Plastic: The Silent Threat

Plastic Ocean by Kevin Krejci
Plastic Ocean by Kevin Krejci

(Originally written, 12/11/2008)

At three months pregnant with my daughter, my wife, Sarah, put all of our plastic kitchenware and dishes in a large-sized U-Haul box and set them in front of the door for me to take to Goodwill when I got home. 00000 Plastic cups, cereal bowls, mixing bowls, plates, and cutlery filled the box so that the lid could not be closed.  We’d been married for over three years.  I was accustomed to this type of behavior.  Sarah is paranoid, sometimes neurotic, and always obsessive.  Her anxiety gets the better of her frequently.  She logs onto the internet and finds a plethora of things to be scared of.  Most of the time, these things are invalid, minor, or propaganda promoted by fanatics—full body yeast infestations linked to memory loss, out of control herpes colonization causing chronic fatigue, the world ending in 2012, just to name a few.  Usually, she just needs a little time for her intellect to assert itself and defeat her anxiety.  Normally, it takes anywhere from a week to a month.  If I get involved—and I usually do—then the time usually takes a few days at most.

When I walked in the front door and had to step around the box of plastic. I looked inside the box.  We didn’t have replacements for many of the plastic things in the box, like our colander.  I asked Sarah, “What’s with the box?”  She told me that it needs to go to Goodwill and asked me to take it before they closed.  I put my keys in my pocket and sat down at the kitchen table.  “Why are we giving our dishes away?”

She said, “I was on the internet today and found a website….”

A website, here we go again.  I listened, nodded and smiled until she was done.  Then I opened my laptop to read the sites and pages that she’d been reading.  I do this every time so that I can find something to refute her fears and make her feel better.  I usually find some fact or theory that doesn’t quite seem right.  I tell her about it and we discuss why it isn’t right.  In the end, she feels better— until the next time.

It sounded ludicrous.  Plastic leeched chemicals into food and drinks.  These chemicals caused reproductive issues, poor health, and cancer.  Why would the federal government in general and the Food and Drug Administration, a widely trusted body in our nation, in particular allow a dangerous substance to package our food?  My answer was—they wouldn’t.  Sure we live in a capitalistic society, a land where anyone could make their fortune, but I always felt that the things that we consumed were safe, that the government made sure these companies followed the rules. I am a fairly conservative person and trusted that our government would protect us. Wasn’t that their job? I thought that she had just been reading environmentalist propaganda about not using fossil fuels and saving the planet. I thought that these fanatics were using this statement to further their agenda.  I thought, I thought, I thought.

I thought wrong.

As I read, I noticed something that didn’t quite seem right, but it was in support of Sarah’s paranoia.  First of all, the plastic companies never denied that chemicals leech into our food and beverages.  They only denied that these chemicals were dangerous to our bodies.  There had been numerous studies done on these chemicals.  Chemicals like bisphenol-a (BPA), phthalates, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).   BPA is a chemical used in the production of polycarbonate plastic that is used to make reusable water bottles and baby bottles.  It makes the plastic hard and unbreakable.  Phthalates are added to make the plastic more pliable and soft.  PCBs and PBDEs are used to make plastic and clothing flame resistant.  PCBs have been banned since the 1970s and have shown to builds up in animals.  Even though PCBs have been banned, they still are in many of our items that were manufactured before the ban.  They fill our landfills and infest our air.

Some studies showed that these chemicals were safe in the human body and others showed that they caused a whole range of problems from reproductive difficulties like hormone imbalances, low sperm counts, and sterility to cancer.  They showed that BPA and phthalates mimicked estrogen in the human body and phthalates also attacked the liver and kidneys.  Oddly enough, of all the numerous studies run by individuals or private organizations that stand nothing to gain from the elimination of these chemicals, 90% report harmful effects to animals in lab studies.  Conversely, the studies showing that there were no harmful effects to test animals funded by the chemical industry which is one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States just like big tobacco—doesn’t that seem familiar.

I read for a long time and found no studies that vary from this pattern.  It just seemed like a big conspiracy.  After giving up trying to find some studies, I started trying to find some information.  BPA was originally developed, in the 1940s, as a possible drug for estrogen therapy since it was known then to mimic estrogen in lab animals.  It was years later that it was discovered that it hardened plastic. This information must have been conveniently forgotten or ignored.  And phthalates aren’t just used in plastics—they are also used in cosmetics, detergents, and air fresheners and help them maintain their aromas.  The phthalates bind with the fragrance and help it stick to the skin so that the pleasant smell stays with the body longer.  If the list of ingredients contains “fragrance” not derived from essential oils—and it will specify since the use of essential oils is a selling point—then the fragrance contains phthalates. The majority of air fresheners, even the plug-ins, contain phthalates. If people knew what they where inhaling every time they attempted to rid the bathroom of odors, they may think twice about whether the odor is so bad as to warrant a toxic fix.

I also found out that there are seven types of plastic commonly used in the packaging of our food.  They can be identified by looking at the recycling symbol (usually on the bottom) on each container.  The symbol resembles a triangle and has a number in the center (1-7) and some capital lettering below the triangle.  Four of the seven types are known to leech chemicals into our food and with each subsequent use after the first, more chemicals are released.

The three safe plastics bear the numbers 2, 4, and 5 in the middle of the recycling triangle.  Number 2 (high-density polyethylene or HDPE) is commonly used in cloudy milk jugs and other bottles like ketchup containers.  Number 4 plastic (low-density polyethylene of LDPE) is found in plastic grocery bags.  Number 5 plastic (polypropylene or PP) is found in rigid plastic container like in frozen dinners and Tupperware.  These three plastics have been shown, in privately funded studies to retain their chemicals and keep them from leeching into the food that they might contain.  Even though these plastics are considered safe, they will release their chemicals when heated.  Heat breaks the bonds and allows the chemicals out.

Of the four dangerous ones, number 1 plastic is designed for one-time use in which the chemicals will remain in the plastic fibers, but if it refilled and used again, the fibers start to release the chemicals.  Number one plastic (polyethylene terephthalate or PET) is most commonly found in soda-pop bottles.  While the clear bottles will not pass toxins into the body, colored bottles, in which the colorants contain phthalates, will if allowed to heat up (e.g. left in the sun).

Number 3 plastic (polyvinyl chloride or PVC) is particularly nasty.  PVC contains a phthalate called bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate or DEHP.  DEHP is a known reproductive toxicant and is banned in several industrialized nations throughout the world.  Most clear plastic wrap and food packaging is made from PVC.  Also many children’s toys like the traditional rubber ducky and medical plastic (IV bags and tubing) are now made with this toxic plastic.  The FDA states that 30 micro-grams / kilograms of body weight is a safe amount of DEHP for adults.  In a typical hospital intensive-care nursery, infants are exposed to amounts 200 times that amount during a single exposure. This exposure is compounded by multiple exposures lasting days to weeks.

Number 6 plastic (polystyrene or PS) is most commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam.  It’s found in foam food containers and to-go coffee cups, as well as disposable cutlery.  The basic chemical, styrene, releases into foods and drinks at an increasingly proportional rate to the temperature of the substance that it contains.  Styrene is a known human carcinogen and strongly linked to cancer in lab studies.  If you drink three cups of coffee a day out of polystyrene cups then after three years, enough styrene will have entered your blood stream equal to that of eating one polystyrene cup.

Number 7 plastic is a catch all category for any plastic that doesn’t fall into the other six.  The most common type is polycarbonate.  It is the hard, unbreakable plastic found in reusable water bottles and baby bottles.  Most contain BPA. It is also found in the lining of tin cans and aluminum soda cans.  BPA is used to make polycarbonate hard and unbreakable.  Why would chemical companies use a chemical that is known to mimic estrogen in the human body?  They had to have known about BPA’s original intended use.  In fact the research done on BPA when it was being developed as a hormone therapy showed that it was unsuitable.  It did help with restore estrogen to the body, but over longer periods of time, it was found to block the estrogen receptors permanently and not allow the body’s natural estrogen to work.  The chemical companies and the FDA had to have known this.  Why was it allowed to be used in our baby bottles?  Why was this dangerous chemical allowed to hurt our children?

Money.  BPA is a cheap way of hardening plastic.  It can be done in other manners as evidenced by the new baby bottles that are just as hard, but contain no BPA.  It just costs a little more.  It reminds me of the recent Chinese milk scandal in which companies watered down their milk to make more money.  They had to add a chemical called melamine to the milk so that the milk would test high in protein during government quality tests.   This blatant lack of regard for the safety of others in pursuit of money has lead to seven infant deaths and over 300,000 children getting sick.  I thought that the United States was better.  I thought that the FDA was established to protect us from things like this.  Even the FDA, which previously, based on the few studies funded by the chemical companies, reported no harmful effects from BPA has rescinded that statement and called for further studies.  At least they have come to their senses now that the secret is out.

After reading, I didn’t know what to say.  I looked at Sarah watching me.  She expected me to make her feel better and show her the evidence.  I couldn’t.  “You’re right,” I said.  She sat down and asked, “What do we do?”  I got up, carried the box of plastic to the van, and drove to Goodwill.

 


 

About a year later, our house has no plastic in the kitchen. No plastic plates, bowls, cups, or forks, spoons, or knives.  No plastic mixing bowls, Tupperware, or plastic wrap. Not even the “safer” plastics. When shopping, we use small paper sacks for fruits, vegetables, and bulk foods.  We ask for paper to bag our groceries and buy shampoo from the local CO-OP from their bulk section (we bring our own jar, but they have one to sell as well).  We still drink soda from bottles (clear bottles only, colored ones contain phthalates), but never refill them.  We limit our use of canned foods, especially acidic foods such as soups and those that are tomato based, since they have been shown in studies to contain high amounts of BPA. We recycle our grocery bags, soda bottles, and milk jugs along with anything else that the recycling center will take.

Does my wife feel better?  Do I feel better?  Yes, but not unconcerned.  BPA and phthalates not to mention PBDEs and PCBs are in our bodies.  At least BPA and phthalates are mostly water soluble and the majority of these chemicals only remain in our system for a number of days, but PCBs and PBDEs dissolve in our fatty tissue.  They stay in our body until the fat is burned for energy.  The simple act of exercise may be releasing cancer-causing toxins into our bloodstream.  They also pass on to our children. The placenta can’t protect developing fetuses from environmental toxins. And the assault continues after birth; infants who nurse show higher amounts of PBDEs than formula fed babies. A breastfeeding woman inadvertently releases these toxins into her blood and into her breast milk.

According to studies, my grandparents would have shown miniscule amounts of these chemicals, if any.  The chemicals accumulate and levels increase with each generation.  My newly-born daughter not only has to deal with the toxins that she received in utero, but also from nursing and from the foods that she will eventually eat.  Eliminating plastic from our foods does not eliminate exposure.  It’s in our groundwater, our plants, and our animals.

In the Pacific Ocean lies North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.  It’s basically a huge eddy in the ocean surrounded by clockwise currents and held in place by high-pressure weather systems.  To put it plainly, what goes in stays in.  In this area of ocean floating north of Hawaii, lies the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  It’s the world’s largest landfill and ninety percent of it is plastic.  It’s twice the size of Texas, one of six other patches floating on the oceans.  Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it photodegrades meaning that it does not break down into other compounds.  Instead, plastic breaks into small pieces, but those pieces are still plastic and do not degrade into different compounds.  These tiny pieces of plastic still contain the same chemicals like BPA and phthalates and are then eaten by filter feeders (e.g. a jellyfish) which are then eaten by larger marine of which are eventually caught by commercial fishing vessels and sold to consumers, restaurants and wholesale food distributors.  Then humans eat them.  The chemicals still find their way into our bodies.

This chain occurs on land too. Petroleum-chemical plants (responsible for producing plastics) release 130,000 tons of toxic chemicals into the air each year.  These chemicals settle on the ground and are absorbed by the roots of plants.  Animals and humans also inhale these chemicals from the air.  The animals that eat the plants are eaten by humans.  Some of the chemicals make it past the plant roots settling on our ground water.  Even by removing all plastic from our home, we are still exposed to it on a daily basis, albeit in a diluted form.

I find myself thinking, what can I do to protect my children?  What can I do to protect my future grandchildren?  Plastic containers surround almost all of the food we buy at the grocery store.  Besides that, plastic, and the dangerous chemicals that they contain and are manufactured from, are everywhere.  All I have to do is look around and I see products containing plastic.  DVDs and DVD players, computers and televisions, clothing and shoes, photos and photo frames, furniture and mattresses.  The list goes on and on.  How can I live my life and protect my family and loved ones from the dangers that plastics pose?

The only answer that I’ve been able to arrive at so far is to find and buy some property in the mountains with trees all around and build a house. I would also need to run a water turbine and use solar panels for electricity to light and heat my house so I won’t rely on the oil companies (and the plastic companies by association).  A wood stove would be my backup, since burning carbon-based fuels release other toxins into the air even in the cleanest of situations.  I would need to grow my own vegetables and fruits and can those using glass jars.  I would need to raise cows and chickens to butcher for meat, controlling their environment to limit chemical ingestion. This situation is unfeasible financially and practically.  I don’t know how to build, let alone operate a turbine to generate electricity.  I have no resources to buy property, solar panels, and supplies to build a house.  It would be very difficult to assure that the cows and chickens are eating only pure grass and grain. Additionally, these precautions would reduce my family’s exposure to BPA, phthalates, PBDEs and PCBs, but they would still be in the air that I breathe and possibly the water that I drink.

Something has to be done and it starts with individuals.  If enough people share their outrage, then the governments of the world might stop listening to the chemical lobby, but the public outcry would have to be staggering to overcome all of that money in a mostly capitalistic world.  Canada and the European Union have banned BPA from consumer products.  This is the first step.  If other nations do not follow suit and on a larger, broader scale then humanity may very well be facing its extinction.

A while ago, Sarah and I watched the movie, Children of Men in which society had collapsed into a dystopian society where most people lived in the grip of poverty, the United States had degraded into a vicious civil war, and babies were no longer being born.  In fact, the last child born was eighteen years old.  No one knew why so they just struggled on and faced eventual extinction.  After watching this movie, we both looked at each other and knew.  The fictional world of the movie was where our society was heading.  I have felt the effects personally.  I do not make sperm. My daughter is not biologically mine—we used a donor. The doctor knew what condition I had—maturation arrest, but he did not, nor does anyone, know what caused it.  He did say that it was probably environmental.  Environmental.  I’m not entirely sure what caused me to be sterile, but I feel that it could be related, at least in part, to my exposure to BPA and phthalates in utero and during childhood.

BPA and phthalates seem to affect males to a greater degree than females. In the animal community males are on the decline. But so are human males. According to the Canadian documentary The Disappearing Male, sperm counts in human males on a worldwide basis have dropped by over half, genital defects and abnormalities have increased by over 200% and testicular cancer rates have risen sharply all in the last fifty years.  Rates of miscarriage in male fetuses are showing dramatic increases.  All twenty of the heavily industrialized nations in the world show a sharp decline in the birth of boys.  Since 1970, three million fewer baby boys have been born in these countries.  Additionally, a typical young man produces less than half of the sperm that their father did and up to 85% of that is abnormal.  Where do these facts lead?  Males are disappearing and with them, the human race.

The world is changing.  Humans are changing.  We may be experiencing the fastest evolution in human history.  With the introduction of synthetic chemicals and plastic (which the overwhelming majority of are petroleum based) our race is being forced to adjust.  The individuals who cannot adapt to the new chemicals in our body will not be able to propagate.  This is the best-case scenario.  The worst case would be extinction.

Astronomers have a rather complex and complicated equation to estimate how many civilized and intelligent civilizations exist in the universe.  After doing the math, the number comes out to be 1 million.  That seems like a large amount, but when considering that the equation takes into account a civilization’s likelihood to render themselves extinct, this number is small.  Ignoring this likelihood, there are estimated to have been over 100 million civilizations on different worlds at different times in the universe.  Basically, only one out of every one-hundred survives past the industrialization of their society.  The average life-span of these extinct species is 100 years after industrialization.  Our society is not much past 100 years since the industrial revolution.  We made it through the cold war without annihilation.  We thought that we were safe, but this is our true test—what determines if we deserve to survive.  Are we to be one of the 99 that die or the 1 that survives?

We’ve been introducing synthetic chemicals into our world for nearly seventy years now and we are only just beginning to see what we have started and the negative effects that the chemicals cause.  It will be decades still until we fully understand what we have done to ourselves and our environment and maybe decades after that until we can determine if we can repair the damage, or die trying.

 


 

As I go to school, buy groceries, and drive to the gas station, my life is changed.  I view things differently now.  I find myself telling the boys that they can’t have Seven Up or Sprite because of the phthalate-colored bottles that they come in.  I walk out of the grocery store with three items in a large, paper grocery-bag.  I stop at the recycling center at least once a week now to drop off our paper sacks.  I view the world now with apprehension and fear for the future—for my children’s future.  What if they cannot have kids of their own due to toxic chemical poisoning?  I’ve eliminated as much plastic from my home as possible.  I still watch television as do my boys.  I can’t get rid of that.  I still launder my clothes—the alternative laundry detergent does not clean as effectively.  I still brush my teeth with a plastic toothbrush and toothpaste from a plastic tube.  I still take medication from plastic bottles and vegetables and fruits from a can—I do not know how to can my own.  I no longer take home leftovers from restaurants in foam containers and I no longer allow my children to drink from foam cups.  I’ve informed various extended family members about gifts for Christmas and birthdays—what not to get.   These requests have been met with opposition. I continue to research and with each new article that I read or documentary that I watch, my fear and anxiety grows.  Sarah’s does as well but on a much larger scale.  She struggles with anxiety anyway and this has nearly pushed her over the edge.  What more can I do?

I read an article in the University of Idaho Argonaut (my college newspaper) recently by Danielle Hall that voiced similar concerns.  Danielle is also a classmate and friend.  Her article made sense even if it leaned more to environmental issues than the human factor.  She is freaked out about plastics in our life and our environment, only she doesn’t panic.  I started talking to her about my concerns and the concerns of my wife.  She’d done research that I hadn’t and knew information that I didn’t.  Our conversations centered on ways to eliminate plastic.  I found myself asking what about toothbrushes and deodorant?  What about medicine bottles and books?  I inundated her with questions.  For the most part, she answered my questions to the best of her ability.  She had no solutions to some items like toothbrushes and medicine bottles.  Medicine bottles cannot even be recycled since they may contain trace amounts of residue from the pills.  I told her of my fears and overwhelming feelings of panic and dread.  She told me something that helped.  “Do what is within your reach and then reach a little farther. If you worry too much about things that you can’t do anything about then you won’t be able to live in the world.”

Sometimes living in the world may not seem like such an attractive thought.  At times, I wish that I had been born two-centuries earlier, but then I would have to deal with rampant disease, high infant mortality rates, and poor-quality food.  Life was harder then.  Generally speaking, the industrial revolution changed the world for the better.  We made mistakes and we will pay for those mistakes.  In the decades to come, we will learn what the price will be—from extensive clean-up to extinction.  We must live with the consequences of our actions.  I must live with the consequences of my ancestor’s actions.  I must calm myself and do what I can when I can and be content with that.

There is hope though.  Some companies, like Sony and Hewlett Packard have already started removing PCBEs from their products.  All of my daughter’s toys and clothing is BPA, phthalate, PVC, styrene, PCB and PBDE free.  There are companies dedicated to manufacturing these things and websites dedicated to selling them.  There are websites that list the toxicity of chemicals and toys on a rating scale and list the dangerous items used in their production.  Humanity is awakening to this threat and responding, albeit some slower and more reluctantly than others.  Lawmakers are starting to notice.  Senator John Kerry recently eviscerated an FDA spokesman during a senate hearing stating, “[the FDA is] not protecting the American People.”  The hope is there.  The resiliency is there.  The human race has survived this long. If any civilization can be the one percent that survives, it can be us.