That the United Nations chose #BeatPlasticPollution as the theme for its annual World Environment Day in 2018 serves as testimony to the urgency with which populations en masse must realise that “our planet is drowning in plastic pollution”.
Much of the discussion this year is focussed on how the human use of plastic, in just about six decades, has choked water bodies and marine life across the globe. However, Head of UN Environment Erik Solheim, in his letter a day ahead of World Environment Day, brought attention back to the health hazards posed to humans by our “dependency” on plastic.
“While we are acutely aware of the alarming rising tide of plastic waste, there is not a great deal known about the long-term health impacts of this pollution crisis. Our addiction to convenience has placed it everywhere: leaching into food from kitchens, restaurants, and supermarkets,” wrote Solheim.
Governments around the world are working to outlaw the use of plastic. Several conscientious individuals and commercial establishments are taking steps to replace commonly used plastic items for food purposes with sustainable alternatives. While some choose to go green for environment-friendly reasons, others go organic for the toxic risks that materials like plastic bring along.
A quick look around will tell you that the food we eat is the most commonly in contact with plastic. Solheim, in his letter, introduced “food contact materials” back in the discourse, the dangers of which, he said, have been highlighted by a team of environmental scientists in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. According to the research, said Solheim, “Food contact materials contain a total of over 4,000 chemical substances.”
Research from the past and ongoing research have continually indicated that chronic exposure to even low levels of certain chemicals from plastic could be behind several medical conditions in humans. “The chemicals causing the most disquiet,” pointed out Solheim, “have been bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.”
If all the environment talk hasn't convinced you to #UnPlastic yet, here's a quick look at BPA and PVC -- the top two culprits found in plastic items -- and how they sneak into your food and where they are most commonly found.
Bisphenol A aka BPA
While most plastic products you see around you will now be BPA-free, this is the chemical of maximum concern. Said to be widely used in the manufacture of a variety of plastic products, when it finds its way into our body, it is shown to “mimic the structure and function of the estrogen hormone”, found researchers at the University of Antwerp, Belgium in 2012. According to their study, “Due to its estrogen-like shape, BPA can bind to estrogen receptors and influence bodily processes, such as growth, cell repair, fetal development, energy levels and reproduction."
Raising an alarm against BPA, Solheim said, “Some research has indicated that BPA may disrupt hormone and reproductive systems, including abnormal penis development in men. There are also suspicions that it could contribute to diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. Some regulations have been passed to limit BPA use, particularly in baby products, and more is in the offing in the European Union, but many believe it doesn’t go far enough.”
Polyvinyl Chloride aka PVC
The third-most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer, it is said to be the most toxic type of plastic. Vinyl chloride, the chemical used to make PVC, has been described as a known carcinogen by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Some of the most commonly found plastic items around the house, particularly in the kitchen, are made of PVC — thanks to phthalates chemicals, also known as plasticizers, that give PVC its flexibility and durability. While it is a chemical that keeps plastic soft, it is also known to disrupt hormones in the human body. An extensive report on the hazards of phthalates was published in the Guardian in 2015. "We know that phthalates damage the walls of arteries by oxidative stress and they may directly damage heart cells. We think they may have an effect on cardiovascular health and that children and adolescents should have limited exposure," said Leonardo Trasande from New York University School of Medicine, lead researcher of a study of nearly 3,000 children published in the Journal of Pediatrics.
On these chemicals, Solheim said, “Recent research on phthalates found these chemicals linked to fertility problems, pregnancy complications, and other health issues.”
Heating or microwaving food stored in plastic products is the most common way for the chemicals to leach into food. Experts at Johns Hopkins University in the US have warned that heating food covered with plastic can melt the plastic on to the food, reported the Daily Mail.
The most common scenes of crime for these chemical culprits, also thanks to our daily dependency on them are food containers, plastic or cling wrap and plastic bottles.
Don't turn your back only on plastic takeaway containers from your favourite restaurant, but also the 'good quality' plastic containers that have been in use for way after signs of wear and tear appeared. Dr Thomas Zoeller, professor of biology at University of Massachusetts, told the Daily Mail, “Replace all those which have been used and washed harshly, as these are most likely to be unstable and prone to releasing BPA into the food.” The same applies to plastic bottles that have been in use for too many weeks, particularly those exposed to high temperatures -- like the one sitting around in a car -- make perfect conditions for toxins from the plastic to seep into your beverage.
To sum it up, keep your food as far away from plastic as possible. Now, you even have enough reasons to convince yourself to switch to sustainable options.
Image courtesy: Shutterstock
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