Plastics and Human Health: A Case Study

We live in a disposable and plastic-obsessed society. But when we throw things “away” do we think about the consequences for our oceans, animals, and landscapes? What about the consequences we are inflicting upon ourselves? The global plastic problem is exponentially expanding. In January 2015, Woldwatch Institute released that “an estimated 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, representing a 4 percent increase over 2012, and confirming and upward trend over the past years.” Gianna Andrews via Ocean Legacy additionally asserts that,

In the most polluted places in the ocean, the mass of plastic exceeds the amount of plankton six times over. This is a large piece of evidence that leaves the problem of polluted oceans undeniable.”

Our tremendous attraction to plastic, coupled with an undeniable behavioral propensity of increasingly over-consuming, discarding, littering and thus polluting, has become a combination of lethal nature.


In addition to entanglement and large-scale plastic inputs, we come to an even larger issue when these plastics break down.

Micro and Nano Plastics

According to National Geographic author Carolyn Berry, scientists had previously believed that plastics broke down only at very high temperatures and over hundreds of years. The researchers behind a new study, however, found that plastic breaks down at cooler temperatures than expected, and within a year of the trash hitting the water.

These little pieces of micro and nano plastics may be small, but present unfortunate and vast threats to marine ecosystem health.


When plastics break down, it makes it easier for seabirds, fish, and other marine organisms to snack on. When plastics get to be so small that they are invisible to the human eye, but prevalent in marine waters, they start soaking up outlawed toxins like PCB and DDT that are still in the waters today.

Micro and nano plastics will then act as sponges, accumulating these high amounts of PCB and DDT. Captain Charles Moore describes these plastic fragments as “poison pills” when combined with these toxic substances.

When organisms consume these plastic bits floating in the water column, the toxins amplify the situation to create a double-edge sword: belly-filling plastic on one side; dangerous chemicals on the other. But what happens when we eat the things that eat these plastics?

Microplastic and Your Health

According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, “plastic debris kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals annually, as well as millions of birds and fishes,” but could these plastics be negatively effecting your health too?

There is increasing concern about the potential for microplastics to harm human health and marine life as they move through the marine food web. Microplastics both absorb and leach out chemicals and harmful pollutants in the marine environment. The chemical ingredients of plastics or toxic chemicals absorbed by the plastics may accumulate over time and be persistent in the environment. Direct toxicity from plastics comes from lead, cadmium, and mercury. These toxins have also been found in many fish species, which has the potential to move up tropic levels to humans.

Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) contained in some plastics, is a toxic carcinogen. Other toxins in plastics are directly linked to cancers, birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues. For example, endocrine disruptors and can result in genetic changes and cause cancer. A few include:

• Dioxins
• Persistent organic pollutants (POPs)
• Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

Manufactured Plastic and Your Health 

Plastics also can contain the following chemicals, which can be released into the marine environment, rather than being absorbed. Specific individual plastic impacts can be found using the Adverse Health Effects Grid 

• Bisphenol A (BPA)
• Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
• phthalates

There is scientific uncertainty about microplastic issues, including the potential for bioaccumulation of chemicals in microplastics in the marine environment and food chain, risks to human health from eating contaminated seafood, and environmental impacts, such as affected fish and shellfish, and fisheries decline.




Rolf Halden, associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and Arizona State University has studied plastics adverse effects on humans and has thus far concluded that an exact outline of health effects of plastics on humans is almost impossible to determine. This is due to the fact that the problem of plastic contamination in humans is globally spread; there are almost no unexposed subjects. Even still, we can conclude that any dose of these chemicals is not a positive intake for humans.  Further research in the next few years may provide more insight into the long term effects on human health.





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