Lifestyle

Reasons Plastics Could Be Affecting Your Health & Fertility

7 min read

Key Points

  • Plastics contribute to many industries and products that we use every day
  • The higher use of such plastics has many adverse health outcomes, including male and female infertility, cancers, neurological issues, hormonal disruption, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases
  • Widespread usage and convenience of plastics makes it impossible to eliminate plastics, but we can reduce our personal use and contamination
  • High plastic usage could increase the risk of developing infertility for both males and females, endocrine disruption, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and alteration of liver enzymes

Plastic is present in everything around us, from clothes to cups and straws. The widespread production of plastics is due to their being durable, inexpensive, corrosion-resistant, strong, and its ability to contribute to many industries. Those things sound wonderful, eh? They really are. But this level of massive production has many risks to the environment and our health as well. Now, plastics can enter our food chains and bodies. Could you imagine that you consume plastics every day?! According to this study, humans consume around 5 grams of microplastics every week, equivalent to a credit card. 

 

What are the stages of plastic’s lifecycle?

Unfortunately, humans are exposed to plastics at every stage of their lifecycle, which puts them at high risk of many health concerns. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) divided plastic’s lifecycle into four stages:

 

I. Plastic Extraction and Transport

Fossil fuels are the primary source of plastics; they estimate at around 99%. The extraction of fossil fuels causes the release of toxic substances into the air and water. They negatively affect the skin, eye, respiratory gastrointestinal systems, and sensory organs. Additionally, the primary feedstock chemicals for plastic have many potential health risks, including

  • Impairment of the immune system
  • Cancer
  • Neurological and reproductive adverse effects

II. Plastic Refining and Manufacturing

During manufacturing, fossil fuels are transformed into plastic by adding chemicals that lead to the release of toxic and carcinogenic substances into the air. Workers in this industry and people who live nearby are at high risk of developing leukemia, genetic low birth weight, neurological and developmental issues. 

 

III. Packaging and Consumer Products 

Also known as the final version of plastics that we use every day. Many are single-use plastics like sandwich bags and disposable utensils. Exposure to these products through inhalation or ingestion can have many health concerns that we will discuss later. 

 

IV. Plastic Waste Management

Plastic waste management includes incineration, co-incineration, gasification, and pyrolysis. All these technologies release many toxic metals into the air, water, and soil. Examples of such poisonous metals are lead and mercury, acid gases, and organic substances (dioxins and furans). Workers and neighborhoods are at high risk directly through contaminated air or indirectly through ingestion of foods grown in contaminated soils. 

 

Summary: Throughout plastic’s lifecycle, workers and people living near the factories are highly exposed to the toxic chemicals produced by plastic manufacturers. Fossil fuels are the primary source of plastic. Workers extract fossil fuels and them to chemicals and additives to make plastic durable and softer. Then, the plastic takes its final shape to be delivered to the consumer. 

 

Why are plastics dangerous?

Plastics are synthetic organic polymers that undergo many processes to get the final shape and product that we know and recognize on store shelves and in our homes. During processing, manufacturers add additives called plasticizers to make plastic more flexible and softer. Examples of plasticizers are Bisphenol-A (BPA) and Phthalates. Moreover, using plastic products leads to the production of tiny plastic particles called microplastics that we consume every day with our coffee and in paper cups. Storage of foods or drinks inside plastic causes leaching of those chemicals to the food you consume; let’s talk about them in detail.


Bisphenol-A (BPA)

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is one of the plasticizers used during plastic processing. Also, it is considered as an endocrine disruptor because it has a negative influence on estrogen, thyroid, and androgen hormones. You can find BPA in many products, for instance, food packaging, perfumes, cosmetics, and toys. 

 

Phthalates

Phthalates are chemicals used as plasticizers and have an endocrine disruption effect, just as BPA. They are present in many products, including personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays), lubricating oils, and vinyl flooring. Phthalates get into your body often through eating and drinking foods stored in containers that include phthalates. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC, phthalates are excreted through the urine after breaking down into small particles inside your body. 

 

Microplastics

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that leach out of food storage containers and mix with your food or drink. According to this research, having three coffees in disposable paper cups makes you ingest about 75 thousand microplastic particles. Paper cups have a layer of plastic that leach microplastics when they contact hot liquids. You can find microplastics in many foods such as salt, branded milk, and tea from teabags such as nylon, paper and PET plastic tea bags. We encourage that tea consumers ensure their tea is bagged in PLA bags that are fabric and contain no plastic. 

 

Summary: Plastics are not safe due to their components and additives, such as Bisphenol-A (BPA) and Phthalates. Also, plastics leach out small microplastic particles that induce many health risks. 

 

What are the health concerns associated with plastics?

Much scientific research has revealed the adverse health outcomes associated with plastic usage in humans. Much of this research is conducted using laboratory animals which limits the true scope of its true harm to humans. 

 

-Male infertility

Higher usage of plastics are thought to increase the risks of infertility in males. According to this study, microplastics and plasticizers induce male infertility through: 

  • Alteration of spermatogenesis and steroid biosynthesis
  • Increasing death of germ and Sertoli cells
  • Reduction of sperm and semen quality in terms of motility, morphology, and concentration
  • Development of abnormal sperm tail morphology
  • Decrease in antioxidant levels, thus increasing oxidative stress and sperm DNA damage

-Female infertility

As in males, higher usage of plastics is thought to increase the risks of infertility in females as well. According to this research, BPA would negatively impact female reproduction by

  • Alteration of oviduct morphology and gene expression that may impair the conceptus from moving to the uterus from the oviduct
  • Impairment of fetal implantation
  • Alteration of uterine morphology and function
  • Increasing oxidative stress and ovarian cell death

-Endocrine disruption

Plastic components, especially BPA and phthalates, cause disruption in the endocrine system. This study states that plastic parts disrupt thyroid hormones and pituitary function, thus affecting neurological and reproductive functions. 

 

-Other health concerns:

Plastic usage could increase the risk of developing the following diseases

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Type-2 diabetes
  • Liver enzymes disruption

Summary: High plastic usage could increase the risk of developing infertility for both males and females, endocrine disruption, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and alteration of liver enzymes

 

How to reduce plastic usage? 

If you are considering reducing your use of plastics and their harmful effects:

  • Take a reusable bag (cloth, string, or wicker) when going shopping instead of using plastic bags.
  • Limit using single-use plastics such as plates, straws, and cutlery.
  • Limit buying foods or drinks in disposable containers; instead, go for purchasing bulk food.
  • Opt for bamboo or glass or containers instead of plastic Tupperware.
  • Wear natural fabrics and avoid using cosmetics that contain any plastic components.
  • Avoid having hot drinks in paper cups. Instead, ask for a glass cup, or keep a reusable glass cup in your bag to drink your hot beverage.

Summary: Consider alternatives that replace your daily plastic use. Avoid paper cups, reusable bags, and single-use plastics. Before purchasing cosmetics, look at the label to ensure it does not contain plastic components.

 

 

References

  1. (D’Angelo &Meccariello, 2021) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7967748/
  2. (Thompson et al., 2009) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873021/
  3. (Talsness et al., 2009) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19528057/
  4. (Lang et al., 2008) https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/182571
  5. (Rahman et al., 2015) https://www.nature.com/articles/srep09169#Sec1
  6. (Senathirajah et al., 2021) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33130380/
  7. (Ziv-Gal & Flaws, 2017) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5026908/
  8. “Plastic and Human Health: A Lifecycle Approach to Plastic Pollution.” Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), https://www.ciel.org/project-update/plastic-and-human-health-a-lifecycle-approach-to-plastic-pollution/
  9. “Phthalates Factsheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 5 April 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/Phthalates_FactSheet.html
  10. “HOW TO REDUCE YOUR PLASTIC CONSUMPTION.” Iberdrola, https://www.iberdrola.com/sustainability/how-to-reduce-plastic-use Grey, Heather. “Here’s What to Know About Microplastics and Your Health.” Healthline, 13 June 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health-news/how-dangerous-are-microplastics-to-your-health
Thu, Feb 03, 22
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