The world is under plastic pollution crisis which is harmful to not just environment but also to us in ways we cannot imagine. Every step in life cycle of plastic negatively affects different areas including human health and rights. This article aims to shed light on the harmful effects of plastic on human health and the environment.

Do you know: Every year about 8 million metric tons plastic is discarded. All this ends up in the oceans disrupting the natural ecosystem, affects the habitats and processes.

5 Harmful Effects of Plastic on Human Health and Environment

Shocking Fact: World’s polymer production has increased from 2 million tons during the 1950s to 9.5 billion tons recorded in 2019 as per Our World in Data. This results in 22 times the weight of plastic per human.

Now let us understand in detail how plastic pollution affects humans.

1. Toxic Chemical Exposure and Endocrine Disruptions

Plastic pollution brings an array of highly toxic industrial chemicals including endocrine disruptors (EDCs). They include:

  • BPA, dioxins, heavy metals and phthalates
  • Flame retardants and UV-stabilizers
  • Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
Harmful Effects of Plastic on Human Health and environment

These lipid-soluble chemicals can stay and affect our body throughout life. Food and beverage microbiological contamination happens as plastic containers are used while transporting or heating up food items. It is shocking how this affects our health in different ways based on the following factors:

  • Type and amount of contaminant
  • How long someone is exposed to it
  • Age, vulnerability, gender and hereditary factors

Cross-Reference: Plastics, EDCs & Health

2. Dioxins Consumption and Severe Complications

Over 2 billion people around our world today lack quality waste management services and therefore turn to plastics burning as means disposal. Burning plastic releases dioxins too, some of the most dangerous of them and their effects are as follows:

Dioxins ReleasedAbout itAffects
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs)Hazardous chemical and a type of pollutantContaminate the crops, water and food we eat.
Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (2,3,7,8 – TCDD)Carcinogenic to humansNeurological disorders, affects the reproductive, thyroid, and respiratory system.
PolystyreneBelieved to be a carcinogenHarmful effects to the brain, the spinal cord and the sensory organs

Cross-Reference: Burning plastic can affect air quality, public health

Here’s a table listing the diseases and their sources.

CancerCarcinogenBPA, phthalates, polyvinyl chloride and polystyrenePackaging, Food wrap, Containers, Toys, Water pipes, Paints, Surgical Gloves, Breathing Tubes, Disposable utensils
Endocrine disorderEndocrine disruptorsBPA, phthalates, and other plasticizersPolycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, food packaging, toys, nail polish, hair spray, aftershave lotion, cleanser, shampoo
Birth defectDevelopmental toxicantBPA, phthalates, and other plasticizersConveyor belts, jar lids, tubes storing food, gloves, packaging, storage, IV tubing, IV fluid/total parenteral nutrition bags, catheters
Respiratory diseaseIrritantDioxins, furans, Polypropylene Nanoplastics and Polystyrene MicroplasticsWaste incineration, metals smelting and refining, chemical manufacturing, biological and photochemical processes, herbicide production, paper bleaching and wildfires
AsthmaAllergenBPA, diethyl phthalate (DEP), butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP)Packaging, Food wrap, Containers, perfumes, lotions, and cosmetics
Cardiovascular diseaseInflammatory agentBPA, di(2- ethylhexyl) phthalateToys, vinyl upholstery, shower curtains, adhesives, coatings, inks, pesticides, cosmetics, and vacuum pump oil
OsteoporosisEndocrine disruptorPhthalates, Per- and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)Stain- and water-resistant fabrics and carpeting, cleaning products, paints, and fire-fighting foams
Toxic metal poisoningHeavy metalCadmium, mercury, and leadUsed as additives plasticizers, stabilizers, pigments for color, fillers and extenders, flame retardants, blowing agents, antioxidants, impact modifiers, lubricants, and antimicrobial agents
NeuropathyNeurotoxicantDimethylamino Propionitrile (DMAP), OrganophosphatesProduction of polyurethane foam, used in manufacture of plastic
Skin diseaseDermatotoxicantPolyvinyl ChlorideItems for food storage, wrapping, personal care, beauty, nursery, flooring, infant, bathroom, play, plumbing, gardening, car, and pool

Cross-Reference: Diseases Caused by Plastic

Effects of Plastic Pollution on Environment

Petrochemical polymers do not degrade easily through natural processes because microbes cannot digest them. They gradually accumulate primarily in the oceans and landfills. That further affects water and land ecosystems at large.

3. Marine Pollution and Animals Death

harmful effects of plastic on environment - Marine Pollution and Animals Death
Underwater concept of global problem with plastic rubbish floating in the oceans. Hawksbill turtle in caption of plastic bag

The ocean can be an ideal transporter of invasive species, pathogens and toxins from plastics that would do harm to the ecosystem if they succeed to dominate the native species. Find more about causes and effects of water pollution.

The US Department of the Interior report indicates that plastic makes up 80% of all marine waste from the surface water to the bottom sediments in the deep sea.

Another research study concludes that in 2010 an estimated 275 million metric tons (MT) plastic waste was generated from coastal countries and 4.8 to 12.7 million MT of it ended up in the oceans. This figure could jump up by tenfold by 2025.

The dangerous effects of plastic pollution on marine environment are:

  • It entangles or traps mammals, fish, and even seabirds.
  • Plastic is lethal for corals, sponges and different invertebrates as it breaks, covers or infects them.
  • It suffocates them leading to starvation and drowning, leading to death.
  • Those who are saved or rescued suffer from wounds and infections. This also takes their lives at some point if not treated well.

Cross-Reference: The plastic pollution crisis

Shocking Fact: Around 100 million marine animals lose their lives annually due to plastic waste alone.

In another study, threat of plastic pollution to seabirds researchers mentioned out of 135 seabird species (around 59%) out of 80 had eaten plastic. This number could go up to 99% by 2050. The plastic consumed by them remains in their digestive system and transforms into a sticky material. Thus, further leading to various severe health issues like:

  • Internal organ damage
  • Blockages and reduced appetite
  • Malnutrition and starvation

4. Microplastics in Air

Little did we know that not just oceans but microplastics are degrading the air we breathe too. Yes, these tiny pieces that are less than 5 millimetres long are suffocating us, leading to severe diseases.

Do you know: A report by the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, concluded the presence of microplastics in Antarctic snow.

A research team in London, England, twice a week collected air samples from the top of a 9-story building for a month. They concluded that per square meter of air contains 575 to 1008 microplastics.

Based on a study called Toxic Pollutants from Plastic Waste- A Review, plastic forms about 12% of most municipal solid waste, and a maximum of 40% of the world’s waste when burned. These gases are poisonous to plants, animals, and humans. Dioxins, furans, mercury and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are some of these gases that when inhaled lead to various diseases and disorders.

Cross-Reference: Microplastics and nanoplastics in the atmosphere

5. Soil Contamination

Harmful effects of plastic pollution on soil
Pollution soil problem concept, bury plastic bag and bottle

Plastic enters soils through different routes such as sewage, compost, landfills, and litter. Sewage sludge is a residue from wastewater treatment that contains plastic particles broken from clothing fibers. It is considered to have good organic matter and nutrients, thus used as fertilizer or soil improver. But this practice is adding tons of microplastics to the soil annually.

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Other ways in which plastic affects soil are:

Shocking Fact: According to research conducted by Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), quantity of microplastics in soil is way more than that found in oceans, ranging 4 to 23 times higher.

Cross-Reference: How tiny plastic particles are polluting our soil

Let’s watch a quick interactive video to summarize the content we came across today.

So, it is clear that harmful effects of plastic on human health and the environment are alarming and serious. Yes, things are getting worse with each passing month and year. We should reduce plastic usage as much as possible but the government should also follow a circular economy model to limit the waste. Together we can create a better atmosphere for everyone.

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Olivia is committed to green energy and works to help ensure our planet's long-term habitability. She takes part in environmental conservation by recycling and avoiding single-use plastic.

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