Petroleum-based plastic use is a hot button issue. It’s discussed not solely within environmental circles anymore, but has made its way into the public narrative and mainstream media coverage. This is because the cumulative impacts from decades of using plastic is becoming more apparent and harder to ignore. Plastic, like many things I talk about in this blog, poses a threat to our environment and our own health.
I want to clarify that I’m going to use the term ‘petroleum’, since that is primarily what plastic is made from, but it’s also made from coal and natural gas. These substances are cut from the same cloth – they’re carbon-based sources of energy known as fossil fuels.
What are the environmental concerns with plastic?
Plastic is made from petroleum: This is a non-renewable resource and comes with a bundle of its own environmental and health concerns. Drilling and fracking operations contribute to climate change, use massive amounts of water and energy, and produce toxic waste. Petroleum, and coal, is environmentally destructive and poses a threat to human health along its entire supply chain from extraction to disposal.
Gritty details on plastic:
— Since mass production of plastic started during the 1950s, we’ve created a total of 8.3 billion metric tons
— Of that total, 9% has been recycled & 79% sits in landfills or goes into the ocean (6.3 billion metric tons becomes waste)
— 5-12 million tons of plastic enters world’s oceans annually
— Researchers predict that by 2050 the ocean will have more plastic than fish by weight in it
Plastic doesn’t break down: Plastic takes about 400 hundred years to degrade, which means most of the plastic we’ve ever created is still around. It’s also been breaking into smaller pieces over the years. We’re just filling up our planet with plastic. And it just looks gross. Plastic trash ends up on our beaches, our forests, our parks, our sidewalks, and almost every outdoor space. It detracts from the benefits of being in a natural environment and it’s an extra burden on these ecosystems.
Plastic is hazardous to wildlife: Animals are caught in plastic containers, physically disabling them or causing growth problems. Animals also ingest pieces of plastic, which accumulates in their bellies, leading to malnutrition or simply leaving little space in their stomachs for real food. Toxic chemicals in plastic can also cause problems for animals, which I’ll address in the next section. Marine animals are one of the most vulnerable populations, as the majority of plastic waste eventually makes its way to the ocean.
What are the health concerns with plastic?
Well, as I said before, plastic is made from petroleum: While I’ve outlined environmental and health concerns separately, they aren’t really separate issues in reality. What is bad for the environment is almost always bad for human health, and vice versa. Petroleum poses a health threat all along its supply chain – extraction, production, use, and disposal.
Toxic chemicals in plastics are a major health concern for both humans and animals. These chemicals leech out of plastic and enter our bodies.
Phthalates and BBA are two well-known chemical additives in plastics that pose a threat to our health. These substances are called endocrine disrupting chemicals, which mean they mess with your hormones. The endocrine system is incredibly important for normal biological functions – it’s involved in growth, development, mood, metabolism, and sleep. Chemical that interfere with normal functioning can cause a huge range of problems including obesity, developmental problems, learning disabilities, diabetes, birth defects, and more.
Heat is a catalyst for chemical leeching, which is why you’re not supposed to use plastic containers to heat food or store hot food in plastic containers. Unfortunately, many people still don’t know this and continue to heat food in the microwave using plastic Tupperware. More concerning is using plastic bottles to feed infants warm milk – young children are especially susceptible to the effects of toxic chemicals.
Whilst the production of throwaway plastics has grown dramatically over the last 20 years, the systems to contain, control, reuse and recycle them just haven’t kept pace. (Guardian, 2017)
While the studies are limited, there does seem to be some promising evidence of certain bacteria and fungi that can actually breakdown certain forms of plastics. However, the incredible abundance of plastic creates a challenge for using these methods – can we really process all of the plastic in the world fast enough? We’re producing and discarding plastics at such an astonishing rate.
My next post will cover alternatives: this includes how you can reduce your own use and how you can work to reduce plastic in our world on a broader scale.
A couple days ago, The New York Times published a story about phthalates found in boxed mac and cheese. This morning, the NY Times article was one of the front-page pieces in the Seattle Times. This interest is driven by a recent report from the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging in which a study of 30 cheese products reveal significantly high levels of phthalates. The powdered cheese packs from boxed mac and cheese contained the highest levels, which was four times that of other cheeses tested (like block or shredded).
So, when I read this, I thought I was safe since I buy organic boxed mac and cheese. Nope. Unfortunately, phthalates were found in organic boxes as well. *sigh*
How do these chemicals get into foods? Phthalates are used in manufacturing and product packaging and leach into food during production and storage. These chemicals are lipophilic (fat liking), so they accumulate in fats, including our own bodies. Fattier foods will have higher concentrations of phthalates.
What are phthalates and why should we be concerned? Pronounced thal-eights, they are a group of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)ˆ primarily used to make plastics soft and pliable. They’re also used as solvents in fragrance and found in a variety of other products including adhesives, shampoos, lotions, cosmetics, body washes, nail polish, detergents, hair styling products, and wood finishes.
These chemicals disrupt hormone function and are linked to birth defects in male infants, endocrine cancers, developmental delays, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. Phthalates pose a significant risk to men because they target testosterone, leading to feminization, lowered sperm counts, and genital defects. The NTPˆ and EPA consider phthalates to be probable human carcinogens. Exposure to EDCs at times of heightened vulnerability during development changes how the body grows, which can have lasting health consequences, such as infertility.
If you asked most scientists about the top 10 or 20 endocrine-disrupting chemicals they worry about, phthalates would be on that list,” Dr. Patisaul said — Quote from the NY Times article
How do you avoid phthalates? Well, you’ll probably be exposed at some point without knowing it (they’re everywhere), but you can control some routes of exposure. This is especially important for pregnant women, infants, and young children. Here are some ways you can limit exposure:
Reduce your consumption of processed foods and eat fresh fruits and vegetables.
Consume low-fat dairy products, since phthalates can accumulate in fat.
Ditch the plastic: use glass, ceramic, stainless steel, and wood to store food. If you must use plastic, opt for harder polycarbonate ones and don’t use them for anything hot. Additionally, avoid microwaving food in plastic as the heat increases the leaching of chemicals.
Avoid synthetic fragrance and check your personal care products for labeled phthalates. They may also be called DEHP or DEP.
Look for personal care products labeled “phthalate-free” and choose organic, non-toxic products.
Buy products in glass bottles or jars, especially cooking oils or fatty foods like peanut butter.
Make mac and cheese from scratch!
On a broader level, what can you do? Reach out to companies and express your concern over this issue. Or you can join some of the collective action happening:
Safer chemicals, healthy families:
This petition to the Kraft Heinz Company requests they eliminate all sources of phthalates that may contaminate food.
Add your name to a message that will be sent to the Kraft Heinz Company expressing concern over the testing and asking them to eliminate sources of phthalates in all their cheese products.
This is the first post on the subject of body burdens (check the Terms and Ideas page located on the top menu of the blog). Unknown to many people, the products we use today now contain hundreds of different synthetic chemicals that are harmful to the environment and human health. Chemicals are easily absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin and can have damaging effects on internal organs and have been linked to various cancers. People get a secondary dosage through consuming contaminated food and water; communities living closer to industrial and manufacturing plants are at an even high risk of exposure due to the increased concentration of chemicals in their water. Many of these body burdens can remain in a person’s bloodstream their entire life, and in pregnant women these chemicals are transferred to their developing fetuses.
Why are these chemicals still being used?
Many people ask the question that if these chemicals are so dangerous, why are they still being used, and more importantly, how come no one is doing anything about it? As I see it, there are four main reasons that this cycle continues without changes:
They are cheaper or the only ingredient that will work.
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is flawed in regulating chemical contamination.
The FDA does not have the authority to regulate chemicals used in cosmetics, and this is connected to a lack of proper, publicly advertised health risk testing.
Lack of public awareness or activism to protest their use.
These chemicals are cheaper than their organic counterparts, or provide qualities that no organic ingredient could provide. Companies are putting their need for profits above public health. Propylene/Butylene Glycol is a cheap substitute for glycerin, or glycerol, which is an ingredient found in soap and it relatively low in toxicity. Propylene glycol has been linked to brain, liver and kidney abnormalities and is considered highly toxic by the EPA.
The EPA has been called out time and time again for not truly putting the public and environmental interests above large corporations. The EPA is an agency under the executive branch of the government, and it is up to them to interpret environmental statutes; basically they are in charge of the details of a law, which leaves a lot of flexibility. The EPA lacks the authority to enforce many regulations and requirements. One of the biggest issues that has been in the news the past few years has to do with the EPA’s regulations on water quality. The article “Clean Water Laws are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering” by Charles Duhigg, which is part of a series by the New York Times called Toxic Waters, examines water pollution caused by toxic chemicals. The article opens with the following frightening scenario, occurring right here in the United States:
Jennifer Hall-Massey knows not to drink the tap water in her home near Charleston, W.Va. In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater — polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals — caused painful rashes. Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.
The chemicals found their way into the ground as a result of near-by coal plants. The EPA and the regulations laid out in the Clean Water Act imply that things like this should not occur. Unfortunately, they do. According to the New York Times research, between 2004 and 2009, manufacturing plants and other industrial sites violated the Clean Water Act regulations over half a million times. These violations manifested as dumping toxic chemicals at high concentrations and neglecting to report emission levels. The EPA has failed to punish violators as they continue to break laws that are meant to protect public health and well-being. Under the Obama Administration and the EPA’s new administrator Lisa P. Jackson, we are hoping for change. Given the current circumstances, the environment seems to be on the back burner unfortunately. You can read this full article, which was written in 2009, but still provides much-needed insight into regulatory problems of the EPA: Clean Water Laws are Neglect, at a Cost in Suffering.
The FDA is not doing anything —- the FDA is in charge of cosmetic regulations, but they do not actually regulate what goes into cosmetics before they are released to the public. Unlike their control over food and drugs, the FDA does not have the authority to regulate what is used in cosmetics. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, approximately 89% of the ingredients/chemicals used in cosmetics are not tested officially for possible related health problems. Visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics for a more detailed explanation of the FDA’s control on cosmetic ingredients.
The last aspect of the continued use of these chemicals lies in the lack of public awareness. Most people do not think about what they put on their skin, hair, nails, etc…and assume that it is safe. At a certain point you can’t drive yourself crazy since these chemicals are so prevalent, but the public should be outraged that companies are getting away with dousing them in cancer-causing chemicals. The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting public awareness and pushing for public health and environmental laws in Washington. We NEED to push for public awareness and those who can afford it should start buying chemical-free alternatives. As consumers, we do have power through what we buy. If everyone stopped shopping at Wal-Mart, they couldn’t stay open. Unfortunately, there are too many people who refuse to pay more, or simply cannot afford to pay more, for products. It’s a vicious cycle, but I am a firm believer that slowly we can change things if we care to. If more people understood how serious these invisible toxins are when it comes to our health, I like to think that they would care more.
The following are just some of the hundreds of toxic chemical ingredients found in consumer products: (these are the main ones to AVOID)
Found in: nail polish, hair-straighteners & sprays, body lotions & deodorant; makes fragrances last longer, and plastics soft and malleable
Linked to: birth defects and reproductive disorders
Linked to: thyroid hormone disruption, learning and memory impairment, behavior alteration, hearing problems, delayed puberty, decreased sperm count, birth defects, cancer possibly
Formaldehyde (embalming fluid)
Found in: shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, liquid antiseptic hand wash, lotions, bubble bath, hair care products, deodorant, nail polish, mascara, mouthwash, make-up remover, talc, and produced in body from aspartame (which is found in diet sodas and chewing gum)
Linked to: memory loss, nervous system damage, brain damage, symptoms of fibromyalgia (this is a condition causing prolonged and chronic pain in joints, muscles, and connective tissue.
SLS and SLES (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate)
Found in: toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, face soap, body wash, bath salts, hair spray; used as a foaming agent and emulsifier
Linked to: skin and eye irritation, skin rash, hair loss, eye damage, immune system damage, death
DEA, TEA, MEA (Diethanolamine, Triethanolamine, Amonoethanolamine)
Found in: shampoos, soaps, hair spray, sunscreen, foundation, eyeliners, face powder, shaving cream, hair color, hair spray; used as an emulsifier, pH adjuster, preservative, foaming agent
Linked to: hormone disruption, cancer (liver and kidney cancer increase)
Found in: deodorant, lotion, body wash, hair conditioner, hair gel, creams, lipstick, baby wipes, windshield fluid; cheap substitute for glycerin
Linked to: brain, liver, and kidney abnormalities; EPA considers these chemicals toxic and to avoid inhalation or skin contact
PEG (Polyethelene Glycol) (Petroleum)
Found in: skincare products
Linked to: cancer, dry skin, increased aging and susceptibility to bacteria and diseases
The list goes on of chemicals to avoid, but these seem to be the most prominent ones and have received the most attention. Many of these chemicals are by-products of coal and oil, which comes back to the huge environmental issue of us being an oil and coal dependent country. If we end our dependence on fossil fuels, we eliminate the ability to create some of these chemicals. My mind immediately jumps to the question of “if these chemicals cannot be made, won’t we just find another way of making cheap and just as toxic chemicals?” The hope is that we won’t, and that through changes in legislation and energy production, we can change every aspect of society from agriculture to ingredients in our products.
I will be going into these issues further and will be exploring current policy and regulations on these chemicals.
An excellent book on this topic is called Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie
The EPA actually has a good amount of information open to the public available at www.epa.gov