Consumerism’s Harms: How Plastic Is Silently Destroying Our Health


Consumerism and plastic come hand-in-hand. The rise of plastic production resulted in the rise of consumerism because plastic allowed industries to produce more goods at a mass scale; and the other way round: the rise of consumerism prompted a rise in plastic production (increased consumer demand for goods meant that firms need to produce more to satisfy it).



It is no surprise that, over the course of the past decades, plastic has risen as one of the most widely used materials in the world. Thanks to its broad applicability, relatively cheap production process, relatively lightweight, durability, and ability to be modeled into the desired shape and size, plastic began to dominate virtually every manufacturing sector, from automobile manufacturing to utensils, furniture, and kids’ toys. Wherever we look, we see plastic. But behind its towering grandeur exists a long and dark shadow.

This article is part two of my “Consumerism and Its Discontents” series. (Check on the first part here.) Today we are discussing yet another unconventional side of consumerism: the detrimental effects that plastic has on our physical health. The problem lies in plastic’s chemical composition, as well as its ability to easily enter the human body through touch, ingestion, and inhalation. While we may not be aware of it, plastic and its chemicals exist within our bodies, and we absorb more and more of them every single day in various ways (through food, water, the air, beauty products, etc.). According to Plastic Oceans, an international non-for-profit organization dedicated to ending plastic pollution, the average person ingests about 5 grams of plastic per week (the equivalent of the amount of plastic making up one credit card), 21 grams per month (the equivalent of eating one lego brick) 250 grams a year, 2.5 kg every ten years (the equivalent of one lifesaving ring), and a whopping 40 pounds of plastic in a lifetime!

But how does all this plastic enter our body in the first place? Plastic, as we all know, can take centuries to decompose, and instead of doing so, it breaks down into tiny pieces known as micro-plastics, or into even smaller ones - nano plastics. Microplastics are found virtually everywhere in the environment: waterways, soil, fish, the oceans, clothing, commercial goods, bottled water, and even inside our own bodies. Rolf Halden, director of the Arizona State University Biodesign Centre of Environmental Health Engineering, states that microplastics have been found in almost every human organ. Microplastics can be ingested with food, swallowed with water, and inhaled from the air. According to research conducted by Orb Media at the State University of New York, 93% of the eleven water brands that were sampled showed traces of microplastics, with 325 being the average number of microplastics per litre of water. One of the samples brands, Nestle Pure Life, was shown to contain a record number of 10,390 microplastics per liter. Significant quantities of other, much smaller particles were also detected, which researchers believe to also be plastic (likely nano plastics). The global mean for these particles is a surprising 324.6 per litre of water. (Orb Media) Additionally, the World Health Organisation announced back in 2018 that 90% of water bottles that were tested contained microplastics; only 17 of the 259 investigated bottles contained zero microplastics. (World Health Organisation)

Microplastics can become absorbed by fruits and vegetables through contaminated soil and water; according to research conducted by the University of Catania, Italy, microplastics exist in abundant quantities in lettuce, carrots, pears, and apples. Apples, being the most contaminated fruit, were found to contain a whopping 195,000 of these tiny plastic particles per gram. Broccoli and carrots were revealed to be the most contaminated vegetables, with the mean number of microplastics per gram being 100,000. Other studies have found that microplastics are capable of entering the roots of wheat and lettuce plants, while nano plastics can be absorbed by the plants’ roots. (Greenpeace) Additionally, microplastics can also easily be inhaled. According to research done by Janice Brahney (an environmental scientist at Utah State University), there are about 1,100 tons of microplastics found in the atmosphere above the Western region of the United States. (Livescience) In fact, according to Professor Anoop Jivan Chauhan MBE of Portsmouth Hospital’s University NHS Trust, “we can inhale or swallow up to 1.8 million microplastics every year.” (Ecotextile) Microplastics can also enter our body through the clothes that we wear, absorbing via our skin’s pores thanks to the fabric, especially if it is polyester. In fact, our skin is capable of absorbing up to 60% of what it is in direct contact with, whether it is a piece of clothing containing microplastics, or a skincare product containing chemicals that have leached from its plastic container. (Repurpose Global)

This leads us to our next point. Chemicals found in plastic — BPA, DBP, and DEHP—can easily enter our body via our skin’s pores when a plastic object is scratched, heated or handled. They can also leach from the plastic container into the container’s contents (a drink, skincare product, etc), which are then drank or applied onto the skin. (Go Pure) BPA is found in many plastic goods, as well as dental fillings and even ink used in printing. These chemicals act as endocrine disruptors, altering the body’s production of hormones, reproductive health, and increasing the risk of cancer. (BreastCancer.org) When absorbed, BPA mimics the hormone oestrogen, thus increasing its levels in both men and women. This is a common issue that affects many people in today’s world: higher-than-normal levels of oestrogen are associated with “adverse consequences on female and male reproductive health, thyroid function, metabolic alterations, brain development/function, immune responses, and development of cancers in hormone-sensitive tissues.” (Darbre, 2020) Both BPA and DEHP are considered carcinogens (substances with the potential to cause cancer). Endocrine disruptors in plastic can also cause diabetes and “neurological impairments of developing fetuses and children.” (endocrine.org) The rise of consumerism meant that more and more plastic is used for the production of commercial goods, and therefore, more and more of it enters our bodies and affects our health.

However, endocrine disruptors are not the only harms of plastic, since micro and nano-plastics have been found to negatively impact our health from a physical perspective, too. The good news is that 90% of all microplastics in our body are likely to be successfully eliminated from our system, yet the remaining 10% still have the potential to affect us. According to Jean-Baptiste Fleury of the University of Saarland in Germany, microplastics have been found to induce oxidative stress on human cells. Nano plastics may be dangerous due to their physical form, too; a study published in Scientific Reports by Professor Chandrasekaran showed that nano plastics may ‘accumulate’ in blood and prevent the successful flow of blood and other body fluids. (Firstpost) Microplastics may also ‘find a home’ in our intestinal walls and even travel through our lymphatic system and enter our hepatic portal vein, which, subsequently, transports blood from the gallbladder, pancreas, intestines, and spleen to the liver. (Orb Media)

These statistics may be difficult to comprehend and assess, but I believe that regardless of whether the truth is pleasant or not, it must be known. I believe that knowledge is, indeed, power; knowing about the potential risks associated with plastic use provides us with the opportunity to make wise consumer decisions. It is not necessary to completely abandon your use of plastic; instead, focus on limiting your use of unnecessary single-use plastic. Whenever possible, use paper or cotton shopping bags, aim to buy fresh produce, rather than fruits and vegetables that are wrapped or packaged in an unsustainable way. Avoid using unnecessary beauty or skincare products, and instead, invest in products from sustainable brands that use natural ingredients and non-plastic containers.

Stay healthy, mindful, and positive!

(To be continued…)




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About the author:

I am a 19-year old girl living on the sunny island of Cyprus! I am currently on a gap year and work in digital marketing. I love everything that has to do with the social sciences and the environment; I organize community clean ups each week and will be studying economics and/or psychology in college!



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Instagram: @toki.suke

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#refuse #recycling #plasticfreeoceans #plasticfree #environmentfriendly #plasticsucks #plasticpollution #plasticwaste #health #microplastics

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