the ovaries. According to Dr. Kim Hooper, a researcher for the Calif. Dept. of Toxic Substances Control, "The final reality is that we have more than a half-billion pounds of the stuff above ground in consumer products in close human contact, and another half-billion below ground in sediment. This billion pounds eventually breaks down, into what, we don't know." Yet 125 million more pounds of the stuff are made ever year. [2] The alarm has yet to sound.

Between the two chemicals described above, we have seen that virtually all of our bottled pre-packaged food, beverages and indoor air are being polluted. I have only listed some of their harmful effects. Consider that there were between 87,000 and 100,000 chemicals in commercial production in 2003. [1] It's likely that new chemical compounds are being created constantly. When these chemicals combine in the body, with hormones and other chemicals, they act synergistically, meaning their effects compound and multiply. There's no way to predict what collective, long term effects they will have. What is known is enough cause for alarm, for instance, EDs effect is even more dangerous in times of rapid growth, from the womb to puberty, so our children are at an even greater risk. [1] We know that a damaged embryo can result in a damaged child, but the bigger question becomes this: how many generations of our children will be affected just by the damage that has been done until now?

Exposure to plastic has also been linked to very disturbing effects in fish. In a a study of 162 male Mediterranean swordfish, 40 were found to have female germ cells in their testes. [3] Following Egg Microinjection of o, p'-DDT (an ED) into the egg yolks of medaka fish at fertilization resulted in the sex reversal of 6 of 7 male fish. These "XY" females, while displaying male pigmentation, had female sex organs. When these fish were mated with normal male fish, they had fertility rates similar to those of normal females. [4]

Plastic and all petroleum based products are dangerous because the crude oil that they are made from has no business even being on the surface of the planet in abundance. No living being can process the chemicals, once they are in their bodies. This is why they are non-biodegradable. As for everything else we find on Earth, nature knows what to do with it. Because nature simply does not have an answer for plastic, it will just sit around for who knows how many thousands of years, poisoning us, until the Earth reabsorbs it. Right now, there are places in the North Pacific Ocean where there are 6 times more plastic, by mass, than zooplankton. This will only increase until we finally decide to do something about it. However, our options are severely limited at the moment, and we have no way of removing the plastic from the oceans without also removing all the fish.

Some suggest banning some of the more toxic forms of plastic, but all plastic leeches into it's surroundings, and all plastic is toxic. The only recourse is to simply stop using it whenever we can. Take bags with you to the grocery store. Store your food in glass, metal, ceramic, whatever. Stop throwing away perfectly good stuff just because you want something new. Buy clothes made of natural fabrics. Don't use non-stick cookware (made of Teflon, a toxic plastic) or plastic dishes (even at parties, if possible, use paper). Don't chew gum (plastic). Be creative, I'm going to start bringing my own glass containers to some restaurants, when I order carry out. Visit Mindfully.org for more alternatives to using plastic. Whatever you do, be aware of the plastic you use and try to use less. People may look at us funny sometimes, but hurting our egos is better that hurting our bodies. That will at least be a step forward.

References

[1] Get Plastic Out of Your Diet, Paul Goettlich, 11-16-03
[2] East Bay Express (Emeryville, California), February 16, 2005
[3] Marine Pollution Bulletin v.46, i.3, Mar03
[4] Environmental Health Perspectives v.108, n.3, Mar00