Plastic causes illness and death across its lifecycle, from production to use and disposal, a team of nearly 50 scientists concludes in a report made public Tuesday.
The risk can come from being near oil and gas extraction, working in plastic manufacturing plants or living near them, eating food heated in plastic packaging or breathing the air near incinerators where plastic waste gets burned as trash.
The report was produced by the Minderoo-Monoco Commission on Human Health, a body of scientists assembled by the Australian-based Minderoo Foundation, and published by Annals of Global Health, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
The commission concluded that global plastic production, use and disposal patterns are responsible for significant harm to human health, the environment and the economy, and are causing deep societal injustices, particularly to children. It recommended establishing health-protective standards for plastic chemicals under a United Nations plastics treaty that’s being negotiated now, and a cap on plastic production, which is otherwise expected to triple by 2060.
The report is the latest by scientists who have documented the ubiquitous nature of plastic in the world, and the environmental consequences.
Plastic waste and microplastic particles have been found on the highest mountaintops and in ocean trenches; in the stomachs of whales and other marine mammals, and in our bodies, leading to mounting concerns about what all that plastic might be doing to the planet, wildlife and people.
The commission’s focus on health accentuates those concerns, especially as they relate to a debate over how plastic affects human health.
A lead author of the report, Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, a pediatrician, epidemiologist and director of Boston College’s Global Public Health Program and Global Observatory on Planetary Health, said the debate is largely resolved.
“The level of scientific certainty is absolute,” he said. “There are still details to be worked out about the exact magnitude, but there is no doubt whatsoever that plastic causes disease, disability, premature death, economic damage and damage to ecosystems at every stage of its life cycle. And the life cycle begins with the extraction of the oil, the coal, and the gas that are the building blocks for 98 to 99 percent of plastics.”
Landigran has been studying the health effects of environmental pollutants for decades and worked on the first studies that linked the dangers of lead exposure to children.
He was also a pioneer in defining children’s unique susceptibilities to pesticides and other toxic chemicals and, while at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, was centrally involved in the medical and epidemiologic studies that followed the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and health impacts to thousands of rescue workers.
In recent years, Landrigan has turned his attention to plastic. The commission, he said, is an offshoot from work he did on human health and ocean pollution with the Scientific Center of Monaco, a partner in the new plastics report, along with Boston College and the Minderoo Foundation. The commission included health experts, biological oceanographers and environmental scientists who collaborated to quantify plastic’s risks to all life on earth.
Among the commission’s key findings:
- Plastic causes disease, impairment and premature mortality at every stage of its life cycle, with the health repercussions disproportionately affecting vulnerable, low-income and minority communities, particularly children.
- Toxic chemicals added to plastic and routinely detected in people are known to increase the risk of miscarriage, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancers.
- Plastic waste is ubiquitous and the ocean, on which people depend for oxygen, food and livelihoods, is “suffering beyond measure, with micro- and nano plastics particles contaminating the water and the sea floor and entering the marine food chain.”
“It is not ethical to deliberately expose humans to toxic chemicals,” said Sarah Dunlop, co-author and head of plastics and human health at the Minderoo Foundation, based in Nedlands, a suburb of Perth in Western Australia. “And yet, that’s what’s happening every day of our lives. These chemicals are being detected in our blood, our urine, our amniotic fluid, you name it, because the chemicals leach out of the plastic.”
In February, the foundation released a report that concluded that despite rising consumer awareness, corporate attention and regulation, there is more single-use plastic waste than ever before—an additional 6 million metric tons generated in 2021 compared to 2019 and still almost entirely made from fossil fuels.
Toxic Chemicals With Our Fast Food
The report synthesizes the state of scientific knowledge on plastics and health, citing scores of research references. It includes a new calculation that health-related losses from plastics production exceeded $250 billion globally in 2015. In the United States alone, health costs of disease and disability caused by certain chemicals used to make plastic likely exceeded $920 billion in 2015, the report found.
Plastic production released nearly 2 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually, which would amount to a single-year cost of $341 billion, according to the report. In all, plastic accounts for as much as 5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions across its lifecycle, equivalent to emissions from Russia, making it a large-scale contributor to climate change, according to the report.
The report stands in sharp contrast to how the chemical and plastics industry describes plastics in society. Rather than a scourge, the industry touts oil and gas development as a source of jobs and energy independence, plastics production as means of economic development and plastic products as a social and personal benefit of modern society.
Plastics keep food fresh and safe to eat and reduce food waste and the waste’s methane emissions, industry representatives say. They say that plastics make shipping materials, cars and trucks lighter so they use less fuel, and they note that plastics are widely used in the health care system.
The industry and trade groups also argue that they are working to end plastic pollution through so-called “advanced recycling” techniques—still largely unproven—that use heat and chemicals to turn plastic waste into fossil fuels and other feedstocks to produce new plastic products.
“We don’t have to get rid of all plastics,” Landrigan said. “I mean, I am a medical doctor. I use IV bags. I use endoscopes. A lot of plastics are essential. But why does 40 percent of current production have to be single-use plastic stuff we use and throw away?”
In an interview, Landrigan sketched out the life cycle of health risks.
One example, he said, is the recent train derailment and disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, which required burning off carcinogenic vinyl chloride from five train cars and produced a huge fire and cloud of toxic smoke. The chemical is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.
Workers exposed to some of the thousands of chemicals used to make plastic are also at risk, as well as communities near manufacturing plants, he said.
“Think about the little kid chewing on the rubber ducky, and swallowing the phthalates that squeeze out of the rubber ducky,” Landrigan said, referring to chemicals used to make plastic more durable. Phthalates are endocrine disrupters that can mimic or block hormones, with potentially serious consequences, studies have shown.
Plastic waste is often dumped in landfills or incinerated—only 9 percent of it is actually recycled and used again—and a large amount of the waste gets shipped overseas “to countries that are least equipped to deal with it,” Landrigan said.
The report cited research that found that pregnant women living in homes with PVC flooring have significantly higher urinary levels of some metabolites of phthalate than pregnant women living in homes made with other flooring materials. That signals greater phthalate exposure.
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The report cited other research that showed fast food served at high temperatures in plastic packaging enables harmful chemicals to migrate into the food. One study found that many popular fast foods contain an abundance of the kinds of phthalates that can increase risk of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, and impair fertility.
“Individuals who frequently consume high-fat, high-salt fast-food meals are especially vulnerable to such plasticizer exposures, including lower-income minority communities living in food deserts with limited healthy food options,” the report found.
In all, more than 10,000 chemicals are used to make plastic products and little is known about the health effects of most of them, Dunlop said.
“We as scientists are always playing ‘Whack a Mole,’ trying to catch up with the next chemicals,” Dunlop said.
The report’s findings, she said, “put us on an unequivocal path to demand the banning or severely restricting of unnecessary, avoidable, and problematic plastic items, many of which contain hazardous chemicals with links to horrific harm to people and the planet.”
In a forward to the report, an editor of the Annals of Global Health called the document “an extensive analysis of the plastics’ negative impact on human health and well being,” and noted that it contains “valuable sustainable solutions” for government and industries.
“This is an urgent problem that must be addressed in the worldwide agenda in parallel to climate change, as they are closely interconnected,” the editor wrote.
Lessons From Lead Poisoning
Last summer, through the United Nations Environment Program, the nations of the world agreed to work on a global treaty to tackle the problem of plastic waste. A resolution that launched the treaty talks included a broad definition of the problem to include pollution across the plastics life-cycle, from production to design to disposal.
But treaty talks, which got underway in December and will continue in June, are already marked by major divisions in scope and structure, with the United States’ position dubbed “low ambition” by critics.
The commission recommended a treaty that would ban or severely restrict the manufacture and use of unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastic items, including plastic microbeads.
The commission report also recommended that the treaty:
- make fossil carbon producers, plastic producers and the manufacturers of plastic products legally and financially responsible for the safety and end-of-life management of all the materials they produce and sell.
- mandate reductions in the chemical complexity of plastic products and include health-protective standards for plastics and plastic additives with full disclosure of all plastic components.
Sara Brosché, a science advisor to the International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN, did not review the report but agreed that “the plastics crisis is a toxic chemicals crisis.”
IPEN has issued a series of its own reports detailing the health impacts of plastic. “Virtually all plastics contain chemical additives that are released from the plastics during its production, use, recycling and disposal,” she said. “The massive increase in production of plastics we are seeing means that these exposures are also increasing. Therefore, the use of toxic chemicals in plastic must be banned globally, in addition to dramatically reducing the production of plastics.”
Landrigan has been involved in issues like the plastics crisis before.
A 2005 profile of him in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet started off this way:
“Most people don’t think of Philip Landrigan when they fill up their car with fuel, but it’s thanks to him that leaded gasoline has become outlawed almost worldwide. Along with Herb Needleman, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, Landrigan was the first to document the effects of lead poisoning on American children, which led to the US government mandating the removal of lead from gas and paint in 1976.”
On Monday, Landrigan drew a parallel between lead and plastic. The oil and gas industry is looking for new markets, he said, as cars, trucks and homes are headed toward electrification and renewable sources of energy expand.
Some 100 or 120 years ago, lead mining was a “pick and shovel” operation and not much was mined, Landrigan said. Then better equipment came along, “and all of a sudden the lead industry had a glut of lead they had to find uses for.”
They put it in paint and gasoline, “in enormous quantities,” he said.“They succeeded in polluting the whole world, damaging three or four generations of the world’s children with lead poisoning and elevating the crime rates.”
Now, he said, “the fossil fuel industry is doing the same damn thing. They’ve got a product, the traditional use is drying up. They’re pivoting and going in a different direction.”