One of the perhaps not so surprising side effects of Covid-19 is our increased use of plastic. Clearly, because of the fear of contamination, we are no longer using reusable items, more goods are being purchased online [which often means more packaging], personal protective equipment, the masks and gloves and other medical equipment are plastic, and even reusable bags are grocery stores are not allowed. Global plastic production has quadrupled over the past four decades, a 2019 study found, with its authors warning that if that trend continues, the making of plastics will make up 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. By comparison, all of the world’s forms of transportation now account for 15% of emissions. studies have estimated that some 8 million tons of plastic trash leak into the ocean annually, with the rate getting worse every year. PPE [personal protective equipment for covid] presents very unique problems. “The structure of PPE will make it particularly hazardous for marine life,” says Hocevar. “Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles, for example. The straps on masks can present entangling hazards.” Over time, those products break down and add to the vast collections of microplastics in our seas, air and food. And the irony is that, while we produce and discard plastic to fight one public health crisis, we may be slowly contributing to another. https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/04/world/coronavirus-plastic-waste-pollution-intl/index.html
The real question is first, the danger of plastic to marine life, which is well known, but the second is even more directly relevant to humans and our health: what is the long term effect of ingestion microplastics and nanoplastics to cells now found in the water and soil all around us, they are now even found in root vegetables like carrots! So, given that this section is about doing something, how about checking out this website and following their advice:
Read “life without plastic” found at https://lifewithoutplastic.com/ . Life Without Plastic strives to create more awareness about BPA-based products, polystyrene and other single-use plastics, and provides readers with ideas for safe, reusable and affordable alternatives. While plastic has its uses in technology, the medical and industrial sectors and some products around the home, single-use plastics may release chemicals when they come in contact with food and water. These disposable plastics are commonly used to package food and drinks as well as personal care and cleaning products. Jay and Chantal show readers how to analyze their personal plastic use, find alternatives and create easy replacements in this step-by-step guide.
As a chemistry teacher what I find both fascinating and horrifying is the fact that we are now drinking and eating micro/nono-plastics without knowing. These materials are now entering our cells: what will be the impact? There is scientific uncertainty about the hazards of microplastic issues. There is concern that microplastics could have adverse health effects on humans as they move through the marine food web. Microplastics both absorb and give off chemicals and harmful pollutants. ome of plastic’s ingredients or toxic chemicals absorbed by plastics are harmful, including: https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/sources-of-exposure/microplastics
- Persistent organic pollutants (POPs)
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
In all biological systems, microplastic exposure may cause particle toxicity, with oxidative stress, inflammatory lesions and increased uptake or translocation. The inability of the immune system to remove synthetic particles may lead to chronic inflammation and increase risk of neoplasia. Furthermore, microplastics may release their constituents, adsorbed contaminants and pathogenic organisms. Nonetheless, knowledge on microplastic toxicity is still limited and largely influenced by exposure concentration, particle properties, adsorbed contaminants, tissues involved and individual susceptibility, requiring further research. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969719344468
New research into dog sperm has reproductive biologists concerned about the fate of their own species. In a March study, scientists at Nottingham University found that two chemicals common in home environments damage the quality of sperm in both men and dogs.
The culprits implicated are diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), used to make new plastics more pliable, and polychlorinated biphenyl 153 (PCB153), found in older plastics and electrical equipment. Companies stopped producing PCBs in the late 1970s due to their health risks – including a possible increased risk of cancer, hormone disruption, liver damage and behavioral or cognitive deficits in children exposed to the chemical in utero – but the chemical persists in the environment. The Nottingham study is just one in a mounting pile of research indicating that the quality and quantity of men’s sperm is on the decline. Research suggests that sperm counts have dropped by half in the last 50 years or so and that a higher percentage are poor swimmers – slow, ungainly or beset by genetic flaws. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/24/toxic-america-sperm-counts-plastics-research So how’s that for an unintended consequence?
Well, if it isn’t bad enough that plastic gloves are killing sea creatures and microplastics are in our food, how about the home run problem: nanoplastics. Nanoparticles are particles between one and 1000 nm in size. Because of this small size, they can have very specific properties, which are different from the properties of comparable particles of a larger size. Through food or drinking water, the particles can enter our body.
Nanoplastics are potentially more harmful than their larger counterparts such as microplastics. Abdolahpur Monikh: “Due to their very small particle size, nanoplastics can easily pass biological barriers such as the gut-blood and blood-brain barrier.” The hazard of nanoplastics is also associated with co-occurring contaminants that absorb or adsorb to the plastics from their surrounding environment. https://phys.org/news/2019-10-nanoplastics.html Of course, because they have only been recently identified, we do not know the impact on our health, yet. But we will soon enough as babies born today grow up with blood laced with nanoplastics from birth. While I try to be an optimist, as a chemist I can only think that their impacts will only be negative.
To learn more about plastics impact and what you can do go to
Let’s hope we don’t poison ourselves to the point that our behaviour changes for the worse or cancer runs rampant or reproduction becomes problematic or brain malfunction reduces our ability for abstract thought because the current trends point in that direction. So, while climate change seems to be the over-whelming crisis of the moment, there are most certainly slow burn crises like plastic which are actually just as dangerous to our future – plastics being only 1 of them. So, do your bit, stop using plastic as much as you can – which will, sadly, only become feasible after Covid-19. I leave you with a question: Is it possible that the long term impact on human health on the increased use of plastic due to Covid-19 and the sudden stopping of the “ban plastics” movement will, in the long term, damage the health and kill more people than Covid-19? If this there is even a small chance that this is true – what can you and I and our society do about it today?