Earth Matters: Plastics are invading our bodies

Earth Matters: Plastics are invading our bodies

More than 50,000 activists joined the March to End Fossil Fuels in New York City Sunday on Rosh Hashanah. A holy day for many, this gathering aimed to protect what’s sacred, to protect future lives.

The march set the tone for a week of United Nation talks where President Biden is scheduled to meet with other world leaders and discuss Sustainable Development Goals. The message from the crowd was clear, demanding Biden stop fracking for fossil fuels.

Young and old from all walks of life chanted: “Biden, where’s your urgency, it’s a climate emergency.” The emphasis was on stopping new fossil fuel projects in the pipeline (no pun intended). 

On the train into New York City I met Zach, an 11th grader at Schreiber HS in Port Washington, who when asked why he’d invest his Sunday afternoon this way quickly responded: “This is the first of many steps to a better future for us all.” He added: “In the past we’ve created a world that’s now unlivable for many.”

He isn’t going to sit at home and watch the world go up in flames without doing something about it. Zach said what woke him up to the urgency of climate action was a winter stay at Lake Placid where instead of anticipated snow hosting winter sports, they waded through water and slush all week and rivers were running off house roofs. It was unseasonably hot. And this summer was the hottest on record, with devastating human toll. What’s your wake-up moment?

I marched with the non-profit Beyond Plastics, which fights plastic pollution. It warns that plastic is the new coal because of its climate impact. If the plastic industry were a country, they’d be one of the top five polluters when measuring carbon dioxide emissions together with the USA, Russia and China. It’s clear greenhouse gas emissions are warming the climate.

Alarmingly, the fossil fuel industry is banking on plastic now that the transition toward renewables is gradually taking place. A full 99% of plastics are made from petrochemicals. We use the term “plastic” to describe thousands of materials whose fragments and microfibers will outlast us all. 

Plastics are an existential threat to all of life. Plastics aren’t natural, but completely novel and synthetic, therefore not incorporated into natural cycles. With its making we may have forever altered the chemistry of life on Earth. We’ve created materials never before encountered in the biosphere. Some scientists have even coined the term “plastisphere” to describe synthetic ecosystems observed when organisms aggregate around plastics at sea. And we’re just starting to understand the harmful effects of plastic chemical exposure.

Plastics are made from fossil fuels and chemicals. The thousands of chemical additives that give plastics their variety of properties aren’t covalently (permanently) linked to the plastic backbone, but instead migrate into the food you’re eating or the liquid you’re drinking from a plastic container in a process termed “leaching.” The public health consequences of leaching are largely unknown, but many of these chemicals are known endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and neurotoxins, potentially interfering with natural hormone cycles and normal physiology. 

Plastic doesn’t break down, but rather breaks up into a trillion micro- and nanoscopic pieces that will decorate the fossil record. Nature has no idea how to incorporate and recover these artificial chemicals. CO2 in comparison to plastic is a natural pollutant, CO2 is part of natural cycles and can be sequestered and returned to the ground.

The rising emissions warming the climate could theoretically be captured and contained if we decided to stop emitting carbon and concentrated on cleaning up our act. Unfortunately, the petrochemical industry seems to have global governments in a profit-making headlock.

We could have started the transition towards clean energy over 20 years ago, or before Zach was born. It was clear what was needed back then. He would certainly be spending his Sunday afternoon differently if we had made reasonable decisions back then. So would I. But instead we marched together as we are here on a warming polluted planet and things are worse than they’ve ever been.

While marching, a well-intentioned organizer offered me a plastic water bottle. After this gesture there was an awkward pause when I refused and she realized I was holding the Beyond Plastics sign. I kindly let her know I had my stainless steel refillable bottle with tap water in it. I’d survive a day on 26 ounce of hydration. And it got me thinking about media coverage and general education. 

I wondered why the news of harmful plastic chemicals migrating into water from plastic bottles at room temperature didn’t make headlines? Danish chemists at the University of Copenhagen warned last year that over 400 chemicals were detected in water stored overnight in popular plastic sports bottles, while after a dishwashing cycle these same bottles when left for 24 hours at room temperature leached thousands of chemicals.

How do you feel about sipping on thousands of chemicals with unknown health impact? Since microplastic exposure has been linked to obesity, perhaps headlines like “Plastics are making us fat!” would draw attention? 

The optimal pH “pure” spring water you think you’re drinking from your plastic water bottle isn’t as healthy as you assume. There are thousands of chemicals leaching from the plastic bottle into the fluid you’re hydrating with. And you’re supporting an industry that contributes to global warming and the climate crisis with it’s purchase. Tap water is your best bet for now, at least we know it’s tested and regulated.

Ensuring public access to drinkable tap water should be a priority. This means we must stop polluting our water sources, we must stop fracking. We must stop the annual production of billions of plastic water bottles. We should be transporting water to those who don’t have access to it in stainless steel containers, not plastic. 

Another important finding that didn’t make the front page recently is the discovery that microplastics are now detected in the human heart. It wasn’t surprising to find plastics in human excrements, as we knew it entered the body through food and beverages. Also, not surprising to discover plastic microfibers in human lungs as the air is polluted. But to find that plastics have been incorporated into embedded organs is a shock. The human heart is enclosed and not directly exposed to the respiratory or digestive tract. This means plastics are entering us from the environment and are migrating within us.

This finding, together with microplastics discovered in human placenta, should be enough motivation to make the habitual change away from non-essential single use plastic items starting today. The most obvious change we must make is to eliminate plastic packaging for drinks and food. The safer alternatives for single use are aluminum and paper, while refill technologies remain best for climate and for you.



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