Impact of plastics on health

Since the first polyethylene bag was introduced in Europe in the 1960s, people's reliance on single-use plastic has been increasing at breakneck speed.

In the late 1970s, plastic bags spread to the rest of the world and were introduced en masse in the United States. The companies that began to produce and market them as a superior product to paper and cloth proliferated rapidly. Thus, by the early 1980s, plastic bags had replaced paper ones in almost all of the world's stores.

Currently, we use this type of material in practically all areas of our lives (bags, bottles, glasses, cutlery, straws, packaging, etc.) having a devastating effect on the environment.

The millions of tons of plastic thrown into our oceans each year destroy marine fauna and enter the food chain, causing incalculable damage to our own health. This is due to the fact that plastics, throughout their life cycle, begin to divide into smaller and smaller plastics, microplastics (particles that measure less than 5 millimeters in diameter), eventually invading the entire environment and especially the water.

According to recent studies, more than 100,000 marine mammals die every year from ingesting plastic, with traces of these tiny particles (microplastics) being found in their intestines. Almost 700 marine species are directly affected by our consumption habits and use of single-use plastics.

How does plastic affect our health?

Researchers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have recently conducted a study of the digestive tract of shrimp purchased in the market for human consumption. The results were alarming: 7 pieces of plastic were found in the stomach of a shrimp. But this fact is not isolated or infrequent. The scientific community has found plastic fibers, fragments and micro particles, both in freshwater and saltwater animals, both in fish farms and in animals in the wild.

Today it is known that there are more than 100 species that contain plastics in their stomachs and more than half of them are destined for food. Thus, a United Nations report on the effect of plastic on people concludes that they tend to consume small volumes of plastic. Microplastics will eventually become nanoplastics (less than 100 billionth of a meter), particles that can penetrate tissues and organs, presenting potential toxicity to people with serious consequences due to bioaccumulation.

The ingestion of microplastics by humans could cause multiple cardiovascular conditions because they promote inflammation, oxidative stress, necrosis and apoptosis, and scientists believe that they may contribute to the appearance of neurological and reproductive problems. In addition, they can also be inhaled or have contact with the skin, thus affecting the immune system and some organs such as the kidneys, liver, renal, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological and reproductive systems. Some consequences can even be diabetes, cancer, neurological damage and eye and skin irritations.

It must be taken into account that the exposure to plastic can be for different reasons, such as extraction, transportation, use, manufacturing or refining, and the same waste management as recycling.

What plastics should be avoided?

Many of the plastics we consume today contain Bisphenol A, a material that causes hormonal disorders related to autism, birth defects and reproductive problems. Hence the need to verify the plastics that are used and avoid any that contain BPA, especially in feeding bottles and baby cups that usually use this component.

A very useful way to know which plastics to avoid is to check the number that appears in the recycling triangle. Thus, the plastics that we should most urgently eliminate from our routine are the following:

  • Number 3 – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Contains Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), an endocrine disruptor and possible carcinogen.
  • Number 6 – Polystyrene (PS): Styrofoam can leach styrene, another endocrine disruptor and probable carcinogen into food.
  • Number 7 – Polycarbonate: Contains BPA.

How to reduce the impact of plastics on health?

Taking into account that completely eliminating the use of plastic in daily life is practically impossible, we can (beyond recycling and avoiding products packaged in plastic) incorporate a series of habits and good practices such as the following:

  • Use glass bottles for water instead of plastic bottles.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day to expel toxins through the kidneys.
  • Store food in glass containers.
  • Do not put plastic containers in the microwave.
  • Replace plastic straws with paper ones.
  • Avoid items that contain bisphenol A.
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