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Image: Tom Fisk / Pexels
Image: Tom Fisk / Pexels

Fund research to get the truth on plastic and health

Jo Royle
February 7, 2024

The recent discovery of hundreds of thousands of nanoplastic particles in bottled water is profoundly worrying, yet unsurprising. From the farthest oceans, to deep inside our bodies, plastic has spread to every part of our world.

Over the past 50 years, single-use plastic has become a part of daily life for billions of people. We eat out of plastic containers, drink with plastic bottles, prepare food with plastic chopping boards and wrap our leftovers in plastic film. The ubiquity of plastic usage, from packaging to consumer products, raises alarming questions about the long-term consequences for human health.

A growing body of scientific research has found that plastic can find its way into the human body. This includes the consumption of contaminated seafood, fruits, and vegetables, the inhalation of airborne microplastic fibres, and the ingestion of microplastics through drinking water. Once in our bodies, microplastic particles have found their way into the lungs, the colon, and placenta. Research by Common Seas even found microplastics in human blood.

These plastics, now in our bodies, contain harmful chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, which have been linked to various health issues. This includes hormonal disruptions, reproductive abnormalities, and even an elevated risk of certain cancers. Yet, this research is not exhaustive. There is still an urgent need to examine blood, gut, and brain tissues to see how plastic particles accumulate. This would allow researchers to understand whether this contributes to chronic inflammation and autoimmune responses.

Plastic production is on track to triple by 2040, and along with it the risks plastic poses to human health only grow. Research provides policymakers with a foundation to introduce regulations that safeguard public health. As the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations continue this year, the international community can take decisive action and develop policies that curb the impact of plastic. This includes following the EU’s lead in banning dangerous BPA as well as enacting a global ban on harmful chemicals in plastic products.

Furthermore, understanding the impact plastic has on human health would not only ensure transparency, but allow individuals a choice in what harmful substances enter their bodies. It is these same individuals that make up the majority of the 100,000 signatures on a petition led by Common Seas, calling for the UK to issue urgent funding for more research on plastic and human health.

There is no lack of scientific will or ingenuity in this area, and the pathways to real breakthroughs are clear. However, globally, there is nowhere near enough public and private funding to ensure scientists can do this urgent explorative work. It is time the international community recognises that uncovering how plastics impact human biology is essential for developing solutions and safer alternatives to plastic.

As the plastic footprint continues to expand globally, unravelling the dangers lurking within plastic becomes not only a scientific necessity, but a crucial step towards securing a healthier and plastic-free future. The Global Plastics Treaty negotiations can act as a turning point for plastic and health. Here, governments must mandate urgent funding for the world’s scientists, to help get to the truth on plastic and its effects on the human body.

Jo Royle

Jo Royle is Chief Executive of Common Seas.

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