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Plastics

A cornerstone of modern civilisation

Rubbish is not a third world problem, plastic waste is everyone's problem.

Rubbish is not a third world problem, plastic waste is everyone's problem.

Plastic is used everywhere - from plastic bags to light fittings, from bubble wrap to cling film and car parts. Plastic is the common name given to products made from oil that have undergone a chemical reaction known as polymerisation, a process where an unimaginably huge number of small molecules are linked together to form the plastics we use and consume today.  If you think you are not eating plastic, please read on.

Some say that we are in The Age of Plastic

Plastics have been with us for many years and new generations of hybrid plastics are appearing as composites and laminates to create much tougher materials used in bench tops, airplane wings, flooring, dentistry, cosmetic and surgical tools, and components.

While plastics continue to be a very useful product range, there is a growing downside to the use of plastics. As you are no doubt aware, plastic bags blow in the wind and plastic litters our cities, countryside and oceans. Plastic and Plastic bags are non-biodegradable and have become an environmental curse and a hidden killer in our midst.

Those who live or visit the coast have all seen the detritus washed up on our beaches - the plastic bottles, bits of old fishing net and chord, broken fish crates, bouys, cotton buds, plastic bags and all manner of stuff thrown overboard or dumped on land which ends up in the sea.

The Eastern Garbage Patch as it's become known, is an area of several thousand square miles. It's an area of floating plastic rubbish in the Pacific Ocean that is a popular feeding place for albatrosses and sea turtles. Thousands of them die each year after mistakenly consuming plastic or feeding it to their young. In total over 260 marine species worldwide have been found to have eaten plastic, and although it doesn't always kill them immediately, it weakens them and consequently whole species are now under threat by entanglement and ingestion.

While plastic starts its life as a useful product, but over time it starts to break down into smaller and smaller pieces and fragments which are to be found everywhere in our oceans where they are known as Mermaids Tears. These are tiny but still visible particles of plastic that are continuously degrading into ever smaller pieces and will remain in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Researchers have discovered that if you eat any ocean fish, you may also be eating plastic. Yes that's right, plastic just keeps breaking down into ever smaller particles to the degree that plastic permeates the oceans of the world and at the molecular level plastic is absorbed my marine creatures and when they are eaten by larger fish, the particles then accumulate in their flesh and so on up through the food chain to our dinner plate.

Ecoestrogens or Xenoestrogens

Now if you're not chemophobic, perhaps its time you were. What do plastics and spermicides have in common? And what do they have to do with low sperm counts, precocious puberty, and breast cancer? Read on to find out.

Estrogens are a group of hormones produced in both the female ovaries and male testes of most species (including humans), with larger amounts made in females than in males. They are particularly influential during puberty, menstruation, and pregnancy, but they also help regulate the growth of bones, skin, and other organs and tissues.

Over the past 10 years, many synthetic compounds and plant products present in the environment have been found to affect hormonal functions in various ways. Those that have estrogenic activity have been labeled as environmental estrogens, ecoestrogens, estrogen mimics, or xenoestrogens (xenos means foreign).

Some arise as artifacts during the manufacture of plastics and other synthetic materials. Others are metabolites (breakdown products) generated from pesticides or steroid hormones used to stimulate growth in livestock. Ecoestrogens that are produced naturally by plants are called phytoestrogens (phyton means plant).  Many of these estrogen mimics bind to estrogen receptors (within specialized cells) with about the same affinity as estrogen itself, setting up the potential to wreak havoc on reproductive anatomy and physiology of any animal or human that happens to ingest them. They have therefore been labeled as disruptors of endocrine function.

The number of substances that behave like estrogens and appear to be practically everywhere from plastics to sunscreens, and there are thousands of examples. Perhaps the most well known examples are the male alligators at Lake Apopka, Florida which are declining due to rapidly diminishing penis size, the increase in American boys growing breasts, the diminishing sperm count in American men, and the incidence of testicular cancer, which typically affects young men in their 20s and 30s which has increased worldwide. Numerous studies have also  implicated xenoestrogens as the responsible agents in breast cancer.

The growing number of estrogen mimics in the environment has been linked to early puberty in girls. The normal, average age of onset is between 12 and 13. A recent study of 17,000 girls in the United States indicated that 7 percent of white and 27 percent of black girls exhibited physical signs of puberty by age seven. For 10-year-old girls, the percentages increased to 68 and 95, respectively. Studies from the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand have shown similar changes in the age of puberty onset.

Bisphenol-A
Is a synthetic chemical used to make dental sealants, microwavable plastics, linings for metal food-and-beverage containers, baby bottles, and numerous other products. The chemical is well known to mimic the effects of estrogen and tests had found that bisphenol-A leaches into our food and water and that it's widely prevalent in human blood.
The FDA reported that 95 percent of baby bottles sold in the United States are made of a hard plastic known as polycarbonate all leach out the synthetic estrogen named bisphenol-A, especially when heated or scratched.
Studies verifying the estrogenic activity of bisphenol-A were published in Nature in the 1930s, but it did not arouse much concern then. A 1993 report published in Endocrinology showed that bisphenol-A produced estrogenic effects in a culture of human breast cancer cells.

Our Future

There are perhaps 100,000 synthetic chemicals registered for commercial use in the world today and 1,000 new ones are formulated every year. While many are toxic and carcinogenic, little is known about the chronic effects of the majority of them. And there is growing concern about their potential hormone-disrupting effects. The problem of exposure is complicated by numerous carrier routes, including air, food, water, and consumer products.

Plastics are only one group of chemically made products that we will use and eventually consume as they degrade and infiltrate our environment and food chain.  According to Dr. George Pauli, Associate Director of Science Policy, FDA Office of Food Additive Safety in the regulations mandated in 1958, we must assume that all plastics migrate toxins into the food they contact.

As consumers, we look for ways to maintain the status quo of our modern lives. However, the only logic I can see in the regulation of food contact plastics is profit at the expense of our health, the economy, society, and environment. You needn't be a polymer scientist to know that plastic shouldn't contact food and the less plastic in your immediate environment, the healthier you will be. It is time to be real and a good grip on logic, remove plastic from your life and community.

A healthy alternative to plastics made from oil are plastics made from industrial hemp (cannabis). Every plastic component being made today from mineral oil can be made from hemp oil. While mineral oil has a lifespan of thousands of years as it continually breaks down into smaller and smaller particles and undermines our health, plastics made from hemp oil are completely biodegradable.

Imagine if you will a future where all are plastics are made organically and can be safely disposed of without having any negative effect on our health or the environment.

Our Earth and oceans are saturated with plastic which represents long-term problems for life on earth. While some plastics are being recycled, this is not enough to resolve the plastic problem. However it is possible to heat plastic and distill the vapour back into the oil it came from in the first place.

References:
Bisphenol-A
Plastic debris in our oceans
Plastic density in our oceans
Plastic Estrogen
EPA, Endocrine Disruptors Research Initiative
Alternatives to Plastic
Tulane and Xavier Universities, Environmental Estrogens and Other Hormones
World Wildlife Fund, Toxic Chemicals, Endocrine Disruptors
Environmental Health Perspectives 114(January):106-112. The estrogenic effect of bisphenol A disrupts pancreatic b-cell function in vivo and induces insulin resistance.

Further Reading
Morgan, K. 2003. Wrong number: Plastic ingredient spurs chromosomal defects. Science News 163(April 5):213. Available to subscribers at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20030405/fob6.asp.
Raloff, J. 2004. This pollutant fights lupus. Science News 165(Jan. 17):45. Available to subscribers at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20040117/note12.asp.
Reused paper can be polluted. Science News 163(May 24):334. Available to subscribers at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20030524/note14.asp.

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