When plastic was introduced in 1869, it was advertised as being able to replace natural products like ivory and tortoiseshell in items such as jewelry, combs and buttons – so it would “no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”(1)
What a success: Plastics are versatile – they can be hard or soft, flexible or brittle, and are durable, lightweight, formable – in fact, they’re so versatile that they’ve become a vital manufacturing ingredient for nearly every existing industry. They are practically ubiquitous. And now we’re beginning to find that our relationship with plastic is not healthy. Using dwindling fossil fuels to manufacture the stuff, plastic leaches toxic chemicals into our groundwater, litters landscapes and destroys marine life. As Susan Freinkel points out in her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, it’s worth noting that discoveries of plastic’s toxic effects are being made in a world that is at least ten times more plastic than it was half a century ago. In the ’60s, an American might have used about 30 pounds of plastic a year – in 2011, 300 pounds. And we’re producing 300 million tons more every year.(2)
Plastics were marketed as “the material of the future”. And how true that is, because large polymers take practically forever to break down, so much of the plastic that has ever been manufactured is still with us, in landfills, in the plastic filled gyres found in our oceans (where the mass of plastic exceeds that of plankton sixfold) (3), and the stomachs of northern seabirds. And it will stay there for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Just as some chemicals can impact children’s bodies much more than adult bodies, Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New Republic, reminds us: “plastic totally dominates the world of the child. Children drink formula in baby bottles and water in sippy cups, eat food with plastic spoons on bright melamine trays, chew on bath books and rubber ducks, and, if they don’t do these things at your house, they’ll do them at someone else’s or at school, no matter how many notes you write or mad-housewife-ish you’re willing to appear.” (4)
There are many studies to support the belief that these plastics are changing us – but what has really changed is that the scientific understanding of how these chemicals are poisoning us has undergone a conceptual revolution – our grandchildren may see our current attitudes about living with these chemicals as being analogous to doctors in the 1950s who appeared in ads for cigarettes.
Old toxicological notions are being stood on their heads. Certainly, the old “dose makes the poison” notion, which was first expressed by Paracelsus in the 16th century and which means that a substance can only be toxic if it is present in a high enough concentration in the body – because all things are poisonous in the right amounts. He wrote: “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy”. But today scientists are finding that timing of exposure might be the critical factor – a fetus might respond to a chemical at one-hundredfold less concentration or more than in an adult, and when the chemical is taken away the body is altered for life. Another theory is known as the “developmental origins of health and disease,” or DOHaD (for more about DOHaD, click here), and it paints a picture of almost unimaginably impressionable bodies, responsive to biologically active chemicals until the third generation.(5)
New methods have been developed which have taken the guesswork out of what were once theories: for example, biomonitoring now means that scientists can actually discover the degree to which people have been exposed to poisonous stuff when in the past their conclusions were largely guesswork; and microarray profiling, which means we’re beginning to understand how tiny doses of certain chemicals switch genes on or off in harmful ways during exquisitely sensitive periods of development.
Exposure to all that plastic has a cumulative effect. Now toxicologists can see that lots of tiny doses from many different estrogen-mimicking chemicals entering the body by multiple pathways can have a big impact. “If you’re being exposed to two-hundred fifty chemicals and only thirty of them have estrogenic activity, but they’re each very low, still, thirty of them might add up to be significant,” says Jerrold Heindel, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).
Judith Shulavith asks– if we live in this plastic environment – why we’re not sicker than we are? And sicker than we used to be? “The answer is, we’re healthier in some ways and sicker in others. Medical advances mean we’re likelier than ever to survive our illnesses, but all kinds of diseases are on the rise. Childhood cancers are up 20 percent since 1975. Rates of kidney, thyroid, liver, and testicular cancers in adults have been steadily increasing. A woman’s risk of getting breast cancer has gone from one in ten in 1973 to one in eight today. Asthma rates doubled between 1980 and 1995, and have stayed level since. Autism-spectrum disorders have arguably increased tenfold over the past 15 years. According to one large study of men in Boston, testosterone levels are down to a degree that can’t be accounted for by factors such as age, smoking, and obesity. Obesity, of course, has been elevated to the status of an epidemic.”(6)
There are many ways to explain upticks in rates of any particular ailment; for starters, a better-informed populace and better tools for detecting disease mean more diagnoses. Other environmental stressors include Americans’ weirdly terrible eating habits, our sedentary lifestyle, and stress itself. But why can’t we just figure this out and come to some conclusions about certain chemicals as the cause of certain diseases? John Vandenberg, a biologist, explains the difficulty : “Well, one of the problems is that we would have to take half of the kids in the kindergarten and give them BPA and the other half not. Or expose half of the pregnant women to BPA in the doctor’s office and the other half not. And then we have to wait thirty to fifty years to see what effects this has on their development, and whether they get more prostate cancer or breast cancer. You have to wait at least until puberty to see if there is an effect on sexual maturation. Ethically, you are not going to go and feed people something if you think it harmful, and, second, you have this incredible time span to deal with.”(7)
Which diseases, exactly, have fetal origins and which chemicals have the power to sidetrack development, and how, is the goal of a giant, 21-year study of 100,000 children called the National Children’s Study (NCS), under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. However, in 2013, it was announced that the decade-old effort would undergo radical restructuring to cut costs.(8)
Meanwhile, what can you do to protect yourself and your family, since the government isn’t doing that job? I’ll have some ideas next week.
(1) Freinkel, Susan, “Plastic: Too Good to Throw Away”, The New York Times, March 17, 2011
(3) Moore, C.J., et al, “Density of Plastic Particles found in zooplankton trawls from coastal waters of Northern California to the North Pacific Central Gyre”, Algalita Marine Research Foundation
(4) Shulevitz, Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011
(7) Groopman, Jerome, “The Plastic Panic”, The New Yorker, May 31, 2010.
(8) Belli, Brita, “Changes to Children’s Study Threaten its value, experts say”, Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative; 7 March 2013