Plastic is one of the most widely used and recognized materials today. Since its mass production in the 1950’s, plastics have been produced in abundance around the world. Plastics are preferred for their physical properties of being flexible and durable, while also being cost efficient. Despite the many positive benefits that plastics offers, the negative impact of plastics has become a global problem that is effecting many scopes of human life and our environment.
Plastic is not sustainable at its current usage. Plastic as packaging and as single-use products are often thrown away in less than a year after being manufactured. (Hopewell, et al. 2009) This waste has been rapidly accumulating worldwide, consistently being dumped, without thought, on land and in waterways.
Humans are inevitably exposed to plastic pollution in a variety of ways because of the careless continual methods in which plastics are disposed of at the end of their life cycle. The various chemical additives in plastics have a strong tendency to leach in whatever environment that they are discarded in. These chemicals expose humans to harmful toxins which have been linked to adverse health issues. Chemical exposure from plastics can be ingested by food and water, inhaled through air contamination, and even by transdermal contact. Plastics do not naturally degrade to a great extent. So, chemicals leaching from the plastics can easily contaminate soil and enter waterways via landfills.
Two particular chemicals have become infamous as harmful plastic toxins are Phthalates and Bisphenol-A.
It is estimated that 11 billion pounds of phthalates are produced worldwide every year. (Mankidy, Wiseman et al. 2013) Several million tons of phthalates are used annually in the world as plasticizers for the manufacture of plastics and other products. (Christova-Bagdassarian, 2014) Phthalates are not chemically bonded to plastics derived of them and can therefore easily leach into the environment around them. The most important plasticizers are DEHP, DINP and DIDP, which according to data from 2003 accounted over 75% of total European phthalates consumption and exceed the amount of 1 million tonnes. Other common phthalates are DMP, DEP, DiBP, DnBP and BBP. (Christova-Bagdassarian, 2014)
Phthalates have many applications. “Phthalates, which are esters of phthalic acid are primarily used to enhance plasticity of industrial polymers. They are used in a number of consumer end products such as toys, paints, adhesives, lubricants, packaging and building materials, personal care items, electronics, medical devices, and are an unavoidable part of modern life. (Mankidy, Wiseman et al. 2013) The most commonly used phthalate is DEHP, mainly for softening and increasing the flexibility of PVC for medical devices (tubing and packages for intravenous transfusions), food packaging items for bath, some floor and wall coverings. (Christova-Bagdassarian, 2014)
Bisphenol-A, or BPA has an estimated production of 5.5 million metric tons yearly. (Rochester 2013) “Thus, over 100 t of BPA are released into the atmosphere every year of production (Rezg, El-Fazaa et al. 2014) “BPA has been used in many consumer products, including plastics (as a polymer, i.e. polycarbonate[#7] plastic), PVC, food packaging, dental sealants, and thermal receipts. Humans are exposed to BPA through their diet, inhalation of household dust, and dermal exposure.” (Rochester 2013)
Even purchasing food items packaged in plastic can contribute to human exposure through the leaching of the chemicals from the plastic into the food. When heated or exposed to radiation, the chemicals in the plastic can start to leach. “When food packaging is sanitized, for example, using gamma radiation or ethylene oxide, chemicals can leach into foods. Gamma radiation is known to break down the carbon-chlorine bonds of polyvinyl chloride plastics and some plastic additives. These by-products of the breakdown process then might migrate into food.” (Chemical Migration & Package Leaching. May 2010;:1-11. Available from: Food Science Source, Ipswich, MA.)
Even daily interactions such as touching receipt paper can allow transdermal absorption of BPA through human skin. “In most cases, the total amount of BPA on the receipt was at least one thousand times the amount found in the epoxy lining of a food can, another controversial use of the chemical.”(Lu, Chang et al. 2013) “BPA exists in thermal papers as a monomer without chemical bonds, which enhances its absorptivity into the human skin when people come in contact with thermal papers. Nowadays, people contact cash register receipts frequently in their daily life, so it is important to estimate the exposure risk to BPA, especially for certain categories of people (e.g. cashier) who handle receipts frequently.” (Lu, Chang et al.)