Scientists warn toxic plastic chemicals a ‘stealth threat’ to human and planetary health

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Key Points
  • Chemicals used to produce plastic are harming human health.
  • A newly formed commission wants a cap on plastic produced from fossil fuels.
  • It’s also seeking a ban on the harmful chemicals used to make plastic.
A global coalition of scientists and other experts say the human race is swimming in a toxic soup of chemicals used to make plastics, with potentially dire consequences for humanity.
A landmark analysis has just been published by almost 50 internationally-renowned experts, including scientists focused on public and environmental health.

They say plastic is doing untold harm to humanity from the time fossil fuels are mined to make it, to its breakdown into fine particles and chemical residues that invade the air, water, and the bodies of humans and other living things.

It details a growing body of research pointing to serious human health effects ranging from increased cancer risks, reproductive problems, endocrine disruption, heart and kidney disease, and lower IQs in exposed children.
The newly formed Minderoo-Monaco Commission, which produced the analysis, hopes its work will inform the development of a legally-binding treaty on plastic being pursued under the banner of the United Nations.
The commission wants a cap on and a ban on the harmful chemicals used to make it.
One of the authors is Philip Landrigan from the Global Observatory on Planetary Health at Boston College. The paediatrician’s work helped spur bans on and leaded fuel because of toxic impacts on humans.
He is astounded there is no legal obligation for plastics producers to provide details about what chemicals they use to make some plastics and their potential toxicity.

“If there were warnings on plastic products stating that their usage could lead to attention deficit disorders, and IQ loss, most consumers would think twice before exposing their children to their production, use, and disposal,” Dr Landrigan said.

“But, this is the uncomfortable truth about many chemicals used in plastics, which are especially dangerous for infants in the womb, young children, and pregnant women and can no longer be ignored.”
Australian expert and co-author Professor Sarah Dunlop leads research on plastics and human health at the Minderoo Foundation — mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s philanthropic organisation.
Professor Dunlop said it’s the first attempt to quantify the damage done to the planet and humans by plastic, across its entire life cycle from fossil fuel exploitation, to production, use, and disposal.

She said about 10,500 chemicals are used to make plastic and at least 1,200 are considered highly hazardous.

“They are persistent, they bioaccumulate as they go up the food chain. And they are toxic. That means they could be carcinogenic, they could have reproductive toxicity, or endocrine disruption as well.”
“About 4,000 – we have no idea what the harms are. None. (The others) are of low to medium concern.”
She said it’s a “flying blind” approach that would never have been accepted in an industry like pharmaceuticals where the use of chemicals is managed with extraordinary care.
The analysis calls plastics a “stealth threat” to human and planetary health and says production is expected to treble in the next three decades as the fossil fuel industry pivots away from energy production because of .
“In 2014, about 4 per cent of fossil fuel was used to make plastic. That’s predicted to go up to 20 per cent,” Professor Dunlop said.
“They are talking something like 34 gigatonnes by 2050. One gigatonne is equivalent to 10,000 fully loaded US aircraft carrier ships.
“The sorts of harms we’ve seen in this commission are extremely serious from just four per cent. What’s it going to look like if we ramp it up to 20?”

The analysis has been published in the peer-reviewed online journal, Annals of Global Health, and has also been released in Monaco, at the launch of the Minderoo-Monaco Commission on plastics and human health.

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