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.





Microplastic: Macro Problem

It’s hard to deny that plastic is everywhere–just look around the room. Here I write pounding on my plastic keys, sipping from my coffee thermos adorned with imitation metal designs, nestled in my fleece (or rather polyethylene terephthalate) blanket, blasting Duke Evers through my synthetic earbuds.

Plastic is unavoidable. I would even go so far to claim that our culture is addicted to the stuff. But why, at least in terms of single-use plastic, are we obsessed? Plastic is wonderful because it’s…

  • Cheap to manufacture
  • Lightweight
  • Wear, temperature, and impact resistant
  • Has great insulation properties

But, in turn, it is also horrible for these very same reasons. Plastic is a problem. If you don’t believe me by now, check out some really cool and disturbing facts about how we’re exploiting the resource.

Tugging on Our Heartstrings 

But what gets us going and why should we care? In short, we care because of our guilt and our love for little flagship critters. Don’t get me wrong, some may care about ecological balance, health of fisheries and seafood industry, and persistent organic pollution accumulation across tropic levels–but lets be real–we’re triggered by images like these:


So you’ve probably seen these heart-wrenching photos before–the fishnet seal, the turtle with a six pack around its deformed shell, or a seabird caught up in a plastic bag mess. This is horrible and all, but what if I told you there was a better reason to care?

As of late, the buzz has been about what happens when that seal’s fishnet infinity scarf trend breaks down into itty-bitty pieces. Then, my friends, we get microplastic.

What the Heck is Microplastic? 


Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated). But much of it is unseen because it’s too small to be detected by the naked eye.

Lets take NOAA’s technical definition. Microplastic is:

 extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste”

They can also be manufactured to be that small–I’m looking at you, toothpaste and face wash.


You may be asking yourselves, “But why should I care? These guys are tiny and they won’t hurt any of my seal friends.” Well, there are a few different reasons that can be explained to you in various essays– but I’ll just explain in a few letters: POPs, or persistent organic pollutants.

Chemical Cocktail 

POPs are toxins like PCB found in cooling agents like refrigerators, and DDT that was used as pesticide control. Both have been outlawed eons ago, but are still prevalent in the marine ecosystem.

When this plastic breaks down into tiny pieces, naked to the human eye, it acts as a perfect sponge, accumulating these high amounts of POPs. Captain Charles Moore, aka the God of microplastics, describes these plastic fragments as “poison pills” when combined with POPs.

When fish, mussels, jellyfish, phytoplankton and other maybe-not-so-cute-but-ecologically-important organisms eat these plastics mistaking them for food or hidden in the water, they are not just getting a belly full of plastic, but additionally, high doses of of flavorful chemicals.


The Breakdown 

But maybe you’re saying. “Oh no, that’s not me. I don’t use single-use plastic bags and I recycle everything.” It’s great to cut down on your plastic consumption, and even better to be mindful about where it ends up when it’s “disposed of,” but there are a lot of ways that plastic can turn into these “poison pills” that we don’t think about.

Take my fleece blanket, for example. It’s not as “in your face plastic” as a single-use bag or bottle; but yes, it is just as much plastic. In fact, I don’t even need to “dispose” of it to get plastic fragments into the ocean. All I need to do is throw it in the wash.

washing-machine-patagonia-clothes_h.jpgIt was recently found that laundering a single fleece, a clothing article way smaller than my blanket, can shed over 250,000 plastic fibers. And get this, wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to filter these particles out.

Washing fleece is a huge source of these potential “poison pills.” For just Patagonia jackets each year, “the amount of fibers being released into public waterways is equivalent to the amount of plastic in up to 11,900 grocery bags.”

Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere 

Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century. But at what cost? How far are we willing to go until we realize that it’s too late and our petroleum resource is exploited?

These microplastics are just one chunk of this full-blown problem.

Abortion Solidarity: One Drone at a Time

Drones are now serving a new purpose: to deliver abortion pills to countries where the practice is illegal. Last June, reproductive rights activists successfully arranged for these “abortion drones” to be flown into conservative Northern Ireland and to deliver the medication to pregnant women who carry very few alternatives. The involved organizations claim that the pills are completely safe up to the 9th week of pregnancy, but are not provided or permitted by the North Ireland government. 


The drone was met by the coalition of organizing pro-choice groups where two non-pregnant woman took the abortion-inducing pills on site. Rita Harrold, one of the effort’s organizers, told The Guardian

The act was to demonstrate [the pills’] safety and to make a plea for reproductive rights. The Abortion drone will mark the different reality for Irish women to access safe abortion services compared to women in other European countries where abortion is legal”

The different laws in both countries allow for a drone to transport the pills legally from the South to the North.


Representing Victims 

This act was inspired to be a tribute to a 19-year-old North Irish woman, who had been given a suspended sentence for illegally inducing a miscarriage. The woman could not afford to travel to a country where abortions were legal, so instead, she bought pills online.

The defence barrister representing the 19-year-old woman told the judge that had his client lived in any other region of the UK, she would “not have found herself before the courts.” The polar regulations pertaining to her specific physical location is where much of the controversy is coming from.

Northern Ireland: Anal About Abortions 

Lucy Simpson, who took one of the pills on site told Salon:

The law is archaic. We are governed in Northern Ireland by an Act which is dated 1861, which is in the dark ages, it’s like when dinosaurs were on earth. We think it should be changed radically and we can’t really wait any longer” 

The answer roots from a long history of religious belief, politics, and public option that can be explored on BBC’s site. Nevertheless, it is unjust; Belfast’s High Court is currently being challenged for their law which bans abortion in cases of rape, incest, or fatal foetal–which, yes, is incompatible with human rights legislation


10 Months Later

The organizing team described their peaceful actions as:

an act of solidarity aimed at highlighting the strict abortion laws that exist on both sides of the Irish border”

which was definitely achieved. The act attracted global attention, and efforts have been mirrored ever since. The symbolic demonstration has started a new solidarity trend, successfully repeated in Poland shortly after. This movement has the potential to inspire change and provide resources for women across the globe.